Editorial 1 / Reform bank
Editorial 2 / Rural tides
Private wealth, public duty
Book Review / Made vivid in the telling
Book Review / No will to quit
Book Review / In the arms of an obsession
Book Review / Patriot games gone awry
Bookwise /Books on the screen
Paperback Pickings / Awakenings at home and in the world
Letters to the editor

 
 
EDITORIAL 1 / REFORM BANK 
 
 
 
 
The Reserve Bank of India governor, Mr Bimal Jalan, addressed the conference of bank economists in Delhi. Most popular interest will focus on what Mr Jalan had to say about the inflation rate, and consequently, about the interest rate. Although the wholesale price index on point to point basis has increased to 8.16 per cent in the week ending December 30 and has been increasing continuously, Mr Jalan argued that core inflation is comfortable at 3.4 per cent. While there may be debates about the appropriate definition of “core” inflation, in a trade-off between growth and inflation, there is no denying that growth, or its lack, is more of a worry than inflation. A failure of reforms has been the slashing of public investments. But in the recent past, private investments have also flagged, understandable because of excess capacity in manufacturing. There is thus not much evidence of either equity or debt finan- cing being in demand. However, had there been such demands, high real interest rates would be a legitimate concern. The governor refused to be drawn out on any imminent interest rate cuts. Real interest rates are unlikely to decline as long as the pre-emption of bank funds through cash reserve ratio and statutory liquidity ratio requirements and priority sector credit continues, as long as the government guarantees high rates to small savings and until efficiency of the banking system improves. This is where the governor’s other comments become pertinent. The RBI will issue more stringent norms for disclosure and better asset liability and risk management, to be tightened further when the Bank for International Settlements introduces stricter prudential norms.

There is concern at the high level of non-performing assets in banks and they are probably higher still, because NPAs are not yet transparent. While the RBI’s one-time settlement scheme helps to reduce NPAs, the Narasimham committee had recommended zero net NPAs and this is nowhere in sight. The pressure will mount further when stricter prudential norms are introduced. Reduction of NPAs also has a role in bringing down interest rates. Banks need more capital in view of NPAs, the voluntary retirement schemes and simple inflation, which means more capital infusion to keep present operations functioning. Expansion of operations requires even more capital infusion. The issue is the source of this capital.

Mr Jalan mentioned that the government has already pumped in Rs 20,400 crores as fresh capital infusion in public sector banks and budgetary constraints imply an inability to introduce such bailouts in the future. Hence, public sector banks will have no choice but to access capital markets and this is precisely the reason the government sought to bring down government equity to 33 per cent. However, banks are not companies registered under the Companies Act. The two nationalization acts of 1970 and 1980 have clauses so that the government retains control even if equity is down to 33 per cent. There is thus not likely to be much demand for papers issued by public sector banks. In fact, for the ones that are listed, there is an interesting contrast with private sector banks. Private sector banks have high valuation, but share prices of public sector banks are much lower than issue prices. While the RBI governor is right in warning public sector banks that they will have to perform to survive, the government has not yet removed all the shackles. The ball is in the finance minister’s court.

   

 
 
EDITORIAL 2 / RURAL TIDES 
 
 
 
 
An ideal world would have a polity elected through direct democracy. But India is nobody’s utopia. It has too many problems, too much diversity and innumerable contentious issues. Above everything else, it has far too many people. These factors make impossible even the conception of direct democracy. The formation of panchayats and other elected bodies at the village level are steps towards making common people responsible for regulating their own lives. Panchayats decentralize decision-making and take the lives of people outside the ambit of state domination. Mr Digvijay Singh, the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, has taken the step to go beyond panchayats. The existing panchayati raj has a three-tiered structure — and zilla. On January 26, a fourth tier will be added in Madhya Pradesh. The project is named Gram Swarajya and aims to make around 70,000 villages politically, socially and economically autonomous. It will make every member of the rural population responsible for governance.

Theoretically, it means that every village with the full involvement of all its inhabitants will take and implement its own decisions. This may sound super on paper. But real decisions are not always so easily taken. A decision taken by a village under the Gram Swarajya scheme might impinge on the life of another village which may be located outside Madhya Pradesh. This will inevitably involve inter-state parleys and negotiations and might entail decisions over which villagers have no control. It needs to be remembered that when Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi spoke of self-regulating village communities, he did not have in mind a modern polity mediated by various institutions. He spoke of village communities which governed themselves in isolation. Such an idea cannot be grafted on to a modern polity. This is the problem with the concept of panchayati raj and its ramifications. Its advocates never take the radical step, as Gandhi did, of jettisoning the entire edifice of modern administration. In a modern state, management of water resources, creation and maintenance of transport networks and so on call into existence structures of administration which are supra-village. Mr Singh’s intentions are not in doubt, but their viability is open to question.

   

 
 
PRIVATE WEALTH, PUBLIC DUTY 
 
 
BY SANJIB BARUAH
 
 
On December 30, 2000, when a relatively unknown American multimillionaire, John D. Hollingsworth, died at the age of 83, he left nearly half his estate to a little-known institution — Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina. Hollingsworth was a student at Furman, but only for a year. He dropped out from college and did not graduate. He then proceeded to make a fortune as an industrialist. Apart from the profits of his company, Hollingsworth’s estate includes 40,000 acres of prime land, itself valued at $ 400 million. In the Nineties he was on the Forbes magazine’s list of the world’s 500 richest people.

Individual donations are the life-blood of American higher education. While private universities and colleges have depended on them as their primary source of revenue, public universities and colleges in the United States also rely significantly on gifts. Rather than purely public or private institutions, the preferred model, increasingly, is of a public-private partnership. Universities and colleges are not the only institutions to benefit from charitable contributions. Cultural institutions like museums and symphony orchestras in the US are also funded by such contributions.

In India today, universities face a difficult and unfamiliar fiscal environment. Many of them have suffered significant budget cuts. Many university libraries have had to cut back on journal subscriptions and book purchases that would have a serious impact on faculty and student research. Often the shrinking budgets can pay for little more than the salaries of faculty and staff. The era of government as the primary funder of higher education in India is clearly over.

Educational administrators are being told to turn to private sources. But what does it mean? A few departments can secure research grants in certain applied fields from corporations. But that is hardly an answer to the fiscal crunch. After all, research grants cannot pay for the bulk of an university’s operations; and corporations are unlikely to be that interested in fields like basic sciences, literature, arts and the social sciences

Another development in India is the emergence of private colleges and universities that charge hefty tuition and ask even for “donations” in exchange for admission. These institutions are profit-making ventures and are unlikely to be an answer to India’s higher education needs. Recently some institutions such as a few Indian Institutes of Technology, however, have been lucky to attract a few large contributions from alumni who have done well as entrepreneurs, especially in the Silicon Valley.

But the measures have been far too tentative as a response to the fiscal challenges that Indian higher education face. We may have to refashion our universities to promote public-private partnership. Even that may not be enough; what we may need in addition is nothing short of a revolution in social values. Some American examples may be helpful for Indian discussions of how Indian higher education can adapt to the new era of reduced government spending.

A particularly successful example of public-private partnership in the US is the New York Public Library. While it is a public library, it describes itself as “a private not-for-profit institution that relies on the support of individuals, corporations and foundations to help ensure that it remains free to millions of people who visit in person or via the web each year.” It is an institution where anyone can walk in to read. While most 85 branch libraries are funded by the city of New York, 70 per cent of the operations of the four research libraries and many projects of the branch libraries are funded by private philanthropy.

The magnificent Beaux-Arts building on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street that most New Yorkers refer to as the New York Public Library houses the humanities and social science library that is mostly funded by private endowments and gifts. This world-class research collection housed in this building has some 15 million items. The free access makes it one of the most remarkable resources in the world. When I recently looked for books on Assam in its catalogue, I found 998 entries; Assamese literature had 85 entries. And when I looked for books on Assam history, the works of all the major historians such as H.K. Barpujari, S.K. Bhuyan, Edward Gait and Amalendu Guha were all there.

The organizational structure of American universities and colleges reflect their mode of financing. American educational and cultural institutions have a development office that is specifically in charge of raising funds. In addition, one of the main functions of a university or a college president (the equivalent of Indian vice-chancellors and college principals) is fund-raising. The board of trustees of a university includes major benefactors of the institution. Public universities may have an office to coordinate relations with the state government. The financial foundation of a private institution is its endowment; it is an institution’s invested capital that generates funds that can be used in perpetuity. Often, an university or a college begins as someone’s substantial gift that takes the form of an endowment. Cornell University, for instance, began in 1865 with a $500,000 gift from Ezra Cornell in the form of shares in the Western Union Telegraph Company. Over the years thousands of donors have added to that initial endowment which now amounts to $3.4 billion.

The endowment is invested in shares, bonds and other financial assets. Apart from the unrestricted endowment earnings that may support the general operating budget — from faculty salaries, libraries to sports teams. Additional endowments may support particular professorships, academic programmes or scholarships. The development office of an institution has many complex functions. An alumni office, for instance, devotes itself to maintaining relations with former students. Of course one cannot suddenly expect Indian vice-chancellors to be able to convince people to give money to universities. But even in the US context, as Leon Botstein, the leading American educator and president of Bard College, puts it, “giving money away has always been counter-intuitive.”

How has the US succeeded in building a public-private partnership in education and culture? The US tax code creates incentives for giving that have made the phenomenon of building public institutions with private money possible. Most American tax-payers take some deductions for charitable contributions every financial year. But one feature of the tax code that enables the US to mobilize private resources for the public good is the death tax.

When a person dies, 55 cents of every dollar goes to the government as estate tax. What that means especially for the rich is that as they grow old and face the inevitability of death, they try to reduce the amount of money that they know will pass on to the government after they die. This aspect of the US tax code is hardly accidental. The US may be seen worldwide as the heartland of capitalism, but what has historically set the US apart from advanced capitalist countries in Europe is its disdain for aristocracy. A person may be entitled to all the wealth and property that he or she earns, but there is (or at least has been in the past) significant ambivalence about inherited wealth. Americans tolerate inequities in wealth, because in Leon Botstein’s words, “there is a partial transfer of wealth from private hands to the public sector with the passing of each generation.” The estate tax, as he puts it, has been a “reliable restraint on selfishness and an inspiration to civic duty.”

In India, creating an atmosphere where people — rich and middle-class — would give money to secular institutions may require nothing less than a cultural revolution. Most Indians — irrespective of how large their personal wealth — assume that their wealth will go to no one else but their children (or perhaps more accurately, their sons). When we make charitable donations, it is more likely to be to temples, mosques and churches than to secular public institutions. Nevertheless, the tradition of giving to public institutions is hardly absent. In the sphere of higher education, one only has to look at the large number of privately established colleges — most of which, unfortunately, later seek subsidy from the government.

Can India build public universities with private money? India has embraced liberalization and capitalism. It will be unfortunate if we accepts capitalism’s ways of creating private wealth, but do not bother about capitalism’s ways of building public institutions. We cannot have it both ways. If we turn to the market for our private prosperity, we will also have to think of ways to “restrain selfishness and inspire civic duty”.

The author is professor of political science at Bard College, Annandale on Hudson, New York, US    


 
 
BOOK REVIEW / MADE VIVID IN THE TELLING 
 
 
BY BHASWATI CHAKRAVORTY
 
 
THE VINTAGE BOOK OF LATIN AMERICAN STORIES
Edited by Carlos Fuentes and Julio Ortega
Vintage, $ 14

Moving from the Latin American novel to the short story is a startling experience. It would not have been possible to believe that the magic and the power, the intermingling of fable and history, of vivid character and amazing landscape that dominate the throbbing canvas of the novel can be accommodated in the brief flash of the short story. Yet the writers represented in the volume do just that and both the foreword by Carlos Fuentes and the introduction by Julio Ortega help to explain how that has been made possible.

What Fuentes’s foreword emphasizes is the self-consciousness of Latin American writing. It springs from a deep need to speak, to constantly make and remake worlds that can capture, if even for a moment, the dynamic coalescence of history, imagination and everyday erosion through which communities survive. “Deprive a society of its words or its memory, of its speech or its desires,” he writes, “and you are easy prey to false illusions, providential leaderships and other traditional ills of the Latin American society.”

With this “placing”, it is easy to explain the exquisitely honed sophistication of the Latin American short story, and perhaps the fact that so many stories in this volume are directly or indirectly, about writing itself. Bad writing is central to the narrator’s response to his interlocutor in Jorge Luis Borges’s “The Aleph”, and a disturbing component in the narrator’s mystified lack of sympathy for the sick girl in Filisberto Hernández’s “The Balcony”. Good writing leaves the narrator, honoured for books he has not written, baffled and ultimately desolate in Rodolfo Hinostroza’s “The Benefactor”. Letters and journals, the “truth-telling” genres, construct fiction to draw new truths out of the formlessness of life, and a novelist must first turn himself into a murderer before he can write a story of murder. In distinguishing between the novel and the short story, Fuentes says that in the latter “the epiphany must coincide with the very time of the tale”. The epiphany in these stories occurs because the act of writing affects the characters’ relationships and, more significantly, their understanding of their worlds.

The tradition of magic realism is obvious and strong. The oneiric quality is seldom absent, even in an almost realistic story like Clarice Lispector’s “Love”, where there is no startling change of plane as in Antonio Benítz Rojo’s “Scissors”. This is the world of myth-making, and Gabriel García Márquez’s “The Handsomest Drowned Man” tells of the making of a myth and its transformation into the history of a community. Communities are held together by shared memory, just as characters meet and separate within the context of their conflicting memories and histories. Angeles Mastretta’s “Aunt Jose” depicts the exchange between history and action when Aunt Jose’s daughter, “with eyes like two moons, as big as wishes”, revives from a mysterious disease when told the stories of her ancestors, “who they had been, which women wove their lives together with which men, before she and her daughter were united at mouth and navel...who sowed, with intrepidity and fantasies, the life it was up to her to extend.”

The worlds of the stories shift between the differing perceptions of men and women. The themes are familiar: love, sex, greed, death, failure — but are rendered richly strange in the telling. Is Luisa Valenzuela’s “Panther Eyes” a story of love or the supernatural, of comic hallucination or penetrating symbolism? The author offers alternative endings.

The Latin American writer is often a reader’s writer, allusive and scholarly, traversing the wide field from Woody Allen to Einstein, Bukhara to Luvina. The stories, too, range from the early 20th century to the Nineties. In spite of the differences in style and theme, the collection represents a unique consistency, a tragi-comic, questioning, eager experience of life. As if the writers are constantly striving to recreate what the narrator glimpsed in “The Aleph”: “That secret, hypothetical object whose name has been usurped by men but which no man has ever truly looked upon: the inconceivable universe.”

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW / NO WILL TO QUIT 
 
 
BY MADHUMITA BHATTACHARYYA
 
 
THE MAMMARIES OF THE WELFARE STATE
By Upamanyu Chatterjee,
Viking, Rs 395

“First the job didn’t make sense, and I thought then, when it does, I’ll settle down. When it did, it didn’t help, I’d always be wondering, thinking chaotically of alternatives...”

Agastya Sen, eight years ago. By the end of English, August, the 24 year old no longer knew why he was stuck in the anachronistic Indian administrative services. Or the dead and decaying Madna, a town that offered nothing for the half-Goan-half-Bengali city boy with a craving for “sex and marijuana”.

The charm of English, August was its humour, most of which lay in “August” or Agastya’s reactions to an environment which appalled him. It was an understated horror designed to jolt without sentimentality. But August has disappeared in favour of Agastya in The Mammaries of the Welfare State, eight years older and too much a part of the “Steel Frame” of bureaucracy to provoke thought through contrasts.

Upamanyu Chatterjee’s 1988 novel was titled English, August: An Indian Story. August was the blueprint for the Indian Urban Male everywhere. His culture shock in Madna was one we could identify with, and laugh at. But in the sequel, both the humour as well as the critique are lost in favour of a tediously long chronicle. And though Chatterjee appears to be attempting a revelation of the extent of corruption embedded in our country’s administrative, political, social and even cultural machinery, the result is simply revolting.

Instead of being an exposé of the personal growth (or decay, if you will) of Agastya, the book is a desperate attempt to amuse through a series of tales too long, too uninteresting and lacking too much in humour to be called anecdotes. Agastya is no longer Chatterjee’s protagonist. He is somewhat incidental to the plot. For the most part, the narrative jumps from one debauched bureaucrat to another, with a nauseating attention to detail.

A sample: “A shaved pubes the colour of toffee and a black and fat tool. He tweaked back the foreskin and didn’t notice the rich rings of crud beneath it before his tongue slithered out to tease the pink head.

Aaaaaarrgghhhhhhh. The pong of Chamundi’s penis flung him back…Ggrrraaaaaaghhhhhhh.”

The chief revenue divisional commissioner of Madna, Raghupati, assaulting his massage boy, Chamundi.

And though Raghupati is the most offensive of the lot, the length of the chapter devoted to him gives one the impression that Chatterjee is quite fond of him. “Conduct Unbecoming of a Civil Servant” stretches on for 49 taxing pages. Not a word effortless, and much of it wholly unnecessary.

Chatterjee of course, tries to give us a reason for Raghupati’s actions: a hunger for power that, in various degrees, drives all officials of the “Steel Frame”. Ejaculating on a memorandum, he squeals: “Yes, blobs of spunk on dust and cockroach shit!…When someone grovels for your favour and you can jerk off on his entreaty — that is shakti.”

This is the impression of the welfare state we carry away at the end of the novel. Agastya is now a part of this world, for his internal struggle has ceased. He is now immune, having achieved a detached acceptance, even appreciation of the system, assuring him a berth in its brotherhood.

Yes, we are told that he escapes as often as he can. An evening of dope-smoking culminates in a rare glimmer of truth, early in the novel, when the middle-aged advertising executive, Daya, with whom he is involved, asks him: “Why then did you become a civil servant in the first place?”

His answer: “Because…one is likelier to know somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody who knows a cop. Or so I believed eight years ago. Now…I know the government can fuck you bad even if you’re part of it — unless you suck, suck, suck.” The pseudo-anglicized boy knows now the rules of bureaucracy. He has all the necessary armour in place.

To be fair, Agastya still does not accept bribes. But his answer to an attempt to buy him is to jump on his bicycle, ride to a slum, and hand over the money to a suitably attractive dweller. After thieves promptly relieve her of her burden, “Ogu” (as his father calls Agastya) is provided with the opportunity to give valiant chase on his bicycle. Is this his strategy to champion the cause of the “Great Unwashed”?

The inertia of will pervading the world he inhabits has irrevocably permeated his psyche. “But I like it here,” he protests, when asked why he continues with the IAS. “And quit and go where? The more years one spends in the civil service, the more competent one becomes to remain in it.” Chatterjee seems bent on proving the system at fault for the deterioration of August, but statements of this sort are clichés that fail to impress.

But most disruptive is the complete absence of any structural harmony in the book. The fates of the plethora of characters, presented in a most random, episodic fashion, are difficult to track, never having engaged any real interest of the reader in the first place. The few chapters dealing directly with Agastya hold one’s attention feebly. The only interesting character in the novel, Rajani Suroor, a street-theatre group leader who knows his way around the Steel Frame, is comatose for the majority of the novel.

“In my eight years of service,” explains Agastya, “I haven’t come across a single case in which everybody concerned didn’t try to milk dry the boobs of the Welfare State… But I suppose that’s what the boobs are there for.” For all its cynical realism, glaring for its absence is an honest look at the man for whom the “system” has been designed — the man on the streets without access to the welfare “udder” because he lacks the necessary tools of manipulation; the man for whom, after the spoils are divided, remains nothing.

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW / IN THE ARMS OF AN OBSESSION 
 
 
BY SHAMS AFIF SIDDIQI
 
 
THE PROFESSOR OF LIGHT
By Marina Budhos,
IndiaInk, Rs 250

It is a mystery how novelists can juggle with diverse subjects through the various techniques available in fiction writing and still manage to come up with readable books. The Professor of Light is a novel with a difference. Although both the subject and its treatment are a little offbeat, the novelist, Marina Budhos, has come out with a book that will ensure a sustained interest on the part of the reader throughout the length of the novel.

The book combines philosophy and passion, lost history of families and growing up, the east and the west, and, philosophical thoughts and human relationships, in a strange web, that is both puzzling and gripping. Though perhaps not consciously, the novelist is obviously influenced by Virginia Woolf’s novel, To The Lighthouse. Light and the imagery that it can create have a significant role in this novel.

Marina Budhos, who lives in New York, has two other published works to her credit, apart from the fact that she has been a Fulbright lecturer in India. This experience must have left an imprint on her mind because it finds a reflection in her description of people and places.

But what remains most remarkable is the subject itself. It is the story about “light”, an idea that the protagonist, Warren Singh, is obsessed with. He eventually wants to write a book about his relationship with light.

Warren has a small family comprising his American wife, Sonia, his nine year old daughter, Meggie, and himself. He takes them every summer for a holiday to Sudbury, a small town in England. Here, apart from meeting old friends and acquaintances, he manages to scribble notes about his philosophical findings. In course of time, Warren’s obsession with light affects other people too, especially young Meggie, who remains under its spell till the end.

Throughout the book, light has been used as a symbol like the “lighthouse” was by Virginia Woolf. Interestingly, Warren’s and Meggie’s intimacy with light makes them remain strangers to the world of sexual pleasure. Warren is confronted by two women on different occasions, but he remains cold. Meggie too has similar experiences.

The novel starts in a dramatic way with the family journeying to England. A number of characters, belonging to what was once British Guyana, are slowly introduced at this point. The novel immediately acquires a vitality. And, though the actual sequences happen in Sudbury and Cambridge, a whole world opens out in the mind of the reader, which ranges from the Caribbean Islands to India, Guyana and England.

As some of the characters try to dig into their roots, which are spread across continents, and into their pasts, they develop relationships among themselves. These intricate relationships add several twists to the tale. And all along each of the characters is encompassed by the one force that binds them all — light.

The search for the meaning of light that Warren undertakes is a search that others are also conducting in their own ways. Sonia yearns for Warren’s company but when that is denied, she lands in the arms of Ron Cone, much to the embarrassment of the now-teenaged Meggie.

It is strange how, despite Meggie’s closeness to two teenaged boys, her life remains devoid of any sexual happiness. Budhos makes us pry into the dark world of adulthood through the innocent eyes of the child, Meggie.

Warren’s life comes to a pathetic end but that end too releases a kind of light for Sonia and Meggie. At the end of the novel new lives begin for the women.

The Professor of Light is a fascinating book that delves into the strange philosophical and emotional worlds of its characters, with possibly the latter predominating. In short, it is a well-written and perfectly readable book.

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW / PATRIOT GAMES GONE AWRY 
 
 
BY ARUNJYOTI BASU
 
 
THE PRINCES OF INDIA IN THE ENDGAME OF EMPIRE 1917-1947
By Ian Copland,
Cambridge, Rs 795

Indian princes, from the salacious to the serious, have always been written and read about. Readers are invariably interested in sordid personal details and intrigues. Ian Copland’s authoritative work, The Princes of India in the Endgame of Empire: 1917-1947, mainly presents the political lives of the princes of the late colonial period, and, unless necessary, skirts the personal, intimate details.

This has made the book a bit of a dry read but in terms of scholastic achievement it is a work of worth. It gives us an idea about the kind of lives the princes led in India especially during the final years of colonial rule, the various influences they had and how their presence worked on the thinking of the native political elite.

The princes came into their own after the 1857 “mutiny” and had reached the pinnacle of political participation for about three decades between 1917 and 1947. This period also coincided with the flourishing of the chamber of princes.

The fundamental mistake the princes made was that they considered their political role and the treaties they signed to be sacrosanct. Such was their faith in British justice that they deemed it an impossibility that the Crown would ever forsake them. But this is exactly what happened.

Copland says, “...when the British quit India in August 1947 they severed all but a couple of purely ceremonial ties with the princes, leaving their erstwhile allies to make the best bargain they could with the new Congress government in New Delhi. Within twenty-one months the princes had been toppled from their thrones and the states integrated into the bosom of the Indian union.”

However, the strength of this work lies in the fact that the author conducts a detailed historical study and shows that contrary to popular belief, the princes were not mere puppets in the hands of the British. There may have been bad rulers and rulers who could not stomach dissent, but vicious rulers were rare among them. The author calls the vast majority “a decent bunch”.

Ian Copland has given a detailed account of the idea of a federation (an idea which caught the imagination of the major princes with the prodding of some of their ministers) which “would allow princes to widen their horizons, extend their power and enhance their prestige and status.” In the end the princes’ bid for power failed because the India office was convinced that the experiment would not work and the British Conservative Party was divided in its opinion.

As it became palpable after World War II that India would be free (and very soon), it became clear, even to its diehard supporters, that the princely order would not survive. The nationalist pressures from the provinces became intense and there was no stopping internal dissent. Bloody clashes erupted in many states.

This happened at a time when the princes desperately needed friends. Then of course, there was the schism between the big states and the small ones and the differences which cropped up between Hindu and Muslim rulers — inevitable, as some would say.

The princes had their chances, as the author shows, but they squandered them, letting their petty differences ruin any hopes of their sticking together. If they had been able to do this, they could broker a reasonable settlement with the new government. The author bolsters his study with cross-checks and footnotes while carefully managing to avoid cluttering up his work with banal information.

The critical role played by some state ministers is examined in detail, as are the attitudes of the various viceroys. This book will throw scholarly light on the late colonial period, which is critical to the understanding of India’s history. However, a few maps would have helped the readers.

   

 
 
BOOKWISE /BOOKS ON THE SCREEN 
 
 
BY RAVI VYAS
 
 

Let’s face the harsh realities of the marketplace. Almost all first-time authors find it extremely difficult to find a traditional publisher who will accept, print and distribute their books. So what do they do? Unknown to the general reading public, they pay the publisher the cost of production because an unknown author is not likely to turn in a profit. Increasingly, this is how many authors are getting their books into print and getting recognized in the literary world.

With the spread of the internet culture, authors are experimenting in another way — with just a little money to set up a website they are putting their books online. A recent example is Stephen King, who posted his horror novella in instalments that could be read and downloaded at a dollar per piece. But King was disappointed and the question therefore is: will online publishing be successful in the long run?

The postmodern definition of a book is: it is a collection of words that has been written and published, either on paper or screen. By this logic, what is put out on the screen is a book and has to be treated as such — its success or failure is measured by the number of times the site is visited by readers.

But, will screen reading work — especially for the author whose manuscripts have been rejected by traditional publishers — and will readers pay to visit the site?

For the much-rejected author, the internet comes as a boon. With adequate publicity, like advertisements, the ground could be prepared for the potential readers to visit the site. The argument is that if the content and publicity are of quality, there is no reason why the site would not be visited by internet users.

Experience, however, tells a different story. To begin with, consumers may visit the site for its novelty but will it be a sustained interest? There is not much to go by. But online editions of several newspapers and magazines that started off by charging subscriptions have not been able to get renewals. This could be because the over-thirties generation has not taken to screen reading in a big way. Or, because nobody wants to download hundreds of pages and carry around loose sheets of paper. Whatever the case, if newspapers and magazines can be taken as indicators, then books on the internet will probably not work.

There is another problem. With more and more authors putting their books online, there is a strong possibility that the editorial process that separates the publishable from the unpublishable will be considerably weakened. Most authors are not the best judges of their own works; editors need to chisel their work before they are ready for publication. Besides, there is another danger in cyberspace. Because there are no physical limitations, authors tend to overwrite without realizing that the screen reader does not have all the time in the world.

The final considerable difficulty involves making money. How do authors ensure that they get paid for their work when large companies have not been able to renew their subscriptions? If newspapers and magazines like the New York Times, Washington Post, The Economist and a few others have continued with online publishing, it is because online losses have been offset by increased advertisement revenue through their print publications. Individual authors don’t have any such cushions to fall back on.

   

 
 
PAPERBACK PICKINGS / AWAKENINGS AT HOME AND IN THE WORLD 
 
 
 
 
FIRST LIGHT
By Sunil Gangopadhyay
(Penguin, Rs 395)

Sunil Gangopadhyay’s First Light is Aruna Chakravarti’s translation of the sequel to Sei Samai, a major historical novel in Bengali set in mid-19th century Bengal. First Light takes this “mega-narrative” up to the 1910s, showing the first stirrings of the nationalist struggle in Bengal. Gangopadhyay’s vision interlaces history and fiction, bringing to imagined life such legendary figures as Ramkrishna, Vivekananda, the men and women of the Thakur family and the actress, Binodini. There are also the purely fictional characters — the bondmaid, Bhumisuta, the bastard prince, Bharat or the fallen Basantamanjari. At the heart of the novel is the young poet, Rabindranath, a key figure in the novel’s depiction of the emergence of Bengali modernity. His tragically passionate attachment to his sister-in-law, Kadambari Devi, and a complex, but non-judgmental, imagining of his life in the family, as husband and father, fill out the narrative of his intellectual evolution and influence. The translation is disappointing though, with Chakravarti’s rather tinsel English often unable to capture the gravity of the original, pulling its register down a notch or two closer to a more popular variety of historical romance.

INDIA'S COMMUNICATION REVOLUTION
By Arvind Singhal and Everett M. Rogers
(Sage, Rs 250)

Arvind Singhal and Everett M. Rogers ‘s India's Communication Revolution presents a picture of “paradox, contradiction and uncertainty”. India is still far from being an “information society”; but with a significant number of its workers employed in the information sector, it provides fascinating opportunities for analysing the social impact of the new technologies, including their crucial role in the development process. This study looks at the revolution in the spheres of communication, public broadcasting and private television. It also studies the growth of entrepreneurship and the networking between Silicon Valley and India.

RITES OF PASSAGE: BORDER CROSSINGS, IMAGINED HOMELANDS, INDIA'S EAST AND BANGLADESH
By Sanjoy Hazarika
(Penguin, Rs 295)

Sanjoy Hazarika’s Rites of Passage: Border Crossings, Imagined Homelands, India’s East and Bangladesh is an effort to place the Bangladeshi migrations into India, especially into Assam, in a multidisciplinary approach, merging narrative and analysis. Hazarika starts with examining the pressures that make people move across borders and thresholds, the places they go to and how they are received there. He then goes on to analyse the dynamics and tragedy of the Bangladesh-Assam/Northeast situation, based on extensive fieldwork and oral testimony. He ends by suggesting policy alternatives — what can and must be done. Hazarika seeks to record and affirm the voices of the “extremely pragmatic” people on either side of the border, who have a lucid vision of their own predicament and despair of this vision ever being understood by political leaders.

   

 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

Wedding tales

Sir — I was astonished to see the kind of coverage major Calcutta dailies gave to the wedding of Jhumpa Lahiri. She is a Pulitzer prize winner and maybe a celebrity in her own right, but does that justify the near hysteria whipped up by the press? Lahiri does not consider herself to be an Indian, let alone a Bengali. She does not know the Bengali culture and literature. Then why this show of attachment to her roots for the wedding? It is more to add a touch of ethnic polish to her international stature or to make it to the cover pages of magazines than any strong “attachment” to roots which prompted the choice. What surprises me is the kind of frenzy the “paparazzi” created, in spite of the dogs that were stated to have greeted them. Which other country would have seen this kind of frantic pseudo-enthusiasm, especially when the event in question is the wedding of a literary personality? Are we so starved of icons that Lahiri, along with her husband, has to be splashed in colour across the front pages of newspapers?
Yours faithfully,
Anirban Sarkar, Calcutta

Extreme distress

Sir — Ramachandra Guha’s article, “The stamp of ugliness” (Dec 30), was in bad taste. Guha does not seem to have full knowledge of the recent strike by postal employees associated with various leftist trade unions. It is a pity that he thinks leftists have been “saffronized”. The strike was withdrawn by the unions after much negotiation with the government. His knowledge of Tarun Vijay seems particularly limited. Vijay is simply the editor of the weekly, Panchajanya, which is run by a trust called Bharat Prakashan.

The river Sindhu, although it flows in Pakistan, is still sacred to millions of people in this country. Guha might have forgotten his forefathers, but, thankfully, the people of this country haven’t. “Sindhu Darshan” is not Vijay’s programme but that of the lakhs of people who have participated in it. Guha has castigated the architecture of the proposed Ram temple of Ayodhya. One wonders if he is qualified to do so.

Yours faithfully,
Jawahar Shaheed, Guwahati

Sir — The report, “Clash of faiths” (Nov 14), made interesting reading. But a few points need to be added. There is no doubt that the church has penetrated into the villages of Assam and other remote areas. But why shouldn’t it? Christianity is a missionary religion and it is the business of missionaries to try to spread the faith.

Hindu organizations, quite obviously, do not like this. They would like to keep their flock together. But should they try to do this through bans and threats? What they need to do is look at themselves. Have the so-called upper caste Hindus behaved well with other communities, the tribals for instance? Is it the lure of money that alone is making Christian converts? What about the oppression such people have received within Hindu society?

If Hindu organizations come forward to embrace tribals and other oppressed communities as equals in society, established schools and hospitals in remote villages, why should the people turn to the church? If sections of our society are habitually treated as inferiors, why shouldn’t they opt for a religion that treats believers as equals?

A Hindu cannot be a bigot. Hinduism, in its true spirit, is one of the most tolerant religions in the world. People who call themselves leaders of the community, should first try to internalize the best of their own religion.

Yours faithfully,
Sanjeev Nath, Guwahati

Sir — The biggest danger to the peace and harmony of the country today are its political leaders who do not understand that the strength of the nation lies in its unity in diversity. The religious ill-will created by the saffron brigade shows this lack of understanding. So does the recent action of the Union minister, Maneka Gandhi, who stopped a train carrying cows for slaughter to West Bengal at Faridabad. The minister should know that beef is widely eaten everywhere in the country, especially in the Northeast. To stop people from having the freedom to choose their food is to impinge on a basic human right.

Yours faithfully,
C.S. Soanes, Shillong

Sir — Kudos to Pramode Gogoi, Assam flood control minister and veteran Communist Party of India leader, for demanding that the government disarm the surrendered members of the United Liberation Front of Asom who have allegedly been perpetrating violence against innocent relatives of ULFA members. In fact, Gogoi is the only minister to ask his own government to stop the SULFA menace. Shouldn’t there be a concerted effort to disarm the ULFA as well?

Yours faithfully,
Sabitri Kalita, Guwahati

Sir — According to the Northeast Frontier Railways, the Arunachal Express, which starts at Kamakhya and terminates at Murkongselek in the Jonai subdivision of Assam, is not profitable. Yet it is the only means of communication on the northern bank of the Brahmaputra.

The railway ministry has rejected a proposal for extension of the broad gauge on this route because of recurrent losses. But the blame for this cannot be put entirely on the passengers. The railways are also partly to be blamed. As there is no first class bogie, passengers who have the capacity to spend do not travel by this train. Again, since reservations are not respected, a passenger who desires comfort does not board this train.

Since the train passes through an underdeveloped area of Assam, the people travelling by the train are not acquainted with even the minimum travel rules. Ticketless travel cannot be totally avoided in this part of the state. Yet if paying passengers are assured about reservations, then more people will start using the services.

Yours faithfully,
B.C. Sarma, Pasighat

Sir — Joydeep Roy’s statement that the demand for a separate state of Kamtapur in north Bengal is justified is preposterous (“Last of the wild”, Jan 5). It is true that the Koch-Rajbanshi community which dominates Cooch Behar has a different lifestyle. But a separatist approach cannot be adopted on the basis of this narrow sentiment. In that case, the entire nation should have been fragmented by now into several small sections on the basis of caste, creed, dialect and so on.

The demography of north Bengal as a whole is different. The progress of this region has undoubtedly been slow. However, in the last couple of years north Bengal too has experienced commendable metamorphosis.

Roy is sure that if statehood is granted to Kamtapur, the socio-economic condition of the people will improve. He should understand that a fragmented land would mean a weak social backbone. Separate statehood will only bring short term advantages, neither peace nor progress.

Yours faithfully,
B.K. Laskar, Golaghat

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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