Editorial 1 / Blind alley
Editorial 2 / Homely missiles
Research themes
Book Review / And so this is Christmas
Book Review / Old man’s tales
Book Review / Saying it in verse
Book Review / A world of their own
Editor’s Choice / Declaring a love for France
Paperback Pickings
Letters to the editor

For once there can be no disagreement about the prime minister’s choice of words. Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee described the terrorist attack near Jammu as “heinous”. But the problem lies in what Mr Vajpayee said after that. He declared that “we need to take appropriate action”. Nobody in the echelons of power is quite clear about what is appropriate in this particular context. Despite protestations to the contrary from Islamabad and well-meaning messages from the White House and the corridors of power in Washington DC, terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir continues intermittently. India has articulated its indignation in every possible forum. But there are no tangible results. Thus the question of appropriate action remains problematical. One response is retaliation by covert and overt means. Violence can be carried across the border. This was what the home minister, Mr L.K. Advani, once proposed when he spoke of hot pursuit. In other words, India can take a leaf out of the books of Israel and even those of the United States of America. But is India in a position to force this kind of solution? The last thing the US would want at the present juncture is a fracture in the fragile south Asian peace. Such a move on India’s part will also serve to upset US plans with regard to the Pakistan president, Mr Pervez Musharraf. India’s options are thus severely limited. India’s best bet is an enduring alliance with the US. India cannot jeopardize this with any military action across the border with Pakistan.

This, unfortunately, leaves Mr Vajpayee with only words. He can utter appropriate words but he cannot take appropriate action. This is the burden that history after September 11, 2001 has put on the prime minister. The proper name has been deliberately omitted in the last sentence as any prime minister, under the present circumstances, would be placed in the same plight as the present one. Prime ministers of India, whatever be their party affiliations, have to play to their domestic audience especially where Pakistan is concerned. Mr Vajpayee’s statement must be read in the overall context of the domestic situation and that of the Indo-US relationship rather than as a statement of intent. The intentions of the government of India in curbing terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir are by no means clear. But the constraints operating on the intentions are obvious. The situation cannot be easy for Mr Vajpayee and he may even find the US double standards to be particularly exasperating. The US has been repeating ad infinitum that “infiltration must stop”, but has failed to translate this into action in Islamabad. New Delhi will not talk to Islamabad; New Delhi’s military options are severely limited. Where does India go from here is no longer a rhetorical question.


The Uttar Pradesh assembly believes in maintaining tradition, that is to say, traditions of its own making. That the governor of the state, Mr Vishnu Kant Shastri, was unable to read out the ritual speech at the beginning of the new session and had to leave the assembly in a huff was perfectly in keeping with UP’s tradition. Since 1991, no governor has been able to complete the customary speech in the house. The techniques of disruption have become time-honoured too. This time it was the opposition, led by the Samajwadi Party, throwing paper missiles at the governor, but it could well have been any other party indulging in a similar malicious and juvenile activity. Ironically, the couple of sentences the governor did manage to read out contained a reference to the urgent need for strengthening the state’s finances. This can be of no surprise in a state where legislators drain the exchequer by wasting days of the assembly session.

Violence has become part of legislators’ formal meetings in UP. This promises ill for the immediate future, since the new Bahujan Samaj Party-Bharatiya Janata Party government is yet to prove its majority on the floor of the house. Evidently, the disruption on the first day was meant to be a “show of strength” by the disappointed Samajwadi Party, with assurances of more shows to follow. But the leaders of the combination now getting into power remained silent spectators. It is clear that no one has the moral authority to object. There are no rules of procedure any more, and every party is reaping the advantage of the state of chaos. This is particularly easy in UP, where repeated impositions of president’s rule and a series of hung assemblies led to a number of unprecedented situations — the earlier six monthly alternation in power by the BSP and the BJP, for example. The same players continue to play the same games around the same bush, therefore there is no one to tell the Samajwadi Party that throwing paper missiles at the governor and calling him names for not having asked Mr Mulayam Singh Yadav to form the government is not the way to show political strength. It is just hooliganism. Unfortunately, UP is one of the Indian states where hooliganism has become almost completely identified with political culture. That is perhaps the outward manifestation of an ethos of coercion, bargaining and bullying that underlies political life in the state. Fragmented along lines of religion, caste, economic class and even ethnicity, the region has spawned a brand of unscrupulous politics which receives special impetus from the fact that the state is always high priority for any party that plans to rule in New Delhi. The scenes in the UP assembly actually represent the decline in political behaviour throughout the country.


Does the name Kenneth L. Lay ring a bell? It should, for, till late last year, Lay was chairman of the infamous American company, Enron Corporation, owner of the Dabhol power unit in Maharashtra. In the early months of 2001, because the Maharashtra state electricity board was unable to honour the power purchase agreement it had been compelled to sign with Dabhol, Lay had threatened to report the matter to the American president, George W. Bush, and have economic sanctions ordered against India. Lay had every right to act as bully; Enron, after all, was the largest contributor to Bush’s campaign funds in the 2000 presidential election. Lay had other reasons to feel confident. Both the state government of Maharashtra and the government of India were bound to cave in: after all, Enron had greased the palm of many political persons occupying key positions in the country — the procedure it called “public education” — so that they would agree to go along with the fantastically high price Dabhol wanted to charge for the power it would produce and sell.

All Enron’s yesterdays have gone to a dusty death. The Enron Corporation has now earned the dubious credit of recording the largest insolvency in the history of the United States of America. Lay has faded into oblivion, of course after making his private pile. And almost every day facts are tumbling out from hitherto-suppressed records and documents about how this power distribution company had milked the American citizens through grossly dishonest means for years on end.

According to one such document, the power crisis in California a couple of years ago was engineered entirely by Enron. Electricity prices were artificially driven up through questionable means and techniques which led to severe power shortage. These techniques had beautiful exotic names such as Fat Boy, Ricochet, Get Shorty, Load Shift and Death Star. The names did not matter; the strategies all stank.

One particularly favoured strategy was Load Shift: Enron would purchase power from a generating unit owned by the state of California at $ 250 per megawatt-hour — the maximum chargeable under the price regulatory system operating in the state. It would then re-sell it outside California for almost five times as much. At the next stage, claiming shortage of power availability in the state, it would import, or pretend to import, electricity from outside at a price 500 per cent higher than the maximum chargeable price in California. Very often, no power would actually be sold outside the state. It would be entirely a paper transaction, backed up by certificates issued by dishonest lawyers and equally dishonest auditors. States utilities and ordinary consumers would pay through their nose; private gains are always at public cost.

All things, good or bad, however come to an end. The private sector bubble in power distribution has now burst in the US and the nation is outraged. Intense debate is currently on on whether culpability for the financial crimes should or should not reach beyond Enron and impugn its lawyers and auditors as well. Enron was a crooks’ opera, but, as the native saying goes, pickpockets too are hand-in-glove with thieves and crooks. A recent judgment in an American court has indicted the firm, Arthur Andersen, the auditors for Enron, in a different case. A charitable trust had made certain investments on the advice of Arthur Andersen; each of these investments has led to heavy losses, economically ruining the trust. The court has given a no-nonsense verdict. Arthur Andersen will have to compensate the trust to the full extent of the losses suffered by it on account of the firm’s wayward advice.

We have little reason to feel superior. Financial shenanigans of a much worse kind have been perpetrated in India since 1991 following the dawn of the great economic liberalization, according to whose theology the private sector is never wrong. Public financial institutions, such as the Unit Trust of India, the Life Insurance Corporation of India, the Industrial Development Bank of India, the Industrial Finance Corporation of India and so on, have been actively encouraged by New Delhi to imbibe the ethos of private initiative. To cultivate the business ethics of the private sector and imbibe the message of its code have been the dominant culture over the past decade.

The present travails of the UTI, for example, owe a great deal to private placements by its officials — either on their own or because of proddings from political bosses — with fly-by-night outfits and shady companies. Stock exchanges were supposed to be the lodestar for investment activities. But where sleaze is the buzz word, everything changes. Private profits can be chalked up by manipulating the stock exchanges, but the alternative route of taking public financial institutions for a ride is no less alluring.

True, hard words break no bones. Malfeasance in the Indian economy has reached such levels that neither policy-makers and policy-executioners on the one hand nor the general public on the other are bothered any more about the goings-on; one group thinks they are beyond the reach of criminal law; cynicism, based on harsh experience, has led the other group to believe that the high and mighty can always bypass the law. Liberal economists nonetheless die hard; they are still around, reposing faith in the beneficial effects of a widespread public information system.

Taking the cue from their sage counsel, one or two well-intentioned research groups in the country could perhaps take up a detailed study on private placements by public financial corporations in the course of the past decade. No nagging wait for picking up shares at prices quoted in the share market howsoever high or low. No consultation with boards of directors, or just perfunctory consultation. Shares of doubtful —- or politically favoured — private units are bought up wholesale by public financial institutions through the intermediary of that charming device, private placements.

The romantic story of these exciting placements should be a bestseller in all seasons. The research called for will be a difficult exercise, a painstaking exercise; not all records will be willingly revealed. But members of parliament could be persuaded to ask the right questions on the floor of either house so as to ferret out the essential information.

The facts, once exposed, are bound to transmit the severest of shivers down the spine of innocent citizens. Hundreds and thousands of crores of public money have been transferred through this means into the hands of a few private parties. Article 14 of the Indian Constitution says that all citizens have equal legal rights in this country. A select member of the citizenry however has immensely more financial rights than the nation’s overwhelming majority could lay claim to. The latter exist so that they might be rendered into dried lemons by those on the right side of political power-brokers.

Another possible research topic comes to mind. Tracing the beneficiaries of the “public education” programme launched by Enron in the Nineties to swing political decisions in its favour can be an absorbing study. For the study to go anywhere though, it will be necessary to have access to Enron’s confidential documents and conceivably also to the records of Arthur Andersen. It will also be necessary to refurbish the memory in regard to the names of the chief minister and the power minister in Maharashtra and the power minister at the Centre at the time the PPA with Dabhol was signed. Equally important will be to recollect the very last act of that 13-day wonder of 1996, Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s first prime ministerial tenure.

But, then, this will be entering dangerous territory.


By George Forty,
Cassell, £ 25

“Hitler wants me to take Antwerp. And this in the worst time of the year through the Ardennes, where the snow is waist deep and there isn’t room to deploy tanks. Where it doesn’t get light until eight and its dark again at four. And with divisions made of kids and sick old men. And at Christmas”, exclaimed General Sepp Dietrich when he heard the plan regarding Hitler’s Christmas offensive. The book under review written by a British military historian, George Forty, analyses the reasons behind launching of this offensive and its eventual failure.

As 1944 approached its end, the Third Reich seemed to be collapsing under the hammer blows of the Allied powers. In the East, the inexorable advance of the Russians had pushed the Germans out of East Prussia and in the West, the Anglo-American forces reached the Franco-German borders. The Allied intelligence concluded that in all sanity Hitler would try to be on the defensive with the dwindling forces at his command.

Hitler was anything but sane. He realized that as a result of his limited military assets, the Russians would be a hard nut to crack. So, he planned a surprise attack on the green American troops. Hitler’s reasoning, as Forty shows, was that if the Germans were able to kill a large number of the American greenhorns then there would be a public outcry in the democracies. Probably this would force the Western bloc to conclude a negotiated peace with Germany and then the Fuehrer could concentrate on the real enemy: the Russians.

The Rubicon was crossed when on December 16, 1944, Hitler hurled 200,000 soldiers, 500 tanks and 1,900 guns at Ardennes against the Americans. The plan was to cross Meuse after destroying the American armies and then capture the port of Antwerp. The fall of Antwerp would not only deny essential supplies to the Anglo-American armies but would also drive a wedge between the British armies in the north and the American armies in the south. The official name of the offensive was “Wacht am Rhein”. Some scholars argue that the campaign plan was actually made by generalfeldmarschall Runstedt. So, they termed the attack as the Runstedt offensive. Forty concludes that Runstedt’s contribution was nominal. The planning was done by the Fuehrer himself.

This last German offensive in the West is known among the Americans as the Battle of Bulge because the advance of the panzers created a bulge in the American line. A myth has grown up which is especially churned by numerous Hollywood movies regarding Bastogne. Bastogne has been portrayed as the fulcrum of the Battle of Bulge where battle-hardened American GIs held back the fearsome Tiger tanks. Forty blasts this myth by showing that Bastogne was only one of the principal defensive strong points.

In January 1945, the panzers came to a grinding halt 10 miles from Meuse. What stopped the onward march of the panzers? From oral interviews of former Nazi soldiers, Forty portrays the picture of acute fuel shortage that gripped the then panzer divisions. Hitler assumed that the offensive could be kept going on the basis of fuel procured from American dumps captured by the Germans. However, bad roads in the Ardennes and Allied intervention prevented this.

Forty has neglected two factors that were crucial in halting the German offensive. One, the Russian offensive that started in mid-December 1944 prevented Hitler from transferring further panzer divisions from the Eastern Front. Two, the failures of the German fighter wing against the Allied air force. Nevertheless, Forty’s book by synthesizing archival data with oral interviews provides a succinct account of Hitler’s last offensive. Though a failure, it influenced the political geography of Cold War Europe.


By Khushwant Singh,
Viking and Ravi Dayal, Rs 450

This is a hugely enjoyable book. Never mind that Maneka Gandhi resents its intrusiveness, that M.V. Kamath thinks it vulgar and Rafiq Zakaria says it is wildly inaccurate. It is a delightful read precisely because of these failings, and almost tempts me to go out and buy all those earlier Khushwant Singh joke books of which series this latest is surely also the best.

Let me say at the outset that the serious Khushwant Singh, evident in his works on the Sikhs and his revealing booklet on East Bengal refugees, is only occasionally glimpsed here in personal reflections and a moving tribute to his wife at the end. Truth, Love and a little Malice is an orgiastic exhibition of a schizophrenic writer’s other persona.

It clears up something about the author that has puzzled me these 40 years. On my first professional visit to Delhi in 1962, Khushwant, whom I had not met before but whose Train to Pakistan and middles I had read with pleasure while still living in England, was kind enough to invite me to lunch with the former editor of the Illustrated Weekly of India, C.R. Mandy, who had published some of my early articles. I remember them chuckling over an antique miniature that Ella Reid had apparently sold Khushwant for only three guineas on the strict condition that he would tell everyone that he had paid ten because she did not want people to know how badly she needed the money.

Ella, who was Mrigendralal Mitter’s daughter and a childhood associate of my mother’s, lived in London. Alec Reid, her dead British husband, had been an editor in Calcutta. She, too, was a journalist. I was shocked to learn that she was in such straitened circumstances. I was no less shocked that someone as affable, hospitable and civilized as Khushwant should take advantage of a gentlewoman fallen on hard times and then mock her poverty and pretensions to others. He explains it here with the boast, “I make fun of people who confide in me and, when confronted, totally deny having done so.”

Is this disarming candour? Or a puerile urge to shock in order to gain attention? Perhaps a bit of both, as also suggested by crass sentences like “I go out of my way to befriend Jews” and “What a fine place France could be if there were no Frenchmen living in it”. But there is also a strong awareness of the magic of the marketplace. Even more than Kamala Das or Shobhaa Dé, Khushwant knows what sells. He says proudly that his column is the most widely read in the country. What he does not say is that like Bombay’s old formula films or Barbara Cartland’s novels, much of his writing taps into pop taste, catering to a middle class craving for a glimpse of the sins that our betters wallow in. Nothing brightens up drab lives more than a peep into sex and scandal in high places.

Noticeably, most of the gossip is about Jawaharlal Nehru, Krishna Menon, Indira Gandhi and others among the rich and powerful. Equally noticeably, the really lurid tales concern celebrities who are long dead. We are told of a princeling who wanted to be sodomised by another princeling. Being impotent, the latter got his chauffeur to do the job while he himself hopped around the bed in excitement. And that the austere L.K. Jha, “superb analyst of the American scene” according to Henry Kissinger, bedded the housemaids that Khushwant spurned in their rundown Gower Street lodgings. Author and readers are safe voyeurs.

Of course, Malice is not all sex. There are lashings of the three other ingredients of mass appeal — politics, money and religion — with a scattering of Urdu couplets. A society that is obsessed with the hereafter will find Khushwant Singh’s ruminations on life and death engrossing. His running commentary on Akali intrigues does not have to be believed in toto to be enjoyed.

But for all that he says about standing up for freedom of expression, Khushwant can also be circumspect when it suits him. At some risk to myself since it meant going not only against the tide of public opinion but also against the chairman of my company, J.C. Shah, I had criticized the farce of the Shah commission in London’s Observer newspaper. Khushwant read it and telegraphed me to write a similar piece for the Weekly, which he then edited. I accepted the invitation on con- dition that not a single word was changed, to which he readily agreed, promising that cuts, if any, would be cleared with me first. He did not keep the promise.

My article said that while the Shah commission was persecuting Indira Gandhi for petty infringements, she had actually been applauded for a major violation of law, justice and democracy in the stage-managed absorption of the protected Himalayan kingdom of Sikkim. The sentence was missing in the printed version. My protests were ignored. Presumably, Madam would not have liked the reference to Sikkim. Swraj Paul was not the only one to have “ingratiated himself into the Gandhi-Anand family.” Women alone do not suffer from “bossophilia” (love of the boss). Nor are all men stricken with bossophobia. Malice suggests that bossophilia is by far the more common disease among Indians of both sexes.

It is probably most rampant in the no man’s land between journalism and politics where so much depends on catching the boss’s eye and retaining his (or her) favour. Patronage means assignments, political elevation, honours, invitations to high-powered conferences, membership of panels and delegations, foreign trips, funding and all manner of perquisites of which I have very little knowledge. Khushwant has done well in all respects.

Our last meeting was at one of Minoo Masani’s seminars in Hyderabad in the Eighties. I invited Khushwant and his wife to a drink in my hotel room. They came, and while he spent the entire evening pestering my other guest, an Andhra journalist, for local gossip for his column, his wife told me that they had accepted because they had finished their own scotch.

Khushwant’s comment on I.S. Johar, “a great storyteller, including of tales connected with his sex life,” sounds autobiographical. “I could never be sure,” he says, “how much of what he (Johar) told me of his past was true and how much he made up to hold my interest.” Neither can readers of Malice. Perhaps the book should be catalogued as fiction. It is likely to be a bestseller. As Khushwant says, “Only in a sick society like India could a bluffer bluff his way into positions of importance.”

Thus his Mr Hyde. We must now wait for Dr Jekyll.


Edited By Ranjit Hoskote,
Viking, Rs 195

In recent years, India has produced a number of novelists writing in English. Some of these novelists and novels have justifiably won much international acclaim. Sadly however, the same cannot be said of the Indian poets writing in English. Hardly any interesting poetry has been written in India in the last couple of decades.

The volume, Reasons for Belonging, a collection of the works of 14 contemporary Indian poets, attempts to correct this imbalance. Most of the poets included have a cosmopolitan world view and are reasonable fluent in the use of the Queen’s language. The subject of their versification is the stuff of everyday modern life — the violence, solitude, isolation and nostalgia, for what one has left behind. Fortunately, the last is kept mostly under control so that the tone does not become oppressive.

The introduction to this volume has been written by Ranjit Hoskoté, who also gives a little backgrounder on the poets. Seven of the 14 poets in this collection belong to the group which has been hailed as the “second generation of post-colonial Indian poets” in anthologies and surveys like An Anthology of New Indian English Poetry and Modern Indian Poetry: A New Generation.

The anthology includes some of Hoskoté’s poems like “Effects of Distance”, “A Poem for Grandmother”, “Anomalies”, “Alibi”, “Moth” and “Ghalib...”. Hoskoté is a poet of repute but had a few more pieces been included, it would have given a better feel of his sensibility and range.

Of the seven poets who, Hoskoté says, represent “an alteration of the graph”, the works of four — H. Masud Taj, Gavin Barrett, Jerry Pinto and Arundhathi Subramaniam — have come into the public eye fairly recently. The other three — Vivek Narayana, Anjum Hasan and Anand Thakore — were all born in the early Seventies and represent the voice of the youth. The works of this later group of poets reveal that, whatever be the state of Indian poetry in English, the future at least is far more encouraging.

One “second-generation” poet whose work may be singled out for mention in this volume is Rukmini Bhaya Nair. Reasons for Belonging includes her recently published “The Ayodhya Cantos: Poems” which will appeal to the reader’s imagination especially for the way Nair deftly leavens the seriousness of her tone with banter and cheekiness. The volume also includes “Usage”, “Bedtime Story”, “The Hyoid Bone” and several of her poems published earlier.

Another promising poet in this volume is H. Masud Taj. His “Medina Highway” is remarkable for the way it simultaneously meshes awe at the strides made by technology in recent times and derision at how inadequate even the best efforts of humans still are. The poetry of some of the other poets is also worth a read.

One may feel that a few other poets and works might have been included but then every anthology has its limits. However, even with its limitations, this volume will surely gladden the hearts of poetry lovers.


Edited By Sukanta Chaudhuri,
Oxford, Rs 495

A substantial part of Rabindranath Tagore’s literary output is devoted to children and ranges from vernacular textbooks to nonsense rhymes. Tagore was fascinated by the rich oral heritage of fairy tales and folklores of Bengal. In this context, one may recall the memorable introduction he wrote for Dakshinaranjan Mitra Majumdar’s Thakumar Jhuli, which is a timeless collection of Bengali fairy tales.

No wonder Tagore took recourse to the fairy tale mode while writing for children. But his literature is much more varied in taste. The child obtains a special place in the poetic philosophy of Tagore. Significantly, Tagore was not too keen to maintain a distinction between literature for children and that for adults in his writings. As his stories of “Lipika” and “Se” demonstrate, Tagore was uninhibited in infusing his profound poetic vision effortlessly into the world of children’s literature.

Selected Writings for Children: Rabindranath Tagore is a recent publication which seeks to represent all identifiable traits of children’s literature by Tagore — “comic, whimsical, tender, serious”. It is not an easy task, considering the vastness and diversity of Tagore’s writings. In this regard, Sukanta Chaudhuri makes a searching comment in his introduction to the volume, “He knows that adults go on being children, while children are really adults.” It follows quite naturally that Tagore’s literature eludes ready-made categorization.

By their concerted effort, leading Tagore scholars involved in this volume have managed quite admirably what looked like an impossible job. This volume includes pieces which are expected to do something more than merely represent Tagore’s oeuvre of children’s literature, seeking to “provide readers — children and adults alike — with a window to a world rich in fantasy, wit, and expression.” It contains verses, seven stories, five short humourous plays and portions of recollections of Tagore’s childhood memories. In his introduction, Chaudhuri explores different poetic genres that Tagore improvised and improved upon in his writings for children and focuses on some of his recurrent motifs.

The success of a translation series obviously depends on the merit of its translation. The translation of the nonsense rhymes of Khapchhara speaks volumes of the innovative skill of the translator, though the editor laments that their “ingenious rhymes for hard Bengali words” make it imperative that only a few such pieces are included in the present book. Some of the sketches, doodles, paintings by Nandalal Bose and Tagore, sensibly juxtaposed with the writings, enhance the worth of the book.


By Julian Barnes,
Picador, £ 3.95

The story goes that when Oscar Wilde was asked by the customs authorities in New York port if he had anything to declare, he said, “I have nothing to declare except my genius.” If the same question were to be put to Julian Barnes and if, heaven forbid, he had Wilde’s somewhat overblown and florid personality, he would probably say that his love for France is the one thing he would like to declare. This book is that declaration. It is delightfully written, full of humour, learning and evocation of things French. It evokes the French countryside, French food, French cinema and, of course, French literature. In the latter sphere, Flaubert, as many readers of Barnes’s oeuvre know, has a special place in Barnes’s heart. So much so that once an exasperated but admiring Kingsley Amis declared, “I wish he’d shut up about Flaubert.’’

Barnes first went to France in the summer of 1959 when he was 13. It was not exactly love at first sight. The “formidable eccentricity of the food’’ initially put him off: the butter “was wanly unsalted’’, pâté was eminently forgettable since “anything could have gone into that”. But the judgment on things Gallic changed, mediated not a little by an element of cultural snobbery: “their Romantics more romantic than ours, their Decadents more decadent, their Moderns more modern.” It was rural and provincial France that drew him initially. But all these were overwhelmed by the affinity for Flaubert, “the writer’s writer par excellence, the saint and martyr of literature, the perfector of realism, the creator of the modern novel with Madame Bovary, and then, a quarter of a century later, the assistant creator of the modernist novel with Bouvard et Pecuchet.”

This collection of essays on aspects of French life opens with an essay on another honorary Frenchman, the historian Richard Cobb. France gave Cobb “a second identity’’ but his France was that of the cities, Lyons, Marseilles, the seedier parts of Paris. He preferred in his life and in his history writing les petites gens: small tradespeople, working folk, servants, laundresses, whores, loafers and semi-criminals. But this love for France evaporated by the bicentennial celebrations of the Revolution. He swore never to write on France and never did. He was a “historian of individuality’’ and the jubilations of 1989 seemed to him take the individual out of the Revolution.

There is a little essay here in which Barnes writes on the film director Francois Truffaut, quite obviously a personal favourite, and his rather vexed relationship with the other legend of modern cinema Jean-Luc Godard. The two directors were comrades but then they broke with each other. The break was bitter. Truffaut once described Godard as the “Ursula Andress of militancy.’’ When Truffaut died, Godard wrote, “Francois is perhaps dead. I am perhaps alive. But then, is there a difference?’’ Barnes will have none of this. He comments, “Another error of category from Jean-Luc. There is a difference, sad and enormous, not least for those of us who now feel cheated out of the remainder of the Truffaut cannon. Godard, ever radical, went to direct a European commercial for Nike.’’

As the few quotes given here show, Barnes’s prose is sharp and pointed. It can also be witty. He can also be deep and thoughtful as the essays on Flaubert and even the one of Simenon make clear. You may not be a lover of France and things French but if you love to read English as it should be written, this is the book for you. There is never a dull moment and there isn’t an inelegant sentence.



Dalit lives and feminist fables

By Anita Desai
(Puffin, Rs 199)

Anita Desai’s The Village By the Sea is a reprint of a 1982 novel for young readers. Desai declares in a foreword that this novel is based entirely on fact. It is set in a real fishing village, Thul, on the western coast of India, and all the characters are based on people who live in this village just with their names altered. With an ailing mother and an alcoholic father, Hari and Lila have to earn in order to keep house and look after their two young sisters. Their stories diverge when desperation takes Hari to Mumbai, and Lila stays back at home to cope alone. The writing is precise and restrained, without any concessions made for a younger readership, and there is no feel-good: “There was so little in the house to cook but she made up a small bundle of food and gave it to her father who went storming down the path in the dark, cursing all of them as he went, waking up the stray dogs of Thul and making them howl.”

By Vasant Moon
(Vistaar, Rs 250)

Vasant Moon’s Growing Up Untouchable in India is Gail Omvedt’s translation of the autobiography, originally in Marathi, of a Dalit activist and editor of B.R. Ambedkar’s English writings. At the heart of Moon’s narrative is the vasti or neighbourhood, located in Nagpur, in which a complex history of poverty, discrimination and social change is played out. This is much more than the life story of an individual, and becomes a fascinating account of such crucial chapters of modern Indian history as Ambedkar’s emergence as a Dalit leader and the rise of Buddhism under his influence. An important and readable book, put together with a great deal of care.

By Kavery Nambisan
(Penguin, Rs 200)

Kavery Nambisan’s On wings of butterflies is dedicated “to chauvinists, male and female”, who are told to “keep out of this”. This and the somewhat ungrammatical title tell all about this feminist fable about “the world’s largest minority”. “‘Hand-picked products of WOMB’s experiment!’ said Lividia, her voice now shrill. ‘We’ve trained them — diligently — in Compulsory Womanhood.’”

By Gita Wolf, Anushka Ravishankar and Orijit Sen
(Tara, Rs 150)

Gita Wolf, Anushka Ravishankar and Orijit Sen’s Trash!: On Ragpicker Children and Recycling is a powerfully written and beautifully illustrated book for children to make them think about child labour and environment. It is premised on the conviction that children can and do comprehend the contradictions of the world we live in, but cannot be made directly guilty or responsible for situations they have not created and in which they are relatively powerless. Trash! moves skilfully between fact and fiction, presenting a wide range of information, ideas and human principles in a format which remains original and entertaining.



Fast track to disaster

Wrong track Sir — The recent Jaunpur rail tragedy, leading to the death of 12 people has once again highlighted the callousness of the Indian Railways (“Nitish between sabotage & shaky bridge”, May 14). Railway officials claim that the accident was a sabotage. Uttar Pradesh officials, on the other hand, say it was because of the collapse of a bridge the train was headed toward. Most probably, the latter is true. The bridge was meant for limited use only. Despite this, trains were allowed to ply regularly on it. In 1999, the railway safety review committee identified nearly 300 bridges in urgent need of replacement, but no action has been taken to this day in an obvious attempt to conserve railway funds. Since the saving of funds is top-priority for the railway minister, Kumar should realize that he could cut down on compensation payments to victims of rail accidents if only a certain amount of money was regularly spent on the upkeep of the rail lines and bridges.

Yours faithfully,
Rohan Sharma, Pune

All’s well

Sir — I was shocked to read Vishnupriya Sengupta’s account of the current breakdown in the functioning of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (“ISKCON R.I.P.”, May 12). I live near the local Iskcon temple in Imphal and was surprised by the negative reportage of the organization’s activities the world over. Sengupta has either misunderstood the problem or is trying to be fashionably critical about Iskcon, as is the current trend against spiritual orders such as the Art of Living or the Osho movement.

Almost all religious organizations and orders have had to face allegations of sexual perversion, illegal activity and politicking at some point of time, be it the Vatican or the Sai Baba ashram. Often these allegations have been proven false. That the Iskcon should have been spared is too much to expect. Yet credit must be given where due. Iskcon still remains the best ambassador of Hinduism outside India.

Sengupta also doesn’t seem to have worked too hard on this article. To illustrate Iskcon’s steadily worsening reputation, she picks a comment made by the House of Fraser, a garment retail line which called a small procession of Hare Krishna followers “easily-led nutcases”. Sengupta cites this as a popular international opinion on Iskcon. But why does she fail to mention that barely a few weeks back, the House of Fraser had to pay £25,000 as damages to Iskcon for this statement. Again, Sengupta interviews only Adhridharana Das, who has accused Iskcon of illegal activities. She does not include comments from any authority defending Iskcon’s position. Sengupta’s is thus a one-sided report.

Yours faithfully,
Sonamani Singh, Imphal

Sir — It is true that the values and beliefs which the founder of Iskcon, Srila Prabhupad, wanted the organization to uphold have been forgotten by the new generation of gurus in Iskcon. Over the years, various reports have been published on the irregularities in Iskcon — the lack of transparency in funding, allegations of paedophilia and sexual abuse and so on. The re-instatement of the convicted child abuser, Dhanudara Swami, is a prime example of the lack of discipline and the complete disregard for the governing body commission. That Adhridharana Das, former temple president of Iskcon, Calcutta and founder of the Iskcon Revival Movement, has been ostracized by the GBC for questioning its authority is a sad commentary on the state of affairs in Iskcon.

Yours faithfully,
Neeraj Kayathwal, Calcutta

Sir — The article, “ISKCON R.I.P”, was full of misrepresentations. Vishnupriya Sengupta claims that very few devotees remain in Mayapur. Of them only a few are foreigners, the majority are Indians or Bangladeshis. This is incorrect. I have just returned from Mayapur, where the grounds and the temple were full of devotees and the functioning was uninterrupted. There was also the usual number of foreign devotees. That Sengupta should have referred to foreigners as firangis was also shocking. I have visited many Iskcon centres abroad and have always noticed the massive throngs of people who come to attend the programmes. Sengupta should not have made the blanket statement that international membership has been dwindling. Till she sees the religious gatherings herself she will have no clue how inaccurate the observation is.

Yours faithfully,
Indrani Parikh, Calcutta

Up in flames

Sir — The joint decision taken by the mayor of Calcutta, Subrata Mukherjee, and the commissioner of the Calcutta Municipal Corporation, Debashis Som, that no new construction would be allowed in at least 10 years at sites like the Firpo’s Market is neither practical nor far-sighted (“Fire at Firpo’s sparks 10-year rebuild freeze”, April 26). Shop-keepers and the salespersons who worked at the Firpo’s Market site have not been given any alternative place to set up their shops.

If this particular area is converted into a garden or a parkomat, it will not solve the problem for them. The CMC should allow a new building to be built in the same area which can be used as a market by these shopkeepers. The sight of these shopkeepers sitting on the pavement outside the Oberoi Grand hotel and trying to sell their products is pathetic.

The CMC should make reparations to the shopkeepers. Had it carried out routine safety checks on the building, both the CMC and the shopkeepers would have realized the hazards posed by the building and steps could have been taken to avoid the disaster. The CMC should try and house the shop-owners at a suitable site near the original market, as was done when the New Market was gutted in 1985 and the shops were temporarily shifted to the Maidan while the market was rebuilt.

Yours faithfully,
Akhter Kamal Siddiqui, Calcutta

Sir — The fire at Firpo’s should act as a warning to the CMC about the dangerous condition of the heritage buildings of Calcutta. Most of these buildings are fire hazards and no measures have been taken by the authorities to renovate them. That our fire-fighting services are in bad condition is an added curse. On numerous occasions as during the fire at the book fair or the recent tragedy at the Society cinema, the fire-services arrived late.

At the Firpo’s fire, the fire services minister, Pratim Chatterjee, played the role of the stunned witness to the hilt in front of the news cameras. That cannot absolve his department of the crime of delayed appearance at the scene of fire despite the fact that the nearest fire station was only a few minutes away from Firpo’s. Chatterjee should put his men through rigorous practice drills so that when their services are required they do not fluster and fumble. The CMC should start identifying buildings which pose a threat to residents and either renovate them or bring them down.

Yours faithfully,
Badrinath Sharma, Calcutta

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