Editorial 1/ Billed impossible
Editorial 2/ Wrong casting
Not such an enigma
Book Review / Humour at great heights
Book Review / Nukes are not always such a bad news
Book Review / When death came knocking in Bhopal
Bookwise / Celebs pay for success
Paperback Pickings / Restlessness in the theatre
Fifth Column/ Once upon another time: a parable
Letters to the Editor

 
 
EDITORIAL 1/ BILLED IMPOSSIBLE 
 
 
 
 
The much-vaunted fiscal responsibility and budget management bill is about to die an untimely death. It is a truth universally acknowledged that the fiscal situation is in a mess. The combined (Centre plus state) fiscal deficit exceeds 10 per cent of the gross domestic product. This either leads to monetization and an increase in inflation or a pre-emption of resources, contributing to higher interest rates. The combined fiscal deficit does not capture the true extent of pre-emption, since lendable bank funds are also pre-empted by the government through the oil pool account, food and fertilizer subsidies and defaults by the state electricity boards. This has opportunity costs in terms of the government not being able to spend requisite resources on primary education, rural healthcare and infrastructure. Unfortunately, the benefits of such investments accrue to future generations and future governments. Political parties that constitute the present government are goaded by populist and myopic considerations. Hence every finance minister since 1991 has made noises about fiscal rectitude, but has been able to do precious little.

Even before 1991, there was the much-vaunted long term fiscal policy of the mid-Eighties. That effort also amounted to nothing. The difference between such noises and the FRBM is a double one. First, the FRBM ties down the finance minister through specific quantitative targets and timeframes. Second, in cases of default, the government is legally accountable. The fiscal deficit must be brought down to 2 per cent in five years, implying an annual reduction of 0.5 per cent. The revenue deficit must be eliminated in five years. After three years, the Reserve Bank of India will no longer invest in government securities. There will be quarterly monitoring of revenue and expenditure through a high-powered committee.

Mr Yashwant Sinha obviously wanted the FRBM to tie down his hands, so that he would be better placed to resist populist pressures. If the Congress had any sense, it should have realized that such an FRBM would have benefited its future finance minister as well. Admittedly, the FRBM did nothing about fiscal deficits at the state-level. But once the Centre had been disciplined, similar pressures could have been exerted on the states. The cabinet approved the FRBM and it was placed before Parliament in the monsoon session. Had the opposition so desired, the FRBM would have become law in this session itself and no standing committee would have been necessary. Instead, the opposition insisted on the bill being referred to a standing committee. The committee’s recommendations are not yet available. But it seems the committee has recommended that the culpability provisions for the government be knocked out. Similarly, the fiscal deficit and revenue deficit targets also get knocked out. The fiscal deficit must indeed be brought down to 2 per cent, but no timeframe is necessary. The revenue deficit must be brought down to 0 per cent, but there again, no timeframe is necessary. And the RBI can continue to subscribe to government securities after three years. Clauses that provided the FRBM the punch have thus been eliminated and the diluted the FRBM, even if it were to actually become law in the winter session, will amount to no more than vague intentions. The government may as well give up this legislative attempt. Apparently, two expert economists who submitted evidence before the standing committee were responsible for this turnaround. The less said about such so-called Keynesian experts, the better.

   

 
 
EDITORIAL 2/ WRONG CASTING 
 
 
 
 
Ms Sonia Gandhi has an unenviable job in hand. She will have to judge whether the results of a survey from Madhya Pradesh exhibit coincidence or casteism. Conducted at the behest of the state chief minister, Mr Digvijay Singh, the survey was aimed at improving the efficiency of ministers by asking Congress members of the legislative assembly to rank them according to efficiency. Disconcertingly, ministers from the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes rank at the bottom of the list. As if this were not bad enough, the results have taken on a more obvious and immediate political colouring elsewhere too. Laurels for the most efficient have gone to Mr Digvijay Singh himself and to Mr Ajay Singh, who is, reports suggest, being groomed to follow in the present chief minister’s footsteps. This bit is no less tricky. There can be no doubt about the efficiency of Mr Digvijay Singh. At the same time, to top the list he himself has ordered looks very odd. Perhaps he could have bowed out of the race. Mr Ajay Singh is Mr Arjun Singh’s son, and therefore, very much on the chief minister’s side. Mr Kamal Nath’s ire against Mr Digvijay Singh has been caused as much by this feature of the survey as by the apparent casteism in the ranking. In the tense Congress politics of Madhya Pradesh and with the death of Madhavrao Scindia, Mr Kamal Nath has found a handle.

But far more awkward is the stink of caste. As a problem of attitude, this has two causes. The strong opposition to Mandalization still simmers below the surface. In a caste-ridden society such as that of Madhya Pradesh, this seeks every opportunity to express itself. The problem here is obvious. The moment something as embarrassing as the survey result is out, it is no longer possible to distinguish between truth and imagination. Reservation has hardened attitudes. Besides, the presence of a high caste and powerful state leadership may, even unconsciously, influence MLAs’ judgments. The survey has driven a new wedge into the already troubled party in the state. The deputy chief minister’s fury possibly represents that of all the SC/ST ministers. Ms Sonia Gandhi will have a lot to do to calm this little storm.

   

 
 
NOT SUCH AN ENIGMA 
 
 
BY ASHOK MITRA
 
 
The Nobel awards are these days a much depreciated currency. Flummery is as flummery does; the conferment of this year’s peace prize on the United Nations and its secretary general should therefore cause little surprise. The UN is by now a defunct organization and the individual presiding over its activities — or, rather, non-activities — is a sinecure. That is not the end of it. The UN has, for all practical purposes, become an extended department of the United States of America’s administration. The UN does as the US bids it to do.

The following letter, carried in one of what are known as national newspapers, sums up the position: “As a school boy, I would often fail to distinguish the US and the UN, almost always assuming that they were one and the same. After watching recent events, I am no longer under the illusion that the two are different.”

The US, the world’s mightiest military power, is putting to cruel, incendiary death one of the poorest countries on earth; the secretary general of the UN is incapable of uttering even a mildly remonstrative word. They also serve who shiver and cringe: the secretary-general has been anointed with a Nobel peace prize. All we can say is, amen.

On the other hand, perhaps the literature award is an instance of choosing the right person, but for the wrong reason. To Western eyes, Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul’s selection would appear to be most appropriate at this moment. Has not this man used of late some powerful prose to run down Islamic culture and civilization? His polemic marks, it will be said, a magnificent transition from pure literary efforts to political sociology and further beyond to the realm of religious philosophy.

The astigmatic vision of the occidental crowd is their problem, and can be passed over. What cannot be brushed aside though is the gracelessness of Naipaul himself in his acceptance statement while acknowledging the debts he owes for his creative inspiration. He is grateful to India, from where his ancestors had come, and to Britain, his adopted homeland. As regards Trinidad or the West Indies, just forget it; everybody knows Naipaul has not been to Trinidad for the past fifteen years. Conceivably it is the state-of-the-art fashion to forsake integrity; otherwise one does not arrive and flourish in respectable company. To be brutally blunt, would even a handful of people have cared for Naipaul’s forays into journalism, such as An Area of Darkness or A Wounded Civilization or A Million Mutinies, and for his anti-Islamic tracts, had not there emerged from the pen of this writer, once upon a time, excruciatingly beautiful works of the genre of The Mystic Masseur, The Suffrage of Elvira, and A House for Mr. Biswas? An aspiring young man from the nook of a Trinidad village, Naipaul had a precise ear for the nuances of English prose which he deployed to capture the magic of West Indian living, its quirks and foibles, its delights and sorrows, its lightness and pains. In a limited sphere, George Headly spelt the West Indies. C.L.R. James also did, in his own manner. But, where literary creativity as viewed by the world outside is concerned, Trinidad and the West Indies were V.S. Naipaul’s dream-filled evocation.

Trinidad made Naipaul. To disown this parentage, as he has done, is obliviousness of an infinite order. It is akin to the absurdity of R.K. Narayan repudiating Malgudi. The temptation is nearly irresistible to describe the goateed ersatz grandee from Oxfordshire as a sick person, never mind the accolades currently being showered upon him.

But even an ingrate deserves his due. Let us cast our mind back forty years ago, when Naipaul first visited India and was both fascinated and repelled by this country. He was not then weighed down by the burden of either reputation or ambition, and went straight to the point. He could immediately locate the source of the wasting disease affecting the ancient land to which his forefathers belonged. Hypocrisy defined India. Indians talked endlessly about their great spiritual inheritance; at the same time, they, avidly and lasciviously, hankered after the conventional good things of life.

Naipaul’s observant lens zoomed on archetypal Indian middle class specimens, for example, the common lot of affluent, broad-bottomed, bare-midriffed, indolent women infesting the country’s high-rise urban ghettos. Their “craze for phoren” mesmerized Naipaul. It was not just an acquisitive instinct; it was dovetailed into an insensate lust for “phoren” labels, howsoever trite the stuff might be. The entire value system of the nation was contaminated — and progressively despoiled.

Here lay Vidiadhar Naipaul’s prescience. He could chart ahead the future course of the “craze for phoren” epidemic and the horrendous darkness it was bound to lead to. A soothsayer par excellence, give or take three decades, it did not stay an epidemic any more, it became a plague. With a sardonic pen in his armour, he actually predicted the hell liberalization and globaliz- ation would usher in to the Indian landscape.

India’s is now a bankrupt economy; all indications suggest a gloomy, stagnant future. So what, the nation has plunged into a determined bout of blind consumerism, and which tucks into itself an obsession for acquiring foreign goods. Foreign goods are in general accessible only against American dollars. The nation therefore decides, or the decision is taken on its behalf, to transform the post-colonial era into a recolonized nightmare.

A little islander had a natural advantage of objectivity for assessing the monstrosity of a huge landmass such as India. As the years proceeded, Naipaul ditched that advantage. Tragedy of an immense proportion, the malady he identified for Indians claimed him too as a victim. He henceforth wants to keep the company of the “craze for phoren” rabble. The self-pronounced Anglomaniac, now passing as Sir Vidiadhar, has grabbed the Nobel prize. But, sorry, no garlands for him.

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW / HUMOUR AT GREAT HEIGHTS 
 
 
BY ASHIS CHAKRABARTI
 
 
FACING UP
By Bear Grylls,
Macmillan, £ 3.00

At twenty-one, a parachuting accident in southern Africa that broke his back and nearly paralysed him for life, ended Bear Grylls’ dream of a career in the British army. As he lay in bed at the army rehabilitation centre and at his home in the southern coast of England, strapped in his brace and moving his limbs in agony, Grylls desperately looked for something to light up his life. There was the old picture of Mount Everest on the bedroom wall that his father had given him when he was eight. But, contrary to what the Sanskrit adage says, invalids do not climb mountains.

Grylls’ childhood dream of climbing the world’s highest peak now looked more remote than ever. Or, so he thought, lying in despair in his sickbed. Two years later, he stunned the mountaineering fraternity the world over by becoming the youngest British climber to reach the summit and come back alive. His success came as a refreshing assurance after the grim tragedy of 1996, when Everest claimed its worst tally of victims in recent years, including veterans like Rob Hall and Scott Fischer.

Facing Up is the story of Grylls’ extraordinary journey up and down the deadliest routes man has traversed and through the cruellest rites of passage. The determination to even try the climb is all the more remarkable because he was no stranger to the Himalayan ordeals. He had been on Ama Dablam, that unearthly beauty of a Himalayan peak, whom the Westerners have described as the Matterhorn of the East for want of a better parallel. So the courage to try Everest after the near-fatal accident is simply amazing.

That precisely is what Everest has done to dreamers for generations. Science has put man on the moon, but climbing Himalayan giants is a test primarily for the human spirit. The scientific innovations in climbing gear and other equipment are, finally, no better than small tools. For all the experience, memories and lessons learnt at great costs, each climb is a personal odyssey, each success a lonesome glory and each failure an ode to man’s eternal desire to dare. The “death zone” awaits the climber above the South Col. But any Himalayan climb is a potential dance of death, be it Everest, the savage mountain of K2, Nanga Parbat or any other of the 8,000 metre peaks.

Grylls has his share of close encounters with death during his seventy days on Everest’s southwest face. The first comes at Khumbu Icefall, where two of the most experienced sherpas in his team narrowly escape it. It is not necessarily at great heights that death comes. A Japanese trekker dies below the base camp at less than 17,000 feet, having made the fatal mistake of trying to climb too high, too fast and thereby developing pulmonary oedema. Grylls himself has a close shave as he falls into a crevasse at 19,000 feet. Up along the route, there are reminders of past tragedies in the skeletons of unknown climbers half- buried in their icy, windswept graves.

But the horrors are only a small part of this story. Grylls’ narrative is laced with youthful humour, sometimes bordering on the hilarious, and an unsentimental straightforwardness. Thus, after the dreadful fall into the crevasse when he calls his mother in England on satellite phone, he can still have a laugh over the old lady mistaking it for a “crevice”. It is not easy to laugh at those heights where moving every limb is a huge physical and emotional effort and yet, not moving can mean frostbites and freezing, if not death.

The story ends with Grylls finally flashing a smile, as he stands on top of the summit, next to fellow-climber Neil Laughton, who radios the victory message to the base camp. “For weeks I had planned what I would say if I reached the top, the message that I would want to give,” Grylls writes, “All that just fell apart. I strained into the radio and spoke without thinking. ‘I just want to get home now’ was all that came out. Not quite the speech that I had hoped for.” Never mind the missed “speech”, Grylls has added an honest, inspiring tale to Everest lore.

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW / NUKES ARE NOT ALWAYS SUCH A BAD NEWS 
 
 
BY KAUSHIK ROY
 
 
THE ARMAGEDDON FACTOR: NUCLEAR WEAPONS IN THE INDIA-PAKISTAN CONFLICT
By Sanjay Badri-Maharaj,
Lancer, Rs 595

I n this book Sanjay Badri-Maharaj asserts that a nuclear war between Pakistan and India is possible if New Delhi decides to implement a “hot pursuit” policy across the border to flush out Pakistan-backed terrorists. The book analyses the reasons behind nuclearization of south Asia and portrays the nature of nuclear exchange.

The author argues that nuclearization of India and Pakistan is a rational policy in a world where “nuclear haves” politically blackmail the “nuclear have-nots”. Pakistan knows that it cannot match India’s superior armed forces in a conventional war. So it has developed nukes as a weapon of last resort.

India, on the other hand, has to maintain a large number of atomic warheads in order to deter both China and Pakistan. The weapons deployed against China could be re-deployed against Pakistan. And this causes uncertainty in the minds of Pakistan’s political and military elite. As a result, Pakistan is trying to build up a bigger arsenal to catch up with India. In response, India is further trying to expand the number of its warheads. Again, the fear of a pre-emptive strike by an insecure Pakistan is forcing India to maintain a larger number of warheads for a second strike capability. This vicious circle, writes Badri-Maharaj, could result in a breakdown of deterrence and the beginning of a nuclear Armageddon in south Asia.

The “prestige factor” is another imperative in the nuclear build-up in the subcontinent. The world is moving closer towards a clash between Islamic fundamentalism, Hinduism, Confucianism and Western culture. Pakistan is the only Muslim country in the world with a nuclear arsenal. Pakistan’s atomic warheads are a big issue within the increasingly anti-Western Islamic block.

How big is India and Pakistan’s fission arsenal? According to Badri-Maharaj, from 1994 onwards, the Indian air force, the fourth largest in the world, is preparing to carry out a nuclear strike against Pakistan. The Indian army possesses tactical weapons in the form of nuclear artillery shells. India is producing 50 nuclear tipped Prithvi missiles and 12 Agni missiles annually. The 30th artillery division has already deployed these guided missiles. On the other side, Islamabad has 40 fission bombs and is manufacturing two bombs annually.

Badri-Maharaj paints the picture of the future nuclear battlefield. The Indian soldiers will be equipped with nuclear suits that would give them protection from radiation. The nuke-equipped Indian mechanized forces are likely to operate along the Rann of Kutch and the Thar desert. A desperate Pakistan facing deep penetration would attack the premier cities of India. Chandigarh, Mumbai and Delhi are the likely targets.

Many would argue that the author has over-rated India’s nuclear capacity. However, the book is a welcome break from the dominant genre in nuclear literature which focuses mainly on nuclear diplomacy.

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW / WHEN DEATH CAME KNOCKING IN BHOPAL 
 
 
BY ARNAB BHATTACHARYA
 
 
IT WAS FIVE PAST MIDNIGHT IN BHOPAL
By Dominique Lapierre and Javier Moro,
Full Circle, Rs 250

It was December 3, 1984, a day which saw the worst industrial disaster in history when a massive leak of toxic gas from an American pesticide plant in Bhopal killed thousands. The disaster made a mockery of all the safety measures of the plant. Most of the deaths were not officially registered and a large number of corpses were either incinerated or buried anonymously.

More than half a million Bhopalis who survived the accident suffered from the delayed effects of the toxic cloud. Two weeks after the accident, thousands of survivors became helpless victims of a jaundice epidemic. Others succumbed to neurological problems. Panic gripped the rest.

It is impossible to assess the terrible impact of the Bhopal gas tragedy. Dominique Lapierre and Javier Moro has undertaken the difficult task of chronicling this tragedy. In his “Letter to the Reader”, Lapierre recounts the story behind the book. Satinath Sarangi, a rescue-worker during the tragedy, has been running an NGO since 1995. Sarangi had approached Lapierre to finance a clinic for the treatment of underprivileged women affected by the gas. Lapierre came to Bhopal for the purpose and what he saw “was probably one of the strongest shocks” of his life. He decided to delve deep into tragedy. The book is a product of three years of strenuous research by the authors.

The book is far more than a moving account of the tragedy. The authors take immense care to portray the lifestyle of the lower middle class people in Bhopal, their beliefs and prejudices, their social mores and their gullibility which made them victims of a vicious cycle of exploitation. The saga starts with the story of Ratna Nadar, who had his land of crops ravaged by a swarm of aphids. Consequently, the Nadars and other inhabitants of Mudilapa, a village in Orissa, reached Bhopal in search of work in the Madhya Pradesh railways. They were accommodated in the Oriya bustee in the vicinity of which the giant factory of Union Carbide was to be set up. For easy availability of workforce, the plant was situated near the congested slum areas in blatant indifference to the possibility of a mega-disaster.

The authors describe in detail the long chain of circumstances leading to the establishment of the plant processing Sevin, a deadly pesticide, in a densely populated areas. The plant was declared to be “as inoffensive as a chocolate factory”. No one ever thought that the plant, projected as a grand American gift to end India’s famine, would end up killing people and maiming others for life.

Besides closely examining the bureaucratic nexus that brought about the disaster, the authors explore the social history of Bhopal. In the chapter entitled, “What became of them”, the authors record the present occupations of 24 survivors of the tragedy, some of whom have suffered the disaster and some of whom who caused the suffering. The photographs included in the book will never fail to move the readers.

   

 
 
BOOKWISE / CELEBS PAY FOR SUCCESS 
 
 
BY RAVI VYAS
 
 

Many Indian publishers plan their new releases for October-March before the close of the financial year because by this time universities and colleges are in full swing, grants have reached the allocated centres, the weather is fine and there are more visitors to bookshops. In anticipation, publishers splurge — that is, they have launch parties for their “big” books that they believe would do well.

The big books are the “celeb” books, packaged soap operas written by the big and the famous. In keeping with the celebrity status of the authors, the launch parties are also big and glitzy in five star hotels. But after the party is over, the big question remains: who foots the bill and does it enhance sales?

The “do” as it is called in publishing parlance is an affair between three parties: the publisher, the author and the hotel. All three are pretty tight-lipped about who picks up the tab or how much it actually costs. But given the cost of the beverages and the spread of snacks, the figure would be Rs 500 per head without taking into account the establishment and other overhead costs. A conservative estimate would be Rs 3 to 4 lakhs for a pretty straightforward party, nothing fancy like a live band, sit-down dinner and so on. This may be small change for industry but for publishers, who are always complaining about profit margins, cash flows, and so on, it is big money.

You would imagine that the bill would be split three ways, more or less equally. But no. It is not because publishers do not pay at all. Their job is over the moment the book is published and the publicity machine with the media cranked up. The actual costs are split between the author and the hotel. In most cases the hotel waives the establishment and service charges in return for the publicity it receives (invitations are sent out jointly by the publisher-author-hotel manager) and the goodwill spin-offs it receives. The real costs are picked by the author and because he or she is invariably a celebrity, by some of their well-wishers in anticipation of favours to come.

It doesn’t really matter who pays; what does is whether more copies of the book sell at the end of day. It is always difficult to establish a direct correlation between the costs of publicity and increase in volume sales of a book. But from available figures of books that have been launched there seems to be no appreciable difference in sales estimates and sales after the extra launch. Both taper off at around 500 copies for hardback editions priced around Rs 500 per copy.

But there is a lesson to be learnt about the personality of the Indian book buyer and the kind of marketing that would bring in optimum returns. The Indian buyer is very conservative and buys if the book has a long-term value. For this reason, the entertainment value of a book has never been a selling point in India. From this it follows that the Indian buyer is not taken in by gimmicks or the big splash because he thinks it is a trick. Of course he doesn’t mind joining in the fun when it is on the house! To put it bluntly, mere numbers at such launch parties is no indication of how many copies would sell.

   

 
 
PAPERBACK PICKINGS / RESTLESSNESS IN THE THEATRE 
 
 
 
 
Vijay Tendulkar
(Katha, Rs 200)

Vijay Tendulkar is a selection of essays and lectures by this eminent and multi-faceted Marathi playwright. It also collects a number of critical essays on Tendulkar by Shanta Gokhale, Samik Bandopadhyay and so on. This is both a valuable and a disappointing book. For students of Marathi theatre, particularly of Ghasiram Kotwal, there are important documents translated here, such as the 1994 Saraswati Samman acceptance speech or the invaluable essay, “Muslims and I”, first published in Communalism Combat. However, in English, many of Tendulkar’s utterances on culture and politics sound predictable and unsubtle, particularly when read against some of the original Hindi texts given here (there are no Marathi originals in this selection): “A writer is not a social scientist, nor is he an astrologer. He does not strive for answers on a mathematical basis. He only perceives or feels and this makes him restless.” From someone who has over seventy published works, including an interesting range of translations (Tennessee Williams, Henry James, Dorothy von Doren), and whose political activism starts with the Quit India Movement, the writings gathered here are curiously lacking in freshness. “Muslims and I” is an exception though, as is the Ghasiram Kotwal casebook.

BUILDING WOMEN’S CAPACITIES: INTERVENTIONS IN GENDER TRANSFORMATION
Edited by Ranjani K. Murthy,
(Sage, Rs 280)

Building women’s capacities: Interventions in gender transformation edited by Ranjani K. Murthy looks at the actualities of Indian women’s “capacity-building” and empowerment in relation to two developments in the Nineties — globalization of the economy and localization of political processes. There are four sections. The first addresses specific livelihood and social issues faced by women in their everyday lives. The second looks at training programmes for women in the context of the family and the larger community. The third discusses non-training capacity-building strategies, and the last section draws together the implications of the previous sections to formulate certain conceptual, methodological and institutional models. In spite of its theoretical underpinnings, the collection remains varied and concrete, analysing women’s lives in such different environments as the silk industries in Karnataka and West Bengal, gram panchayats, the Hyderabad slums, farmers’ groups and lift irrigation programmes. An important book for sociologists, NGOs and “gender and development” studies.

FORSAKING PARADISE:STORIES FROM LADAKH
By Abdul Ghani,
(Katha, Rs 150)

Forsaking paradise: Stories from ladakh by Abdul Ghani Sheikh is an absorbing collection of tales, translated and introduced by Ravina Aggarwal. Aggarwal’s introduction is a lucid presentation of scrupulous research. She has worked closely with the Urdu short fiction of Ghani Sheikh, recognized as one of Ladakh’s foremost scholars and fiction writers: “...in a land which borders Pakistan, Occupied Tibet and the Kashmir Valley, where Buddhism, Islam and even Christianity have found homes, where the expanding international tourist industry is rivalled only by the economic presence of the armed forces, where the Ladakhi, Urdu, Tibetan and English languages compete to represent the culture, literature too takes on forms that are political and even paradoxical.”

SPICES AND SOULS: A DOODLER'S JOURNEY THROUGH KERALA
By E.P. Unny
(DC Books, Rs 595)

Spices and souls: A doodler’s journey through kerala by E.P. Unny is a wonderful tribute to the diverse and vital character of a state, put together by an excellent political cartoonist, who is also an extremely readable travel-writer and novelist. Unny’s style is best shown in his depictions of human beings and architecture. The social and cultural range is fascinatingly broad, from the Golf Club in Thiruvananthapuram to the memorable geriatric faces of the last masters of Kootiyattam, the 2000-year-old Sanskrit theatre of Kerala. The above is Unny’s depiction of the divine velichapad dancer, warming up for the ceremonial dancing dedicated to the demons, the chathans. He dances around, and eventually into, the five-colour image of the tribal deity on the floor and erases most of it. Unny’s sketches and texts capture the “explorers, invaders, proselytizers, traders, travellers, town planners, tourists and sundry seekers of well-being and nirvana”.

   

 
 
FIFTH COLUMN/ ONCE UPON ANOTHER TIME: A PARABLE 
 
 
BY SAJNI MUKHERJEE
 
 
Once upon a time there was one world, one people, and only one language. The denizens of that world imagined in the heavens above them a being who apparently exercised full control over all of creation. In time this absolute control became intolerable to the free spirits of that world. They thought of ways in which they might challenge the power of the omnipotent being. The discussions reached a consensus. It was a question of heights. If they could attain that height they could meet him on equal terms. They would achieve this if they built a tower that reached into the heavens.

The omnipotent being was terrified at this possible assault on his supremacy. He must also have been appalled at the audacity of such an enterprise. So he decided to put an end to it. He decided the harmony in which such an enterprise was conceived was not a good thing. One way to destroy that harmony and to ensure his supreme position on the upper stage would be to bring about a plurality of languages, of customs, of folklore, a plurality too of intentions and opinions on the lower.

With his kind of omnipotence this was quite easy to do. He gave the necessary orders and soon the tower was abandoned, conceptually destroyed. Because the building of a tower is an exercise in cooperation and there was no translation software available at the time.

Language power

So the unfinished tower came to be known as the Tower of Babel. The original builders were emotionally scattered because they no longer spoke the same language, and when they did speak to the others they seemed only to babble.

It was no longer possible to remain harmoniously together so they scattered physically as well. The skills of tower building were not wasted however. But they were no longer built for such an exalted purpose. Smaller less ambitious towers were built for more ordinary purposes such as the storing of grain that they could use in times of famine when the seven fat cows were swallowed by the seven thin ones.

In their different languages some thoughts may have crossed their minds. Did they think that the world had not been so harmonious in the first place? Surely Eve had spoken one language with Adam and quite another with the serpent. Were there no conjugal disputes about which name to give each animal or tree when the omnipotent being gave Adam the power of taxonomy?

When Cain asked “Am I my brother’s keeper?” was he asking a question or making a statement to justify an act of genocide that destroyed a quarter of the world?

New deconstruction

And what about that moment of decision when the omnipotent being subjected the entire world to floods that lasted for forty days and forty nights? Did that happen because of the almighty’s perception that only Noah, a minority of one, spoke his language? Was there no Felicific Calculus on this occasion about the greater good of the greater number?

Once upon another time some other denizens of a braver newer world turned their thoughts again to tower building. It was a unipolar world that communicated through satellite television beamed worldwide. It seemed to have the same subculture of jeans and MTV, and not a great variety of opinions and intentions. Above all it nearly had a single language. This was the language of information technology and the world wide web.

It was an economical language that excelled in abbreviations such as “lol” (laughing out loud). For moments when communications might slip up between peoples and nations they had translation software. There was an inflexible fixed language for personal communication ordained by e-greetings and Archie’s cards.

They had learnt from their earlier experience of the tower building experiment: they had realized the singular power of language and the singular language of power. This time to play it safe they successfully constructed two apparently invulnerable vertical towers. To play it even safer they built another horizontally in the shape of a star with five points.

For a while the powerful enterprise seemed to work with efficiency and elegance. But providence too had grown wiser with time and had a new language of de-construction.

The rest is recent history.

   

 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

It started with the god

Sir — It seems that we Indians just love to start a trend. If it’s not Zandra Rhodes introducing the sari into international circles, it’s Osho, the god-man formerly known as Bhagwan Rajneesh, laying the groundwork for bio-terrorism (“Osho ahead of Osama”, Oct 21). Although Osho and his followers had released salmonella in salad bars in Dalles in the United States of America, no severe action was taken against them. Osho was simply deported to Pune as a result, while two others had to serve a prison term for a couple of years. What also caught my attention was the reason behind the bio-terrorist attack by Osho. The germ warfare indulged in by Osho and his followers was implemented in an attempt to battle the opposition of the local people of Dalles to the establishment of his headquarters in the town. If those behind the anthrax attacks in the US are aware of the Osho incident, they might believe that they will also get away scot-free much like Osho and his followers did. Hopefully, the US will prove them wrong.
Yours faithfully,
Shalini Verma, Bangalore

Novel approach to terror

Sir — It is hardly surprising that the Union cabinet recently promulgated the prevention of terrorism ordinance, 2001, which will endow the police with wide-ranging powers to detain or arrest any person suspected of being involved in terrorist activities. This move was in no way unexpected in the aftermath of Black Tuesday which had alarmed Indian defence circles (“Tada clone arrives in bogey of insecurity”, Oct 17).

The ordinance certainly goes beyond the notorious Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act, which was withdrawn a few years ago after widespread protests over its rampant abuse by the police. According to the new ordinance, it will be obligatory for citizens to divulge any and all information about the whereabouts of terrorists. Failure to do so will be considered an offence. In other words, the proposed legislation will be providing the police with a carte blanche as far as conducting an investigation is concerned. They will legally be able to use coercion to extract confessions from alleged criminals and conduct searches whenever they want to.

The provision that makes any confession made in the presence of a high-ranking police officer admissible in a court of law is also strange as it opens up more avenues for harassment and coercion. This provision is ludicrous and is a violation of the rights guaranteed to all citizens under the Constitution. No one can deny that the menace of terrorism is very real. However, it is imperative that the protectors of the law do not become the ones to misuse it and therefore undermine its very existence.

Yours faithfully,
Vikram Malkani, Calcutta

Sir — The ghost of TADA seems to have revisited us despite the promises made by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government that the new ordinance would have provisions that would prevent its misuse in the hands of law enforcement agencies. On the contrary, the new law is in no way different from its more famous predecessor and this becomes obvious when one takes into consideration the protestations of different human rights organizations that have expressed their dissatisfaction with the proposed bill.

Given that very few parties will criticize any proposal that seeks to strike at the roots of terrorism, the bill will in all probability be passed in the winter session of Parliament. One cannot help asking the question: will the bill make us feel any safer and will it be able to prevent future terrorist attacks like the ones on America? It is not enough to pass a law that deals with acts of terrorism, as the existence of such a law is not a guarantee of its proper implementation. The problem lies elsewhere, as has rightly been pointed out by the editorial, “Old times’ sake” (Oct 18). It is the absence of a civil society and the refusal to accept our responsibilities as the citizens of this country that has made matters worse.

It is we who have, through our elected representatives, created a legal system in which different sets of rules apply to different classes of people. It is only rarely that justice is actually served when those in power commit a crime. In such a scenario, it is important that the provisions of the new ordinance be reviewed by a team of experts before it is passed by Parliament.

Yours faithfully,
Smita Roy, Patna

Play secure

Sir — The hijacking of the Alliance Air flight from Mumbai to Delhi on October 3, whether a mock hijack or an incident of miscommunication, should act as a lesson to both the government as well as passengers (“Mockjack, hijack or high-joke”, Oct5). The government should immediately install closed circuit television cameras at the airports and also a CCTV, connected to the passenger area, in the cockpit so that the pilot is aware of the goings-on in the aircraft. It is only because the captain of the Alliance Air flight had no clue whether there were actually any hijackers present in the plane that he grounded the flight. Such miscommunication and misconceptions could therefore be avoided if a CCTV is installed. Although the instalment of CCTVs might be very expensive, the safety and security of passengers and crew are worth the cost.

Passengers should also co-operate with the ground staff and not check in at the last minute or create a fuss during baggage checks. The entry and exit into and from green channels should be kept to a minimum. The Indian aviation industry needs to learn a lesson from the United States of America’s reaction to the hijacking of four planes on September 11. Not only has the US aviation industry placed air marshals on all flights to and from the main cities in the US, flight check-ins and airport security have also been tightened up. However troublesome these security measures might be to passengers, they are necessary to ensure a degree of air-safety.

Yours faithfully,
A.U.S. Lal, Calcutta

Sir — The hijacking of the Alliance Air flight should be seen as a blessing in disguise. Because of the fake hijack phone call that was made to the Alliance Air office, which led to the plane being grounded at New Delhi airport, the government was able to put into action the crisis management team that had been created to deal with hijackings. It was most satisfying that all agencies and persons concerned, including the prime minister, were immediately alerted.

However, the over-reaction and anguish displayed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee in the aftermath of the hijacking, might prove to be costly. Pilots and crew members may hesitate before taking appropriate action the next time they believe that a flight is being hijacked in the fear that they might be pulled up by the prime minister for taking safety measures before confirming whether a hijack was actually taking place. The prime minister should instead have congratulated those who took part in this “fake” exercise, if indeed that’s what it was.

Yours faithfully,
Madhu Agrawal, Delhi

Parting shot

Sir — While thanking The Telegraph for the underlying positive tone of the article, “Tata chai may be the job for you” (Oct 17), I would like to point out certain major inaccuracies in it.

Tata Tea produces 60 million kilograms of tea annually and not 6 million kgs as stated in the article. A job in the company is by no means a routine 9 am to 5 pm office job. Most of our executives reach office earlier than 9 am and leave well after 7 pm, depending on the exigencies of work.

The article states that at the entry level Tata Tea pays 1.5 lakhs to Rs 2 lakhs per annum. This is incorrect. The company pays between Rs 3-3.5 lakhs at the entry level, depending upon the place of posting. Certain brands of tea such as Gemini and Chakra Gold have not been mentioned at all, although they are doing well in their respective segments.

The assumption that we do not advertise at all for recruitment in the company is factually incorrect. We do advertise for many positions, particularly for chartered accountants, systems professionals, sales and marketing professionals, sales development officers, medical officers and so on. We do not generally need to advertise vacancies for assistant managers for the estates as we receive between 20-25 applications on an average per day.

The statement that “Tata Tea’s is the simple old-fashioned recruitment procedure” is again factually incorrect. Our interview processes are fairly rigorous, whether for the offices or plantation management staff. Written tests, viva, group discussions are held throughout the day with final selection interviews on the following day by a selection panel comprising senior executives of the company.

The remark, “Significant expansion of operations saw its moving into plantation”, is again not quite correct. Tata Tea inherited from its predecessor company, James Finlay & Co. Ltd. its 52 tea estates and one coffee estate in India.

In the light of these errors, it would be best if a corrigendum is published in “Careergraph”.

Yours faithfully,
S.Ray, General Manager, HRD, Tata Tea Limited, Calcutta

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