Editorial 1 / Trips are good
Editorial 2 / Useful court
The costs of popularity
Book Review / Hills alive with mystery
Book Review / Beyond black and white
Book Review / Spectre of communalism
Book Review / Scholars in the jungle
Editor’s Choice / Sebald’s way
Paperback Pickings / Cleverness and a cow in bliss
Letters to the editor

Multinational pharmaceutical firms have been expressing reservations about introducing new drugs in India. These reservations are not new and have plagued India since the Patents Act was amended in 1970. However, reservations have become more topical against the backdrop of the World Trade Organization ministerial conference’s Doha declaration on the TRIPS agreement and public health. The Indian Patents Act of 1970 only allowed process patents for drugs and had governmental discretionary provisions on compulsory licensing. There were also issues connected with the duration of protection, and treating imports as equivalent to working patents in India. While these clauses encouraged the proliferation of a pharmaceutical industry in India that pirated drugs (euphemistically called reverse engineering), it also discouraged global firms from marketing new drugs in India. The Uruguay round’s (1986-94) TRIPS agreement tightened matters by insisting on product patents and removing much of the discretion associated with compulsory licensing. However, India did not have to change laws overnight, since a transition period till January 2005 was allowed. But from January 1995, applications for product patents should have been received, with exclusive marketing rights granted for five years to patent applicants. Having defaulted on this obligation, India lost disputes at the WTO, and the Indian Patents Act was subsequently amended in 1999. The greater concern was about the proposed second amendment to the Indian Patents Act (to be implemented by 2005), which would have incorporated complete product patent provisions with stricter compulsory licensing norms. A bill was drafted and subsequently referred to a parliamentary committee.

The committee’s report is not yet in the public domain, but it is generally known that it used the flexibility granted in the TRIPS agreement. This is not just for compulsory licensing, but also for parallel imports, on which the TRIPS agreement had little to say. The Doha declaration on TRIPS dilutes provisions of the TRIPS agreement also and this is understandable, given the fracas over AIDS and the South African and Brazilian cases, not to speak of anthrax. If there is a national emergency or extreme urgency, and national governments have the right to decide this, patent rides can be overridden through compulsory licensing, parallel imports and other means.

Understandably, multinational pharmaceutical companies are concerned that with this window available, the second amendment to the Indian Patents Act will be further diluted. If this is indeed the case, new drugs will continue not to be marketed in India. India (and Brazil) is unlike many other developing countries in that indigenous production capacity exists. Action by other countries on over-riding multinational patent rights may open up markets for Indian firms. But conversely, patents obtained by Indian firms may also be diluted. It is thus not obvious that the Doha declaration is a great victory for India. India has strengths in research and development. Ipso facto, strong TRIPS protection should be good for India.


Any measure that hastens the tardy judicial process in the country is welcome. Lok adalats to deal with complaints against public utility services would help enormously, given that out of two crore public utility cases pending in the courts, only one-third has been disposed of so far. The purpose behind the Centre’s decision is clear enough. Apart from speeding up the judicial process in one sphere, the lok adalats would make justice more accessible to the ordinary man. Complaints about transport, communications services, power and water supply, waste removal, hospitals and insurance can go through the process of hearing and disposal faster and more easily. With an upper limit of Rs 10 lakh fixed for the jurisdiction, the lok adalat would remain a proper court for the people. To make the lok adalat effective, the law ministry has given it the extra power of settling disputes on the basis of merit, whereas earlier, the lok adalats were empowered to dispose of disputes by compromise.

But improvements of this kind always bring a trail of questions with them. This is not really a systemic tightening, which the justice system in the country needs. It is, rather, a proliferation of bodies to prune the excess that the law courts cannot deal with any more. There are first the pragmatic questions of whether the bill seeking the necessary amendment will pass safely through the houses of Parliament, and whether, before that, the standing committee will let go of it soon enough to be acted upon. Once the system is in place, there would be other questions. Whether proliferation necessarily means efficiency, for example. More people, more paperwork, more mediation — India does not have the happiest experience in these matters. In other words, it is not the plan that is the most important thing. Without implementation and constant monitoring there will be no improvement. Indian politicians still seem blissfully unaware of the implications of having to deal with such a huge number of people and the characteristic lack of interest in work that officials exhibit. The two are a dangerous combination. The law ministry must be prepared to take up this challenge.


The approaching assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh have assumed great significance as it is widely perceived that the outcome could affect the fortunes of the National Democratic Alliance government. At the same time, it is imperative to assess the impact that frequent elections during the Nineties have had upon the economy of UP. During this decade this politically important state faced three assembly and four Lok Sabha elections.

It is widely accepted that these elections, held against the background of rising levels of awareness among the lower castes of their disadvantaged socio-economic status, played a salient role in accelerating the process of democratization and identity assertion against upper caste domination. The spread of the electoral process into backward regions where Dalits were not allowed to vote earlier and the appointment of Mayavati, a Dalit woman, as chief minister in a socially conservative state was of great symbolic importance providing Dalits with self-confidence. Similarly, all parties have tried to gain the support of the backward castes, leading to the emergence of more backward classes as an important political group.

However, frequent elections also introduced a high level of competitive populism throughout the Nineties for which the state has paid a very heavy price in terms of development. By the end of the decade the state was in a debt trap — a vicious circle of low growth rate and fiscal crisis preventing further investment — from which it has yet to recover. The state witnessed high growth during the period 1985-90 when the average annual growth rate reached 5.7 per cent, but it dropped to 3.1 per cent in 1990-92 and reached a low of 2.4 per cent in 1992-96.

Between 1991-92 and 1997-98 the fiscal deficit increased at 30.74 per cent per annum and was more than 8 per cent of the gross state domestic product in 1997-98. Due to lack of resource mobilization there was narrowing of the tax base as no new taxes, higher user or service charges were mentioned in the UP budget for 1999, 2000 or 2001. Salaries, pensions and interest payments absorbed three-fourth of total revenues in 1998-99. The debt service increased its claim on total state revenues from 13 per cent in 1985-86 to 39 per cent in 1998-99.

The reasons for this alarming state of affairs lie in the pattern of fiscal management by every government in UP in the Nineties. As no party has been able to gain a majority, the state has experienced a number of shortlived governments, which, under the constant threat of elections, have exhibited a lack of political will, inability to make long-term policy decisions, and a singular lack of fiscal discipline. More fundamentally, there is an inherent contradiction between the platform of social justice that every political party has adopted to gain electoral support and the necessities of economic reform.

While economic reform requires promoting efficiency, cutting expenditure on welfare and redirecting it towards productive investment and infrastructure; the ideology of social justice pushes parties towards increasing employment by filling the reserved quotas in the government and spending on welfare programmes for the poorer sections. Apart from this, since every party would like to gain an absolute majority, promises are also made to various sections of the electorate such as traders, industrialists, farmers and the middle classes in order to obtain votes. Three aspects closely linked to electoral politics make this clear: rising expenditure on manpower and welfare, lack of resource mobilization and continuation of subsidies.

In the early Nineties, Mulayam Singh Yadav as chief minister undertook a drive to provide Yadavs employment in large numbers within the police force and in schools; a move described as “Yadavization” of the administration. The two brief Mayavati governments spent considerable amounts on Dalit-oriented programmes such as financial aid to Dalit students; for marriage and sickness in Dalit families; increase in the funds earmarked for welfare programmes such as the Indira Housing Yojana and the Ambedkar Village programme; and cultural programmes such as Periyar melas and Ambedkar parks.

While some of these programmes helped Dalits, they emptied the coffers of the state, leaving scarce funds for investment in industry, education, infrastructure and health, which in the long run would be most harmful for the poorest sections consisting mainly of Dalits unable to afford facilities provided by the private sector. Kalyan Singh as chief minister appointed 40,000 primary school teachers and 10,000 para teachers and panchayat run school teachers, just prior to the polls in 1999, despite the fact that the UP government had already appointed all the trained teachers required just two months before that.

The Bharatiya Janata Party in power since 1997, aware of the deteriorating condition of the state finances, tried to improve the fiscal position of the state. A white paper issued in March 1998 described the deteriorating financial situation and laid the basis for a loan agreement with the World Bank. UP is the first state in the country to get a programme loan for fiscal management. The bank laid down certain conditions that would lead to reduction of the fiscal deficit by 1 per cent every year accompanied by high spending on priority sectors. By and large in the first two years following the agreement the UP government did try to keep to these goals.

However, on the eve of fresh elections a series of populist promises have been made, which will make it impossible to keep expenditure down. The list is so long that it looks as if Rajnath Singh and his ministers — aware of the weakened position of the BJP in UP — have spent a considerable part of 2001 making populist promises to ensure that the party performs well in the assembly elections. Despite facing a Rs 82,000 crore debt the chief minister has promised increased salaries to primary and secondary teachers as per the fifth pay commission report which will result in expenditure of Rs1,000 crore.

In 1987, the Congress government had decided not to implement the recommendations of the fourth pay commission arguing that it was too heavy a burden for the exchequer. In 1998 also, the BJP government had refused, arguing that the strike by primary teachers was politically motivated by the Congress. In what is clearly a populist step, the government decided in September 2001 to create over 40,000 jobs prior to the elections which would put an extra burden of Rs 300 crore, and has already advertised 7,000 vacancies. These posts will be filled according to the new formula contained in the Hukum Singh or social justice committee report 2001, that is, into three separate categories for the backward classes and two categories for the scheduled castes. Apart from this, in October 2001, the chief minister announced the “Dr Shyama Prasad Mukherjee” employment scheme for technically unemployed youth and creation of self-employment opportunities for literate unemployed youth under various schemes. Laying the foundation stone of a number of developmental works worth Rs 55 crore in Lucknow, the chief minister also assured the people of new roads, bridges, a stadium, new schools and colleges, and power substations over the next few months.

Concessions have been made to small traders, an important section of the support base of the BJP. In October 2001, trade tax was abolished or reduced on 18 items and a compounding scheme announced for over three dozen items. On at least two dozen of these items there was a trade tax of 2-10 per cent earlier which the government will lose. Similarly, at a panchayat of small scale entrepreneurs, a number of concessions were announced, such as a new capital subsidy and interest subsidy scheme, revival of a modernization scheme for some units announced in 1995.

In a bid to win over the farmers, the government has decided to raise the price of sugarcane to Rs 100 per tonne by end 2001, despite the crisis facing the sugar industry and the government decision to sell 18 sick units out of the state sugar cooperative. Nor has the government kept its promise to remove subsidies. Rather than raising the power tariff for domestic consumers it has decided to give a subsidy of Rs 122 crore to the UP Power Corporation, which in fact had hoped to gain Rs 900 crore annually from the hike and end its financial crisis.

This goes against the recommendations of the UP electricity commission of a hike of 12.08 per cent for domestic consumers and 5 per cent for industrial users in the state. Last week, the World Bank refused to give another loan installment of Rs 1,000 crore to the state, as instead of developmental programmes, earlier loan funds have been used for establishment cost and staff salary.

All this points to the enormous economic costs being paid for the misuse of electoral democracy and irresponsible behaviour by politicians whose sole aim is to gain political power and office regardless of the impact on the economic development of the country. Populism based upon caste, class and community has been used by every political party and has brought economic ruin to a state that at independence was one of the best governed. There are signs that voters are becoming impatient and are no longer prepared to put up with neglect of developmental issues, as seen in the action to blacken the face of a political leader undertaken by citizens in Kanpur during the 1999 Lok Sabha electoral campaign.

The poor condition of roads, schools, lack of law and order and falling agricultural produce hopefully are issues that will be taken up by parties during this election. What UP requires is a strong and responsible government, which will take up the deteriorating economic condition of the state on a war footing. The signs of this happening are unfortunately not visible in the near future.

The author teaches politics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi


By Tom Alter,
Viking, Rs 195

At the outset, city-dwellers who pick up this book must understand this about the mountains: that everyone who has ever lived in the hills knows that they have a kind of magic about them. A magic that makes you do strange things. And Mussoorie, in the midst of the Garhwal Himalayas, has a kind of special magic of its own. The spell works not only on long-time residents but also on those who have spent some time there — for it induces a sort of craziness in those who are returning there after a long time. And Allan Kohli, the too-cool senior police officer and protagonist of Tom Alter’s mystery novel, Rerun at Rialto, apprehends that exactly this kind of madness might work upon him — which is why he simply chooses not to go back. Not to return, that is, for many years. But finally, the combination of a chance telephone conversation, a warm familiar voice and the longing to see the mountains of his childhood again draw Kohli to Mussoorie.

I read this little book in another hill town, Darjeeling, with the mountains, innocence and peace around us. And it could have been Darjeeling that Alter was speaking of — for all hill towns seem to be the same, with their dark green hillsides, long meandering pagdandis and brisk mountain breezes. And yet each town is different, because it is the people who live there who make it unique. For Allan Kohli, Mussoorie is the beloved home where he grew up, surrounded by kind friends. Kohli is sensitive, interesting and unusual, “an Inspector-General of Police on the road”. Wearing jeans and jacket, he rides an old and faithful Jawa, flirts with women, and believes in the basic goodness of people. Yes, he’s almost too good to be true.

The best parts of his narration are the descriptions of Mussoorie , of Landour, Kulri, Camel’s Back and Windy Corner: “There is something about Mussoorie in the winter...The mood shifts from sombre grey when the clouds are heavy, to hopeful shades of green and gold when the sun sinews through. In the evenings the winter line cuts the sky at the horizon like a crimson sash.” Not Ruskin Bond, but very Mussoorie.

Also delightful are Kohli’s little asides about women — and he has the long-time bachelor’s romantic fancy about these perfumed, delicate creatures: “She answered with a ripple of laughter, and I was instantly reminded of juicy jalebis dipped in hot milk.” His fascination for the screen mystique of Dilip Kumar and Madhubala in Mughal-e-Azam is endearing: “In the intimate darkness of Rialto, Dilip Kumar was not only larger than life, he was life itself.” And what a romantic crime — a lady disappearing in the middle of a screening of this classic love story!

Fortunately, Kohli’s ruminations about philosophy, life and everything else, though not few, are reasonably far between, scattered through the story. But detectives, and senior police officers, are fond of dispensing this sort of wisdom every now and then.

Everything else — the location, the narrator’s now-dry, now-romantic tone, the fairness with which all the relevant information is shared with the reader, even the enduring romance of the film during which the crime took place — everything is perfect. Everything, that is, except the ending, which is tame and even far-fetched. Not nearly a good mystery story, but Rerun at Rialto is an enjoyable evocation of the Mussoorie magic. And the film-loving, Jawa-riding, roving-eyed Allan Kohli is a detective not only with a heart in the right place, but also a good deal of potential.

So perhaps, once Alter has ironed out the creases in his plot-making, we shall see Allan Kohli again, wearing his tracksuit and riding his Jawa up to the mountains, solving a more interesting, more believable crime. Meanwhile it is nice to see Tom Alter again doing something other than playing the British baddie on screen. And finally, the cover, with its charming mountain watercolour, and Shalini Agarwal’s evocative black-and-white illustrations, are an added pleasure.


By Prem Chowdhry,
Vistaar, Rs 450

Imperial popular culture has been receiving attention in postcolonial studies for some time now, but one has not come across much writing on Empire cinema. One knew that Lives of a Bengal Lancer or Gunga Din laid bare their racist designs without shame, and as such did not probably require much analysis. But Prem Chowdhry has undertaken a dismantling of the simple ideological propositions of the genre and placed the parts in relation to the architecture of the Empire. These were not necessarily Empire films at the moment of their origin — in Hollywood or England — but became so as they traced their steps to colonized soil. The apparently simple bits of racist imperial message had to be routed through the mesh of locally available political semantics through passages of a history that colonialism created before they took on their full ideological import. The process had the effect of denaturalization — what looked normal was revealed to be the effect of elaborate artifice, offensive to the core.

The author studies this process of reception. He has not confined himself to textual analyses and rehashes of available theoretical positions, which is common in studies of generic texts, but has made use of primary material in painstaking reconstruction of the site on which the films were received. The result is an illuminating survey of colonial power in its dual visage of aggression and uncertainty.

He chooses to study the Indian reception of the films in a period when the Empire was facing a legitimation crisis, in a moment when the recall of the archaic stereotypes of orientalist fantasy showed the Empire nurturing its own spectre in its putrid body. In the Thirties a high adventure genre became the prime vehicle of Empire cinema. Films like The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935), The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), Wee Willie Winkie (1937), The Drum (1938) and Gunga Din (1939) shared some common traits, the most crucial being the geographic imagination of the North-West Frontier Province. The NWFP could be placed at the fuzzy boundary of “India”, and perhaps it could also serve as the indeterminate centre of the orientalized hemisphere. It provided the exotic terrains for adventure, the Muslim and tribal populations who could be demonized at will (The Drum imports Hindu villains for variety), and the idea of a frontier. The latter was the regulating idea behind the Western genre in Hollywood and fired the military-patriotic zeal of the Empire. Afghans, Russians and Germans were the external threat from which the guardians were seen saving us in these films.

But by the middle of the Thirties, and specially after the formation of the provincial governments by nationalist parties, the legitimacy of the Empire was facing serious questions. The internal fissure is shown up by the differences that the local censor boards and colonial administrators began to have with the British Board of Film Censors. The press, even in the United States of America or in England, began to voice criticisms of the imperialist attitude under the impact of liberal or left initiatives.

The author has done highly useful work in mining the relevant documents — letters and reports — though he has not gone into the dynamics of the specific articulation of the general imperialist fantasy and the geographical imagination that subtended it. His thrust is on how some of the films were received by the Indian press and public bodies, and in the process he presents the dilemma of the colonial power in a crucial phase. Reception became so embroiled in the mechanics of that power that the production of some of the films were forestalled by the censors, the others were to be heavily expunged. The Indian market was huge and a possible blockade meant substantial loss for the productions.

Chowdhry takes up three films for case studies and discusses post-1947 films like Bhowani Junction (1956) in the concluding chapter. He starts from the obvious ideological construction of the films (The Drum, Gunga Din and The Rains Came, 1940) and then reconstructs the matrices of politics and symbolic exchange through which the texts had to pass in India. The typical cultural studies positions about cultural consumption are not always useful to his analysis, even though he makes passing references to them. What we have here is not so much a spectatorial problem but a problem of the audience. Cultural studies tends to absolve texts of political responsibility by stressing the negotiation of texts too heavily; what is in evidence in Chowdhry’s thoroughly researched contexts is inversion and reversal of values.

Characters like Gul Khan and Azim from The Drum, the Guru and Gunga Din from Gunga Din, or Banerjee and Rama from The Rains Came simply got inverted on the axis of villain/rebel/caricature and collaborator/ loyal subject that helped construct them in the first place. The local political alignments, the stage of communalization of the masses involved in each instance and the historical context of film industry are the three coordinates that the author works out to capture the full import of the public outcry and press reactions that greeted these films.

Film analyses open out into social history in the process. In its best passages, the book gives us a glimpse of the process through which a historical dynamics gets congealed into allegorical, two-dimensional coinages: the figure of the pathan, the image of Kali and Gandhi, the motif of development, feminine authority, territory or discipline — how all these achieved insulting simplicity through complex trajectories..


Edited By Tarun K. Saint,
Seagull, Rs 475

Communalism is hydra-headed. Almost every spurt of communal violence has been followed by polemical writings, political discourses, demagogic harangues and false re-affirmations of faith in the “peaceful” co-existence of communities. Yet there has been little attempt to dialogically engage with the issue, to get a measure of its multiple interrelated implications and to examine the devious ways in which these are historically over-determined by the stereotypes and the dynamics of community consciousness prevalent in the subcontinent.

It is time to address subtler strands of this issue. Is communalism a pathological by-product of secularism itself? Is not hypersensitivity about preserving cultural distinctiveness giving a fillip to cultural jingoism, secretly fanning the flames of communal animosity? Should only religion be blamed for communal unrest? Does some kind of siege mentality hinder the intelligentsia from making a meaningful effort to achieve inter-community negotiations? Is the freedom of the press being misappropriated by local media? Is there any serious limitation to the linguistic representation of the issue at stake?

These questions are perhaps behind the publication of Bruised Memories, an anthology of poems, plays, stories, essays, recollections and panel discussions by literary figures. It makes an interesting study of the intricate mechanism of the author’s response and his re-orientated subject-positions. The motifs of homelessness, estrangement from the past, disintegration of belief systems vis-a-vis the loss of social identity are recurrent. Ashis Nandy’s recollection of communal violence during Partition, in “The Death of an Empire”, and Amitav Ghosh’s depiction of the agony and anxiety of a Sikh family after Indira Gandhi’s assassination in “The Ghosts of Mrs Gandhi” reveal a stark horror.

Some of the short stories, like Badiuzzaman’s “Ravan” and Tarun K. Saint’s “Broken Mirror”, and poems such as T.P. Rajeevan’s “Balloon”, Dileep Jhaveri’s “Khandit Kand Poems”, Nabaneeta Dev Sen’s “Dharavi” and Bilquis Zafirul Hassan’s “City of Sieges” abound in splintered hallucinatory images as recorded in the consciousness. There is pathos in Hussain-ul-Haque’s story, “The Foundation Stone”, while Mahasweta Devi’s “He said, Pani” strikes with its sarcastic satire. The two poems by K. Satchidanandan sparkle with wry wit.

The only play included in the volume is “The Tiger” by Sisir Kumar Das, written shortly after the demolition of the Babri Masjid. It operates at different layers of consciousness with the overlap of the verbal and the visual, myth and reality.

Ketaki Kushari Dyson points out that over-familiarity with the ideas of democracy, secularism and religious fanaticism has often made us overlook the inconsistencies implicit in them. The panel discussion among Ashis Nandy, D.R. Nagaraj and Harish K. Trivedi, which tries to explore the meaning of modernity and the psychology of the caste-system, is illuminating. Saint’s identification of every thinking individual in the present south Asian context with Melancthon in Borges’s A Theologian in Death, is both brilliant and innovative.


Edited By Ranju R. Dhamala, Sukalpa Bhattacharjee,
Shipra, Rs 400

The book is intended for “scholars and social activists who are looking for a starting point for a dialogic encounter in a climate of confusion and unrest in Northeast India”. It compiles papers presented by academics, activists and counter-insurgency experts. It is thus tilted towards a theoretical delineation of an issue that merits “field” exposure for analysis.

The introduction begins on a paradoxical note, juxtaposing a “true human rights culture” with what the editors call “politics of HR, manouevered by the State.” In fact, juxtaposition is a recurrent feature in this volume. Most of the authors fall back on quotes — from Sartre to Camus to Kant to Tagore — which very often do not amalgamate with their prose. The reader is informed early that the “state as a social actor of violence uses armed forces to suppress anything that comes its way.” Were the ground realities indeed so, would any dialogue (the aim of the book) ever succeed?

The first paper, by S.N. Bhargava, chairman of the Assam Human Rights Commission, conceptualizes human rights from the Indian viewpoint. His analysis of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1958, is extensive and authoritative. His conclusion is one of the most helpful chapters of this book, suggesting ways in which the armed forces can be sensitized to operate in such specialized spheres. It is a must for all involved in the insurgency scenario.

Highlighting the safeguards and violations of human rights, Ranju R. Dhamala, offers facts about human rights organizations operating in the Northeast. N.B. Biswas delves into the history of the human rights movement and its implication in the Indian context. He speaks of imparting rights awareness to schoolchildren. But how many schools actually function in the militancy-ravaged states of the Northeast?

“Insurgency in the Northeast”, by Trigunesh Mukherjee, former commandant of the Counter-Insurgency Jungle Warfare School in Vairangte, Mizoram, is the most interesting. He offers the only argument from the point of view of the armed forces, unfazed at the prospect of human rights activists gunning for him from all angles. It is the only paper that attempts an understanding of the prevailing unrest from the “migration” point of view. It is convenient to blame the army “as a tool of the hegemonistic State.” Few appreciate the fact that unlike in other countries, the Indian army combats militancy, not militants, although the feasibility of this strategy is still open to debate.

Sajal Nag’s “State Atrocities as History” offers an insight into Jawaharlal Nehru’s frontier policies, linking insurgency with folklore. The Naga and Mizo folk songs reflecting the trauma of tribals over army action make for a moving conclusion. Abhik Gupta contends that ecological diversity could provide buffer systems to absorb the shocks of social tension. Chinmoy Kanti Biswas focuses on the hill tribals since insurgency appears to have gained intensity with altitude. Tanmoy Bhattacharjee concentrates on insurgency in the North Cachar Hills inhabited by the Dimasas. His suggestion that tribal groups be represented in an executive body based on population and the post of chief executive held by rotation is worth consideration.

The final section of the book, “Insurgency, Human Rights: Towards a Counter-Discourse” comprises five fairly ponderous articles. The first, by Rajesh Dev, offers a glimpse into the genesis of human rights with focus on “solidarity rights”. Sukalpa Bhattacharjee examines the cultural construction of gender in an ethnic community. Prasenjit Biswas mentions the “new subaltern” emergence of identities in the Northeast and the birth of “nations from below” with the ease of one familiar with ethnic equations in the region.

Goutam Biswas delves into “rights consciousness” through a critique of conventional politics. His visualization of a solution by implementing Gandhiji’s swaraj mechanism is, however, unlikely to cut any ice with those championing the cause of sovereignty through armed struggle. Indeed, his very conclusion echoes with utopian innuendoes, the swaraj praxiology offering “the conception of a transnational federal framework and the creation of a civitas humana.”

If that smacks of verbosity, B.S. Butola’s “Human Rights and Nationalized Civilizations” would do Dr Johnson proud: “Generalized alienation and universalized enstrangement is ontological to capitalism.” What he ends up saying is that human rights is a misnomer in a capitalist society and will remain so as long as “internal colonization” persists.


By W.G. Sebald,
Random House, $ 25.95

The new book By W.G. Sebald, who died at the age of 57 in a road accident in East Anglia ten days before Christmas, is informed by a profound and ineffable melancholy. Readers of Sebald’s previous books will be familiar with the deliberateness with which he makes sad and ominous images and foreboding hover over large parts of the narrative. Yet passages of luminous prose marked by long Henry Jamesian sentences and paragraphs break through the darkness.

It is impossible to label this book a novel even though that is how the publishers have decided to describe it. There is a well-connected narrative — a story if you like — but there is no unfolding plot which resolves itself at the end.

The narrative is an act of recollection: a series of memories told by Jacques Austerlitz to the writer. The narrative thus has a double filter, Austerlitz’s act of recollection told to the readers by the narrator who could be Sebald or may be not.

The narrator meets Austerlitz accidentally in a railway station in Antwerp. They strike up a friendship and over the years and meetings at various places — the bar of the former Great Eastern Hotel in Liverpool Street Railway Station in London, Austerlitz’s tiny flat in Alderney Street in the East End and in the Le Havane bistro bar on the boulevard, Auguste Blanqui, in Paris — Austerlitz talks of his memories, his experiences and feelings. The narrative moves in an association of images, somewhat dream-like. Time is suspended or it moves across decades in one grand sweep. The timelessness is emphasized by Austerlitz’s confession that he has neither owned nor worn a watch in his life.

Austerlitz was born in Prague. His father was a manager in a slipper-making factory who was active in left politics, and a moderately successful opera singer. The rise of Nazism and the impending invasion of Czechoslovakia forced his father to flee. His mother stayed behind and was transported to a concentration camp. But before this happened, she managed to send her five year old son to England on a Kindertransport. Austerlitz thus came to be adopted by a nonconformist preacher and his wife who lived in north Wales.

His childhood was gloomy but he was clever and he was sent to a minor public school. It was here, in his final year, that he was told his real name; his studies were encouraged by an eccentric history teacher who pushed him to go to Oxford; he also made friends with a younger boy whose family provided him with his first sense of home. But the sense of dislocation never left Austerlitz.

The first part of the book recalls the Welsh countryside and the natural world of the region. Austerlitz specialized in the history of architecture and obtained a teaching position in London. His life came to be haunted by a series of losses: his parents, barely remembered; his young friend who died in a plane crash; and his friend Marie, who was perhaps the only person, save the writer, who became close to him.

The sense of dislocation leads Austerlitz to trace his roots in Prague and to unearth the lives of his parents. These parts are devastating in their recollection of what happened to the Jews of Czechoslovakia under the Nazis. Sebald makes his readers travel with Austerlitz to the dark heart of Europe.

The book is about the power of memory, of what Proust in Time Regained called “Time embodied, of years past but not separated from us”. Memory, in Sebald/Austerlitz’s powerful evocation, redeems time.


By Neelum Saran Gour
(Penguin, Rs 250)

Neelum Saran Gour ‘s Virtual Realities is a novel dedicated to the “great storytellers” in the author’s family “who never wrote a line”. Gour makes up, amply and more or less ably, for her family’s reticence with the written word. Her New Indian Novel centres around a very traditional duo. Sravana, the novelist, and Budhhoo, the gay bachelor and irrepressible raconteur, are like Quixote and Sancho, or Tristram Shandy and Uncle Toby. Together they embody the unstoppable energies of living and telling, the copiousness of life and of words and stories. Sravana wants to write a book “made up entirely of my deletions. All things crossed out, the people edited away...What’s not the point may be the real point”. Stylistically, Budhhoo incarnates “outrageous Indianisms”, keeping Gour perilously close to second/third-rate Rushdie-ism: “Bilingual author, wah! Mutlub, sort of a hermaphrodite, na?” There are also authorial embarrassments like, “A pollinating breeze. A frequency in the sensorium, a kinesis in the psycho-plasma of the mind.” This is a wry and readable novel, not entirely devoid of a certain spark. But the Demon Cleverness does have the last word.

By John Robbins
(Magna, Rs 175)

John Robbins’s The Food Revolution is loudly subtitled “How your diet can help save your life and our world” (“your diet” in bold). The author was born into ice cream, his father having founded Baskin Robbins. Robbins Jr intends in this book (his earlier was called Diet for a New America) to expose the dangers behind many of today’s foods and reveal the extraordinary benefits of healthy alternatives. Chapter samples — “Policing the Pathogens”, “Eating with Conscience”, “Pandora’s Pantry”.

By Judith Cornell
(Penguin, Rs 250)

Judith Cornell’s Amma: A Living Saint is as much a product of Californian spiritualism as of Keralite bhakti. Cornell is an adjunct professor at the California Institute of Integral Studies in the Department of East/West Psychology. The subject of her biography is an internationally revered spiritual leader from Kerala, Mata Amritanandamayi (“Mother of Immortal Bliss”), who was the prime minister’s special guest of the state at a grand reception in 1997, and was presented the prestigious Scroll of Honour by the chief minister of Delhi. This book is hagiography, as well as a miraculous conversion story, written out of a “deep spiritual and ecological accountability”. Starting out as a “religious skeptic”, Cornell spends 11 years observing the Amma doling out her saintly hug, and this “boggled” her “Western mind”. There are pictures of Amma in ecstacy, merging with the Divine Mother, going through Devi Bhava, helping with construction work, and with Atal Bihari Vajpayee, with Dattan the Leper and with a “bliss-filled cow”.



Where star quality matters

In the stars Sir — The report, “It’s a war out there for star bodyguards” (Jan 9), forces the reader to raise certain vital questions which have become relevant not only for the West, but for present day India. It is true that the deteriorating security condition both at the national and the state levels compels celebrities, ranging from Bollywood’s own Shah Rukh Khan to the Indian prime minister, to go for hi-tech security arrangements which are extremely expensive. But does anyone bother about providing a wee bit of protection to the common man? There are reports flashed everyday in the media on civilians and jawans falling victim to the mindless violence indulged in by militants, be it in the Northeast, Kashmir or down South. Not surprisingly, the government would provide this high cost security to ousted prime ministers, their children and even their cronies, but not to the common man on the streets. This reminds us of the stark truth that in a class and caste based society like India’s it is either the privileged or residents of tinsel town who can consider security their birthright. No such luck for you or me.

Yours faithfully,
Sucharita Sengupta, Calcutta

Ensure better rule

Sir — The division of the Midnapore district, leading to the creation of the 19th district, is a step in the right direction. It will help administer the districts better and expedite their development (“Divide and rule”, Jan 3). But merely dividing a district for political purposes will not suffice. Some bold steps have to be taken to improve the infrastructure, particularly the availability of electricity, apart from improving the education system.

The decision offers a ray of hope to the beleaguered residents of Haldia in Purba Midnapore, a region which has often been portrayed as investor-friendly and which is expected to bring the rewards of liberalization to the masses. It is unfortunate that the tall claims of the West Bengal government regarding the Haldia Petrochemicals Limited and the concomittant development of the town have not been fulfilled. Haldia still seriously lacks in infrastructure. There are hardly any means of travelling between Calcutta and Haldia. The catamaran service is an expensive proposal, while the Shalimaar Express has been completely stopped. The government could have diverted the express to ply through Howrah and increased its frequency. But no thought seems to have been spared for Haldia.

The story of the town’s neglect does not end here. Haldia has a long way to go as far as medical facilities are concerned.There are no good doctors nor hospitals for the people. The existing government hospital is in an utterly deplorable condition. Regular power cuts have come to stay. It is time the state authorities make an effort to ensure Haldia a comfortable place to live in, if not a haven of industry.

Yours faithfully,
Harmeet Singh Chawla, Haldia

Sir — The bifurcation of the huge district of Midnapore into Purba and Paschim Midnapore seems practical given the unmanageable size of the previous territory. The chief minister’s efforts deserve some praise. But his warning to the People’s War Group invites criticism (“Reform or die, Buddha tells rebels”, Jan 2). It is true that the violent activities of the militants should never be supported, but one should remember that it is the long history of atrocities committed by the state government over the years that has led to the rise of extremist organizations like the PWG. Merely blaming the PWG for indulging in violence will not suffice. The ultimatum to the PWG, either to reform or accept death, is unfair.

Bhattacharjee’s promises of different packages such as the opening up of medical colleges, setting up of small industries and initiating other developmental projects in the newly created districts is a good sign. One only needs to wait and see whether these will ultimately materialize.

Yours faithfully,
M. Saha, Calcutta

For more Dollies

Sir — Genetics is still in its infancy and the complete picture about its positive and negative sides has not yet emerged. Any hasty and miscalculated step towards a genetically modified world can trigger off a chain of unwanted reactions (“Making it with Dolly”, Jan 7).

However, this does not imply that the government must unnecessarily clamp down on the ongoing genetic projects. Gene therapy is the biggest breakthrough medical science has achieved and a blanket ban will only impede the eagerly awaited advancements in this field. Governments must promulgate laws that distinguish between research work and commercial cloning.

Yours faithfully,
Avishek Biswas, Calcutta

Sir — Indranill Basu Ray’s article, “Making it with Dolly”, makes for an interesting read. As has been rightly pointed out by him, those who criticize human cloning have a valid point — there is a need for legislation to ban the misuse of the technology. Past experiences show that progress of science and technology has been negated by the ambition and greed of some scientists. One must remember that our goal is not the creation of a perfect human race but to help find cures for diseases like Parkinsons’ and spinal cord injuries that have so far been incurable. Scientists should therefore take care and not violate medical ethics and procedural norms.

It is true that science should not be based on any dogmas or prejudices. Nevertheless, it is would be sensible to be cautious at the onset so that we don’t have to regret in the future. Unfortunately, India has not shown much interest in using the technology nor has it participated in the ongoing debates on the issue of human cloning. It would be nice to see the government of India take a stand on cloning and come up with appropriate measures to stop the misuse of science.

Yours faithfully,
U. Ray, Calcutta

Airing the waves

Sir — The Star Plus channel has suspended the much talked about television serial, Kaun Banega Crorepati,in order to make the prime slot of 9-10 pm available for other programmes. Although this channel has topped the Indian viewer’s list, it is time that Star Plus starts regulating some of its programmes keeping audience health in mind.

Popular programmes running late into the night and their unending episodes are taking their toll on viewers. It is unfortunate that news-based programmes like Aaj ki Baat are being pushed to the late-night slot. The channel should reschedule its popular serials. By all counts, ideal timings for viewers would be to end the popular soaps by 11pm. Serials should also have a limited number of episodes. The Union information and broadcasting ministry should immediately decide on a strict code regulate different channels’ programming.

Yours faithfully,
Madhu Agrawal, Delhi

Sir — The report, “Bombed, but beautiful for Bollywood”(Dec 30), gives a clear indication about the revival of the entertainment industry in Afghanistan, thanks to veterans Feroz Khan and Aruna Irani for their whole-hearted support to bring back “normalcy” to Afghanistan. Khan has always tried to add colour to most of his films and people have always loved watching them. This shooting in Afghanistan will definitely rejuvenate the people of the country and add another feather of friendship to India’s hat.

The government of India should give mileage to this approach of Khan and help him get permission from the Afghanistan government. However, the political disturbances should be taken into consideration before experimenting with this idea. There should be no risks taken with the lives of the actors and actresses.

Yours faithfully,
Sumant Poddar, Calcutta

We didn’t start the fire

Sir — The report, “Fireworks explosion kills 120 in Lima” (Dec 31), should be a warning to Indians, who are just as infatuated with fireworks. A huge amount of money goes into the manufacture of fireworks for Diwali; fireworks are used to mark other celebrations as well, be it the New Year’s eve, the victory in a cricket match, chhat, a marriage, or other festive occasions. The production, storage, transport and sale of fireworks is hazardous. Their bursting not only pollutes the air, but also leads to many accidents. Moreover, in India a number of children are often involved in their production. There have been innumerable accidents in Hyderabad where fireworks are produced in bulk. The danger involved in dealing with fireworks should be evident if one takes a look at the number of victims who get admitted to the burn wards in hospitals during the festive season.

Yours faithfully,
Manoranjan Das, Jamshedpur

Sir — Although in Calcutta, the sale of fireworks has become restricted, there are many who make clandestine sales. There are obviously gaffes in the supervision. Otherwise, despite the regulation, shopsellers, even in wayside stalls, would not be selling firecrackers during Diwali.

Yours faithfully,
Joy Sengupta, Calcutta

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