Editorial 1/ Electoral Farce
Editorial 2/ Winning Count
Incentives for enterprise
Book Review/ Beyond myths and legends
Book Review/ Ruddy baba
Book Review/ Waging peace, not war
Book Review/ The poor little rich girl
Editor’s Choice/ Against the grain of World-history
Paperback Pickings
Letters to the editor

 
 
EDITORIAL 1/ ELECTORAL FARCE 
 
 
 
 
Few, even within Pakistan, will have been surprised by Mr Pervez Musharraf’s victory in the recent referendum, which paves the way for his continuation in office as president for another five years. The prospects of an early return of real democracy in Pakistan are now even more remote than before. Given the widespread charges of malpractices, it is unlikely that Mr Musharraf will gain much legitimacy after the referendum. The poll in any case was a deeply biased exercise designed with the sole purpose of providing Mr Musharraf’s military dictatorship with a democratic facade. Consider the loaded question posed to the people: “For the survival of the local government system, establishment of democracy, continuity of reforms, end to sectarianism and extremism, and to fulfill the vision of Quaid-e-Azam Mohammed Ali Jinnah, would you like to elect President General Pervez Musharraf as president of Pakistan for five years?” In other words, the wording of the question suggested that anyone opposed to Mr Musharraf’s continuation was also against democracy and in favour of extremism. Not surprisingly, every major political party of consequence had boycotted the referendum. Indeed, rallies against the referendum, organized by the Alliance for Restoration of Democracy, a conglomerate of 15 parties, including the Pakistan People’s Party and the Pakistan Muslim League, had attracted considerable support. Even among ordinary citizens there was little enthusiasm for the referendum.

Under the circumstances, it is indeed surprising that Pakistan’s election commission has claimed that over 56 per cent of the electorate had voted. Of these, over 97 per cent are believed to have voted in favour of Mr Musharraf staying in power. However, the country’s only independent human rights organization, the Pakistan Human Rights Commission, has categorically stated that the referendum was marred by gross irregularities. Indeed, its chairman, Mr Afrasiab Khattak, has declared that the manner in which the people were hustled into voting and the flagrant abuse of election procedures “degraded the very concept of democratic choice.” The voluntary turnout, in reality, is believed to have been very low.

Even in Pakistan’s last general election in 1997, the turnout was estimated to be only 37 per cent. The only real backing the referendum received was from the supreme court of Pakistan, which rejected an attempt by the opposition to halt it. The court upheld the government’s rationale that the Pakistani constitution justifies referendums on matters of national importance. The international community’s reaction to the referendum has been predictably muted. The dominant opinion within the Bush administration still is that Mr Musharraf, rather than any other alternative, can best serve American policies in the region. Narrow self-interest, rather than issues of principle, are therefore guiding the policies of most states towards Pakistan. Continuation in power of a friendly dictator seems more important than the return of democracy.

   

 
 
EDITORIAL 2/ WINNING COUNT 
 
 
 
 
It was either divine prescience or ruthlessly cynical counting skills. But the Bharatiya Janata Party always knew it was sitting pretty. There really was no danger for it from the voting on the Gujarat issue under Section 184, and its 94-vote victory after a marathon debate showed how well-founded its optimism — or perhaps defiance — was. Politics in India has come to a pretty pass. It would seem from the outcome of the strident abuse and thunderous lying in Parliament that numbers alone can determine the national ethos. The complete abandonment of both democratic and humanistic principles appears to have been of no moment at all. By winning the vote, the BJP has reasserted its right to keep the place in governance it now occupies and, by implication, vindicated its attitude towards the violence in Gujarat.

But numbers, however impressive, cannot add up to moral authority; at best, they symbolize the victory of political strategy, opportunistic calculation, and plain strong-arm tactics. The BJP’s adamant championship of the Gujarat chief minister, Mr Narendra Modi, its strange casualness towards the sufferings of a large section of the people in Gujarat, its shameless setting off of the burning of the Sabarmati Express in Godhra against the later killings in the state, all show that this is not a party that can be trusted with the governance of a multi-religious, multi-ethnic country. That it is still in place, though, is the responsibility of all the parties in the NDA that call themselves secular. The Telugu Desam Party abstained from voting but is still hanging on to the alliance. The Janata Dal (United) is split down the middle, and Mr Omar Abdullah of the National Conference, which abstained too, has resigned his ministership. The TDP, which had the loudest voice in criticism, has lost its teeth. Its demand for Mr Modi’s removal means nothing until it can break its ties with the BJP. And most interesting is the Bahujan Samaj Party, reputedly champions of the underprivileged, which voted in favour of the BJP in the first flush of love for its new ally in Uttar Pradesh. If cracks are showing in the NDA, they do not matter to the BJP so far. In contrast, what matters to the country most is the fact that there has been no clear and effective condemnation of the political forces behind the killings in Gujarat.

   

 
 
INCENTIVES FOR ENTERPRISE 
 
 
BY S. VENKITARAMANAN
 
 
The monetary and credit policy of the governor of the Reserve Bank of India, Bimal Jalan, for the year 2002-03, which has been on expected lines, has been accompanied by a masterly review of the macro-economic situation.

The monetary policy normally announces the RBI’s stance on two important policy variables — the cash reserve ratio and the bank rate. The CRR refers to the percentage of demand and time liabilities, that is deposits which banks are expected to maintain as reserves with the central bank. This has been brought down over the period of reforms from a high of 11 per cent to 5.5 per cent.

The governor’s announcement of a cut in CRR by half per cent, is, however, surprising when reviewed against the context of high liquidity. The governor is obviously pursuing the desirable objective of reducing CRR over time to the statutory level of 3 per cent. A high CRR is viewed by many economists as a tax on banks and an impediment to operations. The move towards reduction of CRR is, therefore, to be welcomed notwithstanding its addition to liquidity.

The governor has, however, refrained from changing the bank rate. The bank rate is the rate at which the RBI normally lends to banks against approved securities. The governor has already noted in his earlier statements that the bank rate has ceased to have much impact on the interest rates, except for a signalling effect. He has, however, put the economy on notice that although he is not at present changing the bank rate, he reserves the right to review the same in the light of the developing situation.

The governor takes credit for the confluence of circumstances, which have led to the present comfortable economic situation. This comprises a robust foreign exchange reserve of nearly $ 54 billion, a low level of inflation ranging around one to two per cent in terms of wholesale price index and a soft interest rate environment, the lowest in recent history.

The yield on government securities has also been substantially lowered during the recent period. Jalan points out that reduction in yield while of benefit to the fisc, has not gone hand-in-hand with a corresponding reduction in the cost of borrowing for the rest of the economy. The spread between yields on government securities and the prime quality corporate paper still remains high.

Further, the governor notes that while banks have been announcing lower prime lending rates, the rates which they charge for corporate borrowers are much higher. The governor has asked that banks should publicize the spreads between the PLRs and the actual lending rates. It is only competition in the market place that can ultimately prove effective in reducing rates of interest.

The governor is frank about the reasons for the stickiness in banks’ lending rates, mainly because the operating costs of banks, especially public sector banks, are quite high. Further, the average cost of raising deposits of major banks remains around 6.25 per cent to 7.25 per cent. This puts a floor on the interest which can be charged by the banks. The operating expenses of the banks work out to 2.5 per cent to 3.5 per cent of their total assets. Further, in view of the legal constraints and procedural bottlenecks in the recovery of dues by banks, non-performing assets represent a loss, which has to be passed on. Besides, the large borrowing programme of the government lifts the interest rates that banks can get. Taking all this into account, it is not easy for banks to reduce their lending rates to corporates and individuals, even if they announce low PLR.

With a view to reducing interest costs of deposits, the policy suggests introduction of a flexible interest rate system for deposits with interest rates reset at six-monthly intervals. To begin with, such a flexible deposit rate system may not be welcomed by depositors in the absence of clarifications as to its advantages. Can the RBI incentivize depositors to moving towards the new system?

Reacting to the low growth of exports, the credit policy includes important announcements on interest rate on export credit. Exporters today have the option to avail themselves of pre-shipment and post-shipment credit in foreign currency from banks in India. The ceiling rate on export credit in foreign currency is being reduced to London Inter-Bank Offered Rate +0.75 per cent from the present Libor +1 per cent points. Jalan has also further relaxed the conditions on export credit in rupees. Earlier, the ceilings on export credit rates had been reduced to 2.5 percentage points below the PLR for a period upto March 31, 2002. This concession will now be available upto September 30, 2002. Taking into account the forward premium, the effective interest cost of rupee export credit to exporters becomes only 2 per cent to 3 per cent.

Importantly, the governor’s policy has extended a concessional rate of interest to parties against orders of supplies with respect to deemed exports. Banks are expected to widely publicize the availability of concession in interest rates for deemed exports. While these steps in favour of exporters are both timely and welcome, their impact on enhancing Indian exporters’ competitiveness needs to be carefully monitored.

The governor’s policy statement is further noteworthy for the reforms it has introduced on the call-money market. It has put caps on the use of call-money market — which is basically overnight money — for financing core business of a long-term nature. This limits the scope for maturity mismatches in banks, besides avoiding potential speculative losses. The RBI’s reforms in this sector are to be welcomed.

The governor’s statement notes with a sense of satisfaction the substantial improvements in foreign exchange reserves over the recent period. Jalan mentions that in the last four years since the east Asian crisis of 1997-98, India’s foreign exchange reserves have more than doubled. The governor’s policy justifies the build-up of adequate level of foreign exchange reserves in view of international experience of countries faced by volatile flows. The RBI has rightly focussed on reserves needed to reflect the liquidity risks associated with different types of foreign exchange flows and other requirements, in particular, the movement in repatriable foreign currency non-resident deposits.

So far as exchange rate management is concerned, the governor continues his stance in favour of maintaining orderly conditions in the market, without targeting a specific level of exchange rates. Considering the fragility of exchange rate markets, in general, his caution is well in order. Expectations have an important role in exciting volatility in exchange markets. In this context, one welcome affirmation by the RBI that it stands ready to meet all demands, especially any sharp day-to-day supply imbalances and debt servicing obligations of the government.

Among the relaxations regarding foreign exchange transactions, mention must be made of corporate borrowers being allowed to repay the European central banks to the extent of balances in their European Economics and Financial Centre accounts with the approval of the RBI. Intriguing, however, is the relaxation on borrowing of banks from the overseas market to meet local requirements. In the context of abundance of foreign exchange reserves, this policy of allowing banks to borrow up to 25 per cent of their unimpaired Tier-1 from the overseas market seems to be premature. While the objective, no doubt, is to integrate the Indian market with the global markets, the inevitable appreciation of the exchange rate deserves to be considered.

The policy statement is not too optimistic with regard to credit off-take. Non-food credit registered a lower growth of 12.8 per cent in 2001-02 as against an increase of 14.9 per cent in the previous year. Even including the investment of scheduled commercial banks in bonds, debentures and shares, the total flow of funds from banks to the commercial sector during 2001-02 was only 12 per cent compared to 15.1 per cent in the previous year. The only item of credit, which seems to be increasing, is credit to the government. The excess of bank holdings above the short-term lending rate itself amounted to more than Rs 1,40, 000 crore. Such a large exposure to government securities, says the governor, may inhibit the banks’ ability to meet the credit requirements of productive quarters of the economy if there is a significant pickup of demand.

The governor has reiterated his intention to divest the RBI of ownership function with the institutions it regulates. Action is still to be taken in respect of the State Bank of India, National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development and the National Housing Bank, for which approval of the government of India is pending.

Overall, the latest statement on monetary and credit policy of 2002-03 incorporates a number of operational changes as well as reforms, which help the better functioning of the financial sector. It reflects a pragmatic blend of policy reform with practicality. Whether Jalan’s policy initiatives will succeed in stimulating the economy and a higher level of growth is, however, doubtful. Adequacy of funds at reasonable rates is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for the economy to grow. What entrepreneurs require is growth of demand for their products that can come about only by a concrete stimulus given by investments both by government and the private sector. The RBI can only create enabling conditions for businesses to be active. It is up to the government of India to take further steps needed to create a stimulative environment that will trigger the animal spirits of enterprise.

The author is former governor, Reserve Bank of India

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW/ BEYOND MYTHS AND LEGENDS 
 
 
BY LAKSHMI SUBRAMANIAN
 
 
TEXTURES OF TIME: WRITING HISTORY IN SOUTH INDIA 1600-1800
By Velcheru Narayana Rao, David Shulman and Sanjay Subrahmanyam,
Permanent Black, Rs 550

Where lies India’s historical tradition? Was there ever a tradition of history writing or was it simply myth and legend following in a cyclical pattern until the colonial rulers set about the serious business of sponsoring India’s history as a discovery and a discipline? The book under review attempts to answer some of the questions and in the process explodes a number of enduring myths about indigenous history-writing in India. For decades, we have been given to believe that India’s imagining of her past was the product of poetic fantasy and imagination, far removed from the actual discipline of history that evolved in the West as a fixed and stable genre in the 18th and 19th centuries. From this followed the inevitable conclusion that history was an alien import brought in by the West to India.

Textures of Time argues otherwise. Its authors present a brief for a rich and complex tradition of historical consciousness and writing in pre-British India. Exploring a staggering array of texts in Sanskrit, Persian and the vernaculars, composed in southern India between the 16th and 18th centuries, the work recovers the tradition of history writing in medieval and early modern south India. Alongside, it also suggests possible ways of reading the texts to appreciate their historicity. In this, texture emerges as a critical marker, particularly in a context where history had not coalesced into a single genre. Historical tradition in India, the authors argue, did not adhere to any formal type but was located within larger modes of writing. A work could thus be both historical and non-historical and it remained for the sensitive listener or reader to deploy his sense of texture to distinguish between the factual and fictional modes within a single genre. The adoption of such a perspective not merely expands history beyond conventional recognition but facilitates access to a world of logic and sensibility that goes beyond “fact” and “truth”.

A major shift in the emergence of historiography in south India was associated with the Karanams, essentially a scribal class. The community was mobile and accommodated new members over the 16th and 18th centuries. For this community, recording the past assumed a new function; as the custodians of cultural knowledge, it was the group’s right to produce history and one that required, as its precondition, a particular process of selection, ordering and evaluation. Prose became the preferred style and the need to legitimize political culture and ensure it in its perpetuity became the raison dêtre of Karanam historiography. It assumed its most mature form in the 17th and 18th centuries, when factual historicity and causality emerged in sharp contrast to previous modes. By this time, the Karanams were dedicated to the written transmission of records and eager to organize historical memory in terms of its analysis of power and politics. Illustrating this tendency, the celebrated Telugu prose text known as the Tanjavuri Andhra Rajula Charitram (the story of the Telugu kings of Tanjavur) is examined in great detail. The sequencing of events, the causality attributed to the logic of temporality and finally the space for ironic self-reflection set the text quite apart as a major moment in the tradition of history writing.

We are left in no doubt that south India had more than its share of historians who worked out their notions of cause and effect and expressed a sensibility that was eloquent and easily distinguishable by external markers.

The argument is powerful and elaborated through a sensitive reading of voluminous material. The book, however, is certainly not for the uninitiated as it compresses an enormous amount of material into a complex theoretical folder.

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW/ RUDDY BABA 
 
 
BY SREYASHI DASTIDAR
 
 
THE LONG RECESSIONAL: THE IMPERIAL LIFE OF RUDYARD KIPLING
By David Gilmour,
John Murray, £ 22.50

Of the 42 years from his birth in 1865 till he won the Nobel Prize in 1907, Rudyard Kipling spent less than 19 years in England. Yet, he came to be regarded as the greatest spokesman of British imperialism, the favourite child of the Empire. Kipling never saw a battle in India. Yet he is credited with making the modern soldier. For some like George Orwell, however, he epitomized the “jingo imperialist…morally insensitive and aesthetically disgusting”.

David Gilmour’s one-point agenda is to rescue Kipling from the Orwellian formulation. But in trying to do so, he reveals a man with two sides to his head, one “mocking Indians for their political pretensions and their ‘orientally unclean…habits’…and the other intensely receptive to sights, smells and sounds…absorbing the experience without feeling the need to censure”. The best part about Gilmour is that he does not feel the need to censure either, stating matter-of-factly that Kipling, “like his father…preferred ‘Mussalmans’ to Hindus” or that he was “no more concerned about the political rights of native Africans than he had been about Indian constitutional rights in the Subcontinent”. Gilmour also admits that it was perhaps the idea of England, and a sense of its capability and potential, that attracted Kipling much more than the reality.

India was perhaps the only country that Kipling tried to understand. The rest — including America, South Africa, Canada, Egypt and Brazil — he decided to despise. Long after he had left India, never to return, in 1889, his works continued to revolve around India and Indians. Kim, the last and arguably the most important of his Indian writings, was published as late as 1901. In contrast, his wanderings in other continents produced mostly polemical works, with the exception of Captains Courageous, inspired by America.

Kipling experienced India first as a child, much like Kimball O’Hara, with an inquisitive mind, untainted by racial or moral prejudices, and then as a young journalist, needing to absorb the country through all his senses, in addition to his exceptionally agile mind. His stint with the Civil and Military Gazette and the Pioneer inspired some of his finest Indian works, including Departmental Ditties (1886), Soldier Tales, Indian Tales (1887), The Story of the Gadsbys, Plain Tales from the Hills, In Black and White and Wee Willie Winkie (1888). Gilmour is correct in observing that the sharp edge in Kipling’s journalistic writing is difficult to detect in his later works. His years as a scribe also stood him in good stead when questions of authenticity were raised, a tricky hurdle where even Forster faltered.

The boy who had left India at the age of five was “Ruddy baba”. The man who came back as the assistant editor of the Gazette was “Kipling sahib” (or Kuppeeleen sahib), although only 16. The 11 years in between, and the able guidance of Cormell Price, his British headmaster, had taught him “to make and keep empires”. The “Ruddy baba” and the “Kipling sahib” selves were most often at odds with each other, but managed to work in tandem beautifully in Kim. Kim and the lama were informed by his close encounters with native India as a child, while the babudom of Huree Chunder Mookerjee and Grish Chunder Dé were sketched with a journalist’s eye for detail. The Gazette-Pioneer experience brought Kipling closer to the Anglo-Indian civil servant community and the upper echelons of Indian society. Quite evidently, the former proved a more rewarding study than the latter, since Kipling ended up reflecting: “You’ll never plumb the Oriental Mind/ And if you did, it isn’t worth the toil” (“One Viceroy Resigns”). Interestingly, the poem is a dramatic monologue written as Lord Dufferin’s reflections on his rule and advice to his successor. Gilmour, with some degree of reluctance, admits that “the views expressed belonged more to Kipling than to Dufferin”.

While India would not fit into any neat theorizations, Kipling was a little surprised to find that America did. A society, whose “barbarism plus telephone, electric light, rail and suffrage” and “moral dry rot” he found difficult to accept, was soon being exhorted to take up “The White Man’s Burden”. For Kipling, Americans in 1899 were on “the threshold of… the White Man’s work, the business of introducing a sane and orderly administration into the dark places of the earth” (in this case, the Philippines).

But unable to sustain himself on the New World, he moved on to South Africa, where he took up the imperial cause against the Boers. Kipling, the prophet, emerged from the ruins of the Boer War, unable to rejoice in the imperial success because he could see the sun gradually setting on the Empire. He prophesied the Nazi threat, but during his time it was regarded as yet another expression of his undisguised hatred of the Germans. As Kipling’s political activism increased, from the American years, his literature declined just as fast.

There is an unknown Kipling too. One who was exceptionally sensitive to the plight of Indian women and more liberal than the most liberal Victorian on sexual matters; one who never tried to impose epic qualities on his fictional soldiers, only human ones; one who was shattered by the death of his favourite daughter, Josephine, and son, John, but would never speak about it, just as he retrieved and destroyed most of the letters he had written. Above all, one who refused to hit back at the numerous, often vicious, parodies of his poems. Gilmour’s greatest achievement is in discreetly unveiling the “other” Kipling without upsetting his impeccable scholarship.

Few poets other than Shakespeare have been as widely read and quoted as Kipling. But few have been as misunderstood. And quoted out of context, as Gilmour points out, citing the famous lines from “The Ballad of East and West”: “Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet/ Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment seat”. “The apparent message of these lines”, Gilmour observes, “is contradicted by the rest of the verse, which asserts that two men of similar courage and ability can be equals despite multitudinous differences of class, race, nation and continent.” “But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,/ When two strong men stand face to face, tho’ they come from the ends of the earth.” These are postcolonial times, and Kipling, the white man, has an enormous burden. Gilmour’s is a commendable effort to lighten it.

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW/ WAGING PEACE, NOT WAR 
 
 
BY KAUSHIK ROY
 
 
TRUMPETS AND TUMULTS: THE MEMOIRS OF A PEACEKEEPER
By Indar Jit Rikhye,
Manohar, Rs 500

Terrorism and secessionism have emerged as the two most potent threats in the post-Cold War global order. No wonder then that peace-keeping rather than conventional warfare has become the principal task of Western armies in the 21st century. Even for the Indian army, deployed extensively in counter-insurgency duties, peace-enforcement is becoming very important. So says, Major-General Indar Jit Rikhye, who has extensive experience as a peace-keeper with the United Nations.

Rikhye, a Punjabi Hindu, decided to join the British-led Indian army which was being Indianized, albeit reluctantly, under pressure from the nationalist leaders. In 1937, he entered the university training corps in Lahore and two years’ later, joined as a commissioned officer.

Peace-keeping, however, is a very different from conventional warfare. The commander of a peace-keeping force must know how to synchronize the operations of the infantry, air force and marine units. Though he was commissioned in the cavalry, Rikhye knew all about mounting coordinated operations — after his graduation from the Indian Military Academy, he spent a month on ground training and later joined the flying school in Hyderabad. In west Asia, he served as the general staff officer for air operations while in Italy, he arranged air support for the eighth Indian division.

Officers who lead peace-keeping forces must also be able to command disparate ethnic groups. In 1941, Rikhye led the Punjabi Muslim squadron of the sixth Lancers, an experience which came in handy when he fought a low-intensity war against the Pathan tribes who invaded Kashmir after independence. For Rikhye, the break came in 1957 when he was made commander of the 1st Para, a part of the UN emergency force patrolling Gaza and Sinai.

According to Rikhye, Jawaharlal Nehru, despite an aversion to matters military, was quite keen on sending Indian troops for UN operations, probably because he saw such operations as being important to the non-aligned movement.

A peace-keeper must also take care to reduce collateral damage. He should know how to negotiate local political pressures, as well as work to improve the linkages between the political, administrative and civil infrastructures. Since Rikhye was good at all this, he was appointed commander of Ladakh in 1990 before being returned to the UN. His brief was to maintain peace in this Buddhist dominated region and to establish contact with the Muslim politicians of Kashmir.

Several armed separatist movements have been threatening the nation from the Eighties. The Indian army is neither conceptually educated nor physically trained for peace-keeping. This results in many human rights violations, which not only attract international opprobrium but also provoke citizens into siding with the terrorists. The Indian army and the policymakers could have learnt a lot from Rikhye. But unfortunately after his retirement from the UN, he was not re-absorbed into the Indian army. This only goes to show how Indian political system has increased its grip over defence affairs, much to its detriment.

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW/ THE POOR LITTLE RICH GIRL 
 
 
BY RUPA BAJWA
 
 
SINGAREVVA AND THE PALACE
By Chandrasekhar Kambar,
Katha, Rs 295

From beginning to end, Singarevva and the Palace keeps the reader in a state of apprehension, giving a glimpse of the claustrophobic world of two women circumscribed by a cruel tradition and a feudal setup. The dim, dilapidated palace where they live is the ideal setting for the story, with its dark halls and many pillars, which cast eerie shadows.

One of them is Singarevva, a beautiful, upper-caste girl who could have had the best of everything. Yet, she leads a miserable life, thanks to a greedy father and an impotent, indifferent husband. The only person she can talk to is Sheeningavva, her maid, confidante and companion. And Mareppa, the outcaste Holya who cherishes a passion for Singarevva. Though he is quite the ste- reotypical violent, low-caste lover, Mareppa nevertheless brings to the fore the brutality lurking in society.

The story is pretty simple, but the vibrant and arresting narrative style elevates it above the ordinary. The novel unfolds in layers which reveal the story from different angles. It is reminiscent of the oral traditions of storytelling, full of myths and folklore, intrigue and drama.

Two things stand out in the novel. One is the absence of the consciousness to struggle for liberty in any of the characters. The savagery of the social structure leaves no room for such a struggle in their lives. In the end, however, Singarevva does achieve a freedom of sorts. She sleeps with Mareppa (almost with a purposeful anger) and bears the child she had been longing for. But even this apparent liberation seems partial, transient and tenuous.

Also remarkable is Sheeningavva, who narrates the story to the author. She is as oppressed as Singarevva, but her story is told only through that of her mistress. Sheeningavva is as infatuated with Mareppa, and yet her own unfulfillment never becomes the focus of her narration. The subtle nuances of class differences that run through the novel are clearly an integral part of the bond between the two. When Sheeningavva is accused of stealing gold bangles and beaten up, Singarevva watches in self-absorbed silence.

Sheeningavva accepts this as her lot. The momentary rebellion in “Why hadn’t she come to my defence when I had sworn my innocence... She would never understand my suffering”, quickly gives way to, “Though my back is sore and I still feel humiliated, I know it was my mistake”. Sheeningavva just can’t bring herself to think beyond social hierarchies.

Katha’s first novel comes as a pleasant surprise. Well-defined characters and a powerful and unusual narrative make it an absorbing read. Translated with care from the Kannada original by Laxmi Chandra- sekhar, hopefully Singarevva and the Palace will be the first of more such translations.

   

 
 
EDITOR’S CHOICE/ AGAINST THE GRAIN OF WORLD-HISTORY 
 
 
 
 
Everything that Ranajit Guha writes is invariably intellectually challenging and demanding. His ideas refuse to move in complacent grooves and he harasses his readers into thinking beyond the shibboleths that make them comfortable. This makes him the most exciting historian of India but it is never easy to meet the demands that he makes on his readers. His latest book brings together a fine reading of Hegel, a commentary on the first history books to be written under the aegis of Fort William College, Calcutta, in the early 19th century, and an extraordinarily sensitive interpretation of a neglected aspect of Rabindranath Tagore.

In the early Eighties, Guha had declared a crusade against the statist and elitist bias embedded in Indian historiography. He located the origins of this bias in colonialist knowledge whose operation, in the field of historiography, had aimed at reducing all of Indian history to a “highly interesting portion of the British history”. The quoted words were written by James Mill. Guha’s project was not only to critique this tendency but also to create an Indian historiography of India; he called “upon the colonized to recover their past appropriated by conquest and colonization; to expropriate the expropriators”.

This was by no means an easy task. The academic discipline of history, to which Indian historiography was inevitably and inextricably tied, grew out of a wider European intellectual enterprise, the Enlightenment. The premises of history were Eurocentric to the exclusion of the historical experience of the rest of the world which Europe dominated. World-history suppressed other modes of remembering and narrating the past. The patterns of history and development of a small part of the world became the model for the rest of the world. What Europe and its thinkers considered to be history became History. To be rid of this intellectual baggage it is necessary, in the words of one of Guha’s younger colleagues, Dipesh Chakrabarty, to provincialize Europe.

Guha unpacks the Hegelian concept of World-history which, riding piggyback on philosophy, became a theodicy. World-history, Hegel wrote, “exhibits nothing other than the plan of providence”. World-history has the blessing of God. Thus, according to Hegel, “no representations should be made against world-historical deeds and those who perform them by moral circles to which such individuals do not belong”. Guha takes issue with this and denies World-history the moral licence it claims for itself. There was the possibility that World-history would become the prose of the world and embrace the entire gamut of human existence.

Hegel stymied those possibilities. The prose of history, as distinct from the prose of the world, contained World-history by “making the state the principal instrument for the development of history and historiography”. World-history, because it was a theodicy, could not be left to chance, it had to have a pre-determined pattern. This pattern was the fulfillment of the Idea; history is always in train of the Geist. But the state, in Hegel’s system, embodied the Idea. Thus only those nations that had a state could have a history. India had no history, in Hegel’s view.

Guha shows how in India, through the pervasive presence of colonialist forms of knowledge, World-history triumphed over itihas, experience over wonder. Yet, there was a history outside the limit of World-history. Guha directs attention to this through one of Tagore’s little known pieces (Sahitye Aitihashikata or Historicality in Literature) written towards the end of his life. Tagore, Guha suggests, recognized the limits of the academic discipline of history and issued a “call to historians for a creative engagement with the past as a story of man’s being in the everyday world”. This call, according to Guha, was nothing short of “a call for historicality to be rescued from its containment in World-history”.

Guha sees his book as a response to Tagore’s call. But Guha brings to the response a breathtaking erudition and philosophical sophistication seldom seen in the writings of professional historians. Guha has always been a self-conscious stylist. His sensitivity to language is evident from his prose which coruscates. Few minds have better explored history’s cunning passages and contrived corridors.

   

 
 
PAPERBACK PICKINGS 
 
 
 
 

The absurd in the vernacular

RUPA EKANKI SERIES: UMBRELLAS AND FATHER
By Chandrashekhar Patil,
THE TEMPLE ELEPHANT AND GOD GETS IT WRONG AGAIN
By Omchery
(Rupa, Rs 40 each)

Rupa Ekanki Series: Umbrellas and Father by Chandrashekhar Patil, The temple elephant and God gets it wrong again by Omchery presents an interesting collection of one act plays translated into English from a wide range of Indian vernaculars. Patil is a fairly eminent Kannada playwright, poet and columnist, and leads the Bandaya literary movement. Umbrellas is one of the earliest absurdist plays to be written in Kannada in the Sixties. The shadow of Beckett obviously looms large: “Both X and Y are non-descripts. X, with his closed umbrella, is tall and lanky. He sounds rather stupid. Y, with his open umbrella, is short and fat. He talks like a prophet. X is tightly dressed, and Y loosely.” Father is about Basava, the son of a prostitute, and his search for a father. Omchery, a Malayalam poet-turned-playwright, is the pen-name of N.N. Pillai. The Temple Elephant is a satire on human degradation and corruption in public life. There are fantasy and absurdism here too, as a greater part of the action takes place inside an elephant. God Gets It Wrong Again is an Indian grandmother’s attempt to prevent god from being born into her family: “Sometimes he [god] thinks the world really wants him, so he comes. He came as Buddha, Christ, Mohammed... Each time he came he was genuinely needed, but genuinely not wanted. And now, again, poor God, he has misunderstood.”

LUNCHTIME ENLIGHTENMENT
By Pragito Dove
(Penguin, Rs 250)

Lunchtime Enlightenment by Pragito Dove is meditation made easy for the modern life. It teaches simple techniques of relaxation, the practice of non-judgment (not as intriguing as it sounds), patience, trust and “opening out to love and compassion”. All this seems to be perfectly possible sitting in your local Barista’s and watching the traffic, while your laptop autosaves. But, cautions Dove, “Don’t Expect Instant Nirvana”. If you do, you will get awfully discouraged, and drive everybody else up the wall.

HISTORY OF THE SIKHS: FROM THE ORIGIN OF THE NATION TO THE BATTLES OF THE SUTLEJ
By Joseph Davey Cunningham
(Rupa, Rs 295)

History of the Sikhs: From the origin of the nation to the battles of the Sutlej by Joseph Davey Cunningham is the reprint of a classic published in 1849. Cunningham’s marvellously detailed and meticulously indexed magnum opus seeks “to give Sikhism its place in the general history of humanity”. Cunningham started as an officer in the army of the East India Company and eventually became an ADC to Sir Henry Hardinge, governor general in Ambala in 1845, six years after the death of the legendary Sikh ruler, Ranjit Singh. Cunningham also focussed on “the connection of the English with the Sikhs, and in part with the Afghans, from the time they began to take a direct interest in the affairs of those races”. Delightful footnotes, digressions and appendices.

   

 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

A short step towards freedom

Sir — It would be interesting to watch how Myanmar’s military junta reacts to the increasing demand for the release of the pro-democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi (“Suu kyi freedom hopes soar in Myanmar”, May 1). If the junta does go ahead with its promise of release, the political ramifications would be tremendous. To start with, it would show the changed attitude of Myanmar’s military rulers who have till now refused any compromise on Suu Kyi. However, the establishment’s plan to keep Suu Kyi restricted to humanitarian projects is worrying. It means she would be kept away from full-fledged politics. But it would be futile to expect her to give up her zealous fight for democracy. In the past, Suu Kyi has often defied the restrictions imposed on her by the military, if only to provoke the junta. One remembers her defiance of travel restrictions in 1996, when she tried to make her way of out Yangon and was stopped. Suu Kyi’s freedom will undoubtedly be Myanmar’s first step back to democracy and political normalcy, that is if it does not turn out to be one step forward and two steps backward.
Yours faithfully,
Sonali Gupta, Calcutta

Breath of fire

Sir— The editorial, “Theatre of fire” (April 27), has rightly drawn attention to the pattern in the way in which many of the city’s most famous markets and theatres have been destroyed by fires over the past few years. Be it the 1996 fire at Manohardas Katra or the one that ravaged the Calcutta Book Fair in 1997, the last decade has been witness to some of the most devastating fires in the city. Given that most of these fires occurred in the middle of the night or late in the evening, and there were hardly any casualties in most of them, it is not surprising that they appear to be man-made. Despite the fact that allegations of foul play were made in almost every case and routine investigations carried out, the culprits do not seem to have been brought to book. It is also interesting that more often than not, the fires have been followed by the construction of multi-storeyed buildings on the original site.

That the Calcutta Municipal Corporation has finally taken matters into its own hands is good news. However, the mayor’s allegation that the Communist Party of India (Marxist) had accepted bribes from shopowners to sanction the conversion of the Firpo’s hotel to a market has already sparked off an angry exchange of words between the Trinamool Congress and the CPI(M). It goes without saying that the end result of this spat will not be of much benefit to the city.

What the mayor is alleging is nothing new. The nexus between promoters and politicians is well-known. So are the predictable reactions that each fire sets off. As usual, the fire services department has promised to take measures to ensure that safety regulations are followed by old markets and multistoreyed buildings. All this will invariably be forgotten once the initial media outrage dies down.

Yours faithfully,
Debashis Majumder, Calcutta

Sir— The fire at Firpo’s Market has exposed the inadequacies of the fire services in Calcutta. Fire-fighting is a highly specialized job and requires well-trained personnel capable of judging the situation correctly and then taking prompt and effective action. Although the fire at Firpo’s broke out at around 9 pm, the fire services personnel allegedly arrived late. Further, the fire tenders were found to be not functioning properly. Also, the person in charge of operating the hydraulic ladder had not reported for duty. Valuable time was thus lost. Such inefficiency is unpardonable and unthinkable in the West, where some would promptly lose their jobs for incompetence. One, however, does not know how the Firpo’s fire has affected the fire services department here.

Yours faithfully,
P.K. Bagchi, Calcutta

Sir— That the rapid action force and additional police personnel had to be brought in to douse the devastating fire at Firpo’s Market speaks volumes about the lack of modern gadgets and fire-fighting equipment in the West Bengal fire services department.

The fire continued to simmer for about two days, thus making it impossible for forensic experts to start their investigations. It also sparked off a round of allegations with the fire minister, Pratim Chatterjee, crossing swords with the mayor. One could not but feel sorry for the hapless shop owners, most of whom have lost goods worth lakhs of rupees. Does the state government realize the enormity of the loss?

Yours faithfully,
Abul Fateh Kamruddin, Hooghly

Sir— One can only hope that the 10-year moratorium imposed by the CMC barring all construction at fire-ravaged buildings will prevent the occurrence of similar incidents at other old markets and buildings (“Fire at Firpo’s sparks off ten-year rebuild freeze”, April 26). In case the moratorium is not approved by the mayor-in-council meeting, the owner of the Firpo’s building can go ahead with the building of a 40-storeyed building. Perhaps the lure of the profits were behind the fire at the Firpo’s. Which means the mayor was not exaggerating when he said that 90 per cent of the fires that have occurred in the last few years have been man-made.

Yours faithfully,
Sujit De, Sodepur

Trigger happy

Sir— The editorial, “Lie of the land” (April 10), rightly observes that the Union home minister, L.K. Advani, has no business trying to teach the media their duty and responsibilities. The media’s coverage of the Gujarat carnage has been brilliant and it has played an important part in exposing the complicity of the Gujarat administration and the police in carrying out a state-sponsored pogrom against the minority community. The Telegraph too has minced no words in its condemnation of the violence in Gujarat or its perpetrators.

It is quite clear from Advani’s address to the media at Tirupati that for him responsibility is synonymous with silence. It is also obvious that indirectly he was asking the media not to report incidents of violence against Muslims. The home minister would do well to remember that the Indian media are not at his beck and call and do not need advice from the man who has failed to fulfil his duties as home minister. Instead of criticizing the media for telling the truth, Advani should stop protecting his protégé, Narendra Modi.

Yours faithfully,
Ahtesham Ahmed, Andal

Sir — “Lie of the land”shows how L.K. Advani’s lecture to the media was a thinly-veiled defence of Narendra Modi. His ire against the media for exposing the role of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the sangh parivar in the cold-blooded murder of Muslims is understandable given that it paints an ugly picture of the sangh parivar. However, the continuous criticism of the media and intellectuals seem to have fallen on deaf ears as violence in Gujarat continues unabated.

The demand made by secular parties for the dismissal of Narendra Modi has also been ignored. What is particularly damaging is the defeat of the opposition in the Gujarat debate in Parliament. Would the genocide in Gujarat go on unabated then?

Yours faithfully,
Serajuddin Khurram, Calcutta

Enter, murderers

Sir — The recent acquittal of all but one of the accused in the Gulshan Kumar murder case is yet another sensational acquittal by the Indian courts in recent times (“All but one cleared in Gulshan murder”, April 24). The trend began with the acquittal of politicians like Arjun Singh and continued with that of Sukh Ram, Sibhu Soren, Laloo Prasad Yadav and J. Jayalalithaa. The Kumar case once again exposes the loopholes in the criminal justice system and shows how the rich, with proper use of their wealth, position and power can get away with murder. The poor, meanwhile continue to languish in jails, sometimes even without a fair trial. Can the government of India explain why dreaded criminals like Maulana Masood Azhar were not convicted despite being in jail for a number of years? Most of us remember Azhar’s dramatic release during the hijacking of an Indian Airlines plane in Kandahar two years ago. It is hardly surprising that more and more people are losing faith in the police and the judiciary.

The government has to ensure that the laws of the land are equally applicable to all Indian citizens irrespective of their power and position in society. The Constitution of this country guarantees equal treatment by the law. The government’s failure to assure this right is not only a violation of a fundamental right but also a short cut to a lawless society.

Yours faithfully,
Shivaji K. Moitra, Kharagpur

Sir — It is shocking to hear that out of the 18 people who were accused in the Gulshan Kumar murder case, a trial that went on for five years, only one has been convicted. The acquittal of the accused because of lack of evidence will give a fillip to the Mumbai underworld which is behind the extortion and killing of many in the entertainment industry. Isn’t it time the police got its act together?

Yours faithfully,
Brijbihari Gupta, New Delhi

Letters to the editor should be sent to:

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