Editorial 1 / Around the gills
Editorial 2 / On hold
Ridicule time?
Fifth Column / As the sun rises on tourism
Book Review / So much in a grain of salt
Book Review / The flowing waters in light and shade
Book Review /From the brittle pages of history
Bookwise / Together we stand to gain
Paperback Pickings
Letters to the editor

The prime minister of India, Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and the leadership of the Bharatiya Janata Party would have all of India believe that there has been no failure on the part of the state administration in Gujarat in quelling the violence in the state. This is the assessment on the basis of which Mr Narendra Modi continues as chief minister of Gujarat with the blessings of Mr Vajpayee and the BJP leadership. Yet, it is necessary for the government in New Delhi to send Mr K.P.S. Gill as the security advisor to the state administration. It will remain a mystery, which only Mr Vajpayee can solve, why an “efficient’’ chief minister needs a special security advisor. Mr Gill’s new assignment is an extraordinary one. His brief is simple: to suppress the violence which has been continuing for over six weeks. He clearly has the power but his responsibilities and his accountability are not that clarified. Already, there are reports that some of Mr Modi’s ministerial colleagues are upset with his acceptance of Mr Gill’s appointment which, they feel, casts aspersions on their competence in handling the situation. It can be argued that what Mr Vajpayee gave with his right hand, he has taken away with his left. This is a compromise bearing all the marks of Mr Vajpayee’s vacillation and equivocation: after failing to sack Mr Modi this is his gesture to show India that he is serious about ending the violence in Gujarat.

Mr Gill has excellent credentials for the job that he has been given. He earned his colours as a supercop when he dealt ruthlessly with terrorism in Punjab. He might find though that in Gujarat he has caught a Tartar. A campaign against terrorism begins with certain initial advantages. It runs with the grain of popular sentiments because ordinary people resent terrorism as a disruption of their daily lives. Terrorists, by definition, are isolated, working under the cover of darkness, sometimes literally. But a pogrom, like the kind that Gujarat witnessed, is a different genre of violence altogether. It is open to and sometimes even feeds on popular prejudices; it succeeds because officials connive. Guardians of law and order become its violators or stand by and watch the law being violated. Mr Gill might be faced with that age-old question: who guards the guards? He also might hit the wall of official non-cooperation since officialdom in Gujarat would not like its collusion exposed. That this may have already happened is suggested by Mr Gill’s request that his own crack team from Punjab be sent to him in Ahmedabad. If Mr Gill is allowed a free hand, he might become a major embarrassment for the sangh parivar. In which case the prime minister might be pressurized to recall him. For, Mr Vajpayee has shown that his party’s interests prevail over those of the country.


The chief minister of West Bengal seems to be serious. No salaries for teachers who have not submitted the declaration that they will not be engaged in private tuition. There are a number of advantages in this kind of an announcement. It is not necessary to believe in the full effectiveness of the move. But the decision has powerful symbolic force. It is as if the head of government is making clear that there are no Augean stables that cannot be cleaned. To get things going, the government will start with a bang. The message is that the government is quite willing to throw its weight about, since it is making the payment of salary for teachers in government-aided schools, colleges and universities conditional upon their declaration that they will not have anything to do with private tuition. The threat of holding up pay is quite an impolite reminder of the proprieties. The chief minister is evidently not interested in being popular. Quite in keeping with political culture nourished, ironically enough, by the left, the Congress–controlled Secondary Teachers’ Association has called for a strike on May 16 to protest against the chief minister’s decision.

There is much to hope for when the chief minister displays such an adamant attitude. Action might be taken, and perhaps even be partially successful. But it is not clear, in the ultimate analysis, what value declarations have except the symbolic one. Surely the Left Front has not forgotten its experience with the state health service, where doctors in government hospitals were asked to declare whether or not they conducted private practice. The condition of the state health service bears no testimony to reduced corruption, incompetence and negligence since this move. It is true that the education system is a slightly different issue. At the same time, it has to be asked what has made private tuition so popular and so paying. It is perhaps necessary to look into the management, administration and appointment system of government-aided educational institutions, and see what role factors other than merit have to play. As long as there is political interference in the running of these institutions and the operation of local political interests in their functioning, it is futile to hope for a serious academic atmosphere. It is the Communist Party of India (Marxist)’s attitude to education that has to be examined first. On the other side, an upwardly mobile society has numerous first-generation learners, children who seriously need extra help. Their problems have to be considered and a means of helping them regularized within the school system. All this is not to say that the chief minister’s initiative regarding private tuition should go unappreciated. But strong handling at one end should be accompanied by soul-searching and cleaning up at the other.


The Lok Sabha vote under Rule 184 resolves nothing. In these cynical times, the coalition partners of the Bharatiya Janata Party are not the least bothered about the prospect of facing the wrath of the electorate. Short-term craftsmen, their concentration is on calculating the material and other advantages to be garnered over the twenty-eight months of the leftover tenure of the National Democratic Alliance government.

But even they are betraying an unmistakable nervousness. At the other end, things have come to such a pass that the struttings of a George Fernandes are indistinguishable from the genuflections of a sangh pracharak. Trouble will nonetheless continue to brew. The BJP and its cohorts have rubbed too many sections up the wrong way. The accusation of genocide in Gujarat, hurled from different quarters, cannot be taken altogether lightly anymore. The international charter of human rights has several articles too close for Narendra Modi’s comfort. The National Human Rights Commission, consisting of a solid phalanx of retired Supreme Court judges, is breathing down his neck; through a process of transfer of onus, it is worrisome for the BJP bosses in New Delhi too.

Human rights groups are quoting chapter and verse from the convention on the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide as ratified by the United Nations. Article 2 of the convention defies genocide as “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group as such: (a) killing members of the group; (b) causing serious bodily or mental harm to the members of the group; (c) deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; (e) forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

The next article is clarificatory and says that the following acts will invite penal measures: (a) genocide; (b) conspiracy to commit genocide; (c) direct and public incitement to commit genocide; (d) attempt to commit genocide; and (e) complicity in genocide. Article 4 administers a sort of a coup de grace: “Persons committing genocide or any of the other acts in Article 3 shall be punished whether they are constitutionally responsible rulers, public officials or private individuals.”

India is a signatory to the convention. In terms of it, the national government is enjoined to set up a competent tribunal to try persons charged with genocide or any of the other acts described in Article 3. A further provision mentions that an international penal tribunal will have jurisdiction in countries which have signed the convention and will have the right to bring to trial persons charged with genocide and, further, the government of the country must allow extradition of the accused individuals. India has accepted the jurisdiction of the international court of justice at the Hague. Therefore, even if Atal Bihari Vajpayee continues to be a most reluctant journeyman to bring to book Narendra Modi and his accomplices, the international court could step in were it under siege by human interest groups, both from within India and from overseas.

All this may appear at the moment as far-fetched speculation. But, then, it may indeed not be so. Globalization is a double-edged sword. It allows the domestic rulers to fall back on foreign aid, including generous economic assistance and logistical support in other areas, including defence. But it rips open the bowel of the country for foreign inspection. In their determination to avenge Gujarat, humanitarian groups here and elsewhere will in any case draw sustenance from the reports of the NHRC and the National Minority Rights Commission. The gory details of the Gujarat pogrom are now also available, thanks to satellite television and the internet, to all and sundry across the five continents.

The European Union is not the only culprit meddling from abroad. The British Foreign and Commonwealth Offices have done their own homework on Gujarat and, et tu Brute, American civil liberty groups too are on the move. The killings and the arson have not stopped in Ahmedabad and in the rest of the state. If the BJP continues with its stalling act, and no visible measures are taken either to remove Modi or to make atonement for the bestial doings of the sangh parivar, the clamour will reach a crescendo for involving the international court of justice. Meanwhile, groups in the United Kingdom are attempting to have Modi extradited to Britain for complicity in the liquidation of Gujarat-born British citizens who happened to be visiting their ancestral land at the time of the holocaust.

Even if this particular endeavour falls through, the threat of intervention on the part of the international court of justice will still loom large. For the court will find it awkward to ignore precedents established by itself. The latest precedent likely to be quoted profusely in the present context is the affair of Bosnia and Slobodan Milosevic. The Americans are pledged to take revenge on the Serbian leader for the troubles he put them to in erstwhile Yugoslavia; the North Atlantic Treaty Organization underlings will of course play along.

The trial of Milosevic is currently on in the Hague; the former president is putting up a spirited defence and the proceedings might drag on for years on end. The denouement of the trial however does not matter. The point has been established: the international court of justice has the right to demand extradition of an individual for prosecution before it for genocide, and the home country has no alternative but to comply with the demand of the court. When the new anti-Milosevic set-up in Yugoslavia packed off the former president to the Netherlands to stand trial before the international court, the government of India, that is, the government presided over by Vajpayee, did not demur; India did not question either the particular act of extradition or the very principle of it.

In the circumstances, even provided it survives in office, there will be no end of trouble for the Vajpayee regime. A non-official tribunal, presided over by another Supreme Court judge, has already been established and it is going about in right earnest to sift evidence, meet relatives and other dear ones of the victims and speedily offer its verdict. Such a verdict will have no formal implication. It would nonetheless add another ingredient to the charged atmosphere. One can trust human rights groups of various descriptions to raise a ruckus in the UN. To extradite or not extradite Narendra Modi and his comrades could then itself become a major international issue.

The poor attorney general will perhaps have to travel to New York or the Hague in defence of the government on whose behalf he carries briefs. Conceivably, he will argue that quality and quantity are attributes of different species; the quality of the barbaric acts perpetrated in Gujarat might surpass those committed in Bosnia or Macedonia, but, in the matter of quantity, Gujarat is no match for Bosnia. Maybe other considerations too will enter the picture and New Delhi could get away by not extraditing Modi, by not bringing him to trial within the country, and by not even removing him from his sultanate.

For geopolitical reasons not so apparent, in the immediate period, the American administration could shore up the BJP government: birds of the same retrograde feather prefer to fly together. But one never knows; when things reached a critical point, the United States of America had to bid a sad goodbye to their darlingest tyrant, Syngman Rhee of South Korea. In comparison, Atal Bihari Vajpayee may well be regarded as small beer.

There is also the uncomfortable prospect of facing the electorate of the whole country two plus years hence. The decks are heavily loaded against the parivar, unless, of course, the defence minister renders a miracle and, loyal soldier that he is, delivers the entire military establishment, lock, stock and barrel, at the feet of the revered prime minister.

Which is to say, the set-up in New Delhi — and Ahmedabad — stands the risk of being demolished actually by ridicule.


Despite its 2,000-mile long line of beaches, dense forests, wildlife, the Himalayas, deserts, a rich cultural heritage and over 5,500 monuments, it is surprising that India attracts a mere 0.38 per cent share of the world tourist trade. Even the duration of stay and the amount spent by the average tourist in India remains static. Of the 698 million international tourists in the world, there are more Indians (3.7 million) going abroad on holiday, than foreigners (2.6 million) coming in.

Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s reference to tourism in his Independence Day speech last year was a signal that the government was finally looking at tourism as one of the key drivers of the economy. This is not only because of its potential to bring in foreign exchange, but also for its ability to generate employment in India.

As a result of Vajpayee’s speech, major hotel chains and travel agents formed an alliance to resolve some of the problems affecting the tourism sector. Some of their demands are rationalizing of taxes, easier entry into India through liberal visa regulations, information about leisure activities for budget travellers, and the establishment of a dedicated tourism promotion board on the lines of the British, Singapore or Malaysian tourism boards.

Victim of neglect

In the last 50 years, tourism neither received the status of an infrastructure sector nor was it the focus of national activity — it meant concentrating on monuments only. But this was a short-sighted policy. Tourism needs the participation of both the people who promote it and those who benefit from its promotion.

A recent study by the London-based World Travel and Tourism Council estimates that given the right push, Indian tourism could grow by 8.2 per cent every year in the next 10 years. But, this figure might decrease owing to the global slowdown and threat to safety in and around the Indian subcontinent. For a country with a topography as diverse as India’s, it is sad that it has been unable to attract more foreign tourists as compared to smaller countries. Last year, India earned $3 billion, compared to the $14 billion China earned, Thailand’s $7 billion and Singapore’s $6 billion.

Of course, in the past 10 years, domestic tourism has grown from $64 million to over $186 million. Even the low-end tourist helps the nation through the expenses he incurs on lodging, bus, train fare and so on. As one moves up the scale, expenditure on these categories increases, over and above which are the new categories — leisure, sport, sightseeing, cuisines — for high-end tourists.

Opening up

Tourism-linked employment in India is a low 2.9 per cent of the country’s workforce, compared to the global average of 8 per cent. The WTTC study says that this can be raised to about 10 per cent in the next 10 years provided the government increases its expenditure on tourism and begins to commercialize tourism instead of merely flogging it for taxes.

States like Goa, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu have increased their allocations for the tourism sector to net both domestic and international travellers. More people today are both willing and have the means to spend on holidaying. People are acquiring disposable incomes at a relatively younger age and are heading to foreign locales for holidays. This market needs to be tapped.

Roads, railways and airlines in India are in such poor condition that people would rather spend a little extra and travel abroad where the basic infrastructure is good. Places like Vaishno Devi and Ladakh have for years lost out on tourists because of the lack of recreational activities such as river-rafting, mountaineering and rappelling. Tourist spots in India, especially hill stations like Darjeeling, Simla, Mussourie and Ooty are over-crowded and filthy.

With international tourists still bypassing India, the tourism industry is greatly dependent on domestic travellers. One hopes that after Vajpayee referred to tourism in his Independence Day speech, adequate attention will now be paid to tourism and its promotion. Once the domestic infrastructure is in place and the Indian tourist satisfied, international tourists will start coming in.


By Mark Kurlansky,
Walker, $ 28

Almost at the very outset of his book, Mark Kurlansky states that his obsession with salt is not entirely original. In 1912, the American psychoanalyst, Ernest Jones, wrote an essay about the human obsession with salt. Salt has been invested, through the ages, with significance far in excess of its natural properties. Homer called it a divine substance; Plato described it as dear to the gods. Its importance was also clearly visible in religious ceremonies, covenants and magical charms. Salt, Jones argued, was associated with fertility. The Romans called a man in love “salax” (in a salted state), from which originated “salacious”. Celibate Egyptians abstained from salt because it heightened sexual desire; in Borneo, Dayak tribesmen abstained from salt and sex after hunting.

Kurlansky builds on Jones’s theory while recounting the story of salt. From the beginning of civilization until around a hundred years ago, salt was one of the most sought-after commodities. It eliminated dependency on the seasonal availability of food and allowed travel over long distances.

Kurlansky explains in detail ancient Chinese technologies for extracting salt (unmatched in the West until the late 19th century). The earliest record of salt production in China dates to 800 BC, when salt was made by putting ocean water in clay vessels and boiling it until it was reduced to pots of boiling crystals. The Roman empire spread this technique through southern Europe, 1,000 years after the Chinese account was written. The drilling of the world’s first brine wells also began in 252 BC, based on the discovery made by a Chinese official, Li Beng, arguably one of the greatest hydraulic engineers of all time.

Most Italian cities were found to be next to salt works, starting with Rome. Soldiers were also paid in salt (salary), which explains the origin of the idioms — “earning his salt” and “worth his salt”.

Even as he describes wars fought over salt and the truly Byzantine salt taxation schemes, Kurlansky offers a running commentary on food and its preparation with several recipes, such as a special way of eating tuna recommended in the fourth century BC by Archestratus of Greece.

The drive for more salt, the struggle to control its supply, and the high values which go with high demand have been major influences in global history.

If it was Gandhi’s salt satyagraha that predicated the fall of the British empire in India, the salt makers of Orissa were among the first victims of British industrialization. Salt in Orissa, made by traditional methods of solar evaporation, was exchanged for goods like cotton, opium, marijuana and grains, attracting only a modest tax. This remained so until the British acquired a stranglehold over eastern India.

The British had little interest in protecting Orissa salt, especially when Cheshire salt needed its own overseas markets. The British ban on entry of Orissa salt into Bengal only served to increase its smuggling. To prevent this, the British also set up a series of checkpoints throughout Bengal, which later formed the great Customs Hedge.

Between the 1840s and the early 1860s, the British did everything in their power to repress salt production in Orissa. It sparked off the Orissa salt famine, leading also to a salt shortage in Bengal.

The overweening importance of salt today is gauged by the fact that the intake of salt has grown from less than 700 milligrammes daily per person in Palaeolithic times to nearly 4,000 mg in the developed world today. On the flip side, an over-indulgence in salt is known to cause heart diseases, fatally high blood pressure and even asthma. But this does not feature in the book, intended as a collection of fascinating facts about salt.

While Kurlansky alludes to the many uses of salt beyond cooking and preservation, these get short shrift. He also leaves huge sections of the globe untouched although there is an interesting digression on magnesium extraction from the Dead Sea.


By Mark Shand,
Penguin, £ 5.50

“Warm, funny, lively and evocative” is how River Dog is described in the synopsis on the back cover. It is all that and much more: romantic, energetic, moving, humorous and overflowing with life and colour. The reader isn’t just an impartial observer of the author’s epic journey, but his travelling companion. One can’t help but share the frustrations and triumphs, the laughter and the tears, and marvel at the indomitable spirit of this quintessential Englishman and his faithful “insectocutor” with the hypnotic eyes, Bhaiti — it means “little brother” — the Tripuri hound from the Lushai Hills of Assam.

For those not inclined towards travel literature, it can evoke an overwhelming feeling of claustrophobia, because the mainstay of such books comprise heavy factual information, geographical data, statistics and logistics. However, the rest are in for a pleasant surprise. From the first sentence begins a fantastic adventure that amuses, amazes, informs and entertains. It is a roller-coaster river ride, with a twist at the end. There is never a dull moment. Always irreverent, it offers new glimpses of Indian life in areas that are still forbidden territory.

The 48-year-old explorer’s ambition is to travel the entire length of the Brahmaputra, from its source to its mouth. Failing to start at the source of the river in Tibet, he starts off from Arunachal Pradesh, tours through Assam and ends in the Bay of Bengal in Bangladesh, travelling by land and water. With his knowledge of Indian history, mythology, tribal folklore, geography and people, Shand manages to make the driest facts sound fascinating. Eating poisonous beetles, drinking potent, home-made alcohol with tribal chiefs, smoking ganja all become part of the adventure.

The most appealing aspect of this book is Shand’s sense of humour. Sometimes caustic, sometimes slapstick, it never fails to elicit a chuckle. These include his conversations with Bhaiti, his nicknames and descriptions and the mishaps along the way. Colonel Classic and Colonel Shortcut, two Indian army lieutenants travelling with him for a while, are so nicknamed because the former nicks his Classic cigarettes, and the latter leads them through an unending series of shortcuts, nearly always impossibly steep. His encounters with Indian politics and bureaucracy are annoying for him, but delightfully funny for his readers.

The book is a tribute to Indian life. Army officials, policemen, immigration officials and the tribals and villagers are all an integral part of the book.

The search for the Penis Park in Assam and the evil spirit that haunts a village, the mystery of the Majuli island monks, Shand’s worship of Lord Shiva on Mount Kailash, his brush with death in an encounter of which “James Bond would have been proud” and his run-in with dacoits in Bangladesh, provoke a rush of adrenalin. Not knowing what’s going to happen next can be so exciting at times.


Edited By Satis Chandra Mukherjee,
Naba Bharati Bhaban, Rs 350 (Vol I) and Rs 400 (Vol II)

How does it feel to go through the pages of a monthly journal that happens to be more than a century old? Trying to understand the social and political scenario and the religious and scientific ideas that prevailed in Bengal in the late 19th and early 20th century through the pages of a periodical that was once considered the mouthpiece of modern Bengal makes for an exciting venture.

Thanks to the tireless efforts of Madhabendra Nath Mitra, the century-old brittle pages of The Dawn have been restored and reprinted in two complete volumes sans the advertisements that were a part of the original version. Mitra inherited the only extant complete set of The Dawn from his grandfather.

The two volumes comprise all the articles published in the journal that was first published in March 1897 and continued for 16 years till November 1913. Originally a monthly publication, it made a great impact on the national education movement of Bengal and was considered to be a landmark in the socio-cultural history of the nation.

The editor of The Dawn, Satis Chandra Mukherjee, was a man of revolutionary ideas who led an illustrious life. Some of the articles in the periodical bear proof of the editor’s modernity. Like many leading intellectuals of Bengal in the later half of the 19th century, Mukherjee had expressed his displeasure with the British education policy. He felt the need to protest in a way that would lead the way for movements in future. The result was The Dawn, which went on to voice the sentiments of the nation.

The periodical also played a constructive role in offering an alternative ideal of education. Instead of focussing on merely textbook education, it advocated education aimed at character-building and the overall spiritual, moral and intellectual growth of the nation.

The idea of nationalism propagated through the pages of The Dawn had a deep inspiration on the youth. It is evident from many of the articles that Mukherjee’s idea of nationalism was not just anti-British; he also preached love to his countrymen. The “Indiana” section of the journal was devoted to the achievements of Indians from different provinces.

It would be wrong to assume that the periodical thrived on only political issues. There were sections devoted to students, as well as ones on social and scientific issues. The articles on the turn-of-the-century scientific inventions in countries across the globe inspire the modern reader too. For instance, an article talks about the havoc wreaked by water hyacinth in certain countries long before the plant became common in Bengal. And when warheads were being developed by European and American countries and discussed in The Dawn, India had not dreamt of becoming a nuclear power yet.

The Dawn is for those who would like to learn more about the history of Bengal.


Self-publishing, or the system of paying the publisher for the cost of production of a book, has been around since the Seventies, but it was always a covert business. A certain stigma was attached to it because it was assumed, and quite rightly so, that no mainstream publisher was willing to handle the manuscript that finally landed up in what was euphemistically called a “collaborative venture” where the author “shared” the costs of production. Critics sneered at these books and sections of the British media refused to review them.

But self-publishing is not a dirty word any more. Publishers like Minerva and Publish-on Demand openly advertise that theirs is a “collaborative venture” and invite manuscripts “on all subjects” for publication. These publishers take care of the entire process — copy editing, proof reading, designing, printing and marketing — of course at a price that authors desperate to see themselves in print are willing to pay.

Why have authors and publishers come out of the closet? What kind of books will get self-published? And will the reader benefit from this free-for-all that will come into play?

Although self-publishing was not a new phenomenon, and a new permissiveness was in the air, what finally made authors and publishers “come out” was the rapid computerization of the entire publishing process. Fiction writers in particular, frustrated with repeated rejection slips, offered their manuscripts in floppies; publishers accepted them because this cut production costs almost by half, and with a little contribution by authors towards printing, paper and binding, they could have another book on their list, virtually free. The underlying philosophy of this is that a book is a product, not “an idea expressed in images”.

Specialized monographs and first-time novelists would be the biggest draw for self-publishing. Both categories are invariably rejected because of market considerations. Scholarly books have a very narrow market. First-time novels have an uncertain market largely because the author is unknown and therefore may or may not have many takers. Because of this uncertainty, nearly 70 per cent of all scholarly books and first-time novels are self-published — sponsored either by the author or some organization that is willing to buy back copies equal to the cost of production plus the publisher’s overhead costs and a margin of profit. The big scholarly books like The Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru or Towards Freedom Project and numerous others are all sponsored by some organization or another.

Self-publishing will see another avalanche of books. But will they sell, and is the public ready to receive them? It does not seem likely simply because there is already far too much in the market. The biggest problem in publishing is not the writing of the book or its production but marketing and sales. The Indian buyer is very choosy and there are few bookshops where books can be distributed and displayed. So, none but the publisher and the author stand to gain from self-published books.



The squeak of your heart’s pips

Edited By G.N. Devy
(Penguin, Rs 295)

Painted Words: An Anthology of Tribal Literature Edited by G.N. Devy’s collects sections from epics, heroic narratives, legends, songs, autobiographical fragments and a play from an oral tradition whose literary imagination faces the prospect of forced aphasia or loss of expression. Devy, who is an experienced literary ethnographer, is, however, anxious about the validity of the basic premise of this anthology: of “the tribal” as a literary category with which an anthologist could work. Apart from the technical legal definition of tribes and “denotified” communities, the introduction does hazard some general remarks on tribal literature — its use of language, its representation of time and space, and its subversion of mainstream genres. Drawing on the work of Verrier Elwin and Mahasweta Devi, this is a multi-faceted collection which does occasionally show up the limitations of the English language for such a project.

By H.M.L. Lawrence
(Rupa, Rs 195)

H.M.L. Lawrence’s Adventures Of An Officer In The Service of Runjeet Singh is the “imaginary autobiography”, first published in 1845, of a colonel working under the legendary Sikh chieftain. Colonel Bellasis had “broad shoulders, a slender waist, and a dauntless air”. The picaresque adventures of this “Wilayati” through the Punjab constitute a “convenient vehicle” for presenting the writer’s “illustrations of the border country, its people, its manners, its rulers, and their modes of ruling”.

By Rajam Krishnan
(Orient Longman, Rs 350)

Rajam Krishnan’s When The Kurinji Blooms would perhaps be of archival or anthropological interest to those interested in Tamil fiction or in the people of the Nilgiris. Translated by Uma Narayanan and Prema Seetharam, it was serialized forty years ago. It is the saga of three generations of the Badagas, spanning fifty years. It begins with tranquility among the Kurinji blooms and ends with the advent of hydroelectric power in the Nilgiris. As a literary experience, the novel is rather disappointing. Perhaps much was lost in translation.

By Eoin Colfer
(Puffin, £ 2.99)

Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl: The Arctic Incident is an extremely readable thriller fairy tale for young persons. Its hero, or anti-hero, is the thirteen-year-old Artemis Fowl, “showing signs of an intellect greater than that of any human since Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart”. His ancestry is impeccable, his father being the head of a criminal empire that stretched from Dublin’s docklands to the backstreets of Tokyo. Artemis Junior is now involved with the goblins, while his father is being held to ransom. “Foaly’s brain was bubbling like a sea slug in a deep-fat fryer. He still had options, provided Cudgeon actually didn’t shoot him. One shot and it was all over. Centaurs didn’t have magic. Not a drop. They got by on brains alone. That and their ability to trample their enemies underfoot.”

Edited By Andrew O’Hagan and Colm Toibin
(Picador, £ 8.99)

New Writing 11 Edited by Andrew O’Hagan and Colm Toibin’s is the latest volume collecting contemporary English fiction, non-fiction and poetry. The cast is more or less stellar. Jenny Diski, Lavinia Greenlaw, Thomas Healy, Ruth Padel and Mary-Kay Wilmers, to name a few. As the editors explain, these writers “have nothing obvious in common, representing no groups or movements or nations or provinces, representing only the primacy of the imagination and the power of language”. Dislocatedness is the order of the day, in spite of “strong personal voices and irrepressible pasts”. The prose traverses the entire spectrum from Naked Lunch erotica to hardcore travel-writing. Some of the poetry is fine: “I thought of the salt in the crook/ of your arm where a fine vein kicks./ Of what it might be like to know/ the knot and grain and beat of you;/ the squeak of your heart’s pips” (Tiffany Atkinson, “Tea”).



Right on the trot

Sir — Europe seems to be fighting to preserve its sanity, even as far-right movements across the continent take advantage of the people’s disenchantment with crime and a growing resentment against immigrants to slowly but steadily make their mark in politics. While in France, the defeat of Jean-Marie Le Pen and in the Netherlands, the death of far-right leader, Pim Fortuyn, may have stemmed the tide for the time being, elsewhere in Belgium, the rise of Filip de Winter and in Switzerland that of Chris Bloch, signal the steady progress of the rabid racists (“Murder exposes Europe’s far-right phobia”, May 8). What is even more unsettling is the complacence of politicians in most European countries who have not tried to isolate such parties. The slaughter of six million Jews in Germany 52 years ago, has become a distant memory now. Unless the left and other liberal parties in these countries can put up an effective resistance, the world may be faced with yet another holocaust.

Yours faithfully,
Tripti Halder, Calcutta

Video trails

Sir — The police and prison authorities in West Bengal who plan to introduce video-conferencing facilities between magistrates and undertrial prisoners will find it difficult to convince people that the pros will outweigh the cons (“The brake is now on the vans”, April 24). The actual presence of an undertrial before a judge ensures a fair trial and prevents the prisoner from giving a testimony that has been forced upon him by the police. With video-conferencing, one can never know whether the testimony is the prisoner’s own or whether a gun (which obviously is not visible on screen) has been pointed towards him. Given the West Bengal police’s impressive record of human rights violations, such misuse is not at all improbable. Moreover, how far can this novel idea be implemented? It is hard to conceive that every trial court, magistrate’s office and prison in the country will ever be effectively linked to ensure video-conferencing. Such a measure will also cost the exchequer a lot. Besides, the evidence and procedural laws will have to be changed to accommodate this new technology, and until this is done, most judges and magistrates will be unwilling to use it.

And all this, only to ensure that the police department saves the little mon- ey it spends in transporting undertrials to and from the courts.

Yours faithfully,
Aditi Jha, Calcutta

Sir — Video-conferencing will surely help speed up trials. The incidences of fights in lock-up, smuggling of drugs, weapons and other prohibited articles when prisoners are being taken to court will also be minimized. Moreover, video-conferencing will help prisoners get justice by facilitating a direct interaction with the judges.

Yours faithfully,
Aparajita Dasgupta, Calcutta

Sir — The objections of the Association for Protection of Democratic Rights activist, Sumanta Das, to the proposed introduction of video-conferencing between magistrates and undertrials are easily allayed. In order to ensure that prisoners are not deprived of their right to trial, juries, advocates and other concerned persons may be allowed into the studios either at the prisoner’s end or the magistrate’s. The magistrate may also allow them to participate in the trial. The prisoners can always be questioned in court, if and when needed, and especially when doubts are raised about the fairness of the trial. This will automatically eliminate the possibility of manipulation.

In addition, video-conferencing will have the additional advantage of automatic recording of the trial proceedings for future reference. These proceedings can then be broadcast to a much larger audience than is possible in the present system of hearing within a confined room. An example would be the telecast of sporting events which bring the crucial, split second decisions of umpires and referees under the scrutiny of spectators and the media all over the world.

Instead of opposing it, human rights activists should unreservedly welcome video-conferencing.

Yours faithfully
Arun Banerjea, Calcutta

Sir — With video-conferencing, cases can be disposed of faster, since the process of producing undertrials before judges will become much speedier. But care should be taken that the fundamental rights of undertrials are not violated. There is also scope here for giving the trial procedures a “human” touch. Given the red-tape in West Bengal, one only hopes that the proposal sees the light of day.

Yours faithfully,
S. Balakrishnan, Jamshedpur

The spirit is able

Sir — I was moved by Bijoya Sengupta’s story of her son, Anujit (“I dared to defy the doctors”, April 30)). Despite all the progress India has made since independence, the mentally and physically challenged are not accepted in society even now owing to ignorance and prejudice. A victim of wrong treatment, life changed for me when I was one-and-a-half years old. As a child, I had very few friends since I could neither walk normally nor run. I realize now that many of my talents, for example my singing abilities, were overlooked at school because of my disability.

I have been married for eight years now and have a healthy four-year-old son. Yet, some of my husband’s relatives insisted that I try to make him walk when he was only seven-and-a-half-months old. I cannot help wondering when our society will be able to recognize that people like us are “differently abled”, rather than “disabled”.

Yours faithfully,
Smita Toppo, Calcutta

Sir — Sometimes courage and determination can help a person triumph over extraordinary adversities. Bijoya Sengupta had the courage to believe that if she treated her son, Anujit, normally and taught him to be self-reliant, he would grow up to be so. However, while Anujit’s improvement has been remarkable, one must remember that every case of cerebral palsy is unique. While Anujit’s disability was not that severe and did not impair his intelligence in any way, not all the disabled are so lucky.

However, Sengupta’s decision to send her son to an ordinary school was commendable. While special schools cater to some of the needs of the disabled, they come in the way of their full integration into society.

Yours faithfully,
Mitul Sengupta, Calcutta

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