Editorial 1 /Still in the trough
Editorial 2 / Value added
Frozen at the core
Book Review / Greener shade of red
Book Review / Evening out the rise and fall
Book Review / Conflict, rupture and complexity
Book Review / Eccentric melodrama
Editor’s Choice / Not the bluff King Hal
Paperback Pickings / There is a tide in the affairs of men
Letters to the editor

 
 
EDITORIAL 1 /STILL IN THE TROUGH 
 
 
 
 
When will the gloom and doom in the economy disappear and what will be the gross domestic product growth in 2001-02? This has been the reiterated question ever since the Central Statistical Organization revised GDP growth figures for 2000-01 from 6.0 per cent to 5.2 per cent. Perhaps negative sentiments have increased with perceptions of policy paralysis and scandals. The gloom is not new and should date back to 1997-98. The years of 7 per cent plus growth that triggered euphoria were 1994-95, 1995-96 and 1996-97. Growth slowed to less than 5 per cent in 1997-98 and since 1998-99, has dropped — with around 6.5 per cent in 1998-99 and 1999-2000, but 5.2 per cent in 2000-01. For 2001-01, any prognosis requires a breakup of growth into the three components of agriculture, industry and services. The south-west monsoon shows all indications of being a good one and kharif and rabi harvests should be good. Coupled with the low base last year, does that mean one can project a 4 per cent plus growth in agriculture and allied activities? Probably not, because prices of agricultural inputs (fertilizers, fuel, power, seeds, pesticides) have increased and the value added contribution of agriculture is unlikely to be significantly more than 3.5 per cent. Given agriculture’s 25 per cent contribution to GDP, this implies a 0.875 per cent contribution to GDP growth.

The 10 per cent or 10 per cent plus growths in manufacturing were over in 1996-97. If the manufacturing crisis did not become an acute one in 1999-2000 or in the first three quarters of 2000-01, that was largely due to strong export growth. Export growth has slowed and shows no signs of immediate recovery, since the global slowdown is likely to last longer than was originally estimated. For manufacturing, a growth of more than 3.5 per cent is unrealistic, so one can presume an industrial growth of not more than 6 per cent. Given industry’s 25 per cent contribution to GDP, this implies a 1.5 per cent contribution to GDP growth. This leaves the elusive component of services and it is service sector growth that has fundamentally differentiated the post-reform decade of the Nineties from the pre-reform decade of the Eighties. Till 1996-97, service sector growth more or less kept pace with industrial growth. The increasing divergence since then suggests that one might not always have been able to successfully differentiate a price increase in services from a real increase. If this is a valid argument, service sector growth in 2001-02 might very well head back towards the industrial rate of growth of 6 per cent. Given the service sector’s contribution to GDP of 50 per cent, this implies a contribution to GDP growth of 3 per cent.

The three components thus add up to GDP growth of 5.375 per cent. Even if the services were to grow at 7 per cent, the overall GDP growth in 2001-02 becomes 5.875 per cent. To the extent that 6 per cent is an important psychological threshold, it is unlikely to be breached and the trend Hindu rate of growth will be around 5.5 per cent as long as the global recession lasts. Despite India’s relative insularity, global business cycles do impact its economy. The global downturn has been superimposed on the internal downturn since 1997-98. The moot point is whether the economy is on the downswing. Has the trough been crossed and are we on the upswing? The answer seems to be in the negative. Better days are not here yet.

   

 
 
EDITORIAL 2 / VALUE ADDED 
 
 
 
 
The schoolteacher’s lot in India has never been very happy. Gujarat witnessed a dramatic expression of teachers’ unhappiness when they observed this year’s Teacher’s Day as “Black Day”, refusing to withdraw their eight-day strike in spite of the threat of the Essential Services Maintenance Act. They feel they should have higher pay and transport allowance. Although there was no such unpleasantness in West Bengal, the meeting organized by the state government on Teacher’s Day was forced to deal with the most demanding issues. The chief minister himself promised that the government would do everything to smooth the passage of pension payments to teachers. This is a longstanding ill. Retired teachers, many of whom depend on the pension, are either simply unable to get it released or are harassed ceaselessly when they go to collect their pensions. Apart from the material distress this causes, there is also unseemly indignity and hopeless frustration. It is not something senior schoolteachers should have to deal with.

The whole question of “respect” to teachers has now got caught up with the issue of private tuition and the larger issue of market forces. The chief minister, Mr Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, referred to both, but there is a need to go deeper into the problems. At the school level, private tuition in less privileged areas has much to do with the needs of both teachers and students. It is possible to stop the practice by routing extra help for students through the school in question. Accompanied by an appropriate salary structure for teachers, this strategy could work. On the other hand, the problem of “commodification” of education demands a different mindset. Teaching and respect for teaching will have to live with and adjust to the changes of attitude induced by market forces. Commitment and pride in the work should be more prized in the new world. Certainly teachers themselves have a great deal to do with that. At the same time, the lack of social prestige associated with teaching in schools is not their creation. The state cannot ignore the material basis of prestige in society. Neither can it overlook the fact that miserable working conditions create miserable workers. A Teacher’s Day can be meaningful only when these problems have been worked out.

   

 
 
FROZEN AT THE CORE 
 
 
BY CHANDRASHEKHAR DASGUPTA
 
 
When the prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee meets General Pervez Musharraf at the United Nations later this month, the Pakistan president will once again insist that Kashmir is the “core issue” in India-Pakistan relations. In his view, Kashmir is the underlying cause of tension between the two countries and the search for peace and cooperation must begin by addressing the core question. There can be no doubt that Kashmir is an issue of the highest importance but is it the root cause of tension in the subcontinent or is it itself the reflection of a deeper, underlying problem? The historical evidence suggests that the latter is the case.

Most Pakistanis believe that they have a strong historical claim to Kashmir since British India was partitioned on the basis of Muslim-majority areas going to Pakistan. They have forgotten that this criterion did not apply to the princely states. In fact, the founder of Pakistan, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, maintained that it was the sovereign right of the Indian princes to accede to either India or Pakistan, or to remain independent, irrespective of the communal composition of their states.

“With the lapse of paramountcy”, he declared in July 1947, “all Indian states would automatically regain their full sovereign and independent status. They are, therefore, free to join either of the two dominions or to remain independent”. Jinnah was particularly vocal in supporting the nizam’s ambitions of proclaiming an independent Hyderabad, ignoring the fact that Hindus were in a large majority in the state. Jinnah also tried to entice the maharaja of Hindu-majority Jodhpur to accede to Pakistan and he actually accepted the accession of Hindu-majority Junagadh.

In November 1947, Louis Mountbatten proposed to Jinnah that in all cases where an act of accession was or might be contested — such as Junagadh, Kashmir and Hyderabad — the future of the state should be decided by a referendum. Jinnah rejected the offer, saying that he could not be a party to coercing the nizam to accede to India against his will.

The main objective of Jinnah’s policy concerning the princely states was to instigate the balkanization of India. With only a handful of exceptions, the princely states lay within the boundaries of the future Indian Union. By encouraging their pretensions to sovereignty, Jinnah hoped to break up India. In his policy towards the princes, this aim took precedence over the application of the communal principle. The Quaid-e-Azam hoped to achieve a balance of power vis-à-vis India — an extension of the Muslim League’s quest for parity with the Congress under the raj. Pakistan’s adversarial view of India thus pre-dated the Kashmir issue.

The quest for parity also explains another interesting fact. Pakistan’s search for a military alliance with the western powers preceded the Kashmir issue and, indeed, the birth of Pakistan itself. In April 1947, four months before Pakistan came into existence, Liaquat Ali Khan informed Mountbatten that Pakistan would want to remain in the British Commonwealth. The Commonwealth was not, of course, a military alliance but, in 1947, it was still assumed that common allegiance to the British Crown implied cooperation in times of war. Since India was expected to leave the Commonwealth on becoming a republic, the leaders of the Muslim League expected to gain a military advantage over India by staying on in the Commonwealth.

Later in the same month, Jinnah himself reiterated the position. Pressing the viceroy to accept the demand for Pakistan, he said with the trace of a smile, “ I do not wish to make any improper suggestion to you, but you must realize that the new Pakistan is almost certain to ask for dominion status within the Empire.”

As a measure of ample precaution, Jinnah also sought an American alliance. On May 1, 1947, Jinnah met Raymond Hare, a senior state department official and tried to persuade him that the emergence of a sovereign Pakistan would serve the United States’ strategic interests in west Asia. Pakistan, he said, would stand together with other Muslim countries to oppose Russian aggression and in this common endeavour would look to the US for assistance. The establishment of Pakistan would, moreover, prevent the expansion of “Hindu imperialism into the Middle East”, he added for good measure.

Jinnah’s overtures came as no surprise to the British. As early as in October, 1946, the India Office had made the assessment that “if India were to split up into two or more parts, the Muslim areas and the [princely] states would probably be anxious to remain in the Commonwealth — if in such circumstances we were willing to have them”. And the Foreign Office speculated that if India fell apart “we may…expect the Moslems to try and enlist British support by offering us all sorts of military and political facilities, to commit ourselves to what would be in effect the defence of one Indian state against another”.

The origins of Pakistan’s quest for military power go back to the Muslim League’s rivalry with the Congress in undivided India. It is a historical extension of the Muslim League’s demand for parity with the Congress. India and Pakistan are Siamese twins, surgically separated at birth. The scars of the operation have yet to fade.

In their quest for parity, Pakistan’s rulers have always equated national power exclusively with military strength and a capacity to launch sub- conventional terrorist offensives. They have ignored the fact that power can no longer be defined only in military terms. The economic strength of a country and its political stability and cohesion are equally important indicators of national power in today’s world. This simple fact seems to have eluded the generals in Islamabad.

The consequences have been tragic for the people of Pakistan. By focussing almost exclusively on military demands, Pakistan’s rulers have brought about the ruin of the country’s economy. Defence outlays and debt servicing have accounted for the lion’s share of the budget, leaving paltry amounts for development or such essential services as education and public health. Likewise, Pakistan is paying a very heavy price for sponsoring cross-border terrorism in India and Afghanistan. The jihadi groups have become increasingly powerful within Pakistan and their activities have led to sectarian violence on an alarming scale. The question is being asked in world capitals whether Pakistan will become a “failed” state. A nation of 150 million industrious and talented people has denied itself its rightful place in Asia.

The most disturbing implication of the “core issue” thesis is that progress in all other areas will depend upon progress in resolving the Kashmir issue. Pakistan evidently hopes to gain leverage on Kashmir by holding up progress on less intractable issues, such as trade or visa regulations. This is a futile hope. Precisely because Kashmir is an issue of the highest importance, it is unrealistic for either side to expect concessions on Kashmir in exchange for flexibility on less important issues.

In fact, the contrary is true. Progress in other areas will improve the atmosphere of bilateral relations and thus facilitate the search for a solution of the Kashmir issue. It is exceedingly difficult to amicably resolve an intractable issue in a tension-laden atmosphere. Each step forward in bilateral cooperation makes an incremental contribution to resolving more complex issues. India and Pakistan should seize every opportunity for mutual cooperation, wherever possible and whenever possible. It would be entirely counter-productive to maintain a state of frozen hostility in the hope that this will hasten a resolution of the Kashmir issue .

The author is former ambassador to the EU, Brussels, and is a distinguished fellow in the Tata Energy Research Institute

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW / GREENER SHADE OF RED 
 
 
BY MAHESH RANGARAJAN
 
 
A LITTLE CORNER OFFREEDOM: RUSSIAN NATURE PROTECTION FROM STALIN TO GORBACHEV
By Douglas R. Weiner,
University of California Press, Berkeley, $ 45

Until its dissolution in 1991, the Soviet Union was more than the largest political entity on earth in territorial terms. With 11 time zones and a whole spectrum of habitats and landscapes, it was one of the great arenas of the human-nature encounter in the 20th century. Predictably, views of its ecological record are sharply polarized. Like many Marxists elsewhere, the architects of the revolution of 1917 saw nature as a force to be tamed.

Yet, there has always been another, more pleasant side to the Soviet Russian record. In an earlier book, Models of Nature, Weiner told of how Russian scientists worked through the Nep period of the Twenties, helped first by Lenin and then by the efflorescence of knowledge in the mixed economy years. Russia was heir to a strong tradition of the biological sciences, and from around 1928, it witnessed the establishment of a network of reserves where nature was to be untrammelled except for purposes of research. Lenin is revealed to have been taken in by science as early as 1919, when he sanctioned the setting up of the first reserve during the height of the civil war.

A cloak was descending on Soviet science by the end of the Twenties. It is here that Weiner’s book takes the story forward, at times surprising not only the reader but also even the author with what actually happened. Weiner is clear on one point: the natural scientists worked under immense pressures. The new orthodoxy was to exploit, or harness nature for industry. Gosplan or the planning authority was firmly in command of all Soviet lands, minerals, and water, soils waters and forests. But its writ did not fully run over the nature reserves or zapovedniki. The scientists had to corrode official policy from within even as they formally supported it from without.

The notion of a perfect balance of nature was invoked to avoid clear-cutting of ecologically rich tracts of forest. Such attempts did not always succeed. The Red Army had re-created special and exclusive hunting zones in the tradition of the Tsars from the late Twenties. Under Khrushchev and Brezhnev, these sites became central to diplomacy, with Henry Kissinger being taken out on a wild boar hunt.

Biologists, working through lobbies in the government were often hard put to end such officially sanctioned poaching. But there were major changes taking place which put the nature protectionists in the vanguard of major systemic changes. A host of organizations played key roles. Students attempted productive forestry outside the official department in the Kedrograd. Russian nationalism found an early outlet in the struggle in the Seventies to “Save Lake Baikal” from near certain death by pollution. Even earlier, emerging international contacts helped bind Soviet nature protection in an international treaty system.

Ecological glasnost preceded and often foreran the thaw of the Gorbachev years. Its high point lay in the successful thwarting of the grandiose project of diversion of river systems: the proposal was defeated on sound scientific and ecological grounds, but only after it divided the ruling elite. As dissent surfaced into open mobilization, nature protection issues took a backseat, and the eventual break up of the country severely eroded the status, income and lobbying capacity of the scientists.

What is striking in Russia’s mixed record is the salience of the debates, many of which have a common echo elsewhere. It is no surprise that an intelligentsia that produced a plant biologist of the stature of Vavilov, also saw a spirited, if often subterranean, fightback in a bid to mitigate the worst excesses of the system. Post-1991 Russia is a world apart, but it is today struggling to hold on to some of the best of the old system. The Manchurian tigers of Sikhote Alin, a reserve founded in the Stalin era is now menaced by timber companies and the trade in tiger body parts to China. In the former Kazakh republic, the saiga antelope is in danger of being over shot. The plan may have vanished, but the market can be as ruthless an extractor of value from nature. Weiner’s is a fine tale of hopes and dreams.

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW / EVENING OUT THE RISE AND FALL 
 
 
BY BHASWATI CHAKRAVORTY
 
 
THE OPIUM CLERK
By Kunal Basu,
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £ 12.99

This is a story of many journeys, real and metaphysical. The staple of its action is the opium trade in the East. As the precious cargo is shipped from port to port, the people who deal in it and with it move and shift too, not always of their own volition. The reader is seized by a fascinated restlessness, a sense of events unfolding yet never concluded.

The hero of Kunal Basu’s first novel, Hiranyagarbha Chakraborty, is born in Patna in 1857, on the day his father is accidentally trampled to death by the horses of British soldiers riding in to quell the mutiny. This devastating onrush of history into and over the life of a solitary, dreaming Brahmin priest portends Hiran’s later relationship to the seething events around him. The death of his father determines to a great extent the direction Hiran’s life is going to take. This is peculiarly symbolic, because Hiran’s life seems almost always to be directed by other people’s choices and by twists of history out of his control. He himself seems content to drift, merely observant, quite remarkably happy in being unheroic.

His only outstanding talent is his ability to read palms. He reads his own with a kind of absorbed but detached interest at every stage of his life. His contented drifting could be construed as a kind of superior fatalism, a philosophical resignation as he flows down the stream charted by the lines on his palm. Not that there is any such direct equation made in the novel. There Hiran’s character is a very useful device mirroring the pulls and contradictions in the politics and culture of late 19th-century Calcutta and the opium trade on the eastern seas at the turn of the century.

The death of his father having irrevocably changed things, Hiran comes to Calcutta with his mother to live in her family home in Jaanbazar. The Calcutta of the time comes alive around him as he grows up, with its sahibs and offices on one side and the teeming, cacophonous Black Town on the other. Basu wears his considerable research lightly. The list of books at the end of the novel suggests to the reader the bedrock of concrete historical material over which Basu weaves his winding tale, crowded with vividly imagined moments, strange encounters, fleeting conversations and lovingly chosen detail.

Hiran’s young mind absorbs both the Sanskrit tradition his mother forces on him in the hope that he will follow his father’s priestly footsteps, and the new exciting world of language and knowledge that his uncle, an enraptured student of Derozio, opens up for him. With this equipment and his uncanny talent for reading palms, Hiran becomes a clerk at the Auction House, and enters the world that revolves around the priceless “mud”.

It is not easy to charge Basu with exoticism, although it is the exotic that he deals with. The novel turns on the importance of the opium trade to British colonizers and businessmen, its economics and politics. Britain’s victory over China in the Opium Wars had generated a tense rivalry between the two powers. The story therefore opens up eastwards from India, towards Singapore, Malaysia, Canton and Sarawak. Hiran travels to Canton during one of its bloodiest phases, and his journey by ship, surrounded by strangers from many parts of the world, is one of the most carefully crafted sections of the novel. There are a few moments, though, where Basu’s predilection for suggestiveness in dialogue robs the exchanges of meaningful resonance, but such moments are rare.

Basu’s strongest skills lie in the visualization of character and the evocation of atmosphere. Each individual is distinct, unmistakable, with his or her own range of calculations and foibles. In the slightly surreal, crosslit world of the opium clerk, people come and go, enmeshing each other and themselves in a web of action in which they are all agents but never truly actors. The only exception is possibly Douglas, the half-caste boy whom Hiran brings up when he is abandoned by his foster parents. Caught in the stream of history that flows through the novel, the reader is seldom piquantly aware of the tragedies and comedies of individual lives, not even the tragedy of the victims beheaded by the Canton dictator. But, reflected in the slightly smoky glass of Hiran’s perception, Nabinbaboo, Vinny, Jonathan and Lilian Crabbe, Kavasji and Mahim, Annada and Mr Guo, Reverend Fowler and Captain Jacque and many others with them are peculiarly memorable. Everyone is after something or the other, yet no one appears to achieve anything substantial in the ebb and flow of events.

This is both the strength and the weakness of the book. Where it shows up particularly as weakness is in the sudden break between the narrative about Hiran and that about Douglas in the latter part of the novel. The story loses its narrative drive towards the end because of this, although Douglas’s story by itself is vividly imagined. For the writer of the opium tale, may be this is the most important thing. “Stories, perhaps,” Basu says of the “field of poppy”, “Were its greatest gift — rising like vapour, filling a grave with minuscule flakes. Evening out the rise and fall.”

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW / CONFLICT, RUPTURE AND COMPLEXITY 
 
 
BY SUHRITA SAHA
 
 
SOCIAL MOVEMENTS, OLD AND NEW: A POST-MODERNIST CRITIQUE
By Rajendra Singh,
Sage, Rs 550

The history of human civilization has been characterized by conflicts and competitions among groups of people. From social reconstruction and rectification of structural anomalies in society to articulating demands, rights and identity, social movements represent them all. Social movement has remained a crucial theme in social science research. In India, extensive work on movements has been done by scholars like Gore, Singh, Oommen, Shah, Kothari, Dhanagare, Omvedt and others. This book is another scholarly attempt to understand the dynamics and complexities of movements in India, but from a new perspective.

According to Rajendra Singh, Indian sociology has so far studied the continuities and linkages in the social structure and traditions more thoroughly than the discontinuities and ruptures. Movements in particular, have remained within the folds of either the dialectical-Marxist model or the functionalist framework. These paradigms of movements either saw collective mobilizations from the perspective of “class” or as the result of social malfunctions or at best as a corrective adjustment. Challenging this reductionist and deterministic view, Singh asserts that movements are methods and strategies of self-renewal and self-regeneration for society.

Indian society is going through an uneasy period. Its “body social” is marked by a double contradiction. On the one hand, India, with its baggage of untouchability, female infanticide and so on lags behind the West in terms of modernity and development. On the other hand, India seems to effortlessly produce the cultural conditions for postmodernity. Every Indian seems to wear two faces, one global and the other radically local.

Singh asserts that in situations like this, there are collective efforts to acquire material products and economic prosperity as well as movements of cultural symbols, lifestyles, language and region. India’s social edifice is characterized by double social movements: of modernity on the one hand, and of postmodernity on the other. While the classical theoretical frame and methodology is still important for understanding movements, the new challenges call for a fresh sociological perspective, a new disciplinary enterprise aiming at restoring actors to their actions, structures to the processes and representation of the society to the plural forms of the new social movements.

New social movements are thus contemporary representations of societies the world over with plural identities. According to Singh, these movements in India can be broadly divided into two major categories. Inclusivist movements like the ecology movement, women’s movement, Dalit movement and the farmers’ movement which have a centripetal force in the struggle for social reconstruction, equality and justice. The new inclusivist movements, which are correctionist, non-violent and non-separatist are the exclusivist movements. They are narrowly defined mobilizations of subnationalism, community divides, ethnic and religious separatism. In the Indian context, the exclusivist new movements like Jharkhand, Khalistan, Hindu nationalist movements of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad brand, articulate demands for some degree of political, economic and cultural autonomy.

Singh’s book presents an new paradigm for understanding social movements in India — especially in the changed socioeconomic atmosphere. His conceptual critique of the classical models of movement studies is also of immense help.

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW / ECCENTRIC MELODRAMA 
 
 
BY SRIPARNA RAY
 
 
BOMBAY TIME
By Thrity Umrigar,
Picador, $ 15

Reading Bombay Time by debut novelist Thrity Umrigar is like flipping through a photo album. Umrigar takes the reader through each picture and meticulously narrates the stories behind them.

The novel is about the close-knit Parsi community, represented here by a bunch of families who live in a building called Wadia Baug. A wedding assembles the characters together and gives the author a premise to pick each character and tell his/her tale. The characters are varied, their problems myriad — the Bilimorias, Rusi and Coomi, who are gradually drifting apart with only the memory of their daughter bridging the gulf; Dosamai, the interfering widow, whose whole life revolves around Wadia Baug gossip; Soli Contractor, with a tragic love affair that still haunts him and is threatening to make a reappearence; Tehmi, who was widowed early and ever since cursed with bad breath.

The characters display, ever faithful to the mythicized Parsi national character, “eccentric zaniness, the melodramatic passions, the free-ranging diversity”.

Bombay is a symbol central to the novel. The gradual degeneration of the city finds its reflection in the decline of the Parsi community. The characters often refer to the good old days and wallow in the past. Apart from Jimmy and Zarin Kanga, nobody in the novel seems to be happy with his/her life. They have all failed in some way or the other. Some in their personal lives, some in their professional lives and some in both. But they all have a glorious past that they can only reminisce but cannot recreate.

The novel lacks the most essential element — a plot. There are a number of subplots but no primary narrative that can hold the novel together. In fact, at times, it becomes a series of short stories and loses focus. The threads sometimes entangle but do not blend. The sense of anticipation expectedly cannot be sustained.

The stories are dreadfully familiar, as are the characters. Though typically Parsi, they, in many ways, also represent the Indian middle class. The novel also connects with the larger Indian sensibility with its depiction of gender bias. The women in the novel are all housewives. None of them harbours any ambition apart from that of a good marriage and a happy family. The sole exception is Dosamai who is married off at a young age and has to discontinue her studies, laying to rest her dreams of becoming a doctor.

Though Umrigar is a Parsi herself, she writes as an outsider. As a member of the community, she empathizes with the Parsis’ sense of failure and frustration. But her cultivated objectivity of tone is admirable.

She places herself on a vantage point and makes her observations, steering clear of adopting a critical stance. In fact, she becomes oversentimental at times and her compassion seems to spring from a sense of guilt for being unable to share the sorrows.

However, the one point where Umrigar scores is detail. She leaves nothing out. The preface, which reads like a cricket commentary, captures the morning chores in a Parsi household, the hustle and bustle as the men get ready for work and the women haggle with the milkman.

Bombay Time is a neat account of the Parsi community but it lacks that spark which might have made it unputdownable.

   

 
 
EDITOR’S CHOICE / NOT THE BLUFF KING HAL 
 
 
 
 
HENRY VIII: KING AND COURT
By Alison Weir,
Cape, £ 20

The common impression of Henry VIII is that of a king who married six times and was full of bluff and hot air. Alison Weir’s detailed biography of the monarch, whose reign changed England in innumerable significant ways, only confirms Henry’s notoriety as a womanizer. On all other counts, she corrects the common impression and paints the picture of a truly exceptional Renaissance prince.

Henry was an extraordinarily erudite man who could hold his own with scholars like Erasmus and Thomas More. He was well read in theology, philosophy and statecraft; had an abiding interest in the new learning and in mathematics and astronomy; he was fluent in many languages and was a talented musician. He was very good looking: it was only in old age that he became stout. He was a very able sportsman who jousted, hunted and played tennis. He could be generous and humorous and also mean and cruel. He had a passion for building and acquiring property. London, the Home Counties and parts of southern England are dotted with palaces and lodges that he built or rebuilt. Hampton Court, originally the palace of Cardinal Wolsey, his principal adviser till 1529, was taken over by Henry and refurbished and extended. Whitehall palace was also his creation. Henry kept a lavish court. It is important to remember that unlike the Bourbon or the Mughal courts, Henry’s court was not located in one single place. It moved from palace to palace according to the king’s fancy. Weir conveys this mobility as she follows the king around throughout his longish reign (1509-1547). The subtitle of the book is a good indicator of its emphasis.

The court was the centre of Tudor politics and its configuration often critically influenced the decisions taken by the king and his advisors. One will look in vain in Weir’s biography for an understanding of the broader social and economic changes sweeping across England in Henry’s time. She ignores these because she wants to understand the monarch who, like most Renaissance princes, was made and unmade by his own court.

The most important change that Henry ushered into England grew from his passion for Anne Boleyn. Henry wanted to marry Anne and thus wanted his first marriage to Katherine of Aragon annulled by the Pope. Henry’s argument was that his marriage to Katherine was in any case invalid since she was his elder brother’s widow. Pope Clement VII, a prisoner of Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor and a nephew of Katherine, was in no position to favour Henry on this score. Thus the “Great Matter” led to England’s breach with Rome. The consequent changes masterminded by two Thomases, Cromwell and Cranmer, marked the beginning of England’s sovereignty and self-government. While Cranmer carried out with great subtlety the religious changes of the English Reformation, Cromwell with a degree of ruthless managerial skill established some of the norms of governance. Both moves immensely strengthened Henry who became the absolute monarch par excellence.

Weir is not particularly strong on analysis or in drawing out implications of decisions taken. She is good in pointing out factions in court and in describing their rise and fall. There is at times too much detail about the organization of the royal household. She tells a good anecdote and thus captures the fun and some of the bawdiness of the time.

The raciness of the narrative hides painstaking research. Weir always corrects prevailing misconception — even academic ones — about Henry. This is not a biography informed by modern analytical tools but nonetheless a very good one.

   

 
 
PAPERBACK PICKINGS / THERE IS A TIDE IN THE AFFAIRS OF MEN 
 
 
 
 
LAST ACTION HERO OF THE BRITISH EMPIRE: CDR JOHN KERANS, 1915-1985
By Nigel Farndale
(Short Books, £ 4.99)

Nigel Farndale’s Last Action Hero Of The British Empire: CDR John Kerans, 1915-1985 is not just a naval adventure story (mixing Conrad and Boys’ Own), but also offers an absorbing portrait of a complex and self-destructive man. Lt Cdr John Kerans’s main pleasures in life came from pink gin, cigarettes (which he chain-smoked) and the music of Tchaikovsky. In 1949, during the last days of the Empire and the first days of the Cold War, he was languishing in a backwater job in Nanking. A Royal navy frigate, HMS Amethyst, had been shelled in an unprovoked attack by Chinese Communists, and now lay trapped — and captain-less — in the Yangste river. The Admiralty called upon Kerans, as the nearest local replacement, to go to the rescue. Farndale gives a rivetting account of the Amethyst’s escape, interwoven with fascinating excerpts from the correspondence between Kerans and his wife, Stephanie. Kerans had gone on to become a national hero and Farndale deftly presents a protrait of his life as a celebrity. Among the more interesting expressions of English Kerans-mania is the “Kerans cocktail”, mixing quarter measures of gin, Crème de Noyaux, Grand Marnier, orange cordial and a dash of Angostura bitters.

THE SEQUENCE: INSIDE THE RACE FOR THE HUMAN GENHOME
By Kevin Davies
(Penguin, Rs 295)

Kevin Davies’s The Sequence: Inside The Race For The Human Genome combines experience, research and thrill in order to narrate the attempted assembling of the complete sequence of all 3 billion letters of human DNA. Kevin Davies tells the gripping story of the race between the official US and UK government-sponsored Human Genome Project led by the brilliant geneticist Francis Collins, and the renegade biotech company, Celera, founded by the millionaire yachtsman, J. Craig Venter. For Davies, “the generation of the complete genome sequence has been the greatest adventure in modern science”. In the perfected “gold-standard” sequence lie “the answers to the origins of life, the evolution of humanity and the future of medicine”.

INTERLEAVES: RUMINATIONS ON ILLNESS AND SPIRITUAL LIFE
By Lata Mani
(Lata Mani, Rs 240)

Lata Mani’s Interleaves: Ruminations On Illness And Spiritual Life is no doubt born out of authentic suffering, chronicling the author’s recovery from a head injury through intense physical and mental trauma into disability, but illumined by the pervasive presence of the Devi Amma, Divine Mother in all Her forms. This makes it difficult to comment on the literary quality of the book without sounding rather heartless. A sample: “twisting tortured bloated doubled in pain she nonetheless crawled across the globe...diving deep into marxism, then feminism, then postmodernism, then post what?... whirlpools of pain zinging and boinging against the vertebrae and bubbling in the intestinal tract...”

   

 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

Time for wisdom

Sir — The news about the probable retirement of the charismatic leader, Ramkrishna Hegde, hardly comes as a surprise (“Hegde hatches quit surprise”, Aug 25). With the denial of a ministerial berth in the National Democratic Alliance government, the spat with H.D. Deve Gowda, and with the Congress making a comeback in Karnataka, Hedge can hardly be expected to be an “active politician” any more. But the poor guy deserves some applause for his honest confession that there is nothing much he can do by staying in politics. This is something other politicians rarely admit even when they are past their prime. His admission of being physically and mentally exhausted and this being the reason for his decision is a rare occasion in a country like India, where leaders cling on to their chairs until they die or get assassinated. It would be a nice gesture on Deve Gowda’s part if he agrees to make up for their past squabble before Hegde actually calls it quits.

Yours faithfully,
M. Mubarki, via email

Ingrained inefficiency

Sir -— The report, “Full granary, empty pocket” (Sept 4), reflects the deplorable condition and inefficiency of India’s public distribution system. It is shameful that although the government boasts granaries overflowing with surplus foodgrain, about 616.17 lakh tonnes of wheat and rice against the minimum food buffer stock requirement of 243 lakh tonnes, it is yet to reach the people who are living below the poverty line. Instead of human beings, rats and other scavengers are feasting on the surplus food-stock in the granaries.

The government has tried to absolve itself of all blame for the starvation deaths in Orissa by stating that people simply do not have the money to buy grain. If people cannot afford to buy rice at the Central issue price of Rs 5.65 per kilogram and wheat at Rs 4.15 per kilogram, the government should reduce the prices further or even distribute the surplus foodgrain free of cost in areas where people are starving to death.

The Centre should stop creating bureaucratic hurdles. The agriculture secretary has said, “The agriculture ministry cannot send the grain directly to the states. That’s the job of the food and the PDS department.” Neither should it engage in mudslinging matches. Instead, it should work with the states to solve this problem which is beginning to assume gigantic proportions.

Yours faithfully,
S. Balakrishnan, via email

Sir-— On the one hand, the government is unable to find storage space for the huge stock of more than 60 million tonnes of foodgrain it has procured while poor people are dying of starvation. On the other, members of parliament, seemingly unaware of the current state of affairs, are sanctioning a hefty increase in their salary and perquisites.

I cannot avoid concluding that the entire policy of procurement is only to support the farmers at the cost of consumers. How else can one explain the hoarding of foodgrain in such vast quantities and fixing its price above the purchasing power of the people? The Food Corporation of India and the PDS have proved themselves to be highly inefficient and need to be pulled up for the current crisis. The farmers and the consumers should be able to trade freely without the intervention of the government. Instead of being a watchdog to prevent hoarding, it is obvious that the government has itself become the biggest hoarder.

Yours faithfully,
C.V.K. Moorth, via email

Sita’s woes

Sir — From the report, “Bhopali boost to Bollywood box office” (Sept 4), it seems the Bhopal sangh parivar has been unable to grasp the reason behind the use of the Ramayana sequence in Rajkumar Santoshi’s film, Lajja, or its relevance to the modern world. Santoshi has used the scenes to illustrate the need for female emancipation. Sita experienced endless tragedy throughout her life — perhaps the greatest being the test of purity that she had to undergo after her return from Lanka and her banishment from her husband’s home later on.

The status of women in India during the time of the Ramayana is suggested by the fact that on numerous occasions in the text, women are extolled mainly for their beauty and rarely for their intellect. Women obviously do not play a particularly important or decisive role in the context of the Ramayana. The condition of women in today’s society is much the same. That this is the case is clearly shown by reports of stripping in villages, rape and molestation.

Although I have not seen Lajja, according to various reviews and reports the role played by Madhuri Dixit seems to effectively voice the plight of women in India. What we need is strong action against the atrocities committed against women. Objecting to works of fiction and entertainment is a pointless and distracting exercise.

Yours faithfully,
S. Sarkar, Calcutta

Sir-— It is a matter of great shame that Bharatiya Janata Party and Bajrang Dal activists in Bhopal are protesting against the supposedly objectionable dialogues and scenes in the film, Lajja . The outburst against the film seems to be the latest cause adopted by our moral police. A couple of months ago there were similar agitations against both Sunny Deol’s Gadar and Deepa Mehta’s Water.

A group of people taking sole responsibility for maintaining the society’s morals is ludicrous, to say the least. Their disruptive actions merely prove that the freedom of expression, democracy and secularism that Indians talk about are all a sham.

Such agitation will only lead to unrest in a country that has more than its fair share of problems. These protestors are only trying to force their viewpoint on others and they must realize that one should not muzzle creative expression. Interestingly, films surrounded by controversy do roaring business thanks to all the free publicity.

Yours faithfully,
Abhishek Harit, Howrah

All chewed up

Sir-— The Tamil Nadu government’s decision to ban the chewing of tobacco, gutkha and pan masala is commendable (“TN bans gutkha, pan masala”, Aug 19). These cause oral cancer and they are addictive as well. Despite public knowledge of the hazards of chewing these substances, the popularity of gutkha is growing fast, especially among teenagers.

Several court judgments relating to gutkha made state governments realize the gravity of the problem. But they have been lethargic in dealing with it. Is the huge excise generated by these goods the reason behind the government turning a blind eye?

Yours faithfully,
Manoranjan Das, Jamshedpur

Sir-— It is not clear why cigarettes and bidis have been spared from Tamil Nadu’s decision to ban the use of tobacco, pan masala and gutkha. While gutkha and pan masala users cause harm to themselves, smokers cause harm to others because of passive smoking. A long-term strategy to solve this problem would be to train tobacco growers to shift to the cultivation of some other cash crop with government support.

Yours faithfully,
Tapan Pal, Howrah

Letters to the editor should be sent to:

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