Editorial 1 / Pilgrim’s progress
Editorial 2 / Beat them down
Nascent but mature
Book Review / What the deuce
Book Review / Doubled clinging
Book Review / Of love and boredom
Book Review / Playing to the gallery
Editor’s Choice / Twilight of the gods
Paperback Pickings
Letters to the editor

 
 
EDITORIAL 1 / PILGRIM’S PROGRESS 
 
 
 
 
A pilgrimage of grace has been reduced to a journey full of danger and venom. Devotees trekking to Amarnath to offer their worship to the highest shrine of Shiva in India have been attacked again by militants. These killings of pilgrims on the way to Amarnath have become an annual ritual. The government of India knows this but is caught in a kind of bind. It cannot suspend the yearly Amarnath trek since that would be to admit that it has failed to curb militancy in Kashmir. It cannot also provide adequate security to the pilgrims. Protecting the pilgrims from the militants is impossible given the nature of the terrian and the number of people participating in the climb up to Amarnath. Caught in this vice-like grip, innocent devotees lose their lives, terror spreads it wings. The government of India has to recognize that the lives of people are more important than its ego. It should have the courage suspend the annual pilgrimage to Amarnath till militancy has been eradicated in Kashmir. It might lose face but that will be a small price to pay for the lives that will be saved. It has been proved over time that the security forces in Kashmir are incapable of providing protection. Their intelligence is weak and their reaction slow. This, compounded by the difficulties involved in guarding a terrain like the road to Amarnath, makes the pilgrimage a risk not worth taking. The government has to choose between human lives and its own image. There can be no doubts about which one a civilized government would select when faced with this option.

The attack on the pilgrims comes at a critical time. The schedule for the elections in Jammu and Kashmir has just been announced. The killings underline the fragility of democracy in the province. The violence will ensure that there is a low turnout in the polls. “Low polls are preferable to no polls” may sound like an attractive slogan but a low turnout can only highlight the atmosphere of terror and violence that covers the state. A low turnout will reduce the elections to a farce and will completely defeat the purpose of demonstrating to the world that Kashmir is returning to a semblance of normalcy. But the government of India need not despair. Violence in Kashmir strengthens India’s case before the international community that despite repeated promises by Mr Pervez Musharraf, the Pakistan president, Pakistan continues to sponsor terrorism in Kashmir. There may well be a perverse sense of satisfaction in all this. But such realpolitik calculations cannot take away from the enormity of the tragedy every year when pilgrims are killed. Kashmir has been in this state of terror longer than most people care to remember, and not even the devout are free.

   

 
 
EDITORIAL 2 / BEAT THEM DOWN 
 
 
 
 
Contradictions are endemic to the Indian democracy. The Union cabinet approves a draft bill on the freedom of information even as the wrath of the state repeatedly bears down on the employees of the Tehelka news portal. The latter forms a relentless series of knocks and blows, adding up to a rather ugly sense of official vengefulness. The heavy-handed insecurity of the Indian state and its various institutions of vigilance have not left Tehelka alone ever since it broke the defence deals story in March 2001. The Central Bureau of Investigation has picked up several Tehelka men on petty charges (like poaching and assault) and flimsy evidence. The harassment has been steadily and ingeniously sustained through arrests, pick-ups, interrogations, all conducted with a special roughness and irregularities of procedure. The modus operandi is a combination of the covert and the unabashed — as if nobody would notice the common thread running through these cases. The latest arrest of Mr Aniruddh Bahal also shows up how variedly the CBI could strike: charging him with attacking one of its officers, as well as bringing against him more serious charges of leaking out home ministry documents.

It is significant that the CBI will be invoking the Official Secrets Act, 1923, in their charges against the Tehelka and home ministry employees. This act remains the biggest foe of the freedom of information campaign in India. It goes back to British imperial paranoia and has been used in modern India, for instance, to prevent journalists from entering the Sardar Sarovar Project site and constrain participants at a medical conference on the Bhopal gas tragedy. The definition and control of the “secret and classified” category in information held by the government rest on this act, with its catch-all Section 5 which makes it an offence to part with any information received in the course of official duty to non-officials. Successive governments have set up committees and working groups to reform this act, but nothing has been done so far. In the Tehelka situation, the use of this particular piece of legislation and the centrality of the defence sector nicely demonstrate how legal provisions and safeguards could actually be very effectively used to severely constrain the freedom of the press in the name of national security. If transparency, accountability and openness, together with the freedom of information and of the press, are to be made core democratic values, then the Tehelka hounding shows how these notions remain empty, and even absurd, words in a political, bureaucratic and military establishment which is ruled not only by corruption and the abuse of power, but also by secrecy and the fear of freedom.

   

 
 
NASCENT BUT MATURE 
 
 
BY ASHOK MITRA
 
 
Climacteric: a somewhat clumsy expression, but it occurs in the dictionary and is intended to serve a social purpose. It demarcates the point where a vital change takes place in the life span of an organism. Capitalism, it would seem, has now arrived at such a climacteric.

The genesis of capitalism was in the idealized virtues of free enterprise. Adam Smith, the 18th century don, was concerned at the excesses of monopolist entrepreneurs in the early phase of the Industrial Revolution. The wrongs inflicted on society by monopolists were, in the view of the scholar extraordinary, avoidable. He conceived the paradigm of a system featured by an infinite number of sellers as well as buyers of both goods and services. The unlimited supply as much of buyers as of sellers will, he thought, ensure free competition between buyers and buyers, between sellers and sellers and therefore buyers and sellers. The consequence will be the elimination of social exploitation. For, if seller a1 exploits buyer b1, the latter will have the option of deserting a1 and crossing over to buyer a2 or a3 or a4, and so on. Similarly, if b1 tries to shortchange a1, the latter will have the choice of leaving b1 and entering into a deal with a2 or a3 or a4, and so on. In such an arrangement, none will be in a position to ride roughshod over the interests of anyone else.

This model of Arcadia dreamed by Adam Smith was the intellectual springboard of capitalist endeavour. Smith belonged to the Church of Scotland, then heavily under Calvinist influence. Two outstanding streaks of Calvinist morality were (a) stress on frugality and simple living, and (b) the conviction that one is answerable to god for sins committed on earth. Early capitalism was synonymous with free enterprise, devotion to savings and crusade against sinfulness. Exploitation was sin and therefore free competition, which excluded the possibility of exploiting any member of society by any other member, was perceived to be the quintessence of religiosity; the fear of god acted as an additional constraint against social exploitation.

Those almost pre-historic days are gone. It is the climacteric. Mature capitalism, of which we are all victims, has liberated itself from the shackles of Calvinist hokey-pokey. Free enterprise has lapsed back into monopolist practices of various descriptions, including duopoly, oligopoly and polipoly. We exist in a world of either monopolist sellers or monopolist buyers, or of both. Monopoly spells exploitation. Advanced capitalism has witnessed a total emancipation from ethical scruples. The early hallmarks of free market philosophy are obliterated memories; only the urge to maximize the rate of return survives. It survives, and flourishes. Cut out each and every other consideration; the only object of life and living is the piling of money, money, and even more money.

Since the United States of America is the most advanced of all capitalist systems, the urge to maximize profit is the acutest in this land. A crony of Richard Nixon once summed up the ethos in a most evocative manner: he would not mind running over his own grandmother if that would allow him to make an extra ten thousand bucks. The series of financial scandals currently choking the American economy is, some would say, Nemesis catching up. One has to make money both on the corporate account and on the personal account; the means by which the money is made is beside the point, just make money. Chief executive officers of American companies have therefore gone on merrily cooking their accounts. They have fellow participants in the money-raking pastime amongst the auditors, the bankers and the official regulatory authority. All they have to do is to distribute all around the ill- gotten gravy. The booty in due course is shared even with congressmen, senators and the White House itself. This about sums up the saga of Enron, WorldCom, Xerox and all the rest.

Please disabuse itself of the thought that it is only a phenomenon of corporate corruption. Teapot Dome is the surrogate by which President Calvin Coolidge’s malfeasance had got known. That tradition of corruption in the federal government of the US continues till this day. The “pork barrel” system by which senators and congressmen soften up their constituencies is nothing but glorified malpractice. The federating states are not without contamination either. Amongst the states, New Jersey has always been a trendsetter. The latest scandal hitting the state is the wholesale stealing of pension funds, amounting to pilferage of as much as $35 billion, by the lady governor of New Jersey and her friends.

Why stop there, the malady has infected the academia too. Princeton has been caught snooping into the website of Yale University with the noble intention to entice away some bright students from the New Haven campus. It is free-for-all and even the sky is not the limit for corruption.

The problem in India is derivative. We draw inspiration from the US. Not surprisingly, we are kicking up fast the modalities of corruption the American corporate world has specialized in. It is therefore common to come across in our midst, at regular intervals, instances of insider trading, private placement, and manipulation of share values.

The Unit Trust of India is in a sorry mess, because some individual parties with strong administrative and political pulls have run away with close to Rs 7,000 crore of public money put in trust with it. The commercial banks are in a sorrier plight because as much as Rs 200,000 crore of their supposed assets have turned non-paying because the tycoons who borrowed the funds are determined not to return them and the government will not lift one little finger to bring the rich rascals to book. The latest scandal with petroleum pump, gas and kerosene licences belongs to the same genre; some people in government have been at work to maximize the rate of return for themselves, their relatives and their friends.

Thieving is no longer an act of social disgrace. Provident fund contributions by poor workers are siphoned off by employers. Income tax and excise duties are not paid; sales tax proceeds, already collected from customers, are misappropriated.

It is still nascent capitalism in India, but it has already run amok. The US model has cast its shadow. It might even be described as a marvellous instance of Indo-US corruption. The Dabhol Corporation scandal was a cooperative venture from which both US and Indian politicians benefited, as did American and Indian businessmen and industrialists. Most of the defence ministry scandals from Bofors to Tehelka also happen to be lustrous examples of international financial cooperation with commissions and bribe money evenly shared by Indian and foreign commission agents with some crumbs reserved for politicians.

It would nonetheless be uncharitable to heap all the blame on the fact that we are following the American model. Ancient Indian culture, spanning back to five thousands years, has been a near-equal contributory factor. Kautilyan economics is replete with wise thoughts on how political adversaries and financial rivals could be done in by the foulest and craftiest of means. What we are witnessing in the country is a blend of the Aryan and American brands of corruption. It is as if Ku Klux Klan and Vishwa Hindu Parishad have joined hands. As a result, India’s economic growth is henceforth found to be unstoppable.

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW / WHAT THE DEUCE 
 
 
 
 
SERIOUS
By John McEnroe
Little Brown, £ 17.99

In the history of modern tennis, John McEnroe is a legend. His play had the almost perfect mixture of power and touch. After retirement, he has, in recent times, become a very good commentator of the game. But as a writer, he will not qualify for the South Club Open. Even with the help of his ghost, James Kaplan, he touches in his autobiography almost incredible depths of trivia and banality.

From a player of McEnroe’s genius, there is always the expectation that he will add, through his knowledge and experience, to the understanding of the game. More technical insights are expected from him. But McEnroe provides bald summaries of matches.

Take his handling of his matches against Bjorn Borg. These, in living memory, have acquired epic proportions. McEnroe offers no comments on the different styles of tennis played by the two of them. He offers no explanations for his initial defeats and his eventual victory. He repeats the scores, when whose service was broken and other details, which can be got from any record-keeper of tennis. Who wants to read McEnroe for such irrelevant nonsense? Readers want to know of his evaluation of Borg, his strengths, weaknesses, the shots in which he excelled. Only a McEnroe, if he put his mind to writing, can provide such insights.

McEnroe, as commentator, has shown that he is actually capable of evaluating players, that he has a deep knowledge of the technical aspects of the game and that he was, behind his spoilt-brat image, a thinking and serious tennis player.

McEnroe pretends to be serious here and fails. The out-of-court serious McEnroe is not a patch on the outrageous McEnroe, on court. This is a ghost of a great tennis player.

No sex, we are scholars

KAMSUTRA
By Vatsyayana Mallanaga,
Oxford, Rs 350

This is a new translation of a well-known classic. Reviled as pornography, read as erotica, the Kamasutra has come to be regarded as a major treatise on the social mores of ancient India. Two outstanding scholars have collaborated on the translation and the annotations of the text: Wendy Doniger and Sudhir Kakar.

The outcome of this collaboration, alas, is nothing to write home about. It is no better or no worse than other annotated translations of the famous manual of sex.

Parts of the annotation/introduction smack of post-modern pompousness: “Beneath the veneer of a sexual textbook, the Kamasutra resembles a work of dramatic fiction more than anything else.” Was it fiction then? Or was the text and the practices it described in detail anchored in some kind of social reality? The editors suggest, “the text is like a drama because it is a fantasy”. To read Kamasutra as a fantasy is to vacate it of all significance. The text is too rich in social details to be relegated to the level of fantasy. One suspects that this is Kakar trying to be smart to gain access to a Western audience.

This suspicion is strengthened by the explication to a Western audience of the erotic dimensions of betel (sic) in ancient India. This can only be understood by analogy “with the overtones that champagne has in Europe, or the post-coital cigarette. It evokes the cigarette foreplay of Bogart and Bacall in To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep or the cigarette sublimation shared by Bette Davis and Paul Heinreid in Now Voyager”. Does this analogy explain anything to anybody? And it is possible to have a more literal reading of those sequences, one that will not take the sexual symbolism suggested by the editors.

The translation of Richard Burton was wrong-headed but it was not pompous. This translation is lucid, in modern English, but the introduction is enough to make one yawn. That’s the last thing a reader of Kamasutra should do.

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW / DOUBLED CLINGING 
 
 
BY BHASWATI CHAKRAVORTY
 
 
SAME-SEX LOVE IN INDIA: READINGS FROM LITERATURE AND HISTORY
Edited By Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai,
Macmillan, Rs 295

The epigraph to this extraordinary combination of texts and commentary is from the Mahabharata: “The lamp of history destroys the darkness of ignorance.” The ignorance in question is primarily about the existence of homoeroticism in India from the earliest times, and the deliberate or blind underplaying of its representations in literature and myth. But the lamp of history illuminates the darkness on many other counts as well. One example is the attitudes of ancient and medieval societies towards homoeroticism, both among Hindus and later among Muslims, which stand out in stark contrast to the condemnatory attitudes of Christian societies in the West.

It is same-sex love, which need not necessarily be sexually acted upon, that is the subject of the book. This is one of the first points that one of the editors, Ruth Vanita, makes in her extended preface. Focussing on homosexuality and lesbianism would limit the richness of “primary, life-defining” friendships between man and man or woman and woman. The book, the editor also says, is about representations and perceptions of such friendships as they are to be found in the writings of ancient, medieval and modern India.

Two thousand years of writing is difficult to squeeze into a 370-page book. Vanita and Saleem Kidwai have selected representational pieces with great acuity from ancient to modern poetry, from legend and myth, religious texts, legal and erotic treatises, fiction and biography, letters and memoirs, story cycles and history. The scholarly translations and retranslations of texts in more than fifteen languages drawn from Hindu, Muslim and Buddhist traditions open up the possibility of rich rereadings and interpretations of a phenomenon largely ignored by traditional criticism. The primary material is given its context by the introductions to the four sections and the headnotes to the texts. The editors tell the running story, of social perceptions and responses, of religious underpinnings and literary conventions. What emerges is a tale of half-disapproving tolerance, sometimes even an indulgence, of irresistible same-sex attractions, until condemnation and repression come with the entry of the British. This is a very different story from the generally touted belief that homoeroticism did not exist in India at all, and if it did manifest itself, it faced hostility and annihilation.

In a way, the materials from ancient India in Sanskrit and Pali determine the dominant strand in the thesis. Absolute love is gender-free, it contains within it the experience of male and female. The fluidity of gender is represented by the deities themselves: Shiva becomes female while playing with Parvati in a forest, and again lustfully pursues Vishnu in the form of Mohini after having asked him to turn himself into a woman. Miraculous births like that of Bhagirath from two women, or Kartikeya from a male, sex-changes like Sikhandin’s, the belief in rebirth where a same-sex bonding in one life is explained away by heterosexual coupledom in an earlier one, provide the belief structure for a non-judgmental attitude to homoeroticism. The decisive relationship in the Mahabharata is that between Krishna and Arjuna, whose primary friendship is in no way disturbed by their conjugal relationships with their many wives. Procreation and eroticism may not be related at all, and friendships with an erotic charge are often glorified rather than condemned in the earliest texts. Certain social realities can also be discerned through this material. The importance of same-sex communities, even if in temporary formation such as the army, is attested to by the worship of gods of miraculous birth like Ayappa. He unites through his story castes as well as religious communities.

The most powerful sections of the book are the two on medieval Sanskrit and Perso-Urdu traditions. The mingling of the religious and secular on the one hand, and of Bhakti and Sufi traditions on the other, provides the reader with the most sensuous and exalted writing. Both the beloved and the lover keep changing genders, in emotion and in expression, while love and separation only grow the richer through these transmutations. The “fair and dark boys” of Delhi provoke the most passionate outpourings from Persian, Urdu and Hindi poets, matched in intensity and rapture by the Urdu Rekhti poetry of love between women collected in the section on modern materials.

There is a certain tension in the literature of modern times. The condemnation of homoeroticism, imported in large part from the West, evidently suppressed a rich seam of feeling in the representation of love. Many writers, when they write about same-sex love at all, are either judgmental, or treat it as an aberration in one phase of the character’s life, nothing that a little “real” heterosexual love will not cure. In contrast, the most powerful stories are also the most perspicacious about same-sex as well as heterosexual relations, such as the Rajasthani “A Double Life”, by Vijay Dan Detha. The conflicting attitudes represented by the fiction are accompanied by real-life or fictionalized accounts of real-life loves, such as Sunil Gangopadhyay’s tale of Michael Madhusudan Dutt’s love for Gourdas Basak, which evokes an earlier account of Chaitanya’s love for his disciple Jagannath Das.

The editors argue that the Nineties have seen a major change in attitudes to homoeroticism, and Deepa Mehta’s film, Fire, is seen as instrumental in bringing same-sex love lucidly, if unpleasantly, into public discourse. The regressive influence of Victorian rule is perhaps waning, aided by global changes in attitude. Noticeably, the friendship between men was far more visible in older times, while the returning energy in homoerotic representation seems to surge powerfully around female bonding. The spirit of the volume is perhaps best expressed in the Rekhti poem celebrating joyous fun and liberating sex: “Come let’s play at doubled clinging, why sit around, better labour free.”

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW / OF LOVE AND BOREDOM 
 
 
BY DOLA MITRA
 
 
THE VISITING MOON
By Susan Visvanathan,
IndiaInk, Rs 250

In The Visiting Moon, Susan Visvanathan captures the subconscious of a woman whose ostensible inability to “feel” makes her unfit to carry on with normal life.

The novel is a moving tale of stifled creativity. It plumbs the depths of repressed passions and desires, and of suppressed individuality. Visvanathan delineates the peculiar pain of a mind that is free in itself but is held back by bonds, which may seem delicate as gold chains, but are very strong and difficult to break.

The novel’s protagonist, Rashmi, is a beautiful, middle-aged divorcee who lives alone in Delhi and writes for a living. Her former husband, Inder, was fairly doting but the divorce came about because of her manifest disinterest in him, her two young sons, her marriage and life in general. In fact, such is Rashmi’s apathy that it is Inder’s second wife, Anita, who brings up the children.

But it is only after the divorce that Rashmi discovers her literary talents. “I often mentally thanked the day when Inder decided that he wanted more than complicity — or was it complacence? — in the marriage. It left me free to write, left me free to dream, left me free to be myself, to have no real responsibilities to anyone, not even to the boys whom I had carried in my womb with such patience.” This indifference to societal conventions, marriage and motherhood makes Rashmi an outcaste in the eyes of her husband and sons, friends and family.

Divorce brings freedom, of course, but also loneliness and a desire to love and be loved, which threatens to swamp her. Rashmi’s narrative thus begins with the hope “that love would come my way”. And inevitably she does meet someone she falls in love with. “The man crossed my path…and I knew that we had recogized each other from some other terrain, some other time.” The object of Rashmi’s love is a journalist, Rakesh, who is not only younger than her, but who is also married and worse, much in love with his wife. Nonetheless, Rashmi continues to love him, however unrequited that love is.

She starts writing in order to escape the pain and churns out gro-tesque thrillers with violent plots and mentally-deranged characters.

The narrative of The Visiting Moon being in the first person, the reader gets a glimpse of Rashmi’s world through her own eyes. Rashmi’s estimation of herself is however based on what others think of and say about her. On gets the feeling that beneath the polite and reserved veneer, lurks expletives waiting to burst forth.

The novel has a languid pace, much like Rashmi’s life. Events unfold through the haze of the thick Delhi fog which hangs outside Rashmi’s window on grey winter afternoons and are recreated in flashbacks. On the face of it however, this novel is fashioned like a whodunit, where the reader is driven by the desire to see Rashmi attain happiness.

Rashmi’s desolation is not inborn, it comes of the situation she finds herself in. A sociologist, Visvanathan sees in her the parable of Everywoman. “Every woman knows that it is the moon that changes her body and her world…It is a full moon even when it is a half moon because of course the dark side exists.” It is this dark side of the moon that Visvanathan explores in this well executed, dark novella.

   

 
 
BOOK REVIEW / PLAYING TO THE GALLERY 
 
 
BY SREYASHI DASTIDAR
 
 
BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM
By Narinder Dhami,
Hodder, £ 4.99

Make no mistake. This is not the book on which Gurinder Chadha’s film — which is said to have taken both women’s lib and expatriate agony a notch further — is based. This is “the novel from the brilliant new film”. The determination of the brilliance quotients is best left to the viewer and the reader, but it would suffice to say that if the film isn’t great, the book is much worse.

More people have watched Gone With the Wind than have read the novel, and the book is older by three years. Robert James Waller’s book went into several reprints after Bridges of Madison County was made into a film in the early Nineties. But a book is never written in the hope that it will be made into a film some day. Turning a film into a book is therefore a somewhat dishonest enterprise since it clearly aims at capturing the market the film has already created. The true film aficionado, however, is not interested in reading a film as a story. A screenplay would hold greater appeal to him, since it provides dialogues, scene divisions as well as stage directions, cutting out the fluff that a book based on a screenplay cannot help but incorporate.

But these reflections are perhaps lost on Narinder Dhami, whose book is, at best, a juvenile work. It is appropriate that it has been published by Hodder Children’s Books. Although the author is faithful to the original screenplay, the novel lacks the vividness and colour of Chadha’s film. The first-person narrative falls flat on its face, and “My life was unfolding in front of me, and I had no say in the matter” is about the only impressive sentence in it. Dhami could have done a thing or two with the form — written Jesminder’s story as a teenager’s diary, for instance. But the haste to complete the book, and the reasons behind it, are very much in evidence. A little late in coming out, and the book would not have been able to cash in on the hype created around the film.

All characters in Bend It Like Beckham, with the exception of Jess, are stereotypes. For those who have seen Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, it is easy to see that Jess’s father in Bend It... is Kajol’s mother in Dilwale..., and Jess’s mother Kajol’s father. But while Simran (Kajol) stays true to “Indian” ideals by marrying the NRI brat, Raj (Shah Rukh Khan), Jess embraces an un-Indian vocation, soccer, and an Irish coach, Joe. Has the expatriate Sikh community finally placed its two feet equally firmly in the two differing cultures? It would not be wise to answer the question from either the film or the book, bent as they are on essentializing India and Indian culture. Jess’s rebellion is credible to the extent that she fails to understand what it is that her parents cling to so fiercely.

Dhami’s characters are not well fleshed out at all mainly because she fails to add that extra bit to the dialogues which would compensate for the lack of visual representation. For instance the grotesque comicality of Jess’s mother is absent, she is turned into some sort of an ogress here. In the book as in the film, the treatment of football remains a cut-and-paste job (most things happen on the field “as if by magic”) to hide the lack of technical knowledge which nevertheless shows up like a bad pimple.

The extremely tempting issue of race relations is not exploited at all, except that Jess is sent out of a match for punching a rival defender who calls her a “Paki”. It is a pity, since Dhami and Chadha together could have made a point to David Blunkett’s ilk.

To return to the question of making a book from a film, Dhami’s book is not without its uses. In the absence of a published screenplay, it will help those who have not been able to follow all of the “innit”-infested trendy London English of the film. The one thing that the book has in common with Beckham is “spice”. But where is the curry?

   

 
 
EDITOR’S CHOICE / TWILIGHT OF THE GODS 
 
 
 
 
BERLIN: THE DOWNFALL, 1945
By Antony Beevor,
Viking, £ 20

In the end was the beginning. The fall of Berlin in April 1945 marked the end of World War II in Europe. It also began a train of events that culminated in the blockade of Berlin, the air lift, the building of the Wall and a new era in world politics called the Cold War. The destruction of the Wall and the unification of east and west Berlin ended the Cold War and initiated a new and different era in international relations.

Antony Beevor’s chilling reconstruction of the capture of Berlin by the Red Army is not only an excellent piece of military history but is also informed by a keen social awareness. It is not an easy narrative to write since the action was scattered over a wide terrain. Emplotment is virtually impossible. Beevor’s narrative has three major themes: the movement of the Red Army westward from the river Vistula, an advance that stretched from the Baltic to the Adriatic; the movement of the Western forces towards the Elbe; and German attempts at defence against the Red Army and then of Berlin itself. Various sub-themes come in and two of the more significant of these are the behaviour of the Red Army soldiers and life in the bunker of the Reich Chancellery where Hitler had retired.

Given the impossibility of constructing one seamless narrative, Beevor adopts a different technique. He preserves a linear and chronological framework and the action moves swiftly from Christmas 1944 to the surrender of the German forces on May 7-8, first at Eisenhower’s headquarters at Rheims where Jodl surrendered and then at Zhukov’s headquarters in Karlshorst where Keitel signed the act of capitulation. Within this framework, Beevor moves with ease from one theme to another.

The Red Army’s advance was relentless and Stalin, sitting in the Kremlin, played off his leading generals — Zhukov, Konev and Rokossovsky — to spur them on towards Berlin. Stalin wanted to get to Berlin before the Western powers: there was the symbolic importance of Berlin, the lure of uranium and gold, and the desire to consolidate Soviet Russia’s position in the post-war situation. Beevor shows how at Yalta, Stalin completely fooled Roosevelt who prevailed over Churchill’s suspicions of Stalin’s intentions. Stalin, as was often the case with him, was clear about his aims and was ruthless and unscrupulous in pursuing them. Under him, the Red Army became an effective vehicle of revenge against Germany, whose army had perpetrated the worst possible atrocities during Operation Barbarrosa, the codename for the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. The defeat of Germany and the capture of Berlin became an expression of patriotism for the Russian soldier.

Nazi Germany, even before the onslaught across the Vistula frontier began, was in a shambles. It was short of fuel and ammunition. It was led by a maniac who often ordered the movement of non-existent divisions and lived in a world of complete delusion. Lives and property could have been saved if a man saner than Hitler had led Germany because he would have seen defeat when it stared him in the face and capitulated.

But Hitler’s utter stupidity and obstinacy resulted in the destruction of a beautiful city and the rape of women by the Red Army and the brutalization of boys.

The fall of Berlin and the liberation of Germany have many images. Beevor evokes a poignant one from the notebook of Vasily Grossman, who came in with the Red Army: “An old woman is walking away from Berlin. She is wearing a little shawl over her head, looking exactly as if she were on a pilgrimage, a pilgrim in the vast spaces of Russia. She’s holding an umbrella on her shoulder, with a huge aluminium saucepan hanging from its handle.” What better image of unvanquished man and the futility of war?

   

 
 
PAPERBACK PICKINGS 
 
 
 
 

A poor devil’s last thoughts

THE LAST DAY OF A CONDEMNED MAN
By Victor Hugo
(Hesperus, £ 5.99)

Victor Hugo’s The last day of a condemned man is the pseudo-diary of the thoughts and dreams of a man on death row, published in 1829. In his long and slightly over-the-top preface, Hugo describes the novella as “nothing less than an appeal, direct or indirect as the reader wishes, for the abolition of the death penalty”. This translation by Geoff Woollen — somewhat bitten by the “contemporary relevance” bug — adds an afterword by Kate Allen, the director of Amnesty International UK. Allen finds, at the heart of Hugo’s dramatic monologue, an abiding political and human question: “What moral high ground does a state retain when it kills in the name of justice — what is the difference between this justice and the criminal act?” This edition appends “A Comedy about a Tragedy”, which is “a kind of preface in dialogue” to the novella. Hugo writes with unrelieved passion, rather like a French Romantic Arundhati Roy, with more than a hint of kitsch (think of Le Mis, the musical): “Oh, what a hateful place a prison is! Its poison corrupts everything. Nothing survives its withering blast, not even the song of a girl of fifteen! You may find a bird there, but it has mud on its wing; and if you pick a pretty flower to breathe its fragrance, why, it stinks.”

THE NARMADA DAMMED
By Dilip D’Souza
(Penguin, Rs 250)

Dilip D’Souza’s The Narmada Dammed is subtitled “An Inquiry into the Politics of Development”, and the author has also written on India’s denotified tribes. Here he looks at big dams — particularly the Sardar Sarovar project — as political symbols. His basic thesis is that “there is something profoundly warped in how we have chosen to ‘develop’”, leaving “many Indians in darkness”. A compact, well-researched and polemical book.

MOTHER INDIA
By Gayatri Chatterjee
(Penguin, Rs 250)

Gayatri Chatterjee’s Mother India is an interesting monograph on Mehboob Khan’s 1957 family melodrama starring Nargis, Sunil Dutt and Rajendra Kumar. It is both a historical study and an analysis of the film’s visual rhetoric. Chatterjee shows how the production and reception of Mother India are rooted both in Hindu mythology and the collective experience of a newly independent nation-state on the brink of industrialization and social change. She works with the archives of Mehboob Productions in Mumbai, with correspondence between film distributors, theatre owners and the production company, along with bill-book counterfoils, theatre-hall reports and advertisements in dailies. All this material is deftly marshalled and the film-studies jargon mercifully kept reined in. Penguin could plan an entire series of such monographs on the Indian classics, and get all sorts of good writers, and not necessarily just academics, to write them.

   

 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

Too big for the small screen

Sir — It is obvious from the report, “Laloo and Rabri fume at TV clones” (Aug 7), that the first couple of Bihar has not taken kindly to a small-screen spoof on their lives. Yet, as most television buffs would remember, this is not the first time that the Rashtriya Janata Dal chief has been caricatured on TV. Regular viewers of Movers and Shakers will remember Shekhar Suman’s masterful imitation of the Bihar raja. No objections were raised then: on the contrary, Laloo Yadav had on several occasions publicly praised Suman for his versatility. What seems to have irked the first couple this time is the strong physical resemblance between the former chief minister and his screen incarnation, Raamkhilavaan CM, and the corrupt deals he is projected to be involved in. Instead of going to court or worrying about the damage that the serial could do to his political career, Laloo Yadav should have allowed viewers to have their laugh. The fuss will only generate unwanted publicity.

Yours faithfully,
Anchita Datta, Calcutta

Troubled investment

Sir — The Unit Trust of India has been giving nightmares to its investors over the past few years. Yet this financial institution used to be the first choice of the investor, especially of the retired. Like many others, I have been severely inconvenienced since UTI first ran into financial trouble. After retirement, I had invested Rs 3 lakh in the monthly income plan, 1997 scheme five years back. After the end of the stipulated period, I received my principal back in cheques. I deposited the cheques with my bank on July 7, 2002 and they were cashed 20 days later on July 27, 2002. In the process, I lost Rs 833. As if that were not enough, an additional sum of Rs 1,324 was deducted as service charge from my principal.

I would like to ask the UTI authorities the following questions. Why did I not get back my full principal amount? Why were my cheques not issued through a bank within the clearing zone? Why should any investor be forced to lose his hard-earned money for no fault of his own?

Yours faithfully,
Nitya Ranjan Mukherjee, Barasat

Sir— It was distressing to read about UTI’s plans to divest ITC shares at a premium to the highest bidder (“Plan to plug US-64 exodus”, July 26). Though this will raise a substantial sum of money for UTI, approximately Rs 2,000 to Rs 2,500 crore, it is not likely to solve the massive cash crunch that the institution is facing. Obviously, UTI needs to look for more realistic solutions instead of making short term profits through distress sales. For redemption pressures are not likely to ease off soon and the blue-chip stocks that it now holds will have disappeared by the next couple of years. The UTI will become even less attractive as a mutual fund.

Yours faithfully,
Dipti Sengupta, Calcutta

Sir — As a donor, I invested in UTI’s Rajlakshmi scheme for my granddaughter in 1993. The offer document of the scheme declared that the matured amount would be paid after she became 21. However, the scheme was terminated on October 1, 2000 and the accumulated amount was invested in the Children’s Career Plan as advised by UTI. The CCP scheme did not offer any maturity value. The offer was made at a sale price of Rs 13.50 per unit on October 3, 2000. The NAV of the CCP was Rs 13.97 on May 30, 2002, according to a UTI bulletin. Subsequently, the abridged annual accounts of UTI indicated that only 27.98 per cent of the total assets of CCP was in equity, while the rest was in corporate debt and money market instruments. Is it not strange that with 72.02 per cent assets in debt portfolio, the rise in the value of units is only 6.37 per cent in one year and eight months? To add to the misery of investors, the NAV of the CCP had come down to Rs 13.02 on October 31, 2001. Is the UTI taking its investors for a ride?

Yours faithfully,
A. Chaudhuri, Calcutta

Sir— After superannuation, I had invested Rs 50,000 in MIP 1995 (III) in the hope of having a fixed monthly income. Given that UTI is a government undertaking, I was sure that my principal would be secure. Initially, the dividend paid was Rs 583.38, which was further reduced to Rs 208.33. No dividend has been paid for January, February and March this year. Further, after the scheme attained maturity, only a sum of Rs 32,000 was refunded against an investment of Rs 50,000. I have a question for the Central government — why should the investor be held to ransom because of UTI’s non-performing assets?

Yours faithfully,
P. Pramanik, Calcutta

Sir— I am a retired person who had invested Rs 2 lakh in UTI’s MIP 1995. The institution had offered a monthly interest of 13 per cent initially. It had been clearly mentioned in the prospectus issued by UTI that at least 80 per cent of the funds would be invested in fixed income securities. The rest would be put in equities, equity-related instruments and money market instruments. An interest of 13, 14 and 12 per cent were issued in the first three years respectively. The rate of interest started coming down after that and was 5 per cent in 2000-01. Now UTI is not giving any interest and the NAV has been brought down to Rs 6.46 from Rs 10. It is unfortunate that UTI has not kept its promises to investors.

The superannuated have been put through enough hardship by UTI. Investors who have lost their savings should make a joint petition to UTI, demanding details of the investments made under the scheme. They should also go to court to seek compensation for their losses.

Yours faithfully,
H.S. Sinha, Calcutta

Home alone

Sir — Nandana Dev Sen’s glorification of spinsterhood and the perception that a committed relationship is not everybody’s cup of tea are perhaps because she does not understand that husband and wife are supposed to play complementary roles in a relationship (“Single in the City”, July 27). Oneupmanship and personal dominance are major causes of friction in a relationship. Dev Sen’s view that being single allows for self-introspection is not right. Being together allows a couple enough room to introspect. Also, Dev Sen’s contention that marriage means dependence on someone for everything is difficult to believe. It is the faith or belief that one has in the other that allows one to vent one’s feelings without fear and also to expect sympathy when the chips are down.

It is amazing to think that in the vast history of social relationships, the conjugal bond has withstood the test of time. This is a triumph in human history. Of course, being single gives one the freedom to hurl one’s limbs whichever way one wishes to at theatres. But the fun ends at the drop of the curtain. Being single gives you solitude, but not happiness. Dev Sen’s coinage of the term “one’s own company” is superfluous. Check the dictionary, “company”doesn’t mean to be single at all. Time spent alone is time killed.

Yours faithfully,
Chumki Mukherjee, Bhubaneswar

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