Lack of harmony
Bill too far
Shadows of glory
Letters to the Editor
A young nation’s rights of passage/Book review
Painter draws on the great Indian epic/Book review
Agony and ecstasy of collective effort/Book review
New bearings on why the Goths rode east/Book revie
Ode to reading/Book review

The president has done it again. Mr K.R. Narayanan’s speech at the governors’ conference was peppered with warnings against the “disharmonious tendencies in Indian society” and the impact of liberalization upon the Indian poor. His main themes, going by the three times he had spoken out against the various arms of the government — the executive, the legislature and the judiciary — remain roughly the same. One is the plight of the poor in the era of liberalization. The other is the treatment of minorities. The president’s terse expression of his concerns was not calculated to raise comfort levels in the government. But this has happened before, and both the president’s and prime minister’s offices tried, as usual, to play down the sharpness of the barbs. Unfortunately, however, the recently published United Nations annual human development report, lends some substance to the president’s warning. According to it, 44.2 per cent Indians live below the international poverty line. In a country of more than a billion, this percentage translates into frightening numbers. Placed against this, the government’s optimism about rapid liberalization does seem a little awkward.

The question, of course, is whether the president should consider himself as guide and conscience to the government. The Constitution gives the president of India a formal role, a legacy of the position the sovereign in Britain holds in relation to parliament. Many would feel that Mr Narayanan’s concerns are noble and rightminded. For example, by referring to the “disharmony” in society he doubtless meant to draw attention to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s tendency to underplay what is being perceived in many quarters as countrywide violence against Christians and Christianity. This focus on minority groups is a slight variation on Mr Narayanan’s usual concern about backward classes. His implicit fears about growing communal discord may be perfectly understandable. What is not understandable is why the president should choose to express such thoughts in a formal capacity, and that too in a governors’ conference. Ideally, the governors of the different states play a role similar to that of the president on a different scale. The political resonance of the president’s criticism deliberately displaces barriers of expected formality. Clearly Mr Narayanan, who as president is the exemplary upholder of the Constitution, feels that in these confusing times the president should take on a more active role. But any active role would mean speaking up for or against the ruling government. No such speech could be free of an implicit political colouring, something that no Indian president can afford to acquire. Mr Narayanan does not seem adequately concerned that his speeches might, in the long run, contribute to an imbalance in the structure of governance envisaged in the Constitution.    

The national human rights commission has fired a broadside at the Centre’s proposed prevention of terrorism bill. The bill is supposed to replace the much reviled Terrorism and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act which lapsed in 1995. New Delhi argues such a bill is needed if security agencies are to handle insurgencies in Kashmir and elsewhere. The commission is unconvinced. It argues the government has not bothered to evaluate its TADA experience — a law that did little to curb terrorism and instead led to widespread civil rights abuse. Nearly 98 per cent of those arrested under TADA were later acquitted. The human rights body argued that existing policing laws were sufficient to keep up the anti-militancy struggle. It also takes special aim at clause 3(8) of the bill. This clause says security forces can arrest and imprison for upto three years any individual possessing information on militants but who refuses to divulge this knowledge. The clause targets a journalist’s right to preserve the confidentiality of his sources.

The commission’s fingerwagging should ensure the bill has a turbulent time in Parliament. The bill is a mild improvement on TADA in that it no longer makes the malleable expression “disruptive activities” a crime. However, given the serious flaws that still encumber the bill, a debate over its consequences is needed. One draft, the criminal law amendment bill, died in a select committee earlier this year. To avoid this problem, its second incarnation, the prevention of terrorism bill, was sent to the law commission. A purely advisory body, the law commission maintained its increasing reputation for legal whimsy by issuing a report endorsing the new bill. On clause 3(8), for example, it admitted abuse was possible but vaguely said the courts would “not necessarily” punish the arrested. Worse, it argued journalists could not be granted special legal privileges. This flatly contradicted judgments by Indian courts acknowledging the special protection required by the press and legal anointing of the media as the fourth estate of governance. The law commission also cited similar laws in other countries. The assumption being that a wrong committed across the border somehow legitimized a similar action being done in India. Recently New Delhi shored up the bill by holding a meeting with the state governments in June and have them endorse, in principle, the need for a TADA replacement. It is true that the security forces have difficulties in arresting militants largely because local witnesses are too fearful to testify against them. There are methods to overcome this but the authorities find it much simpler to undermine due process. In addition, any dilution of civil rights should be kept to troubled areas rather than applied across the country. The human rights commission has raised a warning shout. The rest of the country should pay heed.    

If India were suddenly to be given a security council seat in the United Nations, it is doubtful if any national newspaper or strategic affairs thinktank or politician of whatever party would do anything else but welcome such news. The welcome would be more qualified if the terms of membership were different from those of the existing five. However, this is what is most likely to happen as Japan and Germany are very likely to become the first new members of the security council but unlikely to have the same power of veto as the five current members, thus setting the precedent for further membership.

In this case, there will be complaints in India about unfair discrimination within the security council. But there will be no complaints about the unfairness of the whole UN set up and the discrimination between the security council and the general assembly. After all, one doesn’t criticize as totally objectionable the very organization that one is so desperate to become a member of!

The first question is whether Indian membership of the security council is feasible or imminent. Certainly, there has been such a flood of reports in the newspapers in recent months about this or that country willing to support India’s candidature for the security council that the more cynical among us might suspect a concerted campaign on India’s part to solicit such public declarations of support from various heads of state during their visits here or during the prime minister’s and president’s official visits abroad. In short, the government and South Block have decided that this effort at membership constitutes a major foreign policy initiative. This itself says something about the poverty-stricken character of Indian foreign policy thinking. But more about that later.

Anybody who read or heard only the Indian media during the Clinton visit could be forgiven for thinking that the United States was carrying out a dramatic shift in its foreign policy alignments away from Pakistan towards India. But in the US, both the media and the strategic community not only were much less concerned about the trip but also saw no such dramatic realignments signalled. Much the same applies to the current hype about India’s imminent or likely eventual entry into the security council. This remains highly uncertain and is in any case a long way off. Moreover, Pokhran II, despite Indian disclaimers to the contrary, has made it more, not less, difficult. The first stage in the possible extension of the security council is the entry of Japan and Germany and the establishment of the terms of their membership.

Indian entry, if it ever takes place will only be part of a more general package involving consideration of other major, large, and highly populated countries in Latin America (Brazil, Mexico), Africa (Nigeria, South Africa) and Asia (Indonesia). Japanese and German membership will not be held up by such considerations and therefore any possibility of Indian entry will figure only when a third stage of expansion of the security council is on the anvil.

There are also certain other specific factors. The US is using Indian desperation to be considered for membership as a lever to push New Delhi in the direction it wants. The US government is tying its possibility of endorsing any Indian bid in the future to various directions that it wants Indian policymaking to take. This applies both to the area of nuclear nonproliferation (such as signing the comprehensive test ban treaty, accepting missile control regimes, and so on) and also to the sphere of its future trade and financial-economic policies.

But not only is Indian entry, in spite of all this a very long term affair, it still isn’t certain. There is the huge problem of China. Beijing knows that India’s nuclear arsenal is being developed with it in mind. It knows that its veto power concerning expansion of the security council can be decisive. And it has a powerful formal argument for opposing Indian entry that can pass muster with any number of countries both inside and outside this body. Why on earth should India be “rewarded” for Pokhran II by being allowed entry into the security council? But the more important question is not how long it might take India to get an entry or even whether its efforts will succeed. The more important issues concern the value of such an outcome and therefore the usefulness of such an effort. Moreover, what does the pursuit of this objective say about Indian foreign policy perspectives generally?

The security council is not a serious global actor. All it can be is a body that can legitimize serious initiatives established and decided upon elsewhere. Therefore, it has only a very limited political-diplomatic worth. But for most of its period of existence (up to the end of the Cold War) it could not even play this role because of the rivalry between the former Soviet Union and the US and therefore the obstructive veto power of either the one or the other. From 1946 onwards the security council could neither collectively condemn nor praise the most dramatic political events of its time and could not agree on any common initiative or form of political intervention with regard to those events. But the rivalry prevented the council from becoming the naked legitimizing tool of any one member, subordinated repeatedly to its foreign policy.

After the end of the Cold War and the break up of the Soviet Union, the council really has only two options to choose from. Either it is ineffectual because of occasional disagreements between the US and Russia. Or the US pushes hard and gets its way. China has never come close to possessing the authority and resistance power of the former Soviet Union. It often gives in either by acquiescing or abstaining from some resolution proposed by the US. During the 1991 Kuwait war, Beijing (nuclear weapons and all) was firmly told that the US needed the security council resolution to legitimize its attack on Iraq and if China wanted the US’s conferral of the most favoured nation status to continue, it should abstain from the vote; which it dutifully did.

Whether it is the World Trade Organization arrangements or a US-directed North Atlantic Treaty Organization decision to bomb Serbia or the Star Wars programme or any action of major global and regional import, it is decided outside the forums of the UN in general and the security council in particular. Then, according to the circumstances and the issue at hand, one country, the US, assesses whether it can or is interested in using the council as a rubber stamp. When half a million Rwandans were being butchered, the West did not want to interfere because the region was of no “strategic importance” to it. So the council did nothing to stop the bloodshed. The relief agencies of the UN did what little they could to help the victims.

Clearly, what is most needed is to transform the functioning of the UN so it can become a more impartial, democratic and humane instrument of international political intervention. That would require, to begin with, the subordination of the security council to the general assembly, even in its role as a legitimizing body.

But this is not what today’s India — either its government or its dominant opinion-making and opinion-shaping elite — is interested in. In its attitude to the UN India has joined the arrogant anti-democrats of the security council. Except that its arrogance is backed by no real authority or power on the ground which is why the illusion of power, namely the inconsequential “prestige” associated with permanent membership of the council has become so fundamental a foreign policy goal for India. Can there be a starker expression of the general impasse of Indian foreign policy thinking than the fact that this quest has become so important to New Delhi?

The author has recently co-authored the book, South Asia on a Short Fuse: Politics and the Future of Global Disarmament    


Birth defects

Sir — That the billionth baby, Aastha, was a girl does not symbolize any change in attitudes towards the girl child, nor the government’s policies on infanticide and female foeticide. A disgraceful male-female sex ratio, among the worst in the world, makes clear the fact that India’s recent emergence as a major player in the world economy is only a false indication of its progress. If the warnings of the United Nations population fund is anything to go by, the country seriously needs to take firm action on the issue of discrimination against the girl child (“Vote of no-confidence in Aastha”, July 11). It is ironical that in a country with existing legislation against foeticide, not a single case of offence could be registered. Little wonder doctors flagrantly encourage amniocentesis, knowing full well they can escape the long arm of the law. Given a nonchalant government, isn’t it expected the country’s uneducated majority and the very ingenious educated minority will resort to their own methods of birth “control”?

Yours faithfully,
Chetana Majumdar, via email

Tiger in trouble

Sir — Perhaps the tigers that died at the Nandankanan zoo can be seen as martyrs. The shock and outrage generated by this tragedy has prompted a Supreme Court inquiry directed at zoos and tiger protection in the wild.

Every individual and nongovernmental organization, doing their mite for the existence of these magnificent animals, that have been for most part voices in the wilderness, will acknowledge with gratitude the media’s role in bringing the situation to the attention of the nation. Once again, the media has demonstrated that it is second to none in its ability to provoke public opinion and arouse sympathy.

The media should remember and remind readers and viewers that on an average tigers are killed at the rate of one a day in the wild. Last year 300 of them as well as many other endangered animals were killed by poachers. We hope the media will continue to keep the issue of protection of wildlife alive. It just might help saving tigers.

Yours faithfully,
Nirguna Awatramani, via email

Sir — Death is a great leveller. Both the predator and its prey have fallen victim to trypanosomiasis (“Death strikes white tiger den”, July 6). This disease is caused by a protozoa of the family Trypanosoma. Blood sucking flies of the reduviidae family carry this protozoa. Mammals, especially dogs, cats and rodents may be infected and they act as reservoirs for the disease.

This protozoa can affect any healthy cell but prefers connective tissue cells and muscle fibres. It affects the lymph nodes first and then the spinal cord, the central nervous system and can also affect the heart, leading to the death of the animal. The best way to control this disease is to protect the animal from the bites of the flies.

For this, extensive cleaning of the habitat along with spraying of insecticides is necessary. Prophylactic medicines should also be administered. It is a pity that when the tiger population is fast dwindling in India 11 tigers had to die due to sheer negligence. This shows the lacuna in government undertaken projects. The disease is not new to the zoo officials. They should have adopted preventive measures long before. Surely, these animals which we have displaced from their natural habitat for our own benefit deserve a little more responsible behaviour from us.

Yours faithfully,
Debjani Kundu, Calcutta

Sir — The editorial, “Not burning so bright” (July 9), rightly notes that veterinary science in India is still lacking in sufficient knowledge of environmental issues. It may be that the fatal flies might have had some connection with last year’s supercyclone in Orissa. Experts also believe artificial insemination of white tigers is responsible for their low resistance to diseases.

Nandankanan is unusual for possessing the largest number of white tigers bred out of a single tiger brought to the zoo in 1970. The tragedy should spur veterinary experts to find out the causes of the sudden epidemic.

Yours faithfully,
Govinda Bakshi, Budge Budge

Sir — Within the span of a week Orissa was witness to two tragedies. In the first human beings died from spurious saline injections. And in the second tigers died of trypanosomiasis, the mysterious vector disease. The Nandankanan episode is truly heartrending. The “fatal disease” in this case was actually caused by human error that made the animals sitting ducks to the vector.

The disease has been recurring for years now. What is the purpose of having a zoo with the taxpayers’ money if we can’t look after the animals properly? We could feed thousands of starving people of Kalahandi with the money spent on the animals.

Yours faithfully,
Arta Mishra, Cuttack

Step right back

Sir — Calcutta has had a long history of social and communal harmony, and is a prime example of secularism. But some unscrupulous activities of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad are aimed at disturbing the communal amity in the city (“Conversion in the heart of Calcutta”, July 3). The VHP has no right to interfere in the fundamental right of every citizen to practise the religion of his choice. All right-minded citizens of Calcutta should rise against the VHP’s attempts at conducting conversions in the city and vitiating its atmosphere.

Yours faithfully,
Madan Mitra and Sheikh Serazul Karim, Calcutta

Sir — The news report, “Conversion in the heart of Calcutta”, is rather biased. It is quite clear from the report itself that the six persons belonging to a minority community were originally all Hindus. So this was a case of reconversion, or coming back to the original fold. And I do not think there is a ban on reconversion in the city of Calcutta.

Yours faithfully,
Somnath Ghosh, Calcutta

Sir — The headline of the news report, “Conversion in the heart of Calcutta”, smacks of anti-Hindu propaganda. Incidents of conversion are not uncommon in the city, and I can claim to know personally a number of converts. But newspapers have never made a big issue out of this before, and rightly so. So, why has The Telegraph chosen to highlight this incident all of a sudden?

I think conversion is by nature evil, and hence should be discouraged. But certainly it would be inadvisable to discourage some and allow others. The media must play an exemplary role in inculcating the correct attitude to conversion.

Yours faithfully,
Rajkumar Ray, Hooghly

Wrong target

Sir — The report, “Teacher targetted in campus backlash” (June 27), is shocking to say the least. Women are represented in Parliament, in the assemblies, in the local bodies and yet people remain passive onlookers when incidents such as the one in Lucknow university take place. As the head of women’s studies in the university pointed out, it was blindness to gender issues that led to the punishment of the victim, not the offender.

Instead of conducting a proper investigation into the allegations of Nishi Pandey against her male colleague, it is shameful that the university is thinking of suspending her along with her tormentor, G.S. Bhadouria, who, incidentally, was reinstated after a three year inquiry into another allegation of sexual harassment. If this happens in a citadel of learning, what better treatment can we expect for women in the slums and remote villages?

Yours faithfully,
Biren Saha, Titagarh

Letters to the editor should be sent to:

The Telegraph, 6 Prafulla Sarkar Street, Calcutta 700 001
Email: [email protected]

Readers in the Northeast can write to:

Third Floor, Godrej Building, G.S. Road, Ulubari, Guwahati 781007    

The Constitution of India
By Subhas C. Jain, Taxmann, Rs 2,000

The Indian Constitution completes 50 years of its existence this year — a time to take stock of this half a century of constitutional functioning. The constitution in a democracy is a sign of dynamism, a sort of living organism. Fifty years is not a long one in the life of a nation; but enough to assess the direction of the country’s progress.

In this “commemorative edition on 50 years of the Indian Constitution”, Subhas Jain provides a commentary backed by detailed research and collation of several major issues faced by the nation over these years.

Here is a comprehensive treatment of the Constitution as it appears after 78 amendments in the first 45 years of its functioning. The need to compile an updated Constitution has been fully satisfied by this volume. In order to bring the Constitutional issues in the proper perspective, Jain has reproduced extracts of the relevant speeches made by the framers of the Constitution in the Constituent Assembly of India. The presentation made more interesting by the historic photographs and the facsimile of the signatures of the members of the Constituent Assembly at the time of adopting the Constitution in November 1949.

The treatment of a select number of issues incorporated in Division four marks the high point of the commentary. It is a refreshing departure from the traditional analysis of statutory and decisional laws. Jain has taken note of the political factors and the dynamism inherent in a social law — which a constitution basically is — and produced a study of the Constitution-in-action. Through his understanding and observation of the working of the Constitution for 50 years, Jain brings out the connectivity between the original socio-political objectives of the Constitution and the present day scenario. “The Objective Resolution of January 1947, set out certain fundamental social and political ends to be achieved by independent India and this was to be done through the instrumentality of the Constitution. B.R. Ambedkar was not happy though that this resolution did not include socialist economy as one of its goals.”

Corruption has been rightly identified as one of the major issues left mostly untackled. The nonchalant use of musclepower and moneypower in the elections is a case in point. Electoral reforms have been identified as an instrument “to weed out the muscle and money power”. Yet, very little follow up action is in sight.

While many of the amendments are incidental, some like the 25th and 42nd amendments attracted public attention and generated debates; and the Supreme Court was called upon to decide on the implications of the amendments.

The 36 issues selected by Jain cover a wide range, from definitions of words to the concept of judicial review, power of the president and so on. All the issues deal with practical problems confronted in the actual operation of the Constitution. Commentaries on these issues have become even more topical in the context of the setting up the national commission to review the working of the Constitution.

The commission, headed by a former chief justice of the Supreme Court, M.N. Venkatachaliah, identified 10 areas. A group within the commission, under B.P. Jeevan Reddy, will study the issues of strengthening the institutions of parliamentary democracy, working of the legislature, executive and judiciary, stability within a parliamentary democracy and several others. Jain has successfully identified the major issues, and his commentaries provide material for wider debates on these issues.

Chapter 37 in division four, titled “An overview of amendments to the Constitution of India”, makes all the 78 amendments and the two recently introduced bills available for the general reader.

This commentary has been written keeping in mind legal practitioners, researchers, students of Constitutional laws and general readers. On the whole, it is an interesting and informative reading. It should attract a diverse readership.    

India’s greatest epic, The Mahabharata, provides an endless source of creativity. This portfolio, GANESH PYNE’S MAHABHARATA (Mapin, Rs 7,500) brings to the epic the artistic genius of one of India’s leading painters. The portfolio has 12 drawings depicting various episodes from The Mahabharata. Shown here are the Pandavas living incognito in the court of Virat. Between 1976 and 1987, Pyne made 270 drawings. The drawings echo the friezes seen on Indian temples: the figures are all statuesque and dignified. But there is a also a fluidity and a sense of movement. It is clear from the plates, especially when seen sequentially from numbers one to 12, that Pyne enjoyed doing the drawings and his probing style evolved and matured to a sureness of touch. The drawings have an epic dimension as they transcend their subject matter.    

Cooperatives in the New Millennium
Edited by R. Selvaraju, Vikas, Rs 395

The book, comprising 34 small papers, analyses the issues pertaining to the growth and progress of cooperative movement in India, focussing on the changes required for their growth and improvement. Areas covered include factors responsible for members’ apathy towards and lack of participation in their cooperatives, priorities and principles in the 21st century.

After the initial lull in the early decades of the 20th century, the cooperative movement in India experienced dynamic progress, particularly after the implementation of the recommendations of the All India Rural Credit Survey Committee Report.

In his paper, R. Selvaraju argues that the weakness of the Indian Cooperatives Organisation is the result of excessive governmental control. The so called partnership with the government has turned out to be an exercise in external domination, affecting the spirit of cooperation. Krishan K. Taimni too thinks that the role of the government vis-à-vis cooperatives should undergo transformation. Essentially, the government should be a facilitator and not a controller.

Selvaraju feels the state’s role should be confined to formulating and enunciating a clear public policy, creating an appropriate regulatory framework through legislation and restructuring financing institutions.

B. Subhuraj delineates certain fundamental issues in the cooperative movement in Tamil Nadu and suggests ways of making cooperatives efficient in the 21st century.

M.V. Narayanaswamy, in his empirical study on the financial aspect of cooperatives, finds “a complete lack of professionalism in the management of primary societies”, where absence of education is a major problem.

Yathich Kumar highlights various aspects of cooperative training and development programmes, while P. Sureshramana Mayya focuses on types of industrial cooperatives, with respect to the position of workers

A R Viswanathan attempts to assess the overall performance of agricultural credit cooperatives and their problem of overdues, using the development index and correlation coefficient technique in analysing the qualitative statewise performance of primary agricultural credit societies.

Four papers on cooperative marketing are useful as they highlight the need for cooperative marketing for flowers at farmers level, its objectives and problems, as well as its alternatives in the agricultural sector.

While the 26th paper deals with Annamalainagar to study the attitude of customers towards consumers’ cooperative stores, and the factors influencing their purchase decisions, the 27th paper discusses the role of consumer cooperatives in the public distribution system. The 28th paper reviews critically the problem of consumer cooperatives in India.

The book is a comprehensive document on the cooperative system in India, and the issues facing them. It provides a fresh perspective on the course of action for the new millennium.    

Grand Delusion: Stalin and the German Invasion of Russia
By Gabriel Gorodetsky, ,i>Yale, $ 29.95

June 1941. Continental Europe was under the Nazi jackboot. The British army was destroyed at Dunkirk and the Royal Air Force was severely molested during the battle of Britain. Britain could only be saved from this dark moment by a miracle. And that miracle happened at the dawn of June 22, 1941, when the third Reich attacked the Soviet Union.

Why Germany turned against the Soviet Union is still debated. The traditional “deterministic” view of Hugh Trevor-Roper and Allan Bullock, that Hitler had a blueprint for eliminating Russia from the late Thirties, has recently been challenged by the “revisionist” school. Heinz Magenheimer, in Hitler’s War, asserts that both Russia and Germany pulled their forces against each other in 1941. Hitler merely preempted Stalin.

Here, Gorodetsky, professor of the Tel Aviv University, revises the revisionists. Based on recent documents, he asserts that the breakdown of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact involved many issues, including the dubious role of Britain and the strategic importance of the Balkans. Also, Stalin distrusted Churchill more than Hitler.

There are reasons for Stalin’s suspicion. First, his experience of the civil war, when Britain aided the white forces. Second, even in 1939, for France and Britain, Soviet Union remained a greater danger than Nazi Germany. Third, Anthony Eden played a “dirty game”, hinting that unless the Soviet Union join the British side, London would be forced to seek terms from Germany. And then, Hitler would concentrate on Russia. All these backfired on the British. The fear of a compromised peace between London and Berlin encouraged Stalin to believe that intelligence information from London about the buildup of the Polish wehrmacht, was provoked by the British propaganda. So Stalin, like Banquo’s ghost, saw the perfidious Albion’s hand behind every German move.

Stalin’s discomfiture was further aggravated by the German disinformation campaign, masterminded by Goebbels. Again, to deceive the Soviet Union, the Luftwaffe, till May 1941, remained in France, as if the German aim was to renew the aerial battle over Britain. Further, Hitler did not even inform Schulenberg, his ambassador to the Soviet Union about Barbarossa.

Then, was Hitler’s decision to launch Barbarossa already a foregone conclusion? The author thinks not. Hitler’s patience cracked when, in December 1940, Molotov refused to withdraw Russian claims on the Turkish straits. The final straw was the Soviet guarantee to Yugoslavia in early 1941. After the German occupation of Belgrade, Stalin started appeasing Hitler. But Hitler would not reciprocate.

Gorodetsky, however, completely neglects the German archives, though the monograph is a brilliant exposé of the Balkans as Europe’s powder keg even during World War II. Gorodetsky’s top-down realist approach and scholarship make the book an important corrective in the age of fashionable theorizing.    

,dt>Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader
By Anne Fadiman, Penguin, £ 2.99

Anne Fadiman has written a book which should be on every book lover’s shelf. She describes herself as a common reader but she is actually a reader with an uncommon memory and love for the printed word.

Her uncommonness lies not only in her unbounded enthusiasm for books but also in her immediate family background. Which family of four — parents and brother and sister — can boast of going into a restaurant and then spending their time spotting proof reading errors on the menu? How many husbands would take their wives on their birthdays to second hand bookshops and return with 19 pounds of books?

This book endears itself to booklovers because it talks about books with wit, precision and a range of learning that stretches across classics to modern fiction. There is a treasure house for readers here. Many will recognize old favourites, come face to face with their own obsessions and confront problems familiar to all readers and writers.

Do you like paperbacks or hardbacks? Bookshops selling new books or second hand book shops? Do you like people who dog ear books? Do you like rereading your own marginal notes? Do you reach for your pencil whenever you see an error or typo? What is your favourite place to read? Have you solved the his/her dilemma? Fadiman reflects on these themes, offering readers her own personal preferences, indecisions and insights.

She is never boring because she clearly enjoys writing about her bibliomania. She lights up her prose occasionally with the apt quotation.

There is a delightful chapter in the book on inscriptions on books. Fadiman tells us that Lord Byron never forgot to observe the proper inscription etiquette of always writing on the flyleaf instead of the title page, which is traditionally reserved for the author of the book.

There is of course the famous story of re-inscribing. George Bernard Shaw once came across one of his books in a second hand shop. Inside the book was written, “To ————, with esteem, George Bernard Shaw”. He bought the book and returned it to ———- after adding the line, “With renewed esteem, George Bernard Shaw”.

Some inscriptions can be mystifying, like the one Anne Fadiman found in a book; it said, “To father on his the nature of a peace offering?” What heartbreak had caused it and did the reconciliation take place?

Some others can be poignant and touching. Fadiman was deeply moved when her husband wrote, “To my beloved wife...this is your book,too. As my life, too, is also yours.” Many Indian readers will recall that famous dedication “To Kamala who is no more”.

Life stories of book lovers, as Fadiman notes, were written by the books which crowd their shelves and their living space.

Somewhere in the big library in the sky, where lovers of books and reading gather everyday, they are sure to be reading and discussing Fadiman’s reflections on the most fascinating thing in the world, books. What more can one ask?    


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