Editorial 1/ Joint Action
Editorial 2/ Polling Time
A grand convergence
Book Review/ Passionate testimonials
Book Review/ Some soup for the soul
Book Review/ Teenage blues
Book Review/ History and its missing links
Bookwise/ And thereby hangs the reader
Paperback Pickings
Letters to the editor

 
 
EDITORIAL 1/ JOINT ACTION 
 
 
 
 
Although there is still some uncertainty about what will be the precise nature of the American response to the worst ever terrorist attacks on its soil, it is becoming clear that Washington is preparing the ground for possible military action. Closer home, the challenge before New Delhi will be to help craft a global strategy against terrorism that goes beyond merely targeting individual perpetrators, or just reacting to the immediate crisis. India must work to establish an effective international mechanism that will enforce the global norm against terrorism by making countries that sponsor terrorism or provide sanctuary to terrorists directly accountable for their role. Given the scale of the tragedy, there is likely to be little international opposition if and when the United States uses force to target all those who masterminded the heinous crime. Indeed, there are few countries that have not condemned the acts and offered the US unconditional support in its effort to combat the terrorists. Regional and international organizations too have expressed their solidarity. And indeed, if the terrorists are linked to the Saudi fugitive, Mr Osama bin Laden, who is currently under the protection of the taliban regime in Afghanistan, there will only be a handful of countries that would seriously oppose military action. It is worth recalling that only three countries recognize the taliban regime: Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and none of them would be willing to enrage international public opinion further by standing by the medievalist government in control of Kabul.

There is growing hope within India that there will now be greater sensitivity and receptivity within the international community to New Delhi’s concerns about terrorism, which it has been repeatedly voicing in international fora over the last few years. It is worth recalling, for instance, that during Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s visit to New York and Washington last September, he had, on several occasions, expressed concern about the new wave of terrorism that was primarily targeting India, but which the US could ignore only at its own peril. Mr Vajpayee had then pointed out that no country had faced as ferocious an attack of terrorist violence as India had over the past two decades, and — in an obvious reference to Pakistan and Afghanistan — he had emphasized that “no region is a greater source of terrorism than our neighbourhood.” More critically, he had cautioned the US, “Distance offers no insulation. It should not cause complacence.” The Indian prime minister has now wisely offered unconditional cooperation to the US in the fight against international terrorism. There is quite obviously much greater room for bilateral and multilateral cooperation. For one, the joint working group to combat terrorism between India and the US must be strengthened.

Efforts to secure an early adoption of a draft comprehensive convention against terrorism, which is now before the United Nations general assembly, must also continue. But what is needed is not to, as the external affairs minister, Mr Jaswant Singh, pointed out, address the symptoms of terrorism episodically. It is more critical, as Mr Singh indicated, “to go into the very roots of the phenomenon of terrorism in all its manifestations”. The US too may be beginning to realize the importance of doing this, if the recent statement of the secretary of state, Mr Colin Powell, is any evidence. He indicated that it was important to “build a strong coalition to go after the perpetrators” of the recent attacks on the US.

   

 
 
EDITORIAL 2/ POLLING TIME 
 
 
 
 
Crisis and controversy seem to be endemic to Uttar Pradesh. The latest in the series is the en masse resignation of all members of the legislative assembly belonging to the Samajwadi Party. For all practical purposes this means that the UP Bidhan Sabha for the rest of its tenure will be without a viable opposition. This move of the Samajwadi Party is related to the controversy about the term of the present assembly. The Samajwadi Party MLAs believe that the term ends in October, while the contention of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party is that the assembly, and therefore the present government, should be allowed to continue till March. The controversy is rooted in a confusion about the term of the house and the term of the ministry. People vote their representatives to power for five years. The MLAs can thus retain their elected office for five years. This has nothing to do with when the ministry was sworn in and took office. This confusion grows out of the peculiar situation that emerged in Lucknow after the last assembly polls held in 1996. That election resulted in a hung assembly, which remained in suspended animation for nearly six months before a coalition government was formed.

Anybody who knows UP politics will not make the mistake of detecting any honour or virtue in the action of the Samajwadi Party MLAs. Their resignations are prompted by the desire to catch the BJP government under Mr Rajnath Singh on the wrong foot and to force him to call elections in November. The BJP, not unexpectedly, is unwilling to do this. It wants, as ruling parties usually do, to hold elections at its own convenience and on its own terms. The BJP, most observers tend to think, is on a sticky wicket in UP. It runs the danger of being reduced to the position of an also-ran without even a consolation prize. This explains the BJP’s lack of enthusiasm about holding early elections. The Samajwadi Party, on the other hand, wants to cash in on its advantages. The resignations are designed to put pressure on the government. Conventional wisdom has it that whoever rules UP, rules India. The forthcoming elections, whenever they are held, may well be sudden death for the BJP.

   

 
 
A GRAND CONVERGENCE 
 
 
BY ASHOK MITRA
 
 
A folklore, which gained currency in the colonial days, pertained to the working of the Indian railway system. Suppose a person was travelling without a ticket or was carrying excess baggage or there was some dispute over the age of an accompanying child and his or her eligibility for half-fare were in doubt, the standard ploy was that should the passenger satisfy the rail clerk or ticket-checker, the latter in turn would satisfy the former: you satisfy me and I will satisfy you.

The colonial days are long past, although, some will argue, the colonial hangover persists. Not only that. The colonial psyche, they will add, has now spread to the international sphere.

The government of India has reportedly come to an understanding with the government of Israel. At the United Nations conference on race, xenophobia and related intolerance at Durban in South Africa, intense pressure developed to include in the agenda of the discussions Zionism and discrimination on the basis of caste. Both, in the view of academicians, activists and governments of several poor countries, are aspects of racism, and should be declared taboo by the UN.

The government of Israel continues to be accused, most justifiably, of practising blatant discrimination against the Palestinian Arabs. New Delhi has an analogous problem. Within the country, the Dalits and other backward classes are mobilizing themselves and fighting their battle of survival against the inequities foisted upon them by the upper castes and classes. For some obtuse reason, the Indian authorities would not like any formal recognition of this reality by outside parties. A lot of effort is on to clamp a hush-hush on the ongoing events in the country. The point is also made that the issue of caste is an internal matter of India; outsiders have no business to poke their nose in it.

The Arabs are being decimated within the territory of Israel. The loser castes are being imposed upon in India. Both matters were sought to be incorporated in the draft declaration of the Durban conference. The government of India does not like this development. The government of Israel does not like it either. So the two governments have come to an agreement on the eve of the conference. The Israeli government would please India by opposing the inclusion of any discussion of caste-based discrimination in the conference agenda and, as a reciprocal gesture, the government of India would fight tooth and nail the proposal to consider Zionism as a species of racial discrimination. India would satisfy Israel, and Israel would satisfy India.

This is the sorry pass Indian foreign policy has come to. The stance of our government has isolated it from the overwhelming majority of the countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Not to mince words, India’s name is mud especially with the Arab nations. This denouement has been reached not because the rest of the world has suddenly turned deviant. On the contrary, what is happening is that India is gradually drifting away from the proximity of the poorer countries in the hope of garnering material gains elsewhere.

South Block has already gone to town with a new philosophy of international relations. India has suffered a great deal till now because it had purposely stayed away from the company of its natural allies. Who are these natural allies? Why, the rich advanced industrial countries who have in plenty what India is in dire need of: investible funds and state-of-the-art technology, including information technology. We have wasted more than half a century. There is no further time to lose. We will henceforth satisfy the United States, the world’s only superpower, and, what do you know, the US and its friends, such as Canada, Britain, and Germany, will then satisfy us.

The reforms introduced in 1991 have been in consonance with this new philosophy concerning international living. That is however just one part of the story. Economic policy must be in alignment with foreign policy. The economic reforms place accent on globalization, and the latter has certain implications for external relations. To optimize the benefits from liberalization, it is important to do as the super-power and its acolytes want you to do.

The US, our ministers never cease to emphasize, is the staunchest of our friends. As has emerged, our stand at Durban has received the support of not only the government of Israel, but of the US too. The American administration has reason to be upset with the Dublin declaration. The draft had the cheek to suggest that the American government as well as multinational corporations must make proper reparations to the black community of Africa for the sufferings and indignities the long era of slavery had inflicted upon them. This is taken to be an outrageous demand. The natural allies have come together, the US, India, Israel.

A rumour is afloat that this entente will extend beyond the deliberations in Durban. The US will intensify its efforts to shore up Israel against the Palestinians. Israel will help India to improve its nuclear capability. India, in its turn, will of course travel to the bitterest end to support the US in its maraudings round the world. Both the US and Israel, unable to stand the barrage of hectoring, walked out of the conference: Indian representatives were left to fend for themselves.

Actually the combine of natural allies can expect to gain further strength. For Australia is not far behind. A group of four hundred-odd shipwrecked people, mostly Afghan refugees fleeing from depredations by the taliban, huddled in a precarious ramshackle ferry boat on the Indian ocean off the coast of Christmas Island belonging to Australia, was picked up by a Norwegian freighter. The captain of the freighter did what his humanitarian instincts urged him to do.

His boat did not, however, have either space or provision to carry the load of this huge lot of refugees. We accordingly wanted to enter a port in Australia and unload the refugees. The government of Australia would have no part of it. The dirty south Asians could go anywhere else, but they would not be allowed to contaminate the purest of pure Australian soil. The UN convention on human rights is very clear on the matter. Australia must permit the freighter dock at the Christmas Island, the nearest port of call. But are not UN conventions meant to be violated?

As could be anticipated, at Durban, the Australian vote was cast against the draft declaration. Those who want to put the clock of history back must necessarily stay together. On the same logic, the US could indeed plead that their cabal could be integrated even further if Afghanistan, under the tutelage of the taliban, were also welcomed.

There is a certain poetic justice in the phenomenon of Western aid-workers being put behind bars by the taliban on a flimsy pretext. The fundamentalist rampage in Afghanistan was sponsored two decades ago by the US administration and its chums to prevent that country’s slide into socialism and enlightenment. White House and Foggy Bottom should not therefore now complain. Are they not equally responsible for the cleric resurgence in Iran? The original sin was committed by the honest Americans in the distant Fifties, they backed to the hilt the fundamentalist crowd who chose to conspire against the prime minister, Mohammad Mossadeq, and the Tudeh party.

But all’s well that ends well. The world is seemingly moving toward a grand convergence. The US, Israel, India, Australia, and perhaps Afghanistan as well, backslapping and congratulating one another. It would be a sight for the gods.

It is entirely on the cards that, in the coming days, the US, the great godfather, would intercede to act as amicus curiae between the Muslim fundamentalists in Afghanistan and the Hindu fundamentalists in Aryavarta. The retrograde elements of the world, unite; you have nothing to lose except your non-existent sanity.

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW/ PASSIONATE TESTIMONIALS 
 
 
BY MALAVIKA R. BANERJEE
 
 
RIOT: A NOVEL
By Shashi Tharoor,
Penguin, Rs 295

“Why can’t I write a novel that reads like — like an encyclopaedia?” Zalilgarh’s district magistrate, V. Lakshman, asks his American lover, Priscilla Hart. It is this query that prompts Shashi Tharoor to give Riot the shape it finally assumes — a “novel” that unfolds in an unusual manner.

If Tharoor wanted to write a book that his readers would find difficult to put down, he succeeds on all counts. But if he wanted to write a novel that his readers would find difficult to forget, he certainly underachieves.

Set in a town in Uttar Pradesh some time in 1989, Riot deals with a communal flare-up that foreshadowed the Babri masjid demolition. There is nothing unusual about the incident except that a young American woman is among the eight who were killed. The story of Priscilla’s death and her parents’ subsequent trip to India to find answers is what Riot is all about. The rest of the events and characters are woven around this main storyline. The novel unfolds through Priscilla’s jottings in a scrapbook, interviews given to an American journalist who is travelling with the Harts and the diaries of Lakshman and Priscilla’s mother, Katherine.

These testimonials not only push the story forward, they also reveal how each character saw India. This means that actual dialogues are very few. Monologues abound. Through these monologues, Tharoor tries to explain the diametrically opposite lines of thinking that led to the events of December 1992. There is Hindutva’s champion, Ram Charan Gupta, who wants Muslims to go back to Persia or Samarkand, and there is Professor Mohammed Sarwar, who swears that he cheered when Azharuddin scored a century against Pakistan not only because he is Muslim, but also because he is Indian. There are also Lakshman and the IPS officer Gurinder Singh, who speak for the upper-class, educated moderates, though the latter has a few demons, dating back to Operation Bluestar, to fight with.

While most of the characters are unbelievably forthcoming and articulate about their past, none of them appears credible. The more they speak, the less real they seem. Would a man who has just lost his daughter in the most tragic manner possible be recounting his sexual exploits with an Indian secretary to a virtual stranger? Would a woman, who realizes that she is standing in front of her dead daughter’s lover, just turn and leave? While we get to know about each character’s views on just about everything, we are never given a clue to the people they really are. Each of them gives a great deal of information about himself, but none of this allows a look into the character. Only three-quarters of a page is devoted to Lakshman’s reaction to Priscilla’s murder.

If Tharoor insists that this is a novel — as the book’s title would suggest — this is a serious flaw. He ends up writing a book that is novel, but certainly not a novel. As it nears its climax, it starts resembling a scrapbook or a series of recorded statements.

What finally saves Riot is Tharoor’s formidable knowledge of a difficult period in Indian history, and his ability to present an India that is not exoticized for readers in the West. Interestingly, he avoids the great Indian pastime of running down bureaucrats and presents Lakshman and Singh as capable men who are eventually in control of a difficult situation.

Tharoor assumes various voices with great felicity and argues various points of view rather well. However, he could have avoided some inanities that come in the garb of testimonies. For example, there was no need to document the prayers of Lakshman’s wife when she realizes that her husband is having an affair. “He has written so many chhi-chhi things about the things they do together” is surely not a line that belongs to a novel of this calibre.

“In matters of great importance, style and not sincerity is the main thing.” That’s what Oscar Wilde once said, and considering he is quoted quite often in Riot, perhaps Tharoor did take this advice seriously. When it comes to style, the author has always had plenty of it. From The Great Indian Novel to Riot, if there is one thing Tharoor has in plenty, it is style. Riot is eminently readable and most would take only a couple of days to race through it. However, what is disappointing is that once it’s over, nothing really stays with you — no character, no line, no twist in the tale. Perhaps in his emphasis on style, Tharoor forgot that while being sincere to his plot and characters may not be the main thing, it still counts for something.

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW/ SOME SOUP FOR THE SOUL 
 
 
BY ARUNJYOTI BASU
 
 
AN EYE FOR AN EYE
By Bandula Chandraratna,
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £ 12.99

The BBC is currently airing a programme on Asia. One presumes it will focus on countries of west Asia. If it does, it will find itself hard put to evoke the images of a desert kingdom presented in An Eye for an Eye. There are no prizes for guessing where the novel is set. A kingdom in the throes of change, unable to shed the cloak of tradition in its quest for the modern; where the system of justice has remained unchanged, and where a band of rebels are attempting a violent overthrow of the regime. The place should be obvious to readers.

We keep company with the protagonist, Sayeed, a simple villager, who is bewildered by the big city. We share his bewilderment when an enormous wrong is done to him. We also share his predicament when he is down, yet his inner goodness makes him reject all thoughts of revenge against a personal wrong.

Sayeed has come to work in the big city with his wife, Latifa, whom he loves to the point of distraction. He is alienated in his new environment when his wife is accused of adultery for which the punishment is death by stoning. Latifa is stoned to death and her supposed lover beheaded. “The executioner came near to Hussein with a long curved sword... raised it and struck as hard as possible....The head was not completely severed, but blood started gushing out, bathing his face...” Mercifully, the author us the description of the stoning of Latifa. There is only a description of the body when it is collected by Latifa’s father.

Knowledge of what had actually happened deranges Sayeed Al Rasheed. He is found unconscious in the desert by a Bedouin boy and brought to the hospital where Sayeed works. When he regains consciousness, Sayeed does not remember what had happened. Readers thus have no knowledge of what had transpired. The entire incident is intriguing, but one can guess that Sayeed, Latifa and the supposed lover must have all been victims of a conspiracy and the mutawah were probably behind it.

Sayeed has wonderful friends and the support of a traditional, extended family, which exists despite the upheavals connected with modernity. Perhaps, it will cease to exist in the future. Readers are bound to find parallels with India.

The support of family and friends help Sayeed regain his sanity, although he is taken to a traditional healer by his family. “She (Umm Abbas) was completely covered with a black abaya, only her dust-covered wrinkled hands and the tinkling long rows of twenty-four-carat gold bangles on her forearms visible.” Her answer to each and every ailment was cauterization. To cure Sayeed’s mental condition, she pressed a red-hot iron ring on the top of his head. “He will be all right in a day or two. The blood in his head was disturbed. I put it right.’” Surprisingly, Sayeed does get better.

As winds from outside blow across a medieval kingdom, they bring with them new ideas. Thoughts which seem treasonable. Sayeed’s old friend, Yasser, has become a rebel. Yasser leads a group of terrorists and takes over the Great Mosque. But their siege of the Great Mosque fails and those who surrender are sentenced to death by beheading.

Sayeed lives through all this, sustained by thoughts of revenge against the man he thinks has brought all the misfortune. “I am coming, you devil mutawah, be prepared, I am coming.” However, when he does find the “mutawah” with his little girl all thoughts of revenge vanish. He buries his dagger and goes back to the hospital. His colleague says that he looked happy.

Bandula Chandraratna weaves a rivetting tale of good triumphing over evil, of how the juxtaposition of the modern and the traditional can bring disaster to some. Maybe there is a moral in this story for us.

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW/ TEENAGE BLUES 
 
 
BY MADHUMITA BHATTACHARYYA
 
 
BLUESMAN
By Andre Dubus III,
WIlliam Heinemann, £ 9.99

A young boy of 18 grapples with life as it chances his way. As the once-clear rules of love, sex and family blur, he tries to stand on his feet as best as he can. Bluesman can only be described as a straightforward coming-of-age tale of a young man — Leo Suther — exploring the outer reaches of his boyhood.

This is a debut novel from the American who has received much acclaim for his second effort, House of Sand and Fog. While his second book, noted for its gripping realism, drew mixed reactions to various characters, Bluesman avoids the controversial, dealing mainly with the everyday – but very real – problems of a young man.

Leo is the boy next door with just the right dash of machismo. He, like every other adolescent boy on the eve of an eighteenth birthday, is trying desperately to be a man. The problem is he thinks he has already succeeded.

The boy’s major anguish has a staple source: A passionate relationship that spirals out of his control. Allie (or Allie Cat, as her father, Chick, appropriately calls the fiercely independent girl) takes him swiftly to a height he couldn’t imagine. He is invincible, as is his love. So, when his girl discovers she is pregnant, Leo thinks he can brave the world and bring up a child, like gypsy Indians, if he has to.

Leo’s unquenchable thirst to adopt the role of a responsible man-of-the-world is somewhat incomprehensible. To prove that he is worthy of Allie’s love, he promptly (and very earnestly) makes one hurtful move after another. Allie is furious, and Leo has no idea why.

Set in the backdrop of the Vietnam war, idealism in all shapes and sizes assaults Leo. The young man must deal with his father, Jim, and this man’s dedication to the memory of his dead mother, Katie Faye, even as he becomes more and more entrenched in a love of his own. Chick and his firebrand communism are perhaps the most overt of the challenges to his worldview, but there are more subtle choices of ideology Leo has to make. However, matters of intellect do not move Leo much after the initial questions lose their urgency, only matters of the heart.

And though Leo’s heart lies firmly in Allie’s hands, his soul belongs to his “harp”, or harmonica. He has grown up listening to his father and Ryder, his friend, jam to the tunes of African-American blues kings. The trio, which later christens itself “Katie Faye’s Band”, gives itself up to the music after a hard day’s work at the paper mill or construction site. He realizes that he is willing to live by his music — an unfulfilled dream of his parents and Ryder. He wants to live their dream, take the chances they had never been able to.

But though music has a constant presence in Bluesman, it has no real melody of its own. Dubus’s tone is flat, using the same voice for war, sex, violence and music. Nor does Dubus attempt to bring Heywood, a small town in Massachusetts, to life.

Leo’s hope, shining through the subdued bleakness of the novel, is endearing, but never rises above the ordinary. His determination to follow the dictates of love and passion, no matter what the risk, is too overdone to be memorable. The narrative fails to incorporate the humour so essential to put Leo’s yearning in perspective. But there are flashes which move, such as the pivotal fight between Leo and Allie where they move beyond their confusion into the realm of real anguish.

Bluesman does break out of its sameness, primarily in the form of Katie Faye’s diary. In the midst of emotional crisis, Leo flips through pages telling of Katie’s love for her husband and son, dreams of travelling to Paris to become a poet, reflects on pain and hopes for the future.

Leo and Allie; Jim, Ryder and Katie Faye don’t bring anything new to the bookshelves, but they are good enough company for a lazy afternoon. Bluesman is a bittersweet reminder of teenage confusions.

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW/ HISTORY AND ITS MISSING LINKS 
 
 
BY KAMALIKA MUKHERJEE
 
 
PEOPLE’S HISTORY OF INDIA PREHISTORY
By Irfan Habib,
Tulika, Rs 160

The legendary historian, Irfan Habib, better known for his contribution to medieval Indian history, has recently started a new series of “People’s History of India”, to be published in the form of successive monographs. The anxiety of reading a pre-history by a medieval historian quickly disappeared after flipping through the first few pages.

The first of these monographs has been titled Prehistory and deals with the early stages of human existence in India, prior to the discovery of any written records. As expected, the author, by his simple and lucid style, has ensured that the monograph not only caters to the academic world, but also to lay readers.

This treatise is divided into three chapters. In the first, Habib deals with the geological formation of India, taking into account the climatic changes, natural vegetation and wildlife since the Pleistocene age (about two million years ago). Taking the cue from Darwin’s theory of evolution, Habib draws a similar line of argument. Changes in the earth’s crust resulted in the formation of continents and other land masses. Habib says, “what is now India is supposed, in this theory, to have belonged to a supercontinent designated ‘Gondwanaland’ situated in the southern hemisphere”.

To validate his point, the historian has made use of extensive maps and tables which goes to prove the detailed research he undertook. In his analysis of the climatic changes, natural vegetation and wildlife, Habib explains the various factors that affected the process. Interestingly, the historian’s concern with conservation comes out in the following statement, “The possible dangers from an utter degradation of nature (in respect to both plants and animals) to humanity itself are now being increasingly realized. Preserving whatever remains of nature should therefore become an important part of our endeavour”.

The second chapter tells the story of the evolution of the “Anatomically modern man” from “older ape-like creatures”, which is best exemplified by the discovery of the earliest fossil, named “Lucy”(dated approximately 3.2 million years ago). The Aligarh historian has used different figures to illustrate in a chronological sequence the fossil skulls and stone tools found in different sites across the world. He places the emergence of the early man in India within the broader spectrum of the evolutionary process. Other illustrations in the book show the diffusion of the human species and tool cultures from Africa to India. Habib concludes the chapter by saying, “the Anatomically Modern Man, thus, by both absorption and elimination, brought about the total extinction of the earlier hominid species not only in India but throughout the Old World”.

The last section of this book describes the coming of agriculture and domestication of animals, in short, the “Neolithic revolution”. This term was first popularized by the well-known archaeologist, Gordon Childe, in his masterly work, Man makes himself. There has been a lot of criticism about the application of the term to Mehergarh, where changes occurred over a span of 3,000 years. Habib argues that the term can be applied because Mehergarh bears witness to all that makes up for a “Neolithic” revolution.

The rest of the book describes the various “Neolithic cultures” found in central, eastern and southern India after 3000 BC. To help students of history as well as the interested reader to increase their knowledge about the present subject, Habib has summed up the existing debates, theories and given an exhaustive bibliography at the end of each chapter.

One is forced to admit that Habib has broken the cliché about a medieval historian not being able to do justice to a different period of historical time. The cover illustration of this book is simple and attractive in its own way. It has given the monograph an added edge.

   

 
 
BOOKWISE/ AND THEREBY HANGS THE READER 
 
 
BY RAVI VYAS
 
 
Whether the UGC likes it or not, one of the biggest blunders it made in the Eighties, was to make a research degree a necessary qualification for college teachers. There are now literally thousands of PhDs and second-rate academics in India who are simply unable to communicate, orally or in writing, in any language including their own.

Given the fact that there is direct link between the quality of education and the quality of books published, two questions arise. First, why is the quality of social science research so mediocre or at least not very original? Second, how do the less-than-mediocre find their way into print?

Research calls for an independence of mind, a quality that is never fostered in the traditional cultural environment of India. Here it is the guru-shishya relationship, the shishya never encouraged to question, let alone challenge, the guru. The researcher can hardly come up with anything of his or her own and so it is only natural the majority of research students expect their supervisors to find suitable topics for them and suitable ways of dealing with them.

There could be exceptions because the relationship between a supervisor and his student can be double-edged, the personal and the academic side. If the supervisor gets too close to the student he might feel hemmed in and talked down upon; if he keeps a distance, he might feel rejected. Quite apart from the influence of supervisor, there is always the problem of availability of sources and the proper infrastructure for research and development. With a few exceptions of centres of advanced learning like Delhi for modern Indian history and economics, Hyderabad for language studies, Aligarh for medieval India and so on, most other universities are hopelessly equipped to cope research. So, what we get is a botched up work based on a few secondary sources.

But more important, how do these theses, with or without revision, get published? The simple answer is: the author pays for the cost of production based on the publisher’s cost estimates. Increasingly, this has become the practice since the early Nineties when library purchases, the core market for social science monographs, dried up for lack of funds. Book prices went up three-fold while grants were stuck at the mid-Eighties budgets. Publishers could remain in business only if they could make authors pay the manufacturing costs.

In a way there is nothing surprising about the development because many big-budget books like encyclopedias and dictionaries have always been sponsored by some foundation or the other. For instance, the multi-volume Jawaharlal Nehru’s Selected Works has been sponsored by the Nehru Foundation as the earlier ninety volumes of The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi had been sponsored by the ministry of information and broadcasting. All that has happened now is that the practice has extended down the line to single social science monographs with the sponsor being an organization or the author himself.

Is this a healthy practice? The answer is “no”. It was all right for expensive reference works that was sponsored by some foundation, but to whittle it down to single books is tantamount to making compromises on quality and the relevance of the book for the reader. It means the author, by getting his book published, gets a leg up in his profession and the publisher makes a fast buck on the side. Hang the reader.

   

 
 
PAPERBACK PICKINGS 
 
 
 
 

Tibetologist, bodhisattva and narcissist

THE HUNGARIAN WHO WALKED TO HEAVEN: ALEXANDER CSOMA DE KOROS 1784-1842
By Edward Fox
(Short Books, £ 4.99)

The Hungarian Who Walked To Heaven: Alexander Csoma De Koros, 1784-1842 by Edward Fox presents the extraordinary life of an excessively modest man who was a national hero in Hungary, a legendary figure in British India and the founding father of Tibetan studies. In 1831, after 8 years of hardship in Buddhist monasteries in the Himalayan provinces of northern India, Csoma had been rewarded by his patrons in the government of India with the post of librarian of the Asiatic Society of Bengal. This life of scholarly achievement is also a tragic life. Csoma lived a pathologically reclusive life in the heart of Calcutta, psychologically and emotionally crushed by the superhuman effort that went into his studies. In 1835, he requested two British passports, one in English, identifying him as “Mr Alexander Csoma, a Hungarian philosopher, native of Transylvania”, and one in Persian, giving his name as “Molla Eskander Csoma az Mulk-i Rum”. Fox’s fascinating account of Csoma’s obsessive travels and travails ends with a psychiatric diagnosis: “narcissistic personality disorder”. But there is also a tribute: “The marvel of his life is that his personality was uniquely suitable for the superhuman task of compiling the first dictionary and grammar of the Tibetan language, and introducing Tibetan culture to the West.” In 1933, nearly a century after his death, the Tokyo Buddhist University in Japan declared Csoma a bodhisattva.

WATER!
By Komal Swaminathan
(Seagull, Rs 175)

Water! by Komal Swaminathan is S. Shankar’s translation of the Tamil play, Thaneer Thaneer (1979). Shankar sees this play as an example of “middle theatre”, straddling “the gap between urban and rural audiences, between artistic integrity and commercial success”. Swaminathan’s abiding interest as a playwright has been “physical and mental revolt”, Marxist literature and thought providing him with a “broad-based philosophy of life” which he has used “for literary ends”. The protagonist of this play is a bonded labourer, Vellaisamy, who escapes after murdering his tyrannical master and transforms the lives of the people of the drought-stricken village, Athipatti.

EARLY CHILDHOOD EDUCATION: POSTCOLONIAL PERSPECTIVES FROM INDIA
By Radhika Viruru
(Sage, Rs 225)

Early Childhood Education: Postcolonial Perspectives From India by Radhika Viruru outlines a critique of Western discourses on play-based, child-centred education which, according to Viruru, aim at discovering universal laws that are valid regardless of context. Combining field studies, individual case histories and theoretical elaboration, Viruru explores the various elements of her critique in a detailed ethnography of a nursery school in urban India. She attempts to replace the Western preoccupation with cause and effect with a very Indian emphasis on coexistence.

   

 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

End of the road

Sir —Six times Wimbledon champion, Pete Sampras, looked invincible right up to the finals of the US Open, where he lost to 20-year-old Lleyton Hewitt of Australia in straight sets (“Dazzling Hewitt dents Pete’s pride”, (Sept 11). For those who had expected the 30-year-old champion to win his fifth US open title this year, his defeat turned out to be a major disappointment and a reminder that he may already be too old for a sport which favours the young. Watching Hewitt play his cracking backhand shots all over the Arthur Ashe Stadium, one was reminded of Sampras’s victory in the US open final in 1991. It remains to be seen whether Sampras will continue to play even after his defeat in consecutive Grand Slam finals this year. He could follow in the footsteps of players like Chris Evert and Steffi Graf, who chose to retire once they realized that their chances of winning were becoming less with each passing year. Sampras is an extraordinary player and his contribution to the game will not be undermined if he decides to retire now.
Yours faithfully,
Joyita Saha, via email

Apocalypse now

Sir — It is war time in the United States. And it is straight out of a Hollywood film. But as we are still trying to sift fact from fiction and people everywhere are glued to their television sets, the reaction of the common US citizen is more provocative. An Islamic-Arabic-Asian outfit could have coordinated the operations. Rumours are flying thick and fast — and they are more extreme than the Ganesh-drinking-milk or the monkey-man rumours. People of Asian origin are having a hard time asking Americans to distinguish between Asians according to their geographical origins.
Yours faithfully,
Prashanta Chakravarty, New York

Sir — The horrific explosions that destroyed the twin towers of the World Trade Center and damaged the Pentagon have destroyed the myth of American invincibility. The multiple hijacking have also exposed the inadequacy of airport security in the major American cities.

It is indeed ironic that even though the US has participated in two world wars, the American mainland has never been hit by an enemy country. The world’s most powerful nation, and the proverbial big brother, has never experienced an attack of this magnitude. One can only hope that the US will be more sympathetic towards the plight of countries like India who have to deal with this menace on a regular basis.

Yours faithfully,
Suman Chatterjee, via email

Sir — The news report, “Attack on America” (Sept 12), was a shocking reminder of the vulnerability of ordinary citizens to attacks like the ones on New York and Washington. The menace of terrorism must be dealt with effectively, otherwise more lives will be lost. It is imperative that the president of the United States, George W. Bush, is able to reassure citizens and exercise restraint and good judgment at the same time.

Yours faithfully,
Sajjad Ali Mondol, Birati

Sir — It is no coincidence that the bombing of the WTC and the Pentagon occurred on World Peace Day. By destroying the financial centre of the world’s richest country, the terrorist group responsible for the bombings is sending a message to the Americans — that no country, no matter how rich and powerful, is immune to such attacks. The Indian government has rightly condemned these attacks, while reiterating its stand on terrorism.

Yours faithfully,
Neha Bihani, Calcutta

Sir — While one must condemn the killing of innocent people in the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, one must not forget that it was the US that was responsible for nurturing Islamic terrorism. The US had flooded Afghanistan with arms and had in the process given leeway to a terrorist like Osama bin Laden who had then been an American ward. In fact, this is a classic case of Frankenstein’s monster turning on its creator.

Yours faithfully,
Biswapriya Purkayastha, via email

Sir — The US has been buying Asian brains for a long time now. The WTC, the hub of US business, was the workplace of many of them. It will be no surprise to find that the number of Asians trapped inside the twin towers is greater than the number of US nationals.

Yours faithfully,
S.K. Mitra, Calcutta

Sir — There is a saying that it is only during periods of crisis that one gets to see real heroes. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the US, the fire-fighters, the police and other emergency personnel in New York have proved the truth of this statement. Without thinking of their own safety, they have managed to rescue people and prevented the fire from spreading to nearby buildings. In doing so, hundreds of them, including the chief and senior officials of the New York fire department, have laid down their lives. One can only salute their bravery and sense of duty.

Yours faithfully,
Debashis Mukherjee, Calcutta

Anguish and apology

Sir — With a heavy heart and a deep sense of anguish, I write this letter to draw your kind attention to the news report, “Full granary, empty pocket” (Sept 4), and the accompanying photograph, whose caption read “Orissa in Delhi: A woman seeks alms in the capital”. I consider this photo caption to be highly derogatory and defamatory.

I am sure that the photograph has deeply hurt the sentiments and self-esteem of lakhs of Oriyas living across the country. This photo caption has sought to identify Orissa with beggary, which is miles away from the truth. I am sure, as a neighbour, you are well aware of the rich cultural heritage and glorious tradition of Orissa. The present Orissa may be economically backward for historic reasons but certainly has not come to a stage where the entire Oriya nation can be identified with beggars.

I am shocked that a prestigious publication coming out of a respectable media house could behave so irresponsibly. I am also sure that you would never love to see any publication trying to denigrate or cast any aspersion on Bengalis. Both of us know that thousands of beggars roam on the streets of Calcutta. Can we define them as the face of Bengal? I think not.

Therefore, I urge upon you to kindly tender unconditional apology to the people of Orissa.

Yours faithfully,
Chandrabhanu Pattnaik, Editor, The Satabdi, Bhubaneswar

The Telegraph offers its unqualified apology for unwittingly causing anguish to the people of Orissa. The message the picture and its caption sought to convey was exactly the opposite of what it may have appeared to be. It was meant to tell our readers that to see the face of hunger, look no further than Delhi. The last thing on The Telegraph’s mind was to hurt the sentiments of Oriyas, with whom we have had such close relations over the years. And being a publication from Calcutta, we can hardly pretend not to see the face of hunger here.

The editor

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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