Editorial 1 / Tiger talk
Editorial 2 / Just a start
All play and no work
Book Review / Traces of some indistinct relations
Book Review / Collector’s item
Book Review / The search for an identity
Book Review / Terror in the heartland
Bookwise / A cut and thrust affair
Paperback Pickings
Letters to the editor

 
 
EDITORIAL 1 / TIGER TALK 
 
 
 
 
Both the Norwegian mediators and the prime minister of Sri Lanka, Mr Ranil Wickremesinghe, can congratulate themselves that the peace process has moved this far. In what was reportedly the biggest media event held on the island, the chief of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, Mr Velupillai Prabhakaran, appeared before the international media in his jungle lair in northern Jaffna. The message he had to give is promising in the main. The Tigers are willing to talk to the Sri Lankan government through the mediation of Norway in Thailand next month. As things have turned out, the reopening of the A-9 highway to Jaffna last Monday seems to have become meaningful in more ways than one. This had been a key condition in the discussions in February when a bilateral truce came into effect between the government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE. Both sides worked hard to make access along the historic highway possible on the very day originally fixed for the reopening. It is not surprising that civilians greeted the reopening of this fiercely contested route with joy and relief. Their joy is an indicator of their need for peace.

The signs had not been promising for a long time. The peace process through Norwegian mediation had stalled under the previous People’s Alliance government. Mr Wickremesinghe, elected on the promise of negotiations with the LTTE, has delivered the goods so far. Mr Prabhakaran could not have been expected to retreat from his demand for the Tamil eelam on his first appearance. He too will have to tread a thorny path to peace, for he had directed his followers to kill him if he strayed from the path of eelam. That he has said that the LTTE intends to discuss the establishment of an interim administration for the northern provinces shows that the door is beginning to open, if only a chink. The other conditions follow predictably enough: that Sri Lanka should lift the ban on the LTTE — a condition that might be fulfilled, and that India should provide safe transit for Mr Anton Balasingham, the LTTE’s negotiator, should he head the talks in Thailand. Mr Prabhakaran’s canny emphasis on the importance of India’s role in the forthcoming negotiations underlines the fact that for India, the situation is littered with difficulties, the most obvious one being the terrible history of its disastrous peacekeeping mission and the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. Being the “fatherland” of the Tamils, as Mr Prabhakaran has called it, is not an entirely comfortable position to be in. New Delhi needs all its prudence to help along the cause of a united Sri Lanka.

   

 
 
EDITORIAL 2 / JUST A START 
 
 
 
 
Trade negotiations between countries are not conducted on principles of good neighbourliness; they are hard bargains dictated by market compulsions. It is not difficult to understand why the latest round of trade talks between India and Bangladesh in Dhaka ran into rough weather. Successive governments in Bangladesh have complained of the huge trade deficit with India , with the former’s exports currently amounting to about $ 200 million, against the latter’s $ 1 billion. In Dhaka’s opinion, one way to reduce the gap is to open the Indian market to more Bangladeshi goods by withdrawing the tariff barrier. While India had long agreed to this in principle, the two neighbours failed to come up with a common list of Bangladeshi items that should be given duty-free access to India. There seems to be some justification in Dhaka’s complaint that the 40 items for which India finally agreed to withdraw the tariff barrier actually mean too little too late from a list of 191 items that it had forwarded to New Delhi. Dhaka is particularly unhappy that its tea and jute products have again been denied unfettered access to India, whereas Sri Lankan tea enjoys the benefit in the Indian market. According to Bangladeshi estimates, the trade deficit would have been reduced by $ 30 million if its jute exports alone were made duty-free. But Dhaka too has refused to accede to India’s demand for lifting the ban on imports of yarn and sugar from India through land ports.

But the bone of contention once again was Dhaka’s refusal to grant transhipment rights for Indian goods to the northeastern states. Dhaka’s argument that the transit issue should not be related to the trade talks does not carry conviction because the two are clearly linked. The problem is that trade talks between the two countries have often been mired in political controversies. The ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party has always been opposed to allowing Indian goods transit through Bangladesh on the specious argument that it would amount to a “surrender of national sovereignty”. Even if the outcome of the Dhaka meeting has left much to be desired on either side, it is better than a breakdown of talks, which seemed a distinct possibility at one stage. Instead of bickering about the bargains, the two countries would do well to accept it as a beginning that has been long overdue and try to build on it. International trade is now a more potent tool of diplomacy than it had been before. It is important, however, that principles of free trade and open markets apply to trade diplomacy as well. There was a time when the sharing of Ganga waters between India and Bangladesh seemed an intractable problem. But the two countries solved it with an agreement in 1996. There is no reason why the trade and transit issues should remain permanent stumbling blocks to a better India-Bangladesh relationship.

   

 
 
ALL PLAY AND NO WORK 
 
 
BY ASHOK MITRA
 
 
Is it re-colonization, or can it be that the colonial era has never really ended? Every year, the Indian media go wild speculating which non-resident Indian author could possibly make it to the short list for the Booker award for the best published book during the year in English, and whether he would, in the final round, actually clinch the prize. As if affairs of the country, including problems of lack of food of billions of countrymen and savage civil strife are of no matter, as if the nation’s life and death depend upon the British Book Guild’s decision. Not even ten per cent of the nation’s population can speak even a smattering of English. It has emerged as the favourite language of the creamy layer in society, but, as you travel across the vast, almost unceasing stretches of the Indian countryside, the English language still remains largely unknown, apart from a few stray expressions that have filtered in amongst the multitude: thanks to the television screen.

Notwithstanding this tough, basic truth, the Booker Prize monopolizes the pages of the newspapers for a number of weeks in the due season. And if perchance a NRI hooks the prize, he is immediately elevated to the status of an icon. He makes the most banal remarks on the country’s economy or polity or cultural milieu; each such remark will grab imposing headlines, and the particular banality will be reverentially quoted and re-quoted endless number of times. The author may not find the physical or intellectual climate of this country conducive to his or her life and living. It does not matter: he may disown India and Indians, Indians however will latch on to him. He is a celebrity; for somebody who has got a literary award in the English language, and in the United Kingdom or the United States of America, godliness henceforth is the sine qua non of existence.

Is it not the language of our past masters, as well as of our present and future ones? Ask schoolboys or girls belonging to institutions located in the country’s metropolises, they will be able to roll out effortlessly the names of Booker Prize winners during the last half a dozen years. Ask them about Manto or Chughtai or Kishen Chunder or Vallathol or Manik Bandyopadhyay, a blank face will stare at you. You should not be surprised; the colonial order changeth, yielding place to a new colonial order.

The hoopla that disoriented the supposedly smart set in the country last month over a possible Oscar award for an Indian entry in the foreign films division was similarly both bizarre and typical. The shame of Gujarat could wait, the developing economic crisis shades into insignificance, the polity appear to be more and more dangerously fragile every day, with impoverished peasants and industrial workers thrown out of employment not knowing how they are going to survive in the immediate future. But, to the Indian elite, all this was piffle, only Lagaan held centrestage. For a full 48 hours preceding the Hollywood awards ceremony, private and public television channels were saturated with stories, including fanciful speculations, on this high-budget Mumbai feature film. With Indians full of self-conceit, wishes are always horses. Because they wished Lagaan to win an Oscar, it was as if it had already won the award. Lyricism reached its zenith; purple writing — and purple talk — had a field day.

The theme of the film, the world was ponderously informed, was not only great, it would be impossible to excel its grandeur ever in the future. The hero’s performance was non pareil, the director was nothing but a genius. And the cricket match in the story, in which a bunch of Indian rustics defeated the prim Englishmen, was the quintessential symbol of India’s magnificent struggle for independence; the reel of the match was, according to claim, lavishly laid out, swelled every Indian heart to an extent that was going to be unsurpassable.

The evening of the awards, Los Angeles time, was dawn in India. Life came to a stop all over the country, for the tempo of life is determined and controlled by the elite groups. A whole community could go berserk, politicians could indulge in their nefarious conspiracies, the industrial production index might continue to dip farther and farther, insurgency might threaten to rear its head here, there, everywhere. So what? If you are a patriotic Indian, you must suspend your disbelief and offer accolades to Lagaan. Even if it failed to make the grade, as it did eventually, hail the film, it is still the greatest.

A somewhat kinder view can be that the whole exercise has been a gigantic public relations exercise. A more realistic conclusion however has to be the following: this country, India, is a burnt-out case, only frivolity matters in this neighbourhood.

But, then, is this not the denouement the nation has looked for, especially in the course of the past decade? The fad for globalization has communicated one principal message across the length and breadth of India: all of us can afford to let things slide, the main responsibilities for developing the country, shaping its policies and guiding its directions, can be safely remitted to foreigners; just get rid of each and every inhibition regarding economic and political issues, accede without questioning to all foreign advice, and the entire nation can sit back and relax. All work and no play make Jacks and Janes dull boys and girls. Please grasp the nettle of that English adage, subordinate work to play, and prosperity will drop on you like manna from heaven. What is more, foreigners will give you prizes for fooling around, while they loot your country.

Alternative lessons could have been imbibed from European history, such as the necessity of perseverance and hard work, the wisdom of abstinence and savings, cultivation of a genre of cynicism which is instrumental in nurturing a true scientific spirit. The liberalization lobby, instead, tried to implant in the psyche of the nation the utility of the so-called turnpike theorem — cut conveniently some corners, convert yourselves wholesale into a grand condominium of sycophant lackeys, rich foreigners will kindly show you the light that illuminates the road to paradise.

Once a nation, or the group of those who consider themselves to be guardians and architects of the nation, starts confusing paradise with perdition, it would be time for total eclipse. We should be approaching that hour any day now. There is bound to be a case for the defence, and in fact there is. Lagaan, you and I will be told, has been a miracle of a sort; it has unified the nation into expressing a common aspiration; it has thereby contributed to the crystallization of national pride and self-respect. In the current environment, with values disintegrating all around, brothers and sisters turning against other brothers and sisters, and confusion and contradictions shattering the horizon of expectations, we were, we will be told, badly in need of a strong centripetal impulse. Lagaan, much like the series of one-day international cricket matches, suited that bill in a most spectacular manner.

It is perhaps superficially an impressive argument; it is a hollow argument nonetheless. We have to unite before we can get rid of all foreign influence and lift our nation through the modality of self-reliance. To be able to do so, we are advised, we must indulge ourselves and let foreigners take over the country. In other words, in order to de-colonize, we must first re-colonize.

It is non sequiturs of this nature which will from now on decide our destiny.

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW / TRACES OF SOME INDISTINCT RELATIONS 
 
 
BY MADHUMITA BHATTACHARYYA
 
 
KARTOGRAPHY
By Kamila Shamsie,
Bloomsbury, £ 9.99

Kamila Shamsie is one of 21 women writers under the age of 35 who have been chosen for the “Orange Futures” promotional campaign, set up under the Orange Prize for Fiction. Scheduled for publication in June 2002, Kartography is a tale of friendship and love in times of ethnic war and cultural upheaval.

Raheen, the narrator, and Karim are born in a Karachi divided in spirit. “Soulmates” from birth, the two 13-year-olds we see at the outset of the novel share a bond deeper than ordinary friendship. “You know, if I wasn’t me, you wouldn’t be you,” said Karim to his friend. “I believed that somewhere beneath skin and bone and blood, somewhere beyond personality and reflex, somewhere deep within the marrow of our marrow, we were the same,” feels Raheen.

There is, from the start, a sense of doom, a feeling that melodrama is not far away. But a cloud hangs over the future of the two, not only because of the constant state of political conflict, but also because of the complex, though caring, dynamic which exists between the parents of both children.

Yasmin and Zafar, or Raheen’s parents, and Maheen and Ali, Karim’s mother and father, have been friends for years. But somewhere in the past, in the shadow of the strife of 1971, we are told, Yasmin and Maheen had “swapped fiancés”. Karim’s parents are constantly fighting when Ali decides to shift the family to London. When Maheen eventually leaves, Raheen and Karim drift further and further apart. As they take separate paths to negotiate the truth of their own selves as well as that of their families and nation, a seemingly unbridgeable gap forms.

While Shamsie’s narrative engages the reader in its romance and heartbreak, it fails to involve in its political views. Too few facts are shared about the clashes between various Islamic sects in 1971 and in the late Eighties, when the novel is set. The casteist riots do require some basic explanations for the uninitiated for the drama to have real impact. Though it is clear that Shamsie is writing only of the personal ramifications of displacement, discrimination and violence, for one to respond to the intense crises the characters are plunged into further elaboration was needed.

The truth of Zafar’s estrangement from Maheen is bitter and ugly, and the forces behind it are not given a personal, human context. The fragmented flashback to recapture the lives of the two older couples is used effectively by Shamsie to heighten the mood of foreboding. We, like Raheen, are in the dark about the traumatic histories. It is the curiosity about what force wrenched apart apparently strong relationships — and what kept the friends together despite it — that keeps readers engaged in what in many other ways fails as a plot.

Many of the characters and relationships in Kartography are only sketchily defined. Shamsie gets off to a good start but towards the end she seems to have been caught up in her own drama. Raheen’s (and even Karim’s, to a large extent) relationship with Zafar is essential to the plot, but lacks real substance. Yasmin’s love for her husband, potently strong, is not adequately shaped. This is felt sharply when she stands up to her child, in defence of her husband, in the climactic chapters in a manner that can be broadly likened to that of Linda in Death of a Salesman.

The sporadic attempts at innovation with style are a dismal failure of Kartography. This is a book that works if only because of its straightforward narrative thread. Sudden injections of the authorial voice are as unwelcome as are the sudden passages attempting, presumably, a stream-of-consciousness technique. Shamsie’s imagery often fails, but the prose is saved by an eye for detail and sensuous imagination.

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW / COLLECTOR’S ITEM 
 
 
BY MALAVIKA R. BANERJEE
 
 
THE PICADOR BOOK OF MODERN INDIAN LITERATURE
Edited By Amit Chaudhuri,
Picador, Rs 395

Editing an anthology is difficult business for a writer at a time when readers are more interested in notable exclusions than in those whose works actually make the cut. In his collection, Amit Chaudhuri takes as much care to explain exclusions as he does to justify inclusions. He cites lack of space, poor translations and the magnitude of the task as reasons for excluding a few “famous names”, and adds that they “can easily be found in other anthologies, and in bookshops”.

Chaudhuri says there are 20 writers in English (Michael Madhusudan Dutt features in the Bengali section, but the pieces chosen were written by him in English) only because the anthology is in English. His inclusion of seven Bengali writers is explained by the extent to which his sensibility has been formed by the language. Once the sticky business of explaining the list of writers is over — two essays and a note on the selection are devoted to this — he presents a collection that is exhaustive without being unwieldy. Chaudhuri provides the reader with a short introduction to each writer. It is here that the editor really scores because each note is incisive, analyses the place of the writer in his literary canon and also explains why the extract chosen is indicative of what’s best in his or her work.

This is necessary since works from eight languages are included in this collection, and very few readers would claim to have heard of, leave alone read, each writer in the collection. These notes are also helpful because the “oldest” writer in the collection, Michael Madhusudan Dutt, was born in 1824 and the youngest, Pankaj Mishra, in 1969. Eight languages and 145 years of writing have been sifted to bring out this anthology, an achievement that requires plenty of hard work and remarkable scholarship.

Chaudhuri impresses even more in the most critical test of an anthology — the choice of pieces. For an editor this aspect is perhaps even more difficult than the initial choice of writers. Chaudhuri pulls it off with style since he has chosen pieces that speak as much about reading, writing and writers in India as they do about India itself. The notable extracts are a description of Tagore’s funeral from Buddhadev Bose’s Tithidore, “An Informal Essay” by A.K. Ramanujan, Edmund Wilson in Benares by Mishra, The Emperor Has No Clothes by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra and R.K. Narayan’s English Teacher. Even when he picks a comparatively less-known writer ahead of a celebrated one, the piece chosen justifies the decision. For example, Ismat Chughtai is absent from the Urdu section where Naiyer Masud is included. However, the latter’s “Sheesha Ghat”, an unusual and magical short story, certainly merits a place.

The only two writers Chaudhuri does not do full justice to are O.V. Vijayan and Amitav Ghosh. Vijayan’s Dharmapuranam may have been a better choice thanParakal (The Rocks) since it is more representative of his experiments with satire and allegory. The Amitav Ghosh section, too, could have done with better excerpts than “Four Corners” and “Tibetan Dinner”. While most of the anthology is divided according to language, there is a section on autobiographies which includes one Oriya and three English pieces. Chaudhuri says: “Autobiography has not been only a form of confession, or revelation, but an act of distancing and interpretation; it has been shaped not only by the personal, but has been an examination of what the personal is in relationship to the national, and to the historical.” The extracts from Fakir Mohan Senapati, Nirad C. Chaudhuri, Aubrey Menen and Mishra are again well-chosen, since they reveal as much about the times as they do about the writer.

While Hindi and Urdu are well represented in the collection, the clubbing of Malayalam, Tamil and Kannada as “The South” is as unnecessary as it is uncharacteristic of the editor. However, Chaudhuri makes amends by choosing well in three of the four extracts that comprise the “South” section. Chaudhuri clearly states that his anthology “is not a riposte to any other anthology” since it was started five or six years ago. Such a statement was obviously necessitated by the publication of Salman Rushdie’s anthology only four years ago to coincide with 50 years of Indian independence. Rushdie’s anthology made news because he chose to explain the virtual absence of vernacular literature from the anthology by claiming: “the prose-writing by Indian writers working in English is proving to be a stronger and more important body of work than most of what has been produced in the 16 ‘official’ languages during the same time.”

The Picador anthology contains plenty of vernacular literature and could easily be seen as a riposte to Rushdie. It is to Chaudhuri’s credit that he sticks to his task and does not seek to confront Rushdie. Speaking of the angry reactions to Rushdie’s statement, he observes: “I can’t remember another time in the recent past when the Indian urban middle classes extolled the virtues of regional writing at such length.”

Gentle irony and humour are present in all of Chaudhuri’s introductions, but he is informative rather than merely clever. While there is no work by Chaudhuri in the anthology, his notes and essays are proof that he himself is part of the group of writers he has carefully chosen to represent the best in Indian writing.

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW / THE SEARCH FOR AN IDENTITY 
 
 
BY GARGI GUPTA
 
 
SEXUALITY, OBSCENITY, COMMUNITY
By Charu Gupta,
Permanent Black, Rs 650

It is uncanny how much this book presages current events. Not just the cycle of retributive violence in Gujarat today, but also every instance of communal violence starting with the riots during Partition. As well as the supposed roots of this violence: the virulent, almost pathological, hatred of Muslims, the fear that “they” are out to usurp what is ours — our women, our resources, our country, that “they” are a corrupt, dirty and lascivious race which will breed the Hindus out of existence, that they are the cause of the “corrupt” state of Hinduism today. Even the calumny and the lies used by the Hindu propagandists to spread violence foreshadow recent happenings.

Charu Gupta’s sphere of inquiry is Uttar Pradesh in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Her concern is the emergence of an aggressive Hindu cultural and political identity, and how it depended upon a refashioning of patriarchy and the further restriction of the daily lives of women. But her conclusions, culled from a wide variety of materials ranging from political pamphlets and other polemical tracts, magazines, newspaper reports, novels, poetry and even oral literary traditions, are as relevant today as they were at the time of writing. Some of this literature could be easily transported to the present day, and they would be as applicable, as provocative, even today. Consider,

Buzdili chorke maidan mein anahoga,

Hinduon ab tumhe kuch karke dikhana hoga…

(Bandhusamaj, Hinduon ki Tez Talwar, 1927).

(Leave aside cowardice and enter the battlefield/ O Hindus you must do something now)

Or,

“…they [Muslims] are aware of our weaknesses and thus can harm us much more…Intolerance is the basic nature of Muslims.”

(Bhai Parmanand, Hindu Jati Ka Rahasya, 1928)

The argument, the rhetoric, even the words, could easily have been that of the sangh parivar.

But however much this part of Gupta’s thesis might appeal to the reader, she is not the first to propound it. The most interesting section of Gupta’s book deals with the way this resurgent Hindu identity built itself around the condemnation of elements of popular literature which were perceived to be salacious and tempt readers towards promiscuity.

The vernacular high-literary genre of medieval times, which continued until the 19th century was riti poetry — devotional verses celebrating the love between Radha and Krishna. This tradition, also called nayak-nayika bhed, was frequently risqué and subversive of conventional propriety. Whether it was the influence of Victorian notions of morality and respectability, or whether Hindu publicists were drawing on British condemnation of the Hindu arts as morally degenerate, obscene, backward, such poetry was the first victim of the reformist agenda.

Such a “morally deviant” literary tradition came to be seen as the hallmark of a “decadent, feminine and uncivilized” culture, and hence contrary to the Hindu nationalist identity being fashioned. If in the earlier literature, Radha, “the potent symbol of every woman in love… [who is] is neither mother not wife” dominated, the women of later canonical vernacular literature — fashioned by these reformists, many of whom were men of letters — were chaste and virtuous: sari-clad, wearing a bindi, with flowers as their only ornaments.

Conversely, there were also the mass-produced and semi-pornographic novels as well as the sex-manuals which claimed to be scientific and inspired by the Kamasutra, that countered this move towards respectability. These reformists could also do nothing to prevent the publishers of these cheap books (some had names like Kok Shastra and Chumban Mimansha) from advertising even in widely circulated vernacular dailies.

Thus, the reformists’ progress was a case of one step forward and two steps back. If they only partly succeeded in the case of literature, they experienced resounding success when it came to oral traditions like bhand poetry, which had disappeared by the middle of the 20th century, or Braj bhasha, which lost out to Khari Boli which was considered more masculine.

In fact, the anxiety over “masculinity” — with celibacy and self-control — is another preoccupation of the time, and in fact, the flip side of the agenda to control women.

To say that the issues Gupta raises in this book have survived through the decades is but to state the obvious. Given the long tradition of bad blood between the two communities, does it not seem rather fantastic that secularism ever came to be a part of the Indian Constitution?

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW / TERROR IN THE HEARTLAND 
 
 
BY KAUSHIK ROY
 
 
RISE OF TERRORISM AND SECESSIONISM IN EURASIA
Edited By V.D. Chopra,
Gyan, Rs 660

The end of Cold War did not result in the end of warfare. Rather, low-intensity warfare became the norm of the day. Dispersed, scattered and sporadic violence by the stateless marginal groups emerged as the principal threat to nation-states all over the world. The book under review is a collection of articles edited by V.D. Chopra. In this book the editor and his essayists grapple with the causality behind the rise of terrorism in Eurasia, the so-called heartland of the world.

Samuel Huntington’s culturalist paradigm, which argues that the emergence of anti-Christian ideologies are the principal driving force in the post-Cold War era, is challenged by Chopra and the rest who operate within the traditional Marxist paradigm focusing on economic causes and Western intervention in the third world. Chopra and his fellow essayists assert that neo-imperialism by the West and globalization are the principal causes behind present day terrorism.

Rakesh Gupta, one of the contributors to the volume under review, claims that it would be too shallow to point an accusing finger at the fundamentalism inherent in Islamic theology as the cause behind the rise of the jihadis. He claims that religion is used superficially for mobilization of the poor and the illiterate. The erosion of traditional values amidst massive socio-economic upheveals encourages the “have nots” to go back to their roots. This results in strengthening of the identities of the sub-national minority groups which encourage them to challenge the nation-state.

Rather than religious fundamentalism, argues A.K. Merchant, frustration caused by the socio-economic changes generate fanaticism among the so-called jihadis. Most of the terrorists suffer from social isolation and thus come to believe in utopianism. Ashwini Kumar argues that the political and military intervention of the West in the third world is another factor behind the emergence of terrorism. After the defeat of Iraq in the Kuwait War, Islamic theorists met at Cairo and decided that in view of American supremacy, the only way to check Western imperialism is through unconventional warfare.

Marxism has always assumed that all social ills result from economic poverty, which in turn generates social and cultural backwardness. Similarly, this volume claims that worsening economic conditions is the root cause behind the genesis of terrorism. Then how does one explain the case of Saudi Arabia, one of the richest nations of the world and also one of the greatest sponsors of global terrorism?

Again, Marxism postulates that religion is the opium of the masses. In tune with this assumption, the contributors more or less accept that Islam is used merely to distract and disorient the common mass. But can we discount the religious ethos of the terrorists? Rather than a bipolar model of rational and irrational behaviour as postulated by Marxism, probably the concept of existence of plural rationality will be more helpful in understanding the behaviour of disparate groups. To find the causes behind the rise of terrorism and secessionism in former second world countries and the third world, one has to go beyond the Marxist framework to take into account the technological revolutions in the field of communications and warfare.

   

 
 
BOOKWISE / A CUT AND THRUST AFFAIR 
 
 
BY RAVI VYAS
 
 

Begin with a story that appeared earlier this month in the news columns of the New York Times. David A. Vise, who won the Pulitzer prize for his novel, The Bureau and the Mole, had been selected for the award on the basis of national bestseller charts. On closer examination, it was discovered that Vise had ordered 20,000 copies of his own book from Barnes and noble.com, a wholesaler that controls a chain of bookstores across the United States of America. Of the 20,000 copies ordered, Vise returned 17,000 and then ordered for more copies and returned substantial numbers. This “literary pump-and-dump” strategy inflated the sale of the book, pushing it up on the bestseller charts.

Some questions arise then. First, how reliable are the bestseller lists and how are the charts worked out? Is Vise’s action “morally reprehensible”, or are all authors now expected to play a crucial role in the marketing and sales strategy of their own books? Finally, how does the system work in India? The bestseller lists are compiled on the basis of weekly reports from key bookshops in metropolitan centres. In the the US and the United Kingdom, these key bookshops are almost always a part of chain bookstores. But sales in the chain stores are calculated on the basis of purchases made by a central office and not by the rise in sales at individual stores. In India, where there are no chains to talk about, the lists are prepared on the basis of sales made by key bookshops in Delhi, Mumbai, Calcutta, Chennai and Bangalore. But purchases made by bookshops, here or in the West, is not an indicator of sales from bookshops which is, after all, the crucial test of whether the book is selling or not. Often, books purchased go back to the publisher, but there is no monitoring system to take into account the likely returns while compiling the bestseller lists. Publishers have a built-in system to take returns into account, but this is not reflected in the weekly reports.

Some publishers in India inflate their sales figures for public consumption and keep information on returns tucked under the table. This is how the system works in theory, and just how accurate the bestsellers lists are is for you to figure out. The final assessment comes about six months after publication, but this is something the people would never be allowed to know.

Vise may come through as a ruthless operator pushing his own stuff, but given the cut-and-thrust of the marketplace, it is not something of a shocker. Besides, all publishers expect the authors to play a crucial role in the marketing and sale of their own books. For “big books” (in publishing parlance, this usually means downmarket novels that are expected to bring in big bucks) there are launch parties, authors deliver talks and sign copies in bookshops and generally make themselves available at the right places. Besides, authors are expected to arrange bulk purchases of their own books through their contacts. For example, John Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage was purchased in bulk by his father, Joseph Kennedy. That got him the Pulitzer and much else besides. In India, the system works the same way as in the West, though on a much smaller scale. As an advertising executive had put it, authors are now a part of the product sales.

   

 
 
PAPERBACK PICKINGS 
 
 
 
 

Some come of age, some don’t

NABANKUR: THE SEEDLING'S TALE
By Sulekha Sanyal
(Stree, Rs 250)

Sulekha Sanyal’s Nabankur: The Seedling’s Tale is a modern Bengali classic, translated here by Gouranga P. Chattopadhyay. It is the story of Chhobi, growing up in the Bengal of the turbulent Thirties and Forties. Her childhood and adolescence are inextricably woven into and informed by the freedom struggle, the great famine of Bengal in 1943-44 and the various social movements in the run-up to independence. Like Ashapurna Devi’s Subarnalata trilogy, Nabankur also takes the reader into the problems of the domestic realm, cordoned off for a long time in the works of male novelists. Chhobi’s coming into adulthood and her growing political consciousness give rise to fresh complexities: she faces difficulties in fitting in discriminations on the basis of caste, class and gender in her scheme of things. The influence of socialism and a movement to Calcutta lead to the turning of the seedling towards the sun.

WHY I AM NOT A CIVIL SERVANT
By Ajay Singh Yadav
(Bluejay, Rs 145)

Ajay Singh Yadav’s Why I am not a civil servant is a “story of decline and decadence”, whose polemical purpose is similar to Bertrand Russell’s in Why I Am Not a Christian. The author, who contested, and lost, the 1999 elections as an independent candidate and now works as a farmer, is more preoccupied with the reasons behind writing the book than with the actual problems of the Indian civil service. When asked by his friends how he was going to fill his life after civil service, he replied that he would live on till he died. He admits that the humour was not appreciated. Much as Yadav would like readers to, it is difficult to follow his advice and “read on”.

JAISALMER: CITY OF GOLDEN SANDS AND STRANGE SPIRITS
By Bindu Manchanda
(HarperCollins, Rs 495)

Bindu Manchanda’s Jaisalmer: City of Golden Sands and Strange Spirits is a travel guide-cum-potted history of this beautiful city in the middle of the Thar desert, of its people and its culture. The magic of Satyajit Ray’s Sonar Kella comes alive in some wonderful pictures of the sun-dappled “gold” walls of the Jaisalmer fort. As such compilations go, this one is rather well done.

MAHACHAITRA: THE GREAT SPIRING AND OTHER PLAYS
By H.S. Shiva Prakash
(Seagull, Rs 225)

H.S. Shiva Prakash’s Mahachaitra: The Great Spring and Other Plays is a collection of three contemporary Kannada plays, in translation. Of these, Mahachaitra is the most famous as also the most controversial. The play is based on the life of the 12th century saint, Basavanna, whose teachings angered the conservative higher castes because they empowered the poor and backward caste artisans of his time. The play was the target of violent attacks by fundamentalists when it was first staged, while the left and Dalit political parties enthusiastically supported it.

   

 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

Fast colours don’t fade

Sir — The news conference held by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam leader, Vellupillai Prabhakaran, had the works — liveried waiters, well-spoken representatives and a claim for peace (“Tiger out of den with peace purr”, April 11). But how true is this civilized veneer of Prabhakaran? Not too much, if past examples are anything to go by. Although this public show comes after a decade or so, there have been innumerable times when the leader has gone back on his word and to more violence. It is quite obvious that the LTTE has rethought its militant attitude. The request for the safe passage of LTTE negotiator, Anton Balasingham, and the continuing demand for a separate state for Tamils are a pointer to this. While the LTTE may no longer want to play hard-ball, it is obvious that Prabhakaran means business. A few words on peace and the LTTE’s willingness to go with the flow are not enough to wipe out the memory of the devastation of the last few decades.

Yours faithfully,
Rupa Kanoi, Calcutta

Impolite nod

Sir — The Congress has once again decided to adopt a dog in the manger attitude by taking a non-cooperative stance with regard to the implementation of the Prevention of Terrorism Act in states governed by it. Yet, the implementation of an act passed by Parliament and consented to by the president cannot be a matter of choice for state governments. An act of non-compliance in this matter will make a mockery of the Central government, the Lok Sabha, the president and the people of the country.

The nation has for long been a victim of terrorism. That high-security areas like the Parliament, the Red Fort, the Srinagar assembly and the American Center in Calcutta have been targeted by terrorists is a clear sign of how vulnerable India is to such attacks. Terrorism is therefore a problem faced not merely by the Centre or states governed by the Bharatiya Janata Party.

That the Congress should continue to remain adamant about the anti-terrorist legislation shows that it remains unconcerned about the nation’s security interests. The Congress must realize that its success in the recent elections has been more because of the anti-incumbency factor than its merit. India needs POTA. The Congress and its leader must realize that this is the most inopportune moment to indulge in intra-party vote politics.

Yours faithfully,
Samir Banerjee, New Delhi

Sir — The editorial, “All is not well” (March 28), has rightly pointed to the undermining of the dignity of Parliament by the holding of the joint session to pass the prevention of terrorism ordinance. That Sonia Gandhi took the opportunity to hit out at the prime minister instead of debating the matter is a wonderful commentary on the leadership of the opposition. It is a pity that 55 years after independence, Parliament has turned into an arena for the display of unruly behaviour. There is nothing honourable about parliamentarians any more.

Yours faithfully,
Govinda Bakshi, Budge Budge

Sir — I was amused by Biswapriya Purkayastha’s logic in “Thumbs down” (April 3). In his letter, Purkayastha accuses the BJP of being undemocratic because it called a joint session of Parliament to pass POTO. He asks “of what use is a Rajya Sabha that can be bypassed so easily?” Purkayastha should note that the joint session was called strictly in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution. What is then so undemocratic about going along with constitutional provisions?

Yours faithfully,
Gopi Krishna Maliwal,Hong Kong

To give the devil its dues

Sir — I am a subscriber of the cellular services offered by the Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited. Since I only read letters criticizing the government services, I thought I should write about my experiences with BSNL. Ever since I opted for the BSNL cellular connection a couple of months back, I found the service to be excellent. The other day, when my SIM card got stuck in the handset and I had to approach the authorities, the latter immediately helped me solve the problem. With such good customer service, the BSNL should grow from strength to strength.

Your faithfully,
A.S. Mehta, Calcutta

Sir — BSNL recently introduced an ISD call service through which people could make international calls by dialling 186. This number would connect the user to an operator who would take down the details of the call — country, code, phone number and the person being called — and then connect the user to the number. Until recently, I have never failed to get prompt response from the operator. On March 25, when I dialled 186 to place a call, I was greeted with a taped message which asked me to wait for the operator. This continued for about 15 minutes till the operator came on the line and connected me to the number I wanted. After an hour when I dialled 186 again, I had to wait for 45 minutes before the operator came on the line. If the queue was what delayed the operator, BSNL must introduce more phone lines to improve services.

Yours faithfully,
Satyabrata Gupta, Calcutta

Sir — The decision to reduce overseas call rates by slashing ISD rates by 62 per cent is welcome. However, it would be more beneficial if local call rates were slashed to 50 paise, the three minute bar on calls done away with or rentals slashed further. It is more necessary to lower communication costs between Chandni Chowk and BBD Bag in Calcutta than between India and London. Instead of subsidizing the rich, the focus should be on subsidizing local calls and rural telephony.

Yours faithfully,
Vandana Rathi, Calcutta

Change planks

Sir — The South Eastern Railways has introduced two summer specials from Howrah to Chennai-Egmore. The lack of response has forced the railways to discontinue with one of the trains. The choice of Egmore as the last stop could have been the reason for the poor response. Most passengers travel further down south and have to change trains at Egmore. If the trains were extended to Kanyakumari, more passengers would be using the services.

Yours faithfully,
Latha Kumar, Calcutta

Sir — A message on the Ispat Express between Howrah and Tatanagar read that a fine to the “extend” of Rs 100 would be levied on anyone found smoking. The lack of complaints against misspelt announcements on trains does not excuse such slips on the part of the authorities.

Yours faithfully,
Subrata Sanyal, Calcutta

Letters to the editor should be sent to:

The Telegraph
6 Prafulla Sarkar Street
Calcutta 700 001
Email: [email protected]
Readers in the Northeast can write to:
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G.S. Road, Ulubari, Guwahati 781007
All letters [including those via email] should have the full name and full postal address of the sender
   
 

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