Editorial 1 / Only a start
Editorial 2 / Water power
Good, bad and ugly
Book Review / Scholars and Holy Men
Book Review / Daring to go
Book Review /A voice in the wilderness
Book Review / In support of a Hindu nation
Bookwise / Combining commentary with insight
Paperback Pickings / Richness, roots and all that
Letters to the editor

The Agra summit, it can be said with only a hint of hyperbole, was made and unmade by the media. The atmosphere surrounding the meeting between Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Mr Pervez Musharraf was prepared by the exaggerated expectations that the media had generated. Public perception, moulded by the hype, looked to the summit with hopes that had no basis in reality. The talks were unmade, or so analysts are prone to believe, by a remark of Ms Sushma Swaraj, the minister for information and culture, and the reaction to it by Mr Musharraf at a meeting with Indian editors. The latter is being seen by the Indian side as a turning point, and the statements of the Pakistan president at that meeting have been deplored as an attempt at diplomacy through the media. There is always the tendency, when faced with the charge of failure or mishandling, to look for scapegoats or a conspiracy. Both provide very convenient alibis. In the aftermath of the talks, there is a refusal on both sides to accept that in realistic terms, the summit in Agra could not have achieved anything more than what it did. It provided an opportunity for the prime minister of India and the president of Pakistan and the top officials of the foreign ministries of the two countries to talk and to rehearse their points of view. This was important after the false hope of Lahore and the hostilities of Kargil.

The Indian side’s immediate reaction was measured. It did not deny that the talks had broken down but it emphasized that the peace process had not been jeopardized. It said that the threads of the Agra summit could be picked up at a future date. Such a measured and somewhat optimistic evaluation of the Agra summit seems to be losing favour in the corridors of power in South Block. Ms Nirupama Rao, the spokesman for the ministry of external affairs, expressed disappointment on Wednesday that no closure had been reached in Agra. She conveyed the impression that nothing had been achieved and that India had nothing to fall back upon save the Shimla Agreement and the Lahore Declaration. This is to take an extraordinarily shortsighted view of the process and also to give too much importance to what happened in Shimla and Lahore. What transpired between Indira Gandhi and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto is hardly of consequence anymore, given the fact that India-Pakistan relations have entered a different and a more charged phase. The Lahore Declaration ceased to be of any relevance as soon as the cannons boomed in Kargil. The myopia is evident from the spokesman’s regret about the absence of a closure or a declaration. The end point of any diplomatic initiative is often a communiqué but that is the end of a process. Agra has to be seen as a beginning, so it cannot be marked by a closure.

Diplomacy is not always about content, it is often about form. This is where the significance of Agra lies. The two sides met and spoke if only to hammer at their differences. The importance of this, given the history, should not be underestimated. The summit should be divorced from the hype of hope that surrounded it. In the handling of the aftermath, Indian officials should be careful not to overreact to criticism being levelled by the media. Diplomacy demands slow burning energies and the ability to transcend failures that are apparent but transient.


The people of Orissa are battling again with nature. After the supercyclone, and together with pockets of perpetual drought, the state is now fighting the floods. The death-toll is somewhere near 40; about 40 lakh people have been displaced and 10 lakh marooned. As always, this is mostly in the rural districts, although cities like Cuttack are beginning to panic seriously. The river, Mahanadi, is flowing dangerously high and continuing rain in its upper catchment area has seriously endangered the reservoir of the Hirakud dam. This has led to water having to be released from the dam, which in turn has intensified the panic in the surrounding areas. But the bursting of the dam would lead to disaster of larger dimensions. The Hirakud situation points up the extent to which natural disasters demand from the state the capacity to come to the toughest decisions, around which larger operations of providing relief, information and assuaging panic have to be organized.

In states like Orissa, as in countries like Bangladesh, the entire bureaucratic machinery finds itself repeatedly implicated in such emergencies. But apart from the prompt releasing of calamity statistics, questions of preparedness and management are continually elided. It is always the same story of being caught unawares. The first triumph of the state seems to lie in the federal politics of getting relief funds sanctioned by the Centre, wrangling over which category the calamity should be classified under. Once the money and materials are sanctioned, the administration of relief is taken up into the bureaucratic system. The handling of such large sums of money and of supplies of food and materials requires not only organizational skills, but also a great deal of honesty. And with respect to the latter, Orissa’s reputation, as established during the earlier calamities, calls for major damage control. Orissa’s bureaucracy has unfailingly proved corrupt in its handling of funds and its public administration system borders on the inhuman in sustaining post-calamity follow-up operations. The floods have again brought up the same questions, opening fundamental issues regarding the role and effectiveness of the government in ruling a state in which poverty and corruption come hand in hand with more extreme onslaughts on human resilience.


Only the future will reveal whether the Agra summit was a colossal failure, as popular perceptions seem to reflect, or an important first step on the road to peace, as the foreign ministers of India and Pakistan have been suggesting. But the Agra summit has, at the very least, brought a greater clarity to contemporary India-Pakistan relations, and demolished many of the myths, slogans and shibboleths that were being perpetuated by naïve do-gooders and confused spin doctors.

Most important, the Agra summit has demonstrated starkly that it is foolhardy to think in terms of a dramatic breakthrough in India-Pakistan relations. There is no magic formula, no powerful mantra, and no act of imaginative statesmanship that can bring instant peace to the Indian subcontinent. Hostility is embedded in collective memories, distrust is built into institutions of power, divisions are a function of a Manichean divergence over national identities, and differences over bilateral irritants seem so irreconcilable that only through a long and sustained process of engagement can cooperation be learnt and furthered.

What is also clear is that summiteers from India and Pakistan are no Reinhold Messners, who can traverse the heights of an Everest with little help of outside aids. Summits without preparation, little groundwork and mired by internal resistance and differences will end like Agra: much hype, but no real substance. While it is true that the bureaucrats of the foreign office are slow, cautious and conservative, it is these sherpas who can help translate the goal of reaching new heights into reality with their experience and institutional memory. Summits without an agenda or a structure can lead to, as it did in Agra, bad time management, differences over what was discussed, and the lack of progress on even one single substantial issue.

The absence of even a joint declaration at the end of the summit has proved conclusively that the domestic compulsions or the international pressure was not such that Pakistan or India would be ready to compromise on their well known positions. For some weeks now, a myth was constructed that the internal problems in Pakistan were so intense that Islamabad had no choice but to normalize relations with India. This, of course, was a totally wrong assumption.

Similarly, there was a widespread belief that the pressure on Pakistan through international financial institutions was so great and the pressure on both New Delhi and Islamabad from the United States was so much that they would both agree on, at least, a few confidence-building measures, especially on the nuclear issue. The myth of the omnipotence of Washington has also been demolished.

What was gained and what was lost at the Agra summit? Clearly, Pervez Musharraf goes home a stronger leader than he was before the summit. To an average Pakistani, he has demonstrated rare chutzpah. Despite the media adulation in India, and the red carpet welcome, he pursued his country’s interests with steely determination without compromising even a micro-millimetre. The live broadcast in Pakistan of Musharraf’s meeting with Indian editors, despite the earlier understanding of keeping it off the record, would have convinced the general’s domestic audience that he alone, unlike leaders of the past, can take on India.

Simultaneously, the press conference held by the Pakistan foreign minister, Abdul Sattar, in which he gave a positive spin to the summit, was obviously designed to persuade the outside world — especially the US — that Pakistan did its best at Agra. It is difficult to see what, in the short term, India gained from Agra. Perhaps some gains will become obvious once the dust has settled and there is greater clarity.

And whatever gloss the spin doctors may put on India’s performance, there is no doubt that Pakistan’s public management of the event proved to be far superior, especially during the last phase, when it had become apparent that the talks were going nowhere. Even while Pakistan’s media managers, through selective leaks and open official interviews, were giving the impression that there were divisions on the Indian side with an invisible hand vetoing a draft declaration approved by the Indian prime minister and the minister for external affairs, there was no Indian response for hours.

The image of a room full of reporters, with an array of microphones on a table with empty chairs, waiting and waiting for the official spokesman to turn up and finally being fed a bland two liner, will remain an abiding image of the tardy Indian approach towards crisis management.

And while the Pakistan foreign minister’s claim that only the issue of cross-border terrorism was addressed during the summit and no one from either side raised the issue of cross-line of control terrorism, speaks of Islamabad’s attempts at sly semantic manoeuvring, it is unpardonable for New Delhi not to have realized that the mandarins of Pakistan’s foreign office could give such a spin to this terminology, especially in relation to India’s core concern.

What does the future hold? There are three scenarios, which can be usefully described as “the optimistic scenario”, “the pessimistic scenario” and “the worst case one”. In the optimistic view, Agra may be seen as the beginning of a process that will eventually create the conditions for peace and stability in the region. If indeed there has been a meeting of minds of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Musharraf at Agra, then the future may still hold the promise of normalization. Assuming that both leaders survive politically, Vajpayee and Musharraf would meet on the fringes of the United Nations general assembly in September, in Islamabad before the end of the year, and, hopefully, soon enough for a summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation countries.

And indeed, if the differences over the declaration were as few as the establishments in both sides seem to indicate, a joint statement could be worked out at these meetings. Agra may then certainly go down as a defining moment in history, as the event that finally thawed the frozen relationship and for beginning a new process of engagement.

But a more likely scenario is that there will be a cooling off after Agra, and as the two sides seek to mould the events during those two days in the city of the Taj to suit their interests, the divide will widen. Under these circumstances, any process of engagement will have to begin afresh, and Agra will probably be quickly forgotten or remembered only for being the first summit in south Asia under the full glare of the media. Unfortunately, it is this pessimistic scenario that will probably prevail.

But there is an even more cynical view of events. In this case, Musharraf — having gained his legitimacy in India, consolidated domestic opinion, assuaged international opinion — has little incentive to make peace with India. Not only could there be an escalation of violence in Kashmir, but also a return to the cold estrangement of the past two years. This, of course, is a worst-case scenario. But India will be showing the same naivety that it did in Agra if it prepares its future Pakistan policy on the basis of the most hopeful view of the summit.

The author teaches at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi


By Francis Robinson,
Permanent Black, Rs 545

Outside a small group of scholars and historians, the name Farangi Mahall will not strike a note of recognition. But these learned and holy men, based in Lucknow, are a remarkable body of people who trace their descent through the 11th century mystic Abd Allah Ansari of Herat. In the early years of the Delhi Sultanate, ancestors of the Farangi Mahallis migrated to India. In the 14th century, the family moved to Awadh. In 1695, Awrangzeb granted to the family the sequestered property of a European merchant. The family occupied this site and expanded to inhabit a large muhalla. This came to be called the Farangi Mahall and this was the identifying mark of the family.

The history of this family is extraordinarily well documented. Francis Robinson in this pioneering study says that “it is possible to know something of the lives of almost every male descendant of Mulla Qutb al-Din’’, whose family had received the grant in 1695.

Robinson, in the essays that form this book, looks at the life and work of Farangi Mahallis in four different ways. As scholars and teachers, they strengthened the rationalist traditions of scholarship derived from Iran. Their curriculum was the dominant system of Islamic education until Western education and Islamic reformism overwhelmed it. The high noon of these traditions was between 1780 and 1820, and Robinson argues that in this period the traditions were poised on the threshold of a kind of Islamic enlightenment. It is also Robinson’s contention, following the belief of one of its leading figures, Abd al-Bari, that “the Farangi Mahallis had the capacity both to preserve Islam and to adopt, as appropriate, the social and cultural changes brought by the British.’’

The Farangi Mahallis were also religious leaders. Those who accepted the spiritual calling became models by dint of their moral and ethical conduct: their actions and their sayings became the stuff of oral history; occasionally, they were written down as precepts to be followed by their descendants and followers. Scholars who were spiritually gifted wrote commentaries on the canonical texts of the madrasa syllabus. These became sources of guidance, as did their fatwas.

The Farangi Mahallis took it as their duty to defend their understanding of Islam in the public sphere. From the middle of the 19th century, this involved defending their positions and Islam against the threats presented by British rule. This aspect is best exemplified by the life of Abd al-Bari (1878-1926), the leading Farangi Mahalli and Sufi activist of his day and a descendant of a very distinguished lineage. His first foray into public affairs occurred when he supported the campaign to establish separate electorates in the Morley-Minto reforms. He became a strong critic of British rule and a close co-worker of Gandhi in the Non-cooperation movement. But he saw the Hindus as the enemy, especially during the Shahbad riots of 1917. He was an upholder of Islamic piety and was, Robinson says, “arguably continually engaged in a jihad for his faith and for his fellow believers.’’

Robinson puts together the story of the family and its responses to the challenges of Mughal, nawabi and British rule, and to Partition and independence. It privileged education. In the 18th and 19th centuries, it sought employment in the Muslim courts; there now exists a Farangi Mahall diaspora.

Robinson opens up to the readers a self-contained community proud of its learning, piety and morals, but fragile against the onslaughts of Westernization. He reveals a world of learning that valued reason, even though its scholarship was imbricated with religion. It was a world of scholarship that was distinct from the lineage of the Enlightenment. Robinson shows, in the process, that the “mad maulvi’’ of Western writers is no more than a caricature. The behaviour of the Farangi Mahallis was marked by a gentleness and a humility which only the truly learned can acquire. Robinson on the Farangi Mahall is one of the finest pieces of research and historical reconstruction of a precious area of Muslim culture.


Edited By Peter Gillman,
Little Brown, Rs 795

Paul Zweig, in The Adventurer, eloquently explained the attraction of adventure literature, which continues to enjoy a large following: “It could be argued that the narrative art itself arose from the need to tell an adventure; that man risking his life in perilous encounters constitutes the original defini- tion of what is worth talking about.” In recent years, explorers have dived into the deepest recesses of the ocean, ascended the upper layers of the atmosphere, and set foot on earth’s only satellite. Yet the old tales of terrestrial and maritime exploration continue to fascinate; certainly space exploration has no tradition of literature, as, say mountaineering; perhaps the technological support used nowadays deprives modern exploration of its power to grip the imagination.

The sumptuous photographs alone would make this book a worthwhile addition to any library of exploration. They include such gems as Noel Odell’s unpublished records of the ill-fated 1924 expedition. Not only was he the last person to see Mallory and Irvine, but a fine photographer too, given the inhospitable conditions and bulky equipment. There are wide angle vistas of what was then pristine terrain as well as humorous shots of Mallory skinny-dipping in mountain streams. They restore a human dimension to an expedition that has acquired a mystical aura.

Although the major landmarks of the Everest story are there — from the pioneering and somehow audacious forays of the Twenties to the tragedies of 1996 — it is George Mallory who somehow dominates the book. There are extracts from the long letters he wrote home from the 1921 reconnaissance; which reveal that he was as perceptive an observer of himself as of the landscape and its physical demands. The last extract is by Conrad Anker who found the bleached body of Mallory in 1999 and whose words could serve as his epitaph: “When I thought of what a valiant effort George had made, to climb this high on the north side of Everest, given the equipment and clothing of his day, I was flooded with a sense of awe.”

However, there are also accounts by George Finch, as superb a mountaineer as Mallory in his day, yet a misfit in the socially stratified mountaineering establishment of those days; and by Howard Somervell, surgeon, and polymath, who read Shakespeare with Mallory in his tent. His vivid account of his summit attempt with Edward Norton reminds us that there were other heroes, too. These are not easily available to the general reader, and flesh out the story of the first decade.

There are the usual narratives, like Edmund Hillary’s laconic account of his feat with Tenzing. What impresses more is the extract taken from the book by Thomas Hornbein where he describes the stupendous traverse of the West Face he made with Willi Unsoeld in 1963. For Indian readers there are the voices of Sonam Wangyal and Sonam Gyatso, part of the successful 1965 expedition, and Murray Sayle’s article about the death of Harsh Bahuguna on the acrimonious 1971 international expedition. Carlos Buhler’s comment in his diary of his conquest of the Kangshung Face must be a master of understatement: “Well, George climbed Mount Everest yesterday; Lou Kim and I did it the day before.”

As Doug Scott (whose achievement on Everest is second to none) puts it in his foreword, the outstanding achievement on Everest must be Rheinhold Messner’s solo, oxygenless ascent, with only his girlfriend Nena Holguin as support. Messner’s epic feat told in Nena’s words is a superb example of insight into the psychology of a man in extremis. Another moving account is by Maria Coffey, Joe Tasker’s partner who reminds us that behind every tragedy is a human loss.

Interspersed with the selections are the editor’s own accounts of some controversial episodes such as the Chinese ascent of 1960 (now reluctantly accepted) along with the story by two of the summit team; somehow the story of a party meeting at 8,000 metres just doesn’t ring true. There are boxed items like the legend of the yeti which suggests that it may have originated in a joke by Eric Shipton; and the crazy Yorkshireman, Maurice Simpson, whose remains periodically surface below the North Col.

Inevitably, the tragedies of 1996 are given a good deal of space with extracts from Jon Krakauer and Anatoly Boukreev; these, however, with their accompanying photographs, add nothing new; the account by Charlotte Fox provides a new perspective of the controversy surrounding Boukreev. For the statistically minded there are the usual lists of successful climbs and fatalities, but also of women’s ascents. For armchair travellers there are photographs depicting the fifteen main routes on each of the faces of Everest.

For nearly a century, the precipitous slopes of Mount Everest have seen the triumphs of the human spirit and its frailty, and have inspired a tradition of fine writing, some of which has attained the status of classics of the genre. Unfortunately, many of the earlier accounts are out of print or unavailable. This anthology with its complete coverage of the Nineties — possibly the most tumultuous decade — is welcome. It should be read as a companion to Walt Unsworth’s magisterial Everest.


By Bandula Chandraratna,
Phoenix, £ 6.99

Revealing more by saying less, and that too, plainly, is an enviable art that comes effortlessly to Bandula Chandraratna. He can startle readers by exposing social repression and the equations that dictate them in exceedingly unselfconscious a manner; by playing with a kaleidoscope of emotions in so unassuming a form.

Mirage is limpid and telling. And refreshing too, because it is not an account of a diaspora. A Sri Lankan by birth, Chandraratna is rooted to the natives of Saudi Arabia (where he had worked for some time) for an odyssey into the heart of the heat and dust.

His style is strikingly simple and, sometimes, austere like the land he describes — long stretches of arid sandy earth, occasionally dotted with clusters of date palm trees and sparse habitation. For villagers like Sayeed, life in the town is harsh. Burgeoning with well-off immigrants, the town has pushed them to the outskirts, in shanties soaked in heat and squalor. The paltry job of a porter at the city hospital is incommensurate with a decent lifestyle and incongruous with the laid-back life that his brother, Mustafa, leads with a large family of two wives in the village.

Yet the middle-aged, shrunken man with stunted aspirations seems more of a prop to the tragic drama that unfolds with himself, his wife and her lover pitched against a rigid and merciless Islamic society.

Mustafa coaxes Sayeed to marry the young and affluent Latifa. After much deliberation on his financial and living conditions, Sayeed relents. Latifa is a widow with a child and the economic disparity is smudged by this fact, which otherwise could have been a hurdle to the match.

For a village girl nurtured in rather lush environs, the squalidness and poverty make Latifa cringe and Sayeed embarrassed. Reality cracks the facade of illusion and the newly-weds withdraw within themselves. What remains is anything but a conjugal life.

While tailing her goats one hot morning, Latifa gets trapped in the rocks and is rescued by a winsome youth, Hussain Hasmi. For the first time, Hussain sees her unveiled. The heat and the craggy terrain draw them close.

Though taken aback by the suddenness of the encounter, Latifa is consumed by passion in a momentary impulse. A carefree abandon seeps into her being; an overwhelming release from restraint. “She felt no fear of anyone... She screamed, and she laughed, and her voice came out unhindered... Hussain was standing with his back to her. She could see the red desert below, and far away in the distance, the Mirage.”

But her joy, like the mirage, flickers and is crushed under the weight of morality. Convicted for adultery, Latifa is sentenced to death by stoning and Hussain, by beheading. Only Sayeed, intensely aware of human vulnerability, wails and pleads for their release.

Latifa, pining behind bars for a last glimpse of her child, and Sayeed, burdened with guilt for dragging her along alien ways, are victims of a dominant ideology. The two disjointed scenes, like a montage, create a numbing effect.

The narrative is saturated with snippets of a restrained society inwardly divergent and rebellious — women trailing in burkhas, religious police indiscriminately caning men who disobey prayer calls and the censure on all forms of recreation.

Chandraratna doesn’t experiment with either form or language. The authorial voice is not only faint, but almost untraceable. The characters are identifiable and unexciting. There is no novelty in the plot — ordinary mortals thrust into extraordinary situations is a hackneyed motif in literature. Yet, Mirage is engaging and intriguing.

One can also discern the mellow writer, who has an exquisite eye for detail and is conscious of the subversiveness that he can lay bare. But given the fact that he prefers to depend on the reader’s astuteness and is economic with words, doing what he has done appears formidable. He makes Sayeed, Latifa and several other figures, however insignificant, seem tangible by capturing them in moments of follies, crudities and haplessness.

And even as the plot drifts from the staid life in a wasteland to a hair-raising catastrophe, the relaxed pace is never disturbed. The denouement catches one unawares. It’s like trudging through the desert and suddenly being sucked in by quicksand.


By Prafull Goradia,
Contemporary Target, Rs 240

The relationship between religion and politics is a time tested phenomenon which has gained ground in almost all societies at different juntures of history. In India, the growth of Hindu nationalism can be traced back to the early days of the Indian renaissance in the late 19th century.

Recent developments in India have been marked by the unprecedented rise of the right wing Hindu nationalist movement and its political wing, the Bharatiya Janata Party, which claims to create a polity based on “ancient” Hindu culture. The process has been epitomized by the rise of the BJP to the centre-stage of Indian politics and its subsequent formation of a coalition government at the Centre with itself as the dominant partner.

Right from the dawn of this process, there have been writings by the ideologues of Hindu nationalism, official documents by the BJP as well as anti-Hindutva writings by Leftist and liberal intellectuals. Prafull Goradia’s book is perhaps the first of its kind. It is a common man’s distillation of varied experiences and life long reflections, unlike a translation of research into analysis. Goradia can be referred to as a Hindutva sympathizer who attempts to present a comprehensive manifesto.

The book has been divided into broad thematic sections with its own subsections. In the first section, “Swaraj”, by which Goradia means good governance, he speaks of an ideal Hindu state which balances growth and distribution. Swadeshi or national self-reliance is the main pillar of this economic ethos. Small states within a federal structure shall be the best political option.

In another section, Goradia posits that nationalism is a synergy which will bind the Indians only after pan-Islamism, communism, Christianity, sub-nationalism and casteism are wiped off.

While systematically defining Hindutva, Goradia differs from its ideologue Veer Savarkar. Unlike Savarkar, for whom India is a “pitribhumi” and “punyabhumi”, the author feels that it is more appropriate to visualize India as motherland or “matribhumi”. Fatherland is more of a European concept. Hindutva, writes the author, is a Sanskrit expression which means Hinduness. According to him it has a socio-political connotation rather than religious implication.

However, it is with tolerance rather than fundamentalism or fascism that Goradia associates Hinduism. In fact, this tolerance in spite of being a virtue is also the greatest weakness of Hindutva. Muslim invaders throughout history have either destroyed temples or turned them into mosques. The author gives a detailed account of such acts of vandalism which were carried out in places like Mathura, Varanasi, Somnath and so on. He is also critical of the less barbaric but equally harmful process of proselytization undertaken by the Christian missionaries.

In the end, the author emphasizes the need to achieve national unity through reconciliation. According to him, one “simple” way of doing this would be to call a congress of the leading Muslims in India, let them consider their forefathers’ act of desecration and allow them to give back those destructed sites on their own. It is his romantic ambition to undo history that makes him legitimize the demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992. What Goradia forgets is that the irreversibility of material history does not give one the luxury of choosing mythical pasts.

The future of Hindu nationalism has to still endure the social and cultural plurality of India and the competition amongst contrary forces which has in turn prevented the shaping of India into a Hindu state. Unfortunately though, books like this only succeed in disturbing the rational mind.



Because most academic writings tend to be boring or incomprehensible or both, burdened as it is with the academic paraphernalia of footnotes and statistics, more and more publishers are turning to journalists to fill up gaps in their lists. This is not surprising given that all great writers from Daniel Defoe to Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway as well as contemporary greats like R.K. Narayan have had their apprenticeship in journalism and have continued to write in newspapers and journals even after they were well established.

However, the journalists that publishers take on are different from ordinary reporters who dash off a copy within hours of the event to beat deadlines. They are feature writers or literary journalists who take their time to brood over a copy which often becomes the blueprint for a book. Given the paucity of publishable material, literary journalism has become a rich mine for publishers to tap into.

The boundaries of literary journalism have been expanded by the concept of New Journalism, first enunciated by Tom Wolfe in an anthology by the same name in the mid-Seventies. Wolfe suggested that New Journalism “required scene-by-scene construction, saturation reporting, third person point of view and a detailing of the status of lives of subjects.” (Wolfe followed this advice in his own bestseller, The Bonfire of the Vanities, which detailed the lives of New Yorkers in the Eighties.) While standard reporting hides the voice of the writer, the feature writer or the literary journalist gets the opportunity to enter the story, sometimes with dramatic irony.

To borrow a phrase from Samuel Johnson, literary journalism “reflects the true state of the nation in the state of common life.” It includes a wide range of subjects — memoirs and personal essays, profiles, science for the common reader, travel writing and just about everything in fiction and non-fiction.

In other words, literary journalists are reporters in the sense that they bear witness to an event but with the conviction that there is more to life than just politics. There is a wealth of political writing by literary journalists in the 20th century: John Reed’s Ten Days that Shook the World (on the Russian revolution), George Orwell’s (on the Spanish Civil War), — the list is endless. In each of these works, personal experience is used to illuminate political issues by letting individuals represent larger groups.

If political issues dominated literary journalism in the 20th century, the future belongs to travel writing as can be seen from the flood of travel literature in recent years. Travel literature is concerned with an attempt to “discover the past” that is fast disappearing in the modernization drive. It combines nostalgia with a collage of separate scenes that invites narrative and everyday interactions and bridges the distance between the subjects’ world and that of the readers’. In good travel writing you go on a world tour without leaving home.

While it is relatively easy to describe what literary journalism is all about, the final acceptance of a literary work will depend on the quality of writing or its aesthetic merits. This does not mean that moral or political factors will not come into play in the framing of critical judgments. The aesthetic weaknesses of the work cannot be overlooked or denied just because it happens to embody a subject of contemporary interest.


By Sharon Maas
(HarperCollins, Rs 395)

Sharon Maas’s Peacocks calls itself “an exotic story of richness, ruin and roots”, and this overblown, alliterative description encapsulates all that is richly, ruinously and radically wrong with this novel. This is a cloyingly fruity novel, the result as much of bad writing as of bad editing. There seems to be a sad dearth of ruthless editors in publishing houses today, allowing second to fifth rate writers to get away with the most appalling gush. Maas’s novel reads like a bad parody of “women’s writing”. There is passion, trauma and history. There is prostitution, AIDS and multiculturalism — all providing ample opportunity for unrestrained copiousness. The following is a good sample, and another unwittingly apt description of what went badly wrong in Maas’s second novel: “The language of my heart came to me muddled, confused; I was a walking Tower of Babel.”

Translated By Nikky Guinder Kaur Singh
(Penguin, Rs 250)

Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh’s The Name of my Beloved Verses of the Sikh Gurus is a good selection from the main source of the Sikhs’ daily prayers, the Guru Granth Sahib, and from the Dasam Granth, the book of the 10th guru, Gobind Singh. As the “primal book” of the Sikhs, the Granth Sahib is not only a visual and aural icon, but also a living entity that is woven into the daily life of the community as song and ritual. It begins with the “Jap”, the most famous of Nanak’s banis and also collects hymns from other Hindu and Muslim saints, bhaktas and sufis, like Kabir, Surdas and Bhikhan. What makes this selection particularly interesting is Singh’s multi-faceted introduction, which combines academic sophistication, personal devotion and historical understanding. Singh provides readable accounts of Nanak’s theology and its evolution under his nine successors, and of the compilation and apotheosis of the Granth Sahib.

By N.R. Waradpande
(Sahitya Sindhu Prakashana, Rs 70)

N.R. Waradpande’s The Nemesis of Nehru-Worship looks, from its title, like a critique of an unfortunate Indian trait: the post mortem deification of exceptional public figures. But it turns out to be a rather gracelessly angry and batty book which flouts most conventions of historical scholarship. It attempts to analyse Nehru’s legacy as prime minister, pointing out the lasting damage done to the nation by his personality and politics: the perpetuation of dynastic rule, his “Hindu-baiting”, the “ulcerization” of Kashmir, and so on. Sadly, the persuasiveness of the arguments is seriously compromised by this kind of writing: “A good deal has been circulated about Nehru and Lady Mountbatten...Rusi Modi (sic) is said to have seen the duo in a compromising position. There is a French book on the subject...The Diana affair has shown that the disease has spread to the royal family as well.”



Time to return

Sir — Ajit Panja seems all set to return to the National Democratic Alliance ministry (“Panja maps ministry return”, July 18), but so does the didi of the Trinamool Congress with whom his relationship is “now beyond repair”. Has he thought of a situation where both he and Mamata Banerjee might be called to occupy the same benches in Parliament again and would be expected to behave in the same manner because they belong to the same party? Would he disobey the party whip because the decision-maker is not, according to him, a “primary” member of the party? Does he expect his divergent views will be given as much credence as now by the alliance when Banerjee returns to the fold? Perhaps Panja has not understood the situation at all. If the Central leaders have given him any attention, it is because he chose to strike at the Trinamool leader at a time the alliance was licking the wounds Banerjee had caused. Had it not been for Panja’s rare facility, his views would have been secondary to the alliance’s concern.

Yours faithfully,
J. Dutta Gupta, Calcutta

Core of the matter

Sir — Nothing much has been achieved from the Agra summit apart from the fact that both the countries showed exemplary courage and statesmanship in their attempt to iron out their differences. But the absence of a joint declaration at the end has left everybody with a bad taste in their mouth. The joint declaration could have given us a direction for the future summits which are bound to take place because the neighbours after all cannot shirk their responsibility nor escape from the process of peacemaking.

One thing is for sure. It was the Pakistan president, Pervez Musharraf, who walked away with the cake. He not only managed to gain legitimacy through the summit, but managed to hold talks with the leaders of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference in Delhi, much to the chagrin of the Indian side, and also used the media to his utmost advantage by mentioning Kashmir as the “core issue” of the summit.

He has managed to show the people of his country that he hasn’t budged an inch from his viewpoint regarding Kashmir and also shown the international community that he has made efforts to solve the impasse. It remains to be seen which way the Indian cookie crumbles now that the Agra summit is over.

Yours faithfully,
Harmeet Singh Chawla, Haldia

Sir — A supportive opposition, friendly media and a willing neighbour were beside Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Yet, he miserably failed to push India’s case and Pakistan used the opportunity to show the world that India is not willing to end the crisis through bilateral talks. Vajpayee seems to reserve all his oratorical skills for the politics at home that earned him his chair.

No joint declaration or statement has come out at the end of the summit that would have indicated that our endeavour was in the right direction. Despite the pat on Vajpayee’s back by Pervez Musharraf, who called him a “visionary statesman”, India continues to remain at the mercy of terrorists.

India remained “issue-less” while deliberating at the summit, barring Sushma Swaraj’s sleight of hand which dismissed Kashmir as an issue in the meeting. Even when Musharraf declared that he did not consider the past treaties or decisions by previous Pakistan governments binding, Vajpayee failed to remind him that no democratic government could chose to ignore the actions of the previous governments in such a casual manner.

More strangely, while the dictator Musharraf never ignored his people’s feelings, Vajpayee took the Indian people for granted and chose not to disclose anything about the talks.

Yours faithfully,
Aditya P. Chatterjee, Calcutta

Sir — The summit may not have brought instant results, but its impact cannot be doubted. Pakistanis have understood that India is a tough nut to crack. This could lead to a realization on their part that enormous resources have been wasted in pursuing a goal that can never be achieved. The summit was a good exercise for India because it brought the nation together on Kashmir.

But the national will would have been more obvious had India been able to prevent the Pakistan president’s meeting with the All Parties Hurriyat Conference. Had Pervez Musharraf been really concerned about Kashmir, he would not have insisted on meeting a set of people who by no stretch of imagination can be called the representatives of the Kashmiri people. By exposing his hawkish attitude, Musharraf has shown that he lacks leadership qualities. Agra has been the diplomatic victory of Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

Yours faithfully,
Balram Misra, Noida

Sir — Pervez Musharraf has shown that the Indian prime minister is neither a “visionary”, nor a “statesman”. Atal Bihari Vajpayee and his so-called “strategists” have miserably failed to turn the Agra summit into a success.

Vajpayee didn’t hesitate to accept the credit when the Indian army drove out the Kargil intruders, but when it was his turn to win the verbal battle against Pakistan, he lost hands down. While Pervez Musharraf stuck to his point over Kashmir being the “core” or the most “important” issue in bilateral matters, India only tried to dismiss it. Musharraf has repeated what Pakistan has always said in every available platform over the years. What was the need to listen to it again behind closed doors?

Yours faithfully
Hrita Ganguly, Howrah

Sir — The electronic media in India has to understand that while playing to the gallery about the visit of a dignitary, it cannot afford to play down the host country. How does one explain the non-performance of the Indian media while the Pakistani mediamen stole the show, said everything they had to, forcing Indians to listen. Indian views on contentious issues remained unsaid.

A noted anchor person of India in one of the most-watched news channels was heard remarking on the behaviour of the first lady of Pakistan, which was in bad taste. Again, an otherwise suave anchor conducted the discussion on Kashmir in a way that embarrassed Omar Farooq, an elected minister of Kashmir. And what went wrong with the distinguished editors of leading Indian newspapers who write lucid editorials every day, but decided to keep mum on the Pakistan president’s dealings in India?

One exception was Prannoy Roy, who asked the general about the legitimacy of his government and how India could trust the architect of the Kargil war. The general looked pale for the first time, though he later picked up the threads intelligently.

Yours faithfully,
Samir Banerjee, New Delhi

Sir — India should undoubtedly extend due respect to any head of state, including the Pakistan president. But the way Doordarshan behaved during Pervez Musharraf’s visit is shameful. It seems that DD was only too grateful to him for visiting India. It raised Indian expectations through its live telecast of the summit and day-long discussions by panelists. But the Pakistan stand should have been obvious from the decision to meet the Hurriyat leaders. The enthusiasm on the Indian side proves that we have not learnt from experience.

Yours faithfully,
M. Dasgupta, Shillong

Sir — Pervez Musharraf regards cross-border terrorism as the Kashmiris’ freedom struggle to which Pakistan provides moral support. But what kind of a freedom struggle is that which causes the bloodshed of innocent people? Musharraf argues that every freedom struggle witnesses bloodshed, but what about a struggle where freedom fighters kill their own people to put pressure on the ruling government? This is what goes on in Kashmir.

Yours faithfully,
Arkadeb Chakraborty, via email

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