Editorial 1 / Off the people
Editorial 2 / Timely notice
Reading goals
Book Review / Hello darkness, my old friend
Book Review / Ancient cargo
Book review / Madwoman out of the attic
Book Review/ History and the silent tower
Editor’s Choice / Gloria in excelsis
Letters to the editor

It is not enough to state the obvious that the United States at last has a president. It is also not enough to point to the legal nitty-gritty that had to be overcome to decide that Mr George W. Bush will succeed Mr Bill Clinton as the head of the world’s most powerful state. What is far more important is the fact that the month-long controversy has revealed the unseemly underbelly of US democracy. Democracy in the US has a hallowed tradition but at a very critical juncture, the system has been found to be full of loopholes. At the heart of democracy is the notion of vox populi: democracy is nothing without the voice of the people. A democratic system which does not allow that voice to be heard fully becomes by definition woefully incomplete. Yet this is exactly what has happened in the US. The US supreme court overturned the verdict of the Florida supreme court and stopped the manual recount of some of the ballots. This means the voting preferences of a section of the population of Florida are being held to be irrelevant for the making of the next president. It would not be an exaggeration to suggest that Mr Bush enters the White House not as a winner at the hustings but in the train of a somewhat dicey judicial intervention. In an election that was fated to be decided by the narrowest of margins, the decision of the US supreme court has failed to remove all doubts that Mr Bush is, indeed, the winner. Respect for democratic principles, instead of adherence to legal niceties, should have dictated a manual count for the removal of all doubts. That would have allowed the winner to assume office from a position of strength.

The US constitution articulates a fine balance between the principles of federation and provincial autonomy. The supreme court’s decision may have upset the balance. Its decision to set aside the Florida supreme court’s green signal for a manual recount was based on the fact that a manual recount would not ensure a result before the second Wednesday of December, the constitutional deadline. The supreme court ruled that meeting this requirement was more important than a recount. What it overlooked was that legal wrangles had, in fact, delayed the recounting process. It also turned a blind eye to the fact that defective ballots and voting machines were more prevalent in areas with predominantly black populations. The supreme court’s ruling translates in actual terms to a statement that makes blacks irrelevant in US democracy. There could be nothing more ironic and nothing more damning than this for the US democratic and judicial process.

Lawyers, as is their wont, will continue to draw attention to this or that clause of the US constitution to justify the legal disputes that arose from this presidential election. Such debates will only serve to deflect attention from more fundamental issues. If law prevents the voice of the people from being heard in a democracy then the law should be changed rather than democracy perverted. The founding fathers of the US constitution when they drew up that remarkable document had not envisaged every crisis that could arise in their recommended mode of arriving at collective choices from individual preferences. The abuse of democracy in 2000 might give pause to review the process and to plug some of the loopholes. Democracy is too precious a thing to be allowed to lapse into a mockery of itself.


When nothing has been happening for years, even a little is worth its weight in gold. But whether the chief minister, Mr Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, is aiming for a little or a lot is immaterial. The main thing is that he has an aim. He wishes to ensure accountability and efficiency among government employees. To see that this purpose does not remain a piously-mouthed wish, as have many such professions of intent by his colleagues in the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the chief minister has made sure that firm ground rules are laid. In government organizations, arrival on time and departure at the correct hour, not before, have been made mandatory. Performance diaries and stringent monitoring by superior officers are also being introduced. The employees have shrugged off the proposed measures, confident that since nothing similar has worked before nothing ever will. But the method with which the chief minister is going about things suggests the good times might be coming to an end for them. Running parallel to the accountability drive is the cost-cutting drive. Here too, Mr Bhattacharjee has made sure that the proposals are concrete, ranging from a ban on snacks at meetings to limits on the use of official cars. If the measures work, the rewards would be immense.

This is one of the wisest steps the chief minister has taken. Accountability among government employees has always been his aim; one of his earliest acts was to suspend three officials under the government’s jurisdiction. Instead of only talking about the removal of corruption and negligence, he has targeted, apparently unambitiously, a well-defined area. His chances of success here are good. Additionally, this focus will help improve his image as a no-nonsense leader. Mr Bhattacharjee is doing his best to endow his office with substance. It is unfortunate that in larger spheres of action he will be hobbled by the opposition of CPI(M)-led unions and associations with habits of resisting everything that means work or transparency. His handling of the police, in the context of growing crime, leaves much to be desired. His directions for government employees will not go down smoothly either. But even partial effectiveness in a small field will help build the stature he needs to tackle tougher resistance when the time comes.


In a celebrated article that was published in The New York Review of Books in 1982 and later published in a revised version in Social and Economic Development in India (1986), Amartya Sen asked the question, “How is India doing?”. While he notes in this article achievements in such areas as improved economic performance and the maintenance of political unity, he also observes “blots” in Indian practice such as the survival of regular malnutrition and the shocking neglect of elementary education.

The astonishingly conservative approach to social services is not quite because of India’s overall poverty. He sees the problem in the elitist character of Indian society and politics. This is borne out by a comparison with Sri Lanka that has followed the policy of providing extensive social services for many decades. One of the “injustices” of the Indian system that Sen notes is the presence of illiteracy among a large majority of the people while the elite is provided with a vast system of higher education.

The facts are glaring. About half of the adult population of the country was illiterate in 1991. Illiteracy was widespread not only in the older age groups but also among young boys and girls. Even though improvements have been reported in recent years, the general situation remains depressing with respect to adult literacy and school enrolment and attendance. High dropout rates have been noted by many studies. This low profile is made complex by significant inequalities between males and females, urban and rural areas, different regions and varied social groups.

This picture is far from the vision embodied as a directive principle in the Constitution of India, that of ensuring within ten years of its commencement, free and compulsory education for all children until their completion of the age of 14 years. In fact, quite a large number of Indian children under the age of 15 enters the labour force, the estimates of these children ranging from 17.4 million to 44 million.

Unhappily, West Bengal, unlike Kerala, does not provide a positive picture in this respect. The concern with agrarian reforms and the reform of local governance has not been matched by comparable concern with health and education. “The fact that, by and large,” write Sunil Sengupta and Haris Gazdar, “there is no break in trends of improvement in well-being, that rates of change are not very different from countrywide averages, and that traditional patterns of deprivation persist and reproduce themselves, is in itself remarkable.”

It is being recognized that not all children are attending school due to poverty and the poor quality of schooling. A problem of motivation among parents and children has also been suggested as an important obstacle. In so far as this obstacle exists in reality, it cannot be separated from poverty and poor quality of schooling and, indeed, its availability. Thus, according to the Sixth All India Educational Survey, 1998, there were only 13.9 per cent habitations in the country having upper primary schools or sections within them in 1993.

It is in this context that the Constitution (83rd amendment) bill, 1997, needs to be reviewed. The bill seeks to amend the Constitution of India to make the right to free and compulsory elementary education a fundamental right. It was introduced by the United Front in pursuance of the common minimum programme of the government. But with the fall of the United Front government, the bill lost its urgency. In view of the possibility of the bill being presented in the winter session of the Parliament, it has become necessary to discuss it once again publicly.

A National Alliance for the Fundamental Right to Education has been formed. It is a national coalition of more than 1000 voluntary organizations and thousands of individuals from all sections of society with an objective “to make education a reality for every Indian child”. While NAFRE welcomes the introduction of the bill, it has evolved demands for some positive changes in it


The bill provides for the introduction of the following article in part III dealing with fundamental rights in the Constitution: “The state shall provide free and compulsory education for all citizens of the age six to fourteen years”. This right will be enforced by the law that the competent legislature will enact within one year from the commencement of the act. In the statement of objects and reasons accompanying the bill, it is stated that this fundamental right should go along with the fundamental duty of parents to provide opportunities for education to their children in the specified age groups.

NAFRE demands that the bill should cover children up to 18 years of age or standard X, whichever is earlier, and that it should be recognized that the state has the fundamental duty to provide opportunities for free and compulsory education. It further demands that the state should commit a minimum of six per cent of the gross domestic product to education. These demands are defended on different grounds. It is pointed out that there is no reason to restrict the scope of the bill to children between six and 14 years.

The directive principle of the Constitution on the subject clearly covers all children until they complete the age of 14 years. Early childhood care and education form an important step towards the universalization of elementary education. There is also the need to go beyond the age of 14 years so that education up to standard X may be included. While it is clear that the involvement of parents is essential to ensure education of their children, it is not possible nor desirable to punish parents for their failure to send their children to schools when it is known that poverty is a major reason that acts as a deterrent. The demand of the minimum financial commitment is important to ensure that the right to education is realized. Besides, it is important to ensure that free and compulsory education is also quality education.

These are important issues. On the requirement of financial resources, it is reported that according to a World Bank study published in 1997, no radical increase in expenditure is needed and the present rate of growth of expenditure may be sufficient for universal elementary schooling. This study has been criticized by Madhura Swaminathan and Vikas Rawal. They point out that the World Bank sets a target of 12 years for the achievement of universal enrolment. This is not acceptable. There are also problems of estimates of children out of school. “According to the World Bank”, write Swaminathan and Rawal, “32 million children in the age group 6-10 years were out of school in 1995. According to our estimates based on NSS data for 1993-1994, 47 million children in the age group 6-11 were out of school in 1995-1996”. They also specify the requirement of an expenditure of about six per cent of the GDP on education, of which at least 45 per cent need to be spent on elementary education.

Other issues need to be raised. While it is important that adequate funds are available for the purpose, it is equally important to devise ways to ensure that these funds are utilized in a correct manner for the specified purpose. It is not unknown that even poor provisions have remained unutilized in many cases due to bureaucratic lethargy.

In their book, India: Economic Development and Social Opportunity (1995), Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen have questioned the adequacy of the argument that insufficient development of market incentives is responsible for what has gone wrong in this country. They point out that it is not only an “overactive” government but also a government marked by “underactivity”, especially in the social sphere, that is responsible for many failures.

This takes us back to yet another sociologically sensitive study concerned with India, namely, Gunnar Myrdal’s Asian Drama that was published in 1968. He brought into use the term “soft states” to refer to the dichotomy between ideals and reality, ineffectual policies, failure to enforce legislation and prevalence of corruption. It is up to the nation and to its elected representatives to ensure that soft options are not chosen once again. It is important that the pledge of “the ending of poverty and ignorance and disease and inequality of opportunity” of which Jawaharlal Nehru spoke so eloquently in his “tryst with destiny” speech is redeemed at least in part.

The author is professor of sociology, Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta


the burnt forehead of max saul
By Indrajit Hazra,
Ravi Dayal, Rs 125

Most of us spend our undergraduate years creating and inhabiting certain personae which we think are the most suitable manifestations of being “with it”. We listen to Dylan: “...your sons and your daughters are beyond your command...” and think these words embody a sublime outrage. We read a phrase like “...and all...” in The Catcher In The Rye, or Burgess’s “the old in and out” in A Clockwork Orange, and imagine these texts to be high art.

An accretion of these words, symbolisms and “fashions” on our minds affect us in deep, subliminal ways. They constitute our vocabulary, they engage us passionately. But some of us slough off these traits from our personalities when we step out of the nourishing, protective womb of college-life. And some of us cannot.

Maximilian Saul, the protagonist in Indrajit Hazra’s first novel, The Burnt Forehead of Max Saul, certainly cannot. He lives with the sound of his own voice and thrives in an intellectually masturbatory angst, which many would even fear to contemplate. “I never really did trust words. It never made sense to put so much integrity and responsibility into things which are but proxies,” he whinges.

But this is not true. “It” does make sense to him, or at least to Hazra, or he would not have laboured to construct a narrative, which relies solely on language. And a language that has hasty, random inclusions of words like “phantasmagoric”.

Hazra tells his story as Saul goes through the motions of tracing the lost Sarai. During the course of this search, Saul meets a number of people. Tamal Haloi, Suldan Pandey, Urmi, even a dog, and others. These are chiefly casual encounters, but they all brim over into more than being just that. They, their lives and their worldviews become almost neurotically preoccupying for Saul. This, amazingly, despite Saul’s wishes.

Throughout the novel, Saul’s lack of enthusiasm in actually tracking down Sarai — the ostensible reason for his sojourn into the world, and crucially, the reason for the story — stands embarrassingly in confrontation with the effort that Hazra puts in to create the myth of the “beautiful Sarai”. And, at one stage, as if knowing that the reader has altogether forgotten about Sarai, Hazra makes her appear in front of Saul; but, almost inevitably, truncates the meeting into a fleeting glimpse.

A novel is a difficult genre of writing. And Indrajit Hazra is not a master of this. Although at times, his use of language is impressive, there is a palpable lack of imagination and a scale of registers that can only be called restricted.

There is a vague idealism in his imagery. The sequence where the statue of the founder of the city is brought down, reminded me of a cynical friend, who, on seeing Hirak Rajar Deshe for perhaps the hundredth time, quietly whispered, “biplab aashbey” (A revolution will come).

Hazra has the desire to write, the ability of being at once appalling and appalled. He also has a certain ease with language, which is revealed when he is not trying too hard to impress; here, for instance, when Saul says: “I mean, what else could I hold real but my words? Even if they turned out to be bogus, I didn’t want to appear a fool in my eyes.” But apart from these flashes, he consistently writes an inelegant prose.

But having said this, it must also be added that there is an unmistakable anger in Hazra. And this is good. Because it is a noble anger. An anger that comes when one is unable to accept the brutality of daily life. Haloi’s sudden joblessness after years of being a musician. Pandey’s vision of a revolution which is eventually shattered. Saul’s relentless battle against people wanting to “put away” a street dog.

Frankly, by the end of it, one begins to like both the story and Maximilian Saul — but it happens a trifle too late. Hazra should be wiser through his debut attempt. He should now concentrate on his love for writing and avoid attempting to impress.


The decline and fall of the indus civilization
Edited by Nayanjot Lahiri,
Permanent Black, Rs 650

The discovery of the ruins of the ancient cities of Harappa and Mohenjodaro in the Indus basin in the Twenties was not only an exciting event that “restored three missing millennia to South Asia’s past”. It also set off debates about the causality of the collapse of this remarkable civilization, its character and its relation to subsequent epochs that have not died down to this day. Politics is never far from history: at times it even uses it as propaganda. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto of Pakistan spoke of 5,000 years of his country’s history in a bid to tap its pre-Islamic heritage. At present, saffron apologists wish to annex the entire period to Vedic cultures that, for them, signify what is truly Indian about India. Their antagonists argue in fav- our of a different frame of reference, even while moving beyond a crude Aryan invasion theory.

The volume is more than a compendium of the debates: it is also a guide to the issues at the heart of them. For one, the editor extends our field of vision well beyond the Indus valley itself. Originating around 2600 BC in Kutch and Bahawalpur, the latter now in Pakistani Punjab, the civilization went through several phases and stages. Even its end was staggered in time over nearly four centuries. Further, she draws attention to the diversity of production systems that coexisted at the same time. Simply focussing on the great cities can distort one’s sense of perspective. Chanda and Gordon Childe marked out the Aryan invaders as external invaders who triggered collapse through conquest. But the former changed tack, once he reexamined the evidence. Neither the scale of the influx, nor the remains from the cities, backs up the invader theory, which seemed attractive to scholars in the imperial age. The Indus valley was brought into the rubric of Aryan Vedic history from the Fifties. Again, this was a deeply political enterprise.

Little evidence of separate races exists, and it was always possible to dig out Sanskrit references to argue that the Harappans were Vedic. If the British read too much into the invader theory, their nationalist successors saw more than met the eye in Vedic glory. Few serious students line up in either camp today. It is a pity that outmoded ideas exercise such sway on the public mind, even after they have been torn to shreds in the smaller communities of academics.

Most interestingly, the whole issue of the collapse of the great urban settlements by the year 1800 BC has now attracted attention from an ecological point of view. Put differently, did the peoples of these cities actually impose such a strain on their surroundings that nature took revenge? Pollen analyses bring the issue of climate change into the picture, pointing to the possibility that nature had its own cycles of change, with people sometimes on its wrong side. Careful readings of the evidence suggest the whole drama of growth and collapse may well have taken place during an arid phase.

Still, the amulets and seals show animals like the rhinoceros that one would not imagine anywhere in the vicinity of the Indus system today. Given the extensive spread of the Harappan settlements eastward into Saharanpur, there were probably different clocks ticking away at various paces in the myriad sites. Mohenjodaro appears to have been subject to slow and steady decay, a consequence of the changes in the river system. Elsewhere, decline was swift.

The meticulous detail involved in the argument is itself a tribute to the ways in which scholars of ancient India have assimilated present day ecological concerns. In this, they have much in common with those who have studied other ancient cultures. Salination is a candidate in debates on Sumerian decline and deforestation in the downfall of Greece. The Romans are charged with denuding north Africa of its fauna and timber forests. Even when such hypotheses do not stand up to careful scrutiny, the fact that they are at all considered shows a closer engagement with history in terms of human relations with the natural world.

Geography and ecology, the soils and climate are not just a stage on which the drama is played out, but become an integral, sometimes vital, part of the narrative. Of particular interest is the shift in river systems. Far from being a fixed feature of the landscape, rivers do change course. The Ghaggar was a major cluster of settlements in the mature Harappan phase, but it dried up around 2100 BC. This shift probably doomed the city of Kalibangan.

Lahiri brings to bear unique insights due to her longstanding association with the field. She also has a formidable expertise with archaeology, but wears it lightly. The volume introduces us to a slew of opinions, pointing at times to how individual scholars changed their positions as their knowledge grew. One goes beyond labels to the substance, from polemics that mark public posturing to the debates that shape our views of the past. The volume, the first in a series on history from the new house of Permanent Black, sets high standards that will be tough to equal. Its appearance is timely given the new claims about deciphering the Indus script by N.S. Rajaram, the favourite, if self-styled, “historian” of the RSS’s mouthpiece, Organiser.

Yet, its net effect is to make one beware of those who reduce the past to a pamphlet or a broadsheet. As we move towards the second century of Indus studies, what is clear is that there is so much more to find out about the decay of the remarkable civilization. Even as old queries find answers, new ones rise in their place. Lahiri’s selection whets the appetite, as it illumines a complex set of debates in a manner accessible to both the specialist and the lay person.


nadia, captive of hope
By Fay Afaf Kanafani,
Penguin, Rs 295

Writing an autobiography, contrary to popular belief, is never easy. The writer has to remain both involved and detached throughout to catch the nuances of his or her own emotions without being oversentimental about them. The difficulty is compounded by the fact that he or she is expected to tell “a true story”. Clearly, there is little chance of fictionalizing facts even though facts must be represented in a way that they read like fiction.

An autobiographer should have an eclectic mindset and a photographic memory. Above all else, he or she should be able to reconstruct his or her personal life, reorganize the chaos of memories into a creative whole.

Such theorizing is inevitable for assessing how far Fay Afaf Kanafani’s memoir, Nadia, Captive of Hope, fits into the model of an ideal autobiography. Nadia, the name Afaf gives herself, is born on February 21, 1918 in Beirut, Lebanon. She and her other siblings grow up in an oppressive household dominated by Kareem Rajy, the tyrant father, who ill-treats, even sexually abuses, his children.

Nadia’s mother, Ban, has a single function in the Rajy family — bearing children to her husband. Ironically enough, she had married for love against her parent’s will. Nadia’s brother, Anwar, is churlish and deliberately aggressive towards his sisters. In this stifling domestic atmosphere, Nadia’s sole emotional relief comes from her close relationships with a maternal aunt and a beloved family servant and a peculiar mental kinship towards her late grandfather, whose portrait hangs in the family hall.

Nadia’s first marriage is, predictably, set up by her father to financially exploit some relatives of his clan. After marriage, Nadia moves to Haifa in Palestine and maintains a strained conjugal relationship with her husband, Marwan, for nearly 13 years, retaining all the while a deep respect for Ahmad, her father-in-law.

Meanwhile, Palestine is caught in the vortex of political unrest as the Balfour declaration of 1917 encourages the immigration of Jews into Palestine and the creation of a Jewish state, Israel, looks imminent. This forces Nadia’s in-laws to flee from Haifa and settle in Acre, another Palestinian town. After the death of her husband and the Israeli invasion of Acre, they leave Acre for Lebanon.

It is in Beirut, Nadia’s erstwhile domicile, that she starts the second phase of her struggle for personal autonomy within the patriarchal power structure. She alienates herself from her parental home, spurns her in-laws’ proposal of marrying Ali, her brother-in-law, and even refuses to marry Nadim (to whom she once took a fancy), because of the legal problems of coopting her children into their new family.

As she now starts to earn her own living and to provide sustenance and education to her sons, she gradually feels the woman emerging out of herself — the woman who believes in the strength of being alone, disapproves of any relationship which calls for the sacrifice of the selfhood. Her quest for a perfect relationship ends with her match with Fuad Salem, whom Nadia calls her “soulmate”. Unfortunately, the civil war that breaks out between Maronite leaders and Zionist sympathizers, claims Fuad’s life, leaving Nadia widowed for the second time.

Lisa Suhair Majaj has written a brilliant introduction to Afaf’s memoir, which she upholds both as a poignant feminist text and a down to-earth testament of west Asian politics in the mid 20th century. She shows how the dictum, “the personal is the political” can be applied with its double entendre with respect to Afaf’s autobiography. “Her narrative is imbued with the strength, resilience, humanity, commitment, and vision that have sustained her through eighty years”. Could anything more concrete and insightful be articulated within so little a space?


memory of elephants
By Boman Desai,
HarperCollins, Rs 195

First published more than a decade ago, Memory of Elephants is a witty and absorbing novel. Journeying through the memory of the protagonist, Homi Seervai, the genius of a Parsi from Mumbai, the reader gets a feel of Parsi history, culture and splendour, and the complexities of a shrinking community. The reader is unable to extricate himself from Homi’s narrative, only to be pulled out at the end when Homi realizes that he has been the victim of a self-destructive love.

The novel shuttles between Pennsylvania, US, Mumbai, Navsari and all the other places Homi, or his memory, has been to. All this is possible because of the memoscan, a machine he invents, though for a different reason.

While in the US, Homi is trapped in a different culture and in the love of Candace. But he is shattered to find that to her, it is just another affair. It is then that he invents the memoscan which will allow his brain to replay the times spent with her. Homi keeps replaying the scene of Candace taking off her clothes and the experience is that of watching a movie.

But soon, the machine malfunctions, and Homi hurtles through collective consciousness, drawing on memories of the Parsi past, of relatives, of stories handed down, till it is too much for the brain to handle. He is admitted to hospital with a severe breakdown and is ultimately brought back to the family home in Mumbai. In the twilight state, Homi realizes that though blessed with the memory of elephants, he has been selfish not to share his experiences with the world. He snaps out of that state, finding the will to survive.

As Homi’s memory draws upon the collective memory, the reader is treated to an enthralling piece of history — that of the coming of Parsis to India and the events that led to it. In Homi’s subconscious, his grandmother guides him through this journey: “I looklooked and sawsaw and silhouette of ancient ships, their masts, spars, yards, booms, and rigging, rising like sleek black spires against a rising sun...Around the ships the sea was still, but in the distance fishermen caste nets into the water...The fishermen launched canoes, climbed into them and paddled noisily toward the ships. The Iranis girded themselves for an attack...but the first canoes greeted them like heroes with hosannas, flowers, coconut milk, invited them ashore, and provided shelter and food, a feast of rice, fish curry, and toddy.”

This is but one example of Homi’s memoscan going haywire. Others include his grandmother’s childhood in Navsari and of life in a laid back Bombay before its transformation into Mumbai. The goings on in a small community, anxious to hang on to its traditions, can make one shudder.

Homi’s grandmother on his father’s side, a feminist when feminism was unheard of, cuts a lovely figure in her twilight years with Homi’s father blaming her for what went wrong in his life. By contrast, his maternal gra- ndmother’s cosmopolitanism hides a troubled soul.

Homi, polio-stricken, is a keen observer. He is also a rebel. This is what sends him to a university in Pennsylvania when he could have had the pick of American universities. This rebellion is at the root of the memoscan.

Desai gives us delightful vignettes of Parsi life, from rural Navsari to high-end Colaba. The couple of love stories he weaves into the narrative are appealing. The reader sees, with Homi, in the Tower of Silence, the “vultures hidden within palm trees over rocky cliffs alongside Gibbs Road” and learns how bodies are disposed of. Also that since highrises have come to dot Malabar Hill, complaints against the Tower continue to mount when vultures litter balconies with appendages of the human body.

Desai’s breezy style, along with the novelty of his subject, makes the novel a pleasant reading.



What the bombs could not ruin

the jukebox queen of malta
by Nicholas Rinaldi
(Black Swan, price not mentioned)
Nicholas Rinaldi’s the jukebox queen of malta is set in a world of “doom, violence and toughness”. This is the island of Malta in 1942, under seige by the German air force. It’s protagonist, Rocco Raven, is a radioman and car mechanic from Brooklyn, New York. An inscrutable American intelligence officer, Jack Fingerly, is his sole contact, but lets him face the chaos of war alone. In this world of ruins — depicted with the blackest irony — Rocco meets the beautiful Melita. Their initially guarded passion inexorably runs into the surrounding devastation, and Rinaldi’s novel turns into a darkly absurdist romantic comedy. Rinaldi shows considerable courage in treading confidently on the territory of such writers as Joseph Heller, William Styron and Norman Mailer.

Power in contemporary politics: theories, practices, globalizations
edited by H. Goverde, P.G. Cerny, M. Haugaard and H.H. Lentner
(Sage, £ 16.99)

H. Goverde, P.G. Cerny, M. Haugaard and H.H. Lentner’s Power in contemporary politics: theories, practices, globalizations is a critical survey of current thinking and research on political power, bringing together essays by a wide range of international scholars. The major analytical themes are developed within a three-part framework — contemporary theories of power; modern practices at the local, national and international levels; and the alternative interpretations of globalization that lead to paradoxes in arrangements of power. This book would have been useful for students of political science, international studies and political sociology had it not been so absurdly overpriced.

on top of the tens
Bubla Basu
(Neve, Rs 75)

Bubla Basu’s on top of the tens is one of a rare breed — an enjoyable novel for high school children set in India. These children are thoroughly contemporary and Westernized metropolites, their speech sprinkled with yeah, hey and man. They watch BBC Hard Talk and have boys-only “blasts”. The six children are all in class X and are collectively referred to as The Invincibles. This is their third fictional appearance, and this time Basu sees them through the rigours of preparing for their ICSE exams: “Though they grumble and groan and grit their teeth, they have their flings and fancies and manage their usual fill of fun.”

the witness
S.L. Bhyrappa
(EastWest, Rs 200)

S.L. Bhyrappa ‘s the witness is the author’s own translation (revised by Sharon Norris) of a Kannada novel published in the mid-Eighties. A distinguished writer of about 19 novels, Bhyrappa attempts to give a narrative form, in this work, to certain central concepts in Gandhian philosophy and in Vedanta. In Bhyrappa’s own words, “The truth corresponds neither with external facts nor with practical utility but rather with a state of consciousness in which a person becomes saakshi, that is, a witness to himself.”


By Peter Gay,
Viking, $ 15

In the late 1770s, Mozart (1756-1791) wrote that composing was his “only joy and passion”. Anybody who has heard anything composed by Mozart will have little doubt about the utter sincerity of that statement. His life was short and not entirely devoid of drama but it was informed by an obsession for music. He composed 622 pieces in his lifetime and left a Requiem unfinished.

He composed at a ferocious and an incredible pace — his last symphony called the “Jupiter” was finished in 16 days and legend has it that the great overture to Don Giovanni was written the night before the premiere of the opera. Whatever he wrote had special magical qualities. As Gay comments in this new and compact biography, Mozart “could not have written mediocre music if he tried.”

Gay’s book, elegantly written, is intended for the non-specialist music lover. He does not go into the technicalities of the music, but evokes Mozart’s music through his prose. This is not an easy thing to do, for most of the time, music lovers have responded to Mozart’s works “with ecstatic exclamations”, and with “clichés purloined from the vocabulary of religion.” How true this is! “Divine” is the first word that comes to mind on hearing a Mozart piece.

At the heart of any biography of Mozart lies the relationship with his father, Leopold. It was never son against father, but the relationship was fraught with tension. The father saw in his genius son his own and his family’s bread ticket.

The inevitable result was an attempt to dominate. He coerced and often emotionally blackmailed his son. The latter tried to break out — his preference for the French Amadé, instead of the Latinate Amadeus, was one attempt — and did not succeed till he left Salzburg for Vienna in 1781. Even then, the break was never complete.

The streak of melancholy in Mozart’s music stems from his relationship with Leopold. But the sorrow of the break remained. Gay writes, “In Don Giovanni does the father take his revenge: parricide...must be punished. Leopold Mozart pursued his son even from the grave.”

The really enriching part of Gay’s account is his handling of Mozart’s chamber pieces and the music he created in his last years.

It was apt that Mozart dedicated his best string quartets to Josef Haydn who, in the memorable words of Gay, “did for the genre what Caesar Augustus had done for ancient Rome: he found it brick and left it marble.” Mozart’s inimitable genius shows how much further this genre could be taken. In the last of the Haydn quartets (in C, K.465, nicknamed the “Dissonance”), Mozart, through the tones of the cello and the viola, touched the darkest corners of his self and bent and “even set aside the rules of the game”.

The descent into darkness continued in the sublime string quintets, especially the one in G Minor (K.516). In Gay’s view, the prominence that Mozart gave to the viola in the string quintets make them the “most expressive among his compositions”. The viola was his favourite instrument and in his later years, he used its sombre tone became the “ground tone of his life”.

In The Magic Flute, Mozart sang, “Man and woman, and woman and man/Reach even to divinity.” Mozart alone had reached it with his music.



Has Max gone mad?

Sir — In Mel Gibson’s new movie, What Women Want, which opens in the United States today, he plays the role of this arrogant man, who suddenly begins to “hear” what women are really thinking about him before they say it (“Mad Max Mel knows what women really want”, Dec 13). Meant to be a romantic comedy, this is yet another example of the intellectual impoverishment that Hollywood is facing today. American movies are a supreme example of how a popular vision of what life should be like is essentially based on the unreal. Over the last few years there has been a plethora of apocalyptic/disaster movies. And now, even if the aim is to make a comedy, the storyline has to hinge on something both bizarre and juvenile. Why does an accomplished actor like Mel Gibson, with fine, sensitive performances in films like Tim and Braveheart to his credit, need to get involved with such trash? Shouldn’t he continue this legacy and only act in films that make sense to an adult audience?
Yours faithfully,
Arunava Dutta Gupta, via email

Backward front

Sir — Jyoti Basu, the man regarded by some to be the best prime minister India never had, relinquished his responsibility as chief minister of West Bengal on “health grounds” which apparently rendered him unfit to do justice to his office.Yet, he is projecting himself as capable of heading the third front. Politics undoubtedly has an irresistible attraction.

It seems the “historic blunder” is under urgent repair. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s slip in the management of the Ayodhya issue has only made the job easy. The grand old man of Indian politics might yet reach his destiny.

However, the coming together of the third front forces seems to have taken place at a most inauspicious time, for them that is. The positive initiative of the BJP-led government in Kashmir, which has embarrassed even Pakistan, is a personal victory for Atal Behari Vajpayee. The stability of the government has brought improvement in the economic sector. India is in the driver’s seat for the first time since independence, courtesy the Pokhran adventure. Issues like proliferation, curbing global terrorism, formation of strategic blocs in the post-Cold War era top the agenda of the present government.

Probably Mamata Banerjee should ponder over a third front headed by Basu, and its impact on her forthcoming fight in West Bengal. Quite evidently, Basu has shifted gear. Instead of fighting a losing battle in the state, he is trying to concentrate on bigger stakes.

Yours faithfully,
Samir Banerjee, New Delhi

Sir — It is sad to note that the top opposition leaders are using the first opportunity they have got to abuse the ruling allies. Recall the recent function held at Calcutta to felicitate Jyoti Basu. A minister from a neighbouring country, Bangladesh, was there to share the platform. He attended the function because it was apolitical in nature. But the over-zealous Indian political leaders, including two former prime ministers, did not miss the chance of attacking the National Democratic Alliance government and to talk about forming the third front.

They are free to talk. But this should not have happened in the presence of a foreign dignitary. It is not advisable to involve foreign dignitaries in our politics. The nation’s pride should be untouched by petty politicking.

Yours faithfully,
V.A. Gopala, Bangalore

Sir — The third front’s efforts to reconverge are quite evident. Prior to the recent show at the felicitation ceremony of Jyoti Basu, a similar attempt was made at Thiruvananthapuram in October by Mulayam Singh Yadav, Laloo Prasad Yadav, H.D. Deve Gowda and Prafulla Mahanta.

The third front might still make efforts to woo the cyber-chief of Andhra Pradesh, N. Chandrababu Naidu, and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader, M. Karunanidhi. But such leaders will be wary of the third front given the track record of its earlier incarnation. When an alternative third front government was about to turn into a reality at the Centre in 1996, the intransigent stand of Mulayam Singh vis à vis Sonia Gandhi and Jyoti Basu’s refusal to sit on the prime ministerial chair together had nipped all possibilities in the bud. This forced another general election on the country and catapulted the NDA government to power.

The scenario is different now. The NDA government seems firm in the saddle. The constituents of the third front, on the contrary, have their own headaches. The Communist Party of India (Marxist), for example, has to face dissidence within the party from among their own breed like Saifuddin Chowdhury and face political rivals like Mamata Banerjee at the same time. The Yadav duo’s relationship had soured when Mulayam Singh fielded his own candidates in the 1999 assembly elections in Bihar. Also, Mulayam Singh is busy chalking out plans for the forthcoming assembly elections in his own state, Uttar Pradesh. This inner conflict apart, Deve Gowda seems to have run out of steam and Mahanta has a severe insurgency problem in his state to cope with.

The members of the front urgently need to consolidate their respective gains on their own grounds. They should not engage in another futile exercise like forming an alternative government at the Centre.

Yours faithfully,
L.G.N. Ambastha, Burdwan

Eve out of Eden

Sir — “Arms and the woman” (Dec 10) refers to steps being taken by women against “eve-teasing”. I find the term “eve-teasing” extremely insulting. The Oxford dictionary defines the word “to tease: to try and provoke in a playful or unkind way”. The very fact that “playful” is associated with the word makes it an entirely inappropriate description of this behaviour.

I, like every other woman who uses public transport in India, have been subjected to sexual harassment. There is nothing playful or funny about sexual harassment. So why employ an euphemism? Nothing will change until people start viewing sexual harassment with the gravity that it deserves. Using the term “eve-teasing” for an action that demeans women should not be tolerated.

Yours faithfully,
Jill Wiwcharuk, Barrackpore

Sir — The letter “Just beat’em up” (Dec 2) by Diptimoy Ghosh rightly focuses on men who are suffering in silence the mental and physical torment caused by their wives. A woman myself, I feel it is also necessary to highlight this aspect of woman’s behaviour. There have been numerous instances where I have seen wives dominating their husbands.

Women should keep in mind that a family can flourish only through compromise and adjustment. They should serve as inspiration to their men. They should not take an upper hand.

Yours faithfully,
Maitreyee Dawn, Calcutta

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