Editorial/Politics in the way
Laughing out loud
Letters to the Editor

The conflict between partisanship and pragmatic governance can sometimes hinder the evolution of a polity rather lamentably. Distinguished economist, columnist and head of the Congress�s economic cell, Mr Jairam Ramesh, was recently invited by the Andhra Pradesh chief minister, Mr N. Chandrababu Naidu, to be part of an economic advisory committee set up by the Telugu Desam Party. Mr Ramesh�s instinctive response was positive and he admits to having felt an �initial spurt of impulsive enthusiasm� at the prospect of joining this seven-member panel formed to accelerate reforms, and augment resource mobilization and fiscal management in the state. However, only a couple of days later, Mr Ramesh formally declined Mr Naidu�s offer. The Congress president, Ms Sonia Gandhi, and the local party unit had disapproved of his participation in the panel. Ms Gandhi and Mr Ramesh had both �agreed� that it could turn out to be an �embarrassing� move. Mr Manmohan Singh was also invited by Mr Naidu, but he had declined immediately, anticipating Congress sensitivities regarding the matter.

The Congress�s intervention is a retrograde response to a gesture whose implications are progressive on many counts. On Mr Naidu�s part, it was an attempt to prioritize, for the sake of regional development, disinterested and professional governance over political antagonism. It has to be remembered that Mr Naidu had moved away from the United Front alliance and joined hands with the Bharatiya Janata Party, making it clear that he perceived the Congress as the TDP�s greater enemy in the state. In the context of this adversarial history, his offer to Mr Ramesh � and Mr Ramesh�s answering enthusiasm � can be seen as an entirely welcome transcendence of inflexible partisanship. This transcendence is far from idealistic, but a convergence of interests and priorities at an apolitical, and perhaps intellectual, level that speaks for Mr Naidu�s pragmatic intelligence and foresight. Driven by a single-minded sense of what is urgently required for his state, Mr Naidu had decided to cut out the hindering antagonisms and approach Messrs Ramesh and Singh as experienced economists whose professional identities were assumed not to have been subsumed entirely under their party political allegiances.

Mr Naidu�s pragmatism is strategic for his own survival as a politician, as well as a response to the emergence of a new style of governance in various regions and at different levels of the polity. Alliances and coalitions are not simply a matter of electoral contingency, but could lead to newer modes of cooperation and consensus through an open-minded and realistic recognition of forces that are larger than ideologically blinkered inflexibilities. These forces are often market-driven, and with the collapse of ideology, become immediate, urgent and critical. The need to survive and prosper economically has its own logic that might run counter to the logic of partisanship. Different politicians apply their instinctive shrewdness in anticipating this inevitability and adjust their modes of governance accordingly, prompted as much by their regional and ideological commitments as by their canny instincts of survival. In a very different manner from Mr Naidu�s, the evolution of Ms Mamata Banerjee�s political career and personality can also be seen as her very individual response to this reality of changing circumstances. Any party that fails to register, accommodate and adjust to such transforming pressures runs the grave risk of falling by the wayside. The Congress has been showing signs of such an eclipse for a while now, raising serious doubts as to its survival as an effective political force. This latest instance of ill-advised wrongheadedness can only be regretted as a form of action that is obstructively reactionary and politically unintelligent.    

What is reading but sensation and physicality? Even the inexact terms we use to describe the way we�re affected by words � being �touched�, or �moved� � is as if reading were not some transcendent mental communion, but an activity, of varying degrees of gentleness or violence, involving our body, with its limbs and appendages. Housman made this perturbed physicality of our response to literature an actor in the mundane domesticity of bourgeois life when he said a good poem was one that, when you heard it read out, would make you inadvertently cut yourself while shaving. It is a vaguely life-threatening image; and it�s one that connects me to another train of thought and events.

When compiling an anthology of modern Indian writing, I commissioned a well-known translator to render, for me, two of Rajsekhar Basu�s stories into English. The anthology has been a process of discovery, and rediscovery, for me; of witnessing the different, often unique, ways in which the heterogeneous realities of India can be written about, the acts, in different languages, of formal daring and of concealment and irony. It also took me back, occasionally, to my childhood, because the name of Parashuram � Rajsekhar Basu�s pen-name � had been made familiar to me by my mother. She couldn�t mention his name without a smile on her lips, just as we can�t speak of certain acquaintances and relatives without betraying an emotion that�s associated with them in particular.

It was while reading, last year in Oxford, two of Parashuram�s stories, that I laughed aloud in the fragile silence of an English afternoon � whenever my wife was in my presence, she�d be puzzled by this solitary, apparently causeless, exhibition of happiness. But each time the laughter came, I was helpless before it; it was like being touched by an invisible feather. Parashuram was a far greater presence in my mother�s childhood than he was in mine; but laughing out loud made me think of how writers and traditions, even if they are, for whatever reason � shifts in taste, in history � temporarily forgotten, wait to come back, to live again in our bodies, to perspire and tremble and shake with us.

In 1991, two years after my father moved to Calcutta after having worked in Bombay for twenty seven years, my mother found she was putting on weight. She has always been a conscientious consultant of the weighing scale; and the slightest plumpness is termed, by her, as �obesity�. So, thoughtful but not unduly disturbed, taking the weight-gain to be a surplus accrued from starting out, late in life, in another city, a new home, she began to eat less. I was in England at the time.

Eating less didn�t help; the family doctor told her she must restrict her meals further, because an increase in weight wasn�t advisable at her age. She mournfully reconciled herself to more meagre portions, while, at the same time, her stomach grew mysteriously. She began to go for walks downstairs, in the building compound, but they left her fatigued. Her stomach continued to grow; she resolved to cut down her food; the fatigue spread to her idle moments. When she went out in the car, her stomach hurt with every bump; staring out of the window of the car, she felt envious of each thin person; getting out of the car, she struggled to climb up the three or four steps of the Calcutta Club. She noticed, then, that though her stomach had distended to an enormous size, her arms were still curiously thin. As no one else felt its weight, no one seemed quite aware of its existence.

In the heat of the summer, she stopped passing urine, and doctors realized her stomach was full of water. My father and mother then began to go from specialist to specialist, hoping there would be a diagnosis, then a cure. But there was only bewilderment. A well-known specialist told my father, in private, that it was cancer, and a terminal case. Another doctor suggested the cure needed to be a medical, not a surgical, one, and that some of the water be removed and sent to a laboratory for a �culture�. That would provide an answer, he said.

Nothing of this sequence of events was revealed to me; but, one morning, she was admitted into the Belle Vue Hospital to have the water taken out. When I heard, during a telephone conversation with the cook, Nepal, that she�d been put in hospital, I thought something terrible had happened. But the opposite was true; the long nightmare was to recede. A test revealed my mother had contracted tuberculosis of the peritoneum.

The first response to the word �tuberculosis� is fear. Those were the years that TB, after long silence, was returning to the world. It was still a poor person�s disease; but since, in Calcutta, we come into contact with the poor daily, there is no certainty when it may enter our own lives. My mother�s TB was of the non-contagious kind; but she�d most probably got it from Nepal, a recovering alcoholic who was always in and out of employment at our house, and who�d returned from a long stint at home with what sounded like a smoker�s cough (he was a chain smoker and a repository of all good habits) but was an infectious tuberculosis of the lungs. In this way, my mother�s life and the cook�s were linked in a manner neither would have suspected.

In the days of my mother�s childhood, no one recovered from tuberculosis; it was for that reason that the dread, cheerless couplet had once been composed: �Jakkha hole/Rakkha nahi�. That couplet is heard no more; indeed, these days, said the doctor, it is better to get tuberculosis than some other disease, because, given the right medication, and provided it isn�t a rare strain, it�s as curable as toothache.

Both my mother and Nepal were given a thorough and long course of medicine; and my mother, too weak to move about, read in bed as she recuperated. Her reading originated in the past in which death from TB had been common; but now those authors came back to her as seemingly tranquil companions to her recovery. But reading is never tranquil. As she turned the pages of Sarat Chandra Chatterjee, she found reading him painful in more ways than one; she wept as she read him, and, with every sob, her still tender stomach racked her with pain. �Don�t read Sarat Chandra,� her brother advised her. �Read something happier, like Bibhuti Bhushan Mukhopadhyaya.� So she began to read Barjatri to regain her composure, till episode after episode left her shaking with laughter and in as much pain as before, wondering what she should do next. One wishes, sometimes, that our most beloved writers were duller, or that, while reading, we could dispense with the participation of our bodies.    


Life for art�s sake

Sir � A couple of years after Gulshan Kumar�s brutal killing that followed a typical Bollywood style chase through a crowded locality, his brother Kishen Kumar must be rediscovering how closely reel life matches real life (�Doctors shield �sick� Kishen�, April 13). Little wonder that despite all his hypertensive stunts, Kumar is finding it difficult to live down the inevitable cinematic association of a troubled, hunted public personality with a hospital admission. To any filmgoer who has had a taste of the Bollywood masala, it is d�j� vu. Kumar and his posse of doctors and bodyguards can cry themselves hoarse about the genuineness of his �illness�, but Kumar can never escape allegations of life imitating bad art.

Yours faithfully,
T. Chakraborti, Calcutta

Mind your language

Sir � Atal Behari Vajpayee has recently lamented that it is easier to use Hindi in the United Nations than in India. Instead of moaning over the �plight� of his beloved mother tongue, he should try to see the practical side of things.

UN participants are equipped with modern technology whereby they can appreciate a speech in an alien language. But millions of Indians watching the parliamentary proceedings during Bill Clinton�s visit were not facilitated with such a technology.

Of course, it is not a sin to deliver a speech in Hindi in India. But it would be better if it is done in a Hindi-speaking state or addressed to a Hindi-speaking congregation. But in the presence of a pan-Indian, even international audience, English should be the medium of communication.

The champions of Hindi should realize that they are not the only ones to love their mother tongue. Each community has an equal attachment to its mother tongue. It is time that the advocates of Hindi as rajbhasha learnt to respect the other Indian languages. Tactics of coercion and imposition will only undermine the status of the rajbhasha.

Yours faithfully,
Kajal Chatterjee, Dhanbad

Sir � The University of Calcutta had set a standard for spelling Indian names in English. But now it seems that the concept of such standardized spellings has ceased to exist. As a result we find such intriguing names as Pronob Mondol, Anonto Kormokar, Chondi Choron Sorkar and the like. On the other hand, �v� and �f� are freely used for �bh� and �ph� respectively, as in the case of names like Sovon (which should be Shobhon) and Foni (Phoni). Can�t The Telegraph take it upon itself to stop such ridiculous distortions and implement a uniform method for spelling Indian names in English?

Yours faithfully,
A.C. Chakraborty, Calcutta

Sir � India is a country of many traditions, religions and languages. So it is the moral obligation and duty of all Indians to show respect and honour to all cultures and languages.

I would like to appeal to all commercial establishments, educational institutions and government offices � both state and Central � in West Bengal to use Bengali, the state language, along with other languages on their signboards and nameplates. At the same time, Bengalis residing in other states should use the language of their respective states as a mark of honour and respect.

It will be more honourable to use the regional language than to ignore it. Through this application of the regional languages, India�s national unity, fraternity and integrity will be strengthened undoubtedly. Moreover, it will help in sustaining national harmony.

Yours faithfully,
Dinabandhu Ghosh, Calcutta
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