Editorial 1/ Oil reprise
Editorial 2/ Power play
Question of teaching
Fifth column/ Sound of music and money on the net
Book Review/ Skeleton history
Book Review/ Lots of chocolate for us to eat
Book Review/ Of the joie de plantation vivre
Continent of surprises
Paperback/ Pickings
Letters to the editor

In what is becoming a seasonal event, the economy is once again being held hostage by fluctuations in the global price of petroleum. The price of Brent North Sea crude has risen to above $ 30 a barrel, up from a mere $ 10 a barrel early last year. New Delhi is looking at a possible 25 per cent increase in its oil import bill this year if prices remain at this level. Thanks to the bizarre oil pool mechanism, this price increase cannot be immediately passed on to consumers without a lot of political bloodshed. Instead, the government has to absorb the price difference. The oil pool deficit has swollen to Rs 80 billion. This will worsen the parlous state of public finances. New Delhi frets that if oil prices remain high, the fallout will be a falling rupee, faltering growth and upward inflation. India is almost helpless. The key reason for high oil prices is cutbacks in production by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries after last year’s traumatically low prices. In June, OPEC informally agreed to increase production if the price rose above $ 28 for more than 20 working days. OPEC is now debating whether it should open up the taps. Some members want even higher prices. The ultimate decider will be Saudi Arabia. And Riyadh’s decision will be driven by pressure from the United States. It is no surprise Mr Atal Behari Vajpayee and Mr Bill Clinton will have oil prices on the agenda when they meet next month.

India is unusually susceptible to the foibles of the international market because of the inefficient socialist thinking that underpins its own domestic oil industry. The public sector oil companies lack the drive, money or technology to improve domestic oil production. This has meant that domestic oil provides only a quarter of India’s total consumption — and this share continues to fall. On top of this is the oil pool mechanism which politicizes the price of all petroleum products and makes every spike in global oil prices a cause for panic in India. One consequence of politics is that when oil prices fall worldwide, they stay the same in India because New Delhi gets greedy and swallows the surplus. Understandably individual consumers then express their anger when New Delhi shows less inhibition about increasing prices. The price should simply be allowed to float. All this ensures India’s oil sector is a swamp of adulteration, skewed prices, corruption and inefficiency. Thanks in part to the regressive views of the Union petroleum minister, Mr Ram Naik, attempts by the Vajpayee government to reform this sector have largely come to naught. Hence the sense of déjà vu about the present crisis and the likelihood that sneezes in the global oil market will continue to give India’s economy pneumonia.    

The truth hurts, especially when it comes from an old friend. The chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, Mr N. Chandrababu Naidu, was obviously not feeling sentimental about his earlier good fellowship with the left when he lashed out against its failures in the Andhra Pradesh assembly. He rattled off statistics to establish that no industry would be willing to set up in West Bengal or Kerala. His criticism of the industry-unfriendly environment and infrastructure in both states was clearly a disguised critique of an ideology. Or rather, what ruling governments have made of an ideology. For the Left Front leaders in West Bengal would find it difficult to deny that the work culture and unionism their creed has given rise to have defeated dreams of an industrial revival in the state. The irony is that the West Bengal chief minister, Mr Jyoti Basu, and some leaders like Mr Somnath Chatterjee had planned and pushed for real changes in the state for a while. That is an old story. The rather delayed decision of the government to induct the international management consultant, McKinsey and Company, to advise it in its process of industrialization seems very much the tail end of a fast-disappearing dream. Strictly speaking, it was not absolutely fair of Mr Naidu to lump Kerala with West Bengal. In some areas of human development, literacy and healthcare for example, Kerala’s record is far better than West Bengal’s. No doubt Mr Naidu was more anxious to air his anti-left views than be fair.

This was perhaps the most interesting feature of Mr Naidu’s outburst. He shared a significant rapport with the left when he took over the reins of the state from N.T. Rama Rao. At the time he had not hesitated to acknowledge the value of the advice he received from his Communist Party of India and Communist Party of India (Marxist) friends, as he juggled his way through the contending demands of populism and an almost empty exchequer. This was not a position he could maintain after he shifted on to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s side in 1998. His forthright criticism, however, is a direct result of his own frustration regarding the power tariff raise he has been fighting for in his state. In the fiery debate over the hike proposal, Mr Naidu could only think of the left-ruled states as exemplars of reforms failure. What he was criticizing was the inability to undertake harsh or austere measures in the hope of long term benefit. Perhaps what gave a further edge to Mr Naidu’s criticism is the fact that the left, in spite of its eroding base in Andhra Pradesh, is still strong in Telengana. Just a few days ago Mr Naidu was busy turning down the demand for a Telengana state. Whatever the impulses behind Mr Naidu’s criticism, rational and subliminal, the left leaders of West Bengal might reflect on the possibilities — or impossibilities — of a fitting reply.    

“He believed in…the mainstream of history in which we are but little waves, leaving the vanity of immortality to take care of itself.” Sushobhan Sarkar on Kuruvilla Zachariah.

August 19 is the birth centenary of Sushobhan Sarkar who taught history in Presidency College, Calcutta from 1932 to 1956. As a teacher, he became a legend in his lifetime and many of India’s best historians, who hailed from Calcutta, have been his pupils. Sarkar inherited from his teacher, Kuruvilla Zachariah, a tradition of good teaching; he enriched it and carried it forward. The torch was taken over from him by Amales Tripathi (never taught by Sarkar because Tripathi studied economics as an undergraduate at Presidency), and Sarkar’s pupil, Ashin Das Gupta.

A centenary is perhaps a fitting occasion to look at that tradition and to review what has happened to it. It might seem inappropriate to begin with a bit of oral history since the tradition of history teaching at Presidency had always emphasized the importance of texts and the written word as historical evidence. But the following piece of oral testimony cannot be altogether disregarded.

A few months ago, I met a girl who had just moved from the first to the second year in the history department of Presidency. I, as a former student and (honorary) teacher of the department, was naturally keen to know how she was enjoying the teaching. Much to my disappointment, she painted a very bleak picture. When I probed further she gave me two examples that left me speechless with laughter. She said that one teacher had said in class that “the Muslim invasion of India was no chhele khela (literally, child’s play)” and had followed it up with the equally remarkable statement that “the Arabs had no chul no chera (this defies translation)”.

But the anecdotes stirred memories of my undergraduate days in the college. I recalled that on my very first day in college I had heard from a professor that “the Tudor period was a remarkable period because it was remarkable”. A few days later I had been stunned by the statement, from another teacher, that “in 1740 the death of kings had changed the history of peoples”. It took us a few hours to discover that the sentence was a straight lift from a high school level textbook. The same teacher, whose teaching style resembled acting in a jatra, told us how an “emaciated Joseph II” had disappeared in the “expansive bosom” of Catherine the Great.

Another teacher enlightened us by saying that the people of Vijayanagar “ate rats, cats and leejaards”(sic). But this kind of nonsense was offset by the thoroughness and sincerity of Sunil Chatterjee who taught us ancient India; and teaching touched the sublime in the lectures of Ashin Das Gupta. The point of saying all this is to illustrate that history teaching in Presidency was never uniformly good. One does not know enough about the colleagues of Zachariah but all of Sarkar’s colleagues were not serious and good teachers. I remember Ashin Das Gupta telling me, when I complained about some of my teachers, that when he was a student there was a teacher who merely read out from the Advanced History of India.

Sushobhan Sarkar, in his analytical rigour and in his dissection of the logic of events, was head and shoulders above the rest of the teachers. Sarkar, most of the time, depended on one book and used it to bring out the analytical structure of events; the sheer logic of his exposition enthralled his students. Through some quirk of fate, the history department in Presidency hardly ever had two outstanding teachers. Sarkar overlapped with Tripathi for about a year and the latter with Das Gupta for a very brief while. This was in sharp contrast to, say, the English department, which had in the Sixties Tarak Nath Sen, Amal Bhattacharya and Arun Das Gupta teaching at the same time. In the Seventies, Arun Das Gupta, Sailendra Nath Sen and Sukanta Chaudhuri were all teaching English at Presidency. The economics department in the late Sixties and early Seventies had Tapas Majumdar, Dipak Banerjee, Mihir Rakshit, Amiya Bagchi and Nabendu Sen.

Despite this, the tradition of high quality history teaching at Presidency was maintained in the Seventies and the Eighties by Rajat Ray. A number of very fine young historians — Tapati Guha Thakurta in the field of art history and Sugata Bose in the field of agrarian relations and nationalism are two names that come immediately to mind — received their initial training and guidance from Ray. My natural question to my young informant was about Ray’s teaching. She said that she didn’t find him inspiring; he did not follow the syllabus and jumped from topic to topic according to his whims and, most important, seemed indifferent to the comprehension and interest of students.

This left me sad and I had no reasons to disbelieve what I heard because as a younger colleague of Ray I had seen how gradually iron had entered Ray’s teaching soul. For over 25 years, he has been trying, often singlehandedly, to stem the rot in his own department. It is evident that he has now given up. The joy of opening up the minds of the young has obviously lost its ineffable magic for Ray. Teaching, to him, seems to have become a chore and that too performed in an erratic way.

It is easy to blame him but his disillusionment is not without a context. The immediate context is now well known: the deliberate policies of the Left Front to devalue Presidency College by implementing indiscriminate transfers. Over the years, Ray has been saddled with colleagues who have no knowledge and interest in history, who cannot string together a coherent analysis of a topic in any language, who dictate antiquated and inadequate notes in the name of lectures and many of whom spend more time in private tuition and trade unionism than in teaching and reading.

There have been a few exceptions but the general tendency has been towards a decline and a lack of interest in teaching. As indicated earlier, there were poor teachers before in the department but now the bottom has collapsed. Listening to Joseph and Catherine or the peculiar dietary habits of the people of Vijayanagar is perhaps better, albeit marginally, than being lectured in Benglish. A direct fallout of this transfer policy has been the departure of good teachers from the college. Ray remains — has chosen to remain — a Casabianca-like figure, but no longer heroic. As a teacher, he owes it to his students, to give his best all the time, as he used to 15-20 years ago. This involves not just systematic teaching but also imparting to students a training in lucid and logical writing, an interest in reading and a capacity to think on one’s own. The tradition of Zachariah-Sarkar-Tripathi-Das Gupta demands this of Ray.

The decline of teaching has a broader societal context. Earlier, bright students chose to teach. Today, those who come to teach often do so because they are otherwise unemployable. Bright students who stay on in India in academics prefer a full time research job. Teaching is seldom, if ever, a first choice. This preference has a lot to do with what Indian society today defines as success. A good teacher is not reckoned as a successful person.

One shudders to think what present society would have made of Zachariah who never wrote a book, and whose only identity was that of a teacher. Such social priorities are inevitably reflected in the attitudes of students, many of whom are driven by the desire to do well in the exams since that constitutes success. Reading and learning to think for oneself are low down in priority. This is related to the prevalent feeling that a subject like history is a useless one and this automatically eliminates the best students from pursuing Clio.

Sarkar’s centenary will have its usual crop of learned seminars and lectures. Let us pause a moment to look at the tradition of teaching he inherited and also created. Does it have any relevance today? Do we value the values he cherished and enshrined in his students? If the answer is in the negative, let us say so instead of hiding behind pious and hypocritical platitudes. Sarkar would have liked us to question his heritage; after all, he, as Ranajit Guha unforgettably inscribed, “stoked so many of [our] first doubts.”    

There are times when the speed of technological change forces entire ways of doing business — and sometimes, entire ways of thinking — to evolve. Such is the case with the music industry, now being revolutionized by online music-swapping programmes such as Napster, Gnutella and Freenet. These programmes demonstrate that enforcing the strictures of intellectual property is essentially impossible today. Legal or illegal, moral or immoral, online file sharing precludes enforcing copyright laws.

Alarmed, many now fear that artists will no longer be able to profit from their work in the internet age. They fear that we live in a copyright-free world where as soon as a musician or a writer publishes a work once — as a book or a CD — it becomes immediately available at no cost to everyone online, thus preventing profit. Supposing this is the case, what can artists do?

Artists can thrive by using for profit the same technology many of them currently bemoan as fatally destructive to their industry. They only need to look at innovators such as horror master Stephen King, who has dismissed his publisher and released his latest novel in periodic online instalments that are free for the taking, on the condition that readers voluntarily cough up a dollar per instalment.

Matter of profits

If at least 75 per cent of downloaders pay, he keeps publishing the novel online. The experiment has been a great success. Over 152,000 copies were downloaded during the first week and 78 per cent of them were paid for.

It’s all profit. Because there’s no publisher, no bookstore, no printing presses, King keeps every cent. Because recording artists only collect 10 to 12 per cent of a compact disc’s retail price, selling directly to the fans is a boon to them. The artist known as Prince was on to something when he sold his five-CD set “Crystal Ball” exclusively on his website, where he told his fans he would release not one song until he had 100,000 pre-orders for the entire album. He sold 250,000 copies and kept 95 per cent of the revenue, estimated at five million dollars. But, sceptics will demand, what is the incentive to pay for music that will eventually be free?

As Prince has said, the world can be divided into “music lovers” and “music consumers”. We are typically music consumers, interested in the hit single, but not necessarily the whole album. But we are also music lovers when it comes to a few artists, and want to hear everything by them, and want to be the first ones to do so. In practice, the beauty of this dichotomy is that music lovers will subsidize music consumers, and we all get our turns at being both.

Of princes and kings

Since there is less profit to be earned in manufacturing CDs after an album is disseminated online, its original buyers would have the incentive of possessing a unique and valuable limited edition, complete with liner notes and artwork — another incentive to be the first to buy. The possibilities for making money are as endless as the entrepreneur’s ingenuity. A free concert ticket, subsidized through corporate sponsorship, could come with an initial buyer’s album purchase. Popular bands are offering free concerts today. The rock band, Limp Bizkit, for example, is financing its current tour with a two million dollar sponsorship from Napster. Their free shows attract unlimited demand, setting off ticket raffles and daylong waits outside concert venues.

If the artists can survive, what about the record companies and retail stores? The “disintermediation” models of Prince and King work well for them because they are already famous and have a fan base on whom they can rely to be initial buyers. Although many new artists are using the web to promote themselves, it will never replace the promotional efforts a record company can undertake. In the digital world, book publishers and record companies will have to shed the distribution aspect of their business and become marketing and promotional companies that discover, package, and sell new artists — public relations agencies-cum-venture capitalists of sorts.

In a world without any protection of intellectual property (either because there is no copyright law, or because the internet has rendered futile any attempt to enforce it), consumers stand to pay less for music and artists to keep a greater share of their sales.    

Anil’s ghost
By Michael Ondatjee,
Picador, Rs 195

To begin with, Anil is neither male nor dead; and this is not a supernatural tale. That established, it must be said that — being a stark reality-novel — Ondaatje’s first work of fiction after The English Patient is yet a spine-chiller. And not simply because Anil Tissera, our somewhat unlikely thirty-three year old “heroine” is a forensic anthropologist who examines dead men’s bones for clues to their violent histories.

What is most devastating about Ondaatje’s novel is the aura of suspicious death that informs it. Set in the Sri Lanka that we all know today — the once-paradise rent by civil war and torn by ethnic strife — it is an exposé (albeit a thinly-veiled fictional one) of horrors almost continually perpetrated upon marked “separatists” and insurgents during the crisis-ridden years of the last two decades of the century barely passed. As Ondaatje sets out in a prefatory, the encounter was a triangular one: between the government, the insurgents in the south and the separatist guerrillas in the north. The government activated its machinery — legal and illegal — to hunt down alleged members of both adversarial groups. Such organized campaigns of murder stained the lush soil of Sri Lanka with its own blood, and buried the remains of countless men under it. Their ghosts still haunt those who have ever sought to know and understand the senselessness of it all.

Anil’s ghost is one particular skeleton that is discovered and nicknamed “Sailor”, when Anil is sent by an international human rights group to team up with a local archaeologist and investigate politically-motivated killings on the island. At one level, Ondaatje’s novel could be deemed a murder-mystery-spy thriller: it certainly possesses all the necessary ingredients for a successful potboiler in the genre. The pivotal “mystery” is unearthed when Anil comes across a fragment of bone from a government archaeological preserve of skeletons supposed to be dated around the sixth century, and is convinced that it belongs to a more recent era. Sarath Diyasena, her co-investigator, agrees to try and arrange for a permit for them to visit the preserve so that they can investigate further.

The mystery, however, is not confined to a bone that feels younger than it is said to be. For the sense of uneasy suspicion that permeates the novel is engendered not just by the nature of the job at hand, but by the fact that not a single living soul can wholly trust another in the uncanny politics of the times in Sri Lanka. Though Sarath is her assigned partner in the investigation, Anil is uncomfortable with who he is and what he does not say. He is a senior official in the state-sponsored archaeological department, and as such could well have been planted to monitor the human rights report she is expected to produce at the end of the seven-week project. Anil, despite bearing the powerful coat-of-arms of an international organization, is keenly aware of the limitations of such distant authority and her complete vulnerability on the site itself.

“Forensic work during a political crisis was notorious, she knew, for its three-dimensional chess moves and back-room deals”: Anil recalls another investigative expedition to the Congo when their collection of data had disappeared overnight, and they had been ordered to leave on the next plane out. “So much for the international authority of Geneva. The grand logos on letterheads and European office doors meant nothing where there was crisis. If and when you were asked by a government to leave, you left. You took nothing with you. Not a slide tray, not a piece of film. At the airport, while they searched her clothing, she’d sat almost naked on a stool.”

Political intrigue coupled with a somewhat bizarre task — that of hunting for the bones of victims of recent violence amidst the (presumably more peaceful) remains of sixth century monks in a government-protected archaeological zone — make Anil Tissera’s stay in the country of her origin a peculiarly onerous one. The account of her progress at the job — such as it is — is interspersed in the novel with sections of italicized text that describe the murders and massacres so common on the island now, in prose that would be called lyrical had its matter not been so horrific: “So many things happened during the feathers of night. The frantic running, the terrified, the scared, the pea-brain furious and tired professional men of death punishing another village of dissent.”

Ondaatje’s novel provides a glimpse of a world we have all heard of, and felt a strange stirring about — that world stricken for years by civil war and dissidence, breathing lungsful of suspicion coupled so helplessly with a moving nostalgia for an idyllic past. It also raises many a philosophical — if rhetorical — question, about what the survivor is to do with such history, both the (contemporary) rage and suspicion as well as the dream-like memories of better times. By pitting Anil, the young, impetuous Sri Lankan-born but American-educated forensic expert whose impressive knowledge of her field is clearly affected by the emotional baggage of her present assignment against Sarath, the deep, quiet insider who has known and lived the experience of Sri Lanka in his sinews, Ondaatje explores two loaded sides of a single intellectual dilemma. For Anil, as Sarath discovers, the mission is simply to get to the “truth”, whatever that might be. “But what would the truth bring them into? It was a flame against a sleeping lake of petrol. There were dangers in handing truth to an unsafe city around you. As an archaeologist Sarath believed in truth as a principle. That is, he would have given his life for the truth if the truth were of any use.”

Ondaatje forces Anil to confront ideas and beliefs that her work ethic is built upon. In her incessant search for one skeleton’s history, she has, in fact, been looking for a suspect; in the confirmation of murder(s), therefore, she is on crime’s trail. After all, she has learnt in America that in human rights work, one village can speak for many villages. One victim can speak for many victims. But now, caught in the maelstrom of political manoeuvring, she must ask herself, what then? What would this change? The answer, which is obvious, takes us to the heart of that philosophical darkness we cannot abjure. Ondaatje examines this darkness, but provides no answers.

In this beautifully-wrought novel that strums upon language and elicits both pain and nostalgia, Ondaatje’s principal achievement is the creation of moving pictures (in all senses of the term) that quietly provoke thought. Here we are at a century’s end, the century that was heralded by the horror, the boredom and the glory of modernity. As we step out of it, we are apprehended by pity and terror: “Half the world, it felt, was being buried, the truth hidden by fear, while the past revealed itself in the light of a burning rhododendron bush.”    

By Joanne Harris,
Black Swan, £ 6.99
Vianne Rocher, a young, independent single mother, has never had a postal address. She has roamed the world, alternating between a search for a safe place and an attempt to dodge the nightmares which haunt her.

Vianne decides to drop anchor in a small town called Lansquenet, where she sets up a chocolaterie. She does not want her daughter’s childhood to lack the stability of her own. The need to wake up and look out of the same window every morning replaces her frenzied search for security in a life which could provide none.

Chocolate is Harris’s life-force, her symbol for forbidden pleasures, the source of joy within which lies life’s meaning. Vianne is no mere candy-lady. She is a mystic, bearing the truth of an older, distant age.

Vianne’s relationship with her daughter, Anouk, is significant. Anouk is a free spirit like her mother, but she possesses a clarity invested in no other character of the novel. Vianne’s most torturous nightmare is that the “black man”, the men of god, would take away her daughter born out of wedlock.

Harris ravishes the reader with descriptions of pain au chocolat, white rum truffle, nipples of Venus...But these are more than indulgences of the palette. Says Vianne, “The mingled scents of chocolate, vanilla, heated copper and cinnamon are intoxicating, powerfully suggestive; the raw and earthy tang of the Americas, the hot and resinous perfumes of the rainforest. This is how I travel now as the Aztecs did in their sacred rituals.”

There are few who are aware of the message that Vianne brings with her chocolate. Vianne’s archrival in the “Church not Chocolate” battle — Francis Reynaud, the father of the parish with an obscure past, immediately senses the threat of her pagan promise. His “sheep” are, after all, weaklings susceptible to the proffered temptation of drowning in the pleasures of the flesh. He has to destroy Vianne in order to preserve his own power in the parish. He is willing to resort to any means to deliver his people from her corrupting influence, and this becomes his ultimate mission.

Armande Voizin, the wise lady of Lansquenet, instinctively understands Vianne’s art. Armande is an 80 year old diabetic who refuses to give up her freedom. She abhors her daughter and the doctors who try to break her spirit. “God knows if I ever gave up breathing I might live forever...It’s just their way. Protection from everything. From life, from death”. This fight to live life to the fullest is central to the novel.

That the maker of chocolates could be the source of our salvation may be somewhat unexpected. The battle lines in Lansquenet are drawn, but by this time, Reynaud has alienated the reader with his hypocrisy and self-righteousness. By contrast, Vianne Rocher is poised, caring and generous. But she is all this without taint.

Harris’s look at the tussle between religion and sensuality is marred by her refusal to see any shade of grey. Her unidimensional condemnation of the “black man” is simplistic. The possibility of religion without hypocrisy is not explored. Reynaud is given no redeeming or humanizing touch, which results not in the reader being moved to a recognition of Vianne’s truth, but rather dissociates him or her from the author’s somewhat limited vision.

This flatness is less offensive than it may have been had not the current of magic running through the novel been so strong; but it is still jarring. Vianne swoops into Lansquenet as the airy saviour of the suffering masses, usurping the traditional role of the confessional. The clash is overdone: “Perhaps it is what I suspected from the first, that Reynaud and I are linked, that one balances the other and that without him I have no purpose here”. With Reynaud’s defeat, inevitable from the outset, her purpose in Lansquenet has been fulfilled. There is no balancing act here — the battle does not end with an understanding, but in a merciless routing which allows for no compromises.    

A former Royal Air Force pilot, amateur anthropologist, linguist, painter, and now a writer is a veritable pot-pourri, reminiscent of the late French air ace, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Born in Calcutta in 1923 and carrying not even a whiff of his birthplace till his return to India, and then moving on to Assam in 1946, J.L.C. Strang has left the indelible imprint of his “damfool career” on the tea industry. The book may be a “fictionalized autobiography”, but the events and characters throb with such veracious life that people of his generation and of the next can immediately recognize and identify with them. Humour, although without the salacious, is also a part of this recollected world.

Hamish Macstorm, the central character, is a rare species of humankind, who ventured through the portals of a plantation industry, almost totally managed by the British with the aid of alien labour and a fairly proficient subordinate staff. His foray was akin to his high altitude reconnaissance flights into the boundless azure, for the sake of nothing but adventure.

Unshackled, Macstorm treads effortlessly into his new career. “Keep thy mou’ shut and thy gills open”, is perhaps a Scottish adage which he abided by, since he never spoke unless required to nor commented unless requested.

Keeping clear of controversies, but listening and storing in detail the salient and commonsense essentials, Macstorm stands out and apart from the usual crowd of the garrulous, boastful, disdainful and overtly pessimistic bunch of fellow planters, who kept thronging polo fields, tennis courts and the ubiquitous club bars.

He was a selective, yet avid, reader who had little time to waste in inanities. A Scottish Presbyterian by religion, final schooling in Hampshire and a career in the RAF made him somewhat agnostic.

He learnt to speak Assamese with grammatical correctness, a feat which only few were to achieve. He learnt to speak the Koyari and Mundari dialects, making his task in communication as administrator so much easier and more profitable.

Like other aliens in Assam during that period, the trepidation and uncertainty which were uppermost in everyone’s mind did affect him as well, but the spirit of adventure and the lure of the magnificent North bank areas of Assam were much stronger. Luckily he stayed back; otherwise this delectable book would never have been written.

Everyone, and tea planters certainly, should read this engrossing book — especially for the sake of a past which is chequered, uncertain yet fulfilling. After going through this volume, readers shall eagerly await the ones that are promised.    

Down under
By Bill Bryson,
Doubleday, £ 9.99

Australia immediately conjures up the images of brawny men and curvaceous women lolling about in abundant sunshine. Added to this are the glimpses of spacious cities and the people’s love for cricket shown every now and then on television. In fact, this is what the country has come to mean for most.

But how many would be able to name the country’s last four prime ministers in the same breath? Hardly anyone. There is much more to this place than people who have an avid love for sports. In fact, there is a lot more here than meets the eye. This is precisely what Bill Bryson has taken pains to unearth in his book, Down Under.

Australia has, as Bryson finds out, an inherent dichotomy. It is the world’s only island that is also a continent and the only continent that is also a country. A large part of it is dry, flat, hot, desiccated, infertile and climatically aggressive; and yet it teems with life. In fact, Australia has a natural habitat that can kill people in very nasty ways.

This is a country where the most innocuous looking caterpillars could turn out to have deadly toxic nips, where a seashell could suddenly whirl round and chase one to death. There is death lurking in the form of crocodiles and sharks on sunny beaches. The most accomplished and redoubtable of swimmers might not be able to defend himself against the currents in the sea. In fact, the world’s most poisonous snakes are all Australian.

What then has prompted Bryson to undertake such an arduous and hazardous journey to a country which has a stupendously low population and accommodates just 19 million people? Driven by Wanderlust, Bryson delves deep into this continent’s mystery and comes up with some staggering and disturbing facts.

Contrary to popular notion, the aborigines arrived here some 60,000 years ago, much before lieutenant Janer Cook and his crew sighted the southeastern corner of Australia, aboard the HMS Endeavour in 1770. No people on earth could possibly have lived in a more hostile environment with greater success for longer. It is generally accepted that the aborigines have the oldest continuously maintained culture in the world. Till 1838, they were treated as natural pests.

They used to be incessantly butchered, and their numbers dwindled significantly. It was only in 1838 when seven white men were tried and hanged for their unprovoked killings of the aborigines in Myall Creek, that there was a change of attitude towards the aborigines.

The real mystery of Australia lies in the fact that even after a civilized and recorded history of more than two hundred years, it is still full of surprises. One can never make enough of this country, and the writer admits this in his tongue-in-cheek style. In 1931, on the Cape Arid peninsula in western Australia, some amateur naturalists stumbled upon an insect they had never seen before.

Later it was identified as Nothomyrmecia, a proto-ant, a living relic from a time when ants were evolving from wasps. In entomological terms, it was an extraordinary finding because nothing similar to this proto-ant existed on earth for a hundred million years. Scientists haven’t the faintest idea whether the total number of species of insects in Australia is 100,000 or more than twice that. As many as a third of those species remain entirely unknown to science. As for spiders, the proportion rises to 80 per cent.

Down Under is more than a travelogue. Australia’s past and present are juxtaposed to give a social historical background to the continent and an account of its evolution as a prosperous country.

Though Australia has only a peripheral presence in the world’s economy, it has had no major economic crisis and no political coup. Bryson has succeeded in capturing the essence of a continent where harshness and amiability coexist across all forms of life and nature.    


The clever Indian urban novel

The beauty of these present things

(Penguin, Rs 250)

by Avtar Singh is a copiously clever novel written in a genre which could be called the “postmodern Mumbai picaresque”. Postmodern, because it is endlessly self-reflexive (a writer writing about writing, etc); picaresque, because it skates across a wide variety of lives in what is questionably described as “India’s only real city”. The recent film, also set in Mumbai, Split Wide Open, is an infinitely more intelligent exercise in the same genre. Mahesh Dattani’s plays, more in Singh’s league, also come to mind. Singh’s novel, written in a sort of relentless, racy Manhattanese, is generously sprinkled with the f-word, cigarettes

Deccan heritage

(Universities Press, Rs 520)

edited by H.K. Gupta, A. Parasher-Sen and D. Balasubramanian is a richly interdisciplinary collection of articles on a unique and probably the oldest land formation — the Deccan plateau in peninsular India. Originally presented in a seminar organized by the Indian National Science Academy, the articles cover every aspect of the geology, zoology, botany, ecology and anthropology of the region. Eminent scientists and scholars outline the importance of the Deccan in the diamond industry, handlooms, biodiversity, wildlife and in its varied cultural traditions. The book is also profusely illustrated. l

elsewhere: unusual takes on india

(Penguin, Rs 250)

edited by Kai Friese is a delightful medley of articles, originally published in the India Magazine, that attempts to capture the paradoxes of everyday life in India. “The grain of daily life, its pleasures and perils”, as the editor explains. Satyajit Ray, Sonia Gandhi, the Bhopal tragedy, Kashmir, STD booths, and an autorickshaw called the Bikaneri Phut-Phut find their way into this collection. Mukul Kesavan, Manjula Padmanabhan and Pankaj Mishra are some of the contributors to this collage on contemporary India.

women reborn: an exploration of the spirituality of urban indian women

(Penguin, Rs 200)

by Renuka Singh seeks to present and understand — through a broadly sociological method — the preoccupation of modern Indian women with their own spiritual transformation. Singh transcribes interviews with more than 200 women living in Delhi to examine their spiritual evolution, with particular reference to the family, education, work, sexuality and interaction with gurus. Singh regards spirituality as a possible mode of female self-determination hitherto neglected by academics.    


Her lady’s cult

Sir — In her lifetime, Diana, princess of Wales, was a cult figure. Her untimely death over two years back has not killed the cult. That unstoppable juggernaut is still churning out new myths about the enigmatic princess (“Imran tells of Diana’s last love”, Aug 11). The list of the men in Diana’s life is far from exhaustive, as it appears from the new Channel 5 documentary, Diana’s Last Love. There have been attempts to pass this off as a national obsession. Such obsessions are not merely futile, but destructive as well. Diana’s death is, in part, attributable to this extreme expression of curiosity. And though the source as well as the target of all the gossip is no more, all those who were even remotely associated with Diana while she was alive must bear the consequences of the association, however innocent that may have been. Strangest is perhaps the behaviour of the so called friends of Diana. Imran Khan, for instance, is willing to bare all at the slightest provocation. With friends like these, it is true, one does not need too many enemies.
Yours faithfully,
Shushmita Sinha, Siliguri

Seven sisters and strangers

Sir — There is confusion both in New Delhi and in Nagaland regarding the Naga imbroglio. If the prime minister is willing to go beyond the confines of the Constitution to solve the impasse in Kashmir, there is no reason why he should not be doing the same in the Northeast. Yet the bureaucratic machinery in New Delhi is openly opposed to any long term solution to the Nagaland issue. It has even asserted that Nagaland can never become a sovereign state.

Yet the government is aware of the problems in Nagaland well enough to agree on the extension of the ceasefire. Political negotiations are also going on between the Central government and underground Naga outfits. Naga leaders are still debating the 16-point agreement of 1960 between the Naga People’s Convention and the government of India.

The implication of these political negotiations is that the Indian government and the Naga rebels are trying for an agreeable solution. It is time Nagas realized that there should not be any ill-will among themselves at this crucial juncture. They should stand as one and support those who are negotiating on behalf of the Naga people. The negotiators on their part should emphasise economic freedom more than political freedom.

The people of Nagaland should see reason and acknowledge one another as parts of an integral whole. They should abandon differences and divisions. Posterity demands this of them.

Yours faithfully
Hokishe Sema,Kohima

Sir — The recent white paper brought out by the Nagaland state Congress committee is a reflection of its shortsightedness. The committee has the right to counter the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah), but it cannot belittle the Naga struggle for sovereignty. There is little doubt the creation of the state of Nagaland has actually weakened Naga society. The state might have ample powers, but it is not independent. Moreover, the state Congress committee should realize it is the underground which decides the fate of the Naga movement, not leaders who enjoy the luxuries of modern life.

Perhaps the state Congress needs to be reminded that the Congress is no longer the political party it once was. It is crumbling elsewhere in India. The same might happen in Nagaland. The Nagas as a rule hold the party in suspicion. It was the Congress, with Jawaharlal Nehru as prime minister, that abrogated the nine point agreement which entitled Nagas to self-rule. The 16 point agreement signed by Naga leaders later has vitiated the political vision of Nagas. The points of agreement have been modified unilaterally by the government. It is not without reason that Nagas have lost faith in the Indian administration.

Yours faithfully,
C.K. Paksa, Dimapur

Sir — It is indeed good news that the leader of the United Liberation Front of Asom, Lohit Deori, led 288 militants out of the “dark tunnel of insurgency” on August 14 (“300 militants take a step closer to peace”, Aug 15). It is also good news that this year alone 832 extremists have surrendered arms and joined the mainstream.

While this certainly reflects growing discontent among ULFA’s ranks and portends well for Assam, what is worrying is that those who have laid down arms will now become part of the surrendered ULFA, a group as dreadful as ULFA. The people of the state are fed up with the armtwisting ways of the SULFA. Assam desperately requires respite from both ULFA and the SULFA.

Yours faithfully,
Pranab Rajkhowa, Guwahati

Sir — The internet is really proving a boon for earthlings. How else could a disabled Belgian couple, Omar Martin and Annie Carron, have found their adopted daughter’s biological parents, in far-off Tripura (“Unique reunion in Tripura hotel”, Aug 15)? Martin’s faith in the reach of the internet and an Agartala-based lawyer’s passion for surfing net are helping the former honour a pledge made to Mother Teresa at the time of adoption. The adopted girl is also getting an opportunity to meet her real parents. And all this thanks to the net.

Yours faithfully,
Sushanta Kar, Agartala

Sir — The research association of the Tocklai Experimental Station has been in and out of crises since January, 1964 (“Tea research centre faces fresh crisis”, Aug 3). The frequent crisis in man management crops up because of one reason alone. The management has always treated its employees as staff working in the garden while association employees expect to be treated at par with Centre for Scientific and Industrial Research employees. This has led to frequent conflict and demand for service rules. When cornered, the management has presented the employees with half-baked service rules — implementing a selective set of rules by which the management could reduce its obligation to the employees. The management has deliberately denied employees the advantage of government rules and has failed to implement pension, categorization according to qualification, medical facilities, and other facilities. This has led to the present crisis.

The research centre in its heyday was a very disciplined organization, with a dedicated workforce. It commanded a lot of respect in the tea industry.

It is now expected that the management will cast aside its antagonistic attitude and sit across the table to sort out differences so that the past work culture can be brought back. There is no reason why the present management should not be able to find a permanent solution to the vexed problem and create an atmosphere conducive to research. It is also expected that the union will respond responsibly.

Yours faithfully
S.S. Ghosh, Dibrugarh

Sir — Rape and other criminal activities such as assaulting civilians and damaging their property in response to attacks on security forces is quite frequent in the Northeast. The Telegraphhas given accounts of the numerous instances of harassment of civilians by the security forces. This shows that law has been unable to tackle the irresponsible jawans. The failure will only aggravate the worsening situation in this region. Before it is too late, the Central government should take the necessary steps.

Yours faithfully
L. Inaobi, Imphal

Letters to the editor should be sent to:

The Telegraph
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Calcutta 700 001
Email: [email protected]
Readers in the Northeast can write to:
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