Editorial 1 / Helmsman aboard
Editorial 2 / Into thin air
Advice from the experts
Book Review / Portrait of the artist as a seeker
Book Review / Those wonderful men in their flannel
Book Review / For some, times only change for the worse
Editor’s Choice / A sentimental journey
Book Review / Mountains are moods of rhythm and line
Paperback Pickings / Resilience in the margins
Letters to the editor

 
 
EDITORIAL 1 / HELMSMAN ABOARD 
 
 
 
 
Firmness, displayed by the right person at the right time and with the right amount of tact, goes a long way in resolving knotty issues. The prime minister, who was obviously inclined to extend the ceasefire in Kashmir a third time, has not only achieved this goal but has also succeeded in taking all parties, inside and outside the National Democratic Alliance, on board in the decision. The hurdles were many and varied. There was the unfortunate escalation of violence and protest in the valley itself. Neither the opposition members nor the NDA partners were happy with what they felt was a lack of transparency about the “ground realities” in Kashmir. Some NDA partners were miffed at Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s earnest explanation to the Congress about the pros and cons of extending the ceasefire while leaving them in the dark. And on top of all, were disagreements within the BJP about the usefulness of a further extension, with the background cacophony for the debate provided by the hawkish elements of the sangh parivar. That Mr Vajpayee has negotiated such choppy waters with elan speaks volumes for his firmness and tact. Also for the strength of his conviction in sticking to an embattled process for the sake of a long term goal. A step towards peace in Kashmir, if that is what it turns out to be, would benefit India most of all, both internally and in terms of its image in the international community.

Allowing security forces to be unsparing in the face of militant activity is a reassuring signal. The decision itself is also a calm overriding of aggressive sangh parivar views. These nuances are an indication of the prime minister’s decisiveness — when he does assert it. It is a pity that he does not always do so. From time to time, the views or interests of NDA partners or opposing voices in the BJP seem to prevent the prime minister’s inclinations from translating into policy or action. The Indian cricket team’s failure to meet the Pakistan team at Sharjah to raise money for victims of the Gujarat earthquake is a case in point. Pre-budget, there are many hard decisions the prime minister will have to endorse. He has said it will be a harsh budget, but it is to be seen if the budget is harsh and precise enough to set reforms on a faster track. The nation waits with bated breath to see how far the fire-and-brimstone railways minister, Ms Mamata Banerjee, has been able to press her desires on the prime minister in the railway budget. To keep a steady course within a coalition is not an easy task. But firmness in the helmsman is an essential ingredient.

   

 
 
EDITORIAL 2 / INTO THIN AIR 
 
 
 
 
Aspectre had been haunting the government of India ever since a proposal was mooted that foreign investment should be allowed in print media. That spectre has now been successfully exorcized with an absurd decision taken by the informaMid Day, had secured the relevant clearance from the Reserve Bank of India to raise money from foreign institutional investors. But this permission was withdrawn at the behest of the information and broadcasting ministry. This takes the ban on foreign print media a step further. Now it is clear that professional investment managers managing the funds of anonymous investors will not be allowed to put their money in print media companies that promise good return on investments. And all this is based on a single cabinet directive dating back to 1955 which did not even emanate from the information and broadcasting ministry. That directive was the brainchild of mandarins in the ministry of external affairs who were anxious not to blot India’s non-aligned record. The 1955 directive was not aimed at protecting Indian media companies from foreign competition; it was designed to secure the non-aligned character of the Indian media. Non-alignment is less than a footnote in history in 2001, and the background of the 1955 directive has been forgotten and replaced by the juvenile claim that the Indian print media needs protection from the alleged corrupting foreign influences.

The government is perhaps unaware of the innumerable contradictions that this decision has created. After the opening up of the Indian economy, foreign institutional investors are allowed to invest in all listed companies including sectors in which foreign direct investment is not permitted. But print media companies have now been made the singular exception to this rule. In other words, Indian media companies, like Mid Day, cannot attract foreign capital even when the source of such capital is not a foreign media company. This discrimination against the print media is difficult to fathom. Other forms of media, especially television, have foreign participation. Newspapers have access to foreign news services. Anybody with access to the internet can read any foreign newspaper he wants with the click of a mouse. The ban on foreign investment in print media is thus ridiculous and is based on an antiquated piece of legislation which is no longer worth the paper on which it was drafted. The steadfast refusal to remove the 1955 cabinet directive is evidence of the entrenchment of the Nehruvian mindset. Governments, like the one headed by Mr P.V. Narasimha Rao and the present one led by Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee, whose economic and foreign policies are as different from those pursued by Jawaharlal Nehru as chalk is from cheese, continue to cling to Nehruvian ideas so far as the print media is concerned. The Indian print media needs more capital and more competition, and not less. To continue to cocoon it will be to leave it without adequate oxygen.

   

 
 
ADVICE FROM THE EXPERTS 
 
 
BY S. VENKITARAMANAN
 
 
It is that time of the year once again when the finance minister receives solicited and unsolicited advice on what to do with his budget. The latest to join the advisers is the prime minister’s economic advisory council. It has also submitted its report on new directions of policy. The finance minister has a difficult task on his hand as he has to choose from a generous menu of choices. At the same time, he is hemmed in by demands from various quarters, including the members of the cabinet.

The 11th finance commission has also made his task all the more difficult, recommending as it has done a liberal dispensation to the states. The advisory council has, however, put the priorities right and worked out a roadmap for taking the country forward to its next stage of economic reform. Many of its recommendations may be politically incorrect and in fact, may provoke resistance from members of the public as well as the National Democratic Alliance itself.

The prospects of containing the revenue deficit are not too bright. Whereas earlier in the current financial year the revenues did exceed targets and looked as though we were on the way to meeting the fiscal deficit targets, recent experience with revenue collection has not given ground for much optimism. It is to be hoped that the demands placed on the fisc by the Gujarat earthquake do not become too large. Estimates already range about Rs 25,000 crore or more. How much the government of India will provide on this account will depend on the detailed assessment of losses to life and property.

The prime minister has already hinted at a harsh budget. A two per cent surcharge has been levied on direct taxes. It appears to be inevitable that the finance minister will go on the lines of a larger surcharge on all taxes if he has to meet the conjoint demands of fiscal deficit reduction and the Gujarat earthquake relief. It is often suggested that a surcharge is an easy, but undesirable, route to tax enhancement because it tends to disturb the relativity of taxes. But if a surcharge is levied on all taxes, no such objection can arise.

Also, the history of Indian fiscal reform has shown that surcharges can be corrected in the next phase of fiscal change. Taking all this into account, I believe the finance minister will find it worthwhile to levy a 10 per cent surcharge on all taxes, with a view to meeting the large burden of the earthquake . He will not find too much resistance to his proposal.

Turning to indirect taxes, the economic advisory council has made a suggestion that the time has come to reduce the average import duty in a five-year phased transition from 34 per cent now to 12 per cent in 2005. This is based on the argument that although India has managed to reduce its average import duty levels from 87 per cent in 1990-91 to 34 per cent now, the rates are still among the highest in the developing countries. The council is strongly in favour of this reduction in spite of the counter-argument that industry faces severe competition from imports, particularly from China. To this, the standard answer has been adduced by the advisory council. It has said that Indian industry should defend itself by producing good products at comparably attractive prices and not depend on protection.

The advisory council has pleaded for the elimination of loopholes in the excise system, including misuse of modified value added tax credit. The latter is, indeed, a potent source of abuse, accounting for as much as Rs 8,000 crore of loss of revenue. The finance minister should take steps in this direction.

A politically sensitive suggestion by the council is abolition of reservation for small-scale industries for select products, at least those which have a strong export potential. It has also suggested the scrapping of the Sick Industrial Companies Act and winding up the board for industrial and financial reconstruction. While these do not have revenue implications, they represent an important step in the reform process.

In the same tone, the economic advisory council has also stressed urgent reform in the labour market, including a deletion of the requirement of prior permission to retrench workers. It has suggested that the requirement for seeking permission need be retained only for larger establishments employing 1,000 or more workers. The council has recommended complete exemption from these norms in respect of export processing zones and 100 per cent export-oriented units. Equally important, the council has recommended that using contract labour should be permitted because this is part of the global trend of outsourcing work.

In regard to reduction of expenditure, the council is insistent that the recommendations of the expenditure reconstruction commission should be implemented, especially with regard to disbanding of staff and winding up of departments of the government. How far the finance minister will be able to implement these decisions depends on the political support he gets.

The advisory council has a few relevant but politically difficult recommendations so far as Indian Railways are concerned. It has suggested that a rail tariff fixation authority should be set up to fix economic fares. This recommendation is very timely as the tendency in railways has been to forget the recovery of costs, especially in respect of passenger fares. The politics and economics of railway transport has been further and further skewed. The preference of successive railway ministers to reduce passenger fares has led to enhancing freight charges and making rail transport uneconomical for freight movement. This has long term implications on the national energy policy, inasmuch as it encourages the utilization of truck transport even for longer distances.

A more significant recommendation of the council is the corporatization of the six manufacturing units of the railways and enhanced private participation in rail projects. It stresses the required legal reforms and tax changes to enable leasing schemes to become popular. The tendency of the successive railway ministers to undertake capital projects without due regard for return and for enhancing staff concessions has to be brought under check if the railways are not to be a drain on the general budget.

The advisory council has made a significant recommendation in regard to reduction of food subsidies. It has laid its finger on the cause, namely, the issue of large food stocks. The high food stocks, which the country carries, are, to a large extent, responsible for the subsidy burden. According to the council, the government should rework its food procurement policy so that it buys grains only when prices fall. To what extent the finance minister will be able to enforce change in the procurement policy will depend on his carrying conviction with the chief ministers of Punjab, Haryana and Andhra Pradesh.

Another sensible recommendation of the council is on the need to bring down interest rates. It suggests that a further reduction be made in the interest rates of small savings. The government has already made a beginning in this regard. But, a further reduction in this regard will depend on the reaction of labour and of the state governments. Labour will not respond willingly to the suggestion to reduce rates on provident fund and the state governments are also vitally concerned as the reduction of interest rates will have an impact on the collection of small savings. Reduction of interest rates on small savings will speed up the general policy goal of reducing interest rates on the economy.

Another sensitive subject on which the advisory council has made suggestions is the levy of user charges, in general, and raising of fees for higher education: this may not be politically easy. The government will have to undertake an “educational” campaign to persuade students and parents to accept the levy of appropriate charges. Impeccable as the logic is, the timing is a matter for the policy-makers to consider.

The council has touched on the sensitive subject of divestment as well. It has strongly recommended the review of the aviation policy, preferring foreign airline equity participation in the domestic air transport operation. This recommendation, if implemented, could enable the government to secure substantially higher divestment proceeds from the disposal of its shareholding in Air India.

The advisory council is strongly in favour of privatization of all state-owned units except strategic units. It is to be hoped that the council’s recommendation will act as an incentive to the ministry of divestment to speed up its operation and facilitate the attainment of the finance minister’s budgetary goals.

The economic advisory council’s recommendation represents a collective consensus of persons who have participated in the formulation and implementation of India’s economic policies over the last two decades. It includes the doyen of Indian economists, I.G. Patel, who himself presided over the Indian finance ministry as also the Reserve Bank of India for many years. It also includes the present governor of the RBI, and the member-secretary of the planning commission, who have both been participants in policy-making at the highest level in India during the last decade.

They are no novices in the design and attainment of economic policy goals. They are well aware of the difficulties of implementing economic policies within the political process. The council’s recommendations, therefore, distil the essence of what is desirable and what is feasible. It is in this spirit that the finance minister should utilize the timely recommendations for taking the country to the next stage of economic reforms and in formulating his budget for 2001-02.

The author is former governor, Reserve Bank of India    


 
 
BOOK REVIEW / PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A SEEKER 
 
 
BY SARVEEN ABUBAKER
 
 
SOUL MOUNTAIN
By Gao Xingjian,
Perennial, $ 15

His twin obsessions more often than not landed him in trouble: he was once wrongly diagnosed with lung cancer because he smoked like a chimney and another time relentlessly hounded by Mao Zedong’s culture police because he refused to dish out “art to serve the masses”.

These two incidents form the background to Gao Xingjian’s Soul Mountain, rated last year by the Swedish Academy as “one of those singular literary creations that seem impossible to compare with anything but themselves”. Translated from the Chinese by Mabel Lee, the novel tells the story of one man’s quest for inner peace and freedom after the serial shocks of 1983.

That year brought multiple blows for Gao: death stared him in the face; his play, Bus Stop — in which a group of men waits 10 years for a bus — was dubbed the “most pernicious play” ever because it made people think; and he was condemned to the notorious prison farms of Qinghai for causing “spiritual pollution”.

Gao then fled to the remote for-ests of south-west China, trudging 15,000 kilometres over five months along the Yangtze as he undertook a pilgrimage to seek solace for his soul.

Gao’s close encounter with death shook up several buried fragments of his past, which he captures pointedly in the novel. His odyssey takes him to provinces on the fringes of civilization where he observes ancient Chinese practices with a historian’s eye. His travels through seven game reserves allow him time to ponder the individual’s place in nature: at the end he discovers that he admires the solitary monk’s peace of mind but prefers the warmth and security of human society.

Overlaying the autobiographical details is an exploration into various forms of human relationship. Gao does this by splitting up the authorial self into the pronouns, “I”, “you”, “he” and “she”, which together constitute the composite protagonist. “I” feels lonely on his journey and creates “you” to overcome his loneliness. “You” feels the same loneliness and creates “she” for companionship. The creation of “she” gives Gao immense scope to probe the psyche of women, making him, in the words of the Swedish Academy, “one of the few male writers who gives the same weight to the truth of women as to his own”.

In course of his wanderings as a political refugee, the protagonist tells stories to shut out his loneliness. We bump into monks, recluses, folk singers and an old toothless woman, who was once the local village beauty.

We hear of the mythical “tiny people” who cavort nude in people’s throats, feed on mucous and squeal to the Heavenly Emperor when their hosts doze off. We listen to tales of bandit kings, rape and suicide. We also hear of the journalist who insisted on cuddling a panda and ended up badly mauled and without his genitals.

As he tosses up one story after the other, Gao also re-creates the insanity of the Cultural Revolution. In a sharp vignette, he recalls how radicals in one town tied up their political enemies in groups of three, stood them along the bank of a river and sprayed machinegun fire into them till they died of wounds or drowned.

Such tales punctuate one of the most complex and unusual of modern picaresque novels. As the protagonist catches sputtering buses to the sacred mountain of the title, his movements take on the quality of dream. He delays and speeds up at whim, shuttles between entirely different time spans in the space of a word and moves back and forth without warning or method. At times his loneliness seems “starkly real”, at others phantasmagoric, leaving the reader more than a little out of depth.

Gao freely mixes the modernism of Samuel Beckett and the absurdism of Eugene Ionesco with traditional elements of Chinese drama, turning his novel into a mishmash of narrative techniques. And again, the reader is left more than a little confused.

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW / THOSE WONDERFUL MEN IN THEIR FLANNEL 
 
 
BY NOVY KAPADIA
 
 
MILLENNIUM’S GREATEST INDIAN CRICKETERS
By Ravi Chaturvedi,
Saru, Rs 225

The doyen of Hindi commentary on both All India Radio and Doordarshan, Ravi Chaturvedi has sketched the history of Indian cricket from the “colonel”, C.K. Nayudu, to the “phenomenon”, Sachin Tendulkar. His series of profiles consists of 11 greatest Indian batsmen, eight bowlers, four all-rounders, five wicket-keepers, three brilliant fielders (Lall Singh of the 1932 tour to England, Hemu Adhikari and Eknath Solkar), oodles of statistics and above all, the best Indian team of the millennium.

For his tactical acumen and inspirational leadership, the nawab of Pataudi (jr) has been chosen captain of the Indian millennium team. Others in the batting line-up are Vijay Merchant, Sunil Gavaskar, Sachin Tendulkar, Vijay Hazare, Vinoo Mankad, Kapil Dev, Syed Kirmani, Erapally Prasanna, Mohammed Nissar and Subash Gupte. The twelfth man is Polly Umrigar.

Using anecdotes, newspaper extracts and interviews, Chaturvedi has written racy and well-researched profiles. For instance, cavalier Mushtaq Ali’s batting has been compared to a hailstorm in Delhi. The experience of witnessing Merchant and Hazare batting together is compared to tasting nectar on Mount Olympus. Gundappa Vishwanath is described as both the romantic and the supreme stylist.

Gavaskar’s All Fools’ Day pranks on Dicky Rutnagar and team manager Polly Umrigar during the 1976 tour of West indies are also recorded. Prasanna is appropriately called the “smiling assassin”. Bold in his comments, Cha- turvedi has chosen D.D. Hindelkar as the best Indian wicket-keeper for his acrobatic catching ability and for bravely supporting a powerful medium pace attack.

The book also lists India’s greatest batting, bowling and all-round feats. Anil Kumble’s 10 wickets for 74 against Pakistan in 1999, Subhash Gupte’s 9 for 102 against the West Indies in 1958 and Jesu Patel’s 9 for 69 and 5 for 55 versus Australia in 1959-60 are listed as the best bowling feats. In batting, Vijay Hazare’s century in each innings against Australia at Adelaide in 1947-48 and Mushtaq Ali’s blazing 112, the first overseas century by an Indian, are listed as some of the best batting feats. On the whole, the book is a delight for both the connoisseur and the lay follower of Indian cricket.

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW / FOR SOME, TIMES ONLY CHANGE FOR THE WORSE 
 
 
BY ARNAB BHATTACHARYA
 
 
GLOBAL ISSUES, LOCAL CONTEXTS: THE RABI DAS OF WEST BENGAL
By Ruchira Ganguly-Scrase,
Orient Longman, Rs 525

The Rabi Das is an ethnic community of leather workers which migrated from Bihar in the early 20th century and settled in Bengal. But its ethnicity remains a puzzle for anthropologists. The Rabi Das men have never been keen to exhibit their cultural distinctiveness. Their acculturation with their Bengali neighbours gathered momentum under the Gandhian social reformers who inculcated bhadralok values in them. The globalization of the Indian economy and the technocratic invasion of the Indian leather industry have caused a gradual economic marginalization of the Rabi Das and dissolved kinship ties and inter-generational conflicts within the community.

Yet, despite its recent penchant for white-collar jobs, the community is anxious to protect its internal power-structure which is premised upon the unquestionable authority of elder siblings and the subjugation of women to conservative social mores.

Ruchira Ganguly-Scrase’s account of the Rabi Das of Hemanta Sarkar Lane in Krishnanagar is “a problem-focussed ethnographic study” of the community which “explodes the notion of a homogeneous community, by reworking the notion of culture”. Its most striking feature is the author’s rejection of the conventional “paradigm of ethnicity” as her main focus is the Rabi Das’s “cultural subordination generated by their redefinition as superfluous labour”.

In the first section, the author posits the Rabi Das in the globally changing perspective of capitalism. She also outlines the socio-cultural history of Nadia district leading to the formation of colonial Krishnanagar, host to the immigrant Rabi Das. The second section traces out the “diacritical marks” of the Rabi Das culture and specifies the areas of cultural overlap. Ganguly-Scrase observes that in the construction of their myths and in the celebration of their festivals, the Rabi Das are different from the Bengalis, but they evince a cultivated conformity to the speech habits and etiquette of their Bengali neighbours.

Ganguly-Scrase is critical of the Rabi Das’s lack of enterpreneurship and of cooperative enterprise. She holds the Gandhian reformers partly responsible for this.

The working Rabi Das women have been used to bolster the crumbling subsistence economy of their community. Ganguly-Scrase shows how the social attitude towards them wavers between approval and condescension.

The introduction to the book merits special attention. It is here that the author explains her stance as an ethnographer by playing one anthropological theory against the other. Her analysis of “the critical challenges” posed to anthropology by ethnographic studies of marginalized communities is intellectually stimulating. She explores the notion of identity and difference, while touching on the problems of reflexive ethnography which persistently operate in the noetic construction of the self and the other. This part is as interesting as her main thesis itself.

   

 
 
EDITOR’S CHOICE / A SENTIMENTAL JOURNEY 
 
 
 
 
TO THE HERMITAGE
By Malcolm Bradbury,
Picador, £ 5.99

“So books breed books, writing breeds writing. The writer starts out as reader in order to become the new writer. In this fashion, one book can actually become the author of a new one.’’ So writes the first person narrator of Malcolm Bradbury’s last novel.

It is a novel but does it have a story? Bradbury is not so sure. There is a story and there isn’t one. He draws an enormous amount from history but also changes it — in his words, “improves it’’ — to meet his requirements. Two separate and distinct journeys are braided together in the novel. One is that of the French philosopher, Denis Diderot, to Russia. Diderot travelled to Petersburg by way of Amsterdam to obey the summons of his self-proclaimed fan, Catherine the Great. The other is by the narrator himself from London to Petersburg via Stockholm on an academic junket going by the name of “The Diderot Project’’. The narrator’s experiences in Peter’s city is juxtaposed with Diderot’s and the latter’s encounters with the Russian empress.

The descriptions of Petersburg, and even of Stockholm, are unusually vivid and detailed. But Bradbury cautions readers at the beginning, “I have altered the places where facts, data, info,...I have quietly corrected errors in the calendar, adjusted flaws in world geography, now and then budged the border of a country...A wee postmodern Haussman, I have elegantly replanned some of the world’s greatest cities, moving buildings to better sites, redesigning the architecture, opening fresh views...I have put statues in more splendid locations, usefully reorganized art galleries, cleaned, transferred or rehung famous paintings...I have revised or edited some of our great books, and republished them. I have altered monuments, defaced icons...’’ Bradbury comments that he has behaved in the manner of history itself “when it plots the world’s advancing story in the great Book of Destiny above.’’

Bradbury is obviously fascinated by Diderot — “the most pleasing of all the philosophers’’ — and this is his tribute to the philosopher. The Diderot Project actually exists. Bradbury was once part of a conference that the authors of the project had organized and he had sailed across the Baltic in October 1993 when Russia had heaved without giving birth. This is how the book began and the novel also begins with the narrator in Stockholm about to voyage across the Baltic to Russia’s window to the West.

The tone of the novel is playful. Bradbury wears his erudition very lightly. The style is elaborate and deliberately so, but is never boring. The author, obviously unaware that this would be his last novel, was clearly experimenting with form and style. The playfulness is evident in the way Bradbury draws on that famous night-long encounter between Isaiah Berlin and the poet, Anna Akhmatova, in Stalin’s Russia for his narrator’s night-long chat with Galina, a 70- year old librarian who sees herself as a Parisian who has never been to Paris. The narrator becomes her visitor from the West.

Even those with no stomach for postmodernism, but with an interest in serious but entertaining fiction, will enjoy this book.

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW / MOUNTAINS ARE MOODS OF RHYTHM AND LINE 
 
 
 
 
SIKKIM: A TRAVELLER'S GUIDE
(Permanent Black, price not mentioned)

Sikkim: A Traveller's Guide is a beautifully designed book that is considerably more than what it calls itself. With spectacularly lush photographs and evocative essays by Sujoy Das and a wealth of essential information compiled by Arundhati Ray, this book combines usefulness and aesthetic distinction. Sikkim emerges from its pages as both richly traditional and as a fascinatingly contemporary place. There is a striking picture of the head lama at Phodang monastery who looks like a Venetian doge painted by Titian, especially in his magnificent blood-red head-dress.

The information provided is exhaustive, with interesting digressions into yetis and Buddhist calendars, written in a lucidly anecdotal style. There is also a special section for trekkers with “insider tips” and maps. It is a pity though that some of the finest pictures are marred by the fold.

   

 
 
PAPERBACK PICKINGS / RESILIENCE IN THE MARGINS 
 
 
 
 
TILL DEATH DO US PART
By Mahasweta Devi
(Seagull, Rs 150)

Mahasweta Devi’s Till Death Do Us Part is a slim collection of tales, each of them focusing on a woman who is marginal to society. The lives of these women are narrated around a single event or transformation, and they are also seen within a crucial relationship — with a husband, lover, son or friend. Deftly woven in are various social and historical realities — caste, the Partition, Muslim divorce law — none of which feels like an extraneous “issue” whose implications are being explored programmatically. These are all beautiful, moving stories, translated with restraint by Vikram Iyengar. They range across a wide span of the writer’s career, from the early Sixties to the mid-Nineties. Perhaps the most memorable are “The Saga of Kagaboga” and “Talaq”, both of which explore the inexplicable survival of long companionships in the face of personal eccentricity and severe hardship.

BRANCH LINE TO ETERNITY
By Bill Aitken
(Penguin, Rs 295)

By Bill Aitken’s Branch Line To Eternity is a naturalized Indian’s rather devout elegy to steam engines. Aitken’s Scottish roots come through in the distinctive flavour of his humour. Dame Clara Cluck, Waltzing Matilda, Belle of Hell and the Swiss Miss are some of the stars in this delightful romance, and Viswakarma, the god of mechanical inspiration, its presiding genius. Travelling the length and breadth of the country over several years, Aitken seeks to “catch the mood of these game old ladies smoking hard on the run as the steam age drew to a close, as well as indicate the strange elation that even the most superannuated of branch line locos released when there is fire in her belly.”

THE CAMBRIDGE FACTFINDER
Edited By David Crystal
(Cambridge, Rs 350)

David Crystal’s The Cambridge Factfinder is the updated, revised and expanded fourth edition of an immensely valuable and useful reference guide. Organized into thematic sections which cover everything from science and technology through sports and games to religion and mythology, with a thorough summary of statistics relating to countries of the world, the economy, communications and world history, the book provides accurate answers to the widest possible range of questions. It also raises larger philosophical questions — what is a fact, and what isn’t a fact? The word, “fact”, has one of the longest definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary, according to which “a datum of experience” is a fact, but not “the conclusions which may be based upon it”.

SIMPLIFICATIONS: AN INTRODUCTION TO STRUCTURALISM AND POST-STRUCTURALISM
By Aniket Jaaware
(Orient Longman, Rs 405)

Aniket Jaaware’s Simplifications: An Introduction To Structuralism And Post-Structuralism attempts to provide a comprehensive overview of post-Sixties Western literary theory. Jaaware runs through the key theorists from Saussure to Derrida, and also tries to give a sense of their philosophical underpinnings in the ideas of such figures as Hegel, Kant, Heidegger and Freud. He also illustrates the application of these theoretical approaches to a range of texts from Hamlet to Dalit literature. This book could have been less than half its size, had the author restrained his urge to hold forth. From the “polemical introduction” to the final chapter of “quotations, some obvious, some curious, some merely verbose” Jaaware’s copia is the one serious obstacle to his project of “simplification”. It also makes one wonder about his claim that post-structuralism is dominant “only within a certain group of Eur-American [sic] academics”. The bibliography is also extensive, and there are some interesting, and possibly useful, chronologies and genealogical diagrams.

SKIN
By Margaret Mascarenhas
(Penguin, Rs 250)

Margaret Mascarenha’Skin reads like a parody of a magic realist novel, written by “a culture-crossed mongrel of history”. Pagan Miranda Flores leaves California for Portuguese India, where her grandmother, Dona Gabriela, lies dying. And then her old ayah, Esperança, begins to tell her about the history of her family. “You see, there were stories within stories, myths, dreams, legends, skeletons in closets. Mothers and fathers who weren’t. Green-eyed girls and cases of mistaken identity. A melting pot of histories, races, religions. People who owned other people. Points of view. Acts of courage, cowardice, deceit. And love — the heart of the matter. Hearts that mattered, shattered, scattered. Like shards from a broken mirror.”

   

 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

Like music to our ears

Sir — “Napster in $ 1 billion survival plan” (Feb 22) gives music lovers all over the globe new hope. It did not take a Marilyn Hall Patel to rule that music, for all intents and purposes, was being pirated by the use of the MP3 files. The administrators of Napster and anybody half-way clued in to the procedure knew that billions of songs were being downloaded every month. People have been using Napster primarily because of the silliness of the record companies which have traditionally tried to push the sales of less known or simply even bad songs through the packaging of their CDs and music tapes. How long were they expecting to get away with this? A desperate feeling of being given a raw deal drove these consumers to Napster, where even the slightly worse quality of music was compensated for by the choice made available. After all, all consumers are not to be bluffed all the time. Both Napster and Bertelsmann should now rest assured about the loyalty of music lovers across the world.
Yours faithfully,
Shibaji Banerjee, via email

It’s not in the stars

Sir — It is interesting to find that Khushwant Singh has touched on astrology in his weekly column, “This above all”. His challenge to anybody who would be willing produce documentary evidence predicting the death of the victims of the Gujarat earthquake (“Those who have ears to the ground”, Feb 15) is a masterstroke.

The release of the pamphlet, Jyotish ki adou bigyan? (Is astrology at all a science?), by Amalendu Bandyopadhyay, at the Calcutta Book Fair, is significant for the propagation of scientific knowledge. The author has attacked the absurd decision of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government to introduce astrology in the degree courses in Indian universities.

It is difficult to imagine how a professor of physics, Murli Manohar Joshi, could propose this project to the University Grants Commission. One hopes that the commission will reject the proposal. Else a national movement should be started to oppose this outrageous idea. The obscurantism being propagated by the BJP should be attacked. Bandyopadhyay’s booklet would go a long way towards this. It should be translated into all the major Indian languages.

It is quite stunning that the leaders of even a secular party like the Congress believe in the advice of astrologers (“Sonia sounds stars and Vaastu to break Bangalore jinx”, Feb 15).

Yours faithfully,
Arun Banerjea, Calcutta

Sir — Khushwant Singh’s diatribe against astrology and astrologers was an extremely enjoyable read. I am afraid Singh makes one mistake. He thinks Murli Manohar Joshi’s MSc stands for “Master of Science”. It should be read as “Murderer of Science”.

Yours faithfully,
Asok Banerjee, Calcutta

Lead, unkindly lights

Sir — It has become the fashion for the Congress, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and their associates to call their parties secular just because the parties have a Muslim vote bank. The Bharatiya Janata Party, in contrast, is both regarded and projected as a communal party. This is tricky, given the presence of the Trinamool Congress leader, Mamata Banerjee, in the National Democratic Alliance.

Under the circumstances, the hypocrisy of Sonia Gandhi knows no bounds. She considers the prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and his party to be communal, but certifies Mamata Banerjee as secular although she owes her allegiance to the BJP. Again, Sonia Gandhi hobnobs with Jyoti Basu who brands Mamata Banerjee communal because of her association with the BJP. The double, triple, or even multiple standards of politicians are mind-boggling.

All the fashionable noises she is making about secularism before the assembly elections in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and some other states is mainly to get votes from Muslims.

Yours faithfully
Sunil Kumar Pal, London

Sir — Ashok Mitra’s article, “More equal than others” (Feb 14), proves that scruples are rare among Indian politicians. Otherwise, why would the so-called secular politicians like Mamata Banerjee, Om Prakash Chautala, N. Chandrababu Naidu align with the BJP and form the NDA? Clearly, coalition politics is nothing but an expression of opportunism.

Sonia Gandhi, too, despite the secular image she is desperately trying to project is not above and beyond all this. Her attempts to woo the likes of Laloo Prasad Yadav and J. Jayalalitha (both of whom are up to their necks in corruption) is indication enough of this.

Yours faithfully,
Indu Bhushan Basu, Jamshedpur

Sir — Sonia Gandhi is now staring hard facts in the face. She has exhausted all her new ideas to spearhead the opposition and convert it into a single, potent force. Now, she needs to rely on the experience and abilities of the erstwhile prime minister and master politician, P.V. Narasimha Rao. She should accommodate him into the Congress leadership and follow his advice.

Yours faithfully,
B. Roy Chowdhury, Calcutta

Sir — The personalities of leaders dominate political parties in India. The Congress has more or less become the property of its president. Collective leadership and the cordial atmosphere in which different opinions are shared have become outdated. The regional parties too mainly exist on the strength of the regional leaders. These parties cannot have more than one leader at a time. If the second one emerges as competitive, it will mean the end of the party. The second leader does not wait to take over the party via any natural process. In a hurry, the party splits and a new outfit is floated.

The communist parties and the BJP are the only exceptions to this. The Congress should not behave like other regional parties. Dependence on one individual’s charisma will take it only thus far and no further.

Yours faithfully,
V.A. Gopala, Bangalore

Sir — Sonia Gandhi’s trip to the Kumbh cannot be too helpful for her secular image. She should now visit some churches, mosques and gurudwaras.

Yours faithfully,
Biren Mullick, Calcutta

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