Editorial 1 / Country or party
Editorial 2 / It’s the wrong face
Harvard at home
Book Review / The ego has its own muse
Book Review / Spirited icons
Book Review / In and out of time
Book Review / Cavalier on a high horse
Bookwise / On why Hindi books don’t sell
Paperback Pickings / Sparks that refuse to kindle
Letters to the editor

 
 
EDITORIAL 1 / COUNTRY OR PARTY 
 
 
 
 
It is important that the prime minister of India should know some Indian history. It is clear that Mr Atal Behari Vajpayee is ignorant of the history of the country of which he is the head. There is no other conclusion to be drawn from the statement Mr Vajpayee has made about the Ramjanmabhoomi temple at Ayodhya. He declared that the agitation to build a Ram mandir in Ayodhya at the site of the Babri Masjid is “a manifestation of nationalist feelings”. This betrays a complete lack of understanding of nationalist feelings in India. Nationalism in India has never been the exclusive monopoly of one religious community. On the contrary, nationalism endeavoured to bring under its umbrella all creeds. The demand for a Ram temple in Ayodhya has been voiced only by a very small section of the Hindus. In fact, it is the demand of a political formation which has identified itself as the sangh parivar. The ideology of the parivar is exclusivist since it believes that non-Hindus are not Indians and that Indian nationalism began its career with the beginning of Muslim rule in the country. It is shocking that the prime minister of India has so blatantly identified himself with this ideology.

Mr Vajpayee, since his youth, has been an advocate of this ideology; he was a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Jana Sangh and the Bharatiya Janata Party. As a member of these organizations, he has the right to proclaim any ideology, however pernicious. But now Mr Vajpayee is more than a member of a political party. He is the prime minister of India. He speaks for India and its people. He cannot afford to forget this. India, whether Mr Vajpayee and his party likes it or not, is not a land inhabited by Hindus alone. It has people of other beliefs and it even has Hindus who do not subscribe to any of the views held by the propagandists of Hindutva. As the prime minister of India, he is supposed to speak for them as well. He has failed to do so. He has spoken as a sectarian and has thereby lowered the dignity of the august chair he occupies. Mr Vajpayee is a veteran politician and statesman, he should be more alive to the responsibilities that go with his position. As the prime minister of India, he cannot represent the narrow interests, aspirations and ideology of a political party and organization. He must speak for India, otherwise he would have failed his countrymen. As indeed he did on December 6.

What is equally appalling is the sleight of hand Mr Vajpayee has indulged in. His endorsement of the Ram temple came with his admission that he had not supported the destruction of the Babri Masjid. Mr Vajpayee should know better: He is fooling nobody with this kind of doublespeak. The construction of the Ram mandir in Ayodhya and the destruction of the Babri Masjid are inextricably linked to each other. The building of the temple is premised on the demolition of the mosque. Mr Vajpayee cannot have it both ways. This is a game Mr Vajpayee plays rather artfully. He speaks in one known voice to the converted and then quickly dons his liberal mask. It is common sense to take the man more seriously than the mask. Or may be both are true and Mr Vajpayee does indeed have a split identity. What is dangerous is that a schizoid prime minister may produce a divided country.    


 
 
EDITORIAL 2 / IT’S THE WRONG FACE 
 
 
 
 
Mr Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s identity crisis continues, and the implications are alarming. Party man, home (police) minister and chief minister — Mr Bhattacharjee has thoughtlessly confounded, yet again, these three necessarily distinct roles in his recent public appeal for peace in Keshpur. Given Keshpur’s bloody history and its tense, volatile atmosphere, his visit ought to have focussed on the barbaric disruptions of law and order in the area. The redressal of this situation is possible only if Mr Bhattacharjee can embody, for the local people, a nonpartisan principle of governance, committed to the restoration of their sense of security and confidence. This would entail the projection of his sense of vocation as an instrument of the state, invested upon him by his ministership and by his position at the head of the state’s law-enforcing machinery.

But this is what his eloquence has failed to achieve at Keshpur this time. He has addressed his considerable audience there as the representative of his party, keeping up the usual provocative and oppositional tone. This tone — used to equal effect by his political opponent — is the rhetorical counterpart of the violence that has ravaged this area. Mr Bhattacharjee, as the chief minister and the emissary of peace, ought to have been able to rise above this vile squabbling. Peacemaking has been reduced again to a rather lowly form of political campaigning. Telling the people at Keshpur that they can get a grip on their strife-torn lives only if they join the Communist Party of India (Marxist) makes a mockery of the responsibilities of the chief minister and of the home (police) minister. His audience would have felt infinitely more reassured if the chief minister had guaranteed them an impartial and efficient law and order system that would see them through the sordidness of the current political conflict. Yet this is, perhaps, expected from someone who tried to assure the battered residents of Kasba that his party cadre would gallantly provide them the protection which the police had failed to provide. Both in Kasba and in Keshpur, the overwhelming identity of the party seems to have blinkered the chief minister into losing sight of his priorities.

   

 
 
HARVARD AT HOME 
 
 
BY DIPANKAR GUPTA
 
 
For higher education to thrive it has to aim for the highest. No nation can afford to intellectually lag too far behind if it has a sense of pride and self-worth. While there is no denying the fact that primary and secondary education are both important, it is not as if these can be accomplished at the expense of excellence at the university level. At the same time, it is quite useless if our universi-ties merely give out degrees without encouraging research that extends the boundaries of knowledge.

It is in this connection that it is salutary to learn lessons from universities abroad. As we are often pressed for funds it is not uncommon to develop a philistine attitude towards higher education. Our politicians have given evidence of this mentality time and again. They believe that universities should function like bureaucratic organizations for then they can have control over them. Consequently, research and quality teaching get sidelined and the question of how many students a university can accommodate becomes primary. The quality of education does not matter, only quantity does.

Over time the word gets round and inferior academics jump on to political bandwagons and run down research in favour of control. This control can only be achieved through mindless and repetitive teaching and the mass production of graduates and post-graduates. This is the fate that is staring most Indian universities in the face. There are a few institutions like the Jawaharlal Nehru University, or the Delhi School of Economics where research still retains a certain cache and charisma. Here too the pressures are quite intense to routinize and bureaucratize.

It is against this background that the proposal made by Amrik Singh as member of the executive council of JNU must be viewed. Singh argues that if JNU is to be an institution of excellence it has to pressure itself and produce research of a very high quality. He is obviously also implying that to do so will be going against the tendency prevalent in most other universities. There is no doubt that if JNU is to establish itself as a premier institution of higher education it should compare itself to other universities of excellence abroad. There is no resting-place for institutions of higher learning. The only way they can remain on top is to constantly aim to be the best in the business.

In the best universities the world over, students are inspired by the research qualifications of their teachers. This is what spurs them to work hard, endure pretty strenuous schedules and will-ingly meet deadlines. For students to perform, teachers must have charisma. How do they get this charisma? Not by slogging weekly on eight hour a day lec-ture schedules and churning out hundreds of degree holders by the year, but by assiduously attending to research projects. It is because teachers of eminence are engaged in research that the quality of their teaching is different, innovative and inspiring. To argue that teaching is more important than researching will just not do.

Having said this, what are the impediments towards rewarding and encouraging research in the so-called universities of excellence? Singh is quite right when he points out that it is quite self-defeating if a university routinely confirms a fresh recruit after a year of service. Short of committing a serious criminal act, most teachers are confirmed within a year. There is no serious assessment of their contribution as scholars, either as teachers or as resear- chers. In any case, one year is too short a time to make such an evaluation. Yet this is the practice because, as the argument goes, India is a poor country where it is hard to get jobs, so please do not make people feel more insecure than they already are.

It is therefore not enough to quote the Harvard model or the Oxford model or any other model without first making clear what academic work is all about, and how important research is for teach-ing. In order for universities to excel, research must be promoted and rewarded at all levels. The rewards should be such that the time spent in research should be adequately compensated. Only then will people take the risk of getting into academics and not look upon university and college education as a soft and easy way of paying one’s monthly bills.

It should be clear from the start that academics is not for the faint-hearted. This profession only suits those who have a special calling. It is not a job that can be easily bureaucratized, for it must respect individual excellence and promote it. So there are dangers attached to opting for a research/teaching career. But if a person is genuinely motivated towards an academic career, and provided further that universities of excellence really want to do their best, then why should not the most promising minds be drawn to research and teaching? In which case a fresh recruit would have no difficulty in producing good research within the first five to eight years of employment.

In which case again, why should the fear of losing a job loom so large? It is quite normal to expect a bright person who is academically motivated to produce a good piece of work within a period of five to eight years in order to be tenured. There is nothing chancy about this, provided recruitment is done keeping in mind that teaching and research must go hand in hand. In fact it would be most abnormal if a quality recruit did not produce a good piece of research within the first five to eight years of service.

Evaluation should not stop at the entry level either. No university of excellence can afford to have faculty members who go to seed beyond a certain affordable number. There is deadwood in all universities all over the world, but the best retain their reputation by periodically weeding them out at critical academic turnstiles.

Evaluation of the faculty takes place on multiple axes. There is the peer review and then there is also student review. Every faculty member must be subject to both sets of reviews. Once again the cry might go up that subjective elements would creep in and teachers would be victimized and witchhunted. If this charge has any credibility at all then it is simply because the process of evaluation has not been properly worked out and that the institution in question is not clear about what makes a university tick.

In universities like JNU, there is a strong need for periodic wake up calls. In many ways Singh’s note emphasising research, criticizing near automatic confirmation, and the need for assessments by peer group and students is commendable. To reject it out of hand is to exhibit a bunker mentality. At the same time, it is important to take some ground realities into account in order to work out the best modality for attaining high quality teaching and research.

It must be recognized that it is unwise to think in terms of enclaves of excellence without attending to the general problems and attitudes afflicting all institutions of higher learning in our country. If certain universities are set aside and the rest allowed to rot then as surely as Gresham’s law, bad universities will drive out good universities, and bad academics will drive out good ones. The attitude towards higher education needs to be recast first and only then can universities in general and the best among them strive for higher standards.

There should be a broadbased acceptance that teachers too need to be rewarded. The rewards are not monetary as much as moral. To begin an academic career takes a long time. Accordingly, the retirement age too should be later than what it is for most government employees. University academics need time to think and research if they are to realize their potential.

Student-teacher ratios at the post-graduate levels should be fairly high to allow that to happen. University administration should be respectful of research and make it as easy as possible for faculty to add to knowledge in the relevant disciplines. This also means there should be adequate funds, and most important, state-of-the-art library facilities. Without making a significant move on these fronts, it is futile to talk of the Harvard model, or any other model for that matter, in Indian conditions.

The author is professor, Jawaharlal University and principal, KPMG, Peat Marwick    


 
 
BOOK REVIEW / THE EGO HAS ITS OWN MUSE 
 
 
BY RUDRANGSHU MUKHERJEE
 
 
HERBERT VON KARAJAN: A LIFE IN MUSIC
By Richard Osborne,
Pimlico, £ 8.10

It was impossible not to be enthralled by Herbert von Karajan. You could disapprove of his music-making but you would be forced to admit the magnetic quality of his personality. He was larger than life. He was a conductor who had magic in his baton. Sir Isaiah Berlin with his unerring ear for music and language once said of Karajan, “A genius — with a whiff of sulphur about him.” The comment, quoted as one of the epigraphs to Osborne’s rather worshipful biography, cannot be bettered.

Karajan’s life, like his music-making at times, could be a trifle overblown. He was handsome with piercing blue eyes. His looks nurtured all the Aryan myths. He piloted his own jet, parked a 77 foot racing yacht at St Tropez, was fond of fast cars which he drove outrageously fast; to please his third wife, the French fashion model Eliette Mouret, he bought her “first a Picasso, then a Renoir, then a Bellini”

Despite his obvious celebrity status, controversy chased Karajan. It was rooted in his Nazi past. Osborne does his best to clear up this controversy. In his words, “The facts as to when Karajan joined the Nazi party, and why, could be adequately stated on the back of a postcard...Karajan, 27, joined the Nazi party in Aachen in April 1935 in response to a formal request from the head of Aachen’s NS-controlled municipal authority under whose aegis the musical life of the city was organized.” The popular view that Karajan joined of his own volition in 1933 in Salzburg is the product of a “trail of misinformation” by journalists and not the least by Karajan who declared the relevant documents to be forgeries.

The Nazi image and background could not stop Karajan from leading two of the world’s leading orchestras — the Vienna Philharmonic and the Berlin Philharmonic, and the music that he made with them is unforgettable. Players in both orchestras were taken aback by the fact that Karajan always conducted with his eyes closed and without even glancing at the score. But they adjusted to this manifestation of Karajan’s outstanding musical memory and produced under his baton music which at times touched the ethereal.

But behind this music-making was a play of power which seems to be at the opposite pole of the emotions evoked by good music. Osborne underplays this aspect of Karajan even though the documentation of this trait of the conductor is ample. John Eliot Gardiner watching Karajan conducting recalled, “I got the impression from the concertos I attended towards the end of his life that there was something almost evil in the way he exerted the power, and that that was to the detriment of the music. There were no surprises, no moments of joy...everything came came back to himself.” Osborne, a self-confessed admirer, can only counter this judgment with, “One wonders what he heard.” Berlin, a discerning listener, told the author that he thought Karajan was an “ignoble” conductor.

Given the demands of complete dominance on Karajan’s part, his relationships with his orchestras were never smooth. The high water mark came when before the Salzburg Whitsun Festival in 1984, he sacked the Berlin Philharmonic and flew in the Vienna Philharmonic at his own expense. After the concert, he showered the orchestra with roses. Karajan was both booed and cheered when he came on stage. But most listeners were convinced of the excellent quality of the music — Bach’s E major violin concerto (played by Anne-Sophie Mutter with Karajan conducting from the harpsichord) and the C minor symphony of Brahms.

Osborne’s detailed biography, like its subject, pulls in two different directions. The man was colourful but not admirable. The music-making dazzling but the persona threatened often to overwhelm the music. An earlier book on the conductor was called Controlled Ecstasy. With Karajan, the emphasis was always on the first word and the first person singular.

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW / SPIRITED ICONS 
 
 
BY BHASWATI CHAKRAVORTY
 
 
FACES OF THE FEMININE IN ANCIENT, MEDIEVAL, AND MODERN INDIA
Edited by Mandakranta Bose,
Oxford, Rs 545

The editor herself puts forward the obvious question in the preface. “Why, then, do we need another collection of essays?” she asks, since studies on women’s issues is now a major activity in academics and the number of works already present would suggest the field has been exhausted. The project of the volume, she goes on to answer, is to direct the reader to untapped primary sources of information about women’s lives. Of these there is no dearth in the vast field of history, literature and culture that India offers. Even then, the programme for such a collection is not an easy one. But it does succeed in opening up different areas of interest, especially since most of the essays differ in subject-matter, approach and the geographical or cultural terrains they focus on.

The emphasis of the collection, as its title indicates, is on representation. So women from legend, myth, history and religion are a striking presence, and comprise the content of the most engaging essays. The first section, looking at the faces of the feminine from ancient times, examines traditional stereotypes in a search for sources of vitality. The passivity of thepativrata, for example, is questioned in the essay on Anasuya by Vidyut Aklujkar. Through a cogent comparison of texts and an account of the quiet meeting of the elderly Anasuya and a young Sita, the writer brings out the creative potential of the woman devoted to her husband. The irony, of course, is that her devotion to her husband is the source of her enormous power.

It is this interplay of the consciousness of women’s power with an assumption of pervasive male-directed principles that make such representations piquant. Jayatri Ghosh sees the matriarch of the Mahabharata in Satyavati, an underclass woman who became Santanu’s queen and whose beauty, firmness, astuteness and political acumen led to a series of decisions which ultimately caused the Kuru-Pandava war. But even Ghosh’s persuasive thesis does not let the reader forget that Satyavati was actually the illegitimate and rejected daughter of a king.

As interesting are the studies of apparent powerlessness in the stories of Amba and Madhavi by Madhusraba Dasgupta. But the reading of the legend of Amba, reborn as Sikhandini/Sikhandin to avenge herself on Bhisma, suffers a little from the feminist project, as the analysis has no space for ancient perceptions of the sexually ambivalent.

Straddling the first two sections is another important theme of the volume, women and religion. Ranging from research into women’s management of wealth through records of their donations to Hindu, Jain and Buddhist institutions in Tamil Nadu by Leslie Orr, to an effort to reach the sparsely documented, possibly lost, facts of women’s place in Buddhist history by Chapla Verma, this theme shows a stimulating difference of approaches. In the study of the cult of Manasa, the snake goddess, for example, Manasi Dasgupta and Mandakranta Bose meticulously evoke the many social, cultural and gendered forces that go into the construction of a problematic goddess.

Madhu Khanna’s essay on the place of the woman, seen as shakti, in the Sakta tantras, provides a foil to Doris R. Jakobsh’s essay, “The Construction of Gender in History and Religion: The Sikh Case”. Both writers study the changes social arrangements work on religious constructs, and the degree to which intention is defeated by real life demands and perceptions. Khanna’s essay explains the enduring perception of female power in most sections of Hinduism, while Jakobsh’s account records the gradual erasure of the female from the Sikh code.

The powerful Muslim women in the volume, however, are seen primarily through the lens of history, in Mriducchanda Palit’s essay on women in early Mughal politics. Kingmakers, king nurturers, protectors and political advisors, their power is again a force from the background, very like the empowered women in legend and myth.

It is religion, though, that lies behind some of the earliest and richest forms of literary activity by women. The Bhakti cult has generated more than one essay, with two different accounts of the women saints of medieval Maharashtra. This cross-class, cross-caste phenomenon, with extracts from the saints’ compositions, is the focus of Eleanor Zelliot’s piece, while it forms part of the discussion on tradition and change among women in Marathi culture by Suma Chitnis. The second is a brief outline, similar to the last two essays in the book, on women’s activism and the feminist movement in Bengal, by Tripti Chaudhuri and Maitreyi Chatterjee respectively. The inclusion of the last two is a little puzzling.

Transformations of a single figure through legend, folklore, hagiography and a changing history are best shown in Nancy Martin-Kershaw’s essay on Mirabai. Its focus is the absence of a credible biography and the cold trail of facts. That so little is certain about one of the most remarkable poets and composers is a telling comment on the shifting sands on which women establish their identities. A similar phenomenon is exemplified in reverse in the devaluing of Chandravati’s Ramayana. Nabaneeta Dev Sen establishes in her essay on this subject the poet’s deliberate rewriting of the male epic, a creative experiment either ignored or belittled by historians and scholars.

Poets and writers come to the fore in the last or modern section. Karyn Huenemann examines the fiction of Flora Annie Steel, showing how the feminist project was mediated by imperialism, giving rise to stereotypes in a fiction designed to “give” a voice to Indian sisters. In a short essay towards the end, Dev Sen explains the lack of eroticism in vernacular literature by women. The mother tongue stands between them and their creativity like a censorious guardian, carrying the weight of history, tradition and gendered identity. This personally felt account would have made a truly fitting close to the collection.

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW / IN AND OUT OF TIME 
 
 
BY ARNAB BHATTACHARYA
 
 
MISTAKEN MODERNITY: INDIA BETWEEN WORLDS
By Dipankar Gupta,
HarperCollins, Rs 195

Modernity is an ambiguous term, which defies any clear-cut definition. It is at once a concept, a way of life and an attitude — which looks askance at whatever stands as traditional. For the best part of the last century, leading intellectuals directed their endeavours towards sieving through the diverse meanings of this term. The conclusions they arrived at have often been elusive, or grossly dissimilar, and sometimes even mutually exclusive. The puzzle has remained unsolved till date, a time when people across the globe are talking enthusiastically about postmodernism and neocolonialism.

Assisted by giant advances in information technology, we continue to be enveloped by images of modernity. We can hardly contemplate rejecting it. But what does it really mean? Is being “contemporary” synonymous with being “modern”? Is modernity a wholly imported, European concept, or is there something called Indian modernity? Are there any basic tenets on which the idea of modernity is grounded? Or, does it embody a value-structure which can only be developed within some specific cultural set-ups?

Some of these questions are addressed from an “Indian” perspective in Mistaken Modernity: India Between Worlds. In it, the author, Dipankar Gupta, explains the logical premises of the book. The author’s perception of Indian society is explicitly expressed in the following statement: “India is changing rapidly, industrialization and urbanization are growing exponentially, and yet our distinctly unmodern attitude still conditions our social relations.” In the rest of the book, he explores this “unmodern attitude”, traces the reasons behind it and critically examines its impact upon society at large. The essays are, by and large, insightful observations; although, at times, they lack competently constructed theoretical bases.

Gupta points out four basic traits of modernity — dignity of the individual, adherence to universalistic norms, elevation of individual achievement over privileges or disprivileges of birth, and, accountability in public life. He also comes up with a fifth criterion of modernity in the final chapter — this is the ability to trust social institutions. These are the conditions which, as the author demonstrates, the Indian society falls miserably short of fulfilling and thereby fails in being “modern” in a true sense.

He discusses issues of social studies, politics and religion — and does so while allowing for the interconnections between these issues per se and the specificities of the Indian context. The last chapter examines the future prospects for modernization in India. “Modernity”, to him, is a special way of looking at the world, while “modernism” is a globally valid concept. When these two combine, it results in “modernization” which represents a universally applicable system.

The idea that Gupta holds as central to the concept of “modernity” is “intersubjectivity”, which he discusses in detail. This is an idea which asserts the preponderance of the system over personal relationships, of institutions over individuals. This, Gupta maintains, is a precondition for perfect citizenship. But obversely, is this also not, at the same time, a cult of anonymity?

Two sections of people who come under pugnacious attacks in Gupta’s book are the “WOGs” (Westernized Oriental gentlemen) and the militant Hindutvawadis, who are political and religious bigots and cultural bullies. The former is described by a peculiar, portmanteau word — “westoxicated”. Against the latter, Gupta unleashes a tirade and exposes the hideousness of some of their practices — one of which is to make religious martyrs out of political leaders such as Rana Pratap Singh. A scathing attack is also launched against the nature of Indian “democracy”.

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW / CAVALIER ON A HIGH HORSE 
 
 
BY KAUSHIK ROY
 
 
THE EXPLOITS OF BARON DE MARBOT
Edited by C.J. Summerville,
Constable, £ 8.99

Major General Jean Marbot was a hussar (light cavalry trooper) of Napoleon’s Imperial Guards. Before his death in 1854, he published his autobiography. The Exploits of Baron de Marbot is the next edition of Marbot’s memoirs.

Marbot’s speedy narrative conforms with the attitude of the Napoleonic cavalry officers, known for their high-speed mobile warfare. The account shows his rise from a trooper to the rank of a General against the backdrop of Napoleonic warfare. The tone of the book is arrogant — with generous details about Marbot’s wartime achievements and his gallantry with women. Marbot was a professional soldier. Ideology had no role in his life. In modern terminology he would be categorized as an apolitical soldier.

The editor of this book, C.J. Summerville should be praised for not saddling the reader with a heavy, jargon-ridden introduction which would have merely confused them. His sharp insight and unambiguous instruction to the reader not to overinterpret the text are creditable.

After the collapse of Napoleon’s regime, Marbot had no hesitation in joining Napolean’s successors. Under the bourgeois king, Louis Philippe, he became a General and also led the French expedition in Algeria.

Marbot’s memoir largely concerns itself with the most grandiose phase of his career — Napoleon’s Blitzkrieg in Europe. Marbot was posted in the 25th chasseurs regiment, the elite formation within the grande armee. The ideal of a cavalryman was to be a brave warrior as well as a gentleman and Marbot’s reminiscences bear out the fact that he was both.

Marbot was in the chasseurs à cheval, in the highest echelons of the grande armee. The motto of the chasseurs was to charge at the enemy elite formation, shouting “Vive l’Empereur”. And in this milieu, Marbot found himself supremely comfortable. Time and again, he found himself in the thick of the battle. The chasseurs’ duty was to deliver heavy blows that would smash the enemy cavalry. At Austerlitz, Marbot’s regiment clashed with the best men of the of the Russian army and beat them.

Marbot’s account of a retreat from Russia is not only picturesque but in many ways similar to Guderian’s memoir written a century later. Like the Wehrmacht in December 1941, the grande armee was stranded outside Moscow in December 1812. Everything around them was covered with snow. The temperatures dropped to minus 30 degrees centigrade. Men and horses died in droves. Both the panzer armee and the grande armee retreated along the same route — Smolensk, Vilna, Warsaw. Marbot’s chasseurs were assigned the hardest task — the protection of the rear section of the rearguard, against the Cossacks. Owing to the protection offered by the chasseurs, the grande armee could recross the Niemen.

During Napolean’s last battle, Marbot commanded a section of the Imperial Guards, also called the “Immortals”. The guards’ performance would decide the fate of France. Marbot’s cavalry confronted Blucher’s infantry. For two hours, the guards did what was humanly possible. But they could not hold out for too long. They eventually succumbed to the numerically superior Prussians. Immediately, a wave of panic swept over the French army at Waterloo. The cry was “La guardes recule”. The French soldiers started abandoning their positions. The end of Napoleon’s ambitions had arrived.

Summerville’s initial caveat helps the reader. It enables him to easily participate in the purity and vivacity of Marbot’s fascinating account. Those who like to read 19th century English literature just for the fun of it would enjoy the account of this gentleman cavalryman.

   

 
 
BOOKWISE / ON WHY HINDI BOOKS DON’T SELL 
 
 
BY RAVI VYAS
 
 
Some simple facts to begin with. First, 40 per cent of all book titles published in India are in English. The other 60 per cent is shared by the 14 principal languages, Bengali and Malayalam heading the list, with Hindi ranking a poor third.

None of the regional languages can boast of standard textbooks in the different social science subjects for undergraduate courses. What we have are clones or poorly translated, western, outdated textbooks. In science, technology, medicine and other professional courses like law, accountancy/business management, architecture and the rest, there is nothing.

Actually, the case of Hindi, the principal Indian language, is pathetic, although it enjoys a number of advantages as a publishing language. In some form or the other it is used by about 500 million people. But this has not helped in the production of any worthwhile Hindi books on any subject. This, despite the fact that the Central Hindi directorate and six granth akademis or publishing boards have had sufficient funds to pursue their publication programmes over the years. There has been much hype about creative writing in Hindi (and the regional languages) but whatever has appeared in translation has been in the B+ category and not more.

The private sector has not ventured into Hindi publishing with some exceptions like the Hindi Pocket Books, Star Publications and so on. But they have concentrated on pulp fiction (for instance, Gulshan Nanda’s novels, some of which made money when turned into films), exam guides or kunjis. Macmillan India also went into Hindi publishing in the mid-Seventies, but opted out a decade later with a loss of over 10 crore rupees.

Why is regional language publishing, especially Hindi publishing, in the dumps? The market can be cited as the principal reason for this in the non-Hindi speaking states but it is still large enough to sustain modest print runs of a few thousand. After all, Bengali and Malayalam have small but vibrant publishing firms that have managed within the confines of their states. Nor can funds be extended as an excuse. Grants have not been sufficient — they seldom are — but they were sufficient to launch one hardcore programme that could have sustained others by now.

Just why some books sell and others don’t is tricky business but there are four factors that you can’t get away from: relevance, price, discounts and credits. Relevance is hard to define but you could put it down to anything that interests the potential buyer, from instant entertainment to the usefulness of the book for a particular purpose such as getting through exams and competitions.

Prices/discounts/credits are variable factors and can be adjusted to suit the requirements of the customer. All four factors can be taken care of but the greatest handicap is the lack of infrastructure-trade outlets in the Hindi belt. There is no wholesaler-distributor for Hindi titles with its own chain of bookstores.

What then can a publisher do? Make the best he can with what he has and go for direct selling through advertisements, mail-order business and so on. But this can only take care of a section of the print run, and that would hardly recover the costs. Hindi publishers have realized these hazards of marketing and sales and have chosen to diversify into distribution of English books and magazines. The situation is quite grim.

   

 
 
PAPERBACK PICKINGS / SPARKS THAT REFUSE TO KINDLE 
 
 
 
 
PARTICLES, JOTTINGS, SPARKS: THE COLLECTED BRIEF POEMS OF RABINDRANATH TAGORE
Translated by William Radice
(HarperCollins, Rs 195)

William Radice’s Particles, Jottings, Sparks: The Collected Brief Poems Of Rabindranath Tagore is an uninspiring book. It would be dispensable for those who know Bengali, and those who don’t will find Tagore’s short poems almost unreadably clichéd, maudlin and banal in Radice’s English. Tagore reads, in this collection, like a minor Edwardian poet, penning little poems for autograph books: “I’ve never stopped thirsting,/ Searching and travelling,/ Spun so many words,/ Taken on such loads./ Must I keep questing/ For what I’m still lacking?/ Must the pain of unsung songs/ Keep breaking my veena’s strings?” What is the point, one wonders, of such an exercise? Radice’s introduction describes the poems of Kanika, Lekhan and Sphulinga as pellucid, meaningful and mysterious. His translations render them merely trivial.

NUR JAHAN: EMPRESS OF MUGHAL INDIA
By Ellison Banks Findly
(Oxford, Rs 495)

Ellison Banks Findly’s Nur Jahan: Empress Of Mughal India is the paperback edition of the definitive scholarly study of the last and most influential wife of the Mughal emperor, Jahangir. Nur Jahan was an immigrant girl of noble lineage from Kandahar, born on a caravan traveling from Tehran to India. Widowed in 1607, she was taken in as a handmaiden by the imperial harem in Agra. She met the emperor at a palace bazaar in the spring of 1611 and married him a few months later, his 18th and last consort. She took almost complete control of the government as her husband took to alcohol and opium. She minted coins, traded with foreign merchants, managed advancements at court, pioneered developments in art and religion, and laid out many of the Mughal gardens which survive today. Her ruling coalition was toppled by the rebellion of her stepson, Shah Jahan. She was exiled to Lahore, where she lived with her daughter until her death in 1645. This is a story of ambition, power, skill and courtly endurance: “There was nothing she could and did not touch.”

NET OF MAGIC: WONDERS AND DECEPTIONS IN INDIA
By Lee Siegel
(HarperCollins, Rs 295)

Lee Siegel’s Net Of Magic: Wonders And Deceptions In India is a readable and entertaining book about the enduring subculture of Indian magic. A professor of Indian religions in Hawaii and a former member of the International Brotherhood of Magicians, this exotically unpindownable writer has previously written on the comic, macabre and erotic traditions in India. This book is also written in a chameleonic mode, switching voices, perspectives and genres between fiction, travelogue, ethnography and biography. The world captured in it is like a vast Indian Bartholomew Fair, ancient yet vitally contemporary, stretching from the Muslim street conjurers of northern India to the spectacular performances of P.C. Sorcar. This book is “about a human need and longing to be deceived and about the pleasures of deception”.

   

 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

Popularity with a difference

Sir — The article, (“Yash, please!”, Dec 1), by Subhash K. Jha, is a fitting tribute to a renowned film maker who has devoted his career to making films that can be enjoyed by everyone. His latest production, Mohabbatein, has already grossed over Rs 50 crore in the two weeks since its release. While one can understand the popularity of this film among youngsters, one hopes that Chopra will not stop experimenting with new themes from time to time. Even though most of his films are directed at an elitist Indian audience, it is his bolder and more unusual projects that endear him to audiences of a more serious cinema. It is difficult to forget the haunting solemnity of a film like Lamhe or the unforgettable Darr, which catapulted Shah Rukh Khan to stardom. His portrayal of women has been extraordinary. Be it Nanda in the role of a murderess in Ittefaq or that of Rekha and Jaya Bachchan opposite each other in Silsila, or the unusual resolution in Daag, women in his films have been consciously different from their peers.
Yours faithfully,
Debalina Mukherjee, Calcutta

Heights of disagreement

Sir — The news report, “Shillong body to campaign for clean river” (Nov 20), mentions that the Synjuk Ki Sengsamla Shnong, under the able leadership of Jemino Mawthoh, is planning to clean up the Umkhrah river from the village, Nongrah, onwards. This is a step in the right direction. It is good to see that young people are interested in protecting the once beautiful environment around Shillong.

Further downstream from the Umpling village is the Spread Eagles falls, commonly known as Ka Noh Ka Liar. This used to be a popular tourist spot, but right now, lies neglected, dirty and shorn of all the beautiful pine trees that once surrounded it. Could the SSSS include the restoration of the area around the falls as one of their projects?

The army, which has donated unused land around Shillong for public welfare, could also allow the area around the falls to be restored and protected from further housing. The state must pitch in to assist the noble venture.

Yours faithfully,
E.W. Shadap, Shillong

Sir — Christian missionaries have been targetted by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and other Hindu fundamentalist groups on the charge of forced conversion. The report, “Missionary ban in Majuli” (Nov 3), about the letter the VHP has served on Christian missionaries working in Majuli island corroborates this.

The VHP fails to understand the difference between conversion and forced conversion. When people began using tractors after centuries of ploughing the fields with bullocks, it was not a forced conversion, but a voluntary conversion born out of the conviction that tractors are better than bullocks for tilling.

If we can accept the usefulness of tractors or new models of cars or the latest gadgets, isn’t it possible to do the same with a new religion? Don’t Hindu missionaries and the International Society for Krishna Consciousness go to European countries to convert Christians? If some Christians can find in Hinduism or Islam something they did not find in Christianity and convert, why is the same condemned when it is the other way round? If use of force to convert is forbidden, it is equally wrong to use force to prevent conversion.

Yours faithfully,
T. Karthik, Dibrugarh

Sir — Contrary to what is mentioned in the report, “Majuli on edge after pastor assault” (Nov 5), the pastor, Amulya Pegu, was not beaten up, only threatened with dire consequences by Baba Doley for being Christian and for defying the VHP diktat. Pegu withdrew the police complaint following the apology offered by Doley. Father Alex, the principal of St Paul’s school, Jengraimukh, has neither received a letter from the VHP, nor lodged any complaint at the Jengraimukh police station as mentioned in the news item.

To the best of my knowledge, the VHP has not banned entry of missionaries in Majuli villages.

Yours faithfully,
Alex Kapiarumala, Jengraimukh, Majuli

Sir — In the news item, “Clash of faiths” (Nov 14), the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has been quoted as saying, “The church was always part of the Western army...as it has a special interest in the Northeast... and they want a base in the strategic area to establish military bases. All this is politics in the name of religion.”

The RSS has failed to substantiate its allegations. Noted for its inability to cite facts, the RSS indulges in pompous platitudes in its allegations against the church. These accusations are directed at covering up its root in caste politics, namely, the purpose of keeping the low castes, tribals and Dalits eternally undeveloped, uneducated and unemployed.

What is particularly appalling is the allegation that the church was always part of the Western army. This charge is meant to cover up the fascist origin of the RSS. K.B. Hedgewar founded the RSS in 1952 at Nagpur along fascist lines. As a close friend of Hedgewar, Balakrishna Shivaram Moonje personally met Benito Mussolini in Italy. Also, the founding fathers of the RSS had words of praise for both Adolf Hitler and Mussolini.

The church, on the other hand, looked after two and a half lakh victims of the ethnic conflict that broke out in 1996 in Kokrajhar, with medicines, clothes, shelter, and rehabilitation in relief camps.

It has been reported in certain sections of the press that the VHP trains 10,000 fulltime armed personnel to check violent conversions into Christianity. Also, M.S. Golwalkar, Hedgewar’s successor, had organized a paramilitary brigade called Ram sena. Thus it seems it is the sangh parivar that aims at a military base, the church does not.

Yours faithfully,
Joseph S. Kulathunkal, Dibrugarh

Sir — The headline of the news item, “After sheep, cloned bananas” (Nov 11), is misleading and bound to create confusion among general readers.

The research leading to the production of cloned sheep was a major scientific breakthrough, which cannot be compared with the micropropagation of bananas. The micropropagation technology is not something new. While the establishment of the Tata Energy Research Centre in Guwahati is welcome, it must be mentioned that research on the micropropagation of fruit trees and forestry species has already been carried out in several scientific institutions, including the Assam Agricultural University.

In general, banana is clonally propagated through suckers. The micropropagation of banana using tissue culture has now been adopted for obtaining large quantities of disease-free planting material within a short period. The protocol for banana micropropagation has been standardized by several Indian laboratories and marketed by several Indian agro-based industries. The micropropagation work of Malbhog and Jahaji cultivars has already been standardized by the department of agricultural biotechnology, AAU, Jorhat, in 1998. Thus the work is hardly exclusive in nature.

The micropropagation of local citrus cultivars like Khasi Mandarin, Assam lemon, gol nemu and many others has also been standardized at AAU. The regenerated virus-free planting materials have been distributed to the growers of the Northeast by AAU.

Yours faithfully,
P.C. Deka, Dean, faculty of agriculture, Assam Agricultural University, Jorhat

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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