Editorial 1 / Spare the child
Editorial 2 / More than a list
Medical famine
Book Review / Airing the third world closet
Book review / At sea level
Book Review /Go by the animal instincts
Book Review / Inspired life in verses
Editor’s Choice / Here she stands for she knows no
Paperback pickings / A garden of earthly delights
Letters to the editor

The Centre would like to see the schoolboy with his satchel whining less. The human resources development minister, Mr Murli Manohar Joshi, wants to do away with examinations until class X. He also declared in Parliament that corporal punishment in school could soon be made a legal offence. He held up as exemplary the previous Maharashtra government’s regulation of the weights of the satchels carried by schoolchildren. This attempt to transform the disciplinarian ethos of the Indian classroom is certainly laudable. The deadening of the creative and self-delighting elements of education in India is largely the result of unhealthy competitiveness, feudal attitudes to authority and an unimaginatively encyclopaedic concept of knowledge. Abolishing examinations will counter many of these tendencies, and will enhance the joy of learning to think and to express oneself for its own sake. The capacity for original, disinterested and fearless inquiry and debate is certainly good for individuals, as it is for a society proud to call itself a democracy.

Yet at a less highminded and more pragmatic level, Mr Joshi’s views must raise doubts and fears. First, such a liberal view of education can only exist within an infrastructural and social context that would strike most Indian teachers, students and guardians as somewhat utopian. The phenomenal numbers that schools have to tackle, and the practical and systemic problems this gives rise to, would make the implementation of an alternative evaluative method quite impossibly complicated, to say the least. And proper evaluation there will have to be, particularly in the Indian context — if only to prevent the mass production of riotously ill-educated students flooding the already overpopulated institutions of higher education. One shudders to think what states like Bihar would make of such liberties. Second, the active concern shown by Mr Joshi and his ministry, his repeated reassurances in Parliament that the Centre will not abdicate its “responsibilities” in the field of education, indicate a persistently interventionist attitude in matters of human learning which the Indian state should learn to work itself out of. The notion of a centralized regulation of education — through the forging and enforcement of curricula, methods of evaluation, the inculcation of human values — seems to be fundamentally at odds with the principles of a liberal education. Schools should be as free as is practically possible to formulate and implement their own contents and methods of teaching and evaluation. The role of the state should be minimal in this process. It must be able to distinguish between supporting education when necessary and actively determining its form and substance. What Indian students need to be freed from is not only the pressure of competition but also, more crucially, the yoke of the schoolmasterish state.


The list of candidates announced by the Trinamool Congress for the forthcoming assembly elections in West Bengal is an indicator of both the strengths and weaknesses of the party. The Trinamool Congress has neither identity nor significance outside the personality of Ms Mamata Banerjee. The party revolves, for good or for bad, around her mercurial presence. She determines the tone of the campaign and she decides on the list of candidates. Those who will contest the polls under the Trinamool Congress banner should be grateful to Ms Banerjee. They owe nothing to anybody else, not even to their own political skills, acumen and support base. There is hardly anybody on the list who can win an election on his own without the support of Ms Banerjee. This is Ms Banerjee’s strength but it is also a comment on the absence of the Trinamool Congress’s organization. Ms Banerjee will have to campaign everywhere to ensure that her candidates are returned. This may prove to be a thankless and an impossible task. She will have to harness her energies and focus her campaign with care to ensure the best possible results. Ms Banerjee knows that for her this might be a make or break election and for this reason alone she will have to orchestrate a campaign that has more to it than a shrill anti-leftism. If she is to lead West Bengal, Ms Banerjee will have to project a blueprint for the state. Unfortunately for her, no one in her party, including herself, seems to possess this vision.

For the left in West Bengal, there are important lessons to be drawn from the list of Trinamool Congress candidates. For one thing, there are figures from various walks of public life who have not been in politics but have chosen to tie their fate to the Trinamool Congress flag. The list provides a good index of two things. One is the intensity of the anti-left feelings among sections of the urban populace; and two, the clear identification that is made between Ms Banerjee and anti-leftism. By being uncompromising in her opposition to the Left Front government in West Bengal, Ms Banerjee has earned for herself the position of being the only acceptable anti-left leader. She embodies the hopes of all those who believe that the left should be removed from power in the next elections. It is but natural, therefore, that many public figures who are disaffected with the Left Front have joined her in the fight to usher in a new regime of power in West Bengal. The left can ignore or underestimate this phenomenon only at its own peril. That film stars and sportsmen are willing to risk their reputation in a political battle is by itself a statement of disapproval and that they should seek to express this through Ms Banerjee is revealing of her standing among those who harbour anti-left feelings.


Remember Satyajit Ray’s masterpiece, Ashani Sanket? The last scene of this unforgettable film merged the profile of a single famine victim with the millions that died in the Bengal famine to create a montage that will haunt forever. What made the film all the more moving was its theme. The Bengal famine did not occur because food was scarce but because people did not have the necessary purchasing power to feed themselves. As it was man-made, the tragedy of the Bengal famine assumed monumental proportions.Since then we have overcome much of our naïveté regarding famines. Now it is fairly common knowledge that not just the Bengal famine, but most famines, are man-made. Food supplies exist but people cannot afford to feed themselves. Amartya Sen’s contributions on this subject have facilitated a wider understanding of what food famines are all about. Consequently, policy-makers too are forced to address famines, though not always with the kind of concern and honesty that this issue deserves.

But amidst all this there is yet another kind of famine that has gone completely unrecognized. It receives little popular attention. It still awaits a Nobel laureate to write about it, and an Oscar winner to film a tale about it. This is the medical famine. In this famine too, drugs are plenty, but as patients are often too poor to afford them, they die needlessly. Such cases of medical famine are manifest among poor patients suffering from a variety of ailments, but is perhaps expressed most acutely among those suffering from cancer.

Food famines are usually grand episodic events. Thousands, if not millions, are affected together. They move restlessly from village to village, from watering hole to watering hole, eventually to qasbas and cities looking for relief. Their consolidated numbers demand attention, for whole communities are hit together. It is also not difficult to appreciate the injustice done to them as they are so blatant and in your face.

The victims of medical famines suffer in comparison. Though in this case too lakhs are involved, but they are separated from one another and suffer their indignities and their tragedies in isolation. They shuffle about at the mercy of doctors in lonely cancer wards in different ugly, dingy hospitals that dot the country.

But their plight is perhaps a shade grimmer than those who suffer from food famines. They know that they are going to die with the certainty of a condemned man facing the gallows. A diagnosis of cancer is a death sentence because the drugs are simply unaffordable. Adriamycin, a common cancer drug, costs Rs 1,500 per shot. For the entire chemotherapy regimen to be administered with a reasonable degree of success, a cancer patient will have to incur a cost of Rs 50,000 to Rs 100,000 on drugs alone. This is not all. There are other expenses too, for antibiotics, pathology tests and x-rays.

Medical famine with respect to cancer patients is not fully recognized because it is often believed that cancer is a sure killer no matter what. This is far from true. For instance, a particular kind of childhood leukemia, medically known as ALL, is fully curable. But the costs are enormous. Hence poor children with this disease must surely die and never attain adulthood. Yet those who can afford the treatment grow up to be perfectly healthy people and bear no scars or traces of the disease at all. They lead normal lives, get married and have healthy children. Cancer is not even a memory for them.

It must also be remembered that most cancers are curable if they are caught and treated in time. There are many cancer survivors today who stand testimony to this. Yet, in the popular imagination cancer is hopeless. This is why there is little recognition of the acute medical famine that many poor people face when they are afflicted with this disease.

A visit to any of the cancer hospitals in India immediately brings home the enormity of the medical famine. There are patients who will just have to walk away and die somewhere else because they do not have the money. One sees a range of human emotions jostling together in these cancer wards. There are some who see a glimmer of hope, they are the lucky ones. They have somehow been able to scratch together enough money to see them through the treatment. It is a different story for the poor, however. And yet they are tenacious. They live from day to day hoping for some relief from some relation, from some friend, maybe even from some chance acquaintance. The dread of cancer is multiplied several fold by their financial uncertainties. And yet the human spirit is sometimes so strong. Many refuse to surrender to fate or destiny.

The high cost of cancer drugs is magnified by the many indignities and inconveniences they have to suffer. For most poor people it is an added expense to live in the cities where hospitals are located. Consequently, many are forced to travel long distances from home everyday. Some live on the streets but that too is difficult when the body is being ravaged and the weather is inclement. Fighting against such tremendous odds some families of cancer patients are reduced to plain begging.

The hard truth however is that if they do not come up with the necessary money they get no treatment. There is no mercy shown either by the disease or by the country’s medical system. Many poor cancer patients raise what little they can by selling whatever they have and start the treatment. But many have to stop it midway because of a shortage of funds. Now they have lost their property, their families are out on the streets, and the cancer is still eating away within. So when cancer strikes a poor person the whole family is ruined. Other members in the family may not have the disease, but once cancer enters a home it financially and emotionally devastates everyone in it.

Cancer patients who cannot afford their treatment have to make terrible choices. In one case in New Delhi’s prestigious All India Institute of Medical Sciences a father and child were both diagnosed with cancer. As the family did not have enough money to treat both of them they had to make a choice. It was either the father or the child. After weighing the alternatives the family decided to treat the father, so they had to let the child die. The family reckoned that if the male earning member were to go matters would be much worse for the rest of them. So this terrible decision had to be taken because they saw no other way out.

But there was further tragedy awaiting. As money was running short, even the father’s disease could not be combated effectively. So his cancer has returned. Now he has no money, and has also lost his child, but the cancer will not leave him alone.

This scene is as devastating as any from Ashani Sanket. Besides, it is real and is happening right now.

The author is professor of sociology, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi    

Edited by Peter Drucker,
Gay Men’s Press, Price not mentioned

The book under review is an exhaustive and matter-of-fact exploration of movements for gay and lesbian rights as they have evolved in the third world countries of Africa and Asia. One may, at the outset, question the validity of such movements in nations where human rights have only a marginal existence, such ideas having, in most cases, been borrowed from those who once ruled over them.

An even greater irony is that the movements came into existence only in reaction to the AIDS scourge. The threat posed by that dreaded disease in some of these nations is said to be quite exaggerated (little to that held by malaria, dengue or tuberculosis). And in many of these countries it is transferred mostly through heterosexual contact.

The articles having been contributed by writers and researchers from countries as diverse as Mexico and the other Latina nations, South Africa, Kenya, India, China and south Asia, the book is a smorgasbord of cultures. The nature of the movements is inextricably linked to the cultures from which they originate. As Norma Mogrovejo writes in her article on “Lesbian visibility in Latin America”, in spite of their radical posturings, feminists can’t stomach lesbians and vice versa. In the latter case, the hostility stems from the rejection of phallocentrism.

In many of these cultures, such as in Africa, China and India, though same-sex practices were always in existence, one’s sexual preferences were never regarded as the indicator of one’s identity. One didn’t automatically became a gay or otherwise on account of the gender of one’s partner. So, in an increasingly Eurocentric world, this equation too has been worked out under Western influence which is difficult to escape.

The contributors from both India (Sherry Joseph and Pawan Dhall) and Kenya (John Mburu) have tried to validate the existence of same-sex practices by trying to prove that they enjoyed a pre-colonial existence by quoting texts, which, we are told, are ancient. While it is doubtful that there are references to homosexual practices in Kamasutra (there is a how-to on oral sex in the Penguin edition, though) does one really have to hark back to the past to justify a human relationship that is a justification in itself?

While the decriminalization of same-sex practices should certainly be on the agenda of activists, the glorification of “coming out” is jarring. Call it a Victorian mindset, hypocrisy or what you will, in our closed cultures when do we discuss matters sexual with our parents that we have to make a clean breast of who we want to go to bed with? In this context, one should refer to the dignity with which jatra queen, Chapal Bhaduri, speaks of his urges in Naveen Kishore’s highly sensitive film on him, without lapsing into the strident, campy tone one associates with drag queens. Dignity is what matters most.

Of equal relevance is Chou Wah-shan’s article on “empowerment” in China. In Chinese culture, we are told, the “hetero-homo binarism” does not exist. So long as one doesn’t rock the boat, relations, even between married women, are accepted. Coming out is out of the question because there is too much to lose.

South Africa holds the great black hope for gays. Both Mandela and Tutu being committed to egalitarianism, the situation is utopian there. But it doesn’t follow that the entire nation shares the enlightened views of these two leaders. Homophobia still exists in South Africa as much as it does in the neighbouring nations of the continent.

The book is uniformly well-edited and the language is crisp and precise. The only quarrel one has is with the introduction by the editor. It bristles with jargon. The same man rounds off the articles with an overview which is quite lucid. The book would have been even more interesting if contributions from Pakistan and Bangladesh found a place in them. There, are they glad to be gay?


Edited by Anthoney Disney and Emily Booth,
Oxford, Rs 645

The Indian Ocean, as the mediating highway of the East-West encounter, has in recent years become even more important for scholars to re-examine and study, either from the perspective of cultural studies and new writings or from the older approach of historical analysis within the paradigms of Euro- and/or ethnocentrism. The shifts in the latter were predictably in response to the changing political contingencies — as histories of the subcontinent began to emerge from the Eurocentric bind of history-writing to the specific dynamics of decolonization that found borders to be changing and permeable categories. Alternately, the early European encounter was not without significance and subtlety and did not merit being dismissed in a wave of enthusiasm for the autonomy of the voyager on the Indian Ocean.

The volume under review seeks precisely to do this — to look at the phenomenon of the Portuguese project with greater clarity and to identify the multiplicity of its impact on the Indian Ocean. At a simple even if obvious level, it is argued that the novelty of the intervention merits some kind of examination. It was the Portuguese, after all, who sought to enter the unknown realm of the Indian Ocean and not vice versa; while at a more complex level, the Portuguese project, in concrete terms of sovereignty and “precocious statism”, was demonstrably unlike that of the indigenous polities.

Their Estado da India, as an interventionist, trade-promoting organization, represented a form of state formation that was new to the Indian Ocean region. And yet, it would appear even from some of the essays in the volume that the encounter, with all its trappings, did not cut into the inertia of indigenous states and galvanize them into concerted protest, with a few exceptions like that of Japan. The importance of the volume, however, derives not so much from the relative and differential impact of the Portuguese presence on the Indian Ocean states and trading systems but from the rich and variegated texture of the Portuguese strand in the subtly changing configurations of the cultural identity of the Indian Ocean.

The essays in the first section of the book deal largely with the organization of the early voyages, the life at sea and the sensibilities of the voyagers. John Villier’s essay is particularly striking as he emphasizes both the state of preparedness of the Portuguese voyages that drew on a longer tradition of nautical science and cartographic wisdom that had been systematically harnessed and transmitted. These advantages did not, however, diminish the sense of uncertainty and insecurity that was built into the great voyage as sailors and seamen took refuge in prayer and magic to keep their wits about. This, in turn, gave birth to an elaborate and fantastical iconography that deified navigational instruments and above all the ship itself, which became an integral motif in the tapestry panels of the period.

The daring of the Portuguese and the scale of their operations were immediately manifest in the sheer size of their seaborne empire which in its conception was spectacular and embodied their presence in an unmistakable even if fragmented manner. The levels of entry and integration into maritime Asia were many and varied and facilitated a unique process of social and cultural movement that facilitated the making of trading fortunes, the articulation of political roles and the construction of myths and legends.

The essays in the third section offer interesting glimpses into the interaction between Portuguese and Asian culture, including their relationship with Islam. This has been in many senses an area of taboo and prejudice — the anti-Islamic prejudice of the Portuguese has remained an a priori assumption in understanding the dynamics of the Indo-Portuguese encounter. Silva Couto demonstrates how the official anti-Islamic discourse concealed a very different social reality on the ground and that discrepancy was marked between doctrine and practice.

Portugal’s Islamic cultural heritage mediated by the Mozarabs and the Mudejars, the location of Portugal at the geopolitical and religious frontier between Islam and Christianity, the demands of the Portuguese empire produced a very complex set of responses and cross-conversions. Greater familiarity with the language of adversaries — enabled in the wake of reconnaissance missions, dealing with interpreters, commercial and diplomatic transactions — resulted in occasional breaks with Christianity and in conversions to Islam in the 16th century.

The profile of some of the renegades detailed by Couto brings out the richness of the encounter, the dynamics of two different culture systems in operation, that forces us to reconsider the nature of the Portuguese constituent in the making of the Indian Ocean’s cultural identity. In fact it is the cultural motif that makes the work different and more relevant in understanding the processes of change and transformation in the Indian Ocean in the wake of the European inroad.

The encounter of languages, for instance, is explored, even if rather briefly by Elena Loseda Soler, who draws attention to the early acquisition of linguistic consciousness of non-European languages. Analysing Alvaro Velho’s Roteiro, she identifies some of the processes that distinguished the early interaction mediated through confused interpreters and which produced a kind of elementary linguistic consciousness. The lexicon that emerged was strange in that it omitted some of the more immediate requirements of commercial exchange and concentrated more on the physical and psychological exploration of a different humanity.

The essays dealing with the patterns of trade and movement of commodities and the exigencies of structural adjustment reinforce existing formulations about the commercial interaction between Asia and Europe. Perhaps the one missing motif is the reception of the Portuguese in local society and the manner in which the foreigners were represented in their idiom. We have one or two essays that speak of indigenous chronicles and histories that imaged the Portuguese in a particular cast but these remain for the most part exploratory and tentative.


By Ranjit Lal,
IndiaInk, Rs 250

The subtitle describes this book as a fable, which we all know, is a story which has animals as its protagonists and is accompanied by a moral. The Life and Times of Altu-Faltu also has a moral —it lies in the parallels which may be drawn with humankind.

This is a tale about colonies of monkeys who live around the Flagstaff Tower, the Ridge at north Delhi, the Mutiny Memorial, the zoo and other places. They call themselves Delhizens. The fable revolves around the elopement of Rani-beti, the most eligible daughter of Chaudhury Charbi Raisahib, chief of the Flagstaff Tower clan, with Altu-Faltu, the ne’er-do-well son of Brigadier Ladsahib, whose troop lives in the park around the Mutiny Memorial.

The plot is so melodramatic that it can be made into a Hindi film. The elopement betters its human version, complete as it is with irate parents and villains in tow. The pivot of subsequent action is the Khooni Khan Jheel which “consists of two small, dark ponds linked by a narrow neck of water over which crouches the little bridge. It is surrounded by trees — great trembling-leafed peoples, lovely filigreed neems, fiery gulmohars and others. During the hottest days of summer, the Flagstaff Tower macaques used the pond as a swimming pool”. The descriptions are beautiful, particularly that of nature.

In such a place did the lovely Rani-beti decide to embark on her perilous journey with Altu-Faltu, the wimp who quaffed Phensidyl and loafed around with the dissolute Delhizens of Hindu Rao Ridge.

The ways of love, simian or human, are strange. The love-struck pair find themselves pursued by Leechadji, “gross and obese, his pendulous -paunch swinging low”, a trusted trouble-shooter of Chaudhuri Charbi Raisahib. But just when it seems that evil will triumph, with Leechadji being able to corner Altu-Faltu and Rani-beti, fate intervenes. Altu-Faltu and Rani-beti are rescued and Leechadji suffers terrible torment. For the time being, the lovers escape.

However, Altu-Faltu and Rani-beti are separated again and Rani-beti finds herself in the Delhi zoo, a fate worse than death for a proud princess. The otherwise pathetic Altu-Faltu however ultimately manages to free Rani-beti, though their troubles are far from over.

A full-scale war, reminiscent of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, looms over the horizon. More than one army is involved and the climax comes in the form of Altu-Faltu facing Badtameez (orginially betrothed to Rani-beti) on the same bridge over Khooni Khan Jheel. In the end, the lovers are united and Rani-beti presents her family and in-laws with a baby born out of wedlock.

Ranjit Lal can certainly tell a tale. And his insight into the animal world is deep. This is not surprising, considering that he specializes in natural history. He also appears to have studied the ways of monkeys in great detail. However, he need not have painted such a realistic picture of the wanton ways of monkeys, or the revenge of a cast-off concubine.

The novel is filled with humorous descriptions which would leave the reader chuckling to himself. The author shows the ways of power and how it can be abused. A situation where a brother becomes the enemy of his own brother is one that is not unknown to the human world. And elopements do draw the wrath of families. It is a novel with a difference and herein lies its strength.


Translated by C.M. Maim,
Oxford, Rs 395

This autobiography of the famous Mughal poet of the 18th century has been presented for the first time in English with exhaustive annotations and an introduction containing all the relevant details about the poet’s life and times. The translator has tried to give its English readers something of the flavour of the original and as such, the editor has checked, rechecked and supplemented where necessary, information provided by all the available versions of the manuscript. The translator-annotator has indeed done a thorough job of it.

The autobiography, however, is a curious work in many ways. Though Mir has been a time-tested luminary of Urdu poetry, particularly ghazals, he chose to write his most intimate lines in Persian, perhaps because it was the common practice of the time to do so. Or did he try to seek the cover of a language, restricted in its use, for concealing some of his secret sentiments from the common reader?

The book can be divided into three parts. The first part is a biography of the father done by the son. It deals almost exclusively with the Sufism of Mir’s father, his mystic power over those who came in contact with him and his life as a dervish. The son bears witness to all his father’s esoteric activities. The second part is all about the sultans, nawabs and rajas of the 18th century Mughal regime — their political intrigues and their military exploits. The third part narrates some jokes most of which cannot be enjoyed without a reference to the context of time and place.

The autobiography has an epic beginning, starting with an invocation to god. This is followed by a mini-treatise on Sufism as the poet’s father understood and practised it. The chapters end with couplets, some of which are the author’s own, pertaining to the mystic experience of a Sufi.

The most memorable portion of the second part is the author’s graphic description of the carnage of Ahmad Shah Abdali and the unbearable suffering of the people that came with it. He does not, however, mention the plunder and looting of Nadir Shah and the reign of terror let loose by him. It had happened only a year before he left for Delhi when he was 16. Living in Agra, he must have heard about the sacking of Delhi.

The style of writing, as one gathers from the translation, changes from the pompous to the pedestrian. Mir evidently could not quite repress his feelings of vanity and self-pity despite his acceptance as a major poet of his time. He appears to have been inordinately proud of being a Sayyad, a converted Shia and the son of a great Sufi. He did not take kindly to his Sunni maternal uncle, the brother of his step-mother, Sirajuddin Ali Khan Arzu, a well-known Persian scholar of the period. Mir even goes on to accuse his uncle of driving him to a state of lunacy.

But by far the most curious aspect of this biography is that it says precious little about the personal life of the author — his ancestry, his family, his childhood and upbringing, his education and training as a poet, his own marriages (he married twice), his children and their death in his old age and his growth as a poet. No regret is expressed over the decline of Mughal power in India. Facts, incidents as well other necessary information about his life are recorded only in the translator’s introduction.

Mir Muhammad Taki, better known to his wide readership by his takhallus — Mir— does not say anything about his poetry in Persian and Urdu nor much about his patrons who had inspired many of his verses. He emerges from his autobiography as a person who lived and worked with deep complexes all his life.


By Diana Athill,
Granta, £ 7.99

At a pub in Baker Street, a man once told Diana Athill that humankind is seventy per cent brutish, thirty per cent intelligent. He was perhaps echoing, in more prosaic terms, Oscar Wilde’s famous declaration, “All of us are in the gutters, only some of us are looking at the stars’’. Diana Athill, who was a founder director of André Deutsch, the famous publisher, was once described as “one of the best editors in London’’. She spent her entire life not only being intelligent but also in the attempt to keep other intelligent people on that precarious perch by doing her job. She has consistently, throughout her life, looked at the stars, and has produced some, even though her innate modesty stops her from admitting this, in the literary firmament.

This delightful little memoir shows that she is as good a writer as she was an editor, working out of small rooms in the various premises that André Deutsch occupied since its inception in 1952. There was very little in Athill’s background to suggest that she would become such an outstanding editor and, after her retirement, a writer whose choice of words and construction of syntax were impeccable and whose observation of human relationships and human frailties was never short on empathy.

She had an impoverished father but her mother’s side was Norfolk landed gentry. She grew up with two passions: “Reading was what one did indoors, as riding was what one did out of doors: an essential part of life, rather than a mere pleasure.’’ She went to Oxford but like many others of her class, she “had certainly not qualified myself for anything while there’’. She had the best time of her life in Oxford. When she came down, she knew she would have to earn a living

She met André Deutsch in London during the war. They were lovers briefly but remained lifelong friends despite Athill’s disapproval of many of André’s ways, especially his handling of people and crises. She worked with him in the first publishing firm he set up and then joined him in establishing the firm that bore his name. The firm’s first major success came when André secured the English rights of von Papen’s memoirs.

Authors, some known and others unknown but all memorably sketched, flit in and out of Athill’s memoirs. The second part of the book contains her recollections of six of her authors who were special to her. In her words, she “watched them more closely, speculated about them more searchingly, wondered at them with more delight — or dismay...[they] enlarged my life; have been experiences in it in the way, I suppose, that mountain is an experience to a climber, or a river to an angler’’.

Humour is never very away from Athill’s recollections and indeed from her view of life. But she is aware also of “life’s consuming darkness’’ but through books and through those who make them, she recognized “the light which continues to struggle through’’ that darkness. This is a happy book despite moments of sadness like when André Deutsch was sold to Tom Rosenthal who sold the firm’s archives to a US university.

Athill divides readers into two kinds. One, a diminishing minority that prefers books to any other form of entertainment, and second, those for whom books are just another form of entertainment. She resolutely belongs to the first and her memoirs will be on the shelves of those who belong to that select group. We are in her debt for allowing us a glimpse of her sensitive mind. She evokes with charm something ineffable, may be the ambience of a more gracious and civilized ancien regime when publishers did not treat books as just another commodity for the marketplace.


Edited by Elizabeth B. Moynihan
(Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, price not mentioned)

Elizabeth B. Moynihan’s The moonlight garden: new discoveries at the taj mahal is a ravishingly beautiful book that presents the findings of an international project to document the surface remains of a long-abandoned Mughal garden located directly across the river from the Taj Mahal. This is the Mahtab Bagh, or the moonlight garden, which used to be an integral part of the design of the Taj complex. The entire plan may have embodied Shah Jahan’s notion of the cosmic order. Harmonizing the distinct beauties of running water, light and shade, varied flora and a view of the Taj Mahal, this garden also incorporates elements from the European tradition of the enclosed garden as a simulacrum of the earthly paradise. The red cedar growing in the Mahtab Bagh bore night-blooming white flowers which must have made moonlight visits particularly enchanting. The Quran describes paradise with “a running fountain,/ therein uplifted couches/ and goblets set forth/ and cushions arrayed/ and carpets outspread.” The essays collected here concentrate on the various archaeological, historical and cultural significances of this site and the multi-level excavations conducted on it jointly by the Sackler Gallery and the Archaeological Survey of India. The photographs and the reproductions of paintings from Shah Jahan’s court make this book an invaluable collector’s item.

Edited by J.S. Grewal and Irfan Habibdt
(Tulika, Rs 200)

J.S. Grewal and Irfan Habib’s Sikh History from Persian Sources is a part of the research and publication programme of the Indian History Congress to commemorate the tercentenary of the Khalsa. It presents new translations of all major Persian sources of Sikh political history from 1600 to 1765. Several of the writers look back on Guru Nanak and his successors, and two of the works are from the early 19th century. This comprehensive anthology of sources, and Grewal’s critical introduction, could revolutionize the understanding and historiography of the Sikh past.

By Ha Jin
(Vintage, price not mentioned)

Ha Jin’s Waiting is a wryly understated comic novel about an odd and poignant love affair. Set in Mao’s China, it tells the story of Lin Kong, a dedicated doctor, who is deeply in love with the modern and educated Manna Wu. He returns every summer to Goose Village to divorce his loyal and traditional wife, Shuyu. They go together to the courthouse, but every time Shuyu changes her mind at the last moment when the judge asks her if she would accept a divorce. They go through this ritual for 18 years, after which time Lin promises his lover that things are going to be different. This is a charming story about enduring love, waiting without hope and the cruelty of Time, who — as Auden wrote — “will say nothing but I told you so”.



Indecent proposals

Sir — What a run-up to the international women’s day! First, the domestic violence bill sought to empower the Indian woman to move the court if she feels threatened, mentally or physically, at home. And now, the minister in charge of women’s empowerment, Sumitra Mahajan, has taken it upon herself to clean up the media of its many misrepresentations of women (“Cleanup bill for dirty.com”, Mar 5). Shouldn’t we stop and ask ourselves if these are really triumphs for the Indian woman? It is true that women have been commodified by the advertising industry — nothing seems to bring out the beauty of bathroom fittings more than a curvaceous woman. But will Mahajan’s department be able to prepare an exhaustive list of all possible “derogatory” representations of women in the media? If not, it will only mean introducing ineffectual policing in an essentially creative domain, just as the proposals of the domestic violence bill may spell disaster by allowing a stranger to monitor conjugal relations.
Yours faithfully,
Shibani Moitra, Durgapur

After the budget

Sir — Yashwant Sinha, in his budget, has hit probably the most volatile and sensitive target, labour laws — untouched by his predecessors for political reasons. The editorial, “A laboured step” (Mar 2), clearly showed that Sinha’s tentative steps in the budget to reform labour laws should not be mistaken as a transformation of labour laws, but as a first step towards such a transformation. Sinha has proposed that the employers in units of less than 1,000 workers can, from now on, retrench labourers without asking for the court’s permission. Earlier, the ceiling used to be 100 labourers. But as the editorial rightly asks, why, in a liberal economy, should the government or the judiciary be allowed to decide the figure that can be retrenched?

Sinha’s proposal is indicative of the government’s efforts to address the rigidities in labour laws. Yet the shadow of the state from the region of management-worker relationship has not been completely withdrawn.

Yours faithfully,
Niloy Sinha, Azimganj

Sir — The Union budget for 2001-02 has generated great euphoria among sharebrokers and their ilk. The rich are happy as they have to pay lower taxes. Cars have become cheaper. Soft drinks, fruit juices, jams, jellies, pickles, sauces, ketchup and so on have been completely exempted from excise duty. Rich Indians returning from foreign trips can now bring home more gold, diamonds, gemstones and jewellery as customs duties on them have been drastically reduced.

Journalists have given 10 out of 10 to Yashwant Sinha as they can now bring duty-free cameras, computers and fax machines from abroad every two years.

Yashwant Sinha’s latest budget is a brilliant piece of financial jugglery which robs the poor to give more to the rich. It is against the interests of the working classes, students, and senior retired citizens. Customs duties are already high on import of wheat, rice and maize. Now the duties on tea, coffee, copra, coconut and desiccated coconut have been increased from 35 per cent to 70 per cent. Why should Indians pay more for basic needs like foodgrains and for items of daily use? The levy of higher duties on imported edible oil is also against the common man, it can only benefit the rich oil-mill owners and distributors who can now raise prices of edible oil in the domestic market at will.

And why should we pay Rs 8 per unit of electricity to multinational companies like Enron so that politicians can get billions of rupees in kickbacks? It doesn’t take great wisdom to figure out why the government will not permit Indian companies to set up plants for selling electricity at Rs 2.50 per unit.

Sinha should heed the warning that uncontrolled integration with the world economy will make a poor country like India lose immunity to the massive destructive effects of recession which have already begun in the developed countries.

Yours faithfully,
Ashok T. Jaisinghani, Pune

Sir — Yashwant Sinha should have also given a thought to retiring the huge national debt. Out of every rupee of revenue, 26 paise goes in the unproductive way of paying interest on the country’s debt. This amounts to more than the amount spent on development.

Yours faithfully,
Shyamal Pain, Edison, US

Sir — Among the several beneficial provisions the Yashwant Sinha budget has showered on industries is the massive cut in excise and customs duties for the automobile industry.

The automobile industry does not appear to be facing any significant funds crunch — the flourishing buyers are paying any price for the limousines, as also for middle segment cars. But where are the roads and parking facilities? Pollution in the four metros have reached unbearable levels. The automobile industry consumes crude oil for which the foreign exchange outflow and the international price mechanism is totally disadvantageous to the country. How is it that Yashwant Sinha was unaware of these facts when he announced the cuts in duties in the budget?

Yours faithfully,
Samir Banerjee, via email

Sir — There has been another blow to the middle class in the service sector with Yashwant Sinha announcing cuts in interest rates on small savings by 0.5 to 1.5 percentage points in the Union budget for 2001-2002 (“Blow to savers, break for borrowers”, Feb 28). On top of that, provident fund deposits were cut down by 1.5 per cent. By lowering the prices of pickles and sauces — items which are hardly of great necessity — and increasing the prices of items of daily use such as toothbrush, postcards, sugar and so on, the budget has been harsher than analysts would like to project.

Yours faithfully,
Purnima Vasudeva, Calcutta

Sir — As a retired employee of Coal India, I do not get pension and have to depend solely on interest from secure investments such as public provident fund and post office savings schemes. At this juncture, it will be difficult to invest in a mutual fund as it is not fully secure, neither is the income from it fully assured. Sinha should amend his proposal to the effect that the earlier interest rates should continue for senior citizens, if only after a due verification of their age.

Yours faithfully
A.S. Mehta, via email

Sir — Yashwant Sinha has earned praise because of displaying clarity in his budget speech. He deserves credit for bringing down the fiscal deficit, which few had expected to happen. But why Sinha is not encouraging saving in the middle class is a puzzle. The credit card culture is not going to strengthen the economy. Inculcating a saving habit in the people would.

Yours faithfully,
V.A. Gopala, Bangalore

Sir — Like all other dailies, The Telegraph has also given rave reviews to the budget for 2001-2002. But this opinion echoes only that of the negligible business community of the country. The budget poses a direct assault on labourers through its exit policy related to their retrenchment. By planning to downsize its staff and by restricting fresh appointments, Sinha has also compromised the security of 28 million workers in the organized sector.

The retired and the lower middle classes have been seriously hurt by the cuts in interest rates in small savings schemes and provident funds. Finally, the abolition of the banking service recruitment board has dealt a severe blow to thousands of unemployed persons. The examinations conducted by the board gave many young people opportunities to start careers. The board’s abolition will make nepotism easier.

Yours faithfully,
Kajal Chatterjee, Sodepur

Sir — Does Yashwant Sinha really believe that all “chupke chupke” and “chori chori” dealings of the Hindi film industry will come to an end with the introduction of bank finance? Then why didn’t he think of it last year?

Yours faithfully,
S. Majumdar, Calcutta

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