Editorial / Errors of commission
Poets in commerce
The Telegraph Diary
Letters to the editor

The law may be an ass, but it still remains too important to be left only to lawyers. The eminent gentlemen, practising lawmen or mere dabblers who comprised the Constitution review panel, had the option to prove this wrong. They did not. If the country expected a fresh insight into the scissor-and-paste tome, known as the Constitution of India, it will not find any. After two years of mindless toil, even clichés — foreign-borns in high office, uniform civil code etc. — do not find a mention. That should not come as a surprise. If businessmen were asked to chart the course of Indian reforms, all one would have got are low taxes and baskets of protection. The truth is that members of any discipline can hardly sit in judgment on their own profession. Invariably, they suffer from boxed vision. This is even more true of the legal profession. In no other subject is the gulf between the discipline as an inquiry into reason and its application so seemingly unbridgeable.

Ideally, such a national commission should have included stake-holders in society with the lawmen merely providing secretarial service. It has not. An opportunity thus has been lost to review the working of the Constitution and initiate meaningful debates. Some of the problems of the Constitution are generic. A patchwork established 300 years back to maintain harmony in distant England will not work in India. The other problems are native Indian. The Constitution created the finance commission as the sole instrument to divide funds between the Centre and the states. Yet, the money is largely allocated through the planning commission, a body unmentioned in the opus. The Constitution commits the country to socialism. But the cabinet boasts of a disinvestment ministry.

But by far the most important issue is the mindless adaptation of eccentric English notions. In 1649, the English got rid of their king. In 1660, they decided to bring him back but not quite as a regent deriving authority from divine descent. Thus was born the extraordinary notion of a hereditary office in a democracy. As India, a republic, could not have royalty, an office of the president was created. The English also created the House of Lords, with zamindars as members so that the Crown could have its own house. So Indians had to have their upper house, but as they could not accept hereditary rights, bizarre rules of election were invented. Today the Rajya Sabha is an ashrama for those rejected by the people. The whip was conceived of to protect the republicans from poaching by the Crown. The idea is replicated with the result that political parties with leaders unapproved by the larger public have a say over those voted in by the people. This aberration has received a further fillip with the anti-defection law, which sanctifies the idea of the whip with penalties for disobedience. In privileges and contempt are ideas that shelter interest groups against outside scrutiny as the hapless Arundhati Roy found out.

It is not enough to say that truth be recognized as a defence. The question surely is whether anyone, however exalted, should have recourse to laws which others in society do not enjoy. But law is both letter and spirit. And if while retaining the letter one were to be a little generous with the spirit, one would have been spared the toil and the cost of a pointless commission.


I read Ananda Lal’s thoughtful and elegant response to my article (March 10) with interest. There is no doubt that Rammohun Roy and Henry Derozio precede Toru Dutt as Indian writers in English; it is also true that Derozio’s and Roy’s achievement should continue to engage us today. Rosinka Chaudhuri’s recent study, Gentlemen Poets in Colonial Bengal: Emergent Nationalism and the Orientalist Project, is an indication, perhaps, that this engagement is about to be revived. Toru Dutt, of course, had precursors besides Derozio in the field of Indian poetry in English, such as the now entirely forgotten Kasiprasad Ghosh, and Michael Madhusudan Dutt.

These figures and their practice in the English language are important for historical reasons. To say this is not to undermine them; the historical reasons are still not properly understood: in ignoring them we risk diminishing our already attenuated sense of literary history. But, in the meanwhile, I continue to stand by the statement I made: that in Toru Dutt’s work we have the first artistically significant achievement in Indian writing in English. The artistically realized poems among her output are few: she died very young. But they bring into being an aesthetic which a writer today can do business with: I speak here not only as an erstwhile teacher of Indian literature, but as a writer.

Let me look back for a moment, here, at Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s anthology, Twelve Modern Indian Poets. This anthology is probably the finest critical intervention in Indian poetry in English, notwithstanding academic essays on the subject; and, in his introduction, Mehrotra claims, “The origins of modern Indian poetry in English go no further back than the poets in this anthology.” The earliest poet in the anthology, as it happens, is Nissim Ezekiel, whose first book appeared in 1952. It is a deliberately contentious statement, but Mehrotra has prepared us for it in the preceding paragraph: “Indians have been writing verse in English at least since the 1820s… Later poets have found no use for [it], and a literary tradition is of no use to anyone else.” In the second part of his introduction, Mehrotra reinforces this with, “Henry Derozio, Toru Dutt, Aurobindo Ghose, and Sarojini Naidu were courageous and perhaps charming men and women, but not those with whom you could today do business.”

“Doing business”: the notion comes from a poem from Ezra Pound, “A Pact”, from which Mehrotra quotes the opening line as an epigraph to part 2 of his essay: “I make a pact with you, Walt Whitman — ”. In the short poem, Pound acknowledges Whitman as a precursor; Whitman, we should remember, was still out of favour, at the time, with the modernist literary establishment. To acknowledge Whitman, then, was a sardonic but unprecedented critical reassessment on Pound’s part. The rest of the poem goes: “I have detested you long enough./ I come to you as a grown child/ Who has had a pig-headed father;/ I am old enough now to make friends./ It was you that broke the new wood,/ Now it is a time for carving./ We have one sap and one root —/ Let there be commerce between us.”`

I think we can say the same now of our earliest forefathers in English writing in India — that we have detested them long enough; that we are now old enough to make friends. Mehrotra’s recent concerns themselves record such a softening of heart and change of position. The introductory essay to the anthology was published in 1992; but Mehrotra has since worked on editing a history of Indian literature in English, and his readings have modified his views since when he had spoken of the “charming men and women” of the early 19th century: “not those with whom you could today do business”. In a recent e-mail, he writes: “The idea that 19th century Indian poetry in English is at best derivative, hence not worthy of serious attention, has long been in need of correction. The irony is that very little of it…is available to the general reader today…The primary texts of this writing have all but disappeared from public memory.”

It is time to restore these texts to “public” and private memory, and to claim Rammohun Roy and Derozio as precursors in the way their relationship to the English language, and to the Indian nation-state, foreshadows ours. But, of those writers and poets, I can think of only Toru Dutt as an artistic precursor. It is important, even today, to make that distinction, to be able, after a hundred and twenty five years, to turn to her and say, as present-day writers, that “It was you that broke the new wood…We have one sap and one root —/ Let there be commerce between us.”

I will give a few reasons why I think so. It is true, for instance, that Derozio (and other poets) used Indian words in their work before Toru Dutt did. But Derozio’s use of certain Indian words is part of an Orientalist practice current at the time, inaugurated by William Jones, which brought into recurrent use words like “champa”, “mallika”, “grishma” in place of their English translations: Derozio’s use of, say, “Surya” is in observance of this convention. Memory, for the first time, becomes an informing presence in Indian writing in English with the poems of Toru Dutt. There is a huge distance to be traversed between Derozio’s “Surya” and Dutt’s “seemul” in her sonnet about her childhood garden house, “Baugmaree”; for the latter is freighted with the music of childhood. It is not a word plucked from the hoard of available Orientalist poeticisms; its use in the sonnet gives expression to a self that was hitherto silent, and whose emotions are partly embedded in another language.

Similarly, there is a world of difference between, say, Kasiprasad Ghosh’s “Hymn to Sara- swati”, and Dutt’s sonnet, “Sita”. Not only is “Sita” different from the other historical-mythical poems of the age; it is also different from Dutt’s own historical poems that form the (posthumously published) sequence, “Ancient Ballads and Legends of Hindustan”. These other poems are important today as documents of an exercise in building an imaginary nation; their aesthetic would reverberate, eventually, not in the realm of modernist Indian writing but in popular culture; their progeny would not be so much a story like Qurratulain Hyder’s “Sita” as the “mythological” Hindi film or the Amar Chitra Katha comic.

But Dutt’s sonnet is another matter; its treatment of cultural heritage is entirely unexpected. It is only partly about Sita; it also about having heard the story of Sita as a child. The mythical Sita, as subject-matter, thus, is placed at one remove; Dutt carefully frames her response to a figure in a Hindu epic within the experience of listening. The vision described in the first half of the poem is the vision the three children, Toru, Aru, and Abju, have as they listen: “Three happy children in a darkened room!/ What do they gaze on with wide-open eyes?/ A dense, dense forest, where no sunbeam pries,/ And in its centre a cleared spot. — There bloom/ Gigantic flowers on creepers that embrace/ Tall trees…”

What Dutt is talking of here is the Imagination, something that Derozio had almost, but not quite, discovered before his own early death. The vision will fade, by the end of the poem, for it is entirely dependant on the figure of the mother who tells the story and also disappears by the poem’s end. We are being told, for the first time in Indian writing, of the contingency of literature; in its way, it makes for a statement more alive to history than Derozio’s more unequivocal apostrophes to his “native land”. The frame in the poem — in which Sita is a story within a story — introduces a gap which mirrors the space between language and the consciousness, the space in which we are not quite at home and in which we create. The ambivalence of this frame, and the richness it introduced, had not occurred in Indian writing till then; it was after about fifteen years, in 1890, that it would reappear in Tagore’s poem “Meghdut”.

Tagore’s poem brings back the frame introduced in Toru Dutt’s “Sita”; we have a poem, Kalidas’s Meghdut, within a poem: and the poet, like the three children in the earlier poem, has a vision as he reads: “In a gloomy room I sit alone/ And read the Meghaduta. My mind leaves the room,/ Travels on a free-moving cloud, flies far and wide./ There is the Amrakuta mountain,/ There is the clear and slender Reva river,/ Tumbling over stones in the Vindhya foothills…” (William Radice’s translation). Here, too, the vision fades; here, too, the frame, the poem within the poem, allows Tagore to both distance himself from, and appropriate, before the vision has faded, the Romantic trope of the Imagination in the creation of a literary tradition; Kalidas’s “megh” becomes the Wordsworthian “free-moving cloud”, flying “far and wide”.


For all the genuine resplendence of Derozio’s poetry, he died before he could move out of the “room in which [he sat] alone”; and use, as a colonial, the Imagination in his art in spite of being, in many ways, one of the first colonial children of Romanticism. That frame, that inward distancing, would oddly vanish from Indian writing in English with Dutt’s demise, as if it had almost been an accident, until we approached the middle of the 20th century.



Touch of more saffron

No entry Now that Narendra Modi has shown what the party can achieve if it puts its mind and dead bodies together, many BJPwallahs are apparently scrambling to abandon cosy government seats for the rough and tumble of party posts. Both the home minister, LK Advani, and the Union minister for rural development, Venkaiah Naidu, are said to be lusting after the hotseat of the party president. While Atal Bihari Vajpayee has so far successfully thwarted Advani’s adventures, Naidu and the present incumbent of Ashoka Road, Jana Krishnamurthy, have been less successful in hiding their fangs. Venkaiah for one has openly accused the party president of putting Ayodhya on the backburner and for allowing the government to bungle on the issue, including Yashwant Sinha’s lacklustre budget. Jana has shot back, accusing both Naidu and Advani of sabotage, though not in as many words. For the ears of those willing to listen, he has told journalists that he would not come in the way if anyone wished to occupy his chair. Unfortunately, no one had given him any “proposals” so far, although there was much media speculation on the matter. Krishnamurthy even ventured to state the obvious. There were enough talented people in the party as well. “If any minister wants to do party work, he should come to me. I will allot him the job.” If only Naidu and Advani would eat their egos and go to him with their begging bowls!

Different agenda this time

There are no free lunches so far as Farooq Abdullah is concerned. So if the National Conference has put up its hands for POTO, there is a price that has to be paid for it. The J&K CM would love it if this translated into a BJP vote for his vice-presidentship. With that end in mind, Farooq has apparently been putting things in order in his own fief. He wants son Omar Abdullah to take over in the state. For now the coronation has been postponed till May, but not for much longer in all probability. Farooq allegedly wants his brother, Kamal Mustafa, a state minister now, to replace Omar at the Centre. Fair enough. The only problem is that AB Vajpayee may have problems with that arrangement. Time to veer close to Sonia, Farooq.

Change of venue

Going at least some place. Veteran BJP leader, Sikander Bakht, has reportedly agreed to become the governor of Kerala at last. Marginalized in the party, Bakht was first offered the post of the governor in Simla. The old man declined quoting Ghalib, “Kaun jaye Dilli ki gallian chhor kar? (Who wants to leave Delhi’s bylanes?).” What could have forced Bakht to change his mind? Some say it is a bout of spondilosis. The nagging pain in his neck is said to have prompted Bakht to go to Thiruvananthapuram where the famous masseurs of the state promise a soothing relief. Wouldn’t the massages come free as well, governor?

Old thumb rule

Left in the lurch. Till the new CPI(M) state secretariat formation was formally announced, everyone thought Subhas Chakraborty would find a place in it. But when the news came through, he figured nowhere in the apex body. The surprise winner was Gautam Deb, one of the original members of the Subhas circle and now MLA from North 24 Parganas. Deb, evidently did not have much currency in the party. So what could have won him the seat? Dissenters believe it is Jyoti Basu’s magic still at work. In fact, had it not been for Basu, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, who apparently does not have much liking for Deb, would have paid short shrift to the MLA. But party honchos realized that the only way they could keep Subhas at bay was to have Deb in their midst. At least that is how Basu would like it and they could not afford to displease the old man who still served as the rallying point for a large number of party members. So there you are. Add one, subtract one. Perfect balance.

Making of a star

In the capital’s social circuit, the BJP has always been at a disadvantage, lacking the class and sophistication which is part of New Delhi’s glitterati. No longer. The party’s new treasurer, Sukumar Nambiar, has all the elements of the newsmaker for page three — an avid polo player, product of Madras Christian College, proud owner of a farm, son of the famous Tamil villain who starred opposite and immortalized MGR. New hero, Nambiar?

How to begin a family

New additions to Bollywood. If the grapevine is to be believed, babes Twinkle Khanna and the Chhainya Chhainya girl, Malaika Arora, are in the family way. There’s a short history to their motherhood, though. Malaika had been reluctant to take the plunge, afraid of having her figure spoilt. But hubby Arbaaz Khan seems to have managed to convince her otherwise. Twinkle’s case was just the opposite. She went ahead with her plans, vetoing those of Akki. Malaika’s sister, Amrita, is said to be mightily pleased with the goings on in her sister’s family. She will certainly become a proud aunt. But more important, with big sister not around, her fledgling film career might even take off. So we could have happy ends to happy beginnings for a change.

Footnote / Where there is a will there is a way

there is a way Seems like much water has flown from Tala over the property tax the two five-star hotels in the city had to pay to the CMC. It is at best a temporary victory for the civic body, what with the matter still sub judice. But if the CMC has seen the face of some silver it is entirely because of the unbending will, shall we say, of the mayor. Take this instance. When the hotel taps still ran dry, a suavely dressed executive from one of the hotels was seen coaxing the security at the gates of the mayor’s residence. The latter relented, and our Mr Smart Alec was seen pressing the mayor’s doorbell, a huge box in hand. The mayor listened patiently to the man and then, with less politeness, told him to take himself away, together with the box, containing the best cake his hotel could make, and instead direct a cheque to the CMC. The executive returned, but left his box with the security. For the rest of the evening the cake travelled up and down the mayor’s stairs, the SPG not quite sure if they could partake of its contents till the mayor made it clear that he would neither have this cake nor eat it.    


Eves in the penalty box

Box office hit? Sir — Mark Renton, the hero of Trainspotting, finds an Archie Gemmill goal in the 1966 World Cup a bigger turn-on than a nude woman. But Renton is a man. And men are supposed to be fanatical about soccer, while women can only swoon over hunks on the turf. Thank goodness Gurinder Chadha does not think along this line (“A different ball game”, March 31). Which is why her film, Bend it Like Beckham, promises to be good; girls even play the game seriously in the film. There is one nagging worry though: why Beckham? Couldn’t Chadha have chosen someone like Dwight York or Andy Cole?

Yours faithfully,
Sridhar Gopal, Kochi

Moving camera

Sir — Gopal Menon’s experiences in Gujarat, replete with gory proof of the inhuman treatment meted out to Muslims, are enough to reduce even the most hardened of cynics to tears (“Gujarat uncut”, March 31). If the narratives of the riot victims on a 21-minute reel can cause such a stir in the mind, it is easy to imagine the trauma of the people who lived through the madness. What is more shameful is that the police top brass tried to stop the screening of Menon’s film in the capital. It is time the nation woke up to the devastation of such state-sponsored terrorism. Enough lives have been sacrificed in the name of religion. Menon’s film might help the nation realize the implications and long-term effects of communal violence.

Yours faithfully,
Neha Bihani, Calcutta

Sir — The Telegraph’s coverage of the communal riots in Gujarat has been excellent. Special mention must be made of the feature on Gopal Menon’s documentary, Hey Ram: Genocide in the Land of Gandhi. The report, “After 55 years, Sikhs hand over mosque built by them to Muslims” (March 30), the day before warmed our hearts. A sanctuary of peace still exists amid all the violence. All said and done, I think Rudrangshu Mukherjee’s “Way of all faiths” (March 31) has hit the nail on the head by pointing out that a strange lack of “humanism” among certain sections of the Indian society is perhaps driving the country to its doom. Situations like this have, in the past, produced leaders to guide the ignorant to humanism and sanity. India awaits such the emergence of such a man.

Yours faithfully,
S.S. Das Gupta, Calcutta

Sir — The article on Gopal Menon’s documentary film was moving. Like Shabnam Hashmi, I too have now begun to feel that Muslims occupy only a small corner of Indian society and this is getting smaller every day. Not only should the documentary be endorsed by all political parties — although it would be useless to expect the support of the sangh parivar — but it should also be screened for audiences comprising representatives of various communities and students. This may be our only insurance against such incidents in the future.

Yours faithfully,
Md. Javed Ansari,Serampore

Sir — Congratulations to Gopal Menon for his exemplary effort to record the ghastly butchering and persecution of Muslims in Gujarat. One wishes Menon’s camera was also there to capture the attack on the Sabarmati Express, the killing of pilgrims to Amarnath, the genocide of the Kashmiri Pandits or the recent massacre of pilgrims at the Raghunath temple in Jammu. Wouldn’t that provide a more balanced perspective?

Yours faithfully,
Sanjoy Ganguly, Calcutta

Expenses of being free

Sir — The steep hike in passport fee from Rs 300 to Rs1,000, with effect from April 1, 2002, is not justified. In an earlier verdict, the Supreme Court had ruled that every Indian citizen has a right to hold a passport. How are the millions of Indians living below or just above the poverty line expected to shell out this princely sum for their passports?

Yours faithfully,
Mahesh Kumar, New Delhi

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