Editorial 1/Against the grain
Editorial 2/Slow death
Terms of agreement
Letters to the Editor
Droll historian/Book review
Killing the creatures we love/Book review
Glosses to an epic of pluralities/Book review
Bitter apple of accord
The light and the dark/Editor’s choice

The Union environment ministry has shot India in both feet by supporting clauses in the Cartagena biosafety protocol that will make trade in genetically modified crops and seeds more difficult. There were roughly three schools of opinion at the protocol’s final conference in Montreal. The first comprised big food exporting countries like the United States, Canada, Argentina and Chile. The second was the European Union which wanted individual countries to have the maximum discretion in blocking trade in such farm products. The EU was driven by two concerns. One, it has among the most protected farm sectors in the world and looks to find ways to block farm imports. Two, Europe is home to environmental lobbies which have used recent food scares to make their public paranoid about bioengineering. Finally, there were some developing countries led by India which took a halfway position. They leaned towards the EU’s position that countries should have the power to decide whether or not to import such crops, irrespective of world trade rules. So trade in genetically modified crops will be largely outside the purview of the World Trade Organization. Now countries can block such imports on environmental grounds even when there is no scientific evidence that a specific genetically modified crop or seed causes harm. As a consequence, protectionist advocates like the EU will use the protocol to arbitrarily block genetically modified farm imports in much the same way it abuses antidumping laws against textiles today. Then, the use of science to evaluate the worth of bioengineering will take a back seat to hysteria.

The environment ministry signs many international treaties, but seems unable to determine the long term consequences of its actions. Agreeing to restrict trade in genetically modified farm goods is one example. India’s scientists and agronomists say that the green revolution has run its course, that further increases in yields must come from the widespread use of bioengineering. Indian institutes are producing strains of bioengineered rice and wheat with higher yields, some fortified with vitamins. Almost all Indian soya is already genetically modified. India has become a net exporter of many agricultural products. To ensure farmers receive sufficient profits to keep up the sort of investment agriculture needs, they will need greater freedom to export. If India is to accomplish its goal of food security it will have to become a major exporter of genetically modified farm products. This has now been made infinitely more difficult by the shortsightedness of the environment ministry.

New Delhi needs to be more forthright about the role of biotechnology in its future. Political leaders at the top need to openly declare that the government sees biotechnology as crucial to its future economic and social prosperity. Countries like China and Brazil have done so and are using bioengineered crops. A degree of wariness regarding a new technology is understandable. It is no one’s case that any negative environmental or health related consequences of bioengineering should be ignored in the hunt for larger harvests. But this is best determined in the laboratory, not by environmentalists or European farmers. These have their own agendas, ones that only marginally overlap with those of developing countries. Unfortunately, by taking the kind of position it took in Montreal, India helps push the biotechnology debate in a direction that does not further its own interests.    

A killing apathy, and not a lack of funding, seems to be the problem this time. The World Bank has ruled out the possibility of giving the West Bengal government more time to implement its Rs 701 crore project for the modernization of 171 Calcutta and district hospitals. Although the project started in 1996, work on 104 hospitals, most of these in the remoter areas outside the city, remains largely incomplete. The implementation has been stalled at the civil construction level because of a general unwillingness to be sent to work in these areas. West Bengal has got the largest share of the loan compared to Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. But these states have gone further ahead with the project, as a result of which the World Bank will regard the state “with a different eye” in future. Several distressingly familiar attitudes are at work here.

First, the state government’s callous neglect of healthcare in the remoter areas, compared to the relative efficiency with which the city hospitals have been modernized with this money, is part of a general lack of commitment to improving the quality of life. The inability to motivate civil construction in these areas exposes an unabashedly metropolitan bias. This recalls the government’s criminal apathy regarding letting people in the suburbs be severely affected by arsenic-contaminated water. And this, in spite of ample foreign funding, cleared specifically for decontamination, lying unused with the state. Second, the government has become adept at projecting this combination of inefficiency and torpor as a spurious and harmful highmindedness. When pressured into any form of accountability, it invokes the zealous safeguarding of “the state’s sovereignty”. Asked to conduct an economic survey before the sanctioning of an earlier World Bank loan last year, West Bengal had refused, as this was deemed an infringement on the state’s autonomy, thereby losing the funds. Like Andhra Pradesh — which promptly conducted the survey, got the loan and made immediate use of it — West Bengal should stop this misplaced and unconvincing posturing and take this opportunity to stop its hospitals from being the nightmares that they now tend to be.    

Scepticism and disappointment permeate Indian public opinion regarding the most recent developments in relations between the United States and Pakistan. This sentiment is not necessarily shared by the Indian foreign policy and strategic community which has a greater sense of realpolitik.

The Indian public has heard US interlocutors say they are committed to democracy, firmly opposed to terrorism, aware of the involvement of Pakistani government agencies in cross border terrorism and subversion in India and would be pressuring Pakistan to give up confronting India. They were understandably disappointed when the US president, Mr Bill Clinton, said in the last week of January that he and his government do not have hard evidence about any direct involvement by Pakistan in the hijacking of IC 814. Clinton also refused to take note of the sanctuary given by Pakistan to the hijackers and the help given to them to carry out militant anti-Indian propaganda.

The uncertainty that surrounded Clinton’s presidential visit to India and whether it would be preceded by a stopover in Pakistan, have further made Indians feel that in the ultimate analysis the US still cannot allow its relationship with India to develop independent of its equations with Pakistan.

The abiding complaint of India against the US is that since partition, the US has equated India with Pakistan despite disparities in size, demography and political makeup. India has accepted that in the context of the cold war the US would have better relations with Pakistan. But the perception the US is still close to Pakistan in the post-Cold War period bothers Indian.

The US forced Pakistan to pull back from the line of control during the Kargil conflict because Washington was convinced of India’s determination to push back Pakistani forces at all costs. The Americans judged this would mean an expansion of military operations which could result in a nuclear confrontation.

Pakistan had openly threatened to use missiles and nuclear weapons in May and June last year. The irony lay in the difference in Pakistani motivations and the consequent US response. Islamabad hoped the US would intervene directly because of Pakistan’s nuclear threats, call for an immediate ceasefire and pressure India to stop its military campaign. Instead, Washington forced Pakistan to undo its mischief. There was much appreciation in India of US action during Kargil. However, Indians over-optimistically interpreted this to mean a change in the US stance regarding Kashmir, which was not and is not the case.

General Pervez Musharraf’s coup was the next watershed for US involvement in south Asia. Once Musharraf consolidated his position, the US set aside its tentative reservations about the general and decided to constructively engage with him. Washington felt this was a means to ensure Pakistan’s eventual return to democracy. This engagement process is a drawn out, incremental process.

After initial signals that it would maintain a distance from Musharraf, Washington subsequently gave up that policy. There has been a stream of high level US officials and visitors to Pakistan, including congressmen, representatives from prominent thinktanks, and top ranking military men from the US and the United Kingdom.

The US assistant secretary of state for south Asia, Karl Inderfurth, and the state department’s counter-terrorism head, Michael Sheehan, visited Islamabad immediately after the Jaswant Singh-Strobe Talbott talks in London in mid-January.

When Indian officials queried the rationale for these goings on, the response was that the US visits were to convey warnings to the Musharraf regime about Pakistan’s involvement in terrorism. Also, the discussions aimed at pointing out the urgency and desirability of restoring democracy in Pakistan. After Clinton’s exoneration of Pakistan’s involvement in the hijack, it is reasonable to conclude these US warnings to desist from terrorism must have lost some of their vigour and effectiveness.

Musharraf’s own public pronouncements indicate he is in no hurry to revive democracy. He declared in an interview last month, “We will bring back democracy and this will take time. We would like to examine what kind of a political structure best suits interests of the people of Pakistan.’’ Musharraf clearly plans to decide when and in what form democracy will be restored.

It was during this period of US-Pakistani interaction that reports appeared that segments of his government were advising Clinton that his not visiting Islamabad would be detrimental to US interests. There were suggestions Clinton could make a day’s visit in Karachi, avoiding the capital. These internal US cogitations may have led to the dates for a subcontinental visit being shifted from February to March. If reports about pressure on Clinton to visit Pakistan are correct, it is likely the various US visitors also told Pakistan to make some commitments that would pave the way for a US presidential visit to Islamabad.

What could Pakistan have offered? Musharraf could say he would try his best to “persuade’’ the so called mujahideen operating in Kashmir to turn down their activities. He could say he would take more definite actions against acts of terrorism directed against the West and persuade the taliban to cooperate. He might give categorical assurances Pakistan would sign the comprehensive test ban treaty if India does.

In recent weeks, Musharraf and his foreign minister, Abdul Sattar, have sent such signals. More importantly, Musharraf might have indicated some sort of timeframe for restoring democracy with a promise to increase the civilian role in his government in the interim. If he provides such assurances, the US establishment could find a basis for a brief Clinton visit to Islamabad.

India should not let its blood pressure rise over US interactions with Pakistan. The US deputy secretary of state, Strobe Talbott, in a recent interview, made two points. First, the dynamics between India and Pakistan impinge on US policies. Second, the US sees the two countries as each having differing stances and differing concerns, that the US will treat each country’s positions on its own merits.

In other words, the US sees Pakistan important to US interests in south and central Asia, and the Persian Gulf. The US is not going to ostracize Pakistan. At the level of regional and global equations, India should not predicate policies towards the US with objections to the US’s remaining involved with Pakistan. India should structure relations with the US separately, within the framework of national interests and the extent of US responsiveness to them. This will reaffirm India’s stance that bilateral relations with the US should not be hostage to US-Pakistani ties.

Washington needs to recognize that if it fails to make Pakistan give up its confrontationist and subversive stance towards India, this will inevitably affect Indo-US relations. If Clinton visits Pakistan on his way to India, there can be doubt his trip will be diminished in Indian eyes. But it should be remembered that Indo-US relations and Indo-Pakistani relations are more important and more profound than the transcendental meetings between and statements of chief executive officers, prime ministers and presidents.

The author is a former foreign secretary of India    


Spot the fascist

Sir — The news report, “Sangh sting in CPM soulsearch” (Jan 14), has exposed the fascist face of the Marxists. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) controlled management of the Salt Lake stadium “politely turned away” the request of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh to hold a meeting in the stadium. Later, however, the rebellious minister, Subhas Chakraborty, allegedly “arranged” for the venue to be made available to the RSS. But since the stadium was built by utilizing public money, what right does the management have to turn away the RSS, politely or otherwise? The state’s Marxists have always thought it their god-given right to use public money for party purposes. Analysts have shown how this method keeps the party in power. Governmental decisions are taken purely for the benefit of the party and to raise funds for it. It is sad that so called intellectuals see nothing wrong in what has been happening for over 23 years. Yet it is the RSS that is branded as fascist. Amazing is the logic of public discourse in India.

Yours faithfully,
Ashok V. Chowgule, Mumbai

When water is thicker

Sir — The Kashi Sanskriti Raksha Sangharsh Samiti’s vandalization of the sets of Deepa Mehta’s Water, which first stalled the shooting of the film for some time, is a classic example of the irrationality and myopic vision of a handful of fanatics who want to falsify history. The “objections” of the vandals to what they call Mehta’s portrayal of Varanasi as a “bhognagari” — city of debauchery — and widows as fallen women are indeed perverted. Mehta tried to highlight the wretched lives of widows in the ancient city. It is not only ludicrous to nurse pseudo-conservative attitudes, but ultra-orthodoxy will also sound the death knell for creative initiative.

Yours faithfully,
Govinda Bakshi, Budge Budge

Sir — The ugly shape cultural intolerance has taken in modern India is indeed deplorable, reactions to Deepa Mehta’s Fire and the fatwa declared on Salman Rushdie being some of the more glaring examples. Ironically, 30 years ago Sunghursh, starring Dilip Kumar and depicting the exploitation of pilgrims by priests in the 19th century, did not cause a fuss. So what is the rationale behind the noise being made now?

Yours faithfully,
A.K. Srivastava, Salboni

Sir — Deepa Mehta claims filmmaking is a passion with her. But that does not mean she can take advantage of the Hindu community’s tolerance. Earlier she had made Fire on lesbianism, and now comes Water, on the life and affairs of widows in Varanasi. South Asian artists, influenced by Western culture, seem to take a strange pleasure in laying bare the less savoury side of this part of the world — look at Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nasreen. Instead of focussing on the “evils” of Hinduism, shouldn’t Mehta look at the social flaws in some other communities?

Yours faithfully,
Kamal Kumar Ghatak, Calcutta

Sir — Water tells the story of the oppression and struggle of the widows of Varanasi — which is a reality. Thus, not only is the vandalism of the sets of Water unjustified, it is an infringement on artistic freedom. It is appalling that the sangh parivar has stalled the shooting despite the Centre’s approving the script and giving it the green signal.

Yours faithfully,
Tapan Bhattacharya, Calcutta

Sir — The news report, “Water widows wait for Delhi shoot sign”, and the editorial, “Wet Blanket” (Feb 1), were disturbing. The Ram Prakash Gupta led Uttar Pradesh government’s putting off the shooting of Deepa Mehta’s Water, saying it would lead to the deterioration of law and order, was a mere excuse. The film sets were thrown into the “water” by hooligans who consider themselves the moral guardians of the people.

It is shameful too that instead of ensuring that the state government did not prove obstructive, the Bharatiya Janata Party led government at the Centre has expressed happiness at the turn of events.

Yours faithfully,
T.R. Anand, Sarangbad

Sir — Shabana Azmi shaved her head to symbolize the pathos of Hindu widowhood in Deepa Mehta’s film Water. But is she aware that the film will offend Hindu sentiments? India has given the impression of being a soft state on the Kandahar issue. It will make things worse by publicly airing social maladies — which are on the way to being removed, one might add — in the name of social and artistic responsibility.

Yours faithfully,
Omprakash Mehta, Calcutta

Sir — The news report, “Sangh demolition rerun on Deepa film” (Jan 31), reflects the growing tendency among Hindus to take to the streets and become militant at any perceived slight to their religion. The subject of Mehta’s new film, Hindu widows, is sensitive. But she could not have anticipated the violent reaction which forced her to abandon shooting. She should realize that the scenario is different from that of a few years ago when the Congress and the left parties thought that pandering to minority sentiments would best establish their secular credentials. Hindus have started to assert themselves and artists find their artistic licence restricted by the need not to hurt religious sentiments. Blame it on the religious fanatics or the politicians, Hindus refuse to be held hostage to the politics of vote bank any longer.

Yours faithfully,
Hrishikesh Chakrabarti, Agartala

Sir — Deepa Mehta is furious, Aparna Sen is indignant, with the protestors from the Kashi Sanskriti Raskha Sangharsh Samiti who, in the name of Indian culture, have ensured that Water is not shot in Varanasi. But what should be done when the freedom of expression hurts others? For example, portraying lesbianism is alright, but when one protests against such portrayal by stripping to the underwear, it is called vulgar There are some directors, who in order to make a name for themselves, take up controversial subjects which they know agitate people. Such directors should look at Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and others whose films stood on their artistic merit and did not need to resort to such cheap stunts to ensure fame.

Yours faithfully,
B.K. Roy Chowdhury, Calcutta

Creature discomfort

Sir — The news report, “Killer deer puts Arjun in firing line” (Jan 28), makes clear that only big shot politicians can keep endangered species as pets. Also, if a constable is killed by the deer, the fault must surely have been the victim’s. After all, the deer is not the property of any ordinary mortal. It belongs to Congressman Arjun Singh. A few lakhs of rupees to the bereaved family can easily resolve the matter. Period.

Yours faithfully,
Arta Mishra, Cuttack

Sir — The news report “Gawkers feast on dolphins in distress” (Jan 16), was rather disturbing. The report says that people who visit the picnic spot in Randia by the banks of the Damodar, torture dolphins under the pretext of having fun. This, however, is opposed to my own experience. I visited the spot on January 3, when people were quietly watching dolphins. It is difficult to see how the writer could find scars on the body of the mother dolphin. I revisited the spot on January 14 to make arrangements for the rescue of the dolphins who had swum upstream during the floods last year. The forest department and a non-governmental organization are trying their best to relocate these endangered mammals.

Despite all the work being done to rehabilitate the dolphins, the news report has only criticized the situation in Randia. This might create complications for furthering the work of the government and the NGOs. Sadly the animals will be the greatest losers.

Yours faithfully,
Urmila Ganguly, member, State Wildlife Advisory Board, West Bengal, Calcutta

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The Abyssinian
By Jean-Christophe Rufin, Picador, £ 15.99

Historical novels have always possessed an odd air of presentness. For writers inevitably recreate the past in their own fashion and from the perspective of their own time. But in the last 30 years, this rewriting has also made a political point. The look back today is made usually in anger. And the historical novel is no longer an excuse for glamour. Nor is it simply a portrayal of an old, exotic world. Our past is regarded primarily as an imperial one. And we are all too aware of the murky connections between 19th-century drawing rooms and faraway ships laden with treasures returning to them. Contemporary historical fiction, in keeping with this perception, has largely become colonial debunkings. And so as never before, the past is represented to us in an emphatically contemporary way.

In contrast to this, The Abyssinian is a novel filled with old-fashioned adventure when the word stood for daring deeds and exotic lands. Winner of the Prix Goncourt — arguably France’s most prestigious literary prize — the book makes an interesting contrast to the 1999 Booker-nominated Map of Love by Ahdaf Souief. Both are historical novels (Map of Love partly so) set in the Levant in the middle of the 19th century. In Map of Love, which describes two love affairs between an Arab man and an English/American woman, one set in the 19th century and the other in present day, Soueif raises questions about the continuing impact of colonialism. And her flowing, unstructured style, heavy with metaphors, is as “modern” as her preoccupations.

But Jean-Christophe Rufin’s first novel is a much more curious affair. Written in a somewhat archaic style, and heavily detailed in its plot, its tone immediately brings to mind novels of the 19th century. This is a work of surfaces, written with a controlled and intelligent stylishness. Rufin’s Abyssinia is clearly an allegory for much of the developing world today; but his voice, unlike that of other writers like him, imitates an older style of historical fiction.

The Abyssinian is a Frenchman called Jean-Baptiste Poncet who has in his three years in Cairo become the city’s most well-known doctor. An attractive man with a fondness for fencing, Ponchet prides himself on being free and unrestricted by society. Although not patronized by the French, he has become a great favourite of the local population — a rare achievement for an European. It is 1699, and Egypt is swarming with Turks, the French, and missionaries. The French consul Monsieur de Maillet receives a Jesuit emissary from Louis XIV charging him to send a secret embassy to Abyssinia. But this mysterious country has been impenetrable for years, having kept itself militantly closed to all foreigners.

When the frightened Monsieur de Maillet discovers that the Abyssinian king (or Negus) is unwell he charges Poncet to be his envoy in disguise and to return with an embassy to take to France. The young doctor has meanwhile fallen desperately in love with Alix, Monsieur de Maillet’s beautiful daughter. Despairing of their social differences, he sees the embassy as a perfect opportunity to be given an honorary title on his return and thus prove himself her social equal.

The following events twist and turn before the expected, happy ending. Rufin is strong on portraying the complex, Machiavellan politicking as the Jesuits, their rival Capuchins, Turks, Abyssinians and the French court jostle against one another and a lone Ponchet struggles through this ever-thickening maze to find a way out. But as the bustle and madness of the plot increases, the events start to become more and more farcical. The ambassador that the grateful Negus sends to Cairo turns out to be a buffoon. When Ponchet has to lead the Abyssinian embassy alone to Louis, he discovers that all he has is the ear of a large African elephant to prove that he has been to Abyssinia. Upon displaying it to the French court, he finds that it has rotted in its case. Accused of poisoning the king, the doctor has to flee from France.

Rufin has written a swashbuckler — but without the swagger. And this knowingness sits awkwardly besides the almost naive “old-fashionedness” of its tone. The love affair between Alix and Ponchet with its sighs and agitations, Poncet’s romantic espousal of freedom are straight out of a 19th-century novel. Yet the farcical turns of the story, the peculiar mix of adroitness and bumbling from the characters jolt against the style it’s written in. There is elegance and wisdom in Rufin’s writing. And his prose possesses a wry economy and deliberate simplicity. But these conflict with the flippancy of the story which seems calculated to make readers question the style it is written in. The Abyssinian is striking because it is an historical novel that reads like an old book, and its more self-consciously “modern” additions to the plot only detract from this curiosity.

There is in fact a far more pertinent subtext to the novel. Like Map of Love, The Abyssinian is deeply mistrustful of foreign intervention in developing countries and, for all its ambiguity, this mistrust comes through clearly in the book. Rufin himself is in a perfect position to speak his case. An official with the humanitarian organization Médcins Sans Frontières, he has lead the French defence ministry’s mission to Bosnia and travelled to Rwanda with the French armed forces. But unlike most of the current deluge of historical novels, he makes his point with subtlety. The Abyssinian is a charming book because it is, on this level, a piece of historical fiction typical (though superior to most) of its time and yet on another level a cunning reference to the romances of writers like Walter Scott and Alexander Dumas. And it is a pity that these delights do not come to us unmixed.    

The Oxford Anthology of Wildlife, Vol I & II
By Mahesh Rangarajan, Oxford, Rs 995

Had big game lover Arjun Singh been Jim Corbett’s contemporary, his pet chitals would probably never have made front page headlines.

Herds of spotted deer gambolling on grassy glades were once not an uncommon sight in the subcontinent. In fact, when Corbett was stalking the man-eating leopard of Rudraprayag, he chanced upon a group of terrified chitals scampering away from the very cat he was chasing!

Deer apart, an incredible array of wild animals roamed the subcontinent before draped tiger skins and mounted stags’ heads became a prestige symbol in raj drawing rooms. Starting from the hangul (Kashmir stag) in the Kashmir valley to the houbara bustard in Sindh, tigers in the Aravalli hills, the Javan rhino in the Sunderbans, lions in Haryana and the tahr (wild goat) in the Nilgiris, practically every region boasted its own prize quarry.

It is a picture of this lost world that volume I of The Oxford Anthology of Wildlife seeks to sketch. Ironically, however, it is the accounts left behind by the “killer” shikaris that re-create the teeming flora and fauna on the subcontinent not very long ago.

The editor, Mahesh Rangarajan, is very clear on the purpose of his anthology. “This collection is not so much a celebration of their (hunters’) deeds as a compendium of memorable impressions of the natural world.... It is certainly often about a world we have lost. But it hopes to remind all who care for the wild today that we now have only fragments of our natural heritage left,” he says in his introduction.

Subtitled Hunting and Shooting, volume I offers insights into the hunting techniques of Indian princes and sahibs on the one hand, and of tribal hunters and trappers on the other. The methods range from falconry and cheetah coursing to beatings and elephant round-ups. Particularly illuminating are the individual introductions to each piece. They fix every article in perspective and subtly guide the untrained enthusiast to look at the essays the right way.

Volume I is at once educative and entertaining. While Corbett’s The Man-eating Leopard of Rudraprayag engrosses the reader with the thrill and danger of the animal’s trail, C.P. Fry’s Panther Shoots with Ranji recounts how the author waited up all night with the renowned batsman in a forest “tower” for a panther with a goat as bait. Other accounts are more didactic. In Elephant-Catching in Mysore, G.P. Sanderson dwells on kedahs or enticing elephants into stockades. Divyabhanusinh lists ways of live-trapping the cheetah in How to trap and train a Cheetah.

Volume II, subtitled Watching and Conserving, shifts focus from slaughter to conservation. As insensate killing and sophisticated techniques led to the depletion of wildlife, a counter movement towards conservation began to take root. The articles in this volume celebrate this change in attitude. “The decline and retreat of the denizens accelerated. It provoked not only a revulsion to slaughter but a new sense of love for wildlife,” says Rangarajan.

The switch from gun to camera is clearly illustrated in Corbett’s Vigil on a Pine Tree. In this piece, we have the man, most famous for tracking and killing tigers, setting out to shoot a hangul in the Kashmir valley, having promised his friend its meat for dinner. But when he comes upon the stags after a long trek in the hills, he is spellbound by their sheer beauty and comes away empty-handed.

Around the same time began the interest in smaller animals and birds. Salim Ali records the joys of bird-watching in Flamingo City, an account of his camel-back journey to the bird colony on the salt-encrusted flats of the Rann of Kutch. The collection with Valmik Thapar’s trailblazing essay The Tigress, Her Cubs and the Father, which overturned the belief that tigers were loners and had no family life. In a way, the works of these pioneer animal watchers can be considered the link between the shikari past and our age of ecological awakening.    

Samsad Companion to the Mahabharata
By Madhusraba Dasgupta, Sahitya Samsad, Rs 1,200

The author describes her work as a “compact, descriptive glossary”. This certainly defines its genre but does not give any indication of the exciting impact of the total achievement. Madhusraba Dasgupta makes clear in her introduction that unlike S.J. Sorensen, whose concordance provided her with impetus, she has not recorded the minutest references and cross-references but only those she considered important. But that has made a 592 page, large-size book. It is unlikely that any reader will complain of a lack of exhaustiveness in the work.

The book is very different from the concordance or the critical editions of the text of the epic, all of which Dasgupta mentions as having both preceded and aided her research. The actual arrangement of the work permits, simultaneously, an analysis of the structure and annotation. There is a Sanskrit pronunciation table, useful because the Roman script is a distorting medium as far as pronunciation of names and terms is concerned.

The table is followed by eight chapters, in a design which gradually unfolds the aspects of the universe the characters inhabit. The staple of the book is the seventh chapter, the one on characters.

The annotation focusses on the identity of the character, the various events and actions of which he or she is part, with exhaustive textual references. The eighth chapter is a list of other names. That, together with the appendix of genealogical tables, actually completes the character section of the book.

It is difficult to say which is the most interesting among the other chapters. “The ancient world”, “Races, tribes and castes” and “Formation of troops, weapons and accessories” are particularly illuminating. The scholarship at work there serves to illuminate the terms, images and ideas that float familiarly through everyday conversations in India.

A more definite equation of places and regions of the world of the Mahabharata with those in today’s subcontinent, perhaps with the help of a map, would have aided the visualizing process. What is amazing is that the scholarly tome is great fun even for anyone casually interested in the epic.

Needless to say, Dasgupta’s work is more than welcome. It is puzzling, though, that given the place of the Mahabharata in the Indian psyche, no comprehensive companion volume to it had been written earlier. The Ramayana, with its lyric appeal and simpler storyline, equally beloved, has had better luck in the direction of academic research.

Interestingly, the important works on the Mahabharata have come at certain crucial moments of political and social turmoil, as have Irawati Karve’s Yuganta: The End of an Epoch, in 1969 and Buddhadeb Bose’s Mahabharater Katha, in 1974. In their different ways, these books reach into the depths of the epic through the medium of the characters, providing insights which illuminate the text as well as the times in which the books are written. The wisdom of the richly complicated epic is an intellectual terrain India needs to return to again and again.

Dasgupta’s work too has come at a moment of political and social uncertainty. Its academic value is enhanced by its inevitable representation of a magnificent plurality at a time homogenizing forces seem to be gathering strength.    

The Bharandas
By Umakanta Sarma , Spectrum, Rs 240

Bishannala is a mysterious river. Flowing down a devious track, it goes out of sight every now and then, dipping into the nether world at one point and showing up again some distance away.

Popularly believed to have originated as a “silvery streak” from a Himalayan peak, the river, with its treacherous course, has become as much a part of reality as of legend for the inhabitants of the land through which it flows. For these people, the river is a symbol of their destiny which — like the femme fatale of the Romantics — entices them to monstrous and suicidal self-delusion.

Seshakhuli was a big village in the area round the river. There were five other small villages in the neighbourhood. Peerorchuk was inhabited by only the Muslims, while in Hajopara lived the Koch, Keot and Haloi communities. Seshakhuli belonged mostly to the Bodo-Kacharis, who lived in small cottages hemmed in by pata-bahar and cactii. The Bodos were hospitable not only to people from neighbouring areas but also to refugees and nomadic tribes in search of new settlements.

Meanwhile, in the Seshakhuli market and during festivals, people of all the communities revelled in gossip and jou-drinking. Life was smooth until that fateful year when, on the occasion of Kherai Puja (a festival that used to promote communal harmony), some village boys decided to collect subscriptions to hire electric bulbs and a generator to illuminate the puja pandal.

The social fabric of Seshakhuli came under stress for the first time after some non-Bodo tradesmen refused to comply with this demand. This gesture was interpreted by the Bodos as an affront to their culture. The crisis thus triggered off was blown out of all proportion when the Bodos turned oversensitive to the issues of encroachment and refugee settlement in adjacent areas, which they now looked upon as an usurpation of their land and culture.

This even led to a bloody retaliation which hurt the sentiments of non-Bodos and the Assamese-speaking communities.

A novel that tackles such a topical event as the Bodo movement is exposed to a number of risks. The first, and perhaps the most serious, is that the topicality denies the author, Umakanta Sarma, the detachment necessary to assimilate all possible implications of the events before translating his ideas into words.

The other danger proceeds from the media focus on the events, which tends to precondition the mode of artistic communication. The author meets the challenge by weaving a mythic spell around the topographic details. Thus the topicality comes through as a syncopated pattern of time that spans the whole of human history.

The fairytale mode of the prologue and epilogue is also designed to create an impression of timelessness that makes the contemporary social turmoil look like sudden and senseless aberrations. Thus the narrative operates simultaneously in three concentric circles of time — mythical, historical and topical — blurring the peripheries with distinct and discreet tonal variations.

Despite its huge conceptual span, the narrative scheme of “the fabula” is more or less linear. It derives its momentum from long passages of arguments representing the clash of values between two generations and the conflicting views within the same generation. At times cumbersome, these arguments help the novelist delineate characters since, in this novel, individuals are identified with the views they propound.

Readers can easily recognize Bachiram, Dhaniram, Tikaram and Rupnath as belonging to the same category. Similarly, Alit and Urmila are identifiable as hardcore Bodo militants whereas Bakul Daimary, Ranen and Devkanta emerge as young men who support the movement for personal reasons that do not include callow regional jingoism. Gourinath Gosain, the temple priest, however, remains the grand patriarch of Seshakhuli, who commands universal respect. Such typification is perhaps unavoidable given the generic turn of Sarma’s imagination. Though he does relieve it with deft poetic touches which capture the nuances of the Ranen-Ranjila relationship, or focus on the passion that lurks in the delirious speeches of Devkanta and Alit.

The editing of the book unfortunately gives the impression of a job perfunctorily done. Too many words have been mis-spelt in the novel — some of them resulting in unfortunate inconsistencies. For example, the same person is called both “Bishwanath” and “Vishwanath” in a single passage.    

Rembrandt’s Eyes
By Simon Schama, Knopf, $ 42.50

This startlingly new book on Rembrandt (1606-1669) has all the strengths and weaknesses one has come to associate with the writings of Simon Schama. The principal weakness is his tendency to overwrite. Thus, in this book, while describing Caravaggio’s depiction of the reappearance of Christ, he writes that everyone around “seems spasmodically electrified: foreshortened hands flung into space; a jaw-dropping, napkin-spilling epiphany”. There are many such sentences in all his books. Schama believes in writing more than less. This is not to suggest that he is a bad writer, only that he is afflicted by the curse of the word processor.

His strengths are many, most importantly the range of information and details that he commands. The title of his book on the Dutch golden age is the apt description of his writing — embarrassment of riches. In this book it is not just Rembrandt’s canvasses and drawings that are brought to life. So is Amsterdam. He evokes the city’s smells, sounds and tastes; he vividly describes its architecture, its roads, lanes and canals; he analyses its politics and its religious ambience. But he successfully uses these “atmospherics’’ to enrich his understanding of Rembrandt’s art. There are passages here in which Schama takes his readers into the interior of Rembrandt’s studio and they get to feel the texture of Rembrandt’s paint, feel his brushes and his palette. This is no mean achievement, since such things are difficult to contain and convey in words.

Rembrandt’s life, because of its poignancy and drama — a miller’s son who through his prodigious talent rose to the pinnacle of fame and fortune only to lose it all and spend his later years in Queer Street haunted by creditors — is a feast for biographers. Schama, even though he fashions his book as a biography of the Dutch master, also includes a biography of the Flemish painter, Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640). Schama explains this interweaving. In his formative years, Rembrandt “was utterly in thrall to Rubens”. “To become singular,” Schama writes, “Rembrandt had first to become someone’s double. Haunted by the older master, he [became] Rubens’s doppelganger.”

Even though he compulsively measured himself against Rubens, Rembrandt — and this is one of Schama’s main contentions — “ended up being the kind of painter Rubens could not possibly have imagined, much less anticipated”. The break with Rubens came only with his death, the year in which, significantly enough, Rembrandt began to paint the breathtaking The Night Watch. Schama calls this “crossing the threshold”.

But there were signs already in the formative years that Rembrandt would break with Rubens. Schama suggests this in a coruscating analysis of a 1629 self-portrait. This shows Rembrandt’s appreciation of the theatricality of social life; he saw the actors in men. Again, in a detailed analysis of The Artist in his Studio, Schama emphasizes the artist’s dexterity and his ability to “make the largest possible utterance within the least possible space...you make a knotty little emblem; a mind-teaser, awaiting the work of wit to unravel its message”. Rembrandt’s paintings are always, in Schama’s telling phrase, “a riddling road to illumination”.

Rembrandt was obsessed with light. Witness that golden gleam in the stunning Danae(now, alas, vandalized). But it was not the outer light that he was seeking in his paintings. He was fixated on the idea of inner blindness and inner illumination. His “lifelong subject [was] the light that lives in darkness”. It was this light his eyes sought and his brush captured.

Eyes are often a man’s identity. Rembrandt’s quest for his own identity is obvious from the number of self-portraits he did and the trouble he took over them. One of them, Self-Portrait in a Soft Hat and Embroidered Cloak went through 11 states. He often introduced himself into canvases depicting a historical event. He saw himself, Schama says, as Elk, as Everyman.

Schama’s reading of paintings can be amazingly detailed. He counts the number of wrinkles on St Peter’s forehead and the 30 pieces of silver in the Repentant Judas. Rembrandt was the master of manual dexterity in the service of illusion. That was the meaning of art — ars — in the 17th century. Schama shows the dexterity of prose in the service of reality. Is that the meaning of history in this century?    


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