Editorial 1 / Threat to success
Editorial 2 / Not starry eyed
Bearding the sardar
Book Review / An eye for detail
Book Review / Doing justice
Book Review / Little knowledge is a good thing
Book Review / Back to the roots
Editor’s choice / The path to enlightenment
Paperback Pickings / Remains of the last utopia
Letters to the editor

 
 
EDITORIAL 1 / THREAT TO SUCCESS 
 
 
 
 
Life and history are both great levellers. Mr Colin Powell, the secretary of state, United States of America, must be realizing this much to his chagrin. In India and Pakistan, during his short visit, Mr Powell registered what in these troubled and complicated times must be considered a diplomatic triumph of sorts. In Pakistan, he ensured that Mr Pervez Musharraf, remained committed to supporting the US military intervention; in India, he smoothed ruffled feathers and left with the assurance that the pro tem support to Pakistan in no way compromised the US’s long term strategic understanding with India. He said to Mr Musharraf what the latter wanted to hear and his reassurances were music to Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s ears. But his chalice of success was poisoned by the assassination of Mr Rehavam Zeevi, Israel’s tourism minister. The consequences of the murder will throw a spanner in Mr Powell’s works. After September 11, the US diplomatic machinery went into overdrive to create a global coalition against terrorism. A necessary condition for the coming into being and the success of the coalition was the cessation of violence in west Asia. The US could not afford to move against Mr Osama bin Laden and his cohorts in Afghanistan with an Israel-Palestine conflict simmering in the flanks. It was Mr Powell’s achievement that he brokered a peace between Palestine and Israel which guaranteed that the US could go to war with one less problem to worry about.

The assassination of Mr Zeevi has shattered this peace. As Israel’s prime minister, Mr Ariel Sharon, put it, “everything has changed”. The domino effect of this one incident can only escalate violence between Israel and Palestine. The end of what can now be described, with some justification, as a phoney peace is signalled by Israel’s refusal to let the Palestinian president, Mr Yasser Arafat, use Gaza international airport. The situation in west Asia has thus been rendered volatile once more and this will have to be factored into whatever decisions the US takes in its declared war against terrorism. Mr Powell’s cup of woe brims over with the announcement that the Northern Alliance was withdrawing from an agreement reached with the former king of Afghanistan, Mr Zahir Shah, to convene the loya jirga or Grand Council to give shape to a new government. This withdrawal of the Northern Alliance is probably related to the sudden discovery on Mr Powell’s part of that hitherto unknown entity called the “moderate taliban”. Many would consider such a thing to be a contradiction in terms. The US can thus no longer claim to take for granted the cooperation of the Northern Alliance in a post-war Afghanistan. The US will win its battle against Mr Osama bin Laden. But that would be winning less than half the war. To win the war the US must win the peace. Only by winning that will Mr Powell ensure his place in history.

   

 
 
EDITORIAL 2 / NOT STARRY EYED 
 
 
 
 
This is not the first time that the lackadaisical attitude of undergraduate colleges in West Bengal has been commented on. It showed up the first time when the national assessment and accreditation council began its operations, travelling from state to state to give accreditation to higher studies institutions, in order to help the University Grants Commission decide on funding. Many colleges in Calcutta, with the exception of Loreto College, had expressed their disinterest in the process. They made declarations, with various degrees of petulance, to the effect that their affairs were nobody else’s business. The NAAC director and other council officials have now expressed concern at this lack of initiative. Compared to the eagerness of colleges in the south and west of India to get accreditation, the east has shown a worryingly low response _ and West Bengal has scored most on this undesirable scorecard.

At the basis of the project for accreditation lies a thorough self-assessment of the interested institution. In other words, it must be able to tell the visiting team how good it is, what it is doing and, by implication, how well it will able to use UGC funds. Hiding behind misplaced hauteur would suggest that the institutions are afraid they have made rather a mess of things. It may also be a fear of competition, a phenomenon typical of a work culture conscious of lagging behind and therefore on the defensive. The attitude of West Bengal colleges is complicated by vestiges of a sense of remembered glory, and a total disbelief that things can improve. Ironically, it is the Left Front government which is eager that the state’s higher studies institutions get accreditation and funding. But the decline of West Bengal’s education standards must largely be laid at the Left Front’s door. Even if the state government now has a new face, the colleges obviously do not. A comparison and improvement of standards is linked with the bogey of accountability. Evidently this is not a favourite word. The determined efforts of the chief minister, Mr Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, to improve the work culture in the state, increase accountability and create an efficient system seem to have failed to inspire the authorities of undergraduate colleges. The rot in the education system has run deep. Besides, the high level of politicization among teachers’ groups, again something that was encouraged by the Left Front, particularly the Communist Party of India (Marxist), has born rather bitter fruit. The NAAC officials have requested the state government to help in hurrying up the process of accreditation in the state. It is shameful that the headmaster must take charge. Those unwilling to be assessed are simply running away from reality. Without accreditation, the funds from the UGC will stop flowing.

   

 
 
BEARDING THE SARDAR 
 
 
BY RUKUN ADVANI
 
 
When a Sikh is mistaken for a hirsute Afghan in a turban and killed as a consequence of the possible activities of Osama bin Laden, as has just happened in the United States of America, the temptation is to feel ever more certain that the average American is not just more cretinous than most average people but also, to use the vocabulary of the cretinous, more visually challenged. Unfortunately, Americans are no more guilty of blindness to ethnic and sartorial difference than the large majority within more or less every civilization in history.

For the Greeks, the world beyond their horizon consisted of barbarian tribes who all spoke equally indecipherable varieties of “bar bar”. For some of the descendants of those tribes, who make up the cow belt of north India, “the South” is not much more than an aggregation of sambar-slurping Madrasis, and any man who shaves his moustache but not his beard is a Mussalman. It’s a mercy we’re not at war with people who have high cheek bones, narrow eyes and Mongolian features, because we only know them indistinguishably as Japs and Chinks. So if a couple of Mizos or a Naga or two were to get slaughtered by mistake, it would only be their own fault for looking that way, and the sangh parivar would not just forgive us but even reward us for thinking they weren’t really Indians at all.

In India over the past few years, “identity politics” — which has usually meant the assertion of economic and territorial demands by separatist groups using the argument that they possess a distinctive cultural identity— has been partly responsible for historians probing the ways in which culturally distinct community identities came into being in the first place. The assumption which underlies the work of such historians is that there is nothing timeless or permanent or static or “given” about the identity of any community.

Like tradition, or like reality itself, the identity of every community is “socially constructed” or “invented” by coteries or elites or powerful groups within a region. These groups then expand, their authority grows more absolute. Outright conquest as well as what historians call “hegemonic” processes (that is, slow brainwashing) are the methods by which these elites take over the life of a region, economically as well as intellectually.

Deploying the ideas of thinkers such as Foucault, Gramsci, Habermas and Said on the manner in which social, intellectual and public space is appropriated by groups which manipulate the largest resources (including technology and social-science knowledge), historians have shown, for example, how the Ahomiyas came to be what they are today; or how the identity of the Chipko movement derives from distinct traditions of dissent in Kumaon-Garhwal; or how the Sikhs happen to flaunt an identity today which was unheard of just 200 years ago.

Professional historians in India now tend to write, regrettably, only to impress other professional historians, because that — rather than the acclaim of the serious reading public—is the route up the academic ladder. Issues such as the construction of modernity, communalism, and community identity have become important within the guild of history-writing, but most monographs on these subjects are inaccessible to serious general readers. However, there is at least one which has been written more lucidly, approachably and altogether brilliantly than most. Titled The Construction of Religious Boundaries: Culture, Identity, and Diversity in the Sikh Tradition (1994), it is by Harjot Oberoi, a professor of Sikh Studies at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

Oberoi’s book asks one central question: in everyday terms, what did it mean to be a Sikh 200 years ago? How distinct would an adult non-Muslim living in the region of Punjab have seemed from his Muslim neighbour at that time? Or, to relate his question to our context, if you were hostile to an Afghani Muslim in the early 19th century, would you have been likely to shoot a Sikh dead by mistake?

Oberoi’s answer is that it would have been much easier to make that mistake in the early colonial period because it was much more difficult then to distinguish a sardar from a hirsute, turbanned Afghan. “It is all very well”, he says, “for historians of religion to think, speak and write about Islam, Hinduism and Sikhism, but they rarely pause to consider if such clear-cut categories actually found expression in the consciousness, actions and cultural performances of the human actors they describe.” Oberoi’s vast and microscopic investigation of the actual lived experience of ordinary folk (the jargon word for such folk is “subalterns”) suggests, rather, the absence of clear-cut religious, sartorial, and cultural categories.

The injunction against tobacco and the prescription against the depilation of bodily hair, which we know as the two greatest taboos of Sikh tradition, were the social engineerings of a later date. In early 19th-century Punjab, the naked eye would not have distinguished a Sikh from people of another creed. Thousands of Hindus and Sikhs went on pilgrimages to Muslim shrines. Conversely, it would have taken a very sharp eye to differentiate the daily behaviour patterns of Muslims — including their way of dressing and looking — from those of their non-Muslim neighbours. Even as late as during the 1891 census in Punjab, 1.35 million Sikhs declared themselves Hindus. At the installation ceremony of the head of a major Muslim pilgrimage centre in that period, participants in the ceremonial included people from neighbouring faiths.

So how did people who were then loosely part of a loose Punjabi ethos come to adopt radically divergent ways of life and shed all resemblance with each other? Oberoi shows that religion as a systematic unit which demands absolute loyalty and stringently prescribes visible markers of separateness is a relatively new development in India. Even terms such as “Hinduism”, “Sikhism” and “Buddhism” were coined as recently as the 19th century.

Sikhism as we know it now came into being with the rise of a group called the Khalsa Sikhs, which gradually exercised sway in the region, and by the end of the 19th century was the undisputed Brahminic elite in Punjab. What the Khalsa, as the dominant group, ordered by way of community identity became religious code and social law. But until these became authoritarian, there was room for great variety. Through the 19th century, Sikhs could belong more freely to sects such as the Udasi, Nirmala, Nanak-panthi, Sahajdhari, Kuka, Nirankari and Sarvaria. As against the Khalsa norm, many of these had neither much time for the respect given by the Khalsa to unshorn hair nor for its zeal in maintaining the other external symbols of being sartorially Sikh.

Over the closing decades of the 19th century the Singh sabha, a wrangling religious body of the Khalsa panth, began to reinvent Sikh tradition and — to use a metaphor much milked by social scientists — “homogenize” all Sikhs. The idea of forging a socially obvious identity resulted in Sikhs looking more and more like each other and less and less like everyone else, to the extent that we do not even conceive a time when they looked rather like the rest of the people in their region.

When Oberoi published his book he was, in fact, hounded by the wealthy immigrant community of Khalsa Sikhs for so clearly demonstrating that their appearance was not divinely ordained but socially invented over a relatively recent historical period. His excellent book, and the recent tragic error in America of confusing a Sikh with an Afghan, both remind us —in their very different ways — of a time when we could have been pardoned for making the same mistake.

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW / AN EYE FOR DETAIL 
 
 
BY DOLA MITRA
 
 
R.K. NARAYAN: THE WRITERLY LIFE, SELECTED NON- FICTION
Edited By S. Krishnan,
Penguin, Rs 395

Way back in 1956, on his first visit to the United States of America, R.K. Narayan did his bit to try and disrupt the rat-race in downtown Manhattan on a busy Monday morning. At a self-service cafeteria, when asked at the counter whether he wanted “black coffee or white”, he answered “brown”. And then went on to narrate the rituals of coffee-making practised in south India to the grumpy man across the counter, with a queue of impatient New Yorkers fretting behind him. “I wanted to apply a deliberate counteraction to Broadway’s innate rush,” wrote Narayan in his diary, “just to study the effect.”

The jottings, which Narayan made in his diary during this trip, are charming, humorous accounts of his encounter with American life. These have been included in The Writerly Life, a delightful compilation of Narayan’s non-fiction writings.

Other than the journal, the book contains almost all his essays, written over a period of seven decades, beginning with the essays he wrote for his weekly column in The Hindu. The selection draws attention to the fact that Narayan, known best for his fiction, was not only a master story-teller but also a brilliant essayist.

The subjects of his essays were picked out of daily life. The world, according to Narayan, simply thrived with essay ideas. From coffee to cacophony. From ants to sycophants. From typos to table talk. No topic was too insignificant for him. And virtually nothing escaped the notice of his observant eye. Nor the scrutiny of his analytical mind. With the turning of each page, there are sudden, happy surprises, as the reader discovers more and more unlikely subjects being placed under Narayan’s magnifying glass. Whatever his subject, however ostensibly trivial or insignificant, his treatment could metamorphose it into an object of utmost curiosity.

Snatches of a conversation with an electrician who comes to fix a table lamp in Narayan’s Manhattan hotel room, for instance, is recorded with as much interesting detail as an after dinner chat he had with Aldous Huxley in the latter’s home.

Tones of the essays vary. Often satiric. Sometimes sombre. Narayan’s later essays on the subject of old age convey deep feelings of loneliness and vulnerability. But the better part of his non-fiction is steeped in humour.

The most hilarious and enchanting essays are those which talk about writers’ woes. In one, major misunderstandings arise out of a minor typo. In another, a certain publisher feels the need to spell out on book covers that the books he prints are not non-fiction and will therefore not “instruct, bore, or inform”.

The humour in Narayan’s essays sometimes bubbles just below the surface. Sometimes it erupts like a volcano. Sometimes it brings a silent smile to the face of the reader. And often it generates what Narayan, in his essay on humour calls, “a loud guffaw”. His narrative style is noteworthy for its simplicity. It flows as easily as thought. But is also as complex.

The author’s narrative may start in the present, with an anecdote or an incident. Some association of thought may then take it back to the past. Here the author may ponder on other things for a while, make witty remarks and then return to the present. But this is done with such ease that the reader may never know that all this has transpired.

Narayan’s discursive narrative style is reminiscent of that of Charles Lamb, whose subjective essays he preferred to the impersonal ones of Thomas Carlyle or Thomas Babington Macaulay. “I have always been drawn to the personal essay in which you could see something of the author himself apart from the theme,” wrote Narayan. Indeed, the essays in this book create no less vivid a picture of the public writer and his private world than would any biography.

This book, edited by S. Krishnan, is a fitting tribute to the renowned author who is regarded as one of the pioneers of the literary genre that has come to be known as Indo-Anglian writing.

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW / DOING JUSTICE 
 
 
BY PRATAP BHANU MEHTA
 
 
COURTS AND THEIR JUDGEMENTS
By Arun Shourie
Rupa, Rs 495

Arun Shourie’s book can be usefully read as a judicial version of the popular indictment of the bureaucracy: Yes Minister. His powerful indictment of many strands of our judicial reasoning has much in common with the indictment of the executive in Yes Minister. Both judges and civil servants, it seems, have an extraordinary ability to manipulate the meanings of words according to their own convenience. Judges will expand and contract meanings of words like “equality”, “state”, “rights”, and “due process”. The difficulty is not that the meanings of words is essentially contested and difficult to define. Shourie does a remarkable job of showing that much of the confusion stems from the courts’ own, often inconsistent, predilections.

Like the bureaucracy, the judiciary places extraordinary premium on procedural correctness. Both make the means the end. Both subordinate outcomes to procedure, and in both cases , procedures are the cloak for extraordinary manipulation. Both judges and bureaucrats have an overwhelming sense of their duty and rectitude. Were it not for them, venal politicians would continue robbing the public. Both see themselves as impartial and competent, the only source of authority that knows what they are talking about. And the result in both cases is the same: a lot of activity without real movement, a lot of promulgation without result and an almost complete imperviousness to the efficacy of their own claims.

Courts and Their Judgments begins by acknowledging the importance of the courts as the protector of our liberties and the mechanism for holding the executive accountable. But the book’s main achievement is listing the myriad ways in which the courts have failed us: too many inconsistent judicial pronouncements on a range of issues have made the law less predictable; too many eminent judges have made compromises that make justice less certain; too many judgments are given too late for them to matter; and many more still are seldom enforced after they have been delivered. Judges are often trying to do too many good things at once and by their own light in a manner that nothing gets done.

While claiming to protect the people from the executive, judges often saddle the executive with obligations it could not possibly bear without harming the public good. That judges, often out of necessity, make policies that ought to be within the executive’s purview is a familiar fact. But that they do so with very little understanding of the causal issues involved is less familiar. Shourie charts in impressive detail the way in which judges prefer not to think about the basic premises of their judgments. How will resources be generated? On whom will the burdens fall? Will short-term palliatives impede long-term progress? Legal pronouncement, it seems, is more important than legal efficacy.

The book is clearly and forcefully written. Shourie discusses a variety of cases, from bonded labour to civil liberties, from administrative law to the directive principles of state policy. The book’s great virtue is the fact that rather than delivering ad hominem critiques, Shourie uses the court’s own words to deconstruct its logic. The detailed quotations from judgments can sometimes be overwhelming, but they are a testament not only to Shourie’s scholarship but the lawyerly instincts he brings to his prosecution of the court. For those who have only felt the effects of government decisions, but not seen government files, the extracts reproduced will make fascinating reading. They show a government and judiciary impervious to any logic but their own. To enter the labyrinthine world of government and judicial notings is to enter a virtual world. Although people, issues and places are mentioned, you get the overwhelming sense that this language game does not really refer to anybody. So what if it takes more than a decade to have a judgment on bonded labour delivered? Or even more to have it implemented? I think the disturbing question raised by the book is the following: How could so many in positions of authority have fallen prey to the illusion that the only requirement for getting the right results is having the right intention? That seems to be the guiding fallacy behind most of the judgments Shourie discusses. Presumption may be our worst malady.

The detailed analysis of the judgments cannot but lead one to speculate that being a minister for disinvestments must have given Shourie ample time to work on this book, since, though for no fault of his, the ministry has very little to show for itself. It will be impossible to fault this book on substantive grounds. This book reminds us that before Shourie aligned himself with partisan politics, and let his capacity for venomous prose outrun his sounder judgments on issues like conversion and Ambedkar, Shourie was a crusader for Indian democracy. For all his faults, he could never be accused of cowardice and it is heartening to see him turn his acute intelligence once again to a clear-eyed critique of Indian institutions. If only he could bring this self-reflection to bear on the conduct and allegiances of his own political party. His keen sense of the irony, inconsistency and the foibles of judicial pronouncements make fascinating reading. One hopes that his next book will be titled, Ji Mantriji.

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW / LITTLE KNOWLEDGE IS A GOOD THING 
 
 
BY VISHNUPRIYA SENGUPTA
 
 
THE BRIDE’S MIRROR MIRAT UL-’ARUS: A TALE OF LIFE IN DELHI A HUNDRED YEARS AGO
By Nazir Ahmad,
Permanent Black, 350

The golden rules of housekeeping in Muslim society — that could easily have been the subtitle of this fictional work abounding in moral maxims. Having said that, it is necessary to place Mirät ul-’Arus or The Bride’s Mirror, written by the late Urdu writer and social reformer, Nazir Ahmad, in its proper context. Within a few years of its release in 1869, Mirät ul-’Arüs sold over 100,000 copies in different editions, having been translated into Bengali, Braj, Kashmiri, Punjabi and Gujarati.

The book, which was written with the specific purpose of acquain- ting the British colonizers with the inner world of the Indians, exam- ines the positive effects of education on women’s intelligence and vir- tue. It was soon regarded as “the first Urdu bestseller.” For its author, however, this was his first literary success.

It was his concern for the moral education of his daughters rather than the creative muse, that motivated Ahmad to write this book. Realizing that the Muslim society was not well-equipped to provide a proper education to children, Ahmad decided to fill in the gaps. For greater effect, he adapted the form of the novel or rather the fairy tale to relate a story with morals.

The Bride’s Mirror was followed by The Daughters of the Bier and The Repentance of Nasuh. But it was The Bride’s Mirror which became immensely popular and formed a part of his eldest daughter’s dowry. In 1903, the work, which had been partially annotated and also had a complete cumulative glossary, was translated into English from Urdu by G.E. Ward and was published in London.

The plot revolves around two stereotypical sisters, Akbari (whose name in Urdu means “great”) and Asghari (whose name means “small”). While Akbari is full of vices, Asghari is the epitome of virtues. The two sisters are married to two brothers and are a part of the same family. Akbari, the “silly girl,” as the narrator emphasizes, lacks common sense and has to pay a heavy price for her shortcomings; the intelligent, self-sacrificing, virtuous Asghari, on the other hand, armed with an education, overcomes all obstacles as well as her grief at the death of all but one of her children. With the passage of time, she commands respect and wins the admiration of almost everyone who knows her. In times of crisis, she draws inspiration from a couple of long letters from her father, Durandesh Khan, who acts as a rudder propelling her in the right direction.

The characters in the book — ranging from the scheming mother-in-law and the chauvinistic husband to a spiteful servant and opportunistic friends — are flat and only reinforce stereotypes. Ahmad, however, scores on other grounds. He shows how, despite being in purdah, women can turn things to their advantage by acquiring a sound education. Education enables them to call the shots without having to transgress patriarchal norms. They can also effortlessly outshine their male counterparts.

It is clear from the introduction itself that the author cares for and respects women in his society and does not want their potential to be wasted. Not surprisingly, a subtle sensitivity underlines his mode of narration. The language is lucid, crisp and resembles every-day speech. For this, credit must be given to Ward, who ensures that the essence of Urdu is not lost in translation. The book jacket, with its drawing of a busy market scene in Old Delhi with a mosque looming in the background, further reiterates the author’s claims to being a serious writer.

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW / BACK TO THE ROOTS 
 
 
BY ARNAB BHATTACHARYA
 
 
HISTORY OF THE BENGALI- SPEAKING PEOPLE
By Nitish Sengupta,
UBS, Rs 595

Years ago, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee had lamented in his periodical, Bangadarshan, that a race without a history is unfortunate and self-oblivious. He, obviously, had the Bengalis in mind because at that time and for a long period thereafter, there was no serious attempt at constructing a comprehensive history of Bengal and the Bengali-speaking people.

With the advent of the 20th century, the need for such a history was increasingly felt, as a result of which a few seminal works like Niharanjan Ray’s Bangalir Itihas (Adiparba), R.C. Majumdar’s History of Bengal, R.D. Banerjea’s Banglar Itihas came to be written. These books set the trend for later-day historians, who were to guide Bengalis in the quest for their cultural bearings.

In his book, History of the Bengali-Speaking People, Nitish Sengupta continues this trend, though the book is unique in many ways. Its singularity lies in the fact that it is a one-volume work in which Sengupta charts out the course of events over a wide span of time. He begins his account at “the earliest recorded times”, when Bengali had not quite developed as a language of the people of Bengal, and ends with the Partition of the state in 1947 when nearly two-thirds of undivided Bengal went out of India.

Sengupta’s book is divided into nine parts, each inclusive of several chapters except the last one. There are as many as 46 chapters in the book which, as declared by the author in his preface, concentrate on “the political history of the Bengalees”. This turns out to be a limitation of the book because a political history per se can only be a partial reflection of the rich and complex social and cultural heritage that the Bengalis have claimed and reclaimed over the centuries. It is also a fact that is readily acknowledged by the author.

The first part of the book,comprising nine chapters, deals with ancient Bengal and traces the origin of the word “Bengal” itself. The first Bengal kingdom under Sasanka, Bengal during the reign of the Palas, the Senas and the Ilyas Shahi dynasty, are discussed in detail in these chapters. The second part of the book, however, focuses on the glorious age of Hussain Shah and the influence of Sri Chaitanya on Bengali literature in the early 16th century.

In part III, special attention is given to Bengal during the Mughal period and the times of Murshid Quli Khan and Alivardi Khan. The Maratha invasion and the British conquest of Bengal, which resulted in the defeat of Siraj-ud-daula in the Battle of Plassey, are also discussed. Part IV covers the first century of the British rule in in the state.

In part V, Sengupta deals with the Bengal renaissance, one of the most important phases of its history. He also dwells on the critical debate over its comparison with the Italian renaissance of the 14th century. He also examines the Young Bengal movement started by Henry Derozio and the religious movements pioneered by Keshab Chandra Sen, Ramakrishna and Vivekananda.

The next part of the book talks about the first phase of the armed revolutionary movement that took place after the first partition of the state in 1905. Part VII describes the subsequent phase, highlighting the roles of leaders like Chittaranjan Das, M.K. Gandhi and Subhas Chandra Bose in Bengal politics.

Part VIII entitled, “Parting of Ways”, shows the growing importance of the Muslim League in Bengal politics, which anticipated the second and permanent division of state in 1947. Though thorough-going in his study of Bengal’s history, Sengupta’s mode of writing may at times seem a bit old- fashioned.

   

 
 
EDITOR’S CHOICE / THE PATH TO ENLIGHTENMENT 
 
 
 
 
BUDDHA
By Karen Armstrong,
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £ 10

The modern art of biography is dependent on a plethora of documentation, private papers, correspondence, archival records and so on. Karen Armstrong in this absolutely outstanding book shows that a biography need not necessarily grow out of such a rich record of a person’s life.

Virtually little or nothing is known about the Buddha or Siddhatta Gotama. Armstrong begins by telling her readers of the obstacles involved in writing a life of the Buddha. First and foremost, there is no evidence about the life of Gotama which can be considered historically sound. All the information that there exists about him is from texts that were written up long after his death (circa 483 BC). The absence of contemporary information about the Buddha may be related to his injunctions against the encouragement of any kind of personality cult around him. He was against deification. “If you see the Buddha, kill the Buddha”, he was supposed to have said once.

Despite these obstacles, Armstrong demonstrates with consummate skill that it is possible to make on the basis of the available Pali texts a very plausible reconstruction of Gotama’s life and message. The difficulty that is insurmountable is the one about chronology. It is impossible to establish any kind of chronological line regarding Gotama’s life and teaching. All dates are tentative, if not assumed.

The reconstruction that Armstrong makes is a tour de force and she is successful because of her firm and extraordinary grasp over context.

Armstrong places the Buddha in the Axial Age (800 to 200 BC), thus called because it was pivotal to humanity. This was the age of the great Hebrew prophets; of Confucius; of Zoraster; of Socrates and Plato. During this period human beings became conscious of their existence, their own nature and their limitations in ways that were unknown before. Humanity lost its innocence in this age. The thinkers represented this acute consciousness and suggested ways and means to cope with a flawed and cruel world and to transcend the dis-ease that the age engendered. The age, especially the latter part of it, also saw the emergence and blooming of the market place and this added to the confusion. The disenchantment had a religious dimension because the divine was no longer part of the human. In biblical terms, Yahweh had walked beside Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden; after the Fall, He became a distant and punitive figure. Man was no longer whole and at peace with himself. Gotama left home to find that wholeness and inner peace.

Armstrong traces Gotama’s paces in his quest. He trained in Sankhya philosophy, became a yogin and an ascetic. He remained dissatisfied, his quest unfulfilled.

Gotama achieved enlightenment and became the Buddha by realizing the Middle Path that eschewed luxury and asceticism. He suggested to the world a method to arrive at an ethical life. But this method was not amenable to either metaphysical acuity or scientific scrutiny. The Buddha’s method taught human beings to reach beyond themselves to a reality that transcends rational understanding and enables human beings to become more completely human. Life along the Middle Path would extinguish desire, hatred and ignorance, the three elementary components of man’s suffering and angst. The Buddha called his path, dhamma and emphasized the method aspect of his teachings when he said, “He who sees me, sees the dhamma, and he who sees the dhamma sees me.’’

The Buddha taught that life was a process, eternally subject to change. Man, in this process, according to the Buddha’s graphic and unique metaphor, was like a monkey, “it grabs one branch, and then, letting that go, seizes another.’’ He taught the virtues of change, of doubt and the importance of each man’s self-realization. He did not speak of God and did not address the big metaphysical questions of creation and existence. Men could be at peace, attain nirvana in this world.

Karen Armstrong presents all this and more with enviable rigour and lucidity. The book testifies that in skilful and imaginative hands the impossible is possible in the art of biography.

   

 
 
PAPERBACK PICKINGS / REMAINS OF THE LAST UTOPIA 
 
 
 
 
REFLECTIONS ON EXILE AND OTHER LITERARY AND CULTURAL ESSAYS
By Edward W. Said
(Penguin, Rs 495)

Edward W. Said’s Reflections on Exile And Other Literary And Cultural Essays collects thirty five years of writing from this master critic of imperialism. The astonishing range and unflagging intellectual rigour of these essays take this collection well beyond a critique of imperialism or Eurocentrism, towards fiction, philosophy, historiography and, music. The late essays on Bach, Romantic music and on music and history will be valued by those who have enjoyed Said’s Musical Elaborations. Said’s introduction presents this collection as a celebration of the spirit of the American university (particularly Columbia), “the last remaining utopia”, and of New York, “restless, turbulent, unceasingly various, energetic, unsettling, resistant, and absorptive”. But the collection is also haunted by the idea of marginality, “the solitude of the outsider”. This is both a deeply personal position, as well as integral to Said’s philosophy and method of cultural criticism, invariably brought into play whether he is writing on the Palestinian peace process or on Joseph Conrad. These essays variously try to reclaim and understand “historical experience”, central to which is, for Said, “the experience of dislocation, exile, migration, and empire”: “...exile can produce rancour and regret, as well as a sharpened vision. What has been left behind may be either mourned or it can be used to provide a different set of lenses...It is what one remembers of the past and how one remembers it that determine how one sees the future.”

THE HERO’S WALK
By Anita Rau Badami
(Bloomsbury, price not mentioned)

Anita Rau Badami’s The Hero’s Walk is an accomplished novel about Sripathi Rao, whose ordinary life in the south Indian town of Toturpuram is irreversibly altered by the death of his bri lliant daughter, Maya. She had married Alan, a fellow student in her American university, and earned her father’s displeasure. After her death, Sripathi is left with her seven-year-old daughter, Nandana, whom he has never seen. “What was going on in that small head? he wondered, observing th -new crumpled shirt, bought especially from Beauteous Boutique. Had she ever heard of Toturpuram, a small town halfway across the world from Vancouver...”

INTERTEXTUALITY AND VICTORIAN STUDIES
By Sudha Shastri
(Orient Longman, Rs 185)

Sudha Shastri’s Intertextuality And Victorian Studies is a drearily bejargoned and dispensable study, not of the Victorian novel or literature, but of modern fiction that represents the “Victorian”. For Shastri, novels like Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea and A.S. Byatt’s Possession are “self-consciously post-Saussurean in their foregrounding of textuality, which, briefly, is the awareness of a work as a linguistic construct, based on the prior and arbitrary sign-system of language”.

   

 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

Cruelty behind bars

Sir — The report, “Custody death probe deadline” (Oct 13), proves that the Supreme Court is determined to put a stop to all kinds of violations of human rights in our country. India ranks high in the list of countries where custody death is a common phenomenon. Unfortunately, little is done to prevent the death of the inmates in the jails. This is simply because of the apathy of the concerned authorities toward those languishing in the different state prisons in India. The atrocities committed by the police in the name of meting out justice go unchecked. Moreover, to cover up their misdemeanours, the cops prevent post-mortems from taking place, fearing a fair probe may reveal the stark truth. Often the inmates on trial, unable to bear the inhuman treatment of the jail authorities, commit suicide as an easy route of escape. It is for sure that comparison of prison conditions between India and the West would put us to shame. Thus the apex court’s decision is an important move toward a better judiciary system.

Yours faithfully,
Tithi Bhattacharya, Calcutta

Next door neighbour

Sir — The article, “The new lady next door” (Oct 10), gives a clear picture about what can be expected from the new prime minister of Bangladesh, Begum Khaleda Zia. However, the newly elected government should adopt diplomatic and foreign policies that will not hurt the sentiments of India. Although the Bangladesh Nationalist Party-led alliance has not played the “Islam under threat” card prior to the election, the activities of its partner, the Jamat-e-Islami, is raising doubts among Indians. This is because of the party’s efforts to turn Bangladesh into an Islamic state, which in turn may affect relations between India and Bangladesh.

There is also some concern about the probable increase in militant activities in the Northeast with the installation of the new government. The previous government of Sheikh Hasina Wajed had dismantled the terrorist camps in the Northeast and there is a lurking fear that the BNP will try to undo this. Recent times have witnessed cross-border tension, leading to the death of several Border Security Force personnel. Joint efforts should be made to diffuse tensions in an amicable manner. This way trust and understanding would be established between the two countries.

,dt>Yours faithfully,
Asoka Kumar Addya, Puri

Sir — The victory of the four-party alliance led by Begum Khaleda Zia sets off warning bells for our country. The fear is that the BNP’s policies might encourage Bangladeshi Hindus being treated as second-class citizens in their own country. Despite the declaration of the Indian prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, that the killing and torture of the BSF jawans by their Bangladeshi counterparts is a minor incident, we cannot take such an inhuman act lightly. Both the governments should restructure their foreign policies to work out a better and effective understanding for a better future.

Yours faithfully,
Madhu Agrawal, New Delhi

WHO could be wrong

Sir — The news report, “WHO bio-war alarm” (Sept 26), reminds us of the biggest massacre through germ warfare waged by Japan on China during World War II. Anthrax, tetanus and other germs sprayed over several Chinese provinces resulted in a number of deaths. New developments in the realm of genetic engineering have made biological and chemical weapons more deadly. Thus the viruses can be modified to defeat the immune system of the human body. With this kind of war machinery, ethnic cleansing can be carried out too, as one virus would affect one race more than the others. A disease like Valley Fever is much more likely to kill blacks than whites.

Under the multinational convention of 1972, each country pledged not to undertake research and stockpile biological weapons. But it prevented none from developing them for defensive purposes. Not surprisingly, this led to a proliferation of weapons and hostility between different nations.

Yours faithfully,
Jaydev Jana, Calcutta

Sir — The World Health Organization has addressed all countries across the world to strengthen their defences against the possible threat from biological weapons. The recent anthrax scare in the United States of America has increased the fear that the West is in danger of germ warfare. But till now none of the cases has confirmed the possibility of an international attack. It is to be hoped that the present generation will not have to face as grim a war as a biological one.

Yours faithfully,
M.N. Sinha, Balasore

Sir — The anthrax phobia in the US has brought to light the exorbitant cost of the medicines needed for the treatment of the disease. The price of necessary drugs has shot up considerably and multinational pharmaceutical companies are making enormous profit as a result.

Yours faithfully,
Phani Bhusan Saha, Balurghat

Drums of heaven

Sir — The Durga Puja is just around the corner. The use of loudspeakers in the pandals has become a part and parcel of these festive four days. During this time of the year, noise from the loudspeakers cross the permissible level, causing inconvenience to the people of Calcutta. In many puja arenas, the involvement of politicians deters the police and the state pollution control board to initiate punitive action against the offenders. Following the Durga Puja is the “festival of lights”, Diwali, during which high sound producing crackers are indiscriminately used. From the Nineties, the green bench of the Calcutta high court has tried its best to curb this. Its success is questionable. Calcuttans should bear in mind that high decibel sound spoils the sanctity of religious festivals and so should not indulge in activities that cause sound pollution.

Yours faithfully,
Manoranjan Das, Jamshedpur

Sir — Every year the Sharad Samman award is given to the sarbojanin Puja committees. This year is no exception. But before giving the award, the selection board should carefully check whether all the notified criteria have been fulfilled. Among these are erection of pandals as per norms, proper usage of electric connections, using of loudspeakers and microphones within the permissible sound level. If these conditions are not being fulfilled by the Puja organizers, then necessary steps should be taken against them.

Yours faithfully,
Khokon Chatterjee, Calcutta

Sir — To us, the goddess Durga represents mother, daughter and shakti. Some media people usually visit the artisans at work in Kumartuli. It is disappointing to see that most mediapersons do not hesitate to publish pictures of the nude deity being made by the artisans. The enthusiastic media should not publish such photographs, because it is undignified to represent a goddess this way.

Yours faithfully,
Minoti Chakravarty, Calcutta

Sir — While there is some point in relatives and friends getting together during the festive season, it must be asked how much the people of Calcutta should pay for these joys in terms of disruption, noise and general dirt during Durga Puja.

Yours faithfully,
Rittik Ghosh, Calcutta

Letters to the editor should be sent to:

The Telegraph
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Calcutta 700 001
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Readers in the Northeast can write to:
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