Editorial / Away in the world
Beyond challenge
This above all / Quiet and solitude by the Ganga
People / Omar Abdullah
Letters to the editor

Mr V.S. Naipaul, this year’s Nobel laureate in literature, “doesn’t represent anyone but himself”. This is how Mr Horace Engdahl, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, mediates the writer to the world. However, Mr Naipaul’s own public response to the award gives to this rather lofty sense of personal identity an interestingly double location and history. The award is a “great tribute” to two “homes” — his own, England, and that of his ancestors, India. The Swedish Academy, and Mr Naipaul himself, thus place this distinguished literary achievement both in history and beyond any simply definable ethnic identity. This is as much a comment on Mr Naipaul’s writings as an indication of what the award has come to mean with regard to the status of English as a literary language.

India’s first Nobel laureate in literature, Rabindranath Tagore, and his European peer, W.B. Yeats, were both much taken with the idea of a “world literature”, and the prize has come to symbolize literature’s universality, transcending linguistic, political and geographical boundaries. The English language seems to be emerging as the especial vehicle of this transcendence. Yet, both Tagore and Yeats, and subsequent laureates like Messrs Derek Walcott and Wole Soyinka, have used English within a colonial context. The Nobel has bestowed on their writings a certain universality — making them part of “a worldwide community”, in Mr Engdahl’s somewhat predictable formulation. But it has also recognized these writers’ distinction in using English to complicate the universal with their individual, and highly nuanced, sense of this imperial history. Mr Naipaul’s abiding theme could be described as the human consequences of imperialism. The Academy’s citation calls him “the annalist of the destinies of empires”. He is the “literary circumnavigator”, whose superb and arrogant English prose embodies everything that is disturbing and contradictory about these colonial histories. The English language, learnt in Trinidad and perfected in an Oxford that left Mr Naipaul savagely depressed, becomes the means for not only surviving “the horribleness of life”, but also for representing the great anxieties of empire. English is therefore the language of a series of richly enigmatic arrivals which is also a series of dislocations and disappointments. The public tribute to a plurality of “homes” is the other side of a pervasive sense of homelessness. This is both a source of despair and uncertainty, and a cherished critical position, a point of view above that of white or brown or black, which makes possible an existing only in oneself. The pleasures and provocations of Mr Naipaul’s writings arise from this doubleness, of which postcolonial English has become a uniquely commodious vehicle.

The astringency of Mr Naipaul’s public persona runs the risk of his opinions and utterances ending up as more famous than what he actually writes — his horrified recoil from India, his severe views against Islamic imperialism, his patrician contempt for Blairite plebeianism. This would be an unfortunate simplification of the complexity of Mr Naipaul’s relationship with his own expansive literary domain, extending beyond the Caribbean to encompass India, Africa, America, Muslim Asia and, of course, England. This troubled, and troubling, reach lends to postcolonial English a particular note of triumph. It also takes the Nobel vision of a “world literature” beyond anodyne idealism.


No tears will be shed for either a murderous Osama bin Laden or a fanatical taliban, and only a legalistic few might quibble that the law of nations casts its protection over even rogue states and repugnant governments. But the successful conclusion of America’s war against Afghanistan will resurrect George Bush Sr’s dream of a New World Order in which the Lone Superpower commands unlimited access to energy sources and enjoys unquestioned authority.

“The time has come for America to reset its geopolitical compass,” Richard Nixon exulted when the Cold War ended during the last Bush presidency. “We have a historic opportunity to change the world.” For better or worse, perhaps the hour is at hand, more so than at the end of World War II or the Vietnam or Kuwait wars. Other consequences would include legitimizing hot pursuit on a global scale and the heightened risk of conflict between self-serving Islamic rulers and the people they rule.

American bombing of mullah Mohammed Omar’s home indicates that replacing the taliban is as important as eliminating bin Laden and the al Qaida. When this has been achieved, the United States of America will not leave a shattered Afghanistan to anarchy and god. The congress has already sanctioned $300 million for the search for a successor. “Broad-based” or not, the new regime will have to defer to crucial US interests.

Energy holds the key to world supremacy. Afghanistan holds the key to transporting colossal central Asian deposits of oil and gases (several hundred billion barrels in the Caspian basin alone, according to some estimates) to Arabian Sea ports. Bill Clinton’s private chat with Dhirubhai Ambani, whose petrochemical complex near the border is the world’s biggest, was a reminder that Clinton had pinned his hopes on Unocal’s proposed pipeline through Afghanistan. Of the five routes mooted, it made the most sense geographically and would have been firmly under US control if the taliban had agreed to play ball with Unocal.

The stakes explained George W. Bush Jr’s invocation of a higher morality to transform his country’s foe into a global abstraction like the Cold War bogey of communism. Many countries — India included — are going along with his crusade for national reasons but, significantly, the active participants named on the first day were all white, European and Christian. Asians are squeamish about innocent Asian lives: Tomahawk missiles cannot distinguish between ordinary Afghans and taliban militants. Only dubious Muslim regimes extended support, tacit or overt.

Uzbekistan could do so without fear of public outcry because Islam Karimov, the president, and his terror squads had silenced dissent with a harshness that provoked protests by Amnesty International, the Human Rights Watch and even the state department. This Stalinist dictatorship — the old Supreme Soviet elected Karimov in 1990 — is Washington’s crucial ally in central Asia.

Similarly, Pakistan, which the Commonwealth suspended from membership when Pervez Musharraf seized power by overthrowing an elected civilian government, dissolving parliament and suspending the constitution, is the frontline partner in south Asia. Even Kuwait refused visas to Pakistani citizens for their government’s complicity in creating and sustaining the taliban.

History repeats itself. When the Cold War produced a surge of communist insurgencies in Central America in the Seventies, America fell back on corrupt tyrannies like Anastasio Somoza’s Nicaragua. Its trusted Asian proteges have included autocrats like South Korea’s Syngman Rhee, Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, South Vietnam’s Nguyen Van Thieu and a succession of Pakistani military dictators. South Vietnam’s Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu were abandoned to be murdered when they ceased to be useful.

Defending these geopolitically important but locally unpopular partners, the Reagan administration’s United Nations ambassador, Jeane Kirkpatrick, differentiated between dictatorial and authoritarian regimes. While the former were beyond redemption and had to be liquidated, the latter could be won over to freedom and democracy. It seemed a specious distinction to uncommitted Asians who saw only dictators who were pro-or anti-America.

Bush does not feel the need for such rationalization even if his allies fall signally short of the lofty ideals cited in his historic address to the joint session of congress. “Americans are asking: Why do they hate us?” he intoned, and himself provided the answer. Apparently, the shadowy “they” hate America because it is the repository of “freedom” and “democracy”. He repeated the word “freedom” 13 times.

How do these noble concepts resonate in Pakistan, Uzbekistan and in America ‘s other central Asian supporter, Turkmenistan, whose president, Saparmurad Niazov, another survivor from orthodox communism, outlawed opposition parties after an obliging legislature made him president-for-life? Do democracy and freedom flourish in Qatar, America’s closest friend in the Persian Gulf, whose absolute monarch does not tolerate elections or political parties, and appoints only royal siblings to all key positions? And what of the royal Saudi autocracy perched on a tinderbox?

Washington was perfectly willing to accommodate a taliban that was sensitive to the needs of the world’s largest oil consumer. Half of the 17 million barrels that the US uses every day has to be imported. Central Asia is preferable to the Gulf because its oil is of good quality, local demand is low, there are no volatile mobs and the rulers are impoverished and unsophisticated. Chevron was first in the field in 1996, Unocal following hard on its heels. Ariel Sharon’s complaint about placating Arabs highlighted this primacy of American economic interests.

Geography and logistics shape US policy. Pakistan’s 2,430-kilometre border with Afghanistan, Turkmenistan’s 744 km and Uzbekistan’s 137 km are the determining factors. The cynical response to Bush’s appeal, recalling the story about Monaco cabling Paris to send down some French Communists so that it qualified for post-war US reconstruction assistance, is seen as normal. The son of the man whose greatest achievement was not fighting the Kuwait War but getting Saudi Arabia to pay the $100-billion bill knows there are no free lunches in politics.

With the International Monetary Fund, Japan, Britain and Australia following his lead, Pakistan has been saved from bankruptcy. More significantly, Bush’s admission that he had been “spending a lot of time, effort and focus on Pakistan to make sure that the Musharraf presidency is a stable presidency” means rehabilitation for yesterday’s pariah state. Musharraf has since indefinitely extended his tenure as army chief, and purged his armed forces of senior officers (including the Inter-Services Intelligence chief) who were close to the taliban. The reconstituted military hierarchy will not obstruct US plans to install a favourable regime in Kabul.

No wonder the state department’s updated list of 28 banned terrorist organizations left out the two Pakistan-based groups — Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad — that are responsible for continuing violence in Kashmir, including the October 1 suicide bombing killing 38 people. This might change when Colin Powell visits New Delhi, for India counts in the context of another Asian balance that is also part of Washington’s strategic calculations. But by bypassing the United Nations and warning of future intervention in any country that helps or harbours those whom America considers terrorists, Bush provided a glimpse of the unipolar New World Order.

America has no global challenger, as Dick Cheney, the vice-president, boasted in his last incarnation. “No country is our match in conventional military technology or the ability to apply it. There are no significant alliances hostile to our interests.” True, Afghanistan brought its terrible fate on itself, but, then, history turns on minutiae like an archduke’s assassination or the length of Cleopatra’s nose.

A pre-emptive strike that determines Samuel Huntington’s clash of civilizations before it has even begun, and a post-taliban regime in Kabul that permits oil pipelines, might serve the immediate object of Operation Enduring Freedom and save the world from bin Laden’s depredations. It would also in the longer run secure the Lone Superpower’s supremacy and make this the American Century.


Two days after the full moon in early October, I set out for my bi-annual visit to Har Ki Paudi on the west bank of the Ganga in Hardwar. I have a good excuse to do so: I am on the board of the Delhi Public School, Ranipur, which is barely a 20 minutes car ride to my destination. I made no secret of my wish to be on the school board because like Allama Iqbal, my caravan stops on the banks of the sacred river as did the caravans of our Aryan ancestors.

The car picks me up at 7 am. Pandit Amlesh Kumar Sharma of Gorakhpur is at the wheel. He knows every unmarked speed-breaker, and how to go past buffalo carts, bicycle-rickshaws, trucks, buses and tractors. A strapping handsome sardar Pavinder Singh Bal, sports master of the school, is my escort. Exactly two and half hours later, we pull up at the Cheetal Grand which has become a must on my journey to and back from Hardwar. It has become the meeting place for people who are taking the ashes of their loved ones to merge in the Ganga and those returning after having done so. There must be many others who stop there because the service is fast, the food gourmet quality and the garden a lot of colours. It receives an average of 7000 to 8000 visitors everyday. Not bad for a way side eaterie near a non-descript village called Khatauli.We reach Ranipur at noon. I beg to be excused and lock myself in to have an undisturbed siesta.

Presiding over a school board is no problem. I know nothing about how a school should be run and take a back seat. I believe that once you select a headmaster, you must not meddle in the way he or she runs the school. H.N. Gupta is the head co-chairman. Then there are teachers like Nanda, Sharda Naik, Nina Sehgal, all of whom know a lot more about children’s education than I. I cover my ignorance by maun-brat — a vow of silence.

People in charge of the bandobast at Har ki Paudi know me as a regular: Pandit Raj Kumar Sharma and Inspector Nagendra Pratap take me down the steps to a takhat posh overlooking the river. A panda applies a red teeka on my forehead; I get a flask of ganga jal and a packet of prasad. I wish to be left alone for my communion.

The sun goes over the hill. A deep shadow spreads over the ghat. Lights begin to twinkle. Leaf boats with flowers and diyas (oil lamps) race over the swirling waters. A cry goes up, “bolo,bolo, Ganga maata kee”. Gongs are struck to pay homage to the lesser gods. The aarti begins. It is a chaos of sight and sound, fragrance, clanging of the gongs, temple bells, blowing of conch shells, and singing. Scent of flowers mixed with the incense of aggar bathties. I am transported to another world. Ganga mata carries me on her turbulent waves. My throat is choked; my eyes blurred with tears. I don’t know why this pagan worship of the mother of all rivers has come to mean so much to me; I do not want to know.

Of monkeys and old memories

Late September, early October, not a flower is to be seen on the hill side. Not many birds, and little bird song. In the afternoon a troop of langoors arrives from nowhere and begins stripping leaves off fruit trees. A large mama langoor carrying its little baby perches herself on my bird-bath to drink water. She ducks her baby’s head down to teach it how to drink. A langoor male strolls across the lawn and seats himself majestically on the bench, watching his family from where he is sitting.

There are a dozen of them chasing each other on the corrugated tin roof, romping about the lawn completely at home in my home. They make me feel like a trespasser on their domain. They seem to have driven rhesus monkeys away from my side of Kasauli. They are beautiful animals, silver grey, jet black faces, sinuous bodies and long tails. The one thing I have against langoors (and rhesus) is that they have taken to chewing telephone wires. My telephone was dead for two days till the wires were replaced. I hope the wire is coated with stuff that monkeys don’t relish.

How the years take their toll. There was a time when my evening walks in the three hills of Kasauli took me two hours at a brisk pace. The walks became shorter, the pace slower. Last year I went down to the bazaar only once to let my shopkeeper friends — Om Halwai, Panchi, the chemist, Satto, paanwala, and Guptaji, the general merchant, and Pemta, my Tibetan heart-throb — know that I was still alive. Now I find the steep from my villa to the road difficult to negotiate. I leave it to my friends to ring up and drop in.

I have found a new friend in the young and lovely Baljit Virk. She teaches in Pamgrove School and whenever I ask her she comes by bus to have tea with me and returns before it gets dark. Besides being easy on the eye, she is a good-talker. I often wonder why she has not married because she looks as nubile as any girl of her age. I am reminded of an Urdu couplet:

Is say barh kar waqt kya dhaayega Sitam/ Jism boodha kar diya, dil jawaanrehney diya

What more punishment can age inflict on me/ It has made my body old but left my heart young

Maneka Gandhi’s case against the publication of my autobiography, Truth, Love and a Little Malice, pursued me up to Kasauli. The injunction she got against its appearance was vacated after six years. It became a minor media event. I thought I would leave it behind me in Delhi. However, Star TV thought there was still some interest in the event and sent its team to catch me in the haven of peace. Sunil Sethi arrived at my door-step along with his team including cameramen at 2 pm on a bright, sunny afternoon. “It will take the whole afternoon to finish the shooting,” warned Sunil. “We have to get your reaction to the lifting of the embargo against your book, the souring of your relationship with Maneka. And while we are here we thought we might as well make a full coverage on you.”

“To use for my obituary?” I suggested.

“No, no, no,” protested Sunil. “You are in good shape and will remain so,” he said, thumping a wooden table. “We call it archival material.” They felt uneasy because an obituary was exactly what they had in mind.

We got down to business. I explained my support for Sanjay Gandhi and the Emergency when it was first imposed. I criticized it later when it began to be misused. Sanjay rewarded me with a nomination to the Rajya Sabha and the editorship of The Hindustan Times. My enthusiastic support of Maneka when Sanjay died in an aircrash, angered Mrs Gandhi. The final break came with her case against me and its aftermath. Sunil’s last question was to elicit my views on death and life hereafter. That confirmed my suspicion about the timing of the use of their so-called archival material. I answered it as I always have. There is no reason for believing in a day of judgment nor in re-birth after death. Death is a full-stop. About what remains after it, no one has a clue. The shooting took about five hours. Some of it you might have seen before this column appears. The rest you may see the day I depart.

The week in the Shivaliks came to an end far too soon. I found myself at the Chandigarh railway station an hour before the Shatabdi Express to Delhi was due to leave. I sat in the hot waiting room leafing through the magazines I had bought at the bookstall. Humra Qureshi joined me. Then came 19-year-old, Nagina Kohli, with a carton full of kebabs from her hotel Aroma. She was followed by Sharda Kaushik with a box full of sandwiches. The fourth lass was Bulbul Sharma who was on the same train. When the doors of the Shatabdi were opened to let in passengers, I was escorted by four beautiful women to my compartment. I heard someone remark: “Who is this buddha Krishna with gopis?”



Right place, right time

Wordsmith Laloo Prasad Yadav recognises a member of his word-weavers’ ilk when he spots one. So when he saw Omar Abdullah on television earlier this week, playing shuttlecock with a seasoned editor, he reached out for the telephone. “I have been getting some positive feedback on my media interactions,” Omar Abdullah says. “But I must say I was pleasantly surprised to get a call and a word of praise from Laloo Prasad Yadav.”

There is no doubt about it, young Abdullah has arrived. Some months ago, he was the son of a chief minister, pushed into the big bad world of politics where he stood out like a sore thumb with his squeaky-clean looks. Today, the 31-year-old minister of state for external affairs and National Conference MP voices government positions on foreign policy, answering tricky questions or artfully dodging them at public briefings. Articulate and personable, he is the NDA government’s new public face. “I suppose I was in the right place at the right time. Or, if you would, the wrong place in the wrong time,” he says. “But I do enjoy pitting my wits against the media,” he says.

He is in his South Block office, right next to a computer that has been furiously blinking away. And he is on the phone, asking his secretary to place his Brussels agenda in his organiser. After the peripatetic Jaswant Singh, Abdullah is possibly the one with the most stamped passport in the cabinet. Even before he took up his new assignment in September, he had been sent to Libya as a special envoy of the government with a letter for Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, just before the Agra summit. Last month, he was in South Africa, speaking on race. Some days ago, he was in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, apparently confabulating with members of the Northern Alliance.

For Abdullah, this has been some image-change. Till recently, it was thought that the alumnus of Sydenham College and Strathclyde University, Scotland, was a mere member of the political brat-pack. The only time the press noticed him was when he’d make some chilli crab salad for his friends at a grill-room in a five-star hotel. The little that the world knew of him was that the old Sanawarian wore some choice kurtas. Someone suggested that his hair style — a strange wedge down an expanding temple — was a designer hair-cut. “I hate it when people say all this,” Abdullah mutters. “There is no point in asking me about Kashmir when this is all they are interested in.”

Abdullah also hates being called a trump card. But it has to be said that he is clearly an ace up Vajpayee’s sleeve. He is young, eloquent, a Muslim — and to top it all, a Kashmiri. “So when he attacks Pakistan, it makes the government sound that much more credible,” says a foreign affairs analyst. “I am here by choice,” he retorts. “I think there’s more to this than being just a trump card.”

There is. Abdullah lists all that he has to do to project a convincing viewpoint. Before any briefing, he meets officials, reads every newspaper and goes through the files. “I do my homework,” he says.

A political greenhorn till the other day, Abdullah now makes sure he is equally well-briefed before he meets dignitaries. But the initial surprise with which most foreigners first view him never fails to amuse him. Some brush him aside as a security officer, others see him as an interpreter. “Recently, when I was ushering a visiting minister into my room, he started to look around for me. When he realised who I was, he said: ‘Oh, I thought you were going to tell me where to sit.’ I said: ‘I can still do that, but I am also the one you’ve come to meet.’”

Abdullah, clearly, enjoys his job. If there’s a regret, it’s for a schedule that leaves him with no time for Kashmir. State elections are round the corner, and Abdullah rues that he hardly gets to visit his constituency. “And you are only as relevant as your last election.”

One day, Abdullah says, he will go back home to Kashmir. Some have advised him to stay on at the Centre, arguing that the state will always be a small player in a large arena. “But I think I would rather play a national role from a small state,” he says. Till then, of course, Abdullah has to contend with the wheels under his feet. There is a modern nursery rhyme that could have been written for the minister. “Where are you going to, Omar Abdullah? (goes the rhyme) I am going to London, Insha-Allah.”

At the South Block, one could say: “Where are you going to, Omar Abdullah? I am going places, Insha-Allah.”



Moral of the story

Sir — The report, “Mamata book” (Oct 7), is quite hilarious to say the least. In her fresh bid to highlight the lawlessness in West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee has put down her disapproval of the situation in a book she has named Abiswashya. The Trinamool Congress leader, in order to bring to the fore the alleged rigging of the assembly polls by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), thought of this novel idea in a sense of utter desperation. Earlier her effort at writing was not very successful and one wonders why she is indulging in this disappointing venture. Instead of letting her pen do the talking, she should try to formulate a better and more effective strategy to defeat the Left Front convincingly.

Yours faithfully,
Ranjana Aggarwal, Calcutta

Smell of dirt

Sir — The Supreme Court’s warning that about 40 foundries in Agra will be closed down if they did not stop using highly polluting coke or coal is timely (“SC fuel deadline to Taj foundries”, Oct 4). They have been given time until October 11 to file affidavits before the Agra civic authority, and have been directed to switch over to another fuel, probably gas based. Evidently the order is based on the facts presented before the court.

Surprisingly, none of the parties for or against the use of less polluting fuel apparently informed the court that most developed countries, including Britain, have banned the running of foundries. This is because making them use less polluting fuel was found to be an uneconomical option.

Also, there is the problem of follow-up. It is difficult to ensure that the regulations laid down by the courts will be properly and regularly implemented.

The Supreme Court directive was issued in the interest of protecting the Taj Mahal from environmental pollution. It goes without saying that what is good for the Taj Mahal cannot be bad for the health of human beings. But the court has taken an equally firm stand for the protection of human health. The orders for cleaning up the Yamuna in Delhi and the use of compressed natural gas by the public transport sector were based on the premise of public welfare.

Yours faithfully,
D.V. Vamsee Krishna, Bhubaneswar

Sir — The report, “Delhi govt to file CNG affidavit” (Oct 5), is expected to bring the auto fuel crisis to an end. The Centre asked the Delhi government to file its affidavit on the CNG issue before the Supreme Court on the basis of the understanding between the two governments. The SC’s decision not to allow autorickshaws to ply on the roads of Delhi unless they are able to use “clean fuel” is unfair. The drivers’ disappointment is therefore justified.

Yours faithfully,
A. Chowdhury, Calcutta

Sir — The report on the state of pollution in Calcutta is alarming and incites serious reflection (“Smoke signals spread beyond Calcutta”, Oct 3). In recent years, city dwellers have witnessed an increase in pollution level because of emission from petrol-run vehicles. This affects the health of the population: particularly those who work on the street and the police are the most vulnerable to this.

As a result, Calcuttans are falling prey to diseases such as cancer and diabetes. The initiative undertaken by the Central pollution control board and the state pollution control board should be appreciated for tackling the grim situation in Calcutta.

Yours faithfully,
Shiuli Mitra, Calcutta

Sir — Unfortunately there exist some instances of inconsistency in the government’s approach to pollution. This is in regard to washer men living just outside the I.D. Hospital near the EM Bypass who are polluting the entire area by burning tyres, thereby emitting smoke that enters the premises of the hospital.

This should be immediately stopped. Moreover, the water used by the washer men is the breeding ground of dangerous bacteria causing water pollution in the entire area. Will the authorities take a closer look at this sad state of affairs?

Yours faithfully,
Sanjay, via email

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