Editorial 1 / Fresh start
Editorial 2 / Out of the picture
Lessons from Bhuj
Book Review / Everyday life and Everyday life and its many myths
Book Review / To say exactly
Book Review / Chasing the twists and turns
Book Review / Such a vision of the street
Editor’s Choice / Letters from a nobody
Paperback Pickings / Ethics on a frozen battlefield
Letters to the editor

 
 
EDITORIAL 1 / FRESH START 
 
 
 
 
The visit of the external affairs minister, Mr Jaswant Singh, to the United States will have a significant bearing on the course of New Delhi’s relations with Washington under the new Bush administration. On the face of it, bilateral ties should improve even further under the Republicans, but given the roller coaster ride that India-US relations have taken over the last five decades very little can still be taken for granted. What is certain is that the external affairs minister will have to establish links with senior American officials who have never, in any substantive sense, dealt with India before, but are crucial to the strengthening of the bilateral relationship. It may be recalled that Mr Singh had developed a tremendous rapport with Mr Strobe Talbot, the deputy secretary of state, under the Clinton administration. It was their continuing dialogue and personal chemistry that contributed a great deal to the revitalizing of bilateral relations after a nadir had been reached in the aftermath of India’s nuclear tests in May 1998. In this case, the key members of the Bush team that Mr Singh will need quickly to establish a relationship with include the secretary of state, Mr Colin Powell, the national security advisor, Ms Condoleeza Rice and the defence secretary, Mr Donald Rumsfeld. They, along with the vice president, Mr Dick Cheney, form the backbone of the Bush foreign policy and security team. It is coincidental but rather fortunate, therefore, that Mr Singh is the defence minister as well as the external affairs minister.

Although the Bush administration is still to find its feet, there are, already, encouraging signs for India. Mr Powell’s testimony before congress is a good example. He described India as “a country that should grow more and more focused in the lens of American foreign policy”. And he added: “We must deal more wisely with the world’s largest democracy. Soon to be the most populous country in the world, India has the potential to help keep the peace in the vast Indian Ocean area and its periphery.” Beyond personalities, however, is the growing strategic convergence between India and the US that is being recognized by the Bush administration. Two issues must be particularly emphasized.

First, the Republicans are more concerned about the future of China, and its possible emergence as a belligerent and revisionist superpower that will seek to challenge American influence and power, especially in the Asia-Pacific region. Many within the Bush administration are beginning to recognize that India, with its own deep concerns about China, could be one vital counter-weight to a potentially belligerent China. This could mean that a Republican administration will be more sensitive to Indian security concerns, and more willing to accommodate India’s own aspirations to be a great power. Second, the Republicans, although no less concerned about proliferation of nuclear weapons, have a less absolutist view of India’s nuclear policy. Most important, given their own scepticism about the comprehensive test ban treaty, the pressure for India to sign the treaty is bound to ease considerably. India too needs to adopt a more pragmatic view of American plans to construct a national missile defence. Indeed, if the NMD is based on boost phase interception, it could well be in India’s interests to support such a system. In the final analysis, this may well mean that the Indo-US dialogue could well move beyond the nuclear issue that had even stopped the Singh-Talbot talks from acquiring greater momentum.

   

 
 
EDITORIAL 2 / OUT OF THE PICTURE 
 
 
 
 
So much ado about nothing. The furore over the 48th national film awards — the accusations of saffronization, the huffy walkouts by members of the jury, the passionate defences, the hurt rejections, and the frantic efforts to interest the public in the serial drama — is a typical example of misdirected energy. This is not the first time the national film awards have come under attack, neither are national awards in films alone seen as the triumph of vested political interests over merit. Such accusations are inevitable the moment the state takes on the mantle of award-giver, especially in the sphere of culture. The government cannot be free of a dominant political colour — or of its ingrained habit of patronage. It is very easy to kick up clouds of fiery dust over perceptions of the state’s injustices. The point is not whether the selection in the 48th national awards has been fair. Equally irrelevant are laments about the gradual erosion of the ideals behind the award or strident debates over “elitist” and “popular” cinema. There simply should not be any state awards for films at all.

The market for films chooses its own winners. The problem is, of course, one of funding and returns. Filmmakers appealing to select viewerships are unlikely to get second wind. A state award comes in handy. Such a film can be nominated for overseas festivals for further awards, have its maker’s name broadcast, achieve tax-free status and thus manage to lure a bigger audience for a while. Unfortunately, it is not the state’s job to provide this leg-up. Films, literature, visual arts have means of judging excellence within their own spheres: they must use these to the full. It is not an easy life, given that the battlefield is crowded with readers and viewers, experts and critics. But no artist or craftsman chooses his profession because he thinks success or excellence will come easily. One of the first steps towards fullblooded health in the cultural arena will be taken when the state has bowed out of the scene.

   

 
 
LESSONS FROM BHUJ 
 
 
BY DIPANKAR GUPTA
 
 
The earthquake in Gujarat shook the soil, but it is bad construction that killed the people. This time around corruption has clearly hurt everybody. There is an important lesson in this for all of us to learn from. Sooner or later corruption catches up with even the most protected and privileged of people. In Bhuj, for instance, the rich and poor alike have been felled by poorly constructed buildings which did not adhere to safety norms. It is useless blaming the contractors alone for this disaster for we as a people are very careless about what constitutes “risk”. Consequently, there is never any public pressure in India that safety measures be widely broadcast and enforced. This is as true of buildings as it is of numerous other items such as toys, medicines, and vehicles. As we are not a risk aware society: we lead foolish lives only to die needlessly and painfully at the end of a hastily concluded day.

Risk awareness comes from two sources. To begin with, we become aware that something constitutes a risk only when there are known ways of combating it. It is only because we know that there are ways of building earthquake proof houses that there is a risk awareness regarding earthquakes. What we cannot control does not enter our horizon of risk awareness. The second factor that heightens our risk awareness is effective law enforcement that yields no quarter to risk offenders even if such people are risking their own lives.

It is often said that Western societies are high-risk societies. This is obviously quite wrong. It is true that in North America and Europe people have to own up for what they do. Their families are not responsible for their mistakes nor can they take credit for their successes. Otherwise in terms of pure risk they are less prone to it than people of poorer countries. They have better access to education and health. The roadways and transportation services are better manned and maintained. Their buildings are better constructed.

All this is true of Western societies because there is a higher degree of risk awareness there. To some extent one has to hand it to modern capitalism for furthering the awareness of risk among consumers. It was because of the pressure for product differentiation that safety factors began to be built into commodities by their manufacturers in order to outdo their competitors. There was no public demand for seat belts in cars, the manufacturers dreamt them up. Soon seat belts became a necessary component for all cars. Then some car manufacturers made a further breakthrough and thought of air bags and collapsible steering wheels and reinforced bodies. This further intensified competition in that market segment. The race was on to provide the consumer with safer and safer products. From this competition it was the consumer that gained, and all the while risk awareness was being heightened.

Toys and pharmaceutical companies too were pressured to deliver products of high safety to their customers. As providing safety was providing value, customers too became highly discerning in this department. Gradually the safety factor became self-generating. Helmets were made not just for motorcyclists but also for plain cyclists and skateboard enthusiasts. Even in sport a variety of safety equipment began to be manufactured. Toys could be extremely dangerous as well. Little children could choke on loosely attached buttons or could fall sick by licking toxic paint off the toys.

It is not as if people did not hurt themselves earlier but once they realized that there were ways of avoiding certain kinds of risks, the awareness of risk began to grow in those spheres. The story is however not yet complete. Risk awareness of the kind that manufacturers generated was complemented by law enforcement agencies. As it was the duty of the police to protect citizens even if they did something stupid to themselves, there was no escaping the arm of the law. The citizen was precious property and it was the job of the state to be pastoral in its dispensation and look after its people.

Initially, when seat belts first appeared in North America many car drivers refused to wear them for they thought that to do so would make them look over-cautious and effeminate. The police however refused to give in. Today it is most uncool in the same society not to wear the safety belt while driving. Indeed, it is also recommended for passengers in the rear seats as well.

It is not as if people took to safety measures the moment the risk factor was known. It still needed the law to do its job and make sure that the awareness of risk was drilled deep into one’s psyche. Risk awareness is a condition of modern times. Its genesis lies in the drive by manufacturers to provide value to customers, even if the customers initially did not seem to demand it. The pressure was on manufacturers to do something new and come out with a differentiated product. Once such risk measures were available the state adopted them so as to protect its citizens. This helped manufacturers, but also consumers and citizens in general.

In India there is no such impulse. This not only tells us about the poor quality of our capitalist enterprise but also about the sorry state of our status as citizens. Swadeshi manufacturers are not interested in building on safety as value, and the Indian state does not see itself as performing a pastoral service to its citizens. Low risk awareness comes about because the quality of consumerism is primitive in charac- ter as manufacturers have not done their bit to elevate it through vigorous competition.

Low risk awareness also arises because law enforcers think it is none of their business to enforce safety standards for the benefit of the public. So building a house is a matter almost entirely between contractors and clients. The client wants a cheap house and the contractor wants a fast buck. The combination naturally results in unsafe buildings. Meanwhile, the law enforcement agencies look the other way for they believe that all of this is really a civil matter between consenting adults.

Risk awareness in India should begin with the state. It is up to the state to make risk awareness part of its public duty. It is not as if risk awareness is for the faint-hearted. It is an integral element in any democratic state’s project. Risk awareness can never become a social phenomenon if it is only perceived at the individual level. It needs to be realized that citizens out there need to be protected even if they show no conscious inclination in that direction. It is only then that citizens in general will benefit and Bhuj disasters need never be repeated on the same scale.

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

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW / EVERYDAY LIFE AND EVERYDAY LIFE AND ITS MANY MYTHS 
 
 
BY SHAMS AFIF SIDDIQI
 
 
IMAGE AND REPRESENTATION: STORIES OF MUSLIM LIVES IN INDIA
Edited By Mushirul Hasan and M. Asaduddin,
Oxford, Rs 525

If the title fails to conjure up an image about the subject matter of the book, the readers just need to flip through the pages and find out. Image and representation is an anthology of short stories about Muslim lives. “Image” and “representation”, the two words in the title hints, perhaps, at the dual purpose of the anthology. The book not only holds the mirror up to the lives of Indian Muslims, but also chronicles the life and times of community as a whole. Mushirul Hasan has done extensive research on the Partition and the Muslims. Here, as elsewhere, he tries to enter the realms of history through the passage of literature.

Hasan might be breaking new grounds with this innovative touch. This book is different from Hasan’s earlier attempts in that he does not seem preoccupied with theme of Partition. In the three-part introduction, the two editors lay down their reasons for compiling the anthology, the criteria for the selection of the stories and what these stories reveal.

According to Hasan and M. Asaduddin, the need for such a book was felt because of “the tendency in scholarly and popular literature to view Islam with a mixture of fear and bewilderment, the construction of a specifically Muslim identity in colonial India, and the widely prevalent misconceptions about India’s 110 million Muslims”. Thus the editors have tried, on the one hand, to provide a critique of the shortsightedness of Western Orientalism, and on the other, also show up the conservatism of the traditional interpreters of Islam to point out “the multiple levels at which a Muslim relates to the temporal and spiritual world in day to day living”.

In the end, the book does not quite defend or criticize the conservative stance, for, after all, few creative writers create their fictive worlds with such express aims. The idea is to translate the authorial imagination through a storyline and characters.

The thought and research that have gone into the selection of these stories is evident from thematic interlinking and appeal of the individual stories. The anthology consists of 34 short stories from the major Indian languages like Hindi, Bengali, Urdu, Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada, Gujarati, Assamese and Kashmiri. Though English is now as much an Indian language as any other and there is no dearth of good writers in English, only three stories in this language have been included — by K. N. Daruwala, Vishwapriya L. Iyengar and Shama Futehally.

Most of the writers included in the anthology are wellknown and the impact of their works have emotionally and intellectually influenced generations. Opening with “Mahesh”, by Sarat Chandra Chatterjee, the anthology includes Rabindranath Tagore, Premchand, Ismat Chugtai, Joginder Paul, Ashfaque Ahmed, Amarkant, Vaikom Mohammad Basheer, Thoppil Mohamed Meeran, Mohan Parmar and Qurratulain Hyder and others.

But since the basis for the selection of a story is its representation of Muslim lives, in most cases, it is not the best by the writer. The next hurdle for the editors must have been the translation of the stories in the various regional languages of India into standard English. Since the job of translation was assigned to able translators, almost all the stories have been translated to the reader’s satisfaction.

Surprisingly, in spite of there being as many as 16 translators, there is a visible uniformity of standard that enhances the readability of the book. Taken together, the stories are a dramatic representation of how an Indian Muslim negotiates his day to day life with the endless travails in a society where they are relegated to a minority status.

The stories also provide a glimpse of his moments of love and happiness, aspirations and frustration, which are no different from any other individual’s. What emerges finally is the undeniable truth that the Muslims of India are as much an indivisible part of the diverse and complex Indian ethos as any other community.

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW / TO SAY EXACTLY 
 
 
BY AVEEK SEN
 
 
CHRISTOPHER IS HER WOOD, LOST YEARS: A MEMOIR, 1945-1951
Edited By Katherine Bucknell,
Chatto & Windus, £ 14.60

On January 26, 1939, the Champlain sailed into New York harbour “looking like a wedding cake”. On board were the English poet, W.H. Auden and his English friend, the writer, Christopher Isherwood. Both were in their early thirties. Isherwood had been wandering all over Europe with his German lover, Heinz Neddermeyer, after they left Fascist Berlin in 1933. Heinz was refused entry into England, and was arrested by the Gestapo in 1937. Isherwood’s partly fictionalized autobiography of this Berliner decade, Christopher and his Kind, ends with “Christopher” at the rail of the Champlain in New York, “looking eagerly, nervously, hopefully towards the land where he will spend more than half his life.”

This use of the third person became the hallmark of Isherwood’s autobiographical technique. It is used to striking effect in Lost Years, his incomplete diary of the post-war American years, 1945-1951, in which he lived mainly in California and New York. This memoir is, however, “reconstructed” much later in 1971-72, from his “infuriatingly reticent” jottings in appointment books kept erratically during the earlier years. In the early Seventies, Isherwood’s post-war self is “twenty years out of date”, and so he chooses to refer to it as “Christopher” in these memoirs. This odd mixing of the first and third persons — like Wordsworth’s “two consciousnesses” in The Prelude — also helps Isherwood “to overcome my inhibitions, avoid self-excuses and regard my past behaviour more objectively”. He tackles the “time gaps” between living, remembering and writing by devising a fragmented text-and-footnote format, which makes room for some brilliantly digressive “after-thoughts”.

For Isherwood, the diarist, “the privacy of the unconscious” is the “only treasure house”. Lost Years, although delightfully capturing the drift of his social and professional life, is primarily the relentless anatomy of an inner process. This is, at one level, a fight over Isherwood’s soul — with MGM-Warner Bros (for whom he was writing scripts) and the Vedanta Centre (which offered an equally alluring monastic option) as the contending angels.

But more crucially, this is a compulsive search for his “sexual homeland”, a journey which led out of middle England, through Berlin, to America. Here, in 1952 (a year after this memoir leaves off), he would meet, through a “chain of beautiful and incredible consequences”, Don Bachardy, the 18-year-old college student, who would become “the ideal companion to whom you can reveal yourself totally and yet be loved for what you are, not what you pretend to be”.

Promiscuity — Isherwood calls it “the art of the possible” — provides the chief momentum of these pre-Bachardy years and the narrative thread through this memoir. Lost Years is, therefore, very importantly “a sexual record and so indiscreet as to be unpublishable”; a record of what Tennessee Williams calls, in his memoirs, “La Vie horizontale”. This more or less joyous, and ruthless, indiscretion becomes the necessary condition of his prose style, and finds a remarkably unsqueamish editor in Katherine Bucknell. There is a great deal of what Isherwood calls “sex making” in this memoir: “Auden says that it’s important, in considering a sex relationship, to say exactly what the partners did in bed.” This “anthropological matter-of-factness” is the key to Isherwood’s modes of self-examination, to the limits and reaches of his empathy and to his enduring brilliance as a writer.

The memoir ends in 1951, in “those H-bomb-minded, Russian-menaced times”. But history is passed over with Byronic unconcern: “The next month passed without any remarkable incidents…It sounds crazy to say this, when, in fact, Mussolini and his mistress were killed on April 28, Hitler’s death was announced on May 1, Berlin fell on May 2 and the Nazis surrendered on the 7th! No doubt Christopher shared in the general excitement.” When not engaged in sex-making, Isherwood’s prose is equally adept at capturing “The American Way of Life”. The cast — American, English and European — is dazzling, with the beaded bubbles of post-War Hollywood’s émigré chic winking at the brim. The twin mentors are E.M. Forster and Swami Prabhavananda. The greats are Igor and Vera Stravinsky, the Manns (Thomas, Erika and the doomed Klaus) and Tennessee Williams. The parties bring in Charles and Oona Chaplin, Cole Porter, Noël Coward, Katherine Hepburn, Marlon Brando and the “senior sex goddess”, Greta Garbo, introduced by Garbo’s Polish confidante with the splendid name, Sara Salomé Steuermann Viertel. Among the writers are Spender, Huxley, Maugham, Truman Capote, Gore Vidal and Anaïs Nin. The women include Georgia O’Keeffe, Frieda Lawrence and Victoria Ocampo. And there is Sartre and de Beauvoir’s “sort of erotic stepdaughter”, Natasha, who describes Simone as “an alarm clock inside a frigidaire”.

Isherwood’s American self performs with almost infantile aplomb during his brief visit to England in 1947. There is a hauntingly beautiful evocation of “this prison, his birthplace” and a “ruined and frozen” post-war London: “an animated discussion of existentialism was interrupted by one of the guests exclaiming piteously: ‘Oh, I am so cold!’”

The core of this memoir lies, however, in Isherwood’s wonderful analysis of his most important affair in this period, with Bill Caskey. It illustrates his tendency to look at each of his lovers in terms of a “myth”, “an abstract poetical concept”, which gives to an individual a “double focus”. Caskey is “lapsed Catholic” to Isherwood’s “failed monk”, the “Infernal Bridegroom” to his “Foolish Virgin”, Rimbaud to his Verlaine. But the analysis also confronts Isherwood with the dimensions of his own arrogance: “In his inmost heart, Christopher thought of himself as an art aristocrat or brahmin, a person privileged by his talent to demand the service (he preferred to call it ‘cooperation’) of others.” It is this arrogance, “lazy, dreamy and lecherous”, that would both pitch him into and redeem him from what he calls the “Disneyism” of American “happiness”, of turning into a Broadway hit.

And this is why Auden would remain the most important person in his creative life. Auden understood this arrogance — in all its “Peter Pannish” infantility, its cultural and sexual anxieties and convictions. Christopher recalls that after touring the canals of Amsterdam with him in their earlier European days, Auden had written two lines into the passengers’ guestbook, from Ilya Ehrenburg’s poem about the Russian Revolution: “Read about us and marvel!/ You did not live in our time — be sorry!”

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW / CHASING THE TWISTS AND TURNS 
 
 
BY SAHELI MITRA
 
 
KHUSHWANT SINGH SELECTS BEST INDIAN SHORT STORIES
Books Today, Rs 350

“It is limited in time and space and does not span decades or spread out in different loc- ales. It also has a well-formulated central theme and does not touch upon several topics or clashes of personalities. It has a distinct beginning, a build-up and usually a dramatic end, frequently an unexpected one which sums up the story” — this is how Khushwant Singh describes the Indian short story. It seems as if he had a great time in selecting such vibrant short stories for this book.

Gathered from different parts of the subcontinent, many of the stories have been translated from regional languages. And there are others written by noted authors of the Indo-Anglian literary circle.

What is special about this compilation is the wide range of themes explored by the auth ors. Kabir Bedi’s “Ramblings on a Beach” and Hugh Gantzer’s “The Blue Hills where the Sun Never Sets” speak of personal experiences and emotions, expressed in the distinctive style of a short story writer.

Others address complex socioeconomic issues and problems of modern life. The complexity of man-woman relationships forms the basis for Rajinder Singh Bedi’s “Intermittent Fever”, the glamour of urban life through the eyes of a small-town housewife is sensitively portrayed by Anita Desai in “Descent from the Roof-top”, and the trauma of a rape victim and the travails of her middle-class parents in coping with it is highlighted in Shashi Deshpande’s “The Dark”. What makes these succeed as short stories is their simple way of dealing with complex problems.

The short stories of Ruskin Bond can be read just for the pleasure of reading. “The Leopard” and “The Tig- er in the Tunnel” happen to be Bond’s favourite stories. Also immensely entertaining are Suresh Chopra’s “Flight 303” and Krishan Chander’s “The Brinjal Cut-out”.

For those who love fantasy and myth, the collection has a sumptuous fare. “The Crocodile’s Lady” by Manoj Das and “A Flavour of Myrrh” by Coleen Gantzer are two of this kind.

But the pick of the lot is undoubtedly Ismat Chugtai’s “Housewife”, and M.J. Akbar’s “An Indian Dream”. Chugtai’s short story tells the tale of a prostitute, who falls in love with a bachelor’s house and forces her way into the man’s life first as a maid and later as his wife, all for her love of the house. Akbar has an innovative way of dealing with the common storyline of an unemployed Muslim man falling in love with an upper class woman and finally committing suicide out of frustration in a prostitute’s room.

Khushwant Singh’s knowledgeable compilation makes the book a collector’s pride, especially for those who like the sudden twists and turns of the short story.

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW / SUCH A VISION OF THE STREET 
 
 
BY ARNAB BHATTACHARYA
 
 
CAPTURED MOMENTS: A LIFE
By Shambhu Shaha,
Seagull, Rs 400

In 1925, a young graduate in science from Midnapore College arrived in Calcutta to pursue a career in photography. His photographic equipments and resources consisted of a half-plate Sanderson camera and ninety rupees. He earned an accommodation in a mess at Manicktala and paid for his keep by painting portraits of the inmates. After more than a year of hardship, a breakthrough happened as Nalini Dutt, a close friend, introduced him to a member of the Young Men’s Christian Association.

He got a job at the YMCA and with it, an easy access to some seminal books and journals on photography, like the German publication, Deutsche Lichtbild, which contained technical details of photography. He left the YMCA in 1932, and renting a two-roomed flat — one of the rooms was converted into a darkroom — in south Calcutta, started work as a freelance photographer. The Thirties saw him all over Calcutta streets, cultivating his new style of candid photography.

The book traces two contemporaneous evolutions — that of Shambhu Shaha as an internationally acclaimed photographer and of the development of Indian photography, leading to its recognition as an art form. In the biographical essay in Captured Moments : A Life, Chandrima Shaha, the photographer’s daughter, adroitly delineates both the processes, highlighting four distinct phases of her father’s career against the swiftly changing perspective of photographic technology. Her narrative is frank, transparent and detailed.

The most significant event of the first phase is the adolescent Shaha’s acquaintance with the revolutionary, Hemchandra Kanungo, who “was to become his mentor, philosopher and guide.” Hemchandra’s influence not only shaped Shaha’s sense of composition and perspective, but also his moral philosophy and world-view.

During the second phase, Shaha met Nirad C. Chaudhuri, then writing for the Municipal Gazette. Shaha’s most important assignment of this period was to photograph the Gwalior and Patankar royal weddings.

The third phase is by far the most illustrious one in Shaha’s career, for it is then that he earned fame as Rabindranath Tagore’s “photo-biographer”. He made frequent trips to Santiniketan, during which he captured several candid moments with his Contax and Super Ikonta cameras. Sha- ha’s memoir of Santiniketan, appended to this book, explains the different approaches adopted by Shaha to photographing Tagore in various moods.

The most memorable product of Shaha’s stint as a commercial photographer, is perhaps the series of photographs of East Bengal refugees.

The book contains 52 of Shaha’s photographs, which speak eloquently of his candid style and his mastery over “decisive moments”. Shaha’s use of mellowing light and of perspective lends his photographs a soothing quality and depth. Shaha’s penchant for symmetrical composition is easily notable in some. There is also an interview, in which Shaha talks of some of his memorable experiences. Eight pencil sketches and a ghost story by Shaha have also found their way into the volume to make it a full survey of every aspect of Shaha’s creativity.

   

 
 
EDITOR’S CHOICE / LETTERS FROM A NOBODY 
 
 
 
 
THE LIFE AND DEATH OF ROCHESTER SNEATH
By Humphry Berkeley,
Harriman, £. 6.99

This is the account of a lark by the author of the mischief. As an undergraduate at Pembroke College, Cambridge, Humphry Berkeley, famous in later life first as a Tory member of parliament and then as a Labour politician, invented a minor public school, called Selhurst, and made himself the headmaster as H. Rochester Sneath, M.A. and Licencie-es-Lettres.

Armed with some letterheads, which he had printed, and orders to the post office to redirect letters, Berkeley as Rochester Sneath shot off letters to headmasters of all the major English public schools and to some eminent personalities. All but two of the recipients, the headmaster of Winchester and the headmaster of Wimbledon College, fell for the lark. This gullibility on the part of the great and the good was remarkable because the letters were outrageously funny.

To the Master of Marlborough, he wrote, “Perhaps you would be kind enough to let me know how you managed to engineer a visit recently from the King and Queen.” In reply he was told, politely by the Master, that “I did nothing whatever to engineer the recent Royal visit...No doubt the fact that the King’s Private Secretary, the Lord Chancellor and the Archbishop of Canterbury are all Old Marlburians had something to do with the matter”. Not daunted by this, Rochester Sneath wrote back to warn the Master about one Mr Agincourt who was applying for a post at Marlborough College : “During his brief stay [at Selhurst] no less than five boys were removed from the school as a result of his influence, and three of the matrons had nervous breakdowns. The pictures on the wall of his rooms made a visiting Bishop shudder...His practices were described by the Chairman of the County Hospital as ‘Hunnish’. The prominent wart on his nose was wittily described as the ‘blot on the 20th century’ by a visiting conju- ror.” Even this merited a one line reply from the Master of Marlborough.

The funniest letter went out to the headmaster of Tonbridge: “Dear Rootie, You will doubtless remember old ‘Tubby’ Sneath — well it will give you a helluva shock, you old bounder, because last year I took on the Headship here. Do you remember prophesying my early death in a South American brothel? I must say that I never imagined that you would get muddled up in this racket either, and imagine my surprise when I [learnt] that the man I had carried home, drunk as a coot seven times a week, should have got a job.” Even this tone did not make the recipient realize that he might be the victim of a practical joke. He replied to say it was a case of mistaken identity.

The headmaster of Wimbledon College caught on, when he was invited to come to Selhurst to exorcize a ghost that was haunting the school. The addressee accepted the invitation and wrote, “It will be necessary for you to have ready for me the usual Bell, Book and Candle, a gallon of holy water and a packet of salt. The latter is required for sprinkling on a certain part of the ghostly anatomy...These operations usually take some time, and remuneration is at the rate of a guinea an hour. An essential condition for success is that all present (myself excepted) should be fasting for at least 24 hours before the ceremony begins.”

It was too good to last, of course. An enterprising reporter from the News Review who had read a letter from Rochester Sneath to the Daily Worker decided to track him down. This led to the discovery that neither Rochester Sneath nor Selhurst School existed. A little more leg work led him to Humphry Berkeley. Thus died Rochester Sneath, the most unlikely candidate for the headship of a public school.

This is a rollicking good read. It also reveals what a rare commodity humour is among those who take themselves too seriously. The unmasking of Rochester Sneath resulted in Humphry Berkeley being barred from entering Pembroke for two years.

   

 
 
PAPERBACK PICKINGS / ETHICS ON A FROZEN BATTLEFIELD 
 
 
 
 
THE BHAGHAVAD GITA
Translated By Stephen Mitchell
(Rider, Rs 150)

Stephen Mitchell’s The Bhaghavad Gita is a fine translation of this inexhaustible poem that could be read either as a religious text or as part of a magnificent narrative, the Mahabharata. Mitchell has translated a lot of Rilke’s poetry and fiction and is also familiar with the other classics of Eastern spirituality, particularly the Tao Te Ching. His introduction beautifully depicts the moment of the Gita, when the dialogue between Arjuna and Krishna begins on the battlefield: “Then, suddenly everything is still. The armies are halted in their tracks. Even the flies are caught in midair between two wingbeats. The vast moving picture of reality stops on a single frame...The moment of the poem has expanded beyond time, and the only characters who continue, earnestly discoursing between the silent, frozen armies, are Arjuna and Krishna.” Mitchell also appends M. K. Gandhi’s acute essay on the Gita.

EVERY MAN A TIGER

By Tom Clancy and General Chuck Horner (Ret.)
(Pan, £ 5.99)

Tom Clancy and General Chuck Horner (Ret.)’s Every man a Tiger is such an unabashed glorification of the role of the American air force in the Kuwait war, that it would have been almost funny had it not been what it is. It is rather difficult to take someone called “General Chuck Horner (Ret.)” seriously. Reading this piece of military history is like playing warfare video games. Clancy and Horner’s language is the official American military version of the Texan Chainsaw Massacre: “I once observed that fighter pilots are little boys who never really get past the stage of buzzing past little girls on their bikes.” But this little boy, Horner, is “special”: “...he’s a Wild Weasel, a fighter jock tasked to finding and killing SAM sites — that is, eliminating the people and things whose job it was to eliminate him. Weaseldom was dangerous. Chuck Horner enjoyed the game.” Horner embodies a military force damaged by the Vietnam war, reviving itself through ‘brutally hard work”: “We had to learn how to be an Air Force all over again.”

OF UMBRELLAS, GODDESSES AND DREAMS: ESSAYS ON GOAN CULTURE AND SOCIETY
By Robert S. Newman
(Other India Press, Rs 225)

Robert S. Newman’s Of Umbrellas, Goddesses and Dreams: Essays On Goan Culture and Society is a book that remains suspended rather uncertainly between a very personal attachment to a place and an academic anthropological analysis of its cultures and society. Newman wants to both demystify Goa and evoke its unique ambience. His basic question is, “How did Goans get to be Goans?” In order to answer this, he not only looks at the region’s history, but also studies a fair amount of theory, particularly the writings of Clifford Geertz. The most interesting part of his study is set in Assolna village in Salcete, where he looks at the relationship of the Hindu and Catholic branches of the Chardo caste to the temple of Shanta Durga Kunkallikarin.

   

 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

Fire in the sky

Sir — It is high time the United States stopped its amateur surveillance. Its submarines and aeroplames seem to regularly bump into other craft. Remember Ehime Maru a couple of months ago? This time their spy plane EP-3 veered into a Chinese F-8 fighter in international air space. It is good that the Chinese are taking a tough stand against this. The rumours that the US spy plane has been “combed” is probably true. The US has been demanding access to the 24 crew members who are supposed to have been in the spy plane. But as far as one can make out, the Chinese are not volunteering. This is a clear signal to the US that the Chinese do not want them to conduct their top secret surveillance missions close to Chinese territory. Washington is naturally panicking because this aeroplane could reveal secrets about what kind of information the US military is collecting and how they process this data. The US meanwhile is claiming as usual that the mid-air collision was an accident.
Yours faithfully,
Ranjan Thapa, via email

Whither goest thou?

Sir — Sonia Gandhi has no business using the kind of language she does against the prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee (“Sonia turns treason tables on Atal”, March 18). Is she trying to hide her own ineptitude with language like this? She has little political acumen. No politician in India can match Vajpayee’s experience and expertise. Sonia Gandhi led her party to occupy the lowest number of Lok Sabha seats in her party’s history (a mere 114) whereas under Vajpayee’s leadership, the Bharatiya Janata party won 182 seats in the 1999 general elections.

Sonia Gandhi thinks that she is the prime ministerial candidate because she has been blinded by the sycophancy of the people around her. She harps on the fact that the Congress is the most secular party. But is that really so? We should not forget that Operation Blue Star occurred during Indira Gandhi’s regime and the anti-Sikh riots took place immediately after her death. Moreover, the demolition of the Babri Masjid took place when the Centre was under Congress rule.

In 1999, Sonia Gandhi brought down the previous Vajpayee government by joining hands with J. Jayalalithaa, known as one of the most corrupt politicians in India. But she could not form an alternative administration and an expensive mid-term election was thrust upon the country. Instead of demanding the resignation of the present prime minister, she should bring a no-confidence motion against him. Let us see if that works.

Yours faithfully,
Manoranjan Das, Jamshedpur

Sir — No word is strong enough to adequately condemn the deplorable behaviour of the opposition, or, more specifically, the Congress, which stalled the proceedings in Parliament for days on end following the Tehelka episode. These parliamentarians ignore the fact that such unruly behaviour costs the country crores of rupees.

The Tehelka exposure is of course a very grave issue, and, the more so because, if the allegations are true, it compromises the nation’s preparedness against internal and external subversion. At this hour of crisis, the people expect their leaders to be sensible and pragmatic. The opposition can be a potent threat to the government if it does not waste its time. It should secure all the evidence possible, try to use irrefutable logic and compel the government to admit that it is incapable of governance because it lacks public confidence. Instead, these parliamentarians are allowing the accused a lot of crucial time to fortify their defence.

Yours faithfully,
A.K. Bhattacharjee, Calcutta

Sir — What is the Congress about anyway? It no longer enjoys stability or has any fixed agenda. It seems to be wooing different parties in different states just to be in the fray. It has no future in Pondicherry. In West Bengal, it is desperately, if a little humiliatingly, forming a mahajotwith Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress. The Bharatiya Janata party, too, is not going to be in any way affected by what the Congress says or does. Therefore, the Congress’s claim that it is never going to forge an alliance with the BJP because of its communal colour is also not of much consequence.

Its most pitiful condition must be in West Bengal. Pranab Mukherjee, once powerful in New Delhi, has ostensibly been given the task of party head in West Bengal. But, as is clear from the recent talks between the Congress and the Trinamool Congress, he is dominated by Kamal Nath, who seems to have the final say in party matters along with Sonia Gandhi.

Yours faithfully,
N. Bose, Hooghly

No thoroughfare

Sir — The actress, Sonali Bendre, has shown a lack of consideration for the religious sentiments of the people of India (“Dress-down for Bendre”, March 28). Further, she has shown an even greater lack of sense by saying that the police had moved against her on a “frivolous charge”. If she thinks that wearing a kurta with religious motifs and symbols on it is a frivolous thing, she must be very obtuse. And she should not think that everyone has forgotten the black buck episode. It is high time she started acting in a responsible manner.

Yours faithfully,
Kankana Paul,Calcutta

Sir — Sushma Swaraj and her colleague, Sumitra Mahajan, should be reminded that this world is changing every moment (“Cleanup Bill for dirty.com”, March 5). In order to keep pace with the ongoing developments, we all have to adapt in certain ways. These people need to be told the obvious, that women all over the world are becoming more and more independent about what they wear, whom they meet and other such personal matters. Of course there is a basis to the argument that children should not have easy access to pornography, but banning it altogether is needless. Curiosity about sex is not unusual. They should not try to control this artificially.

Yours faithfully,
Soumajyoti Mukherjee, Calcutta

Bengal woes

Sir — During the recent inauguration ceremonies at the Bakreswar thermal plant and the “Gateway Haldia 2001”, lakhs of rupees were spent to make the elaborate security arrangements, erection and decoration of the stage, sound system and so on. It has now become a regular practice that for every kind of project, be it small or big, there must be a grand ceremony. This cannot find too many defenders in a financially deprived state like West Bengal. While we are spending crores of rupees for such events, we are also crying poverty all the time and complaining that the Centre is not supplying us with enough funds for flood relief and so on. What does this incongruity mean?
Yours faithfully,
S.N. Mukherjee, Calcutta

Sir — With the assembly polls around the corner, the West Bengal government is releasing advertisements almost everyday to prove itself an information technology-friendly state. The hollowness of the claim is evident from the fact that none of the advertisements contains any email or website address.

Yours faithfully,
Subir Sil, via email

Wings of death

Sir — It is difficult to accept that The Telegraph is encouraging its readers to be cruel, anti-environment and thereby sub-human (“Light winged dryads of the field”, March 31). In a country like India, with its vast biodiversity, no one can claim that all the species of butterflies have been discovered. There are species awaiting discovery by entomologists. In the interest of the advancement of science, preservation plays a vital role. But that is a job best left to the experts. If every man, to pursue an inhuman hobby, starts indiscriminately killing butterflies, it will cause irreversible damage to the environment.
Yours faithfully,
Tapan Pal, Howrah

Sir — It is disgraceful that when people are fighting for animal rights, The Telegraph should choose to publish an article on how to kill insects and decorate one’s living room with them. The hobby of killing helpless creatures and using them as decoration, does not exhibit cultivated taste.

Yours faithfully,
S. Pathak, via email

Letters to the editor should be sent to:

The Telegraph
6 Prafulla Sarkar Street
Calcutta 700 001
Email: [email protected]
Readers in the Northeast can write to:
Third Floor, Godrej Building,
G.S. Road, Ulubari, Guwahati 781007
   
 

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