Euro show
Up in lawful arms
When Colombo calls
Letters to the Editor
Royal flush/Book review
How the valley came of age/Book review
Caught between language and faith/Book review
End of a great beginning/Book review
Those who wander are not lost/Editor’s choice

There was a certain predictable tameness about the first summit between India and the European Union. There were no security issues to be addressed — other than Brussels urging India to sign the comprehensive test ban treaty and India urging the EU to agree that terrorists are nasty people. There were no political issues to be discussed — the bulk of India’s links with the continent is with the United Kingdom. The key concern in such bilateral powwows is always economics. The prime minister, Mr Atal Behari Vajpayee, was unable to go beyond framing an agenda for future Indo-EU summits. But at least the agenda — which includes information technology, European direct investment in India and a variety of trade issues — holds out a promise of substance overtaking symbolism. However, there should be no illusions India is making progress in institutionalizing bilateral economic links with its main trading partners. New Delhi is far behind most major third world countries in both the breadth and depth of such economic agreements.

The Indo-EU summit is a case in point. It was cobbled together because India was refused a seat at the annual Asia-Europe economic meetings. It was not the Europeans who objected to India’s presence but the Asian representatives. At a time when countries like Mexico and South Africa are signing full blown free trade agreements with the EU and the United States, India is still setting up working groups and other bureaucratic talking shops. Given the heartburn New Delhi experienced in signing a free trade pact with tiny Sri Lanka, its slow progress on this front should raise no eyebrows. The Confederation of Indian Industries has outlined free trade agreements with the EU and the US. Even some developing countries have offered to negotiate free trade agreements with India. All such proposals are hanging fire. Underlying this dismal state is a continuing unwillingness on the part of the Indian government to embrace free trade. Asians refused to allow India into the Asia-Europe summits because New Delhi was seen as too protectionist, prone to obstructing forward movements on the economic front. Proposed free trade arrangements involving India die stillborn.

The result is that for all New Delhi’s talk of global economic integration, India has little tangible to show for its trade diplomacy. It is not a member of any of the major free trade blocs like the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum. It has no free trade agreements with any of its major trading partners. Its main contribution to the World Trade Organization is to obstruct its expansion. In other words, undermine the only multilateral trading grouping which it is part of. Meetings like the Lisbon summit are little more than consolation prizes. They represent a standard of economic diplomacy that made sense about two decades ago. Today, such developments are petty when compared to the rapid pace of trade diplomacy elsewhere in the world. Where diplomacy fails to open doors, trade and investment will not follow. The EU sends only 0.6 per cent of its total overseas investment to India. Only 1.3 per cent of the EU’s total goods imports come from India. Mr Vajpayee’s summits help put such matters in the spotlight. However, New Delhi needs to show a lot more courage on the trade front if India is to go beyond the photo opportunity.    

A multiplication of crime-fighting bodies does not necessarily mean a reduction in crime. This is very true of India, where the Central Bureau of Investigation is surrounded by directorates and departments with investigative powers. India also has the habit of producing committees of inquiry at the drop of a hat. The Union home ministry, however, is eager to create another agency. A committee has been formed with the home secretary at its head to formulate plans for a central law enforcement agency which will deal with “federal” crime, professedly along the lines of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the United States. The proposed agency’s list of crimes includes militancy, terrorism, insurgency, sedition, spread of disaffection among states, illegal immigration, trafficking in narcotics, weapons and explosives and humans, smuggling, counterfeiting currency, money laundering and so on. In other words, this is to be another hold-all body. Many of the crimes mentioned in the list tread on ground covered by other law enforcing bodies. Blurring boundaries helps delaying pursuit and passing the buck, and there is no guarantee that a new agency will not add to the confusion.

There is another interesting aspect to the proposed agency. Its difference with the CBI is located in the powers it will have to investigate offences across the country without the permission of the states concerned. This is something the CBI cannot do. The reason given for this extra power is that many of these “federal” crimes threaten the internal security of the country and take place across states. Predictably, not all states are happy with the idea. While promising the Union home ministry to sharpen their administrative and law enforcing machinery, they have expressed fears that the new agency would trespass on the functioning of their police. Law and order is a state subject after all. It is also not clear why the Centre, while rightly asking the states to look to law and order, cannot define the functions of the existing investigative bodies, coordinate their actions and make them more accountable. Saying that the CBI was originally meant only to look into corruption in high places is not enough. Another agency will mean more paperwork, more expenditure. It will also mean an unmistakeable extra instrument in the hands of the Centre.    

In 1987, in one of the many talks I had with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, he explained his Indian imperative. In his view, the Tamil people’s struggle for independence from Sri Lanka could only succeed with an Indian role in the effort. He went on to say that the Indian role could be direct or indirect. The LTTE has thus consciously kept contacts alive with political parties in India. It had links with the Congress in New Delhi and Tamil political groups in Tamil Nadu. It has also helped and encouraged the militant groups in India’s Northeast.

When it suited the LTTE, India was eulogized and when it did not, violence was let loose against it. Its choice of techniques for collaboration and conflict is unique. In collaboration, it boldly uses blackmail and in conflict, its preferred instrument is the bomb or the suicide bomber.

The military crisis facing the government of Sri Lanka is not over yet. The scope of the crisis is defined by the major losses suffered by the Sri Lanka army. It has lost well-prepared positions and has had to withdraw from large parts of territory it had captured from the LTTE. This year it has had to incur major military defeats of which the loss of Elephant Pass was the most significant one. This has cut its land route of supplies from mainland Sri Lanka.

The LTTE effectively controls the sea lanes around the Jaffna peninsula. The recent destruction by the LTTE of a merchant vessel which was being escorted by the Sri Lanka navy is a case in point. The Tigers have also made flying a risky affair. This makes it difficult for the Sri Lanka air force to operate relief flights. In effect the Sri Lanka army is beleaguered in the Jaffna peninsula. If its supplies are effectively denied, it may well have to capitulate.

Sri Lanka’s economy is in considerable difficulty due to the large scale purchases of weapons and munitions for the Jaffna military endeavours. The political scene in the island nation is also not reassuring. The devolution proposals of the president, Chandrika Kumaratunga, cannot be written into the constitution without the support of the opposition parties. They are unwilling to back the devolution proposals. The halfway house measure of an interim council to which the government and the opposition have agreed is very unlikely to work since the LTTE is not agreeable to it. Even in 1987, Prabhakaran had rejected the interim council proposal unless it first gave the Tigers control of the council even before elections could be held to it.

A Jaffna debacle will impact on India’s security in more ways than one. The full control of the LTTE over the peninsula will bring a flood of refugees into Tamil Nadu. The LTTE will also send its cadres into the state from where they had been cleared with considerable effort. The refugees and the LTTE cadres will create social, economic and law and order conditions in the state which will be exploited by the political group. The ruling party in Tamil Nadu is an alliance partner at the Centre. The strains in the alliance regarding the Sri Lanka issue are already apparent in the statements of M. Karunanidhi on the one hand and the euphemisms used by New Delhi to discount such remarks on the other. The Inter-Services Intelligence’s hand in Tamil Nadu has already been established. The combination of the ISI and the LTTE can be a volatile recipe.

Kumaratunga has taken some significant steps towards meeting the aspirations of the Tamil people. The devolution package she has put together is far ahead of anything produced in the country so far.

Political opportunism of the opposition has denied her the majority needed in the parliament to have the devolution proposals incorporated in the constitution. And the LTTE is also intransigent in its demands which are of a kind that cannot be met by any sovereign nation.

The calls in India to help in the Sri Lankan crisis are therefore fraught with serious risks. If it is military assistance that is required, it would amount to the continuation of a fruitless conflict. The Sri Lankan army has shown itself to be incapable of subduing the LTTE. If the LTTE gains full control of the Jaffna peninsula, its demands for a separate state will only strengthen. If the Sri Lankan government has to face a military defeat, it is unlikely to be able to muster support for a dialogue with the LTTE.

What would be in India’s national interest? That is the essential question which should decide Indian response. India’s interests would be best served by a resolution of the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka. That conflict cannot be ended by military means. The Indian peace keeping force experience and nearly five years of fullscale military operations by the Sri Lankan army have amply proved it. Indian initiatives should therefore concentrate on the resumption of dialogue between the government in Colombo and the LTTE.

Kumaratunga’s government has made it clear that it regards India as the bulwark of Sri Lanka’s wellbeing. It would like India to play a part in resolving the conflict. On the other hand, the help it seeks is confined to military assistance. Such assistance is viewed with anger in Tamil Nadu and runs the risk of becoming a political whipping boy. The experience of the IPKF in Sri Lanka was one of being doublecrossed both by the Sri Lankan elements and by some political groups in Tamil Nadu. The Indian army will not take kindly to a decision which involves it once again in Sri Lanka in a conflict situation.

The Indian government is being warned about the prospect of military aid coming to Sri Lanka from other states, more notably from Pakistan or China. There is no substance to this threat. Pakistan is in no position to spare the size of the force needed in Sri Lanka. It cannot also bear the costs of such a venture.

As for China, there is no reason for it to send a major force so far away from its mainland. The impact of such a move on the Asia-Pacific region would be one of fear and anxiety. China has been attempting to improve its relations with India and a Sri Lankan involvement would be the last thing on its mind. As for Sri Lanka obtaining military hardware, India has never objected to such purchases from all over the world.

The challenge before the Indian government is of responding to Sri Lanka’s needs without the politics of Tamil Nadu affecting its room for manoeuvre. New Delhi’s decision to involve the chief minister of Tamil Nadu in the decisionmaking is therefore a good move. Karunanidhi has also responded in a mature manner. One only has to recall his attitude when the IPKF was returning from Sri Lanka to know how volatile the politics of Tamil Nadu can be on Sri Lanka’s Tamil question.

The Indian decision to commit itself to Sri Lanka’s unity and integrity, without getting itself directly involved in the ethnic conflict, is a sound policy. Jaswant Singh’s visit to Colombo was part of that approach. India, however, needs to ensure that the conflict does not spill over politically or in security terms on to Indian territory. Whether India involves itself directly, indirectly, or not at all in the crisis facing Sri Lanka, it cannot remain unaffected. The Sinhala-Tamil conflict is inescapably India’s Sri Lanka problem.

The author is director, Delhi Policy Group, and former director-general military operations    


Sputter and puff

Sir — The recent move to ban smoking in public spaces is by non-smokers, for non-smokers and of non-smokers. So strident is this dispensation, that smokers dare not even squeak an assertion of their rights. What is especially distressing is the jump made from acknowledging that smoking contributes to environmental pollution to fixing individual liability on smokers, and on that basis harnessing the administrative machinery to check smoking. In a country where most automobiles and industries emit unacceptable amounts of harmful gases, smoking is at worst a social crime. Automobile users and industries have the resources to fight for their interests and smokers don’t, and that is the only reason the latter get picked upon. Then there are some zealous do-gooders who feel smokers should be “made aware” of the risks to themselves. Are they so naive as to believe smokers don’t know these? Acting superior or benign or strict will not change an addiction. Otherwise drug taking would have been an evil of the past.

Yours faithfully,
Biren Samaddar, Naihati

Sectoral decision

Sir — The editorial, “Burnt out case” (June 22), provides some statistics to justify the closing down of sick industrial units in West Bengal as recommended by the Centre. Trade union leaders, along with the ministers, Bansagopal Chowdhury and Buddhadev Bhattacharya, have expressed reservations against such strong measures. Mamata Banerjee and Jyoti Basu have also sent messages voicing protest, though these were interpreted as attempts to impress voters before the civic elections in Calcutta.

Notwithstanding these reactions, the fact remains that West Bengal has been made a scapegoat, given that four out of the six public sector units to be sacrificed belong to the state. The days of Jawaharlal Nehru and Lal Bahadur Shastri, leaders who dreamt of an industrialized India as a whole, are gone. There used to be a concerted effort to improve infrastructural facilities in all the states in an unbiased manner. The likes of B.C. Ray and Rajendra Prasad had a free hand to develop their respective states. The editorial is, however, right in saying that “New Delhi is only continuing a decades old process initiated by the faulty policies of the Writer’s Buildings”.

Yet it would be unjust to ignore the humanitarian aspect of sending to the morgue four public sector undertakings of the state. It won’t be far from the truth to see this action as a quota system of sacrifice from the defaulting states. In case the state ever makes a resurgence under a dynamic leadership, the Centre might have to lament the killing of the goose which could still have laid golden eggs.

Yours faithfully,
Omprakash Mehta, Calcutta

Sir — The recent decision of the Central government to close down six public sector undertakings is fraught with grave consequences for the public sector which faces the danger of being completely obliterated from the industrial map of India. The Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government has conducted a systematic onslaught on the country’s public sector, refusing to modernize the plants and privatizing them unabashedly.

Even the worst critics of the public sector will agree that it acted as the catalyst during India’s post-independence industrial rejuvenation. Most of India’s PSUs owe their birth to the grand vision of Jawaharlal Nehru and are responsible for India being counted now as the seventh most industrialized nation in the world. Many PSUs require immediate infusion of capital and modern infrastructure. In their current decrepit state, they are unable to withstand the juggernaut of the private sector, rapidly tying up with multinational corporations.

The decision of the NDA government is a step in the wrong direction and is likely to ruin the economy. Overdependence on the private sector completely ruined the so called Asian Tigers. India must learn from others’ mistakes. There is still time to roll back the decision and strengthen the public sector for the country’s economic survival.

Yours faithfully,
Sanmay Ganguly, Calcutta

Day tripper

Sir — The article, “Acrobatics of everyday life” (June 13), rightly brings out the plight of hapless passengers who travel in local trains like the Coalfield Express, Black Diamond Express, Agniveena Express and so on. Their daily ordeal has continued for a very long time now, with the full knowledge of the railway authorities. The writer correctly analyses the psyche of these commuters who feel they are the rightful “owners” of seats, while others are trespassers. Any law abiding citizen who is forced to grovel before a bunch of rowdies despite having a valid ticket is bound to feel insecure while travelling. All this while the state remains a mute spectator to the hooligan culture. It is appalling that the rowdies can enact two completely different aspects of human behaviour with perfect ease. While they maintain the guise of bhadraloks at home and at the workplace, they resort to utter hooliganism in public transport. The authorities, the hypocrites that they are, have never tried to put an end to this menace.

Mamata Banerjee claims sincerity as the railways minister. So new trains are now being introduced at the drop of a hat. Railway stations are also being spruced up. One fails to understand why the problem of the daily harassment of passengers is always met with studied silence by the authorities.

Yours faithfully,
Kajal Chatterjee, Dhanbad

Sir — I completely empathize with the writer, who brought out the predicament of commuters in local trains. I am a frequent traveller on the Coalfield Express, and thus a victim of this routine ordeal. There is no rhyme or reason behind the extremely rude behaviour of some regular travellers. It is impossible to explain why one should vacate one’s seat under their instruction, and carry on the rest of one’s journey all the while painfully jostling against hawkers, beggars and other passengers who have an equally tough time. One often hears that some “actions” were taken by divisional railway managers to stop these intimidating travellers. But the respite was only temporary. Of late things have come to such a pass that those who cannot afford tickets of coaches above the second class believe that they should take this hazard in their stride. I thank The Telegraph personally for taking up this issue which has always been met with silence from the print media.

Yours faithfully,
T.K. Chatterjee, Dhanbad

Dog’s life

Sir — The Calcutta Municipal Corporation might appear indifferent to the rising population of stray dogs in the city. But animal lovers’ associations in the city do sterilize hundreds of street dogs every year. Even so, reducing their numbers is not easy. Instead of complaining about the menace of street dogs, why don’t citizens keep them as pets? The poor mites frequently do not get anything to eat, not to mention the inhuman way they are treated by many. People should contact nongovernmental organizations to get them sterilized. Also a small contribution from every family would help to vaccinate them.

Yours faithfully,
Priyanka Chakraborty, Calcutta

Sir — As an animal lover, I found the photograph of “Police officers with seized leopard skins” (May 24) depressing. There is a great demand in many east Asian countries for tiger and leopard skin and bones. They fetch fantastic prices. Rhinoceros horn too is in demand for its medicinal properties. This explains the big racket in these materials. To stop this, forest officials must be supplied with modern communication systems and firearms. Saving endangered species of animals and birds must be accorded top priority.

Yours faithfully,
B.N. Bose, Calcutta

Letters to the editor should be sent to:

The Telegraph, 6 Prafulla Sarkar Street, Calcutta 700 001
Email: [email protected]

Readers in the Northeast can write to:

Third Floor, Godrej Building, G.S. Road, Ulubari, Guwahati 781007    

Kingship and Authority in South Asia
Edited by J.F. Richards, Oxford, Rs 595

A case for kings, kingship and the kingly systems may appear to be something of an anachronism in contemporary historical concerns that are resolutely perched on the axis of people’s power and politics. Yet, J.F. Richards, in his characteristic elegance and brevity, does precisely that in his carefully worded introduction, where he sets out the inadequacies of historical research on the idea and workings of monarchy in south Asia. Arguably the most critical institution in pre-modern south Asia, monarchy as an idea and an institution, as an ideology and an instrument of power, has not enjoyed an insightful or even intuitive interpretation by historians and anthropologists. Kings and royal personages appear in their pre-modern incarnation as little more than egotists and competent adventurers with varying degrees of will and musclepower and in their later 19th century avatars as schizophrenic victims torn between the tradition they were meant to represent and the reality of the colonial presence and patronage that supported and sustained them and their privy purses. Thus kingly performance has more often not been seen in acts of military expansion or economic extraction from a seemingly changeless and timeless peasant society; a bad king failed while a good king did not. In all, however, was the implicit belief that a king was a good thing, in the absence of which a society would lose all cohesiveness and order. And yet it was not feasible or even desirable to invest all authority with the king.

The central question was to reconcile power with order, authority with justice and to discover routes towards such reconciliation. The mediation of the priest, the intervention of the pedantic jurist, the interface of the local hero and the ordering of the aristocracy, recurring motifs in India’s historical experience, were in a sense both representations of the simmering tension between authority and morality and of the attempts to reconcile the binaries. Thus kingship was not authority per se, but neither was authority located entirely outside the realms of kingship. The complexities of location, of the locus of the authority and kingship form the principal concerns of the essays under review. Predictably, the ones dealing with kingship in Hindu India delve into the theoretical dimensions of the problem, the essays dealing with the organization of the Islamic state in India with its supporting structures follow traditional modes of analysis.

For J.C. Heesterman, the problem of ultimate authority is an insoluble one. For those who undertake the familiar textual journey in ancient India, there are abundant moments of indictment of kings who are but an abomination, alternating with familiar litanies of praise for the righteous king who was both sacral and secular, exalted to be the world order itself, dharma incarnate. Heesterman, on his part, argues that the absence of a consistent and comprehensive theory of kingship in ancient India reflected the ambivalence that surrounded kingship as an omniscient and all-powerful institution. This derived not only from the special position enjoyed by the Brahmin as the more powerful source of legitimacy, but from the special place accorded to the ideal and practice of renunciation, both of which necessarily meant that kingship could never be the central regulating force.

Ronald Inden carries this argument further when he suggests that the Hindu king was neither a transcendent divinity and a source of authority himself, nor was he a mere human agent of the transcendent divine. He was an uneasy combination of the two and was expected to transcend the world as a divine yet ascetic worshipper of authority and to make himself immanent as a divine warrior and administrator. The two compulsions went some way in defining models of authority — the transcendent fitted into the decentralized, segmentary mode of kingship, where the king gave to the community what the community gave unto him, and the immanent fitted into the centralized and absolutist model. The tension inherent in such a combination of ideal models does not seem to have been so dominant in the successive centuries, when more personalized notions of virtue and self-elevation became recurrent motifs in the textual traditions of kingship.

Burton Stein’s essay on perspectives of kingship in medieval south India is particularly revealing and along with the treatment of Jana kingship in the Prabandhachintamani (a 14th century collection of popular tales) by Toshikazu Arai, we have a much more substantial corpus of ideas that informed the articulation of kingly power in India. The tradition of heroic kingship converged with that of moral kingship and with Jain conceptions of kingship that stressed moral virtues and denied agency to priestly ritual specialists.

That the play with kings and kingly lakshanas remains very much part of popular culture is demonstrated in Brenda Beck’s essay. She makes a strong case for the vitality and presentist dynamism of oral narratives that, in her view, is much more intuitively in line with living traditions and perceptions.

Analysing the two versions and variants of “The Story of the Brothers”, one in manuscript form and the other in a performative format, she teases out the complexities of the kingly ideal — the balance between irreconcilable binaries — a conflict that suggests the enduring nature of anxiety about dharma and its protection. Later traditions, particularly in the post-Vijaynagara period reveal the currency of this idea, the repertoire accommodating satirical representations of the gluttony of the Brahmin and the corporeality of the king, both of whom were, however, ultimately necessary for the proper ordering of the universe.

The coming of Islam and its political formation in Hindustan involved a simpler engagement with the issue of authority and moral sovereignty. Notwithstanding the periodic resistance to the rule of the Delhi Sultanate, it would appear that the new rulers were prepared to facilitate means of negotiation and conversation with the ruling Hindu chieftaincies. Peter Hardy argues that for protagonists of both traditions, Hindu and Islamic, the king had come to embody new attributes that were in a sense attainable and not attached to birth and had to be continually instructed on the proper mode of exercising authority. Further, there was a consensus about what constituted the ideal activities of kingship. At one level, the Hindu chiefs and the Muslim rulers would appear to have groped towards a common language of political balance at another, the endeavour may appear to have floundered.

This book serves to remind us of the ever-increasing responsibility of kings in early modern south Asia to look for avenues of understanding and negotiation, an attempt that contemporary arbiters of power seem to have jettisoned altogether.    

Social and Economic History of Assam (1853-1921)
By Rajen Saikia, Manohar, Rs 400

In highlighting the momentous decades of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Rajen Saikia has ventured into a relatively less-known arena of Assam’s socio-economic history. There has, inexplicably, been only a modicum of research on this era, which witnessed the erosion of the ruling gentry giving way to a new middle class.

The ambit of this work is restricted to the Brahmaputra valley which, at the time, comprised the six districts of Goalpara, Kamrup, Darrang, Nagaon, Sivsagar and Lakhimpur. The choice of 1853 as the starting point is noteworthy: it was the year when A.J.M. Mills, an agent of East India Company, undertook a thorough study of Assam “province”, which effectively brought Assam under the ‘economic orbit’ of British colonialism.

The year also witnessed the rise of a new social order and the first ‘constitutional mobilization’ of public opinion. Saikia portrays the fallout of this “enlightened” new milieu with a lucid interpretation of the upheavals of the time.

Saikia traces the problems faced by the ruling elite (Ahom kings) and analyses the impact on the traditional crafts. Out of these ashes rose the Assamese middle class, their colonial experience also shaping a remarkable literary movement. By 1921, when the book closes, this segment had established its credibility and acquired political leadership.

The opening chapters are informative, prompting the reader to adapt to the bovine pace of events like the Darrang and Kamrup peasant uprisings in the 1890s and the dynamics of cotton and jute production.

It is only while unravelling the ‘changing social spectrum’ that the book gathers momentum and grows more interesting. The creative role of the middle class and the changing demography are borne in mind as Saikia explores his theme.

The discovery of coal and oil deposits as well as the extensive cultivation of tea resulted in the rapid development of upper Assam. The disparity between Upper and lower Assam exists to this day.

With economic progress came social recognition. The plantation owners were among the first to send their children to Bengal for education, thereby exposing them to the influence of the Brahmo Samaj. These children wrought a transformation in the conservative Assamese society, preaching a different set of values.

With the opening of frontiers came the inevitable tide of exploitation and infiltration. Woodcutters from Bengal began to clear Assam forests, while the tea plantation employed a large number of supervisory and clerical staff from the neighbouring state, catalyzing both the boon and bane of urbanisation.

In 1836, Bengali was made the official language and medium of instruction in Assam’s schools. Despite any immediate reaction, the language issue continued to convulse their society till 1873, when Assamese was “restored to its rightful place” and even beyond. Ironically, 100 years later, Assam was splintered mainly owing to tribal resentment to the imposition of Assamese.

Saikia, however, offers a refreshingly unbiased view of the language movement, broadening the reader’s horizon to an “all-India experience.” The controversy not only strengthened linguistic nationalism in Assam, it ensured the enthusiastic participation of the Assamese in the non-cooperation movement, after the Congress’s Nagpur session (1920) reassured the Assamese of the “rightful place of their mother tongue.”

Saikia’s book offers insight to those who know Assam, but for those unfamiliar with the history of the state, it is a revelation . The author could have marked a denouement with the first chords of communal ideology which finally unleashed the pan-Islamic tide. However, in his portrayal of middle-class sensibilities, he chose to add, almost by way of a postscript, a chapter on opium.

The only other aspect that detracts from an otherwise engrossing account are the “notes” at the end of every chapter. These could well have been clubbed with the index for academics in quest of a ready reckoner.    

Bengal Muslims in Search of Social Identity (1905-1947)
By Dhurjati Prasad De, University Press, Rs 350

After a long period of apathy and neglect, the British policy of extending educational and employment opportunities to the Bengali Muslims since the second half of the 19th century promoted the growth of a small, educated, professional middle class in Bengal. It later turned elitist in character. Most Bengali novels between 1900 and 1930 by Muslim authors reflected the rising dominance of this new middle class in the spheres of education and employment.

During the first half of the 20th century, the Bengali Muslim psyche, especially that of the neo-middle class intelligentsia, was torn between allegiance to indigenous Bengali culture and a half-baked predilection for a hybrid culture of a greater Islam.

De’s scholarly work traces well the Muslim psyche’s struggle to integrate different shades of religio-social ideals into a cogent whole. The chapters are linked by this theme. As such, repetition and overlapping of ideas is unavoidable.

The author highlights the thrusts made by “orthodox Muslims” towards Islamization of Bengali culture, literature and language. The rising middle class intelligentsia comprising the “radicals and moderate revisionists”, however, answered the challenge by downplaying the role of religion in social life. They insisted that Bengal’s Muslims should neither be swayed by extra-Bengali feelings generated by Urdu, nor be influenced by the Hindu pulls. “Instead, an exclusive linguistic-cultural pattern, based on a particular variety of Bengali interspersed with judicious use of Islamic words tinged with Islamic ideas should be developed.” However, most continued to consider religion and religious symbolism as their only succour.

The author notes that the prevailing situation helped the growth of several clubs, associations, organizations, journals and booklets promoting various causes, especially during the Thirties.

Initially, the two important organizations, Bangiya Islamic Prachar Samiti and Bangiya Mussalman Siksha Samity strove to spread education among the Muslims in Bengal for the first time. But the latter made a bid for an exclusive identity of the Bengali Muslims. It sought to synthesize the Islamic conception with Bengali culture and language, which the Muslim intelligentsia could not discard.

The Sahitya Samity unequivocally declared Bengali as the vernacular of the Bengali Muslims — a stand which finally won the day despite opposition from such stalwarts as Fazlul Haque and S. Wajed Ali, who stressed the need of Urdu for Muslim cultural identity and unity. Yet, the common goal of most of these institutions remained the establishment of an exclusive identity of the Bengali Muslim.

De concludes that the Muslim intellectuals of the time “planned to build up a separate literary structure and cultural tradition of their own to launch a movement to highlight the Muslim individual social entity”. With time, Muslim leaders overcame the ambivalence and by the late Forties, their choice went decidedly in favour of creating an independent socio-cultural structure that would remain impervious to any other influence, be it the former West Pakistan or Hindu India, although there had been some sporadic attempts to subjugate this cultural independence through the imposition of Urdu. The truth ultimately emerged with the movement of February 21 and culminated in the birth of Bangladesh.    

The Rainbow and Other Stories
By Maneka Gandhi, Puffin, Rs 195

Why this sudden change of heart for Maneka Gandhi? A renowned crusader for quadrupeds, she takes time off to weave children’s tales of human foibles and magnanimity. Her creativity peaks when she shapes imaginative tales embellished with wry humour, pert descriptions and a blend of reality with magic. The book unfolds with “Boulababa”, “the fattest prince in the whole world”. An account of a mama’s child tricked into starvation and punishing workouts by a beautiful princess could have been avoided, given that her potential readers are anyway goaded by anorexic models to skip meals and torture their bodies. Maneka Gandhi could have done better by subverting this stale story.

This is what she does in “Heads & Tales”, where a king loses his head, literally. But the narrative, despite its moral on deceptive appearance, may appear ludicrous to Y2K generation readers, what with a headless king being able to talk and see!

The charm of the tale lies in the good-humoured gibes at environment seminars, Swiss bank accounts-holders and inaccurate weather predictions. In a land “on the edge of imagination” and inhabited by witches, reality invariably creeps in, enriching the trademark mirth of this book.

The author has a way with words. Pithy sentences like “The sun glinted off the rainbow pool of unshed tears” are chiselled to near-perfection to stir up images. The title story also reveals her flair for caricature, reflected in the “droopiest creature”, Rain, and the rotund “His Warmness”, the sun. But characteristically, the author gets carried away and her style ends up as a cloying and clever mechanism rather than an art.

A perfect example of the misuse of her gift is “The Kiss”. The story stands out for its unusual protagonist — a kiss. The bizarre protagonist in search of a “home” never gets planted on a cheek as a result of hilarious coincidences. But instead of allowing her readers to have fun from such simplicity, Maneka Gandhi includes a two-page alliterative verse with a nauseating conclusion: “Smooch, smack, slurp, shwerp, pichee, ptchak, pcchooee, /Squishified love.”

A surprise inclusion is the amoral “Autobiography, Sort of”, where the child-protagonist possesses a streak of sadism. The “dark” tale is redeemed by the depiction of a “genial, boyish” and woolly-headed king, which an adult might suspect is the author’s way of lampooning a former prime minister — note the mention of the Northeast problem, the border crisis and the drought in west India.

Unfortunately, Maneka Gandhi ends on a note of farcical righteousness. The “Beginning Of The End” is actually the end of a great beginning. Didactic and verbose, the tale seems a dissipated creative effort. A satire on ill-planned development, the author strives to show the “connectness of life”. But what we get is a study of ornithology and a formality of a plot.

The author also loses the opportunity to usurp the dominant role of men in fairy tales. We are feted with all-powerful males while women as in “Boulababa” and “Heads & Tales” are only good enough for capturing their husbands with the right dash of coyness and cunning.

Adults can savour this book for the skilful turn of phrase, wry humour and the digs at the establishment. But the book, meant for children, could have benefitted from an elementary vocabulary. Her verbosity might either lead her young readers to grudgingly wade through a dictionary or, quite easily, drive them back to television, which would be a sorry fate for a riveting book like this.    

By Claudio Magris, Harvill, £ 15.99

Claudio Magris’s previous book was Danube. He maintained there the meandering style of the river. In this book, he preserves that style as he wanders around Trieste in the north-eastern corner of the Adriatic. The region is a victim of history, its borders have shifted and its allegiances altered. At one time, it rivalled Venice. After the Napoleonic wars, the region became part of the kingdom of Illyria. From 1815, for 100 years, it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Italians recaptured it in 1918 but it was only in 1954 that the present frontier between Italy and what was then Yugoslavia came to be fixed. Magris hails from Trieste and calls himself a “frontier writer”. He is a respected scholar of German literature and has translated many European writers. He was a member of the Italian senate to which he was elected in 1994 in spite of the fact that during the election campaign he made no speeches, put out no posters and made no television appearances. He won by a margin of 70,000 votes on his name alone. It must be a unique victory in the history of democracy. This book is about moods and evokes scenes and atmosphere. Magris weaves into his wandering his stupendous learning, drawing from known and unknown authors. Commenting on Italo Svevo (the nom de plume of Ettore Schmitz), the author of As a Man Grows Older, Magris writes, “His work and his existence orbit, without ever losing the capacity to love and to enjoy, around voids, around vertiginous absences concealed with a sphinx-like smile, around daily failures both comic and tragic, around the lack and the nullity of life, around the vanity of intelligence.” These words could easily serve as the best description of Microcosms. In the book there is a persisting concern about borders, boundaries and identities. Travelling in South Tyrol on which Italy, Austria and Germany have laid claims, Magris reflects, “There are borders running everywhere, and one crosses them without realizing.” He relates all identities to borders, “Every identity is also a horror, because it owes its existence to tracing a border and rebuffing whatever is on the other side.” Identity is always ambiguous. Who does one represent? “There are many categories that one might legitimately claim to represent: bipeds, teachers, married people, fathers, children, travellers, mortals, motorists, but....Thus the essence of this journey into the land of one’s forbears is the loss of another little piece of individual autonomy.” Very close to the surface of the narrative is the presence of death. “The most effective strategy,” he writes, “for avoiding the pain of living is to dedicate oneself to exhuming other people’s lives, thus forgetting one’s own...Story-telling is a guerrilla war against and a connivance with oblivion; if death did not exist perhaps no one would tell stories.’’ This despair is heightened in the final chapter called “The Vault” which brings together and unravels the strands of the book. The narrator sees himself drawn towards his own extinction. It draws him like the dawn wind, unresisting. “He lay down. Above him the apse curved like a vault of this sky, a sky of flaming gold that darkened into a night blue. many stars fell and sank into the blue blackness, they lit up and went out like the flowers drawn for a second by fireworks...he was afraid of falling.” There is also the figure of redemption. His wife Marisa to whom the book is dedicated. Worlds and identities come together, merge and disintegrate in Magris’s prose. Even in the depths of despair, there is a serene beauty.    


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