Editorial / Just a good saxon word
The prince and the showman
The Telegraph Diary
Letters to the editor

 
 
EDITORIAL / JUST A GOOD SAXON WORD 
 
 
 
 
The idea of the Commonwealth seems to have had its day. It could not have got a more elegant epitaph than the letter sent recently by the writer, Mr Amitav Ghosh, to the Commonwealth Foundation. Mr Ghosh was writing to withdraw his latest novel from this year’s Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and to decline his award for being its Eurasia regional winner. His gesture is firm, but unsensational. It is not only a rejection of the notion of the Commonwealth, but also a subtle assertion of the writer’s status in relation to history, politics and the market.

Mr Ghosh principally objects to the fact that only novels written in English are eligible for this prize. The exclusiveness of this criterion ignores the many languages, the live and diverse vernacular traditions of writing that sustain the countries of the Commonwealth. This ties the concept of “Commonwealth literature” down to a single language and to a single historical context or common factor: its implied origins in the experience of colonization by the British. This is a political critique by which Mr Ghosh undermines the relevance of the Commonwealth in the modern world. His fiction persistently depicts the centrality of personal memory in the writing of history; but he is unsparing in pointing up the “memorialization of Empire” inherent in the “rubric of ‘the Commonwealth’”. He is not alone in doing so. Mr Salman Rushdie, has also dismissed the category as a monstrous fiction, although he is notorious for not sharing Mr Ghosh’s conviction about the comparable distinction of vernacular literatures. Similarly, a number of distinguished “Commonwealth writers” from New Zealand, Australia, Canada and Jamaica, while touring England recently, were unanimous in finding all labels other than “writer” quite futile for their purposes. For them, the Commonwealth was an accident of history and therefore incapable of binding them together within a shared and meaningful context. The ghost of Empire has always haunted the Commonwealth, causing varying degrees of political discomfiture. And nowhere is the psychological carry-over from Empire to Commonwealth more evident than in this privileging of the English language. Significantly, multi-racial membership of the Commonwealth dates only from 1947, and India became its first republican member-state.

The notion of a “republic of letters” is relevant to Mr Ghosh’s missive to the foundation. It brings out that element in his gesture which is more than merely political. He firmly reinstates the idea of “merit” in the achievement of literary distinction. He points out that an athlete would not have to be fluent in English in order to qualify for the Commonwealth Games. Athletic excellence would be the sole criterion for eligibility. This analogy frees the writer from the confines of a limiting historical, political or linguistic identity. He ought to be rewarded, not for the relevance of his work to the Commonwealth, but for having done what he does, well. In this, Mr Ghosh is not only dissociating himself from the idea of “Commonwealth literature”, but also from any attempt to reduce his writing to a single political or theoretical position. His dismissal here of the rhetoric of global politics is part of his discomfort with the reductive categories of academic criticism. India, for him, is not a “post-colony”, but simply the place where he grew up.

In the same way, Mr Ghosh’s critique of the Commonwealth avoids the vulgarity of linguistic chauvinism. By withdrawing a novel written in English to protest against the continuing rule of English, he claims the language back for himself, freed from the burden of the past. Mr Ghosh has distanced himself from what has been called “a good Saxon word” that does little justice to the achievements and potentials of contemporary writing. His gesture is profoundly political, even as it rescues literature from a spurious historicity that obscures the most important premise upon which a work of art ought to be judged.

   

 
 
THE PRINCE AND THE SHOWMAN 
 
 
BY MUKUL KESAVAN
 
 
A curious thing happened at the end of the Chepauk Test. The teams had returned to the pavilion after Harbhajan’s match-winning two runs. There was a brief lull in the stands at the pavilion end as we waited for the players to return for the prize-giving. On the ground, trophies, politicos and cricket officials were arranged in two rows like ugly ornaments on a vulgar mantelpiece. Next to them, Ravi Shastri, the master of ceremonies, dabbed at his face and primped. Then there was a roar as the Australian team was led on to the field by Waugh. Mindful of their reputation as the most generous and sportsmanlike cricket watchers in India (this was the crowd that applauded the Pakistanis when they beat us by a whisker) the spectators around me clapped hard for the Australians. Then Ganguly stepped up as the winning captain and the curious thing happened: he was booed by the crowd at the pavilion end.

Some of the booing could be put down to Ganguly’s awful batting in the second innings when India needed him to steady the innings after Tendulkar’s dismissal. Instead, he slashed one through slips for four and then nicked the next ball and departed, almost as if he was relieved to put some distance between himself and hostile Australian close fielders. Still, Ganguly had led India to its greatest series triumph in decades. He had set the fields for Harbhajan’s heroics, changed the batting order to showcase Laxman and stopped the most fearsome juggernaut in cricket history, this all-conquering Australian cricket team.

Granted, his personal form with the bat had been poor but there have been other captains in cricket’s history with records more modest than Ganguly’s who have been respected for their leadership qualities alone. Mike Brearley was one of them and in contemporary cricket, Nasser Husain, England’s captain, had a nightmare with the bat for a year before scoring a century in Sri Lanka — this didn’t stop English cricket correspondents from hailing him as the country’s most inspirational captain in a long time. All he did to earn these accolades was to beat Pakistan and Sri Lanka at home and while these are notable achievements, they don’t compare with coming up from behind and beating Waugh’s Invincibles. So why does Ganguly get such a bad press?

One simple answer is the power of Australian public relations. Modern cricket is ruled by Australia because that is where it was invented — by Kerry Packer and Channel 9. The Australian team’s image machine doesn’t stop with its full time media manager; it includes, in an informal way, television commentators, Australian cricket correspondents and the great unwashed who follow the team around. Ganguly was targeted in a strategic way and everyone had a go at him: Waugh in his statements before the tour began, Ian Chappell in his columns and in his obsessive television criticism of every field placement Ganguly made (it’s a miracle the Indians won when everything their captain did was a mistake), print journalists like Malcolm Conn of The Age, who took it upon himself to upbraid Ganguly for not respecting the institutions of the game and, even more bizarrely, spent many column inches ventilating the grievances of an obscure, self-appointed spokesman of a gang of Australian spectators.

The reason this campaign worked is that Ganguly is a hard man to like. He comes across on the field as narcissistic, selfish and petulant and he’s had an image problem since his debut tour of Australia in 1992, when it was rumoured that he thought it beneath his dignity to carry drinks on to the field. But why is that worse than being, say, McGrath, who is routinely foul-mouthed, intimidatory and spends all his life looking as if he has just swallowed a lemon? Or the dreadful Ponting who has a history of disciplinary problems including some on his last tour of India? Or indeed, Shane Warne? No one, so far as I know, has ever accused Ganguly of doing anything as pathetic as making dirty phone calls. Or of taking money from bookies. And yet Ganguly was once suspended for a match for excessive appealing while Michael Slater who actually argued with the umpire, Venkatraghavan, after the third umpire had delivered his verdict and then advanced on the batsman, Rahul Dravid, and swore at him, got away with a caution.

The reason this happens is that spectators, umpires and the cricketing public in general have been successfully sold a certain image of the Australian team. Australian cricketers are portrayed as hardbitten competitors. The description covers a multitude of sins: thus obscene sledging and physical intimidation, instead of being seen for what they are — forms of illegal bullying — are transformed into signs of manly commitment to the business of winning. All aggro becomes machismo: in this worldview it’s fine for Colin Miller to fling the ball at the batsman’s head when the batsman is not out of his crease or trying to take a run.

We need to remind ourselves that the great West Indian sides of the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties didn’t bother with this kind of low-life intimidation. Their great fast bowlers let the ball talk for them, and their captains, Worrell, Sobers, Lloyd and Richards, neither sanctioned nor practised sledging. Steve Waugh does both: so while he remains a determined and durable cricketer and arguably the best batsman in the world, people who hold him up as an exemplary captain lose the right to criticize Ganguly.

I am very taken with Ganguly’s stratagems for unsettling Waugh. He keeps him waiting in the middle for the toss before every match, he irks him by taking minutes to set the field, he publicly rubbishes the quality of Australia’s opposition during its winning streak (not excepting his own team!) and, best of all, he is elaborately gracious in victory. Not all of this is cricket but the Aussies haven’t played that game in years. The Australians have come to loathe Ganguly nearly as much as they hated Ranatunga: for that reason alone, we (and the booing crowd in Chepauk) must learn to love him.

   

 
 
THE TELEGRAPH DIARY 
 
 
 
 

Seat of trouble

After Satgachhia, Jadavpur was going to be the red capital. The problem is that it has suddenly become a disputed territory. Ever since the wicked idea of fielding the former CPI(M) South 24 Parganas district secretary, Samir Putatunda, from Jadavpur hit the Party for Democratic Socialism, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee is said to be feeling rather insecure about being able to hoist the red flag from this patch of land. With the state Congress salivating at the thought of teaming up with the Trinamoolis for the forthcoming assembly polls, the PDS has decided to go it alone. Anyway, the fear that is apparently nagging Buddha is that, given Putatunda’s long stint in the party as district secretary, he might be able to sway a lot of party faithfuls to his camp in this crucial constituency. Moreover, the CPI(M) foot soldiers in the region are not too confident themselves, especially after the recent spate of dacoities that took a lot of gloss off the party’s image. The person who holds the key to the spoils of Jadavpur is CPI(M) leader Kanti Ganguly, humbled by his defeat in the 1999 parliamentary elections when he lost to Trinamool nominee, Krishna Bose. As a comrade puts it, “Kantida is a man of the soil” and therefore can be crucial to Buddha’s prospects in Jadavpur. There’s a hitch here as well. The relation between the two is rather strained, and so, to continue what our comrade said, “It is Kantida who can have the last laugh” in Jadavpur. Before Buddha’s very red eyes?

For our fair lady

Honouring the honoured. Rival Maharashtra politicians made sure one did not get a chance to steal a march on the other while each tried to felicitate Lata Mangeshkar on her being awarded the Bharat Ratna. But it was the Nationalist Congress Party leader and Maharashtra strong man, Sharad Pawar, who had the first go. He organized a huge dinner at his official bungalow in the capital for the lady and other recipients of the Padma awards from the state. Not to be outdone, the long time Maharashtra Congress chief, Murli Deora, hosted an equally impressive dinner the following day at his house in the capital for the same guests. That left out the Mumbai tiger and his cubs. But the NCP and the Congress had got the lady’s assent days in advance that she would be attending the two dinners on the consecutive nights. The Shiv Sena man, Suresh Prabhu, also the Union power minister, had to cut in sometime in between. He hosted Lata and the other winners for tea at his official bungalow. Advantage all.

How to grab the limelight

Every evening, the principal spokesman of the Congress, S Jaipal Reddy, witnesses a session of musical chairs — Congresswallahs trying to grab the few seats around him so that they remain in the public eye. Subbi Rami Reddy, media-savvy and flamboyant, who perpetually has other engagements, usually strides in at 3.30 pm or 4.15 pm so that he does not miss the cameras. Anand Sharma is assistant spokesman to Reddy, so he sits next to Jaipal. That leaves Syed Sibtey Razi, Vishwa Bandhu Gupta, Abishek Singhvi and Rajiv Desai struggling for the remains of the spotlight. So far it is Abishek who has managed to trump the others. Incidentally, madam is said to have appointed Subbi Rami Reddy as AICC secretary in charge of regional media. So it’s a Reddy raj in the Congress media. But if the plenary session of the party was anything to go by, the regime isn’t doing too well. Journos apparently were stationed some 30 kilometres down a one-way road from the venue. Keeping safe distance after the Tehelka?

The girls in tow

Bollywood actresses seem to be trying to figure out if beauty can also go with a sense of purpose. Raveena Tandon is busy these days, not because of her shooting schedule, but because the CBSE exams are on. No, Rav is not taking her class X tests. The shahr ki ladki is spending “quality time” with two teenage girls. She is said to have adopted these girls, “sort of”, and wants them to do well in the exams. She is not alone in this good deed, however. Former Miss Universe and now Bollywood sideshow, Sushmita Sen, adopted a girl, a few days ago, who is carried along to Sushmita’s shootings as well. Not time yet to worry about exams though.

Name of the game

Overheard in the BJP office: gone are the days of peti (lakh) andkhokha (crore). In the backstreet, the amounts are simply being referred to as Bangaru and Jaya (in that order).

Footnote/ Life after the railways

Away from the high life of the capital, what is the Trinamool didi up to? There is, of course, the mother of battles coming up, but Mamata Banerjee is said to be spending most of her time with family members back in Calcutta. Party members say didi remained surrounded by her nephews almost the entire last week. After all, the children got their pishi after a very long time. “Indeed, whenever I am in Calcutta, my bhaipos (nephews) keep me busy all the time with their numerous complaints and make me sort them out ”, is what the pishi has to say. Playing arbitrator, Mamata is also reportedly helping her sisters-in-law in the kitchen these days. The party says whenever didi gets time, she attends to culinary matters, assisting her boudis prepare delicious curries. At the end of the day, however, she does not forget to spend a few hours with her mother. “Mamata keeps her mother abreast of all the engagements she has for the day”, the party reports. On her return from Delhi after stepping down as Union minister, didi apparently headed straight for her mother. Still the little girl, eh? Well, the tantrums also show that.    

 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

Who will build the bridges?

Sir — The transport minister, Subhas Chakraborty, has expressed his disappointment with the slow progress in the construction of the six flyovers in the city (“Subhas jab at govt for flyover delay”, Mar 24). His criticism of the government’s inability to speed up work may please many, but it also reflects his incompetence in managing his department, a revelation that Chakraborty could have easily avoided. But then diplomacy has never really been his forte. Given that the CPI(M) leadership is keeping a close watch on him, Chakraborty should refrain from making such remarks. Instead, he should use his energies for the coming elections.
Yours faithfully,
Rachita Sinha, via email

Taken for a ride

Sir — The Trinamool Congress chief, Mamata Banerjee, has repeatedly reiterated her commitment to the welfare of West Bengal. However, the plight of commuters in the eastern and southeastern railways still remains unchanged.

To begin with, the rakes of the local trains are abnormally dirty and the local stations are rarely cleaned. As a result, the surroundings become unhygienic with over-flowing drains and every kind of human refuse. Apart from Sealdah station, very few of the other local stations have any indicators to display the details about the arrivals and departures of trains.

Consequently, the passengers are subjected to endless harassment. Moreover, major portions of the platforms are occupied by hawkers, thereby restricting the movement of commuters from one platform to another. It takes about 10 to 15 minutes to negotiate a platform at the Howrah station during peak hours.

The maintenance and running of local trains in West Bengal are poor, and of prestigious trains like the Satabdi Express woefully inadequate. Yet the passenger fares of these trains are exorbitantly high.

Yours faithfully,
Kaushik Sarkar, Calcutta

Sir — It is difficult to explain why no railway minister has taken the trouble of extending railway services to the relatively backward zones of north Malda and north Dinajpur. The railway ministry has consistently ignored this region. As a result, in spite of the existence of five railway stations — Old Malda, Kumerganj, Samshi, Bhaluka Road and Harishchandrapur — the region has fallen out of notice. Moreover, most of the mail and express trains pass through these stations without stopping. Some stop only in the middle of the night, thereby adding to the inconvenience of the passengers.

The hassled passengers have to pay an additional bus fare of Rs 35 to Rs 40 in order to avail themselves of the Assam-bound trains and thus waste a lot of time and energy. The railway board is well aware of the fact that the Assam-bound Kanchenjunga Express should stop at either Samshi or at Harishchandrapur since this train does not stop between Malda town station and Barsoi junction. Similar consideration should also be given to the Cooch Behar-bound North Bengal Express.

Since the extension of the Hatebazare Express (formerly known as the Sealdah-Katihar Express) upto Barouni junction, the train has been running three to five hours late. It has also been incurring losses. This train could become economically viable if it were to pass through Barsoi. A corresponding Barsoi-Raiganj metre gauge train could also be restored.

Yours faithfully,
Santanu Basu, Malda

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