Editorial / Questions of contempt
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EDITORIAL / QUESTIONS OF CONTEMPT 
 
 
 
 
Ms Arundhati Roy has declined martyrdom. She has paid her fine and avoided imprisonment for three months. This is as much a matter of good taste as of principles. She did not wish to usurp a cause which was not hers. But she liked what she saw of Tihar jail — the food, the cleanliness, the women prisoners who were excited to see her. She is aware of having missed many stories. It was all very restrained, the heroism underplayed, and with just a whiff of anti-climax. Restraint, or good taste, has not always been Ms Roy’s forte in matters polemical. This has elicited a 70-odd-pages-long judgment from the Supreme Court. The style and tone of her protests have also worried those who had liked her novel. They were concerned about her ability to go back to writing good English prose after repeatedly expressing herself in a manner which many would regard as sensationalist.

Yet, quite apart from matters of taste and public image, Ms Roy’s conviction — in both senses of the word — raises an important issue in jurisprudence. This is the entire question of contempt of court in a modern democracy. Ms Roy’s attempted “conversation” with the Supreme Court provokes a critical look at the body of laws and procedures which seeks to protect the administration of justice by the courts. This would entail looking at the history and philosophical implications of contempt laws in India and in the Commonwealth. The judiciary, independent of the executive, punishes acts of disobedience and criticism directed at itself, acts that undermine public respect and confidence in the judicial process. Apart from acts of protest such as Ms Roy’s, this could mean anything from taking off one’s clothes in a courtroom to publishing material which may prejudice a current or forthcoming trial. This has a direct bearing not only on the liberties of the individual, but also on such institutions as the media. It gives rise to the paradox of the keeper of the Constitution possibly violating one of the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution — the right to freedom of expression.

The apex court exercises “contempt power” in order to uphold “the majesty of law”, a phrase which takes these laws back to the medieval association between judicial authority and the authority of the monarch. Since the earliest days of the common law in England, the principles governing contempt were linked to the king’s divinely ordained position beyond human accountability. In the 17th century, the courts and parliament took on this notion of inviolability, and guarded it with a penal rhetoric of sharp rebuke. This English common law tradition persists in postcolonial judiciaries, sitting uncomfortably with the values of a modern democracy.

Without contempt laws, the courts could perhaps regard such cases as libel or defamation. But this would force judges to step down from their position of dignity and enter into public or political controversy. Contempt, unlike defamation, undermines not the individual judge, but the entire institution of the judiciary. There are conflicting notions of authority and accountability at work here. Hence, Ms Roy uses the image of the muzzle, whereas her judges talk of broad shoulders.

   

 
 
A STATE OF COMMERCE 
 
 
BY AMIT CHAUDHURI
 
 
There has been much talk, recently, of the differences between Indian writing in English and the modern vernacular traditions; but the truth is that, whatever their linguistic persuasion, most modern Indian writers emerge from a multiplicity of languages. Languages are not so much in simple opposition to each other as they are in a state of commerce with each other; this is as true of Michael Madhusudan Dutt, the progenitor of modern Bengali poetry, as it is true of Toru Dutt.

The earliest Indian writers in English were poets; and they wrote in a time when there was no category such as “Indian writing in English”. The first Indian writer in English with a significant artistic achievement (albeit small in quantity), too, is a poet, Toru Dutt (1856-77); a handful of English poems testify to her position at the source of this tradition that is not quite a tradition. At a time when Indian writing in English is seen to be largely synonymous with fiction, and fiction with the novel, it is worth remembering this figure. The journeys Dutt made in her short life presage other, similar journeys that later Indian writers would make; the way she, and her creative work, stand at the confluence of languages and traditions is prescient of how the Indian writer in English, not to speak of the Indian writer in general, is almost always to be found at that confluence. She was born in Bengal, educated in France and Cambridge, and returned to Bengal to write at least three great poems, “Our Casuarina Tree”, “Baugmaree”, and “Sita”.

Dutt, besides being a poet, was also a translator of poetry. Her intimacy with the French language and with French Symbolist poetry palpably informs her poems; and the French poets she translated into English with her sister Aru are to be found in the book, A Sheaf Glean’d in French Fields. Translation and creative practice, and the mysterious but fecund connection between these two in the post-colonial world — in this, and in other ways, Dutt points towards the most influential poet of a later generation, A.K. Ramanujan. Ramanujan, a master of the line and the image in his English poetry, was also a translator of Kannada and ancient Tamil verse. Toru Dutt’s sonnet, “Baugmaree”, is perhaps the first artistically satisfying example of those texts in Indian writing in English that occupy the space between translation and transformation.

Baugmaree, or Bagmari, is on the outskirts of Calcutta; it is where Dutt’s family had a country house, her “father’s garden-house”, as Edmund Gosse puts it, “the scene of her earliest memories…” In a climate in which most of Dutt’s contemporaries and predecessors were writing of historical figures or events, or turning to English literary conventions for their models, Dutt takes a form — the sonnet — that came to her from the English language, and opens it on to a vista such as the English language had not known before:

“A sea of foliage girds our garden round,/ But not a sea of dull unvaried green,/ Sharp contrasts of all colours here are seen;/ The light-green graceful tamarinds abound/ Amid the mangoe clumps of green profound/ And o’er the quiet pools the seemuls lean,/ Red, — red, and startling like a trumpet’s sound.”

The list of colours — the variations of green — does not prepare us for the sudden, almost peremptory intrusion of the auditory in the eighth line: “Red, — red, and startling like a trumpet’s sound.” In its apparently seamless, but actually disturbing, transition from one of the five senses to another, from the visual to the auditory, the analogy rehearses the poem’s own act of translation, its movement from English to Baugmaree, and back again. It also returns us to the “startling sound” in the previous line, the word “seemul”, the local name for the silk cotton tree: the incorporation of the lovely local word in the frame of the English sonnet “startles” with its resonance; it is meant to disturb, disturb both the “quiet pools” and the diction of the sonnet. It opens the way, unobtrusively, perhaps unwittingly, and certainly without much acknowledgment from posterity, to further such usages in Indian writing in English.

The sort of simile that Dutt uses, in which a colour is compared to sound, is unusual in English poetry; it shows Dutt’s readings in the poetry of the French Symbolists. As Gosse says in his introduction to the posthumously published Ancient Ballads and Legends of Hindustan, “To the end of her days Toru was a better French than English scholar. She loved France best, she knew its literature best, she wrote its language with more perfect elegance.” T.S. Eliot, an American in exile in London, used the French poet Laforgue to bridge the different realities and registers of English he inhabited; Chinmoy Guha, in a recent, illuminating study, quotes from a late Eliot essay: “The kind of poetry I needed to teach me the use of my own voice did not exist in English at all; it was only to be found in French.”

The same could be said of Dutt, and of other Indian writers — that, in the business of finding their voice, they turn to, and have at their disposal, a variety of languages and literary traditions, including the European. This last fact — our European inheritance — is not sufficiently remarked upon. One thinks of Nirmal Verma and the part Czeckoslovakia played in his creation of a new kind of Hindi short story; and one is reminded of the rather idiosyncratic crystallization of U.R. Anantha Murthy’s Samskara in the Sixties, when he was a graduate student in England. Anantha Murthy’s knowledge of Swedish was rather worse than Toru Dutt’s of French; but it “all started when I went to see a Bergman film — Seventh Seal — with my teacher, the famous novelist and critic, Malcolm Bradbury. The film had no sub-titles. My incomplete comprehension of it started a vague stirring in me…This set me off to rewrite a story which I had originally written for a journal.”

(I find that detail about the absent sub-titles telling, and probably deliberate. For a refusal of absolute comprehension is part of the modern aesthetic experience. Was Eliot thinking, by any chance, of a foreign language or his first encounter with French poetry when he said, “Good poetry can communicate before it is wholly understood,” or words to that effect? In Neemrana, recently, the Gujarati poet, Sitanshu Yashaschandra, a quiet, courteous, but extremely passionate and clever man, read out, to a group of fellow-writers, an English translation of a poem he’d written, and then, despite his reluctance — “What’s the point? You don’t know the language” — was prevailed upon to read from the original Gujarati. It was curiously effective.)

Our European inheritance: what Borges said of the Argentine writer is pertinent — “I believe our tradition is all of Western culture, and I also believe we have a right to this tradition, greater than that which the inhabitants of one or another Western nation might have.” All of Western culture, and all of Indian too; but, in Indian modernity, the Indian and the Western constantly take on each other’s disguises. I am thinking of many writers, but the example of Raja Rao, a south Indian English language writer who lived for decades in France, is a good one: how the Hindu, Sanskritic content of The Serpent and the Rope has its source in European Orientalist research, and how the monologue of the illiterate, Kannada-speaking woman in Kanthapurareminds one of the prose-poetry of Rimbaud, and Hopkins’s “sprung rhythm”.

These transactions are still not, and perhaps can never be, fully understood. Dutt, poised between English and French in her vision of a Bengal landscape, foreshadows what Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, who began to write poetry about a hundred years after Dutt, once wrote to me in an e-mail message: “Is it possible Surrealism helped me to resolve the awful contradiction between the world which I wanted to write about, which was the world of dentists and chemist shops, and the language, English, I had to write in? How does one write about an uncle in a wheelchair in the language of skylarks and nightingales? Surrealism…provided the answer, or so it appears in hindsight. It’s almost as though I had said to myself that since I can’t write about these things in English, let me try doing it in French, so to speak.”

Thus, too, for the earlier poet, and for all of us, the incursion of “seemul” into the “language of skylarks and nightingales” is an important one; and the odd simile, composed of unlikes, “red, and startling like a trumpet’s sound”, reminds us of the simultaneous coming together and breaking apart of languages that make that incursion possible. With “Baugmaree” begins a journey which many others, since, have undertaken.

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THE TELEGRAPH DIARY 
 
 
 
 

Table manners

Inside story Advantage Ram sevaks. But PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee also had his aces. His masterstroke was bringing Muslims to the negotiating table, and by Jove, having arrived, they are in no mood to leave without having put in the last word. The volley, quite naturally, unsettled both the VHP and the opposition which had been hoping that this was the last they would see of Vajpayee. But no. The old warhorse not only managed to turn away the guns trained on him and the Gujarat government, but also managed to create gaping fissures in the VHP and among Muslim hardliners through his apparent devotion to resolve the Ayodhya dispute. ABV’s trump card was, and still is, the sankaracharya of Kanchi, who played a pivotal role in preventing the explosion from taking place any earlier than it was destined. But behind all of them stood another man, the insider PV Narasimha Rao. The move to rope in the sankaracharya is said to have been the brainwork of this Chanakya to help out his friend in distress. But another insider, Chandra Sekhar, has a word of caution for ABV. Don’t follow Rao’s Arthasastra too much, or else you will land up in the same hole as Rao himself. Maybe Vajpayee needs to keep in mind the advice of his friend from Ballia.

Forgetful souls

Something that escaped their minds or is it something they choose to ignore? Congresswallah M Afzal, Syed Ahmad Bukhari of the Jama Masjid and Mahmood Madni of the Jamiat-e-Ulema have reportedly been asserting that the Ayodhya dispute can be settled only through a court verdict. Personal law board members have been quick in pointing out that most of these men had taken an altogether different stand during the Shah Bano controversy when they had lobbied for a reversal of the legal order. The board is also amused by the antics of another member of the minority community, the indomitable Syed Shahabuddin, who has been questioning its locus standi as representative of the community. Board members argue that during the Shah Bano case, as also during a part of the Ayodhya controversy Shahabuddin himself had stated that the board was the sole representative of the community. Self-induced amnesia?

Left in the lurch

Forget me not. Having come almost full circle, PA Sangma is today a disillusioned man. He had left the Congress hoping that he and bum chum Sharad Pawar would come back to a Congress minus an Italian. Things haven’t worked out that way. Sangma tried to make do by aligning with the NDA, but the balding Union home minister came in the way. He had been keen to act negotiator in the Naga talks, but his feud with LK Advani spoiled it all. In 1998, when Christians were attacked in the Northeast, Sangma had held Advani responsible for the carnage. Too bad for him that Advani should remember every word spoken against him. And so far there are no signs of that memory weakening. No forgetting, no forgiving.

Way of speaking

Some more Sushmaspeak, but in Urdu this time. On her recent visit to Islamabad, our minister for information and broadcasting was seen speaking in chaste Urdu in PTV and pronouncing difficult words like jamuriat (democracy), mustaqbil (future) and masail (problems) like knife through butter. Pakistanis were reportedly not too hugely impressed by Sushma’s skills, but the minority community in India is said to have taken to the speech with much kindness. Maybe it is time to note Sushma’s way with languages. At Bellary some years back, she had charmed her audience with fluent Kannad. She is also supposed to know a smattering of Bengali. For some Gujarati now?

New Delhi, here I come

Now for some murky power play in Bengal. The irrepressible Congressman, Sameer Chakraborty, whose wife is Mamatadi’s sakhi, believes he is destined to make it to the Rajya Sabha this time. He is also working towards it. He has reportedly been telling everyone who cares to listen that didi wants him at the upper house on a Trinamool ticket. Mamata probably doesn’t, but Bua, alias Sameer, is not one who would listen. His wife’s proximity to didi is also one factor that would make people buy his story. Anyway, since the Congress has no one particular candidate in mind, Bua is said to have been claiming that he is the Congress choice as well, much to the dismay of party members. There is one worry for Bua however. Recently, Subrata Mukherjee, another known Rajya Sabha aspirant, has told him that he also supports him, “Toke jetanor jonney ami jaan diye debo” (I pledge my life for your victory). So far Subrata has unerringly brought down anyone who has turned contender. So Bua’s fate might not be too different. Shouldn’t Sameer exchange the lines with the mayor?

To ward off trouble

Congress chief whip Priya Ranjan Das Munshi has apparently changed the arrangement of his room in Parliament according to vaastu shastra. The AICC’s media department too has made changes in keeping with vaastu laws. Which means Congresswallahs should stop squirming about astrology in the university.

A new course in life

Can’t tie the knot, can’t face the new breed of the Kareina Kapoors. Manisha Koirala is said to have headed for New York for a crash course in direction. Which direction?

Footnote / In black and white

With so many states under her pallu, it is but natural that madam would have less and less time to worry her head over the trivialities of daily existence or the monthly. Not only she, the editorial board of the Congress magazine, Sandesh, also seems to have acquired the same attitude. While board members Natwar Singh, Mani Shankar Aiyar, Salman Khurshid, Anil Shastri, Girija Vyas, Sarvjit Singh and others were busy politicking in UP, the February edition of Sandesh came out with its gems. Arjun Singh was mentioned as the chairman of the party’s minority cell, not AR Antulay. Satpal Maharaj is said to be a member of the Lok Sabha from Uttaranchal although Maharaj is not. There is more. Another report says that Akbar Ahmad Dumpy is an MP from Kanauj and his wife one from Nainital. Yet both Dumpy Ahmad and his wife lost the last elections. The sitting MP from Nainital is none other than Narain Dutt Tiwari, chairman of Sandesh, who has now been sworn in as chief minister of Uttaranchal. Wishful thinking every month?    

 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

Justice on trial

Trial show Sir — The Daniel Pearl trial in Pakistan is turning out to be a farce. The Pakistanis have hold of Omar Sheikh who had said Pearl was dead long before the world knew it. They have a video tape showing Pearl’s throat being ripped open. And yet the Pakistani courts say they can’t do anything since they don’t have an eye-witness, a murder weapon, blood-stained clothing or a search report of the scene of crime. Many have been hanged on the basis of far more circumstantial evidence. If ever there was a time for legal procedures to be by-passed and a higher justice to prevail, it is now.

Yours faithfully,
Satinath Bose, Calcutta

Case study

Sir — It was shocking to see the news report, “To be or not to be in jail for three months” (March 7), treat Arundhati Roy’s conviction for contempt of court on par with the cases of Socrates and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. The latter were punished by autocratic regi- mes for defying their diktats. Roy however has been sentenced by a judiciary that has always been looked up to as fair, impartial and democratic. The attempt to tarnish its dignity and question its credibility were inexcusable and Roy was quite rightly punished for it. It is disturbing to see the media extend tacit support to Roy’s actions and worse, put the judiciary in the same bracket as the Russian and Athenian regimes.

Yet, after all the bravado, Roy has finally decided to pay the Rs 2,000 fine. Roy and the Narmada Bachao Andolan brazenly attempted to undermine the judiciary since it ruled in favour of the Sardar Sarovar Project’s construction. If the decision been in their favour they would perhaps have praised the judiciary to the skies. The NBA’s recent actions will not help its cause. Instead of trying to take on the state, judiciary and everyone who does not share its views, it should adopt a more constructive approach.

Yours faithfully,
Sabyasachi Chandra, Calcutta

Sir — By sentencing Arundhati Roy for contempt of court, the Supreme Court has shown contempt for the freedom of speech allowed every citizen under the Constitution. Its comment that it was doling out symbolic imprisonment only, since Roy “is a woman and hoping that better sense and wisdom shall dawn upon her in future”, was condescending. By this action the apex court has lowered its high standing among citizens. A judiciary that denies truth as a defence to its citizens is taking India on the path of regression.

Yours faithfully,
Shailesh Gandhi, Mumbai

Out of gear

Sir — Despite a state government order that all those found blockading railway tracks and roads would be jailed, a sudden rail roko for 9-10 hours was called on February 15 in south Calcutta with the support of a few trade unions. This caused great incovenience to commuters.

It was hoped that the present chief minister would put a stop to processions, rail rokos, rasta rokos, bandhs, called on the flimsiest of grounds. This is what led to Calcutta’s reputation as the city of meetings and processions. But when it comes to taking action on its order, the government is extremely tardy — it prefers to be a mute spectator. This has given rise to a mindset among a section of people that they can get away with anything. No wonder many industries are fleeing the state and setting up shop elsewhere. The state government must take drastic steps against all those who come in the path of development.

Yours faithfully,
Santosh Chakraborty, Hridaypur

Sir — It is nice to know that a few concerned people have decided to abstain from calling bandhs and road blocks during the board examinations. Why do not they extend the gesture to students appearing for the similar examinations conducted by the Central Board of Secondary Education and Indian Council of Secondary Education?

Yours faithfully,
Saroj Kanti Das, Calcutta

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