Editorial 1 / Sign of change
Editorial 2 / Unseemly protest
Diplomacy / Firmly on course
Book Review / In search of the self
Book Review / Bloodline
Book Review / Stories that cut across boundaries
Book Review / Superior intelligence
Editor’s Choice / Portrait of an enigmatic lady
Paperback Pickings / Under the sign of Cupid
Letters to the editor

 
 
EDITORIAL 1 / SIGN OF CHANGE 
 
 
 
 
There is growing evidence that Pakistan’s president, General Pervez Musharraf, may be willing to act against terrorist organizations responsible for acts of violence in India. If indeed Mr Musharraf is going to be steadfast in this endeavour, New Delhi must resist upping the ante even while it continues to sustain maximum diplomatic pressure on Pakistan’s military regime. The clearest signal that Mr Musharraf may be considering clamping down on terrorist organizations came with the arrest of the chief of the Jaish-e-Mohammad, Mr Masood Azhar, and several other activists of the organization. In the last year, the Jaish-e-Mohammad has emerged as one of the strongest militant organizations and has been spreading terror throughout Jammu and Kashmir. It is one of the two organizations believed to be responsible for the attack on Parliament.

Earlier, Pakistan’s government had frozen the assets of the Lashkar-e-Toiba, and Mr Musharraf announced — during his visit to China — that he would be prepared to act against both terrorist organizations if he were provided evidence of their involvement in violence in India. It is obvious that some of the measures announced by New Delhi, including the withdrawal of the Indian high commissioner from Islamabad, and the threat of war with India have had some effect on the military regime. Pressure from the United States of America is also beginning to increase. The US state department has, for instance, now designated both the Lashkar-e-Toiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammad as foreign terrorist organizations. It does also seem that the top Pakistani leadership is finally realizing that these terrorist organizations pose a grave internal threat to the country. The recent killing of the brother of Pakistan’s interior minister must have driven home the seriousness of the threat. But the most clearly articulated understanding of the internal dimension of the extremist threat found place in Mr Musharraf’s recent speech in Karachi on December 25. In it, the president spoke of the “nightmare” Pakistan had become in place of Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s vision of a tolerant, prosperous nation. He asserted that the militants had played a major role in the degradation of the nation. Moreover, he said, Islam had been so undermined that people associate it with illiteracy, backwardness, intolerance, obscurantism and militancy. No leader of Pakistan in recent years has been as forthright as Mr Musharraf was during the speech.

Given these developments, India needs to closely monitor developments in Pakistan. If indeed these early signs of a change translate into a decisive policy shift, New Delhi must be willing to give Mr Musharraf the space to act against extremism without being burdened by fears of a possible war against India. However, if he is merely making cosmetic changes for tactical reasons, New Delhi must be prepared to act decisively. In any case, it is critical that India sustain high-level contact with the powers that have influence and leverage within Pakistan, particularly the US. The battle against terrorism may have to be fought alone, but the international community must be made constantly aware of India’s concerns and compulsions.

   

 
 
EDITORIAL 2 / UNSEEMLY PROTEST 
 
 
 
 
Open defiance of authority only erodes the credibility of a system. What some policemen did at the Writers’ Buildings last week was much worse — their demonstrations and accusations against senior police officers clearly amounted to a breach of discipline. No words can be strong enough to condemn the abuses they hurled at their superiors, including the director-general of police, Mr D.C. Bajpai. Even if some of their grievances merited the government’s attention, the manner of their protest is indefensible. Not only did they use the seat of the government as the venue of their protest meeting, some of them reportedly stayed away from work to join the demonstration. Obviously, the Non-gazetted Police Karmachari Samiti was emboldened to organize the protest in this way because of the patronage it receives from the Communist Party of India (Marxist). This was not the first time that the group openly abused senior police officers. Its members indulged in such indiscipline in the name of trade union rights which their political masters had once granted them. By all accounts, leaders of the samiti run their own administration in the police force, influencing postings and transfers and interfering with the system in other ways.

The government’s response to the policemen’s action has been regrettably weak-kneed. It is not enough to issue circulars that such demonstrations inside offices will not be allowed henceforth. The erring policemen must be brought to book. What is at stake is not merely the humiliation they caused to their seniors, but the challenge they threw at the system. The chief minister, Mr Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, who holds the home (police) portfolio, has to send a strong enough signal that his government will no longer countenance such acts of indiscipline. With comrades like these, he may not need enemies to foil his plan to improve the government employees’ work culture. He has been trying to mend matters in hospitals, educational institutions and other areas of public enterprise. The new approach should be far more important for policemen, who have to be told in no uncertain terms that they cannot act as members of a trade union. This may just be the moment to send the message out.

   

 
 
DIPLOMACY / FIRMLY ON COURSE 
 
 
BY K.P. NAYAR
 
 
The lasting image of December 13 is not of terrorists being chased by police or of a Lashkar-e-Toiba suicide attacker lying dead within the Parliament complex in New Delhi.

It is of Atal Bihari Vajpayee seething with anger that Pakistan, the neighbour he reached out to within months of becoming prime minister, had crossed the Rubicon by facilitating an assault of what the world regards as India’s greatest asset: its democracy. There is only one other recollection of an equally angry Vajpayee. That was when the then governor, Romesh Bhandari, dismissed Kalyan Singh as Uttar Pradesh chief minister in 1998 in a plot against Indian democracy, almost as daring as the one which was enacted in the precincts of the Parliament complex this month.

Vajpayee’s moral indignation and L.K. Advani’s grim determination in February 1998 led to results which are, as the cliche goes, now history. Writing this from the distance of Washington, there are enough straws in the wind to conclude that the potent political combination which produced dramatic results in India’s most populous state in 1998 is once again producing results, this time on the international stage.

If the Americans are at least prepared to consider abandoning their time-honoured double standards on terrorism abroad, it is because neither the White House nor the state department quite know what to make of Vajpayee or Advani right now.

The predicament of the American president, George W. Bush, is somewhat similar to that of the former Indian prime minister, Inder Kumar Gujral, in February 1998, when Bhandari dismissed the chief minister under Article 164 — and not under Article 356 — of the Constitution which gave him discretionary power.

Like Gujral then, Bush today realizes that though he is supposed to be the leader of a coalition, decisions which can rock the coalition are being taken by other players, both in south Asia and in west Asia. Besides, memories of nuclear tests in Pokhran and Chagai three and a half years ago are still fresh in Washington. The United States of America may be the world’s only superpower, but in meeting rooms in the American capital where decisions are made, there is adequate realization that with all the power at their command, the Americans could not write the script for either Pokhran — or worse, for Chagai.

Notwithstanding denials by the prime minister’s aides, both Republicans and Democrats in Washington maintain that Vajpayee misled them about the nuclear tests. And that Advani pushed an ambivalent Pakistan into coming out of the nuclear closet by his tough talk in May 1998, which verged on threats.

As the Bush administration’s top officials hold conference calls to discuss south Asia from their diverse holiday locations this week, the one thought nagging all of them is whether Vajpayee is sending them misleading signals once again. Or if Advani should be taken at his word.

Voices are being raised in India against what is being loosely described as “war-mongering” by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government. Peaceniks, Marxists and activists of the Arundhati Roy variety, who have an opinion on every issue, have expressed themselves against being too harsh on Pakistan, even against the recall of the high commissioner, Vijay Nambiar.

Some of them have an institutional history of having betrayed India’s struggle for freedom nearly six decades ago. Those who are now opposed to the Vajpayee government’s firm stand against terrorism emanating from across the border are the very people who were opposed to the nuclear tests in 1998.

Had India — and Pakistan — not tested their nuclear weapons three and a half years ago, the reaction in Washington, London and Berlin to events following December 13 would have been characterized by the same lack of concern as if these incidents had taken place in Chad, Belize or Vanuatu.

In the context of its current stand-off with Pakistan, India is being taken seriously because it is a nuclear power. The fear of a nuclear confrontation in south Asia accounts only partly for this change.

The decision to go in for Pokhran II nuclear tests are paying off now: India has enjoyed a significantly higher profile in world capitals in the last 44 months. It is now very much on the policy radar screen of all the key players on the world stage.

The success of the Vajpayee government’s carefully calibrated effort since December 13 to get Pervez Musharraf to rein in the terrorists, essentially the products of his army general headquarters in Rawalpindi, will depend very much on how New Delhi exploits this profile and its new image on the world’s radar screen.

It was not until India recalled its high commissioner from Islamabad that much of the world — including the US — acknowledged that New Delhi meant business. If there is one thing for which India’s government, its bureaucracy and its politicians, are notorious, it is the inability to persevere, to follow up an action by another, and yet another, to achieve a difficult objective. They inevitably lose their way through the effort, half way.

If India is not to be pacified by sops and cosmetic concessions on the issue of Pakistan-sponsored terrorism now, the recall of Nambiar must only be the first of several decisive steps to show the world that the Vajpayee government will do business in south Asia only on its terms.

It is a message which ought to go out loud and clear not only to Pakistan, but also to the rest of south Asia. The message ought to resonate in Dhaka and in the mountains in Nepal, where the Maoists are holed up.

For that matter, the message should echo in the badlands of India bordering Nepal, which is fertile ground for subversion.

In the context of the US-led war on terrorism in Afghanistan, the attack on Parliament must not be seen merely in India-Pakistan terms. With the end of the taliban experiment in Islamic rule and with al Qaida on the run, the Americans are perhaps justified in claiming that the first phase in the war against terrorism has been successful.

But countries like India ought to be cautious in rejoicing over any such success. The defeat of the taliban and the pressure on terrorist outfits such as the Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad in Pakistan exposes India to new twin threats.

Firstly, terrorists on the run will look for soft targets, whose capacity to retaliate is nowhere near that of the US. India is, therefore, much more of an obvious target than ever before.

Secondly, the events in Afghanistan since the start of US bombing on October 7 has made it imperative for all the forces in south Asia which are under state pressure, whatever their hue, to go into coalitions, merely to survive.

There is no reason why the taliban on the run should not make common cause with the Maoists in Nepal. And why should these two forces together not join the Tamil Tigers for achieving specific goals? A common enemy of any such Grand Alliance of terrorists would be New Delhi, if only because every member of such an alliance, howsoever improbable, will have some gripe against India.

Nothing would suit Pakistan better than to facilitate a link up of all these disparate elements with an already well-nurtured Inter-Services Intelligence base on the Indian side of the terai region. There will be no allegations that such terrorism is coming out of Pakistan. Yet, it will effectively serve the purpose of the military leaders in Rawalpindi. There is no room, therefore, in New Delhi for any soft line on Pakistan. Or for that matter anywhere in India’s neighbourhood. Tough talk must not be confused with war-mongering. Without being tough, India will not have its share of the cake — especially when the cake is getting smaller in south Asia what with the US and everyone else wanting a share.

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW / IN SEARCH OF THE SELF 
 
 
BY MADHUMITA BHATTACHARYYA
 
 
CHERRY: A LIFE OF APSLEY CHERRY-GARRARD
By Sara Wheeler,
Jonathan Cape, £17.99

On the face of it, Cherry, a great Antarctica explorer and writer, and Conrad’s Lord Jim have little in common. One, a heroic figure who rose above the bitterest conditions in the world, the other, a man afflicted by paralysis in the face of crisis.

But the fictional protagonist of Conrad’s classic, Lord Jim, and the real-life persona of Apsley Cherry-Garrard are bound by a spiritual kinship. Both are romantic souls weighed down by the perpetual struggle to belong, to find inner peace and to forgive the self for crimes not committed. But unlike Jim, Cherry struggled long enough to realize that “it is the spirit of the men…rather than what they did or failed to do” that matters in the final reckoning.

Sara Wheeler has captured Cherry’s anguished search with dexterity and warmth. She recreates not only a complex mind, but also the forces — historical and sociological — which have formed it. She sees the sensitive, eccentric man behind The Worst Journey in the World as more than a sum of his towering achievements and considerable failures.

The focal point of the biography is Cherry’s trip to Antarctica with Captain Scott’s last crew. No one had reached the South Pole yet in an age of only basic technology and a love for heroism. The purpose was dual: to see the Union Jack flying at 90 degrees south and a scientific exploration of the Pole.

It was on this journey that Cherry, then in his twenties, found a sense of purpose. Ambling through school and college, studying the liberal arts, he had never overcome his unease and awkwardness. It was on the Terra Nova, sailing across the world to uncharted territory that the handsome “young gentleman with land, money and a nervous cast of mind” found direction.

We see Cherry gain the respect of his fellow crew, some of whom went on to become his lifelong friends. The camaraderie of teamwork and the definite end to methodical tasks appealed to him, and he was soon given the most challenging assignments.

The events that unfolded over the two winters of exploration changed the young idealist’s life. Pivotal was the experience during the first winter camped at the Antarctic, of journeying hundreds of miles in temperatures below — 75 degrees Fahrenheit to collect the eggs of the Emperor penguin. Stranded for days without shelter, food or drink, Cherry and his companions began to “think of death as a friend”. “Yes, comfortable warm reader… Men do not fear death, they fear the pain of dying,” asserted Cherry.

He and his closest friends, Bill Wilson and Billie Bowers, made it through the ordeal, but tragedy was not far behind. Mismanagement and bad luck lead to the failure of Scott’s “dash for the Pole” the following year, and the death of Scott, Wilson and Bowers. Cherry, in part, blamed himself for the deaths, and never fully recovered. In the painful months that followed, Cherry’s increasing disillusionment prompted him to write in his account: “If you march your Winter Journeys you will have your reward, so long as all you want is a penguin’s egg”.

Wheeler writes of the years that followed, tracing in detail Cherry’s contribution to the war effort, his friendship with George Bernard Shaw, eventual marriage and physical and emotion crumbling with equal emphasis. Wheeler, an explorer herself, likens her discovery of Cherry’s life to “seeing through a glass darkly”. But her objective and comprehensive narrative which is also affectionate and humorous at times makes the reader feel for this quirky yet courageous man. Perhaps, the clarity with which her subject emerges can be explained by Cherry’s own observation: “In civilisation, men are taken at their own valuation because there are so many ways of concealment, and there is so little time, perhaps even so little understanding. Not so down south…"

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW / BLOODLINE 
 
 
BY BHASWATI CHAKRAVORTY
 
 
DRAUPADI AMONG RAJPUTS, MUSLIMS AND DALITS: RETHINKING INDIA’S ORAL AND CLASSICAL EPICS
By Alf Hiltebeitel,
Oxford, Rs 695

The Draupadi who recurs in Alf Hiltebeitel’s study of India’s oral and classical epics is in some ways very different from the Draupadi made familiar by the Sanskrit Mahabharata. Hiltebeitel’s work here is in natural sequence to his two volumes on the Draupadi cult, particularly in South India. The investigation of the cult was meant to look at the classical epic from the cult’s perspective — the action revolving around a heroine identical with the Hindu goddess. This is not particularly strange. Draupadi in the classical epic was believed to be an incarnation of Sri Devi. In the cult goddess, associations with the Brahmanical princess are less important than those with the virginal, clairvoyant and “less moralizing” Draupadi known in Tamil popular culture, especially through the numerous Mahabharata ballads.

But Draupadi is not the sole focus of the present work. The book is an exploration of the ways in which regional martial oral epics, together with the Draupadi cult, rethink India’s classical epics. Hiltebeitel’s purpose is to examine “living” folk interpretations of the epics that would question or even counter the views of the Mahabharata offered by the tradition of mid-19th century Western and classically oriented scholarship. He chooses four such martial epics for close study, the Tamil Elder Brothers Story, the Telugu Epic of Palnadu, the Rajasthani Pabuji, and the Hindi Alha. His stated reason for the choice is that these four are distinguished by their particularly strong reemplotment of either the Mahabharata or the Ramayana. Pabuji, for example, is a newly located tale of a martial ascetic hero and virgin heroine, who are associated with Lakshman and Surpanakha, reincarnated to try and complete their “unfinished business” in the Ramayana.

It is typical of this open-ended form that the “business” is never completed in any of the epics under discussion, even if it is between characters other than the hero and heroine figures. Hiltebeitel emphasizes the general tendency in these tales to pick up on loose ends in the classical epics. Instead of continuity, elucidation or direct grafting under local or regional conditions, folk creativity revels in discontinuity, disruption and the darker pool of ideas that underlies the classical epics. There is often the suggestion in the regional epics that a completion is taking place on another level, through the satisfaction of the mother goddess’s thirst for blood and the creation of cult heroes. Draupadi’s vow to leave her hair untied till it is dipped in the blood of Dushhashan is an originary moment. After all, it is only when Sita is abducted or Draupadi disrobed that all hell breaks loose. Yet the Mahabharata never sees the blood of the Pandavas. Reincarnations of these heroes in the regional epics die over and over again in failed battles to save their “little kingdoms” and protect the goddess of the land.

Hiltebeitel’s choice of regional epics, however, accomplishes a further purpose. The geographical range is essential in understanding the history of migrations, transmissions, diffusions and contributions, without which the richness of caste and community elements in the tales cannot be understood. The “Rajput-Afghan” element, originating in the mobility of troopers from the west and north, and the Muslim configuration, particularly that of south Asian Nizari or Satpanth Ismaili Shiaism become part of the groundwork of tale-making in the regions. An obvious example of the fluidity of conception would be from a song of the 12th century Shams Pir or Samas Rishi, which describes Draupadi being rescued from her disgrace by “him”, meaning the Shah ‘Ali, who has come as Krishna. He also becomes the Buddha to save Draupadi and the Pandavas. The goddess’s traditional guardians, one of hybrid caste and one of hybrid faith, are just one of the intricate ways in which history, local society and culture are reflected in the epics. On a different plane, the failure of the heroes to protect their “little kingdoms” from one another portends the sweeping Muslim invasions that are yet to come.

But range is most marked in the caste compositions of the regional epics, and this is far from accidental. The cults prevail among the higher castes, Rajputs and Dalits. Characters within the stories, as well as those who recite or perform the rituals and those who witness them, represent this complexity. The classical epic has many instances of caste ambiguity, rooted in mixed-caste birth, nurturing inconsistency or even change of caste-based professions. Vidur, Karna and Dronacharya are three obvious examples. In the regional epic, the Kshatriyas or the protectors of the land relate in different ways to the landed dominant caste, and again to hunters and artisans, while enjoying brotherhood bonds with “lower caste ritual service companions”, often distant kin, who are essential to the carrying out of the plot through disruption and sacrifice.

At each level, there is a woman who both protects and incites the men, and merges at some point with the mother goddess. The final tragedy is usually signposted by variants of a multicaste meal tinged with blood, as in the Palnadu, for example. At the same time, the pursuit is for an egalitarian mingling. As Pabuji leaves the battlefield for heaven, he asks the goddess, whose vessel of blood is now full, not to separate the blood of the different castes of those who died.

Hiltebeitel’s study demolishes the idea of direct linear or lateral derivations, and unsettles a simple centre-to-periphery visualization. The complexity of the relationships between the regional and the classical epics and the restless historical, religious, mythological and literary interrelationships within which these epics took shape come through most clearly in this heavily researched work. This is especially valuable now, since Hiltebeitel’s research falsifies all claims of a monolithic culture of the past.

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW / STORIES THAT CUT ACROSS BOUNDARIES 
 
 
BY RUDRANGSHU MUKHERJEE
 
 
WONDER-TALES OF SOUTH ASIA
Translated By Simon Digby,
Orient Monographs and Manohar, Rs 600

The name of Simon Digby is somewhat unknown outside a select group of medieval Indian historians. Those that know him admire him for his astounding erudition and for his skill with Indian languages. In many ways, he is the carry over of the 19th century amateur scholar. He is an Orientalist in the true sense of the word and without any of the pejorative values that Edward Said has endowed on the word. He was born in India and educated at Cambridge. He knows Persian, Arabic, Urdu, Hindi and Nepali.

In this gem of a book, Digby moves away from his scholarly and academic pursuits to translate from Persian, Urdu, Nepali and Hindi, stories that have an element of wonder in them. Wonder, miracles and the intervention of the divine in the affairs of humans are an intrinsic part of the narrative heritage of India. In our epics and in our folk tales, these elements are always present often to help the underdog, to help and reward the pious and to restore justice. The narrators of these tales never ask their listeners (readers) to believe what is being said. Credibility is taken for granted. The willing suspension of disbelief is the ground rule of the tales. The keynote of the stories is the pleasure they provide to both the reader and the teller.

Digby’s translations convey this sense of pleasure. He tells us in the preface that he came to these translations through the “pleasurable old-fashioned exercise in matching the expressions and ways of thought in a number of languages with their equivalents in English.’’ What possibly began as an exercise in improving his linguistic proficiency turned out for Digby to be a great source of joy that he has now shared with his readers. Stories with an element of the fantastic and the miraculous have a perennial attraction that runs across regions and cultures. Within India, every region and language has its own fund of wonder tales. Digby’s is not a representative selection but this in no way takes away from the charm of the stories.

Digby encountered one of the longest cycles of tales — “The Flower of Bakawali’’ — first, many many moons ago, on the steps of Delhi’s great mosque, Jama Masjid. On the shadow of those magnificent domes were laid out lithographic prints of these stories in the elegant nastaliq script on cheap brown paper. A new world had opened up for him.

The sources of these tales are diverse. Digby sets out their background and offers brief annotations in a note at the end of the book. Here he moves effortlessly from the Vedas to the Puranas to traditions of the Sufis to the Nepali collection in the India Office Library to early 19th century printed Urdu texts. The range of the learning present here, in an ever so understated way, is staggering.

A good story well told has an appeal that knows no cultural barriers. Digby asserts no moral right over these tales. He wants them to be read and retold. All he asks is for you to curl up in bed with his book and to enjoy yourself. His book is a magic carpet to a wondrous world.

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW / SUPERIOR INTELLIGENCE 
 
 
BY KAUSHIK ROY
 
 
PROPAGANDA AND INFORMATION IN EASTERN INDIA 1939-1945: A NECESSARY WEAPON OF WAR,
By Sanjoy Bhattacharya,
Curzon, £45

The truism, knowledge is power, was known to classical strategists like Kautilya and Sun Tzu long before the advent of Michael Foucault. The Arthashastra speaks of legitimizing treacheries, intrigues and counter-intrigues through propaganda.

Analysis of state generated propaganda in modern Indian history is rare. The only study available is Milton Israel’s Communications and Power: Propaganda and the Press in Indian Nationalist Struggle which was published in 1994. Unfortunately, as pointed out by Sanjoy Bhattacharya, Israel’s book does not make any distinction between the “information control” measures of the raj during peace and war. Bhattacharya’s monograph attempts to portray the special techniques initiated by the British colonial state for conducting information warfare during World War II.

According to Bhattacharya, the economic hardship faced by people living in the villages and towns offered a fertile ground to the various political parties for sowing the seeds of disaffection against the raj. The raj attempted to counter the loss of legitimacy among the populace by resorting to “target-specific” counter propaganda, which was carried out by using films and radio broadcasts.

The British-Indian state was also able to identify those social groups which had collaborated with it and whose cooperation was necessary for conducting the war. They were later used by the raj in its propaganda campaign.

The propaganda apparatus used for the civilian population was later shifted by the colonial state for the manipulation of its most essential collaborators, namely, the sepoys. After 1939, the size of the sepoy army increased from one and a half lakh to one million. The British-Indian army was also used for purposes of internal security, during the Quit India movement in 1942 and against external enemies like the Japanese in Burma.

Other than the enemy, diseases like malaria also claimed the lives of both the civilians and the soldiers. Government officials held periodic assemblies among the rural population and the soldiers to inform them about the successful anti-malaria campaigns that were carried out by the raj.

There is, however, one caveat. In the aftermath of the mutiny of 1857, the British engineered a scheme for providing various kinds of medical and material incentive to the soldiers for strengthening their loyalty to them. This target-specific welfare mechanism was elaborated during World War II and then reapplied to civilian society and not vice versa as Bhattacharya claims.

How successful was British wartime propaganda in India? Bhattacharya is ambivalent on this point. He reiterates that British propaganda was successful so far as it aided the state to conduct the war by tapping the manpower of the subcontinent but it simultaneously undermined the legitimacy of the polity.

Further, in his book, Bhattacharya criticizes I. Kamtekar for assuming that the colonial army is an entity independent of colonial society. For Bhattacharya, there exists an inter-relationship between the sepoy army and colonial society. He asserts that the economic problems faced by civilian society severely undermined the loyalty of the sepoys who were angered by the problems faced by their families back home.

However, Bhattacharya’s argument that the soldiers’ loyalty bonds were disintegrating during the period between 1942-45 falls short of the archival evidence. In his chapter on the army, Bhattacharya’s dependence on primary sources is very thin. He uses one volume of the official history of the Indian armed forces and depends primarily on the weekly intelligence summaries. Anybody who has worked on intelligence knows that the aim of any intelligence department is to make the government nervous by projecting a lizard as an alligator.

This trend was present even among the British intelligence agencies. During World War II, the government of India never accepted the intelligence estimates in totality. Unfortunately, Bhattacharya does so. Further, as indicated by the unpublished regimental records, the correspondence between the commander-in-chief and the governor general, there was no disaffection in the Indian army. Problems only started when the British started the demobilization scheme in late 1945.

   

 
 
EDITOR’S CHOICE / PORTRAIT OF AN ENIGMATIC LADY 
 
 
 
 
MONA LISA: THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD’S MOST FAMOUS PAINTING
By Donald Sassoon,
HarperCollins, £10.20

The subtitle of this solidly researched book is a truism that needs no reiteration. Popular attention, measured by the number of persons who crowd around the glass cage in which the painting is placed in the Louvre in Paris, indicates this. Similarly, scholarly attention measured by the number of articles and monographs written on the painting, would also fortify such a conclusion. Some one who hasn’t set his eyes on a single western painting is probably aware of the Mona Lisa. Donald Sassoon’s contention is that the myth of the Mona Lisa, like most other myths, is a constructed one.

Giorgio Vasari to whose Lives of the Artists we owe most of our primary knowledge about the lives and works of the Italian artists of the Renaissance had not seen the Mona Lisa but wrote a glowing description of it. But he described the painting as being unfinished. This is the first mystery of the Mona Lisa. Did Leonardo finish it or not? Vasari’s description describes the lady in the painting as having eyebrows; but the lady as we see her today has no eyebrows. It is known that the Mona Lisa is the portrait of a Florentine lady called Lisa Gheradini, the wife of Francesco del Giocondo, a wealthy merchant. (She would have been addressed as Monna Lisa; Monna being the diminutive form of Madonna or my lady. The spelling Mona is wrong but has become standard in English.) Leonardo did not give the painting a name and kept it with him all his life even though it was in all probability a commissioned portrait. Why he kept it is another mystery.

What is not a mystery to art historians, however, is the revolutionary nature of the innovations Leonardo made in the painting. The innovations begin with the very pose of the lady. Leonardo presents his subject in a three-quarter view, the contrapposto position and she looks directly at the viewer. This position solved for Leonardo the riddle of representing on two dimensions, the three-dimensional conception of movement. Leonardo uses the translucent veil to add depth to the painting. He establishes a very close spatial relationship between the subject and the landscape. This, too, was very unusual. The landscape is also not easily identifiable and “is constructed vertically, the depth being obtained by ‘reading’ it from top to bottom, like a Chinese painting where the base is foregrounded.’’ In the Mona Lisa, Leonardo pioneered the sfumato (literally, smoky) technique. This “consisted of building up layers of paint from dark to light, letting the previous one come through, thus achieving, through a play of shadows and lights, the optical illusion of a relief.’’ He deliberately used thin brushes, so thin that X-rays have not been able to identify the brush-strokes. Leonardo also perfected the “pyramidal’’ composition. The lady’s hands in the Mona Lisa form the base of a pyramid with her head as the apex. This gives to the painting “a monumental appearance.’’

Despite these innovations, the Mona Lisa, till it entered the Louvre in 1797, remained in relative obscurity. Raphael had been inspired by it but it struck no special chords in the imagination of later artists. Sassoon argues that the emergence of the painting to fame coincided with the growth of the cult of Leonardo. The painter in the 19th century was seen as some kind of a superman who did wonders in many fields, from science to engineering to art. Simultaneously, enigmatic qualities were endowed on Mona Lisa’s smile. This trend reached a climax when Walter Pater apotheosized the painting as the very symbol of the modern idea.

From this time onward, the Mona Lisa acquired celebrity status and was reproduced in posters and post cards. Sassoon traces its public career. There is enough in the painting itself to give to it an iconic status among artists and art historians. But its fame has spilled over to capture the popular imagination. This is largely due to causes external to the painting. Sassoon is good on the global craze as well as on the painting itself.

   

 
 
PAPERBACK PICKINGS / UNDER THE SIGN OF CUPID 
 
 
 
 
ACCIDENTS LIKE LOVE AND MARRIAGE
By Jaishree Misra
(Penguin, Rs 250)

Jaishree Misra’s Accidents Like Love and Marriage comes in a virulent pink cover which seems to be designed to induce an attack of migraine. But it is great fun to read, and pulls off a rare combination of lightness and irony. It is dedicated to New Delhi, which “exuberantly” provides its “creative fodder”, and its presiding genius is “one of Delhi’s wisest, kindest, funniest, finest citizens, Khushwant Singh”. This novel is written under the sign of Cupid, who is particularly all a-quiver at the Delhi Gymkhana. The bittersweet complications of the entangled lives of Delhiites are deftly woven into a tale of attractions, affinities, incompatibilities and ribaldry. Why do we do the things we do or, indeed, why do we let them happen to us?

DALIT IDENTITY AND POLITICS
Edited By Ghanshyam Shah
(Sage, Rs 295)

Ghanshyam Shah’s Dalit Identity and Politics is the second volume of the series entitled Cultural Subordination and the Dalit Challenge. This is a series that explores — for India and other parts of the world — both the processes of cultural repression and the ways in which they are being overcome. This volume gathers a number of essays by different academics and activists within the framework of a number of recent developments in the life and world of Dalits. It will be of interest to those involved in sociology, anthropology and subaltern studies.

HABIB'S HAIR HANDBOOK
By Habib Ahmed
(Penguin, Rs 95)

Habib Ahmed’s Habib’s Hair Handbook belongs to the contemporary Indian genre of the mindless little nothing this publishing house has made its very own. Palmistry, feng shui or hairstyling: Penguin gives you all in eminently dispensable nutshells which are badly written, shoddily illustrated and carelessly proof-read. There must be a burgeoning market for such things, and it must be an entirely good thing for Indian publishers that more and more readers wish to have beautiful hair.

SACRED WATERS: A PILGRIMAGE TO THE MANY SOURCES OF THE GANGA
By Stephen Alter
(Penguin, Rs 295)

Stephen Alter’s Sacred Waters: A Pilgrimage to the many sources of the Ganga about the four treks made by Alter in 1999-2000, following the course of the Ganga. This “Char Dham Yatra” was mostly done on foot, retracing traditional pilgrim trails. The total distance covered was about 600 km, and the altitudes ranged from 4,000-14,000 feet above sea level. More mystifyingly, it is also about “synaptic illusions that could only hint at those mysteries beyond my skin”. The settings for such riverine epiphanies are varied, ranging from the Bhyunder Valley to the Hanuman Ganga. Written with genuine passion, but there are dollops of unforgivable prose.

   

 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

Island nearing sunshine

Sir — The claim of the new Sri Lankan prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, “Talks with Tigers not before March: PM” (Dec 27), is still optimistic. Although there is reason to be hopeful, given the Tigers’ willingness to observe the ceasefire, it is a bit too early to hope that a settlement is in the offing. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam have seldom actually come to the table for talks. The temporary truce with the government has always been utilized in the best possible way — to re-arm, to re-group or to plan new offensives. The last time the Tigers arrived at the table, the process ended with the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. Things have changed since then. India is no longer a partner in the talks. Foreign support and aid for the Tigers have significantly declined and the Sri Lankan government, under the presidentship of Chandrika Kumaratunga, has shown its mettle. But Kumaratunga has to remember that there are serious differences to be solved. Unless she is willing to discuss issues that matter, the Tigers will continue to avoid the table.

Yours faithfully,
K. Saswati, Chennai

Spy in the cold

Sir — It was both distressing and encouraging to read about the arrest of a senior official in Parliament, Ajay Kumar, by the special cell team while he was passing on secret documents to Mohammad Sharief Khan of the Pakistan high commission (“A spy complete with two Ws”, Dec 25). For once, our intelligence department seems to have done something worth appreciating. What the arrest revealed is most upsetting. Despite claiming to be a friendly nation, Pakistan is obviously planting spies in India. Which means India’s good-neighbourly attempts at strengthening diplomatic ties with Pakistan have been in vain.

Kumar, obviously, is not the only spy in India. What is even more worrying is that he was a government employee with access to important documents and to the centre of power, Parliament. It is time vigilance was beefed up in all departments of the government. This holds particularly true for the police because five police officers in Karnataka were recently found to be acting as fake passport agents, allowing people with false documents to travel abroad.

Other measures should also be taken to stop the filtering in of funds which aid fundamentalist organizations and disruptive groups. Banks and post offices should be instructed not to accept large amounts of money unless the source of the money and the purpose for which it is sent are mentioned. Suspect bank accounts should also be checked. It is only through such strict measures that the country can hope to check espionage and improve national security.

Yours faithfully,
B.S. Ganesh, Bangalore

Sir — The arrest of two spies in India close on the heels of the recall of the Indian high commissioner from Pakistan, speaks volumes about the actual state of affairs between India and Pakistan. The Pakistan high commission in Delhi seems to be posing a threat to India’s internal security. Quite recently, an employee of the Pakistan high commission in Delhi was caught red-handed while laundering counterfeit currency.

Another employee, Mohammad Sharief Khan, has now been arrested after he was spotted interacting with a Parliament secretariat employee who is alleged to have delivered to him some important defence files (“Enter the spy in diplomatic war”, Dec 24).

It is unnerving to think that the Pakistan high commission has been harbouring spies. That is besides providing direct and indirect assistance to militants. Without its active connivance, it would have been impossible for most wanted militants to enter and escape India.

The illegal entry of both militants and civilians into India needs to be stopped. This can only be done by tightening security at all entry points into India, whether at the border or at airports. It is now apparent that spies are managing to enter India through diplomatic channels and do not have to resort to illegal methods. Which means India has to be even more vigilant regarding the activities of the Pakistan high commission.

Yours faithfully,
V.A. Gopala, Bangalore

Sir — The to-do over the arrest of Mohammad Sharief Khan and Ajay Kumar, two suspected spies, is ridiculous. Ajay Kumar is being touted as the next James Bond. What the police and the media do not seem to realize is that by painting Kumar as debonair and a lover of women and wine, they are giving this novice spy the kind of publicity he does not deserve. Kumar is being projected as a spy who would put Guy Burgess and Kim Philby to shame. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Kumar’s foray into espionage was obviously because he needed the extra money. He, therefore, should be shown to be what he is — a man who was willing to sell his country for a few rupees.

Yours faithfully,
Sharmila Ghosh, Barrackpore

Sir — Will the catching of a small time spy like Ajay Kumar solve matters for India? Surely, the government should know that there are biggies in the Indian establishment who help Pakistanis more than Kumar can ever hope to. Pakistanis know that just as well. Which means we would need another Tehelka to unearth these moles.

Yours faithfully,
J.B. Dutta, Calcutta

Parting shot

Sir — According to the report, “For lesson in short, get Jimmy” (Dec 11), it was extremely magnanimous of Mohinder Amarnath to fly to Ahmedabad for the sole objective of giving necessary tips to Sourav Ganguly. The former “whipping boy of Indian cricket” thus lent a helping hand to his present-day avatar.

Both these men have received inhuman and unfair treatment from the Board of Control for Cricket in India, their selectors and the team management. Apart from being perceived as anti-establishment, Amarnath and Ganguly have had to pay the price for being outspoken. Both have had the experience of being dropped from the team for ambiguous reasons and both have been arbitrarily rotated in the batting order. Despite these adverse circumstances, they have managed to establish themselves as dependable members of the team.

The press has been unsympathetic to these players. While they criticized Amarnath for “negotiating” a rebel tour to South Africa during the apartheid regime, they condemned Ganguly for his alleged extra-marital affair. Despite the odds, it is commendable that both have stuck to their game and made their presence felt.

Yours faithfully,
Kajal Chatterjee, Sodepur

Letters to the editor should be sent to:

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