Editorial 1 / Small step to peace
Editorial 2 / Blind confidence
India’s food revolution
Book Review / History as an epic drama
Book Review / Ascent to glory
Book Review / Age of the warrior saints
Book Review / Rising from the ashes
Editor’s Choice / Not so kind hearts and coronets
Paperback pickings / You can’t be given goals by anyone else
Letters to the editor

 
 
EDITORIAL 1 / SMALL STEP TO PEACE 
 
 
 
 
The tremendous attention that the forthcoming Atal Bihari Vajpayee-Pervez Musharraf summit meeting has attracted is reflective of the growing constituency for peace in India and Pakistan. The meeting has also generated the hope, widespread in both countries, that a meeting of both leaders will finally lead to a breakthrough in India-Pakistan relations. Indeed, rarely have the media, both print and electronic, focussed so much for so long on a single event. There has also been a proliferation of seminars, workshops and other public events that have sought to dissect every aspect of bilateral relations. Many of the public discussions have included both Indians and Pakistanis, and only rarely has an occasional sceptic sought to temper this hype, bordering on near euphoria. While this growing public sentiment is welcome, and the “feel good” factor is important to create the right ambience for the summit, it must not detract from the recognition that New Delhi and Pakistan are still far from resolving their bilateral problems and achieving durable peace.

To be sure, there is much to be glad about the forthcoming meeting. On the eve of the summit, New Delhi has, in an unprecedented gesture, unilaterally eased travel restrictions for Pakistanis visiting India. Henceforth, Pakistani passport holders will be allowed to come by the road route and obtain visas at the checkpost in Atari. And additional checkposts will be created, within the next three months, at Munabao in Rajasthan and along the international border and the line of control in Jammu and Kashmir. Earlier, both Islamabad and New Delhi had released some of the citizens of the other country who were in prisons inside India and Pakistan. There was also the hope that director generals of military operations of both sides might be able to meet to negotiate additional confidence-building measures before the summit. It is also clear that the prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, is personally committed to making a determined effort to establish peace in south Asia. Few leaders would have taken the initiative of inviting a Pakistani leader to India, after the bitter experience with the Lahore summit. There is also no doubt that General Pervez Musharraf needs to normalize relations with India to resuscitate Pakistan’s economy and to regain investor confidence. Additionally, both countries are facing considerable international pressure to stabilize their relationship.

Be that as it may, it is necessary to identify the tall hurdles that still exist, and which make the possibility of peace in south Asia still seem remote. Apart from the structural problems, rooted in different conceptions of national identity, there is little evidence to suggest that Pakistan’s armed forces, which have a vested interest in the continued conflict, are willing to make peace with India. Additionally, General Musharraf, despite his recent successes at consolidating power, may not have the autonomy necessary to take bold decisions at Agra without which there can be no breakthrough. Witness the unnecessary controversy created by Islamabad’s decision to invite leaders of the All Party Hurriyat Conference to the reception for General Musharraf at the Pakistan high commission, despite Indian reservations. Or the inflammatory anti-India statements that continue to be issued by Pakistan’s foreign office. Under the circumstances, it does seem that the best that the people of India and Pakistan can hope from the Agra summit is an agreement to institutionalize a process of dialogue at multiple levels. In small incremental measures rather than dramatic breakthroughs may lie the real chance of achieving durable peace in the Indian subcontinent.

   

 
 
EDITORIAL 2 / BLIND CONFIDENCE 
 
 
 
 
It is good to see confidence. The chief minister of West Bengal has it in abundance. Not only did he claim that his state has one of the lowest mortality rates, he has also sung out “We shall overcome” after putting his signature on the document to be presented in the United Nations special session for children in New York. The document has been drafted by the UNICEF and other organizations campaigning for a better future for the world’s children. Perhaps Mr Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s ebullience springs from blissful ignorance of what he must overcome. This is a state in which a poor man from the districts has made his home in the railway station for more than four months, and is wandering from door to door in the Writers’ Buildings, trying to get someone’s — anyone’s — signature on some document that will enable him to get medical care for his deaf, almost mute, almost blind, mentally challenged three-year old daughter. No government hospital has what is needed for her. And no one will help him get free treatment for her in a non-government hospital. He has given up his small livelihood in his hometown for this one dream.

Of course, his nightmare need not be everybody’s. A look at one or two figures given by the national neonatology forum might show how far the nightmare might be shared. Of two lakh babies born in Calcutta every year, 6,000 die within the first four weeks of birth. Of 1,000 born in the whole state, 30 die within the same period. Of the more than 100 hospitals in the country credited with excellent facilities for children’s healthcare by the forum, there is not one from West Bengal. It is a pity ministers do not walk the roads. The number of grieving mothers and siblings in their pavement shelters would probably give a newer look to the statistics already there. Before signing on impressive collective promises, maybe the chief minister and his colleagues should reflect on what the Left Front government has done for children in a quarter of a century.

   

 
 
INDIA’S FOOD REVOLUTION 
 
 
BY BIBEK DEBROY
 
 
M.S. Banga, chairman, Hindustan Lever Limited, delivered a talk titled “Food Revolution — A Win Win for Farmer and Consumer” at the annual general meeting on June 22. This deserves wider dissemination. The broad thesis is the following.

Not only is gross domestic product growth in bad shape, agricultural growth is also in bad shape. Yet 70 per cent of India’s population makes a living out of agriculture and other than a supply base, it also generates demand for industry and services. An incremental growth of 3 per cent in agriculture leads to an incremental growth of 2.6 per cent for manufacturing and an incremental growth of 1.7 per cent in GDP. These last figures are HLL’s own. The Chinese reforms boosted agricultural growth to an average of 5.1 per cent a year, increasing income and GDP and lowering head count poverty ratios.

There are excessive food stocks. Yet 42 per cent of the rural population and 49 per cent of the urban population have lower than accepted daily calorie intakes. HLL’s figures show that if the price of wheat is reduced by Rs 2 a kilogram, consumption of wheat among low income groups will increase by 25 per cent. This translates into an incremental demand of 41 million tons of cereals and with increased incomes, diversification of the consumption basket is also possible. India is the second largest producer of wheat in the world. But productivity levels are 2.7 tons per hectare, whereas the global norm is 7 tons per hectare.

Low farm incomes imply limited capacity to invest in inputs, support services are non-existent and the supply chain is inefficient. If food processors are allowed to directly purchase from farmers, Rs 500 can be saved per ton of wheat, through reduced commissions and saving on transit and storage losses. Through disintermediation on inputs and savings on village commissions, the farmer’s wheat cost declines by Rs 1.50 a kg. And also because of disintermediation in the supply chain, there is an additional decline in cost by Rs 1 per kg, contributing to an overall reduction in wheat cost by Rs 2.50 a kg. If information technology penetration increases, IT can also have a big role to play in disintermediation.

Someone might choose to quibble about HLL’s estimates, but the argument is unexceptionable. And what holds for wheat is also true of virtually every agricultural product one can think of. Given the problem, what is the solution?

The argument is that there should be farmer service centres, serviced by suppliers of credit, crop insurance, agricultural inputs, leasers of farm equipment and specialized grain transport and storage companies. There would also be tie-ups with food processors for buyback arrangements. Although this particular phrase is not used, this is tantamount to corporatization of Indian agriculture. And although Banga has not used such strong words, it is lack of corporatization that has kept Indian agriculture backward. Public sector organizations, which were meant to deliver many of these services, have proved to be thoroughly useless. Consider the farce that exists in the name of crop insurance.

To get back to Banga, there are certain other prerequisites for corporatization to work. Restrictions on movement and storage must be removed. Other than the Essential Commodities Act and assorted orders, this means market committee legislations of various states and rationalization of fiscal levies, the latter being desirable even otherwise. Future markets must be allowed to develop, with forward contracts. Contracts between farmers or farmer groups and food processors must be enforceable. Food laws (including mandatory packaging) must be rationalized and dysfunctional ones eliminated.

In terms of a road map for the food revolution, there are no acts of commission, except perhaps the statement “redefine the role of agencies like the FCI to help administer the above and perhaps be the nodal agency for exports”. Banga has to be polite, ordinary citizens need not be. Bringing in the Food Corporation of India is the surest way of killing the revolution. There ought not to be any arguments about the proposition that barring procurement for buffer stock purposes, the FCI should have nothing to do with agriculture.

But indeed, there are acts of omission. Without these added reforms, I am not sure the food revolution will work. The public distribution system in its present form cannot continue and can be replaced by a system of food stamps. Food subsidies in their present form have to go. Fertilizer subsidies have to go, although successful lobbying by fertilizer companies has pushed back all such decisions till 2006. More generally, input subsidies (power, water, seeds, fertilizer, credit) have proved to be useless and only benefit large farmers. They should be scrapped and with PDS scrapped, administered procurement prices are also unnecessary, although the government’s allies in Punjab, Haryana and Andhra Pradesh might complain. For obvious reasons, these controversial matters are not mentioned in the speech explicitly. But perhaps they do figure implicitly.

What does not figure even implicitly, is the question of decentralization, be it for management (operation and maintenance) of rural infrastructure or for recovery of appropriate user charges on farm inputs. And this brings one to the question of government finances, especially at the state level. Rural infrastructure requires public sector investments, if for nothing else, to catalyse private sector investments. Given the present bankruptcy of government finances, this is impossible. Perhaps one should also plug in the role of biotechnology in boosting agricultural productivity, stones against Monsanto notwithstanding.

Reversing the slowdown is on everyone’s agenda, except that nobody seems to have the foggiest notion of how to go about it, interest rate cuts not having worked. Agriculture has been untouched by post-1991 reforms. But thanks to the report of the prime minister’s economic advisory council and some budget announcements (revamping PDS, ending FCI’s monopoly on procurement for PDS purposes, review of the Essential Commodities Act), agricultural reforms are now on the agenda. There are also rumours that foreign direct investment of up to 26 percent in plantations (tea, coffee) will be permitted. If implemented, such reforms can be the big bang second-generation reforms.

And if implemented, such reforms will also dispel the myth that reforms are pro-rich and anti-poor. Trickle down benefits are more tangible, as they were in the first phase of reforms in China. As of now, Indian agriculture is in a bit of a mess, not just because of the drought, but also because of perceptions about the World Trade Organization and resultant opening up. Barring the odd item like poultry, soya or edible oils, import liberalization has not been the problem. Import duties are sufficiently high. Agriculture has been squeezed not on output prices, but on input prices.

These problems cannot be ascribed to reforms that have been implemented. Instead, they highlight problems due to reforms that have not been implemented. It is against this background that the HLL chairman’s speech is useful. Not so as to get a debate going, since we have known for several years what needs to be done. But so as to get some implementation going.

The Indian economy is not intrinsically backward. Government policies ensured that the economy would remain backward and there has been some correction since 1991. Indian agriculture is not intrinsically backward. Government policies have ensured that Indian agriculture remains backward and there has been no correction since 1991. It is time to change that. Take a look at what has happened in China. Or in Brazil. Or simply ask Sharad Joshi.

The author is director, Rajiv Gandhi Institute for Contemporary Studies, New Delhi

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW / HISTORY AS AN EPIC DRAMA 
 
 
BY CHIROSREE BASU
 
 
A HISTORY OF INDIA
By Burton Stein,
Oxford, Rs 695

This work, left incomplete when Burton Stein died in 1996, is what he calls his “personal ‘take’” from an epic drama nine thousand years long. Its denouement — the present (or more precisely the 1992 Babri Masjid demolition and the violence which spread throughout the country) — is the plot’s starting point, as Stein would rather have us read this history from back to front.

The reason this particular flashpoint starts off Stein’s narrative is because this “violence in the name of communities” adds strength to Western social science’s logic behind the exclusion of India as a “suitable object for modernity”. Stein disagrees with this logic. If communal violence in this country is a recurring feature in India’s contemporary history, it is because “communities” here have transmuted into “metaphors, synecdochic emblems, usually of a religious sort and at the service of political groupings and their interest”. Which is why the elucidation of the changing form of community in India and its relation with the state comprise the broad thematic within which Stein finds it necessary to locate the unfolding of India’s history.

He breaks up the “nine thousand years long” period into four divides. One in which communities existed without the state from 7000-800 BC, when “sophisticated communities” built up the fascinating civilizations of Mohenjodaro and Harappa. Two, communities as states from 800 BC-300 AD, when ganas or associations of people living in the same area led to the growth of the janapadas. The process continued till the founding of the Gupta regime which saw the emergence of a different style of monarchy “in which communities and monarchies simultaneously formed the basis of state regimes”. In the South, the muventar — the “chiefly lines” of Chola, Chera and Pandya — lorded over communities, whose separate religious affiliations gave each a distinct identity.

The period between 300-1700 was one in which communities coexisted with the state, the state in many cases emerging directly from clan or communal formations or local fiefdoms. The Mughal empire used prior kinships based on clan. The pattern changed gradually in the 18th century when the need of the state to extract maximum tax and tribute led to the “farming out” of royal power to financial agents, who in turn wrested control of rights and resources from the communities.

From 1700 to the present is a period of states without communities, when the historic conception of community changed. Communities were now “decorticated shells of ideology” given to the manipulations first of the raj and then the Indians who took over from it.

What is significant in the exhaustive narrative is that Stein supplements this theme with a wide array of other aspects. Stein traces Indian history from the pre-historic era to post-independent years. Although 1992 acts as the stimulus, Stein stops well short of that year, probably because he never got the time to round up his study. Yet he deals with contemporary issues of states’ reorganization, planning, population programme and Centre-state relations with élan.

There is sound economic analysis in this book from Harappan commerce to the Mughal mansabdari system to the accumulation of the Company’s fortunes. Individuals like Akbar, Gandhi, Nehru are dispassionately analysed. No less important is the unique and not entirely unexpected effort — given Stein’s seminal work on south India, particularly on Vijayanagara and Thomas Munroe’s reforms — to weave the happenings in the South into the larger Indian tapestry.

Another major area covered is India’s ecological history. Stein says that he has been inspired by the recent researches by the subalterns, the gender movement in India and the environmental movements. Yet, neither peasant and tribal movements nor the issue of women get adequate emphasis.

Stein’s is a contemporary study of India. It tries to incorporate the recent historiography on India and contains a fascinating bibliography. It could well become a textbook for the postgraduate study of India’s history.

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW / ASCENT TO GLORY 
 
 
BY ASHIS CHAKRABARTI
 
 
TOUCHING MY FATHER’S SOUL:A SHERPA’S JOURNEY TO THE TOP OF EVEREST
By Jamling Tenzing Norgay with Broughton Coburn,
Harper, $ 26

There is a growing corpus of travel literature that retraces the footsteps in great journeys of real-life heroes — of Gautam Buddha from Lumbini in Nepal to Bodh Gaya in Bihar , of Francis Younghusband from central Asia to Tibet or of Vasco da Gama from Spain to India. Obviously, the modern-day journeys have been very different, with travellers and adventurers facing little of the dangers, hardships and the romance of the originals. Jamling Tenzing Norgay’s is the story of his journey retracing the footsteps of his famous father, who and Sir Edmund Hillary were the first men to set foot atop Everest in 1953. Or that is what Jamling makes of his 1996 climb with the famed IMAX expedition led by David Breashears. It was also the year of one of the greatest tragedies on Everest , of which Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air is a gripping account.

While recounting the climb as homage to his father, Jamling actually gives us an insider’s view of the misty world of the sherpas, their culture, religion and the many changes that close contacts with foreign mountaineers have brought to traditional sherpa life. The first such account of the sherpas’ tryst with Everest was in Tenzing Norgay’s autobiography, Tiger of the Snows, which has long been out of print. Jamling’s book therefore is not just a mountaineering tale; it is something of a rediscovery of the sherpa world. That is its inspiration, its strength. It is pointless to expect the craftsmanship of a Frank Smythe, Eric Shipton or a Chris Bonnington in an Everest book by a sherpa, for whom it is more of a pilgrimage than an adventure. The Western celebrities would have found it as difficult to capture the sherpa spirit or the myth of the mountains that permeates the lives of these indigenous people of the inner Himalaya.

Jamling was born thirteen years after the first successful Everest mission that catapulted his father to fame all over the world. It was natural for the boy growing up in Darjeeling to dream of an ascent to fame — and a small fortune — by repeating his father’s feat. But the father would have none of the mountain madness in young Jamling. Everest had changed life for elder Tenzing and twelve other members of the family who also made it to the mountain summit. They wanted their children to climb other ridges of success in life . They certainly did not want their children to be porters or climbing sirdars as they had been.

So Jamling went to school at St Paul’s in Darjeeling and then to college in Wisconsin, United States. But Everest was never a lost horizon. “Following my parents’ deaths, I realized that I was drifting away from my family’s roots. By learning more about my father’s relationship to Chomolungma (the Tibetan name for Everest), I felt I might be able to better understand my own compulsion to climb the mountain. Before my mother died, she told me of a special bond our family had with the mountain, something even more profound than my father’s passion to climb it.”

The IMAX expedition finally gave him an opportunity to realize his dream. Each stage of the journey — from the base camp upwards — is full of memories of his father’s expedition. Not all the memories are sweet. As he climbs in relative comforts of better tents, modern equipment and handsome pay, he is reminded of the difficult times his father and other sherpas faced in the early years of mountaineering. He recalls the storm of controversy after the 1953 success — over who actually set foot on the summit first — Tenzing or Hillary. In his autobiography, Tenzing records that Hillary actually climbed on to the top a few seconds before him.

In fact, this strain of complaint about the Westerners treating sherpas less than fairly runs through the book. “The Himalaya have taken a toll, especially on sherpas and Everest has taken the most...When sherpas are killed climbing, little notice is taken by people outside their community...Compared to foreign climbers, sherpas may have given their lives disproportionately to this mountain.” As he finally makes it to the summit, meeting deaths and despair all the way, he feels his father had been with him all along, ahead of him clearing the way, encouraging him from behind and guarding against blinding snowstorm, yawning crevasses and roaring avalanches that killed a staggering number of climbers that season, including Scott Fishcer and Rob Hall.

But the guiding principle of a sherpa’s mountaineering life must have been the same for father and son. Unlike the Western climber who comes calling on Everest for the ultimate challenge to man’s indomitable spirit, the sherpa has a different bond with the Himalaya. At one level, the sherpa’s is a mercenary call that he cannot escape. He must risk death to make a living. But his Everest “must be approached with respect and with love, the way a child climbs into the lap of his mother. Anyone who attacks the peak with aggression , as a soldier doing battle, will lose.”

As Buddhists, the sherpas are taught by their religious leaders that all suffering is caused by desire. Even the desire for Everest must be shed after all if a sherpa has to regain his native equilibrium. So many of the books bring Everest to life — in tragedy and in triumph. Jamling’s story lays bare the soul of a people for whom the mountain is not sport, but mother and goddess, providing succour in life and death.

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW / AGE OF THE WARRIOR SAINTS 
 
 
BY KAUSHIK ROY
 
 
SUFIS AND SOLDIERS IN AWRANGZEB’S DECCAN
By Simon Digby,
Oxford, Rs 595

Secularism is a catchword in modern India. Marxist historians like Irfan Habib and Sumit Sarkar tell us that India is secular and has always been secular. They further claim that India’s traditional secular heritage was disrupted in the last two centuries before 1947 the British. By introducing communal policies, the raj tried to destroy the cosmopolitan heritage of Mughal India. Simon Digby challenges this view.

While the Marxist scholars emphasize the official revenue records of the Mughals, Digby and the American historian, Richard Eaton, focus on the literature generated by the sufi shaykhs, the most important Muslim saints of Mughal India. The book is a translation of a sufi tadhkira (biographical narrative of sufi saints) titled Malfuzat-i-Naqshbandiyya. It was composed around 1762 by a sufi disciple named Baba Mahmud.

The Mughal state recruited the mansabdars (civil and military officials) from among the the Iranis (immigrants from Iran), the Hindustanis (Afghans, Indian-born Muslims and Hindus like Rajputs and Marathas) and finally, the Turanis (warlords, from central Asia, especially from Balkh). During the first half of the 18th century, the period with which this tadhkira deals, the Turanis were the most powerful constituent of the Mughal ruling elite, especially in the Deccan. To provide them spiritual comfort, numerous sufi shaykhs also came to Deccan. The two most famous shaykhs during the latter part of Aurangzeb’s reign were Baba Palangposh and Baba Musafir. Against the backdrop of Mughal campaigns in Deccan, the tadhkira describes the activities of these two.

Baba Palangposh was a warrior saint. As a travelling pir, he followed the Mughal army fighting the Marathas. Not only the ordinary soldiers, but even senior Mughal officials believed in his supernatural powers, especially his power to make revelations and perform karamat (miracles). They were more powerful personalities than the chaplains who moved with the European armies.

The babas also had a hand in the recruitment of the low-ranking mansabdars. Even in times of retrenchment, Aurangzeb’s son, Kam Baksh, did not dare to turn down a recruit carrying a recommendation from Baba Musafir. The baba had a cut in such business. The recruit after joining the service had to offer the baba a reward of horses and money. If any recruit refused such costly gifts he was struck down by a curse from the baba. As the Mughal empire declined, Baba Musafir’s power increased. Threatened by the guerrilla raids of the Marathas and intrigues of the padshah’s court at Delhi, the nizam requested legitimacy from the baba while establishing his nawabi.

Wielding much power and influence over the Turani community, the sufi pirs were an important factor in medieval Indian politics. William R. Pinch has shown that the Hindu monks, like the Naga sanyasis, were also militant and were a power to reckon with within the Hindu principalities that emerged from the ashes of the Mughal empire.

Compartmentalization of the spiritual and the temporal power and the accompanying process of secularization of the mind were results of the great Italian Renaissance. Digby’s translation of the tadhkira strengthens the emerging view that in medieval India, religion and politics were intertwined. In contemporary India, the many godmen represent this historical continuity.

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW / RISING FROM THE ASHES 
 
 
BY VISHNUPRIYA SENGUPTA
 
 
DEATH BY FIRE: SATI, DOWRY DEATH AND FEMALE INFANTICIDE IN MODERN INDIA
By Mala Sen,
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, Rs 915

“What do women want?” The question may have stumped Sigmund Freud, but Mala Sen’s Death by Fire sets out to show that in India, within the parameters of a rigid patriarchal setup, what women want is evident. Neither judgmental nor opinionated, Death by Fire merely serves as a pointer. Sen points out that the custom of sati, dowry deaths and female infanticide — issues that have been explored in this book but in a limited, rural context — have resulted in an unequal ratio of women to men: 917: 1000. This, multiplied by a billion, increases the gap enormously. As a consequence, she reasons, a trifle simplistically, “sexual crimes against women — rape, gangrape and child molestation — too are on the increase.”

Coming from the author of the much acclaimed India’s Bandit Queen, (which provided the script for Shekhar Kapur’s controversial film, Bandit Queen), the book understandably maintains the same objective: to highlight the plight of hapless women in India. A reality-check conducted by Sen and substantiated by newspaper clippings and statistical data indicates that the lot of the “less privileged” Indian women remains unchanged. The spotlight is on the 18-year-old Roop Kanwar who was burned alive as a sati on her husband’s funeral pyre at Deorala in Rajasthan in 1987, Maria Selvi, a resident of Kodaikanal, whose inebriated husband had set her on fire, subjecting her to severe burns and the young tribal Karrupayee, the first woman sentenced to life imprisonment in Madurai Central Jail for killing her fifth female baby. The women belong to different rungs of the social ladder, but an underlying thread of atrocity and gender bias interconnects their morbid tales.

Sen attempts to reconstruct Roop Kanwar’s life through a discussion with her father-in-law, brother, lawyers and the police, Selvi’s life through an informal tête-à-tête with her and Karrupayee’s through interviews with her husband, jail officials and NGO activists. However, despite the Indian backdrop, the author deems it fit to mention that her book is “not an exclusively Indian tale.” Drawing a sketchy parallel between her own experiences in Britain and those faced by women in India, she writes, “I too was an ‘Indian Woman’ and beneath the skin-surface, the class-surface, lay the reality of powerlessness against the will of men.”

A large section of the book focuses on Roop Kanwar’s story of injustice where the accused were acquitted and even gained financially. Karrupayee remains a shadowy presence. The energetic Selvi is the only one who appears in person to relate her harrowing experience. In the process, she makes out a case for the triumph of the human spirit and resilience even when pitted against heavy odds. As Sen flits back and forth in time and place, she refers cursorily to a few other cases including the Bhanwari Devi gangrape case of 1992 and the tandoor murder case of 1995, apart from touching upon the miserable plight of the widows of Vrindavan.

It is not as though these women-centric issues have been under wraps for too long or that such phenomena have not been examined or analysed from socio-economic, religious and political perspectives by writers, academics and women’s rights activists. What perhaps casts this work in a different mould is the readership factor that the author has in mind. The lucid narrative and easily comprehensible style, Sen’s direct and candid manner of voicing her thoughts enable her to establish an instant rapport with the readers.

There is no mistaking the compassionate note and acute distress at the appalling state of affairs in India. But the book would have gained had the author provided a holistic perspective by actually speaking to some victims of dowry-related torture in the metropolises and highlighted instances of female infanticide in the urban areas. That would certainly have added more weight to this act, as Sen puts it, of merely “recording events as they happen and affect the lives of individuals in contemporary society.”

   

 
 
EDITOR’S CHOICE / NOT SO KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS 
 
 
 
 
ORNAMENTALISM: HOW THE BRITISH SAW THEIR EMPIRE
By David Cannadine,
Allen Lane, £ 10.99

The British Empire, David Cannadine argues in his new book, “was first and foremost a class act.” Within the empire, individual social ordering often took precedence over racial othering which has been seen as a crucial, if not the most crucial, aspect of the empire. This argument has to be read in the context of the subtitle of Cannadine’s book. The title is an obvious play on Edward Said’s Orientalism, Cannadine’s implicit point of departure.

It is Cannadine’s contention that the British saw the empire as a mirror image of Britain. They wanted to fashion their dominions, colonies and territories over which they had mandates after the metropolis. Colonies and the metropolis were made part of a “vast interactive process”. The prevalent view of Britain was that it was a traditional, layered and hierarchical society which looked for leadership towards the monarchy, aristocracy and the landed gentry. In the high noon of empire, from the revolt of 1857 to the independence of India, the desire to reform and civilize the colonies was replaced by a propping up of those who were seen as the natural leaders of men. Inevitably, such leaders were the ruling princes, chiefs, sheikhs, big landholders and the like. These were recognized as the pillars of colonial society and were considered the natural collaborators in the project of empire.

Collaborators drawn always from the conservative and upper class elements of society were treated as equals and not as inferiors. Racism was not entirely absent, but it was often overshadowed by the thrust to preserve the social hierarchy. Cannadine illustrates the subtle subordination of race to status by a telling anecdote. In the summer of 1881, King Kalakaua of Hawaii was visiting England. At a party given by Lady Spencer, he was present along with the prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) and the German crown prince (brother-in-law of the prince of Wales and future Kaiser). The prince of Wales insisted that the king should have precedence over the crown prince and when his brother-in-law objected, he offered the following justification: “Either the brute is a king, or he’s a common or garden nigger; and if the latter, what’s he doing here?” The recognition of high rank or “aristocratic internationalism” took precedence over colour of skin which was also noted, but not acted upon.

This internationalism of blue blood was unified by an elaborate distribution of honours and by periodic grand displays of the pomp and grandeur of the empire. The latter features were evident in India in the grand durbars that were organized in 1877, 1903 and 1911; in the royal visits or visits by members of the royal family; and in the presence of viceroys like Lytton, Curzon and Mountbatten who had pretensions to royalty. The honours system was expanded to include men from the colonies, and the collaborators wore the baubles and plumes of empire with pride. Honours made them part of the ruling elite of the empire. Imperial society was conceived in the ornamental mode and it functioned in the same mode.

Cannadine is too good a historian to overlook the limitations of the project. There were gaps between precept and practice, and between desire and accomplishments. He cites ignorance and self-delusion of the British as being at the root of many of the limitations. But the attempt to clothe the empire in tradition and hierarchy was informed by a profound paradox. The British ruling classes saw the empire as layered and hierarchical, as anti-modern, but, for the maintenance of the empire, British policy unleashed in the colonies changes that were distinctly and inexorably modern in their purport and impact. Across the empire, the forces of modern nationalism driven by the impulse of reason, industrialization and modern regimes of power swept aside the old order. In the process, even Britain became less hierarchical, monarchy and honours less relevant.

Cannadine’s prose and arguments are coruscating. But his focus is unashamedly elitist. Resistance, and not collaboration, was often the dominant fact of empire and it often determined how power was exercised. In a book which is marked by humour and anecdotes, he forgets to note that JB is the greatest honour the British empire bestowed on its colonial subjects. Gandhi, Nehru, Nkrumah, Kenyatta, Makarios were all Jailed by the British.

   

 
 
PAPERBACK PICKINGS / YOU CAN’T BE GIVEN GOALS BY ANYONE ELSE 
 
 
 
 
THE MOUNTAINS OF MY LIFE
By Walter Bonatti
(Modern Library, $11.99)

Walter Bonatti’s The Mountains of My Life gathers, for the first time in English, the extraordinary writings of one of the world’s greatest mountaineers. Born in Bergamo, Italy, Bonatti led a life of extreme and dedicated alpinism between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five. He was part of the Italian expedition that achieved the first ascent of K2. In 1965, he achieved his last and greatest feat, the solo direct ascent of the Matterhorn north face in midwinter. Bonatti’s preface to the collection is a remarkable anatomy of the soul of an adventurer. Solo mountaineering becomes part of a profound quest for self-discovery, rooted in a habit of solitude and reflection that could often be at odds with conventional forms of thinking and living. What Bonatti presents in many of these pieces amounts to a wonderfully lucid philosophy of alpinism. The “value” of a climb is, for him, the sum of three inseparable and equally important elements, “aesthetics, history and ethics”. This is his description of the “courage” required to continually extend the boundaries of the possible in individual human lives: “It is a civilized, responsible determination not to succumb to impending moral collapse. But ill-considered courage can be stupid, dangerous and meaningless.”

HOW TO HAVE A BABY: OVERCOMING INFERTILITY
By Aniruddha and Anjali Malpani
(UBSPD, Rs 245)

Aniruddha and Anjali Malpani’s How To Have A Baby: Overcoming Infertility is a useful, humane and well-written book intelligently designed to give infertile couples a complete look at the infertility experience and “to help them negotiate their way through the maze as efficiently as possible”. The approach is both practical and holistic. Infertility is seen as not only affecting two people in the deepest reaches of their physical, emotional and sexual lives, but also involving a larger community of friends, family and doctors. The Malpanis believe that being informed may make a difference in the woman’s getting pregnant, helping her to determine that her time, effort and money are being well spent. This is an exhaustive and accessible manual that covers every aspect of infertility from both the man’s and the wom- an’s perspective. The chapters on the emotional and sexual stress of infertility and on adoption are written with remarkable candour and sensitivity.

WAVES
By Sundara Ramaswamy
(Manas, Rs 225)

Sundara Ramaswamy ‘s Waves is an anthology of fiction and poetry by a famous modern Tamil writer. Ramaswamy’s career spans more than fifty years and has produced poetry, short stories, novels, translations and criticism, all of which have been represented in this collection. The translations of Lakshmi Holmström, Gomathi Narayanan and A.R. Venkatachalapathy capture this wide range. “The nature of this life and its insufficiency” and the need to “understand Tamil life and ways” were Ramaswamy’s “fundamental” preoccupations.    


 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

Damned for your beliefs

Sir — A Cairo court has decided to forcibly divorce the feminist, Nawal el-Saadawi, from her Muslim husband on the grounds that she is an apostate from Islam, (“Egypt court mulls action against apostate writer”, July 10). This is a prime example of a state’s infringement on the personal rights and freedom of its citizens. There is cause for concern on two grounds. First, free-thinking and objective writing and commentary will soon be curtailed by writers if they are prosecuted in such a manner for their personal views. Second, the punishment — dissolution of one’s marriage — being meted out for the “crime” of being an apostate is an infringement of an individual’s personal rights. No “crime” justifies this punishment and the state’s omnipotence in an individual’s life is exposed through this ruling. It is not surprising that writers like the academic, Nasr Abu Zeid, and Naguib Mahfouz have had to choose between living in constant fear for their lives or fleeing from Egypt.

Yours faithfully,
Sunandan Mitra, via email

English again

Sir — The Left Front government’s decision to reintroduce English from class I seems to be just a clever move to win popularity (“The lower the better”, July 7).

The government has been aware of the constant demand by the people of West Bengal for the reintroduction of English ever since it was abolished from primary school. The people’s demand and insistence led to the introduction of English from class III. Now, to earn cheap popularity the Left Front government has once again brought up the issue of introducing English in primary school.

Admittedly, English is essential to gain a global footing. But, the government’s half-hearted attempt to introduce an illogical and inadequate English syllabus in the secondary stage helps in only aggravating the demands of already irritated people wanting to have the option of educating their children in English from primary school. If the government is unready to introduce English in primary school, it should at least supervise the standard of English being taught at the secondary level and improve it in order to provide a decent education to students in Bengal.

Yours faithfully,
Hemanta Gopal Kumar, Debipur.

Sir — In your editorial, “The lower the better” (July 7), the importance of the English language being taught to students from class I has been rightly pointed out. Politicians should realize that it is more practical to teach English to children at this age as children are more capable of picking up any language, be it English or the mother tongue at a very young age. The older they are the harder it gets to master a new language.

Yours faithfully,
T.V. Ramnarayan, via email

Sir — The West Bengal government seems to believe that teaching English at the primary level will jeopardize the student’s interest in and grasp of their mother tongue. This kind of thinking is a clear indication of prejudice rather than a sign of a well thought out educational system. To call English a foreign language is ridiculous. This idea seems to have resulted from the belief that an Indian cannot consider English to be his first language as his first language can only be an Indian one. This is also the basic principle on which the Communist Party of India considers English to be a foreign language. As an individual fluent in four languages, one of which is English, I must point out that my multilingual skills have made it easier for me to communicate with people. My fellow-students and I had no difficulty in learning more than one language as we had been taught these languages at a young age. We believe that other students would also benefit in learning English from the primary level.

Yours faithfully,
K.R. Venkatasubramaniam, Calcutta

Sir — As a teacher of mathematics in the primary section of a Bengali medium school, I have often questioned the logic of teaching children mathematics using Indian numerals only, and then to drop the Indian numerals completely from Class VI onwards. This only confuses the students in secondary school and they spend a major amount of time trying to cope with Roman numerals suddenly. For those children who are familiar with English this change might not be too difficult to deal with, but these students are very few in government schools. Our government should at least let students learn mathematics using Roman numerals from primary school. Educating children in one language is tough enough, without having to re-educate them in another language at such a late stage in their education.

Yours faithfully,
G.D. Campo, Shantinagar

Sir — The question of reintroducing English has once again come to the forefront. The West Bengal government’s intention of reintroducing the language is laudable, but as usual, the government has not considered all the implications of introducing English at the primary level. Though there will be no problems in introducing English in towns and cities, the problem will be faced by the students in villages. English will be a “foreign” language to these students in rural areas as they neither speak the language, nor do they normally hear others speak it. Their parents will also not have the required funds to provide these children with tuition to cope with learning a new language.

These children would face a disadvantage and will have trouble performing successfully in school. What is most essential for these students is to learn and master their own language before tackling a foreign one.

Yours faithfully,
R.K.Tewari, Calcutta

Sir —As a student in West Bengal, I greatly appreciate the government’s decision to reintroduce English from Class I. English is a global language and it is imperative for an individual to be able to communicate in English to even make it in professional degree courses that are offered outside Bengal.

To my utter surprise, the ministers of the ruling party seem to be unaware of the fact that very few students from Bengal are able to cope with the changing trends in education. Many are finding it difficult to get a job because of these inadequacies in the education system. Politicians and policy-makers could at least be expected to be in touch with these basic realities.

Yours faithfully,
Neha Chowdhury, Calcutta

Legal deeds

Sir — Now that the health ministry intends to turn itself into the biggest “procuring agent” in south Asia, by legalizing the world’s oldest profession, (“Prostitution row divides women”, July 7), it should also ensure that the hapless victims lured or forced into the profession do not cheat their “law-abiding” and “tax-paying” clients.

I have certain humble suggestions. Health ministry officials can have “surprise sex” with license-holders to ensure strict quality control in the service provided. A delegation from the health ministry should visit Heidi Fleiss to study methods of efficient management of pleasure-houses. The Illegal Trafficking in Women Act should be done away with and necessary arrangements should be made for paedophiles by inducting children into the trade.

Finally, a team of retired health ministry officials should be constituted to suggest measures to expand and consolidate the sex business. The aforesaid suggestions are perfectly in tune with the new mantra of the regulation of crime instead of its prevention.

Yours faithfully
Meraj Ahmed Mubarki, via email

Letters to the editor should be sent to:

The Telegraph
6 Prafulla Sarkar Street
Calcutta 700 001
Email: [email protected]
Readers in the Northeast can write to:
Third Floor, Godrej Building,
G.S. Road, Ulubari, Guwahati 781007
   
 

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