Editorial 1/ Right price of oil
Editorial 2/ Tin drum
Summit of dreams
Fifth Column/ Left turn into the blindest alley
Letters to the editor
Book Review/ Where the ancient meets the modern
Book Review/ Of savages, races, prisons and tortur
Book Review/ Between ambiguity and ideology
Bookwise/ Binary of paper and pixels
Paperback Pickings /User’s guide to the New Indian

 
 
EDITORIAL 1/ RIGHT PRICE OF OIL 
 
 
 
 
Global oil prices show no signs of easing. The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries is not as culpable as it was in the Seventies, since the present increase is not primarily driven by supply shortages. Recovery in Asia, Latin America, the United States and Europe has fuelled demand. OPEC has already announced an increase in exports and there will be a further increase in December, if prices remain higher than $ 28 a barrel. Even if this increment is partly neutralized by members cheating on quotas earlier, the fact is that there is very little surplus capacity now, except perhaps in Saudi Arabia. The three operations of pumping oil out, shipping it and refining it, are all functioning at close to full capacity and US inventories are also lower than what they normally are.

Assuming that oil prices remain hard, the question that arises is whether developing countries like India have done enough to ensure that energy demand is optimal. Arguably, North America, western Europe and Japan have reacted to earlier oil crises so as to make manufacturing more energy efficient. This is coupled with the phenomenon that these developed countries no longer depend that much on manufacturing and have become service economies. Indirect taxes are fairly high in western Europe, though not in the US. For example, in Britain, taxes account for 76 per cent of fuel costs. In part, the present adverse reaction in western Europe is due to these high indirect taxes and there are demands that these be brought down to neutralize higher prices of oil. Fiscal disincentives to discourage use of oil in particular, and energy in general, are not that common in Asia, barring South Korea, and to a lesser extent, Hong Kong and Singapore.

India is no exception to this principle. Petrol may not be subsidized, but diesel, liquid petroleum gas and kerosene are. Too often, handling the oil problem has meant supply side economics, like greater exploration for crude or natural gas. In contrast, demand management has been relatively neglected. Artificially low prices for energy distort usage and encourage greater energy intensity than is optimal. The government is yet to decide on how much of a hike there will be in eliminating the three rupees per litre subsidy on diesel, the Rs 165 per cylinder subsidy on LPG and the six rupees per litre subsidy on kerosene. But the entire impetus for change is deficit driven, suggesting that had the oil pool account deficit not existed, there would have been no reason for reform. But artificial subsidies also lead to a resource allocation problem. There is a policy-induced switch from petrol to diesel cars. Kerosene is diverted to diesel engines and power plants, or simply used to adulterate diesel. Subsidized gas meant for cooking is diverted to cars that run on gas. Admitted, there are indirect taxes and import duties on petroleum related products that jack up retail prices to above basic prices, but these are not high enough to neutralize subsidies. Since domestic crude production has stagnated, whether domestic crude is available at seven dollars a barrel or not, is beside the point. Domestic consumers have to pay the right price of $ 35 or even $ 40 a barrel, with perhaps even a surcharge to discourage energy usage. This is good economics as well as good environmental economics, because the adverse environmental impact of excessive energy usage is also evident. As for the poor, there are better ways of subsidizing them.    


 
 
EDITORIAL 2/ TIN DRUM 
 
 
 
 
The famous motto of the Olympic games, which says that what is important is to take part and not to win, is a piece of sophisticated hypocrisy. None-theless, it gives Indians, or those who are lovers of sports in India, some consolation. Indian sportsmen have taken part in Sydney but have won nothing save a solitary bronze medal in weightlifting. The achievement of Karnam Malleswari has come close to be hailed as a national triumph. By lifting a total of 240 kilogrammes in the 69 kg category, Malleswari has provided the Indian contingent with a face saver. This is, of course, a familiar story. Once upon a time, India used to win in hockey, but now it rarely figures in the medal tally. In many ways this is not unexpected. In terms of training and talent, India has very little to offer at the international level in field events. Indian athletes are thus perpetual laggards, coming round the bend while the others cross the finishing line. The situation is no better in other events that feature in the Olympic games. To Indians, taking part to lose is a national embarrassment. Despite this, a lot of official fanfare is associated with the Olympic games.

One reason for this official enthusiasm is evident from the number of non-sportsmen who make up the contingent. This Indian squad to the Sydney Olympics had 64 athletes and players, 32 doctors, trainers and managers, and 11 officials who had nothing to do with any sports whatsoever. The latter went on a junket. Sending a team to the Olympic games every four years to only participate and seldom win is not only a national disgrace but a drain on the national exchequer. The time has come to seriously think if India can afford to spend public money to show the world that Indians are happy with merely upholding the motto of the Olympics. Sporting events are by definition competitive, and nations whose teams come back with scores of medals never take recourse to pious sentiments about the importance of participation over winning. There should be a conscious policy to stay away from the Olympics till such time Indian athletes and players come somewhere near international standards. One bronze medal can only pave the path for a gold medal in self-pity and complacency.    


 
 
SUMMIT OF DREAMS 
 
 
BY PRAMIT PAL CHAUDHURI
 
 
Short of building a Smithsonian museum in his honour, Bill Clinton did everything he could to make the Indian prime minister the centre of Washington. The United States president dumped plans to appear at the Sydney Olympics. Atal Behari Vajpayee was accorded the second largest official White House dinner in eight years. Al Gore and the first lady took time off from campaigning to fete him. And the president treated Vajpayee with a deference that raised both Indian and US eyebrows.

Yet the sequel summit lacked tangibles. India merged its nuclear test moratorium with the comprehensive test ban treaty. There was the usual flurry of contract signing. A few more institutional saplings were planted in the existing forest of working groups, dialogues and bilateral fora. Great atmosphere, good photo opportunities but not much paperwork. But Washington summits are too well rehearsed for this shallowness not to have been known. Yet Vajpayee and Clinton went out of their way to meet, despite bunged up knees and tight campaign schedules. The question is why.

Clinton has a vision thing regarding India. In his second term he has argued the 21st century will be determined by the US’s relationship with six or seven major countries. Always on the list, India has become priority one in the fag end of Clinton’s presidency. According to Bruce Riedel, the president’s special assistant for the near East and south Asia, “The president has wanted to make this year the year of really fundamental change in the relationship between the US and India.” He has a soulmate in Vajpayee who, supported by Jaswant Singh and Brajesh Mishra, wants to be the prime minister to define India’s place in the post-Cold War world. In particular, making the big breakthrough with the US that New Delhi has been groping for since the mid-Eighties.

The problem is that the vision of the two leaders, encapsulated in Vajpayee’s description of India and the US as “natural allies”, is not shared by their respective bureaucracies. The men in black prefer not to get too close. In South Block the talk is of using Washington to gain a permanent seat at the United Nations security council or getting into the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum. Or simply snipping the US’s last vestigial ties with Pakistan. Their Foggy Bottom counterparts say the US should engage India because the subcontinent is a potential atomic war zone. Some in the state department merely see India as a means to further counterterrorism and nonproliferation goals. Others see it as a counterweight to China. As happens in foreign policy, both Indian and US official policy tends to be a mishmash of all these schools of thought.

Clinton and Vajpayee have been trying to rise above the diplomatic hubbub and proclaim their larger view of Indo-US relations. The Indian leader iterated that the two countries were “natural allies in the 21st century” and spoke of them standing “on the right side of history”. During the summit Clinton said, “If you look at the way the world is going, it’s inconceivable to me that we can build the kind of world we want over the next 10 to 20 years unless there is a very strong partnership between the US and India.” There were touches of evangelism and pleading when he declared, “It is more than a slogan for Americans to say that India’s success will be our success, and that together India and America can change the world.”

Unfortunately for Clinton’s Indian dreams he has run out of time. US officials admitted, “There is less time left in this administration now to accomplish all that the president and we would like to have accomplished in south Asia.” The summit, held in diplomatically unseemly haste after the first one, was Clinton’s attempt to tell his successor to the oval office and Washington’s policymakers that the US-India relationship should be more than just the CTBT, silicon and Osama bin Ladin. The summit’s main thrust, said his officials, was to get the bilateral link “going not only to the stage it is now, but to even bigger and more important stages.”

The White House worries if Clinton’s vision will survive him. The things we are doing in this summit, explained his aides, “quite frankly, those things could not wait until next or beyond. We wanted to seize the moment; to capture the momentum that we had with the president’s trip to India in March, and to build on that during this administration and to see that relationship strengthened, built upon, so that it would move into the next administration and beyond”. The president has been broadcasting this message to Gore or George Bush jr. He took time off during the Democratic National Convention last month to tell an audience, “I hope the next administration will continue the commitment that we have begun, to a new state in our relationship with India.” Karl Inderfurth, assistant secretary of state for south Asia, said that Clinton told Vajpayee, “I want to leave this relationship in the best possible shape for my successor so that he can pick up the ball and run with it.”

However, there is no sign anyone in Washington is listening. The administration claims Gore has promised to stay the south Asian line. But the vice-president’s comments during lunch with Vajpayee were banal. When foreign dignitaries can’t think of anything to say beyond “ancient civilization” and “world’s largest democracy” it means India is not in their big picture.

Neither Gore nor his foreign policy advisor, Leon Furth, have mentioned India in their ramblings. Bush and his main global spokesperson, Condoleezza Rice, have only stressed India’s potential as a check on China — a crude shadow of Clinton’s vision. Though Vajpayee did hint of a common Indo-US interest in not wanting “the domination of some to crowd out the space for others” in Asia, New Delhi is unenthusiastic about joining a Pacific cold war. “The Republicans have their agenda on China. We have ours,” said one senior Indian official after meeting US policywallahs.

Besides covering Vajpayee with media glitter and appealing to the media, Clinton has also sought to preserve his India policy through institutions. Hence the rapidly expanding number of Indo-US dialogues, committees and working groups on everything from meteorology to counterterrorism. Wherever the two governments have found a roadblock, they have tried to build a bypass. If there is a disagreement on labelling Pakistan a terrorist state, then set up an Afghan dialogue. If security relations are bottlenecked because of the CTBT, then start talking about peacekeeping.

A larger vision would help ensure future Indo-US relations do not degenerate into petty squabbling or drawn out stalemates. A push from above is often needed to get diplomats to stop quibbling about clause 3, section ii, paragraph 2. Unfortunately, there are many ditches for Indo-US relations to fall into. A number of them were evident during the summit — CTBT, Pakistani sponsorship of terrorism, sanctions and so on. Clinton and Vajpayee failed to find the time to get around the lobbies behind these issues. And it could be a year or two before the next US president calls for the briefing books on India.

Marshall Bouton, India watcher of the Asia Society, believes there is a “soft consensus” in Washington on the need for better relations with India. Clinton’s officials say, “There is no argument in this country now about going back in US-Indian relations. There is a bipartisan consensus about going forward.” But there should be no doubt that there would have been a quantum difference in the pace, depth and possibly direction of this new relationship if there had been no constitutional bar on a third term for a US president.    


 
 
FIFTH COLUMN/ LEFT TURN INTO THE BLINDEST ALLEY 
 
 
BY RAJAT BANDYOPADHYAY
 
 
Before wreaking its vengeance on the opposition, the Left Front in West Bengal needs to reassess its organizational strength and political skills. The result of the Panskura parliamentary byelection and that of the Calcutta Municipal Corporation polls have dealt a blow to Left Front bases. What is needed is an introspective approach. This might help the left to identify the amount of shifts not only in terms of policy stances from 1977 till date, but also in striking a balance between its political and ideological halves.

Specificity has to be given to the internal dynamics of policy formulation. The Left Front has failed utterly to develop and update mechanisms to articulate a public philosophy in response to the newly emerging political demands and changing aspiration levels. This exposes its structural as well as functional inadequacies at all levels.

At the institutional level, the cooperatives that are supposed to monitor the mobilization of resources in panchayats have performed badly and have tended towards localism. The functioning of these social institutions has revealed a neat authoritarian elitist framework that demeans the culture of protest and ultimately promotes a status-quoist totalitarian regime.

Fast failing

The incidents in Keshpur and Nanoor prove that the Left Front has not been able to develop conflict resolution and crisis management mechanisms. The escalation of violence breeds in people hatred, suspicion and fear. Complacency and organizational lapses have infuriated the masses.

Although all parties try to allocate resources for and generate new avenues to implement populist schemes, they cannot entirely do away with their social commitments. This is even more applicable to parties which function within an ideological paradigm. Moreover, economic performance also depends on the political performance of the ruling parties.

Barring agrarian sector reforms like Operation Barga, institutional reforms like democratic decentralization through panchayats and municipal corporations, and social reforms like Scheduled Caste Development Corporation and the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes Development Finance Corporation, the Left Front has been unable to address certain pertinent problems.

It has failed to universalize primary education. Every attempt of the front to come to a decision regarding the Gorkha and Rajbansi’s struggle for sub-state autonomy has proved futile. The acute problem of child labour remains.

One more chance

Intra-front disputes have intensified and the lack of an organizing principle to govern such disputes has given rise to fragmentations within the front. Communist Party of India (Marxist) leaders like Samir Putatunda, Subhas Chakraborty and Revolutionary Socialist Party leaders like Kshiti Goswami have emerged as the voices of dissent within the front.

There is a conspicuous absence of proficient administrative and legal mechanisms to solve intra-front disputes amicably. The CPI(M) should learn how to make beneficial adjustments with its smaller partners like Communist Party of India, Revolutionary Socialist Party and Forward Bloc. Decisionmaking in a diffused polity involves a situation of interdependence. Independent and authoritarian decisionmaking is ultimately harmful.

The Left Front also needs to clarify its stance on emerging global consumerism. For, the rise in the flow of foreign direct investment in the wake of globalization and the delicensing regime can reduce the power of the state agencies as well as political parties to address problems pertaining to resource allocation. But investments in West Bengal are considered by foreign investors as bad, primarily owing to the the absence of a proper industrial environment.

Marxism in West Bengal is leading towards Friedrich Nietzsche’s* catastrophism. The lust for power and explicit lacks in political education have made communists of the state deviate from their goal. The means of achieving the goal are as important as the goal itself.

To restore itself to its former status, the front not only needs to develop mechanisms to address multi-faceted problems, but also to learn to pay respect to its opposition and other pressure groups.    


 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

Dropping the dead

Sir — “Families in samadhi short-shrift” (Sept 27) is one welcome indication that the government is shedding deadweight. The kin of dead and gone politicians in India have long been granted such outrageous demands by the government that many have come to look upon their privileges as part of their inherited rights. Children and wives of former office holders still cling on to government property that came as perquisites. Some have even passed on official bungalows to the next generation. The right to have functions organized by the government on birth and death anniversaries is another of these self-assumed rights that have drained the government treasury for years. Not only should the government drop the responsibility of holding functions, it should also stop maintaining the samadhis for the simple reason that not all dead politician deserve to be honoured. There might be reasons for overseeing the samadhi of the nation’s first woman prime minister. Are there any for doing so for the samadhi of her son, Sanjay Gandhi?
Yours faithfully,
Roshan Chawla, Calcutta

Troubled heights

Sir — There has been constant conflict and bloodshed throughout the Northeast over the last decade or two. People in this region have been facing constant insecurity as well as an identity crisis. There are a number of different ethnic groups or communities and each of these groups is interested in taking care of their sectional interests. This results in communal clashes, demands for separate states or autonomy or even sovereignty.

Recent instances of violence against Manipuris in Tripura by tribals is a black spot in the age-old bonhomie shared by the Manipuris and and the Tripuris. The Bengalis and the Manipuris in Tripura have been an integral part of the state. It is genuinely unfortunate that this tradition is being eroded.

Yours faithfully,
L. Inaobi, Imphal

Sir — The recent surrender of United Liberation Front of Asom militants is probably cause for celebration. It augurs well for the Prafulla Mahanta administration as also for the common people of Assam. But should we feel happy? Should we feel relieved? Are we not horrified by the ghastly thought of how to tackle the ever increasing problem of militants.

Every sphere of public life in Assam is being affected by surrendered militants. The administration should see to it that the word “surrendered” does not become the identity or licence for gun-toting criminals. I can imagine the day the administration will be seen pursuing the SULFA to make its members surrender once again and the public would have to think of another name for these people.

Yours faithfully,
Rajib Bora, via email

Sir — The war of words between the Assam chief minister, Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, and the Assam Congress chief, Tarun Gogoi, is getting very interesting. If it continues, I am sure more skeletons will topple out of their respective cupboards. What else could be better for the democracy? We suggest they carry on and enlighten us.

Yours faithfully
Ramen Kalita, Jorhat

Sir — The latest decision of the Guwahati city traffic police to install video cameras at vantage points in the city to record all traffic violations is a welcome move. So far, “No Parking” boards (threatening punishment or fine) have had no meaning for the city’s denizens. Traffic rules have been violated with impunity. Maybe hidden video cameras will do the trick of disciplining the chaotic traffic. The traffic police deserves kudos for this brilliant plan.

Yours faithfully
Abhijit Bordoloi, Guwahati

Sir — The massive fire that broke out at the Fancy Bazar in Guwahati in the early hours of September 23 is an extremely unfortunate incident. More unfortunate, however, is the fact that the fire services department was totally ineffective in handling the fire. The question really is: why can we not anticipate such incidents? Fancy Bazar is a very old marketplace, vulnerable to accidental fires. Did the authorities or even the shopowners not realize the risks? Maintenance and repair of electrical lines are always neglected. Shopowners may not be worried because they will be able to recover their insurance. But what about those who have been seriously injured? Insurance alone cannot help.

Yours faithfully
Kalyan Sarawgi, Guwahati

Sir — The news that dog meat is being mixed with mutton and sold in the markets of Guwahati is frightening (“Row over dog meat mixed with mutton”, September 22). While we may have heard how tasty dog meat is, we would hate to have it served as mutton, and without our knowledge and consent too.

The authorities need to be pulled up for such incidents. What is the Guwahati Municipal Corporation doing? It probably has no time to keep a watch on such goings-on when it is so deeply involved in corruption.

Yours faithfully
A.N. Pathak, Guwahati

Sir — The indefinite extension of stay on release of prisoners, sought by the forest brigand, Veerappan, in exchange for the actor, Raj Kumar, was a timely initiative by the Supreme Court. Such initiatives go a long way in sustaining people’s faith in the judicial system of the country. One instance when the judiciary failed was with regard to the filming of Deepa Mehta’s film, Water. After a handful of antisocial elements wrecked a particular shot, Mehta had turned to the courts, but to no avail. Had the judiciary taken a firm stand, the Uttar Pradesh government would not have succeeded in bundling out the film.

Yours faithfully
C.R.U. Nair,Agartala

Sir — The caption for the photograph of doctors and chemists demonstrating against fake medicines in New Delhi is incorrect (“Bitter pill”, Sept 19). The caption should have indicated that the representatives of the Federation of Medical and Sales Representatives Associations of India were demonstrating against fake medicines in New Delhi. Even the placards as seen in the photograph highlight a few of the demands. The placard at the centre also clearly states FMRAI at the bottom. The error has played down the struggle of the medical and sales representatives.

Yours faithfully
Janmejoy Purkayastha, Tinsukia

Sir — Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya, is no longer the haven it used to be. Insurgency has stuck deep roots in the soil of the once-peaceful hills, and has made life miserable for all. Lure of easy money has ensnared many to take to the path of violence. The government’s apathetic stand on the issue has also made matters worse. Militants rule the town with an iron hand and the lawful authorities are mere spectators. We wonder how long this will go on.

Yours faithfully
S. Lyngdoh, Shillong

Sir — The half-page section devoted to Shillong in The Telegraph was interesting. But, for the last few days, that page is not being published. Moreover, the number of pages have also been reduced to 14. Why are the Khasi tribals being neglected in this manner?

Yours faithfully,
Lambok M. Kharlukhi, Shillong

Sir — Aruna Roy, who has won this year’s Ramon Magsaysay award in the area of community leadership, rightly deserves the award. She depicts the real face of the Indian woman. She could have easily made use of all the material comforts of life. Yet she has chosen to live humbly. Opposed to all kinds of individual awards, she believes that her kind of work can never be done singlehandedly. It is time we too volunteered to help such people.

Yours faithfully
Anshuman Samantaray, Sonitpur

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
   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW/ WHERE THE ANCIENT MEETS THE MODERN 
 
 
SHAMS AFIF SIDDIQI
 
 
Intersections: socio-cultural trends in maharashtra
Edited by Meera Kosambi,
Orient Longman, Rs 475

Culture has always served as a useful tool for scholars trying to understand a group’s identity. Many have also ventured into the social arena, linking diverse socio-cultural phenomena in their attempt to find some meaning in the behavioural patterns of people close to the soil. Whether or not this has improved the lot of these people, socially or culturally, is a different question. The forsaken and underprivileged for now are just objects of curiosity for academicians. The multicultural and diverse religious practises of people all over India offer intellectual fodder to the academic community.

Intersections: Socio-cultural Trends in Maharashtra deals with one state, traditionally considered to be rich and diverse in its cultural heritage. It is here, more than anywhere else, that the old world mixes with the new — the fast metropolitan Mumbai life intersecting the slow passage of time in the villages. Maharashtra in microcosm reflects the complexity of Indian culture. But it also has its own unique socio-cultural trends. It is this uniqueness that has attracted the attention of these international scholars whose interdisciplinary approach the book embodies. This work ventures into the religious and literary fields to give an overview of Maharashtrian society down the ages. It is obvious that extensive research has been undertaken before embarking upon the project. The research however could have been more intensive. Notwithstanding this deficiency, the book gives a vivid socio-cultural picture of the state from the colonial period onwards.

What emerges is a representation of the times hardly ever attempted by other historians. Since the majority of the contributors are from Canada, the United States and even Japan — being a collection of papers read out in conferences here and abroad — an interesting overview is offered by the book. The book strikes a balance which would not have been possible had the contributors been all Indian.

If Anne Feldhaus and James Laine’s essay about mountains, rivers and “Tales of Shivaji” go into religious thoughts, Irvina Glushkova lucidly exposes the Varkari tradition. Similarly, A.R. Kulkarni’s writing on the Mahar and Eleanor Zelliot’s on Dalit movements attract attention.

Meera Kosambi’s “Life after Widowhood”, with its case studies, is bound to affect the public conscience with its elaborations on the plight of women in our society. Y. D. Phadke’s discussion of the impact of the Great Depression and World War II on agriculture and industry is worth reading. But the most informative of them all is Kim Masselos’s “Bombay Time”. The tone of this essay is somewhat different from the rest.

The essays in the book develop a link between the Hindu religion and folk beliefs, contrasting cultures and thoughts. However, they fail to take into consideration other religious beliefs and practices. Any study of the socio-cultural religious beliefs of people is bound to be incomplete if selectively studied. Shams Afif Siddiqi    


 
 
BOOK REVIEW/ OF SAVAGES, RACES, PRISONS AND TORTUR 
 
 
ARNAB BHATTACHARYYA
 
 
Island in chains: ten years on robben island
By Indres Naidoo,
Penguin, Rs 250

People of this subcontinent have long been familiar with the term “apartheid” and with the movement launched by the African National Congress to remove this scourge in South Africa. But few of us imagined that the many members of the black community there were actually even being deprived of the right to live — more specifically, the right not to be shot down in public by trigger-happy white men. Indres Naidoo’s Island in Chains comes up with a story which reflects reality inside out; a prison cell representing the larger scheme of things.

Naidoo was drawn into the vortex of South African politics in his early youth. He was a member of the ANC which waged a peaceful battle against the South African racist government. The organization was subsequently banned and Naidoo was later charged with “sabotage” and sent to Robben Island as a political prisoner to serve a ten year term. The book is a prison memoir that Naidoo wrote after his release. It was banned in South Africa for obvious reasons.

Naidoo’s book is strongly reminiscent of another classic prison memoir — Elie Wiesel’s Night, which fearlessly documented life in Nazi concentration camps. The countless similarities in these two texts suggest that fascism is, universally, one of the most brutal forces operating in human history. Be it colonialism, racism, nazism, religious fundamentalism or even Stalinist communism, fascism unfolds in multifarious forms to lend numerous meanings to human struggles.

Naidoo chronicles the process in its most intensive form at a micro level — within the prison cell. His terse prose is compelling. The horrors of his surrounding reality is underscored by the gruesome details inserted in the narrative which vivify the danse macabre of prison life in Robben Island — a place notorious for its long historical association with indiscriminate massacre of and inhuman torture inflicted on rebels.

One is left aghast by the detailed description of the mad scramble for smuggled food in which one of the prisoners gets his eye scooped out. The descriptions of torture leave the reader feeling rather ill.

Every now and then, Naidoo’s narrative reveals a strain of satire or even of humour and sometimes both. This is beautifully shown in “The People’s Flag” in which he jovially describes how the prisoners acquired the right to have handkerchiefs.

If the chief motive of fascism is to acquire and perpetuate unchangeable power, its pivotal strategy entails the annihilation of dissenting forces. The working principle of fascism rests largely on the inversion of the logic put forward by Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish, which explains the invention of prisons, in that it turns the entire nation into a prisonhouse. In this sense, Naidoo’s prison memoir is a synecdochical representation of fascism perpetrated by a racist government, making a single prison stand for the whole nation as an enormous prison cell.    


 
 
BOOK REVIEW/ BETWEEN AMBIGUITY AND IDEOLOGY 
 
 
MADHUMITA BHATTACHARYYA
 
 
Amriika
By M.G. Vassanji,
HarperCollins, Rs 295

From the Gujarat he never knew, to the Dar es Salaam he grew up in, to the America he adopted as his own, M.G. Vassanji traces the philosophical journey of Ramji, in Amriika.

A second-generation African, Ramji is a native Gujarati Muslim. He leaves his home, and his grandmother in Dar es Salaam, to pursue a bachelors’ degree at the Boston “Tech”.

His host family provides him with the safe haven he needs in order to find his feet. The adolescent Ramji comes of age when his fascination for his hostess, Ginnie, culminates in a brief affair, and leads him to shed his inhibitions.

When he first arrives in Boston, he is clear about his political allegiances. In college, the Sixties’ activists look down on Ramji for his lack of fervour. Soon, his “Gandhian” sentiment is eroded, giving way to a demonstrating, proselytizing philosophy.

But the reader is unsure of what Ramji feels most passionately about. He cannot accept the anti-imperialist idealism that depicts the third world as the exploited victim. His middle path leaves him out in the cold — “I am so far behind them in how far I can go,” he admits.

But instead of reaching a balanced, logical moderation, his philosophy is ambiguous at the best of times. His change in sentiment seems to be prompted more by lust for the more attractive revolutionaries, rather than any epiphanic moment.

Our feeling is strengthened when Ramji drifts into a Hindu cult after sleeping with one of the members, despite realizing that the guruji of the ashram is a fraud. “I wanted to get away,” Ramji explains to a friend after his disenchantment. But his stay at the ashram also leads him to the realization that he does not want “beatitude, infinite wisdom, permanent enlightenment”. He finally lands on the ground, but not with a thud. He floats back into his theorizing leftism.

For a large part of the narrative one cannot be sure whether Ramji is aware of his own confusion. He is full of contradictions — religious, ethnic and personal, yet we never feel their full force. Vassanji’s narrative is coldly detached. Ramji remains a stranger even after 300 pages. Just as he remains a stranger to America, never really belonging, yet never feeling the need to leave.

Ramji’s full potential is not explored. Similarly vacuous is the depiction of the other characters. He marries a girl from Dar es Salaam, Zuli, and has two children with her. We are told that their marriage is on the rocks.

The explanation offered is that the intimacy is gone, that he cannot be himself, that she does not approve of his ideology. We do not see any first hand evidence of this.

He finally leaves Zuli for the exotic, sensuous Rumina, who idolizes him. Her character is also sketchy, and she becomes yet another peg for her lover’s confusion. Ramji feels that his new life with Rumina is his second chance, his opportunity to rediscover who he is — a return to his philosophy. He moves to California, joins a radical Muslim magazine, and starts his life with the woman he is sure that he is in love with.

Ramji remains a wavering, undefined character. Vassanji’s verbal flatness leaves the reader uninvolved with the fate of his protagonist. The narrative is without any consuming emotion. The flashes of real confusion and frustration are clouded by the detachment with which events are depicted.

Vassanji seems more interested in establishing the evils of extremism than in giving his protagonist a stand of his own. Vassanji realizes this, saying, “his inner life had always been steeped in ambiguity and doubt. He had never belonged to any one place entirely, not stood behind a cause or a movement without reservations”.

While this lack of passion gives him “a partial immunity to betrayal and failure,” its also leaves him devoid of any real joy.    


 
 
BOOKWISE/ BINARY OF PAPER AND PIXELS 
 
 
RAVI VYASS
 
 
Dotcom has become a buzzword today. Every major publishing house has gone dotcom, with the smaller ones scrambling to fall in line. In March this year, Stephen King championed the dotcom cause when he posted his novella on the Internet and 400,000 people downloaded it within 24 hours. It was felt that electronic publishing had finally come of age.

But there is a flip side. Dotcoms are folding up faster than they came up. Sabeer Bhatia, the founder of Hotmail, which he sold to Microsoft for $ 400 million, has predicted that thousands would fall by the wayside. With Amazon.com, the largest e-mail retailer for books, on the verge of collapse, what does the future hold for dotcom publishers?

Three factors need to be considered to evaluate the impact that dotcoms are likely to have on the book trade. First, readability on the screen; second, content and presentation (that must be different from the printed form); third, costs and returns. To be fair to the dotcom lobby, all three factors are being tested for their improvement and feasibility. But there are straws in the wind.

First, although consumers like the idea of internet books that come for free nobody likes reading on the computer screen beyond, say, 500 words or so. All of us want a printout that we can feel in our hands and go back to, if and when required. Neither does one like to print out hundreds of pages and lug it around to be read at leisure. All of us want printed and bound copies rather than loose sheets of paper that can go astray. According to surveys, many downloaded King’s book just because it was a “new” thing to do.

Moreover, in cyberspace, because there is no restriction imposed on the number of words, many writers suffer from a disease called “word-i-tis”, that is, they become too verbose.

Second, how is the presentation of reviews of forthcoming books and the backlists offered on the web any different from their printed counterparts — many dotcoms put their copy on sites that look like replicas from their pages in the catalogues or publicity material. You could say catalogues/publicity material are not always readily available and therefore any information on their sites is welcome. That may well be, but the content of these sites really should be more interactive.

But the final, considerable difficulty involves the making of money. How do dotcoms propose to support themselves after the start-ups burn through their initial cash? The answer, dotcoms have felt, would lie in roping in ads and charging fees for access to their sites. Ad rates would be decided by the number of “hits”, that is, the number of times the site is visited: the higher the number of “hits”, the higher the rates. This looks fine but so far ads have been a cause for much disappointment. Even Amazon.com, which was estimated to have two million “hits” per day, got very few ads and has been driven to winding up its operations.

The venture of setting up dotcoms is often based on the hope that once the “hits” and the corresponding ad revenue start coming along, these sites can be sold off for hefty sums of money. This is an unreasonable expectation from the market.    


 
 
PAPERBACK PICKINGS /USER’S GUIDE TO THE NEW INDIAN 
 
 
 
 
Surviving women
(Penguin, Rs 200)
By Jerry Pinto
is a guide for the Confused Indian Man; “not the UP thakur in his village” or “the Kerala tribal carried home by his sister-in-law to his bride”, but the urban, middle class, straight Indian man, wending his way through a maze of women. The New Woman confronts him in the guises of lover, wife, mother, daughter and boss, and Pinto’s combination of wisdom, provocation and entertainment is delivered in a packaging that is often described as “funky”.

Rediscovering Dharavi: Stories from asia’s largest slum

(Penguin, Rs 200)
By Kalpana Sharma
is an attempt to present this complex human settlement in the heart of Mumbai through the lives of the individuals who inhabit its lanes. This is a scrupulously researched book that sustains the human focus of its subject without giving in to the tendency to sentimentalize. Sharma writes as a journalist and as somebody intensely interested in the problems of urban planning and unequal development. She documents the evolution of Dharavi from a fishing village to “this seething, compacted spread of energy, enterprise, deprivation and desperation, which epitomizes the crisis of all fast-growing Indian cities”. Sharma also explores the communal dynamics of such a settlement and the effects of events like the riots of 1992-93. Through all this she is clear that “there is nothing to celebrate about living in a cramped 150 sq.ft house with no natural light or ventilation, without running water or sanitation. No one should have to live in such conditions.”

Human Resource Management: Perspectives for the new era

(Response, Rs 265)
Edited by D.S. Saini and S.A. Khan
is a collection of essays challenging traditional personnel management, with its focus on transactions, rules and hierarchies. It examines how Indian private and public sector companies can evolve appropriate human resource policies to face the challenges of intense corporate competition and global flux. In this process, people remain the most effective agents of change.

Asylum, USA

(HarperCollins, Rs 195)
By Boman Desai
is an insufferably clever and hyper novel about a 23 year old engineering student’s quest for love, happiness and a green card. Noshir Daruwala’s life gets entangled with a chaotic pageant of predictably weird people with predictably complicated lives. These entanglements are interspersed with copious reflections on racism, beauty, truth and love. A novel full of tiresome antics by someone whose life straddles Mumbai and Chicago and who has dabbled in farming, bartending, dishwashing, cooking, secretaryship, music, bookstore clerkship, telephone operating, auditing and teaching.

Building democracy in South Asia:India, Nepal, Pakistan

(Vistaar, Rs 295)
By Maya Chadda
seeks to restore South Asia’s political experience to its proper place in the current international debate on the transition from authoritarianism to democracy. Chadda wants to establish that poverty, violence and inequality need not constrain “third wave democracy” in South Asia, although they can slow down or interrupt its consolidation. This is shown through the study of a number of specific contemporary developments and phenomena: the repeated dismissal of elected governments in Pakistan, Indian caste politics, separatism in India’s Punjab and the Northeast, the decline of the Congress, the contest over Kashmir and constitutional monarchy in Nepal. Chadda also seeks to explore the distinctive combination of democracy and market forces and the relationship between state and society in these countries

The last jungle on earth

(HarperCollins, Rs 195)
By Randhir Khare
is a fable, primarily for children, written out of a love for the “wild outdoors” and of respect for “all living creatures”. Khare uses a mixture of verse and prose to evoke the world of the Animen, the few humans who roam the earth in search of food and water, after the last Great War has ruined the planet. In this futuristic setting, the African elephant, Kenyoba, meets Hindona, a singing elephant from India, and Columbus, a giant tortoise from the Galapagos Islands. These creatures become friends, as other Aesopian creatures — greedy, crafty and diabolical and predatory — add drama and variety to their threatened world.    
 

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