Editorial 1 / Make it total
Editorial 2 / City light
Cutting Corners / Centre of the currency
Book Review / Not a common writer
Book Review / Lead review
Book Review / Living life on the edge
Book Review / The imperial theme
Bookwise / Put your patience to the test
Paperback Pickings / The Other is a career
Letters to the editor

 
 
EDITORIAL 1 / MAKE IT TOTAL 
 
 
 
 
Elections are expensive and the way political parties raise funds to finance their campaigns has always been a thorny issue in India. There is little or no transparency in the process through which money is garnered. That business houses provide money for elections is something that everyone knows and refuses to acknowledge as something that is above board. To get round this, the Union cabinet has just cleared a bill which allows for state funding of elections. Money for the hustings drawn from the exchequer will be a further drain on the state’s resources which are already running scarce. Moreover, in the era of liberalization the state is supposed to cut expenditure. The government has thus decided that it will tap business houses to provide money for elections. Industrial houses will be asked to set aside five per cent of their profits for the election fund. For this, they will be rewarded through tax exemptions. Not all political parties have welcomed this decision. The Communist Party of India (Marxist), refusing to budge from its holier-than-thou posture, has announced that on principle it will not accept money from business houses. Capitalists can be wooed to invest in West Bengal but their money is taboo so far elections are concerned. Other political parties, like the Congress, have taken less hidebound and more realistic positions.

The rub of the government’s decision to take money for the election fund from businessmen lies elsewhere. It lies, in fact, in the government’s offer to reward the donors through tax exemptions. It is a little known fact, lost in the alleys of sub-clauses and caveats which are omnipresent in the Indian tax laws, that such tax exemptions seldom, if ever, cover the entire amount that has been donated. Such is the labyrinthine nature of the tax structure that sometimes even the donor is under the misconception that he will be entitled to a full exemption. But the state works in ways which are not immediately visible. If the government is serious and sincere about its proposal to attract corporate finance for elections, it should clarify the situation about the tax exemptions. It should look into the possibility of providing total exemptions to all money that is made available not only for elections but also to established educational trusts or bodies and to well known charitable organizations. There should be an acknowledgement on the part of the state that there are other institutions in society that are doing good work and are in need of funds. A complete exemption against donations to such bodies would be a kind of recognition from the part of the state and would encourage business houses to channel their money to charities, to education and to politics.

   

 
 
EDITORIAL 2 / CITY LIGHT 
 
 
 
 
Frankness is becoming quite the order of the day. The chief minister of West Bengal, Mr Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, admitted in public to what he considered a major error in the Left Front’s mindset. To the state government, upgrading conditions in the city has always meant concentrating on basic facilities such as roads, lights and water. Mr Bhattacharjee feels that there has been no attention given to other fundamental issues which include education, jobs and health. Without this no success is possible. Public acknowledgment of an error in judgment could be half the battle won. The chief minister’s self-searching could be construed as a promise to alter course, or, better still, to broaden focus. It is true that well-lit roads do not really represent the quality of life of a city, in the way it is represented by lifestyle and culture. The city would gain much from improved healthcare, education and job opportunities. The last, though, is essentially linked to the other indicators. The poor infrastructure, which includes roads and water, and the underused human potential, the result of poor education, poor hygiene — often because of unhealthy surroundings — and below average stamina, have all contributed to the decline of industry in the state. The situation is hardly conducive to the creation of jobs.

It is to be hoped that Mr Bhattacharjee’s introspection does not stop halfway. It is true that roads, water, and lights have been high among the Left Front’s priorities. But even in these areas, the government and the municipal corporation have left much to be desired. There has been some success in the sphere of electrification. Roads and the water supply, unfortunately, could do with major improvements. And it could begin from the very basics. The municipal corporation and the government together should take concrete steps to prevent the wastage of water from common taps and evolve a firm system for removal of garbage. The eradication of poverty, which was the subject of the discussion at which the chief minister raised these issues, is a long term project. What can be done immediately is improve the conditions in which Calcutta’s poor live. It is good that the state government is already paying some attention to the hospitals, beginning from clearing encroachers to streamlining the care system. Education is where perhaps the chief minister might be wary. It is not as if the government as well as the Communist Party of India (Marxist) have not paid attention to it. Only the attention has often come in the form of intervention with not altogether happy results. A change of mindset on this issue would be a real step forward. So after acknowledging the error, the chief minister and his advisors have a lot of thinking to do.

   

 
 
CUTTING CORNERS / CENTRE OF THE CURRENCY 
 
 
BY ASHOK MITRA
 
 
Ever try to remember those hazy days twenty years ago? The country was riven by a ferocious campaign to restructure Centre-state relations. Enough was enough, rang the battle cry, the Congress monolith had turned the Union of India, basically conceived as a federation, into a unitary entity, with all powers — administrative, legislative and financial — concentrated in the hands of the Centre. This development went against the ethos of an India that is marked by wide diversities in language, ethnicity, cultural patterns, food habits, and so on. National unity, if it is to survive and sustain itself, must proceed on the principle of give and take between the Centre and the states, the federating states should be allowed enough elbow room. The call for decentralization of power and resources was impelled by the conviction that unless the states, the territories covered by them and the people inhabiting them, were permitted to radiate in the full glow of the potential of their specificities, India as a whole will be set back severely.

This led to other considerations, such as the need for delegated legislative and fiscal functions and prerogatives. Power to the people should not be an empty, abstract box. The federating units are more proximate to the people than a distant Central administration; the priorities for administration and developmental tasks should originate at the level of the states and even further below. This objective can be achieved via a more liberal approach in the interpretation of constitutional provisions, thereby ensuing the transfer of greater financial powers away from the Centre to the states. Where it is called for, even the Constitution itself could be amended in a significant manner.

In the ongoing turmoil two decades ago, the transfer of fiscal powers was reckoned as the key issue. The Centre has the lion’s share of taxation powers. It has exclusive jurisdiction over market borrowings. It controls the banks and public financial institutions. It can also, at a pinch, print notes. The states are at a distinct disadvantage in all these scores. Why should the rates of income tax, the larger chunk of whose proceeds are supposed to devolve to the states, be determined by the Centre? Why should the states have no claim on the receipts from company taxation? Why should more than 90 per cent of the take from market borrowings be appropriated by the Union government? Even as the states are denied access to the printing press for minting money, why should their overdraft facilities with the Reserve Bank of India, too, continue to be under severe restraint?

The states have had other grouses. The compulsions of competitive democracy have stood in the way of the states getting full value of their constitutional right to collect land revenue and agricultural tax. Why should they suffer from other handicaps that are the direct outcome of Central manipulations? For instance, in terms of Entry 54 of the state list of the seventh schedule under Article 246 of the Constitution, sales taxation is the exclusive prerogative of the states. But way back in 1957, given that all states were ruled by obliging chief ministers belonging to the same party as presided over the Union government, the latter took away from the states the power to levy sales tax on textiles, sugar and tobacco and tobacco products. These three commodities were the most lucrative sources of sales tax revenue flowing to the exchequer of state governments; the Centre chose to take them away. It decided to impose, in lieu of sales tax, what was dubbed as additional duties of excise on the three categories of commodities, with the promise that collections under this head will be transferred to the states after netting for expenses. A study undertaken in the early Eighties dug out the fact that the Centre betrayed the trust reposed in it by the states, who lost as much as something of the order of Rs 25,000 crore of revenue during the preceding two decades because of the substitution of sales tax on sugar, tobacco and textiles by additional duties of excise.

It has been a glaring anomaly. The Constitution has laid down for states a wide array of responsibilities in the areas of agriculture, industry, infrastructure as well as maintenance of law and order. They, nonetheless, lack the corresponding fiscal clout for fulfilling these responsibilities. At the other end, the Centre has an embarrassment of riches; it is lush with funds and often tends to spend these, if not in a frivolous manner, at least in terms of priorities which have little to do with the basic needs of the people at the grassroots. Power corrupts and fiscal power, the states have reasoned, corrupts more than any other.

Agitation for the realignment of Centre-state relations reached a fever pitch in the early Eighties. The then prime minister, Indira Gandhi, was forced to offer a gesture. She set up a committee of wise men to review Centre-state relations in different spheres and make necessary recommendations. The committee was chaired by a cautious judge and two even more cautious retired senior civil servants. But they too could not but recognize the rationale of the demand for a thorough overhaul of the existing framework of Centre-state relations.

The political complexion of the Union government has changed time to time in the course of the past twenty years. To no effect. Even the relatively conservative recommendations of the Sarkaria commission have remained unimplemented. Not surprisingly, the polity has suffered in consequence, so too the economy. And more grievous things are happening of late. Instead of augmenting the fiscal powers currently enjoyed by the states, plans are afoot to move in the reverse direction. With effect from the beginning of the new fiscal year, the Union finance minister has announced with much fanfare, the entire institution of sales taxation will be replaced by a centralized value added tax. The mandarins in New Delhi usually draw their inspiration from the Economist. That magazine does not like what it calls the divisiveness of sales taxation and has long campaigned for VAT, which centralizes the collection of indirect imposts and supposedly eliminates the possibility of distortion of an integrated market structure, which is emblematic of the free market concept. This was the argument deployed in the United Kingdom to accelerate the integration of the British economy with the European Economic Community. That cue has been taken up in India.

The wretched state governments must be prohibited from imposing sales tax at different rates on the same commodity; such an arrangement stalls the development of a unified, integrated market which capitalists could exploit at their hearts’ content. No answer is provided to the query whether an integrated market by itself could stimulate growth when demand remains weak and ineffective because of lack of purchasing power for the overwhelming mass of the Indian people. Nor is there any satisfactory response to the point of view that the centralization of taxation powers as envisaged by VAT will be a blow to decentralized economic initiatives. The only admission that has been made refers to the prospect of collections under a centralized value added tax scheme occasionally leading to a loss of revenue for the states: in case this happens, the Centre has promised to compensate the states. But against the bitter experience of the substitution of sales tax on tobacco, textiles and sugar by additional duties of excise, promises of this genre are of negligible significance.

Once bitten, it ought to have been twice shy. The states should have fought tooth and nail the proposal for introducing the value added tax which emasculates their fiscal powers. It is however another time and perhaps another country. The states have been taken for a huge ride; a committee of a select few state finance ministers has been set up by the Union government to work out the details of the modalities of the value added tax. Although nominally a committee of state finance ministers, it will be located in, and administered by, the ministry of finance in New Delhi. Those state finance ministers who will be on the committee will feel important, but that is about all; the Centre will run away with the revenue.

The only good thing is that, till now, only twelve states out of the thirty-odd have agreed to join the VAT wagon. It will necessarily be fiscal chaos, with some states in and a majority of the states out. Confusion will reign supreme. We already have enough of confusion in the economy with zero growth in agriculture, notional growth in industry and negative growth in exports. If there is still an iota of sense in the proper quarters, a decision needs to be taken to keep in abeyance the plan for the introduction of the value added tax in such unseemly haste.

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW / NOT A COMMON WRITER 
 
 
BY RUDRANGSHU MUKHERJEE
 
 
A HUNDRED ENCOUNTERS
By Sham Lal,
Rupa, Rs 395

Journalism is born with the curse of the shallow and the ephemeral. The chase after today’s news and the confines of the column centimetre always act as a hindrance to profundity. The cliché that journalists are today’s chroniclers of tomorrow’s history is a poor sop for those who are anxious to give their pieces some kind of longevity beyond the morning cup of coffee. There are exceptions, of course, to this general rule, and in the world of Indian journalism no one exemplifies the exception better than Sham Lal.

He began his career in 1934, when terms like investigative journalism, wordsmith and the like had not entered the lexicon of the fourth estate. His first job was with The Hindustan Times, but he came into his own in The Times of India which he joined in 1950, and rose from being a leader writer to be the editor. It was sometime in the mid- Fifties that Sham Lal began writing review articles of important new books. These reviews, which dealt with ideas and issues raised in the book under review, appeared in the edit page of the paper under the rubric, “Life and Letters’’. This column made a special niche for itself and had its own devoted readers. From 1994, Sham Lal has been writing for The Telegraph, and he continues the tradition of doing longish reviews to break the monotony of political commentaries.

In this volume of 535 pages, Sham Lal brings together 100 of these review essays. They cover a wide range of subjects: from modern thinkers to poets to dramatists to novelists. The most remarkable aspect of this collection is the fact that none of these essays have really dated with time. The other aspect which will be obvious to any reader — and this is what makes Sham Lal somewhat unique in the world of journalism — is the erudition and the cerebral qualities that Sham Lal brought to these essays.

In his reviews, Sham Lal “interrogates the writer and looks for answers in the text...he point[s] out where the author fumbles or takes refuge in silence, evasion or ambiguity, and locate[s] the points of tension between his different selves.’’ For this reason, he prefers to call his reviews encounters. He points out that the critic’s role these days is caught between two extremes. One derides the critic for being parasitical, and the other elevates interpretation to an absolute end where the original text is redu-ced to nothing. Any act of criticism, Aristotle said, and most postmodern critics would agree with this, must begin with the text itself. The author — his motives, his intentions and even perhaps the context in which he wrote — may be, as postmodernists have famously announced, dead. But his text is present for analysis and dissection, and his views are open to challenge, to comparison and even to elaboration. Sham Lal’s reading of texts is careful, his interpretation of them is never reckless. On the contrary, his exegesis of the texts is always lucid.

Sham Lal, like many others of his generation, was influenced by the body of ideas one can very broadly identify as left. Thus he reviews here books by Hobsbawm and Perry Anderson, and biographies of Brecht and Sartre. But he was not one of those who thought the world had come to an end when the Soviet Union collapsed. He chose to understand this phenomenon and to come to terms with a whole body of writing which has emanated from the left, but has been critical of the tradition that encouraged a closure of the mind. Thus his reading of thinkers like Derrida, Foucault, Barthes, Baudrillard and Zygmunt Bauman. Thus his interest in the new ways that capitalism has restructured itself in the age of globalization and in the era of the information revolution.

Sham Lal continues to read and write. His intellectual energy and hunger put a younger man to shame. He set a standard and an example. If he has no emulators in the future then one would be forced, alas, to conclude that Sham Lal was an erudite man fallen among journalists.

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW / LEAD REVIEW 
 
 
BY AVEEK SEN
 
 
PLEASING MYSELF: FROM BEOWULF TO PHILIP ROTH
By Frank Kermode,
Allen Lane, £15

The pleasures that Frank Kermode affords himself and his readers in this collection of review-essays spring from a combination of intelligence and elegance, embodied in beautiful prose. Here is a sentence from his review of the diaries of Sylvia Townsend Warner, English novelist and poet: “She was prodigiously literate and seems to have acquired the kind of social assurance that allows the possessor the privileges of candour as well as the popularity of complaisance.” Johnsonian cadence and Jamesian vocabulary come together in this gem of a sentence. It is also the vehicle of a fine and modern literary sensibility. It would not be fair to describe this sensibility as merely literary — for its amplitude is not only a result of wide reading, but also of a social sense at once dispassionate and humane.

This quality is the basis of Kermode’s historicism as well. His essay on Warner opens out an exposition of a “superior mid-20th-century mind” into a historical introduction to “the behaviour of the 1930s intelligentsia” and to a kind of Englishness. Her “vaguely upper-class” communism (“She insisted on calling everybody comrade”, Stephen Spender recalls) and her antinomian Anglicanism, evident in her love of English music (Britten and Vaughan Williams), become part of a nuanced portrait which is both entertaining biography and astute social history.

“I read The Winter’s Tale and wept for joy. Breed coming out in Perdita the moment she’s threatened,” Warner writes in her diary. Kermode places this notion of English breeding in an “almost obsolete culture” that straddles Shakepearean romance and The Communist Manifesto, and he does this with the keenest humour: “this later world of well-bred ladies, doubtless a little snobbish, though quite unconsciously, who make jam, adore exotic cats, garden, cook, clean, write letters, and in their leisure hours frequent Boulestin’s or apply themselves to the labours of literature and music. It might even be an indication of breeding to have a well-bred lesbian partner. Warner’s was tall, distinguished and boyishly handsome; wore masculine clothes and, habitually, a tie.” There follows a wonderful account of this “somewhat formidable companion”, Valentine Ackland, Catholic convert and member of the Communist Party, who says, celebrating an anniversary, “I thought we would be vulgar and have champagne.” Kermode rounds this off with unsentimental empathy and quotation: “[Ackland] was extravagantly loved and, when the time came, deeply mourned. ‘Grief, my sole comfort, do not go,’ says one diary entry.”

This critical sensibility crosses the Atlantic, and remains just as entertaining, astute and historical. The review of Marianne Moore’s letters is another model of its kind. This poet — as echt American as Warner was echt English — is, for Kermode, the master of “disciplined pleasure”: “To be finely tuned to poems, while remaining obstinately herself, was her purpose in life.” She also wrote around 30,000 letters, to such men and women as T.S. Eliot, Hilda Doolittle and Elizabeth Bishop.

Kermode’s essay is close in spirit to Bishop’s verse tribute, “Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore”, imploring her poetic mentor to “please come flying” over the Brooklyn Bridge in her black-brimmed hat: “Facts and skyscrapers glint in the tide;/ Manhattan is all awash with morals this fine morning,/ so please come flying.” Kermode sketches in the “cult figure” — “the old lady in the tricorne hat who threw the first pitch of the baseball season, went to prize fights with George Plimpton, dined with Cassius Clay, as he then was, and was hired, unavailingly, to give a name to a new Ford car”. Moore is then placed in a larger cultural formation, as Kermode uses her to illuminate the peculiar inventiveness and “dispersity” of American modernism, looking at poets like William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens as well: “They were all originals but all in the American grain, declining the European alternatives chosen by Eliot and Pound, and all engaged in discovering idiosyncratic but American ways of being modern.”

This collection, like the earlier Uses of Error, celebrates the ephemeral satisfactions of the review-essay. The genre offers “a comfortable middle ground” between “the barbarous jargons and swollen books of the modern academy and the quick satisfactions of the newspaper review”. This is as much a question of length as of readership. And in this, Kermode — having held the most distinguished professorships at London, Cambridge and Harvard, and wielding a fairly awesome bibliography — also celebrates the privileges of a “double life”. To move between scholarship and journalism is salutary for professors because it reminds them “that they have a duty, easily neglected, to make themselves intelligible to non-professors”.

As in the essays on Warner and Moore, the reviews of a Yeats biography and of Eliot’s lectures on Metaphysical Poetry deftly capture what Kermode, quoting Wallace Stevens, calls “the presiding personality” of his subjects. This is both a matter of history as well as of “tone”, and Kermode shows how mistaking Gabriel Harvey’s tone leads to the “interpretative fantasies” of the New Historicist critic, Richard Helgerson. Yet, it is this essay that brings Kermode up against the limits of elegant writing. He comes perilously close to dismissing Helgerson’s critical method without confronting its intellectual content, simply because it produces inelegant, “bejargoned” prose. One also misses the sinews of difficult thinking in the consummate finesse of the essay on money and its symbolic meanings. The essays on Bertrand Russell and A.J. Ayer are irresistibly anecdotal, but there is little serious engagement with the philosophy.

Yet, it is another kind of insight into Russell to read that he “was fond of a quotation from Jeremiah 17: ‘The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?’” Or, the delectation of being told that Eliot’s “assiduous editor” could find no source for these lines juxtaposed by the poet with lines from the Vita Nuova: “I want someone to treat me rough./ Give me a cabman.” It would take a lot of dourness not to enjoy the delights of Kermode’s belle-lettres. But, only occasionally, one wishes that the effortless readability of the later Kermode could regress to something like this earlier, more exacting, meditation on “the light and the dark of past literature and past humanity” in The Uses of Error: “We bring ourselves and our conflicts to words, to poems and pictures, as we bring them to the world; and thus we change the poems and the pictures, or perhaps it is ourselves we change.”

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW / LIVING LIFE ON THE EDGE 
 
 
BY ARNAB BHATTACHARYA
 
 
THE GAME OF WAR: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF GUY DEBORD
By Andrew Hussey,
HarperCollins, £11

Guy-Ernest Debord (1931-1994) is one of those avant-garde thinkers of the 20th century for whom the demarcation between life and art did not exist. He looked upon life and art as interchangeable terms, both conceived as revolutionary games consisting of “constructing situations” to thwart the evil nexus of state, capital and bourgeoisie consumerism, which left an individual with no alternative but to participate in it.

His book, The Society of the Spectacle, took the world by storm with its poignant commentary on the sinister designs of state-sponsored capitalism, and the hollowness of individual existence which conspire to reduce a person to the status of a passive spectator to his own life. He was a prime mover of the move- ment called Situationist International which had a tremendous impact on life in Paris in the Sixties.

Debord was also a major contributor to pamphlets such as Potlatch, and periodicals like L’internationale Situationniste. He believed that in this “spectacular society” a renegade artist is posed only with a choice between two extremes — revolution and suicide. Suicide was for him a supreme act of negation, and it was no accident that he shot a bullet through his heart in 1994.

Debord’s genius, his stubbornness, egotism, drunkenness and anarchism were all a consequence of his childhood, which had been spent mostly in the care of his grandmother, Manon. The sense of neglect that Debord felt as a child found expression in his world-view. This was further nurtured by his reading of Isidore Ducasse, Arthur Rimbaud and surrealist writers such as André Breton and Arthur Cravan.

In The Game of War,Andrew Hussey charts out Debord’s nihilistic life. Hussey chronicles different phases of Debord’s career as an author and a filmmaker. He emphasizes Debord’s role as a key figure behind the 1968 Student’s Insurrection, known as the Strasbourg scandal, which with the involvement of Trotskyist and Maoist Left factions took the shape of a civil war. Hussey describes in detail how in the early Fifties, Debord, Gabriel Pomerand, Gil Wolman and Maurice Lemaître joined the Letterist Movement under the influence of the Romanian poet, Isidore Ison, whose objective was to strip every form of art down to its barest constituents.

Debord’s film, Howling in Favour of Sade, which emphasized the disintegration of sounds and images was inspired by this Letterist philosophy. After breaking away from the Letterist group, Debord first formed Letterist International with Gil Wolman, and then founded Situationist International in 1957.

The theoretical base of the Situationist programme was the interplay of derive and detournment — the twin principles of artistic subversion of time and space inextricably linked to what was called situational “psycho-geography”, which is the “study of the precise effects of the geographical milieu, and its direct influences on the affective behaviour of individuals”. Hussey also shows how Johan Huizinga’s theory of the ludic principles of medieval war in his book, Game and War, influenced Debord, who as a situationist strategist set out to explore secret niches of power in order to wreck the “spectacular” institutions of civilization.

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW / THE IMPERIAL THEME 
 
 
BY LAKSHMI SUBRAMANIAN
 
 
TRADE IN EARLY INDIA: READINGS
Edited By Ranabir Chakravarti,
Oxford, Rs 650

The Oxford in India Readings has been designed to bring together a selection of important writings and interventions on select themes that have been identified as critical in the making and writing of Indian history. The series has attempted to facilitate the dissemination of the more enduring debates on India’s history. The present volume, Trade in Early India, is no exception, and provides an extensive and lucid introduction to the subject of trade in India. The selection of essays is impeccable — they relate to levels of trading activity, organizational features of commerce and their positioning within the social and political milieu.

The dominant agrarian profile of south Asian society, and its attendant ethos of power and honour attached to the control of land, meant that the commercial orientation of the subcontinent’s political economy was often overlooked. European interest in the exotic wares of India since the age of classical antiquity till the more immediate colonial past produced a refracted understanding of trade as a major civilizational determinant. For Indian historians themselves, it was the discovery of texts such as the Arthashastra and the reassessment of Pali canonical texts that set the parameters for the historical study of India’s trade. For long this had been confined to self-congratulatory assertions of commercial dynamism and the inspirational importance of commercial connections with southeast Asia.

Subsequently, this made way for more elaborate and detailed analyses of trade items, commercial systems and the organization of banking and credit activities. The nature and constraints of data available for the reconstruction of early Indian trade meant that the nuances of trading activity were missed. This was, however, more than compensated for by the innovative application of literary texts and new methodologies to document the dynamics of trade and exchange activity in the evolution of regional and trans-regional polities in India.

The buoyancy of Indo-Roman trade, the movement of merchants and mystics in the Ganges valley in the centuries leading up to the rise of the Buddha, and the close regulation of trade and economic activity by the Mauryan state, were a testament to the commercial basis of India’s political economy. The regional variations were especially interesting as western India and the peninsula engendered and sustained a vigorous mercantile tradition, as merchants became critical agents of social and economic transformation.

Perspectives on trade assumed an urgency with the debates on Indian feudalism. In the aftermath of the Gupta period, economic processes seemed to favour a crystallization of feudal tendencies which were characterized by declining levels of trade and monetization and the ruralization of the material milieu. Critiques of Indian feudalism argued forcefully for the reconsideration of the extent of trade and urbanization in early medieval India and the importance of rural and locality level trade centres. The information and interpretation made available by these findings permitted a thorough investigation of merchant organizations and networks, and their positioning within the political system and the larger trading system of the Indian Ocean.

The vitality of merchant networks, indigenous as well as foreign, not only demonstrated the visibility and strength of south Asia in the trade of the Indian Ocean, but permitted a theoretical excercus into the stages of India’s development. It seems fairly clear that trade and commercial activity influenced production and manufacture, as well as the transformation of social groups and the promotion of a rich, cosmopolitan culture.

At the same time, it was trade and commerce that gave a distinct inflection to religious experience and organization. A feature that has not as yet received the attention of historians. In fact, this appears to be one of the most promising areas of potential research for the historian of ancient India. Why was it that commerce and the market place became such strong metaphors for reformist religious expression? Why was it that from the days of the Jataka Tales the experience of commerce was particularly liberating and inspirational?

Students will find the volume useful. The introduction is extensive — sometimes too general, and occasionally collapsing the major shifts in the historiography on trade into that of more general debates on ancient Indian history. This collapse may have something to do with the way trade and traders were represented in a society whose normative identity remained tied to land and agrarian control.

   

 
 
BOOKWISE / PUT YOUR PATIENCE TO THE TEST 
 
 
BY RAVI VYAS
 
 

All authors, at some point or another, have complained to their publisher that their book is nowhere to be seen, and therefore not enough is being done to push sales. The question that needs to be asked is, what happens to a book when it reaches a bookstore and why do so many of them not even reach there. After all, once a book is published sales depend on how the booksellers display the book and how well their staff respond to orders and requests.

One would assume that booksellers would try to push the sales of every book they receive. But this is rarely the case. Booksellers look at various factors before deciding which book to promote and which to reject. Booksellers are interested in the discounts and credit offered and whether the book can be returned if it doesn’t sell within a reasonable period of time.

Discounts and credit terms vary from title to title, and the bookseller has to figure out what his returns will be at the end of the day, and whether keeping the book in his shop is worth the effort or the shelf space. The idea that booksellers base their promotion of a book on its content and whether it would interest readers is completely outdated. The concentration is on the profit margins of the deal. Since no bookseller is ever satisfied with the terms, they tend to play it safe, buying limited quantities and re-ordering as and when required.

But a much bigger problem of shelf space has arisen with the avalanche of new books — 5000 new titles in English are published every year. There is simply not enough physical space to accommodate even single copies of new titles that come off the presses every day. And even if there were, they would have to be squeezed onto the shelves along their spines. Open displays where the front covers are exposed can only be indulged in for a week or so before making room for new arrivals.

Authors have argued, with some justification, that shop attendants seem to have no clue whether a particular title is in stock or not. While this lapse is serious, there is an even bigger problem when there are just a few odd copies of a book in the midst of virtually thousands of others. Even the most experienced shop attendant cannot possibly know what’s coming in and going out; he needs to check it out physically or on the computer. And most bookshops with computers have not yet mastered the art of cataloguing on them.

Above all, a shop attendant is not the most knowledgeable person. He or she is just doing a job, and would be just at home in the service department of a general provisions store Besides, staff turnovers at this level are high, and the idea that what is missing by way of qualifications can be made up by experience no longer applies because attendants simply move on to whichever shop offers them a better salary. So, authors should not complain of the ineptitude of publishers. They should actually be looking at the bookshops, which have most probably refused to stock the book because the bookseller, who is the strongest link in the distribution chain between the publisher and customer, doesn’t and often can’t keep adequate stocks. Therefore, authors and readers must know precisely as well as communicate clearly what they want, and then be prepared to wait a while till the books arrive.

   

 
 
PAPERBACK PICKINGS / THE OTHER IS A CAREER 
 
 
 
 
ORIENTALISM
By Edward Said
(Penguin, Rs 295)

Edward Said's Orientalism is one of the great classics of 20th-century polemic. “The East is a career”, Benjamin Disraeli had written in Tancred. Said uses this as one of his epigraphs, and this gnomic utterance could also be applied to the fate of his own book. Orientalism, first published in 1978, has revolutionized the study of culture and society in the English-speaking world, making postcolonialism the most lucrative theoretical card to flash in Western, and Eastern, academia. As a theoretical model, Said’s notion of Orientalism has the classic simplicity of Marxian dialectics: “The Orient is not only adjacent to Europe; it is also the place of Europe’s greatest and richest and oldest colonies, the source of its civilizations and languages, its cultural contestant, and one of its deepest and most recurring images of the Other.” This cheaper Indian edition, with a new afterword by Said, should go some way towards making Orientalism not the sort of classic — like The Communist Manifesto or The Interpretation of Dreams — which everybody lives and breathes, but nobody reads.

THE PENGUIN GUIDE TO USING THE INTERNET IN INDIA
By Pratik Kanjilal
(Penguin, Rs 195)

Pratik Kanjilal’s The Penguin Guide To Using The Internet In India is clever, short and useful. It addresses such essential Indian’s as job seekers and mate seekers, among others, and exhorts them to get something done on the net and not just cruise it. With a comprehensive list of FAQs, and an exhaustive directory of source sites, services and utility ratings, this user’s guide has all the tips and tricks needed to get online and mutiply one’s personal and professional opportunities. The foreword thinks that it is the best of times to write a book on the internet, and paraphrases John Lennon at the end. The cover has a droopy-eyed camel on it, looking meditative — in shades of grey, white and shocking pink.

JI MANTRIJI, VOL.3: THE DIARIES OF
Shri Suryaprakash Singh
(Penguin, Rs 195)

Ji Mantriji, Vol.3: The Diaries of Shri Suryaprakash Singh is Monisha Shah’s English version of Alok Kumar’s adaptation of Jonathan Lynn and Antony Jay’s original television series, Yes Minister. Singh is the minister of administrative affairs and Rajnath Mathur his secretary. The episodes move from the ministry to the administrative service, and involve a rosewater jar, a cricket stadium, a terrorist organization and a Gulf country, among other things. Every episode is introduced by a coloured cartoon by R.K. Laxman, perhaps the most distinguished feature of this volume. Sample: “I’ve been a Mantri for exactly nine months now — and on the whole I think I’ve done pretty well, one way or another: no great kabaadas [cock-ups — Ed.].”

   

 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

A brief encounter

Sir — The report, “Nation safe: she calls, he melts” (Dec 20), was amusing. Atal Bihari Vajpayee seems to have been completely bowled over by Sonia Gandhi’s phone call that followed immediately after the terrorist attack on Parliament. But need he have deduced that Indian democracy is “healthy” because the leader of the opposition just happens to have good manners? The call from Sonia Gandhi had less to do with her genuine concern than her excellent public relations, which, not unsurprisingly, most Indian leaders don’t even consider as necessary. Vajpayee, in these difficult times, thinks it wise to keep the opposition in good humour. Hence the gushing over one telephone call. But will this camaraderie survive beyond the winter session of Parliament? Will Vajpayee still retain his belief about the health of the democracy when Sonia Gandhi continues to resist the anti-terrorism ordinance and decides to kick up a ruckus over the coffin scandal in the next Parliament session?

Yours faithfully,
Urmila Sengupta, via email

No one gains

Sir — The editorial, “Risk versus gain” (Dec 17), hit the nail on the head with its conclusion that the chit fund cum plantation company scandal that hit Calcutta recently is in no way different from the Ponzi schemes unearthed in Sacramento, Romania and Albania. It is also true that any investment scheme that offers a rate of return above 10 per cent is unlikely to be risk free. However, the editorial advice that “risk-averse” individuals should never invest in chit funds, Sanchayita schemes, the stock market or horse racing is bound to fall on deaf ears. India is a poor country and it is not unusual for investors here to seek high returns for their money.

It is the duty of the Central and state governments to pass regulatory laws that would protect the interests of small investors and prevent similar financial scandals in the future. So far, the government at both levels have failed to ensure this. The editorial also states that the West Bengal government should not think of a bailout in the present case. If the state government does not intervene, one can only imagine what would happen to countless small investors like Rahim Hussain who have lost all their savings.

Yours faithfully,
Nitu Bhandari, Calcutta

Sir — It is not surprising that the West Bengal government should be contemplating the introduction of a law that would help regulate investments in non-bank financial companies and plantation companies. Given the current state of the Indian economy and the innumerable voluntary retirement schemes that have been offered by many organizations, it is natural that people would want to invest in any company which offers a high rate of return. The situation is particularly grim in West Bengal since the state is hardly an attractive venue for investors. Moreover, the decrease in interest rates has been very frustrating for small investors, some of whom depend on the interests to run their families. It is imperative that the initiatives taken by the government do not die a premature death. The government must set up norms that would provide legal avenues to duped investors and make provisions for redressal in case of defaults.

Yours faithfully,
Dhrubajyoti Ray, Mankundu

Sir — Investors in India have learnt very little from past experiences. While the Eighties became famous for the Sanchayita fraud and the Nineties for bigger scandals like the hawala, this year its the turn of chit funds to m ake news. Probably, investors should heed expert advice and invest in safe ventures like mutual funds.

Yours faithfully,
Mithul Goswami, Calcutta

Bollywood’s subjects

Sir — Rajyasree Sen in her article, “Not quite a stranger in the night” (Dec 6), has succinctly pointed out that Bollywood has often wrongly portrayed, if not entirely misrepresented, social issues. Sensitive subjects like rape and bigamy are usually examined from a male perspective and in a manner that titilates the front rows of viewers. Further, biased portrayals, particularly of rape, not only undermines the seriousness of the act but also fails to rouse the sympathy of the audience or prompt a better understanding of the crime.

Given that people in India want “wholesale entertainment”, it is not surprising that mainstream filmmakers are reluctant to make films on more serious issues. Though serious films often win awards abroad they run to empty theatres at home. It would therefore be unfair to expect filmmakers like Sooraj Barjatya and Karan Johar to deal with such issues. They have to keep in mind the preferences of their audience.

Yours faithfully,
Meraj Ahmed Mubarki, Calcutta

Sir — In a country where more than 50 per cent of the population is illiterate, there are many misconceptions about rape and sexual violence. Date rape or the rape of a woman by a “nonstranger” is therefore an alien concept in our society. As has been pointed out by women’s groups, conservative attitudes regarding sex and family loyalty prevent women from reporting incidents of sexual abuse and rape. Further, lack of public awareness makes the subsequent court trial an ordeal for the victim. Though Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding examines the issue from the point of view of the victim, the resolution seems too easy and contrived.

Nevertheless, Nair deserves to be congratulated for attempting something different from the usual Bollywood masala which only reinforces the stereotypes. Probably, it is time for the Sooraj Barjatyas and the Karan Johars to attempt the remake of The Accused.
Yours faithfully,
Debarati De, Calcutta

Letters to the editor should be sent to:

The Telegraph
6 Prafulla Sarkar Street
Calcutta 700 001
Email: [email protected]
Readers in the Northeast can write to:
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All letters [including those via email] should have the full name and full postal address of the sender
   
 

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