Editorial 1/ Talking again
Editorial 2/ Power of darkness
The Meritarian Principle
Book Review/ Language game
Book Review/ The rise of Hindu Bengal
Book Review/ Behind the school book
Book Review/ India rekindled
Bookwise/ A business run on hunches
Paperback Pickings
Letters to the Editor

 
 
EDITORIAL 1/ TALKING AGAIN 
 
 
 
 
It remains to be seen if the visit of the Pakistan president, Mr Pervez Musharraf, to Bangladesh, and his expression of regret for the events of 1971, will lead to a new phase in bilateral relations. India must also be hoping that Mr Musharraf will use his visit to Dhaka, and then to Colombo, to improve the regional environment for cooperation, rather than to canvas for support against India. Relations between Islamabad and Dhaka, even at their friendliest, have been affected by the undercurrent of tension rooted in the developments that led to the creation of Bangla- desh. The former Bangladesh prime minister, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, remains the most vocal advocate of Bangladeshi anger, and she has — not surprisingly — cancelled a meeting with Mr Musharraf. Even the average Bangladeshi cannot easily forget the traumas of 1971, the year in which the Pakistan army perpetuated the most heinous atrocities on those living in what was then East Pakistan.

The national liberation movement of Bangladesh was fuelled as much by the brutalities of the Pakistan army as it was by years of systematic exploitation, and by attempts to deny the Awami League its rightful share of political power. Till recently, however, Pakistan refused to accept that it was responsible for the anger and alienation which led to the national liberation movement in Bangladesh. Instead, Islamabad has consistently blamed India for “dismembering” Pakistan, forgetting conveniently that New Delhi intervened only after millions of refugees from Bangla- desh were on its soil. Even the most conservative international lawyers accept that the conditions that India was faced with in 1971 demanded humanitarian intervention. Mr Musharraf’s unqualified regret for the excesses committed by the Pakistan army in 1971 is, therefore, a welcome development. Although short of a formal apology, no Pakistani chief of army staff has ever gone this far. It must be recalled, however, that the Hamoodur Rehman commission had severely indicted the Pakistan army for its role. The report was leaked to an Indian news magazine, and was later publicly released. The real challenge for Mr Musharraf in Dhaka is not just to erase the bitter memory of 1971, but to build relations within a positive framework of cooperation. It remains to be seen if he can resist the temptation to tap the anti-India sentiment in smaller south Asian states. Clearly, there is an opportunity for him to create an environment in which regional cooperation can once again take shape. For once there is a de-escalation between India and Pakistan and the resumption of a dialogue. This groundwork could prove invaluable in helping to construct a new order in south Asia.

   

 
 
EDITORIAL 2/ POWER OF DARKNESS 
 
 
 
 
On Tuesday evening, the western power grid collapsed leaving five states in darkness. It was reminiscent of January 2001, when the northern region was plunged into darkness following a grid collapse. It is important to underline the words, grid collapse, since they suggest that the darkness that the people of the states suffered was not caused by power shortage alone. Bad coordination and mismanagement were substantive contributory factors. A grid collapse occurs when shortages are not managed properly and the demand from different states is not efficiently coordinated to match the availability of power. In this sense, Tuesday’s collapse was straight out of the textbook. The real cause of the collapse — as stated by the Power Grid Corporation, which oversees the country-wide transmission network — was the fact that Madhya Pradesh was drawing excess power from the grid. And this led to the collapse. This version of things has been corroborated by the western region load despatch centre and the western region electricity board. Both these bodies have added that Madhya Pradesh had been warned of the matter more than once and was told that continued excess withdrawal from the grid would lead to a collapse. The power authorities in the state apparently turned a deaf ear to such warnings. It surprises nobody that Mr Digvijay Singh, the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, has denied the charge that his state was drawing excess power.

There is the danger, not unusual in India, that the issues of management and coordination will be obscured by politics and the desire to score points off a political rival. The Gujarat government has demanded an enquiry into the conduct of the Madhya Pradesh government and its persistent abuse of the grid system. Opposition parties in Madhya Pradesh have also voiced a similar demand. The upshot of all this is the Centre’s decision to ask the central electricity authority to step in and assign responsibility. Again, all this is according to a pre-written script, since in January 2001, under a similar set of circumstances, the CEA was called in. The CEA had then recommended 27 corrective steps to avoid another grid collapse. Presumably those recommendations are now gathering dust in a cupboard in some government office. File and forget is a universal bureaucratic principle. Obviously, those who perpetrated the collapse violated a code of discipline. There exists a technology to enforce this discipline: under-frequency relays which shut off power supply to the state that is overdrawing. It is clear that those relays lie de-activated. This only encourages abuse of the grid code and precipitates a collapse. It is time the old recommendations of the CEA were brought out, dusted and enforced.

   

 
 
THE MERITARIAN PRINCIPLE 
 
 
BY ANDRE BETEILLE
 
 
The author is chairman, Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta Some time last winter, the Harvard sociologist, Nathan Glazer, drew my attention to a public statement against the meritarian principle which had appeared in one of our national dailies. Glazer was intrigued by a misprint and asked if I knew what the word “meritorian” meant. He was also intrigued by the names of the signatories, all intellectuals of great renown, including a couple known to both of us personally.

The meritarian principle is the one according to which benefits are distributed unequally among individuals according to merit, and not equally to all irrespective of ability or performance. It is a feature of societies marked by competition, innovation and change as against those marked by stability and adherence to traditional ways of life and socio-economic arrangements. The meritarian principle is at odds with caste and all socio-economic arrangements based on feudal, semi-feudal and quasi-feudal ties of patronage and dependence.

The meritarian principle is familiar to all college and university teachers, although it may not be equally cherished by all. It is difficult to see how a college or a university can function if students are not assessed and graded according to merit. I have known academics who scoff at the idea of merit but use the strictest standards in admitting, promoting and awarding degrees to students; but there are also others who take these matters lightly. Where teachers take such matters lightly, students are inclined to believe that once they have secured admission they should all be awarded degrees, and some even feel that they should all be awarded first-class degrees. The meritarian principle has at best a limited appeal in a society in which patronage and dependence are so extensive.

It cannot be too strongly emphasized that the meritarian principle, or at least its salience, is a historical and not a universal phenomenon. It is salient in some societies and disregarded in others. Hence it may be unwise to make an assessment of it without regard for its social and historical context. There may be a case for restraining it in some social and historical contexts while encouraging it in others.

The meritarian principle as one expects it to operate in education and employment in our public institutions is, in a historical perspective, a modern phenomenon, going back barely two hundred years in time. It is modern, not just in the Indian context, but in the world as a whole. The principle was given a great impetus by the reforms introduced into France by Napoleon. Central to these reforms was the creation of the twin institutions of the great schools or the grandes ecoles and the great services or the grands corps, recruitment to which was through open national competition. These institutions were designed to give expression to Napoleon’s ideal of “careers open to talent”.

Napoleon’s ideas spread rapidly from France to other European countries, and then to other parts of the world. They acquired distinctive institutional forms as they spread from one part of the world to another. Our own University Grants Commission and Union public service commission may be said to embody, each in its own way, the meritarian principle and the ideal of careers open to talent. Whether the problems these institutions now face arise from too much attention to the meritarian principle or a wilful disregard of that principle is a question that cannot be easily set aside.

Egalitarians in the 19th century and even later welcomed the meritarian principle which they believed to stand for equality of opportunity without consideration of birth, social origin or patronage. But doubts began to gradually arise about the social consequences of a single-minded application of the idea of careers open to talent. Talent or merit may be wrongly defined or wrongly assessed, and in that case the rewards of success or the penalties of failure might both turn out to be arbitrary and capricious. At the beginning of the 21st century, egalitarians have many more misgivings about the meritarian principle than they had at the beginning of the 19th or even the 20th century.

A book published in 1958 by Michael Young with the title of The Rise of Meritocracy became a turning point in attitudes towards the meritarian principle among progressive intellectuals. Young drew pointed attention to the negative consequences of selection by merit as tested by competitive examinations. Many have come to believe that a single-minded attachment to the idea of merit as described above discourages diversity and stultifies creativity. It also fosters an unfeeling attitude towards those who fail in the competition, often through no fault of theirs, and are condemned as being without merit. There are social theorists who have warned against a “callous meritocratic society”.

A meritocracy may be viewed as a system which carries the meritarian principle to its extreme limit by excluding all other social principles, such as amity, compassion, fellow-feeling, moderation and tolerance. But one does not need to be an advocate of meritocracy in order to appreciate and support the meritarian principle. The most common way of throwing cold water on it is to say that there is no agreed definition of merit and that it means different things to different people. That is true but it hardly settles the matter. Most things that are of value are difficult to define, but that does not mean that we should not take them into account in the operation of institutions. Critics of the meritarian principle often say that what should count in the distribution of benefits and burdens is not merit but need. Need is indeed a consideration of the first importance; but then it is no more easy to define need than it is to define merit, for different people have different conceptions not only of merit but also of need.

One does not need to have a general, formal and abstract definition of merit in order to grade MA examination papers or to select candidates for the civil service, without fear or favour, and in accordance with criteria agreed upon in advance. If merit is given short shrift in such cases, as it often is in India, it is not in order to meet some higher social objective but for the pettiest and the most mundane of reasons. The advocacy of the meritarian principle as well as its subversion are both tied to strategies of social mobility adopted by different members of the same middle class. Those who aspire to mobility through individual initiative are inclined to favour the meritarian principle while those who expect to achieve it through collective political action tend to make light of it.

In India, white-collar trade unionism has acted as a strong force against the meritarian principle. My own first-hand experience of it is confined largely to the union of college and university teachers. The leaders of these unions have consistently taken the view that everybody should be promoted after the passage of a certain period of time and that nobody should be promoted — or even appointed — out of turn, meaning before the passage of the right amount of time. To the argument that merit, and not just seniority, should count, their response is that merit cannot be defined and that judgments of merits are by their nature arbitrary and capricious. They will take great comfort from the fact that there are some very eminent intellectuals who are on their side in debunking the principle of merit.

The author is chairman, Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW/ LANGUAGE GAME 
 
 
BY LAKSHMI SUBRAMANIAN
 
 
TRAVEL AND ETHNOLOGY IN THE RENAISSANCE: SOUTH INDIA THROUGH EUROPEAN EYES, 1250-1625
By Joan-Pau Rubies,
Cambridge, Rs 950

This book, as the author says at the very outset, is not about south India. It is about European perceptions of south India that found articulation through travel narratives. These narratives evolved over time, embodying significant shifts in methods, assumptions and practice, and had the cumulative effect of producing an influential discourse on human diversity, a striking feature of the intellectual corpus of Renaissance thought. The legacy left behind by travellers — from the cleric to the merchant traveller to the philosopher traveller was as considerable as the distance they travelled and it is to Rubies’s erudition and imagination that we owe a breathtaking fare of material and interpretation.

In course of charting the progress of the pilgrim, merchant and secular traveller, Rubies does something more. He suggests an innovative method of studying encounters between different cultures by introducing the concept of language games and its efficacy in decoding different political and cultural systems, and argues that many of the travellers were able to do precisely that. At the same time, he takes on two important debates, one relating to the descriptions of the Vijaynagar state, the most important Hindu kingdom of south India in the 16th century, and the other to the larger enterprise of representation that the West embarked upon, an enterprise that is widely known as Orientalism.

Rubies defines language games as a set of rules and assumptions organized so as to meet the demands of a social context of communication. The games were not strictly speaking verbal — these could involve, as they did frequently, adoption of local dress and even religion, not to speak of imbibing a range of ritual and symbolic acts of participation. Our travellers were, therefore, not always informed by crude and crass material considerations or narrow rationalism. Many of them were able to learn language games effectively and thereby genuinely participate in the experience of otherness, as well as come up with what we can call empirical ethnographic models, shorn of religious dogma, and facilitate the development of historiographic genres based on chronology. Given all these attributes, Rubies argues that it appears a little far-fetched to dismiss these as rather insufficient sources for reconstructing the history of polities in southern India or to see them as early extensions of later day Orientalism. These narratives written by men of varied predilections accommodated a plurality of voices and did not engender a manipulative gaze based on a crude separation between “us” and “them” and denying in the process the representation of this “other” intrinsic voice.

Rubies rests his case on a meticulous examination of the material and identifies among his protagonists three or four central figures whose work in representation gave the genre a special significance — Marco Polo, Nicolo Conti, Fernao Nunes and Pietro della Valle. What gave their work a measure of unity was a genuine appreciation of the diversity of the East and the manner in which they based their observations and participated in the decoding experience. Marco Polo was the first to break away from a purely sacred contemplation of the marvels of the world. Seeing the East mostly with non-Christians, Polo was able to adopt a relativist position to diversity of customs and habits and to acknowledge that different beliefs justified different behaviour and different institutions. His narrative practice made the idea of an absolute opposition between the East and the West nonsensical.

In the centuries separating Polo from Nicolo Conti and Nunes, a profound intellectual transformation was under way. Drawing inspiration from humanist standards, new methods of empiricism and testing of generalizations of the natural and the rational, travellers like Conti and Nunes adopted what one may call a secularized approach. Nunes, in particular, questioned earlier assumptions of the all-powerful omniscient king and produced a secularized account of practical politics. For Rubies, accounts like Nunes’s were fine examples of early ethnography and historical models and in no way inferior to the indigenous accounts of either Telegu Hindu chronicles or Persian accounts that in any case remained trapped within rhetorical models of holy war. The travellers, although not trained to discuss either theology or to compare and contrast different sources within a scholarly discipline, were more than able to identify the city of Vijaynagar as the centre of a complex non-Christian civil society and to recreate through the institution of kingship many of the political, economic and ritual language games that regulated society. This is a point that many modern historians have missed out and, according to Rubies, have even distorted when they use the accounts to argue for or against feudal kingship in Vijaynagar.

Possibly the most striking of Rubies’s protagonists is Pietro della Valle, an uncommon traveller and a pilgrim of curiosity. Sensitive to diversity of custom and adept in a number of languages like Persian and Turkish, he was both a recorder and an interpreter of the East. His ability to enter the world of the Nayaka kingdom of Ikkeri in the 17th century not as a marginal observer but as an effective participant in it gave his observations a special flavour. In Valle, there was the integration of the empirical traveller and the humanist educated philosopher. In this coming together, one can see the beginnings of modern ethnology, a development that was not necessarily and invariably tainted with Orientalism.

The point is not just well made but made with extreme eloquence. The erudition and the clarity of conceptualization sets this book apart as a trendsetter. However, in his appreciation of the medieval travellers and their works, Rubies occasionally lapses into his own brand of Orientalism when he says plainly that there was very little in Muslim discourse about Hindu India which was less orientalist than what contemporary Europeans perceived and wrote. Or when he mentions that Brahmanical historical sources never developed the distinction between myth and history, despite the fact that a number of Telugu and Kannada texts of the period did have a chronological sequence and had a key ideological function to perform in much the same way as their European counterparts did. These formulations may come in for some qualification in view of the growing tendency to challenge assumptions about the principles of ordering history and to provide an alternative framework for looking at texts and the history of practice in south Asia.

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW/ THE RISE OF HINDU BENGAL 
 
 
BY SUGATA RAY
 
 
RELIGIOUS PROCESS: THE PURANAS AND THE MAKING OF A REGIONAL TRADITION
By Kunal Chakrabarti,
Oxford, Rs 645

In recent times, the study of regions and regionalism has become one of the prime concerns of social scientists working on India and its culture. However, there is a clear distinction between “region” and “regionalism” which is often forgotten. Regions, when viewed from a historical perspective, are not established entities identifiable through an objective criterion but are spatial in character. One’s location decides the boundaries of the region one is studying. Regionalism, as a cultural phenomenon, is the result of diverse social and political forces and as a consciousness is accessible through certain necessary prerequisites such as a symbol pool, modes of selection, standardization, transmission of symbols and the establishment of a regional elite. However, given that current academics tend to investigate history by moving backwards from the present, more often than not, one sees an over-emphasis on regional concerns.

It is at this point that one should initiate Kunal Chakrabarti’s fascinating work on the construction of a region, interpreted predominantly through texts, especially the Puranas. Taking a multi-disciplinary approach, using epigraphy, theological studies and archaeology, the author has tried to discover a possible discursive framework for the history of Bengal in Religious Process: The Puranas and the Making of a Regional Tradition from within his disciplinary matrix. Chakrabarti clearly states his location at the very outset as a “Hindu Bengali” who sees the Brahmanization of Bengal as an enabling and “creative process”.

The author attempts to investigate the process of interaction between Brahmanism and the indigenous social groups of Bengal during the early medieval period. According to the author, the Bengal Puranas provided the Brahmanical class with a means to adopt the cult of the goddess as a possible instrument to assimilate pluralistic “low” cultural forms within its folds. It was on this shared understanding of a variously represented common cult that the earliest foundation of Bengal’s regional tradition can be seen.He also examines the role of Buddhism as a state-patronized religion and the manner in which Brahmanism as a socio-cultural force successfully replaced the former from its position of pre-eminence in the state. Following the dialectics of cultural negotiations implicit in any regional Purana, this work interprets a model that guided this association of reciprocity, contestation and domination.

The book argues that the Puranic synthesis in Bengal generated for the first time the necessary cultural resource that enabled the diverse communities to acquire a regional cultural identity. However, one also needs to note the relevance of two often contradictory theological ideologies operating within a close knit geographic space and the tensions such proximity can possibly create. To see Brahmanism as a monolithic cultural entity and the sole possible means of access to a larger regional formation would be an oversight. The prevalent Brahmanical forces had to deal with dissent and protest in their attempts to hegemonize Bengal. Intrinsic factors such as transgressive individuals and extrinsic factors such as marginal cultural protests endeavoured to rupture the caste and sexual hegemonic hierarchies that Brahmanism had proposed. However, one needs to go beyond such monolithic constructs and take into consideration other accounts in order to obtain a broader understanding of a regional tradition.

Nonetheless, this exciting volume helps one understand the relevance of Brahmanical interventions in creating a regional identity in Bengal. The significance of such a volume for students of Indian culture and history need not be further elucidated.

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW/ BEHIND THE SCHOOL BOOK 
 
 
BY RUDRANGSHU MUKHERJEE
 
 
PREJUDICE AND PRIDE: SCHOOL HISTORIES OF THE FREEDOM STRUGGLE IN INDIA AND PAKISTAN
By Krishna Kumar,
Penguin, Rs 395

Politics invariably infringes on the writing of history. It is assumed that the past can be used to legitimize the present and this was, indeed, done with telling effect when during the nationalist movement, leaders used history to fortify cultural nationalism. This hangover from the nationalist movement continues even today and has acquired pernicious and dangerous dimensions in the hands of politicians and of certain people posing as scholars of history who want to see India’s past and present through the prism of Hindutva..

Krishna Kumar’s book looks at only a slice of this problem. As the subtitle to his book suggests, he is only analysing how the freedom struggle is represented in books meant for school children. It would also be a mistake to assume that this book is aimed at exposing the hollow claims made on behalf of history by the devotees of saffron. On the contrary, one of the sets of books that he takes up for teasing out their biases and silences is those produced by NCERT in the late Sixties and early Seventies. Some of India’s best historians — Satish Chandra, S. Gopal, Romila Thapar, Bipan Chandra and others, all with impeccable left and secular credentials — were involved in this project.

Kumar says that three salient features have been used in the study. He calls them, somewhat pompously, the politics of mention, pacing and the conception of the end. He admits that the first two are present in all historical writing. Politics of mention is nothing more than what E.H. Carr called selectivity. Historians invariably select facts when they write and this process is related to their overall analytical scheme. In the context of the freedom struggle and books for children, it has implications for identity formation. Pacing is an inevitable part of the construction of any narrative. In school books, Kumar says, there is a tendency to move swiftly from one event to another with only a few words thrown in by way of explaining how the events are interlinked. Writers of school histories thus construct “an episodic memory chain” which is not the most effective way to comprehend history or for developing a love for the subject. The concept of the end is important because the history of the freedom struggle suddenly comes to a full stop on August 15, 1947. The view of the end is a mixture of triumph with tragedy.

The most remarkable fact about all school histories is that their authors do not have to reveal to their readers the basis of their knowledge. This aspect is never addressed in the debate over textbooks. Kumar is of the opinion that the debate over textbooks in India is a truncated one. The focus is always on the distinction between the secular and the communal. The debates concentrate on textbooks as a means of political socialization. Kumar discerns a growing trend to trivialize history through the quiz approach “which encourages children to regard the verbalization of the ‘right’ answer as the only competence that matters”.

Kumar has no ready-made solutions. But his book does the most important thing: he forces to question and to think.

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW/ INDIA REKINDLED 
 
 
BY ARNAB BHATTACHARYA
 
 
IGNITED MINDS: UNLEASHING THE POWER WITHIN INDIA
By A.P.J. Abdul Kalam,
Viking, Rs 250

A nation which has just gone through a turbulent transitional phase of its history evolves through four distinct stages of development. The first is the athlete stage in which the nation braces itself for new achievements. The second is the warrior stage which is marked by the nation’s egoistical attempts to exercise one-upmanship over its neighbouring countries. The third stage, called the big brother stage, sees the nation, though still an achiever, “not obsessed with proving its strength”, but taking an interest in extending help to other developing countries. The last stage is one of self-realization, in which the nation engages itself with more serious issues like the responsibility of individuals towards their fellow beings, global environment and so on.

This is how A.P.J. Abdul Kalam adapts and applies Wayne W. Dyer’s categorization of human life-span in Manifest Your Destiny to his own concept of an ideal nation-state. Kalam’s contention in Ignited Minds is that India, despite having the potential for reaching the final stage of development, has fumbled and faltered too often in its march towards progress. “National institutions and nationalist ideology,” writes Etienne Balibar in Masses, Classes, Ideas, “almost succeed, but not quite”. The irony becomes palpable in case of India which has since Independence been haunted by this nemesis.

Ignited Minds deals with this problem and even suggests remedial measures to overcome it. It does not offer any “formulaic prescription” whatsoever, but lays down a choreography of dreams. The book is also about the methodology of dreaming. In the epilogue to his book, Kalam puts down an interesting conversation between two unborn babies, Ego and Spirit. While Ego takes the darkness of the mother’s womb as the ultimate reality, Spirit looks beyond its immediate reality and envisages it’s meeting with its mother. Kalam obviously wants his countrymen to be more like Spirit than Ego in their visions, ideas and actions.

In the nine chapters of his book, Kalam embraces many issues which concern the prosperity of the nation. The orientation of these chapters seems to indicate that Kalam considers the younger generation to form a sizeable part of his readership. In the first chapter, he narrates at length a dream in which five great men of world history — Mahatma Gandhi, Albert Einstein, Emperor Asoka, Abraham Lincoln and Caliph Omar — engage in a conversation that children will find both exciting and edifying. In chapter II, Kalam cities instances to stress the importance of role-models that would inspire young individuals to realize their dreams. Chapter III highlights the contributions of some of the legendary scientists of India who turned out to be great visionaries as well. Kalam also recounts his own experiences during his stint at ISRO as a scientist and researcher. There are messages like the spiritualization of scientific knowledge and the prioritization of national interest over religion and politics.

The strength of his aphorisms notwithstanding, Kalam’s sociological analysis is, more often than not, skin-deep. While recommending the inculcation of spiritual values in young minds, Kalam seems to be naively impervious to the non-secular and sectarian biases lurking in them. Values have never really been insular from the religion and cultural practices of hierarchical social structures. The new age demands new, more secular values. It is a pity that Kalam refrains from grappling with this crucial subject.

Kalam’s discussion on the “knowledge society” (chapter VI), with its two major components of societal transformation and wealth generation and other allied features, is both refreshing and down-to-earth. The model proposed by him to achieve zero net rural-urban migration” is expected to provide future city planners with food for thought.

   

 
 
BOOKWISE/ A BUSINESS RUN ON HUNCHES 
 
 
BY RAVI VYAS
 
 
No matter what the marketing whiz-kids may say, the book business, for the most part, runs on hunches. Whether the idea for the book comes from the writer, a literary agent, or the imagination of the acquisition editor, it is generally expressed in these terms: “I think this is a book people would like because it is relevant. They probably would buy it.” The decision to publish a book is mainly a question of the right person, or right persons, agreeing that the hunches are worth putting money on.

Ideas come to an editor in a variety of ways. They arrive unsolicited through the mail everyday. They also come by phone, sometimes in the form of suggestions by writers, but increasingly now through literary agents. But they can also originate in the editor’s mind. The acquisition editor, the person who is responsible for securing manuscripts for his company, sifts through the deluge of possibilities, waiting for a book idea to strike him as both extraordinary and profitable.

In some companies, acquisition editors have the authority to publish a book. In most publishing houses, though, the acquisition editor has to prepare a presentation for the proposal committee which would contain a brief synopsis of the book, how much it would cost, what would be the gross margin of profit and how long it would take to turn in a profit. Proposal committees are less interested in questions of originality than in profitability. The editor has to convince the committee that it makes good business sense to publish the book.

However, all said and done, “good business sense” is nothing more than a strong hunch. No editor, however experienced, would categorically state that his proposed printing of 3000 copies would sell out in 18 months. Editors know from experience that many good books have bombed, been written off and pulped. Marketing and sales are highly complex operations involving a mix of four crucial elements: prices, discounts, credits and the facility to return unsold copies. There is also the publicity factor preceding the release of the book which can never be enough to guarantee availability in every nook and corner of the market. Add to these, the limited retail shelf space and an editor will always hedge his bets.

It is the conviction with which the editor puts across his presentation that finally carries the day. While the editor knows that the book business is dicey in the best of times, members of the proposal committee are also well aware that it would be foolish to oppose a proposal based on hunches. After all, so many bestsellers have been fashioned on “that feeling”. At best, the committee would cut down on the number of copies that go for the first print.

The publishing world is replete with cases of rejects that have subsequently turned out to be runaway successes: Animal Farm, How Green Was My Valley, The Diary of Anne Frank, Ulysses, and Lolita spring immediately to mind.

Of course, hunches can only take you to stage one of the publishing process. After that comes the hard grind of editing, design, printing and finally the toughest part — marketing and sales — until the stocks are sold out. But without getting to the first stage, the book would never see the light of day.

   

 
 
PAPERBACK PICKINGS 
 
 
 
 

Socialist and secret agent

THE STORY OF A NOBODY
By Anton Chekhov
(Hesperus, £ 5.99)

The Story of a nobody by Anton Chekhov is an unusual little piece, somewhere between a short story and a novella, published in the early 1890s. But it affords all the pleasures one expects from this brilliant dramatist. Set in St Petersburgh, Chekhov’s story presents a secret agent who is spying on a family, and whose self-examination in the course of this leads to a profound disillusionment with his own mission: “I do not know whether it was under the influence of the illness or of a change that was already under way, as yet unnoticed, in my outlook, but I was increasingly possessed from day to day by a passionate, nagging desire for the ordinary life of an ordinary person.” Narrated by a former socialist, Chekhov’s text weaves together the political and the literary by creating a fairly dense network of allusions to Shakespeare, Pushkin and Turgenev. Hugh Aplin, the translator, attaches a rather pedantic but useful introduction, and Louis de Bernières has written a more readable foreword.

THE MARRIAGE OF SENSE AND SOUL
By Ken Wilber
(Gateway, Rs 150)

The marriage of sense and soul by Ken Wilber uses something by Oscar Wilde to initiate an argument about the antagonism between modern science and religion to frame an attempt at integrating the two. The secret lies, apparently, in scientists letting “curiosity and wonder bubble up” towards the “staggering mystery that is the existence of the world.” The reach of this book is splendidly erudite, taking in Saussure, Derrida, Descartes, Charles Taylor, Max Planck, right-hand quadrants and Bauhaus. There are section headings like “The Reign of the It”, “Language Groans” and “Depth Takes a Vacation”. Wilber has also written Grace and Grit and A Brief History of Everything.

MAKING THE MINISTER SMILE
By Anurag Mathur
(Penguin, Rs 200)

Making the minister smile by Anurag Mathursmile is a clever, funny novel about an average American in post-liberalization New Delhi. Chris Stark is a 6’4”, 300 lbs ex-footballer whose family corporation has entered into a business collaboration with an Indian company. This brings him to Delhi, and to industrial disputes, political intrigue, intelligence webs and an unfortunate affair. And the solution to his entire knot of problems lies in making the Minister smile.

NIRMAL BABU'S BRIDE
By Alison Mukherjee
(Indialog, Rs 195)

Nirmal Babu’s bride by Alison Mukherjee is a slim and graceful novel exploring the inner and outer worlds of a set of middle-class Bengalis who also happen to be Christians. The writing is quiet and psychologically detailed, although sensitive to the historical and social determinants of everyday life, particularly the insecurities of a minority community owing to the rise of Hindu fundamentalism. The author is a British-born social worker, who studied theology at Serampore College, West Bengal.

   

 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

Diplomacy out of track

Sir — It is perhaps too much to expect a little maturity from Mamata Banerjee (“Who’s the PM, asks Mamata”, July 31). Instead of taking the refusal of the prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, to reconsider the cabinet decision on the bifurcation of Eastern Railway in her stride, the Trinamool didi is already talking about walking out of the National Democratic Alliance government. Banerjee’s refusal to sacrifice Bengal’s interests may win her a few sympathizers for the time being but it is unlikely to work out to her advantage in the long run. Nor is her insinuation that Nitish Kumar was rewarded for helping the Bharatiya Janata Party cover up the “sin of Gujarat” likely to force a rethink on the issue. It is time Banerjee realized that both her colleagues in the NDA and her electorate in Bengal have become tired of her cheap stunts. One cannot help wondering what is next on didi’s agenda, though. Surely not another alliance with the Congress?
Yours faithfully,
Mallika Sengupta, Calcutta

Thinking man

Sir — The editorial, “A place at the head” (July 27), accuses the former president, K.R. Narayanan, of politicking. It also suggests that he was not completely neutral in his dealings. The observation is not only unfortunate, but also borders on being malicious. Narayanan had earned his position as the president of India by his hard work and his credentials as an honest servant of the nation are beyond doubt. We must keep in mind the enormity of his achievements given the humble background Narayanan hails from.

One cannot forget Narayanan’s timely comments on various occasions. In one moving speech he had mentioned the need for introspection before the nation embarked on changing the Constitution. He said that we must check and see whether the Constitution has failed us or is it we who have failed the Constitution. The editorial notes that the president’s primary responsibility is to protect and uphold the Constitution. Narayanan undoubtedly discharged this duty while in office.

Let us face the fact that a mere rubber-stamp of a president is of no use to the country. We need more presidents with a conscience. One also expects the current president to have it.

Yours faithfully,
Mukesh Kochar, Moscow

Sir — According to the editorial, “A place at the head”, “the Indian president is not expected to take on the role of ideologue, entrusted with the task of changing the attitudes of the ruling government, of governors and judges” but should confine himself strictly to his constitutional role. But in accordance with the conventions of the British parliamentary democracy which India has adopted, the president does have the right to warn, to encourage and the right to be consulted. In other words, he has enough rights to at least try changing the attitude of the ruling government.

Further, in the current Indian situation, hung parliaments and coalition governments have weakened the prime minister’s office. This has inadvertently made the role of the president more active than before. After all, power cannot possibly exist in a vacuum. The uncertainty over the completion of the full term of the government has tilted the balance of power towards the nominal executive. This does not, however, mean that the president can start acting like the real executive. The editorial is right in pointing out that there is no such job as that of a “working president” in India. But there is no reason why India cannot have a “thinking president”, whose job is a little more meaningful than that of a rubber stamp.

Yours faithfully,
Sujit De, Sodepur

Sir — Instead of appealing to the Hindu majority alone and asking it to abjure violence, K.R. Narayanan should have targeted his farewell address at all communities. In fact, the minorities in India do enjoy equal rights and equal privileges, as should be the case in a democracy. Witness the fact that the new president is from the minority community. Surely, Narayanan is not unaware of the fact that the minority communities have special laws governing marriage, divorce and so on? That is the minorities in India are, in fact, more equal than the majority community!

Yours faithfully,
S.C. Hada, Calcutta

Second innings?

Sir — It was disappointing to learn that the former Indian captain, Mohammed Azharuddin, was prevented from attending the presentation of the Wisden Indian Cricketer of the Century award because the sponsors of the event had some reservations about him (“Welcome, but not welcome”, July 22). But it is more disconcerting to learn that his invitation was withdrawn because some members of the present Indian team also had reservations about Azharuddin. Even before the match-fixing case against Azharuddin has been decided, his cricketing career has been cut short by the ban imposed on him for life by the Board of Control for Cricket in India — a rather harsh punishment in a country where convicted criminals hold ministerial posts and those who deal in defence secrets go scot-free. Azharuddin has been punished already for his guilt. There is little point in humiliating him again and again.
Yours faithfully,
Najmi Rizvi, Sonebhadra, Uttar Pradesh

Sir — That Mohammed Azharuddin should have been included in the list of invitees for the prestigious Wisden Indian Cricketer of the Century award is not surprising. He is undoubtedly one of the most talented Indian cricketers of our time. The Andhra Pradesh cricket board should persuade the BCCI to lift the life ban on him and help in his rehabilitation.

Yours faithfully,
M.S. Quraishy, Calcutta

Sir — There cannot be a worthier recipient of the Wisden Indian Cricketer of the Century award than Kapil Dev (“Cup tilts balance between greatest and greatest”, July 24). It was under his able leadership that India won the cricket world cup in 1983. Kapil Dev’s contribution to the Indian middle order of batting was vital and instrumental in winning matches for India. Very few people will forget his match-winning innings of 175 not out against Zimbabwe in 1983 or his four successive sixes off Eddie Hemmings, which helped India avoid the follow-on against England in 1990. It is not surprising that India should find it difficult to find another allrounder to take his place.

Yours faithfully,
Rajarshi Ghosh, Calcutta

Sir — Kapil Dev has won awards both as a member of the Indian team and after his retirement. By winning the Wisden Indian Cricketer of the Century award, Kapil Dev has cemented his position as a cricketing legend. Is a kni-ghthood on the cards?

Yours faithfully,
Rakesh Bajoria, Calcutta

Parting shot

Sir — I am baffled by the fact that most of the letter-writers to the editor are women, yet most articles and feature stories in The Telegraph are written by men.
Yours faithfully,
Mrinmoy Goswami, Nagaon, Assam

Letters to the editor should be sent to:

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