Editorial/ To go or not to go
Shadowed by a line
The Telegraph/ Diary
Letters to the editor

A popular English rhyme and game goes as follows: “he loves me, he loves me not, he loves me...”. The retirement of Mr Jyoti Basu, West Bengal’s octogenarian chief minister, has taken on similar dimensions: “he goes, he goes not” and so on, like a tedious doggerel. Or, to change the comparison, Mr Basu’s retirement seems to be acquiring some of the features of what is called a shaggy dog story. This overwhelming uncertainty over his departure is not doing any good either to the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or to the overall atmosphere of West Bengal’s politics and economy. Over one year ago, Mr Basu expressed his desire to quit; his health, he said, was not too good and he wanted to be relieved of his responsibilities. The CPI(M) responded to his pleas by asking West Bengal’s deputy chief minister, Mr Buddhadev Bhattacharya, to take over some of Mr Basu’s workload. Mr Basu’s sudden illness in New Delhi at the end of July added a new urgency to the need for looking at a future without Mr Basu. Any other party would let Mr Basu go. But the CPI(M) is no ordinary party; it is proud to be governed by the iron laws of Stalinist organization. In such an organization an individual has no volition, his life is dictated by the party. Thus Mr Basu had to abide by the party’s decision. He himself did not help matters by occasionally spouting such clichés as “communists do not retire” and so forth. Hence, the ever-recurrent speculation about Mr Basu’s retirement.

It seems to be clear that even if Mr Basu does not retire immediately, he is not doing another term as chief minister. It stands to reason that Mr Basu’s successor, be it Mr Bhattacharya or some other comrade, should lead the CPI(M) in the forthcoming assembly polls. This will give to the left greater credibility and legitimacy. But the advantages of such a move must be set beside the fact that there is no CPI(M) leader who enjoys even a fraction of the public standing and prestige that Mr Basu commands. The party’s refusal to allow Mr Basu to quit immediately is a recognition of this predicament. The CPI(M) is thus willing to cling to Mr Basu as a mascot even if he is hors de combat as a politician. This cannot be a long term solution and may not also be completely acceptable to even the ever loyal Mr Basu. Mr Basu would not be human if he did not want to make a gracious and triumphant exit from West Bengal’s political arena. This is becoming a dwindling possibility because of the swiftly changing political situation in the state.

Mr Basu can no longer be certain that the Left Front will succeed in maintaining its strength in the next elections. Loyalty and adherence to the left cause are shrinking. The left can no longer offer any concrete alternative to the challenge represented by Ms Mamata Banerjee. Mr Basu will not make a glorious exit if he leaves after an electoral reverse swing. His advocates are justified in saying that after a lifetime’s dedication to the party, he deserves to depart with his dignity intact. History is always not that kind. Mr Basu, in good or ill health, cannot escape the responsibility of what has happened to West Bengal in the last 40 years. First in opposition and then in government, Mr Basu and his party have worked to ruin West Bengal. If the electorate does reject the Left Front, then Mr Basu would have got his just deserts. For the nonce, what is disconcerting is the ongoing and tedious duel between Mr Basu’s real or simulated desire to retire and the CPI(M)’s treatment of him as an icon. Loyalty and addiction to power, the ultimate intoxicant, are two factors determining Mr Basu’s presence in the Writers’ Buildings. The CPI(M) leadership will have to resolve this contradiction and decide how Mr Basu goes: of his own volition on grounds of age and poor health or following an adverse electoral verdict. In either case, he will only be remembered as West Bengal’s longest-serving chief minister.    

Reading Mukul Kesavan’s response (“Unforgettable divide”, August 15) to my article (“Partition as exile”, July 9), I was reminded once more of the following, familiar question: to what extent is the discourse we call “history” a representation of the truth, and to what extent is it a construction, informing us as much of its authors and the conditions in which it was written as of the events and people it describes? Certainly Mukul Kesavan’s article tells us as much about Mukul Kesavan as it does about Partition, history and my piece; and it does this not through what it says explicitly, but by elision, and by taking a few liberties with interpretation.

Kesavan says something similar about my essay midway through his article: “But Chaudhuri’s essay isn’t really about the events of 1947. It tells us more about his narrative strategies for writing fiction than it does about narratives of Partition, public or private.” This is true; although I would extend the second sentence somewhat to say the piece is also about the way Partition affected the lives and consciousnesses of those who lived through it, and the consciousness of the generation born later; or, at times, significantly for me, failed to affect them in just the way one might have expected. I don’t think I make any claims that I approach the issue as a historian, or any bones about the fact that I am a writer whose interest lies in individual memory and consciousness and the way they may be related to narrative, creative expression and to history.

It is interesting, though, that Kesavan, who says he comes to my article, and writes his, as a teacher of history, fails to mention, or even imply, anywhere that he himself is the author of a novel about Partition, Looking Through Glass, and that he may be more interested in the relation between narrative strategy and history than he would have us believe; that, at the heart of his response to my article, might be a difference of viewpoint about the way fiction works in relation to history.

Towards the beginning, Kesavan points out, “for him [that is, me]...the reports, films and novels that speak of Partition, rehearse a nationalist script that the authors first learnt in their schoolrooms”. Going back to my piece, I find I make a slightly more qualified statement, a statement made in the context of the experiences of a middle-class, post-independence generation, such as the one to which people like Kesavan and myself, separated by a few years, belong, a generation that did not experience Partition or independence at first hand, learning about their history, necessarily, in the classroom, or through oral sources like maternal memory, which Kesavan, later in his piece, derides. The novels I refer to in my essay, however, are specifically “recent novels in English”, and not all novels. That I do not refer to all films is evident from my final section on Ghatak.

The novel Kesavan offers as an exemplary instance of the literature of Partition is Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines; oddly, he doesn’t speak of the greatest fiction to come out of the experience of Partition, written by people who were directly traumatized by it, Qurratulain Hyder’s novel, Aag Ka Dariya, her novella, “Building Society”, or the stories of Saadat Hasan Manto. I am not making a value-judgement here; I’m not saying a writer has to witness an event in order to write about it. But I’m led from this observation to what I think is a fundamental paradox in Kesavan’s position.

Kesavan, in his response, is a spokesman for the irreducible authenticity of Partition as a historical event, for its ontological givenness, and its colossal, unignorable immediacy; it is unquestionable in its immutable presence, rather like a frieze on an urn that never changes. He takes issue with me for locating an event that brooks no argument in my own subjectivity, for challenging its centrality by giving it ambiguity, for calling it a “metaphor”. (I should point out that, in my piece, I speak of Partition being “disruptive rather than definitive” not as a general, prescriptive statement, as Kesavan leads his readers to believe, but in relation to my own life, prefacing the statement with, “Its part in my life is profound but its meaning still unclear.” Further, Kesavan’s repeated assertions that I claim Partition was not a historical event are baffling; I can find it nowhere in my piece, and must conclude he had a bad dream after reading it.)

Kesavan doesn’t explain anywhere, however, why Partition should be so unambiguous and central to his imagination, and to those of other writers of his generation, some of whom began to write about Partition about forty years after it occurred, none of whom had any memory or experience of the event, for none of whom, indeed, had Partition been an event. If there is anyone for whom Partition is a central, founding trope, or signifier, or metaphor, rather than event, it is surely Kesavan and others of his generation. It is not a paradox Kesavan attends to, but it would surely enrich our understanding, not of Partition, but of the intellectual life of a generation that grew up in post-independence India, if it were attended to. How is it, in other words, that Partition came to be a central signifier in, and component of, the cultural life of English-speaking, urban India, even of its elite diaspora, in the Eighties and Nineties?

Certainly, in the Seventies, Partition and the national narrative were still not principal themes of the major Indian writers in English, as they would become a decade later. Narayan had his own fictional universe to chart; Ramanujan spoke of bilingualism; Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, who was born in 1947, and himself displaced by Partition as an infant, carried in a train from Lahore to Dehradun at the time, hardly writes about Partition in his relatively few but outstanding poems: does that mean that the event means less to him than it means to Kesavan, or that, simply, the event, as a trope, has less significance or centrality for him than it does for the latter? How much, then, does Kesavan’s interest, as an individual, historian and novelist, in Partition owe to the actual event itself, and how much to his privileging of a national narrative with which he identifies as a member of the post-independence middle class; and how much, too, to the fictional strategies of Rushdie, who, early in the Eighties, opened up horizons for writers like Kesavan and others, prompting them to appropriate, through the lens or glass of postmodernism, that narrative for their fiction?

Partition, then, hardly forms part of Kesavan’s intellectual landscape as an immediate and unmediated presence, but as a complex trope embedded in a number of discourses, historical and fictional, that have grown in importance since the Eighties. To consider these questions is surely not to diminish a writer such as Kesavan, but to arrive at a more nuanced engagement with the cultural moment he represents than he himself seems to allow for.

Kesavan concludes with a few snide allusions to my fiction, noting, not very originally, that I’m content to relegate major historical and political events to the background, and to loll about observing the domestic bric-a-brac of middle-class lives. There has long been a tone of moral puritanism in much of what passes in India for criticism, and Kesavan is not entirely free of it. He would have me attend to major events with suitable awe and reverence; he would have made a good, but probably not excellent, court poet (the greatest court poet, Kalidas, composed seemingly apolitical poems and plays, and a rather ambivalent national narrative, Sakuntala). Abandoning the rigorous adherence to truth that a historian might have, he becomes, unannounced, a novelist, fictionalizing my response to the Bengal famine, implying I would say, “Was the Bengal famine an event? Hard to tell...people experienced hunger in such different and complex ways.”

Would that Kesavan would find other ways of writing fiction than putting words into people’s mouths. His comment reminds me of the case of Satyajit Ray, who lived during the famine, but for a long time resisted, in spite of pressure, making a film about the important political and historical events he was living through, saying they were too remote from the purview of his experience for him to address. He once admitted that the famine did not make as much of an immediate impression upon him as one might expect; Kesavan would probably find this remark as incomprehensible as my statement that Partition meant different things to different people, and sometimes meant nothing at all.

Ray’s last truly great film, Aranyer Din Ratri, was accused, by Bengali critics and contemporaries, of being about the silly foibles of a self-indulgent middle class. Ray’s subsequent attempts to deal with more “important” events witnessed the beginning of his decline; his first unsatisfactory film was Ashani Sanket, about the famine. It seems, now, that the films that contemporary critics considered the least responsive to history, like Aranyer Din Ratri, were actually most so, while those that seem to engage with history directly, like Ganashatru, are least responsive to it.

Kesavan, in his conclusion, makes the mistake of thinking that writing about a political event in a fictional work is a sign of engagement, while ignoring it is one of aesthetic remoteness. History tells us otherwise. The dream-world of Kafka certainly seems, now, far more responsive to history and culture than do, for instance, the many European social realist fictions that would follow, or, in India, much of the writing of the Progressive Writers Movement. The impoverished peasants and young idealists in the latter now seem as aesthetically removed and perfected as any figure etched upon a Wedgewood plate in a curio shop; hopefully, Partition and modern Indian history, too, will not be made to enter that great curio shop of historical writing.    


Timing is of the essence

The Congress president, Sonia Gandhi, is on the move. First stop New York. Her role there, surprisingly enough, was that of a mere delegate in a conference chaired by the Congress MP, Najma Heptullah. And the timing seemed all wrong as well. Daughter Priyanka is in an advanced stage of pregnancy. But then, right times and wrong can be variously determined. The Congress president would have liked to be one up on Vajpayee and the timing for that could not be better. There had been the promise of a meeting with Al Gore, then still the Democrat nominee. Had the promise been fulfilled, it would have gone a long way in establishing her as a leader in the international arena. That’s not the way things worked out though. Gore called off the New York visit because he had to attend the inter-parliamentary union. But at the moment, the Congress president is not letting such small hitches get in her way. There is still the one to one meeting with Li Pang she can bank on.

Firm action, infirmity effect

The Congress president has been active on other fronts as well. Only such action may not yield quite the desired fruits. Sonia Gandhi is making a last-ditch effort to rejuvenate her party’s West Bengal unit by replacing the present state Congress committee chief, A.B.A.Ghani Khan Chowdhury, by CWC member Pranab Mukherjee. Fears are that the move may not prove very effective in the long run. Perhaps by the time Pranab takes over the reins, the state Congress will be reduced to a signboard with a majority of party functionaries and MLAs having switched over to Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress. So bad is the scene that a state Congress member was heard to say, “Pranabda will have only Somen Mitra and Pradip Bhattacharya in his fold and no one else.”

Given the manner in which Mamata has successfully roped in Congress leaders from the minority belt after her victory in the civic polls, anything is possible. Two Congress MLAs, Abdul Mannan, who is also chief whip of the Congress legislature party, and Sultan Ahmed, a powerful MLA from the Muslim belt, have already decided to join Mamata’s camp by early next month. “We are left with no option but to join hands with Mamata to fight the ruling communists here,” said Ahmed. So should the Congress president’s motto be reflection before action?

All the capital’s a stage

The minister of state for external affairs, Ajit Panja, is in the seventh heaven of delight. He is deliciously excited over the popular response to his play, Sri Ramakrishna. Don’t blame him. It must be truly exciting to have the PM as part of the audience of your own play. Now it is the president and his wife who want to see the production. They have been faithfully following the play’s trail-blazing course through clippings and reviews. So now they have expressed a desire to have a show organized in the Rashtrapati Bhavan for its employees. The do has been fixed for August 25. Panja must be getting even better at his role, since he is playing to different galleries all the time. The play was earlier staged for the prime minister at the FICCI auditorium.

How cold is the lady’s shoulder

While it is all warmth and bonhomie for Ajit Panja, his party chief is giving off cold waves. Mamata Banerjee is not being at all friendly towards BJP MP Sushma Swaraj. Swaraj went back disheartened from Calcutta because Mamata had avoided meeting her for a second time.

Only two months ago, Mamata ducked Swaraj when the latter came to the city for the civic poll campaign. The other day Swaraj was at the Netaji Indoor Stadium where Mamata was scheduled to share a platform with her. Prior to her arrival at the stadium, Swaraj reportedly made some frantic calls to Mamata, but didi, despite being present in the city, remained mysteriously unavailable. Trinamool sources say Mamata is upset at the way Swaraj has backed the Union minister of state for communications, Tapan Sikdar, during the elections to the post of Bengal unit president. BJP insiders say Swaraj will come here early next month with the sole purpose of seeking a reconciliation with Mamata.

MPs are very special people

n A law of nature, Indian style: being an MP matters a lot. Five of this elite were flying from Calcutta to Delhi when there was a bomb hoax call in an Air India flight. The Calcutta-Delhi flight was diverted to Jaipur. But the hon’ble MPs insisted they had to be in Delhi in time for Parliament. Airlines officials understood like a shot and in Delhi they soon were.

Footnote/ Teach yourself Bengali — or else

No wonder they talk about communication skills. Telugu Desam Party MP, S. Venugopalachari, who led a six-member NDA parliamentary team to the disturbed areas of Midnapore sometime last week, was about to get into hot water, only the Trinamool Congress MP from Calcutta North West, Sudip Bandopadhyay, came to his rescue. The team was in Midnapore for an on-the-spot study of the situation. But angry villagers gheraoed the members, demanding their complaints be recorded. Unable to understand their language, Venugopalachari thought the villagers had assembled to welcome them. Smiling, he even waved to them without bothering to get down from his car. At this, villagers agitatedly asked the MP to get out of the car. By then Venugopalachari had realized that something was wrong. “The situation could have taken the turn for the worse had I not then been present on the spot,” recounted Sudip Bandopadhyay, informally talking to newspersons at Calcutta Press Club. He said the matter had been reported to Mamata. Multi-lingual is what they need to be, these roving members of Central teams.    


Public privacies

Sir — It is a laudable effort on the part of the National Federation of Indian Women to have conducted a survey on the state of toilets in girls’ schools (“When nature’s call need go heedless”, Aug 13). The government has now acknowledged that girls have a tough time when they have no place to relieve themselves during school hours. It is worse for teenage girls during menstruation. This is disturbing, but not unusual in a country where the notion of civic amenities for women does not exist. This problem is not confined to a single class or agegroup. One thinks of female street-dwellers. Public toilets for women that do not require a steeling of the nerves before use are therefore a must.
Yours faithfully,
Sweta Das Gupta, Calcutta

Home away from home

Sir — To Amitabh Mattoo’s article, “Six points that make sense” (July 28), there should be six counterpoints added. One, scrap Article 370 forthwith, as Kashmir’s only claim to this unwarranted luxury is that it is Jawaharlal Nehru’s “home state”. In fact, it was Nehru who created the Kashmir problem. Two, in keeping with our true blue secularist image, appoint a non-Muslim as Kashmir’s chief minister. Three, make public the details of the money that has been spent by the government for the “welfare” of the Kashmiris since independence.

Four, there must be the formulation of a proper methodology to combat terrorism in Kashmir. Five, the government must explain its stance regarding the Shimla Accord in 1972, and why it succumbed to the pressures of Pakistan. Six, entreat the United States president, Bill Clinton, to pressurize India and Pakistan into converting the line of control to an international “border”.

I strongly oppose the Kashmiris’ unjustified demand for autonomy with the intention of securing “a country within a country”.

Also, the parallel that Mattoo draws between India and the US is inappropriate, since, as one can see, while the US has a democratic form of government, India practises, what may be termed, “domestic colonialism”.

Yours faithfully,
J.K. Dutt, Calcutta

Sir — In Farooq Abdullah’s latest move to become a wazir-e-azam, Amitabh Mattoo would have us believe that if autonomy weakened nations, the United States would have disintegrated decades ago.

It is sad that the writer does not consider how, in spite of the long struggle that led to the formation of the federal nature of the US government, there still has been a continuous exploitation of its constitution. The revolt of the English-speaking colonies in the war of independence in 1775-83 led to the creation of the “United States of America”. Then there was the civil war of 1861-65, and the abolition of slavery in 1865. But the concentration of power still remains with the Centre. As the writer, M.P. Jain, summed up the situation in the US, “Over time, the Centre has grown into a colossus and has dwarfed the states”. So why does Mattoo show the US autonomy as a precedent for realizing Abdullah’s dream? Can one really agree with Mattoo when he claims that autonomy is all about empowerment of the people?

Yours faithfully,
Arvind Lavakare, Mumbai

Parting shot

Sir — Going by the number of states in India, why not rename our country the United States of India? But how “united” is India?
Yours faithfully,
Vijay S. Mishra, 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

Maintained by Web Development Company