Editorial/Winter of discontent
Thieves, gangsters, poets
Letters To The Editor

From the Atal Behari Vajpayee government at the Centre to the Congress regime in Rajasthan, political leaders across India are confronting striking public sector workers. The most prominent battle is between Uttar Pradesh�s government and the workers of its state electricity board. This is a test of the Bharatiya Janata Party regime�s ability to stand up to vested interests opposed to economic reforms. A fear of the unions led the Congress and United Front central governments to carefully avoid restructuring state owned enterprises. The power industry is a textbook example of government run decrepitude. The ledgers of most electricity boards are arithmetic absurdities. Most of their power is stolen or lost. In UP, this claims nearly 40 per cent of the power generated. The power used by farmers is heavily subsidized. Recent studies show the UPSEB exaggerates the amount of power used by farmers by a factor of three. It simply pockets the excess subsidy. In the last category of customers are those who pay. These people, city dwellers and industries, have to carry the burden of the other two. Unsurprisingly, industrial power tariffs are among the highest in the world. Many companies now use their own generators. Many city dwellers find it cheaper to bribe state electricity board employees who sell them stolen power. To top it all off, politicians like to stuff electricity boards with their cronies. They are all grossly overstaffed and borrow money just to pay salaries.

The fallout is frequent power cuts, low voltage, sick industries, harassed consumers and enormous corruption. To put this mess back in order requires huge infusions of capital and administrative reform. States like Andhra Pradesh and Orissa lead the way in such changes. They have broken up the power sector into separate generation, transmission and distribution arms. Orissa has even privatized distribution. The UPSEB unions want to stop the first step of reform: breaking up the electricity board. They fear, probably correctly, that the last step will be privatization.

The employees have three motivations. Many are worried they will lose the revenue they get from power theft. Union leaders are ideologically biased in favour of nationalized industries. But their socialist ideology is more bankrupt than the UPSEB. Most workers have mundane concerns. Will change mean the loss of pensions or cuts in provident fund contributions? These are groundless fears. The state government can be faulted for not laying such concerns to rest.

At the heart of all this is the mollycoddling of the public sector worker. The Indian public sector does not add to the national wealth, it soaks up capital and reduces it in value. As public sector firms are controlled by politicians, business decisions like employment, investment and so on are designed to achieve political rather than economic ends. Work ethic and profits are lost along the way. They are strong because of patronage and trade union lobbying. But it haemorrhages money and provides terrible service. The public sector union is self-serving. Public sector employees represent a fifth of all wage earners in India, but 70 per cent of central union membership. Private sector employees, let alone the mass of workers in the unorganized sector, are almost ignored by the unions. Worse, the UPSEB�s corruption and inefficiency undermine the private sector�s ability of those industries to generate jobs.

The public sector can be likened to a cancer on the national economy. Economic reforms seek to stop the spread of this rot. The public sector unions, whether water supply workers in Rajasthan or port workers in Calcutta, will struggle against such reforms. Standing up to their demands, no matter how politically painful, will be a true test of the Vajpayee government�s commitment to ready the country for the new century.    

My friend and his wife went to see Thakshak the other day. The word was apparently chosen by the director, Govind Nihalani, not so much because of its meaning but its sound. The film represents Nihalani�s excursion from middle-of-the-road realist cinema into the territory of popular film. It�s interesting that Nihalani should herald this crossing over into the realm of popular art with sound taking precedence over sense; decades ago, Shobha D� , then Kilachand, sanctified lowbrow film journalism, in the hypnotic argot of her column �Neeta�s Natter�, with the feline syllable: �Meeeow�. Assonances and sounds multiply everywhere in popular culture; even the early dicta describing it are themselves alliterative, assonantal and self-repeating � �The medium is the message�; �Celebrities are people who are famous for being famous�.

Thakshak, my friend told me, was enjoyable, as long as you accepted it was a copy of the mafia and gangster films of Hollywood. �Copying� and theft have, indeed, an honourable lineage in Hindi cinema. Zeenat Aman, strumming the guitar and singing the words, �Chura liya hai tumne jo dil�, may not have been aware that it wasn�t only her heart that had been stolen, but the tune as well, from �If it�s Tuesday, it must be Belgium�; if Eliot once declared, �Mature poets steal; immature poets imitate�, or words to that effect, R.D. Burman�s �Chura liya� was no less a manifesto and a proclamation.

The idea of plagiarisation is probably not as fundamental to our culture as it has been in the post-Romantic West; one might imagine the number of lawsuits that might have proliferated among the bhakti poets and Kalighat patuas, for instance, if it had been so. In his Collected Essays, A.K. Ramanujan meditates on the fact that a number of stock lines, phrases, images, and sentiments are transferred from poem to poem, like a kind of currency, a form of free trade, in classical Tamil poetry, without, in their poets� eyes, compromising the individuality of each poem; here, the original and the borrowed are not in opposition to each other.

The Hindi gangster films � what little I have seen of them on television; Satya, excerpts from Arjun, others I don�t know the names of � are a form of translation. One set of codes � in this case, to do with the underworld of Chicago or New York � is transferred onto another � the representation of the Mumbai underworld. We have heard of the term �pale imitation�; yet perhaps �pale original� would be more in order here. For Hollywood has become increasingly inward-looking, its films arrested by their formulae; increasingly, they are distinguished only by their preoccupation with special effects and �aliens�.

Even relatively successful gangster films like The Untouchables, which is really a period piece, a noir film dressed up by Merchant-Ivory, pursue, with a few exceptions, the old �feel-good� Hollywood verities of heroes and villains. Those very formulae, transplanted onto recent Hindi cinema, have served as a kind of release, an opening up of these films to contemporary India. Translation, here, is a way of looking at a changed, hybrid reality. These new films about psychotics or underworld dons let in the contemporary, ambiguous, banal, globalized world � of, for instance, cellphones and one-day cricket matches � into their composition in a way that neither films like The Silence of the Lambs nor more respectable genres such as the novel do.

But another group of practitioners in the arts, besides the filmmakers of Bombay, has studied America closely, and borrowed from its language and forms for its own purposes. I am thinking of the Indian poets who wrote in English in the Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties. Two of the most notable among them, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra and A.K. Ramanujan, have used a diction that bears the self-evident impress of American poetry: Ramanujan, in his unsettlingly quirky line-endings and his misleadingly chatty, confiding tone, takes something from Marianne Moore, and Mehrotra has himself pointed out the importance of Gregory Corso, Felinghetti, Ginsberg, and Hart Crane to his work.

There is only one poet, though, who, like the Mumbai filmmakers, seemed to have realized the potential that the language of the Hollywood gangster films has, and probably used it creatively some time before they did; I am thinking of Arun Kolatkar. Thus, while Kolatkar has a predecessor in William Carlos Williams, he also has a possible ally in Martin Scorcese. More than once, Kolatkar has used the slang spoken in the streets of New York and Chicago to map the psychological terrain of Seventies Mumbai.

Surely the most striking example of the language and structure of the Hollywood mafia film transplanted onto an Indian work of art is not some Bollywood film but the poem �Ajamil and the Tigers�, which occurs in Kolatkar�s great sequence of poems, Jejuri (1976). This sequence narrates the arrival of a middle class, ironic, but observant loiterer at an inconsequential pilgrimage town, Jejuri, in Maharashtra. Though the place abounds in myths, it has no important shrines or monuments; the priests and guides themselves don�t seem to know the stories they tell too well; yet the narrator, who is not obviously religious, occasionally traverses the distance between irony and wonder.

One of the poems, �Ajamil and the Tigers�, is a retelling of a mystical tale that the narrator may possibly have heard in Jejuri. It is about a pure-hearted shepherd, Ajamil, whose sheep are always threatened by the marauding tigers in the area; the tigers have no success in purloining the sheep mainly because of Ajamil�s fearless sheep dog, who vanquishes them again and again. The tale is narrated in the idiom of the Hollywood gangster movie. Ajamil and his sheep dog play the unassailable policeman and his deputy; the leader of the tigers a kind of mafia don who, at one point, promises: �I�m gonna teach that sheep dog a lesson he�ll never forget�. �Nice dog you got there�, the �tiger king� tells Ajamil at last, after a battle, �spitting out a tooth�. And he complains to Ajamil that his tigers are starving to death, thanks to the intrepid sheep dog.

In its mixture of mysticism and machismo, the poem looks forward to the globalized, Hindu revivalist Mumbai of the Nineties, where religion and terror went hand in hand. But a benign humour prevails in Kolatkar�s poem. The solution Ajamil proposes to the tiger king is both ecologically sound and a parodic inversion of the culture of mafia protectionism; he gifts the tigers a few of his sheep in return for the rest being left in peace. For, as the narrator points out, �Like all good shepherds he knew/ that even tigers have got to eat some time�.

This conclusion, both reminiscent and parodic of Blake, who spoke of the tiger in proximity to the lamb, is also a subtle comment on the act of creation as translation, from which the poem itself springs; instructing us, as it does, that it�s impossible for something to originate without it being involved in a transaction with other points of view, other selves, other languages.    


Few heroes in real life

Sir � Rakesh Roshan being targetted by assailants (�Rakesh Roshan shot at� Jan 22) is the latest instance of the nexus between the Mumbai film industry and the underworld. It would be a mistake to think that film producers are completely innocent victims of such attacks. There is a price to pay for rubbing shoulders with underworld dons. And the economy of the Bollywood �industry� is such that the shoulder rubbing is almost inevitable. Only time will show how far Rakesh Roshan is responsible for this attack. But given the perverse way publicity works, Kaho Na...Pyar Hai is destined to smash the box office in a way that neither the producer nor his son, the hero, could have ever contemplated.

Yours faithfully,
Subhro Mitra, Calcutta

Courage at gunpoint

Sir � Dealing with terrorists in an incident like the recent hijacking of the Indian Airlines flight 814 presents the government with dual problems: the hijackers have little fear for their own lives, but the government cannot remain indifferent to the lives of hundreds of hostages (�Terror at Kandahar, Jan 10).

But it is true that Indian politicians are amateurish when it comes to dealing with delicate situations. None of them have the streak of shrewd diplomacy, sense of timing and boldness that is required in times of such crisis. Even during the Kargil combat, when the Indian soldiers had the biggest opportunity to ruin the militants hiding in Pakistani territory, the Indian leaders � always looking towards the United States for support � held them back.

Should we blame the Indian army if it now refuses to be interested in nabbing a terrorist, knowing full well that the effort will ultimately go in vain? The politicians will set them free one day on one pretext or the other.

True, the battle against terrorists cannot be won unless the government and the people are determined to fight together. But the government must make it known that it cares for the lives and property of the civilians.

Yours faithfully,
Mithu Mukherjee, Calcutta

Sir � In the article, �Last call to board� (Jan 7), Brijesh Jayal�s opinion seems to be that India is acting as a �soft state�. That is too harsh a judgment. Given the two constraints set by the hijackers, the New Delhi diplomats had little option but to negotiate with them. The question of being soft or hard does not arise as far as the hijack fiasco is concerned. The Indian government had taken the diplomatic initiative during Kargil, which was amply backed by military prowess. What remains to be asked is why IC 814 could not be stalled at Amritsar.

The author is right that operational chiefs must be involved in the activities of the crisis management group. Unless such changes in authority relationships are brought into the strictly bureaucratic CMG, the operational part in crisis situations cannot be coordinated and diplomacy will remain unsupported by guerrilla tactics.

Yours faithfully,
Deborshi Mukherjee, Calcutta

Sir � Dayita Datta has missed out one flaw � she highlights two � in John Keegan�s The First World War (�War requiem�, Dec 24). Keegan, like most Western war historians, has sidelined the contribution of India�s servicemen. But the publications on World War II are full of the achievements of the Indians. The silver lining is that the proposed memorial in England will have the names of all Indian servicemen killed in both the wars.

Yours faithfully,
Jayanta Kumar Dutt, Calcutta

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