Editorial 1 / State before wicket
Editorial 2 / Shopping girls
Historian of a living faith
Book Review / For letting those liberal ideas flow
Book Review / Word for word
Book Review / Fiction out of an anthill
Book Review / A poet among lyricists
Bookwise / Brief history of publishing time
Paperback Pickings / Spouting banalities is in our genes
Letters to the editor

 
 
EDITORIAL 1 / STATE BEFORE WICKET 
 
 
 
 
Cricket in India has a huge popular following. This has elevated it to the level of a “national interest” and the government of India has thus taken it upon itself to decide who India should play and where. The minister for sports, Ms Uma Bharti, has announced that cricket has to be subservient to national interests. Nobody has taken the trouble to explain why the government should at all be involved in sporting matters and why there at all should be a minister for sports. Earlier this month, the government stopped the Indian cricket team from playing in Sharjah for three years. By so doing the government overrode a decision that had been taken by the Board of Control for Cricket in India. The status of the BCCI is clear from its name. It is the body which is responsible for all matters relating to cricket. It is a member of the International Cricket Council which coordinates and regulates cricket across the globe. For the ICC, the government of India is of no relevance. For the BCCI too, the government should be of no consequence and irrelevant. The fact that it is not is related to a long history going back to the time when India was a controlled economy.

During the Indian economy’s disastrous flirtation with socialism, the BCCI was dependent on the government and the Reserve Bank of India for the foreign exchange it needed for its foreign tours and to pay the guarantee money to the foreign teams that came to play in India. The BCCI was thus careful not to fall foul of the government of India. This is how the government of India came to have a controlling say in cricketing matters. Even though the economic situation has changed and the foreign exchange regulations have been to a large extent relaxed, and even though the BCCI is now a foreign exchange earner, the vestiges of the control remain. The government still believes it can and should have a decisive say on the game of cricket in India. This is a reflection of an attitude that sees a larger-than-life role for the state. There is another aspect in which the BCCI is compelled to depend on the state: law and order when visiting teams play on Indian grounds. But this constraint does not operate on foreign tours by the Indian team. The BCCI, if it is proud of its own autonomy, should defy the limitations that the government is imposing on its activities for political reasons.

The ultimatum issued by the BCCI to the government is the thin edge of defiance. The BCCI is aware that it is not on a very good wicket for defiance. It has somewhat compromised its image in its rather lackadaisical handling of the matchfixing and betting scandals. It would be too much to expect the BCCI to carry its ultimatum to its logical conclusion. The government, however, needs to rethink its position and to bring to its various policies a semblance of consistency. It is pushing forward reforms in the economy which spell the end of state control but in other spheres it is taking steps which only serve to expand the role of the state. It is an accepted maxim in the gospel of economic reforms that the state should not be in business. Similarly, the state should not be playing games. But such subtleties may be lost on Ms Bharti.

   

 
 
EDITORIAL 2 / SHOPPING GIRLS 
 
 
 
 
Children sell in some Indian states. In Andhra Pradesh, the number of infants saved from forced adoption in the last few days has gone up to more than a hundred. In Orissa, there was yet another incident of a man selling his son to stop the child from dying of starvation. In both states, the conjunction of factors determining the fate of these children is complex — extreme inequalities and deprivation based on caste, gender and economic opportunity. In Andhra Pradesh, these are compounded by a corrupt bureaucracy that could effectively paralyze the legal machinery safeguarding children from the imperatives of poverty. The latest illegal adoption centre that was raided, rescuing 57 children, is run by the wife of the additional director-general of police (welfare and sports).

The immediate remedy for this inhuman situation would, of course, involve tightening of the laws relating to donation of children by their biological parents and to inter-country adoptions. But the larger, and deeper, actualities could frustrate every legal reform. First, the fatal neglect meted out by most of these illegal centres was specially reserved for female infants, who make up most of the numbers. Almost a hundred children rescued from two centres were all girls. Second, most of the children were sold to these centres by grievously poor and illiterate tribals. A local bureaucrat conveniently puts this down to tribal superstition. This is, perhaps, the surest way of disacknowledging the links between political will, development and the welfare of children. This picture of layered oppression and administrative callousness becomes fuller when the circumstances of the baby boy sold in Orissa are considered. His dead mother used to be an anganwadi worker whose salary arrears have remained unpaid. The district administration has persistently ignored the father’s requests for payment. The larger village community was involved in the adoption deal, which was even given a quasi-legal character by the presence of a number of “witnesses”. Adoption, properly legalized and supervised, could indeed be a solution to the deplorable consequences of India’s demographic crisis. But in its irregular forms, it reveals how poverty, discrimination and corruption could destroy the most vulnerable section of the country’s population.

   

 
 
HISTORIAN OF A LIVING FAITH 
 
 
BY RUKUN ADVANI
 
 
Just over 300 years ago, on the day of Baisakhi in the year 1699, the tenth Sikh guru, Gobind Singh, is believed by tradition to have summoned a vast concourse of his followers in Anandpur, a small town in Punjab. When the multitude had gathered, the guru stunned them into silence by demanding that five among them must instantly volunteer to be decapitated: they must agree to be beheaded there and then, on the spot. Guru Gobind Singh’s predecessor, Guru Tegh Bahadur, had sacrificed himself a short while earlier in like manner, by allowing himself to be arrested and executed by Aurangzeb. He had hoped by this means to reveal Mughal tyranny and incite the “lions” of Punjab to resist it. Now, Guru Gobind Singh was extending the example set by his predecessor.

This was partly in response to Sikh difficulties with the Mughals. The idea was to make the faithful militant, martial and ready for martyrdom. In this respect, the effort was also to make Sikhs quite fundamentally different from the sort of devotional, peace-loving followers that Guru Nanak and his 16th century successors had expected them to be. A process of emulation was at work: the techniques of jihadic Islam were implicitly being valorized and duplicated to forge a new identity. Sikhism was at a crossroads, and it was Guru Gobind Singh who, by starting the khalsa, would initiate its distinctive character of aggression and manliness, far-removed from the pious docility of Nanak.

It took a while for the crowd to digest Guru Gobind Singh’s demand, but his insistence finally yielded a man who was led into a nearby tent, from whence issued the loud thud of a sword decapitating the sacrificial victim. A Sikh with bloodstained sword emerged from the tent, and the guru then asked for a second volunteer, who appeared and was similarly dispatched. Three more followed; finally all five volunteers had been accounted for, and the guru had proved the existence of Sikh valour even as he had established his authority to lead them. At this point, the tradition goes, Guru Gobind Singh drew aside the flap of the death-chamber tent to reveal the five living Sikh volunteers alongside five decapitated goats.

We may presume the crowd was as awestruck as it was relieved, and that since the goats had been dispatched by the favoured jhatka method, they constituted the lunch that followed. This palatably gory story is told within what may be the best short account of Sikh tenets and history that has ever been published. The book is called Who is a Sikh? (Clarendon, 1989) and its narrator, who has done more to sift Sikh history from Sikh tradition and legend than anyone else, is neither Khushwant Singh nor J.S.Grewal (the two best-known living Indians of Sikh history). He is, curiously, a 70-year-old historian from New Zealand who has, over the past 40 years of sustained scholarship and research supervision, strong claims to being the father of modern Sikh studies. His name is W.H. McLeod. Within the historiography of Punjab, Hew McLeod (as he likes to be called) has far more significance than his contemporary and fellow countryman, Edmund Hillary, has within the history of Indian mountaineering.

In another way, however, Hew McLeod’s career bears some resemblance to that of the anthropologist-writer, Verrier Elwin, who came to India on a proselytizing stint as a Christian missionary, found himself converted instead, and devoted his life to studying tribal India. Transpose the same scenario to Punjab about two generations later, and Hew McLeod is what you get. He was born to a New Zealand sheep farmer (apparently most of New Zealand is born to sheep farmers), decided against farming, and went off to the University of Otago in Dunedin, followed by three years at a theological college. In the late Fifties, he applied to his church for an overseas appointment and was given a job teaching English in Punjab.

In Punjab, McLeod quickly realized he was less equipped than local teachers to teach English, and he therefore turned to his real interest, history. Sikh history was the obvious subject. Within a few years he had published his first book, Guru Nanak and the Sikh Religion (1968), a classic work which remains in print to this day. Like Romila Thapar, whose first monograph, titled Asoka and the Decline of the Mauryas, also appeared at this time, McLeod had worked with and was indebted to the influential historian of India of this period, Professor A.L. Basham.

At the time that McLeod started his career, Sikh history was written in a fairly traditional manner — straightforward chronological “developments” and “progress” were traced; theological issues were not clearly or strictly separated from historical facts; leaders, gurus and elites were more written about than dissenting movements, religious mobilizations and cultural issues. Two influences thus became crucial to McLeod’s efforts. The first was an awareness that Sikh history could not possibly be studied without an intimate knowledge of Sikh religion, even if only in order that the two might be more authentically separated from each other. The second influence was his awareness that he was no longer a believing Christian, which made him, like Elwin, more dispassionately sympathetic towards the people he was living among.

“My perspective”, he says, “is from an essentially detached position as well as that of a former believer. I believe that it is one which enables me to view others with understanding and to pose questions which should be regarded as sympathetic.”

Foreign historians of a living religion in the Orient are sometimes given a torrid time, both by xenophobic and insular religious adherents and officials who are resentful of what they see as an intrusion into their space, as well as by local secular historians who, possessing scarcer resources and facilities (and sometimes abilities), ridicule even the ablest non-Indian scholars. Ramachandra Guha’s biography of Verrier Elwin, Savaging the Civilized, certainly makes a strong case against the attitude of local sociologists such as G.S. Ghurye and M.N. Srinivas to the activist, interventionist and (in that sense) unacademic anthropological work of Elwin.

Of course this is not always true: the work of Barbara Metcalf, Richard Eaton, Christian W. Troll, Douglas Henderson, Stephen Dale, Francis Robinson and Gail Minault, all foreign historians of Indian Islam, has been quite uniformly well-received within the country. Contrarily, one of the finest scholarly works on Sikh history, titled The Construction of Religious Boundaries: Culture, Identity and Diversity in the Sikh Tradition (1994), which is by a cent per cent sardar, Harjot Singh Oberoi, has met with sustained hostility from the authorities who control the dominant Akali tradition of khalsa Sikhism.

Hew McLeod, as well as the growing tribe of fine students he has supervised or overseen — Harjot Oberoi, Pashaura Singh, Louis Fenech, Jeevan Deol and Gurinder Singh Mann among them — are viewed with suspicion in many Punjabi circles, though McLeod himself feels he has, overall, been fortunate in this respect: “In the preface to my first book I anticipated this sort of reaction, which is bound to be hostile when one is working on a living religion. That reaction has certainly come, but it has not affected my personal relations with even the most conservative members of the Panth. They stay far away from my books and they criticise them vigorously, but whenever I meet them I have had no problem of personal relations. ... I have had no difficulty securing access to material, nor have I any objection to the manner in which my work has been received and strongly criticised.”

Almost all of Hew McLeod’s many books are well known and continuously available in India. The bulk are addressed to scholars, and his contribution to Sikh studies has been profound. For anyone who wishes to understand the essence of Sikh scriptural writing — the janam sakhis, the rahit nama, the gur bani and the Adi Granth — as well as how the Indian sardar has evolved into the distinctive shape he possesses today, the historian to read is Hew McLeod.

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW / FOR LETTING THOSE LIBERAL IDEAS FLOW 
 
 
BY RUDRANGSHU MUKHERJEE
 
 
MAPPING HISTORIES: ESSAYS PRESENTED TO RAVINDER KUMAR
Edited By Neera Chandhoke,
Tulika, Rs 750

The untimely death of Ravinder Kumar earlier this month has cast a shadow of grief on all those who knew him and his work. He was a liberal who was willing always to listen to opinions and analyses that he himself did not accept. In the early Seventies, when a peculiar brand of leftism ruled the world of Indian history, these virtues of Ravinder Kumar were not recognized and appreciated. It was only later, during the Janata regime and in the Eighties and the Nineties, that the real worth of his values gain the recognition they deserved.

As the director of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, he let a hundred flowers bloom. Today, when obscurantism and Hindu fanaticism bearing the stamp of official approval threatens Indian institutions of higher learning, Ravinder Kumar’s presence and interventions will be sorely missed. The silver lining in the grief is that he did get to see this volume of essays published in his honour.

A person like Ravinder Kumar needs at least three different types of festschrift. One from those scholars who were directly influenced by the pioneering work he did on western India and the Rowlatt Satyagraha; a second from the innumerable historians and social scientists who benefited in more ways than one from his presence as the director of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi; and a third from those who were attached to the Centre of Contemporary Studies, which Ravinder Kumar created in the Nehru Museum and Library. This volume fits the third category. Ravinder Kumar is that rare person who could be both an outstanding scholar and an efficient and visionary administrator. He never used his administrative responsibilities as an excuse for his scholarly shortcomings. He did not need to because his scholarship was invariably very good.

The range of subjects covered by the essays in this volume reflect more the interests and concerns of the contributors rather than the concerns of Ravinder Kumar. May be that is how it should be. But the array of subjects covered presents the reviewer with a difficult problem since it is impossible to pin the volume down to a single theme. Neither is it possible to speak about every single essay. This review perforce discriminates in favour of some. This is not to say that it discriminates against the others.

Uma Chakravarti, in “Is Buddhism the answer to Brahminical Patriarchy?”, argues that in his time, the Buddha attempted to provide humane solutions to the problem of inequality that was emerging in Indian society. But he addressed the question of human misery at the metaphysical level and suggested the sangha as the base for those pursuing nirvana. This could not end inequality in the social world. In that struggle, Buddhism “can be enabling but not anywhere near enough”.

Rajeswari Sunder Rajan finds in the story of Draupadi’s disrobing in the Mahabharata, “meanings for our times”. The moral dilemma that Draupadi posed in the Kaurava court articulated the contradictory modes of resistance that women envisage when faced with male humiliation and violation. It is this that explains why feminists have found that episode so poignant and so engrossing.

Geeta Kapur writes very sensitively about Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy. Mahesh Rangarajan with his usual incisiveness of the Indian environment debate. Other themes covered include the Quit India movement, hagiographies and popular traditions on Akbar, the itinerant trading communities of Madras and others.

Ravinder Kumar must have been happy to see the wide variety of subjects covered in this volume. He would probably have had something to say on most of, if not all, the articles. But what would have pleased him most is the quality of all the essays. Ravinder Kumar did not compromise on quality, neither have these essays.

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW / WORD FOR WORD 
 
 
BY BHASWATI CHAKRAVORTY
 
 
THE JUSTIFICATION OF JOHANN GUTENBERG
By Blake Morrison,
Chatto & Windus, £ 14.99

Why should a poet want to write the fictional “justification” of Johann Gutenberg, “print master and citizen of Mainz”? Both Blake Morrison and the printmaster are artists of the word, possessed by the desire to capture them and make them eternal, while letting them fly free and spread wide like the doves of Gutenberg’s epiphanic experience. The novel is a justification — as much the writer’s as his 15th century hero’s. It is not Morrison’s first prose work, it is his first novel. His memoir, And When Did You Last See Your Father?, was a relentlessly honest account of his father’s death, a chronicle exposing the guilt, longing, love and betrayal which lie concealed in every close relationship, and are usually buried undisturbed. In a way, it was a prologue to the novel, in which the fictional Gutenberg seeks to assuage “the need burning in me to justify myself to the Lord my Maker”, and, typically, glosses the sublime with a statement of his “plan” to “wash my inky linen in public”.

The carefully pedantic definition of the word “justification” at the beginning, and its repetition at crucial moments of the narrative demonstrate the unsettling resonance of a single word. Yet words are the strongest bond. The novel is an intimate but fraught exchange between the writer in the 21st century, deeply conscious of how slippery, elusive and tantalizing words can be, and the dreamer, conman and inventor of the 15th century, who aspires to eliminate all ambiguity by casting words over and over again with the help of unchanging metal. The story could only be wrought in irony. Gutenberg must justify his life for he is afraid “that death will rub out what I have done, till not a trace upon me is left upon the earth”. It is the “colophon of my usurpers”, Fust and Schoeffer, the financier he thought a fool and his best disciple to whom he gave unstintingly of his hard-won knowledge, that threatens to “erase” his deed.

Yet old, half-blind, unsure, driven to exile from Mainz as earlier driven from Strasbourg, he can only use an amanuensis. For most of the novel, he has to dictate his justification to beautiful young Anton, whose vital presence attracts him and reminds him of the pain and pleasure of his past affection for Peter Schoeffer. The scribe’s ear, hand and faith are the printmaster’s only guarantees of verity. When Anton has left and another youngster is at work, Gutenberg’s spectacles, a new invention, arrive from Italy. As he sees with revived clarity the river and trees he loves, he also reads what Anton had written. Did he really say those words that excavated the unfamiliar darknesses of his soul or did Anton exaggerate? Did he make them up? Can words be trusted? Can the mind? The medium?

The printmaster, who has given his chequered, wandering, secretive life to “seeding” words, “raising them, hardening them, straightening them, watching them grow,” asks them to stake his claim for what he had “done” for posterity. But there is no deed beyond the word. It is only natural that Gutenberg’s most treasured dream is of printing the Bible. The dream is also his greatest secret, more carefully hidden than his machines and techniques, for the wrath of the church would descend in all its fury should this secret be out.

Gutenberg’s secretive nature is a useful device for Morrison. The printmaster emerges out of the shadows of the past, ambitious, posturing, determined, cunning, arrogant, yet uncertain, suspicious of his own love and sexuality, hesitant, unbelieving of the “Eureka” moment of invention, dedicated to a dream which only ceaseless work will bring to pass. Morrison had very little to go on, because the source material on Gutenberg is pitifully small. A secretive man will keep his date of birth a mystery, will not give the exact dates or times of the stages of progress, and would naturally guard his experiments fiercely from his competitors, from his financiers, even as far as possible from his partners. The court cases, about which there is documentary evidence, seem especially fitting in the context of such a character. Morrison both needs, and deftly uses, historical signposts, whether it is the sack of Mainz, obvious and inevitable in the story of Gutenberg, or the subtler one of the spectacles.

The ambience of the mid-15th century emanates from the character: the dominance of the church in spite of his intellectual independence of it; the class structure, which makes the young Gutenberg unacceptable to both the “mint-boys” and the “guild boys”; the rigid morality surrounding sex and the expectations from a “wifely” woman which partly drive him to give up his only love; the sense of sin and the condemnation associated with the expressed affection for the same sex.

Gutenberg’s “classlessness” gives him his first painful sense of alienation and makes him forever the outsider. In it lie also the first seeds of an apparently impossible ambition, which is enhanced through a sharp realization of the worthlessness of life by the sight of a bluebottle traversing the face of his dead father. But most important, the sense of alienation also gives him the freedom to roam, searching for himself as well as for his vocation. His years of travel and varied apprenticeships take him through cities and the countryside, to the mills and machines, through the worlds of scholars, scribes, craftsmen, carpenters, engravers, coinmakers, mirror makers, merchants, burghers.

The panorama of the middle ages opens out invitingly, and Chaucer’s “Prologue” lingers in the shadows. But within the old tale grows the new story of early modern capitalism, as Gutenberg clutches his secrets against the prying eyes of possible competitors and the church, dreaming together of spreading god’s word unaltered — and of the profit it will bring. This ambivalence is at the core of the period Morrison depicts, and is more striking than the most effective of the historical signposts.

This imagined justification is itself a sign of the time, of a new age that is questioning the future of the printed book. The dictionary entry for “justification” that Morrison quotes at the beginning of the novel could have been aptly repeated at the end: “1. The action of showing something to be just, right or proper; vindication of oneself or another; exculpation; verification, proof. 2. The action whereby a man is free from the penalty of sin. 3. The action of adjusting, straightening, levelling or arranging exactly, in typefounding and printing.”

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW / FICTION OUT OF AN ANTHILL 
 
 
BY SAHELI MITRA
 
 
PASSION IN THE TIME OF TERMITES
By Musharraf Farooqi,
HarperCollins, Rs 395

This isn’t the tale of Hamelin infested with rats; there is no pied piper to play a hypnotic tune and rid the town of the rodents. This is the tale of Purana Shehr, a laid-back town which is attacked by termites. Swarms of white ants eat away at everything that comes in their way and nearly bring life to a standstill. The residents are forced to come together and try in every way to save themselves from the deadly termites. In the process, dormant passions begin to erupt.

An innovative idea, and a narrative with a touch of humour, make Musharraf Farooqi’s novel entertaining reading. Passion in the Time of Termites has successfully reflected the lives and loves of the residents of Purana Shehr against the backdrop of the termite onslaught.

Topee Mohalla is a lower-middle class, Muslim-dominated area of Purana Shehr that immediately conjures up pictures of narrow lanes, dirty meat markets, dilapidated houses and of people who want nothing more than to earn enough to support their families.

Yet behind the apparent simplicity of this life are complex human passions of friendship and enmity, lust and greed, sacrifice and honesty and above all, love.

The termites arrive in Topee Mohalla each year after the rains, but this time they come in huge numbers and take the residents by surprise. Before the people can react to the threat, they find their lives falling apart. The sleepy town is shaken out of its somnolent mood. The economic process too comes to a halt, with the termites eating away currency notes, bank documents and even the weighing machines in the marketplace.

The plot is spun around Bano Tamanna, a hardworking Muslim housewife, who lives with her granddaughters, her scholar husband, Mirzban Yunani, and her sister-in-law, Mushtri Khanam, an ambitious spinster. Yunani considers the termite attack an act of the almighty. Mushtri Khanam, on the other hand, is always coming in the way of Bano’s interests. Bano has a difficult time trying to keep her household together as the termites threaten her peaceful life. At the same time, she tries to persuade her old father, Salar Jang, not to get married in his old age. Implicit in her pleas is her desire to be the sole heir to her father’s fortune.

The character of old Salar is developed with a lot of insight. The man, notwithstanding his age, his many ailments and above all, the termite attack, still dreams of marrying a beautiful woman. He comes to stay with his daughter at Topee Mohalla for a few months with his trusted muneemji. Mad about marriage, he mistrusts his daughter and the honest muneemji and gets cheated by his lawyer, Ladlay. The last extracts a power of attorney from him and tries to lay his claim on the old man’s fortune. Ladlay’s partner in crime is Mushtri, with whom he has a roaring affair.

To increase the pace of the story, Farooqi brings in several other interesting characters, like the manager of Desh Bank, Qudratullah, who, for his love of Mushtri, forgets how termites are destroying the bank’s documents. Mayhem results when he is unable to pay his customers, for the termites have eaten up the notes.

As chaos ensues, the residents of Topee Mohalla try everything, holy and unholy, to drive the white ants away. They soon realize the futility of their attempts. To create the illusion of a happy ending, the termites leave on their own. As life in the town creeps back to normalcy, what is left behind is a tale of passion and deception.

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW / A POET AMONG LYRICISTS 
 
 
BY SHAMS AFIF SIDDIQI
 
 
SELECTED POEMS
By Kaifi Azmi,
Viking, Rs 195

Translation of literary works is always a difficult task. If it is poetry, then the task becomes more daunting. Knowledge of languages or scholarship is not enough. When the language of the original poetry is Persian or Urdu, the problem becomes particularly knotty. Although scholars have tried their hand at translating Omar Khayyam after Edward Fitzgerald, but the Englishman’s work remains the best because of his emotional involvement with the Rubaiyat. Mirza Ghalib’s poetry has also been poorly rendered in English.

Kaifi Azmi’s poetry is neither classical, nor as difficult as Ghalib’s. Hence much was expected from the translator, Pavan K. Varma, a published writer and a member of the Indian foreign service. Kaifi Azmi is a popular poet — a large part of his popularity can be attributed to his association with Hindi films.

He is primarily a writer of nazms rather than ghazals. In spite of being part of the progressive writers movement, he managed to evolve a style of his own. If he could not match the standards of Ali Sardar Jafri in lyricism and perfection of language, he certainly succeeded in mixing revolutionary ideas with his brand of romanticism.

Christened Syed Athar Hussain Rizvi, the poet derived his more popular name from his native village, Azamgarh, in Uttar Pradesh. A Sahitya Akademi award winner, Kaifi Azmi has three collections of poems to his credit. He also confirmed a berth for himself early in life in the tinsel world of Bombay, then dominated by poets like Sahir Ludhianvi, Shakeel Badayuni and Majrooh Sultanpuri. The appeal of Azmi’s poetry lies in locating beauty in ordinary things. There is also a rare breed of idealism which set his poems apart from the rest.

Most of the 51 poems chosen by Varma for translation are taken from Awara Sajde, the third collection of Azmi’s poems. The Hindi renderings that are placed side by side with the translation, are particularly delightful. Those familiar with Azmi’s style would immediately associate the poems on Jesus, Nehru and Ali Sardar Jafri with him.

There is no apparent reason behind the selection of the poems, nor does Varma tell us why he opted for the third collection. It maybe because Awara Sajde was available in Hindi too. “I have greatly enjoyed translating these poems,” writes Varma. But a surfeit of enthusiasm often leads him astray. For instance the verse, khara hoon kabse main chehre ke aek jungle mein, has been translated as “For an eternity I have stood here among the crowd.” Kabse is hardly the same thing as “eternity”, just as sehra, or desert, is far removed from “cemetery”. The translations often move away from the original, and miss the essence of the thought.

If these inconsistencies can be overlooked, it has to be said that Varma has worked hard keeping in mind even the rhyme and metre of each poem. It might be surprising for many to find that the songs composed by Kaifi Azmi’s for Hindi films are actually very good read. Though Azmi is now possibly the seniormost Urdu poet in the subcontinent, this translation would expose him to a newer and wider readership.

   

 
 
BOOKWISE / BRIEF HISTORY OF PUBLISHING TIME 
 
 
BY RAVI VYAS
 
 

What is the gestation period for books in India? There is no ready answer to this because a lot depends on the length of the typescript, whether it has illustrations and photographs (in colour or in black and white), whether there are mathematical, physical and chemical symbols, diacritical or phonetic marks, and above all, whether it requires drastic editorial revisions in language, style and content. But the time is also determined by whether the publisher is properly staffed with editors, production managers, and believes in deadlines. Taking into account the swings and roundabouts, a 300-page book without too many complications should not take more than six months to come out. Sadly, many Indian publishers slip up. The question, therefore, is: what can the author do to ensure that schedules are maintained?

There are three things that an author must ensure. First, that his manuscript does not require too much re-writing and re-shaping. Second, the manuscript should be delivered on a floppy disc. A typed manuscript is acceptable, but it then takes time to compose the typescript and then proof-read the text at least twice to ensure that no mistakes remain in the finished book. Third, just as the publisher insists on firm delivery dates, the author must insist on firm publication dates. He or she need not be too cussed on this point because publishers have their backlogs, pressures of work and cash-flow problems.

There are reasons why the author must fulfill these conditions. A clean copy is necessary because editors inside publishing houses today are either ignorant or are overloaded with work. After a quick look-over they pass it down the line to check for “literals”: spelling mistakes, inconsistencies in spelling, presentation of dates and so on.

Except for a particularly conscientious author, putting in a “clean” copy would be difficult, for he cannot objectively judge his own work. For this, he would have to go to independent editors, mostly ex-publishers, who will do the fine-tuning for a fee. In fact, given the paucity of good in-house editors, many publishers “farm out” their manuscripts to these experts.

A floppy cuts out time and money on composing and proof-reading and also ensures that no “literals” are left in the finished book.

Last of all, the contract. Recent publishing contracts that have revised several clauses of the old, established contracts — royalties, for instance, are now being paid on net returns instead of the full price of the book — have inserted a clause on firm delivery dates by the author. It is of course a clause that is hardly invoked, but the author can be rejected if he or she has slipped up. On the other hand, very few publishers have a clause on publication dates that would assure the author that his or her book would be out in a reasonable time. If authors have to deliver on time, it is a simple quid pro quo that publishers should do so too.

When all is said and done, the question still remains: whom should authors, especially first-time authors, go to? Invariably, they head for the big names. This is often a mistake because they are just too big and blasé to be bothered with new-comers. It is a far better bet to go to small, professional companies run by ex-chiefs of the big houses.

If there is a bright spot in Indian publishing, it is the emergence of these smaller presses who know what they are doing and they do it well and in time.

   

 
 
PAPERBACK PICKINGS / SPOUTING BANALITIES IS IN OUR GENES 
 
 
 
 
NOTES ON THE GREAT INDIAN CIRCUS
By Khushwant Singh
(Penguin, Rs 250)

Khushwant Singh’s Notes on the Great Indian Circus is an important collection of short pieces by this peerless chronicler of Indian life. They have all been written for leading Indian dailies and magazines, in such famous columns as “Gossip Sweet and Sour”, “With Malice towards One and All” and “This Above All”. The collection is divided into thematic sections. “The State of the Nation” has pieces on the Punjab problem, the Mandal “mess”, Ayodhya and sundry musings on the vagaries of the Indian democracy. “Events” comments on the Kumbh mela, or on the Indian predilection for anniversary seminars (“As a nation we have an infinite capacity to put up with boredom...spouting banalities is in our genes...The best cure for insomnia is to attend a seminar on Pandit Nehru — it is far more effective than a couple of pills of Calmpose.”) The largest sections are “The Way We Are” and “Profiles and Personalities”, and here Singh never fails to rise to the challenge posed by Indian bizarrerie. From the mother-dominated Indian male to the Nalli saree-store in Madras, from Dhirendra Brahmachari to A.G. Noorani, Singh’s prose maintains the delightful, fearless and deadpan irreverence that, like Laxman’s cartoons, has become part of the texture of the Indian democracy.

DEVELOPMENT THEORY: DECONSTRUCTIONS/RECONSTRUCTIONS
By Jan Nederveen Pieterse
(Vistaar, Rs 275)

Jan Nederveen Pieterse’s Development Theory: Deconstructions/Reconstructions aims to restore development to its rightful place at the heart of contemporary social thought, combatting the tendency to treat it as a specialized subdiscipline. Exploring the connections between development and globalization, the main target of the author’s critique is Eurocentrism, leading to the “zigzag character of development thinking and its inconsistencies in time”. His closing argument on “critical globalism” is analytic as well as programmatic, using an entire range of approaches to the complexities of development.

THE BEST BUSINESS STORIES OF THE YEAR, 2001 EDITION
Edited By Andrew Leckey and Marshall Loeb
(Vintage, $ 14)

Andrew Leckey and Marshall Loeb’s The Best Business Stories of the Year, 2001 Edition is a book you’d pick up for the flight, and find yourself not wanting to leave behind in the hotel-room when packing to leave. This is a smart, wide-ranging and surprisingly multi-voiced collection of articles from such publications as Wired, Time, Fortune, Harper’s, The Wall Street Journal, Ms and The New Yorker. The collection is out to prove that “crusading investigative reporting is alive and very well in business journalism”. Jean Strouse’s piece on Bill Gates’s business-related charity (Strouse has recently done a superb biography of Morgan Stanley) and Barbara Ehrenreich’s inside look at the operation of a large maid service (posing as a maid for three weeks) make particularly memorable reading.

   

 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

Vehicles of power

Sir — Every election year, I tell myself that I will have to find out why I invariably lose exclusive ownership rights over my vehicle during this period. I have to drive it around with butterflies in my stomach, glancing furtively about, trying to locate in advance, groups of people (a mixed bunch, comprising officials from the police, the Calcutta collectorate and so on) flagging down vehicles with impunity, in order to requisition them for “election purposes”. A vehicle, that, till the point of being conferred this privileged status, had been cared for and nurtured like a prized possession, would all of a sudden be ferrying party goons or election officials taking the family for joyrides and shopping sprees. They must be wishing that these elections should coincide with the Pujas. But what empowers these people to do such things: to usurp privately-owned cars and mutilate their interiors, and eventually return them in unrecognizable states? If vehicles are indeed required, they should be procured by the parties concerned.
Yours faithfully,
Dilip Narang, via email

New rebel

Sir — Ajit Panja has not timed it right. This was not the time to engage in petty skirmishes with the leader of his party (“Panja cries in Mamata revolt”, April 18). He has not done himself a favour, but has only managed to provide the ruling Left Front in West Bengal with enough ammunition to attack the Trinamool Congress. Panja’s remarks will demoralize the Trinamool Congress workers. His grudge against Mamata Banerjee is based, according to him, on the fact that he was not consulted in the course of framing the party manifesto, selection of the candidates, and the alliance with the Congress. For a long time, Panja has indulged in playing family politics by forwarding the names of his relatives for election tickets. Besides, his lobbying for ministerial berths is also well known.

Although he played Ramakrishna in a play, he evidently does not follow the teachings of the great man. Else, he would just have worked without expecting material gains.

Yours faithfully,
Sankar Lal Singh, Calcutta

Sir — Mamata Banerjee has learnt her lesson the hard way with the revolt of one of her closest colleagues, Ajit Panja, just weeks before the West Bengal assembly elections. Panja has called her an opportunist and a dictator, and accused her of not giving the other party members of parliament their due. He has also alleged that the decision to withdraw support from the National Democratic Alliance government was taken unilaterally by Banerjee. However, what Panja avoided throwing light on was his role in the Trinamool Congress’s attempts to blackmail the NDA government. Why didn’t Panja announce his revolt earlier? Surely, his woes are old ones. Could it be that his revolt is not unmotivated, but has been engineered to unsettle the Trinamool Congress before the polls?

Yours faithfully,
D. Ghosh, Calcutta

Sir — The outburst of Ajit Panja against the Trinamool Congress leader is something only a leader, and not a sycophant, could contemplate. By his frankness, Panja has proved that he is dedicated to the service of the people, and not to the nursing of his ego. Panja’s humiliation was visible in public, with Mamata Banerjee sparing no effort to drive home the point that she is the sole boss of the party. Banerjee’s sudden hobnobbing with the Congress, which she had once called the Communist Party of India (Marxist)’s B team, following her equally sudden desertion of the Bharatiya Janata Party, would be difficult to accept for any conscientious politician.

It is to Panja’s credit that he chose to speak out against it rather than massaging Banerjee’s inflated ego. It is time the people of West Bengal saw through Banerjee’s gameplan.

Yours faithfully,
Santosh Kumar Sharma, Kharagpur

Sir — It is not surprising that the rebel Trinamool Congress MP, Ajit Panja, has dubbed the common minimum programme of both parties (the Trinamool Congress and the Congress) as “nothing but a bluff”. The Trinamool Congress has said that if it comes to power it will establish the rule of law, introduce English from class I in all government-run primary schools, establish healthcare for all, free administration and education from political interference, alleviate the hardships of the masses, open huge employment opportunities for the young unemployed, and so on.

These are high-sounding promises and although these policies are going to be difficult to implement, one never knows voters in this country. They might just start believing them.

Yours faithfully,
S.K. Pal, Calcutta

Three words

Sir — The verbal talaq has come under severe criticism in recent times (“Women cry for triple talaq ban”, March 26). Muslim leaders are against the abolition of the present system of talaq, which, by any yardstick is unfair to women. The social and financial hardships faced by Muslim women should be seriously considered by the Muslim personal law board before any decisions are reached about talaq.

Muslims are perfectly happy living in countries like the United States and Australia which do not have separate codes of personal law. There is no reason why India should not have a uniform civil code for all.

Parliament has, for too long, turned a blind eye to the women who are affected by the system of verbal talaq. This problem needs to be addressed at once. The eradication of illiteracy among Muslim women, especially in the rural areas, will help in tackling the issue.

Yours faithfully,
Manoranjan Das, Jamshedpur

Sir — The Muslim women’s forum has expressed concern over the practice of divorce in Muslim society by simply pronouncing the word, “talaq”, three times. This opinion was echoed in the media as well. But, this system of triple talaq has to be understood properly before any pronouncements are made in this regard.

Islam prohibits the system of uttering talaq three times in one sitting. A period of three months is stipulated for this purpose — only after the expiry of which can a divorce be considered as having been carried out. If there are some people who are misusing this system, they should be identified. The fault lies not in Islam. According to the Quran, marriage is a sacred bond and a contract in which both parties enjoy equal rights and shoulder responsibilities. Islam has also prescribed several conditions for divorce in order to protect the rights of women.

Divorce is used as a last resort among couples. The three month period, iddat, offers the couple enough time to ponder over the issue and, perhaps, come to some resolution of the conflict.

G. Hasnain Kaif, Bhandara

Sir — Nowadays, the matter of talaq, nafqah (maintenance for divorced women for a limited period) and nikah are being hotly discussed. Many Muslim men indeed marry more than one woman despite the fact that they cannot provide for all of them.

They always invoke the Quran in order to justify their acts. But the Quran unambiguously states that one should not marry more than one woman if one cannot be just to all of them. But very often the holy book is only partially relied upon or even misinterpreted.

Yours faithfully,
Jawed Akhter, Howrah

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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