Editorial / An american in europe
Stories of times past
The Telegraph Diary
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The violent popular protests from Madrid to Gothenburg suggest that the American president, Mr George W. Bush, is representing the United States’s least appealing face to Europe on this visit. Evidence of European disenchantment with the US is erupting all over, and is reminiscent of the tide of anti-Americanism that had swept across the continent in the Sixties and the Eighties. This opposition is reflective of substantive differences over key issues, but is rooted also in the politics of the post-Cold War era. In the absence of a common enemy like the Soviet Union, once-strong military allies are quite likely to drift apart. Most European states do not share American concerns about China or about the threat from “rogue” states. In Mr Bush’s plans of installing a national missile defence, they see a move that could once again threaten stability in Europe. The American abrogation of the 1972 anti-ballistic missile treaty, they feel, could invite a belligerent response from Russia and China. That these fears are not unfounded is shown by the strong support for the ABM treaty Russia has got from China and its four central Asian friends in the summit in Shanghai on Friday. The Europeans may be unsure about the implications of the NMD, but they are still not convinced that a ballistic missile defence system is desirable, especially since the trend in the post-Kennedy era has been to contain the growth of missiles and murmur about gradual disarmament.

This is not the only bone of contention. The US’s traditional disregard for world opinion when its own interests are at stake — in the NMD case, China and the “rogue” states — was never an endearing trait, and it looks all the more alarming in a unipolar world. Its calm assumption that there is one law for the US and another for the rest of the world has manifested itself even more clearly in its dumping of the Kyoto protocol, which addresses the alarming rise in global warming. Mr Bush has made clear that he thinks the costs of controlling greenhouse gases will be too high for his country. Period. This has become one of the major issues dividing the US and the European Union. The comments emanating from the Gothenburg summit show that it remains unresolved.

For most Europeans, environmental issues are top priority, and they cannot fathom how the Americans can be so irresponsible, since the US accounts for nearly 25 per cent of all carbon dioxide emissions. Given that the US is always busy lecturing others about what is right and just, this attitude is all the more barefaced. Mr Bush’s use of red herrings — that China and India will be emitting more carbon dioxide than the US by 2010 — has fooled nobody. Studies show that China has already started controlling its emissions, and India could not compete with US in a hundred years or more. Besides, the same rules and the same penalties for violation should apply to all countries, be it the US or India. The Europeans feel that Mr Bush’s decision is being driven by coal, oil and gas interests. His faulty economic argument is based on a report which has got the sums wrong.

What comes through is the US’s callousness. The studies on global warming show two things: one, that the fatal trapping of the sun’s heat has been caused largely by emissions from the developed North and two, that the first regions and populations to face possible destruction through physical or economic devastation would be in the poorer tropical and sub-tropical areas. Ugly though this callousness is, it is also foolish. The tiger in West Bengal may be the first species to disappear if the sea-level keeps rising, but the penguin population is already shrinking. Global warming is not only causing droughts, floods, storms and heat waves, it is also taking tropical diseases far into temperate climes. The danger signals are the same everywhere. Mr Bush needs to think through this one again. The challenge for him is to convince the Europeans that there is a continuing convergence of Am- erican and European strategic interests, and the differences need to be bridged rather than be allowed to divide them further.


From the point of view of Time there are two kinds of novels: one sort happens in the taken-for-granted present, the other in a self-consciously historical past. Random examples of the first kind: John Updike’s Rabbit novels, Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Dostoevsky’s Idiot, much of Anita Desai’s early work, Upamanyu Chatterjee’s two novels: English, August and The Last Burden. What do they have in common? An assumption that the story’s present and the reader’s present are the same, that the undefined contemporary world, our “now”, is shared. This doesn’t preclude an awareness of the past as a context for the present but it gene- rally rules out explicit references to history.

Why should this be? I think this has something to do with the intuition that the main excitement of fiction is its freedom from known public narratives and chronicles: so the novelist creates a recognizable and plausible present but cordons it off from explicit references to politics and history to make sure that the unfolding interest of his story is untouched by the mundane, documented world. There was a convention once whereby place names, specially the names of those places where the action of the novel happened were fictionalized (thus Hardy gave us Wessex and Narayan gave us Malgudi) and dates, if they entered the novel at all, had the last digit left out. In this sort of fiction, the world of the novel and the world of newspapers were separate.

The second sort of novel, that is historical fiction, could be represented by War and Peace, World’s Fair by E.L. Doctorow, Gore Vidal’s 1876, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, The Tin Drum or virtually any of Gunter Grass’s novels, Mario Vargas Llosa’s The War of the End of the World, Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, Rahi Masoom Reza’s Adha Gaon, Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children and a great deal of Indian fiction in English since Rushdie.

It’s useful to distinguish between two different sorts of historical fiction. One sort tries to recreate a historical ambience through period detail, it tries to persuade the reader that he is there: this is generally the aim of historical romances, whether written by Walter Scott or Georgette Heyer. E.L. Doctorow, Vidal in his historical fiction, Thomas Keneally, J.G. Farrell similarly, write novels where they expect the reader to take their history for granted, to accept the pasts that they create as authentic, to believe that this is history as it happened.

The other, and I think,the more interesting sort of historical novel, uses history to question the past or to engage obliquely with the present. Tolstoy wrote War and Peace fifty years after the Napoleonic wars. His recreation of that time is extraordinarily vivid but even as he gives us this cinemascope vision of Russia in 1815 and after, he constantly interrupts the story, breaks the narrative spell, to spell out his revisionist views on great men in history and the error of imagining that great events can be directed by individuals, even powerful ones.

Perhaps the greatest historical novel of the 20th century, written in the grand 19th century manner, is Vargas Llosa’s War of the End of the World. Based on a millenarian insurrection that erupted in Brazil at the end of the 19th century, Llosa’s novel shows us a corrupt republican elite ranged against a desperate rabble given strength by a charismatic leader and millenarian dreams. Strutting generals, opportunistic radicals, and a gallery of grotesque rebels carry the action of the book and Llosa carries off the impossible trick of making them human, giving them all a claim on the reader’s sympathy and understanding, without taking sides. The cynical, self-justificatory cruelty of republican armies, the chiliastic, murderous fanaticism of the Counselor’s followers are rendered without judgment or knowingness, but with an inwardness that makes both sides horribly plausible, that helps the reader understand (as no academic history could) why ideological conflicts end in exterminist violence. Indian diplomats setting off for Sri Lanka could do worse than read Llosa’s novel; for Indian generals in the Kashmir valley, it ought to be required reading.

I begin to sound like someone pushing historical fiction of Llosa’s sort as a Rough Guide to Country Mayhem. That isn’t my intention. The exemplary virtue of Llosa’s novel is its ability to tell its story without making it an arena for the cultivation of individual consciousness. And this is where the good historical novel holds lessons for novels that happen in the taken-for-granted present, which will always be the staple of fiction. The petit-bourgeois/bourgeois/middle-class protagonist in search of success or self-definition, the Proustian hero wine-tasting his way through sensation and feeling, the narrative of sub-Joycean interiority where the world is dissolved into consciousness, all these are legitimate models for the novelist but it is a mistake to see them as definitive of the novel.

The tendency to do so has been encouraged by post-war American fiction where ambitious American novelists have often written of outsider protagonists in search of themselves. Writers like Bellow, Singer, Salinger and Roth in their explorations of marginality in the aftermath of the Holocaust, have made confessional narratives, questing heroes and rumination, staples of American (and much other) fiction.

In its scope and generosity, The War of the End of the World shows us (by contrast) that the literary cultivation of consciousness too often means gardening. It is a fictional strategy that evacuates most of the world for very little in return because the self-reflexiveness that in inspired hands sparks recognition, in derivative ones yields narcissism. If the function of the novel is to map an individual’s jour-ney from conformity to self-awareness, other people, by definition, become the herd, the stereotypes from which the hero in his individuality is to be distinguished. Llosa, in his use of history, shows us how we can avoid such self-congratulation by accounting for the experience of others. In the historical novel, the novelist begins by acknowledging the experience of others, he buffs his imagination against the grit of recorded lives.

This recognition, that life is an ensemble performance where everyone has hard-won lines, is one that could usefully inform the novel of the here-and-now in which other people tend to be extras: supporting actors, at best, supplying a central consciousness with cues.

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Too much for an adult

Age of innocence. So Mayor Subrata Mukherjee might be astounded by didi’s playfulness, but we are not. Never mind the minor worry over Subratada’s plan to evict hawkers from 21 streets in Calcutta, didi did not forget the birthday of her one-time mentor. At the marathon meeting of Trinamoolis on June 14, she presented dada with an enormous cake on his 54th (officially) birthday. Apparently embarrassed, Mukherjee pleaded with naughty didi, “Mamata, bayash hoyeche. Chhelemanushi bhalo lage na (I’ve grown old. I can’t put up with such childishness anymore)”. An unrepentant Mamata insisted that he cut the cake while the assembly sang in chorus, “Happy birthday, Subratada”. Typically, didi’s behaviour has inspired speculation. Many believe it was cake on the face of those partymen who have been spiting Mukherjee for his reported hobnobbing with Left Front ministers, particularly the municipal affairs minister, Ashok Bhattacharya. Many of them had demanded that Mamata remove Subrata from the post of mayor. But didi will not be pushed. She has allegedly told associates that Subratada is doing nothing wrong in “collaborating” with the left for the city’s development. Which means she’s growing up? Anyway, now that Subrata has his cake, he might as well eat it.

Dancing around the Centre

Delhiwood? Hindi films have never had it so good. Delhi is fast becoming a nerve centre of Bollywood releases. The big patrons include none other than the prime minister himself and his deputy number one, LK Advani. Political sources have it that if the PM watches a film on the day of release, Advani will see it with his men the very next day. Both Lagaan and Gadar were apparently well-liked by the men, the second particularly by Advani. Which is all very well for the boxwallahs. For them Delhi means no extortion and loads of publicity. One only has to call on the PM, HM, screen the film, invite political journos and relax. Good show!

What would you like, guv?

AICC gen-sec, Mahabir Prasad, cannot get over being the governor of Haryana. He apparently still likes to be addressed as mahamahim and referred to as ex-guv in his correspondence. He reportedly likes being accorded official guest status by state governments outside Delhi. Posse of security guards and official accommodation apart, he likes a particular fish on his menu. That’s the offensively smelly part, hosts complain.

Law and order less

Its all about industrialization, stupid. But, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s ministers are less convinced. They feel the CM is riding roughshod over the law and order problem. The question showed up when the parliamentary affairs minister, Probodh Sinha, was shocked to learn that some anti-social elements had reportedly called up his home in Midnapore and asked for a huge amount of cash. For some strange reason he was unwilling to bring up the matter with Buddha. “This has to be tackled by local policemen,” Sinha observed. The opposition however is in no way willing to let matters rest in that awkward way. They are getting ready to grill the government on the issue in the monsoon session of the assembly. “If criminals can call up a minister’s house and ask for cash, what about others who have no protection?” Trinamoolis ask. A good question for a change.

His wait in the wings

Overtaking from the left. Biman Bose seems all set to take over as Left Front chairman with Sailen Dasgupta reportedly offering to step down on health grounds. With Dasgupta down, it is Bose who is managing the show. The crucial nod from Jyoti Basu and his good working relationship with the front brothers make things easy. But for now Bose will only say, “At the moment, I am handling everything.” That’s no less momentous.

A gift of love

The staff at one of India’s best known weeklies were puzzled when three unshaven youths surfaced at their doorstep with a huge earthen pot for their editor. When asked to wait, they broke the pot, spreading its contents all over, and fled. A close examination with noses plugged found the gift to be human excreta. But what could have prompted this bounty? Journos of the weekly believe that recent, not very inspiring, write-ups on Dalit leaders might have been the reason for the ire. What an unpleasant surprise!

Footnote / Madam does not fit

Kissa kursi ka. There was no doubt that this was the bottomline as J Jayalalitha did her rounds from the president, to the PM, to 10, Janpath, to the CPI headquarters in Delhi recently. The day she was supposed to meet AB Bardhan, the CPI gen-sec, at Ajoy Bhawan, her security personnel descended on the premises in the morning to look over the arrangements. The men looked positively upset after the inspection. No chair had been found of a size that could seat the puratchi thalaivi. The lady had a similar problem fitting into communist chairs the last time she was in the capital to pull down the saffron government. Since all the chairs at Ajoy Bhawan this time too had handles, madam’s security staff left only to return later with two chairs without handles. Sitting down with the left was not the only problem for Jayalalitha. While the lady was at Ajoy Bhawan, the lights went out because of a power cut. More trouble. The lift stopped functioning. Jayalalitha had to climb down the stairs, breathless, with Bardhan in tow. Looks like hobnobbing with the left is proving quite devastating, physically that is, for Amma.



English for all

Sir —Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee has demonstrated on more than one occasion that he is his own man. Unfortunately for him though, change is not something that sits easily with the apparatchiki from Alimuddin Street, many of whom have already voiced their displeasure over his proposal to reintroduce English from class I (“Buddha’s IT language: English from start”, June 12). The future of West Bengal’s children does not seem to matter to Bhattacharjee’s partymen, most of whom are perfectly content with maintaining the status quo. For them, ignorance is bliss. Never mind that very few students from the state are selected for the Indian administrative services or make it to the Indian Institutes of Technology.

Yours faithfully,
Radha Sinha, via email

Defensively yours

Sir — After a great deal of discussion, the government of India finally decided to create the post of the chief of defence staff. When implemented, this will bring about a much-needed integration of the defence services within the defence ministry. It is a fact that India is one of the few democracies in the world where there is practically no interchange of ideas and communication between the services. This gap in communication makes the job of our defence forces even more difficult during a crisis.

The reaction of the services to the decision has been mixed. While the chief of the armed forces has welcomed the proposal without advocating to whom it should go, the chief of the naval staff has bowed out of the race. The air chief marshal has voiced his reservations by stating that the creation of this post would marginalize the role of the air force as the strategic nuclear delivery force would now be controlled by the CDS. Such bickering over jurisdictional issues is not desirable.

The government’s proposal that the defence secretary will now be promoted to the rank of the principal defence secretary and will act as the principal advisor to the defence ministry does not make sense. What will be the position of the CDS with relation to the PDS? Being an ex-serviceman, I feel that the CDS should be given five star ranking.

Yours faithfully,
N.B. Grant, Pune

Sir — The Central government seems to have stirred up a great deal of controversy by creating the post of the CDS. Given that the service chiefs are chosen with great care and are more than equipped to deal with any crisis, it is difficult to see what the government hopes to gain by creating this post.

The government has also been unable to explain what the position of the national security advisor would be after the appointment of the CDS. The latter is supposed to serve as a military advisor to the government. The continuation of Brajesh Mishra as the national security advisor even after the Tehelka controversy has further undermined the position of the defence ministry.

It is very important that the government lays proper emphasis on cooperation between the services. The government itself should not interfere in every decision made by the defence forces.

Yours faithfully,
Subhash Agrawal, Dariba

Viewing blues

Sir —The lack of transparency in fixing monthly service charges coupled with the absence of proper guidelines from companies like RPG and Siti cable has allowed local cable operators to charge exorbitant rates from hapless viewers. The rates vary from locality to locality and from one cable operator to another. It is high time the viewers united to force the cable operators to charge reasonable rates. They should ask the authorities to intervene if necessary. The viewers should also have the right to decide which channels they want to watch and be charged accordingly.

Yours faithfully,
Saroj K. Mukherjee, Calcutta

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