Editorial/ Copy Rites
Rolling in the stuff of magic
The Telegraph/ Diary
Letters to the editor

The British government has thankfully allowed itself to be influenced by reason rather than emotion by saying it will introduce legislation to allow the limited cloning of human cells. Such a law has been debated ever since a government-appointed expert panel last year okayed the cloning of human cells for medical and research purposes. The law will stir up the usual technophobes: religious groups and environmentalists. Nonetheless, given the overwhelming medical and scientific benefits that are likely to arise from the use of cloned human cells, the legislation is expected to pass through parliament. Similar moves to loosen up regulations surrounding the laboratory use of human embryo cells are also taking place in the United States.

In such cloning, genetic copies of human embryo cells would be artificially created for laboratory use. Opponents of such technology argue in favour of a romanticized version of nature that says that even cellular cloning is unnatural, grotesque and potentially destructive to a person’s rights over his or her own genome.

The United Kingdom panel is only one among many scientific bodies that have plumped in favour of cloning because of the medical benefits of using this technique. For example, testing procedures and medicines would be much more conclusive if scientists used genetically identical cells. It would also help in eradicating thousands of diseases. It is estimated 3,000 diseases caused by single genes could be wiped out in a decade or two. Tens of thousands of illnesses caused by multiple genes, like diabetes or multiple sclerosis, could follow. If human organs and tissue are allowed to be cloned, organ transplants would no longer be the dangerous lottery they are today. Cloned organs would mean endless supply and no rejections.

Most of the arguments against cloning are the stuff of romantic poetry rather than rational thinking. First, clones are not unnatural. More species replicate by cloning than by sexual reproduction. Nearly one out of a hundred humans are identical twins. Such twins are natural born clones. Second, no one’s identity would be endangered if he was cloned. Identity is a result of a complex interaction of environment and genome. Because this dialectic could never be reproduced, a person’s clone would not only be different, it could be radically different in character, intelligence and even appearance. Third, cloning technology has been around for three decades. The successful cloning of pigs in March indicates cloning large animals is becoming easier. One byproduct is recent plans to clone extinct or endangered animals like the Tasmanian wolf or the tiger. The ability to clone human beings is around the corner. Such knowledge cannot be forgotten or banned, it can only be driven underground. Since genetic engineering is relatively cheap, banning it would only convert into a rich man’s plaything — all the dangers would remain, but the benefits would be lost.

A new biological age is dawning. As with the advent of all new technologies, there is much hysteria surrounding this development. Public understanding of the various forms of genetic engineering is rudimentary which is why the subject has become fertile ground for fear mongering. But as shown by a recent spate of reports on genetically modified food, by bodies ranging from the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development to the Royal Society, there is nothing to fear but fear itself. To help abate such phobias what is required is an ethical framework that addresses two issues: safety and personal choice. Rigorous testing of genetic engineering products and procedures is already the norm. A new emphasis is needed on the genetic rights of individuals that would allow an individual to decide whether he or she would like to eat genetically modified food or would like to have a baby by cloning or some other means. Genes, in the end, are not about states or industry or activists but quite literally about people.    

In one of her rare public utterances, J.K. Rowling has stated that the idea for the Harry Potter books came to her as she was sitting in a train stalled in a railway tunnel. This moment of vision, set against the frustrations and delays of modern urban existence on the one hand, and the extraordinary fame and financial success achieved by the series on the other, has acquired near-mythic proportions in the popular press. Just so, one imagines, should the Idea strike: suddenly, without preparation or warning, propelling its recipient in an instant from a present of obscurity and stasis to a future of headlong celebrity.

So too, in the narratives that unfolded, was the orphan Harry Potter, a wretched infant bullied and neglected by boorish relatives, translated by fairy gold into a parallel existence where he is famous and rich, a privileged pupil at a private school, excelling in its arcane field games as in other tests of intelligence and courage. Both in the content of her vision and in the manner of her achieving it, Rowling fitted so exactly into the shape of popular fantasy that it is difficult to see where one narrative ends and another begins.

Yet it is plain to any attentive reader of the series that there is in fact nothing accidental or spontaneous about Rowling’s success, based as it is upon an adroitly written, densely worked combination of elements from the more enduring types of children’s fiction, marketed with increasing skill and assurance. The plan is for a series of seven books, of which the fourth, central volume has recently reached our shores to the accompaniment of an unprecedented media campaign. In the effort to make India, with its large population of young readers of English books, part of the worldwide celebration of the “event” of a new Harry Potter, it is being conveniently forgotten that most of these young readers were unaware of Harry Potter’s existence until a few months ago. The earlier books, extremely popular in England and to a lesser extent in America, were not easily available here. Many present-day enthusiasts started reading the books only as a result of the publicity attending the latest release.

The booksellers’ campaign has undoubtedly achieved its purpose. Penguin, who are distributing Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire in India for its original publishers Bloomsbury, report all-India sales of over 10,000, and the Mumbai bookshop, Crossword, say that they have sold all their first stock of 500 copies and are ordering more. This is certainly exceptional for a hardback book of 640 pages costing over 500 rupees. It is evidence, if nothing more, of the buying power of the affluent upper middle class, its willingness to indulge its children with expensive gifts, and its anxiety, fuelled by the media campaign, to keep up with the reading habits of the West.

How many children actually read the books they receive as gifts is debatable. But given the actual population of India, even the numbers of the urban literate, ten thousand is not a large figure, and it must be accepted that very many will neither see nor read these books, and will mercifully be spared the pressures of Pottermanship.

Inevitably, it is this earlier, once more famous Stephen Potter, the author of Lifemanship and Gamesmanship, texts for survival in a society of upstarts and elbow-pushers, that I find myself recalling in these days of aggressive book-promotion and competitive marketing. To do her justice, Rowling herself has not courted publicity: indeed, her desire to be left alone has become part of the myth about her. Even so, she has been drawn into this latest campaign, flagging off a special train at King’s Cross Station (the Hogwarts Express at Platform 9 3/4), visiting bookshops, talking to young readers dressed in comical hats. I cannot imagine any child of 10 wanting to appear in public in this garb, and can only conclude that the pictures we see are of younger children who do not read but are read to.

Rowling is part now of a carefully created situation where everything to do with Harry Potter — even the decision not to read from the books to young pupils at some schools in New Zealand — is news. Given this situation, it may be worth examining the nature of the phenomenon she has helped to produce. The books are themselves a densely plotted amalgam of the Fifties’ British school story (Enid Blyton and Angela Brazil rather than Tom Hughes or P.G. Wodehouse) with the fantastic or magical elements in Roald Dahl. Other classic fantasists, like Tolkien, C S Lewis and Ursula Le Guin are recalled only incidentally, Nesbit not at all; but more contemporary children’s fiction is likely to have contributed substantially.

Rowling is being sued by Nancy Stouffer, the author of The Legend of Rah and the Muggles (1984), for trademark infringement. Stouffer charges Rowling with having stolen the name “Muggles” for the ordinary non-magical people in her books. This may be merely frivolous given that the Oxford English Dictionary records the first use of the term in 1205. But Nadine Epstein notes resemblances between Rowling’s plots and those of several other books: Jane Yolen’s Wizards’ Hall, Eva Ibbotson’s The Secret of Platform Thirteen, Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising and The Boggart. There is no reason to think Rowling a plagiarist. A great deal of children’s literature is filled with verbal and narrative echoes; the genuinely original, odd or eccentric writer is a rare bird, sometimes achieving classic status almost immediately, sometimes fading into obscurity with equal speed. There are many very accomplished children’s writers in English today —- Dick King-Smith, Jenny Nimmo, Louis Sachar —- each commanding a far more distinctive idiom than any to be found in Rowling’s books. What Rowling provides is a dense, crowded, compulsively sustained narrative, replicating Dahl’s frequent choice of a deprived or orphan child as hero in a wish-fulfilment fantasy.

The Harry Potter books exploit classic narrative strategies with exceptional competence, carefully working out connections and clues, and creating a parallel magic world in which despised and outcast characters have a life of extraordinary privilege and power. At the same time, there is an element of slickness, not to say vulgarity (quite different from the conscious and often outrageous vulgarity of Dahl) in Rowling’s manipulation of plot, and even more in her creation of character. As my 10 year old daughter says, everything is too explicit: suspense and foreboding are played up for all they are worth, characters constantly express anxiety or surprise, evil is hideously magnified, magical powers are indistinguishable from conjuring tricks. Rowling is an obvious target for parody, as Dave Barry has succinctly shown in Harry Potter and the Enormous Royalty Cheque. There is something disquieting about any form of popular hysteria, and the general adulation surrounding Rowling’s achievement has been orchestrated beyond ordinary limits of tolerance. Some of this adulation has to do with public anxiety about the literacy of the present generation of children, who, it is claimed, have been won back to the joys of the printed book by Harry Potter. Even in Britain and America, this is likely to be an over-statement. Those who read already, also read Rowling; those who don’t read would barely glance at five hundred pages of closely printed text.

The addictiveness of the series is in fact more of a peril than a blessing, as parents who have tried to wean their children away from Enid Blyton know to their cost. Given that Rowling is unlikely to pass very strict tests of political or linguistic correctness, you wouldn’t want your children to read nothing else, though you might indulge them with her books as with the confectionery of the hour.

This leads us to an inescapable question: how popular is popular fiction? The major section of the populace, of course, does not read at all. Harry Potter is directed at a Western urban middle-class child, or its counterpart in a Westernized metropolis elsewhere in the world. Notwithstanding the many millions Rowling has made from the sale of her books, her readership is specific and limited. What is “popular” in Harry Potter answers to the needs of popular fantasy: magical access to wealth and power, inclusion in a group that speaks a special, arcane and unique language, victories over stronger opponents, being chosen, being lucky. In this sense Rowling’s own success is indistinguishable from the mythical content of her fiction.

Success is self-perpetuating. Harry Potter is magically attractive because the books now smell of money, like a popular game show or Kaun Banega Crorepati. Indeed they have more in common than may be apparent: fake tests of intelligence or knowledge, mounting suspense, unexpected reverses, the supernatural in one, deified technology (Computer-ji) in the other —- and in both, a benign and bearded magician who knows the answers. They have both been marketing successes beyond belief, transporting their texts from west to east with astonishing ease. But in the case of the printed books, the market must necessarily be restricted by language, class and buying power. Harry Potter is unlikely seriously to invade the province of children’s fiction in the Indian languages, which is what most children read —- though, given the threat posed by television, this market could do with a Harry Potter of its own.

Meanwhile, children of 11 and under flog pirated copies of Harry Potter for a hundred rupees each at Mumbai traffic lights, while pavement dealers in Delhi can offer you quick cribs for Crorepati at Rs 30. For the majority of people who merely consume both kinds of fantasy, it may be some consolation to reflect that there are small people making money at the fringes of these very large phenomena. Had Stephen Potter been alive, he might have written a more adequate survivors’ guide.    


A death foretold

Call it premonition or a politician’s art of prediction. PR Kumaramangalam knew what was coming. While being treated for malaria, he told his son not to worry. “You are 22, when my father died I was only 20”. To those less prepared, the news of his death was shocking. Kumaramangalam, Ranga to many, died under a saffron flag, but was born under the red flag and continued his association with the left till the end. His mother, Kalyani Mukherjee Kumaramangalam, was the niece of Gita Mukherjee’s husband, Vishwanath Mukherjee, whose brother, Ajoy Mukherjee, was the former chief minister of West Bengal. Veteran Marxists like Jyoti Basu and Indrajit Ray were addressed as either mama or kaka by him. He was even severely reprimanded by Gita Mukherjee, his grandaunt, for his choice of party, “Ar kono party peli na tui” (You found no other party to join)? The grand nephew was the one who arranged for her last rites and took the day off from his ministerial duties to be with her. Call it a personal matter. LK Advani was Kumaramangalam’s hero and the person he was closest to within the BJP. Call it ironic. It was Advani who was the first to reach the hospital after his death and the one to personally monitor all arrangements for Ranga’s last journey.

Cause without an effect

What do you do if you miss the wood for the trees? Blame the wood. That sums up the reaction of the Bahujan Samaj Party leader, Mayavati, to the 86th Constitution amendment bill. The proposed legislation intends to reverse the effect of one Supreme Court judgment which bars reservations in promotions on the ground that the benefit of reservation could be had once only at the entry level. Parliamentarians have their own crusades to fight and believe they are within their rights to be oblivious of mundane matters before Parliament like passing a bill. For Mayavati, this particular amendment bill directly encroached on her territory — the SCs-STs-backward class — yet she failed to see the connection. She kept blaming the government for not doing enough to undo the effect of the Supreme Court judgment. This went on till a minister went up to her seat to personally explain how the passage of the bill would empower the government to issue a circular that would allow reservations in promotions. What unforgiveness after knowledge! Mayavati now blasted the government for not issuing the circular already. Will someone explain to her that the circular can be passed only after the amendment bill is made into law. And for this the bill would need majority votes, including her vote.

Keep us informed

DidKaun Banega Crorepati do this to him? The surprising reaches of Digvijay Singh’s general knowledge might do Sonia Gandhi proud. “Diggy raja”, being several things at once, also turned out to be an expert on the Indian film industry. When Bollywood stars, Anil Kapoor and Sri Devi met the Congress chief minister of Madhya Pradesh recently, Singh posed a question to Anil. “Tell me why your films do well overseas and not in India? How is Pukar doing so well outside India?”. The actor — whose brother, Boney Kapoor, is the producer of the film — had merely time to say how pleasantly surprised he was, when he found Diggy on his own trip. Digvijay was churning out the trade figures of many of the current films. He also informed Sri Devi that Madhuri Dixit was in the family way. Updated Bollywood gossip. Well, now you know why our ministers find no time to think about either bekari or beggary.

To settle a personal score

Here’s about another Congress man, or should we say superman? Sonia Gandhi’s private secretary, Vincent George, has emerged the favourite punching bag for disgruntled party members. George and Arjun Singh are the invariable scapegoats when things go wrong. To make up for all the bile, the Rajya Sabha deputy chairperson, Najma Heptullah, threw a small party. This was to celebrate the August 15 birthday of Lily, George’s wife. The guest list was restricted. But the gesture cheered up George who holds the rare distinction of probably being the most hardworking private secretary in the country. If you disagree try matching his office hours. They often stretch for more than 20 hours a day. If work pressure is like this when Sonia is nowhere near the hotseat, George would probably quit if his madam made it to the prime ministerial chair.

Footnote/Switching partners?

Election time in West Bengal. The Congress high command for once means business. Look at the promptness with which ABA Ghani Khan Chowdhury was one fine August day replaced with the party’s Rajya Sabha member, Pranab Mukherjee, as state Congress chief. The axe, the Congress grapevine has it, is waiting to fall on Barkatda’s close associates, Somen Mitra for one. The blacklisting has its history. Mitra, with other Congress MLAs, had voted against party nominee, Debaprasad Roy, in the March Rajya Sahba elections. The sabotage helped Trinamool Congress backed independent candidate, Jayanta Bhattacharya, to sail through. AICC secretary, Prabha Rau, in charge of the party’s West Bengal affairs, reportedly told a party worker recently that those involved in the backstabbing would not be spared. Mitra as a result may be denied of his nomination from the Sealdah assembly constituency this time. Somen, apparently is aware of the fate awaiting him. “Perhaps that is why he is desperate to get close to Pranab babu, deserting his mentor Barkat saheb”, said a detractor. Do we believe him chhorda?    


Politics is no monkey business

Sir — Maneka Gandhi seems to have developed an extreme case of animal care syndrome. Instances like the demolition of the century old Hanuman mandir in protest against the mishandling of a monkey prove this (“Monkey lands Maneka in mandir mess”, Aug 10). In the worst bouts of her disorder, she hounds out animal keepers, while her colleague, the small scale industries minister, Vasundhara Raje Scindia, gets away with keeping a rare parrot (“Monkey march against Maneka”, Aug 14). If professional help is not offered her soon, the next endangered species might well be the homo sapiens. But Maneka Gandhi cannot really be blamed. She, after all, is merely trying to play the true politician.
Yours faithfully,
Desirée Chill, Chaibasa

History of decline

Sir — To Rudrangshu Mukherjee, Sushobhan Sarkar’s birth centenary is a fitting occasion to raise the “question of teaching” in Presidency College (“Question of teaching”, Aug 19). It is also an apt moment to analyse the practice and method of teaching in general. He feels that teaching standards have drastically declined in this esteemed institution. But this is the case with almost all teaching institutions in the state. I have never been associated with this particular college but have friends and juniors telling me similarly shocking tales from both schools and colleges. The exalted standard of teaching Mukherjee mentions and the respect commanded by teachers are a thing of the past.

What, however, is most disturbing is the deteriorating standard of teaching at the school level. School students are impressionable and fail to understand their requirements. It is here that the quest for knowledge has taken the real beating. Extracurricular activities are now more important than the curriculum. True, the rich heritage of teaching is lost to the colleges, but change has to begin at a more fundamental level.

Yours faithfully,
Sarita Kejriwal,Calcutta

Sir — When prestigious academies all over West Bengal are being stuffed with third rate teachers and the only incentive to education lies in earning through private tuition, Rudrangshu Mukherjee’s article acts as a sounding board. History not only teaches us about the past, but also helps us face the future. Rajat Ray’s efforts to better the history department in Presidency College should be revived and the alumni should help him in this.

Yours faithfully,
Ajay Kumar Banerjee, Chittaranjan

Sir — Rudrangshu Mukherjee has thrown light on the intellectual giants of the history department of Presidency College as also on the decadence that has set in. Teachers are born and not made. Teaching reaches inspiring heights through individual talent. Sarkar is an amalgam of the “tradition of teaching he inherited and also created”. The present generation would benefit if they recall Sarkar’s techniques of teaching.

Yours faithfully,
Govinda Bakshi, Budge Budge

Parting shot

Sir — The coach of the Indian cricket team, Kapil Dev, has stepped down. The other tainted players may soon follow. But what about the cricket administrators, against many of whom accusations have also been made? Shouldn’t they also step down, if for the time being, till inquiries end?
Yours faithfully,
Arindam Banerjee, Jamshedpur

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