Editorial 1
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Room at the top
This above all
Letters to the editor


Vigilance Net

In a messy situation, there are seldom clinching arguments on either side. And few would deny that the state of the polity today is messy. The sudden restlessness of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government regarding the doings of the chief vigilance commissioner, Mr N. Vittal, does not become a national government. Not that it does not have reason on its side. The government is ostensibly reacting to the note Mr Vittal has given the Central Bureau of Investigation, which reportedly contains the name of four leading politicians. Mr Vittal feels the income tax angle of the now moribund Jain hawala scandal should be investigated, and the politicians named in the note are crucial to that angle. Bridling with displeasure, the government has emphasized that politicians do not come under the jurisdiction of the Central vigilance commission. To which Mr Vittal has replied that the CBI comes into the picture exactly for that reason. The government is technically in the right. And as chief vigilance commissioner, Mr Vittal needs to keep to the right side of technicalities. But what is unbecoming of the government is its overreaction. The BJP spokesman, Mr M. Venkaiah Naidu, has gone overboard stating why the hawala case cannot be opened again, although it appears that the CBI has not completed investigating the income tax angle. There are veiled threats in Mr Naidu�s words: if the vigilance commission is to become a statutory body, its chief must mind his step. There is also talk of finding two more vigilance commissioners. The anxiety to clip Mr Vittal�s wings is rather curious.

But the problem is not very simple. Mr Vittal is unconventional in his approach, and that seldom helps in the long run. By posting names of �corrupt� bureaucrats on the internet, against some of whom charges have not been proved and two of whom are dead, he is obviously taking a very big risk. The deeply entrenched system of privileges within which the Indian bureaucracy flourishes serves as a good shield. Perhaps Mr Vittal feels that shaming individuals will cause enough of a flutter to cause a review of the system. But unless that happens, an individual�s unconventional efforts, however forthright and courageous, will ultimately fizzle out. An affronted and edgy government is unlikely to further Mr Vittal�s anti-corruption efforts by talking about reviews or legislation. So just as Mr Vittal needs to be sure which way his efforts will lead, the government too needs to let him work unhindered as long as he is doing his job.    


Global War

The just concluded tenth meeting of the United Nations conference on trade and development was an ersatz version of the Seattle ministerial conference. An inconclusive resolution was produced amid anti-trade demonstrations by nongovernmental organizations. UNCTAD is often projected as the third world�s voice in the globalization debate. However, as has been obvious for years, the developing world has no coherent voice � and it is impossible for it to have one. Amid much high flowing and largely meaningless rhetoric about globalization, UNCTAD X was riven by roughly the same differences that stalled the World Trade Organization�s Seattle summit. A mix of rich and poor agricultural exporters wanted an end to export subsidies for farm goods. A mix of rich and poor countries opposed them. There was also a major divide over multilateral efforts to curb corruption. Again rich and poor countries stood on both sides of the fence. The developing countries had some genuine gripes about the present state of the global economy. But they were a repeat of the Seattle debate: a need for greater market access, technical assistance to handle trade disputes and regulations, and greater transparency in WTO negotiations. There were the normal and meaningless calls for more foreign aid and an �equitable�� society. The summit was a continuation of the debate that began in Seattle.

UNCTAD X did see environmentalists and activist bodies resume their denunciations of that ill defined term, globalization. As in Seattle, the slogans and placards had little behind them other than sound and fury. Though they collectively represented a general attack on market based capitalism, none of them have any realistic alternative as to how human society should organize its political and economic activity. For all the claims globalization has increased inequity, the fact remains the most successful example of poverty alleviation in recent times � China�s and southeast Asia�s ability to lift hundreds of millions of people into the middle class � was accomplished by integration with the world economy. Those countries that have rejected capitalism and opted for economic isolation have either followed the Soviet Union into the dustbin of history or sunk into repression and poverty like North Korea or Myanmar. It is true an illiterate, diseased peasant will not benefit as much as an educated college student. But the lowest class does not do well in any economic system. The failure to endow them with human capital is the fault of domestic policies that cannot be blamed on multinational corporations or the WTO. East Asia has shown the opposite is true: an embrace of foreign investment and trade is a necessary stop along the path to prosperity. Those who demonstrate in Seattle and Bangkok often have genuine grievances. Unfortunately, they have only addled prejudices rather than any true conceptions of the answers to their problems.    

The last time I was in the Himalayas, I met a young, highly Westernized Tibetan who, misled perhaps by my Indian features (born in England, I�ve never lived in the subcontinent), started talking to me about the strange ways of the exotic foreigners he saw all around him. �These Westerners,� he confided, in a tone of half-admiring bewilderment, �they call us Tibetans refugees. But to us they are the refugees: cultural refugees, always looking for somewhere to belong to. We can�t understand them. They come here, they always tell us, to find themselves; we believe we never lost our selves in the first place.�

The leather jacket he was wearing suggested another side to the story � and clearly he was far from immune to the blandishments of Microsoft and Paramount. Besides, many of those same Westerners would doubtless have said that he too was losing his identity � being turned into a cultural refugee � because of all the videotapes and cell phones they were bringing with them to the Himalayas. Yet the tone of bemusement � in one highly susceptible to foreign ways � echoed a sound you hear more and more in many of the world�s poor places.

For the Sherpas who live around Mount Everest, the subject of Sherry Ortner�s new book, the mountain is a sacred place to which they owe submission and supplication; to the foreigners who gather in increasing numbers from all corners of the globe to �conquer� the world�s highest peak, it is mostly a backdrop for complex hungers and assertions of the self.

Postcolonial theorists and professional students of �the Other,� therefore, can see in the Himalayas an almost ideal model of what is now called �Subaltern Studies.� There, on the one side, are small, relatively impoverished, and famously good-natured Nepalis (not Tibetans, as many believe) all but carrying well-to-do foreigners up the slopes of their holy mountain; on the other, mostly white men tied to them by ropes, but not by common assumptions. The mountain that the Tibetans refer to as �goddess, mother of the world� (and the Nepalis as �goddess of the sky�), whose status as the world�s highest peak was actually determined by a Bengali, working for the Raj, is named, nonetheless, after Sir George Everest, the British surveyor-general who led the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India from the 1820s to the 1840s. Its �Western Cwm� region received its name from George Leigh Mallory, the British schoolmaster (with the face of a Botticelli, in Lytton Strachey�s words) who doubtless felt nostalgic for Wales as he sat on the slopes reading Lear. Even the most publicized �solo� expedition by a European was attended by eighteen Sherpa helpers.

The result is that we know all about the heroics of Sir Edmund Hillary, Reinhold Messner, and, more recently, Rob Hall, talking to his wife in New Zealand by telephone even as he lay dying near the top of the mountain; but we cannot summon up the name of any of the Nepalis who accompanied them � except, perhaps, for that of Tenzing Norgay (and when his companion Hillary wrote his memoirs, he misspelled the Sherpa�s name). More than a third of all the deaths on Everest (during ascents) have been Sherpa deaths, and when fellow Sherpas responded to them with hard-won stoicism they are branded as �fatalists,� when with tears, as �babies.� It would be a kind of imaginative imperialism to see these sturdy men of the mountain, carrying loads of 130 pounds up the slopes and sitting by fallen �sahibs� (as they still call them), as merely the invisible hands of Everest climbing; but they are, often, the stagehands who make the Hollywood dramas possible. And they are certainly, as much as the mountain itself, a kind of blank screen to foreigners on which every generation of visitors has projected its hopes and anxieties. The first group of climbers, from the British Empire, said the Sherpas wanted to aid in the colonial enterprise; the next group, idealistic mountaineers, said they were moved by the same spirit of adventure that drives us Westerners; the high-tech consumers of today say the Sherpas are in it for the money.

What has made the old imperial attitude many times more complicated, though � and has no doubt helped to make Everest seem more ubiquitous than ever � is that, ever since 1985 or so, the entire nature of climbing in the Himalayas has been transformed. The expeditions of old, aimed at charting the unknown, or planting the flag for king and country, or at least claiming a few giant steps for mankind, have given way to commercial treks in which ageing anesthesiologists from Brisbane pay $ 65,000 apiece (planefare and personal equipment not included) to be guided, and even hauled, up the goddess by expert mountaineers, whose own treks depend on the revenue from such clients (and, of course, by Sherpas, too, carrying up the food and fuel and oxygen on which all the lives depend). We are left with the surreal image of a peak whose allure has always lain in its remoteness from men becoming lined with banners for Kodak and Apple Computer, and littered with an increasing number of corpses. The sacred offerings the foreigners bring to the top with them, to match those of the Sherpas, look increasingly like themselves.

During the now infamous season of 1996, as described by Jon Krakauer, with remarkable clarity and tact, in his best-selling book Into Thin Air, the �Death Zone� above 25,000 feet actually became crowded. An expedition from Montenegro was ahead of one from Taiwan; a crew shooting a $ 5.5 million IMAX film was just behind another one sponsored by the Johannesburg Sunday Times (and designed to show off the multicultural harmony of the New South Africa).

A Swede had bicycled all the way to Nepal to mount an ascent alone and the Mountain Madness rock group of Scott Fisher had hung up a promotional banner for Starbucks Coffee from a �house-size� block of granite. Most famously of all, the New York socialite Sandy Hill Pittman, then wife of the co-founder of MTV, had her porters carry up the sacred slope two laptops, five cameras, a CD-ROM player, and an espresso machine, while other Sherpa runners brought her the latest editions of Vanity Fair and Vogue. As Krakauer notes, in the slightly disdainful tone of a serious climber, in the twenty years after Hillary and Tenzing reached the summit in 1953 only thirty-six people got to the top of Everest; by 1993, forty were there on a single day (and in May 1996 alone, twelve lost their lives).

To the Sherpas, the increase in casualties is not just a result of overcrowding; it is a kind of punishment meted out by their Mother Goddess to those who would try to assail her � and it�s notable that ever since the first expeditions, Everest has been regarded as curiously malign (Mallory called it �an infernal mountain,� James Morris referred to it as a �monstrous mountain,� and even one of the few survivors in Krakauer�s group was forced to concede that �Everest was the worst experience in my life�). What seems needed now, amid all the other books, is an account from the servants� tent, so to speak: How does all this look to those who�ve always lived next to the mountain, and for whom Everest has traditionally been an incitation to surrender self rather than exert it?

Life and Death on Mt. Everest, by Sherry B. Ortner, is an attempt to fill that void, and to show us how things look from the Sherpas� perspective. Having lived and worked with the Sherpas for more than thirty years as a serious anthropologist, Ortner is in an ideal position to introduce the other, unknown culture involved in Himalayan climbing. She is apt, though, to get a little entangled in her own special interests (the rise of monasteries in the region, say, which happens to coincide with the increase of expeditions), and her treatment has the feel of highly specialized research cleverly packaged to cash in on the Everest boom (its title might well have been Out of Thin Air).

Nonetheless, the heart of Ortner�s book, often obscured by her talk of �problematizing presumptions of male superiority and boundaries of gender difference,� is a fascinating one: to a remarkable extent, the culture of the Sherpas, a community of scarcely 20,000 people, and only one of fifty ethnic groups in Nepal, has been shaped and coloured in recent years by changes in the West.

When the first British climbers began scouting Everest in 1921 (always from the Tibetan side, since Nepal was closed to the world until the 1950s), they warmed quickly to the hardy, smiling locals they took on as load-carriers, and saw them � as their rivals from Germany did, too � as �children of nature.� The Sherpas returned the compliment by occasionally calling their rulers �father� � they are �a childish edition of the British soldier,� E.F. Norton pronounced in 1924 � though, as Ortner nicely informs us, they were all but staging a mutiny, over rations, as early as 1921, and by 1930 were threatening to bring legal action over payment.

It is easy now to look askance at the Westerners who, when finally they stumbled into the Sherpas� own Solu-Khumbu region of Nepal in 1950, came out as if from a screening of Lost Horizon, talking of a virtual paradise. Yet it�s worth remembering that the one who called them �bare-footed angels living in a forgotten corner of the Far East� (in 1978, no less) was the Japanese climber Yuichiro Miura. And earlier this decade the leading guide-book for travellers to Nepal was still speaking of how, twenty years ago, �Nepal was immune from theft, assaults and other assorted vices of contemporary Western �civilization.��

Ortner, true to academic fashion, is quick to detect signs of �Orientalism� and romanticism and paternalism in all this. In James Morris�s accounts of the expedition of Sir John Hunt in 1953, Hunt is described as the last great imperial gentleman (taking pains to talk of an �ascent� of Everest and not a �conquest�). In Ortner�s telling, he becomes the man who housed the sahibs in the British embassy and the Sherpas in the embassy garage (an arrangement to which the Sherpas responded by urinating in the road outside the embassy). To be concluded

This is a review of Life and Death on Mt. Everest: Sherpas and Himalayan Mountaineering by Sherry B. Ortner and is reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books. Copyright � 1999 NYREV, Inc.    


Economics of the book trade

As a writer of sorts I welcome book fairs. The more frequent and the more they are held in different cities the better. They boost sales of books and add to authors� meagre royalties. They are essentially publishers� melas. Large crowds turn up to see the raunaq: look at the books on display, browse through a few pages and put them back on the racks. The prices of most books are too high for families which live on fixed salaries and do not have ooper kee aamdani (added income). Those who have unaccounted cash do not believe in wasting their money on books.

Many seminars have been held on the problems of the publishing trade. Though the costs of production are a popular theme, very rarely are writers� problems discussed. Their royalties usually very between seven per cent and 12 per cent. Not mentioned in these discussions is the increasing tendency among publishers to make authors pay for the cost of printing their own books.

New entrants in the writing profession are ever eager to have their works published and give in to the extortionate demands of publishers just to see their names of book-covers. These are known as vanity publications.

The authors of these books are rendered out of pocket while publishers become rich. Reviewers and distributers ignore the books and shopkeepers do not stock them. Making authors pay for their books is unethical. A manuscript which is not acceptable in the commercial, competitive market should not see the light of day.

A more serious problem which concerns all parties involved in the book business is piracy. No sooner a book begins to be talked about as a possible best-seller, than these pirates print exact imitations of the original and sell them at half the price. It is a criminal offence punishable with fines and imprisonment.

Despite many complaints so far, the police has not been able to bring any pirate to book. The author gets nothing, while publishers, distributors and honest bookstore owners lose out to the pirates. It is common knowledge that a few of these thugs have printing presses in the basements of shops in Nai Sarak, in the most congested part of the walled city of Delhi.

As soon as these books are printed they are whisked away to some town in Uttar Pradesh. From there, bundles are taken to distant cities to be sold to booksellers who have stalls on payments.

Whereas the original costs around Rs 400 in a bookstore, the pirated edition may be available on the footpath outside the shop at around Rs 150. Only a fool would go in for the original.

The menace of piracy in the book business should be the concern of authors, publishers, distributors and bookstore owners. The matter has not been taken up as seriously as it deserves to be.

Senior police officers should be invited to seminars and asked to explain the difficulties in bringing pirates to court. I do not recommend imposing long terms of imprisonment for them but it would not be a bad idea if at every book fair a pirate was paraded handcuffed round the stalls before being flogged in public.

Gay and happy to be

Some people have rebellion in their blood. Something compels them to swim against the tide and cock a snook at the society in which they live. One such character � and I have never met him � is a young Pakistani who runs a picture gallery in Islamabad.

His mother, whom he refers to as Mata Hari, is the retired headmistress of a school. This young man went to Cambridge University but did not complete his studies. Instead he became active in the gay movement. He was expelled.

He took up a job in a factory but was fired for being an active homosexual. Back in Pakistan, he took to writing explicitly candid homosexual poetry. He also started to translate Mirza Ghalib into English. I don�t know what made him change his name from a Muslim name to a recognizably Hindu or Sikh one: Pritam Giani. He has been to gaol more than once.

I am not sure if Pritam will ever find a publisher for his poems in any country. But I laud his courage for breathing freely in the stifling atmosphere of the mullah-ridden military regime. I reproduce below the dedication of his collection of poems, believe it or not, to goddess Saraswati: Goddess of art and music, help me to create/ Art that is real, outstanding, relevant and great./ My chosen mode is foremost the written word,/ Both verse and prose; help me to handle it well./ May I succeed in ably interpreting morality, religion,/ Social behaviour, sexuality and their complex interrelationships/ May my interpretations provide succour to those on the run,/ Helping them better, with their lives, to come to grips./ O goddess, assist me to know and portray the mystery/ Variously called god, gods, goodness, truth, reality; / And to keep body and soul well-hinged together, also allow me / To get help from your putative sister, goddess of wealth, Lakshmi!

Rita had a little dog

My neighbours, Bhim and Rita Verma, are passionate dog lovers. They do not care for fancy pedigreed breeds but for stray pi-dogs, often lame or one-eyed. Some months ago Rita picked up a small, hairy puppy, full of mange, who was abandoned in the market, and shivering in the cold and terrified of everyone.

She took her home and nursed her back to health. It became her favourite. Like an orphaned child she clung to Rita and would not rest until she was in her mistress�s lap. Wherever Rita went, she followed her like her shadow. Rita decided to name her poonch � tail. Whenever Rita dropped into see me, Poonch followed and whimpered till she was picked up and cuddled in her lap.

My attempts to befriend Poonch were to no avail. When Rita was away in Assam, building new clinics for tuberculosis and HIV patients, Poonch attached herself to Bhim. It wasn�t the same degree of affection that the little dog showed to its human father as it did its human mother.

One afternoon when Rita was away in Guwahati, Poonch walked into my room and hid herself under a table. I expected Bhim to follow. He did not. Poonch had just run away from home looking for her mother. She refused to come to me.

But Uma Nair who has two Dalmatians in her home, was sitting with me. She simply picked up Poonch and put her in her lap. Poonch responded to the gesture and relaxed in Uma�s lap. When Bhim�s servant came to fetch her, she growled at him and refused to go with him. But when Bhim came to fetch her, she gladly went along with him.

It got me thinking about other human - animal relationships. The closest among these are between humans and apes like gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans and rhesus monkeys. They are, after all, our first cousins. Once befriended, they respond almost as humans by embracing, cuddling, kissing.

Next to apes come canines. Stories of dogs� faithfulness to their masters are legendary. Our own classics have the instance of one of the Pandava brothers refusing to enter paradise unless he was allowed to take his pet dog with him. Dogs respond to names. To the best of my knowledge no other animal does. To establish a close relationship with a dog you not only have to feed it and exercise it � getting servants to take them out is not good enough. Above all, you must talk to them.

The next great favourite pet for humans are cats. They do not return human affection the same way as dogs so. They are self-centred. And they don�t answer to their names. Almost all animals except perhaps reptiles get emotionally involved with their human masters. Squirrels, birds like parrots, quails and partridges forge bonds of friendship with their owners.

So do most other animals like camels, horses, cows, goats and donkeys. If a human being shows affection towards an animal, the animal will return the affection in full measure. On the other hand, if a human feels aversion toward an animals, they can sense it and keep their distance from him or her. My reaction to animal haters is blunt: I ask them, �What kind of animal are you�?

Many faces of Calcutta

What do you call an enlightened Bengali?/ Jyoti Basu./ What do you call a talkative Bengali?/ Bolbol Chatterjee./ What do you call an outlawed Bengali?/ Bonduk Banerjee./ What do you call a dark Bengali in a dark cave?/ Kalidas Guha. (contributed by Amir Tuteja, Washington)    


Edging back inside

Sir � The �second coming� of the former prime minister, P.V. Narasimha Rao, into national politics would be interesting to watch (�Queues lengthen at Rao�s door�, Feb 18). No doubt, his timely �resurgence� would make for renewed speculation within the Congress, with the likes of Rajesh Pilot, K. Karunakaran, R.K. Dhawan, expressing their dissatisfaction against the party chief. Even the ongoing assembly polls are not likely to uplift the party spirit. Recent tiffs among Congressmen over the share of party tickets had assumed melodramatic heights. However, the party has now come to terms with the ground reality of electoral disasters, and is holding her responsible for the debacle. Though Rao has had a disastrous first stint as prime minister, his �gradual� entry into limelight now might lead on to significant consequences. The point is whether the arclights will now promptly move away from Sonia Gandhi to Rao.

Yours faithfully,
Kalyan Sen,

Film of blindness

Sir � The blazing controversy over Deepa Mehta�s film, Water, has set the Ganga, Narmada and, most recently, the Hooghly on fire. It lays bare the divide between secular fundamentalists and nationalists. However, all the fire and fume over the issue will ultimately boil down to which party can best flex its muscles through stage managed demonstrations of public ire. All attempts to project the country as a �progressive� nation has met with failure.

Purveyors of secular culture deem it their right to resist all evil social practices when it comes to Hinduism. The upholders of this opinion also encourage the nation to embrace the richness of this pluralism. And yet, they never come forward when it comes to an issue concerning the minority, especially the Muslims. The sangh parivar supporters should not accept the bait offered to them by the left parties � albeit in disguise. The self-appointed cultural patriarch of West Bengal, Buddhadev Bhattacharya, in allowing Mehta and her team to shoot her film in the state is asking for more resistance from those opposing the shooting of the film.

This is merely to divert people�s attention from the West Bengal government�s own failures. After all, no art director can recreate Varanasi on the ghats of Calcutta. Despite the publicity received by Mehta and the crew of Water in advance, the film will have a limited viewership. Such films can only initiate momentary passion among the masses; but will sink into oblivion in no time.

Yours faithfully,
Diponkor Dutt,

Sir �It is useless to speculate whether or not Deepa Mehta has a genuine �mission� to cleanse the ills of Hindu society � real or imaginary. Going by the reactions of the people in Varanasi to the shooting of Water, one might assume that it has really hurt the sentiments of a certain section of the population. The Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal governments are possibly interested in fishing in troubled waters, by asking Mehta and the film crew to shoot in their respective states. One might recall that the shooting of City of Joy was met with resistance from the people in West Bengal.

On the other hand, the intellectuals in the state continue to maintain double standards. They are vociferous about artistic freedom, but never honour people�s sentiment. They display their support in public over M.F. Husain�s painting of the Hindu goddess, Saraswati, in the nude, but keep mum on the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. The Hindus in this country never react passionately when it comes to an issue involving the Muslim community. It is best to come to terms with the fact that artistic freedom also entails certain limitations. The sooner �intellectuals� and �artists� realize this the better it is for the nation.

Yours faithfully,
Lipi Chaudhari,

Why does Deepa Mehta not make a film on the plight of wives of polygamous men? These women lead a hard life � surely being the wife of a man who has many more wives is no great honour. Even today, many people indulge in such practices because their religion gives them the licence for it.

Yours faithfully,
K. Bose,

Sir � The refusal of the Kashi Sanskriti Raksha Sangharsh Samiti to allow the shooting of Water in Varanasi and the state government�s tacit support for its strong-arm tactics are shocking. It reveals a society still in the grip of superstition, 50 years after independence. The belief is still strong that a dip in the Ganges will purify one of one�s sins. When a girl enters a house after marriage, she is honoured as the bahu, but all that suddenly changes after she is widowed.

The UP state government�s reaction might be explained as an attempt to derive political mileage by taking advantage of the inertia among voters. The script might offend the religious sentiments of people, but in no way is it harmful. If it does get made, Mehta�s film, by laying bare this schism between tradition and social change, will act as a catalyst to further social revolution.

Yours faithfully,
P.K. Nayak,

Disturbed area

Sir � The name of Bihar has become synonymous with poll violence and corruption during the last decade. For the ongoing assembly elections, the Bihar government has taken out life insurance policies of Rs 10 lakh each for nearly six lakh poll workers. This will cost the state exchequer a sum of Rs 46,840,206, according to estimates.

This indicates the extent of lawlessness during elections. Naxalite outfits like the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), People�s War Group and the Maoist Communist Centre have asked voters to boycott the elections, defying which 20 people have already died in the first phase of the polls. Why cannot the government take out insurance for innocent voters who are killed for exercising their right to vote?

As long as the nexus between the powerholders and the anti-social elements continues in the state, there can be no improvement unless the present Representation of People�s Act is given a major overhauling.

Yours faithfully,
Manoranjan Das,
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