Editorial / Irredeemable time
It’s easy to invent a Life
People / General Pervez Musharraf
The Telegraph Diary
Letters to the editor

History offers no compensations. But politicians do. The decision of the German government to pay compensation to a million survivors of Nazi labour camps can thus only give rise to mixed feelings. On the one hand, it is an extraordinarily noble and laudable gesture towards a group of people who, for no fault of theirs, were made to undergo hell on earth. The present German government, on behalf of the German people, has taken upon itself the moral responsibility of acts carried out by the Nazi state. Germans, since the end of World War II and the revelations about Adolf Hitler’s Final Solution, have lived under the curse of the Holocaust. The decision to pay compensation to those who survived the labour camps is an attempt to exorcize the curse. Or, as cynics would be prone to say, an attempt to get rid of a collective guilty conscience. These are some of the dimensions that emerge from the decision. Other dimensions are more problematic. Those who were consigned to the concentration camps were made to undergo humiliations that are beyond the realms of description. Accounts of survivors make horror films from Hollywood look like picture postcards from a holiday. The survivors carry on their bodies and on their minds the trauma of those humiliations. Will monetary compensation or any other form of compensation take away that trauma? After such knowledge, one could say with T.S. Eliot, what forgiveness?

A spokesman of the German government has talked about putting “a financial full stop to the darkest chapter of our history”. The word, “financial”, in the above statement is imbued with significance. There is little more a government can do save offer monetary compensation to those who were affected by inhuman Nazi policies. There is an implicit admission in the statement that actually no full stops can be applied to that dark chapter of German — and, one could well add, human — history. Germany and Germans, compensation or no compensation, will have to live a while longer with the painful memory of what Hitler did. So will the Jews across the world. The problem for Germans is more complicated because research is making clear that the labour camps and death camps may have been conceived by the Nazi leadership but ordinary Germans collaborated in the enterprise without compunction and became “Hitler’s willing executioners”. This was the obverse of Germany’s cultural superiority. The music of Bach and Beethoven was drowned by the silent screams from the camps. The notion of compensation acquires an ineffable irrelevance in the enormity of that cultural contradiction.

The German government’s decision has contentious ramifications. There are other countries in the world with horror stories of their own. Should Spain take the moral responsibility for the acts of conquistadors and compensate the people of Latin America? Should the British government pay compensation for the massacre in Jallianwala Bagh? Can history be undone in this manner? Violence and horror have been integral parts of human history and continue to be so. At one level, history can be defined as an unending account of what man has done to man, and of what man has done to woman. Historians have tried to correct the inherent bias in favour of victors by adopting the subject position of underdogs. This is how stories of atrocities previously unknown have been unearthed. Perhaps this is the only compensation that history has to offer. Anything beyond this becomes a political ploy. The spokesman cited above admitted that the assumption of moral responsibility was linked to protecting German business and diplomatic relations abroad. The indescribable sufferings of human beings have thus been reduced to bargaining instruments in the world of international politics and business. The famous scholar, Hannah Arendt, writing on Eichmann spoke about the banality of evil; there is also the banality of morality which the compensations underline.



Experiment escorts us last — His pungent company Will not allow an Axiom An Opportunity

— Emily Dickinson

Last week, when I walked into the exhibition of Amina Ahmed Kar’s paintings at Calcutta’s Galerie ’88, I knew almost nothing about the artist, who had died in the mid-Nineties. Yet, it did not take me long to be riveted by the compelling individuality of her work. She seems to have experimented continuously with every possible combination of media — pencil, pen and ink, ballpen, crayon, watercolour, oil, acrylic, lithograph and etching, on ruled writing-paper, plain paper, oil sketch paper and canvas. Her work transforms itself ceaselessly, but through what often appears to be a compulsive repetition of a few motifs, particularly the human face.

The impact of her best pictures, especially from a distance, originates in the boldness of her lines. There is a sureness of stroke which does not, however, take away from the sense of the pictures having ended up somewhere other than where they had started out from — ended up, without necessarily having been finished. I also found it difficult to place Amina’s achievements within the established story of the evolution of modern Indian art. Her idioms and sensibility stand apart even from that eclectic terrain, “the art of Bengal”, charted recently in a series of splendid exhibitions in the city.

Then the reviews started coming out. The unease I had felt with the whiff of Gothic in the catalogue essay turned into dismay, when one of Calcutta’s oracular art critics subjected her work to a defunct and reductive combination of biographical speculation, psychoanalysis and banal axioms on “the feminine instinct”. His review opens with her “personal tragedy”, which she has “failed to sublimate” into a source of “creative energy”. Her schizophrenia, as a context to her creativity, precedes every other perspective to her art. This diagnosis is rounded off by granting a “freshness” to her compositions, explained by the tension between “cerebral content” and “feminine instinct”. But her “surrender” to the latter is “total”.

This review, together with other bits and pieces on her in the papers, and a floating body of art-world gossip could form the beginnings of an Amina Kar myth. Its ingredients — father, husband, son, art, bohemia, schizophrenia, exile and death — lend themselves, equally, to reactionary and radical academic and journalistic writing, which could both get away with very little historical information or skill. (On a more international scale, the Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf and Frida Kahlo industries also thrive on such air.) In Amina’s case, this has already resulted in virtually non-existent curating and documentation, and is likely to foster a great deal of bad, or blinkered, art history.

The challenge of writing on Amina’s art — as on the art of Plath, Woolf or Kahlo — is to see it on its own terms, including its unsettling and inscrutable dimensions, without treating it as symptom or warning of a pathology. To pathologize such an artist is to assume too simple a relation between her life and her work, between the pictures and the person, and to create too safe and comforting a distance between ourselves and what we wish to see, in somebody else, as the problem of the unconscious. With Amina, one would have to confront, sooner or later, the historical fact of her ceasing to paint. But to use biography in order to explain this fact, or explain it away, is to make a spurious claim to knowledge which no work of art will yield.

But we do have the pictures. And what they allow us into are the specific means by which Amina chose to represent what she called “intangible concepts”. In her 1954 watercolour and ink self-portrait, what stands between her face and the viewer is her hand, rolled into a fist and holding a pen. She is wearing her glasses, and her expression is forthright, but reticent. This is a woman whose “interior” artistic self is inseparable from her intellectual life of research and writing. In her use of the pen and ballpen for drawing faces on ruled paper, sketching and writing become kindred means of figuring subjectivity.

In these faces, the harmony of lines coexists with jagged fragmentation. The three-eyed female face that haunts the art of Bengal merges here with faces from Matisse and Picasso, fusing the profile with frontal portraiture. The trilochona symmetry is deliberately skewed. Sometimes there are two sets of eyes; sometimes one eye looks swollen, or like a wound. Her larger mixed-media faces are held together by lines reminiscent of the faces in Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon or Girl Before a Mirror, of Matisse’s odalisques, his etchings of Baudelaire and Poe in an edition of Mallarmé’s poems.

Amina’s faces emerge from her visual, intellectual and psychological encounters with Europe. But their derived forms are invested with a dimension of depth which complicates their linear simplicity. They also break down distinctions between figurative and abstract, realist and expressionist. The depth and layering in these faces are not a product of pathology, but of evolving technical skill. Her technique works at the levels of form, colour and of texture. Fluorescent green and electric orange counterpoint quieter mauves, blues, rust and ivory. The grain of oil sketch paper, veined or netted textures, lithograph bases or glimmering cityscapes emerge from beneath the faces.

Amina was exploring, in the early Sixties, and in an unmistakably European idiom, a series of links between female subjectivity, portraiture, architectural depth and abstract expressionism. One wonders if she had seen Antonioni’s film, The Red Desert (1964), in which Giuliana’s schizophrenic gaze produces — simply through the way she looks at modern interiors and industrialized cityscapes — huge cinematic frames that exactly resemble abstract expressionist paintings. Perhaps Amina had also seen Through a Glass Darkly (1960), in which Bergman uses Karin’s mind to enter, pictorially, “an untested dimension of depth”.

Amina expresses, in a series of watercolours, her lighter and more fantastical interest in the relations between textiles and abstract shapes, clothes and female figures. These delicate pictures — full of a weightless, mysterious whimsy — show pencilled women, in pastel worlds, floating about in wide skirts with big sashes. They bring to mind the fantasias with women in Fellini’s and Juliet of the Spirits, or in Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad, all released in the early Sixties.

These pictures also recall the world of Coco Chanel and Christian Dior, of the sketches and photographs of Cecil Beaton and Man Ray. Perhaps Amina’s years in Paris acquainted her with the close connections between avant garde women’s fashion, the decorative arts and modernist abstraction. Such an ambience makes us see her in relation to such women as Sonia Delauney, who was married to the painter, Robert Delauney, in the Thirties. She moved away from her husband’s Cubism to fashion her own modernism through painting, couture and set- and costume-designing for Diaghilev’s ballets. Her painting, Simultaneous Contrasts, is strikingly similar to some of Amina’s abstract compositions.

Such unconventional crossovers between forms and levels of art — crucial to what women artists did with European modernism — would have suited Amina’s inventiveness and indomitable modernity. She created huge murals for an airport, an industrial fair and a handloom pavilion in India, and often painted patterned textiles draped over abstract objects.

Keeping Amina’s art out of the prison-house of biography or case-history is not to deny that art — to adapt Jacqueline Rose’s comment on Plath — may be a revelation of character, that it may even be a form of madness; but, for the artist, “it could equally be a way of keeping sane”. We could never presume to know why Amina stopped painting. Yet her body of work faces us, frontally and in profile. The black paint which she used to destroy some of her work is essential to her most ambitious compositions. And the word, “face”, is indelibly written into the words, “efface” and “deface”. The poet, Emily Dickinson, whose “life had stood a loaded gun”, knew that it is as “easy to invent a Life” as “to deface it”. But she assures, or perhaps warns, us in the same poem that sometimes “the Perished Patterns murmur”.



Line Control

It’s going to be quite a home-coming. When the chief executive of Pakistan — and some say its would-be-president — comes to his country of birth sometime in July, the visit will gladden quite a few hearts. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee will be caught smiling, for the visit would reinforce his image as a liberal in a party of hawks and prop him up as a statesman. The First World community, led by Uncle Sam, would beam, for it has been prodding the two nations to share a platform for quite a while now. The doves in India, for long years urging India to build bridges with Pakistan, would exult. And even MP Vijay Goel — otherwise not really known for nurturing any fondness for Pakistan — would be happy to be able to pump some government money into his constituency of Chandni Chowk — an area where Musharraf’s ancestral home is located.

The one with the widest smile, of course, would be the General. Twenty months ago, when he rudely elbowed Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif out to take over the reins of power in Pakistan, Musharraf was the bad guy in the neighbourhood. Not that Sharif was anybody’s blue-eyed boy either, but it has been pointed out — albeit in hindsight — that he was, if nothing else, the democratically elected leader of the nation. Musharraf, on the other hand, was the man behind Kargil and came to power in an army coup.

In July (the dates are still to be finalised), when Musharraf holds a meeting with Vajpayee at the invitation of New Delhi, he is going to emerge as the legitimate ruler of Pakistan. But New Delhi, apparently, had no choice but to bestow the modest title on the General. An insider argues that once the government had a clear indication that Musharraf had no immediate intentions of abdicating power in favour of an elected government, it could no longer postpone talks with Pakistan.

When Musharraf took over power in Pakistan, the reaction to the coup was a mixed one. “I was happy,” says a Delhi-based defence expert. “Nawaz Sharif had come down so heavily on democratic institutions such as the press and the judiciary, that it seemed as if Musharraf’s take-over wasn’t such a bad idea after all.’’

Musharraf was just what the doctor had ordered for Pakistan’s well-heeled middle-class. After the coup, newspapers were flooded with pictures of a smiling Musharraf — cuddling a couple of puppies, walking hand-in-hand with his little grand-daughter, or simply standing by his elegant, saree-clad wife. The press in India played up the fact that Musharraf — one of three sons of an Urdu-speaking diplomat — was from Azamgarh and had an ancestral home in Delhi’s Daryaganj.

Suave and articulate, he had effectively given himself an aura of liberalism. “I found him extremely affable,” says journalist-broadcaster Karan Thapar, who interviewed him for a TV channel in Rawalpindi some months ago. So amiable that Musharraf took off his tie and presented it to Thapar after the journalist complimented it. “My staff told me later that he had smiling eyes,” says Thapar. “I found him calm and placid, even when I was asking him all kinds of uncomfortable questions.”

That the General knows how to woo people is evident. After returning to India, Thapar sent him a letter, thanking him for the interview. “We do that with everybody, but nobody really replies to the routine letter,” says Thapar. Musharraf, of course, wrote right back, thanking Thapar.

But Musharraf’s image of a liberal hasn’t cut much ice in Pakistan. “In the last few months, he has more or less erased this image of a liberal man,” says a political watcher in Islamabad. “He came with a great many promises, but hasn’t implemented any one of them,” says Kalim Bahadur, professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University’s School of International Studies.

In Islamabad, Musharraf’s habit of going back on his words has sparked some humour. Says a Pakistan watcher: “The late General Zia-ul-Haq was known as the CMLA — or the Chief Martial Law Administrator. Musharraf is known by the same abbreviation, but in his case, the letters stand for: Cancel My Last Announcement.”

When he took over, Musharraf had talked about greater accountability in public life, rooting out corruption and tackling fundamentalism. “But one of the first things he did was strike a deal with Nawaz Sharif,” says the Islamabad-based analyst. “And he has been going rather easy on fundamentalist groups,” he says.

By all accounts, the people of Pakistan had hoped that the new administration would take the mullahs on. Musharraf even announced at a human rights convention in Pakistan that the government would try to water down the stringent blasphemy law. “But he went back on that soon after,” the analyst says.

Clearly, a lot of Musharraf’s recent pronouncements have been aimed at consolidating his own position in the country, and with the clergy. That Musharraf is planning out a future as the President of the country is evident. He has created the post of a deputy chief of army staff for his close associate, General Muzzaffar Usmani. He has also initiated a mammoth multi-phase election at the grassroot level. Right now, the President of Pakistan has to have the support of most members of the 700-member assembly and council. But reports from Pakistan indicate that Musharraf is working on a scheme under which the President would be elected by some 2,50,000 grassroot level local council members.

To get the support of the international community, Musharraf has been working on economic reforms. Riding a bankrupt nation, he has launched programmes for bringing in sales tax and substantially widening its extremely narrow tax base. “The economy is in a shambles. But there is not much you can do when 70 per cent of your budget goes in defence and repayment of loans,” says Bahadur.

Musharraf’s track record in the last 20 months has not been enviable. Despite tall promises, he hasn’t dealt with ethnic strife, nor been able to control rise in crime and proliferation of small arms. And though Musharraf has been talking about bringing in ‘real’ democracy, his actions have so far stifled it. Last month, when opposition parties tried to organise a May Day rally to press for democracy, he had the entire political opposition arrested. Asked by a newspaper why he had arrested some 2,000 political workers, the General replied: “We have decided that there will be no outdoor political activity.”

The General, clearly, is not finding the going easy. “Getting on a tiger is easier than getting off one,” says Bidanda Chengappa of the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses in New Delhi. “Dictators seldom have a smooth exit.”

In New Delhi, efforts are on to help the General get an effective saddle.



Only red stargazing

Lady in red? Well, not quite, but news pouring in from the South indicates that Amma is developing a stronger liking for that colour than her dear friend in 10, Janpath would like her to. The CPI and the CPI(M) are already allies of the puratchi thalaivi, and the rate at which the love between them is growing, might be taken by the self-doubting as definite hints of Amma’a larger gameplan of dumping the parasitic Congress for the old boys’ club, that is the people’s front. But what could bring a girl like J Jayalalitha to the front? It might be her political wisdom, but many would say that the iron lady always had a soft corner for the lefties, who are part of the club. The affection was evident during the election campaign when speculations whether the CPI would hold centrestage with Jayalalitha at a joint meeting with the AIADMK became the talk of Chennai. This was an important barometer to gauge Amma’s feelings as the lady of Poes Garden is known never to share the stage with anyone else. The CPI leader in the frying pan was D Raja and he reached the meeting a little late because of unavoidable reasons. After his speech, when it was time to leave the dais to our lady, Jayalalitha ordered her workers to put in chairs to seat Raja next to her, and the CPI candidate next to him. Boiling point. And the Congress is still not sure if it will scald its future in the state.

The numbers game

If you think the lady of Poes Garden is the only politician who goes by numerological predictions, or predilections, you are wrong. There’s a new addition to the gallery — Tarun Gogoi, the Congress man in Assam. The CM has no doubts that unlucky 13 is proving to be unprecedentedly lucky for him. Having lost the Lok Sabha elections, Gogoi had once inhabited the servants’ quarter of a house in 13, Talkatora Road in Lutyens’s Delhi which housed the then MP from Assam, BS Ingti. Thirteen seems to have done its trick. In the next Lok Sabha polls, Gogoi returned to Parliament and was made minister of state with independent charge in the PV Narasimha Rao cabinet. He stayed in the same house in Talkatora Road. Only this time, it was Ingti who moved to the servants’ quarter while Gogoi took possession of the house. The number 13 magic worked this time as well. The counting in Assam took place on May 13, giving Gogoi his place under the sun. The swearing in ceremony, and it was Gogoi who decided it, took place at 1 pm, that is 1300 hours by the Indian standard time. What an envy he must be for the BJP.

Message in the missive

One can now spill the beans on whose letter-writing skills have convinced the CEO of Pakistan to set foot on enemy territory. AB Vajpayee’s much commended letter to Pervez Musharraf reportedly bore the stamp of the foreign minister, Jaswant Singh. The letter, described by the foreign media as “graceful”, was apparently penned by Singh after the two had broadly discussed its contents. It was Vajpayee who is supposed to have incorporated the line about poverty being the common enemy to the neighbours. Union home minister, LK Advani, an active party to the decision to invite the general, was shown the final draft. He agreed in full with whatever was in black and white. Others who supposedly had the fortune of taking a peek at the letter before it crossed the borders are the invincible principal secretary to the PM, Brajesh Mishra, and the rising star in the PMO, Sudheendra Kulkarni and they made no attempt to try their editorial skills on the epistle. Observers have been quick to point out that compared to Vajpayee’s historic letter, Musharraf’s missive in reply is rather dour. Counting brownie points already?

Long course of events

Cannes is obviously not the FTV office. That is probably why the high level Indian delegation, headed by the indomitable policewoman, Sushma Swaraj, came back empty-handed. The tall claims of the information and broadcasting ministry about teaming up with other countries in film production seem to have bitten dust as India did not have the requisite co-production treaty. For Swaraj and her deputy, Neena Gupta, the process seemed as long as the Indian red tape. It required that the willing countries had to first set up a joint working group before a treaty could be signed and only then could one think of co-production. For the Indian contingent in Cannes, it was thus a junket. Many fell in love with Cannes and the rest came back disgusted by the skin show. Swaraj, in the meanwhile, must have remained blindfolded most of the time. How could she see so much evil.

Footnote / Another tearful tale

Another didi humiliated. And the deputy mayor of the Calcutta Municipal Corporation and BJP councillor from Burrabazar, Meena Devi Purohit, cannot take it any more. She is allegedly denied important assignments and made to sit alone in her chamber throughout the day sifting through inconsequential files. At the end of the day, she apparently leaves office without having met any Trinamool councillors nor members of the mayor-in-council. A miffed Purohit has sought an appointment with the Trinamooli didi immediately after she returns from Delhi, although she is not sure how much she would be willing to help her. Remember, the Trinamool and the BJP are divorced in Bengal. The state BJP leadership thinks Purohit is being sidelined so that she ultimately resigns on her own. “But she will not resign until the Trinamool forces her to do so”, says an angry state BJP vice-president. The party unit in the state threatens to pull out of hundreds of municipalities and panchayat bodies across the state if the Trinamoolis continue to harass Purohit. But that would be doing exactly what the Trinamool wants.    


In an alien kingdom

Sir — Sonia Gandhi has shot another arrow in the dark. It remains to be seen whether this arrow, named Digvijay Singh, hits its target — the voters of Uttar Pradesh (“Krishna role for Digvijay in poll Kurukshetra”, May 31). Why the voters of Uttar Pradesh should be impressed by what Diggy Raja has done for Madhya Pradesh is for Sonia Gandhi to explain. (But Singh is unlikely to forsake his office in his state and take over the charges in Uttar Pradesh even if the Congress manages to wrest power there.) Granted, the appointment of Salman Khurshid as the Congress chief in Uttar Pradesh did not pay off. But there is no reason to think that the cow-belt voters would accept advice from an alien king.

Yours faithfully,
R.P. Ojha, via email

Unusually busy

Sir — Sunanda K. Datta-Ray (“Business as usual”, May 26) pierces the rosy veil shrouding the reality of industrial and infrastructural development prospects in West Bengal. Media reports and pictures of the red carpet laid out at Alimuddin Street for industrialists and of banquets for them at five-star hotels do not inspire confidence in the ruling coalition’s ability to eradicate unemployment.

Ask the industrialists — who were all smiles at Alimuddin Street — how many new manufacturing industries they have set up in the state during the last five years and how many jobs they have provided. Not only do these industrialists lack the resources for developing infrastructure, they do not even intend to set up new industrial projects in the state.

While big industrial houses wind up operations in West Bengal, what incentives has the government offered the visitors to Alimuddin Street? The new commerce and industries minister has asked Bengal’s youth to start enterprises. The only help promised by the state is the deferment of “Operation Sunshine”. The picture of industrial resurgence of Bengal is quite dismal.

Yours faithfully,
Prabal Dhar Gupta, via email

Sir — The new Left Front government of West Bengal claims to focus on an industry-oriented Bengal with special emphasis on information technology. The list of invitees for the swearing in of Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s cabinet at the Raj Bhavan on May 18 was an indication. Over 20 top IT leaders of the country were invited to the programme.

Among them were the Wipro chief, Azim Premji, the Tata group chief, Ratan Tata, N.R. Narayanamurthy of Infosys, Purnendu Chatterjee of TCG and V.N. Dhoot of Videocon. But a leopard cannot change its spots, neither can Bhattacharjee, no matter whom he invites. He is trying to create the right image for himself.

Twenty-four years of economic inactivity cannot be changed by a sudden flurry of activity and propaganda. Bengal is a repository of intellectual talent and the new economy depends largely on intellectual capital. But can a few multinational companies like Tata Consultancy Services, Price Waterhouse Cooper and Globsyn create an “investor’s dream”?

It is difficult to build up in a couple of years what has not been built in 24 years, especially when the same set of people are in charge. Bengal’s intellectual talent is of no use for mortar and microchips. What Bengal needs are people who can draw a new roadmap for the state. To improve the brand marketing of Bengal Incorporated, a chief executive like S.M. Krishna or N. Chandrababu Naidu is needed. Bhattacharjee must go a long way before that.

Yours faithfully,
Subhashis Roy, via email

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