Editorial 1/ Ides of march
Editorial 2/ Calling names
Something’s got to give
Book Review/ History through the present
Book Review/ Deities on the bedroom wall
Book Review/ Home and the nation
Book Review/ When the monk came to the city
Bookwise/ About to be screened
Paperback Pickings
Letters to the Editor

Faced with a crisis, Indian political parties tend to turn towards nursing their own constituencies. This alone explains the positions adopted by the prime minister, Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and his allies. Mr Vajpayee, despite having told the nation that he represents the whole country and not just one section of it, took the position in the Lok Sabha that since by the 1994 judgment of the Supreme Court performing puja was not per se prohibited on the undisputed land, a symbolic puja on March 15 should be permitted. It can be argued that this position of the government goes against the prime minister’s claim to represent the entire nation. More importantly, and clearly, Mr Vajpayee was addressing the sangh parivar in this statement. He was, in fact, telling them that his government had tried but was now constrained by the verdict of the court which he was honour bound to implement. This position has not met with approval from the allies. Some of the latter are aggrieved that they were not consulted and are unhappy that the government actually pleaded in favour of a puja. The allies are reaffirming their secular colours as many of them, like the Trinamool Congress and the Telegu Desam Party, would be unhappy to alienate Muslim opinion. This unhappiness has been articulated but has not transformed itself into a threat to the National Democratic Alliance. The alliance still holds. The criticism of Mr Vajpayee has a ring of tokenism about it just as Mr Vajpayee’s statement is a nod towards the Hindu fundamentalists.

The Supreme Court has provided Mr Vajpayee with a breather and his loyal attorney-general, Mr Soli Sorabjee, has given him a face-saver vis-ŕ-vis the allies. Mr Sorabjee admitted that his plea had been impromptu without a proper brief from the government, it was also an oral, and not a written, submission. There is something very odd about a lawyer, especially as important a lawyer as the attorney-general, acting without a brief from his client, but Mr Sorabjee’s admission will be a godsend for the prime minister in his attempts to placate the allies. The Supreme Court judgment gives to Mr Vajpayee the time and the space to take a fresh look at the Ayodhya problem and to take new initiatives to find some kind of consensual solution to the problem. This has been Mr Vajpayee’s intention from the beginning. He now has another opportunity unless he is overtaken by events.

There is always the danger that Mr Vajpayee’s hands may be forced by the recklessness of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Ramjanmabhoomi Nyas. These organizations have not yet given any indication that they will abide by the Supreme Court’s decision and will refrain from performing any kind of puja in the area demarcated by the court. A dispute over a structure, after the events of December 6, 1992, acquired religious and political dimensions; now it has become a serious law and order issue. A shadow of violence hangs on the proverbial Ides of March. If there is a confrontation in Ayodhya between the administration and the VHP and the sadhus, Mr Vajpayee, with his commitment to uphold the court’s orders, may well rue his Hindutva antecedents.


To be perched between sainthood and a street name is not an enviable predicament. But this is precisely where the memory of Mother Teresa has been placed, thanks to the mayor of Calcutta. Mr Subrata Mukherjee has suddenly announced that Park Street will be renamed after this departed lady. Just about everybody has expressed shock and indignation at this peremptory decision, proving yet again the innate sensibleness of the ordinary Calcuttan. A city’s history is a living tradition, inextricable from the temper of its everyday life. And the poetry of old street-names is very much part of this metropolitan character. Park Street is perhaps the finest example in the city of such an associative process. To tamper with this natural scheme of things — out of some misguided memorialism or, worse still, for sanitizing colonial history — seems to have become a municipal pastime in Calcutta. The mayor’s enthusiasm in this latest instance is both irritating and funny. A rather crude notion of modernization is combined with an archaic form of reverence and civic pride, resulting in a decision which undermines decorum and good sense.

Calcutta has often been a victim of bizarre memorialism and warped nationalism. The long, wasteful and ignorant palaver over the city’s name came at the end of a sequence of ill-conceived changes in the naming of streets and locations. This has been coupled with pulling down lovely old statues and putting ghastly ones in their places, resulting in much ugliness all over the city. All this has been informed with notions of replacing Calcutta’s colonial past with glorious Bengaliness. Before Mother Teresa, the names of Uday Shankar and Satyajit Ray had been suggested with regard to renaming this street. Every other civic aspect of the city — from the most basic (air pollution and public toilets) to the least essential (parkomats and sundry other inordinately expensive schemes) — has been more often than not severely, and sometimes comically, mismanaged. Urban development remains quixotic, clueless and singularly lacking in overall pragmatic and aesthetic vision. The mayor should not only leave Park Street and Mother Teresa alone, but also make decisions within the municipality more democratically.


Hypocrisy, thou art king. Were the times not out of joint, the goings-on could have been the source of much hilarity. Unfortunately, the ambience is vastly different. The governor of Uttar Pradesh, a dyed-in-the-wool Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh stalwart, is at his pompous best: he is not bothered which is the major party in the state assembly, he only wants to be assured that whoever is called to be chief minister of the state would first provide satisfactory evidence of his ability to preside over a stable government. Suppose a question is posed to the governor: if, in the February elections, instead of the Samajwadi Party, the Bharatiya Janata Party had secured 140 seats, and the Samajwadi Party came third with only 88 seats, would the governor have been so conscience-bound as to tell the BJP leadership the following — before they could aspire to form the government in the state, they must submit a full list of names of the members of legislative assembly who had pledged to support them?

Take the case of the governor of Gujarat, another diehard RSS veteran. According to his judgment, the situation in Gujarat is all hunky-dory, peace and tranquility prevail, the situation is nothing extraordinary, therefore he does not feel the need to send any report to the president. Assume for a moment the government in the state was controlled by a non-National Democratic Alliance party or coalition, and medieval murder and mayhem of the sort which has actually taken place happened under its aegis, would the governor have arrived at the same decision?

As events turned out, the Centre had to rush in the army even without a formal report from the governor to the president. The state governor, of course, did not ride the high horse and object to the despatch of the military without prior consultations with him or the Gandhinagar authorities. Had he done so, he would have been snubbed in no time. For we have the glorious constitutional precedent of Kashmir 1984: immediately prior to the removal of Farooq Abdullah from the chief ministerial slot, troops had moved into the valley without the knowledge of the chief minister.

Precedents are two-edged swords. Sympathizers of the UP governor’s point of view are profusely quoting the precedent of what happened in West Bengal 30 years ago. In the 1971 assembly elections in that state, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) emerged far and away as the major party. The governor, evidently under strict instructions from New Delhi, did not invite it to form the government. Instead, he opted for “stability” and invited in a ragtag Congress coalition. The stability promised by the latter lasted barely four months. According to some observers, the history of West Bengal would have been qualitatively different had the governor not deviated from the democratic convention of inviting the first party in the state to form the ministry. That the majority of the people in West Bengal turned so decisively against Indira Gandhi’s Congress and mobilized themselves under the Left Front is, they think, at least partly attributable to the awful lack of perspicacity on the part of the highest decision-makers in the country. And the world knows what the consequences have been of the folly of ejecting Abdullah in 1984.

Anyway, the BJP has made the bed and it has to lie in it. By stonewalling the entrance of Mulayam Singh Yadav into the UP administration, it is being loyal to its short-term strategy, but maybe at the cost of its long-term interests. The impression is gaining ground that Atal Bihari Vajpayee and his cohorts are more keen to push the Vishwa Hindu Parishad agenda and not the NDA’s, which is why it would not allow Maulavi Mulayam within the portals of power in Lucknow before the Ides of March end. Kinds of hell could be let loose as a result. Meanwhile, of course, hell has already been let loose in Gujarat.

The governor may continue to think that things are fine and excellent in the state; the Union home minister can also think along identical lines, and proclaim that thought publicly. That will not change the reality of things though. Enough people are still in the country who are not prepared to discard ordinary commonsense. The butchery in Gujarat, they have concluded, has dragged the honour and reputation of this nation down to the dreariest bottom. Stray members of parliament may still calculate that, rather than face fresh elections, they might as well enjoy the material and other concomitant advantages of sticking with the BJP for the left-over two years of the present Lok Sabha, and this irrespective of the ignominy of recent events.

They will be wrong. They will be wrong for a straight-forward reason. The till-now-silent majority of the nation is unlikely to stay silent for long. The February elections and byelections preceded the presentation of the year’s budget. The prime minister is technically right; this package of elections was not a referendum. Even so, the miserable performance of the BJP mirrors the deep disenchantment with the party in different parts of the country, including, most ominously, Uttar Pradesh. The budget has turned out to be the last nail in the coffin. Now the Gujarat holocaust and its aftershock have hardly contributed towards rehabilitating the BJP’s reputation. Suddenly just about everybody, including the media, has turned his face away from the Vajpayee administration. Whether the Ram mandir mess is resolved — or not resolved — it is dead certain that the BJP and its acolytes will have to negotiate most dangerous shoals between now and the next few months.

For the prime minister and his colleagues to try to brazen it out would be sure folly. You cannot, in one breath, sermonize on economic reforms and pander to obscurantism of the most outrageous kind which the VHP coalition extols. Something has got to give. Can the New Delhi regime be at all confident that the casualty will not be the Union of India? A nation is basically a concordat. Each constituent of the concordat must observe a number of rules of the game if the nation is to survive and prosper.

No constituent has the prerogative to blackmail the rest of the nation. This is, however, precisely what the Ram devotees are bent on doing. Hang the Constitution, hang the judiciary, hang the verdict of the electorate, they must win their object. The classical medicine for bullying is counter-bullying. The circumstances are taking such a shape that, very soon, the state could be presented with a choice: the Union of India cannot have both the trishul-wielding, mythology-believing barbarians on the one hand and the rest, who want to live and work within the contours of a sane society, on the other. For all one can perceive, if provoked beyond measure, the invocation of choice might even be transmuted into an ultimatum: either restrain them, or we walk out of the Union of India.

Time, alas, is fast running out.


By Barbara D. Metcalf and Thomas R. Metcalf
Cambridge, Rs 650

One of the persistent and embarrassing questions a historian of India has to face from non-historians, especially the intelligent layman, is, “What is a good book on the history of India?” Most historians scratch their heads in response. Apart from Romila Thapar’s volume in the Penguin History of India, there is nothing really worth recommending that is comprehensible and enjoyable for the lay reader. But even Thapar’s book is more than 30 years old (a revised and updated version is now under preparation). Sumit Sarkar’s Modern India covers the period between 1885 and 1947 but is too much of a textbook for students to be enjoyed by the general reader. In sharp contrast to this poverty at the level of general introductions, research in Indian history, informed by new questions and new methods, has advanced in leaps and bounds and has opened up new areas of investigation. But the fruits of these new researches have not been brought together in one volume in readable manner for a non-specialist audience.

The husband-wife team of Thomas and Barbara Metcalf do precisely this with an enviable degree of success in their new book that covers the period from the 13th century to the Nineties of the 20th. They are eminently suited for the task: both are very distinguished historians, Barbara on Islam in India and Tom on the ideology and architecture of the Raj and on agrarian relations in north India in the 19th century; both have important and acclaimed monographs in their specialized fields and both have spent their working lives teaching Indian history in the University of California (Barbara at Davis and Tom at Berkeley).

The Metcalfs have taken great care to bring into the narrative and analysis nearly all the major new areas of research that have been opened up in recent times. They are right in saying that today, the history of India is best written as a “more inclusive story” that seeks to include more of the population. They acknowledge the validity of the famous statement of the Italian philosopher, Croce, “all history is contemporary history”, when they say that “history is always written, and of necessity rewritten, to serve the needs of the present.” According to the Metcalfs, there is a need in the present to question the common sense notions of continuity fostered by nationalism. These notions, they believe, must be replaced by an understanding of new and modern identities. Old terms have come to be endowed with new meanings (Hindu, Muslim, India, caste,and so on) and these must be unpacked. The writing of history creates a critical distance between the present and ideas and entities that are often projected as timeless and unchanging or even as inevitable.

This overall analytical intention gives to this book a definite thrust against the agenda set by Hindu fundamentalists. One important aspect of this agenda is to appropriate India’s history and culture and to render it monochromatic. In the short section on pre-British India, the authors emphasize that the periods of Sultanat and Mughal rule saw the expansion of the agricultural frontier, extensive commercial networks, technological change, and development of political and religious institutions. They take care to note that “historians now discredit not only accounts of forced mass conversion, but also accounts of systematic destruction of temples and other non-Muslim holy places.” The temples that were destroyed can be explained by specific local circumstances rather than by any overarching religious motives.

One of the real strengths of this book’s handling of colonial rule and of resistance to it is its incorporation of all the new major works that have emerged in the last two decades. The conquest of India by the English East India Company had, the Metcalfs argue, no coherent plan. But once in power, the Company set up a state with a monopoly of physical force and with an unprecedented capacity to command resources. This power and the rigidities introduced by colonial policy “decisively shaped, even distorted, modernity in India.” The Indian response to this was to adopt Western norms and models, if only to challenge them.

The Metcalfs hold these and other themes within a strong chronological line. The writing is concise but never dry. The illustrations are telling. After this book, when faced with the question with which this review began, I, for one, will not be at a loss to make a recommendation.


By Bulbul Sharma
By Pavan K. Varma
By Namita Gokhale
By Nanditha Krishna
By Royina Grewal
Viking, Rs 195 each

From glitzy television serials to kitsch calendars — the way the Hindu pantheon grips the popular imagination is both intriguing and puzzling. Still a vital source of mainstream entertainment, Indian deities are in sharp contrast to their European counterparts — the Greek gods for instance — who have largely waned into an esoteric domain.

This cluster of well-researched books on the enduring quality of five most popular Hindu deities traces the origin of the gods, their evolution through written and oral traditions, the myriad myths spun around them and their contemporary relevance. A scientific perspective, coupled with simple narratives, enlivens the interest.

In the popular consciousness, the gods have survived as cultural icons. It would not be an exaggeration to say that in the process, there has been a cleft between the symbol of a godhead and its intrinsic idea. For instance, not many people are aware of the shivlinga as a phallic symbol. Or, of the metaphysical connotations of Krishna’s eroticism.

Pavan K. Varma feels that cultural practices and myths surrounding Krishna, especially the raasleela, wrongly identify him as an amorous god. For, the gopis’ urge to be united with Krishna indicates their search for the absolute, which contemporary perception tends to overlook.

In The Book of Krishna, Varma traces the divergent portrayals of Krishna in the Bhagvata Purana and Jayadeva’s Gitagovinda. From a sidelined figure in the Bhagvata, Jayadeva catapults Radha to the focus of Krishna’s adoration. The configuration dramatically alters Krishna’s image. He is an irresistible “personal god”, in whom women devotees, like Meera, find a surrogate lover.

Namita Gokhale’s animated discussion in The Book of Shiva revolves around the “conflict between the erotic nature of his iconography and the ascetic nature of his actions”.

Devi was crafted in her consciousness since childhood, says Bulbul Sharma in The Book of Devi. In the hierarchy of male gods, Devi encapsulates power, feminine beauty, devotion and fidelity in her various forms. Though the Vedas donot invest them with much importance, the goddesses gain pre-eminence in the later periods. Quite inexplicably, Sharma, while discussing the major manifestations of Devi — Durga, Sati, Lakshmi, Saraswati, Sita, Radha and Ganga — leaves out Kali, who embodies the terrible aspect of Devi.

In The Book of Vishnu, Nanditha Krishna links Vishnu’s incarnations with the stages of human evolution — from the aquatic (matsya) to the amphibian (kurma), the land animal (varaha), the earliest Homo sapiens (dwarf) and so on. But the trinity’s protector figure as depicted in the Veda, as just an associate of Indra, is not very impressive. Vishnu’s benevolent nature merges with the concept of Narayana to assume the present stature.

The elephant-headed, rotund god, Ganesha, is easily appeased and infuriated. In Royina Grewal’s amusing narrative, Ganesha’s marriage to the banana tree and his sibling rivalry with Kartikeya portray him as a fun-loving deity.

Over the ages, Hindu gods have revealed an amazing tensility with respect to changing world-views. One reason could be that the religious beliefs, once shaped by economic and social exigencies, were later diffused into the mainstream culture. The element of fear in the man-god relation got diluted and the deities assumed humane traits. The many myths they have spawned have been sustained through vernacular literature, folklore, art, architecture and even jatra. <i>


By Prakash Tandon,
Rupa, Rs 295

Autobiographies do not find a market easily unless the author is already a celebrity. Nirad C. Chaudhuri’s Autobiography of an Unknown Indian was an exception. Although not in the same league, the revised and updated version of Prakash Tandon’s previously published work owes its appeal to the harmonious blend of autobiography and national history. Not to forget the author’s ability to recreate the old Punjab as it was. Tandon’s formidable career in commerce and management at home and abroad — he has taught at the universities of Los Angeles, Berkeley and Boston — suitably equipped him for the task.

Punjabi Saga provides a broad glimpse of the changing social and political milieu of Punjab during the Muslim and British rule. The narrative flow, matched by a neat, polished style — the description of elaborate nuptial rituals is one instance — compels immediate interest. Tandon offers a vivid account of the festivals during the colourful festive seasons of Dusserah and Diwali originating from the Ramayana. In fact, the vignettes of Punjabi life and culture, like the much-awaited visit to the bazaar to enjoy the Diwali, are some of its most arresting features.

Tandon also offers that shedding their insularity, the new generation Punjabis have scattered all over India and abroad in all the professions — the army, medicine, technology, accounting, management and so on. We must have found something in common between us and the Englishmen which made us get on well together from the start, claims the author. The long Muslim domination was “often intolerant and usually zealous”, while the British impact was comparatively “gentle and persuasive”. However, the Punjabi society was adaptable to every change.

In England, the author lived and studied for eight years and was struck by the academic and social freedom of its campus life. Tandon makes several illuminating observations on the British national character and its influence on him. He came to “discover that the people known for their strangeness and formality were sentimental at heart and held back nothing, provided you became one of them as I did”. He holds that the extent to which Indian political and economic thinking has always veered left must be largely due to the influence of Fabian and socialist ideals on generations of young Indians during their student years in England: “They sensed in it a genuine sympathy for Indian aspirations.”

No Punjabi, nor any Bengali, can recall the horrors of Partition with equanimity. The author however, recounts the tragedy of Partition, and the large-scale disruption and sufferings it caused, in touching terms. It also signalled the “end of old Punjab”, as also the decline of the pleasant Calcutta, as utter shabbiness and neglect took over.

Calcutta was a city of vitality and apathy, wealth and poverty, life and decay, as Tandon so tellingly puts it: “Here was a town without a social conscience. Its civic life had once made a great name for the city; its politicians were men of all-India stature but they appeared to have left no legacy of running the day to day affairs”.

Dating between British or American officers and the Anglo-Indian or Westernized Indian Christian girls was common during wartime. However, as Tandon points out, not many marriages resulted from such contacts. The relationships seemed to have been confined to having a good time. The Americans were found to be more informal and generous than the English. Besides, they openly criticized the British for the poverty, illiteracy, poor communications and general inefficiency in the country. Tandon too feels that the British had come to Punjab in a time of chaos, and left it in the same state.

Cast in the heroic mould, Subhas Chandra Bose and his Indian National Army influenced Tandon. The INA saga triggered a revolutionary upsurge at the civil and military level which prompted the British decision to quit India.

According to Tandon, the recurring short wars between India and Pakistan did not leave scars behind, nor did it inspire vendettas. But they did drain precious resources that should have gone into growth. The Chinese attack was, however, the result of Indian diplomatic blunders, according to Tandon. But nothing could hold back Punjab.

A large work such as this could do with a proper index. If nothing else, it would certainly have made the reviewer’s job easier.


By Asim Chaudhury,
Advaita Ashrama, Rs 100

This year, being the death centenary of Swami Vivekananda, offers an occasion to re-assess the achievement of the great Hindu monk. In the context of militancy and fanaticism that pass off as Hinduism today, it is all the more worthwhile to ponder over, and if possible, assimilate Vivekananda’s speech on “Hinduism” in the world’s parliament of religions in Chicago. Vivekananda’s attempt to shift the focus from Hinduism as a fetishistic religion to emphasize its spiritual aspect deserve special mention.

He was one of the few religious leaders who refused to believe that religion has the key to all major problems of modern man. In fact, “Religion not the crying need to India” was the title of one of his speeches in Chicago. To his mind, religion created the moral base of a man. His speeches and views on Hinduism and religion formed the core of his anti-colonial discourse.

Asim Chaudhury’s Swami Vivekananda in Chicago has precedents like The Life of Swami Vivekananda in the West: New Discoveries by Sister Gargi (Marie Louise Burke). Chaudhury’s work is loaded with much more fascinating details than the rest about Vivekananda’s travel and sojourn in the West. Chaudhury’s “initial objective” was provided by the “detractors who doubt the historicity of the sensation Swamiji created in Chicago”. But his statement claiming that “Chicago, along with many other such places around the world touched by Swamiji, a God-man, can be called a punyatirtha, a holy place of pilgrimage”, makes his sense of history suspect. Chaudhury should not have forgotten that bias of any kind is dangerous, and that he is writing a book not merely for devotees but for general readers.

The book, however, bears testimony to the effort that went into writing it. Being a citizen of the United States of America, Chaudhury visited all the places Vivekananda had or might have visited and took photographs of important buildings and statues. These photographs have certainly enhanced the worth of his book. He also scoured old editions of dailies like the Chicago Record, the Chicago Herald, the Chicago Tribune, the Inter Ocean and others for reports and comments on the monk’s speeches. These reflect the sensation created among different sects of Christian missionaries by Vivekananda’s chastisement of Christian presumptions and malpractices.

Then there are the two cartoon- like pencil sketches of Vivekananda published in the Chicago Record and the Inter Ocean on September 12 and 13, 1893. Chaudhury’s exploration of Vivekananda’s relationship with the Hale family, and the reminiscences of people who came in close contact with him during his stay in the US, are the special treasures of the book. Cornelia Conger spent time with the monk in Chicago as a six-year-old girl, listening to his stories when her mother went out shopping. Later, persuaded by Swami Shakarananda, Conger published her recollections.

Chaudhury’s book is divided into nine chapters, each as interesting as it is informative. He includes a biographical sketch of Vivekananda and goes on to give a vivid description of the city of Chicago prior to 1893, the year in which the world’s parliament of religions took place. In the epilogue, Chaudhury analyses the reasons why Vivekananda’s ideas were more readily accepted in other cities of the US than in Chicago which, according to him, “was a schizophrenic city” at that time. In the section called “Appendices”, there is, among other things, an exhaustive list of chronological events in Chicago during Vivekananda’s visit to the city. This is likely to prove very handy for the lay reader.


If there has been a revolution in the publishing world in the last decade, it is not because of the human factor but because of a revolution in technology. It has been made possible by the proliferation of faster, more capable desktop computers, coupled with the development of new technologies for storing and displaying vast amounts of information in computer-readable form. The CD-ROM, commercial online services and the internet have made the home computer as essential for writers and readers as the old manual typewriter and the printed book.

Take the new art form, multimedia, which combines various types of media in the CD-ROM. It delivers text, still photographs, animation, audio and even video. Thanks to its large capacity — a CD-ROM can hold 650 megabytes of information, the equivalent of 150,000 pages of text — it is today’s preferred format for large reference books. Macmillan’s Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, released recently, comes with a CD-ROM, for less than Rs 500. What do these developments mean for authors and readers? For some time now, publishers expect their authors to deliver their “copy” on a floppy. This is all right for books like novels or social science texts, but is a bit much for technical areas like science, technology and medicine which require a fair amount of expertise in handling sophisticated software. But increasingly, publishers would expect their authors to hire specialized services to get these done too. The reason behind the publishers’ demand is simple: it saves them time and money to get the typescript composed and proof-read before printing. Besides, computers also make communication and inter-connectivity easier and quicker, dispensing with paperwork, filing and physical space.

Insofar as readers are concerned, many books will only come in CD-ROMs, especially multi-volume reference books, atlases and articles in specialized journals. For instance, the New York Review of Books now offers all its back numbers since 1963 in an electronic file, of course at a price. This could well happen for novels and straightforward texts too, where publishers and authors could post them on the internet and charge a fee for accessing them. Stephen King experimented with a novel last year, though without dramatic results and profitability. But these are early days for the novel, and the system might be perfected yet.

But the big question is whether electronic editions will be accessible only for institutional buyers because of high prices beyond the reach of the individual buyer. CD-ROMs are expensive to produce because they are put together by a team of specialists. It is unlike a book where an author, or a team of authors, handles an entire project. Here authors work in collaboration with a team of technical specialists. Because of the diverse set of talents required to put a project together, many publishers have been compelled to work closely with software development companies to reach the market in a financially viable way. As things stand now, CD-ROMs are expensive to produce. But prices could come down as the technology improves and the goods are mass-produced.

Just how long it will take for prices to be affordable or how far the CD-ROM will penetrate our market is too early to say. But the essential point that the home computer is indispensable for the author and reader can no longer be missed.



Ghosts made of white light

By Nirmal Verma
(Indigo, Rs 295)

Nirmal Verma’s The last wilderness is Pratik Kanjilal’s translation of Nirmal Verma’s most recent novel in Hindi, Antim Aranya. It is set in a provincial town in the Himalayan foothills. In its architecture and way of life, this town is like Simla, where Verma was born, shadowed by the Empire, “a place where everything was already in the past”. Verma’s characters are suspended in a twilight world between history and introspection. The writing is restrained, but finely drawn out. Lives and memories intertwine: “They are the negatives of our present tense...ghosts made of white light whom we can take out of the closed cupboards of memory and see at will. We don’t even have to take them out — one image draws forth the next in the chain, though the relation between them is long dead.” This is a careful and sensitive translation, although the stock-in-trade of elegiac melancholy (ghosts, negatives, cupboards, chains, etc) sound somewhat wanly Proustian in English. Hindi is a rougher language, and gives the same structures of feeling a sturdier tone. There are some unfortunate Americanisms in the English — the use of “like” for “as”, which sounds like bad journalese.

By V. Geetha
(Stree, Rs 175)

V. Geetha’s Gender is a feminist book about a phenomenon which involves men ad women equally. This creates a certain bias in its polemics, reinforced by the fact that it is part of a series called “Theorizing Feminism”. Geetha is a lucid and original writer, surveying Western gender theory, and then placing this survey in the context of Indian society. There are valuable sections on caste, for instance. This is a consistently readable book, even for those who are normally put off by the infelicities of “theory”. The simple human focus is what makes the difference: “gender is a lived and experienced relationship of power and love, authority and intimacy...radical critiques of gender are as concerned with re-making human relationships, transforming our notions of sexual love and companionship, as they are with challenging economic and social hierarchy.”

By D.P. Mukerji
(Rupa, Rs 60)

D.P. Mukerji’s Indian Music: An Introduction is a little book which would have been fairly useful if it had not been so riddled with wrong English and misprints. Some of these are entertaining, because they rhyme: “...here, in India, its possibilities are only latent. Let them be patent.” The concluding suggestion that “Indian history needs a little pushing” is also difficult to read solemnly. It all leads up to Tagore, and again in unwittingly hilarious terms: “So Indian music is not dead. It is living now and today. The old masters are not more, but new experimenters are in the field. And Tagore is the tallest of them all.” The Rupa editors will have to be more careful.



Sorry should be enough

Sir — McDonald’s Corporation’s plans to pay $ 10 million to vegetarian and religious groups as a gesture of apology for having used beef flavouring in its french fries may testify to healthy business practices in the United States of America (“McDonald’s fries in beef tin”, March 9). But it sets a bad precedent of pandering to religious fussiness, a trend which if not nipped in the bud can well bleed multinational corporations like McDonald’s dry. So what if McDonald’s did mix a little beef tallow in the vegetable oil? That hardly warrants $ 10 million in damages, especially when the MNC food chain had already apologized and promised to stop using beef. Many food stuffs like ice cream, bubble gum, jelly, use gelatin — an animal extract derived from bones, hooves and teeth. How many finicky vegetarians know this? Do they, in their ignorance, enjoy ice creams or jellies any less? No one denies the consumer’s right to information, but surely what one does not know cannot hurt?
Yours faithfully
Rehana Mishra, Calcutta

What about us?

Sir — Alok Ray, in “How the numbers add up” (March 7), has tried to explain the logic behind the various unpopular measures in Yashwant Sinha’s latest budget. While there can be no quarrel with the increase in prices of LPG, the logic behind reducing interest rates on small savings schemes is not very convincing. One accepts the government’s compulsions, burdened as it is with large interest payments on past loans that leave it with very little funds for social and development expenditure. But other means should have been taken to tackle this problem. The first thing that comes to mind is downsizing the government, especially its bloated staff, which accounts for a large outflow of funds in the form of salaries and pensions. Charity, they say, begins at home and some concrete belt-tightening here would have made better sense.

Ray’s argument regarding interest rates in periods of low inflation is valid for people who are saving for the future. But what about those who have only their savings to fall back upon after retirement? A colleague, who retired five years ago, had invested the bulk of his retirement benefits — provident fund and gratuity — in the post office’s monthly income scheme. He has been earning an annual interest of 13 per cent on this amount. Two months from now, when he renews the deposits at the end of their term he will get an interest of nine per cent only. Thus his real income has gone down by 40 per cent, whereas even in this era of low inflation rates, prices have gone up by at least 25 per cent in the last five years. Thus, if he had Rs 100 to spend five years ago, he will have only Rs 60 to spend now, whereas he would need Rs 125 to maintain his lifestyle. More than the salaried tax-payer, it is this category of persons who will be hardest hit by Sinha’s measures. One wonders what his situation will be like five years from now, when he will be 68, which is not a very ripe old age given today’s increased life expectancy

Yours faithfully,
A.K. Singh, Ranchi

Sir — Alok Ray, while justifying the unpopular budget proposals of the finance minister, fails to understand the plight of retired employees who do not have access to government pension. My father, a public sector employee, used to get around Rs 4,000 per month from the post office MIS scheme after his retirement in 1992, (he has no company pension). Now 10 years later, with the MIS interest rate drastically reduced (it was 14 per cent at the time of his retirement), his income has almost halved, but the prices of almost everything (especially medicines) have doubled. Will Ray and Yashwant Sinha explain how such retired senior citizens are to survive under the present circumstances?

Yours faithfully,
Sanjay Bose, Durgapur

Sir — The latest budget seems to have been designed to alienate everyone except Yashwant Sinha’s supporters in the world of big business. The cut in interest rates and the removal of savings incentives are obviously designed to force people to spend. But who will benefit from this? Taxes on cosmetics, cell phones and foreign liquor have been lowered, while essentials like LPG have become costlier. As for the “national security surcharge”, were not we told in 1998 after Pokhran II, that defence budgets would come down because we had the ultimate deterrent?

Yours faithfully,
Biswapriya Purkayastha, Shillong

Sir — The Union budget has increased the tax liability of most individuals. Tax exemptions on savings are incentives for people to save more, which is good for the national economy. Also if an individual pays less taxes, he is left with more money in hand which can be invested in business or other ventures, which in turn will benefit the national economy. But in a high-taxes regime, there is little scope of savings — resulting in black money and corruption.

The finance minister must rethink the proposals for the withdrawal of tax exemptions on saving schemes, dividend taxes and service tax on small businesses.

Yours faithfully,
M. Kumar, New Delhi

No comfort in numbers

Sir — The report, “Centre mulls two-child bar” (Feb 26), gives heartening evidence that the Central government has woken up to the problem of unbridled population growth. India’s population, which was about 35 crore in 1947, has now increased to more than 100 crore. It is the second most populated country in the world after China.

Successive governments have done very little to popularize family planning programmes in India. Perhaps, their lethargy had something to do with the green revolution in India, which was responsible for increasing the foodgrains production to feed this burgeoning population. This ever-increasing population puts a strain on natural resources, as well as on healthcare, education and housing. It has also resulted in widespread deforestation, which in turn has had disastrous consequences for plant and animal life. The underground water level has also gone down owing to excessive irrigation.

It is interesting that the population growth rate is less in those states where the literacy rate is high. Conversely, where illiteracy is rampant — in Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh — the population growth rate is high. The Centre must take steps to prioritize female education as well as popularize the use of contraceptives in India.

Yours faithfully,
Manoranjan Das, Jamshedpur

Sir — It is well-known that the population is growing fastest in the poorest countries of south Asia and Africa, which have the lowest literacy rates in the world. Countries like India should look up to the Japanese royal family as an ideal. No one considered anything strange in the fact that the first child of the royal couple, Naruhito and Masako, was born after eight years. There can be nothing more tragic than the birth of innumerable children to those who belong to the poorest sections of society and do not have the means to provide them with even the most basic amenities. The best way to counter the fast spiralling population growth rate is through effective legislation.

Yours faithfully,
T. Mani Chowdary, Secunderabad

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