Editorial/ An area of greyness
Catastrophe unbounded
The Telegraph/ diary
Letters to the editor

Something is rotten about the state of English literature. If one of the best-known English language novelists feels that its teaching should be scrapped the world over, the man is certainly being dramatic, but he is also trying to make a point. Mr V.S. Naipaul has suggested in Bangkok recently that the teaching of arts and humanities should be banned in all universities, which should only stick to the teaching of science and technology. This is obviously an extreme statement, since the reason he gives is that scientific research cannot be politicized. He cannot be oblivious of the politics that works behind scientific research, the heavy funding for defence technology or the not always publicized interests of pharmaceutical cartels. Mr Naipaul’s is a statement of dismay which has its root in his apprehension of the deadening effect that specialized academic criticism has on the writing and reading of literature.

For Mr Naipaul, education in the humanities, especially literature, has got caught in the rut of self-parody. The old style of humanities teaching opened the doors to meaning and learning. It has now evolved a jargon of its own, a list of coded signals which mark out the magic circle of history or literary criticism into which only the initiated can enter. When a specialized language obfuscates understanding, meaning turns inward upon itself. As Mr Naipaul sees it, and many would agree with him, literary criticism carries on an internal dialogue with itself, with little regard to the world of books it is supposed to illuminate.

Mr Naipaul is yearning for an earlier era when the collapse of a discernible connection between books and their criticism had not happened. The realities of the academia make such a yearning somewhat utopian. The post-industrial, post-colonial world of learning feeds on specializations, in science as in the humanities. The literary territory has to be fragmented, broken up horizontally and vertically, for the honing of specializations, the achieving of tenure and the maintenance of funding for posts. The system has its own momentum, one of the chief sources of which is purely material. The parallel world of academic publishing thrives on the same principle, pouring out more of the same and creating greater incomprehensibility. Only, this is not the end of the story. Some of the most remarkable advances in literary criticism are being made now, and stand out, as excellence always does, from the surrounding fog of mystification.

But Mr Naipaul finds a similar exclusivism in the work of modern writers. Most modern writing has lost that classical attribute of “universality”. Rooted in specific social conditions, such writing can only be meaningful for readers who belong to the writer’s world. There is a peculiar irony here. With the unprecedented expansion of the English language publishing industry, the reader of English language fiction and poetry is in search of newer stimuli. The silent regions at the corners of the globe are silent no longer, for writers from there are speaking in English to the rest of the world. The appeal of such writing lies necessarily in the special conditions of those worlds. The post-modern consciousness cannot accommodate the “universal”. Even Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare, who, according to Mr Naipaul, had created fictional universes into which everyone can enter, have to be read anew.

What Mr Naipaul is mourning is probably what he sees as an attenuation of creativity. A highly self-conscious criticism settles the niches— post-colonial, Afro-Caribbean, feminist — into which writers fit themselves and find places in academic syllabi. His nostalgia is understandable, his classical position premised on the evocation of an ideal world in which both author and literary critic appeared to speak transparently to their readers. Yet the solution he so dramatically proposes is surely not the way out. As he himself should — and surely does — know, excellence survives by riding with the times and transcending them.    

The driver of the prepaid taxi at the international arrival terminal demanded an extra fifty rupees because of the floods in North 24 Parganas. Told that Ballygunge did not lie quite that way, he switched to traffic jams because of the Lake Town puja to reiterate the demand.

That was on the second navami. The glib move from flood to puja suggested a connection that was not otherwise apparent. Friends in Bangkok and Singapore had seen pictures of the devastation, read harrowing accounts of suffering and expressed profound concern. I flew back, expecting a city plunged in gloom. Instead, Calcutta was en fête in a stupendous demonstration of unconcern. Only the media trailed the spectre of death and disaster and, that too, more by way of background to acrimony among the state’s leaders, and between them and the Centre.

Even if the chief minister did not say “I don’t want to see flood waters” — and I am prepared to believe that Jyoti Basu was misquoted — did any politician, even those who had to be rescued from marooned houses, bother to visit flood victims? If they had taken the trouble, their regal cavalcades would undoubtedly have thrown everything out of gear. After the all-party agreement on Central funds, the squabbling and politicking was disgusting and demeaning.

The public response was equally shameful. I know Durga Puja is a necessary release and that they keep the wheels of art and industry turning. But the depiction of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair as asura, an amusing enough triviality in itself, only emphasized the essential frivolity of an occasion whose frenetic shopping, gaudy lights, ear-splitting crackers, packed eateries and milling sightseers held no hint of the tragedy that engulfed so much of the state.

No self-respecting government, with a sense of moral responsibility, would have shirked the risk of unpopularity by calling for muted celebrations. Fewer pandals and less vulgar display, with the money saved directed to relief, would have demonstrated public and political concern. Another wonder, underlining the need for long-term subcontinental water management, is that calamity should strike year after year, each time taking the authorities by surprise.

The simple task of providing timely warning to evacuate people from low-lying villages to high ground is ignored. Costly earthen embankments are built for each new downpour to wash away. Since rivers are not dredged adequately, higher beds mean a quicker overspill. Dams and reservoirs are so heavily silted, and capacity so shrunk, that they might explode unless huge torrents are unleashed on an already submerged landscape. Unprecedented rain was only the last straw.

Yet, as we know from last summer’s drought in Rajasthan and Gujarat, water is desperately needed. The Worldwatch Institute warns that three billion people will face a chronic shortage by 2025. The World Bank reckons that it may cost up to $ 800 billion over the next decade to meet the demand for freshwater — only 2.5 per cent of total water reserves including glaciers and icecaps — for drinking, sanitation, irrigation and power generation.

The Aral Sea, the world’s fourth largest inland stretch of water, is drying up because of reckless Soviet exploitation. Five great Asian rivers — the Ganga and Indus, China’s Yellow, and the Amu Darya and Syr Darya in central Asia — are sluggish flows. Water tables are falling everywhere as population increases, yet surplus rain runs to waste.

Egypt and Ethiopia and Turkey and Syria have almost come to blows over water. It is one more Palestinian grievance, for a 1995 agreement recognizing their groundwater rights notwithstanding, Worldwatch points out that “on a per capita basis, Israeli settlers use about four times more water than neighbouring Palestinians, and pay about a third as much per cubic feet.”

With 22 per cent of the world’s population and only seven per cent of its freshwater, China practises what is called “zero sum game of water management”. It denies one competing area to supply another, deprives agriculture to favour industry.

South Asia can expect no respite from this cruel cycle of flood and drought until it can bring itself to take a broader long-term view of the challenge. Modest decentralized schemes in Rajasthan, Gujarat and Tirupur may be useful but only as features of a national strategy. Dusty blueprints for grand canals to link the major rivers with vast reservoirs to store flows from the annual rains and direct them to parched areas — pinned for decades to the drawing board — must, in turn, be integrated with a regional master plan.

A small well in the Rajasthan desert that no one has been allowed to use since the 1965 war because it straddles the border between India and Pakistan symbolizes the extent of interdependence. Stricken villagers pleaded with New Delhi in May to persuade Pervez Musharraf to revive the well. Perhaps they also hoped that this small but momentous step could direct both governments to think of constructive cooperation.

It is not fashionable to cite fallen military rulers, but Bangladesh’s former president, Ghulam Mohammed Ershad, mooted just such cooperation. He wrung a promise from Rajiv Gandhi in 1985 to involve Nepal in tripartite flood and drought control measures, and said the next step should be to invite Beijing’s participation. Ershad’s justification was that the Brahmaputra, which causes considerable havoc in Arunachal Pradesh, Assam and Bangladesh, rises in Tibet where it is called the Tsang-po. Not surprisingly, nothing came of his initiative. Dhaka’s motives were suspect, and Nepalese involvement anathema to South Block.

Actually, India made a bilateral beginning as long ago as 1960 with a farsighted treaty to right a flawed legacy of independence. For, the network of canals that drew on the Indus and its tributaries to irrigate Punjab went to Pakistan in 1947 while the headwork remained in India. With World Bank approval, Jawaharlal Nehru not only agreed to share the Indus waters with Pakistan but also gave it 64 million pounds as compensation.

Sternly ordering critics of his generosity not to behave “like petty attorneys”, Nehru hailed the treaty as a symbol of cooperation from which both sides would derive significant psychological and emotional benefits. Indira Gandhi was similarly magnanimous with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in 1972, finalizing another agreement to realize what she called “the exciting prospects of harnessing the waters of the Brahmaputra, the Meghna and the Ganga to the benefit of the peoples” of the entire region.

Asim Dasgupta’s formula to guarantee the Hooghly’s draught without denying Bangladesh the water it also needs made the December 1996 treaty possible. It prompted an exultant Hasina Wazed to declare, “From trade and commerce to joint venture initiatives, to collective harnessing of common resources, windows of opportunities are waiting to be opened”.

But shades of Nehru’s “petty attorneys”, some Indians complain that sandbars have formed in the Hooghly as a result, and blame the treaty for the current floods. The additional charge is that Bangladesh does not draw on its own 132 rivers, tap unlimited groundwater supplies, or exploit the Brahmaputra through a barrage and gravity link canal. Bangladeshis accuse India of obstructing the 52 rivers that flow from this country into theirs. The latest charge is that while the barbed wire fence that India erected to check illegal migration does not impede the flow of floodwater, it catches the rotting corpses of humans and animals that are polluting Bangladesh’s inundated fields.

With the waters receding, both sides must grapple with gastroenteritis, diarrhoea, cholera and other diseases. The grim message is that catastrophe respects no frontiers.

Of course, there are enormous political, military and financial obstacles to concrete multilateral steps to cope with this ultimate geographical reality. But after the callous exhibition that West Bengal made of itself over the pujas, I wonder whether even the will exists to come to grips with a task that affects the survival of over a billion people.    


Left fighting alone

To be or not to be with him. That is the billion rupee question the Congress is desperately trying to find an answer to. The horns of the dilemma were not so pointed when Bofors hit the news stands. With an insider like PV Narasimha Rao, the prodding seems to be getting really painful. While Congress veterans like Pranab Mukherjee, Jitendra Prasada, Kapil Sibal and Manmohan Singh believe it is unfair not to hold out a helping hand to a man who, as Congress prime minister, was only trying to save a Congress government, Congresswallahs like Arjun Singh, Vincent George and others favour a hands off policy. For the latter are convinced it was not exactly the party Rao had in mind, but the chair, when he sought the bail out in Parliament. The pro-Rao lobby still hopes that the good Christian in Sonia Gandhi will prevail. The trouble is spoilsports are not restricted to the Congress. A vindictive LK Advani, harassed in the hawala scandal during Rao’s regime, seemingly spoilt chances of the pout’s disappearance. Helpful suggestions from our prime minister on the wheelchair that Rao admit his guilt and then go for an exoneration by presidential decree were turned down by Advani who wants the punishment for corruption to be exemplary. Not that the suggestion appealed to Rao either. But at least that was one hope for the marooned.

From the smell of it

PV Narasimha Rao is not the only subject of conversation at 24, Akbar Road. The other thing that has captured the Congressi imagination is a toilet which is attached to the tiny office of the AICC treasurer, Motilal Vora, adjacent to the Congress committee’s media conference hall where party spokespersons interact with the media at four in the afternoon. Vora’s loo projects right into the hall and worse, till recently, had the pictures of three stalwarts — Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Sardar Vallabbhai Patel and Lal Bahadur Shastri — dangling right on top of it. A photograph of even the father of the nation adorned the wall of the bathroom for a while. Only Sonia Gandhi smiled from the other side. A Hindi daily pointed out the blasphemy. A special meeting was quickly called, a spot inspection undertaken by a two member committee comprising Anil Shastri and Anand Sharma and the photographs removed. Now all the Congress legends and the to-be legend look down on scribes from the other wall. The toilet nevertheless remains where it is and the media, obviously low on the party’s priority list, is left to sniff at what could beat the emanations from a municipal loo hollow any day.

Spoiling the party

There are people more distraught than the lady herself over the judgment on the Tansi land deal case. The conviction of the star guest, J Jayalalitha, has brought in clouds from everywhere over the celebrations in the Jama Masjid where son Ahmad Bukhari is scheduled to take over as Shahi Imam from Syed Abdullah. After the court’s verdict landed the first blow, the Delhi waqf board landed the second by moving the court and dubbing the celebrations as “illegal”. The board claims that it was not consulted on the succession issue. The imam’s contempt for the board after all has been made known on other occasions. The senior Imam Bukhari reportedly had personally called Jayalalitha around 10 days ago for the celebrations. Invitations were also sent to Mamata Banerjee, Sonia Gandhi, HD Deve Gowda and representatives of 40 odd Muslim countries and heads of Islamic theological schools all over the country. The balloons have burst. Is the party still on?

Record making performance

Maybe not the Guinness book of world records, but closer home, the desi Limca book of records might enter this rare feat in its pages. Union home minister, LK Advani, gave nine television interviews uninterrupted from 9.30 am to 4.30 pm to various private networks on last Thursday. Advani apparently was working fulltime on behalf of the prime minister, AB Vajpayee, recovering in the Breach Candy Hospital. This was to mark the completion of the first year of NDA rule and therefore has its own dynamic importance. The fact that Advani took the occasion to settle some old scores is however a different matter altogether. The one who got the brunt of the interviews was the foreign minister, Jaswant Singh. Advani talked about last year, about how wrong Jaswant was to carry a terrorist in his aircraft to Kandahar to secure the release of the hostages of flight IC-814. Pray, what was Advani doing when this grievous error took place? Sitting pretty at home?

Footnote/ Whenever you see colour think of us

The Gandhi cap no longer symbolizes Indian politics, nor does the whiteness of pyjama-kurtas. Politicians believe in adding a lot more colour to the drab life of countrymen. That is probably why Pramod Mahajan, post-Washington, has suddenly developed a fondness for suits, ties and safari-suits. Smart, modern, business-like — clothes have to go with the image of the information technology minister. Come the winter session of Parliament, tastes might change again to starched whiteness. Another minister sold to Western clothes and a taste for good clothes is Arun Jaitley, the minister for law, justice and company affairs. The riot of colours extends to the opposition as well. Congressman Salman Khurshid for example is known for his flowery silk shirts in bright yellow and red combinations. Salman stretches his political correctness to his choice of clothes as well. When someone pointed to his jazzy silk shirt and asked bluntly why he was against ageing gracefully, he said rather sheepishly, “Oh, these are Mandela shirts”. One didn’t hear Mandela being apologetic about his taste for life and colour.    


Dance to her tune

Sir — Minister for surprises. That is the epithet that should accompany the name of Mamata Banerjee. Shortly after dropping an unexpected bomb on the National Democratic Alliance government, she withdrew her resignation with equal haste. And then on her way to New Delhi, she stupefied her audience at a puja pandal by breaking into a song without any prompting (“Mamata sings back to work”, Oct 11). Banerjee obviously takes her audience for granted, be it her political allies or the unsuspecting public. She has also proved herself to be extremely fickle, resigning times without number at the drop of a hat. People who vote for her probably need to think seriously about both her sanity and seriousness.
Yours faithfully,
J. Mitra, Calcutta

Egg on their faces

Sir — The news report, “25 lakh broiler eggs destroyed” (Sept 19) exposes the cruel and ugly face of a would-be capitalist economy. This act, committed by the Broiler Coordination Committee in Coimbatore, to create a proportionate demand-supply ratio, is merely the tip of an iceberg.

The destruction of an important food item like eggs in a developing country like India is an act that blatantly defies the basic postulates of the socialist mode of production. The perpetrators of the act must be made to answer for their inhuman destruction of the nutritious food. If the eggs, instead of being destroyed, were distributed among the poorest people, they would have at least had the chance to taste eggs.

The exponents of the market mechanism are only after profit, even if it has to come at the cost of starving its people. Recently, Bangladesh has been declared a self-sufficient food producing country though nearly three crore Bangla-deshis go without food. In Afro-Asian countries, one-third of the children between the ages of four and six go to bed hungry. Blindness and malnutrition are two of the commonest dangers among India’s population living below the poverty line — and we are told that India attained self-sufficiency in food production in the early Seventies.

Because of enormous advances in biotechnology and genetic engineering, there has been a quantum leap in food production all over the world, but the effects have not reached the lowest strata of society. In this respect, the best discoveries of science can be said to have turned into instruments for furthering the cause of market economy. The result has been an unrestricted exploitation of the poor millions by those who look down upon the socialist economic system.

Would they be able to justify the daily reality of starvation in Kalahandi, Bolangir or Koraput?

Yours faithfully,
Santanu Basu, Malda

Sir — The destruction of 25 lakh eggs in a developing country like India is both amazing and thought-provoking. The mismatch between demand and supply is a typical symptom of failure of management, which, in this case, caused the mass destruction of eggs. The incident gives rise to several questions.

First, couldn’t the demand-supply ratio be corrected by enhancing the current volume of export in eggs? Second, why were the eggs not used for more charitable purposes? Third, is there no law to prevent a producer from destroying his own produce, just as there are laws against suicides?

Given the grave nature of the incident, there should have been greater coverage by the media, and agitation by activists. For, such destruction can only bode ill for a developing economy.

Yours faithfully,
K.L. Gupta, Calcutta

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