Editorial / Tilting in the book lists
Bare ruined choirs
This above all /Cheating as an art form
People / Don Quixote
Letters to the editor

 
 
EDITORIAL / TILTING IN THE BOOK LISTS 
 
 
 
 
Desert-island questions could be flattering and fun. To be asked to name a book, a film or a piece of music which one fancies being marooned with could be a seductive opportunity for self-revelation. It could even liven up a very dull dinner table. But to turn such inquiries into a worldwide survey might appear rather meaningless to some. About a hundred noted writers from all over the world were recently asked to list their ten favourites in world literature by the Norwegian Book Clubs in Oslo. These writers were also asked to vote for the “most meaningful book of all times”. The results of this survey, the concern for the fate of reading which motivated it, and the reaction of some respondents to the idea of such a survey are all worth thinking about.

The “winner” — to use the standard transatlantic parlance of such lists — is Shakespeare’s Spanish contemporary, Cervantes. His mad knight, Don Quixote of La Mancha, tilting through life imagined as endless adventure, to find disenchantment at the end of it all, continues to move and inspire most writers today. And more than Shakespeare or Proust does, according to this survey. Yet, the top-of-the-pops attitude will simply not do with these men and their books. Modern readers, used to being told how much money has been advanced to a writer for his new novel, are probably guided by a different notion of value altogether. What this latest Norwegian list could end up confusing, in this new millennium of lists and ratings, is market value with literary value. Literary classics will always have an odd relationship with the market. Shakespeare always sells — because he is good, possibly even the best. But Boccaccio and Lady Murasaki do not, even though they all figure in the Oslo Top Hundred with Kalidas and both the Indian epics. But aesthetic judgment is a curiously transcendent phenomenon, breathing far above readership and market ratings.

Perhaps this is the reason why Bob Dylan and Gabriel Garcia Marquez did not bother to respond. And why Doris Lessing was a bit shocked at such a survey, although she condescended to do her bit for the Norwegians in the hope of improving the reading habits of the young, whom she calls “educated barbarians”. The main intention behind the list was to rescue the classics from the screen-age marauders: television, video and computer games. (Correctly, the internet does not figure in this black-list, since its proper use could only encourage wider and deeper reading.) What is at stake here is the attention span of the young, inversely proportional to their dexterity with the remote control.

The classics are the foster-children of silence and slow time. They demand patience, and what Milan Kundera — one of the respondents — would call “slowness”. Savouring a madeleine dipped in tea, or convalescing luxuriously in a Swiss sanatorium cannot be done, cannot be written and read about, without losing, even wasting, a great deal of time. And this is what Lessing’s educated barbarians are less and less inclined to, or can ill afford to, do. It was only the crazed Spanish knight who dared to “live a fool and die a sage”.

   

 
 
BARE RUINED CHOIRS 
 
 
BY SUNANDA K. DATTA-RAY
 
 
I have often wondered why some Marwari trader — industrialist by courtesy — does not snap up the American property across the road from the Calcutta Club. Building restrictions cannot be the deterrent for money buys every sanction and exemption in this crucible of the people’s revolution. It is more likely that sharp promoters feel that there would be no takers for luxury flats in a prime location.

Desperate to sell, the Americans are advertising Calcutta as “a major business centre”, “destination for foreign investments” and “powerhouse of culture”, as Suvro Roy reported in last Friday’s Metro section. But they themselves would have packed up and gone long ago like the French or the taxi driver who told me he was going to seek his fortune in Bombay but for two factors. First, the Cold War invested Calcutta with a phony consequence. Then the British pleaded with the Americans not to abandon them.

Consuls follow commerce, and there was little reason for a consular corps when business dwindled to grabbing the old British managing agencies for their physical assets. Local enterprise has not replaced Bird and Metal Box, Jardine and Gillander’s, the Gladstone family firm rooted in slavery. Even household names like Dawsons, Bengal Pottery and Sen Raleigh have disappeared.

Now, the Americans want to get rid of the attractive Gokhale Road complex as they earlier relinquished their Moira Street flats. There is poignancy about abandoned landmarks like the ruins of Bedi Bhawan where a British journalist, Frank Baines, wrote Look Towards the Sea, and through which a road has been driven, or the forlorn dignity of the Nizam’s Sabe palace, built by an Armenian merchant who played host to Edward VIII, now crowded with mean government flats. Elsewhere, change signifies urban renewal. Calcutta’s architectural degradation underlines ever-lower standards, a proliferation of numbers and the vivisection of depreciating assets by corner-cutting promoters.

The fish emblem on a lost pair of gates on Chowringhee recalls the Darbhanga raj, and the single word LORDS on a black facade mocks the grand vision of an imperial aristocracy. Satyendra Prasanna Sinha was the only non-white ever to be raised to Britain’s hereditary peerage. Calcutta has carelessly (or calculatedly?) ground to dust his abode to create shops and offices.

Like LORDS, the monstrosity of Firpo’s Market also ridiculed a hallowed name. When I asked the Italian maitre’d more than 30 years ago why they were closing down, he shrugged, “Fancy serving minestrone with Kalimpong, signor!” His patrons were not just “the very richest people,” as Geoffrey Moorhouse said, but also representative of a lifestyle. Quaintly, the destruction has released a flood of non-memories by many who would have been lucky to cross the tradesmen’s entrance to hobnob with the masalchis, reminding us again of the gusto with which the least likely Indians have posthumously internalized the British raj.

Memory for me preceded experience with my father being refused admission in the late Thirties because he was in a dhoti. He was a tenacious man, and there followed letters to the management and newspapers. Instead of riding a high patriotic horse, he pointed out with irrefutable logic that if my mother’s sari was acceptable, so should his dhoti be. Eventually, Firpo’s decided in favour of the full ensemble of dhoti, panjabi, shawl and pumps.

The saga of Queenie Thompson, a ravishingly beautiful Anglo-Indian telephonist who scaled Hollywood’s dizzy heights as Merle Oberon, is even more revealing of Calcutta’s ethos. She won a dance contest at Firpo’s, caught Alexander Korda’s eye and forever shaking India’s dust off her feet, starred in films like Wuthering Heights, The Private Life of Henry VIII, The Scarlet Pimpernel and Desiree. Unable to come to terms with her mixed blood or humble beginnings, she announced sternly on television in the late Sixties, “I never look back.”

In his epic novel Queenie, Korda’s nephew, Michael, makes Oberon’s uncle Firpo’s saxophonist. What we do know is that Gaetano Firpo, a Sicilian waiter in London’s Café de Paris (the better remembered Angelo’s uncle), who started the restaurant, imported Teddy Hungerford, “a tremendous jazz persona” and “exactly like Fats Waller”. Michael Korda describes Firpo’s as crowded with cheap brassware, oriental knick-knacks and a mismatch of gaudy chandeliers. Moorhouse says it was furnished “in the best P and O Louis Quinze style” during World War II. By the time I returned from England, Firpo’s was severely art deco.

Then in full swing, Friday’s packet lunch (originally celebrating the despatch of the weekly mail boat to London) seemed incongruous only after I read V.S. Naipaul’s “Jamshed Called Jimmy”. We took so many residual rituals for granted that it seemed perfectly ordinary that Clive Street sahibs (white and brown) should start the weekend with a long leisurely mainly liquid lunch on Friday. The Maharajah of Burdwan, B.M. Khaitan, Pearson Surita, sometimes his brother Ivan (“Nabob of Uttar Bangla,” he called himself), and “Top Cop” Ranjit Gupta always occupied a table at one end of the verandah.

Calcutta’s American connection goes back to 1792 when Benjamin Joy was appointed consul, though the British refused to recognize him. Twenty-five years earlier, they had deported another American, William Bolts, for threatening to launch a newspaper that would have “many things to communicate which most intimately concerned every individual”. But just as newspaper gossip could not be suppressed, neither could American enterprise: in Calcutta’s economic heyday, the consulate lorded it over lesser consuls in Aden, Bassein, Chittagong, Cocanada, Moulmein and Rangoon.

The ice trade, Ramdoolal Dey’s rags-to-riches romance, and the peripatetic portrait of George Washington that adorned various Bengali mansions for more than 160 years belong to that booming internationalism. The Americans remained here even after revolutionary politics replaced economic dynamism to keep watch on more than 200 Soviet officials. Despite ructions over snooping in districts and madrasahs, they did not ever take Bengali Marxists seriously. When Jyoti Basu wanted to see America, they readily gave him a visa and grand send-off with scotch flowing and the Marine band playing.

Marxists who have ruined the city pose no political challenge. Shame on our cultural pretensions, we look to the British and Americans for our library facilities. The National Library burns books, the Asiatic Society “loses” priceless manuscripts, and precious stones are replaced with bits of glass in the Indian Museum’s Mughal jewellery. Whether it is the Sadharan Brahmo Samaj with its tradition of social reform, Bengal Immunity’s pioneering nationalism, or the Haringhata dairy that was a model for the rest of India, Calcutta has become a graveyard of ideas and endeavour. My Greek houseguest was reminded of Alexandria’s desolation after Gamal Abdel Nasser drove out the Greek and Coptic traders who had made it a bustling international trading centre.

An apocryphal tale from the high noon of political activism says it all. Driving home to “Nine Harry”, as his children called it, on the day that Harrington Street was transformed into Ho Chi Minh Sarani, Sir Biren Mookerjee was outraged to find the Chowringhee entry blocked because of the ceremony. He drove round to Camac Street, and that too had been closed. Huffing and puffing, he banged on Nine Harry’s long-disused garden door until a mali answered and after much shuffling and searching found the key. A very irate Black Knight stomped upstairs cursing the damn’ communists and demanding a large gin to soothe his shattered nerves when the irrepressible Ranu cooed, “Why are you getting so het up? It’s still a foreign name!”

One foreign name replaces another in an exuberance of ideological symbolism, but the foreigners have flown because they roost only in success. Empty synagogues, a deserted Greek church, the classical silence of the Davidian girls school and shuttered offices like Mackinnon’s “inverted chamber pot” warn that there just is not enough substance here any longer to attract outsiders. Even most of the Russians have fled. Ultimate proof of destitution, about the only foreigners left are social workers.

   

 
 
THIS ABOVE ALL /CHEATING AS AN ART FORM 
 
 
BY KHUSHWANT SINGH
 
 
Reading about Ravinder Paul Singh Sidhu’s illicitly acquired wealth of over Rs 100 crore made me realize how profitable the examination business has become. It is amazing that an otherwise intelligent man who rose to become the chairman of the Punjab public service commission was foolish enough to stash away cash in high denomination currency notes in safe deposit vaults in the names of his relations, buy expensive real estate in parts of the country and not expect law enforcers to catch up with him. Among his many acquisitions is one in my little summer home, Kasauli. It was a dilapidated masonic lodge known as the bhoot bangla. No one had lived in it for over 50 years. He had it renovated at enormous cost. Probably he intended to live in it part of the summer after retirement. I would have liked to exchange views with him on the examination racket. However, the bhoot bangla has been attached and poor Ravinder Paul is to spend part of the summer in a prison cell.

Cheating in examinations is as old as examinations themselves. It used to occur on a very limited scale earlier. Boys carried notes in their pockets to examination rooms and were occasionally caught consulting them. I recall one being caught red-handed. He was detained in the same class for another year. However, a couple of years later he got his BA degree, went to Cambridge University, got his tripos and a highly lucrative job in a British company. In my class at school there was a boy who simply could not get a single mark in his mathematics papers, arithmetic, algebra, or geometry. Mathematics was a compulsory subject. To everyone’s surprise he passed the matriculation examination with flying colours. His father was the registrar of Delhi University. In Lahore, I knew two girls who were average in their studies. One got a first class first in her MA. Her father was the registrar of Punjab University. Two years later the second girl also topped the MA examination. Her father had by then taken over as registrar. One also heard of cases where examinees sent their tutors to take examinations on their behalf. There were other ways of cheating like having answers read out loudly over loudspeakers on vans positioned outside examination rooms.

I was also an examiner once. Having very little legal practice, I accepted the post of an examiner in some law subjects and for the English paper. I received the princely sum of Rs 5 for every answer paper I marked. What I had to go through was quite an experience of human morality. Names of examiners were meant to be kept secret as well as roll numbers of examinees. Unscrupulous people had little difficulty finding out the names of examiners and the roll numbers of candidates. Once I was approached by a sessions judge before whom I had to appear in a case with the request that I add a few marks to his son’s papers. I was stunned at the man’s audacity. I did not report him to the university authorities but politely refused to accede to his request. I passed on my brief to another lawyer. Another time one of my own relatives asked me to add a few marks to his answer paper as all the other examiners had agreed to do. I refused. Nevertheless he got his MA degree and bore a life-long grudge against me as one who did not know how to treat one’s relations: rishetey daaree nahin nibaahee.

Ravinder Paul Singh Sidhu has taken the examination racket to unprecedented heights. Candidates for government jobs paid his minions lakhs of rupees to get hold of examination papers in advance. The bribes given turned out to be blue-chip investments which assured them jobs for their lifetime. What can one expect of men and women who bribed their way into the civil service?

A getaway in the hills

Nature has many ways of reminding humans that it remains divinity’s creator, preserver and destroyer and mankind counts for very little. Let me explain. I arrived in my summer villa in Kasauli on a very hot afternoon with the temperature close to 40 degrees. I changed into a T Shirt, and shorts and had the table fan got out of the attic. I sat under the shade of the massive toon tree which grows outside the verandah. In my absence a family of langoors had taken over my garden.

There are over a dozen including two enormous monkeys, the head of the troop and his deputy, four or five females including one suckling a one-month-old infant and about six youngsters who frolic about the lawn and wrestle with each other. They look upon my garden as their private estate. Whenever I am there, their big boss sits on a railing to keep a watch on my movements and occasionally bares its teeth to show me what it can do if I don’t behave myself. He takes no notice of my gestures, pretending to throw stones at him, because he knows I can’t reach him. I hide behind the trunk of the toon and take a surreptitious look at him. He senses I am up to some mischief and warns his family to take shelter. They leap from one tree to another down the hillside. I resume my seat. Five minutes later they are back to their antics. They are such beautiful animals.

Peace is restored. There are other phenomenon of nature worth watching. Blue fly-catchers, Simla tits, bulbuls, mynahs, wood-peckers, parakeets, minivets and hill-crows are always in abundance; I can hear barbets at a distance; butterflies for some mysterious reason appear around 11 am and are gone after a couple of hours.

So it was for the first two days. Blue skies, hot sun, pine-scented air and peace and quiet. The third day the mood of nature changed. Early morning clouds spread across the sky. The wind picked up. Flashes of lightning were followed by thunder. The first few fat drops of rain were followed by a steady downpour. It rarely rains in April. I thought it would be a passing shower. But nature is unpredictable. For the next 24 hours right through the night lightning flashed and the clouds growled. Heavy rain was followed by a hailstorm.

My lawn was strewn with white hailstones. A flash of lightning struck an ancient pine tree and tore it apart as if it were a matchstick. It would have caught fire if rain and hail had not dowsed it. It was the same across most of Himachal Pradesh. Trees were torn from their roots and fell on telephone and electric wires. Kasauli and its neighbouring towns were plunged into darkness and cut off from the world. I sat in my room dimly-lit by candle light in my shawl, and brooded over my helplessness in the face of the awesome majesty of nature. The next morning was again bright and clear. Blue skies, sparkling sunshine, the panorama of birds and butterflies. The langoors were back on the lawn and all was well with the world. One characteristic of living in a small town is small-town bonding. Everyone knows everyone else, sharing one another’s joys and sorrows is obligatory. No sooner news gets round that I am in Kasauli, a stream of callers: shopkeepers, caretakers of cottages, grocers — everyone comes to meet me. Guptaji who had a narrow brush with death bubbles down the hill with the aid of his walking stick and spends half-an hour with me.

Everyone asks me if I’m lonely. I reply: “Alone, but not lonely.” Being alone is an integral part of everyone’s life. I have a harem stocked of books, mostly virgins untouched by anyone, to be ravished by me. I don’t have to wait to get to paradise, full of hoories and vintage wines. I have both in my little cottage in Kasauli.

Don’t make the same mistake

A worker who was Rs 10 short in his pay envelope complained to the cashier. The cashier looked at the records and said, “Last week we overpaid you by ten rupees. You didn’t complain about the mistake then. “An occasional mistake I can overlook,” replied the worker, “but not two in a row.”

(Contributed by Reeten Ganguly, Silchar)

   

 
 
PEOPLE / DON QUIXOTE 
 
 
 
 

Last action hero

The first things he needs are easy to find. His great-grandfather’s suit of armour lay rusting in a corner of the room. Dusted and cleaned, it didn’t exactly shine and looked a little battered, just as the old sword too was rusty. But that precisely was his life’s mission — to bring the old shine back to the coat of armour and the glitter to the sword. The helmet, though, posed a real problem. When he mended it with pasteboard and tested the strength with a dash of the dusty sword, the poor, old thing fell apart, undoing his labour of a week.

But he is not to be daunted that easily because he had made up his mind. His imagination fired by tomes of heroic tales of chivalry, he decides that living the books was better than just reading them up in the quietude of his country home. More than that, it is a call to duty. The world outside waits for him, he says to himself, to “redress all manner of grievances and expose himself to danger on all occasions and at last, after a happy conclusion of his enterprises, purchase everlasting honour and renown.”

The world would be a better place to live in, he says, if men had a little more love, laughter and imagination and brought the ideal to colour the real. Besides, the world is neither reading the right stuff nor living the right way. There is too much of the “sick hurry”, as a poet would later say, that makes life a “darkling plain” where “ignorant armies clash by night”.

The Don is enough of a man of the world, though, to know that the world does not give a damn to what you do unless you have the right titles , status and pedigree, which, in some eastern lands, go for caste and religion.

So the fifty-year-old country gentleman from La Mancha in central Spain gives himself the name of Don Quixote and calls his rickety, old horse Rozinante, a name that seems “consonant with the quality and profession of his master” and befitting the tradition of Pegasus of the Greek myths and Bucephalus of Alexander the Great. One last thing — but the most important one — remains to be added to the grand design. He needs a lady on whom “he might bestow the empire of his heart for he was sensible that a knight-errant without a mistress was a tree without either fruit or leaves, and a body without a soul”. Once again, Dulcinea is the name he gives to the girl of his heart. No, he hasn’t met her, but making a fuss over it is getting it all wrong. Why just a knight-errant, do not all men do all kinds of things to impress ladies of their hearts? Only the forms of courtship vary according to whims of the ages. Well, he has a point to make, which the world may think mad. But who decides what sanity is?

In fact, the keeper of the inn where Don Quixote rests for his first night out, whom he requests to formally confer the knighthood on him is convinced that he is a madcap. Worse still, even his only companion, the peasant Sancho Panza, whom he has elevated to the status of his squire, thinks as much at the first adventure. Travelling down a plain, they see at a distance thirty or forty windmills, their sails moving with the rising wind. Thrilled at this first opportunity to prove himself for love and honour, he cries out, “Friend Sancho, there are at least thirty outrageous giants, whom I intend to encounter and, having deprived them of life, we will begin to enrich ourselves with their spoils, for they are lawful prize”.

The world naturally doesn’t understand heroism. Anxious family and friends search him out and bring him back home where the village curator nurses him to recover his battered health. But which great man in history renounced a mission for the sake of a paltry thing like good health ? So out he goes again, Sancho in tow. This time he has better luck. He is received by a Duke who accepts the knight in good humour and makes Sancho governor of an “island”, thus fulfilling the Don’s dream for his squire. When Sancho voluntarily resigns his governorship, he goes back home penniless, not like the rulers who line their pockets more than they rule.

It is a young university student, Sanson Carrasco, from his village who finally brings the Don to his senses. He comes home from his many adventures and reconciles himself that he can no longer play the knight. He puts his armour, sword and helmet away, as a critic three centuries later wrote, like “a child who puts his toys away at bedtime”. But by now, it is Sancho, the anti-hero, who is convinced that life is not worth living if there are no sweet dreams that make reality bearable. The Don made the world laugh at decadent knight-errantry. But surely there is something else that will keep the imagination alive.

It is now the worldly squire’s turn to entreat his master to carry on the play. Only the form has to change — instead of the chivalrous hero, he can now play the shepherd to continue his quest for Dulcinea in the tradition of the pastoral.

The idea is that the play must go on because all the world is a stage. “If only men will think, feel and act like knights,” says a modern-day watcher of the Don’s shows, “they will be knights in fact”. That’s what a panel of authors thought when this week they chose the Don’s story as the best fiction ever written. They wanted the modern world to read more stuff like this, not to escape into unreality, but to live a little more of the imaginative, loving and laughing life. It is possible to imagine Cervantes, the Don’s creator, stirring in his grave in the Franciscan monastery of the Holy Trinity in Madrid, and telling the writer-judges, “It’s not fiction. It’s the real thing. At least, it should be if you want to make it a better world.”

   

 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

From bad to worse

Sir — When N. Chandrababu Naidu refused to nominate a Telugu Desam Party candidate as the speaker of the Lok Sabha, he had no clue he would end up seconding the nomination of a Shiv Sena member for the post (“Thackeray fills Naidu vacuum”, May 9). It is scary that Manohar Joshi is the chosen one. Naidu’s stand has obviously backfired. In his attempt to express his disapproval of a fundamentalist chief minister, Naidu has ended up supporting a political party which probably taught the likes of Narendra Modi the first lessons in being anti-Muslim. Couldn’t Naidu have been a little brave and opposed Joshi’s nomination?

Yours faithfully,
Rukmini Bose, Guwahati

Clipped wings

Sir — The recent crash of a MiG-21 bis type-75 aircraft of the Indian air force in a crowded Jalandhar locality, which led to the death of eight people is another in the long list of air disasters in India (“Fighter in sky, killer on ground”, May 4). The IAF has lost 100 pilots in 221 accidents during the past nine years and most of the accidents have involved MiGs. The MiG-21s being used by the IAF are of the Sixties version, while the bis are of the Seventies version. That these outdated aircraft are a very important cause of the accidents is quite obvious.

The problem also lies with the inadequate training of the pilots. In the absence of a suitable advanced jet trainer, most pilots are trained on subsonic aircraft. These pilots find themselves incompetent to fly the highly advanced supersonic aircraft. The maintenance and overhaul of the aircraft are poor. Also, the original components of the aircraft have been replaced with poor-quality Indian parts.

The loss of so many planes and, more importantly, of the pilots, has depleted the strength of the IAF. Yet, it refuses to ground these aircraft and update its fleet.

Yours faithfully,
D.V. Vamsee Krishna, Bhubaneswar

Sir — Although the media has for a while been declaiming the MiG which it calls “the flying coffin” or “the widow maker”, authorities have ignored the criticism, claiming instead that it is the perfect machine. After every plane crash, the IAF routinely grounds the pilots, but never the planes.

An independent evaluation of the level of operational maintenance of MiGs is required. Many other countries also use MiGs but their rate of fatality is negligible.

For the IAF to remain at the highest level of operational efficiency, it cannot afford to scrimp on either aircraft or training facilities. It is common knowledge that there is a dearth of advanced jet trainers in India. Despite this, successive governments have refused to allot any money to buy either new aircraft or AJTs. Also, the older the Russian-made aircraft get, the less reliable they become. There is an urgent need to replace these machines with state-of-the-art ones.

Yours faithfully,
Tapan Pal, Howrah

No place for them

Sir — The recent proposal of the state health minister to shut down the leprosy care unit at the School of Tropical Medicine, Calcutta is shocking. Even a country like the United States of America has recently reported new cases of leprosy. India alone accounts for nearly 70 per cent of the world’s leprosy patients. Therefore, the closure of the clinic, which has been treating leprosy since 1921, cannot be justified. Leprosy patients require specialized services that are often denied them. They are often left to the care of ill-trained medical personnel, leading to the further spread of the disease. The closure of the unit could not be more ill-timed.

Yours faithfully,
Sunetra Mitra, Calcutta

Sir — I was surprised to see the advertisement of Katihar Medical College, Bihar in The Telegraph on April 19. This college is recognized by the Medical Council of India. The admission notice declares that only Muslim students are eligible for admission. It is shocking to find that bodies and ministries in a secular country are lending their names to an institution which discriminates between religions.

Yours faithfully,
Ranen Dasgupta, Calcutta

Letters to the editor should be sent to:

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