Editorial / All in the family ties
Bend it again
This above all / What reason cannot fathom
People
Letters to the editor

 
 
EDITORIAL / ALL IN THE FAMILY TIES 
 
 
 
 
One of the first, and even perhaps the most important, lessons that a bureaucrat learns is that the personal should not intrude into his professional space. It is thus shocking that Mr P.C. Alexander, a former bureaucrat who formerly held some of the most powerful administrative posts in the country, should commit such an elementary transgression. He announced in a press conference recently that he was angry and hurt at the Congress’s lack of support to him when his name was bandied about as a candidate for the post of president of India. He had expected full support, he said, because of his longstanding association with the leaders of the party in the past. The mention of the leaders of the party was a thinly-veiled reference to his relationship with the Gandhis, Indira and Rajiv. There are two factors to be emphasized here. First, Mr Alexander served the Gandhis in his capacity as a career bureaucrat. If out of this working relationship a personal affinity did develop — there are no grounds for assuming that such an affinity did develop — then it was outside the professional realm. Mr Alexander should know better than to bring it into the public domain to further his own self-interest or to articulate his sense of disappointment.

Second, a senior bureaucrat like Mr Alexander should appreciate that the Congress is well within its rights to object to any candidate proposed by the National Democratic Alliance which is propped up by the Bharatiya Janata Party. The objection and the approval of the Congress should be based purely on political considerations. Personal relationships should have nothing to do with such decisions. Thus Mr Alexander’s long association with the leaders of the Congress is completely irrelevant to the issue. The fact that he could refer to it reveals that he was confusing the personal and the professional. Mr Alexander must recognize that support to his candidature for the highest post in the country could not be based on personal associations. Surely, the original proposal from the NDA was based not on personal considerations and relationships but on Mr Alexander’s achievements as a bureaucrat and on its assessment of his suitability for the post. The Congress objected to this on political grounds. The Congress as a political party had to consider its own political future and tactics and not Mr Alexander’s personal advancement.

This public response of Mr Alexander is a telling example of certain prevailing attitudes in Indian society. The fact that it comes from a leading former bureaucrat only underlines the point. The point is the incompleteness of the process of professionalization. The growth of professional classes in India goes back to the late 19th century with the emergence of Indian members of the Indian Civil Service and of the legal profession. Yet, after a century and even after the rise of a competent managerial class, the professions still remained tied to family and personal ties. The prevalence of this produces the confusion between the personal and the professional as is obvious from Mr Alexander’s reaction to the Congress. Between the rise of professionalization and the spread of the professional ethic in society, falls the shadow of a feudal and Brahminical culture. Mr Alexander, despite his surname, is a product of that culture.

   

 
 
BEND IT AGAIN 
 
 
BY SUNANDA K. DATTA-RAY
 
 
Like Nandikar’s Football, born 1977 and still going strong, Bend it like Beckham makes a focussed political statement. How focussed was apparent in the near emptiness of the Singapore cinema where I watched the film, and in the sparse audience’s lacklustre response.

British critics would attribute this indifference to poor quality. One London newspaper slammed Beckham as “pretty superficial”. Another accused it of exalting “every cliché of the sports drama and of the family comedy”, ending with the indictment that Gurinder Chadha might as well have called her film “Arundhati Roy of the Rovers”. But at least the writer glimpsed the domestic heartburn under the burlesque, though tragedy would have been more appropriate than comedy.

Many think the problems of second generation south Asians in Britain (first projected by Hanif Qureshi) somewhat overdone. Perhaps so for the entertainment industry. But in spite of a life peerage here, a knighthood there, an Apache Indian riding the crest of pop taste and now a Bengali girl whose real-life cricket prowess gives an intriguing twist to the Tebbitt test, the human dilemma is as painful as ever. Under glossy sets and easy laughter, Jess — short for Jaswinder — an immigrant Sikh girl in a lower middle class South London suburb, faces a far more daunting challenge than does Hari, Football’s picaresque hero.

Chinese Singaporeans would have been betting in a frenzy of excitement if Beckham really had been about the game. But the medium is not the message in play or film. Hari’s plaintive comment that he cannot play, he only watches, poignantly captures football’s irrelevance to the larger theme of change and adjustment. In the cerebral if ever-sprightly Rudraprasad Sengupta’s hands, he is a far more perspicacious character than Chadha’s Jess who actually believes that the tantrums are only over her simple desire to play in a women’s football team instead of cooking aloo gobi or captivating some nice Sikh boy with a perfectly round chapati.

Unlike Hari, Jess strengthens the illusion of football triumphalism by scoring a convincing goal with a penalty kick. The star who plays her was trained in the Brazilian sport of Futebol de Salao. But Chadha does allow this makebelieve to be torn aside in a moment of explosive truth on the field when an English player on the opposite side grabs Jess’s shirt and calls her a Paki.

It’s a deadly insult for Britain’s subcontinental settlers. I knew an elegant Punjabi princess, schooled in England and finished in Switzerland, stop dead in her tracks on hearing the word, wheel round on her high heels and walk up to the speaker whom she gave a tonguelashing in crystal cut accents. Jess could only attack physically. To add injury to insult, a presumably anti-coloured referee sends her off with the red card.

Jess doesn’t expect the personable young coach to understand her outrage but he does. As he explains in a broader Ulster accent than even George Best’s, he is Irish. Colonials of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your complexes. Hari, too, is a colonial in the sense of being dispossessed and disadvantaged.

Rich, down-to-earth Singaporeans are baffled by the alienation and groping for acceptance that underlie this anguish. Though deeply colour conscious, the Chinese treat race with political wariness. They are also baffled by the humiliation that Jess’s father, a migrant from East Africa, experienced in Britain and which he wants to spare his daughter.

Beckham ends on an optimistic note with Jess triumphing over the colour bar — a phrase that has been banished from Britain’s vocabulary — to achieve fulfilment in both love and sport. The box office demands this idyll. Indian audiences being masochistic, Football portrays Hari’s trauma with sentimental sensitivity. Spurned by his love, he turns against the passion that gave life meaning and agrees brokenheartedly to buckle under as an apprentice. Hari might make a living, but at the cost of a dream.

If Football really had been only about football, Rudraprasad could have left the play untouched since I saw it last, with Keya Chakravarty and Ajitesh Bandopadhyay the stars. Seeing it again just before leaving Calcutta, I could see how he has kept up with the times. The table lamp that today’s Hari gives his girl friend is not the one that I made out of an empty Vat 69 bottle for the first player whose name I have forgotten but who was so convincingly moving in the role because he did not have to act: he too was a dead end kid.

Other changes are subtle but portentous. A line has been trimmed here, a dance step quickened there. Some allusions are more topical. The jamaibabu who “reforms” Hari looks a sleek computer salesman. I forgot to ask if the education statistics that the headmaster reels off after the boys knock him down in brutal defiance have been updated.

When he adapted Peter Terson’s Ziger Zagger, which British viewers voted the best play of the year in 1967, Rudraprasad turned Hari’s mother into his aunt. A mother who thrives on prostitution would have profoundly offended the social mores of the Seventies. Hers was the tragedy of Bengali womanhood; she was Bangalakshmi sacrificed on the altar of need and greed. That symbolism is less poignant now that Bengal is reconciled to violation by a succession of “mamas” — euphemism for the woman’s clients.

Similarly, some of the sizzle seems to have gone out of the park bench encounter between a Bengali and a Marwari. That is another battle lost. Tellingly, the policeman remains as subservient as ever to money power. Since he represents Calcutta’s political and administrative authority, his obsequiousness to the wealthy businessman could have been more sharply delineated. A grovelling Marxist minister would not have been amiss.

A third noticeable shift is in the more mellow evocation of the game. Rudraprasad chose red and yellow as Hari’s favourite colours because East Bengal was then regarded as the most rumbustious of the three teams that dominated the Eden Gardens. There were fears that the Mohun Bagan players who attended an early performance might have been just a little piqued at this focus on their rivals. But East Bengal has ceased to be a vibrant presence. Just as Hari is now played as a stylized ikon, one no longer gets a whiff of the sweat and scuffles of players in muddied red and yellow.

Red and yellow, like Beckham and rule-bending, are only the packaging. The story is universal and eternal. When a New York theatre group complained that Arthur Miller’s View from the Bridge had lost its topicality, Rudraprasad reminded it that Eric Hobsbawm calls the 21st century the age of displacement. In spite of Chadha’s bouncy humour and chocolate box ending, Jess and her likes are part of that flotsam and jetsam on an uncertain tide. The promise of 22 billion Indian passports for people who have struggled to obtain another nationality will only arm them with two documents of convenience.

Football and Beckham use what Terson called theatre of the masses to make a telling point about society and the person. Both reflect the exuberance of youth in revolt. Both highlight the plight of the minority. Both expose the exile’s essential loneliness.

No wonder they were so excited in an Indian corner shop in London by the tricolour that my son had stitched on his sleeve. It embarrassed me but not the shopkeepers who took us as two of themselves. “It’s all we have left!” they said, reminding me of the Welsh who emigrated to Patagonia to save their language and ended up speaking only Spanish, while the ancestral tongue is preserved in the hymns whose meaningless words they mouth every Sunday. Viewed from the detached distance of Singapore, Hari seems better off than Jess.

   

 
 
THIS ABOVE ALL / WHAT REASON CANNOT FATHOM 
 
 
BY KHUSHWANT SINGH
 
 
There are practices in all religions which defy reason and common sense and yet we are not able to do anything about them. One such nauseating ritual was the sacrifice of animals at the Kamakhya temple in Guwahati and the Kali temple in Calcutta at the behest of King Gyanendra of Nepal. In both temples, goats and birds are slaughtered on a daily basis. There should have been a public hue and cry against this pagan ritual. There is none.

The recent issue of Philosophy and Social Action, published from Dehra Dun, quotes Andrew Sullivan, a regular contributor to the New York Times on conflict with Islamic fundamentalism. He writes: “The most important thing for us to realize today is that defeat of fundamentalism requires a long and arduous effort. The conflict with Islamic fundamentalism is not likely to be short. Unlike Europe’s religious wars (and Inquisitions), which taught Christians the futility of fighting to the death over something beyond human understanding and so immune to any definitive resolution, there has been no such educative conflict in the Muslim world. The lessons Europe learned in its bloody history have yet to be absorbed within the Muslim world. There, as in 16th century Europe, the promise of purity and salvation seems far more enticing than the mundane allure of mere peace. The means that we are not at the end of this conflict but in its very early stages.”

The editor of the journal, Dhirendra Sharma, exhorts action: “It would, therefore, be meaningless today to sit idle the whole day of Sabbath, starve children because the moon could not be sighted due to overcast heavens. Similarly, it is unbecoming of humans to treat women as sub-humans, deprive them of equal rights and freedom under the Islamic jurisdiction. But to please god’s will, Christians and Hindus had burned women alive to fulfil heavenly missions of the Father in Heaven. Shame upon those faithful of world religions who are ready to die and kill ‘them’, the others, in defence of ‘the Kingdom come on this Earth, as it is in Heavens’.”

Sharma concludes: “But since I call the Hindu holy Books fiction and disown and disavow their divinity, do I qualify to be murdered under the orders of a priest? There is no blasphemy in Hinduism, nor is there any provision of fatwa. There is no monopoly on heavens, and there is no one path to paradise.

“Indian philosophical dictum is: ekam sad-viprah bahudha vadanti — Truth is one but expressed differently by wise persons.”

It is time enlightened people of all communities questioned the unethical practices in their communities, smashed the monopoly of pandits, pandas, mullahs and maulvis, jathedars and raagis over their respective religions and brought them to conform to moral standards of modern times.

Why do the innocent suffer?

The question was put in different words by a Jewish rabbi whose only child was afflicted by terminal cancer. He and his wife were a god-fearing couple who had never harmed anyone. So why were they being punished by having their son taken away from them? The rabbi wrestled with the problem and put down his thoughts in a highly readable little book, Why Bad Things Happen to Good People. For inspiration he turned to the classic on the subject: The Book of Job in the Bible. I have gone over The Book of Job over and over again because it is beautifully worded but remain totally unconvinced with the arguments set out. Job was a good man without blemish. He was prosperous, had many sons, daughters, daughters-in-law and sons-in-law. Also land, vineyards and herds of cattle. He was a man of conviction and believed that he owed his good fortune to god. Satan took on a bet with god that if Job was deprived of his family and possessions, he would lose his faith in god. Job assured himself, “Whoever perished being innocent? Or where were the upright ever cut off? Even as I have seen those who plough iniquity and sow trouble reap the same…God will not cast away the blameless, nor will He uphold the evil-doers.”

Job lost everything: his children, lands, herds of cattle and was himself afflicted with body sores and thrown out of his home. His wife pleaded with him, “Curse God and die.” Three of his friends (Job’s comforters) tried to argue him out of his faith. “Man who is born of woman is of few days and full of trouble. He comes forth like a flower and fades away; he flees like a shadow and does not continue.” Job holds fast to his faith but longs to present his case to god as his mouth is full of arguments. “Great men are not always wise, nor do the aged always understand Justice.” God appears before Job and reminds him that it is he who created everything on earth. He is all-knowing and all-powerful. God wins the bet against Satan and Job is restored to good health and gets back his family and property.

Does unshakable faith in god really explain why the innocent suffer? Not to me; it is no different than accepting what happens with good grace: teyra bhaanaa meetha laagey (What you (God) ordain tastes sweet). It does not, more often it leaves a bitter taste in the mouth and in the mind.

The fact of the matter is that we have little comprehension of why the innocent suffer as we have of why the wicked prosper. Can anyone give rational answers to these questions without resorting to theories about karma,evil deeds committed in previous births, and punishments to come in lives hereafter? They are absolute hogwash unworthy of consideration by people with serious minds.

If I should die, think only this

The following poem was sent to me by Yvonne Le Rougetel, who was my personal secretary while I was in Paris for two years and then in Delhi when I was writing my two-volume History of the Sikhs. She became a close family friend. She does not know the name of the poet.

Trace not my name in memorial stone
Ache not your hearts for times gone by
Weep no tears when you are alone,
Think of me living and heave no sigh.
Lay no wreath that fades away,
But plant a rose to catch the eye;
Wear no black or sombre grey,
Show the world I did not die.
Look ever upward to the light,
Feel me with you by your side,
Know that my love is yours by right,
And smile with me when your tears
have dried.
Know that my love for you is real,
Know that I am closer than e’er before,
Know that I receive the love you feel,
Know that we shall meet on the spirit
shore.
Think of me, free of pain;
Think of me, without your fears;
Think of me, I am young again.
See then, all the pains endured
And all the times your heart has bled,
As the way the spirit has matured
A path on which all man must tread.
   

 
 
PEOPLE 
 
 
 
 

Where the candle rules

If she only knew what she had done with her father’s portable Olivetti, she would have beaten the darkness. She could look for it, of course — but it’s difficult to stand on a stool, holding a torch in one hand and rummaging for a missing typewriter in the black hole of an overhead closet with the other.

A power-cut is unbearable at the best of times. But when she has a deadline to keep, there is nothing that she finds more infuriating than seeing her computer screen suddenly fade out. She is at home — because the office power lines have been tripping through the day — desperately trying to finish a story. And then, just when she was about to write the last line of her magnum opus and call it a day, the lights go off.

She finds that the inverter has packed up as well. Not that it would have helped revive her dead computer. But at least she could have switched the lights on to look for the Olivetti.

It’s not easy being a journalist in Delhi. It’s not easy being a minister either. Or a home-maker. Or a washerwoman. Or an executive. No summer’s been as bad as the summer of 2002. One Wednesday in May, for instance, Delhi consumed a record 62.068 million units of power in one day. The next day, most parts of Delhi were in the dark all through the day.

The government states that between April 2001 and January 2002, its power requirement was a whopping 16,500 million units, 514 million units more than what was available. Compare this with West Bengal, where the shortfall in power was a measly 59 million units during the same period. And this was last year, when the rains had ushered in relief well before the summer could extend its stay.

Suddenly the Delhi of the new millennium has begun to look like the Calcutta of the last century. Most houses don’t have power for several hours through the day. Out on the roads, there are huge traffic snarls usually caused by kilometre-long lines of idle buses and auto-rickshaws parked in front of CNG filling stations. And the roads are all dug up, as the city prepares for a Metro rail. The tree-lined avenue that leads to her office in the Indian Newspaper Society building in Rafi Marg, for instance, is one large trench, and one particular stretch can only be crossed if people walk sideways.

She remembers that Calcutta, at least, had its rains. She was there once in July in the mid-eighties when the sky was mostly overcast and the evenings played with a soft breeze. But Delhi-ites have been waiting for rain for over a month.

The last time the heavens split was on June 24. It rained heavily for a while and then brought the city to a standstill as the roads got clogged, telephone cables went under water and the electricity lines blew up. It prompted one of her colleagues to say: “Delhi can ideally take five minutes of rain. If it rains for more than ten minutes, the city collapses.”

Her life is like that of the ten million others who live in the capital of India. Just the lowest bottom and the highest top of the vertical line that divides Delhi — that is, those dwelling on the footpaths and those in penthouses — couldn’t care less about a disaster called Delhi. But like our journalist, everybody else in between the two extremes has been wrung dry.

Washerwoman Vijaya Subbaiah in Trilokpuri and her children haven’t been sleeping because it is hot and stuffy inside their one-room house without the fan on. Benu Mongia in New Friends Colony was on an all-night dharna in front of an electric supply office on Wednesday.

Rajat Sharma, journalist and television broadcaster, finds that he is often groggy for a morning shoot because he has been up the whole night. Or when he does he get to sleep, he wakes up to see that there is no water the next day.

Most of Delhi gets its water through powerful pumps that draw the water into overhead or underground tanks. And since the pumps can’t be operated without electricity, people have to often go without water. “Inverters and generators don’t help when there is no electricity for hours,” says Sharma. “And this is something that all of us are reeling under, cutting across class,” he says.

Sharma gives the example of his neighbour, the former minister Arun Jaitley, one of the bright young men in the Bharatiya Janata Party. Jaitley had some friends over when the lights went out one evening. His main generator had caught fire and wouldn’t work. A small standby genset, which was kept on the terrace, flew off when a gust of heavy winds lashed the capital. “I suppose he finally took his candles out,” says Sharma.

Sharma himself does a fervent prayer every time he calls people over in the evening. Clearly, that memorable phrase from the Bible — God said: “Let there be light” — has a different meaning in Delhi.

Unlike our journalist, sitting in the dark and staring at the blank screen, people are doing what they can. Sharma says that he often goes to a gym to freshen up in the morning. The dharna attended by Mongia and some other women living in the upmarket residential area has given some relief to the residents. “We worked out a deal with the electricity fellows under which we get power for 90 minutes, and then there is a black out for 90 minutes,” she says. “But we don’t mind — a little power is better than no power,”she says.

A journalist with New Delhi Television says that she has never worked this hard before. She is in her office all through the day and night because, she argues, it’s much cooler there than in her flat in Hauz Khas. An effective power back-up ensures that the air conditioners work in her office. In DLF — one of Delhi’s beautiful suburbs — people get out of their houses every night when the lights go off and drive off into the inky night in their cars, the AC in full blast. “If it weren’t so sad it would be quite funny to find that while you are going around in circles in the middle of the night, your neighbours are moving round and round as well,” a DLF resident tells the journalist.

The journalist’s life is quite a mix of the ridiculous and the sublime. She has to get up at the crack of dawn to check if the water supply is okay. If not, somebody has to keep track of the advent of the water tanker. She has to charge the inverter in that short gap when the power returns and before it goes off again. On the other hand, she doesn’t need to defrost the fridge — it happened on its own the night before.

For the journalist, who grew up in Delhi, the city’s story couldn’t be more like a Greek tragedy. The chorus, after all, has been warning the audience for quite a while about the fate of the city.

Once, it had the best schools, colleges, hospitals and roads. The schools are now in shambles, the best colleges are being beaten by the ordinary elsewhere and the hospitals in most other cities — or so says a news magazine — are as good if not better. And the roads in Delhi today are less like Hema Malini’s cheeks, and more like Om Puri’s.

The journalist is drawn out of her reverie as the lights come back with a blaze. She switches on her computer. In a minute her copy will be done and emailed to her editor. All that she needs to do now is write the last

(Editor’s note: For technical reasons we couldn’t carry the report in full. Our apologies to our readers.)

   

 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

Ms Tantrum hits the jackpot

Sir — Despite all the ridicule heaped on her, the Trinamool Congress leader, Mamata Banerjee, might yet succeed in making it back to the cabinet (“Mini-shuffle ahead”, July 18). Apparently no less than the convenor of the National Democratic Alliance, George Fernandes, has said that he would love to have didi back in the government. That seems a little forced, because the NDA leadership evidently had enough of her during her tenure as railway minister. Or is a berth in the cabinet the prize Banerjee has demanded in exchange for giving in to Nitish Kumar over the issue of the setting up of new railway zones? Just goes to show that tantrums and blackmail do work.

Yours faithfully,
Sunil Ghosh, Patna

A possible solution

Sir — The Vishwa Hindu Parishad has demanded the trifurcation of Jammu and Kashmir and, despite the brickbats the proposal has attracted, it is actually quite commendable. The VHP has proposed that Jammu should be made a separate state, Ladakh be converted into a Centrally-administered Buddhist majority region, and the area northeast of the Jhelum be set aside for Kashmiri Pandits (“VHP heads for Jammu and Kashmir”, June 24).

Such a trifurcation may help alleviate communal tensions in the area. The demand by the National Conference and the left parties— that Jammu and Kashmir be given greater autonomy — will only further alienate the state. The need of the hour is to take steps to help integrate the state into India. If Indian political parties and the Centre believe that the state is an integral part of India, then the government should remove barriers — military and otherwise — between Jammu and Kashmir and the rest of India. The government could also study the Chinese government’s efforts to settle the sparsely populated Sinkiang province, which has a Muslim majority, and Buddhist-majority Tibet with the Han people.

Yours faithfully,
T. Mani Chowdary, Secunderabad

Sir — L.K. Advani’s statement that the trifurcation of Jammu and Kashmir will weaken India’s case vis-a-vis Pakistan is absolutely baseless. India’s case is already weak and will continue to remain so until the Article 370 remains in force. Article 370, which gives special status to Kashmir, was to have been a temporary provision — instead, it has lasted for more than half a century now.

This is not the first time that the division of a state is being proposed as a panacea for all the problems besetting it. Earlier too, Assam, Hyderabad and East Punjab were broken up because of problems arising from differences of ethnicitity, language and geography. Thankfully, the division did have the intended results.

A separate area needs to be set aside for the minority Kashmiri Pandits, who have long been discriminated against. Maybe the trifurcation will make the problems of Jammu and Kashmir more manageable.

Yours faithfully,
Lingarah Gunnala, Hyderabad

Flight path

Sir — According to the report, “IA Flight hits air pocket” (July 15), an Indian Airlines air-hostess was injured when the plane hit turbulent weather. I could not help wondering why only the air-hostess and nobody else was injured. I have often observed flight crew sitting on the jump seat without fastening their seat belts during take-off and landing, despite all passengers being asked to keep their seat belts on. Cabin crew set a poor example for passengers by doing so. If the cabin crew follow the same safety measures that apply to passengers, injuries such as this could be avoided.

Yours faithfully,
Philip Elisha, Calcutta

Sir — Although new discounted flight rates have been introduced recently on all sectors, Indian Airlines is refusing to issue tickets under the discounted fare scheme to children. This is probably owing to the fact that the adult fare under this scheme is less than the discounted fare of a child’s ticket on certain sectors such as Mumbai-Kolkata. Thanks to this discrepancy, for the first time a child will be made to pay more than an adult for tickets on the same sector.

Yours faithfully,
Satyajit Borah, Tezpur

Letters to the editor should be sent to:

The Telegraph
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