Designer labels
Less is safe
Paranoia in gigabytes
Letters to the Editor
Into a darkness/Book review
There are no full stops in India/Book review
Framing of la grande illusion/Book review
End of the song of innocence/Book review
The long playing disc/Bookwise

Vision determines the path. This is true for institutions and even for a country. Sometimes the vision for an institution can serve as a symbol for the path taken by the entire nation. The National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad has decided that it needs to launch a publicity blitz to attract better students and to reach out to people. What is unstated in that decision is the need for NID to actually reinvent and refashion itself. The Institute was set up in 1961 and inevitably bore the stamp of the Nehruvian epoch. The NID from the beginning was interested in getting across a particular image of India. That image, like much of Jawaharlal Nehru’s own vision, was a peculiar mishmash of Gandhian back-to-the-village ideology and high modernism. The NID sought to project and market the traditional crafts of India. This obviously had nothing to do with what should have been the only purpose of NID, the teaching of the foundations of design to its students. Keeping aside for the moment the merits and demerits of India’s crafts, it can be said that their marketing would require not design, but a different kind of expertise. By being involved in such an endeavour, the NID somewhat sapped its energies and got deflected from what should have been its only purpose. Those who run NID now and are responsible for its future might pause to ponder the relationship of the above factor to the absence of good students.

The situation in NID perhaps has a deeper significance. It is symbolic of what has happened to India after independence. Independent India bore the imprint of the vision of one individual. This vision blighted prospects of development. Energy, enterprise and resources were drained and there were no adequate returns. As a consequence, in the Nineties, the country was completely unprepared, in terms of attitude and in terms of infrastructure, for the reformist thrust. A large part of this plight was due to the fact that the path of modernizing India was misdirected from the start. In NID, an institution that sees design as a major adjunct to modern life, there was a drive to promote Indian arts and crafts, to act as the marketing arm for Indian cottage industries. This derailed NID from its proper direction. Students seriously interested in the art of design went elsewhere to learn their craft and to hone their talents. Neither could NID actually reach out to the people: the socioeconomic conditions of India did not allow design to become a priority in the lives of the people. The NID fell between two stools. Design has become even more important today, for print media, for cyberspace and in the packaging of all commodities. To refashion itself, NID has to forget slogans like going to the people and commit itself to the teaching of rudiments and the fine points of design. Let NID have no extraneous designs on design.    

The government’s decision to reduce provident fund interest rates by one per cent was met with catcalls. Employees provident fund has earned a halo in the eyes of Indian workers as the most dependable nest egg for the future. Understandably so. A fixed, tax free return of 12 per cent essentially meant a risk free 18 per cent return. These figures are wonderful for an employee. They are also a potential nightmare for the government. The return on a provident fund cannot be too far out of line with the interest rates of the market as a whole. Otherwise the difference must be paid for by someone. The central board of trustees that manages the employees provident fund would have to dip into its reserves — which means siphoning money from one worker’s provident fund to pay the dues on another worker’s. Or the board would have to turn to a near bankrupt Centre to bail it out. Obviously neither action is sustainable. New Delhi has been cutting interest rates over the past few months. And rightly so. Interest on government debt was rising faster than the government’s increase in revenues because interest rates were so high. The interest on public provident fund and other small savings schemes have been trimmed. It was a matter of time before the employees provident fund came under the knife. The central board of trustees invests provident fund in various boring ways like government securities. But it has seen its return on investment heading south of 12 per cent since April. By March next year, the board projected it would get only an 11.27 per cent return. To give 12 per cent while receiving 0.7 per cent less spelt future crisis. The best option was to cut rates immediately.

There have been complaints that the Centre forced the central board of trustees to take this action against its will. At worst, New Delhi is guilty of pushing the board a little. The board was planning to cut the interest rate at the end of this fiscal year. This does raise concerns about how independently managed is the employees provident fund. New Delhi should explore the privatization of this huge corpus of money — with the government’s role being reduced to a tight regulator. This would benefit both the Indian worker and the national economy. In the United States, for example, workers’ pensions and savings are privately managed. As a consequence, an estimated 70 per cent of the market capitalization on Wall Street is owned by schoolteachers, little old ladies, factory workers and the like. The real rate of return they get is far above what Indians get from their provident funds. Third world nations like Chile have also taken this path and not regretted the decision.    

Political outfits ranging from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh to the Communist Party of India (Marxist) have attacked the proposed Sankhya Vahini project as a threat to national security. Sankhya Vahini will implement a high speed, broadband fibre optic data communications network linking Indian universities and research institutions. As cleared by the Union cabinet in January, 49 per cent equity will be held by Inter-University Network, a wholly owned subsidiary of Carnegie Mellon University of the United States, and 45 per cent by the department of telecommunications.

Dattopant Thengadi, an RSS leader, claims that, “Sankhya Vahini will open the floodgates for espionage, interception of scientific data, telephone conversations, faxes and emails by foreign powers.” CPI(M) Rajya Sabha member, Nilotpal Basu, member of the parliamentary telecommunications and defence committees, alleges that, “Sankhya Vahini will permit the US to intercept India’s strategic and scientific secrets. It violates the national telecom policy, according to which all calls originating or terminating in India compulsorily have to pass through the gateway of Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limited, and be subject to monitoring there.”

A leading intelligence expert, B. Raman, former additional secretary, cabinet secretariat, has added his voice. “American experts associated with Sankhya Vahini could interfere with and distort the information infrastructures of our nuclear, missile and other sensitive defence projects...They can do so from Pittsburgh by taking advantage of the interconnectivity between Sankhya Vahini and CMU’s network.”

It is noteworthy that no leading scientist has termed Sankhya Vahini a security threat. The truth is that it can be a threat only if the Indian armed forces, security agencies, government departments, nuclear and defence laboratories connect to its network. But none of these plans to be so connected. In view of the latest cyberwarfare techniques, they should not be connected to the public switched telecom network, internet, ERNet, Sankhya Vahini or any other network under any circumstances. They should have their own dedicated closed user group fibre optic network with end to end encryption.

R. James Woolsey, former Central Intelligence Agency director, revealed in mid-May the development of new cyberviruses, termed instructive viruses. “Instructive viruses...can instruct critical computers to shut down vital infrastructure. Even strong cryptography is no match for them. Instructive viruses placed on your network can read all your files before you have even had a chance to encrypt your data.”

Larry Wood of the US National Security Agency recently developed a cybervirus, Blitzkrieg, which can destroy nationwide networks. Wood says Blitzkrieg “is undetectable and unstoppable, capable of infiltrating every information network. It can crash all equipment on a network, including those that are turned off. There is no way to defend against it”. It is conceivable such viruses could be installed clandestinely into routers, modems and software procured by IUNet and be activated years later.

But if Sankhya Vahini is used for connecting educational and research institutions alone, and not defence organizations, it will actually be much more secure than existing networks.

First, Sankhya Vahini is a fibre optic network with end to end encryption. Other than at optoelectronic repeaters, optical cables cannot be tapped since they do not leak radio frequency signals. Thus Sankhya Vahini will not be vulnerable to interception by foreign spy systems such as the Anglo-American Echelon. This is not the case with Indian satellites, VSNL gateways and the department of telecommunications’s intercity microwave links.

Second, most Indian websites and databases, even government ones, are hosted on servers in the US due to bandwidth constraints here. Sankhya Vahini will allow them to be hosted in India.

Third, Sankhya Vahini will permit most email traffic to remain wholly within India. At present, even email between locations in the same Indian city travel to the US and back. Like other internet service providers, Sankhya Vahini will have to follow all governmental conditions in its ISP license. This includes providing monitoring facilities to Indian government agencies and permitting surveillance of its gateways.

Parliament and some journalists have raised questions about the financial and legal structure of the project and the procedures followed in selecting IUNet. Raman is among them. “Despite sanctions imposed against India following Pokhran II, US gave all clearances for CMU’s participation in Sankhya Vahini promptly between August and October 1998. It would be reasonable to infer that the US is interested in a quick implementation of this project for their own national security reasons.”

Also against Sankhya Vahini are powerful business houses who want to install nationwide datacom networks themselves and Indian manufacturers of telecom equipment who fear IUNet will place its orders with foreign vendors.

Such fears are exaggerated. It is not widely known that in the early Eighties, there was an understanding between the then Indian and US defence ministers, R. Venkataraman and Caspar Weinberger , for close cooperation between the US Defence Advanced Research Project Agency and India’s Defence Research and Development Organization.

This agreement focussed on developing dual use technologies and commercializing defence technologies. It did not extend to direct weapons research or military operations, nor involve the armed forces. To avoid a political backlash in both India and the US — this was the Cold War and Washington had much anti-Indian sentiment — most of this understanding was not documented. It remained a tacit gentleman’s agreement between the two ministers.

Implementation on the Indian side was handled by V.S. Arunachalam, then scientific advisor to the defence minister and secretary, DRDO. On the US side there was Raj Reddy, head of CMU’s robotics institute and an information technology advisor to the US government. P.V. Narasimha Rao was associated as a minister of external affairs and later as a defence minister.

There were three parts to commercializing defence technologies. First, direct sharing of research results and exchange of visits between the defence laboratories of the two countries. Second, through universities which were major executors of DARPA projects such as Carnegie Mellon, Stanford, Massachusetts and California Institutes of Technology. Third, through US defence contractors opening subsidiaries in India, especially in software and electronic design sectors.

Several senior DRDO officials went to the US on postdoctoral fellowships. Many worked on DARPA funded projects. A. Paulraj, head of DRDO’s centre for artificial intelligence and robotics and very knowledgeable about India’s defence secrets, went to Stanford as a professor. He founded some silicon valley firms which have worked for the Indian defence establishment and transferred radar and sonar technology. His successor at DRDO was an Indian citizen who had been in the US for decades, had never worked in India, and brought to India the latest in artificial intelligence technology.

In the early Nineties, Arunachalam, while still a government official entrusted with crucial defence secrets, went on leave of absence to be a CMU visiting professor. However, he had to send periodic reports to New Delhi and visit India every few months to brief the prime minister.

A Sankhya Vahini forerunner was proposed by Raj Reddy and Arunachalam to Rao in 1994. Atal Behari Vajpayee revived the proposal a few months after Pokhran II.

Several US defence agencies have been transferring dual use technology to Indian organizations. Software Engineering Institute, a Pentagon-CMU venture, has provided its expertise to over 35 Indian companies. SEI has a joint venture with Mahindra-British Telecom, Maharashtra, and the Indian Institute of Software Engineering. It has also established the Indian Institute of Information Technology at Hyderabad in collaboration with Andhra Pradesh. SEI is establishing the Carnegie Center for Software Engineering in Bangalore in collaboration with LG, Karnataka, and the Indian Institute of Science, and also the Software Quality Institute in Chennai.

Computer emergency response team, a joint venture of CMU, DARPA, Defence Information Systems Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, located at CMU, has transferred anti-hacking technology to 80 organizations worldwide. Since 1988 CERT has handled over 15,000 intrusions into computer networks. Both CERT and CMU’s Institute for Survivable Systems will transfer their expertise to Sankhya Vahini.

Sankhya Vahini will be the world’s first large scale implementation of technologies such as Internet2, SuperNet and very high speed backbone network services. Though the US government paid to develop these technologies, they are still in the pilot stage in the US. India could jump far ahead of even the US.    


Learning the hard way

Sir — In a land where Kali is revered as the divine representation of the militant aspect of women, it should not cause any surprise that upper class women in Bihar are taking to arms (“Hands that rock cradle tote guns”, July 5). It is typical patriarchal sentimentalization of women that refuses to see them as anything but mothers, as embodiments of self-sacrificing piety and kindness. History shows that women can be as vicious and violent as men. Women and children are particularly vulnerable in the caste and class warfare in Bihar. It is only natural that they should learn to retaliate. But unfortunately for these Bihari women, they are being tutored in retaliation — despite the arms they wield, they are as passive in this case as they always were. They are being forced as footsoldiers into a war they did not start and know nothing of. In fact, there is every chance that as a result of their participation, the atmosphere will be further vitiated, the war become even more bloody and all-pervasive.

Yours faithfully,
Bikas Basu, Calcutta

What the city said

Sir — The Left Front received a few nasty jolts, first in the Panskura Lok Sabha byelections and now in the Salt Lake and Calcutta civic elections. In Panskura, the veteran left leader, Gurudas Dasgupta, was defeated by the Trinamool Congress candidate, Bikram Sarkar. In the Calcutta Municipal Corporation, the Left Front’s tally has come down from 70 councillors to 60 now.

The same is the case in Salt Lake. Even the veteran Prasanta Chatterjee of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) who was mayor for 10 years, was defeated by the greenhorn Swapan Samaddar of Mamata Banerjee’s party. Does this presage the shape of things to come once Jyoti Basu stops lording it over the Writer’s Buildings? These recent developments must be especially painful for the 87 year old ailing chief minister. It seems likely the Left Front’s 23 year rule will end in next year’s assembly elections.

The Congress, on the other hand, had 66 councillors in the last CMC, which has now come down to 15. In Salt Lake, it won 15 seats in the last elections, and none in this time. As things stand now, the Congress stands no chance of coming back to power in West Bengal. Thus it must swallow its pride and make attempts to forge some kind of a mahajot with the Trinamool Congress.

Yours faithfully,
Manoranjan Das, Jamshedpur

Sir — Moderate to heavy rigging marred the recent elections to the CMC and Salt Lake municipality in many areas. Media reports indicate that the rigging favoured the party in power more than its contenders. Bureaucrats, big and small, naturally look for the benefits that can flow from this show of allegiance. Of course, in the event of the government being toppled, they will switch loyalty.

Genuine voters carrying identity cards were turned away in many areas, which was possible because the presiding officer was either partisan or absolutely callous. Or perhaps a situation was created in which even non-partisan officials or efficient polling agents were forced to remain silent spectators while miscreants did their jobs. The police too did not help people cast their vote freely.

No election in the country is truly free and fair. What the left started in the early Seventies in West Bengal, Bihar has nurtured to maturity and the whole country is now reaping the fruit of. State governments hardly ever tell the people what actually happens during elections. Unless president’s rule is imposed two months prior to the polls, free and fair elections will not be possible. The Constitution review committee must turn its attention to this issue.

Yours faithfully,
C.R. Bhattacharjee, Calcutta

Sir — The recent civic polls in Calcutta and Salt Lake show that democracy does not work in the third world. Booth capturing by political parties, violence and rigging were common in these polls. Even worse, the police and district administration were seen siding with political parties. The leaders of the CPI(M) and the Trinamool Congress must realize that using the police for their interests harms the nation. Instead of providing succour to the people, the police have become the principal public enemy since they know well that no government controlled by corrupt leaders can check them anymore.

Yours faithfully,
Diptendu Chakraborty, Toronto

Sir — Mamata Banerjee, aka “didi”, has a two point agenda — to be appointed chief minister of West Bengal and to ridicule her parent party, the Congress. No matter that her mentor, Atal Behari Vajpayee, who wears the mask of an “honest” man, keeps adding to the burden of the average Indian and his party bullies the minorities. Didi is not worried about such things because these do not come in her way to the Writers’ Buildings.

She is busy appealing to her Bengal brethren to bury the dead Congress along with dying CPI(M). But she also does not mind if that corpse, the Congress, provides her a handful of members of the legislative assembly or councillors. Of course, she shouts sometimes in protest against the proposed closure of sick industrial units in the state and the unusual hike in prices of essential commodities. When the voting is over will anyone dare to accuse didi of being dishonest because of her unfulfilled promises?

Yours faithfully,
Hrita Ganguly, via email

Sir — West Bengal’s octogenarian chief minister said in the wake of the left’s disastrous performance in the recent elections in the state that he would continue to work for his party until his death. He further pontificated that communists did not retire until their death. We ordinary men quail under such weighty sanctimoniousness. But Jyoti Basu must think whether in his 23 year long reign as helmsman of the state, he could succeed in establishing an egalitarian society, free of corruption, nepotism and such other vices?

Does he deserve to be classed along with the other east Asian veteran communist, Ho-Chi Minh? How can his contribution to the state in the areas of health, education, commerce be compared with that of B.C. Roy, Prafulla Chandra Sen and Ajoy Mukherjee?

Yours faithfully,
Debal Kumar Chakravarti, 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    

Iris: A Memoir of Iris Murdoch
By John Bayley, Duckworth, £ 16.95

Dame Iris Murdoch, English novelist and philosopher, died last year of Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 80. Her husband, John Bayley, also a noted literary critic and novelist, wrote Iris as the first of what will soon be three books remembering Iris as a person, their marriage and the experience of being with her through this long, degenerative illness. Iris was completed and published a few months before her death. Hence, the title of the American edition, Elegy for Iris, is vaguely discomfiting, as could be the elegizing process itself, transforming suffering and loss into art.

Yet one is left, at the end of this elegy, in the the light of an astonishingly humane intelligence — unsentimental, unmisgiving and delightful — that leaves simple discomfiture far behind, in spite of the indignities of suffering and of “that endless omnipresent anxiety of Alzheimer’s which spreads to the one who looks after the sufferer”. This is because of the sort of people John Bailey and Iris Murdoch were, individually and together, in sickness and in health.

I will always remember the last time I met Iris, with her husband, in Oxford, where they lived and had been teaching for several years. This was a small supper and Iris was already very ill. Her conversation was reduced to unfinished snatches of “anxious repetitive query”, woven into the general talk like intriguing refrains. That evening brought its own mysterious question. Looking into my eyes every now and then with the most luminous, yet disengaged, smile, Iris would ask, “Do we...or don’t we?” “Yes, Iris, I suppose we do”, I would answer, and John Bayley would immediately add from the other side, “Or do we really, darling?” with twinkling eyes and with his inimitable stutter. This was repeated at regular intervals, till one felt overwhelmed with the most curious combination of pathos and hilarity. I couldn’t help thinking of Lear and the fool, and of the Mad Hatter’s tea-party.

Iris and her husband embodied a battiness which was profound, brilliant, completely original and unselfconscious. Yet it was wonderfully engaging and comforting in its humane essence and in its being utterly at peace with itself. It never sought to dazzle or disconcert. Later in the evening, Iris moved towards an ebony statue of a naked boy near the dining table, and after asking the host’s permission (“May I?”) — again with that inward smile — she ran her hands down the dark boy’s back and hips. It was a gesture at once spiritual, sensual and deeply respectful, imbued with a sense of rich mystery that would have been familiar to those acquainted with the world of Iris’s fiction or with her lifelong engagement with Plato.

I dwell on this reminiscence because it somehow brings alive the extraordinary pleasures and challenges of Bayley’s memoir. Throughout the accounts of his meeting, falling in love and then living with Iris, the sense of confronting her “wonderful and solitary being” never loses its thrill or its often frustrating edge, and Bayley’s writing is informed with “the numinous atmosphere of her own original and created world”. But this “atmosphere” is met, though never appropriated, by the rare quickness of Bayley’s own intelligence, humour and candour, providing a series of marvellous images and settings for the “diabolically attractive” opacities of Iris’s being and later, for her equally baffling illness.

His first glimpse of Iris cycling past his window in post-war Oxford, looking “like a little bull”; her female colleagues at St Anne’s College, most of them nobly in love with her; Iris’s own obscure and comically solemn affairs with venerable Jewish intellectuals; her “detachedly and benevolently indifferent” attitude to conjugal sex and procreation; and their profounder indifference to housekeeping, done — or left undone — on the principle of “letting things go to the devil and seeing what happens when they have gone there” are not just glimpses of a unique personality, but become parts of a portrait of a unique marriage. I deliberately allude here to Nigel Nicolson’s account — in Portrait of a Marriage — of the unusual partnership of his parents, Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West.

Like Vita and Harold, Iris and John created a relationship founded on a mutual “sympathy in apartness”, “that strange and beneficent process in marriage by which a couple can... move closer and closer apart”. Solitude was, for Bayley, “one of the truest”, and also “the most deeply reassuring”, pleasures of their marriage. “The more I got to ‘know’ Iris, in the normal sense, during the early days of our relationship, the less I understood her. Indeed I soon began not to want to understand her.” At the heart of Bayley’s memoir, therefore, is this irreducible “sense of somebody’s mind”, miraculously come upon, and then lost, “like a jewel,/ Mine own and not mine own”, as the befuddled Helena puts it towards the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Hence the “losing” of Iris’s mind, for Bayley and for Iris herself perhaps, had a strange naturalness about it: “Iris’s own lack of a sense of identity seemed to float her more gently into [Alzheimer’s] world of preoccupied emptiness”. Twice Iris had said to her biographer, Peter Conradi, that “she feels now that she is ‘sailing into the darkness’”. The achievement of Bayley’s book is in being able to make the naturalness of this “let[ting] it go all” part of the texture of their most cherished companionship. In his great work of literary criticism, The Characters of Love, the writing of which owed so much to his life with Iris, Bayley ponders the artist’s kinship with the lover: “Many things remind us of the alien worlds that impinge upon our own, but the experience of love does so most forcibly of all; it resembles the artist’s gift of revealing other worlds to us, but it also resembles the artist’s limitation before the actual separateness of things”.    

India: A Mosaic
Edited by Robert B. Silvers and Barbara Epstein, NYREV, Inc, $ 24.95

Different religions. Different cultures. Different people. That is India. Truly a mosaic that has been pieced together in this book. The preface informs that it is a collection of essays selected from The New York Review of Books, “on contrasting facets of what may be called... ‘The Wonder That Is India’”.

Each one of the writers brings before us his or her individual perceptions. The introduction, by Arundhati Roy, is based on her original essay, “The End of Imagination”, that was her response to the nuclear tests by India and Pakistan. The collection has seven essays, three of which are by eminent Indians.

All the essays deal with the inherent contradictions in the Indian polity. Yet it is these contradictions and the ever present volatility which make a vibrant nation. Thus Chandigarh, as Ian Buruma finds, in “India: the Perils of Democracy”, is entirely artificial, with the man-made lake and the transplanted trees. But it is, as conceived by Jawaharlal Nehru, “symbolic of the freedom of India, unfettered by traditions of the past”. Buruma writes penetratingly on India’s secularism, the beatings it has taken in recent years and its survival, warts and all.

There is a certain similarity in Christopher de Bellaigue’s essay, “Bombay at War”, about the mayhem in Mumbai following the demolition of the Babri Masjid. The city may appear placid now but below the surface the minorities are both fearful and seething with anger. De Bellaigue writes about the rise of Bal Thackeray and the Shiv Sena, and also the Mumbai mob. He goes on to explore Mumbai’s violent politics and sees little prospect for change.

The essays by Amartya Sen, Anita Desai and Pankaj Mishra are bound to be of interest to readers. Sen’s “Tagore and his India” looks at the volatile intersections of history, politics and culture which haunt Indian literature. The same can be said of Hilary Mantel’s piece on Rohinton Mistry, “States of Emergency”, and Anita Desai’s essays on Indian women, “Women Well Set Free” and “Damsels in Distress”.

Amartya Sen’s essay on Tagore dwells on the many facets of the genius. Over the years there has been a near eclipse of Tagore in the West where he is regarded as a repetitive and remote spiritualist. In Bangladesh and India however he is honoured as a contemporary thinker. The author stresses that, “it is in the sovereignty of reasoning... that we can find Rabindranath Tagore’s lasting voice.”

Anita Desai’s two essays are critiques of an anthology in two volumes — “Women Writing in India”, edited by Susie Tharu and K. Lalita. The essays introduce readers to the writings of prostitutes and courtesans — an altogether novel subject to many readers — and writings of women in the 20th century. The second volume, according to Desai, is dreary. The collection in the first volume is extremely illuminating and shows how freedom can manifest itself in the most unlikely of places.

Mantel speaks highly of Rohinton Mistry’s novels. His dramas are played out against the vast canvas of the subcontinent. This does not mean Mantel is all praise about Mistry. The writer’s problems are also highlighted. The best feature of this essay is that it teaches us how to be critical.

“Edmund Wilson in Benares” and “A New, Nuclear India?” by Pankaj Mishra are delightful, and indicates why he is so much of a success. The author’s sojourn in Benares is depicted with wry humour in the first essay. The other essay dwells on the ups and downs of the Congress party.

Roderick MacFarquhar’s “India: the Imprint of Empire” is a thought provoking piece reflecting on the legacy of the British empire and Partition.

India: A Mosaic is a collection of serious essays with the possible exception of Mishra’s “Edmund Wilson in Benares”. The essays largely deal with some facet of subcontinental politics and culture. It comes with a compact disc with a range of Indian music from the classical to the folk.    

The Essential Mystery: Major Filmmakers of Indian Art Cinema
By John W. Hood, Orient Longman, Rs 375

Film study has become a buzzword among the urban intelligentsia of the country for quite sometime now. Fresh graduates of middle class families are seriously thinking in terms of a career in films, a proposition considered too adventurous even a decade ago. Concomitantly, film journalism and film criticism have also become fashionable among aspiring young people.

John W. Hood’s The Essential Mystery is tailormade to serve as a handbook for students in film appreciation courses, and also has the potential of an efficient guidebook for foreigners intending to improve their knowledge of Indian films.

This is suggested by the overall design of the book, the orientation of its chapters, and the simplistic mode of presentation, which makes it read like juxtaposed reviews of separate films. But then, Hood is always on his guard against dilettantism — his analyses of films made by the stalwarts of “Indian art cinema” are genuinely perceptive.

The book, divided into 11 chapters, deals with 12 major filmmakers of India, Ritwik Ghatak, Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Shyam Benegal, Govindan Aravindan, Buddhadev Dasgupta, Govind Nihalani, Mani Kaul, Kumar Shahani, Gautam Ghose, and Ketan Mehta. To each of the first eight, Hood devotes a full chapter, while the last four are clubbed together in chapter 10.

Clearly, Hood’s is a director-oriented study and the chapters are, to quote the author, “arranged chronologically according to the dates of their (the directors’) first feature films”.

The author gives a brief account of the history of Indian films, harking back to the era of silent films, marked by the landmark production of Raja Harishchandra by Dada Saheb Phalke. He then discusses the popular film tradition of India.

However, his attempt to decode the formulaic patterns of these films seems uncalled for. These are too obtrusive and repetitive not to have been recognized by the viewers themselves.

The author then traces the origin of the Indian People’s Theatre Association and its influence and that of the leftist movement on “Indian art cinema”, the “individualism”, “experimentation”, “slow pace”, “absence of explicit sex”, and rather controversial “regionalism” of which he examines critically.

He also glosses over a few significant films by some prominent filmmakers such as Nabyendu Chatterjee, John Abraham, Girish Kasaravalli, Aparna Sen and so on.

He emerges as a cogent critic with a discerning eye for subtle strands of filmic texture and an imaginative mind which responds to imagery and implicit symbolism.

But, unfortunately at times, he forgets that a film critic should constantly change his stance and adjust his aesthetic parameters in order to evaluate the merit of radically individualistic filmmakers.

This is the reason why he so uncharitably carps at the histrionic excesses, the overt theatricality and the absurdity of action in Ghatak’s films. It is doubtful if Hood has any inkling of Ghatak’s own film theory. Ghatak stubbornly stuck to melodrama in order to present to the smug and supercilious bourgeoisie the horrid grimaces of their own faces.

The “conclusion” offers a theme specific study of films which is interesting particularly where it deals with the treatment of women in Indian films. The “filmography” towards the end should be of some value to film academia. But one has reservationsabout the use of the term, “art cinema” as it tends to ignore the broader implications of the word “art” in an age of post-structural studies on multiple discourses.    

Child Labour in India
By Lakshmidhar Mishra, Oxford, Rs 495

Few issues leave the average conscientious adult feeling so helpless as child labour. With emotion and economics pulling in opposite directions, we end up either mouthing the usual platitudes (“evil necessity”), or voicing wishful slogans (“free children”). Even such sweeping comments fail to capture the multiple aspects of the problem. Childhood as a construct is central to modern society. Child labour destroys the myth of the child as the most precious, and hence most protected, asset of family and the state.

In the last five decades, the movement for child rights has gathered momentum. So much so that today, the child’s rights have quite overtaken parents’ rights. And the state is called upon to ensure that parents do not deprive children of their childhood. So what does a state do when its citizens send more than 11 million children to work?

This is a question that Lakshmidhar Mishra, secretary, ministry of labour, could have answered well. He might have shared his close knowledge of the government. Who else could offer an insight into how that disjointed, complicated machinery creaks into motion to rescue the bare-backed reed-thin children reaping grains, making matches, polishing gems?

Alas, Mishra belies such hopes. His professed concern for India’s child labourers does not raise him above the straightjackets of the bureaucracy. The book reads more like policy documents and background papers and is thus accurate and precise, but also quite inconsequential. His arguments never mature into full-blooded debates, petering away instead into dubious statistics and empty declarations.

When Mishra tries to capture the views on child labour, for example, he points out three main schools. The first advocates a total ban on child labour and compulsory education for all children under 15. The second favours regulation of child labour rather than its elimination on grounds of “practicality” (the state does not have money to send 100 million children to school, the law cannot stop child labour, and so on). The third holds that the state should make the options of both education and work available and let the children choose what they want.

While Mishra sets forth these arguments reasonably well, he does not mention who are the people who hold these views. He thereby purges the debate of all historical and political perspective. On this missing hook hangs many an untold tale. It is convenient to pose child labour as an issue of human rights and legal activism.

But child labour stays, at the end of the day, an issue of labour rights and political power — or rather, its absence. However, Mishra avoids the political dimension altogether and relegates the role of trade unions to the end of the book.

To his credit, the writer professes a stand against combining education with work, boldly declaring this to be a “myth”. He denounces the distinction between “hazardous” and “non-hazardous” work and also notes that the quality of education will suffer when a child is working. Mishra blames the education system and holds it partly responsible for keeping children out of school.

As for the role of the labour department, all he says is that it is difficult to enforce the Minimum Wages Act and that children of migrant labourers are particularly vulnerable to working under very low wages. He never questions what the ministry of labour has done to prevent employers from recruiting children.

That the state’s role is discouraging is evident from the fact that when in 1997, the Supreme Court directed the state governments to fine every employer of child labour Rs 20,000, most states could raise only between Rs 20,000 to Rs 80,000. Interestingly, Mishra himself, in his official capacity, had to make a report for the apex court on this dismal performance of the government. His assessment: government officers surveying illegal employment had “proceeded in right earnest” but because of “unnecessary propaganda” given to the judgment, employers had become cautious and had already disengaged the children.

More important, even in his most honest moments, Mishra never questions the policies. Though he professes to be a believer in total ban on child labour, he never questions why this view was methodically edged out of the policies.

When first formulated in 1974, the national child policy envisaged the need for “free and compulsory education for all children”. The Gurupadaswamy committee in 1979, altered this vision. Relying on the “harsh reality” theory of child labour, it shifted the emphasis on regulation of child labour rather than its prohibition. This view found place in the enactment of the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986. The national policy on child labour, 1987, further elaborated this justification. It also set forth the problem of poverty as the root cause of child labour. Eradicating poverty thus became a pre-condition to abolition of child labour.

Apart from suspecting the intentions behind such a view, questions can be raised about its veracity. Mishra himself has mentioned several projects on child labour as exemplary, ignoring to mention how voluntary organizations have broken the vicious circle of poverty and child labour by various methods.

The uninitiated will not find this to be the sort of book that will set one thinking. To the activists or researchers working on the subject, it has no new insight to offer. It is, at best, another reference book on child labour.    

Multimedia is a revolution in the making and it is the young who are making it. Dorling Kindersley, once famous for its highly illustrated information and how-to books teamed up with Microsoft for a joint venture into multimedia.

There was nothing illogical in stretching the text the multimedia way. CD-ROMs were still books that needed good design, good writing and editing, good typography and good structure — in other words, CDs were books with a difference. But Dorling Kindersley was sold out last month, and from unconfirmed market reports, the new owners, Pearson Group that also controls Penguin Books, will scrap the multimedia unit.

What went wrong? It is important to know the limitations — we know what marvels can be achieved — why the market responded so sluggishly, despite some outstanding successes, to multimedia products. First, the costs that doesn’t take into account a 586 PC (or Mac equivalent) on which 3D graphics or videos would work satisfactorily. Estimates put the average cost of developing a jazzy CD-ROM with words, illustrations, pop-up windows, animations and video clips, plus some hours of audio, from Rs 25 to Rs 30 crores, that meant an average selling price of Rs 4,000.

A publisher would have to sell between 30,000 to 50,000 units to break even, and more to get a gross return of 20 to 30 per cent. This is small change, but publishers carried on in the hope that things would change when the market picked up and prices dropped.

But the real catch was not that the market was not there for 30,000 plus units, but that the infrastructure for marketing was not in place.

Precisely where could Dorling Kindersley, for instance, place its products in the market? In the bookshops or music shops? If so, how would the customer browse through a CD-ROM before putting out hard money for it? Go into a cabin and try out the CD, as in music shops? Perhaps, but not many outlets were keen to give over valuable physical space to the hardware require.

A case in point is the CD-ROM of Microsoft’s Encarta World English Dictionary, doing the rounds currently in India. The CD costs Rs 1,900 and the book Rs 2,500: yet the book is doing better than the CD. There is a flip side to the argument that the CD occupies little physical space and packs in far more information than a book does — unless it becomes a mile thick.

Put another way, when you buy an encyclopedia, or a world atlas, you expect a very general and broad coverage of many topics. But if you are looking for “in depth” treatment, you would need to go to specialized literature. In the digital world, this “depth and breadth” problem disappears because you can move freely between generalities and specifics. All this is fine, but the question needs to be asked: who needs all this information overkill? Very few, and these “very few” know where to go to get it.

Also, CD-ROMs require another type of writer who must learn a whole new technique, not to mention a whole new language for a whole new set of working relationships. The question, then, is where are CD-ROM “writers”? If they are hard to come by, they are also very expensive, that goes into the already inflated costs of production.

Dorling Kindersley faced all these problems to which could be added “slippages” that could have been avoided if they had run a tight ship. There is a lesson to be learnt here: small boys can’t play big games.    


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