Editorial 1 / Brave and good
Editorial 2 / Will they
Reading beyond the hype
Book Review / Tragedy repeats itself as romance
Book Review/ Fissured land
Book Review / Back to the soul’s roots
Book Review / Holding up a broken mirror
Editor’s Choice / No feet of clay
Paperback Pickings / Poems that don’t like settlin
Letters to the editor

The government of India must be supported in its brave decision to unilaterally extend the ceasefire by the security forces in Jammu and Kashmir for a third time. It is clear that the extension owes much to Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s personal conviction that it is vital to put in one more effort to initiate a peace process in the state. As had become obvious, opinion within the home ministry and the intelligence agencies was against any further extension, and — some might say — with good reason. The level of violence in Jammu and Kashmir, during the last two months of the ceasefire, has increased with militants particularly targeting those civilians who are seen as being pro-Indian. In addition, organizations like the Lashkar-e-Toiba have threatened to mount attacks in other parts of India, including the office of the prime minister, and indeed one such operation was recently undertaken in the heart of the capital, at the Red Fort. Moreover, Pakistan has shown little inclination to respond to the ceasefire by clamping down on the militant organizations and statements from its leaders do not indicate that they are willing to help create an atmosphere conducive for a meaningful dialogue.

What under the circumstances, critics may well ask, is the purpose of continuing with the ceasefire? Would the extension of the ceasefire not further fuel distorted thinking in Pakistan and escalate the violence in the state? Although there is some substance to this criticism, it misses a larger point. The purpose of the ceasefire was to tap the overwhelming sentiment against violence in the state, and not to naively expect cooperation from Pakistan or the militants in this effort. The ceasefire decision is by far the most important move undertaken by the Centre in reducing the alienation of the Kashmiri people. In recent years, the public sentiment against the government of India has intensified, particularly in the Kashmir valley, because of the harassment faced by the ordinary Kashmiri from the security forces during their counter-insurgency operations. For the last five years, separatist mobilization has been made possible only because of human rights violations, and rarely have people responded in large numbers to the call of azadi. All evidence seems to suggest that the ceasefire is, by and large, being scrupulously adhered to by the security agencies, and that there has been a suspension of all measures against militant organizations, save defensive ones. While there will inevitably be short term costs, the long term benefits — given the Kashmiri sentiment against violence — are far greater. Not only will the unilateral ceasefire firmly isolate forces that are continuing to perpetuate violence, but may help create the conditions under which the Kashmiri people — rather than security forces — will disclaim and fight those Pakistani backed forces that continue to spread terror and violence.


Once upon a time, there were basic service providers and mobile service providers and the twain did not meet. The government, in its wisdom, could therefore differentiate policy between the two. Licence fees were different. Basic providers can retain revenue from long distance calls and use this to cross-subsidize local calls, an option mobile providers are precluded from exercising. Basic services follow the caller pays principle. Despite Telecom Regulatory Authority of India recommending this principle for mobile providers in 1999, it has not yet been implemented. Such problems go back to the national telecom policy enunciated in 1999. Without recognizing convergence, NTP sanctioned three types of licences — basic, mobile and cable, as if these fitted into watertight compartments and spillovers were not possible in terms of policy formulation. This did not anticipate voice over the internet, nor did it anticipate wireless in local loop. To increase internet penetration, licence fees for internet service providers were set at low levels of one rupee. Voice over the internet not only reduces long distance call rates, it often makes basic lines redundant. To protect the revenues and overseas monopolies of Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited and Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limited from long-distance traffic, the government has seen fit to disallow voice over the internet.

The recommendation by TRAI that WILL be allowed has been accepted by the telecom commission and now awaits cabinet clearance. TRAI has also recommended unification of revenue sharing formulae and retention of long distance revenue across basic and mobile providers. WILL permits basic providers to use this technology for mobile calls within a limited radius and this therefore eats into the market mobile providers have. While use of technology that benefits consumers is welcome, and this logic should also extend to voice over the internet, there are some legal issues involved. First, it is not clear that WILL was recognized in the NTP. It was certainly not recognized explicitly, even though basic providers argue that it is part of the last mile connection. Second, there has been a process of bidding. Will basic providers automatically be entitled to provide WILL, or will they have to bid afresh? What should clearly have been done is recognition of a convergence licence, regardless of service offered. Unfortunately, this becomes difficult when different ministries and government departments handle broadcasting, information technology and telecom and often talk at cross purposes. Bidding for a fourth round of mobile licences is now due and policy uncertainty does not provide a conducive environment for this to happen. The best course of action is to push through convergence licences once the convergence bill is through.


The methods by which books are now sold sometimes comprise the ugly underbelly of the book trade. The straightest and most obvious ways of selling a book would seem to be to proclaim the virtues of its contents via a blurb and advertisements; to embellish those virtues with an attractive jacket; and to offer reasonable discounts to wholesellers and retailers so that the financial incentive to circulate and sell the book is shared and widely dispersed.

These remain even now the core, standard methods; but in recent times they have come to be seen as a bit old-fashioned and inadequate to the requirements of a properly competitive industry. They have been supplemented with an array of non-standard methods which have themselves become as standard and routine as the old ones. The new methods have also changed the culture of publishing and bookselling, the emphasis now being on the publisher’s ability to “create” a successful book, regardless of the quality of what is to be found within its pages. In common parlance, controversy, hype, and bribery are the names of these new methods in publishing and bookselling.

Take controversy, for a start. Salman Rushdie’s assertion, in his Vintage anthology, that the only worthwhile language of contemporary Indian writing is English looks like the secular Indian version of his religious provocation to fundamentalist Islam in The Satanic Verses. As far as that book is concerned, Rushdie could not have foreseen the Ayatollah’s fatwa upon his life, else he would very likely have moderated his remarks on the prophet to preclude all possibility of their being reshaped into a noose for his own neck.

But it is more than likely that, when taking on the job of putting together an anthology far beyond his intellectual means, and then realizing the mediocrity of what he had achieved, he foresaw the massive advantage to the book’s sales if he deliberately stirred up a hornet’s nest by voicing an opinion transparently preposterous. To people in publishing it would seem entirely credible that this is why he said what he did, and why he timed it to precision with advance publicity. The anthology itself, despite a few good pieces, is by overwhelming consensus such a poorly conceptualized bouquet of unflowerable buds that it required something of a “cad” among the pigeons in order to move well in the marketplace. This took the form of a strong dose of horrifying ignorance from a writer and anthologist of impeccable literary credentials seemingly incapable of plain stupidity.

Provoked pigeons peck, stirred hornets sting — they are no ayatollahs, they do not kill — and a controversialist who lives metaphorically within a bullet-proof state is likely to possess a hide thick enough to withstand a few scratches and nips on his epidermis or, more likely, relish these as continuing proof of his power to make sensible people howl even against his obvious inanities. In reacting with indignation to Rushdie’s deliberate needling, Indian writers and critics became unwitting accomplices of the anthologist and his publishers. They had been programmatically wound up with the fattest key in the publisher’s marketing department, and the marketing department was going to sit back and watch some clockwork frenzy. The more the outraged critics screamed, the more publicity Rushdie’s anthology got. Short of whispers of an outright ban, which sound to a publisher’s ears like Beethoven’s Ninth, nothing in publishing is as musical as a literary furore. When you’re trying to sell a bad book, a furore is as soothing as a symphony.

Rushdie’s slipshod anthology is only the most extreme case of what is now commonplace in the book market, namely the selling of dubious books via a controversy generated apparently without deliberation. The problem with controversy is that it usually requires a known name to generate it, and known names are not always as ready to shoot off their mouths.

A substitute is at hand: hype. Given the considerable number of ordinary, humdrum and even semi-literate writers who now find publishers — or, as is more often the case, are “found” and then “created” by publishers — hype has increasingly become the substitute ingredient for what would have been expected to sell the book in an earlier time — quality of intellection, nuanced worldview, elegance of prose, and the various other virtues of mind and pen. Since these are seldom matters around which an immediate consensus develops, establishing literary virtue was, until not so long back, a slow business.

That slow business could only properly exist as long as it was not being crowded out by the continuously swelling tidal wave of new books spilling over more new books, which is the most visible feature within international book publishing today. Today, the book itself, the thing made up of pages full of words, is only one of the many ingredients required to sell it, and it sometimes seems that the words on the page have a rather tangential association with what is being projected about them and around them within the market.

What does the creation of such over-excitement entail? Frequently, the ability of marketing executives to manage a large publicity machinery. After that, the savoir faire of that publicity machinery vis-à-vis the print and electronic media. Being able to exercise influence in the media is crucial. Publishers who are part of a media conglomeration have a considerable advantage and are not shy to tout their clout. One or two unfavourable reviews can give a book credibility when hype has surrounded it, three or four begin to reflect poorly on the publisher’s media management abilities, five or six mean someone gets fired.

There are several subsidiary ingredients that go into this recipe: the canniness of the author’s agent in projecting an author’s brilliance and originality, the author’s looks and body language, the “undisclosed” royalty advance and whispers about a forthcoming TV serial and Hollywood film. Whether the monies that accrue from such sales are big, small or non-existent is inconsequential. The crucial thing is to set off a buzz: ergo, you would be a fool not to buy your copy of the first edition. By the time the author arrives at the launch party the trumpeting has blown everyone’s ears off.

With textbook publishing, hype is of no use and outright bribery works much better. Sales of texts depend very largely on a publisher’s ability to control prescriptions in key schools as well as in larger colleges and universities. In India this means adroitness in offering bribes in cash or kind to prescribing authorities in order to secure a prescription. Many school and college principals “write” textbooks (that is, have them written) and then prescribe them to students in return for hefty royalties paid under the table.

At other times, or additionally, principals set up school bookshops to which publishers who want their books prescribed are obliged to offer discounts larger than normal, these discounts being indirect pay-offs to the principal who owns the bookshop. Students at such institutions are obliged to buy their prescribed texts from their school principal’s bookshop, further augmenting his income. In order to avoid tax, the school bookshop often runs in the name of the principal’s spouse or daddy or mummy. Education and business are all within the family.

A bleak scenario? Not at all. Books are simply being sold in new ways, like cosmetics, via the many new Miss Worlds and glamour-boys with whom we are suddenly so richly endowed. The seamier aspects cannot overshadow the single incontrovertible truth that redeems the printed book in this era of controversy, hype and bribery: books are still being bought, and bought as never before.


By Kapka Kassabova,
Penguin, £ 6.99

There can never be love in the land of Midas — that is the tragic theme of Kapka Kassabova’s second novel. She shows that to love in strife-torn Greece is to lose the loved one. This ancient country is a place that disappoints everyone who comes there to seek love.

Set in the past and in the present, the novel takes a look at Greece after World War II had taken its toll on most of its inhabitants, tearing apart lovers and families in its wake.

The protagonist of the novel, Theo, has come from Australia to study Alexander’s victorious route to India. His French lover is there to try and piece together the fate of her grandfather, who had disappeared in junta-governed Greece in 1967. While Theo’s parents fled Greece, his lover’s grandfather entered it in the search of his beloved, and never came back.

Tautly paced, the novel flits between 1948 and 1998 effortlessly and shows that the war wounds in Greece, Albania and Macedonia are yet to heal, even 50 years later. Kassabova has done exhaustive research on the guerrilla warfare of the Greek communists in the late Forties. The war was a direct outcome of the increasing discord between the right and left wings of the Greek resistance movement. Without taking sides, the author depicts the doomed heroism of the communists on the one hand, and the predicament of the national army on the other.

Twenty years later, Greece is again convulsed by a bitter tussle between the ultra-right-wing leadership and the underground movement that led to a period referred to in modern Greece as the “seven miserable years.” In this case, Kassabova’s loyalties are firmly with members of the underground movement, many of whom had served time during the civil war and were fighting for their cause once again. These parts of the book come alive largely due to the author’s eye for detail as well as her sense of history.

Kassabova handles the contemporary thread of the story with equal ease. Her heroine, Veronique, is a fin de siècle character, high on grass and moving from lover to lover, but always fascinated by the secret of her grandfather’s life — one that ultimately claimed him. Kassabova has a strong storyline that never flags, and she constructs a beautiful and moving climax that is admirable for someone writing only her second novel.

The storyline apart, the author’s greatest triumph is the depiction of Greece. Its landscape, its turbulent history and the recurring images from Greek mythology make compelling reading.

Love in the Land of Midas is a story of a country and not of any one of its characters. The author tells the reader the history and legend of almost all the cities in which the story unfolds. Even as the inhabitants try to recover from each convulsion of history, it is the city that absorbs these convulsions. Therefore, cities like Athens and Thessaloniki in Greece, and Marseilles in France are portrayed as important protagonists in the novel.

Kassabova’s tragic tale tries to show that every family in Greece was touched by the World War and the civil war that followed. She also shows that the legacy of the civil war can be traced to more recent conflicts in the Balkans.

The climax is invokes the archetypal Greek tragedy when the modern lovers discover that their love is a forbidden one. In Ohrid, a place whose history dates back to the Byzantine era, they discover that they are connected by tragedy, history and blood.

Kassabova’s language tries to capture the nuances of French as well as Greek, and often the sentences are very short and abrupt. As a result, parts of the novel read too much like translations from another language.

These minor blemishes apart, Kassabova has written a difficult novel in a deceptively simple manner. The work is slick and well-crafted, and the author incorporates large slices of history without compromising the fictional plot and pace.


By Misha Glenny,
Granta, £ 20

The terms “Balkan” and “Balkanization” have long had pejorative associations: political fragmentation, sectarian strife, backstairs intrigue and Ruritanian farce. Most Europeans regard the region with the same horrified fascination that many urban Indians have for Bihar. The events of the past decade have only strengthened that impression. Or else it has been studied purely in geopolitical terms as the site of competing imperial rivalries of the great powers of the day; in the 19th century these were Austria-Hungary, Russia and Ottoman Turkey, for centuries its overlord. Most students of “The Eastern Question” (as our teachers in the Seventies called it) had little or no knowledge of its ethnic or religious composition. Our studies left us unable to understand the catastrophic civil war that followed the disintegration of Yugoslavia.

As Misha Glenny demonstrates in this lively, wide-ranging, but uneven book, the Balkans deserve to be seen on their own terms, free from the essentializing and clichéd rhetoric about “ancient ethnic hatreds” used by the media in recent years. These are the result of ignorance and preconceived notions. The contours of the region are problematic; nor is there any consensus about which peoples it embraces.

The term Balkan Peninsula was coined in 1808 by a German geographer, Johann August Zeune. It arose from a misconception that the Balkan Mountains (in present-day Bulgaria) stretched unbroken from the Black Sea to the Adriatic. Other scholars have used the Danube as the boundary — which would exclude Romania — which features in most standard histories of the region. Others would exclude Greece; yet its second largest city Thessaloniki (Salonika) has often been central to Balkan history.

Glenny adopts a mixture of historical, geographical and political approaches to define the region: “The core regions are mainland Greece, Serbia, Croatia, Romania…Turkey and the Ottoman Empire, Bulgaria, Bosnia-Hercegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia and Albania.” Widely travelled in the region as BBC correspondent, and fluent in Serbo-Croat, Glenny is well qualified to attempt a survey and interpretation of its tortuous history. He admits that he was lumbered with the same prejudices about the Balkans and his travels were a process of shedding them. To make his book accessible to the general reader he uses reportage, anecdotes, songs and poems from a wide range of sources.

His central thesis is that the violence which seems endemic is largely the result of the Balkans’ strategic location which has led to self-interested interventions by the great powers of the day. Far from being static societies, nursing atavistic blood feuds, the Balkan society is dynamic and complex, with great differences across the region and between town and country. Under the occasionally oppressive, but generally neglectful rule of the Ottoman Empire, most groups had evolved a mutual co-existence. It was the fatal injection of nationalism and imperialism which destroyed this. Glenny begins his account with the 1804 rebellion, which ironically sought to restore Turkish rule against the depredations of local janissaries. Initially, Muslims collaborated against the common oppressor, just as Serbs and Croats were to do later against Austria-Hungary.

Glenny points to three examples of malign external interference. The first culminated in the Congress of Berlin (1878) familiar to most students of history. Led by Disraeli and Bismarck, European statesmen carved up the Balkans as a field for their competing rivalries. Glenny’s analysis does not differ from most standard accounts. However, he explains in detail the impact of the territorial settlement on the Balkan elites. Most began programmes of rearmament in imitation of Germany, diverting scarce resources to this end, delaying social and economic modernization and plunging into debt. They also learnt that “the consolidation and expansion of the state could best be achieved by finding a mighty sponsor, not by cooperating with one’s neighbours.” The long fuse of the “powder keg” of Europe” (another cliché about the Balkans) was lit by the great powers.

The second intervention was during World War I. Except for Serbia — where an incredibly bungled assassination set off the conflagration — all the other states wanted to keep out of the war. But the blandishments of the great powers in the form of promises of new territory proved impossible to resist. Glenny gives the war in the Balkans (often seen as a sideshow to the main theatres of war) the attention it deserves. Its aftermath led among other things to the disastrous Greek assault on Anatolia, with British encouragement, and the horrific vengeance wreaked on the Greeks of Smyrna by the resurgent Turks led by Mustafa Kemal.

The third intervention was in 1941, when Hitler’s armies invaded the Balkans, partly to bail out the incompetent Italians and partly to control the oil fields of Romania in preparation for the coming offensive against Russia. This set off “four years of occupation, resistance, fratricide and genocide”. In a grotesque deviation from Nazi race theory, Ante Pavelic’s puppet Croat state was accorded “Aryan” status. The Croat Ustase militia then turned on its fellow Slavs, the Serbs, with a ferocity which disgusted even hardened Nazis. The worst sufferers were the Balkan Jews throughout the region, although Glenny highlights Bulgaria’s attempts to save its Jews, something not generally known. The hatreds engendered in those years would bear bitter fruit in our own time.

After World War II, the international community “forgot” about the Balkans for some years since they were sucked into the maw of Soviet domination of east and central Europe. Glenny focuses on Yugoslavia, but also gives the story of the vicious and petty despotisms of the “Little Stalins” like Gheorghiu-Dej in Romania, or Hoxha in Albania.

His portrait of Tito is not flattering: the “benign” co-founder of non-alignment was as ruthless in his suppression of dissent as his opponent, Stalin. In his opposition to Serb unitarianism, which he rightly saw as a danger to Yugoslavia, he may have encouraged local particularisms to bolster his own position, rather than out of a commitment to a multi-ethnic state. Once his strong hand was removed, they could no longer be contained. When the international community did intervene they were either impotent or made matters worse. No one who watched television in those years can forget the sight of Ratko Mladic’s grinning thugs snatching Bosnian Muslims while UN peacekeepers stood by.

The first part of the book is comprehensive, but the latter half (post-World War II) suffers from a hurried treatment. This makes for a certain imbalance. While Glenny’s analysis of the origins of the present crisis is competent, his treatment of other areas (Greece, for instance), is superficial. At times his anecdotes get in the way of his argument, and it is possible to lose track. Neither is his central argument entirely tenable. Balkan societies suffered certain internal tensions, which emerge in his own account. Foreign interference cannot explain why Turkish Basi-bözöks massacred Bulgarians in the 1870s, or why Serbs, Muslims and Croats collaborated at some times and fought at others.

Like India, the ethnic, linguistic and religious complexity of the Balkans admits of no easy answers. Nevertheless, this book is to be recommended for those seeking an account of the roots of contemporary conflicts in that perennially troubled part of the world.


Edited by Anthony Copley,
Oxford, Rs 475

The writers in this collection of essays seem to be a little too zealous about tracing the colonial influence on what they call “new religious reform movements” in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Such movements, they admit, had been launched in pre-colonial times. Some also think that the new movements were a continuation of the same process. But they fail to deal with the basic question — whether these movements were religious at all in the true sense of the term.

None of the reformers enunciated a new religion or debated the fundamental postulates of the religion they were supposed to have set out to reform. In fact, these reformers, both in colonial and pre-colonial periods, aimed at changing the social practices and customs adhered to in the name of religion, keeping in view the socio-political environment of the time. Or at best to re-interpret the religious texts to suit their specific purpose.

As the motivation behind most of these reform movements was social uplift and modernization in the Indian way, the leaders had to fall back on the religious philosophy of the land. This was because in the Indian context it was otherwise impossible to acquire the necessary sanctity for the reforms. Even Vidyasagar, who was almost an atheist, had to seek scriptural sanction for widow remarriage.

It may seem that confronted by the liberating and aggressive ideas of the West, these reformers felt that they could meet the challenge by going back to their own resources without having to imitate the models offered by the West. They knew that their theology had a framework of such dimension so as to encompass many of these new ideas. Thus the concepts of service as worship, of monotheism or even of suddhi were all available within the fold. Dayananda Saraswati even claimed that quite a few discoveries of modern science were anticipated by the Vedas. And when Ramakrishna announced, “There are as many ways as there are views”, he knew that the religion he was born into admitted all ways and views.

None of the reformers sought to be a cult figure nor did any one feel uprooted from one’s religious moorings. Each of them propagated what he considered to be the essential aspects of his religion and each believed that what he preached was a universal way of good living. If any of these reforms acquired an exclusive character, it was mainly because of political reasons. For the reformers were only trying to bring into focus certain aspects of a universal religious philosophy.

The movements which are taken up for discussion are those which were spearheaded by the Brahmo Samaj, the Ramakrishna Mission, the Arya Samaj, the Ahmediyas and Aurobindo Ghosh and also by the occultists and the theosophists of Europe. The essays are rich in detail, but they fail to see that the colonial milieu provided a challenge for these reformers in an atmosphere charged with patriotic fervour.

The preachings of the reformers might be seen as exclusive and sectarian. But none of them actually questioned the validity of the spiritual tradition of India. Even the theosophists and the occultists of Europe talked of the highly valuable indigenous culture that continued to provide the basis of national identity. They advocated exactly what Indian reformers sought to achieve through their movements. In the words of Mark Bevir, one of the essayists, this was to help Indians “revive their indigenous culture by purging it of later abuses and distortions”.

In a historical study of the reform movements, the nature of these movements should have perhaps been considered more important than their social implications. The movements might have gradually lost their distinction, but it is always interesting to know about the post-colonial attitude towards a social phenomenon that occurred in colonial India.


Edited by Geeta Dharmarajan and Nandita Aggarwal,
Katha, Rs 250

The Katha annual publication of prize stories, which has gained tremendous popularity in the past decade, is only a small part of the wide-ranging Katha enterprise that covers primary education, women’s empowerment and literary activities. The publication was launched mainly to promote and perpetuate intercultural exchanges between Indian languages. As co-editor Geeta Dharmarajan puts it, “The story also is a tool for transformation, of the self, and through this, hopefully, of society.” The sincerity of Katha’s efforts is evident from the high standard the publication has already set for itself.

The volume under review contains 17 stories from 14 different Indian languages. The stories were nominated by a distinguished panel and the translations, which show a felicity of style, are able to preserve the distinct indigenous flavours of the stories.

The blurb of the book says, “There is no attempt here to yoke together universal themes or ‘basic conflicts’ ”. Yet the stories are said to have been brought “serendipitously together”. This serendipitous juxtaposition of stories reveals a cross-section of the Indian reality of the new millennium with all its ambiguities and inner contradictions.

The stories confront us with disparate motifs — some continuing from the remote past, some characteristically modern and the rest uncompromisingly post-modern. They do not allow us to conceive of an easily identifiable “Indianness”. Rather, the readers are carried along in a whirligig of images which unravel myriad strands of Indianness — some native, some European and some, in the truest sense, global.

Some of the stories collated in this volume are K.P. Ramanunni’s “Jadi Chodikkuka”, Raj Mohan Jha’s “Maithili Ghar”, Ramkumar Tiwari’s “Railgadi ke Aagaman se”.

Though themes like the emotional crisis caused by caste consciousness and the rapid urbanization of the village folk are rather stereotypical, they are lent a poignancy by the narratives of Ramanunni and Tiwari. Jha’s story is about home-coming, which, as suggested by a host of weird images that pass before the protagonist’s dazed eyes, creates a nostalgic and frightening feeling.

Motilal Jotwani’s story, “Akeli, Akeli Hoon” in Sindhi, sensitively explores the theme of “loneliness”. Ra Pugazhendhi’s “Muthi” in Tamil is a smart character-sketch of a woman, who, even in her ignominious way of living, thwarts the patriarchal value-system. Asha Kardaley’s story “Vivar” captures the emotional trauma of a transsexual, Sudha, who later turns into Sudhakar, her male self.

The stark horror of death that Perumal Murugan’s Tamil story “Neer Vilayattu” evokes, adds to the angst portrayed in the narrative. Soharab Hossain’s Bengali story “Bayu Taranger Baajna” tries to deal with the questions put up by consumerism and the rarefied quality of human existence. The surrealistic images, together with the undercurrent of humour, enhance the appeal of the story.

This volume of Katha Prize Stories will definitely be a prized possession for those even faintly interested in contemporary creative writing in India.


By David Remnick,
Picador, £ 14.99

“Boxing in America,” David Remnick reminds us, “was born of slavery”. He explores all the three terms of the statement in this book which is a minor classic in its genre.

The book is emphatically not just about boxing. Neither is it a biography of Muhammad Ali, who before he converted to Islam was known to the world as Cassius Clay. Remnick uses the two famous Clay and Liston encounters as pivotal episodes around which to narrate Ali’s social context and that of boxing too.

This narrative technique brings to the reader not only boxing and its brutality but also the mobsters and newspaper columnists who were intrinsic to the bizarre ambience of boxing in the US. Behind all this is the story of oppression and discrimination, of poor black boys growing up in grinding poverty and crime and seeking in boxing an opportunity to cut out for themselves an identity which would bring to the black people honour and respect.

Ali was unique in his context because he lived his dream. He captured for a passing, but significant, moment the imagination of America and of the world as well. He was the world’s heavyweight champion but his appeal touched even those who did not care about boxing. Even now, stricken by Parkinson’s disease, he is different from other black boxers of his time. His faith, as Remnick reveals, has gifted to him an inner peace.

Ali had the makings of a hero. He, unlike other black boxers, was good looking and the only one not to be controlled by the mobsters. According to his physician, he was a superb human specimen: “he was the most perfect physical specimen I had ever seen, from an artistic and anatomical standpoint. Perfectly proportioned, handsome, lightning reflexes and a great mind for sports.’’ Ali was unsurpassed in the ways he could grab public attention and bug and psyche his opponents. He was fiercely proud and not without an enormous amount of moral courage. He knew how to stand up for himself within the ring and outside it. He made himself into a legend.

In an era of civil rights, Ali was not an integrationist. He wanted to be recognized on his own terms as a black person and not as somebody who was trying to catch up with and please the white man. “I was determined to be one nigger that the white man didn’t get”, he once said. He found the identity he was looking for in Islam. He became a follower of Elijah Muhammad, the leader of a sect called the Nation of Islam and a close friend of Malcom X till the latter broke with Elijah. The conversion was not without pain. By becoming Muhammad Ali, Clay broke with his father. His faith was also the cause of his break with his first wife, Sonji, the only woman Ali probably really loved.

Even outside religion, his life was not free of controversy. When he knocked out Liston with “the anchor punch” in the first round, suspicions were voiced that the match was fixed and Liston had taken a dive. The suspicions still linger. But Ali’s greatest moment was when he refused the draft. “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong”, he said as a throw away line that became a quote. From a fighter, he became history: the conscience of a nation.


By Sujata Bhatt
(Penguin, Rs 150)

Sujata Bhatt’s My Mother’s Way of Wearing A Sari is a slim volume of poetry by a fairly well-known poet who was born in Gujarat, studied creative writing in America and now lives in Germany. This volume is haunted by the idea of the “multicultural poem”: “it has to do with movement —/ How the tongue must change its colour for every language —/ little chameleon bruised by your teeth.” The multicultural poem will also “not settle down./ It will not be your pet.” There are short poems grouped under headings like “History is a broken narrative” and “Ars Poetica”. The simplicity and quietude of Bhatt’s poems — largely written in the first person — often betrays a rather predictable academic self-consciousness about what the blurb conveniently sums up as “memory, science, language, history and love”. The verbal texture is richly multilingual, with scraps of German, Dutch and Spanish thrown in, and a wide range of settings, place-names and cultural allusions. Many of the poems are internationally commissioned. Bhatt seems to be floating, a trifle blandly, between Sylvia Plath and A.K. Ramanujan, with not enough intellectual ballast and technical mastery to give to such lines as “My mind is like green tea” the distinction of understated profundity.

Edited by Vasant Saberwal, Mahesh Rangarajan and Ashish Kothari
(Orient Longman, Rs 150)

Vasant Saberwal, Mahesh Rangarajan and Ashish Kothari’s People, Parks and Wildlife: Towards Coexistence looks at the conservation of wildlife as part of the agenda of the Indian state. The authors combine academic thoroughness and activist experience to argue for an Indian crisis in the ideology and practice of conservation. Policies of conservation in independent India have been predominantly “exclusionist”, seeing the interests of local residents (in protected areas, national parks and sanctuaries) as irreconcilably opposed to the logic of conservation. This book is a critique of this trend, seeking to replace it with a more “participatory” approach that overcomes local hostilities, mobilizing local knowledge and resources.

By Stephen Alter
(Penguin, Rs 250)

Stephen Alter’s Amritsar to Lahore: Crossing the Border Between India and Pakistan describes a journey across the “artificial fault line” dividing India and Pakistan. Starting and finishing in New Delhi, it stops at Amritsar, Lahore, Rawalpindi, Islamabad and Peshawar, bringing together encounters, conversations and reflections. The main focus is “the volatile and unpredictable relationship that exists between India and Pakistan”: “In India the border represents a source of national regret...In Pakistan it is a symbol of pride.” Alter does not want to be read as a scholar or journalist, but “simply [as] as a traveller who bears a longstanding grudge against borders”.



To each his own cow

Sir — The “Campaign for the Protection of Cow Progeny” that is mentioned in the news report, “Ministers and cows under one roof” (Jan 25), is the ultimate indicator of the irresponsibility of the Keshubhai Patel government. Or does it just show a bizarre sense of humour? The state has gone to the extent of transferring the onus of protecting cows from droughts to ministers, non-governmental organizations and to the people in general. That they have done nothing to prevent the onset of droughts in the first place is a long-forgotten issue in this farce. The latest tokenism by the Bharatiya Janata Party government is that a separate portfolio has been created for this purpose which will be headed by the home minister, Haren Pandya. Imagine a “Campaign for the Protection of Human Progeny”, whereby each minister and NGO will be entrusted with the responsibility of keeping one person in the house and the government will smoothly wash its hands of the matter.
Yours faithfully,
Arunima Gupta, via email

Foreign parts

Sir — K.P. Nayar’s article, “Hitting an all time low” (Jan 24), on the Indian foreign service and its low morale is devoid of all objectivity. Nayar seems to revel in the bashing of the current foreign secretary and even questioning her competence in his quest to project the cause of the Indian foreign service. Times are trying for diplomats, given the change at the helm in the United States and the pressure being increased by the main actors in Kashmir, not to speak of the deep distrust by the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation neighbours, who have portrayed India as the big brother ready to destroy their economic and political independence.

The challenge would seem daunting for a person of the highest calibre. But to write off a person on the basis of heavyweights not managing to encash their contacts in the South Block efficaciously borders on vendetta and jealousy rather than objective criticism.

Nayar has highlighted incidents that have hurt the morale of the foreign service, such as the seemingly abject surrender at Kandahar. It is amazing how armchair pundits can pass judgments so easily without having put themselves in the shoes of the people who were part of that incident. One cannot totally absolve the Indian government, its diplomats or the other players from responsibility for that incident. But under the circumstances not many would have managed to change the course of events that led to the release of those three dreaded terrorists.

It would be a mistake to aver that the morale of the service is low merely because of one posting. The entire brouhaha can be summed up as losers crying that the grapes are sour and questioning the political correctness of the government in an era where objectivity seems low among the criteria for decisionmaking. It is time for Indian diplomacy to look forward and meet the challenges ahead rather than blame all and sundry for developments. Chokila Iyer needs to be given a chance without attracting venom from all quarters.

Yours faithfully,
Ipseeta Menon, New Delhi

Sir — K.P. Nayar is being a bit too harsh on the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government vis-à-vis the Indian foreign service. This government has given South Block its most lasting taste of success and Nayar probably agrees with this. Although there is some truth in the allegation that South Block has primarily dealt with the White House and the United Nations during this time, Nayar should remember that Pokhran and India’s interaction with the United States has brought about major breakthroughs in India’s foreign policy. South Block mandarins could not but be engaged entirely in activities concerning these two. There might be a temporary lull in South Block, but that should not mean there is an “absence of policy” which has robbed the IFS of “motivation and zeal”.

The obvious thrust of Nayar’s article is the running down of Chokila Iyer and he might not be entirely wrong on that count. There is no doubt Iyer has had a very unremarkable stint in the foreign office. The only reason she might have tipped the balance in her favour, over and above the claims of her more able colleagues, is her being so low profile. The more powerful men in the prime minister’s office and the saffron government probably needed someone like her to carry out their missions without any questions being asked.

Yours faithfully,
C. Chatterjee, Calcutta

Sir — The report, “Just like a woman” (Dec 30), concerning the appointment of Chokila Iyer as India’s foreign secretary was in bad taste. Iyer has held important appointments in the ministry of external affairs, not only as joint secretary (South) and additional secretary (passport and visas), but also the post of joint secretary (policy and planning). This particular post is considered a desk which involves in-depth knowledge of foreign affairs and often advises and shapes foreign policies. Besides, Iyer has not only headed missions abroad in the Seychelles, Mexico and Ireland, but has also worked in Switzerland with a previous stint in Mexico.

Her mother tongue is indeed Sikkimese, as has been rightly pointed out by the report. Iyer in fact was born and brought up in Darjeeling, from where she joined the Indian foreign service in 1964 as a resident of Darjeeling, West Bengal. Thus, Iyer is not from Sikkim, as mentioned in the report. The concluding paragraph of this report says that the new foreign secretary is “hardly about to make herself heard now”. Perhaps the writer should have refrained from making statements based on presumptions.

Yours faithfully,
P. Dorjee, New Delhi

Sir — Why the hoopla over the new foreign secretary? Is it because a woman has toppled the carefully placed cards of her male colleagues? Isn’t the stench of sexual discrimination in the highest echelons of India’s civil services becoming a bit too powerful?

Yours faithfully,
N. Srinivasan, Calcutta

Shadows in Mumbai

Sir — The multicrore Mumbai film industry has had a bleak beginning in the new millennium. One of its leading financiers is behind bars for his alleged links with the underworld. The producer of a multi-starrer is also cooling his heels in prison while his film has been canned. With Bharat Shah’s arrest, the entertainment industry has fallen on bad days.

Coming after the cricket scandal, the Mumbai film industry scandal is both disgusting and depressing. That film makers like Subhash Ghai, Mani Ratnam and Yash Chopra have been financed by Shah, makes the affair murkier.

It’s nobody’s case to put the entire film industry in the dock, or even declare Shah guilty before the case is proved in the courts. But what is worrying is the fact that the nexus between the underworld and the fixers in the Bollywood industry seems to run deeper than one expected. Will the film industry ever be able to free itself from the vice-like grip of the underworld dons?

Yours faithfully,
D.V. Vamsee Krishna, Bhubaneswar

Sir — The recent mafia wars in Thailand involving India-born dons rekindle a number of questions. How could Dawood Ibrahim, who has allegedly killed hundreds of innocent Indians and caused damage worth crores of rupees with the serial blasts, be still living happily in Dubai and moving about freely with his henchmen across the world? Could it have been possible if the Research and Analysis Wing of India been like the Mossad or the Central Intelligence Agency? Surely, Ibrahim and others like Chhota Shakeel need to be hunted out by the Indian secret services and brought to book?

Yours faithfully,
Shivaji Moitra, via email

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