Editorial 1/ Rank and file
Editorial 2/ Out of order
Big brother fascination
Fifth Column/ No reason still to love the bomb
Book Review/ Between models
Book Review/ Portrait of a violent scion
Book Review/ Envisioned by a defiant elegist
Book Review/ Writing about her home and the world
Book Review/ First story, last essay
Letters to the editor

 
 
EDITORIAL 1/ RANK AND FILE 
 
 
 
 
The Confederation of Indian Industry and Rajiv Gandhi Institute for Contemporary Studies have published a performance ranking of 18 major states. This is important because interstate differences have attracted a lot of attention and such variations have probably increased following reforms. Some media reports, following publication of this study, have focussed on Andhra Pradesh’s relatively low ranking (West Bengal is just ahead of Andhra Pradesh in the composite ranking) and questioned the investment hype associated with Mr N. Chandrababu Naidu. This is unfair to Andhra Pradesh, as well as the study, since the study is not just an investment ranking, but a performance indicator based on 12 different categories, of which investment climate is only one. The composite ranking cannot thus be understood without reference to the 12 individual categories. For example, West Bengal may be ranked 11th overall out of 18 states (Andhra Pradesh is 12th), but West Bengal is 15th in investment climate, 14th in affluence and 16th in consumer purchases. Conversely, Andhra Pradesh is third in labour, while West Bengal is 12th. If affluence and consumer purchases are indicators of prosperity, West Bengal is thus one of the poorer regions of the country. What pulls West Bengal up is social sector indicators, mass media penetration and infrastructure. One must also be careful in interpreting these categories, as each of these is based on several variables. Consider labour, where West Bengal is placed 12th. The labour category encompasses five variables — strikes, lockouts, seats in industrial training colleges and institutes, literacy and population in working age groups. Thus, labour does not mean only industrial relations, but also captures quality of labour.

Comparing West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh, the literacy rate tends to pull up West Bengal. But Andhra Pradesh scores better on number of seats or workers in productive age groups. And in industrial relations, Maharashtra, or even Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, are far ahead of West Bengal. Increasingly, there is greater competition among states, not merely for purposes of attracting private capital (domestic or foreign), but also for Central devolution of funds. The controversy over the report of the 11th finance commission illustrates this. Such competition is not undesirable. There is competition among the states of the United States as well.

However, several Indian studies also document that fiscal incentives are ineffectual in attracting investments. More important are physical and social infrastructure and government procedures and industrial relations. There is the sense that some regions are becoming marginalized and this is no longer the conventional BIMARU (Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh) states. For instance, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh have registered improvements. The new BIMARU states are Bihar, Orissa and eastern parts of Uttar Pradesh. Unfortunately, it is not yet clear where West Bengal belongs. Some districts of West Bengal have quality of life indicators that are as bad as Bihar, Orissa or eastern Uttar Pradesh. With almost 50 per cent of national income originating in services, the service sector holds the key. Given West Bengal’s background, there is no reason why the Silicon Valley of India should be in Bangalore or Hyderabad, rather than in Calcutta. The answer lies in the absence of physical and social infrastructure. For this, the present West Bengal government is clearly to blame. Extrapolation of present trends suggests that capital flight (including human capital) will not only take place to other parts of the country, but also to neighbouring Bangladesh. When Rip Van Winkle eventually wakes up, it might be too late.    


 
 
EDITORIAL 2/ OUT OF ORDER 
 
 
 
 
It is not surprising that West Bengal is one of the worst affected states in the strike that has been called by the telecommunications workers. On the very first day, more than 3000 telephone lines in Calcutta had become inoperative and it had become impossible to make STD and international calls. The strike — or ceasework, call it what you will — is in protest against the decision to corporatize telecom services. In Calcutta, almost 70 per cent of the 16,000 telecom employees have decided not to work. The high percentage of strikers is not surprising because in West Bengal, responsibility in the workplace and commitment to work are lessons the workforce have forgotten through long years of reckless trade unionism. At the heart of this indefinite strike is the notion that jobs are a right. Or that it is the duty of the state to carry workers who are redundant and inefficient. This kind of idea grows out of pampering. It feeds on the premise that it is the state’s duty to provide subsidies. On the flip side is the notion that workers have no responsibility to society. To describe the strike as unjustified is to put it mildly.

The idea of corporatizing telecom services seeks to undo a wrong done in the high noon of Indian socialism under Jawaharlal Nehru. It was then the ideological fashion to hold that the state or the government should own, regulate and monitor all public services. The state was visualized and projected as the largesse provider. This nurtured inefficiency and overstaffing. Such ideas have now proven harmful to the economy. For the improvement of public services, it is necessary to streamline them and to make them more competitive. There are no grounds for providing state subsidies to a sector like telecom which is of use to the relatively affluent sections of Indian society. It makes eminent sense to corporatize the service and to open it to private capital. The fear that corporatization will inevitably lead to loss of jobs on a large scale is baseless. It is being used cynically to mislead public opinion. The bell tolls only for the inefficient.    


 
 
BIG BROTHER FASCINATION 
 
 
BY RAMACHANDRA GUHA
 
 
In 1980, the respected left-wing editor, Nikhil Chakravartty, made a trip to Afghanistan. He was invited by the Soviets, who, the previous year, had invaded that unhappy country. On his return, Chakravartty wrote a multi-part essay in the journal he founded and edited, Mainstream. The burden of that essay was that the progressive communists were bringing the fruits of modernity and science to a backward and feudal land.

Twenty years later, another senior left-wing editor has provided a willing whitewash of a totalitarian regime. The cover story in the latest issue of the Chennai fortnightly, Frontline, written by N. Ram, provides an extended and lavishly illustrated brief for the Chinese occupation of that country. The Chinese, claims Ram, have brought hospitals, roads and schools to a previously deprived land. He minimizes the attacks on Tibetan cultural institutions and religious beliefs that the Chinese have so demonstrably carried out.

He also dismisses the reports by others of a demographic shift in Tibet. Relying on official Chinese census data, he rejects independent evidence of the largescale settlement of the region by the Han people. In any case, Ram has little sympathy for pre-colonial Tibet. He thinks that before the Chinese came the land was a reactionary backwater. The dalai lama, revered by the Tibetans and regarded also by millions of non-Tibetans as a leader of dignity and courage, is characterized by Ram as a man with a “separatist, revanchist and backward-looking agenda”. The editor ends his essay with a message from the Chinese government to the Indian government, asking it to “put an end to the Dalai Lama’s virulently anti-Chinese, separatist, and revanchist political activities in India”.

Ram’s case is made with complete confidence, on the basis of a stay of five days. It is safe to say that the editor’s movements in those five days were closely monitored by his host, the Communist Party of China. For, as is always the case in authorized travels to totalitarian countries, the visitor is only allowed to see or talk to what the rulers want him to see or talk to. It is in keeping with what we know of how and why Ram’s article was written that it carries the Orwellian title: “Tibet: a reality check”.

The curious thing about Nikhil Chakravartty and N. Ram is that at home they have been vigorous defenders of political and intellectual freedom. In 1975, five years before he visited Soviet-ruled Afghanistan, Chakravartty closed down Mainstream rather than subject it to the censorship imposed during the Emergency by Indira Gandhi. And Ram’s Frontline has sometimes championed unfashionable causes. For instance, it refused to join the super-patriotic acclaim for the nuclear blasts in the summer of 1998. What then explains these double standards? Why would these champions of freedom at home so energetically support brutal dictatorships abroad?

An answer of a kind is provided in a classic work by the British writer and historian David Caute. Called The Fellow Travellers, it was first published in 1975, and reappeared in an expanded edition 12 years later. The book is a superb history of Western apologists for communist regimes. It starts with the authors and scholars who supported Joseph Stalin, such as the American writer, Lincoln Steffens — who famously said, after a week in Russia, that “I have seen the future and it works” — and The New York Timescorrespondent in Moscow, Walter Duranty, who consciously suppressed, in his reports, the evidence of millions of deaths caused by collectivization.

But, as Caute shows, American leftists have had a monopoly on deceit and credulity. All the great British Fabians, including George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells, lined up to support Stalin and his ilk. Sidney and Beatrice Webb even wrote an 800-page book with the wonderful title, Soviet Russia: A New Civilization? That apologetic question mark was, however, removed in the second printing. The one and sterling exception to this shameful trend was Bertrand Russell, who very early saw Soviet communism for the monstrosity it was. Russell has never been given proper credit for his 1918 book, The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism, the first serious exposé of Leninist politics.

After the Fifties, it was no longer possible to defend Soviet Russia. So the Western writers went in search of a substitute Utopia. One group settled on China, a second on Vietnam, a third on Cuba. But, as Caute remarks, these intellectuals would not, of course, trade their own life in a free country for life under the boot. His explanation of this paradox was two-fold. On the one hand, these men practised an unconscious racism: they believed the British needed democracy, but not the backward Georgians or Chinese. On the other hand, they displayed the intellectual’s endemic love of power. The commisars, aware of their propaganda value, would shamelessly flatter them. Thus the Webbs or Wells would get an audience with Stalin, and Edgar Snow an audience with Mao, while being denied an interview with Roosevelt or Churchill. Naturally, they would be disposed to writing well about their foreign hosts.

Caute’s book can also help explain why Indian Marxists have so zealously supported foreign communist regimes. Fortunately, they do not have the field all to themselves. Thus N. Ram’s account of Chinese rule in Tibet must be contrasted with the account provided by another Indian writer, Vikram Seth. Unlike Ram, Seth speaks fluent Chinese; and unlike him again, he hiked and hitchhiked through Tibet rather than whizzing through the country by official car and aeroplane. In his book, From Heaven Lake, Seth provides chilling details of the destruction and degradation of Tibet at the hands of the Chinese. With his linguistic gifts and a novelist’s empathy, he was able to obtain from ordinary Tibetans a direct, unmediated account of what they thought of their rulers. If Ram at all spoke to Tibetans it would have been through interpreters, and with Chinese colonial officials standing by.

The Indian Marxists’s admiration of foreign dictators is a curious thing indeed. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) is the only party in the world which still worships Stalin, putting up his portrait alongside those of Marx, Engels and Lenin in their annual congresses. Yet the party has long ago abandoned armed struggle, and is happy enough to participate in the routine processes of Indian democracy.

Admittedly, hypocrisy of another kind is practised by parties of the Indian right. The founders of what is now the Bharatiya Janata Party were fervent admirers of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. And Bal Thackeray admires those fellows still.

This writer is just about old enough to recall a time when Indian politics and intellectual life were both dominated by men who were consistently unwavering in their support to freedom and democracy. I was interested to read in the obituaries of the recently deceased Congressman, S. Nijalingappa, that he and Indira Gandhi parted ways over the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. As president of the Congress, Nijalingappa wanted our government to condemn the invasion, but as prime minister, Indira Gandhi refused to do so. Nijalingappa was reared in the tradition of M.K. Gandhi and C. Rajagopalachari, who loathed Hitler as much as they loathed Stalin, whose life’s work was the winning of democratic freedoms for their people, and who would not be so arrogant as to deny other people those same freedoms.    


 
 
FIFTH COLUMN/ NO REASON STILL TO LOVE THE BOMB 
 
 
BY ARVIND KALA
 
 
If nuclear weapons are so vital for a nation’s defence, why did South Africa dismantle its own nuclear arsenal 10 years ago? India’s nuclear hawks don’t mention South Africa because it weakens their position on nuclear bombs. But Atal Behari Vajpayee on the eve of his United States trip must ponder over why India embraces nuclear bombs when 182 of the world’s 185-odd nations have rejected them by signing the nuclear nonproliferation treaty. Since India’s nuclear position has been consistently aberrant, we can learn a lot from why South Africa built up a nuclear arsenal and why it chose to dismantle it.

India saw nuclear bombs not in India-Pakistan or even India-China terms but as a race issue. It resented nuclear bombs being a near-white monopoly of the US, Britain, France and Russia and wanted its own bomb to challenge this.

Pretoria’s decision to develop bombs in the late Seventies flowed from immediate self-interest based on three reasons. One, South Africa was an international pariah thanks to its apartheid regime. Two, those were Cold War days and South Africa’s immediate neighbour, Angola, contained an estimated 50,000 Soviet-armed Cuban troops out to spread communism and to destabilize South Africa. And three, neighbouring Zimbabwe had got black majority rule.

Energy redirected

Feeling encircled, South Africa used its uranium reserves to build a small nuclear arsenal consisting of six nuclear bombs by 1970. India’s nuclear policy was confused. It declared its threshold nuclear power status by its 1974 Pokhran explosion, but qualified that by saying that though it wouldn’t develop a nuclear arsenal, it reserved the right to do so. South Africa adopted a policy of strategic ambiguity. It never confirmed or denied that it was a nuclear power for the 10 years it possessed bombs. But unlike India, for whom reverting to non-nuclear power status is unthinkable, South Africa dismantled its bombs in the 1990-91 period, the first country in history to do so.

South Africa’s decision stemmed from the fact that with the end of the Cold War, its nuclear deterrent had become superfluous. So it dismantled its six nuclear bombs and ensured that highly-enriched uranium from each bomb was returned to the atomic energy commission by early July 1991. South Africa joined the NPT on July 10, 1991, concluded a safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Administration, and give it access to all the facilities previously used in the nuclear programme.

India’s nuclear hawks would attribute Pretoria’s nuclear policy reversal to the fact that its white rulers didn’t want their bombs to pass to a successor black government. But nothing prevented Nelson Mandela from going back on South Africa’s reversed nuclear policy. No government can be bound by an earlier regime’s decisions.

Pride misdirected

India’s nuclear hawks enact a lie of omission when they evade talking about Pretoria’s nuclear rollback. The truth is that not just South Africa, several other nations have also embarked upon nuclear weapons programmes that they have given up. During the Eighties, Argentina and Brazil built uranium enrichment facilities and acquired the potential to manufacture nuclear arms. But in December 1990, they agreed to place all their nuclear facilities under bilateral inspection. It was something like India and Pakistan visiting each other’s nuclear facilities.

India goes against the world tide with its peculiar belligerence on nuclear weapons. It turned down an Islamabad proposal that the two nations sign a pact declaring South Asia as a nuclear weapons free zone. Latin American countries are signatories to a treaty which prohibits the testing, use, manufacture, acquisition or storage of nuclear weapons in Latin America. Similarly, the island nations of the south Pacific have signed a treaty which forbids nuclear weapons in the area.

Unlike India, these nations don’t feel their pride is hurt when they renounce nuclear weapons. But we are dead against the NPT and the comprehensive test ban treaty. If India’s objections to the NPT are so sound, why has the NPT been the most widely accepted pact worldwide? Are the 182 signatories to the NPT stupid and are we the sole repositories of the world’s wisdom?    


 
 
BOOK REVIEW/ BETWEEN MODELS 
 
 
ANIRBAN CHATTOPADHYAY
 
 
On the border of economic theory and history
By Amit Bhaduri,
Oxford, Rs 450

“Lying on the border of ‘theory’ and ‘history’, economic analysis cannot escape the influence of the arbitrary initial conditions inherited from history.” With these words, Amit Bhaduri concludes the last of the ten articles situated on this border. He has clarified at the beginning that these articles do not belong to what is called economic history, chiefly because they do not aim at collecting and analysing all the relevant “facts” to test a chosen hypothesis. On the contrary, the models used in a number of essays here seek the necessary and sufficient conditions needed “to generate a known historical outcome or pattern”.

Bhaduri believes that this search for the minimal explanatory conditions brings his essays close to theory. Surely, the very decision to seek such minimal conditions bears the unmistakable mark of the mind of an economist. To use history for providing insights to economic models and, at the same time, to use economic theory for illuminating areas of history is a skill not very common among economists as well as scholars of economic history. Amit Bhaduri, with his immense mastery in this job, has provided his readers with a unique collection, a number of the articles being available in English for the first time.

The first five essays “on a traditional agrarian economy” discuss the genesis and working of an agricultural economy under different circumstances. The first essay is Bhaduri’s famous study in agricultural backwardness under semi-feudalism, using a rigorous theoretical model that has been much discussed and no less misunderstood in the three decades since the article first appeared in Economic Journal in 1973. It is important to remember that Bhaduri never tried to make any prediction that the semi-feudal production relations were going to persist or that these relations would perpetually keep agriculture backward in a large part of eastern India (or even in the 26 villages of West Bengal studied by him to write the paper). His whole idea was to try and find the conditions under which the perceived self-interest of the landowner-cum-moneylender would work against technological improvement in agriculture. The nature of this quest is revealed in a number of ways in the essays on agrarian economy included in this volume. To get the correct perspective of these essays (as well as the others) one has to remember, first, that the purpose here is not prediction but explanation and, second, economic history, like history in general, is contingent.

The second half of the collection, starting with an essay on the emergence of the factory system in Britain and its triumph over the putting out system, brings out these two points in sharp focus. One central theme of the four articles that follow the first one (on the factory system) is the role of the state in economic development. This is one theme that usually divides economists into two camps with pretty extreme positions. To say that Bhaduri does not belong to either of the two camps would be an unnecessary oversimplification. He looks at the issue from his vantage point, which is the border of economic theory and history, and throws new light on the whole debate between the statists and the free-marketeers, so to say.

The essay titled “Some lessons from the two economic systems” is basically a critique of socialism as it “really existed” and to that extent the title is a little misleading. The question Bhaduri has addressed here is, to put it simply, why the socialist model of development failed in the long run even though the first couple of decades produced rapid growth. The short answer is that the initial “success” was a result of, first, an increase in the participation ratio (the ratio of employed to total population) and, second, the transfer of labour from agriculture with lower productivity to industry with a higher one. This is what can be called extensive growth, as distinct from intensive growth which occurs as a result of the growth of the productivity of labour. The extensive growth reached a plateau in due course and the system failed to raise productivity. The reason behind this failure was, according to Bhaduri, inherent in the particular system the Soviet model sought to use. The model erred in two fundamental ways. First, it held that the state represented the interest of a well-defined class. Second, it postulated that the party would unerringly protect and promote the interest of the workers. Both the assumptions have been falsified by experience. But the real failure of the system was in its inability to correct itself, indeed, its inability to even admit the need for self-correction. The blind reliance on the state and the doctrinaire rigidity of the supremacy and infallibility of the party proved fatal for the system. And, to call a spade a spade, the root of this failure “can be traced back at least to Lenin’s purposive oversimplification of the problem”. It is remarkable how, even with the benefit of hindsight, the Indian left establishment refuses to accept this fundamental problem. Self-correction remains so difficult for it even now.

What role should the state play, then, in a capitalist economy? Bhaduri does not subscribe to the Washington consensus. Nor does he see eye to eye with those who just ask the state to leave certain areas (like industry) and focus on certain other areas (like primary education). His is a more nuanced analysis of the “economic role of the transformational state”, a role which he discusses with a simple mathematical model in the last essay. The thrust of this paper is that there is no unique and predetermined role of the state in an economy which is moving increasingly towards capitalism. What the state should do is contingent on what the market demands and what the market is expected to deliver. The proponents of unbridled capitalism fail to take account of this contingency in one way, while the socialist model fails to consider this in another way. Bhaduri’s analysis, based on the lessons of history and using tools of economic theory, brings out the two dimensions of this failure.    


 
 
BOOK REVIEW/ PORTRAIT OF A VIOLENT SCION 
 
 
MRINMAYEE RAY
 
 
The terrorist prince: the life and death of Murtaza Bhutto
By Raja Anwar,
Verso, £ 11.95

This book provides an interesting insight into the barbaric and feudalistic nature of the Bhuttos, particularly of Murtaza Bhutto, son of the former Pakistani president, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Murtaza’s brief involvement in politics can be traced back to the time when his father was executed in 1979. Shortly after this, he formed the armed group, Al-Zulfikar, with the chief intent of avenging his father’s death. The organization ceased to exist after Murtaza was himself gunned down in 1996, a murder allegedly plotted by his brother-in-law, Asif Zardari.

Unlike her brother, who wanted to avenge their father’s death through violent means, Benazir Bhutto capitalized on the incident by using it as her stepping stone to political power. Later, as prime minister, she was not willing to share this power with Murtaza. In an interview, she proudly declared how Zulfikar always compared his daughter to Indira Gandhi and was even confident that Benazir would outshine her in politics.

Ironically, Murtaza always underestimated his sister, considered her as “weak” and thought that she was actually filling in for him. He considered himself the rightful heir to Zulfikar. The entire book is strewn with anecdotes about Murtaza’s shortsightedness and emotional instability.

In spite of Zulfikar’s extolment of the Nehru-Gandhi family, Murtaza was disappointed when Indira Gandhi treated him like an “ordinary” visitor. Although this could have been his first lesson in politics, he failed to learn from this humiliating episode that friendship and family ties have nothing to do with politics. However, later in 1983, during the Sikh rebellion (with Zia ul Haq’s alleged involvement in it), Indira Gandhi took Murtaza under her wings.

Zulfikar was probably the first to initiate the culture of irresponsible leadership, which has become the order of the day in Pakistan. As founder of the Pakistan People’s Party, which started off as an organization of the urban lower middle class and the rural poor, Bhutto only spoke on “rights” and evaded the issue of work ethics.

Paradoxically, most ministers and governors in Zulfikar’s regime belonged to the feudal class. The author, in spite of his scathing attack on the Bhuttos, ultimately holds the British raj responsible for the underdeveloped industrial base, feudalism and the lack of a democratic tradition in contemporary Pakistan.

As for Murtaza, the author has almost nothing to say that could redeem him in the eyes of the readers.(Of course, he talks about Murtaza’s love for his pet dog.) Anwar traces Murtaza’s political career back to his attempt at preventing Zia’s men from arresting Zulfikar. The book is a testimony to his immaturity and shortsightedness — which also accounts for Murtaza’s inability to view himself critically. This precipitated his failure in politics.

Another aspect of Murtaza’s character was cruelty. Anwar narrates how he tried to kill the unborn child of one of his followers and how he failed in this attempt. One often wonders whether Murtaza was mentally ill.

In spite of his overbearing feudal spirit, Murtaza never stood by his followers. From this account, it appears that Zia and Murtaza had much in common — both used the same methods to achieve their respective goals — “while Murtaza was driving his flock of young believers into the slaughter house, for the sake of personal vendetta and political power, Zia was brutalizing Pakistan in the name of Islam.”

In 1984, under Zia’s regime, when Murtaza’s men were being hanged, he was away at Cannes, totally oblivious of the brutality that was being inflicted on his men in Pakistan. Ironically, till they breathed their last, Zia’s young victims were confident that their leader, Murtaza, would keep his promise of coming to their rescue. This not only cost them their lives, but also devastated their families.

Among the innumerable instances of Murtaza’s failed plans, the one which stands out from the rest is the hijacking of a Pakistan International Airlines flight. According to his instructions, the hijackers demanded that the plane should be flown to Damascus instead of Peshawar, its original destination. When the pilot informed that there wasn’t enough fuel, his men could only think of Kabul as an alternative. The hijack was not staged to achieve a specific objective other than the restoration of civil liberties. This was “neither new nor so immediately urgent as to require a hijacking”. This alone proves that Murtaza wanted violence for its own sake.

These intriguing anecdotes have been compiled by Anwar, a student leader who became Zulfikar Bhutto’s adviser. Later he joined Murtaza and eventually fell out with him. The book has been translated by Khalid Hasan, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s first press secretary.    


 
 
BOOK REVIEW/ ENVISIONED BY A DEFIANT ELEGIST 
 
 
ARNAB BHATTACHARYA
 
 
Elegy and dream: akhtaruzzaman elias’ creative commitment
By Subhoranjan Dasgupta,
Shipra, Rs 295

There has been no dearth of prolific writers in Bengali literature. In fact, the number of writers who have carved out a niche for themselves on the strength of only a couple of novels, is few. Akhtaruzzaman Elias, belongs to this category of writers, whose two novels, Chilekothar Shepai and Khowabnama and a handful of short stories have almost turned him into an icon.

His “cosmovision” is an amalgamation of illusion and reality, dreams and nightmares, aspirations and disenchantments, aesthetics and ideology, created through the alchemy of language. Elias is not only an inveterate dreamer himself, but a chronicler of the dreams and aspirations of the Bengalis.

In spite of leaning towards Marxism, Elias did not allow his political alignment to blur his vision. He wrote at a time when “leftist writing” had already become a brand name. But he did not want his works to be categorized under this rubric.

Elias was a great admirer of writers from Manik Bandopadhyay, Amiyabhushan Majumdar to James Joyce and Jorge Luis Borges. He was a sui generisMarxist, his faith based on common sense and socialist concern merged with existential angst. Thus any critical evaluation of the works of such a writer should itself be a complex discourse. Subharanjan Dasgupta makes a committed effort towards that end in Elegy and Dream. The book deals with Elias’s poems, short stories and two novels in the first four chapters.

The fifth and the sixth chapters focus on “Elias’s worldview” and on “Readers’ and publishers’ response” respectively. In the preface, Dasgupta deals with “two structures of feeling” — “a fantasy of defiance” and “the emotion of elegy” — between which Elias’s creativity vacillates constantly. This is reflected in the title and the thematic design of the book.

In the first chapter, “Gateway of elegy”, Dasgupta brings out the elegiac overtones in Elias’s poetry in terms of Theodore Adorno’s “lyric methodology” and Raymond Williams’s theory of the “counter-pastoral”. He locates the pathos in the conflict between the “poetic subject” and various forms of otherness. Dasgupta’s critique has an ingenious way of playing one idea against another.

In the second chapter, “Defiance in fragments”, Dasgupta takes up Elias’s short stories, collected in books like Anya Ghare Anya Swar, Khoari, Dudbhate Utpat and so on.

He observes that these stories, which expose the Awami League and the false promises of the Bangladesh muktijuddho, might as well have been compiled in a volume titled, A Universal History of Infamy, which is the title of one of Borges’s books. The ways in which Dasgupta traces Borgesian traits in Elias’s stories are innovative.

The third and fourth chapters are devoted to the study of Elias’s two novels, Chilekothar Sepai and Khowabnama. The former is based on the theme of muktijuddho in Bangladesh in 1969 and the latter, to quote Dasgupta, is “a dirge on Partition”. He interestingly deciphers the interplay of elegy and dream in Elias’s works.

Dasgupta relies upon Georg Lukács’s model of social realism, Frederic Jameson’s theory of “the political unconscious” and Mikhail Bakhtin’s critique of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s poetics to analyse Elias’ visions — which are, in turns, epiphanic and apocalyptic.

The appendices include three of Elias’s letters, written to Sadhan Chattopadhyay, Bishnu Basu and Mahasweta Devi. These letters contain some of his incisive comments on the political turmoil in Bangladesh during his time, which provide interesting insights when read alongside the novels.    


 
 
BOOK REVIEW/ WRITING ABOUT HER HOME AND THE WORLD 
 
 
CHIROSREE BASU
 
 
The memoirs of dr. Haimabati sen: from child widow to lady doctor
Edited by Geraldine Forbes and Tapan Raychaudhuri,
Roli, Rs 495
Writing about her home and the world

Haimabati Sen, one of the first Indian women to be trained as a doctor, wrote most of her memoirs in the Twenties — a period of tumultuous change in India. Nationalism had found its voice, Gandhian politics was in full swing and women were coming out of the confines of the home to join the men on the streets, even to wield the gun.

The memoirs bear no imprint of this struggle. They recount the story of a more personal struggle that started even earlier, around 1875, when nine and a half year old Chuni babu, as Haimabati was affectionately called by her father, stepped out from her paternal home to be with her 45 year old, twice widowed, debauched husband.

What ensues is an unceasing battle against “fate” that continues till the last pages of the ruled notebooks in which Haimabati penned her life. Hem, as she was called, is widowed within a year, orphaned within a few more, deprived of her share of the property by her brothers and in-laws, made to flit from one household to another, forced to live in Benares on her own and to continue her “wandering” in search of a mooring.

Hem ultimately remarries in Calcutta, but ends up in an unenviable situation. With a good for nothing Brahmo husband, she finds it entirely her responsibility to meet household expenses (which she does initially with the stipend she receives as a medical student), look after her children in health and sickness and to meet the unique challenges of being a working woman in a man’s world.

But Hem herself actively assists the workings of fate. What propels her life from one uncertainty to another is her thirst for education. Her irrepressible enthusiasm about education, some of which she manages to get because of a benevolent father, is what prompted her family to marry her off. It was again this obsession that landed her in the cauldron in Calcutta and then in East Bengal. It was only after marriage that the compulsions of her household and the unique opportunities of medical education that a post-reform Bengal held out to women enabled her to pursue her goal in earnest.

Haimabati, as Geraldine Forbes argues, straddles an enormous timespan in the history of Bengal — she lived through a reformist to a reactionary, nationalist Bengal. Hem remained outside the early women’s movement in Bengal, but her pages form a social commentary on the changing, or unchanging, gender relations that come out through her interactions with men and her depiction of marital conflict. Women in her time remarried, got educated, but remained within the strict parameters set by patriarchy. Despite fending for herself most of her life, certainly after becoming a doctor, Hem herself accepted male domination unquestioningly.

Yet, she was acutely aware of the plight of women and this stopped her from wallowing in self-pity despite the odds. The persecution Haimabati faced for being a brilliant medical student and a proficient doctor, the sexual advances and petty politics she had to confront at work and the enormity of the insults and abuses that were heaped on her at home only heightened this realization.

This is undoubtedly a “remarkable memoir by a remarkable woman” who was a product of reformism, but who shows its hollowness. She was a product of benevolent colonial policies, but refused to be subjected to furthering the interests of the raj in its intentions to bring Indian women under government control through their practice of Western medicine. Haimabati created her own spaces — within a restrictive society and marital relationship, within professional restrictions that hamstrung her practice — to become a much sought after doctor and, more important, a mother not only to her children but to the innumerable orphans and homeless she gathered under her wings.

The memoirs are a momentous discovery that will enrich our understanding of women and their struggles.    


 
 
BOOK REVIEW/ FIRST STORY, LAST ESSAY 
 
 
 
 
The first and the last
By Isaiah Berlin,
Granta, £ 8.99

When Isaiah Berlin died two years ago, the world of scholarship lost its last legendary don. He held Oxford enthralled by his conversation, his fondness for gossip, his control over academic politicking, and the world of learning never stopped wondering about his immense erudition, his intellectual integrity, his breathless and limpid exposition of abstruse ideas and his absolute mastery over the essay form.

This volume, a posthumous celebration, brings together the first and the last pieces that Berlin wrote, and tributes paid to him by Stuart Hampshire, Noel Anan, Bernard Williams, Avishai Margalit and Aileen Kelly.

Berlin was an eyewitness of the February Revolution in Petrograd in 1917. At the age of seven, while out on a walk, he saw a Tsarist police officer being dragged away to his death by a mob. This early experience gave to Berlin a lifelong horror of violence. It also gave to him the theme of the only story — and the first thing — he ever wrote. The story was written in 1922, one year after Berlin’s family had moved to London, and reveals how his English had developed in the course of that year.

The real attraction in this book is the last essay in which Berlin provides a tour de horizon of his own intellectual development. “My Intellectual Path” was written in 1996 at the request of a Chinese professor of philosophy. Berlin had not written anything substantial since 1988 but this request from China drew him. With a sheet of notes before him, he dictated a first draft onto cassette. (He always first dictated what he “wrote”.) He emended the typescript and then with his characteristic distaste for revisiting what he had written, he said he did not want to see the piece again.

The starting point of Berlin’s intellectual path was the study of philosophy in Oxford in the Twenties and Thirties. What interested Berlin and his friends was the return to empiricism, the dominant concern then of British philosophy. More specifically, they discussed the problems of verification and meaning. The fashionable opinion was to argue that a proposition which could not be empirically verified was meaningless. This influenced Berlin but he refused to accept that all meaningful statements needed verification. He accepted that the world was only empirically conceivable and this was a notion he refused to surrender.

The next significant step came when Berlin was commissioned to write a biography of Marx. Exposure to Marx brought him to the Enlightenment thinkers and to the notion that there is one correct answer to a question.

A study of Giambattista Vico strengthened Berlin’s scepticism towards the certainties of the Enlightenment. From Vico, Berlin took away the importance of different cultures and of pluralism. He rejected the notion advocated by some Romantic thinkers that the individual needed to be subservient to the collective for the building of a better world. In the clash between equality and liberty he came down on the side of the latter.

The quest to build an ideal society inevitably leads to oppression. Berlin loved to quote Kant: “from the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing can ever be made”. Berlin’s hero was the Alexander Herzen who once wrote, “Do not look for solutions in this book — there are none; in general modern man has no solutions.” This could serve as an epitaph for Berlin’s life and work. First and last, Berlin remained true to his own intellect.    


 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

Time to shake a leg

Sir — The decision of the American president, Bill Clinton, to hold an official banquet for the Indian prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, on September 17 (“A tall order at Clinton banquet”, Sept 5) has put the entire nation on tenterhooks. The members of the 600-odd guest list are perhaps the most nervous. The two leaders are expected to stand for 45 minutes and interact with the guests. Given the speculations regarding Vajpayee’s left knee, it is anybody’s guess whether or not the Indian premier will be able to keep standing throughout this customary period. In a diplomatic meeting such as this, the last thing one wants is that the leader representing one’s country should collapse. The only good thing about this is that if indeed Vajpayee’s knee gives in, he will receive immediate medical attention, and that too of the American variety. Then he will not have to answer any questions to the opposition and the media about his plans of getting his knee operated upon in the United States. That should be convenient.
Yours faithfully,
Palash Mitra, via email

Testing patience

Sir — Those candidates who appeared for the last school service commission examinations suffered a rude shock when the results were declared. Most of these candidates had opted for sitting these examinations and refused to pay colossal sums of money to unauthorized people who would illegally enable them to find employment in certain schools. But the functioning of the commission also leaves room for suspicion. There are some pertinent questions that must be faced. Why is the success rate in these examinations so low? Then, most of the examinees have already successfully completed their BA, MA, or B Ed examinations. How is it then that these students regularly fail in the school service commission examinations? Does this trend indicate that the standards of scholarship in universities and even teachers’ training colleges are lower than the standard prescribed by the school service commission?

It might be mentioned here that unemployed young people have to pay a lot to appear for various examinations.

Yours faithfully,
Santanu Mazumder, Hooghly

Sir — The results of the examinations conducted by the school service commission, which appoints teachers in the various government-aided schools, was published recently. The list contained the roll numbers of the successful candidates from all subjects except Urdu. These results were withheld for reasons best known to the authorities. On inquiry, no satisfactory explanation was provided. This speaks of gross injustice. Will the concerned authorities please look into the matter?

Yours faithfully,
Syed Shamim Ahsan, Howrah

Sir — There is a belief that the Left Front considers teachers to be the backbone of the nation. But how far this is a reasonable assumption is suspect, given the fact that teachers are regularly beaten up when, for instance, they assemble to meet the chief minister or education minister in order to settle their professional disputes.

Moreover, the step-motherly attitude displayed by the government towards a certain group of teachers is also appalling. These primary and secondary school teachers are often denied their dearness allowances whereas those teachers who belong to the teachers’ association affiliated to the ruling party virtually never face any problems with the payment of dues.

Yours faithfully,
Dhaneswar Banerjee, Bolpur

Sir — Even after five decades of independence, a common education policy remains a far cry. Schools, like corporate houses, ought to be graded and the results of admission tests and interviews should be declared by the primary schools simultaneously.

This will prevent parents from having to shell out enormous sums of money to different schools to get their wards admitted to each of these, lest their children do not get admitted into one of the better schools. Many schools release their admission decisions well ahead of the more reputed schools. This actually facilitates the collection of admission fees from distraught parents who, having got their wards admitted into a less glamorous school, then go for the better ones, thus forfeiting the admission fees paid earlier. This excessive commercialization should be stopped immediately.

Yours faithfully,
Uma Maheswari, Durgapur

Sir — The National Council for Education Research and Training’s decision to retain the mathematics and science syllabi in secondary schools is commendable. Students need a proper grounding in these subjects.

Yours faithfully,
S.K. Mukherjee, Calcutta

More flights, less fancy

Sir — That Indian Airlines is considering the replacement of its ageing fleet of aircraft augurs well for the organization as well as the Indian economy. It is a decision which has been long overdue. It is however disturbing to note that the fleet expansion plan, which will conceivably cost Rs 9,000 crore and which includes aircraft, engines, spares, ground support and training of personnel, is focussed on just three types of aircraft — 100 seaters, 150 seaters and 150 plus seaters; completely ignoring the overwhelming need for the small 50 seater turboprop aircraft.

By concentrating on the acquisition of big aircraft, the authorities would be doing a disservice to itself and the nation. It would not be wrong to say that the shortsightedness of our authorities is responsible for the consistent losses made by Indian Airlines and the erstwhile Vayudoot. Instead of operating smaller aircraft which consume less fuel and are easier to maintain, Indian Airlines and its subsidiary Alliance Air are forced to fly half-empty large aircraft on regional routes that have low passenger capacity, causing huge monetary losses to the organization.

The privately held Jet Airways is successfully flying four 50 seater turboprops and has applied for three more. It has shown how a cleverly planned fleet can earn handsome profits. Given this scheme of things, why do our authorities, in complete indifference to ground realities, buy, operate and maintain aircraft that cost three to five times more than the other alternatives?

Yours faithfully,
Vikram Lal Khanna, New Delhi

Sir — I have often experienced the incompetence of airport staff in India in their handling of disabled passengers. I am 17 years old and am confined to a wheelchair and travel regularly by air. In my opinion the Delhi airport staff are the most deplorable in this respect. Calcutta till very recently was very much like all the other Indian airports but since last year it has improved dramatically. At a time when the facilities available to disabled passengers are almost zero, it is heartening to see the effort made by the staff of Calcutta airport.

Yours faithfully,
Snehal Sidhu, Calcutta

Sir — In the aftermath of the tragic air crash at Patna, it has been reported in the press that the government is planning to buy aircraft at a considerable expense.It is wellknown that the majority of air passengers are business travellers. Therefore it will make economic sense in more ways than one if this amount is spent in augmenting the “teleconferencing” and “video phone” infrastructure. This will lessen the need for air travel considerably.

This will also mean greater safety and will result in faster and more widespread communication facilities; it will also mean a cleaner and quieter environment. Will the authorities reexamine the issue from this perspective?

Yours faithfully,
K.K. Ghose, Calcutta

Letters to the editor should be sent to:

The Telegraph
6 Prafulla Sarkar Street
Calcutta 700 001
Email: ttedit@abpmail.com
Readers in the Northeast can write to:
Third Floor, Godrej Building,
G.S. Road, Ulubari, Guwahati 781007
   
 

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