Editorial 1
Editorial 2
The imperial heights
Letters to the editor


Fearful job

A display of a sense of honour is often a good move to preempt the inevitable. Sachin Tendulkar’s announcement that he was accepting moral responsibility for his team’s performance and would step down as captain of the Indian cricket team after the two test matches against South Africa neatly saves the selectors from removing him from the captaincy. There is no polite way to make the point that Tendulkar has been a miserable failure as a captain in Australia. This is not because India lost and lost badly but because Tendulkar is as bad a captain as he is good a batsman. A selection committee with any sense would have replaced him as skipper even if the Indian team had performed better than what it did. There are sound cricketing reasons for such a step. Tendulkar is the axis around which the Indian team’s batting revolves. This is true when he opens the innings in one day internationals and when he comes lower down in the order during test matches. It has been obvious from the way Tendulkar batted in Australia that the pressures of captaincy adversely affected his batting prowess. This had a demoralizing effect on the entire team. The Indian cricket team cannot afford this. Tendulkar must be left free to fully exploit his talents as a batsman. His decision to step down from the captaincy is one of the best things to have happened to Indian cricket in recent months.

There is the possibility, of course, that Tendulkar’s decision has been influenced not by good sense but by a perceived slight to his ego. His realization that Nayan Mongia and Mohammed Azharuddin were both making a comeback despite his opposition may have precipitated his resignation. He was no longer sure that as captain he would get the team he wanted. Ego-driven decisions always run the risk of distorting perspectives. The Indian team should be made up of the best available 11 players. Personal dislikes and preferences should have nothing to do with the matter. On current performance the Indian team’s tail begins at number five. The entry of Azharuddin cannot make matters worse so far as batting is concerned and will definitely improve the fielding of what must rank as the world’s worst fielding side. Tendulkar’s stepping down leaves the selectors with the unenviable task of naming India’s next captain. The selection committee has to take care to choose somebody who will not allow captaincy to affect his own performance. In short, somebody who will be able to lead from the front and will be able to place the team above his ego. There is no name that comes immediately to mind. Any choice will be a compromise of sorts. But by now the Indian selection committee should be adept at making compromises. They have made so many unnecessary ones in the past. A necessary one should not make a difference.    


Poles apart

In terms of geopolitics, nonalignment was a policy designed to maximize India’s leverage in a world of two superpowers. Indian strategists underplayed the truth that much of this leverage derived from the strategic space created by the options provided in a bipolar world. In other words, India’s diplomatic manoeuvrability derived less from the nation’s strength than from the balance of power between the United States and the Soviet Union. Post-Cold War, India has been trying to carve out a similar strategic space for the country. The 1998 nuclear tests attempted to provide some balance to India’s relations with the US, the sole superpower. However, this opportunity has been frittered away by India’s unwillingness to accept that part of being a nuclear power is joining the global nonproliferation regime. As a fallback, New Delhi has embarked on a diplomatic offensive designed to strengthen ties with other major countries who fret about the US domination of the world. Last week’s visit by the French foreign minister, Mr Hubert Vedrine, was part of this strategy. Mr Vedrine made the right noises, stressing his country’s support for a multipolar world and upholding multilateral institutions. However, his real message was that avoiding coming to terms with the US is wishful thinking, not hard nosed foreign policy. France seeks a multipolar world, but the differences it has with the US are minor. Paris recognizes the US role of global policeman. During the Kosovo crisis, France put its bombers under the direct command of the US. And though Mr Vedrine waved the carrot of nuclear technology transfers, he did not budge from the US position that India should sign the comprehensive test ban treaty and negotiate the fissile materials cutoff treaty. He even endorsed Washington’s talk of mediating in Kashmir. Mr Vedrine’s positions were simply a politer restatement of Washington’s demands. Even Russia, the other country India has hoped can serve as a balance against the US, recently urged New Delhi to sign the CTBT. France has serious differences with the US, especially in the field of trade in cultural goods. However, India is much closer to Washington’s position than it is to the European Union’s over a broad array of international trade issues. Multipolarity is a nice sounding word but such balance of power theories look increasingly irrelevant in the post-Cold War era. There is a remarkable degree of consensus in the world community about issues like nuclear nonproliferation and international trade. It is more a lack of imagination derived from the intellectual deadweight of Nehruvian socialism that makes India blind to the fact much of this consensus does not run counter to its own national interest. Running after will o’ the wisps like ill defined concepts such as a multipolar world is not an alternative, they are merely delusions.    

The imperial phase of Himalayan climbing reached its climax, as in a Pathé newsclip, when news of Hillary’s and Tenzing’s ascent was trumpeted to the world (thanks to Morris’s coded dispatches to the London Times) on the morning of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation, promising the dawning of a new Elizabethan age (or, some would say, marking the last gasp of Empire). In the years that followed, it was left to professional climbers from around the world — America, Germany, India, Japan — to remake the Sherpas in their own image, and to mount expeditions that looked more and more like war by other means (one American crew in 1963 took along 909 porters). No longer able to be the first to the top, climbers devised ever more outlandish ways to distinguish themselves — the first to get to the summit without oxygen, say, or the first to get there from the more difficult West Ridge, or the first to climb Everest solo, a Guinness Book of World Records form of one-upmanship that culminated in aspirants yearning to be the oldest woman to climb Everest, the first black, even “the first Jew.” As Everest became the site of a kind of existential consumerism, it also began to look like the world’s highest therapy couch; he climbed, the great Austrian mountaineer Reinhold Messner said, not to get to the top, but to “face my own fears and doubts, my innermost feelings.”

There is ample scope for social observation here, or at least for the kind of cross-cultural investigation mounted, not always convincingly, by Donald S. Lopez Jr., in his 1998 book Prisoners of Shangri-La, in which he suggests that every Western translation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, from Walter Evans-Wentz through Timothy Leary and friends to Robert Thurman, has somehow produced a different Eastern text that seems to respond to the Western moods and demands of the moment. But Ortner’s approach, alas, is more theoretical. “In Althusser’s terms,” she writes, “one might say that if one seeks the illusions within the allusions (the ideological biases within the seemingly realist claims), at the same time one seeks the allusions within the illusions, fragments (or more) of ethnographic truth in even the most eccentric sahib representation.” In other words, there may be a grain of truth, as well as of wishful thinking, in foreign impressions of the Sherpas.

To the Sherpas, as the years went on, it must surely have seemed as if people from the privileged parts of the world (not just the West but, increasingly, Japan and Taiwan, among others) were seeking out the very hardship and discomfort that those born to it were keen to put behind them. The visitors from the West may well have seemed to be seeking out the First Noble Truth of Buddhism (that the truth of reality is suffering), even as they were importing a somewhat foreign version of the pursuit of happiness. By the 1970s, in what is the most amusing part of Ortner’s survey, the Sherpas were listening to foreigners quote from the Chinese Yellow Emperor’s Medicine Book on the slopes (once it had been Montaigne) and watching them practice vegetarianism. (When the Dalai Lama tried to become a vegetarian, as he engagingly writes in his Freedom in Exile, he almost died, such a diet not being well suited to Himalayan constitutions.)

Ortner knows the Sherpa culture well enough to be sensible when it comes to the question of how much it has been “spoiled” by the sudden influx of 15,000 climbers a year into a region that, as of 1950, had never seen a single foreigner. Most Nepalis are highly resourceful, she reminds us, and not without their own forms of hierarchy and machismo; it must be a matter of local pride now that roughly half the largest trekking agencies in Kathmandu are run by Sherpas, and that four Sherpas have become commercial pilots for Royal Nepal Airlines. Though a trekking Sherpa still earns a tenth of what his Western counterparts command, he can make as much on a two-month expedition as the typical Nepali earns in twelve years.

Besides, nearly every foreigner since Mallory has taken to the accommodating Nepalis he’s climbed with, and foreign climbers have helped bring schools and medical facilities and hydroelectric power to the region. Though they have denuded valleys and left trash on the mountains, they have also, if partly for public relations reasons, launched elaborate campaigns to clean the slopes of trash. A few years ago, Ortner points out, The New York Times reported that foreigners, by bringing candies to the Sherpas, had also brought tooth decay. But now, apparently, a “Canadian-trained Sherpa woman has opened a dental clinic” in Namche Bazar, the words “Canadian-trained,” “woman,” and “clinic” in that phrase all showing how things might be said to have improved.

The way Ortner puts all this, though, again is somewhat oblique. “The point is that, for all its negative positioning within a certain Western countermodern imaginary, money points precisely toward (as much as it might seem to point away from) something we may think of as an ‘authentic’ Sherpa cultural universe, a framework within which they articulate their own desires.” Sherpas, in short, like to survive as much as the rest of us do. When, at one point, Ortner devotes sixteen pages to the possible link between their making of money and their legendary cheerfulness, one feels like saying that, even post-Freud, sometimes a smile is just a smile.

What the book lacks here, in fact, is precisely what a long-time anthropologist should be in the best position to give us: a sense of how the Sherpas feel about all these rich aliens who risk their lives, and spend $ 70,000 apiece, to pass fewer than five minutes atop a mountain that has no traditional meaning for them and who become so light-headed and exhausted they hardly know where they are, and are in any case mostly preoccupied with the harder task of getting down. One of the most striking passages in Ortner’s book comes when one Sherpa, asked (almost desperately) by a Westerner if he is not moved to climb by something other than his livelihood, replies, “Maybe you people have too much money, and you don’t know how to spend....If you want to know what we think, we think it is kind of silly. But you people seem to like it.”

What makes the Sherpa situation fascinating, after all, is that we find in it many of the same dramas we see in an Indian ashram, or in a Southeast Asian go-go bar: a well-to-do affluent foreigner takes on a poorer local to help him attain some vision of enlightenment, or self-realization, or just exotic adventure, rewarding him — or as often her — for the effort with the forms of comfort and opportunity they need most. To many Sherpas, surely, it is the people from Seattle who seem most like residents of Shangri-La. The Nepalis on treks find themselves not just in the position of local bellboys in a luxury hotel catering to foreign needs (for simplicity or peace), but in that of gatekeepers to a shrine of sorts, who accept payment to let infidels trample over their sacred ground. At the very least, they might wonder who really are the children in this transaction.

This exchange of dollars for dreams has intensified dramatically in recent years as Everest has become a status symbol for the man or woman who has everything, leading to such unlikely sights as that of Pittman being carried up the slopes for several hours by a Sherpa, or the late Frank Wells, who became president of Disney, paying $ 250,000 a trip to climb the highest mountains in all seven continents. Ortner raises a few questions about how much the Sherpas, like their counterparts from Bali to Haiti, are “playing themselves” for foreign consumption (or, as she puts it, “consolidating the category ‘Sherpa’ in such a way that the ethnic category became virtually isomorphic with the work role of high altitude porter”). But her biggest contribution comes in bringing to them an affectionate understanding free of romantic sentiment. The Sherpas, she points out from close acquaintance, are notably competitive toward their Tibetan neighbours, with whom they share a devotion to Buddhism; and now there is talk of the “first Newar” or the “first non-Sherpa Nepali” to scale Everest, reminding us that self-assertion is not unknown in Asia. In recent years there has even been an all-Sherpa expedition on Everest (with Westerners helping out in a menial capacity), and one Sherpani, or female Sherpa, who raised $ 50,000 in order, it seems, to beat a rival to the top.

Our own fascination with the ways in which man is humbled by Everest, and occasionally indulged by it, seems likely only to increase. The appetite for tales of humans being punished by Nature (not just on Everest, but on the high seas, in the Antarctic, and aboard the Titanic) mounts in direct proportion to technology’s claims that we have everything under control. Three books on Mallory are in the works, and where Sebastian Junger’s bestselling A Perfect Storm was bought by its publishers three years ago for $ 30,000, now even an account of the 1820 shipwreck of the Essex goes for $ 1.2 million. And Everest offers the particularly charged drama of people testing themselves in a higher, rare zone that trembles on the edge of myth, where many of the normal rules don’t seem to apply. (“Above 8,000 meters,” a Japanese climber says, in one of the most chilling moments in Into Thin Air, “is not a place where people can afford morality.”)

As interesting as the story of man against the mountain, though — and far less covered — is the one of man against man, and, more recently woman against woman, especially as the relative simplicities of the British Empire have given way to a criss-crossing chaos of cultural interactions. Ortner’s solemn talk of “gender reflexivity” sounds a little strange in the setting of a mountain known as a goddess, but she does describe such scenes as that of an all-female expedition to Annapurna in 1978. True to their imported priorities, the leaders took pains to hire two Sherpanis, as “kitchen girls,” but both of them were fired after one took up with a male Sherpa. Things grew even more troubled as one of the American women fell in love with a Sherpa kitchen boy and then another with an “untouchable” porter. (Though the Sherpas are notably free and easy in their attitudes to sex and drink, they still have qualms both about the shedding of blood on the slopes of their holy mountain and about frenzied couplings there.) When Mallory was asked why he attempted Everest, as all of us know, he is reported to have said, “Because it is there.” When Stacey Allison, the first American woman to scale Everest, was asked the same question, she said, “Because I’m here.”


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.    


New guest of honour

Sir — Even a decade ago, the avid excitement in government circles about Bill Clinton’s proposed visit to India would have made many cringe. Jawaharlal Nehru especially will be squirming in his grave at the distance India has moved from his nonaligned stance. The climate of international diplomacy has so changed now that not only is Clinton very welcome, but the chief ministers of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka are engaged in an embarrassing game of oneupmanship to see whether Clinton includes Hyderabad or Bangalore in his itinerary. And to compound the stupidity, India is attempting to dictate to the United States how it should behave vis a vis Pakistan. As if there wasn’t proof enough that as far as policy goes, the US can’t see beyond its own nose. The least India can do now is to stop issuing statements about how “independent” it is, how it will not brook any interference on Kashmir by Clinton. Let there be no doubts: India is very ready for intervention, but only if the US bears out India’s stand and blacklists Pakistan.

Yours faithfully,
Manisha Banerjee,

Taxing times

Sir — Bhaskar Dutta is right in saying that it is futile to hope for any major innovation in the budget (“What the budget could be”, Feb 15). However, one area the finance minister, Yashwant Sinha, must emphasize is the expansion of the tax net. This will lead to increased revenues and improve the financial situation of the country. Only about 1.5 per cent of the total population of India pays income tax, which is abysmal considering an estimated 20 crore Indians reportedly enjoy living standards comparable to the West. Taxes constitute below 80 per cent of total revenues in India, as against over 90 per cent in countries like the United States and France.

The ratio of gross taxes to gross domestic product till 1989-90 was nine per cent; it has now declined to 6.91 per cent. Raising it to the nine per cent range again will mean additional collections worth hundreds of crores. The supply of water, electricity, fertilizers and other facilities to rich farmers at cheap or concessional rates is a further drain on the exchequer. Rich farmers are increasingly taking to floriculture, horticulture, sericulture and the cultivation of orchids so that their income often exceeds that of businessmen in urban areas. There is no reason such income cannot be taxed. They should at least be made to pay the land tax. Profitable service sectors must also be taxed.

Sinha will not easily withdraw the lucrative surcharge on income tax which it introduced last year as a temporary measure given increased demands from sectors like defence. But in order to provide some relief to individual assessees, the surcharge should be made payable for incomes above Rs 150,000.

After the World Trade Organization’s stipulation regarding removal of quantitative restrictions on imports, the government could raise additional customs revenue by imposing suitable tariffs. But there is no need to raise the basic exemption limit to Rs 75,000 as the bulk of individual assessees are salary earners. Those in the Rs 75,000 range do not pay much income tax anyway because of standard deduction.

Yours faithfully,
B.C. Dutta,

Sir —Despite all the reasons in their support, hard measures by the finance minister in the budget for 2000-2001 will only adversely affect the ordinary citizen. It is the burden rather than the benefit of economic restructuring that is passed on to him as a matter of course. I have a few suggestions for the minister.

Industries which have upgraded their technology as well as implemented International Organization for Standardization standards should be grouped under a favourable duty structure so their products are competitive at home and abroad. Customs duty should be rationalized and made reciprocative, depending on the country of origin. The amalgamation of companies producing consumer goods should not be allowed as it leads to monopolistic tendencies and leaves scope for profiteering.

Advertisement expenses of business houses have become disproportionately high. This is an area where some restrictions might be imposed as the actual costs of manufacturing does not warrant the high billing. This also leaves a huge margin, which is camouflaged under expenses, and can be easily siphoned out.

Incomes higher than Rs 15,00,000 should be taxed at rates higher than 30 per cent. The income tax surcharge should be abolished. To rationalize puchasing power and control inflation, a compulsory deposit should be introduced which will remain in force for the next five years.

This must apply especially to those who have benefitted from the fifth pay commission and draw annual salaries of above Rs 150,000. The amount so deposited should be retained by the government for three years, at an interest of six per cent per annum. Necessary deductions might be allowed from the total income considered for accounting. Also, the realization of outstanding income tax must be expedited.

Employees of private sector enterprises who retired before 1990 and get a fixed pension under the Life Insurance Corporation scheme are in a bad way because of spiralling costs and the lowering of interests rates. Thus the LIC should be asked to review its pension scheme every four years depending on the cost of living. Obligatory filing of income tax return form 2C should include two more conditions: ownership of mobile phones and video cassette recorders. Shopowners with total purchases exceeding Rs 800,000 a year should furnish income tax returns. All banks should be asked to initiate proceedings against borrowers and those who recommend them for loans and unpaid interests which have turned non-performing assets. Finally, subsidy on liquefied petroleum gas cylinders should not be reduced as it would encourage the use of coke, thereby adding to pollution.

Yours faithfully,
Ranen Sinh,

Crime and no punishment

Sir — The news report, “Not in the jungles of Bihar, but in the heart of Calcutta”, (Feb 15), reveals how anti-social elements and criminals are now operating freely from the city. But this does not come as a surprise. It is by now well known that criminal activities have become common in Calcutta. Calcutta is almost a safe haven for them, given the laxity and negligence of the police force.

But the state government and the police will still claim that Calcutta is “comparatively safer” than other cities. The report might induce fear among the people, but the authorities shall remain unfazed. The support of political parties in criminal activities is partly responsible for the crisis in the state. With the nexus between criminals and political parties growing stronger by the day, the police has become mere passive onlookers. The city that once boasted of being an abode of joy, has now turned out to be a happy hunting ground for criminals. This means an end of peace for the common people of Calcutta.

Yours faithfully,
Rajat Bakshi,
Letters to the editor could be sent to:
The Telegraph
6, Prafulla Sarkar Street
Calcutta - 700 001
Email: the_telegraph_india
Fax: 225 3240/41

Maintained by Web Development Company