Editorial/ Waiting for godot
The triumphs of Lucky Jim
The Telegraph/ Diary
Letters to the Editor

 
 
EDITORIAL/ WAITING FOR GODOT 
 
 
 
 
Drama has become an inextricable part of Indian political life. Some politicians enact it better than others. Ms Mamata Banerjee, amongst others, excels in it. Her decision to resign from the Union cabinet and to pull out of the National Democratic Alliance as a protest against the rise in fuel prices was a piece of calculated histrionics. The day she resigned she had set a deadline for the rollback of the price hike; a failure to meet the deadline would result in the withdrawal of support from the NDA. The deadline expired but Ms Banerjee remains in the NDA and in the Union cabinet. She has, in fact, rolled back her decision to resign on the basis of an assurance from the prime minister, Mr Atal Behari Vajpayee, that he would have a fresh look at the issue after he returns from Mumbai. Ms Banerjee’s supporters consider this a “partial victory’’ for her. Mr Vajpayee’s supporters, may in their turn, see in the outcome a win for Mr Vajpayee since he succeeded in retaining Ms Banerjee’s support. The truth of the matter is that there are no victors. Both sides agreed to temporize. Mr Vajpayee has for the time being averted a crisis in the NDA; and Ms Banerjee has postponed her decision to leave the NDA.

Both leaders are bandying half truths. Mr Vajpayee knows only too well the consequences of a review and alteration of the decision to raise petroleum prices. It will be seen as a sign of his weakness; it will be read, by his critics, as a capitulation to political blackmail; and most importantly it will bring down the curtain on economic reforms. Ms Banerjee also knows that if she has to maximize her position in West Bengal, she has to distance herself from the Bharatiya Janata Party. She cannot do this as long as she remains within the NDA. For her, the timing and the issue of her withdrawal are important. But there is a downside to her exit from the NDA. She is dependent on the Centre for an election free of the strong arm tactics for which the Communist Party of India (Marxist) is notorious. She is thus on a political razor’s edge. Her position has been somewhat weakened because she played her only ace first. Moreover, the momentum which her agitational politics had gathered has been thwarted by the floods in West Bengal. She has not enhanced her public standing and credibility by announcing that the floods were a part of a Left Front conspiracy. To win back the initiative she needs time which she has got by way of an assurance from Mr Vajpayee. The worst is yet to be. What neither party is acknowledging are the circumstances under which the fuel prices were hiked. It was dictated by a rise in the price of oil in the international markets. Over this India had no control. The government of India had very few options before it. Politicians like Ms Banerjee, who are wedded to populism, obviously believe that the state should bear the brunt of this increase by continuing to subsidize petrol, diesel, kerosene and liquid petroleum gas. What this kind of myopia fails to see is that subsidies are only apparently pro-people as subsidies result in large fiscal deficits which have to be met one way or the other. But these are not factors that a politician like Ms Banerjee takes into account. She wants to appear to be pro-people. She is not alone. From Indira Gandhi there have been a long line of Indian political leaders who struck similar postures. Mr Vajpayee too is of the same mould. But economic compulsions have forced him to abandon his natural populist garb. Apart from political reasons — the need to keep the NDA together — Ms Banerjee may find a positive response from the prime minister because she has spoken to his populist heart. The chief victim of populism is economic reforms. A clean chit on the health test will bring before Mr Vajpayee a test of a different kind. Ms Banerjee may not mind the wait.    


 
 
THE TRIUMPHS OF LUCKY JIM 
 
 
BY MUKUL KESAVAN
 
 
Martin Amis has written a memoir called Experience which should be interesting, not because he is a particularly good writer (he isn’t), but for his memories of his father, Kingsley. Kingsley Amis, the English novelist who died five years ago, was an original writer who got no credit for breaking new fictional ground.The fault was partly his own. Rightwing politics, literary misogyny, a Garrick Club manner and a lifelong distaste for the modernist avant-garde, left him pigeonholed as a skilful writer of conventional social comedy. But he was more than that.

The critics who liked his books did him no favours. They went on about his perfect ear, by which they meant that he was wonderful with dialogue. Well he was, but that isn’t the point. Tom Wolfe is strenuously committed to getting accents right, so committed that he spells them out but he’s still a dreadful novelist. The remarkable thing about Amis was that speech, thought (the stuff outside inverted commas that goes on inside the heads of fictional characters) and narrative (the story in which the characters think and speak) were all written in the same tone. This is hard to do at all and nearly impossible to do well but in his best novels, Amis did it unfalteringly, from first page to last.

What normally happens in fiction is that speech and thought are often colloquially rendered. This licence sometimes extends to interior monologue and thought. But the external world, the action of the novel outside speech and thought, is more formally described. Individual consciousness is, by definition, subjective. It can be plausibly represented in informal, idiosyncratic prose. The external world, because it is generally assigned an objective reality outside of individual consciousness, is often more impersonally, more formally, described.

This is a convention that has been variously challenged, most notably by writers who sidestepped it by assimilating the world-out-there into the consciousness of their protagonists. The problem with this is that extreme subjectivity for the length of a large novel without a foothold in the world-out-there, makes readers dizzy. But you can see why Joyce tried because see-sawing between the colloquial and the formal, between the hectic accents of consciousness and the distancing rhythms of formal, descriptive prose, becomes mechanical and boring. An extreme example of this is the work of Saul Bellow who lurches from Chicago argot to Mandarin prose each time the inverted commas come off. Salinger tried to solve the problem in Catcher in the Rye by writing a first person narrative in continuous adolescent speech and produced a successful book for adolescents. With Lucky Jim, his first novel, Amis found an adult solution. Jim Dixon, a lecturer in history in a provincial college, is hoping to be confirmed in his job, but everything and everyone around him conspires to thwart this modest ambition. Dixon’s world is never simply a setting for action: it is a random, arbitrary, often malevolent place where inanimate objects (cigarettes, bedclothes, buses, telephones) are as likely to trip you up as other humans. We see this world through Dixon, through his earnest attempts to improvise defences against a randomly hostile world. Amis’s heroes in Lucky Jim, The Anti-Death League, Ending Up, don’t subscribe to Fate, Destiny, Chance or Luck: they hold their world personally responsible for their troubles. That’s why Amis at his best could write so wonderfully, in such long takes without cuts or intervals for impersonal, descriptive prose. Literal minded writers zoom in for emotion and zoom out for perspective. Amis didn’t believe in perspective; all life was lived in mid-shot because there was chaos at the edges of the frame. Being English and not being suicidal, he made laughter out of this absurdness, not despair. Critics, trained to sniff out originality in dislocated syntax and self-reflexive posturing, can’t reasonably be expected to respond to originality in tone. But generations of readers will discover Amis for themselves and recognize through tears of laughter a voice unlike any they have encountered before.

Amis wasn’t just an original writer — he was important as an exemplary reader too, as an intelligent Philistine. He was exemplary because he trusted his reactions to a book or a poem and found persuasive reasons for them. This is very different from the procedures of the professional critic. The critic’s job is to put a novel or a play or a poem into a theoretical context. Thus a critic reads Finnegan’s Wake as a stopping place in that meta-literary journey called modernism. You can’t really turn to him and say, “Didn’t you like that bit...”, because sudden pleasure or disappointment have long since been sacrificed at the altar of critical distance. Amis said of Henry James that “...he chewed on more than he bit off.” This has to be the definitive critical comment on James’s long-windedness and yet no professional critic could have written it because its terms can’t be generalized. The critic would have to legislate the ideal bite-to-chew ratio and then measure deviations from it. I once read a book called The Western Canon by Harold Bloom, a very fat book, which is based on two bizarre premises: one, that Shakespeare centres the Western canon (whatever that means) and two, that all writers after Shakespeare, from Goethe to Freud spent their writing lives trying to dodge his overwhelming influence. Reading it, you realize why critics are so influential: they’ve read so many more books than you have and then they’ve read so many books about those books. But The Western Canon also makes you wonder if critics read at all — or whether in fact, critical reading isn’t akin to anthropological field work, where books are simply native informants, preliminary sources for the important business of theory making. For Amis (or anyone who doesn’t read for a living) reading imaginative writing is a personal business. Personal because fiction (or poetry) doesn’t deal in things that are demonstrably right or wrong, true or false. Most of us, after finishing a novel, can tell whether we liked it or not: it’s harder to say why. Not because we’re inarticulate but because good novels affect us in complex, subliminal ways that aren’t easy to name.

Amis was not a critic. He wrote about other people’s books for two related reasons. One, to puncture reputations that he thought were absurdly inflated by critical reverence and two, to justify his enthusiasm for writers who were out of fashion. So he laid into D.H. Lawrence, Henry James and Ezra Pound and waved the flag for Tennyson, Kipling and Robert Graves. His literary essays were a kind of defensive polemic light years removed from the systematic knowingness of critical theory. I discovered Lucky Jim in my first year in college. In the course of trying to read every book with Amis’s name on its spine, I found his book of essays and opinions, Whatever Happened to Jane Austen and Other Essays. It was liberating in a way that 25 years later is hard to explain. Coming from an undergraduate world where sombre, unlovely people, read sombre unreadable books by Sartre and Camus, it was wonderful to know that it was okay to hate them. That a published, celebrated writer liked Tennyson and loathed Wordsworth was a revelation. It was particularly reassuring then, because the previous year I had struggled through Wordsworth’s “Ode on Intimations of Immortality” for the school-leaving exams, trying not to dissolve into a puddle of hysterical laughter at the thought of farting babies trailing little clouds of glory behind them. Amis saved me and many others from becoming deferential, dutiful readers. That a writer was critically important was of no consequence. Importance didn’t matter: Excitement did.    


 
 
THE TELEGRAPH/ DIARY 
 
 
 
 

Brush with the commons

It is not often that prime ministers take their security guards by surprise. But AB Vajpayee managed to do just that recently. He simply could not wriggle out of visiting his dentist, who had asked that the PM come to his clinic located in a busy market in the heart of New Delhi. Anxious not to cause ordinary people unnecessary inconvenience, Vajpayee told his aide that he would go to the clinic only on condition that the SPG was not told in advance about it. So when the prime minister got into his car in evening to go to Khan Market, the SPG was in a complete tizzy. The men had neither sanitized the neighbourhood of the clinic nor had they informed the local police so that the PM’s route could be free of traffic.

Vajpayee was unperturbed. He was determined to go to his dentist without causing a great fuss. He took off for Khan Market with a carful of SPG men in tow. And for the first time after becoming prime minister, he experienced what it was like to be stuck in peak hour traffic in and around Khan Market. The PM was none the worse for his unusual adventure, but he did lose about half and hour as his car wove in and out of the traffic.

No entry where unwanted

Talking of traffic management, we didn’t quite realize it had the potential of becoming somebody’s passion. It seems to have become one with West Bengal’s finance minister, Asim Dasgupta, who has, scores of times, found it difficult to restrain himself from playing the traffic policeman on clogged roads. He was at it again recently when, much against the wishes of state transport minister Subhas Chakraborty, Dasgupta decided on his own to take over traffic management near some puja pandals in north Calcutta.Senior police officials who protested against Dasgupta’s participation were brushed aside. Rumours in the corridors of the Writers’ have it that Asim is proving to be autocratic not merely where traffic matters are concerned. Bureaucrats and cabinet colleagues also resent the way he regularly pokes his nose into other departmental matters. Two years ago, the state irrigation minister, Debabrata Bandopadhyay, had decided to stage a dharna to protest against Asim’s decision not to disburse funds for the repair of embankments. A year ago, PWD minister Kshiti Goswami had also complained to Jyoti Basu about Dasgupta’s interference in the allotment of funds for road repair. Officials feel Asim’s closeness to Basu and his deputy, Buddhadev Bhattacharya, is what emboldens him. Aren’t they being harsh on a rather passionate minister?

Star on the prowl

Not exactly a world turned upside down, but a bit lopsided no doubt. Instead of Bollywood stars cutting ribbons we now have politicians attending inaugurations of Bollywood enterprises. When Kajol and hubby Ajay Devgan recently launched a dotcom company, political bigwigs like Arun Jaitley, Pramod Mahajan and Amar Singh were found wallowing in stardust. Singh, as is his wont, tried to show off his Bollywood connections by hugging Devgan in full media glare. Kajol spoilt the show when she was found whispering to Devgan, wanting to know who the fatso falling all over him was. Devgan sheepishly answered her. Kajol was unimpressed, “Amar Singh who?” Perhaps Kajol hasn’t seen Hamara Dil Apke Paas Hai. Our politician’s brief — lasting barely a minute — but impressive performance could win him a national award any day. Devgan should thank his stars Amar isn’t in films.

Are they all the king’s men?

Is Arjun Singh up to something then? While the Congress organizational polls are on, everyone seems to think that Arjun Singh has been pulling strings and planting his favourite men from the erstwhile Congress(T) in key positions. No, says Ram Niwas Mirdha, chairman of AICC’s central election panel, Arjun Singh never interferes in matters such as the appointment of returning officers and so on. It is rather the maharaja of Gwalior, Madhavrao Scindia, who seems to have a major say in the picking of DROs and PROs. Scindia got his men in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. Even Salman Khurshid’s successor, Sri Prakash Jaiswal, is his nominee.

Quite sure and confident

Now that ek do teen girl Madhuri Dixit, and not Rekha, is all set to anchor Zee’s version of KBC, the big B is breathing a sigh of relief. He had a close shave when KBC wanted to name the “lifeline” segment as “jeevan rekha”. That would have snapped his lifeline.

Footnote/Good times, may get better

p>It seems suddenly festival time for the moribund Congress. Never mind the party’s dismal performance in Uttar Pradesh. It has managed to put quite a number of other feathers in its cap. The Congress won in the Dausa parliamentary seat in Rajasthan with a respectable margin, and did better than expected in the Gujarat and Kerala local body elections. Congressmen are not only looking cheerful, they are also talking — when don’t they? — about the party being on a comeback trail. But their reasoning is always weird. In public almost all the leaders swear by Sonia Gandhi and attribute the victories to her flawless leadership. Just like true Congressmen. But off the record, Congressmen find the birth of Priyanka’s boy, Rehan Rajiv Vadra Gandhi, the cause of the miracle. “His birth is a good omen. He has brought luck to his didima and to the Congress as well. The Congress is now well on the comeback trail,” Ajit Jogi supposedly said. Do politicians get more superstitious as they go up the ladder? All sympathies for the Congress mascot. Couldn’t be fun carrying the fortunes of a 115 year old party on four week old shoulders.    

 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

Thorn in the diplomatic bouquet

Sir — India’s diplomatic relations are getting increasingly pressured by the relationship of other countries with Pakistan. First, it was the long suspense before Bill Clinton finally announced his decision to visit Pakistan during his trip to the subcontinent. In spite of bureaucratic and ministerial efforts to hide it, it was clear that India felt let down. Now, much speculation has cropped up following the Pakistan visit of Vladimir Putin’s special envoy, Sergei Yastershembsky, almost on the eve of Putin’s visit to India. But truth must be faced: in the present global order, no country can be ignored, not even as a show of loyalty to another. So the fine art of lobbying must be perfected for better results.
Yours faithfully,
Mihir K. Mitra, Calcutta

Pay more, see less

Sir — It is impossible to watch Doordarshan any more. Most of the films and serials shown on Doordarshan contain a noticeable amount of sex and violence. And the raw deal has been handed out to sports lovers.Of course, DD has launched an exclusive sports channel, but this is accessible to only those who have a cable connection. The majority of the people in the country are being deprived in this manner. Besides, this sports channel is a “pay” channel. By broadcasting the Olympic games live only on this channel, DD has acted unfairly.

Apart from an entertainment value, sports can have a deep meaning for the individual. Youngsters should be given the opportunity to watch more and more sporting events on television instead of the other inane programmes.

On the other hand, quite apart any moral concerns, people should be exposed to the ethos of sports and physical fitness. When the country’s sporting infrastructure and policies are such that most people are disillusioned, the least that can be done is to allow an exposure to sports.

Yours faithfully,
Kajal Chatterjee, Dhanbad

Sir — It appears that Doordarshan Kendra, Calcutta, is determined to reduce the viewership of the new Bengali channels. Most of the Bengali serials are boring and very badly made. There are usually innumerable episodes that drag on for months. Each new episode seems to bring in a new twist to the story and this results in a situation where no one really knows what the story was originally about. Recapitulations of the last episode take up a considerable amount of time. Many serials are also abruptly terminated and no explanation is provided by Doordarshan as to why the serial was stopped. Some examples of such programmes are Satyajiter Galpo, Roopkatha and so on. Also, the timings are not properly maintained. For instance, Khas Khabor, the Bengali “News” are programmes aired at all sorts of hours. This is really very strange. Even the revised timings that are announced once in a while are not followed by Doordarshan.

Yours faithfully,
B. Sarkar, Calcutta

Sir — The recent discussion about banning the broadcast of Fashion TV on grounds of obscenity is infuriating . Indian television viewers are treated like children. This is the sort of thing that leads people to become self-conscious and curious about sex and, in turn, abets crimes related to sex. If censorship were to be a serious pursuit for the administration, then the films that are released nowadays should all be banned. They are more vulgar than all the television channels combined.

Yours faithfully,
Prasenjit Sanyal, Calcutta

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