Editorial 1 / Moderate offer
Editorial 2 / A lot of parking
Chiefly academic changes
Book Review / This is the way India began
Book Review / Mortal thoughts
Book Review / Poetry beyond railway bookstalls
Book Review / Crises in an emergent nation
Editor’s Choice / An uncle and his world of numbers
Paperback Pickings / Lady smoking a hubble bubble
Letters to the editor

The sense of moderation that is being injected in the political atmosphere, in preparation for the forthcoming meeting between the Indian prime minister, Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and Pakistan’s chief executive, General Pervez Musharraf, needs to be welcomed. Statements by leaders on both sides as well as the All Party Hurriyat Conference’s decision to suspend its agitation until the summit is over, seem to be reflective of a genuine desire to make most of the opportunity presented by this important meeting. It is quite clear that a summit in an atmosphere charged with high-pitched hysteria would be a non-starter. Be that as it may, only the most optimistic would argue that a changed ambience alone can help to create the conditions for a decisive breakthrough in India-Pakistan relations.

Cynics may argue that the decision by the umbrella-separatist alliance, the APHC, to put forward a moderate stance is merely a tactic to prevent its total political marginalization. There is some truth in such an assertion. After their refusal to engage with New Delhi in bilateral talks, and their rebuff to the Centre’s negotiator, Mr K.C. Pant, the APHC was fast losing political ground. Moreover, by its unwillingness to condemn violence by militants, it was clearly out of touch with the bulk of Kashmiri public opinion and the all-pervasive sentiment in the region against violence. The APHC was obviously hoping that Pakistan would insist on including it in a tripartite dialogue; even that hope has come to a naught, and there are signals that General Musharraf may not even be interested in meeting its leaders while on his visit to New Delhi, even if his Indian hosts had let him to do so. Nevertheless, whatever be the narrow political compulsions, any move to generate a modicum of sanity and stability must be supported. What is particularly welcome is the interview by the Jamaat-i-Islami leader, Mr Ali Shah Geelani, rebuking jihadi groups for some of their statements and actions. In doing this, Mr Geelani was obviously taking a cue from General Musharraf, who strongly criticized jihadi outfits for their irresponsibility and for suggesting that their goal was to establish Islamic rule all over the Indian subcontinent. General Musharraf, quite correctly, emphasized that apart from queering the pitch for the forthcoming meeting, statements like this strengthen right-wing tendencies in India and make the minorities feel more insecure. Fortunately, the government in India seems to be presenting a more-or-less united front in its support for Mr Vajpayee’s decision to invite General Musharraf. Even so-called hardliners like the home minister, Mr L.K. Advani, have rallied behind the decision. What is surprising, however, is that Pakistan’s foreign office, in contrast to signals by its chief executive, seems to be continuing with its blatantly anti-India propaganda. If Mr Abdul Sattar, Pakistan’s foreign minister, does not want to be identified as the lone “spoiler”, it is critical that he directs his foreign office to exercise moderation, at least until the summit is over.


Some expressions are conveniently cloudy. For example, “public interest”, “society”, and similar mouthfuls can be used to denote anything the hearers want to hear — anything and everything but what the speaker wishes to conceal. The Calcutta Municipal Corporation’s self-important assertions regarding “India’s first computerized, multi-level car parking lot”, coming up on Rawdon Street and encroaching on pedestrian as well as traffic space, are generously bespattered with such expressions. Naturally. The car park, being built by the CMC in collaboration with Simplex Projects, casually overturns those very provisions of the Calcutta Municipal Corporation Act, 1980, that had been invoked to evict hawkers from the streets during Operation Sunshine. At that time, the CMC was interested in clearing the pavements and therefore found convenient provisions which prohibited any encroachment of road or pavement endangering the free movement of citizens. The scene has changed, and so has the CMC’s mood. An eye-catching and expensive project which would please car owners is the flavour of the day.

The reasons for this sudden change of mood need not be speculated upon, if, that is, there is reason operating somewhere in the background. But the mayor’s dismissing of the possibility of controversy on the ground that this is in the “public interest” is well worth considering. Whose interest is the “public interest” in this case? Mr Subrata Mukherjee surely has not forgotten that he is mayor of the city of Calcutta, where the bulk of the population does not own cars. There is an alarming press of pedestrians, who are constantly put into danger by being forced to walk on the roads in the path of streaming, indisciplined traffic because there is little or no pavement space. If Mr Mukherjee is talking about the interest of car owners, he should not be shy. He should be able to say it out clearly, as clearly as he blocked the road and violated police norms during the Pujas with his celebratory pandal. He should not suggest that the interest of a minority is that of the “public”. Neither legal provisions nor concern for the “common Calcuttan” can discourage the CMC. Mr Nilangshu Bose, CMC’s director general, projects and development, has assured a bemused city that the construction will not encroach on the road once building is complete. That is, there will not be the feared bottleneck in traffic flow. There is no mention of the people who walk the pavements. Perhaps, in the CMC’s view, they are not part of the “public” or of “society” at all.


The group of ministers’ recommendations with regard to reforming the national security system were recently released by the home minister at a press conference. This conference was preceded by some days of intense media speculation on the imminent appointment of a chief of defence staff, the serious inter-service differences on the selection of the proposed incumbent then culminating in the chief of naval staff writing to the defence minister and bowing out of the race as it were. With such intense differences, it was no surprise that while releasing the GOM’s recommendations and announcing their approval by the cabinet committee on security, the appointment of a CDS was held in abeyance.

It is symptomatic of the lack of depth of our national security conscience that personalities rather than the proposed institutional changes in defence management became the focus of comment and debate. What is worse, once the fine print of the report has been read there has virtually been no comment on the recommendations of the GOM.

The genesis of the GOM was the tabling of the Kargil review committee report in Parliament and the government’s commitment to initiate remedial measures. The GOM formed four task forces to look at the intelligence apparatus, border management, internal security and management of defence. The recommendations of the task forces were reviewed by the GOM over many sittings before arriving at recommendations.

The core weaknesses in the higher defence management system are primarily two, both of which have no parallel in other democracies. One is the management relationship between the government and the services headquarters and the other within the services themselves. These are not only crucial and interlinked but central to where in governance the nation wishes to place its armed forces and what authority it is willing to endow upon them, apart from the traditional gun-fodder role for which there are no competitors.

The significance of these issues stems from some modern-day compulsions. One that modern warfare driven by technology is becoming complex, hugely capital-intensive and totally integrated. The second is that in a democratic system as ours, the armed forces must work under the political executive. And finally, that we are now a nuclear weapon power.

In respect of national security management and apex decision-making, the Kargil review committee had this to say: “India is perhaps the only major democracy where the armed forces headquarters are outside the apex governmental structure. The chiefs of staff have assumed the role of operational commanders of their respective forces rather than chiefs of staff to the prime minister and defence minister.”

Notwithstanding this vital criticism, it is surprising that the GOM has still not favoured integrating the services headquarters within the MOD as departments of the army/navy/air force with the chiefs vested with administrative and financial powers of secretaries to the government of India. On the contrary, it has waxed eloquent on how there is an erroneous perception that the armed forces as “attached offices” of the MOD do not participate in policy formulation. This despite the well known fact that today both the service headquarters and MOD do not take each other into confidence during the process leading to policy formulation. That is, if the services are at all consulted in the first place.

If such consultation does take place on any subject, the practice is to use one file to communicate with each other while using another for internal discussions within each HQ. The contents of this are not shared with the other. Such compartmentalized and opaque policy-making framework can neither be termed participative nor conducive to management of a modern security apparatus.

The only carrot that has been afforded to the services by the GOM is that committees headed by defence secretary or financial adviser (defence services) will look at delegating some administrative/financial powers respectively to the services HQ. Going by past history, it is a safe bet that these will be mere crumbs.

Not only has the GOM preferred the status quo of keeping the services HQ outside the MOD, they have changed the designation cosmetically to “integrated headquarters”. Lest this be mistaken as a great leap forward, the GOM has then gone on to emphasize that there will be no dilution in the role of the defence secretary as the principal defence adviser to the defence minister on all policy matters and management of the department including financial management. In practice what this means is that all important cases will continue to be referred to the MOD who will continue to exercise authority over vital service matters relating to senior appointments, weapon systems and force levels, without the corresponding operational accountability. No reasons or logic have been put forth to indicate why integrating the services HQ with the MOD is not considered a sound option, a model that seems to work perfectly well in Western democracies .

One can only assume that the political executive would prefer to deal with uniformed brass through a bureaucratic cushion rather than directly. An archaic mindset in the rapidly evolving age of “revolution in military affairs”. What else can explain the fact that while a scientist can hold independent charge of the department of Defence Research and Development Organization in the MOD, a service chief cannot do likewise?

The CDS as proposed (though presently held in abeyance) will be the principal military adviser to the defence minister and provide single point military advice to the government. Similarly he is expected to promote efficiency in planning, budget and equipment prioritization and so on without in any way being accountable for the impact of his advice and decisions on the operational potential of the services. This dichotomy stems from the fact that operations remain the responsibility of the respective services. Little wonder that the services will view this as one more layer of bureaucracy, albeit in uniform, that will come in the way of their operational planning and the already longwinded decision-making chain.

The concepts of integrating services headquarters with the MOD and designating a chief of defence staff along with its associated joint staff cannot be considered mutually exclusive. In a model generally followed by other democracies and in keeping with the principle of designating authority with associated accountability, the chiefs as part of the MOD are expected to concentrate on managing their service with regard to budgeting, future planning, recruitment, training, operational readiness and so on while shedding the actual operations to the CDS who can then focus on integration and operational prioritization. Once the GOM has shied away from the concept of integration of MOD, the CDS concept becomes somewhat academic. If there are strong reservations by some services on the proposed CDS model on this count, they appear fully justified.

There are other issues relating to operational commands and their administrative, functional and operational control. Clearly there appears a lack of clarity on how command and control of operational commands is exercised in day-to-day terms. For instance, it is not clear how the CDS can possibly exercise administrative control over strategic forces or who will be responsible for functional control of these forces as against operational control which clearly must be by the highest political executive. These and other issues must await further discussion.

To find an optimum defence management model should not normally have been difficult, but for the apparent self- destructive mindset of many in governance. For one, there is in the minds of many a lurking suspicion of the uniformed fraternity. The second, the mistaken notion that civil control of the armed forces in a democracy must also mean bureaucratic control.

While pointing out to the grave deficiencies in Indian defence management system, the Kargil review committee had cautioned that the “political, bureaucratic, military and intelligence establishments appear to have developed a vested interest in the status quo”. Now, especially, this observation rings true.

We seem to be facing a strange paradox. On the one hand, modern warfare is becoming more technology-intensive, our security environment progressively deteriorating and the responsibility of keeping the national fabric intact is increasingly falling on the shoulders of our serv- ices. On the other, our armed forces continue their downward spiral in the warrant of precedence while obstinately being kept away from crucial security policy-making.

The author is a retired air marshal of the Indian air force


Edited By Niharranjan Ray, B.D. Chattopadhyaya, Ranabir Chakravarti, V.R. Mani,
Orient Longman, Rs 650

This volume aims to familiarize readers with a diverse variety of sources that go into the writing of Indian history. The volume has been structured on the basis of historical themes to chronologically study the process of change in Indian culture. Every chapter and its sections have introductory notes elaborating the themes that are discussed within them.

The first one provides us with an introductory background, and describes how categories like land, region and people have been classified through time in early and late Vedic texts, classical accounts, Puranas, epics, Smrtis, Turkish, Afghan, and Mughal texts, in accounts of foreign travellers as well as in British census reports of the 19th and 20th centuries.

The next chapter on food-gathering and food-producing communities contains information from the prehistoric period to the emergence of agriculture and the beginnings of settled life, and later, to the pastoral-cum-agricultural society mentioned in the Rig Vedic age before the use of iron. The sources include mainly archaeological reports of prehistoric, Harappan, neolithic-chalcolithic and early historic sites and literary evidence from the Rig Veda.

This is followed by an enumeration of the sources associated with the use of iron and the growth of urban centres, the rise of Buddhism and Jainism, and the nature of the state and society during the Maurya rule. These include, apart from archaeological evidence, a diversity of literary data like the later Vedic texts, Buddhist and Jain canonical literature, non-indigenous accounts and a new series of documents, the Asokan edicts.

Next, we have a “consolidation and confrontation”. This section deals with the period after the Mauryas, which saw an increased contact with foreign lands, development of agriculture, growth in Indian trade, proliferation in urban centres, a change in the nature of religious sects and increased activity in the fields of literature and science. A major emphasis has been laid on Sangam literature in this chapter, apart from foreign accounts, inscriptions, coins and descriptions of archaeological sites. The fifth chapter on acculturation and standardization mentions sources like land grants, texts (including the Puranas, Smritis), compositions like those of Kalidasa and others which indicate the presence of a social structure based on a common varna division, increased Brahmanical acculturation, the emergence of new social groups, the development of land grants and interaction between different social and religious groups.

The final section deals with the early medieval period which sees the proliferation of land grants and the emergence of regional centres of power. The sources here include the numerous literary texts as well as information from inscriptions.

This volume takes into account a diverse and interesting range of sources which will surely enlighten both the ordinary reader and the researcher about the many dimensions of Indian history and culture. However, a book on sources is necessarily an amalgamation of different types of evidence, each of which has its own analytical procedure and methodology.

For example, analysing archaeological reports entails using a different methodology from the one used for studying literary texts or epigraphic evidence. Similarly, there are numerous methodological and analytical difficulties in correlating diverse forms of evidence (like archaeology and literature) to comprehend past human cultures. The book could have included a short section highlighting such problems which are experienced while analysing the sources.

The book, however, gives us an impressive overview of a variety of historical material ranging from archaelogical reports to different forms of textual evidence which will be useful for anyone interested in ancient history.


By James Atlas,
Faber, £ 25

The most compelling moment described by James Atlas in Saul Bellow’s early life is the scene of Trotsky’s death. In 1940, Bellow went to Mexico City with some of his Chicago friends to meet their revolutionary hero, but he was too late. Trotsky had been killed the day before, his head smashed with an ice axe by the mysterious Ramon Mercader. Bellow and Herb Passin hurried to the morgue, pushing through the crowd of photographers to see Trotsky, his beard streaked with blood and iodine, in his open coffin. “Now we understood what a far-reaching power could do with us,” Bellow wrote later, “how easy it was for a despot to order a death; how little it took to kill us, how slight a hold we, with our historical philosophies, our ideas, programmes, purposes, wills, had on the matter we were made of.”

Mortality, though not perhaps in so dramatic a style, is a persistent concern in Bellow’s fiction. The young Solomon Bellow, the last child in a family of Lithuanian Jews who had migrated to the New World in 1913, looked upon the life of thought as an escape from various forms of authority, not least the authority of death. By the age of 21 he had changed his name to Saul and embarked on a writing career. Reading anthropology at Northwestern, he was discouraged by William Frank Bryan from attempting graduate work in English. As a Jew, he wasn’t “born to it”, Bryan felt. Bellow studied the European masters instead, especially Dostoyevsky and Flaubert, as well as Joyce and his own local hero, Theodore Dreiser. He married Anita Goshkin, a radical fellow-student, and started work on his first novel.

Bellow destroyed that first novel in 1942. But like Joseph, the hero of his next book, Dangling Man, Bellow was waiting for an impulse of greatness: “hungry for union and for largeness, convinced by the bowels, the heart, the sexual organs and on certain occasions by the clear thought that I had something of importance to declare, express, transmit”. Repeatedly he talks of the need for expansion, of the significant life, the writer’s need to justify his existence. Never entirely comfortable with his friends, the Partisan Review crowd or the Chicago intellectuals he satirized in Dangling Man, uneasy in domesticity and persistently unfaithful to Anita, though wary of the bohemianism of writers and artists in Paris and later, at Princeton in the tragic generation of John Berryman, Delmore Schwartz, Robert Lowell and Randall Jarrell, Bellow felt the need to preserve himself from complete identification with a group or cause. The Adventures of Augie March was published in 1953, when Bellow was forty. It was 536 printed pages long and writing it was like “giving birth to Gargantua”, Bellow said. It was his claim to immortality, the great American novel as a Jewish Bildungsroman.

Bellow later criticized Augie as undisciplined, but he took pride in its picaresque vigour. “A novel, like a letter, should be loose, cover much ground, run swiftly, take the risk of mortality and decay”, Bellow wrote to Bernard Malamud. “I backed away from Flaubert, in the direction of Walter Scott, Balzac and Dickens.” Augie, as the hero claims in his closing peroration, is a Columbus of the near-at-hand: an early reviewer said that reading Augie March in 1953 must have been like reading Ulysses in 1922, given Bellow’s sense “of the damp soil, of underground, and the city-Pluto kingdom of sewers and drains, and the mortar and roaring tar-pots of roofers, the geraniums, lilies-of-the-valley, climbing roses, and sometimes the fiery devastation of the stockyards stink when the wind was strong”.

Augie March made Bellow’s reputation as a writer. But he had more or less broken up with Anita and taken up with the twenty-year-old Sondra Tschacbasov. Ultimately, he went to Reno for his divorce, where his neighbour was the playwright, Arthur Miller, also waiting for his divorce to come through and occasionally visited by Marilyn Monroe in a wig and sunglasses. After marriage, Sondra moved quickly into a much-publicized affair with Bellow’s closest friend, Jack Ludwig, while Henderson the Rain King took shape. Bellow and Sondra both went into therapy, and the marriage fell apart, Bellow continuing with his legendary accumulation of women.

Bellow’s next major book was Herzog, probably the most autobiographical of his novels and the one most preoccupied with mortality. It is also fairly clearly an account of his cuckolding by Jack Ludwig. Surprisingly, this cerebral and difficult work hit the bestseller lists and won him all kinds of prizes. In a process carefully documented by Atlas, he became a “public intellectual”, travelling all over the world while continuing to write important books: Mr Sammler’s Planet, Humboldt’s Gift. His allegiances, whether to women or to institutions, were notoriously impermanent. In the middle of this life of flux, in 1976, he received the Nobel Prize.

To do Bellow justice the prize didn’t kill him completely as a writer, though he produced only one major novel after it — Ravelstein, virtually a biography of his friend, the conservative homosexual, Allan Bloom, which came out in 2000. But he didn’t cease to write, and he was a major intellectual influence. His life was uneven; in 1986, after his fourth divorce, he was living alone in Chicago, where he had started, with three other Nobelists in the same building — S. Chandrasekhar, George Stigler, and Milton Friedman. By the mid-Nineties he had been married five times and had several children, the last when he was 84. Like Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, Ravelstein is a defence of the ideological conservatism of his maturity.

As a writer Bellow has infuriated many: he is intolerant, self-obsessed, and prejudiced. Nevertheless, perhaps even because of all this, he is one of the twentieth century’s greatest writers. Atlas’s biography brings out much of the temper of this long life. Anecdotal, even gossipy, it has a few stylistic irritations, but provides an enjoyable read. What it does not do is “produce” a new Bellow for us.


Edited By K. Vajpeyi,
Rupa, Rs 395

This anthology of modern Hindi poetry translated into English contains selections from the works of 38 different poets. It is a mixed fare and can rarely elicit a single, decided response in a reader. An endeavour of this sort inevitably has inherent limitations and strengths. An arbitrariness and randomness is bound to creep in despite an anthologist’s best efforts, resulting in uneven acoustics and a non-uniform quality running throughout the book.

The anthology begins with six poems by Suryakant Tripathi “Nirala”, one of the most important voices in Hindi poetry, and the poet who is considered to be the propounder of the Nayi Kavita movement in the beginning of the twentieth century. This was the time when poets were veering away from the chayavaad and the pragativaad modes and were trying to find a new, realist voice. Before this, Hindi poetry was limited to the dialects, Avadhi and Braj Bhasha, with recurrent themes of love, religion and devotion.

After Nirala, there follow other gems by some very significant poets like Kunwar Narain, Muktibodh, Anamika, Kedarnath Singh, and some other strong, vibrant voices that do not fail to evoke a powerful response.

In the introduction, Kailash Vajpeyi, the anthologist, and also one of the contributing poets, apologizes for the inadequate representation of women poets and promises to amend this in future editions if more women poets are brought to his notice. Surprising omissions are Amrita Bharati, Jyotsna Milan, Shakunta Mathur and Kirti Chaudhari, all of whom have distinctive voices with feminist overtones.

Also, the space allotted to some of the poets has not been used well enough. For instance, most of the poems included in this anthology by Gagan Gill are about her anguished response to the violent separatist years in Punjab, although she has also written powerfully about other themes, other emotions.

The cover is indifferently designed, which is sad when a book is as steeply priced as this, and it also subtracts from the excitement and the music of the poetry contained within.

The biographical notes on the poets are extremely dissatisfying. They mention only the year of birth and the awards that a poet has received, and even then, mostly those that are bestowed by the state, as if that is the only introduction that a poet needs. These notes do not mention the poet’s origins, his history, his times, the formative influences on his poetry, the context he was writing in and so on.

It can be argued that such a thing is unnecessary while dealing with poetry, that good poetry is free because it can rise above all boundaries and limits and can be interpreted by each individual differently. But in this case, one has to consider a few more things.

An exercise like this is meant for a certain sort of reader — one who does not have access to Hindi but wishes not only to read Hindi poetry but also to trace its path through the course of the twentieth century. If good biographical notes were available, a coherent picture could have emerged of a society and the events that evoked some of the responses in these poems.

Despite this, the collection is worth going through for a poetry lover, especially for someone who does not have access to this poetry in the original language. Not all the poems are good, and many have lost some music during translation, but despite those dull stretches, there are some gems you might stumble over.

If nothing else, the anthology is a celebration of some very good poetry, which in its original language is fast being relegated to the world of academics and to railway station bookstalls.


By Jean Alphonse Bernard,
Har-Anand, Rs 795

In Modern Political Analysis, Robert A. Dahl observes that modern, dynamic, pluralist societies strongly favour democracy, which he calls polyarchy. By “modernity”, Dahl means historically high levels of wealth and income, consumption, education, urbanization and other allied features. “Dynamism”, for him, implies a reasonably rapid rate of economic growth and increasing standards of living; and “pluralism” indicates the existence of many relatively independent groups in society.

Going by Dahl’s views, India, which is home to the largest democracy in the world, does not qualify as an ideal polyarchic state. The biggest hindrance to it being so is the number of subcultures it accommodates — on the basis of language, religion and numerous other things — which, in turn, encourage secessionist forces.

From Raj to the Republic by Jean Alphonse Bernard scrutinizes the political history of India between 1935 and 2000. Bernard has some unique ways of highlighting the key political issues at different points of time. It is interesting that Bernard chooses the year, 1935, and not 1947, the year India achieved independence, as the starting point for his political survey. He provides an explanation for this in the introduction.

On August 2, 1935, King George V gave his royal assent to the Government of India Act which, to quote Bernard, “put an end to diarchy and recognized general competence to assemblies and ministers but for a few reserved cases”.

It was this act which marked a transitional phase in the political history of India. In fact, the act represented a watershed in Indian politics because it marked a break with the old regime, in which politics was the business of a few.

The bill, before being passed, encountered fierce opposition from both the Congress and the Muslim League. Two specific reasons stated by Bernard to stress the importance of the Government of India Act are — one, although rejected by most of the Indian leaders, it nevertheless served as the foundation for the future Constitution of India; and two, it introduced “the virus of modernity” into the body politic of India. One should not lose sight of the fact that it was this act which had first sown the seed of Partition.

The rest of the book, divided into 18 chapters, covers a wide variety of topics starting with the geographic and demographic details of India in 1935 to the inexorable decline of the Congress in the Nineties. Bernard deals with the Partition in great detail and proceeds to delineate the process of India’s evolution as the world’s largest democracy.

In doing so, he pays special attention to the economic policies introduced in 1955, the Kashmir issue and the Punjab crisis. Bernard also analyses the significance and scope of the Emergency during Indira Gandhi’s prime ministership.

What is most impressive about Bernard’s style is his brutal outspokenness. For instance, he comes across as an enfant terrible when he remarks, “Men like Jawaharlal Nehru, with all their great capacity for great work, are unsafe in democracy...He might still use the language of democracy and socialism, but we all know how fascism has fattened on this language and then cast it away as useless lumber.” This represents a clarity of vision which stems from seeing the system from a distance.


By Apostolos Doxiadis,
Faber, £ 3.99

Goldbach’s conjecture is one of the great unsolved riddles of mathematics. Christian Goldbach in 1742 stated that every even number greater than 2 is the sum of two primes. He never proved this.

But if we are to believe Apostolos Doxiadis’s marvellous novel, uncle Petros came jolly close to proving it and may even have proved it.

Uncle Petros lived as a recluse a little distance out of Athens and was considered by his two businessmen brothers to be the black sheep of the family because he was a failure. His favourite nephew, the narrator, discovers that actually his uncle, Petros, is a wizard at chess and a complete genius in mathematics. His life was a failure, the nephew discovers, because Petros devoted all his intellectual energies to secretly solving the mystery of Goldbach’s conjecture. His brothers are indifferent to the fact that Petros attempted the near-impossible. For them, a failure is a failure, without any qualifying clauses.

At one level, this is a novel about an uncle trying to dissuade his nephew, with limited mathematical abilities, from pursuing a career in mathematics. Mathematics is only for the extraordinary. At another level, it is an adoring nephew’s account of his uncle’s genius and of his quest for the Black Grail. At yet another, it is an evocation of the fascination of the theory of numbers and the charms of pure mathematics.

The last level should not discourage readers without an aptitude for mathematics. The mathematical bits are seamlessly woven into the narrative. And often they are brought in as anecdotes about some of the great mathematicians of this century, Hardy, Ramanujan, Riemann, Turing, Littlewood and so on. There are some well-known anecdotes to which the writer adds small but charming details. For example, he retells the story of Hardy meeting Ramanujan in 1918 when the latter lay ill in a sanatorium; Hardy mentioned to Ramanujan the number of the cab that had brought him — 1729 — and Ramanujan, after a moment’s thought, described the number as “the smallest integer that can be expressed as the sum of two cubes in two different ways”. According to the narrator, his uncle was present on the occasion and adds in a footnote that Hardy when he recounted the incident in his autobio- graphy, Mathematician’s Apology, did not acknowledge his uncle’s presence.

This in many ways is a funny as well as a poignant novel. The fun lies in Petros’s eccentricities and in his nephew’s doggedness to get to the bottom of the mystery. The poignance lies in a genius’s self-inflicted loneliness because he dared to enter the death zone of mathematics without the help of any artificial oxygen. His plight evokes awe and wonder. There is also the tantalizing question: did he solve it?

Away from the fictional world, we know Goldbach’s peak remains unconquered. The proposition that every even number greater than two is the sum of two primes remains a conjecture.


(Roli and National Museums and Galleries of Wales, price not mentioned)

Kalighat Paintings is a beautiful collection of postcard-sized reproductions of these charming images from late 19th- and early 20th-century Bengal. It comes with an informative and elegant introduction, written by Aditi Nath Sarkar and Christine Mackay, outlining the historical context and stylistic features of this genre of painting. The notes to the individual pictures are detailed and readable. Unfortunately, the word, “murder”, has been consistently misspelt “muder” and this mars the presentation of one of the most fascinating subjects in the genre, the Tarakeshwar murder scandal. Sacred and profane, traditional and modern, rural storytelling and cosmopolitan complexity come together in what looks, to contemporary eyes, like amazingly stylized and sophisticated images and icons.

By Nisha da Cunha
(HarperCollins, Rs 195)

Nisha da Cunha’s No Black, No White is a collection of unrelievedly melancholy short stories. Each story is really short though, and their settings and situations are interestingly varied. But reading a few of them together leaves one with a sense of monotony, largely because of the writer’s inability to modulate voice and syntax. The stories are mostly woman-centred, and the women are all rather miserable, at best bitter-sweet, mostly because of romantic failures. The net effect is like listening to too much Billie Holiday or reading too much Jean Rhys. The writer’s Eng Lit background also makes itself felt in the tissue of quotations from good love poems which, when strung together so relentlessly, all end up sounding rather lugubrious. Da Cunha comes across a bit like a sensitive undergraduate going through her Virginia Woolf phase, trying out stream of consciousness.

By Thant Myint-U
(Cambridge, Rs 670)

Thant Myint-U’s The Making of Modern Burma is a valuable account of a largely unexplored episode in both British imperial and regional history. It focuses on the 19th century, which witnessed the displacement, in the Irrawaddy, Brahmaputra and Salween basins, of the once expansive authority of the court of Ava by the authority of an equally aggressive British Indian state. The 19th century also saw vigorous attempts by the court of Ava to create a modern, though territorially more modest, state in this colonial shadow. There was a growing patriotism too, centred on the rump Ava polity and on memories of a conquering past. Myint-U deftly narrates the interaction of these processes in the emergence of the Burma we know, or do not quite know, today. There is a memorable account of the Queen Supayalat — in 1885, the evening after the king surrendered to the British — on the way to her Indian exile, favouring a British soldier, near the Irrawady, by granting him the privilege of lighting her royal cigar.



The Nepal connection

Sir — The management of the Nepali daily, Kantipur, must have been quite surprised by the sudden help from unexpected quarters (“US gets ringside view of Nepal”, June 13). Who would have thought the Bush administration, driven mostly by anti-Iraq steam, could care to put a finger in the Nepali pie? But finger Nepal the United States must. A strategically crucial country in the south Asian jigsaw has overnight lost its king and the new head of state could be bamboozled into allowing Uncle Sam to rest his feet in the country which shares its borders with an unfriendly China and a recalcitrant India. So the “democratic” rights of the editor and directors of a Nepali newspaper have suddenly become important enough to attract the attention of the world’s superpower. And a US emissary had to be sent to Nepal to watch the proceedings over the shoulders of Nepal’s government and its monarch. Is King Gyanendra quaking in his royal boots already?

Yours faithfully,
S. Ghanasyam, Calcutta

Playing for power

Sir — Sharad Pawar and his Nationalist Congress Party have indicated that they are ready to go to any length to help Enron. The NCP is apparently also prepared to break up its ruling alliance with the Congress in Maharashtra if the agree ment with the multinational corporation is cancelled.

It is to the credit of Enron’s legal consultants that they have been able to tie the Maharashtra government and the government of India into so many knots that even a Houdini cannot get them out. Enron’s officials ensured for the company an excessively high rate of return as also the guarantee from the state government that the power produced by it will be purchased. Even now, when Enron itself is no more interested in running the project here, politicians like Pawar are creating counter-pressure on the state government so that Enron can continue.

The Swadeshi Jagran Manch had warned the government time and again about the dangers, but it was derided every time. It is obvious from the hurry with which the signatures had been affixed on the contract that the government of Maharashtra, then under the stewardship of Pawar, must have foreseen the results of the impending elections, and thus wanted to make sure that the contract was signed.

In whose interest is Enron’s presence being considered desirable? The Maharashtra state electricity board and other power generating units had repeatedly emphasized to the state government the pointlessness of entering into the contract as the power requirement could have been satisfied by the existing units with the help of indigenous machinery and technology at a much lower rate.

Enron power has become extremely costly and is proving to be a noose around the neck of the government of Maharashtra. Now Pawar seems intent on tightening this noose by resisting a judicial inquiry into the deal. One-sided agreements like that of Enron are detrimental to long-standing trade as well as to ties of friendship between countries. They also damage the image of the beneficiary.

Your faithfully
G. V. Ashtekar, via email

Sir — Balco and Dabhol are two major challenges for the government of India. The new management at Balco will have to improve productivity norms, qualitatively and quantitatively, achieve full production target, offer better incentives to its staff and workers, and finally pay a higher dividend to the government. This will attract more investors to other sectors awaiting divestment.

Both phase one and two of Dabhol also have to come into operation, taking Enron into confidence. This is essential in the context of the overall power shortage in the country and proper utilization of the investments being made. This might be easier said than done. But there is little other option. The Central government has to also do this in order to encourage the entry of private investors into the power sector. The Enron imbroglio has to be solved outside the arena of the court. Arbitration by the Maharashtra state electricity regulatory commission should take into account the interest of the consumers, Enron, investors and the SEB. Most important, Enron must have confidence in the country’s regulatory authorities.

Yours faithfully,
C.R. Bhattacharjee, Calcutta

Neighbourly restraint

Sir — India would do well to steer clear of the controversy that would be generated by the visit of Benazir Bhutto to India before the famous tête-à-tête between General Pervez Musharraf and Atal Bihari Vajpayee (“Unwelcome sign for Benazir”, June 12). It may be recalled that a Pakistani court has sentenced the former Pakistani prime minister to a three year prison term for her failure to appear before the court to face corruption charges and allegations of accumulation of disproportionate assets. Bhutto has been in self-imposed exile, shuttling between Dubai and London.

Her present attempt to meet Vajpayee appears to be a last ditch effort on her part to restore democracy in Pakistan. This might help her to subsequently bail herself out of all the court cases pending against her.

The stage is all set for talks between Musharraf and Vajpayee. Bhutto should not be allowed to come in the way and give out wrong signals that would thwart all attempts made by the two sides to sit at the table.

Yours faithfully,
Harmeet Singh Chawla, Haldia

Sir — India has done the right thing by discouraging Benazir Bhutto from visiting the country. Let Pervez Musharraf first come to India and only then can the opposition in Pakistan follow.

Musharraf and his regime have been endorsed by the courts of Pakistan. The people of that country have also not rebelled against this dictatorship for the simple reason that they are sick of democratic politicians who are corrupt to the core and do not miss a chance to loot the nation of its wealth. If the democratic leaders of Pakistan wish to regain their credibility and respect, they have to mend their ways.

The forthcoming talks are important to both India and Pakistan, but more to the respective leaders. If the talks succeed, it will guarantee victory for Vajpayee in the next Lok Sabha elections. For Musharraf, it will mean more popular acceptance.

No one expects miracles to happen. But no one stands to lose much by talking. For one, it will reduce the head counts on both sides of the border. Bhutto must not get uptight. On the contrary, she should throw the weight of her Pakistan People’s Party behind the talks. Let national interests precede party interests.

Yours faithfully,
Sush Kocher, Calcutta

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