Editorial 1/ Run on Enron
Editorial 2/ More backward
Something left undone
Book Review/ Not the best defence
Book Review/Don’t wash a hilsa before cooking it
Book Review/A space for themselves only on paper
Editor’s Choice/ / Mystery in a magical city
Paperback Pickings
Letters to the editor

Enron is a dirty word in India and people have complaints about what was proposed in Maharashtra. Some complaints are legitimate, others less so. But all complainants are revelling at the unfolding Enron saga in the United States of America. If Enron’s rise to fame was meteoric, its fall from the pedestal is no less dramatic. In 1985, no one had heard of Enron, which was when it was formed by merging Houston Natural Gas with InterNorth, to set up an inter-state natural gas and pipeline company. There was not much money to be made from natural gas. Pipelines had to be built, gas wells drilled. Gas prices were also regulated. But prices apart, this was an era of deregulation. There were those who needed gas and those who supplied them and Enron positioned itself as a middleman. Enron became a gas trading company. But Enron’s comparative advantage was in natural gas and electricity. Defying all canons of core competency, Enron increasingly got dragged into sectors as diverse as water, coal, fibre optics, weather derivatives, newsprint and real estate. After all, if a company started in 1985 claws up to number 7 in the Fortune 500 list and its stock trades at $ 90, a myth of invincibility and superior judgment is created. That was not to be, and in many of these new sectors there were significant losses that would have dragged down the price of Enron stock. To cloak reality, a myth was created through companies that did not figure in Enron’s balance sheet. There is something Freudian in the fact that these companies reflect celluloid reality and have names like Joint Energy Development Investments and Chewco Investments, in obvious references to Star Wars. There was also a company named Raptor.

The beginning of 2001 was fine. But the subsequent drop in telecom stock prices also affected Enron’s stock, and natural gas prices dropped. Since Enron stock was offered as collateral for off-balance-sheet borrowing, lenders became jittery, and in October Enron announced that 1.2 billion dollars had virtually disappeared from its net worth. Investigations by Wall Street Journal, Securities and Exchange Commission and the McLucas task force followed. Despite the obsession with Afghanistan, news filtered through, and Enron stock traded at 25 cents before Enron filed for bankruptcy in December. Contrary to what is suggested, the issue is not Mr Kenneth Lay, the Enron chairman, and his proximity to Mr George W. Bush, or the substantial amounts Enron donated as campaign funding. There are supposed to be systems that check such wrong-doing, and the popular impression is that systems collapse in India, but not in the US. That is evidently not true.

What was the SEC doing? What about the directors on the board? What about the expertise on Wall Street? And what about independent and outside auditors like Arthur Andersen? Arthur Andersen was obviously not vigilant enough. Insiders, board members and senior management who were in the know exited in time. Other than lenders, those left in the lurch include 20,000 Enron employees. They not only had mandatory Enron stock that they couldn’t sell until it was too late, they often had much more in Enron stock that was mandatory. Jobs and savings have been lost. In the end, Enron was not a fleet-footed velociraptor, but a lumbering herbivore.


Although the Bharatiya Janata Party is putting a brave face on it, it has lost a small gamble. The Supreme Court has ruled that the Uttar Pradesh government cannot appoint any backward classes candidate on the recommendations of the social justice committee set up last year by the state chief minister, Mr Rajnath Singh. There is little doubt that Mr Singh was trying to outpace Mr Mulayam Singh Yadav and Ms Mayavati in the backwards sector. The committee he set up recommended that a separate sub-quota for the most backward classes and the most backward Dalits be created for reservations. By accepting the recommendations, Mr Singh had hoped to seize the interest — and votes — of the layers below the ones that Mr Yadav and Ms Mayavati usually target. This is one of the strategies by which the BJP had planned to increase its vote bank in the forthcoming assembly elections. The strategy had the advantage of helping to project the BJP as a concerned champion of the downtrodden, casteist in quite the politically acceptable manner.

That will not work, it seems. The higher courts have been fairly consistent in reservations rulings: reluctant to go over the legal level and stern when the level is not reached. Since there is no longer any debate about the phenomenon of reservations, in spite of the fact that they have in many cases aggravated social fragmentation and benefited unscrupulous politicking, this is the best that can be expected of the courts. But the Supreme Court’s refusal to legitimize MBCs and MBDs makes clear that in this case at least, backwardness cannot be used as a counter in a political competition. This does not mean that Mr Yadav and Ms Mayavati have reason to crow. There is no way they can claim that their courting of the backward classes, especially the more articulate among them, was pure social altruism, free of political ambition. The BJP’s motives for creating the social justice committee may be questionable, but it cannot really be criticized by Mr Yadav and Ms Mayavati. It is too early for the pot to call the kettle black: the election battle is yet to be fought.


Something very strange happened in Calcutta on Tuesday morning. A casual shooting down of policemen changing guard in front of the American Center. At any other time in history, this would have been an act of simple criminality. Instead, the episode fell pat into the “terrorism” discourse, sending additional tremors throughout the country, and bringing forth fresh reassurances of heightened security for diplomatic buildings. Just two AK-47s, two speeding motorcycles, four dead policemen and it is terrorism readymade.

And the people of Calcutta reacted predictably, with fear and unthinking blame. “They” were at it again, this time in the very heart of our beloved city. All the pet preoccupations can be aired freely, for there is no reason to think any longer, thank god. Let “them” in over the border for votes, said some, and see what happens. Others looked to the border on the west and echoed the names of the fundamentalist Islamic outfits the Union home minister had rattled off in righteous indignation. Never mind whether the attack was aimed at the American or the Indian — perhaps the West Bengal — state, never mind the possibility that these may have been independent criminals with a private score to settle: to find a link, however fragile, with fundamentalist Islamic outfits is both relief and renewed conviction.

The quick jump into the arms of preset formulae by people in a state ruled by communists for years is a frightening symptom of a countrywide, even worldwide, confusion of thought. The desire not to think, which infects everybody, breeds a paralysis that can have gruesome results. Four dead policemen is just one of them. If the state had perceived the terrorist threat as real — as its post hoc statements seem to claim — it is logical to conclude that the state murders its own protectors by supplying terrorists with cannon fodder. A uniform without modern guns that work can only be a scarecrow. But the policemen who died without being able to return the fire of passing gunmen were not scarecrows, they were human beings with lives and families. Only they were not seen as such. This shows up a more widespread sickness. Whether it is the state or the boy next door, everyone is busy either attacking or hiding from something they are sure is the enemy, as if the earth is no longer peopled with human beings. There is a paralysis of thought, borne of fear and the desire to find a focus for it.

This fear and confusion of thought have created a vicious cycle which at the moment shows no signs of slowing down. The cycle has slowly worn away the space for negotiation, the space for thought, for speech. It is not enough to see the United States of America as the opportunistic juggernaut responsible for this, nor to blame the lunatics of various faiths, Islam, Hinduism or Christianity for it. True, they have helped one another enormously, and continue doing so, eradicating even the consciousness that such a space once existed. But something essential has been left undone, something unspoken, by all those who believed in and still believe in peace, tolerance, justice, and an aspiration towards equality, who cannot accept damage to any human life as “collateral”, who cannot believe that violence, physical and mental, can ever breed anything but spiralling hatred and death. That precious space was in their keeping, and they have let it go. Nobody bothers to put conscientious objectors in prison any more; all their ideological descendants have managed to achieve is not to matter.

Now, it would seem, it is too late. Or almost so. The reasoning behind building a civilization which would contain the human race’s predatory, violent instincts has been hijacked and turned inside out — by dogma which implodes upon itself, by dominance and greed which need inequity to fatten on, by the sheer power of suicidal hatred that can distort any holy book of any religion in order to give back to the world what it thinks it has suffered. In real terms, the world has been usurped by criminals. There can be no thought, no speech, where there is fear. George W. Bush’s remark, that in the war against terrorism those who are not with “us” are against “us”, is just the crudest assertion of this usurpation. If I am neither with “them”, nor with “us”, I am welcome to fall off the edge of the world.

Of course, this is a convenient oversimplification of interacting political, historical, economic and sociological factors. But it is impossible to deny that the net result is the abdication of the power not only not to join, but also to persuade others to think before joining. There is no longer the language to do this in. It is not as if no one is talking. Those with the clearest vision and greatest courage are talking themselves hoarse. Yet it is almost as if they are expected to do so anyway, and it absolves us of responsibility if we hear them out with respect, admiration and agreement. But this is no Mahabharata they are reading us, that we should be cleansed of all our sins at the hearing. There is something left to be done.

The weapon has already been seized. Words have been loaded with meaning by those who have matched words with a certain kind of action, and words change meaning as location changes. Condemnation and triumphalism lie in ambush, whatever nuance of thought one is trying to capture. Arundhati Roy, for example, says about the September 11 killers: “All we know is that their belief in what they were doing outstripped the natural human instinct for survival or any desire to be remembered. It’s almost as if they could not scale down the enormity of their rage to anything smaller than their deeds.” The emotional balance tips, even if slightly. She herself has earlier called the September 11 killings “unconscionable”. The negotiating space between the two sides is disappearing fast. The situation today is as much the making of the silence or ineffectuality of the speechless “third” side as of “them” and “us”.

Never before was hard thinking about the simplest, most basic, most old-fashioned things more sorely needed. To say no to war, whether between India and Pakistan, or anywhere else in the world, we have to do the homework. If there are people who oppose peace by killing others and themselves, they have to be stopped. But this cannot be done without violence. Deploring violence has merely created a world where there is no escape from it. How does one stop the dragons’ teeth from sprouting again, instantaneously? “Cracking down” on madrasahs, for example, is hardly the solution. It is the syllabus of the madrasahs that must be changed and that cannot be the outcome of political manoeuvres. In any case, unless we learn to think straight again, there will not even be political solutions for anything.

And why are we talking of madrasahs so much of the time nowadays, as if the world has wisely reached the root of the problem at last? Why is it so easy in India today to echo certain voices in the West in their sage head-nodding over madrasahs? Will the same “cracking down” do for the Northeast, the South, or in Sri Lanka, or Nepal? Terrorism and subversion have nothing to do with religion. They have to do with people, whether the people represent the state or belong to disaffected groups. Some forms of terrorism are invisible — it is unfortunate that the US has overplayed its hand one too many times and India is tending to do the same. Other forms of terrorism are or have been visible under various banners throughout history. The architects of September 11 have rocketed their banner to infamy by making a terrifying mockery of the US’s high-tech state power.

They have got us, and themselves, into a trap, although the trap be of a different kind for each. We need to think ourselves out of it. All the hard questions have to be asked, and there are plenty of those. For a sample, why is Islamic fundamentalism such a terror today? Sitting in the land of Graham Staines’s murder, can we blame the religion? Why has it become so difficult to keep in mind that all holy books breed their share of fundamentalists? The history, regionality, wealth distribution, politics, racial identity and internal inequities of several societies spread over a wide swathe of the world have produced concomitant strains of thought and action that at one end are converging into a tidal wave of hatred. The spectacle of hatred simply strengthens the hatred on the other side: pit the Bajrang Dal against the Students’ Islamic Movement of India and ask if the Bhagvad Gita demands its adherents bully, burn, break and destroy for salvation. At the end of the day, can we stop the madrasahs from going underground?

Each region has a different experience of terrorism. It is enough for a beginning that the people of the region think through the problems to their roots, with honesty and determination instead of focussing only on what the world thinks is politically convenient or politically correct. What good will it do us to focus either on America’s misdeeds or on the violence allegedly inherent in Islam? Those who want to stand up and be counted desperately need to recover that lost “third” space. Hiding behind other people’s rhetoric, with the comfortable sensation that Kashmir and the Northeast, Washington and Afghanistan are far away, will only result in jumping to the wrong side of the fence every time a couple of criminals come to town.

There is no need to believe that human beings will stop guarding even useless territory with their lives, will stop wanting to dominate, violate, or grow richer, stop believing that their own faith is superior to that of others, lose their desire for power and violence, their rage and hate. But neither is there any reason to believe they will stop loving music, or beautiful things, the pleasure of making, or the sky and flowers, new experiences and distant lands, or stop wanting a comfortable place to live in and food to eat. Civilization was about accommodation and order, we were taught in school, a few years after independence. It’s been a while. And it’s funny we haven’t learnt to think straight yet.


By Lillian Feder,
Indialog, Rs 295

That V.S. Naipaul is a writer of great complexity has been, by now, well established. That an insightful reading of his works requires a historical perspective is also undisputed. In Naipaul’s Truth, Lillian Feder tries to provide a comprehensive guide to the factors behind the “making of a writer”. But she fails to break through the cerebral barrier of Naipaul’s works and travel beyond. Eventually, it is the lack of a personal touch, which causes the reader to lose interest in the author’s cut-and-dried, prosaic approach.

Rather than shed a simplifying light on the factors that have shaped Naipaul’s view, besides forming the larger part of the subject matter of both his fictional and factual works, Feder succeeds only in confusing her readers, attempting too much with her scattered study. A professor of literature at the City University of New York, Feder starts off on the back-foot, defending her subject against accusations of racism and colonialist sentiment from various critical corners. Apart from the defensive tone, she does get off to a promising start, examining the Nobel laureate’s “writing self”, his understanding of truth and the ever-growing and adapting way in which he chooses to explore and present it.

Then, the biography is divided into a study of the genres used by Naipaul throughout his career. So, chapters titled “Autobiography”, “Travel Narratives, History and Journalism” and “Fiction” take up the various influences in each work, classified by genre.

The ensuing repetition results in confusion, which the author’s prosaic approach only enhances. In “Biography”, for instance, Feder discusses the sociological, personal and historical factors behind Naipaul’s autobiographical works, traces of which are found in his travelogues and fiction as well. Perhaps the analysis would have been more lucid had Feder studied the works thematically. Also, she touches upon a number of characters and books, which influenced Naipaul, without giving them enough space to make their role in his growth as a writer clear.

In “Fiction”, critical comment is given far less space than are summaries of each individual work. The reverse is true of Feder’s examination of the controversial writer’s non-fiction, where we are plunged into a detailed analyses of the people he met, what he felt, how his outlook altered over time, without really being told where exactly he travelled. She assumes in-depth knowledge of his works at times, and at others, leaves off with only the most basic observations.

The publication is riddled with spelling mistakes, grammatical errors and factual inconsistencies. For example, Feder writes that Miguel Street is Naipaul’s first work, while a few pages later and again in the chronology of works at the end of the volume, she correctly refers to The Mystic Masseur as his debut novel. Spelling mistakes and inappropriate use of hyphens are distracting enough, without such glaring errors greatly detracting from the reliability of the text.

Though the biography is purported to provide insights into Naipaul’s psychology, we get no real feel of who the author really is or what his deeper motivations are. Throughout Naipaul’s Truth, Feder is more concerned with the intellectual rather than the emotional life of her subject. Only in the sections pertaining to A House for Mr. Biswas does she scratch the surface of V.S. Naipaul — the Man. Even a brief chapter may have helped expand the book’s scope.

This approach may be of use to students of Naipaul’s works looking for a broad overview of issues to look out for during a detailed study. But the biographer touches upon many noteworthy points without really developing a comprehensive line of thought. Unfortunately, this detracts from the potential of the study to sustain the interest of a reader without immediate academic concerns.


By Chitrita Banerji,
Seagull, Rs 475

“Homesickness starts with food,” Che Guevara had said, pining for native Argentinian food, while stuck in the mountains of Sierra Maestra. You are reminded of this by Chitrita Banerji’s The Hour of the Goddess: Memories of Women, Food and Ritual in Bengal. There are ten pieces here, centered around Bengali food, and woven into them are the various rituals and the role of women in the preparation of food.

Banerji is right when she says there is no such thing as Indian cooking. What is accepted as Indian cooking is essentially north Indian Punjabi food and to a lesser extent, south Indian food. Bengali food, has been off the culinary map. This is because there are hardly any Bengali restaurants, even in Calcutta — not counting the roadside stalls serving radhaballavis and Bengali-style fish fry— and virtually no literature on the subject in English, with the exception of Minakshie Dasgupta’s The Calcutta Cookbook.

To this extent, The Hour of the Goddess fills a distinct gap in Indian cookery literature. Both ghoti and bangal dishes are described. But there seems to be a greater concentration on bangal food, with the interesting observation that hilsa is never washed before being cooked because “the taste will be washed away.” Bengali connoisseurs have reiterated this point with the proviso that this practice is only followed in east Bengal, never here where it is washed just once so that at least some of the blood is retained.

Banerji also believes that “there is a greater degree of adventurous inventiveness in the cooking of east Bengal.” She attributes this to “the terrain …rivers that change course and destroy human settlements.” Given the uncertainty of life, there is a necessity to adapt and innovate, especially in bangal cuisine.

The Hour of the Goddess is not a cookbook in the traditional sense. It is a chronicle of Bengal’s food history and the inter-relationship between food and worship. Banerji has clearly done a great deal of research, delving into old Bengali classical texts along with a whole range of secondary literature, both on Bengali cuisine as well as its culture and history.

Each chapter is interspersed with black-and-white photographs of old Calcutta homes. This provides the background and ambience to the book, which is, in many ways, a book of memories of a culture and a world that is fast disappearing.

The Hour of the Goddess is an academic, even literary, collection that would suit different palates. This is both its strength and weakness. There is a lot of very good writing here, especially “The Bonti of Bengal” and “What Bengali Widows Cannot Eat”.

But its weakness is apparent. It tries to wear too many hats, so doesn’t have, to use a marketing jargon, a unique selling point. At a time when specialization is emphasized and the market is the final criterion of excellence, this lack of focus could be a fatal flaw.


By Banani Mukhia,
Manohar, Rs 325

Feminism, as an offshoot of Marxism, thrived on a facile dichotomy between the possessed and the dispossessed, the exploiter and the exploited in the late Seventies and the early Eighties. From the mid-Eighties onward, feminist writings began to study the sex role asymmetry in society. This resulted in sociologists turning their attention to the attempts at the inversion and subversion of traditional power roles by women in their familial and societal orbits, much in disavowal of hegemonic values imposed by patriarchy.

Banani Mukhia takes note of this changing perspective while analyzing the archetypal female characters in the fictional writings of Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay, Rabindranath Tagore and Saratchandra Chattopadhyay. Her analysis turns out to be an exploration of the conventional tropes of morality and of some stereotypes of relationships, looked upon as parts of cultural construction in Bengali Hindu community.

The reader is introduced to Mukhia’s theoretical stance as she proposes to examine how the 19th century reform movements addressed the question of female emancipation. Mukhia also tries to capture the “tension between history’s inertia and imagination’s soaring momentum” in the portrayal of female characters by the authors mentioned. Mukhia later focuses on the inter-personal relationships depicted in the works of the three authors, highlighting the mother-image, much in the mold of the goddess, Annapurna, which has long been culturally associated with women in Bengali Hindu society.

This image dominates father-daughter relationships, while the sati savitri or pativrata image has a strong bearing on the man-woman relationship. This is further categorized into three subtypes: the husband as possessive and over-protective of his submissive wife; reasonably educated women like Bimala in Tagore’s Ghare Baire; and the brother-in-law and sister-in-law relationship, best exemplified by Charulata and Amal in Tagore’s Nastanir.

Mukhia also dwells on the “mutual empathy” between two female characters such as Bishweshari’s affection for Rama in Saratchandra’s Palli Samaj. She describes the physical, social and moral space that fictional female characters created for themselves within society’s restrictive male-dominated structure.

In the “Conclusion”, Mukhia reverts to the theme of female relationships among fictional characters. Taking her cue from Partha Chatterjee’s The Nation and its Fragments, Mukhia makes some searching comments about the cult of glorifying the dual image — mother and goddess — of women, which is so enthusiastically endorsed in the nationalist agenda of colonial India. The summary of 15 novels appended to the book may be of some use to the non-Bengali reader.


By Arturo Pérez-Reverte,
Harvill, £4.95

A handsome grey-haired priest who wears bespoke suits with his dog collar and is irresistible to most women seems an unlikely figure even in fiction. But in the hands of Pérez-Reverte he becomes a credible and a somewhat lovable creature.

The priest as detective is no longer novel. Chesterton’s Father Brown has had at least one worthy emulator, Umberto Eco’s William of Baskerville. But Pérez-Reverte’s Lorenzo Quart who works for the Institute of External Affairs of the Vatican — the papal secret service, if you will — is different from Chesterton’s rotund padre and from Eco’s medieval Holmes. Quart is suave and painstaking and totally devoid of sudden insights.

His investigations in Seville, a city in which the medieval and the modern co-exist, is sparked off by the entry of a hacker into the Vatican’s top secret files, including those of His Holiness. The hacker, christened Vespers by the computer watchers in the Vatican, leaves a mysterious message about a small derelict church in Seville which “kills to defend itself”.

Quart is sent off on a fact finding mission and if possible to discover the identity of Vespers. He arrives in the beautiful, if enigmatic, city of Seville to discover a baroque church, Our Lady of the Tears, in dire need of restoration but threatened by demolition by the municipality backed covertly by a big banking corporation. Opposed to the demolition are an old and rustic priest who reads Mass in Latin, his assistant and an American nun-cum-restorer. But the real force behind this trio is the aristocratic Bruner family, mother and daughter, whose members have worshipped in the church for generations.

In the church have died two persons: an inspector who came from the municipality and a priest who had come as an envoy of the archbishop of Seville to put pressure on the parish priest to allow the demolition. Both deaths, the police said in the absence of evidence to the contrary, were accidental. There occurs a third death while Quart is in Seville:an obnoxious and busybody journalist.

Quart is caught in all this. Moreover, he is drawn into the affection of the Bruner family, especially to the beauty of the daughter, Marcena. The attraction is deep and Quart’s vow of celibacy is in danger.

The mysteries are solved. Quart survives but not without a price. But there is more to Pérez-Reverte’s art than a mystery and its solution. There is the evocation of Seville, which is the only non-imaginary thing in the book since “Nobody could invent a city like Seville.’’ There is also the detailed description of the fictitious church situated deep in the Jewish quarter, Santa Cruz. And the searching probe into Quart’s interiority. Quart sees himself as a good soldier of the Church, like the Templars of the medieval world. The call of the cloth came to him as a haven from poverty and sorrow. He has his moments of doubt and Pérez-Reverte’s exploration of these and of his loyalty lifts the book to a level higher than that of a thriller.



All jinsy were the Pakistanites

By Trevor Royle
(Rupa, Rs 195)

The last days of the Raj by Trevor Royle is an entertaining quasi-historical account of the lead-up to the “tryst with destiny” moment, and its immediate aftermath. Not quite coffee-table, not entirely academic, and with a good deal of sepia-tinted reminiscing. Royle’s narrative combines historical anecdotage and personal interviews. We are given, for instance, Lord Wavell’s Jabberwocky version of post-war Indian politics: “Twas grillig; and the Congreelites/ Did harge and shobble in the swope,/ All jinsy were the Pakistanites,/ And the spruft Sikhs outscrope.” Nehru and his colleagues were staying opposite Elizabeth Catto’s house in Shimla in 1945. “My half-brothers went over to get Nehru’s autograph,” Catto recalls, “They were frightfully chuffed when he agreed; the thing was, you see, that the Indians themselves never bore any personal grudges against the British.”

By Wilson John
(Rupa, Rs 95)

The Tehelka trap: sex, lies and spycam by Wilson John is a badly written little book, using all the three ingredients in its subtitle, to prove beyond doubt the innocence of George Fernandes: “I only had one reason to write this book. To nail a lie called Operation West End.” For Wilson, the inauthenticity of the Tehelka tapes lies in their use of “footages (sic) of brags, pimps and sex workers”, apparently unedited transcriptions of which are generously reproduced in the book. Apart from the sleaze, the writing is driven by a sort of mindless journalistic anger which often breaks out into an entertaining riot of mixed metaphors: “Scratching Tejpal’s halo would invite ridicule. Telling the world of his clay feet would be like poking a hornet’s nest.”

By Ruth N. Davidar
(EastWest, Rs 250)

Indian food sense: a health and nutrition guide to traditional recipes by Ruth N. Davidar is a useful and unusual book which would interest cooks, dieticians, nutritionists, hypochondriacs, alternative therapists and social historians of food. It attempts to provide “nutrition education in the broadest sense of the word”. Extensive cross-referencing links a wide range of recipes with every kind of information about the ingredients of everyday Indian food and their nutritional functions. One comes across extraordinary facts like burning garlic skin and sprinkling the ashes near all the doors of a house keeps out snakes, who have a “particular loathing for garlic”, or that dried pumpkin seeds are good for the prostate gland.

By R.C. Temple
(Rupa, Rs 795)

The legends of the panjab, 2 vols by R.C. Temple is a magisterial collection of bardic legends and folktales of “the Panjab” made in the late 19th century, in the tradition of the brothers Grimm and Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. There is a wonderfully learned and amusing preface (written in Ambala in 1884) by Temple, who describes himself as “a hard-worked official who has no ready access to any public library”. Temple’s description of his methods of collection and transcription includes an account of the bard: “when once the bard has begun there is nothing for it but to let him go straight through his poem and write down after him whatever he says, sense or nonsense. To stop him in order to make him explain is fatal...if you expect much in the way of elucidation from him you will be disappointed, for he is always very ignorant and often stupid to boot, having learnt his task purely by rote”.

By Madhoor Kapur
(Bluejay, Rs 195)

Pradakshina: travels in India by Madhoor Kapur apparently took more than twenty years to write, and might take as long to read. Kapur’s line drawings are sparse and minimal, but his writing is relentlessly fruity. The word, “lush”, occurs several times. When Kapur travels, very little seems to actually happen. So the book is entirely descriptive, making demands on the writer’s prose which are seldom met. The author insists on using “one” in place of the first person singular, which gives the otherwise mushy prose an absurdly affected air: “One has perhaps never communicated so fully with anyone as one did with two deaf mute boys, not even to people one speaks to for hours.”



With a little help from friends

Sir — It was reassuring to see the rivalry between India and Pakistan finally generating something positive. Refer to the decision taken by both countries to provide exactly $100 million in financial aid to Afghanistan (“Eyeball to eyeball & million for a million”, Jan 22). The successful meeting of aid donors in Japan also reveals a dramatic shift in the policy of the countries which are staking a claim to the gratitude of the Afghans. Pakistan, formerly one of the largest investors in taliban-ruled Aghanistan, has been supplanted by such countries as Iran and Japan, who have both pledged $ 500 million in aid. Pakistan also falls behind the United States of America, Britain and Germany in extending its helping hand to the ravaged country. If this is any indication of the future orientation of the interim government headed by Hamid Karzai, then it would suggest that Afghanistan will no longer be looking to most of its immediate neighbours for guidance. Given the terrible state the country is currently in, this is perhaps one reason to be optimistic. So move over Bollywood, the Japanese film industry is about to take your place.
Yours faithfully,
Anil Batabyal, Calcutta

Victims, as always

Sir — The editorial, “Get to work” (Jan 21), supporting the deletion of the clause in the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act which punishes sex workers for “seducing or soliciting for purposes of prostitution”, is praiseworthy. I appreciate the editorial’s bold recommendation that prostitution be now “officially recognized by the state as a significant economic activity”. This view represents a radical, but welcome, departure from existing societal norms and the approach of some otherwise progressive women’s organizations.

The laws that relate to prostitution and sex workers, that is the ITPA and also the Indian penal code, are full of loopholes. Besides that, the restrictions these impose on the practice are unfair to sex workers. As a consequence of these restrictions, sex workers become most vulnerable victims. Traffickers, landlords, pimps and madams who exploit them are the real beneficiaries of the sex industry. Yet they are rarely accused or punished.

Another unfair clause in the ITPA which should be deleted or amended urgently is that which provides punishment for anyone “living on the earnings of prostitution”. Many sex workers all over India regularly remit or hand over a considerable share of their earnings to their families. This money is commonly used to take care of aged parents or educating siblings. A survey conducted in a few red-light areas of Calcutta in 1987 found that on an average a family gets Rs 475 per month from a woman selling sex. A strict adherence to this clause would undoubtedly hurt many poor families. Law and the society should recognize sex workers as human beings with basic rights and privileges. And that all existing legal provisions which discriminate against them and unfairly criminalize them should be abolished.

Yours faithfully,
Moni Nag, New York, US

Sir — I agree with the editorial, “Get to work”. I was surprised to learn that the “significant economic activity” of sex workers is not recognized by the state. In fact, the report, “Legal initiative for sex workers” (Jan 18), quoted one government official as saying, “There are many who believe that giving rights to prostitutes means perpetuating the practice”.

Prostitution, to give the activity its most recent pejorative term, has existed for centuries. The idea that it can be made to stop is naïve. We can only ensure that sex workers are given equal human rights by legally recognizing their status.

Yours faithfully,
Anshuman Mazumdar, Coimbatore

Bowled over

Sir — The Eden fiasco this time ended with an Indian victory, thanks to the horrible umpiring decisions highlighted by the editorial “How’s that” (Jan 22). Of course, the credit of scoring 281 should not be taken away from the team. But the type of partisan umpiring on display is not permissable. Marcus Trescothick was dismissed leg before wicket when the ball clearly pitched outside the leg stump, scuppering a brave English fightback.

When bad decisions are given against the visiting team, some serious thinking has to be done. The International Cricket Council must have its jurisdiction extended to the selection of umpires for one-day internationals. The concept of having home umpires for home series should also be reviewed immediately. There have been regular problems with umpiring decisions in ODIs. S.K Sharma’s decision against Trescothick was only one of them. Umpires must begin taking advantage of television and they must also use the third umpire more.

Yours faithfully,
Sumant Poddar, Calcutta

Sir — Despite being a fanatical supporter of the Indian cricket team, I was disturbed to see the English side defeated at the Eden Gardens. Surely the Indian team could do better than rely solely on the dubious interventions of home umpires to win. It is a shame for all of us, especially given the Indian media’s accusations of biased umpiring against the Australians during India’s tour a few years ago. In order to restore the marred spirit, all cricket boards should contemplate appointing a separate panel to review the performance of umpires.

Yours faithfully,
Syed Nadim Siraj, Calcutta

Sir — I usually enjoy cricket in the safe confines of my home. But this time I went to the Eden Gardens and had an experience that will remain indelibly etched in my mind. Every time Sourav Ganguly faced a ball, Mexican waves went around the stadium. Virender Sehwag received a deafening applause and Nayan Mongia a standing ovation. Harbhajan Singh seemed to hit his two boundaries as if to thank the crowd for its support. In the end, the English team had to get about four runs per over and had five wickets in hand. India had the stupendous support of 90,000 passionate supporters. I think we cheered India to victory.

Yours faithfully,
Amrita Diya Daityari, Calcutta

Purge the family

Sir — While praising Pervez Musharraf’s decision to ban terrorist organizations such as the Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad, Mulayam Singh Yadav has called for a similar ban on the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal, thereby equating these parties with terrorist outfits (“Mulayam wants ban rerun for Sangh”, Jan 14). An experienced politician like Yadav cannot be expected to make such a remark. On what basis does Yadav arrive at his conclusion? A few years ago, Yadav had appealed to the government for aid to the Pakistanis. This was a deliberate ploy to win minority sentiment. Is Yadav gunning for the same target this time again?
Yours faithfully,
Provat Kumar Chatterjee, Purulia

Sir — Mulayam Yadav’s call for a ban on the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Bajrang Dal and the VHP is justified. These organizations have been responsible for vitiating the atmosphere by their actions and preachings. The sangh parivar is communal, fascist and casteist. It is determined to thrust the Hindu rashtra on the plural Indian society. Its Hindutva is based on hatred and intolerance towards other religions. The sangh parivar also does not believe in the secular and democratic Constitution of India.

The demolition of the Babri Masjid by the saffron brigade was one of the most frightening incidents in the history of independent India. It was good to see several Hindus condemn the demolition. The Bharatiya Janata Party as a consequence was thrown out of power from four states after the incident. The party had also been forced to put the Ram mandir pledge on its back burner for a significant amount of time because of this opposition from the right-minded.

Yadav’s demand is logical and fair. However, the most important question is if the prime minister of India belongs to the sangh parivar, who will impose the ban on the organizations?

Yours faithfully,
G. Hasnain Kaif, Bhandara

Mistaken identity

Sir — Wednesday’s editorial, “Guns down” (Jan 24), on the People’s War Group contained an error. It was V.I. Lenin who debunked left adventurism as an “infantile disorder”, not Karl Marx.
Yours faithfully,
Sarat Majumdar, Calcutta

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