Editorial 1/ Of human bondage
Editorial 2/ Against hate
Two men, one party
Fifth Column/ Coming of the second state
Book Review/ Tall shadow
Book Review/ The master as they saw him
Book Review/ Close to the madding crowd
Book Review/ Flights of fancy leading nowhere
Editor's Choice/ Leading the great game on sand
Letters to the editor

 
 
EDITORIAL 1/ OF HUMAN BONDAGE 
 
 
 
 
The controversy over the Narmada dam, if one cuts out the emotional baggage, is not about water and displacement. It is in a very profound way about development. It is axiomatic that any development entails displacement of some sort. Development can only proceed through the harnessing of and utilizing nature. At another level, development affects human beings, some for the better, some for the worse. But there can be no development without some sort of dislocation of the natural state of things. This situation warrants the conclusion that the environment or ecology is the limit of the modernizing project of which the idea of development is a subset. Yet without development — defined as the exploitation of nature for human use — the world would regress to the stage in which human beings were only hunters and gatherers. Human enterprise, inspired by Prometheus who stole fire from the gods for human use, has always been engaged in the use of nature for human welfare. It is part of the human condition that men have to make a choice between nature and development and its attendant consequences.

Building dams, to use the power of rivers to generate electricity and to irrigate land, is one feature of development. Dams were considered to be a solution for problems relating to water management and electricity. India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru famously described the first clutch of dams that came up in the early Fifties as “the temples of modern India”. There is a school of opinion which believes that dams did not deliver the dividends that were expected of them. Another opinion holds that dams deliver short term fruits but in the long term damage the quality of the soil. It is significant that those who are opposed to the Narmada dam have not raised fundamental questions about dams and their usefulness. Their objections centre around the height of the dam and the extent of rehabilitation that will be provided for those who will be thrown off the land and thereby lose their livelihood. In other words, it could be said without being unfair to Ms Medha Patkar and those who rally with her that they would withdraw their protest if the dam was to be scaled down and adequate compensation provided to those affected.

There is one other aspect to be considered. Those opposed to the dam took the matter to the courts. The judgement has now gone against them. Ms Patkar, after first having reposed her faith in the rule of law, has now declared that “the court is bound by laws but people are bound by the laws of earning their livelihood.” This is carrying banality too far. Of course, the courts are bound by law and that is the only thing that they should be bound by. The Supreme Court has refused to be moved by those who claim to be the conscience of the people. Ms Patkar cannot be unaware of the dangers inherent in the gospel she is now preaching. Even the laws of earning a livelihood cannot be placed outside the pale of the rule of law. Ms Patkar cannot first uphold the rule of law and then deny it when it works against her. This is a display of double standards which is not expected from a person of Ms Patkar’s integrity. If she believes herself to be a part of civil society she should accept the verdict of the Supreme Court and look for other causes to uphold.    


 
 
EDITORIAL 2/ AGAINST HATE 
 
 
 
 
Another campaign against torture. This time proposed by Amnesty International, it is a proactive and clearly defined programme, delineating 12 “simple” steps to end torture. Given that the proposer is Amnesty International, the focus is on torture by the state. The study on which the proposal is based has identified common criminals and criminal suspects as the most numerous among victims of torture. Connected to this is the ill-treatment meted out to political prisoners in 70 countries, torture of non-violent demonstrators in 60 countries, the ill-treatment by state officials of migrant labourers, immigrants and asylum-seekers. Besides, the study has also noted the link between racism and torture. Nothing in this is very new. What is new, however, is that Amnesty International has made a special point of mentioning women and children, and has said that the campaign against torture will look into homes and communities where the helpless are most often made victims.

In India, the impact of such a programme could be significant, because the programme, by including the home and community, could be made to work against day to day violence. To take steps against torture by state officials of identifiable groups of victims is a comparatively simple matter. True, to make it work, there has to be a convergence of pressure from human rights groups and political will. But the spiralling increase in day to day violence is a far tougher phenomenon. The failure of the active human rights groups and women’s organizations in the country to check its growth is an index of this. Torture is a definable form of violence, but the exquisite cruelty of human beings creates a blurring of margins. Any effort in reducing violence is, of course, welcome. Amnesty International’s plan to coordinate the programme with community groups, women’s organizations, human rights activists, religious groups and trade unions is a pragmatic one. But it should be noted that the so-called simple steps may not appear so simple on the ground. They include condemning torture and ensuring protection, investigating the episode and doing justice. What is being assumed is a consensual will. The whole point about torture is that it is disruptive and often consensual among those who inflict it. Amnesty International’s initiative can only become meaningful if its idealism is translated into determined ground fighting by its executors.    


 
 
TWO MEN, ONE PARTY 
 
 
BY MAHESH RANGARAJAN
 
 
There is a new hint of steel in the Union home minister, L.K. Advani, as the government at the Centre enters its second year. Only a few weeks ago, at the Nagpur conference of the party, a new line of moderation had seemed in the ascendant. The doubters were silenced and the prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, was firmly in command. Now we seem on the brink of new uncertainties. To be fair, they relate to more serious political and economic changes that lie ahead. But it is clear that the polity as a whole will be affected by any shift of power equations in the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Seldom have two individuals had as long and eventful a political partnership as the two men at the helm of the saffron party. For decades, they have complemented each other, the one with a mellow, moderate image and the other with a reputation for telling it like it is. Their membership of the parent organization goes back many years: Vajpayee joined before the outbreak of the World War II, Advani in the year of the “Quit India” movement of 1942.

Few analysts go further. Both men have a lineage of service to the sangh parivar in the former princely states. But the prime minister cut his political teeth in two cities: Lucknow, with its rich composite culture and the kingdom of Gwalior, neither ever a hotbed of communal tension. But Advani was a Sindhi victim of Partition, whose assignment lay in Alwar, a rare north Indian state marked by vigorous ethnic cleansing. So far-reaching was the process that even V.P. Menon condemned it. It was here, in the highly charged climate of Alwar, that Advani began his slow ascent to the top. The difference is not in ideology but in the approach to specific issues. Perhaps it reflects a critical period in their formative years, before they formed the now famous partnership.

It may explain why the veteran communist could address Vajpayee with the words, “My dear Atal”, in an open letter in 1979. Such an epithet would be unthinkable for any other member of his party. In its search for a place in the polity, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh had to go beyond the charmed circle of the Maharashtrian Brahmins who had formed and led it through long years. It is perhaps no mere coincidence then that the two most significant figures it has put on the national stage should embody two very different ways of furthering its ideology. One builds on the bitterness of the Forties on both sides of the border, the other underplays it. Neither may differ on the fundamentals, but their paths to the goal are different.

As long as the Jana Sangh was a minor player in Indian politics, much of this did not matter. Both served in the first non-Congress regime under Morarji Desai. There the differences begin to emerge in the public eye. True, they are more to do with style, but they also have some relation to substance. The external affairs portfolio brought out the pragmatist in Vajpayee, with a strong emphasis on the basic continuity in foreign policy. Defending what had seemed abhorrent to him while on the opposition benches was not a problem. Advani soon ran into heavy weather earning brickbats for “packing” the state-owned media with saffron fellow travellers. The break-up of the Janata Party was as much about jobs for the boys as about differences in ideology.

When they launched the BJP in the summer of 1980, it was clear whose line took precedence. Having been in a loose coalition, the sangh now wanted to be free of the encumbrance of the socialists who would question its own sway. But the focus lay on stepping into the Congress’s shoes. Even when the latter appropriated the saffron card, Vajpayee held back.

Once the drift set in, the parent body switched to supporting the Congress tricolour. In turn, it was hailed as a “nationalist organization” by the general secretary of the Congress, Shrikant Verma. By the end of the Eighties, that phase was over and the BJP went on to the streets with the Ram Mandir issue. Congress-like postures gave way to khaki uninterrupted.

Succeed all this did and beyond all expectation. The soft-spoken former editor matured into a demagogue overnight. On his return to Ayodhya following his release from confinement in Bihar in late 1990, he was introduced to the audience as “India’s future prime minister”. But that was not to be. Like a genie out of a box, P.V. Narasimha Rao got the hawala cases registered. A perceptive reporter present at one of the first public rallies in support of Advani made a striking observation. He was still in charge, but the body language had changed. The former foreign minister was back at the helm of things.

In a sense, this has also reflected the electoral dilemmas of the party. To go that last and final step, it needed, to use the mukhota or mask. Much time, effort and energy have been expended on finding out how true a believer the man is. But this misses a deeper point. Namely, that to rule India, there is no alternative to the politics of accommodation. If one wanted to sound mathematically proficient, we could argue that the lowest common multiple is what can hold a government or for that matter, the country together. Nothing else works.

Each of three Vajpayee governments has been a coalition. Sushma Swaraj once called the United Front a twelve-headed monster. The only way to replace it for the saffron party was to cobble together an apple cart of its own.

It is not clear where that leaves the Union home minister. At one level, that of the slow saffronization of society in general, the media and the middle classes make it easier for the country to come to terms with him. The central ground of politics has indeed shifted. But the inescapable problem is that the very features that make an Advani-like figure so attractive to his party make him a liability for its allies. He prefers “the hard state” in a society known for its fluidity and its openness. No wonder he tries so hard to square the circle, by emphasizing how governance precedes ideology. No wonder that the same home minister who expresses disquiet about the Kandahar hostages deal is silent on the sight of his home secretary posing with masked militants of the Hizbul Mujahedin.

There is a second related issue, which springs directly from his oft-made observation that the BJP is now “a natural party of power”. Anyone would agree that the road to economic reform is littered with difficult, unpopular decisions that will pinch the purse before they spread the wealth around, if at all. Through its dizzying ascent in the Nineties, the party was out of power most of the time. Whenever in power for a full term, it has failed to reconcile the gap between the imperative for market-friendly reform and the need to generate fresh welfare schemes for its own survival. Even its recent setbacks in the Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat local polls are a reflection of this fact.

There is little doubt the sangh is seriously exploring the option of reviving the line of explicit Hindutva. It is possible that his is mere preparation for the post-Vajpayee phase. This is the message of its Agra conclave. It may however be some consolation to those who view this prospect with concern: the same record played twice does not sound quite as good.

The question of questions is whether the Vajpayee period will deprive the movement of its core message, and leave it directionless like its prime opponent now is.

The author is an independent researcher on ecology and political affairs and former fellow, Nehru Memorial Museum Library, New Delhi    


 
 
FIFTH COLUMN/ COMING OF THE SECOND STATE 
 
 
BY TILAK D. GUPTA
 
 
The signs of a possible realignment of political forces in Bihar and in the rest of the country became clear when Laloo Prasad Yadav declared that he would like to work with his archrivals, Nitish Kumar of the Samata Party and Sharad Yadav of the Janata Dal (United), supposedly for the “development” of Bihar. No wonder, the meeting of all Bihar members of parliament on September 27 in New Delhi to safeguard Bihar’s interest after the state of Jharkhand is formed is being seen as a politically significant event.

The list of participants as well as that of absentees in the meeting convened by the chief minister, Rabri Devi, makes for interesting reading. The Union agricultural minister, Nitish Kumar, the civil aviation minister, Sharad Yadav, and Union minister of state for railways, Digvijay Singh, took an active part in the meeting.

Other Central ministers from Bihar like Yashwant Singh, George Fernandes, C.P. Thakur and Ram Vilas Paswan chose to stay away. Paswan, who was present in the capital on the day of the meeting, obviously did not wish to participate. Other Central ministers who were away from New Delhi, however, wrote to express their support of such a meeting.

So what’s political?

To prevent further speculation about the meeting, Kumar informed the media that there was no politics involved in the conclave. He asserted, “We have assembled here cutting across party barriers to defend the larger interests of a truncated Bihar and to unite all who demand an appropriate compensation package for the state.” He also said that a joint delegation would meet the prime minister in November after identifying the projects and schemes in the state that would require Central assistance. A team of MPs from Bihar would be identifying projects especially in power, railways, roads, irrigation, agriculture and airways.

The former Bihar chief minister and the Rashtriya Janata Dal chief, Laloo Yadav, also dutifully affirmed that “no political message should be read into this meeting”. But given the inner contradictions between both parties, the coming together of their leaders assumes considerable importance.

This line of thinking is further strengthened by the fact that Paswan had criticized Yadav and Kumar without naming them, only a day earlier. “Those who had been calling Laloo a symbol of anarchy and backwardness are now talking of joining hands with him to ensure the developement of Bihar,” remarked Paswan. Earlier, Paswan had given clear indications that he would form his own party soon.

Games they play

Reports in Patna suggest a cooling of relations between Fernandes and Kumar and rumours of a split in the Janata Dal (U) are gaining ground. Kumar’s close lieutenants in Patna are particularly peeved by the appointment of Jaya Jaitly as the party president, and allege that Fernandes had monopolized decisionmaking in the Samata Party

The bifurcation of Bihar in November has further facilitated the coming together of erstwhile foes. The Bharatiya Janata Party had been a useful ally of the Janata Dal (U) and the Samata Party until now. But the importance of leaders like Sharad Yadav and Kumar will decrease in the post-Jharkhand era. These leaders are on the lookout for new political equations in order to survive in a truncated Bihar dominated by Laloo Yadav and the RJD.

Although the BJP is particularly strong in the Jharkhand area, the strength of its allies is localized in the central and northern plains. Once Jharkhand comes into being, the position of the BJP-Samata-Janata Dal (U) combine will be considerably weakened, as the bulk of BJP members of legislative assembly comes from this area. Consequently, the electoral position of the RJD will be enhanced in the new Bihar assembly

Apart from that, Laloo Yadav will strive to make life difficult for Atal Behari Vajpayee by demanding suitable economic compensation for Bihar. And once his “Save Bihar” campaign gains momentum Kumar and Sharad Yadav may not have any option but to join in. The BJP considers Paswan a useful ally because of his influence over the Dalits.

But political observers in Patna have ruled out any possibility of Kumar and Sharad Yadav resigning from the government in the Centre.Things could get interesting in Bihar over the next few months.    


 
 
BOOK REVIEW/ TALL SHADOW 
 
 
BY AVEEK SEN
 
 
Satyajit Ray: In search of the modern
By Suranjan Ganguly,
Scarecrow, Price not mentioned

Reassuringly slim and with a stylish dust jacket, Suranjan Ganguly’s new study of Satyajit Ray suggests spare elegance. Ganguly draws inspiration from Calcutta’s “astonishingly vibrant film culture” in the Seventies, and, of course, from the great man himself, “whose tall shadow…extended deep into our lives”. The best thing about the book originates in this personal engagement with its subject — a humane sensitivity to the nuances of good cinema, expressing itself in a language that most of those who have followed Ray’s work will understand.

But Ganguly also teaches film in an American university. His book is “written primarily for a Western audience familiar with Ray’s films but unable to engage with their sociohistorical contexts”. There is nothing intrinsically alarming about this. But one can’t help attributing most of the book’s disappointing elements to this academic imperative. The engaged lucidity of some of Ganguly’s readings — of the erotic play of gazes in Charulata or of Apu’s relationship with his mother — struggles with the “film studies” jargon and agenda, and their inevitable deadening of fresh and complex thinking.

At the heart of Ganguly’s thesis is the idea of “the modern”. He wishes to examine the “significant moments” in Ray’s negotiations with modernity, tracing one kind of sequence in his development as a filmmaker. But his introduction sets up this central idea of modernity in a manner which turns out to be nebulous and limiting. His notion of the modern moves confusingly between history and essence. Sometimes it seems to arise from the conflict between the 19th and the 20th centuries. At other times, modernity appears to be a way of being or a mode of vision associated with “hybridity” and “reflexivity”. The former approach uses cinema to write social and intellectual history. The latter takes interpretation beyond historicism. After all, if complexity and self-consciousness constitute modernity (or postmodernity, as some would prefer to say), then Chaucer and Shakespeare are the most modern — or postmodern — of artists, and modernity has nothing to do, as such, with living and creating in the 20th century.

This conceptual fuzziness becomes quite fatally limiting when modernity is linked to the idea of nationhood. The heterogeneous universe of Ray’s cinema becomes a reflection of the emerging character of “postcolonial” India. Hence the “unity in diversity” cliché is never too far away from Ganguly’s exposition of what he calls “true Indianness”. Moreover, the representation of the “modern Indian experience” in Ray’s cinema is repeatedly linked by Ganguly to the ideals of Nehruvian socialism: “It was left to artists like him to translate Nehru’s dream into reality through art.” This botches a fine opportunity to explore the nature of Ray’s cosmopolitanism in relation to Nehru’s, instead of reducing their kinship to a shared ideal of nationhood. How “Indian”, one may ask, is The Discovery of India and An Autobiography, and, for that matter, Gandhi’s My Experiments With Truth, despite their profound engagement with India? Similarly, Ganguly could have found a more challenging way into the Indianness of, say, the Apu trilogy. This could have led to a more complex insight into the nature of the relationship between content and form in Ray’s cinema, into how his Indian subject matter gets taken up and transformed into artefacts that render notions of Indianness misleading and ultimately irrelevant.

This reductive packaging of Ray’s Indianness for Western academia leads to a parochialism which does a profound disservice to the cosmopolitanism of Ray’s achievement. It prevents a properly contextualized and critical assessment of his films. For instance, the only context that Ganguly thinks of outlining for an understanding of the Apu trilogy, Charulata, Aranyer Din Ratri and Pratidwandi is the “sociohistorical”. The entire question of Ray’s relationship to European cinema and culture is ignored.

Throughout the period which Ganguly studies closely, Ray was continuously engaging with other “trajectories”. The evolution and some of the preoccupations of filmmakers like Visconti, Antonioni, Fellini, Bergman and Truffaut, together with Ray’s immense interest in Hollywood, were just as formative for him as was postcolonial India. Perhaps this will go into Ganguly’s forthcoming project on Ray’s “poetics”. But these elements and contexts are far more constitutive of the very grain of Ray’s art than Ganguly’s arbitrary separation of content from tone or form seems to suggest.

This limited perspective also prevents Ganguly from coming out of that “tall shadow” in order to make a critical assessment of the limits of Ray’s achievement. Talking of trajectories, how does one understand or contextualize the great decline in Ray’s art from Ghare Baire to the three last shoddy cinematic sermons? What are the contexts to the self-righteously conservative moralism in Ray’s last films? Was this the hardening of a tendency that was always there? What, then, are the social and intellectual origins of this tendency? Ganguly misses the opportunity to interpret this attenuation of modernity — and, indeed, of creativity — in Ray’s filmmaking, usually explained (if addressed at all) by most of Ray’s Bengali worshippers in the evasive and demeaning terms of failing health.

It is interesting to watch how the inadequacy of Ganguly’s academic and political tool-kit makes a complete blunder with a film like Aranyer Din Ratri. And there certainly is such a thing as “getting it wrong” in the subjective art of film criticism. (I once got back a piece of literary criticism from a tutor with a single, devastating “No” as the only comment.) This is rather a pity, for Days and Nights is a brilliant film and used to be Ray’s personal favourite.

The dour moralism of Ganguly’s jargon reduces Ray’s delightful “comedy of embarrassments” to a politically virtuous exposé of “four good-for-nothing city slickers”, representing “an emasculated generation, entirely unworthy to lead India”. The thrilling “memory game” sequence becomes “a bout of name dropping”, indulged in by “citizens of a spurious nation”. (An acquaintance, from the Low Countries, had once wailed during the last great party scene in La Dolce Vita, “Why are they all being so decadent?”) Ganguly gets the entire tone of Ray’s film wrong, a tone that whips up into a perfect, and wholly original, soufflé such diverse ingredients as Shakespearean romantic comedy, Mozartian opera, or that masterpiece of light profundity, Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night. Surely, Simi Garewal as Santhal siren embodies considerably more than “tribal welfare”.

Ganguly finishes his book with a feel-good vision of modern India — “there is always room for everyone and for all things”. Fair enough. But one can’t help cringing a bit when this also becomes his image for the “inclusiveness” of Ray’s cinematic art.    


 
 
BOOK REVIEW/ THE MASTER AS THEY SAW HIM 
 
 
BY ARUNJYOTI BASU
 
 
Swami Vekananda In India
By Rajagopal Chattopadhyaya,
Motilal Banarasidass, Rs 950

The voluminous work by Rajagopal Chattopadhyaya is a biographer’s biography. In fact, the author subtitles it, “A Corrective Biography”. This corrective angle is evident in Chattopadhyaya’s treatment of Vivekananda’s life. Unfortunately, to put things in the proper perspective, Chattopadhyaya lays before his readers an entire gamut of information, a part of which may easily be dismissed as mere trivia.

The book also abounds in footnotes, some of which will undoubtedly help the scholar. However, they are far from exhaustive. Moreover, their presence in such large numbers often hinders easy reading of the text. The book is rich in photographs, though some, like an old view of the Victoria Terminus or the Howrah Station, could have been left out without detracting from the subject in any way.

However, the sincerity and devotion which has gone into the writing of the book is palpable. But correction merely for the sake of correction can be tedious if not kept within bounds. According to the author, Swami Vivekananda in India logically takes off from where the several biographies and reminiscences of Vivekan- anda had left off. These have been “undertaken to provide a complementary Indian biography that can stand critical examination and scrutiny.” The author avers that there are a number of good, detailed biographies which misinform the reader and, in some cases, are plain lies. Chattopadhyaya sees his job as “separating the wheat from the chaff”.

He is aware that trying to do this may raise many a hackle. For example, he states that “The seventh chapter charts the way in which SV successfully engineered his own publicity in India and thus what the Indians read about him.” He suggests that Vivekananda sent clippings (from American newspapers) containing the description of only his performance, though the newspapers printed descriptions of other Indian speakers also. Chattopadhyaya rationalizes that Vivekananda’s lecture tours in America were being organized by a lecture bureau and he probably wanted to use the printed material as his publicity. Of course, the author reproduces reports printed in the Indian press which give a total overview of the Chicago congress.

One of the most valuable sections of the book is that which reproduces parts of letters written by Americans regarding the adoption of Hinduism by their fellow countrymen. The reactions of several well-educated Americans drawn from the Church, the academic world and the press make for interesting reading. Rather than debunking any myth, these letters portray the angry reaction of the followers of a religion whose tenets had never been questioned before the world. Vivekananda was all admiration for his American hosts and their hospitality.

Swami Vivekananda in India contains a number of reviews of works by disciples and others who knew Vivekananda intimately. Mention must be made of The Master as I saw Him by Sister Nivedita, as this collection of essays happens to be one of the first books on Vivekananda. By 1994, Sister Nivedita’s work had undergone seventeen editions.

There are two appendices. One gives news about the 1893 Chicago Parliament of Religions in other American cities, and the other prints unpublished letters of Vivekananda. Both of these are bound to be of interest to scholars. Indeed, this work is not for the lay reader but for the serious student of Vivekananda’s life and works. For the scholar it is a treasure trove, giving him or her a plethora of facts between two covers.    


 
 
BOOK REVIEW/ CLOSE TO THE MADDING CROWD 
 
 
BY SHAMS AFIF SIDDIQI
 
 
Bombay Wallah
By Shiv Sharma,
Minerva, Rs 160

Some successful novels have been written set in the city of Mumbai which, for some, is a place to pursue dreams, and for others, heartless. But none can deny its power to arrest one’s imagination. However, novels can not become successful by dispatching all its characters to this metropolis. In his first novel, Shiv Sharma seems to do just that and the result becomes evident in the matter of a few pages. The central character of Bombay Wallah lands up in this city of dreams and wants to make it big.

Sharma had better hope the chauvinists would not object to his using “Bombay” in the title instead of the now familiar “Mumbai”. Though it is Sharma’s first novel, we are told that it had been published 10 years ago in England under the title, Dimly Before Dawn. The biographical note in the book also informs of Sharma’s stints as a journalist in India and in the United Kingdom. What made him take up fiction is anybody’s guess. But Sharma’s experience as a hack writer does not seem to help him in this venture.

The story of the novel is simple as well as short. The characters are as few as in a short story. Chetan Grover is a photographer who lands up in Bombay to look for his “goldmine”. He gets it soon. And that is in the shape of a bewitchingly beautiful lady called Anu Kashyap. She gets interested in him and in his work too. The powerful lady finds for him the right connections and even buys him a flat.

As if opening her wallet was not enough, Anu opens her doors for love and sex for the young man she has just come to know. Chetan embarks on a gala time and so does the reader, though vicariously. But just as it seems good days are never to go away from Chetan’s life, time’s wheel turns full circle and he finds himself back to square one. Anu deserts him and with her goes away everything — love, money, sex and success.

Like most first novels, Bombay Wallah suffers from certain inherent inconsistencies. The loose construction of plot and the absence of conflicts in the story is sure to disappoint the discerning reader. Even the few characters that appear do do not evolve or develop within the short span of the novel. As a result, they have little or no impact on the readers.

But most disconcerting is the relationship between Chetan and Anu. Later in the novel it is revealed that her liaison with Chetan is merely a ploy to make an old business magnate jealous so that he would divorce his wife and marry her. Sharma seems to have been considerably influenced by the current crop of Hindi films, where events can be forgotten, characters written off and the unexpected made to become a part of life.

The novel begins with Chetan getting ready to face an interview, which incidentally never takes place. It is through Ashok, his old friend, that Chetan meets Anu but the former is dispatched to Delhi from where he never returns in the story. One Mr Sahni makes a brief appearance near the end but is lost very soon.

Sharma’s language is lucid, but like the events in his novel, it, too, seems contrived, while his humour lacks in spontaneity. Sharma might have targeted the thoughtless, young reader with his first book. Yet, he could have produced a better novel with a little more dedicated effort. Truth to speak, Bombay Wallah reads like a first draft that has somehow got into print.    


 
 
BOOK REVIEW/ FLIGHTS OF FANCY LEADING NOWHERE 
 
 
BY PATHIK GUHA
 
 
Closing Borders, Stretching Boundaries: The bose-einstein lectures on indo-german cooperation in science technology and environment
Edited by Stephan F. von Welck,
Manohar, Rs 450

I may be forgiven for beginning this piece with a personal anecdote. Some years ago, when a small piece of land in north Bengal called Tin Bigha made headlines, I had been assigned to cover the crisis over building a corridor on that plot. The corridor had been a longstanding demand of the government in Dhaka, and New Delhi was finally gracious enough to meet it. To the Bharatiya Janata Party, this was a beautiful opportunity to do what it does best: whip up a nationalistic frenzy. All over West Bengal, the supporters of this then fledgling outfit vowed to lay down their lives to stop this “surrender of a piece of our land to a Muslim country”.

Top BJP leaders made Sililguri, the metropolis nearest to Tin Bigha, their second home, solely to meet newsmen stationed there and make inflammatory statements. Just two days before the official inauguration of the corridor, Murli Monohar Joshi met newsmen only to tell them that there would be no handing over of the corridor. Clueless as to what could prevent it from happening, the pressmen asked the BJP leader to elaborate. He merely said, “If the entire universe can be created in just three minutes, a lot of things can happen in 48 hours.”

That was a remark beyond the ken of all my fellow journalists attending the press conference, as none of them had heard of, let alone gone through, Steven Weinberg’s The First Three Minutes, in which the Nobel Prize winning physicist describes the initial moments of the cosmos. Naturally, I had to explain to my colleagues what Joshi had in mind. However, they seemed thoroughly unimpressed by his wit. Politics, they thought, did not lend itself so easily to science. I certainly did not subscribe to this opinion. For all the pranks a BJP leader was given to, I thought this metaphor was an excellent one.

Going through “Science and Religion”, one of the essays in Closing Borders, Stretching Boundaries, I was reminded of Joshi’s comment, for he happens to be the author of the piece. However, his treatment of the topic is extremely superficial, if not altogether inane.

In fact, the essay reveals how far this Allahabad University physics professor and India’s minister for science and technology has allowed that identity to be overtaken by his more visible persona — a member of the BJP thinktank. Determined to prove how much more advanced the Upanishads are than Western science in grasping the fabric of reality, he has gone into lengthy, and often meaningless, quotations, forgetting that their two modes of enquiry were entirely different, and, therefore, did not lend themselves to this kind of comparison and inferences thereof.

Perhaps this is to be expected of an understanding derived from sources like Gary Zukov, for whom Eastern mysticism and half-baked Western science together make a good potion to churn out bestsellers. If Joshi was keen to seriously explo- re the relation between science and religion, he would have desisted from callow explorations and gone into the recent erudite exchanges betw- een the two sides of the great divide.

Sadly, none of the other essays in the book is of a high standard. The book is basically a collection of lectures organized by the German embassy and the Federation of Indo-German Societies in New Delhi. Since 1997, the two bodies have been inviting wellknown personalities — politicians and bureaucrats included — to deliver what they call the Bose-Einstein lectures, which, according to the German ambassador to India, “have become a major element of Indo-German cooperation in science and technology”.

Be that as it may, but while going through the book, I repeatedly asked myself if the publication of the lectures served any purpose, for the diversity of the topics made the book a meaningless compendium. Nowhere else will one find such authors as Satyendra Nath Bose and Kiran Bedi within the same covers. And the mix speaks for the outcome.    


 
 
EDITOR'S CHOICE/ LEADING THE GREAT GAME ON SAND 
 
 
 
 
Lawrence: The uncrowned king of Arabia
By Michael Asher,
Viking, £ 15

The life of T.E. Lawrence was cut on an epic scale and acquired in his own lifetime the status of a legend. He was the illegitimate son of an English squire in Ireland who changed his name to live with his children’s governess. Lawrence was his mother’s surname. He took a dazzling first in history from Jesus College, Oxford, and then went on to become a key player in the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire during World War I. He was a hero who refused a knighthood because he believed that the British had let down the Arabs after the war.

Apart from Lawrence’s daring exploits in the Arabian desert, he wrote an outstanding autobiography, Seven Pillars of Wisdom. But Lawrence was a compulsive liar, making up stories about himself, floating different versions of events to mystify people. He had pronounced masochistic and homoerotic tendencies. In middle age, he used to pay a flunky to have himself flogged and thus have orgasms. His personality was complex — some would even say warped — and Michael Asher, in this extraordinary biography of an extraordinary man, suggests that these traits were related to Lawrence’s tortuous relationship with his mother, Sarah. She was domineering and fiery, often thrashing her sons, even when they were grown up boys. Lawrence strove all his life to move away from his mother and to conquer fear, which was his driving emotion.

To conquer his fear, Lawrence used to dive into the frozen Cherwell and put himself through terrible tests of physical endurance. He developed a passion for the Middle East while he was a student with a zeal for investigating medieval castles built during the crusades. He first went out to Syria as part of a British archaeological team. After the outbreak of World War I, he went out to Cairo as an intelligence officer. It was here that he plotted an uprising of the Arabs, aided by the British, against Turkish rule.

He was sent out (he later claimed that this was his own initiative) on mission impossible: unifying the Arab tribes to fight for a common cause. Lawrence won over prince Feisal of Hejaz and later Auda Abu Tayyi, “the most feared fighting man in Arabia”. Lawrence was not successful in everything that he undertook in the Arabian desert. But he and the Arabs harassed the Turks by destroying the railway between Medina and Damascus. He crossed the desert, skirting the Nefud, to take Aqaba and then did a marathon across the Sinai to take the news to the headquarters in Cairo. These, by any reckoning, were incredible achievements of physical endurance and deep penetration intelligence work in hostile terrain.

But Lawrence thought his mission had failed because the Arabs were not given independence after the war. As a demobbed celebrity, he used his influence to enlist incognito for the Royal Air Force. He had, as Asher shows, a strange penchant for self-degradation. The flip side of this was his compulsive lying. Asher demonstrates through painstaking research and trekking through the desert that Lawrence’s account about crossing the Sinai in 49 hours was untrue. That he was tortured and raped by the Turks was also a fabrication.

Asher finds his subject fascinating. So much so, that he actually undertook the journeys that Lawrence described. But he has no hesitation in showing up the feet of clay his hero had. Lawrence had grandiose plans and visions for himself and for the causes that he decided to uphold or serve. But behind all this there lurked an individual low on self-esteem and high on self-deprecation. He loved publicity but fought shy of it. He was the archetypal inverted snob. As one contemporary admirer wrote, Lawrence had a talent for “backing into the limelight”. Having backed into it, he has, as Asher persuasively argues, remained there.    


 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

Too much big talk

Sir — The Arunachal Pradesh chief minister, Mukut Mithi, has recently claimed that the Chinese army has made repeated incursions along the line of actual control. This is a serious allegation and it has been vehemently denied by the Chinese foreign ministry. (“Delhi covers China tracks”, Oct 17.) The Indian foreign ministry has judiciously denied any knowledge of such incursions. Diplomatic relations between India and China have been threatened in the recent past because of the tactless remarks of the defence minister, George Fernandes. He had called China our “enemy number one” in the days just preceding the Pokhran nuclear tests. But since then, both countries have forged several confidence-building measures. The president, K.R. Narayanan, and the foreign minister, Jaswant Singh, have both visited China. The Chinese foreign minister, Tang Jianxuan, reciprocated this in July. Given these developments, it is myopic to make such comments. It can create uneasy tensions between the two neighbours.
Yours faithfully,
Soumitra Upadhyay, via email

Chief trouble

Sir — With the assembly elections round the corner, it is probably time to take stock of how the Congress might fare. Pranab Mukherjee, the new chief of the West Bengal Congress committee, is in an unenviable position. His predicament is obvious. While joining hands with the Trinamool Congress-Bharatiya Janata Party combine goes against the secularist posturings of the Congress, it cannot side with the left either since removal of the Left Front from power remains its professed objective. Which means the Congress will merely help divide the non-left vote and thus effectively help the Left Front in the elections.

One possible way out of this dilemma is to opt out of the assembly elections next year. That would ensure that the secular image of the party remains untainted and the anti-left vote undivided. The underlying assumption should be clear. At least in West Bengal, the Congress can show its anti-left stance is genuine.

But how to justify an election boycott? During the next few months, the Congress should intensify its agitation against the anarchy in the state. That is, the massive rigging during the last municipal elections, the reign of terror in Midnapore, the subversion of democracy, the assault on mediapersons at the Writers’ Buildings and so on. This can culminate in the decision for a withdrawal from elections in righteous indignation.

The step would erase, once and for all, its unedifying sobriquet, the “B team of the Left Front”. More important, it would restore public trust in the party’s statesmanship and foresight. That would be a bigger gain than the half a dozen or so assembly seats the party is likely to win in the elections. The move might be seen as Machiavellian, but in this desperate situation the end would perhaps justify the means.

Yours faithfully,
Asoke Mookherjee, Calcutta

Sir — B.C. Dutta and Manoranjan Das in their letters (“Chief weakness”, Sept 26), corroborating the editorial, “None to lead” (Aug 24), argue that charisma is essential to lead and Pranab Mukherjee, the West Bengal state Congress committee chief, has none. But it needs to be pointed out that Mukherjee has shown no tendency to lean towards the much hyped mahajot in which one cannot but smell political infidelity and expounds a theory of might is right. One has only to refer to the speeches of Mamata Banerjee and Tapan Sikdar at Keshpur to get a hint of that. It is in consequence of this politics of violence that people in and around Panskura were battered and many killed. The Calcutta Municipal Corporation elections were another eye-opener. It showed what the Trinamool Congress is really about.

Should the Duttas and Dases remain unconcerned about the malpractices of the Trinamool Congress chief, the plight of West Bengal may never improve. Mukherjee is here to fight the Trinamool-BJP combine’s attempt to subvert democracy and not to contemplate “an alliance with the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

Yours faithfully,
R.K. Chaudhuri, Calcutta

Sir — It is quite evident Pranab Mukherjee was foisted on the West Bengal state Congress to put both A.B.A Ghani Khan Chowdhury and his deputy, Somen Mukherjee, in their places. Chowdhury had made no organizational improvement and had of late been leaning towards the Trinamool Congress.

Mukherjee’s entry will help preserve the Congress’s identity and its secular credentials. That is probably what 10 Janpath wants. But Sonia Gandhi’s hopes that her trusted lieutenant’s presence in the state will help Congress prospects there are likely to be defeated. Mukherjee has no grassroots support and has to work in a hostile environment, given that he can bank on little support from the previous leadership. Sonia Gandhi, on her recent visit to the floodhit state, found Chowdhury and other leaders missing from the Congress entourage that met her. There is little chance the previous and the present chiefs will bury the hatchet and get on with election work. With ego clashes between Mukherjee and Chowdhury and faction-fighting becoming central to Congress activity in the state, it is obvious the assembly elections will leave the party crying in the wilderness.

Yours faithfully,
M. Chatterjee, Calcutta

Jailhouse block

Sir — The article, “Rivals in abuse” (Sept 19) was excellent. It is a fact as projected by the National Human Rights Commission, that deaths, ill-treatment and almost negligent healthcare in jails have led to disrepute of our prisons. The situation is particularly bad in Bihar which has reported 1,097 custodial deaths in 1999-2000. The principal reason for this is overcrowding, poor security and police brutality during detention. The sorry state of affairs is compounded by the improper utilization of funds allocated by the World Health Organization and other concerns for improving prison conditions. These funds have often been returned to their sources.
Yours faithfully,
Naren Sen, Howrah

Sir — The photograph in the Metro section of The Telegraph (Sept 30) of undertrials being produced at the Alipore court was shocking. Unmindful of the waterlogging, a group of undertrials are seen tied together with a single rope in an inhuman manner. The rope is so tightly tied around their stomachs that it seems it is about to pierce the skin. This must have caused a lot of discomfort and fatigue. The three elderly persons in the front row even look sick and pale.

Undertrials must be treated as human beings. Their human rights should not be compromised, no matter what the allegations. The reform of detention centres for undertrials and convicts is long overdue. The government, jail authorities and nongovernmental organizations should see that the correctional measures reach the desired level.

Yours faithfully,
Inayat Hussain,Calcutta

Parting shot

Sir — Shariq Alawi makes a point about the headdress of India’s foreign minister, Jaswant Singh (“Dress maketh the Indian”, Oct 15). But the fact is that Jaswant Singh had lost his mother just before Bill Clinton arrived in India. As per Hindu custom, he shaved off his hair. People in high office would have sported a hat or a cap. Singh, being a Rajput, donned a turban which is customary amongst Rathore Rajputs of Jodhpur. He had a white turban during the mourning days and a coloured turban thereafter. Now his hair has grown back, he has removed the headgear. People like Alawi should think twice before commenting on an individual’s customs.
Yours faithfully,
J.P. Singh, Calcutta

Letters to the editor should be sent to:

The Telegraph
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Calcutta 700 001
Email: [email protected]
Readers in the Northeast can write to:
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G.S. Road, Ulubari, Guwahati 781007
   
 

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