Editorial 1/ Clean up
Editorial 2/ Red brick and ivy
Only too equal
Book Review/ Modern woman of the 12th century
Book Review/ Split vision
Book Review/ Poised between two worlds
Book Review/ Elsewhere on my mind
Book Wise/ Penalty for late entry
Paperback Pickings
Letters to the Editor

 
 
EDITORIAL 1/ CLEAN UP 
 
 
 
 
The Indian Council of Agricultural Research is suddenly in the limelight. And rather uncomfortable it is too. The prime minister, Mr Atal Behari Vajpayee, has decided to get to the root of the corruption charges levelled against the director-general and three other officials of the council. The internal audit report accused the four officials of defalcations under various heads. The prime minister has already taken steps to ensure that Mr R.S. Paroda, the director-general of the ICAR, is removed and has given directions for an inquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation. The extent of Mr Vajpayee’s seriousness about removing corruption can be gauged from the fact that the operation is fairly delicate. The ICAR comes under the ministry of agriculture, headed by the Samata Party leader, Mr Nitish Kumar. Mr Vajpayee has found, often to his cost, that his coalition partners are unpredictably touchy. They love to create storms in thimbles. Yet he is taking the risk of being accused of meddling. His actions have made very clear that it is not possible for him to remain inert when allegations of corruption are made by monitoring bodies.

The move is extremely reassuring. On the micro level, such follow up action is always a boost for the agencies and organizations which unearth corruption, tracing its route and finding names to fit the actions. The men who work in these institutions are professionals doing their jobs. Rendering them irrelevant by hushing up every uncomfortable report is to destroy all foundations of ethical dealing, equity and justice in everyday life. On the macro level, Mr Vajpayee’s action, put simply, raises enormous hopes. But the ICAR is only a beginning. It is a dramatic enough beginning and holds the promise of more such clean-ups. But, for the prime minister, the ICAR is still a soft target. It is the harder ones he needs to go for — that alone will persuade a sceptical public that he means business. On the one hand, there are numerous government funded institutions, some of them with considerable political clout. And there are the departments of the government administration itself. The chain of corruption can never be self-contained, it perpetuates itself in peace because it links various people in various positions in different organizations. Pulling out a whole chain might be unsettling. This is a risk the prime minister will have to take. On the other hand, there is the murky world of politicians. If electoral rules prevent the candidature of politicians with criminal allegations or records against them while the PMO takes care to go into the case of every politician against whom a monitoring body has made a substantiated case, a beginning will have been made. The prime minister must be aware of the hopes he has awakened by the ICAR shake-up.    


 
 
EDITORIAL 2/ RED BRICK AND IVY 
 
 
 
 
Excellence, in the sphere of Indian higher education, is often made to sound like an utopian idea. It could also be righteously — and radically — dismissed as an elitist concept. Plans of recasting New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University in what is beginning to be called the “Harvard model” have elicited the entire gamut of reactions from the faculty. The model — proposed by Mr Amrik Singh, a member of the university’s executive council, and circulated for consideration among the faculty by the vice-chancellor — has provoked scorn, derision and, most significantly, suspicion. The shadow of thought control, some think, is about to fall on the university’s liberal and leftist traditions of learning. Mr Singh’s proposal is drafted around the ideas of excellence and of accountability, essential to the conversion of JNU into the “ideal research university”. These are best implemented by making the confirmation of teaching posts through the internal evaluation of published research, increasing the age of retirement, having a separate scale of pay and ensuring that these reforms are initiated autonomously, from within the faculty.

Any proposal that succeeds in ruffling even the surface of smugness, torpor and dogma enervating higher education in some of India’s premier institutions is most certainly welcome. An excessively centralized, unwieldy and bureaucratic system has made recruitment and confirmation matters of seniority rather than of academic achievements in teaching and research. The near absence of rigorous standards of evaluation fosters an outmoded culture of learning that could be fatal for subjects like economics and the sciences. The outrage, in some of the faculty, at the thought of a teacher being sacked at the end of seven unproductive years is symptomatic of this culture, as is the politicized language in which this outrage is expressed. In West Bengal, the relationship between higher education and partisan politics has led to a collapse of almost every aspect of academic productivity and administration. However, just as such a jog to complacency is to be lauded, it must also be remembered that a shift in attitudes and standards cannot come out of nothing. Excellence will have to be supported by an infrastructure which, too, must be recast in the “Harvard model”. Mr Dipankar Gupta sounds eminently sensible when he reminds Mr Singh that ideal research can only come out of ideal library facilities, salaries and research assistance. Such visions of reform must also take in these material particularities. Even such apparently extraneous factors as user-friendly photocopying, clean toilets and surroundings that do not strike gloom in the heart contribute to the quality of academic productivity. And this is where the authorities have to be prepared to “go the distance”, as Mr Gupta comments. Otherwise, such a proposal would only result in confirming the suspicions of the shirkers it quite rightly intends to eliminate.    


 
 
ONLY TOO EQUAL 
 
 
BY BISWARUP SEN
 
 
Mediocrity can, in the right circumstances, deliver the truth. This election for president of the United States was, by common consent, being contested by contenders who were unattractive in their own unique ways. George Bush may have governed Texas for six years, but he had done little before that except being a spoilt, rich kid and a good ole’ Southern boy, often compromising his sobriety in the process. Al Gore’s character was suspect, his exaggerations were seen to be in keeping with the tradition of lying established by the Clinton White House. On the eve of polling, most agreed this race was perhaps the worst in recent memory.

Election day changed all that. In one of the most stunning days in American political history, the deadlocked election between two mediocrities exposed some of the deepest truths about American polity and society. An election is that moment when all objectivity in a society is dissolved, when all the citizens of a nation become freely choosing subjects in deciding the grounds of their existence.

It is in this context of pure subjectivity that people choose their representatives on the basis of psychic identification and rational self-interest. A vote is an odd mixture of these two factors, and because of this democracy is always surprising and open-ended and can never be reduced to the theorems of economics and sociology. People can identify against their narrowly calculated interests but they equally often turn against those who resemble them in the name of universal values or even petty interests.

The greatest candidates in a democracy are those who utilize this ambiguity within a single voter to their advantage. Thus Ronald Reagan could convince working-class white males to identify with a party whose economic policies favoured the very rich; Bill Clinton succeeded with many affluent Republican women with the promise of a new gender politics. Politics in democracy is the art of playing with the subjective in order to give power a new objective face.

But both Bush and Gore were so incompetent as candidates that they could barely persuade their own supporters. There were good local reasons as to why each party chose such an uninspiring figure to be its leader. Any vice-president always has a strong chance; moreover, the insipid and muddled populist challenge mounted by Bill Bradley solidified most Democrats behind Gore.

Republicans chose Bush with even more unanimity — so desperate were they for a messiah who could unite the two wings of the party as well as appeal to moderate Democrats that the party establishment united against John McCain’s charismatic bid and rallied behind an untalented figurehead.

Commentators have wondered why the campaign of 2000 was so dull even though it addressed such significant issues as tax cuts, social security and healthcare. It was boring because the incompetencies of the candidates cancelled each other out. In a culture as subjectivized as that of the US, politics is exciting only when it revolves around a single issue, like abortion that panders to the self, or when people are provoked to think beyond and even against their own obvious inclinations.

McCain energized so many people because he suggested that both parties were wrong; though he pointed a finger at the Republican Party, he had thousands of committed Republican supporters. Objective politics is always boring, there is little excitement in union workers casting votes for the Democrats, or Christian fundamentals choosing the Republicans. Both Bush and Gore stayed within the limits of their constituencies, neither could take politics beyond the objective. That is why this deadlock is just, it foregrounds the objective basis of the two candidates and parties and gives us a glimpse of the forces that configure contemporary US. Deadlock, in this instance, is political science.

Most obviously, the close election tore the veil of professionalism off the face of the American media revealing unseemly greed and stupidity. So driven are the networks by the imperatives of ratings and “breaking the news” that twice in the course of counting they made wrong calls — declaring Florida for Gore early in the evening, retracting that call a couple of hours later, then declaring Bush as president based on his victory in Florida, then retracting that call as well. Given the calibration of time in the US — California is three hours behind New York — it is preposterous that the political system allows projections based on exit polls to be announced well before polling concludes in some parts of the country. The sin is doubly compounded when the projections turn out to be wrong. Ultimately though, the outrage is more on the part of foreigners who cannot comprehend how the most rational society on earth would tolerate such an irrationality for the sake of profit.

The actual voting pattern of the 2000 election reveals the ideological alignments that shape the US at the beginning of the 21st century. Men voted for Bush by 53 per cent to 42 per cent, most of these were white men who chose him by the ratio of 60 to 36 per cent. This racial profile is crucial because neither party is defined any more by either class or gender. The middle class is evenly split (47 per cent for Bush, 48 per cent for Gore) as is the working class ( 46 per cent Bush, 51 per cent Gore). Gore won by 54 to 43 per cent among women, but this gender gap is non-existent once race is factored in: white women actually narrowly preferred Bush by 49 to 48 per cent. There is no doubt, then, that the Republican Party is predominantly a party of whites, especially white men.

The situation is the reverse for the Democratic Party. Ninety per cent of all blacks, 62 per cent of all Hispanics and 55 per cent of all Asians voted for Gore. The Democratic Party may be led by whites, a majority of its supporters may also be white, but it is also unquestionably the party for people of colour.

Race is becoming the primary determinant of politics in the US. The various factors which determined voting patterns in the past no longer hold. Geography was once an important variable — all Southern whites voted automatically for the Democratic Party because of the party’s pro-slavery stance in the 19th century. The reverse is true today, ever since the Republican Party took over the mantle of white conservatism. Catholics voted overwhelmingly for the Democrats in the past, in this election they were 52 per cent for Bush and 45 per cent for Gore. Unionized labour was the ma- instay of the left, but they consistently deserted the Democrats in the Eighties.

Many of the traditional predictors of political behaviour in the past do not work in the postmodern polity. Race is the only real variable which intervenes in political causality, it is the factor which distinguishes and divides groups of people in multicultural US. Current projections show that the US is likely to become a white-minority country by 2050 or so, this means race will play an even more crucial role in the near future.

Where does Ralph Nader fit into all this? Nader’s Green Party got three per cent of the national vote. Without him these votes would probably have elected Gore to office. Outraged Democratic sympathizers have been heaping virulent abuse on Nader. Yet it is not Nader but environmentalism in its Western manifestation which is egoistical, selfish, and narcissistic. The fanatic love for animals and plants and the overwhelming concern for the cleanliness of one’s own body, in conjunction with a complete intolerance of other perspectives — especially those of poorer people — belongs to that strain of dogmatic thought which keeps reappearing in the West. Very few, if any, people of colour choose to be affiliated with the movement. There is no irony: two versions of white politics have objectively converged to oppose the party which represents people of colour.

Racialism — the objective aspect of racism — is at the very heart of the American political system. The “civics lesson” Americans are getting is that an anachronistic device like the electoral college can be utilized to keep a democratic winner out of office. But there are other racialized institutions which are far more insidious. It is agreed by all that the US senate is a plutocracy of rich white men.

This structure is kept in place by the absurd notion that each state, irrespective of population, should elect two senators. Thus Wyoming, which has a little over half a million inhabitants, most of whom are white, has the same number of senators as California, a white-minority state with over 35 million people. To put it extremely: the states in the US are now means of perpetuating the hegemony of a single race.

The deadlock may be the first of many crises that the US has to deal with as it undergoes vast and fundamental changes. On this larger canvas the fortunes of individuals are only of limited significance. Gore may be denied the post he has coveted so long; Bush may have to continue to govern Texas.

For all the hoopla about “the leader of the free world”, the American presidency is a weak office — it is ultimately congress which decides the course of the country. Moreover, with the new house of representatives and the senate so evenly divided, the new president will have to govern in the most circumspect way. The stalemate concerning Bush and Gore will be resolved one way or another. The real deadlock that this presidential election points to is between two versions of the US: one past, one yet to come.    


 
 
BOOK REVIEW/ MODERN WOMAN OF THE 12TH CENTURY 
 
 
RUDRANGSHU MUKHERJEE
 
 
Eleanor of aquitaine: by the wrath of god, queen of england
By Alison Weir,
Pimlico, £ 8.99

For the cinema lover, the name Eleanor of Aquitaine is inextricably linked to Katherine Hepburn playing her against Peter O’Toole in Lion in Winter. For the history student, with some degree of familiarity with the medieval world of western Europe, Eleanor is remembered as the rather tempestuous wife of one of England’s greatest kings, Henry II (1133-89), the first of the Plantagenets and a Frenchman from Anjou.

Henry not only introduced the jury system and initiated far reaching administrative reforms but also fought against his old friend, his chancellor and archbishop, Thomas à Becket (?1118-1170), who resisted the king’s attempts to bring the church within the jurisdiction of the king’s courts. Henry earned notoriety when four of his knights, following one of his outbursts against Thomas, murdered the archbishop in Canterbury.

The drama and achievements of Henry’s reign and the prejudices against women in medieval sources have always deflected attention from his formidable queen who was a person in her own right and not above a bit of politicking and intrigue herself. In this rather remarkable book, Alison Weir, through some assiduous research into medieval texts, lends flesh and blood to a famous medieval name whose character has remained outside the ambit of formal history.

Eleanor was born circa 1122, the heiress to one of the richest domains in medieval Europe. Weir writes, “In the 12th century, the county of Poitou and the duchies of Aquitaine and Gascony covered a vast region of what is now France, encompassing all the land between the river Loire in the north to the Pyrenees in the south, and between the Rhône valley in the east and the Atlantic Ocean in the west.’’ At the age of 15 or 16, through her marriage to Louis VII, she became the queen of France.

But this marriage ended in divorce in 1152 and immediately after she married Henry of Anjou who in 1154 ascended the throne of England. By this marriage, Henry’s French dominions outstripped those of Louis, his wife’s former husband. The marriage thus set in train the rivalry between England and France that came to dominate medieval Europe. Weir notes, that “no description of her [Eleanor’s] appearance survives’’.

Yet it would seem that she was a lovely woman who drew and rather enjoyed drawing male attention. She was not known for her morals. Rumours of her affairs and unconventional conduct during the Second Crusade were “notorious throughout Christendom.” It was said by contemporaries that in the 1140s she had known carnally Count Geoffrey of Anjou who later became her father-in-law. By medieval standards, if not by modern ones, her behaviour bordered on the scandalous. She was a colourful personality and a great patron of poets and troubadours. This was fitting since her grandfather William is considered the first of the troubadours.

The history of Eleanor’s role as Henry’s queen at first sight appears to be fragmentary but Weir very deftly weaves these together into a narrative. Some significant features may be noted. Eleanor was not particularly fond of Becket but took no part either in the friendship or in the quarrel between him and her husband. She played less than a second fiddle during Henry’s reign but came into her own in the play of power for which she had a natural aptitude only after his death. She fought relentlessly in her old age to ensure the succession of her two sons, Richard (1189) and John (1199). In her old age she turned to acts of piety and she was a great patron of the abbey at Fontrevault where she was buried when she died at the old age of 82.

Eileen Power in Medieval Women noted that women were subjected to two contradictory ideas: one subordinated them and the other deified them through the tradition of courtly love. Weir’s book suggests that Eleanor broke through both the stereotypes. She provoked scandal and in the stage of politics she was “no shrinking violet’’.    


 
 
BOOK REVIEW/ SPLIT VISION 
 
 
MADHUMITA BHATTACHARYYA
 
 
The blind assassin
By Margaret Atwood,
Bloomsbury, £ 16.99

The blind assassin is one of many boys used in Sakiel-Norn, on planet Zycron, to weave carpets which are so intricate that they are blinded in the process. Later, hired as an assassin, he falls in love with the mute girl he is commissioned to kill. A girl to be sacrificed to the Goddess of Silence.

Or, it could be Iris Chase Griffen. A shot in the dark in a moment of vengeance takes the life of one she loves only too well.

The Blind Assassin is a refined, gripping experiment with time and space. It may not have the incisive honesty of Cat’s Eye, or the haunting sublimity of Handmaid’s Tale, but this is Margaret Atwood at her intricate best.

On the one hand, we have the confessions of 83-year-old Iris Chase Griffen, acutely aware of her age, loneliness and relative impoverishment. A kind of confessional, her narrative is addressed to her estranged granddaughter, Sabrina, with whom she hopes to be reunited. On the other hand, there is a novel within the novel. Chapter by chapter, we read “The Blind Assassin. By Laura Chase”.

In the first line of the novel, we are told that Laura, Iris’s younger sister, drove off a bridge. Atwood then goes on to reconstruct the lives of the two women and the relationships which shaped them, brought them together, only later, to wrench them apart.

The primary narrative in The Blind Assassin is Iris’s story. It reveals a caring, though passive woman deliberately shut off from all feeling, including her love for her sister. This detachment is in sharp relief to the searing passion of Laura’s The Blind Assassin. The tale of a married woman in a compelling relationship, whose lover offers escape, to “another dimension of space... a useful address. Anything you like can happen there”.

Iris’s own narrative unwinds, skipping between the Nineties and the Thirties. Her story is largely a result of what Reenie, the housekeeper who brought her up, recounts. It had not been an easy childhood for the Chase sisters. The family business was booming. But World War I changed all that, with their father, Norval Chase, coming back from battle — a man transformed. Avilion, their house in sleepy Port Ticonderoga, Canada, was no longer the peaceful place it had been. But more important was their mother’s death when Iris and Laura were children — which “changed everything”.

But years of emptiness are erased when a stranger, Alex Thomas, befriends Laura. Later, implicated in a fire that breaks out at the Chase button factory, he seeks sanctuary in Avilion.

The sisters conspire, hiding him in the attic. Both fall in love with him. Laura, in her devotion, does not think him capable of any harm, while Iris, suddenly aware of her sexuality, is prepared to ignore this possibility. When Alex leaves, they are closer, yet somehow more distant than ever before.

Norval soon realizes that he will have to shut down the factory. To save his workers from unemployment and daughters from starvation he arranges a marriage for Iris with Richard Griffen. A rival industrialist, this is a business deal more than a marriage. From the moment she agrees to marry Richard, Iris empties herself of feeling, acting out of a sense of responsibility. But during their honeymoon, Richard makes a mockery of this, shutting down the factories. Unable to take this, Norval kills himself.

Despite a deathbed promise made to her mother to look after Laura, Iris does not know how to deal with her, as Laura blames Richard for their father’s death. “I am spread too thin,” says Iris, explaining her inability to love. “Without the protection of surliness and levity, all children would be crushed under the weight of their past... Selfishness is their saving grace. Up to a point of course.”

Meanwhile, Laura’s book, “The Blind Assassin”, raises questions. A woman caught in the throes of lust and love, unsure of what she feels for a lover, compulsively cruel, yet unable to let go. Their passion is fevered, tormented, neither wanting to expose the intensity of feeling.

It becomes increasingly difficult to believe that this could be Laura’s story. The girl we see is too literal in her perception, with too complete a disregard for the physical world, to have authored the novel within the novel. This complexity of vision could have only come from one person.

Iris, quintessentially Atwood, is the only possible author of the tale she published in her sister’s name. “The combination of the presence and anonymity — confessions without penance, truth without consequences — it has its attractions. Getting the blood off your hands one way or the other.” Iris Griffen Chase has a lot to tell.

However, “The Blind Assassin” is not just a chronicle of what Iris shared with Alex. It is, to Iris: “What I remembered, but also what I imagined, which is also the truth.” Because this is her story, her truth. The fantasies they escaped in — the tales of Sakiel-Norn — her hopes, her fears, her conception of what he feels.

“Atwood is the quiet Mata Hari, the mysterious violent figure who pits herself against the ordered too-clean world like an arsonist,” according to Michael Ondaatje. But Atwood offers more than a rejection of ideal goodness. Iris, in her struggle for self-preservation, may have taken the path of least resistance. But she also creates Laura. Hazy throughout the novel, it is uncertain if even Iris understands her. She is unlike anyone we have seen from Atwood’s pen. “God. Trust. Sacrifice. Justice. Faith. Hope. Love.” All that she upholds may desert her, but her spirit is ingrained: “Laura was my left hand, and I was hers. We wrote the book together... That is why one of us is always out of sight...”

The Blind Assassin is an old woman’s last attempt at attaining understanding, but it is far from apologetic. The detachment Iris was once capable of is now elusive. The agony, muted for over half a century, must come out. “But some people can’t tell where it hurts,” says Iris. “They can’t calm down. They can’t ever stop howling.”    


 
 
BOOK REVIEW/ POISED BETWEEN TWO WORLDS 
 
 
SARVEEN ABUBAKER
 
 
Mai: A novel
By Geetanjali Shree,
Kali for Women, Rs 200

Geetanjali Shree’s novel, Mai, translated from Hindi by Nita Kumar tells the tale of a mother both like and unlike old-world mothers.

Like most mothers, everything that mai said or did or did not say or did not do was driven by a single principle: husband before self, children before self, in-laws before self.

Always bent over with work and seldom speaking up or resisting anyone, mai gave the impression that she had a weak spine. So Subodh and Suni grew up vowing that their mission was to “save” mai from her life of wretchedness. After all, even babu thought mai was a supremely dumb and passive object, very like a round eggplant rolling on a plate.

What Subodh and Suni did not imagine, however, was that in spite of her eternally lowered eyes and self-created parda, mai was cast in a different mould. That unlike many mothers, the fires of selfhood were still glowing behind her stoicism, silence and subservience. And that unlike most mothers, mai could not be led.

Set in a typical north Indian village, the novel revolves around three women — dadi (the mother-in-law), mai and Hardeyi (the domestic help) — and in one stroke demolishes the stereotypical notion that all mothers embody caring and nurturing.

Dadi is a harridan who slave-drives mai and whose blind love for her son detracts from her character. Hardeyi’s little boy dies an untimely death, robbing her of the chance to either nurture or care for him. This leaves Suni’s mother, who alone is considered worthy by the author of being called “mai”.

Mai is different from “archetypal” mothers in that she does not want her daughter to be a replica of herself. She has come to terms with the constraints of living in an orthodox family, and in her own way managed to turn the fires of her selfhood inward. But this is not what she wants for Suni — she not only fans her daughter’s inner flames, she also resists the efforts of other women to douse them. She valiantly prises apart the curtain behind which her daughter could have withdrawn for life, and pushes her out into a life of openness and freedom.

In that sense, mai is an agent of change. From behind her parda, mai shows up as a mother who does not want to constrict her daughter’s life by allowing her to take after her. She sets up broader horizons for the child and starts her up on the road to freedom and growth. Time and again she pulls Suni out of the quicksand of backwardness into which dadi constantly pushes her.

As Suni herself admits, mai could not always stop dadi from pushing her in, but mai was always there to throw down a rope for her to clamber out.

Looked at from another point of view, mai rings the knell on the vicious cycle of abuse passing down from mother to daughter for generations. By providing for her daughter a future that is finer and freer than the life she has lived, mai at once ensures that Suni does not inherit from her the customary baggage of bitterness that a growing daughter is doomed to carry.

This could also be extended to mean that mai is registering an eloquent protest against the manner in which society has treated her and millions of unempowered women before her. Taken one step further, mai’s action could give today’s feminists much food for thought.

Again, the usually tongue-tied mai is not scared to break her silence even before her father-in-law — the lord and master of her social milieu — when it comes to protecting her children and ensuring justice for them. She does not let dada get away with needling and bullying Subodh over going to hostel. At the end of the read, one is left wondering whether mai with the weak spine did actually cower either physically or psychologically before anyone.    


 
 
BOOK REVIEW/ ELSEWHERE ON MY MIND 
 
 
ARNAB BHATTACHARYA
 
 
In the garden secretly
By Jean Arasanayagam,
Penguin, Rs 200

“Myth is a value”, writes Roland Barthes in his essay, “Myth Today”. “Nothing prevents it from being a perpetual alibi: it is enough that its signifier has two sides for it always to have an ‘elsewhere’ at its disposal.”

Modern myth-making consists mainly in the construction of this “elsewhere”, reflected in the semiological system in which it operates through the tension between form and content. This typical ambivalence of myth permeates the seven stories by Jean Arasanayagam in her book, In the Garden Secretly.

The backdrop of each of these stories is trouble-torn Sri Lanka, rocked by a 17-year-long struggle between the state and the Tamil Tigers demanding a separate eelam.

The tension is further intensified by the ethnic strife between the Tamil and the Sinhala communities. The stories in the collection delicately explore the mutual mistrust, suspicion and animosity that creep into individual relationships in the island today.

A sense of outraged innocence, of loss and decadence occur at the core of each of the stories. And the author believes that “the individual search for enlightenment and self-realization must take place” in this context.

But in the process of weaving myth into the texture of the stories, the author makes the search synonymous with the quest for a private sanctuary — that mythical “elsewhere” which is “a magical place to belong to, where no one would discover us.”

Here we approach the question of belonging to a culture, or more broadly speaking, to a specific temporal and spatial set-up. This issue, sensitively tackled in Arasanayagam’s stories, is continuously fraught with an agonizing crisis of identity .

In this context, myth acts as an interface between various layers of reality — the reality of the past and that of the present, of the north and of the south, the reality inhabited and the reality conceived.

Arasanayagam contrives her “perpetual alibi” by conjuring up repeated journeys from one layer to another — a journey which is often physically undertaken by the protagonists of her stories.

In the story titled, “In the Garden Secretly”, the protagonist is a battle-weary airman who is coming back home in the south after a long time. During his journey, he is invaded by disturbing memories until he happens to enter a deserted shrine and finds a glowing statue of Christ with an arm broken.

This is almost an epiphanic experience for him as he comes out of the church hiding the statue in his kitbag and with both hands tightly clasping a T-56 gun. This is how Arasanayagam highlights the basic and monumental paradox of human existence.

An almost similar end encounters us in the second part of “The Crossing”. At one point in this story, an elderly widow, possessed with “a sense of self-pity for lost times” disrobes inside a kovil. There is a touch of magic realism in the manner in which the widow describes her thrill and her vision as she experienced a momentary propinquity with the sublime.

The last two stories of the collection delineate the rapid rate of social change within various Sri Lankan communities. The last one is more striking of the two in that it narrates the tragic saga of “one of nature’s last innocents” through the character of Mudiyanse.

Arasanayagam’s prose is relaxed but it does not lose crispness. There is no flourish in her narrative, no undue emphasis on language. Her style is not one in which the author wrestles to derive meanings from words. Instead, the strength of her language comes from the fact that it is immensely evocative. This makes the stories read more like lucid shifts in a general stream of consciousness rather than distinct fragmentary episodes.    


 
 
BOOK WISE/ PENALTY FOR LATE ENTRY 
 
 
RAVI VYAS
 
 
Consider this fundamental fact of publishing today. Over 80 per cent of all books published have been commissioned by publishers. This includes not merely educational textbooks,but mass-marketable paperback fiction, books on science, technology, medicine, law, accountancy and all the rest.

But just because a work has been commissioned and a contract signed up, does not necessarily mean that the book will eventually be published . For one reason or another, it may be rejected and the author paid off for his labours. This payment is known as “kill fees” or in more sophisticated parlance as “cheque-book editing.”

How does the system work? In any contract that the publisher signs up with a prospective author for a commissioned work there are a few clauses of escape that are built in favour of the publisher. These safeguards are of two kinds.

First, the timely delivery of the manuscript within the defined parameters such as the word limit, photographs, illustrations and any other specialized material that may be required. Second, there is usually a draconian clause that gives the right to the publisher to refuse publication without assigning any specific reason for the action. This clause is seldom invoked but nonetheless it is there. And in the event that it is invoked, the author is placated with an assurance that in case of a dispute the matter would be “amicably” settled between the two parties.

The catch here is that the quantum of compensation to be paid to the author is never specified in any contract. Matters are decided between the publisher and author, and, if need be, by their respective lawyers.

But if push comes to shove, it is always the author who loses out because the publisher can come up with any number of reasons explaining why he cannot publish: the quality of writing, inadequate research, poor arrangement of the material or simply that the demand for a book on the subject has dried up.

Clearly, the dice is loaded against the author. But on the flip side, this is also a necessary arrangement because it is virtually impossible for a commissioning editor in India to predict with absolute certainty that the work would be delivered on time and that the quality of writing and research would match the credentials of the proposed author.

On both counts, the commissioning editor can go hopelessly wrong. Indian authors, especially academics, are notoriously lax in keeping schedules. Deadlines are seldom respected — this means that publication dates that are announced even six months in advance cannot be adhered to. When you consider that successful publishing depends on a sense of timing, slippages of even a month or two can determine the success or failure of the book. Moreover, very often the language and style leave much to be desired in terms of quality.

Heavy editing is required before the typescript can be sent to the press. Unfortunately, our publishing houses simply do not have enough in-house editors to do the rewriting jobs. Getting this work done from outside costs time and money which have to be factored into the cost of production.

Naturally, the onus lies with the publisher. He must check out the author’s background and experience and monitor each stage of the writing process. He cannot rely on reputation alone. This is the only way to avoid heartaches later.    


 
 
PAPERBACK PICKINGS 
 
 
 
 

Love, loss and intimate resentments

A GENIUS IN THE FAMILY: AN INTIMATE MEMOIR OF JACQUELINE DU PRÉ
(Vintage,£ 4.20)
By Hilary and Piers du Pré

By Hilary and Piers du Pré’s A genius in the family: an intimate memoir of Jacqueline du Pre is a series of candid and often discomfiting portraits of a miraculously gifted cellist, whose musical career was struck down by multiple sclerosis when she was in her mid-twenties. Written by her siblings, this book is a collection of memories, rather than a biography or an account of Jacqueline’s career — “It is simply what happened. We offer the reader the story of our family, from within.” From the first signs of genius through her spectacular rise to becoming an international celebrity, this is a fragmented story of the problems faced by a closely knit, middle class English family in accommodating a person of Jacqueline’s stature. Married to Daniel Barenboim, a brilliant pianist and conductor, and taking the transatlantic world by storm with her 1673 Stradivarius cello, “Jackie” must have been a challenging presence in the du Pré family: “Great company, a brilliant mimic, with a huge repertoire of crude jokes, she was by now electrifyingly sexy.” The account of the brutal progress of her illness is perhaps the most painful section in this book. But this tragedy has now become an inseparable part of the ineffably moving experience of listening to her recordings, particularly her legendary rendering of the Elgar Cello Concerto.

THE ERA OF THE INDIVIDUAL: A CONTRIBUTION TO A HISTORY OF SUBJECTIVITY
(Motilal Banarsidass, Rs 295)
By Alain Renaut

By Alain Renaut’s The era of the individual: A contribution to a history of subjectivity is a seminal history of modern Western philosophy and a spirited critique of Martin Heidegger’s “antihumanism”. Having co-authored, with Luc Ferry, French Philosophy of the Sixties (1985), Renaut’s work is known for its passionate defence of the accomplishments of liberal democracy in the West and a sustained attack against “the thought of ’68”, whose nihilism he traced back to Heidegger and Marx. The elimination of the human subject leads, according to Renaut, to the reasoning away of the possibility of basic rights, one of the great “promises of modernity”. This is an impressively learned, closely argued and highly individual study of such luminaries as Leibniz, Lévinas, Nietzsche, Kant, Berkeley and Hume.

ART FOR BEGINNERS
(Orient Longman, Rs 165)
By Dani Cavallaro

By Dani Cavallaro’s Art for beginners examines different understandings of art, as both ideas and practice. Art, according to Cavallaro, is about the making of images — and in making images, we also make ourselves. This leads to more theoretical explorations of the nature of signs (semiotics) and the philosophy of aesthetic response (aesthetics). There is also a section on the cultural anthropology of art. With a glossary and further reading suggestions, this is a lively and tongue-in-cheek primer, although there could have been less visual clutter.    


 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

Some get away with it

Sir — Harin Pathak, former minister of state for defence, did the best he could to save face: he resigned from the cabinet (“Not as a suspect”, Nov 14). Though Arun Jaitley, the law minister, ruled out any possibility of defending Pathak, there seem to be enough people in important places who think that Pathak is innocent (“Fire and ice”, Nov 18). In support of the latter group there are Pathak’s impeccable record as a minister and his background in academics. The article, “Fire and ice”, mentions that S. Muthaiah, Buta Singh and Ram Jethmalani were all asked by the prime minister to resign from the Union cabinet after they were pulled up by the court. But what about the others, the home minister, L.K. Advani, and human resources development minister, Murli Manohar Joshi, who were chargesheeted after the demolition of the Babri Masjid? Why does the fact that “the investigating agencies have found enough evidence to charge” the individual oust someone from the cabinet, while retaining some others in it?
Yours faithfully,
Subrata Nath, Siliguri

Separable spite

Sir — The demand for the state of Kamtapur has gained momentum in a year or so. But the movement had started some years ago. The government, despite the violence in the Northeast, has however lost no sleep over the issue. What precisely is the Central government doing to save innocent lives and to prevent the stalling of economic development in the region? It is probably government apathy that has made people react so violently.

However, this is not to condone extremism that results in the killing of innumerable people in the name of autonomy and ethnic pride. Most of the extremist organizations in the Northeast are directionless, no longer sure of what they want. Many of them are connected with the Inter-services Intelligence, which provides them with ammunition and money. India’s intelligence agencies are either inefficient or run by people who are hand in glove with the militants. Otherwise, the nexus with the ISI would have been as plain as daylight.

One reason for the growth of ISI activities in both Assam and West Bengal is the influx of refugees from across the borders. Communists in West Bengal have, in fact, upset the ethnic balance in north Bengal to promote its vote bank politics. Most of the migrants are poor and therefore, vulnerable to the overtures of the ISI. In many districts of the region, communal tensions have started because of the influx of refugees.

India needs to take another look at its laws and rights if it wishes to see such diverse ethnic groups cohabiting with one another. It also has to guarantee proper infrastructure, good education and economic uplift to ensure the integration of the Northeast with mainstream India. Extremists also need to be dealt with more severely to discourage others from joining their ranks.

Yours faithfully,
Neeraj Purohit, Darjeeling

Sir — Very few people are aware of the problems faced by the Koch-Rajbanshi community. These people are neither of Assam nor of Bengal, but are inhabitants of Kamtapur, but they rarely speak about it. What they demand is their recognition as a scheduled tribe.

This is important because these people, of disputed status, do not get good jobs or promotions. They are also deprived of admission to good schools and colleges. As a result of this, the youth of the community while away their precious lives doing little.

Does the government want these young people to take up arms? The government should also realize the Koch-Rajbanshis have enough manpower to demand a separate Kamtapur for themselves. In strife-torn Assam, the Koch-Rajbanshis form the only community which has not resorted to violence to get their demands fulfilled.

Yours faithfully,
Joydeep Roy, Kokrajhar

Sir — That Union home ministry officials are visiting Manipur is interesting (“Centre mulls Manipur truce”, Nov 14). In fact, the local people take it more seriously than the visit of L.K. Advani, the Union home minister. Gopal K. Pillai, joint secretary (Northeast) in the Union home ministry, is said to have made some candid observations on this backward and so far neglected state in almost every aspect. Annexation of Manipur as a “mere Part C state” in 1949, granting statehood after 23 years, and delayed inclusion of Manipuri in the Eighth schedule are the Centre’s major mistakes, fuelling insurgency in the state, according to Pillai. One can contemplate a peaceful Manipur if Pillai and his colleagues are sincere, honest and talk sense. Is the Centre really serious about declaring unilateral ceasefire with all the militant groups in Manipur immediately, as Pillai puts it? Is it ready to offer unconditional talks with any outfit?

These steps are a good start to bringing peace to this insurgency-prone state. The Centre should take this seriously. Otherwise, the people of Manipur might be forced to seek for the pre-merger status of this state. If the killing of innocent civilians by Indian armed forces in the name of crossfires — as it occurred in the recent Malom massac to intervene and seek the people’s referendum.

Yours faithfully,
Aramban Prabin, Imphal

Sir — It has now become routine for the Manipur government to impose curfew whenever there is any law and order problem. Countless people are killed almost every other day, and all the government does is to impose curfew after the incidents. The government should come up with an alternative plan to tackle law and order in the state.

Yours faithfully,
Rajkumar Romi, Guwahati

Sir — The major party in Karbi Anglong, the Autonomous State Demand Committee, which was struggling for a separate Karbi state, has divided into two factions — one led by Holiram Terang and the other by Jayanta Rongpi. The ASDC, as a result, has lost its original identity. Now each faction claims to be the original party. It is very difficult for the people to understand which is the actual ASDC or which one will be able to fulfil the demands of the Karbi people for a separate state. Which of the two can force the state or Central government to respect the rights of the people of Karbi Anglong? The leaders of both the factions of the ASDC claim that they are the “true sons” of Karbi Anglong. It is a pity that there is no filial unity.

Yours faithfully,
Mahesh Jha, Karbi Anglong

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
   
 

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