Editorial 1 / Pass no honours
Editorial 2 / Moment of crisis
US and the Middle Ages
Book Review / The art of survival
Book Review / Hard choices
Book Review / Of tradition and aesthetics
Book Review / They suffered in silence
Editor’s choice / Tribute to the Hippocratic oath
Paperback Pickings
Letters to the editor

 
 
EDITORIAL 1 / PASS NO HONOURS 
 
 
 
 
The human development reports of the United Nations development programme began in 1990. Each such HDR has a specific theme. The HDR 2002, with a theme of deepening democracy in a fragmented world, has just been released. Using cross-country evidence, the HDR argues the following. Democracy is no obstacle to high income. Low income is no obstacle to democracy. There is no automatic link between democracy and equity. There is no automatic link between democracy and human development. The issue of democracy naturally leads to what can broadly be called governance. Governance has a global dimension and that discussion in the HDR follows the familiar UN roadmap of arguing for reforming international institutions and ensuring provision of global public goods. However, governance also has an internal dimension, and the innovation in HDR 2002 lies in an attempt to measure governance. But governance is at best an elusive term. UNDP uses both objective and subjective variables to capture this. Objective variables are participation in the electoral process, strength of civil society and ratification of various international human rights instruments. In these, there will at best be arguments about omission or commission of variables. Subjective variables include democracy, rule of law and government effectiveness and corruption. Since these are based on perceptions, these variables and their assigned values will no doubt be hotly debated. Scope for debate is of course no argument against measurement attempts. And when, in 1990, UNDP set out to evolve an indicator beyond per capita income to measure human development, there was no less of debate. By now, the resultant human development index has become a robust one and is based on purchasing power parity per capita income, health (life expectancy at birth) and education (adult literacy rate, gross enrolment ratio).

HDI values range between 0 and 1 and India’s value in 2002 (data for 1999 and 2000) is 0.577. This is just about average and places India in the medium human development category. Other developing countries with lower per capita incomes perform better. India’s track record is better for increases in per capita income, a point the HDR makes when it argues that income growth in India and China has been instrumental in reducing global poverty. In contrast, India has not done all that well in the education and health indicators.

India is on track on counts of eliminating gender disparity in primary education and halving proportion of population without access to improved water sources. However, India is falling behind on counts of halving proportion of people suffering from hunger, eliminating gender disparity in secondary education and reducing under-five and infant mortality. The gender bias is also evident from two other indicators UNDP uses — the gender development index and the gender empowerment measure. Using HDI values, the HDR ranks countries and India’s present rank is 124 out of 173 countries. Last year, India’s rank was 115, but that was out of 162 countries ranked. India’s rank has improved marginally. The HDR has interpreted human development in various ways. The point is to change it.

   

 
 
EDITORIAL 2 / MOMENT OF CRISIS 
 
 
 
 
Conflicts between the executive and the judiciary are not unknown, but what has happened in Manipur borders on the bizarre. The way the Imphal bench of the Guahati high court followed up its punishment of four secretary-level government officers with a summons to the chief minister, Mr O. Ibobi Singh, in a series of contempt of court cases is a rare example of judicial activism. There seems to be some merit in the argument that the court erred in issuing the summons to Mr Singh while the state assembly was in session. This had provoked the assembly to issue a counter-summons to a judge for a breach of privilege of parliamentary norms. The controversy calls for a fresh look into relations between the executive and judiciary and the scope and limits of judicial activism. The judiciary has a constitutional duty to step in if the executive fails to act in accordance with law. The courts are also expected to redress the people’s grievances against a government, but only according to the dictates of law. But judicial overdrive on supposedly moral or ethical grounds can open a Pandora’s box.

Elected governments, on the other hand, are ultimately accountable to the people. The people’s representatives in the legislatures should ensure that the government upholds the Constitution. But there is no doubt that the Manipur government abused its powers by imposing a curfew around the court and the judges’ colony in Imphal in order to paralyse the functioning of the bench. Its decision to withdraw security for the judges is equally reprehensible. That such moves were aimed at intimidating the judges was proved by the attempt by some activists of the ruling Congress to break into the colony. This is a vulgar way of settling disputes between two arms of the government and presents the executive in a poor light. Mr Singh has a constitutional duty to provide security and the rule of law, not just to the judges, but to all people in the state. He should immediately restore security to the judges and their residential colony and create the right conditions for the court to function. This is the first step towards averting a constitutional crisis in the state.

   

 
 
US AND THE MIDDLE AGES 
 
 
BY ASHOK MITRA
 
 
Corporate corruption is not the only crisis confronting the United States of America. Another embarrassment of equal, if not greater, proportion, had been waiting in the wings, and has now burst on the podium.

Those who predicted, a decade ago, the end of history, have fallen silent. History has refused to end. It however occasionally does turn upon itself. The assumption generally held is of the termination of medievalism roughly with the 17th century. From that point onward, Western civilization crossed over from feudalism to mercantilism, from mercantilism to vigorous capitalist enterprise, followed by socialist interregnums here and there interspersed with cosmopolitan capitalism, otherwise known as imperialism. An added datum is the spectacular breakthrough in the sphere of technology spearheaded by exciting innovations in communications and informations systems. The third millennium, it is being widely posited, will herald a new epoch where technology will lick the problem of want and security; capitalist growth will shower so much bounty that, even if disparity in incomes and asset holdings persists, human suffering will come to an end. And should human suffering come to an end, themes such as envy and pinpricks and murders would be rendered irrelevant anachronisms.

But no, history does not follow rational prognosis. It loves to demonstrate quirks. It recedes. That the US is the richest nation on earth is beyond dispute. It is inhabited by beautiful, sophisticated people who have scaled unprecedented heights of prosperity. The country is the storehouse of benefits stemming from the series of technological revolutions that have taken place in the course of the past century.

It has rich theatres and ballet groups; Hollywood produces films replete with high imagination. Art museums abound all over the country. The US can take pride in its large stud farm of athletes and sportspersons of varied talents. Its hinterland breeds poets and writers endowed with extraordinary imagination. Not a reason seemingly exists for the American nation not to feel happy with itself and coexist in happiness with other human beings in this far-flung world; there is without question enough space for everybody.

Even so, from time to time, grim skeletons tumble out of the cupboard. One such skeleton was revealed last week. A scholar, formerly staff director with a house of representatives subcommittee, has produced irrefutable evidence that the US government was directly responsible for the torture and murder of Patrice Lumumba in 1961. Lumumba had the potential of turning into a Fidel Castro of the African continent. He had the fire and the ideology. In addition, he had charisma, which bewitched the masses in one African country after another. Such a man was dangerous in official American eyes. He had to be eliminated. He was murdered, under careful American auspices, by henchmen such as Moise Tshombe and Mobutu Sese Seko.

This was a relapse to medievalism. The Americans must establish their global hegemony, otherwise they do not feel secure. Patrice Lumumba, the African folk hero, who did not fall in line, had therefore to be killed, just as medieval kings and barons killed their rivals, real and presumed, by commissioning the services of hired assassins.

The rumour mill did not stop with the Lumumba murder. Reports have been in circulation on and off for the last 40 years that the then United Nations secretary general, Dag Hammerskjold, was on the point of disclosing to the UN general assembly reams of authentic evidence establishing the culpability of the US administration for Lumumba’s murder. The danger was imminent, which is apparently why the plane Hammerskjold was flying in was brought down in the summer of 1961. This latter allegation could indeed be a canard and the American government might be offered the benefit of doubt.

On the other hand, both US presidential papers and Central Intelligence Agency records have confirmed that there have been twenty-odd American attempts to murder Castro, all fortunately abortive. Besides, ever since the “global war on terrorism” was promulgated, the incumbent US president has gone on record, not once but several times, expressing his determination to capture Osama bin Laden dead or alive. He has not concealed his preference either: if that comes to that, he would opt for a properly dead bin Laden. Why also forget the other well-publicized fact: the CIA has been, over the years, plotting unsuccessfully to murder the US president’s other bete noire, Saddam Hussein of Iraq?

Attempting to liquidate physically heads of foreign states who are reluctant to toe the American line has emerged as a standard stock in trade. The most recent example was the failed coup in Venezuela. In case the Palestinians refused to obey the George W. Bush commandment to ditch Yasser Arafat, it cannot be altogether taken for granted that the CIA would not be asked to arrange for Arafat’s assassination too.

A major dilemma accordingly faces human civilization. The world’s most sophisticated, most powerful and most affluent country is, at the same time, addicted to medieval barbarism. By hook or by crook is itself an expression with medieval roots: an enemy has to be got rid of, and it does not matter whether he is either ensnared to his death or eliminated by crooked means. Such a near primitive practice is seemingly yet to run its course; it continues to be still a major instrument of policy for the world’s supposedly most advanced nation.

It is possible to try to take the safe way out and whisper to one another that, what is to be done, the superpower has to be indulged, it has to have its way, even if the way chosen is not wholesome from most points of view. The trouble however lies elsewhere. Man is an imitative animal. If the US makes a habit of secretly annihilating perceived enemies, even though they might be heads of governments of other countries, the practice could spread.

True, the US has the most formidable security apparatus amongst all countries. Such security arrangements are nonetheless of no avail if suicide squads, with a minimal level of efficiency and armed with adequate technological equipment, enter the scene. The consequences then could indeed be fearful. Assassinations and counter-assassinations would bloody the soil all over the world. In the wash, while good Christians may not want a crusade and good Muslims may be chary of waging a jihad, the situation could well go beyond the control of each and everyone.

We are being forced to witness a dreadful medieval revival. Should not the least we could do is to plead for a supplementation of the clauses and the sub-clauses of the Vienna and Geneva conventions, such that all countries must sign an undertaking not to plot and execute the murder of other heads of states or heads of governments? Or will such a rider be in breach of medieval culture?

It is possible to enter a caveat here. Citizens of this subcontinent, it could be argued, have no business to look with a superior air at the spectacle of chartered executioners liquidating national leaders disliked by the chartering agencies. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Liaquat Ali Khan, Solomon Bandarnaike and Ranasinghe Premadasa, Indira and Rajiv Gandhi, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman have all met a gory end at the hand of assassins.

There is a difference though, none of them has been victims of the wrath and conspiracy of neighbourly governments; their deaths were the result of private conspiracy or at the most engineered by a rebel group. The US administration is in that sense a unique trailblazer; the trail leads back to Middle Age darkness.

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW / THE ART OF SURVIVAL 
 
 
BY ANURADHA KUMAR
 
 
THE DOUBLE BOND: PRIMO LEVI — A BIOGRAPHY
By Carole Angier,
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $ 40

On April 11, 1987, at the age of 67, Italian author and Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi was found dead at the bottom of the stairwell of the Turin apartment where he had lived for most of his life. His violent end left his admirers betrayed because for them Levi had been a paragon. Having survived Auschwitz, why did he kill himself? Theories abounded; some suggested it was an accident, others that it was the Auschwitz experience that had got him in the end.

Fifteen years later, a new biography by Carole Angier turns such theories on their head. To Angier, Levi suffered from depression all his life even before Auschwitz. One of Angier’s objectives is to probe the secret sadness that bound Levi all his life. She builds up suspense around Levi’s life, unearthing evidence of other suicides in his family — his grandfather threw himself to his death after suffering from bankruptcy.

Levi was reluctant to disclose about his own life so Angier draws on the testimony of those who knew him while writing the biography. As a child, he had always been timid but bright. In adolescence, his puniness became a matter of worry. To assert his masculinity, he took up mountaineering that remained a lifelong passion. In the mid-Thirties, when Levi entered university, Fascism was in the air but still unthreatening. The persecutions, however, began soon after Benito Mussolini joined Adolf Hitler. New laws were enacted to segregate the Jews.

By September 1943, the Nazis had occupied Turin, where the Levis lived. For three months Levi helped the resistance but was soon captured along with several partisan friends. Angier offers a gripping account of encounters, rivalries and betrayals among them. Days after their capture, they were bundled inside cattle trucks bound for Auschwitz.

Levi always brushed aside suggestions that he had been exceptionally brave to have survived Auschwitz. As he tells it, he owed his survival to luck— managing to fall ill at the right time so that he was sent to the infirmary rather than the gas chamber. He survived by memorizing rules; mastering the camp layout, learning to carry all he owned wherever he went so that no one could steal them. And all during his stay of over a year, he made a resolution to understand Auschwitz, the mentality that made such a vast biological experiment possible. When he returned at the end of 1945, he began telling his story to anyone who would listen to him and showed the Auschwitz tattoo on his forearm, the number that identified him— 174517.

If This is a Man, written a year after his return, is a narrative bereft of passion where extreme suffering was transformed into knowledge and understanding. His way of writing about Auschwitz seemed almost superhuman despite all that he had undergone. Other books such as The Truce and The Drowned and the Saved would follow, but it would be sometime before fame favoured him. For the rest of his life, Levi remained a man in torment. Divided not only between chemistry and writing and between his many identities — a Jew, an Italian, a loving son, doting father, affectionate husband, but also between the conscious and the unconscious realms.

Angier had engaged in research on Levi for over 10 years. In the end, there emerges a lively and enthralling biography, giving glimpses of the unknown Levi. However, in places, these seem contrived as she makes her own observations and draws her own conclusions — drawing Levi as the never-say-die romantic that detracts from the man who was also a writer having a penetrating insight. The Double Bond is a story of Angier’s journey to find Levi, the encounters, discoveries and disappointments she experienced. As the story of Primo Levi unfolds, it doesn’t merely remain a biography.

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW / HARD CHOICES 
 
 
BY PRATAP BHANU MEHTA
 
 
BETWEEN TWO WORLDS: EAST AND WEST
By J.N. Mohanty,
Oxford, Rs 345

As a genre, the memoirs and autobiographies of philosophers are yet to come into their own. Of course, some argue that Augustine, Rousseau and Montaigne each contributed to the creation of the genre in unparalleled ways, but it would be odd to describe them as philosophers. Bertrand Russell’s monumental chronicle of his own life of course remains very good to read, but then Russell was a writer like no other, and few lives can rival the abundance of his engagement with the world. A.J. Ayer and Willard Quine wrote elegant, crisp and witty prose, but their autobiographies seldom rise above the level of riveting faculty-club gossip. Paul Feyerband’s memoir was deeply interesting in part because of his profound sense that most people, including himself, were amoral rather than immoral or moral.

One might think that there is a prima facie obstacle to philosophers writing engrossing memoirs. The lives of most philosophers are best described using the delicate formulation that a biographer of Adam Smith once used to apologize for the lack of engrossing personal material in Smith’s life: “his life is a long footnote in the history of sublimation.” Or more memorably, Heine’s description of Kant as possessing a “head without a world”, while being a gross caricature of Kant, comes close to describing what we think of most philosophers. Unlike economists, two of whose (I.G.Patel and V.K.R.V. Rao) memoirs have just been published by Oxford, philosophers, especially in the 20th century, have remained remote from centres of power. Unlike anthropologists or historians, they have not messed about with subalterns either, and therefore much of the information they reveal about the world is relatively inconsequential.

J.N. Mohanty, on the other hand, seemed to possess all the materials for an engrossing autobiography. Although, like most Indian memoirs, Mohanty’s places a great premium on privacy, his life-story would at least call for an interesting reflection. Mohanty was born in Cuttack before independence, but made different worlds of philosophy more deeply his own than any other 20th-century philosopher. He navigated the discipline of Sanskrit pandits, the headiness of German idealism, excelled in phenomenology and taught for almost three decades in the professionalized world of American philosophy departments. Mohanty is, in some ways, a Gandhian, active with Vinoba Bhave, who nevertheless spent much of his adult life in the competitive world of North America; a self-proclaimed atheist, who nevertheless took the poignancy of ritual seriously; a product of all the currents of modernity, who nevertheless has a good deal of piety for tradition. In short, the cross-currents of history and the complicated academic paths he traversed, would have been substantial material for a memoir. They would have made up for the lack of startling revelations, or an eventful public life.

Mohanty spent all his life in academia: Calcutta, Oklahoma, Göttingen, New School and Philadelphia. Between Two Worlds suggests an autobiographical theme reflecting on an in-between existential condition, caught between East and West. This would have made for fascinating reading. There are few better situated than Mohanty to reflect on this way of being in the world. This is all the more so because Mohanty is a clear writer, a person of generous sympathies, vast learning and admirably little rancour. But in the end, the memoir refuses to take on and examine the burden of its title.

In the book there is very little of the two worlds that Mohanty refers to, other than occasional comments on life in India and America. Or rather, the worlds he refers to seem not to impinge too deeply upon the sheltered rhythms of university life. Most of the book is a rather matter-of-fact chronicle of Mohanty’s professional life. It has few intimate moments. The exception is Mohanty’s moving account of his performing the rituals after his mother’s death at Gaya. Mohanty describes with great poignancy, how performing that rite became, not only an act of fidelity to his mother, but also his means of participating in a tradition which is sustained less by common beliefs (to which Mohanty does not subscribe), but more by participation in a common social practice. But in the end there is even less engagement with the theme of being in-between East and West to which Mohanty invites attention.

Nevertheless, this memoir is interesting to read for three reasons. First, it is a kind of tribute to the life of the mind as is being formed in encounters with other minds. Mohanty’s summary of his engagements with other thinkers is always instructive. Second, it provides glimpses of vanished intellectual worlds. Mohanty is particularly good on his younger years and the intellectual environment of philosophy in Bengal in the middle of the century. He also provides a close glimpse of the New School with Hans Jonas and Hannah Arendt, (a close friend of Mohanty’s). Third, for all its reticence, stoicism and matter-of-fact quality, there lurks under the surface, a constant tension. You almost get the sense that despite having few regrets Mohanty is constantly calling into question his own choices, especially the choice of living in America, a choice he describes in now familiar terms as, “comfortable for my outer life, but hard for my inner one.”

It is an experience Indians facing modernity since the 19th century have been trying to come to grip with. And the fact that we still do not have a memoir or an account of a life that can do justice to this theme only makes the shortcomings of Mohanty’s memoir emblematic of a larger difficulty we have in talking about ourselves: we are caught in too many cross currents to be able to write a narrative which can make sense of all of them. It makes it difficult for us to compose our lives.

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW / OF TRADITION AND AESTHETICS 
 
 
BY SUGATA RAY
 
 
INDIAN SCULPTURE AND ICONOGRAPHY: FORMS AND MEASUREMENTS
By V. Ganapati Sthapati,
Mapin, £ 50

The author of this book, V. Ganapati Sthapati, is one of the most renowned practising sthapatis of this country who has designed and built a number of private and public edifices on the basis of the traditional principles of vaastu purusha mandala. With a lineage that has been traced to the family of the traditional architects who built the Brihadeswara temple at Tanjore, Sthapati has designed structures like the Tamil University at Tanjore, the Muthiah Mundram at Madurai. He is also the master sculptor of the 133 feet statue of Thiruvulluvar at Kanyakumari.

This book provides the reader with a first-hand account of dealing with the intricacies of traditional Indian iconography and iconometry. The volume is divided into three sections. The first section provides information regarding the basic principles that govern the logic of traditional Indian art, especially in relation to philosophy, theology and Indian aesthetics. The subsequent division furnishes the details of traditional sculpture, including notable features like coiffures, ornaments, weapons and motifs and also the representation of flora and fauna in Indian art.

The concluding section introduces the reader to the basic talamana of Indian sculpture, the fundamental measurements in constructing different types of idols. Beautiful illustrations and meticulous line drawings allow the reader to comprehend various aspects of iconometry and iconography in connection with the traditional shilpa paramparas.

However insightful this book, one has to approach it with a certain caution because Sthapati is a proponent of Tamil cultural revivalism, and this comes through not only in his art but also in his writings. Notwithstanding the fact that Sthapati is one of the most learned individuals in the field of traditional art and architecture, one is compelled to point out that such absolute talamanas, as the ones provided by the author, is not feasible. Individual sthapatis have different measuring rods and the angula (the basic unit of measurement) varies from region to region depending on the individual sthapati’s measuring rod. In no way is it possible to assert that the authentic measurement of an angula is 3.49 cm.

Further, the question of a pan-Indian architectural tradition, as the author claims, is problematic. One sees regional variations. For example, the Silpa Prakasa — a late medieval architectural text from Orissa — has an unquestionably different parameter in appraising architecture than that recommended by the Tamil Silpa Ratnakaram. Surprisingly, Silpa Prakasa has been ignored by Sthapati and one does not even find a casual mention of this text. Also, important Buddhist texts on art like Lalitavistara and Divyavadana as well as the Jain texts have been ignored.

One assumes that the main focus of the book is Brahmanical art and architecture. Within the Indic tradition, two of the other rich theological legacies, the Buddhist and Jain monuments and their symbology, have also been omitted. There is also no mention of the construction of Buddhist stupas and viharas, one of the earliest monuments that came up in India. Similarly, the iconography of Buddhist and Jain images have been significantly marginalized in this volume.

This sort of a selective representation leads one to assume that Sthapati merely pays his respect to the rich Dravida legacy to which he belongs. Keeping these inadequacies in mind, Indian Sculpture and Iconography provides an exciting glimpse into the an intricate traditional architecture by a prominent practising architect who tries to keep alive India’s shilpa parampara.

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW / THEY SUFFERED IN SILENCE 
 
 
BY ARNAB BHATTACHARYA
 
 
THE HINDU WIDOW IN INDIAN LITERATURE
By Rajul Sogani,
Oxford, Rs 525

Following the stringent moral precepts of Manusanhita, traditional Hindu patriarchy sought to curb female sexuality, which it deemed as a potential threat to its own structure. No wonder the two concepts of satitva (chastity) and pativrata (devotion to the husband) were invented to preserve the tyrannical authority of the male proprietor-cum-protector of the female body — be it the father, the brother or the husband. A woman in her conjugal life was seen by the Hindu male either as a “much needed mother” or a “feared whore”. However, it is the widow which the Hindu society dreaded most and formulated a host of obligatory dress and food codes to de-eroticize her.

The spread of English education in the 19th-century together with the growth of nationalist sentiments, which visualized the nation as the mother or a goddess, for the first time brought changes in the social perception of women. Widows could now stake claim to social sympathy, if not social acknowledgement. The Sati Act in 1832 and the Widow Remarriage Act in 1856 gave impetus to this changing social attitude.

In fact, this act and, preceding it, Iswarchandra Vidyasagar’s seminal essay, “Marriage of Hindu Widows”, sparked off a barrage of debates and polemical writings that found their way into novels written in the vernacular languages. Authors were either sceptical or optimistic about the act. But a breakthrough had been made.

Rajul Sogani in the book under review undertakes the task of charting out the trajectory of the theme of the widow in Indian fictional literature from mid-19th century to the present time. Her well-researched book, The Hindu Widow in Indian Literature, is based on a study of texts “examined not as individual structures but as structures in relation to the environment that produced them.” In her introduction, Sogani delves into both Vedic and Sangam literature to trace the origins of the Brahminical patriarchy. She looks for the archetypal image of the widow in the epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata as well as in the Tamil epic, Silippadikaran.

In the subsequent chapters, Sogani turns her attention to the fictional space occupied by widows in novels of the colonial and post-colonial period. She demonstrates how authors in the colonial period tended to romanticize a widow’s love on the lines of the Vaisnavite tradition of parakiya. The treatment meted out to widows in these novels suggests that the characters were summoned to act out their passions on stage and once they had done so, were dismissed summarily from the social theatre. In the end, widows either die, as in Bankimchandra Chatterjee’s Visavriksa, goes on a pilgrimage as in Rabindranath Tagore’s Chokher Bali, or goes insane, as in Saratchandra Chatterjee’s Charitraheen.

Thus, even within the fictional framework, widows were denied social rehabilitation. Their sexuality was at best sympathized with, but never approved of and hardly ever accepted. The struggle of widows, trying to reconcile their egos with their social existence, comes through in the writings of women novelists like Swarna Kumari Devi, Nirupama Devi, Usha Devi Mitra and others with whom Sogani deals exhaustively.

   

 
 
EDITOR’S CHOICE / TRIBUTE TO THE HIPPOCRATIC OATH 
 
 
 
 
COMPL;ICATIONS: NOTES FROM THE LIFE OF A YOUNG SURGEON
By Atul Gawande,
Penguin, Rs 250

Lucid and attractive writing on science for the intelligent layman is very rare. Without doubt Crick and Watson’s The Double Helix leads the field. Robert Jungk’s and Richard Rhodes’s account of the making of the atom bomb and Simon Singh on Fermat’s last theorem are also valuable additions to the genre of popular writing on science. Within the genre, good writing on the theory of practice of medicine is more than a rarity. It is practically non-existent. One can think of A.J. Cronin’s Adventure into Two Worlds, which was his own memories of his time as a struggling doctor in rural England and of his aspirations to become a writer. There is also James Herriot’s hilarious re-telling of a vet’s life in the Yorkshire dales. Atul Gawande is a new, refreshing voice in a little trodden field.

Gawande trained as a doctor in Harvard and is now a resident in surgery in Boston. He has written regularly on medicine and science for The New Yorker. This book brings together some of his essays. It is a breathtaking book: breathtaking in its lucidity as well as in its honesty. Gawande’s descriptions of scenes in the operation theatre or the emergency room of a busy hospital are charged with an immediacy. His account of surgical procedures, new developments in medicine and surgery and about the intricate functioning of the human body are precise, clear and easily comprehensible. His compelling prose brings together two apparently contradictory qualities: the precision one associates with a good surgeon and the compassion one expects from a good doctor. He himself captures this contradiction with his usual exactness and sense of balance: “[I am interested in] what happens when the simplicities of science come up against the complexities of individual lives.’’

It is said, most often critically, that surgeons are “sometimes wrong, never in doubt.’’ The truth of the matter is that surgeons are not in a position to indulge in the luxury of doubt. They have to decide — and decide fast — where to cut, how to cut and how much to cut. These are the simple steps with which they begin with an anaesthetized patient on the operating table. Often unexpected complications crop up and immediate decisions have to be taken, Gawande tells his readers about one such during a straightforward gall-bladder operation. A gall-bladder operation is simple with one “looming danger’’: the stalk of the gall-bladder is a branch off the liver’s only route for sending bile to the intestines for the digestion of fats. The surgeon has to be careful not to injure the main bile duct since damage to this makes the bile back up and this destroys the liver. Ten to 20 per cent of the patients to whom this happens die. Gawande found the gall-bladder, and both he and the attending surgeon were certain that they had got the right duct. As Gawande was about to cut he saw on the screen a globule of fat on top of the duct. Trying to remove this, he discovered that the duct had a fork and that he had been about to clip off the main bile duct. He was saved and so was the patient at the nick of time. He gives another gripping first person account of when he had failed to intubate a patient and had pushed her perilously close to permanent brain damage.

Such mishaps in the US are discussed in the weekly Mortality and Morbidity Conference (M&M). Gawande recounts the meeting where his failure at intubation was discussed threadbare with the attending surgeon, as is the custom, taking the responsibility. In M&M meetings, responsibility and correction, and not blame, are the key aspects of the discussion.

Gawande is at his best when narrating his own experiences. Physicians may or may not be able to cure themselves. This book shows how they see themselves or at least how one very perceptive and sensitive doctor sees his own practice.

   

 
 
PAPERBACK PICKINGS 
 
 
 
 

New writing and old men

GRANTA, 78
(Granta, £ 5.99)

Granta, 78 is the latest issue of a very readable collection of “new writing” — fiction, reportage, memoir and photography — edited by Ian Jack. This issue is entitled “Bad Company”. It has Arthur Miller writing on New York’s Chelsea Hotel in the Sixties, Milan Kundera on an exile’s return to Prague, Edmund White on an ageing gay couple in Key West and Rachel Cusk on a baby in a skiing resort. There is a series of photographs, by Deirdre O’Callaghan, of old men in a north London hostel. These photos bring to mind the Wordworthian phrase, “visionary dreariness”. No place does visionary dreariness better than England. “Will the pictures ‘do good’?” asks Jack in his introduction, which also ponders the larger question, “Does writing do any good?” Here are Arthur Miller’s opening lines, which suggest that writing and the “good” are best reconciled in good writing: “I decided to move to the Chelsea in 1960 for the privacy I was promised. It seemed a wonderfully out-of-the-way place, nearly a slum, where nobody would be likely to be looking for me. It was soon after Marilyn and I parted, and some of the press were still occasionally tracking me, looking for the dirt in a half-hearted way.”

SACHIN: THE STORY OF THE WORLD’S GREATEST BATSMAN
By Gulu Ezekiel
(Penguin, Rs 250)

Gulu Ezekiel’s Sachin: the story of the world’s greatest batsman is the “awe-inspiring” story of the rise of this great cricketer “from middle-class anonymity to global fame in the span of less than a decade”. Using press reports, interviews and conversations over the last decade, Ezekiel creates a smart and often hyperbolic biography, in keeping with Bishen Singh Bedi describing Tendulkar as “the greatest Indian alive”.

THE LIFE OF DANTE
By Giovanni Boccaccio
(Hesperus, £ 5.99)

Giovanni Boccaccio’s The life of dante is a brilliant Florentine’s tribute to a great fellow-citizen. Boccaccio’s 14th-century trattato written in praise of Italy’s greatest poet, Dante Alighieri, may well be considered the first modern literary biography. The poet’s life had already been given some sort of an allegorical representation in the Divina Commedia, but the writer of the Decameron tells a more historical story, putting his subject, the great Florentine exile, back into his time and place. Boccaccio captures the spiritual essence of Dante’s work by ending with an exposition of a prophetic dream of Dante’s mother: that she gave birth to a boy who ate berries which fell from a laurel tree, to be transformed into a shepherd who took the laurel leaves, and then into a flamboyant peacock. Boccaccio’s Dante — “nourished in the bosom of philosophy” — is “a man of lofty and very disdainful spirit”. The volume is translated by J.G. Nichols, and introduced by A.N. Wilson. It also prints the Decameron story about Dante’s close friend, Guido Cavalcanti.

   

 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

End of the road

Sir — The career of Najma Heptullah symbolizes everything that is wrong with Indian politics (“Cracks show as Najma stares at road’s end”, July 23). The four time Rajya Sabha member has never ever in her 22 year-long career in politics fought elections, and even now, when she faces political oblivion, is loathe to fight one. Isn’t this a distortion of the democratic process? After all, how can she presume to speak for the people without ever having appealed to them directly? The Rajya Sabha is called the house of elders, a term that refers to senior politicians who bring to the institution their vast experience in administration. But should it be allowed to become a parking ground for professional politicians who can’t win elections? Leaving behind the privileges of 22-years in Parliament and the prestige that goes with the chairpersonship of the Inter-Parliamentary Union must be a wrench. But Heptullah can always get them back — all she has to do is fight elections.

Yours faithfully,
Rakesh Das, Calcutta

For residents only

Sir — The “domicile” issue has thrown Jharkhand out of gear for the past two weeks now and is fast taking on the proportions of the Mandal agitation of the Eighties (“Five killed as mob fury rocks Jharkhand”, July 25). The state government’s ill-advised move to reserve government jobs for adivasis or “moolnivasis” has caused much resentment among non-adivasis in the state. While it is true that adivasis have long been exploited by a section of the population, it is also true that settlers in the region have contributed much to the development of the area. And as for the adivasi politicians who now profess to have bleeding hearts for their brethren — they are absolute hyprocrites.

In a recent Laxmi Narayan vs State of Jharkhand case, the judge, Tapan Sen ruled that as per Article 5 of the Constitution, there can be only an “Indian domicile” and that it was detrimental to the unity of the country to think of a “state domicile” because that would conjure “the notion of an independent state”. Article 16(ii) of the Constitution also forbids discrimination in respect of employment on the grounds of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth, residence. Babulal Marandi tried to justify the move by saying that he was only adopting a 1982 notification of undivided Bihar, but the Bihar government has clarified that the Jharkhand administration has “misinterpreted” its content and intentions.

Matters in the state are fast getting out of hand with students taking part in the violence. As usual, political parties in the state are out to exploit the situation by cashing in on inflamed public sentiment. The Jharkhand government should do something fast to stem the violence or the riots may spread to other states. The Centre should also intervene in the matter.

Instead of fighting each other, both adivasis and non-adivasis should work together for the development of the state. Jharkhand is one of the richest states in India in terms of natural resources. Rioting, bloodshed and bandhs will only lead to violence and destruction of life and property, in which case there can be no winners.

Yours faithfully,
Srinivasan Balakrishnan, Jamshedpur

Sir — Ever since it came to power, the Babulal Marandi government in Jharkand has been apathetic to the interests of population of the state who are neither scheduled castes nor scheduled tribes. First, it tried to foist 73 per cent reservations on the state, and now there is the domicile policy. Should those who do not even know their class XII syllabus well get entry into medicine and engineering courses? There have been cases where general category students were denied admission while reserved category students, with far lower marks, got in easily. No wonder general category students don’t make it to these colleges despite putting in their best efforts. Would the reservation policy augur well for the medical profession as a whole?

Yours faithfully,
Shubhomoy Banerjee, Bokaro

Sir — The British may have left India 55 years ago, but their legacy of divide and rule has a steady following among Indian politicians. One apt student of this legacy is Babulal Marandi.

Marandi’s domicile policy is so ill-framed that it does not bestow “domicle” status on even those who have lived in the area since independence. One’s ancestors’ name would have to figure in the land survey (record of rights) of 1919. But even if one’s ancestors have lived in Jharkhand for centuries but were landless, that does not make one a domicile. How can a policy be framed on the basis of records framed before independence? And why should anyone be persecuted for moving from one state to another?

Yours faithfully,
D.S. Nag, Jamshedpur

Learning curve

Sir — The Madhya Pradesh government’s decision to close down the Hoshnagabad science teaching programme is inexplicable (“MP bid to close alternative science chapter”, July 23). HSTP uses child-centered techniques and emphasizes learning with locally available materials, observation and discussion. Started in 1972 with 16 schools, HSTP now covers over 1,000 schools in Hoshangabad. Through its teacher training programmes, books and learning kits, HSTP has brought education to life. The education system in the United States of America, with its emphasis on creativity, independence of thought and underplay of rote-learning, is similar to HSTP’s.

Arguments against HSTP — that it does not have its own schools but takes part-tenancy of the government system — show that bureaucrats in the state education department feel threatened by HSTP’s success. Were the department to apply the same standards to itself, its own framework and curriculum would have to be junked. Digvijay Singh has the reputation of being progressive. After this decision, that reputation has taken a beating. I am sure that were an independent review to be conducted, HSTP would be reinstated.

Yours faithfully,
Srikanth Voorakaranam, North Carolina, US

Sir — Why did the Madhya Pradesh government so hastily decide to close down the Hoshnagabad science teaching programme? HSTP has taken good quality, meaningful education to the common people. It uses a universally-accepted pedagogical approach to the teaching of science. Even the National Council for Educational Research and Training had recommended that it be extended to the entire country.

Apparently, the state education department was afraid that students of the HSTP would not be able to cope with the general system. But studies show that this fear is unfounded. Such a hasty decision will be interpreted to indicate that the state is indifferent to the education of children.

Yours faithfully,
Anita Balasubramanian, Washington, US

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