Editorial / For the love of a monument
The eternal small town
The Telegraph Diary
Letters to the editor

Tigers and Taj Mahals are costly to maintain. It is almost impossible for any one organization, whether a government department or a private enterprise, to restore and maintain ancient monuments and unique natural habitats entirely on its own. It is a combination of cooperation and commitment that makes conservation possible. That the Indian Hotels Company Limited, which owns the Taj group, has applied to the government to be allowed to “adopt” the Taj Mahal is a sign that this combination has borne fruit. It also suggests that conservation-thinking in India has come of age. This adoption would be one of similar ones carried through in the last three years. The Oberoi group has adopted the Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi and the Indian Oil Foundation is looking after five heritage sites, including the Sun Temple at Konarak.

But the idea of adoption, however cosy it sounds, is not very simple. The first problem regarding heritage is the issue of consciousness and identification. Today there is some consensus about what a heritage site means. The 690 UNESCO world heritage sites do the primary work of identification as well as set the guidelines for defining “heritage”. At the basis of this activity, there is a commitment towards beauty, history, culture and unique natural surroundings. Identifying sites all over the world and earmarking them for restoration and maintenance are essentially labours of love. The donations and free hours of research and travel given to this activity all over the world add up to a mind-boggling amount. Priceless heritage naturally exacts an immeasurable price.

It is not possible to appreciate the place of commitment and cooperation in conservation without taking account of the voluntary effort that impels worldwide efforts for preservation. Even the UNESCO world heritage fund relies on donations and membership fees from different countries, some of which are channelled back into the same countries on the basis of need. The National Trust in Britain, one of Europe’s leading conservation charities, was founded by three philanthropists in 1895. It gets no state grant or government subsidy, but relies entirely on funds generated by its almost three million strong membership, gifts, legacies and donations. Its focus is on sites “of benefit to the nation” but not necessarily on the world heritage site list. This is an important distinction. It may not be possible to imagine a charity the size of the trust in India. So many people do not have so much money to spare, neither is such a layered and multi-ethnic society likely to reach a consensus about sites “of benefit to the nation”. But the two-tier model implied by the existence of the National Trust would be particularly useful to a country of many-splendoured heritages such as India.

World heritage sites such as the Taj Mahal would benefit from international grants, donations together with government funding and a big corporate organization taking over responsibility for restoration, maintenance and development of the surroundings and of tourism. Cooperation seems to be the keyword of the scheme under which the Archaeological Survey of India has made sites available for “adoption”. The national cultural fund is an aid-receiving agency for them. The least wastage of resources, including technical expertise, would be ensured if the state and Central governments had clearcut “adoption” plans for a few major sites, and threw the rest open for corporate funding. Neither sector would exclude the other with respect to a particular site, but responsibility for each would be definitely laid out. Last of all, private organizations would be free to pick up any site of their choice, as some banks have done their own old office buildings, to look after them. No national or international list should prevent the spread of consciousness and caring. Although the conservation scene in India is better than before, the schemes still have a slightly contingent look. Conservationists should not forget that the yellow tinge on the white marble of the Taj Mahal is the fruit of prolonged confusion.


Among the obituaries appearing in newspapers and journals after R.K. Narayan’s death, written by the “talkative men” of modern India who once knew the writer slightly or quite well, there have been one or two remarks about his perambulations. Here, for instance, is Khushwant Singh, on a visit to Mysore forty years ago: “Being with Narayan on his afternoon stroll was an experience. He did not go to a park but preferred walking up the bazaars…He would stop briefly at shops to exchange namaskaras with the owners, introduce me and exchange gossip with them in Kannada or Tamil.”

Singh speaks like one who, when he met Narayan, had already immersed himself in Narayan’s fictional world, and expected the author to behave like one of his characters; in this regard, Narayan evidently didn’t disappoint. He emulated his characters in other ways, too — when questioned about his craft, Narayan had the evasiveness of some of his creations, and hardly ever uttered anything revelatory. In this he was not unlike the protagonist of his short story, “The Storyteller”, who would infrequently break his long spells of silence to “enchant” his village audience with his narrations, and then return, puzzlingly, to silence.

Or, like Chandran, the youthful hero of The Bachelor of Arts, Narayan made it a policy to withhold rather than to confess: “Chandran was just climbing the steps of the College Union when Natesan, the secretary, sprang on him and said, ‘You are just the person I was looking for. You remember your old promise?’ ‘No,’ said Chandran promptly, to be on the safe side.” The movement of these sentences finds its almost identical mirror-image in the following account from a section in Narayan’s memoirs, My Days, where he describes his beginnings as a writer: “[My uncle] would suddenly say, ‘Do I hear aright when people say that you plan to be a writer?’ I could not say ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. There was danger in either.”

Interviewers and biographers, thus, experienced frustrating moments with Narayan. Susan Ram, with her ex-husband, N. Ram, Narayan’s first biographer, records how the author, when asked by an interviewer once, “Is the creative writer, in your opinion, a spokesman of the community in which he lives in or is he a spokesman of the free spirit?”, uttered a long prevarication, concluding, “So I would say, to be a good creative writer one needs to be a combination, a perfect combination of the two.” “Where,” asks Susan Ram, perplexed, “does such an answer leave the seeker of explanations?”

In spite of this authorial reticence, this, one might say, strategic ingenuousness, the seemingly easy-going, affable nature of Narayan’s fictional universe has encouraged critics to presume they have it figured out. Critics in the West, especially in America, have praised it for being a microcosm of the “timeless India”, transcending that Western-manufactured complication, History; critics in India have condemned it for being a microcosm of the “timeless India”, unpermeated by, and stubbornly oblivious to, the liberal, educated Indian’s burden, History.

Yet if there is anything that criticism of the Indian novel in English itself lacks lamentably, it is a sense of history; this fiction, both in the West and at home, is almost always addressed as if it were being produced in a void, and each individual novel treated as if it were self-sufficient and solitary, and bore relation to little but the reality, or fantasy, it described. When critics look into Narayan’s work, it’s as if they see themselves; the “timeless India” they discover in his fiction becomes a mirror, or a metaphor, for their own ahistoricity.

The subject of Narayan’s fiction is, if anything, the fictionality of “timeless India”; if there is anything it tells us, it is that “timeless India” is a thoroughly modern invention, a figment of the contemporary imagination. To this end, he creates a trope for inventedness, Malgudi, a place that, like “timeless India”, exists nowhere; and then both lovingly nourishes and mocks our expectation, and need, for its existence, by providing maps and furnishing street-names and recounting sensuous, vivid and persuasive details to impress us with its verisimilitude.

But he’s always telling us, too, that Malgudi, and its characters, and “timeless India”, are inventions; thus, he creates a figure like Raju, in The Guide, who, through a series of minor accidents, ends up, rather reluctantly, as a godman invested, in the eyes of adoring villagers, with holy power — Raju, who is actually an unemployed loiterer recently released from jail, who, in a previous life, was that most bourgeois and unmystical of things, a tourist guide.

Scratch a relic, or emblem, of “timeless India” in Malgudi, and you discover a reality that is suburban, modern, dreary, mercantile and petit-bourgeois; Narayan, in his work, is forever driving a sharp wedge between the sheen of the eternal and the tawdriness of modern, small-town Indian life.

Similarly, the opening of The Vendor of Sweets seems to emanate from the high-philosophical India of Professor Radhakrishnan, but quickly metamorphoses into the languors and evasions of a small-town bureaucratic conversation between superior and subordinate. “‘Conquer taste, and you will have conquered the self,’ said Jagan to his listener, who asked, ‘Why conquer the self?’ Jagan said, ‘I do not know, but all our sages advise us to.’” This exchange reworks the rhythm and structure of the exchange that opens The Bachelor of Arts, which itself finds an echo in the exchange in My Days in which writing is being discussed by Narayan and his uncle — a question is posed; the answer is non-committal, slightly furtive. It rehearses, too, Narayan’s own replies to his interviewers.

Narayan’s fictions, when posed with the eternal questions, with the “ou-boom” of Forster’s novel, cough with the same comic evasiveness; his characters, like Jagan, the sweetmeat vendor, who has a son in America and an American daughter-in-law, start out as spokesmen for “timeless India” and become, as in the conversation quoted above, its apologetic accomplices. The fragrance of the timeless mixes, in Narayan’s fiction, with the intimations of short-term mercantile activity and small-town enterprise, as it does in Jagan’s shop: “The air was charged with the scent of jasmine and incense and imperceptibly blended with the fragrance of sweetmeats frying in ghee, in the kitchen across the hall.”

At the time Narayan began writing in the Thirties, the cultural legacy of the Orientalist scholars, and of the Bengal Renaissance, with its transcendental strain, was still a dominant one; figures like Tagore (largely misinterpreted in this respect, but with his own abetment) and Radhakrishnan loomed large as examples of high-minded, unworldly “Indianness”. (Narayan’s own youthful reading comprised, he tells us in My Days, Tagore’s Gitanjali, besides Palgrave’s Golden Treasury, and the World’s Classics edition of Keats. His juvenilia included a poetic effusion called “Divine Music”, a title that is almost a literal translation of Gitanjali, which he “composed in a state of total abstraction”, convinced it was “going to add to the world’s literary treasure”.) It was a “timeless India” that was being posited, in those decades, against the aggressive materialism of the West, rather than an India that was historically and politically in flux.

Although Narayan is accused of having turned away from the historical and the political in his fiction, Malgudi is subtly, but entirely, situated in history. Through it, he presents us a small India of material desires and ambitions, and gently mocks the transcendentalism of the Bengal Renaissance and the Orientalists’ vision of India, with its grand, spiritual heritage. He was certainly not the first writer to have done so, but he was the first to have achieved this in English, and before a worldwide audience.



When filmdom comes

It might not be as simple as a cricket match. Hitting a score could prove less difficult for Aamir Khan than scoring a hit. And given that his deeply secret Lagaan will be released with Sunny Deol’s much hyped Gadar next week, there might be more running needed between the wickets. The other captain is, however, in no hurry, for unlike Aamir, Deol is no producer. Besides, he believes, “Me and Aamir have a very different fan following.” Nevertheless, both were seen trying to pitch their movies in Delhi. There was in addition another more important agenda — to rev up the political machinery against cable networks that have the bad habit of eating into box office profits by screening the latest movies. A court order now prohibits screening the movies on the cable. Cover drive. Kya bolti tu?

Shut your mouth

The Indian eye of the Nepali storm has been variously supposed to have left for either London or Moscow or one of the central Asian republics to escape the media-glare. But a little bird tells us that this royal blood is very much in the capital. Devyani is seemingly so depressed with the tragic turn of events and the sordid mess in Nepal that she is reported to have refused to talk to anyone, even her close friends and relatives who are dying to hear it all from the horse’s mouth. One thing friends of her family are most keen to find out is what she thinks of the former crown prince and his killer instinct. That is, whether she believed Dipendra could have done it at all. Devyani, quite obviously, is in no mood to oblige. She is definitely not opening her mouth, either to friends or to shrinks. It’s a shut and shut case.

Looking for Ms Mamata

10, Janpath is sitting on the edge. Having been royally snubbed by J Jayalalitha recently, Sonia Gandhi is now desperate to clutch on to the pallu of another woman — the Trinamooli didi who is at present camping in Delhi and is said to have had secret parleys with LK Advani and George Fernandes, both of whom are allegedly blocking Mamata Banerjee’s entry to the rainbow coalition. Ever since Sonia got wind of didi’s going-abouts, she tried in vain to get in touch with her. With Kamal Nath on a holiday in Nainital, the task of locating Mamata fell on Pranab Mukherjee. Pranabda’s mission has however failed and Sonia naturally is not too pleased with it all. Seems like Mukherjee will have to continue being the chief of the West Bengal Congress for a little while longer.

Take her or leave it

Pawar cut in Maharashtra. The Maratha strongman has made it clear that he is not too happy with a judicial probe into the Enron deal and that it would have an adverse effect on the Democratic Front government in the state headed by the Congress CM, Vilasrao Deshmukh. The Congress president is supposed to land in Maharashtra next week to soothe ruffled feathers. This will be her 11th visit to the state. Congressmen believe that had she made half the number of visits to UP, the situation there would not have been in such a mess. For some strange reason however madam has been seen to unerringly attend all functions organized by CM Deshmukh’s sworn rivals, Ranjit Deshmukh and Rohitdas Patil. That seems to be a message for the CM — he should choose between Sonia and Pawar and decide who is more powerful.

The all powerful

n The known source of the “divine power” of Congresswallah Subbirami Reddy, as he would tell you, is Shiva himself. Reddy wears a diamond Shivalinga on a five kg garland of gold-set rudrakshas and has 108 more shivalingas in his collection. He also insisted, before journos on the Congress beat who were recently gifted baskets full of lichis and mangoes by him, that his puja room in Hyderabad hugely impressed the economics guru, Manmohan Singh. And we thought he was devoted only to madam!

Big brother scolds little brother

Former PWD minister of the West Bengal cabinet, Kshiti Goswami, continues to haunt the department, much to the chagrin of the present minister, Amar Chowdhury and his party, the CPI(M). RSP insists Kshiti is there to help the new incumbent, the CPI(M) says it is plain interference from outside. Observers feel the incident demonstrates the CPI(M)’s big brotherly attitude towards minor front members. The same old bully?

Footnote / Seating arrangement

A raja without a seat of power. That probably explains the predicament of the chief of the Congress legislature party in Bengal, Atish Sinha. This grandson of the late Raja Manindra Chandra Sinha of Kandi in Murshidabad has been re-elected the seventh consecutive time from his hometown, Kandi. But this time Sinha cannot claim a separate room for himself in the assembly as he is no more the leader of the opposition. The position now belongs to Pankaj Banerjee, the Trinamool MLA whose party has 60 legislators in the 294 member house. The entire block in the legislature which once belonged to Sinha is now being readied for Banerjee. Speaker Hasim Abdul Halim argues that the West Bengal Congress with only 26 MLAs could no longer claim a separate accommodation since the party had failed to bag even one-tenth of the total number of seats in the house. “However, I am ready to provide accommodation to Kandi’s raja if he asks for it,” Halim observed with a smile. Sinha, who incidentally owns several houses in the city proper, does not seem to be averse to accepting the speaker’s offer. Grateful royalty for a change.    


A superb rivalry

Sir — Gustavo Kuerten, with his victory over Juan Carlos Ferrero has demonstrated that a combination of maturity and grit always wins over in a situation like a Grand Slam semi-final (“Corretja to meet Kuerten in final”, June 8). The talented Ferrero won the Italian Open with panache and lost in the finals of the Hamburg Open, the two major clay court tournaments in the run-up to the Roland Garros event. Most tennis watchers were convinced that he would end up winning the French Open too. But Kuerten delivered the goods when it really came to the crux of it. The emerging rivalry between Kuerten and Ferrero reminds one of the good old days of the McEnroe-Connors and Becker-Edberg rivalries.

Yours faithfully,
Priyank Mehta, via email

Sporting contract

Sir — The article, “Big Five pitch for pay, play or no play” (May 18), talks about the introduction of the “contract system” in Indian cricket. These cricketers expect something in return after having given their best efforts to their country for a number of years.

In India, the Board of Control for Cricket in India has not done much for the cricketers of the past. Most of the cricketers either opt for jobs as commentators or start writing for newspapers. But these are not secure or permanent jobs.

We can learn many things from the Australian Cricket Board and the South African Cricket Board. I am sure if cricketers like the “Big Five” stick to their stand, something good will come out of this.

Yours faithfully,
Sumant Poddar, Calcutta

Sir — The news of the negotiations being conducted by the “big five” — Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, Javagal Srinath and Anil Kumble — with the BCCI to sign a cricket contract, which they believe will give them greater security is an example of the famous adage, “Make hay while the sun shines.”

These cricketers are demanding that the top players be selected on an annual basis and they be paid a basic salary on the basis of their seniority, apart from the match fees and the money they get from endorsements and sponsorships. This money has to be paid to them whether or not they actually play a match.

The annual contract is to be reviewed on the basis of the performance of the individuals. But, most of these players have agreements with prestigious companies, and draw a regular income/salary from them. Some players even have advertisement campaigns and brand promotion contracts to the tune of crores of rupees.

In a nation bereft of any significant record in the Asian Games or the Olympics, it would be worth investing in other forms of sports too instead of placing cricket over every other sport all the time. Other sports would do well with a little more encouragement and attention in terms of sponsorships, modern facilities and more exposure to the international level tournaments. We should not put all our eggs in one basket.

Yours faithfully,
Harmeet Singh Chawla, Haldia,

Where it’s more bloody

Sir — It is ironic that Nepal should ban Indian news channels while allowing the BBC and the CNN to be aired. The BBC news bulletin on the morning after the massacre spent 13 minutes on west Asia followed by precisely 45 seconds on Nepal, demonstrating where its priorities lie.

Yours faithfully,
Biswapriya Purkayastha, via email

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