Editorial/Hills are alive
Fortune’s favours
Letters to the Editor

The hills have come alive with two conflicting sounds. The first was made last week when the Hizbul Mujahedin’s operational commander, Mr Abdul Majid Dar, announced a three month ceasefire to allow for a negotiated settlement of the Kashmir dispute. This was remarkable because Hizbul has been, both militarily and ideologically, at the forefront of the insurgency. It gunned down moderate Kashmiri militants and inflicted the bulk of India’s casualties. It was Hizbul that forced Pandits out of the valley. It was also the first group to flesh out its ranks with foreign mercenaries. With such a background, Hizbul’s ceasefire offer has the sound of a potential turning point for Kashmir.

The second message that echoed in the hills accompanied the bloodiest day in the Kashmir conflict. Through attacks in four different parts of Kashmir last week that claimed some 100 lives, other militants indicated their intention to stomp on any olive branches being waved over the valley. Though hard to prove, it is likely the massacres were committed by Lashkar e Toiba and perhaps Harkat ul Ansar. These two terrorist groups have close links with the Interservices Intelligence and comprise almost solely Afghan and other foreign mercenaries.

As was experienced when peace talks began in Northern Ireland and west Asia, the process is vulnerable to indiscriminate violence by even marginal peace opponents. New Delhi should expect such killings to mar the landscape of Kashmir for weeks to come. The question is whether the larger forces behind the peace moves are deep enough to withstand such buffeting. At the heart of all this are the reasons why Hizbul decided to put up its Kalashnikovs. One reason is that Pakistan has been cutting back on its supplies of men and material to Hizbul in favour of Lashkar and Harkat. Hizbul has also been under considerable pressure from Indian security forces. Though casualties in Kashmir have risen sharply recently, the losses have been as heavy for Hizbul as they have been for the government. By one estimate, Hizbul cadre account for 60 per cent of all militant casualties. Dar consulted all the Hizbul’s field commanders before annou- ncing a ceasefire. New Delhi has also been waiting for a negotiating partner. It has wearied of the ineffectual and quasi-legitimate Farooq Abdullah regime. An autonomy package has been in the air for months, but New Delhi was reluctant to let the National Conference regime be the beneficiary. The government has needed — and has at last got — a Kashmiri interlocutor from the heart of the militant movement.

Finally, the international arena has never been so hostile to the Kashmiri militant and his backer. Since the Kargil war and the nuclear shadow that it threw, the United States has brus-hed self determination under the carpet and made curbing violence its one and only Kashmiri priority. Members of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference were shown the door when they recently tried to canvas support in Washington. The recent massacres elici-ted strong criticism worldwide, some of which has vicariously rubbed off on Pakistan. It is noticeable that Islamabad’s officials have made welcoming noises about the ceasefire. But the sight of Hizbul mujahedin consorting with Indian government officials must rankle Islamabad, let alone Islamicists and hardliners in the military.

These circumstances point to a stiff but not sturdy framework for the building of a peace. Kashmiris are weary of the conflict. But massacres may lead them to decide a ceasefire is worse than insurgency. Anti-peace militants probably want to fan communal flames in the rest of India. The real source of hope is that New Delhi and the Hizbul have not come to this position suddenly. This is the outcome of developments that go back almost a year. And there is a much larger context in which it is all embedded. Peace will not come easy. It may not come at all. But it is unlikely the search for peace will be broken off as easily as the perpetrators of Tuesday’s massacres may think.    

This is not an attempt at analysis, but a simple exercise in comparison. The exercise is the result of having had the dubious privilege of watching a particular show on television, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, in two different countries. The two countries, Britain and India, were once joined to each other by a long and well-known colonial relationship, but that relationship is not the subject of this piece. Of course, the fact that I’ve lived in both these countries (and, as a consequence, watched two versions of the same show) may have something to do with the fact that such a relationship once existed. My predilection for comparison as a method, however, might have to do with my having been, as an undergraduate, a student of English, and having, almost compulsively, compared texts by Milton to those by Dante, or a poem by Shelley to another one by Shelley, or a story by Kipling to another by Joyce, each comparison intended to illuminate some meaning that the text might convey.

Since my undergraduate days, though, academics, finding themselves in an increasingly global world, have become less interested in comparing one utterance to another than in the relation of one locution to another locution; that is, less interested in comparing Wordsworth’s “I wandered lonely as a cloud” to, say, Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” than in comparing the way Wordsworth’s poem might be read in Australia to how it is studied in Japan. English literature, after all, has had a way of cropping up in different parts of the world, not all of them with a colonial past. Similarly, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, like the Wordsworth poem, has relocated itself in country after country, the latest of which, it seems, is India. Its name here, Kaun Banega Crorepati?, even manages to preserve the exact number of syllabic stresses — four — that the original name possesses.

About three months ago, eight o’clock in the evening would confront me with Chris Tarrent in a vast, darkened room, wearing a dark suit, asking someone a question that, if answered correctly, would bring them money. Tarrent is no Amitabh Bachchan; Michael Caine might have been Bachchan’s equivalent in England, or Harrison Ford in America, but the producers obviously found it difficult, for whatever reason, to think of an ageing actor hosting the show. Tarrent is very much a television man, like our own Shekhar Suman — he belongs to the idiot box, just as orchestras and musicians seemed to us to reside inside the gramophone when we were children.

Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? made him famous; before it, he’d been glimpsed hosting other shows that were always rather inane and slightly lascivious. His own grin and now-celebrated chuckle (imitated by mimics, or impressionists, as they are artistically called in Britain — like Rory Bremner) also hover, as he asks his question, between the good-natured, the inane, and the slightly lascivious. If the contestant happens to be female, he hugs and kisses her, after almost each successful answer, in the manner that has been common for some time to middle-class British social gatherings. He is slightly cheap, although, paradoxically, he is very rich, doles out huge sums of money, and wears expensive suits. Unlike some of the influential British popular entertainers of the Seventies and early Eighties, who had Oxbridge educations but used tawdriness, bad taste, and anarchy as a means of subversion and provocation, Tarrent’s opulent tawdriness is of a benign, even establishment, kind; he looks like an estate agent. Unlike the quizmasters of more conventional quiz shows (say, Magnus Magnusson on Mastermind), he presents no illusion of actually knowing any of the answers except, perhaps, the simplest ones; he is there to chuckle, to sign the cheque, to complete the deal; he is an agent.

Amitabh Bachchan in his dark suit, on the other hand, looks, I discover upon returning to India, like what he might have been had he not been appropriated by popular culture: a distinguished, high-ranking company executive, albeit in the early days of his retirement. He is, after all, a chartered accountant; born into the educated Indian bourgeoisie and into the cradle of “high” culture, he is the son of a man who is not only one of the Hindi language’s most respected poets, but one who, long ago, also acquired a Cambridge doctorate on Yeats’s poetry.

In two regards, Bachchan differs from Chris Tarrent and the hosts of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? in other countries; he is the only superannuated “superstar” from the big screen the show has anywhere; and he (in his career in cinema, in his present incarnation) represents the slightly uneasy compromise “high” culture makes with “popular” culture in order to enter the latter’s domain. Something fundamental has changed the face beneath the carefully tended but stubbly beard; is it life, or a new pair of dentures? In a country in which every sphere of activity revolves around obsequious pliancies and hierarchies, the contestants look mildly disarmed that Mr Bachchan should be addressing them familiarly rather than commanding them. However, it is notable that, in contrast to the contestants in egalitarian Britain, who call their host “Chris”, as if he were a weekend tennis-partner, the Indians don’t take Mr Bachchan’s name, while the latter teasingly pronounces theirs again and again, like a bridegroom dallying with his bride on the wedding night.

What of the contestants? In England, they have a suburban, nervous look about them, and a pleasant and perpetual air of embarrassment probably intended to ward off the evil eye. At least the first five questions are ridiculously simple, even simpler than the ones the Indians are set; they are something of a joke, they make everyone smile, and are meant to ensure that no one leaves empty-handed. There are few questions on mythology; did a character in E.M. Forster observe, regretfully, that the English have no mythologies, only goblins and fairies? On the other hand, the people who’ve compiled the questions for the Indian programme seem to have gone deep into the more minor chapters of the epics, to come up with divinities as ephemeral as our politicians, possibly presupposing that Muslims, Christians, and atheists are unlikely to want to participate in the show.

I have never seen a British contestant go away with nothing; in India, strikingly, I’ve seen this happen again and again. This seems to defeat the purpose of the show, which is not, really, to test the contestant’s knowledge, but to create, briefly, for the space of an hour, the illusion of a happy romance, the romance between man and money, the most one-sided and unrequited infatuation ever experienced by human beings. This show, like a version of pastoral in the capitalist world, is meant to bear the message that the romance is possible, that it can flourish.

That is why Amitabh Bachchan looks so sad when a contestant leaves with nothing; it’s as if he’s somehow failed. It’s not as if the Indian contestants — many of whom are teenagers (not surprising, perhaps, in a country where someone is born every minute) — are stupid, as some have accused them of being; it’s just that the early questions are sometimes capricious, forcing them to use two out of three lifelines before five questions have been asked; and because the contestants are reckless. The British are generally prudent; they are content to depart with what they have rather than risk losing twenty thousand pounds because a question whose answer they’re not certain of offers them the chance of winning another twenty. Even the English proverbs, like “A bird in the hand et cetera”, attest to this venerable tradition of cautiousness. They leave, the cheque warm in their pockets; they retire to their suburban homes.

The Indians think it undignified to do this, just as they do to admitting they don’t know the way to a certain street you might have asked directions to; it’s not a lack of knowledge that betrays them in the end, but a lack of self-appraisal. Bachchan, agitated, tries to act as nursemaid; he is far more transparent than Tarrent (who can shake his head misleadingly at a correct answer), and usually easy to read. When he says, “Sure?” and “Should I lock it?” it means the question has been answered correctly; if the answer is wrong, he sighs deeply, ponders on something, says, “You still have two lifelines”. The contestant, his or her face bright with certainty, is too impatient to read these signs; he or she is sure of the answer; Indians seem uneducated in the fact that their actions, or words, might have consequences.    


Tracks full of gender hurdles

Sir — In ancient times, people got away with not allowing women to participate in the Olympic games (“Women’s long struggle for Olympic equality”, August 4). But have things really changed radically over the centuries? Of course, women’s rights activists now boycott the games in protest against dress codes prescribed by Islamic countries. But athletes are still examined on charges of faking their sex before being allowed to compete. And there will still be 63 more events for men than for women in the Sydney Olympics later this year. Granted, equality has never been the International Olympic Association’s motto. But in this age of political correctness, can it afford to flaunt their gender bias so blatantly?

Yours faithfully,
Sreemoyee Mitra, Calcutta

Keeping Calcutta

Sir — Sunanda K. Datta-Ray in the article, “In the lakes’ cracked mirror” (July 22) says that maintenance is more important than development. He cites the lakes in Calcutta as an example. Maintenance is certainly important. But maintenance of what? How should one maintain the lakes which are filthy because of the slum dwellers’ use of the bathing and washing ghats, and with the general public unabashedly polluting the water in various ways? More important, why should one pay more attention to maintenance when cleaning up these places ought to be a priority?

It is now important to cordon off the lakes. The use of bathing and washing ghats should also be prohibited. This can only be done if the municipal authorities make alternative arrangements for those who have so far been using the water, including the slum dwellers. There is enough open space in and around the lakes of Southern Avenue and Dhakuria. A row of bathing and washing rooms and public toilets can be constructed here for the use of the slum dwellers. This will solve the problem of pollution. The first step in healthy living, therefore, is development and modernization. The question of “maintenance” should arise much later.

Again, a little bit of beautification is not always a bad idea after all. Gardens on both sides of the road will appear pleasant. The authorities can ask for corporate sponsorship for making and maintaining gardens. Even the toy train near the lake at Southern Avenue, which has been closed down for years now, can be resurrected and modernized to bring at least a part of the revenue required for maintenance.

A special body might be created to advise and oversee this. There should also be installation of street lights all over the place in order to ensure safety after dark. With the implementation of innovative ideas, the lakes in the city can have a new lease of life. Hence, development, modernization and maintenance are all equally important.

Yours faithfully,
S.Ramakrishnan, Calcutta

Sir — Sunanda K. Datta-Ray is justified in saying that maintenance is more important than modernizing the city. Calcutta has not only remained ill-maintained over the years, but the authorities have made gross additions to the city’s already fading beauty. Remember how the city streets once used to be washed every morning? That has become a thing of the past. Not only has much money been spent on useless and ugly fountains in every nook and corner of the city, most of them have dried up, almost symbolically, by now.

One hopes with Datta-Ray that the new mayor of the city, Subrata Mukherjee, will not be interested in such superficial notions of beauty.

Yours faithfully,
Smita Banerjee, Calcutta

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