Editorial 1 / Double defence
Editorial 2 / Heal thyself
Cutting Corners / Crusade on the field
Book Review / Making of a home
Book Review / No single lie
Book Review / Caught in a dark frame
Book Review / Conventional wisdom
Bookwise / Too much of a good thing is bad
Paperback Pickings / The great bin Laden bonanza
Letters to the editor

The growing strategic convergence between India and the United States of America was again demonstrated during the recent meeting of the bilateral defence policy group in New Delhi. Although the initial moves to secure closer cooperation on defence-related issues were made during the prime ministerships of Rajiv Gandhi and Mr P.V. Narasimha Rao, it is only during the last few months that a real momentum has been provided to the relationship. That the lifting of sanctions imposed against India after the nuclear tests of 1998 has greatly facilitated the growth of defence ties was clearly revealed during the meeting of the DPG. The most direct benefit for New Delhi will be the flow of long-sought-after US defence hardware, including gun-locating radars, engines for the light combat aircraft, radars and multi-mission maritime aircraft. But easier transfer of defence equipment to India is only a small part of the broader regime of cooperation being envisaged. The US and India want stability in the Asia-Pacific. India, in partnership with the US and other democracies in the region, could be a countervailing factor against forces, including a potentially belligerent or unstable China, which could threaten peace in the region. Indeed, major democracies could help ensure China’s smoother transition into a democratic value system.

Similarly, the US and India have a shared interest in the stability of the Persian Gulf region, west and central Asia. They have a common interest in the security of the sea-lanes, and in ensuring unfettered access to the energy resources of the region. The Indian navy could cooperate with the US navy in ensuring the security of sea-lanes across the Indian Ocean, and in promoting political moderation, economic modernization and regional stability in the Gulf region. India and the US have a common stake in preventing proliferation of the weapons of mass destruction, especially to states run by despotic or extremist governments. India’s commitment to non-proliferation is unequivocal, and it is willing to take further steps that go with the responsibility of being a state with nuclear weapons. India and the US have a common interest in confronting terrorism in the region, especially terrorism inspired by religious extremism. This has been demonstrated by the events of September 11 and after, and was explicitly stated by the US director for policy and planning, Mr Richard Haass, who visited India at the same time as the meeting of the DPG. Mr Haass is the special US coordinator for the “future of Afghanistan”. India should communicate to Washington that it is prepared to work with it to help restore stability not only in Afghanistan, but also in Pakistan.


Doctors do not like being treated on par with sellers of goods. This was made clear when a large section of Indian doctors reacted violently against the proposal to bring them under the Consumer Protection Act. What was assumed, was that medicine was a “higher calling”, and to bring it under the COPRA was to demean the dignity of the profession. But the moral superiority of a higher calling can only be acknowledged if the members of that calling show a higher degree of responsibility and transparency. There is, unfortunately, too much evidence to the contrary. That the proposal to bring doctors under the COPRA was made at all, and that the Centre is now planning to amend the Medical Council Act so that negligent doctors can be penalized if necessary, indicate that there is a widespread need to increase their accountability. The Centre’s decision comes in the wake of prodding by the Supreme Court, which is dealing with the case of Mr Kunal Saha’s wife, who died in 1998. The medical council is already in trouble with the Delhi high court because of “malpractices” of a different kind. This is just not a good time for doctors.

According to the proposed changes, doctors with complaints against them will have to appear before the medical council for an inquiry. This is not new, and the medical council can claim that this is a practice it has always known. Evidently, the proposed legislation plans to break through this self-correction mode. The medical council would have to produce the results of the inquiry within six months, and if a doctor loses his registration, his name would have to be published in newspapers as well as in medical journals. There is much good in all this. It is true that grieving or disappointed relatives of patients tend to blame doctors whenever things go wrong, and often turn violent, even if they are totally ignorant of the cause of the patient’s decline or death. As a result, doctors band together and turn protective, even when a member of their community is guilty of neglect. A formalized routine of inquiry would require that both sides produce evidence to substantiate their say. A doctor innocent of malpractice would welcome such an inquiry. At the same time, a watchdog asked to watch needs to be watched as well. In other words, more red tape has to be introduced. Besides, implementing the rules would require a high degree of sincerity and impartiality on everyone’s part. Officials and bureaucrats are also human beings, and they would be loath to incense the medical fraternity when push comes to shove. The power of the medical man in society is rather frightening. But to rebuild the goodwill they have obviously lost, doctors would ultimately have to accept an accountability exercise of some kind or other.


In the matter of overseas performance, the Indian cricket team and the country’s prime minister are truly made for each other. But the cricketers are more fortunate. A ruckus triggered by the thoughtful, or not so thoughtful, verdict of the referee presiding over four empires has for the present rendered irrelevant their dismal on-field debacle.

The dust is unlikely to settle for quite a while. It will therefore be not altogether inappropriate to insert some interlocutory comments on the goings-on. In any case, in a milieu of confusion, the more, as the adage says, the merrier.

Mike Denness committed a blunder. He evidently abominates players from the subcontinent, and badly wanted to bring down the Indians a peg or two. But the modus operandi he chose was wrong. He should have adopted salami tactics. Instead, he went for mass extermination. As a result, he has been instrumental in engineering a mess, the outcome of which is, at this point of time, altogether unpredictable.

As a starter, Denness should have targeted Sachin Tendulkar, and only Sachin Tendulkar. Tendulkar had technically committed an offence under the rules. A cricketer can cleanse a ball. But there is a catch: he can do so only with the permission, and under the supervision of either of the umpires. That the country’s ace batsman was in breach of law has been admitted by the devoutest Indian supporters. Denness could have jumped at the opportunity, called Tendulkar in for a reprimand, and clamped upon him a suspended sentence. Nobody would have been in a position to make a squeak of a protest. Having notched his first success. Mike Denness could then have proceeded in a gingerly pace, and given India more bloody noses subsequently.

Vaulting ambition however rendered him impatient. He chose to punish four other Indian players on the alleged ground of persistent appealing, thereby causing distress to the umpires. Denness did not even stop there. He went a step further and penalized Sourav Ganguly for what can best be described as a “constructive guilt”. The Indian captain, according to the match referee, had failed to dissuade Tendulkar from the act of ball tampering, and did not hit his four junior colleagues on the knuckle when they kept appealing against batsmen.

Denness committed a major faux pas here. For if it is a charge of intimidatory appealing, the South Africans were equally guilty, perhaps more. Certainly the South African captain, Shaun Pollock, had performed in the manner of a jumping jackdaw in the same match on at least two different occasions. At the end point of both the appeals, the umpire concerned, after some hesitation, lifted his finger. The Indian players could at least argue that since the rules remain the same, the criteria for applying the rules must not be different with different umpires, and umpires in the present instance would take a compassionate view of quasi-threats in the name of appeals. After all, specimens such as Michael Slater have got away with much worse behaviour on the field; the poor Indians were conceivably under the mistaken belief that what is sauce for the gander is equally sauce for the goose.

Anyway, Mike Denness overdid it in considerable measure. The consequence is the thick of an international controversy. Why Denness did what he did is a moot question. If only he had proceeded with some moderation and desisting from victimizing more than one-half of the Indian team at one go and, instead, punished Tendulkar alone, he would have won a sensational cakewalk victory. He has now created a sensation all right, but sans a victory.

He has, besides, performed a slaughter of the lamb by aiming at Virender Sehwag, who has, in the process, earned the halo of martyrdom. There was a third option for Denness. Sourav Ganguly is by now habituated to it; Denness could have imposed a symbolic fine on Ganguly alone for the collective misdemeanor of his team. The match referee however went the whole hog.

It is possible to offer an hypothesis here. Denness was sanguine he had selected the right moment for the devastating surgery. The war for “infinite justice” was nearly reaching a triumphant end. The frenzy of this victory has gone to the head of about everyone on the other side of the English Channel. Whatever scaling down of the original strident call for crusade voiced by President Bush might have taken place later for diplomatic reasons, the Western hemisphere continues to cling to the tenets of the original proposition: the war for “infinite justice” is nothing but a crusade by Christendom against all heathens. In that sense, it is the faithful obverse of the taliban invocation of jihad.

In the cricketing arena, it has been a long day’s journey into the night for the white-complexioned nations. The England team has suffered in the past a number of humiliating “backwashes” in the hands of the West Indies. That saga has continued: the Pakistanis and the Sri Lankans have emulated the West Indians by giving repeated drubbings to the whiteys of England and New Zealand, and also occasionally to the Australians. South Africa is a peculiar case: the players are basically surcharged with a white superiority complex, while the government of the country is firmly under the control of the blacks.

When Mike Denness struck, he was largely influenced, it is a fair guess, by the instant hauteur the two-month long flattening of Afghanistan had generated. But because of a strategic error, he has handed to the non-West a rare opportunity to hit back. They have not let go of the luck that has come their way.

Those whom the Western commentators would describe as foul-weather friends have come together. A significant number of constituents of the International Cricket Council have revolted, and the council is running the risk of a split down the middle. In the event, the ICC would be hard put to maintain the role of a rigid disciplinarian. It has to come down from the high horse it is pretending to occupy. Barring the Australians, the most attractive cricket these days is played by the non-white countries. Once they exit, or are made to exit, cricket would lose much of its allure for television viewers. Let us not forget that the non-white nations are overwhelmingly the more populous ones and the television companies are bound to go to the wall if the likes of Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis, Jayasuriya, Muralitharan and Tendulkar are not performing.

The lessons should therefore flow toward two different directions. First, the West might continue to boast of superior technology and superior weaponry, they might reduce to dust and debris tracts such as Afghan- istan; the “infinite justice” of the kind they have in mind would nonetheless still elude them. When the chips are down, the solid mass of humanity counts more than the bestiality of arms and the cleverness of information technology. Give or take a few months or a few years, the West would have to make a deal with the non-whites. This is hard realpolitik it cannot escape from.

At the other end, frail specimens such as the Indian prime minister ought to comprehend that the nitty-gritty of realpolitik is complex as well as indivisible. When the whiteys declare a crusade, the non-whites need also to come together and construct effective barricades of resistance. India’s salvation lies not in playing fourth or fifth or sixth fiddle to the United States of America, but in the revival of the non-aligned movement and the recreation of the Afro-Asian-Latin American phalanx of solidarity. An external affairs minister with an Oxbridge brogue is irrelevant in the present context; a rustic Jagmohan Dalmiya would any day clinch a better deal. If you are not convinced, kindly wait a bare few weeks.


By Jael Silliman,
Seagull, Rs 495

Diasporic histories are usually conceived in terms of displacement and loss of identity. In Jewish Portraits, Indian Frames, Jael Silliman challenges this notion and attempts to show that diasporas “can be as much about mobility and gain.” She cites the example of Calcutta’s Baghdadi Jewish community, to which she belongs, and goes on to explore how it benefited from and flourished as a result of movements across continents and cultures.

Silliman chronicles the history of the Baghdadi Jewish diaspora through a series of narratives that examine the lives of four generations of Jewish women — including herself, her mother, Flower, her grandmother, Mary and her great grandmother, Farah. Justifying this “feminist” approach, she writes, “The sketches (based chiefly on interviews with elder members of the community) of these women’s everday lives...trace the evolution of a community.” Indeed what emerges from these personal narratives is a rich history of Calcutta’s Jewish community.

It must be noted that compared to the extensive footage available on the arrival of the British invaders, the migration to India of other non-conquering groups of people around the same time — such as the Baghdadi Jews — is ill-documented. Yet, such communities have made significant contributions to the development of Calcutta during the colonial period. Silliman’s history, by providing a wealth of inside information and insight into the community, can be considered an important addition to Calcutta’s history.

The stories trace the compulsions that brought Shalome Cohen — the first Baghdadi Jew to arrive in Calcutta — and subsequently others of the community to Calcutta in the late 18th century, they explore the motivations that sustained them here and analyse the forces that led to a gradual exodus. “Baghdadi Jews had long been part of trading networks,” says Silliman. “British imperialism provided the conditions for the expansion of these networks to new areas of the world…these networks operated as ancillary to British trading networks.”

It is from this symbiotic relationship with British imperialists that the Calcutta Jewish diaspora stood to gain. While Silliman is critical about her community’s association with exploitation and imperialism, it is ironic that she should call such a diaspora one of “hope”. “Diaspora of privilege” may have been a more appropriate coinage. Silliman defines Calcutta’s Jewish community as an inward-looking people. Their lives revolved around their families, communities, festivals and religion. They clutched onto their Jewish identities almost as a way of denying their displacement. Many Jews, uncertain of their future in an independent India, began gradually to pull out, worried that “they might have to become more Indian”. But there was never any fear of anti-Semitism in India, points out Silliman, whose parents were among those who willingly stayed back and adopted Indian identities.

Interestingly, there is a disturbing absence of any significant mention of the Holocaust in the narrative. Near the end of the book, however, we are told why: “In order not to frame the European Jewish experience as the central Jewish experience I did not want to contrast the two experiences but to have this community understood on its own terms.”

Another conspicuous omission is the voice of the local population. Other than the mention of one incident in which the author’s uncle is told by a group of local goons during a phase of Hindu-Muslim riots not to interfere in their business of beating up a pregnant woman, we do not get a sense of how the ordinary local people viewed the Jews. But this too is perhaps deliberate. Because their facelessness conveys a sense of what they were meant to represent in this narrative — mere frames. But they encase a collection of finely-etched portraits.


By Peter Carey,
Faber, £ 3.99

Peter Carey has chosen for his seventh novel to describe the activities of the Kelly gang, which stole into being one of Australia’s germinal myths at the end of the 19th century. The actions of the gang and its leader, Ned Kelly — the bank robberies, the infamous final showdown when Kelly was shot in the leg despite wearing a suit of armour and a bucket on his head — had previously existed somewhere between historical document and popular parable. So where has Carey sunk his imagination? He has described the Kelly story, in an interview with The Observer, as “a great dark plain on which here and there passionate and violent scenes are played. All around these bright scenes are black seas of unseen incident and unknown feeling.” True History of the Kelly Gang explores the space in and around this stage. And as the title defiantly drops its pronoun, the truth of the space relies on the angry, jocular, plaintive voice of Ned Kelly himself.

Carey has spoken of how the 1879 “Jerilene letter” — which Kelly wrote to defend his actions a year before his execution — suggested the voice of the novel. “Uneducated… passionate” and “very Irish and... funny”, here is Kelly himself describing a policeman: “big ugly fatnecked wombat headed big bellied magpie legged narrow hiped splawfooted sons of Irish Bailiffs on English lands.” True History launches Kelly’s first person narration with a similar flurry of language, little punctuation and bad grammar. There is a conceit that True History is made up of recently discovered letters from Ned to his daughter; a rather gauche reminder that this really is a novel, and forgotten instantly with the first strident declaration that, “this history is for you and will contain no single lie may I burn in hell if I speak false.”

The language provides its own authenticity. This is Carey’s Kelly describing a policeman, “I seen Cons Hall descend from the pub like a glistening spider gliding down from the centre of its web.” The simple device of “I seen” suggests the underdog, the raw and uneducated, and provides the surprising context for Constable Hall to glisten with his own malignant poetry. There is a flexibility to the tone, as Kelly addresses the audiences of his boyhood self, his mother, his future daughter, or argues in the vernacular with the “adjectival police”. And in great Shelleyian moments he lays out his soul on the Australian landscape, a bush-ranging Prometheus, “I never seen this country before it were like a fairy story landscape the clear and windy skies was filled with diamonds the jagged black outlines of the ranges were a panorama.”

Kelly’s voice is also used to rescue the narrative from the romantic extremes of sentiment and wilderness. For the “unseen incident” and “unknown feeling” which Carey has imagined — the interactions of raging Irish mothers, drunken fathers and squabbling brothers — often becomes John Ford-style bathos. Ellen Kelly, Ned’s mother, might be Maureen O’Hara from Ford’s The Quiet Man, and Ned himself often has the hulking gloom of John Wayne suffering from too much melodrama. Everywhere issues and situations compel the emotions. In one scene, Ellen gives birth to Ned’s third sister, the drunken doctor appears in the doorway like a sheepish Doc Holiday late for a cue in Stagecoach, whilst the young Ned yells ecstatically, “You’ve got a girl.”

As Ford might do, Carey holds the scene up like a stained glass for the grand leap into allegory. In the Kelly shack on a wasted creek, there is the Madonna with her child, and the doctor a kindly seraph looking on. And the baby’s name is Grace, a little symbol of the redemption Ned finds through writing to his own daughter. But Ned’s voice also reassuringly breaks the reverie; the narrator drops back into himself, and impiously worries that his school friends “would soon get the false idea I seen my mother’s bottom”.

That Carey should also rely on the broader concerns of John Ford’s Westerns is perhaps inevitable given the shared historical moment and the equally barren landscape they are describing. Ford’s wildernesses cast in relief groups of homesteaders who, through the example of the gunslinger, rediscover the values of whiteness, Protestantism and general Anglo-Saxonness. True History has the same feeling of a symbolic community. But Kelly declares himself to be “Irish rubbish”, with an identity which is made up of prison ships and transportation, racial abuse and the folkstories of Cuchulain. As if to emphasize that these broken discourses do not make a nation, the gang hear speeches from Henry V, that epitome of English nation-building (and another lovely Fordian moment). The hostage — an English teacher — then betrays the gang to the police. But though constantly defeated by the English, Kelly never politicizes his Irishness. Carey is suggesting that Kelly might be the first to realize the fight is not between English and the Irish. Oppression has touched immigrants and ex-prisoners with a little of the Australian wilderness. The struggle in the bush is between Australians and their colonial masters.

Carey has thus claimed that the “space Kelly occupies in the national imagination” is that of Thomas Jefferson, not Jesse James. But there is no brash talk of republics in True History. How could these boys frame a nation? The idea of an Australian identity is felt through its absence. But Kelly’s voice obviously knows what it means to be Australian, with its language of colloquialism and fresh coinings, striving to steal the words away from the English, fitting them to the land. In imagining the gaps in the story of Ned Kelly, Carey has created the voice to speak a “true history” both for himself, and Australia. Onto the stage the iron clad warrior steps, with a bucket on his head, daring anyone to shoot him down.


By Lindsey Collen,
Bloomsbury, £10.99

Three women undertrials, crammed into a dark, sullied cell on the Mauritius islands, talk and share recipes of tropical cuisine to blunt hunger pangs. Besides, talking helps them break off the monotony of a claustrophobic and decaying existence. And like Shakespeare’s ominous witches, they forebode the onset of violent tempests. The likeness, faint yet intentional, is uncanny because for Mama Gracienne, Leila and Juna (the narrator), the tempest is symbolic of mutiny. Drawn into the whirl, they plot an escape route to freedom.

Mutiny is a powerful tale of female bonding, collective humiliation and rebellion against a prejudiced law and order system, and much of its material seems to have been sourced from Lindsey Collen’s personal experiences behind bars. The Mauritius-based author had been persecuted by the government for her radical anti-establishment views. Mutiny is her fourth novel.

When squeezed into a cell built for two, strangers Juna, Leila and Mama Gracienne resent each other’s presence. They are hostile, nonchalant and menacing. The bleak prison — a persisting imagery in the novel — cuts them off from the external landscape. It seems to dissolve all three-dimensional figures, leaving only their silhouettes. The dark, fluid space helps the women revisit their traumatized pasts, share and identify in each other a muted yearning for liberty.

Collen etches out her protagonists as personifications of the crimes they have been convicted of. In the complex and confusing jargon of criminal law, Mama Gracienne becomes Confession, Juna the Allegator and Leila, Effusion of blood. Yet, none of them has actually committed the sin she has been book- ed for.

As the characters confide in each other, the faceless lump of female figures evolves into distinct entities. Mama Gracienne develops a voice of motherly wisdom, Leila emerges as a carefree girl on the threshold of motherhood and Juna reveals an obsession with words. Stripped to the minimal, denial and humiliation whet their craving for an outlet. Yet, in the climactic phase of the rebellion, freedom eludes them. Juna is hurled back into her former spot. But failure incites in her a firmer resolution to break free.

Though rooted in the grimy present, all the three women are like three living shadows, constituting of “remembrances of things past”. They survive by recollecting the memories of loved ones — Juna’s brother, Leila’s father and Mama Gracienne’s daughter. The peripheral characters, such as the female guards, expose the apathy that has seeped into the core of an establishment. Their rigidity is starkly incongruous with the emotional upheaval in the three main figures.

Collen uses a slightly incoherent language to reflect the seemingly demented and eerie situation her characters are implicated in. The women feel an enormous urge to chat, rephrase words and sentences to while away time and preserve their sanity. The plot becomes subservient to this overwhelmingly domineering and suggestive language. And Collen wants anything but a well-knit plot. She prefers leaving loose the threads that could stitch up the storyline. For instance, she does not try to analyse the circumstances that lead to Juna, Leila or Mama Gracienne’s arrests. Consequently, the narrative is neither succinct, nor smooth and seems to sag occasionally.

There is uniqueness in the style of narration, though. The consecutive arrangement of chapters on the protagonists and appendices from criminal law codes highlights the farcical, coarse and grotesque nature of their muted existence. Besides, Collen liberally cites literary and mythological allusions while unfolding her characters. When Juna calls the twin tempests Cassandra and Doorgawatee, the reference to instruments of power subversion is obvious, however oblique it might be. The use of colour imageries — predominantly shades of mauve, blue and grey — to convey a portentous event accentuates the sense of an impending chaos.


Edited By Axel Michaels,
Manohar, Rs 550

The renowned scholar, K. Parameswara Aithal, was born in Kota, in 1934. With advaitavendata of Sankara as a special subject, he studied the sastras for five years before passing the Vidvan examinations with distinction. For his dissertation “non-rigvedic citations in Asvatayana Srautasutra”, he was awarded the doctorate of philosophy by the Karnataka University in 1970. In 1968, Aithal was appointed as teacher in the South Asia Institute of the University of Heidelberg. During his 30 year long tenure in the university he impressed everybody who came in contact with his vast erudition.

Axel Michaels was one of the many admirers of Aithal. His aim is to re-assess the merits of traditional Sanskrit scholarship in India of which Aithal was an illustrious representative. At the seminar organized by him with this end, several Indian and European Indologists read out their papers which have been compiled in this volume.

The Pandit contains 13 essays distributed under four chapter heads. The essays seek to situate the pandit in the context of the education system in ancient India which prioritized a special bond between the teacher and the pupils, the guru-shisya parampara. This was looked upon as an ideal means of transmitting knowledge from one generation to the other.

In this gurukul system of education, the pandit was regarded not only as an individual, well-versed in one or many sastras and adept in memorizing long texts, but also as a hallowed symbol of wisdom and of asceticism. In short, the pandit represented an institution harbouring socially valued principles and acted as a pivot around which the social structure was built.

During Islamic rule and subsequently under British reign there was an inevitable decline in the social prestige which the pandit formerly enjoyed. He became increasingly marginalized as the European concept of modernism came to prevail in India.

Axel Michael shows that now Sanskrit learning has become merely an academic exercise and he goes on to record some of his speculations about the future of the pandit. Ashok Aklujkar explores the history of the term pandita which, according to him, Panini derived from the feminine noun panda, meaning “having intelligence.” Aklujkar also analyses the process of despiritualization and desecularization that the doctor had undergone probably as an “indirect result of the arrival of Islam on the Indian subcontinent.”

Christopher Z. Minkowski dwells on the controversy that centres around the inconsistency between cosmological models conceived in puranas and siddhantas. Bettina Baumer offers a brief yet interesting survey of the tantric tradition in Varanasi which was followed mainly by textual scholars, ritual practitioners and yogis. Madhav. M. Deshpande chronicles the process through which traditional Sanskrit scholarship veered towards modernism in Maharashtra in the 19th century under the aegis of the “new” pandits like Vishnushastri Chiplunkar, B.G Tilak, V.S Apte and others.

Monika Horstmann’s depiction of Pandit Hazariprasad Dvivedi whom she calls “a pandit among modernists and modernist among pandits” is insightful. Harry Falk’s reflections on the samhitapatha and the padapatha and Albrecht Wezters’ remarks on Nirukta 1.20, though a little beyond the grasp of lay readers, are likely to encourage further researchers. One feels that Gaay Caran Tripathi’s article should have been translated into English before being included in this volume.



Ask yourself a simple question. Why are there more than 5,000 new novels published in English when it would be a miracle if 500 publishable novels had been written in a year? Besides, it would be extraordinary if 50 of them were good and five of them great. We don’t have to go by Dr Johnson’s definition of a century being the test of literary durability. But could we boil this down to a shelf-life of, say, 15 years after publication? Or, put it in practical terms, to 50,000 copies of a book?

In the cut-and-thrust world of publishing such good fortunes rarely occur. Hence the question: why are publishers overpublishing when quite often they know within themselves that they are publishing duds that would bomb?

Publishers are overpublishing because good editors have been fired and not replaced and an obsession with turnover has displaced the ability to distinguish good books from bad. The going philosophy is: something is bound to click. Just put the book on the shelves and the public will lap it up like hot cakes. So into the valley of death go the 5,000 with the publicity machines cranked up to provide the covering fire.

As far back as 1936, George Orwell had said that there is nothing new under the sun and that “the novel was being shouted out of existence.” Readers, unable to find their way through the forests of junk fiction and conscious that they were being conned by all that hyperbole just give up. What this leads to is not too many novels chasing too few readers but too many novels chasing readers away. Aware that the number of copies sold of new novels is going down, a new financial ruthlessness has come into business, but what is required is editorial ruthlessness — or a return to judgment.

Many publishers know that it is “quality” and “relevance” that brings success. Quality means language, style and subject matter suitably packaged for the reader. Relevance means how useful the book would be for the reader — it could be anything from pure entertainment to career advancement through learning and knowledge. Sadly, the number of editors who could make this assessment has moved to more lucrative pastures in the media. The few who remain are swamped by the marketing department, which wants more titles to fulfil itssales targets. Its argument is that every book has a niche market and they know how to get there. Of course this never happens because there are many more hurdles to cross to get “there” — discounts, credits and other inducements for the trade — but for the moment its case is compelling and the editor thus gives in.

It is this strict demarcation between the marketing and editorial departments, with a bias for the former that has led to over-production. Perhaps, the saddest part comes when an assessment is made of marketing forecasts but, by this time, either the person has moved on or he can come up with any number of reasons why the book failed to take off. The consequences of the crisis of over-production are there to see. First, the downsizing, with the best moving on to start something modest of their own. Second, and more important, the virtual relegation of the book to the visual media and the entertainment industry. The moral: too much of a good thing is bad news.


By John K. Cooley
(Penguin, Rs 295)
By Adam Robinson
(Vision, Rs 225)

By John K. Cooley and Adam Robinson’s Unholy Wars: Afghanistan, America and International Terrorism and Bin Laden: Behind the Mask Of The Terrorist are evidence of the gala time publishers seem to be having post-WTC. Bin Laden is proving to be the Maria Callas of international terrorism, with his mystically menacing eyes, proverbial wealth, burgeoning fan-club and a certain air of invisibility about him. Cooley and Robinson are both journalists on the west Asia beat. The former narrates “the course and consequences of a strange love affair which went disastrously wrong: the alliance, during the second half of the 20th century, between the United States and some of the most conservative and fanatical followers of Islam”. His epigraph, rather grandly, is Machiavelli on mercenaries. Robinson, on the other hand, is juicier, delivering the “first comprehensive insight into the life of the renegade prophet of the apocalypse”. Robinson’s source are members of the bin Laden family (“the Rockefellers of Arabia”); and for a “better understanding of what goes on inside his head”, we are taken back to such crucial originary phases as “his youth laced with prostitutes, hedonism and...alcohol abuse”. Whether it is the big picture or a more intimate one, these books amount to little more than news analysis dressed up to look either like serious historical research or like authentic forays into “the psyche of Osama”.

By Gopa Sabharwal, Sonia Minocha and Himanshu Dube
(Penguin, Rs 195)

Gopa Sabharwal, Sonia Minocha and Himanshu Dube’s The Penguin India Cricket Quiz Book is the first and only quiz book specifically on Indian cricket. It brings together 282 sets of 6 questions each, “like the balls of an over”, and keeps up the cricket analogy throughout. Covering test matches, internationals and “hordes of trivia”, this is a fun book that draws on an astonishingly detailed knowledge of the game as played in India.

By Vijay Tendulkar
(Permanent Black, Rs 275)

Vijay Tendulkar’s The Last Days Of Sardar Patel & The Mime Players are two screenplays by this eminent Marathi playwright, who describes them in his preface as “interesting reading”. The first was made into a film by Ketan Mehta, and the second is adapted from a short story by Dibyendu Palit, which is appended in this book. There is also a brief and valuable foreward by Ashis Nandy which looks at Tendulkar as “the most distinguished social theorists of violence in the country”: “He never fails to make you feel that you have entered a dentist’s chamber with an undiagnosed abscess in the molars.”



Look who’s talking

Sir — The demand for the creation of a separate “homeland” for Bangladeshi Hindus by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad international working president, Ashok Singhal, is disturbing news (“VHP seeks slice of Bangladesh”, Dec 4). Not only is such a remark from an Indian leader an embarrassment for the Centre, this may ignite communal tension both in Bangladesh and in India. When the Bangladeshi government is trying to come to terms with the recent spate of violence, it should be a good gesture on India’s part to come up with appropriate measures to help it deal with the serious situation. But here lies the tragedy. Surprisingly, the VHP chief does not take into account that this irresponsible statement would provide the different secessionist movements in India with adequate reasons to justify their actions. The VHP should restrain itself from making such proposals and make amends for its silliness.

Yours faithfully,
Swagata Bagchi, Calcutta

Schools of thought

Sir — A literate population is always an asset for any nation. In most third world countries, poverty and social inadequacies prevent children from getting a proper education. A directive principle of the Indian Constitution speaks about imparting free and compulsory education. But little was done since independence in the sphere of primary education to fulfil this constitutional requirement.

Now the Lok Sabha has passed a bill which would guarantee children between 6 and 14 years the fundamental right to education (“Sonia topper in Joshi’s class”, Nov 29). This may be a first step towards improving the arena of basic rights of all children in respect to education, health and property. The important question is whether we have adequate, non-profit making, better-equipped educational institutions to meet this demand. This would be difficult to come by since private education providers have converted schools into profit making businesses. The economically and socially deprived population cannot dare to think of sending their children to these private schools. Moreover, the government schools are badly managed and lack basic amenities. In many states the administration is thinking of closing down schools because of the lack of funds.

Primary education should be provided with unlimited budgetary support. The government should not hesitate to spend more money on higher education as well as on primary education. The state governments and the Centre should ensure that street children and child labourers are provided with basic education. The Centre should open more schools with all the modern facilities including well-equipped laboratories, well-maintained gardens and good playgrounds and midday meal facilities for the children. This way some justice would be done to the provision of “right to education”.

Yours faithfully,
V.A. Gopala, Bangalore

Sir — The decision of the Indian government to make education compulsory for children between ages six and 14 has its set of problems. As pointed out by the opposition leader, Sonia Gandhi, this would put pressure on parents to send their wards to schools. This bill does not take into account the economic resources available to a family for the primary education of their children. In both the urban and rural sectors, lack of well-equipped government funded chools makes it difficult for economically backward children to get proper education. It should be the responsibility of the government to start low-cost schools and provide other attractive incentives to draw students from the backward sections of society. The non-governmental organizations also can play a constructive part in this regard. As rightly shown by the editorial, “Reading it right” (Nov 30), the Centre should make persons and institutions accountable in implementing this fundamental right. Otherwise mere passing of such amendments would amount to naught.

Yours faithfully,
Sagnik Basu, Calcutta

Sir — Education now has become a fundamental right, but the fact remains that not many children get the right education. One reason for this is the dearth of good schools and a hurdle to the opening of private schools is lack of funds. People should be encouraged to make voluntary donations that can be utilized by schools. Statutory expenditure has increased many times in the recent past, but fees have not increased at the same rate.

Then there are the problems like property tax imposed on school buildings. All school buildings including unaided ones must be exempted from property taxes and other levies. These funds can be used for providing better amenities and facilities for school children. The education ministry should introduce reforms to do away with these difficulties in our education system.

Yours faithfully,
Mahesh Kapasi, New Delhi

Sir — The West Bengal government’s decision to include sex education in school syllabi is commendable (“Sex education set for school debut in state”, Dec 2). The need of the hour is to create awareness among students about human physiology for their own safety. The rise in the numbers of teenage pregnancy cases and the threat of deadly diseases such as AIDS makes sex education in schools a necessity. In India, where sex is a taboo subject, the government’s attempt to bring a change in the attitude of the people is a big leap forward. This in turn would help the students to play a positive role in population control programmes, which may help restrict the rate of population growth in India.

Yours faithfully,
Saikat Pandit, Uttarpara

Point not taken

Sir — This is with reference to “Lawman laments legal nadir” (Nov 27), which reports a lecture I delivered at the Goenka College of Commerce and Business Administration on November 26.

I was speaking on law as a career and was attempting to explain the public perception of law, lawyers and legal education. My object was to project a bright future for the really competent law graduates who are in short supply today. No doubt legal education around the country is in very bad shape and the wayside colleges or teaching shops are largely responsible for the malady. But this is an all India problem and not particularly said about the colleges in Calcutta or West Bengal. In fact, the Bar Council has been forcing the closure of such wayside colleges in many states during the last two years. The report gives a contrary impression which is neither a true nor fair reporting of my speech and might hurt my colleagues teaching in the law colleges in the region.

Yours faithfully,
N.R. Madhava Menon, vice-chancellor, West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences, Calcutta

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