Editorial 1 / Lucky break
Editorial 2 / Valley of Fear
A slave for nothing
Book Review / Looking back at passions
Book Review / A lady among the kids
Book Review / Second citizens of an island
Book Review / Subject to much concern
Bookwise / The selling point
Paperback Pickings
Letters to the editor

 
 
EDITORIAL 1 / LUCKY BREAK 
 
 
 
 
Nothing succeeds like success. The Calcutta police force therefore has reasons to congratulate itself after it captured, alive, Mr Jamaluddin Nasir, one of the prime suspects in the attack on the police picket outside the American Center on the morning of January 22. This follows the killing in a shoot-out in Hazaribagh in Jharkhand of two others, one of whom was probably actually involved in the shooting in Calcutta. The action in Hazaribagh was carried out by policemen belonging to the crime branch of the Delhi police and the Hazaribagh police. The Calcutta police came in only after the event, as it were. The arrest of Mr Nasir was a direct outcome of the Hazaribagh operation. The police in Calcutta merely acted on the basis of information provided by those who had carried out the investigations in Hazaribagh. Mr Nasir came into the Calcutta police’s net on the basis of external information. In other words, the arrest was not the fallout of the intelligence provided by the police’s own network of informers. This makes the success of the Calcutta police incomplete and the glow of self-satisfaction on the faces of many senior police officers somewhat premature.

A person who had known links with organized criminal gangs was living in Calcutta and was operating out of the city. Yet the police had no tabs on him and had no idea of his movements and his plans. This can only be described as a failure of intelligence on the part of the detective department. This comes close on the heels of that remarkable display by the police on January 22 when a posse of policemen were unable to fire a single shot against two assailants spraying them with bullets from an automatic rifle. Taken together, these do read like a record of ineptitude which rather undermines the success which has come the police’s way in the arrest of Mr Nasir. If this success was due to a stroke of luck, the two instances of inefficiency are perhaps related to the same set of factors. Over the last 25 years of Left Front rule, the police force in West Bengal has been politicized through trade unions. This has eroded its efficiency and made it an indolent body. Policemen do not take their training seriously because they know their jobs are not at stake if they do not perform their duty. The decline of the informer network is also related to politicization. The West Bengal police force no longer serves the society; it serves the party in power. This has destroyed morale and taken away the sense of a broader accountability. A police force which has to look over its shoulder constantly to get a nod of approval from its political masters cannot function at the peak of its abilities and efficiency. A lucky break is not a lucky streak: the police and the chief minister need to remember this.

   

 
 
EDITORIAL 2 / VALLEY OF FEAR 
 
 
 
 
It is easy to dismiss the latest move by the All Party Hurriyat Conference to set up a parallel election commission to conduct polls in Jammu and Kashmir as yet another bizarre decision by the umbrella separatist alliance. However, the move signals that the separatist alliance, under tremendous pressure, may be willing to be more politically flexible in the weeks to come. On the face of it, the APHC’s decision is patently absurd. The APHC’s executive committee is politically astute enough to realize that no government in the world would let a conglomerate of separatists conduct elections through a commission that has been set up by them. There is virtually no chance that New Delhi will accept APHC’s decision. However, it is the subtext of the decision which demands attention. The APHC has realized that even Kashmiris are questioning its representative character, and its credibility has tremendously eroded in recent months. Its unwillingness to openly condemn violence till recently, and its earlier lukewarm response to New Delhi’s unilateral ceasefire initiative has deeply shrunk its support base. Only Pakistan, for its own vested interests, continues to maintain that the APHC reflects the aspirations of the Kashmiri people.

The leaders of the APHC are shrewd enough to realize that if the violence comes down, and free and fair polls are held in the state, its traditional strategy of boycotting the polls may marginalize it even further. The latest decision, therefore, is an attempt by the APHC to make itself politically relevant once more. Indeed, if New Delhi crafts its strategy well, it is likely that the troika of moderate Hurriyat leaders may break away from the alliance and contest the polls. These are Mr Yaseen Malik, Mr Abdul Ghani Lone and Mr Omar Farooq. And while the level of support that these leaders command is debatable, their participation will help make the forthcoming elections to the Jammu and Kashmir assembly more inclusive. New Delhi could, in the next six months before the polls, announce a series of unilateral measures that could help these Hurriyat leaders make the decision to join the electoral fray. Clearly, one of the most important gestures of goodwill and confidence-building would be to significantly reduce the presence of the armed forces in the state. This, of course, can only happen once Mr Pervez Musharraf’s stated intention to stop training terrorists translates into reality. The responsibility of maintaining law and order can be then returned to the local police, and all special agencies and vigilante groups can be disbanded. No less critically, New Delhi must promise to negotiate the terms of autonomy with those elected to the next assembly. Finally, it is vital that the polls are free and fair, and are seen to be so.

   

 
 
A SLAVE FOR NOTHING 
 
 
BY ASHOK MITRA
 
 
The results of the impending assembly polls are in a sense irrelevant. If the Bharatiya Janata Party loses the elections, the government in New Delhi, it is a fair guess, would crumble in the course of the next few months. The party will then be saved from the consequences of its acts of omission and commission. But that is of little consolation to the nation. Once New Delhi cried uncle and ran to the American administration to save the country from the bother of cross-border intrusions, the process became irreversible. One has made the bed, one has to lie in it.

Our government has decided to obey the United States of America’s diktat on so-called international terrorism and urged the Americans to apply it in Kashmir as well. The Americans have responded in the affirmative, but they will hold our hand only if we are prepared to pay the price. Like it or not, cross-border terrorism, as defined by India, is, according to the American way of thought, a spin-off of the unresolved issue of self-determination for the Kashmiri people; the Indians and the Pakistanis should jolly well sit down together and try to resolve the problem; in case, however, they failed to meet or, even after meeting, were unable to arrive at a mutually satisfactory solution, Uncle Sam would then have to step in.

This is so obvious that the Americans can hardly conceal their irritation at persistent Indian obduracy. It is not for nothing that a former secretary of state, celebrated during his days for his pro-Pakistan tilt, coincided his visit to New Delhi with the visit of the current incumbent of the position. Pressure is being, and will continue to be, piled up on the government of India. Some of the discussions will of course take place in camera, but the purport of the discussions will be altogether transparent. Call it by whatever name you like, the Americans will either mediate or intervene or intercede or lay down the rule.

As far as the New Delhi regime is concerned, it seems to be the TINA factor all over: there is, it will try to convince itself, no alternative to surrendering to American predilections on the matter of Kashmir. The only concession the Americans will perhaps be willing to accord is to promise not to divulge the details of the terms and conditions they would like to impose upon India till the ensuing round of state assembly election is over.

These terms and conditions, there is hardly any doubt, will not be palatable to Indian public opinion. The nation has been led up the garden path for half a century by whoever has occupied the seat of power in New Delhi. A number of assertions have been made over and over again. Assertion one: Kashmir is an inalienable part of India. Assertion two: Kashmir came to India because Maharaja Hari Singh signed the instrument of accession in favour of us in 1947; so why raise further silly questions? Assertion three: Pakistan is the proven aggressor in Kashmir and it is only by our grace that it continues to occupy that part of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir which is on the other side of the line of control. Assertion four: The Shimla agreement signed in 1972 has made it pucca that the outstanding issues concerning Kashmir are to be resolved only through bilateral negotiations between India and Pakistan and no third party could be involved.

The validity of each of these assertions has now fallen by the wayside. The assertion that Kashmir is flesh of flesh of this country is pure hyperbole; the other side can as easily formulate similar hyperboles. And one should not labour too much on the instrument of accession business. The infamous Laiq Ali had persuaded the nizam of Hyderabad to sign the instrument in favour of Pakistan. India chose to ignore it, and for good reason. Where the emotions and sentiments of the people of the territory veered overwhelmingly in another direction, the instrument of accession was rendered into a dead document.

Viewed in this light, the inalienability of Kashmir is an illusory concept; Hyderabad could not become an inalienable part of Pakistan despite the Laiq Ali coup. Would anybody, apart from the Pakistan authorities, pretend that India was the aggressor in Hyderabad in 1947 and in East Pakistan in 1971? The so-described international community, including the obnoxious Nixon administration, could not but recognize the crucial reality: Indian troops in both instances marched to support a cause dear to the people of the two respective territories. Finally, doctored elections in Jammu and Kashmir over the past decade or thereabouts cannot be seriously claimed to reflect the intent of the Kashmiri population; the United Nations resolution mandating a plebiscite in the disputed territory will continue to stick in our throats.

The prime minister, chaperoned by the external affairs minister followed by the home minister followed by the defence minister, have now visited the US in quick succession to seal the final deed of surrender. Our government has gone on record to register its pride in the sobriquet: the closest ally of the American administration. Conceivably, the Americans would agree, in exchange, to underwrite Hindu fundamentalism. Still, they might attach a price tag: they could insist on a solution to the Kashmir imbroglio that would kill the notion of that valley as an integral part of India; the details of the arrangement they would like to enforce could be humiliating in the extreme to the Indian ego. For, counter-balancing our professed claim to be the most loyal servitor of the great US will be the geopolitical consideration: the Americans cannot afford to let go of Pakistan: in the hostile ambience of anti-Western sentiments in the neighbouring Islamic countries, General Pervez Musharraf’s fief is an oasis of comfort.

The misfortune awaiting us was avoidable. During the past two decades, our government could have easily availed itself of the opportunity to come to an understanding with different Kashmiri groups. The basis of such an understanding could have been acquiescence to a measure of self-determination minimally in consonance with Kashmiri passions and susceptibilities. Our hauteur — and perhaps our congenital inability to appreciate other people’s points of view — blocked that possibility. Now it may be too late. In any case, the masters and mandarins in New Delhi are otherwise engaged: laying down the welcome mat for the visiting chief of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The question would still keep nagging: please yourselves, be a slave of the superpower, but for what?

Those wielding authority in New Delhi have transformed the country’s foreign policy in a devastatingly sweeping manner in the recent period. While on this course, they have taken the approval of the nation for granted. This nation is however a heterogeneity. Some people may not mind being labelled as American stooges; the reaction of a great many others could be totally different. Particularly in view of the worsening economic climate, resentment might rear its head, and all kinds of ominous possibilities would then be round the corner.

In this special sense, the outcome of the assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh may suddenly become acutely relevant. This does not contradict the opening statement of this column; it only tries to draw attention to another aspect of the emerging situation.

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW / LOOKING BACK AT PASSIONS 
 
 
BY SUZANNAH LIPSCOMB
 
 
EXPLORING EMOTIONAL HISTORY: GENDER, MENTALITY AND LITERATURE IN THE INDIAN AWAKENING
By Rajat Kanta Ray,
Oxford, Rs 595

The Annales school of historians is famous for introducing the concept of a history of mentalités, the ideas, thoughts and worldviews of people. In Exploring Emotional History, Rajat Kanta Ray suggests that it is possible to construct a history of human emotions, the articulate inner world of the heart, that “even love…has a history”. In trying to sketch what this might be, he delineates the boundaries between emotion and idea, and is careful not to contradict the Freudian belief in the universality of emotions. He argues that emotions are permanent, but “are shaped by social and historical processes into sentiments”. He believes that these processes are shaping both the distinctive emotional and sexual register of Indian culture, and the structure of the class-caste-gender system that has characterized Indian society.

Ray is obviously pitching his claim to be writing something new, using an approach to history hitherto unexplored. But one senses a fear of opprobrium, and there is a constant feeling of defensiveness throughout the book. He rallies feebly against imaginary critics of his use of literature as his only source, and he stalwartly defends the truly indigenous nature of Bengali novels, even while charting the fusion of the Western concept of the novel and 19th century European intellectual movements such as Romanticism, with Bengali tradition. Sadly, his arguments do not thoroughly overcome either his sense of “dissatisfaction” with reliance on literature, or my own.

The book is a valiant attempt to use literature to enlarge the insight of the historian into the sexual and emotional relationships of our predecessors. But Ray is either little aware of, or more likely, greatly reluctant to confront the methodological problems of using literature. His argument that it is “psychologically authentic”, and his close cross-referencing between Tarashankar Banerjee’s novels and memoirs to corroborate specific events, do not entirely allow for artistic licence, the novel as a work of imagination, or the admitted gentry-bias of Banerjee himself.

After considering the shifting attitudes towards love in the literary world of the Bengal “Renaissance”, Ray moves to a close examination of village life in Banerjee’s novels. Of particular interest is the scheme of relative social stratification in novels such as Dhatridevata, Ganadevata and Hansuli Banker Upakatha. “The Sadgops of Janal are ‘bhadralok’ to the Kahars of Hansuli Bank, but these tenants are small fry compared to the ‘babus’ of Chandanpur: Olympian beings whom the Kahars look upon with mixed fear and wonder.” Even peasant society has levels of classification between the chashi, the krishan, the munish and the mahindar. The real appeal of Ray’s work is in his consideration of how social status affects gender relations, patterns of sexual interaction and restriction, and perceptions of how the world is constituted. He describes the importance of honour to the gentry, and the way that “honour” as a concept changed during the nationalist struggle.

Ray also looks into the infringement of modernism into the lives of lesser peasants. He notes the constant angst about social status in peasants’ concepts of themselves as superior to untouchables, but circumscribed by the difficulties of entering into the ranks of the gentry. Social aspirations among peasants are seen to lead to imitation of the characteristic sexual restrictions of the gentry, such as fidelity and enforced widowhood.

Ray concludes that patriarchal hierarchy is designed to channel the erotic instinct, resulting in repression among the higher levels of society, and exploitation at the lowest levels. Ray gives the reader some interesting insights into the modes of thought and behaviour of the lower classes, as depicted in literature, but leaves unresolved issues about his methodology, and a lack of clear demarcation between a new “history of emotions” and older studies of psychology and ideas.

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW / A LADY AMONG THE KIDS 
 
 
BY ASHOK MITRA
 
 
MRS KENNEDY: THE MISSING HISTORY OF THE KENNEDY YEARS
By Barbara Leaming,
Weidenfeld and Nicolson, £20

Barbara Leaming is the author of two previous well-known biographies, of Katharine Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe. This time, with Jacqueline Kennedy, Leaming tries hard to protect her reputation. She does not quite succeed. Jack Kennedy is the anti-hero in her narration of the Kennedys’ White House years. But does Jacqueline Kennedy emerge as a lily-white heroine either? Honestly, one is not at all sure. True, Leaming has dug into many details of the goings-on inside the White House which presidential papers enshrined in the John F. Kennedy Library will not reveal. She has taken the testimony of assorted members of the president’s security guard, talked to the secret service personnel checking in and out White House visitors to the family apartments, buttonholed friends and enemies of the Kennedys, consulted other official records and delved into private gossip buried in the enormous pile of Kennedyana produced in the course of the past four decades. It is, if that is the expression, a deeply researched book.

The trouble however lies elsewhere. By now everybody knows that John Kennedy was a reckless, compulsive womanizer. Leaming’s intent is to portray Jackie as the long-suffering wife. She supplies lurid details of the thirty-fifth president’s incessant woman-hopping. He did not need to philander around; he would smuggle in “kids” within the precincts of the White House itself. Mary Meyer, who was not exactly a “kid” but an acquaintance from the past, soon emerged as the steadiest sex partner; she would check in at the White House almost on every occasion that Jackie was away; sometimes her car would enter the White House by one gate even as Jackie was exiting by another. And while out on overnight trips, he would have his version of one-night stands in hotel rooms, his faithful procurers always ready with a lush supply of “kids”. In Los Angeles, John Kennedy’s lust would engulf several Hollywood cuties; there was great risk to state security, for one or two girls would be steady partners-in-bed of mafia bosses as well. The tragedy of Marilyn Monroe’s killing herself, Barbara Leaming has little doubt, is the direct consequence of one of Kennedy’s cruel, cynical peccadilloes.

Much of all this Leaming narrates with great relish and remarkable competence. Nonetheless, since there is yet another meaning underlying every meaning, her purpose is to portray Jackie Bouvier as the stoic, dutiful wife. At the same time, Leaming goes to considerable length to establish the point that many of Kennedy’s presidential successes were on account of Jackie’s charm, wit, intelligence and sophistication. Her re-décor of the White House, the dazzling official receptions and parties she presided over, her crowd-pulling ability at home and overseas, her taming of Nikita Kruschev, her coquettish granddaughter act apropos Harold Mcmillan, made John Kennedy the legend he has finally become. In Leaming’s version, even in that last ride together on the grisly morning at Dallas, November 22, 1963, the fallen president appears to be no match to Jackie, the brave heroine, with the dead husband’s blown-out skull on her lap.

If Leaming has to be taken at face value, most of Jack’s mishaps were because of wrong advice or information provided by others, such as the CIA in the fiasco of the Bay of Pigs, or General Max Taylor and Walt Rostow for the knee-deep involvement in Vietnam. And a major share of his diplomatic successes, Leaming suggests, is because of the gradual, sure-footed emergence of Jackie as helper-counsellor. Credit for the intervention by National Guard toward easing the James Meredith crisis at the University of Mississippi she, of course, is candid enough to attribute to Robert Kennedy, who also saved his brother times without number from perils arising from his amatory adventures. The Leaming assertions are fair enough, but only upto a point. Jackie’s mother was a scheming harridan and her sister was a woman-about-town who took pains to collect a titled, moneyed husband of dubious antecedents. It will therefore be somewhat unnatural to accept as the entire picture the image of Jackie as a vulnerable woman constantly deceived by a faithless husband and taking her tribulations with philosophical grace. Jackie Bouvier, after all, became the nation’s First Lady, never mind if the husband was a congenital philanderer. His philandering was a price Jackie was prepared to pay as long as no second woman threatened to dislodge her from her White House throne. Sorry, Barbara Leaming, Jackie also had plenty of other avarices, including greed for money; otherwise no former First Lady of the United States would, in her senses, agree to enter into wedlock with the uncouth Aristotle Onassis.

What is additionally interesting is Leaming’s letting us into the secret of Jack Kennedy, high-flying bouts of diplomatic exploits and, simultaneously, that of Jackie’s famous partytime sparkles: a quack of a doctor regularly injected both of them with doses of methaphetamine. Jack took to the quack’s remedy initially to alleviate his chronic back pain, but gradually found the drug equally potent as much for carnal exuberance as for achieving diplomatic coups. In no time Jackie too fell for the habit, which doused her sorrows at her husband’s infidelities and helped her reach dizzying heights of charm that helped bewitch men on special occasions.

Notwithstanding Leaming, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy was no Mary Magdalene, she was the acquisitive daughter of her acquisitive mother. She certainly was no moralist, and went along with her husband’s ill-exploits around the globe. For example, was not the Vietnam war a premeditated, cold-blooded murder of a country and of a nation? To that extent, the Kennedys were, let there be no flinching from saying it, a killer couple. And what Leaming fails to mention, the National Guard picket to end segregation at the University of Mississippi was itself an impeccably segregated corps; black constituents were carefully excluded from it.

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW / SECOND CITIZENS OF AN ISLAND 
 
 
BY VISHNUPRIYA SENGUPTA
 
 
WOMEN AND THE NATION’S NARRATIVE: GENDER AND NATIONALISM IN TWENTIETH CENTURY SRI LANKA
By Neloufer de Mel,
Kali for Women, Rs 250

Not often does one come across a book that pivots around the feminine gender without actually making out a definitive case for feminism. A meticulously researched non-fictional work backed by statistical figures and innumerable data, Women and the Nation’s Narrative examines “selected strands of nationalism” in 20th century Sri Lanka, particularly among the dominant Sinhala Buddhist and militant Tamil nationalists. Having placed a few select women of diverse backgrounds and women’s organizations in historical and political contexts, Neloufer de Mel sheds light on their involvement with nationalism and, in the process, foregrounds the relationship between gender and nationalism.

The founder editor of a magazine on Sri Lankan women’s issues, Options, de Mel is well-versed with the pitfalls of being a Sri Lankan woman in the concentric nationalist paradigm. The male is regarded as the subject of the nation while the female denotes the nation itself, in need of male protection. De Mel provides an unbiased account of how women have been appropriated by a protean nationalism. She also shows when and how women act in their own right and negotiate patriarchy, capitalism and political opportunity, how the contradictions within nationalism itself is worked to their advantage.

This seminal work comprising an introduction and five chapters maintains a chronology. It begins by setting the stage for the Sinhala nationalist playwright, John de Silva, who used the Tower Hall stage to forge an ethno-Sinhala Buddhist identity, paving the way for the professional stage actor, Annie Boteju. De Mel also connects the journalist, biographer and art historian, Marcia Anil de Silva, poet and short story writer, Jean Arasanayagam, with the Sri Lankan women militants, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, the Mothers’ Front and contemporary feminist organizations.

De Mel points out that Annie Boteju lent a certain degree of respectability to stage actresses. However, her entrance has to be viewed against the Buddhist revival of the 19th century, the rise of the local bourgeoisie and the colonial government’s response to its anti-British sentiments. On the other hand, de Silva’s response to the “nationalist” gaze was set against the fierce backlash of an upper caste, upper class Sinhala lobby, which, fearing a hegemony after independence, opposed the rise of the labour movement in Sri Lanka.

Women, writes de Mel, have had to pay a price for their achievements. Even when Boteju played a significant role in reinforcing early 20th century Sinhala Buddhist nationalism through the theatre, she remained outside its privileges of capital accumulation and equity, and died a pauper. De Silva lived her life in exile, driven out of Sri Lanka by a powerful caste and political lobby, while Jean Arasanayagam’s quest for a nation which values her heterogeneity still remains elusive.

Little wonder then that Sri Lankan women have been among the harshest critics of the dominant nationalism. They have had to contend with the fact of their difference within the nation: their difference from men as citizens as well as members of ethnic, religious, class and caste groups whose affiliation they have to symbolically bear. De Mel’s exhaustive account, therefore, is of much relevance in the present day strife-torn Sri Lanka, where women’s intervention has become imperative as they contest the ethno-nationalism and autocratic patriarchal nation-state.

De Mel also highlights another significant aspect. She points to the Indian women’s movement that inspired and complemented the efforts of Sri Lankan women on issues of women’s rights and development. The Lanka Mahila Samiti closely followed the Indian Mahila Samiti’s example.

Eventually, de Mel proposes what Bruce Robbins has termed a “lateral cosmopolitanism” that will allow coalitions to form and to practice an oppositional politics of peace. At the same time, she says, there must be attempts to re-imagine the nation in a far more pluralistic manner, enabling the formation of empowered women’s groups who practise progressive politics within a nationalist framework. De Mel’s clarity of thought and its logic are complemented by a lucid, reader friendly style that drives home the point.

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW / SUBJECT TO MUCH CONCERN 
 
 
BY SUHRITA SAHA
 
 
SOCIOLOGY: ESSAYS ON APPROACH AND METHOD
By André Beteille,
Oxford, Rs 545

It is difficult, if not impossible, to give a short answer to the question: what is sociology? In seeking to explain what sociology is, one oscillates between general discussions on the scope, aims and methods of the discipline, and specific accounts of issues, processes and problems. André Betéille in his collection of essays has approached the question of what sociology is from both ends. As an intellectual discipline, sociology had a late start in India as compared to the West, and in this book Béteille is constantly in search of the uniqueness and novelty of research in Indian sociology.

In the first part of the book, Béteille concerns himself with the relationship between sociology and social anthropology. In the West, the study of society and culture is generally divided into two halves: the study of other cultures like India or Africa is anthropology and the study of Western industrial societies is sociology. Béteille rejects such watertight compartmentalization of knowledge. According to him, in India, there has been a closer relationship and sociologists in their examination of the past in the present have to draw from anthropology.

While coming to the question of methodology, Béteille is all in favour of the comparative method in sociology. According to him, our deepest insights into society and culture are reached through the comparison of similarities and differences.

Religion, politics and economics form distinctive components as sociology’s subject matter. The sociological approach to the study of religion is found not only in the works of sociologists like Weber and Durkheim, but also in the works of social anthropologists like Radcliffe-Brown and Evans-Pritchard. One issue of consensus among all classical sociologists has been the need to keep value judgment separate from the judgment of facts. While sociology aims to be neutral and scientific, it can never become a positive science like physics or chemistry owing to the very complexity and subjectivity of its subject.

Sociology in India starting from the Twenties has come a long way. But still, sociology in India, as in many parts of the world, is in need of renewal, feels the author.

Indian sociologists have been inclined to use, somewhat mechanically and uncritically, the tools of enquiry and analysis developed in the West. Sociology has also suffered from the absence of empirical work by Indian sociologists on societies other than their own. Thus, without comparative orientation, Indian sociology tends to remain static. In a search for renewal and alternative frameworks of knowledge, there has been a wholesale rejection of “post-Enlightenment modernity” in some quarters. Béteille warns that this will only harm sociology if it tries to turn its back on the solid ground of classical knowledge established in the last two hundred years.

Béteille’s concern for the future of sociology as a discipline will definitely get attention within the already established academic circle. Moreover, his critical portrayal of sociological research in India will prove to be a vantage point to new scholars and researchers.

   

 
 
BOOKWISE / THE SELLING POINT 
 
 
BY RAVI VYAS
 
 
Copyright, or the rights of ownership, is a mess, a sprawling, shifting mess which defies rational analysis. For once, lawyers are not to blame. But the rule of thumb is that any piece of work will enjoy copyright protection for the author’s lifetime plus 50 years. Copyright protects “original works of authorship” that are fixed in a tangible form of expression.

Under this rule, all of Tagore’s works and the first English translation by W.B.Yeats and Sturge Thomas Moore or by Tagore himself are in public domain. This means that any publisher can reprint Tagore’s works without taking permission from Visva Bharati and Macmillan for their English translations. With no royalties to be paid now (usually 10 percent of the price of the book for every copy sold) some people have argued that the prices will now be lowered, and therefore many more copies will be sold. The question is whether this will happen and if not, why? Successful marketing and sales of any book depends on easy availability, its relevance or usefulness and its price. It is a great mistake to imagine that cheap prices are good for the book trade. Actually it is just the other way around. If you have, for instance, Rs 100 and the normal price of a book is Rs 50, it is quite likely that you will spend Rs 100 on two books. But if books are Rs 20 each, you are not going to buy five of them because you don’t want those many; your saturation point would have reached much before that. More importantly, given the profit margin which is usually around 25 percent, the bookseller doesn’t make much on low priced books, however, high the number of copies sold. He would rather sell fewer copies of a high-priced book than take excess stocks that may not sell, quite apart from blocking shelf space.

It is the English translations of Tagore’s works that will show diminishing returns. The reason is that much of Tagore’s works have been poorly translated. Only Gitanjali, Crescent Moon and Gardener are exceptions.

As Nirad C. Chaudhuri had said in a lecture on Tagore at the Nehru Centre in London in 1997, they took immense trouble to make Tagore’s rendering acceptable to the English-speaking world. Later he did on his own because he was very sensitive to any tampering of his copy. But as Chaudhuri added what he brought out later was “sentimental rubbish that wrecked his reputation.”

That price is not as important as the quality of translations reflected in the poor sales of Macmillan India editions. All the books are reasonably priced even in their renewed formats. Till the late Eighties, they were all within the Rs 15-25 range but their sales were miserable. Only Gitanjali went into four figures, thanks largely to the Chinese embassy that bought copies in bulk, for distribution in their universities. There was also some academic support for Indian writing in English courses in our universities, but individual buying through bookshops was negligible.

Would sales improve now that Tagore is a public property and rival editions will soon start appearing much like Shakespeare’s plays or the nineteenth century English and American classics? Quite unlikely. The moral is: the cheaper the books become doesn’t mean higher sales. On the contrary, for the publisher, the author and the bookseller it is a disaster.

   

 
 
PAPERBACK PICKINGS 
 
 
 
 

That Monday morning feeling

MALGUDI SCHOOLDAYS
By R.K. Narayan
(Puffin, Rs 199)

R.K. Narayan’s Malgudi Schooldays is the slightly abridged version of this celebrated writer’s classic, Swami and Friends. It is one of the first Puffin books to come out from India. This is an elegant volume, beautifully illustrated by the author’s brother, R.K. Laxman. To be reminded of Malgudi — that delightfully idyllic south Indian village of the mind — when one hears of nothing but Harry Potter is a wistfully pleasant experience. Narayan’s novel opens on Monday morning, every schoolboy’s idea of dreariness. It progresses through a richly peopled childscape, including the Malgudi Cricket Club. Narayan ends with Swami and Mani at the railway station, saying goodbye to their friend, Rajam, whose father has been transferred to Trichinopoly. Swami’s parting gift is Andersen’s Fairy Tales. Narayan captures Swami’s desolation effortlessly: “The small red lamp of the last van could be seen for a long time, it diminished in size every minute, and disappeared around a bend. All the jarring, rattling, clanking, spurting and hissing of the moving train softened in the distance into something that was half a sob and half a sigh.” Swami looks towards Mani for reassurance. “But for once Mani’s face had become inscrutable.” And this is the book’s closing sentence. Narayan’s idyll quite naturally makes room for loss.

GODS, GRAVES AND GRANDMOTHER
By Namita Gokhale
(Penguin, Rs 200)

Namita Gokhale’s Gods, Graves and Grandmother is a steamy and often lugubrious “Indian” novel about devotion (sacred and profane, genuine and fake), abjection, grandmothers, singing and pickling. After Midnight’s Childrenand Small Things, pickling has become quite an Indo-Anglian topos: “As I examined my glass jar of red pickles I remembered the story again. I missed my grandmother, but she was there with me, in the act of pickling and the act of remembering and the act of surviving.” There is also a cruel, handsome deserter called Kalki, who deflowers the heroine, with much kurta-ripping, behind some bushes. Predictable and forgettable.

DAISY MILLER AND OTHER STORIES
By Henry James
(Rupa, Rs 60)

Henry James’s Daisy Miller And Other Stories is a collection of early tales. This is the light, bright and sparkling James, arch and socially observant. But the abiding themes are all there: America and Europe, Renoiresque jeunes filles, dead women and their lingering presence, callow young men, Swiss hotels with German waiters, Russian princesses, Polish boys and the picturesque towers of the Castle of Chillon. There is also evidence of James’s persistent interest in sinister artists, enigmatic marriages and teasing mysteries which teeter on the brink of a monstrous joke.    


 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

Hardly child’s play

Sir — If brats will be brats, then they deserve to be treated as such — sternly. Particularly those like Salman Khan who just can’t seem to keep themselves out of trouble (“Father speaks up for Salman wild oats”, Jan 26). Khan seems to have become a regular at Mumbai police stations, his most recent excursion being to explain his misconduct with Aishwarya Rai. Admitted, tiffs and quarrels between two adults are strictly personal affairs, and are best left alone. But that becomes impossible when the persons involved are two of the country’s best known faces, and also when the private squabbles are played out in the very public arena of restaurants and car parks. If there is anything more disgusting than the display of the torso-baring star’s wrath, it is his father’s gushing defence that children must be excused for behaving emotionally at times. For someone who thinks the thirty-plus filmstar is still a child, it is perhaps time to remember that sparing the rod, spoils the child.

Yours faithfully,
Sulekha Mitra, Calcutta

Promises to break

Sir — I agree with Bibek Debroy’s assertion that the annual budget has been transformed into a platform for announcing reforms that will never be put into practice (“Eliminate the noise”, Jan 16). Ever since Manmohan Singh’s 1991 budget which changed the face of the Indian economy, the annual budgetary exercise has been reduced to a show of political gimmicks that only fans the expectations of the Indian people.

Post-1991, each time the finance minister has risen to present the budget, the public has expected him to work economic miracles. People do not even wait to consider whether the proposed reforms and the corrective measures can be implemented during the following fiscal year.

If, as Debroy points out, a large number of assessments of revenue generation and expenditure is determined exogenously, then it is time to consider whether the annual budget deserves the attention that is heaped upon it in recent times.

Yours faithfully,
A. Biswas, Calcutta

Sir — Service tax will assume much more importance in the coming budget than ever before. I have a few suggestions in this regard.

There should be a threshold limit for service tax, so that small consultants in certain professions are exempted, along with provisions for a corresponding increase in tax rates for higher income slabs. Tax paid by individuals, as also payment of advance tax and the filing of annual returns should be made possible under separate columns in a single tax returns form. This will benefit taxpayers and remove complexities in the excise procedures currently in practice. Were it not for these complications, many more people would have paid their taxes.

Yours faithfully,
C.R. Bhattacharjee, Calcutta

Sir — In the forthcoming Union budget, at least two provisions of the Income Tax Act deserve to be scrapped, particularly in the context of the globalization of the Indian economy.

The first is section 37-I, which decrees that permission is needed for selling real estate whose value exceeds Rs 25 lakh. This provision, which was introduced to curb black money, is now frequently misused. Many a time, the clerical and administrative staff in the government office that hands out these permissions, forces delays and extracts bribes on the pretext of defects in the paperwork. Further, the authorities may refuse to grant permission if they feel the price stated is less and may instead buy the property at the stated price. Getting permission is a long-winded process which requires an initial inspection by an engineer, followed by a joint inspection by all members (usually three) of the authority.

I know of an elderly ailing Indian settled in Singapore who wanted to sell his house in Bangalore and pleaded repeatedly that permission be granted during his lifetime. He died last year, still chasing the permission. Some shrewd real estate dealers even try to ensure that permission is refused in the case of properties that are not otherwise saleable.

The other provision that needs scrapping is capital gains tax. Except for India and Malaysia, all countries have abolished it. Appreciation or depreciation in value is something only the market can decide. The government has no role in any surplus earned or deficit suffered by the seller of an asset. Capital gains tax accounts for an insignificant portion of IT revenues, but it is an important incentive for black money transactions.

Industrialists and businessmen who might want to exit unviable projects are unable to do so because of these provisions. Dropping them would be a step in the right direction.

Yours faithfully,
Swati Ranganathan, Bangalore

Sir — The finance minister, in a speech to the world economic forum organized by the Confederation of Indian Industry early in December 2001, spoke of various proposals to eradicate poverty in India. He promised that the Indian economy would grow at the rate of more than 7 per cent a year during the next decade and poverty would be banished from the country. Perhaps the minister forgot that poverty is connected to corruption — economic and political. The spate of scandals in recent times like Tehelka, the Unit Trust of India, the stamp paper scandal and others, proves that corruption continues to flourish in Indian government establishments. Yashwant Sinha was only building castles in the air and perhaps trying to divert the attention of the assembled industrialists from the political, social and fiscal problems facing the country.

Yours faithfully,
B.S. Ganesh, Bangalore

Sir — Every year, Indians hold their breath in anticipation of the incentives the finance minister will dole out in the budget. Some even wait for the speech before deciding whether to buy white goods like televisions and refrigerators. But the euphoria dies down soon after, as people realize that it will be months before any good comes of the sops announced. In his last budget, Yashwant Sinha announced the grandiose scheme of “educational loans” for students. It seemed a godsend for students like me. But on approaching the banks, I was told that they were yet to receive the guidelines of the scheme from the Reserve Bank of India. Does this mean that students should abort the idea of higher studies because of the expenses involved?

Yours faithfully,
Madhulika Goel, via email

Forgotten fare

Sir — I was surprised at Ravi Vyas’s comment in his review of Chitrita Banerji’s The Hour of the Goddess: Memories of Women, Food and Ritual in Bengal that there was “virtually no literature on the subject in English, with the exception of Minakshie Dasgupta’s The Calcutta Cookbook (“Don’t wash a hilsa before cooking it”, Jan 25).

Chitrita Banerji’s definitive Life and Food in Bengal was published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson in English in 1991, and Rupa brought out a paperback Indian edition in 1993. I also seem to remember seeing a review of Life and Food in Bengal — by Ravi Vyas himself — when the book was first published in The Telegraph.

Yours faithfully,
Subhadra De, Calcutta

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