Editorial 1/ Freedom song
Editorial 2/ Animal passions
Myopic vision
Book Review/ Among erring humans
Book Review/ Rites of memory
Book Review/ Climes more bright and free
Book Review/ God wore spiked boots
Bookwise/ Big money to lure writers
Paperback Pickings
Letters to the editor

Culture policing is a familiar tool of political and religious bigotry. Whatever the pretext, it is always a ploy to take away personal freedoms. By deciding to ban two private television channels, the Bangladesh government has raised fears about its commitment to the values of an open society. The government’s argument that the two channels — MTV and Channel V — were propagating “an alien culture” is too thin to cover its dangerous potential. The previous government of Ms Sheikh Hasina Wajed was not troubled by fears that the two channels were corrupting the minds of the people with any “alien culture”. The timing of the ban too will raise uncomfortable questions about Ms Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party-led alliance government. It has come at a time when certain developments have prompted analysts and human rights bodies like Amnesty International to wonder if Bangladesh will fall into the trap of religious fundamentalism. The fact that the two banned channels offer popular Western and Indian music and dance is likely to evoke unsavoury parallels with the taliban in Afghanistan which began its reign of terror by banning music and all other entertainment which it considered alien and un-Islamic. The ban also betrays the new regime’s negative obsessions with even Indian “influences” on Bangladeshis simply because the previous Awami League government was alleged to have been pro-Indian.

Ms Zia cannot complain if the ban is interpreted as her government’s first major concession to its fundamentalist coalition partner, the Jamaat-e-Islami, which makes no secret of its dislike for “un-Islamic” ideas in politics and in culture. Worse still, the Jamaat is openly suspicious of — and hostile to — Western donors’ patronage of women activists of non-governmental organizations. Its leaders accuse these donors of interfering with the “social base” of the people. As a developing country and a young democracy, Bangladesh needs more — and not less — openness to influences from all over the world. Also, as a donor-driven economy, it cannot risk raising unnecessary suspicions among donor countries about the government’s true intentions.

That the donors would be watching events in the country was made clear at their annual meeting in Paris in March when they linked development aid to an improvement in the law and order situation. Ms Zia needs to be more cautious especially because of the Jamaat’s presence in her government. Despite reports of the activity of some Islamic militant groups, talibanization still seems a far cry in Bangladesh. But the government cannot afford to be even seen as conniving at or being complacent about fundamentalist dangers. It is not a question of which or how many television channels have been banned. If a government can stifle one kind of music under some pretext, it can do so with not just other kinds of music but also with all free choices. Ms Zia should revoke the ban and let freedom sing.


Ms Maneka Gandhi will have to get her priorities right. Every civilized society will have to be more or less mindful of not being too cruel to animals, within the limits of what it absolutely cannot give up eating or wearing. But the “more or less” is important here. Animal rights would have to be weighed against such things as the quality of human life and the resources available to keep the latter at an acceptable level in a particular society. Yet, this is precisely what Ms Gandhi frequently loses sight of, causing a great deal of entirely avoidable hassle. She has now targeted Pune’s National Institute of Virology, directing it to take better care of its sick animals being used for experiments. She cannot be technically faulted for this, since she is bringing international standards to bear upon the situation and acting according to the findings of a report prepared by a committee investigating experiments on animals. But Ms Gandhi will have to see things in context and learn to make sensible compromises. Without a flexible approach to particular situations she might end up wasting her own, and everybody else’s, resources and time.

What is at stake here is crucial medical research, advances in which would go a long way towards improving the quality of life in India. With India involving itself increasingly in research on HIV/AIDS, for instance, the ends would inevitably have to justify some of the means. It is true, and laudable, that wealthy nations like Germany have now been able to grant animals constitutional rights. The German constitution is the first in Europe to oblige the state to respect and protect the dignity of humans “and animals”. But this does not prevent the federal constitutional court to weigh, in each case, animal rights against other entrenched rights, such as those to conduct research or practise religion. The doggedness and stridency of Ms Gandhi’s commitment to animals have managed a few victories. She has succeeded in having the Performing Animals’ Amended Rules made into a law. But this has led, in turn, to a protracted, and no doubt wasteful, controversy over horse whips, involving an unbending Ms Gandhi, harassed turf authorities and irate jockeys. Before this there were problems involving snakes and with drinking milk. The question remains as to whether India can afford any of this, or even whether it ought to have a minister of state for statistics and programme implementation.


If nearly three months after the communal carnage, the tale of Ahmedabad looks to be that of two cities — the new city, almost exclusively Hindu, to the west of the Sabarmati river, which is back to its sparkling, bubbly high life, and the poorer Muslim-dominated east picking up the pieces on its near-deserted streets and bylanes lined with burnt buildings and cars — it is because a sinister argument runs underneath the picture of contrasts. It is a statement that the carnage made to the two communities.

The first thing that strikes one about the Hindu argument is the total absence of remorse. The brutalities of Godhra have vindicated the sangh parivar’s old thesis of “just violence” against the Muslims as never before. In fact, more than the lack of remorse there is in the Hindu statement a thinly-veiled touch of pride. Gujarat has held its head high, showing the nation the way to defend Hindutva. Sitting below framed pictures of 38 “Ramsevaks” killed at Godhra in the Vishwa Hindu Parishad office, an important functionary gloated with Gujarati ashmita (pride) as he narrated the state’s leading role in a succession of recent religio-political upheavals — from the Navnirman movement of the Seventies, the anti-reservation stir of the Eighties to the many rath yatras of the Nineties before and after L K Advani’s momentous one in 1990.

Does one know that Gujarat sent one-third of the participants in Murli Manohar Joshi’s ekta yatra in Kashmir in 1991 and nearly half of the Babri Masjid demolition squad at Ayodhya in December, 1992? With a proud tradition like this, where is the question of remorse? Gujarat, on the other hand, has made India proud again and again. You can’t keep Gujarat down, a leading light of the Gujarat chamber of commerce later told me, dismissing as political rhetoric the moments of “shame” of the prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, at the Shah Alam relief camp.

To the Muslim community, on the other hand, the message of the carnage was that it must know its place if it has to live in Gujarat or, for that matter, anywhere else in India. It must live fearfully, almost silently, and away from the high life to which only the Hindus are entitled. If ever it dares to express its anger as in Godhra it must be prepared to take a huge reprisal that would break its spine. If the Muslims are condemned to live in fear, that is because they are the worst source of fear for the Hindus. Don’t they threaten the majority with their soaring populations because of their many marriages and higher birth rates, their ever-present greed for Hindu women and property, their ghettoized world of criminality and low life and most dangerously, their links to terrorist groups at home and in Pakistan? All Muslims may not be terrorists, but aren’t all terrorists Muslim, as recent events at home and beyond show? Don’t they take advantage of the Hindus’ tolerance and subvert national interests?

And of course, there are the wrongs of history — the desecration of temples, forcible conversions and killings of Hindus, and so on. More recently, didn’t they collaborate with the British to sabotage the freedom movement? After such knowledge, what forgiveness? Godhra was only a confirmation of that fearful knowledge. And knowledge is nothing if not a guide to action.

Once such stereotypes — Hindus as superior but threatened and Muslims as inferior but aggressor — are created, killings become cleansings that are good for the body and soul. Once one understands this, one has a clue to the saffron mind which projects itself as more sinned against than sinning. In fact, it is not the western Ahmedabadi’s insensitivity, as it first appears, but his intense sensitivity to a mission satisfactorily accomplished that makes one part of the city look so blasé. The saffronites are actually furious with the “pseudo-secularists” who, instead of seeing and sharing the power and the glory, dare to dissent.

It is not enough for the sanghis to create mindsets, stereotypes and icons. You need organizations to translate the ideas into action. You need the VHP, the Bajrang Dal, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and of course, the Bharatiya Janata Party. But more important than all these, you need the strongest of all organizations — the state — to make the images take shape in action. By all accounts, the mayhem in Gujarat this time has surpassed all previous records of the state’s participation, not just complicity, in it.

Partly due to the spontaneous outrage over Godhra but largely because of the organized anti-Muslim psychological build-up, the police, the bureaucracy and even large sections of the judiciary became willing partners in creating the state of unreason that spilled over into the streets. This was perhaps the most dangerous portent from Gujarat for the whole country — this conspiracy of consent between the state and polity, between the rioter and the police and between the underclass and the elite. The state terrorism that one witnessed in Gujarat is no isolated happening; it found its justification in the myth created by leaders like Advani that the Indian state has been too “soft”.

There obviously were dissenting voices but they were too terrorized and helpless to speak up. Democracies, however imperfect, have dissent as their life-blood. If an ideology conspires with state power to stifle dissent, it is a dangerous signal, not just for communal harmony, but for all freedoms for all sections of society. To the saffron brigade, Gujarat may have heralded the proud groundswell for the apocalyptic Hindu rashtra; but to freedom-loving citizens this unholy alliance between state and ideology must seem stormclouds on the horizon. Interestingly, the Muslims in Gujarat refer to the riots this time as “toofan” (storm), while Hindus generally describe it as “dhamal” (disturbances).

More than the accusations of the sangh parivar’s role in the carnage, it is the charge of state terrorism that infuriates the sanghis. It is the pseudo-secularists, they fume, who ignore the spontaneity of the Hindu anger and overemphasize the state’s role symbolized in the persona of Narendra Modi. They complain that words like pogrom and fascism are indiscriminately and inappropriately used to characterize the violence in Gujarat. India, they say, can never be Hitler’s Germany because of its diverse, pluralistic polity and society.

While situations in two countries are never the same, any authentic study of the rise of Nazism in Germany would suggest interesting parallels to the saffron campaign. Replace Jews with Muslims and you find the same process of creation of stereotypes — the insecure (because of the Versailles humiliation) but superior Germans living in fear and hatred of the inferior but aggressive Jews. Even the stereotyped Muslim as the hunter of Hindu women is echoed in the Nazi campaign about the pernicious Jew lying in wait for the blond German girl in his bid to pollute the Aryan race. And the larger stereotype was the Jewish-Marxist plot which, like the Islamic conspiracy, was out to wreck civilization. “In standing guard against the Jew I am defending the handiwork of the Lord,” Hitler wrote in his autobiography, Mein Kampf — a parallel to the sangh parivar’s work for Lord Ram.

The saffronites’ uneasiness about any parallels with the German Nazis is somewhat astonishing. RSS guru Golwalkar put his admiration for Hitler on record. The problem is Hitler had to deal with 20 million Jews, but the Muslims in India number 130 million and would have formed the ninth largest nation in the world if they had a whole country to themselves. Even Hitler would have found pogroms an inadequate means of settling the question. The sanghis are too myopic in their vision to realize that the Hindus themselves cannot live peacefully and prosperously next to such large neighbourhoods of fear, hatred and suspicion.


Edited by Prabal Kumar Basu,
Rupa, Rs 395

At first glance, Signposts — Bengali Poetry Since Independence, seems to be an attractively presented volume, made more elegant with Ganesh Pyne’s Night of the Merchant on the cover, and illustrations by K.G. Subramanyan, Somenath Hore, Jogen Chowdhury and Ganesh Haloi, among others inside. But you begin to feel a sense of disquiet as you read Sunil Gangopadhyay’s foreword, a rather interesting but offhand mix of truisms and generalizations. These are mostly to the effect that it was the fear of the oceans that prevented the eastern countries from expanding their horizons, that American writing and South American writing have managed to achieve greater “dominance” than British or Spanish writing. “Bengali-speaking people are known to reside all over the expanse of the world, as a community they are fairly well known to the cosmopolitan genre.” Nothing new in that, except that Ramachandra Guha would perhaps have used his delightful term, “rooted cosmopolitans”, for them. If this foreword itself is a translation, then it has been hastily done indeed.

Next, Prabal Kumar Basu, the editor of this anthology, tells us in his prologue that fifty poets were chosen to represent fifty years of Bengali poetry. You wonder why (when it has been possible to represent most of the poets by four or five poems each) a few other important poets could not have been included by cutting down on some of the poems of the others who have been represented, or on some of the poets. No room, then, for Jiban- ananda Das; nor for the Hungry movement, which, the editor informs us, “fizzled out”, leaving no “definite impression” even though “many poets were put behind bars”. One would imagine that poets being put behind bars is itself a rather definite event! Surely, if the anthology is to be an enterprise in documenting “the social, political and socio-economic evolution” of Bengali poetry post-independence, it could be less dismissive.

Basu’s prologue, rather than providing an informative overview of the landscape of post-independence Bengali poetry for a readership outside Bengal, is a welter of emotion: “Distrust was still to come. Love was no longer a myth. Love sought to crack the myth apart and reach physicality.”

Where one would have expected creativeness, Basu tells us that “the translators have adhered to the original and have taken practically no liberties”. As a result, the translations are often staccato and uneven. Therefore, we are given the awkwardness of lines like the following: “If I looked into someone’s eyes I can tell/ whether love is possible with him…” from Mandakranta Sen’s “When Just you”, translated by Sanjukta Dasgupta. Or, “But in secret that you are so reckless/ When did I realize this?” from the same poet and translator. And surely the translator, Deepa Mukhopadhyay, could have come up with something better than “Multi-hued birds are flitting about in the depth of verdure”, from “The White Letter” by Rupak Chakrabarty. “They will call you an unsocial, too” translated by Bandana Sanyal from “A Big Fool, Unsocial Too” by Shankha Ghosh, is another clumsy line.

Annoyingly, the poems are undated, though the poets appear to be listed in a somewhat chronological order. Typos scatter the pages: “I want the words to stand on their ownfeet”; “For heavens sake”.

Despite these flaws, the volume manages to capture some of the most wonderful creations of these poets. Poetry is alive in Bengal, and covers a wide range of subjects from the very personal to the political and the global; from language to nation; from the nostalgic to the forward-looking; from being awash with feeling to the hard-edged and satirical. As we read the very first line of the very first poem, “At the sight of the smoke, I knew I had come among humanity…”, in Samik Bandopadhyay’s translation of Arun Mitra’s poem, we know that we, too, have come among humanity.


By Stephen Greenblatt,
Princeton, $ 29.95

The definition of history perhaps most frequently recalled by Renaissance writers was the one attributed to Cicero in which he described history as, among other things, the life of memory. Vita memoriae — the phrase joins the act of remembrance to that of writing, memoria being the last of the five major sections of ancient rhetoric. The phrase teases us into the nest of paradoxes that constitute writing as recollection — the continuing life of a dismembered past, the conjuration of an absent presence, the spectral embodiment of the bodiless dead. Stephen Greenblatt’s most recent book is a meditation on such haunting, conjuration and spectrality in Shakespeare.

Shakespeare’s time was a particularly troubled one when it came to remembering the dead. The English Reformation had dismantled the old Catholic mechanism of intercession, the whole cult of chantries, obits, requiems, anniversaries and the like, “with which English men and women had done suffrages for the sake of the dead in Purgatory and in anticipation of their own future condition as dead people”. More important, Protestants dismissed as ludicrous fiction the idea of purgatory itself.

Greenblatt begins by recalling this unsettling moment, when a community was dispossessed of its rites of memory, when it had to cast around to satisfy the deeply human need to remember and be remembered. He does this through a gripping survey of the 16th-century debate on purgatory, concentrating on such key writers as Simon Fish, William Tyndale and Thomas More. The survey prepares us for one of Greenblatt’s major points in the book. Scorned as a “poet’s fable”, purgatory returns to the world of fiction after its exile from theology.

Not everyone, however, will be convinced by the rather showy declaration with which the chapter ends: “What we call ideology, then, Renaissance England called poetry.” Greenblatt rather startlingly pushes poetry into the exclusive custody of uncritical imaginative power. One of the major symptoms of that power, for Greenblatt, has always been wonder, and his admirers will begin to worry if he has now come round to believing that ideology too is “wondrous”.

The story then winds back to the evolution of the idea of purgatory from the late 12th century onward. This is followed by a study of medieval records of ghostly visitations, especially one in which the 14th-century Dominican prior, Jean Gobi, interrogated the ghost of Gui de Corvo in the French town of Alès. The excitement that Greenblatt’s prose is able to generate in these bizarre accounts may be easily imagined by readers familiar with his manner. The outstanding achievement of this section, however, is the erudite stalking of a historical process in which narrative, painting and reportage converged to create and delimit a spectral space that was to have such a vigorous afterlife in the early modern theatre.

It is to that afterlife that Greenblatt turns in the remaining two chapters: one on staged ghosts in Shakespeare, the other on Hamlet. The former is more laboured than one expects in Greenblatt, although there are typically strong local passages on Richard III, King Lear and Macbeth. Particularly impressive is the effort to interpret the nightmares and ghosts in Richard III as symptomatic emplotments of fear and foreboding. It is no news that a New Historicist should treat dreams and anecdotes in this way. Greenblatt reads the dreams and spectres in the play alongside the nightmares provoked by Nazi terror recorded in Charlotte Beradt’s The Third Reich of Dreams. The place of such dreams in the aetiology of terror pushes Greenblatt to a somewhat revised, if contentious, view. These symptomatic narratives in miniature seem less like projections of individual and collective dread than evidence of a regime’s power “to alter the shape of the imagination”.

What Greenblatt finds to be a peculiarly Shakespearean achievement is the keener understanding of the theatrical possibilities of real and imagined ghosts. At a time when allusions to purgatory, the putative abode of redeemable spirits, had to be disguised as theatrical convention, Shakespeare was able to use ghosts as conjurations of the pasts that haunt historical and personal memories, of what the Renaissance would have understood as vita memoriae. At the same time, the author argues, Shakespeare’s ghosts represented the theatre’s capacity for fashioning and questioning realities, “to puncture the illusions that these stories generate, and to salvage something from the other side of disillusionment”.

This leads us to the last chapter on Hamlet, arguably the most powerful in the book. Except for a few illuminating glosses, Greenblatt has little to add to the theological debate on the nature of the ghost in Hamlet. The remarkable thing in the chapter is the way he tries to make sense of the presence of a Catholic ghost on the Protestant stage, of a soul trapped in purgatory “for a certain term”, and yet calling for the un-Christian act of revenge like a “Senecan” ghost. Admittedly, the space haunted by the spirit is, as Greenblatt says, theatrical rather than theological. The insight, however, hardly prepares one for the taut richness of Greenblatt’s explication, for the obsessive singleness of mood and purpose he is able to show as uniting the play’s musings on death, putrefaction and mutation of flesh, spectral “embodiment”, incorporation through eating and copulation, funerary rites, and the Eucharist. Few among current Shakespeare scholars would have thought the old ghost had so much blood in him.

Hamlet in Purgatory is written by a sobered, rather unhurried Greenblatt, one not visibly anxious to break new theoretical ground, to reflect on the bleak destiny of any quest for the subject’s autonomy or any resistance to power, or to insert confessional asides. Much, however, remains — his breathtaking grasp of scholarly resources, the urgency with which the prose persuades us of the continuing relevance of Shakespeare’s theatre, and, above all, the wit. If a present-day Thomas Browne were to write on Shakespeare, he would have written somewhat like Greenblatt. One would be hard put to think of a higher praise.


By Rosinka Chaudhuri,
Seagull, Rs 550

For those who enjoy academic theorizing, Gentlemen Poets in Colonial Bengal, is a book to relish. It deals with the complex nature of the colonizer-colonized relationship in 19th century Bengal and the author, Rosinka Chaudhuri, offers a fresh perspective. Her theory counters current notions in post-colonial literary studies which suggest that English education had been imposed upon a voiceless colonized people.

In the introductory chapter, Chaudhuri points out that “Post colonial studies, when examining the beginnings of English education in India, has always emphasized the colonizer’s role in the operation of power.” She also refers to “the sly establishment of English education for Indians” that recent writers mention. Chaudhuri argues that it was the colonized who sought out English education for a number of reasons. The author takes up the body of 19th century English verse to establish her point through a series of cogent arguments, presented discursively.

The poetry — including works by Henry Derozio, Kasiprasad Ghosh, Michael Madhusudan Dutt, Toru Dutt and Rabindranath Tagore, among others — is analysed less in terms of its literary value than in the context of its social, political and historical background. Early 19th century-poetry reflects an interaction between the colonizers and the colonized. This genre of poetry was a derivative of contemporary Orientalist poetry written by English poets like Byron, Campbell, Moore and others.

Initially, in emulating the Orientalists, the gentlemen poets of early 19th century Bengal expressed their admiration for the English. The poems of Derozio, for example, dream of a utopian society where the individual is free from the shackles of existing religious dogma. But, interestingly, they do not question British imperialism.

But how does the subversion take place through poetry? Orientalist scholarship glorified ancient Indian heritage and pointed to contemporary degeneration. Gradually in the changed climate of growing nationalist feelings — Chaudhuri attributes the moment of transition to the Ilbert bill agitation — the initial emulation took on a different role.

Chaudhuri cities two poems to illustrate the point — one by Michael Madhusudan Dutt and the other by Rabindranath Tagore. She writes, “One of the sonnets…enumerates the virtues of what Madhusudan perceived England to be; it is remarkable for its parallel with a later description of another utopia by Rabindranath Tagore… Madhusudan describes his vision of an idealized Britain: ‘For I have dreamed of climes more bright and free/Where virtue dwells and heaven-born liberty…’ The sentiments that Madhusudan records about a heavenly Britain are turned around and expressed in a very similar manner, but for the future of India, almost a century later by Rabindranath Tagore in ‘Where the mind is without fear, and the head is held high.’ ”

Chaudhuri’s discourse is interspersed with history, political commentary and snippets of social life, including that of the poets. For example, we come to know about Derozio’s youthful charm and conversational skills that made him the central figure at any party. Chaudhuri also draws from the rich archive of Indo-Anglian verse.


By Harry Harris,
Robson, £ 8.99

Genius often carries with it seeds of self-destruction. The history of sport is replete with instances of players with immense potential succumbing to the urge to throw it all. To achieve greatness, an individual must first get the better of this urge. Among the few with claims to true greatness in football, Pelé’s name comes first, not only because of his monumental success as a player, but also because he refused to let his fame and wealth get in the way of his performance for close to 20 years. Decades after retiring as a player, Pelé is still going strong — as the most well known symbol of football.

An attempt to script Pelé’s biography is thus an exercise on a vast canvas, with a São Paulo shanty at one end and the pinnacle of fame on the other. In between, there is an amazing story of the transformation of a poor boy into a living legend. Pelé’s presence, as Harry Harris points out, has dwarfed numerous heads of state, prompted warring factions to declare temporary ceasefire at the height of civil war, and of course, delighted football fans around the world for years.

Faced with a personality of such magnitude, the author has failed to extricate himself from the role of an idolizer and look at his subject from a distance. This is the most notable shortcoming of Harris’s biography. In the biographer’s engagement with his larger-than-life subject, there is little or no attempt to delve deeper and unearth what made Pelé the phenomenon that he is. Seen in comparison with a work like Jimmy Burns’s biography of Diego Maradona (Hand of God) — interestingly the only player who came closest to dislodging Pelé from the emperor’s throne — this flaw is all the more evident. While dealing with a complex temperamental genius like Maradona, Burns never loses sight of his ultimate aim — to take the reader to the corner of his subject’s psyche which holds the key to his actions. Harris’s readers have to be content with an inventory of Pelé’s words and deeds, qualified by the author’s disappointing admission that the man “remains an intensely private person”.

There is no doubt that the deeds are fascinating in themselves: that Pelé propelled Brazil to World Cup victory in 1958, 1962 and 1970, a feat still unmatched, is a good example. Harris also takes up Pelé’s stint in politics, his thoughts on the improvement of world football, his astute, sharp and diplomatic handling of a wide range of relationships — with teammates, rivals, critics, admirers, administrators including Fifa, relatives and friends, and above all, with fame.

But for Harris, Pelé is a winner in whatever he does, with the unremarkable exception of his unsuccessful venture into politics. Admitted, there is no serious scar to Pelé’s name, but the odd blotches — the many paternity suits against him, or allegations that he tried to put a spanner in Garrincha’s works — find no place in Harris’s scheme of things.

Added to this is the consistent and incongruous reference to English football, completely out of sync with the story of Pelé. The reference is somewhat justified in discussions of the 1966 World Cup, in which Pelé was injured midway and which England went on to win. But whether “Pelé perceived in [David] Beckham that endearing quality of still being in love with the game, as well as with the Spice Girl he was to marry” is of no relevance to the tale Harris has set out to tell. This dilutes the intensity of the work.

The book has its quota of anecdotes: for instance, Pelé does not know how he came to acquire the legendary nickname. Pelé’s comments on the present day soccer are something to be pondered: “The modern game is all about now and no one has the patience to wait.”

But finally, the failure to discover the man behind the legend and the conspicuous absence of analysis makes this biography a mere chronicle of Pelé’s success.


Western publishers do and can conjure large sums for books that don’t exist, or if they do, in the barest outline. For instance, Margaret Thatcher’s memoirs were reportedly worth £ 9 million even before she penned a single word. Jeffrey Archer secured £ 5 million for the world rights of his next three books. Our own Hari Kunzru got £ 13 million for The Impressionist. One could go on but one needs to ask the following question : why do publishers offer such large sums for books which haven’t been written and which could turn out to be not that good. And what kinds of books fetch such advances?

The obvious answer is the need for bestsellers, which in turn determines turnovers and status. Competition for the few potential blockbusters pushes the price up and everyone wants to get it first.

An advance used to be the money paid up against the royalties the book was going to earn from sales in order to finance the author during writing. In a sense, an advance is a self-fulfilling prophecy, a sign of the publisher’s confidence in a book. If it is high, the book will have a large print run and an expansive promotion campaign. There is no other way to recover the advance and make a decent profit. Some agents and their authors think that if publishers pay a lot for a book, they will necessarily give it the kind of backup that will make it a bestseller.

Can a publisher manufacture a bestseller? Some publishers think they can because they consider the readers to be gullible and easily taken in by all the hype that accompanies new releases. But disappointments are inevitable if one purchases books without reading them. And the disappointments are understandable. There are two kinds of books that attract large advances. First, political memoirs that can also be serialized in the print media. Second, straightforward novels with “love, and power and tenderness and glory, a lot of family history against the country’s history in the background.” Here, mediocrity is the key to success and proof of this are the bestseller fiction lists that are dominated by hack writers who have figured out how to attract mass audiences. Existential novels that deal with life’s compromises and disappointments are definitely out of the big league.

Some novels that follow contemporary trends have done well but most political memoirs have failed. Even after all the disappointments, publishers have not lost faith in them because of the over-hyped political consciousness in India. Of course, some memoirs have succeeded. This is because they have been short and sharp factual accounts published within a short span of time. Failures are easy to understand. If the book comes out a year after the politician has quit office, as they usually do, no one cares because a week is too long in politics.

So where do we go from here? Big advances despite the lessons of the past are here to stay and may even become bigger as the market determines what goes in or stays out. Publishers who try to create bestsellers by buying a brand name or spending a lot on promotion must know that no amount of huffing and puffing can make it sell. But if some authors, who have usually been at the receiving end, benefit why not?



What on earth is sexuation?

By Aloma Lobo and Jayapriya Vasudevan
(Penguin, Rs 150)

The Penguin guide to Adoption in India by Aloma Lobo and Jayapriya Vasudevan is a readable, useful and sensible book. It is a comprehensive guide, looking at the legal, practical, psychological and social aspects of a practice still regarded with prejudice and apprehension in Indian society. The authors weave together extensive information, advice and personal histories to place adoption very much within the realm of the possible. The section on single parents is crucial: it is good to know that single men are legally allowed to adopt in India, like single women. Same-sex couples are not mentioned though, even in the section on NRI and foreign applicants for adoption. This is a book which quietly, and humanely, questions accepted notions of the Indian family.

Edited by Anirban Das, Anup Dhar and others
(Margins Collective, Rs 90)

From the Margins, VOL II, NO 1 edited by Anirban Das, Anup Dhar and others collects a number of articles on the subject of “bodies, beings and genders”. The contributors are from all over the world — there is a brief conversation with Gayatri Spivak about Kant as a “categorical pornographer”. Most of the pieces are written in a language that would appear to many with bodies, beings and genders as incomprehensible, ungrammatical and infelicitious. It bristles with sites and trajectories, and a great deal of imploding, interrogating, negotiating and de-essentializing. There is talk of “sexuation”, as of a Lacanian lifeboat and a Borromean knot.The phallus, apparently, can only play its role as veiled; and this could lead to a “structural stasis of sexual binarisms”. But it is anorexia which inspires a riot of jargonizing in Ranjita Biswas: “Reading Anorexia as a synecdoche for woman’s oppression under patriarchy or for psychological castration would in effect efface the phenomenological woman.” What could this possibly mean?

By Samrat Upadhyay
(Rupa, Rs 195)

Arresting God in Kathmandu by Samrat Upadhyay introduces a writer who should be wary of getting labelled as “Nepali author writing in English”. He is far too good for that to happen. This is an excellent collection of stories, most of them having some sort of erotic focus, explored with unsqeamish tenderness, across a range of human situations. The writing is precise, restrained and morally neutral. But this does not become a monotone. “I must keep my thoughts focused on the present: the cauliflower frying in the hot oil; the sound of our neighbours, a gambler husband and a rancorous wife, arguing; a child playing outside in the dark, mumbling about ghosts and demons; my hands throughout the years of washing and cooking, now veined, old, tired.”



Way to dusty death

Sir — The death of the 21-year old British girl, Rachel Holcroft, from heroin overdose shows that certain cults last longer than others (“Addicts tragedy a lesson for the future”, May 22). Drug addiction is one of those things that most youngsters in the West develop out of peer pressure. For young girls, the urge to rebel against social norms acts as an added impetus. Alice Echols in Daring to Die, shows how, for American adolescent girls, drug abuse became an important feature of radical feminism during the Sixties and the Seventies. It did not help that most of the popular culture icons, including the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, were into drugs, and many died of drug abuse. Janis Joplin, an immensely talented musician who died of heroin overdose at the age of 27, became more popular than ever after her death. It is a good idea that the British government is using Rachel’s case as an example for schoolchildren. It is time the practice of taking drugs was de-glamourized.
Yours faithfully,
Shahana Shukla, Calcutta

Whose religion is it anyway?

Sir — In his article, “Thoughts in a temple” (May 5), Amit Chaudhuri highlights a disturbing trend in present day Hinduism. He observes that a “new kitsch Hinduism”, which preaches material success instead of religious or moral values, has developed as the religion of the rich man and the trader. This phenomenon has been further compounded by the emergence of the militant fundamentalist political culture of Hindutva, based on the concept of a Hindu nationality and with no regard for the secular and democratic ideals of modern India. The objective of such a Hindutva is to use its own version of Hinduism for political gains.

The picture that emerges is a grim one. But is there cause for such pessimism as yet? A handful of traders and proponents of Hindutva cannot possibly hijack a liberal religion with centuries-old grounding in tolerance and humanism. Nor can it be sullied by some rich industrialists building opulent temples. Moreover, Hinduism has historically tended to cleanse itself from time to time through democratic movements like the Bhakti movement.

Gujarat is more of an aberration than a trend. Such aberrations will ultimately be stamped out by a collective spirit of sanity. Chaudhuri could take heart from an observation made by the noted historian, Bipan Chandra: “the believers in communal ideology constitute only a fringe.”

Yours faithfully,
P.C. Banerji, Calcutta

Sir — It is apparent that Amit Chaudhuri lives a stone’s throw away from the Birla temple, but he confesses that he does not “unreservedly enjoy going to” the temple often. Perhaps he believes in the dictum, “nearer to the church, farther from god”. It is evident that Chaudhuri dislikes the Hindu business community, since he wrongly portrays Hinduism as a trader’s religion. Whoever told Chaudhuri that Ganesh is the deity only of blackmarketeers and Lakshmi presides over the urban dowry system? Why blame Hindu gods for the folly of men? How can Chaudhuri blame either Hinduism or Hindutva for Narendra Modi’s failure to govern his state or for Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s defence of him?

Chaudhuri’s dislike of the ostentatious premises of the Birla temple comes through in his writing. Would he have preferred to visit the rundown, dilapidated Kalighat temple instead where greedy pandas do not even allow a person to pay his respects without greasing their palms?

Yours faithfully,
S. Shiva Shankar, Calcutta

Test the best

Sir — It is quite disgusting to watch the Indian gerontocracy in action, especially when it comes to the election of the president or the extension of the term of the incumbent president. There is surely no dearth of eligible candidates to hold the highest office in the country. Why then are political parties reserving their support for a few old and infirm individuals? Why not usher in a young and enterprising person as the president in the new millennium? And why could that person not be a woman? Could not that person be an accomplished professional who has never had anything to do with politics? A sportsperson like P.T. Usha or an able administrator like Kiran Bedi is eminently suited to fit the bill. They are international figures, but one doubts if anyone would be brave enough to break free of the stereotype and nominate one of them. Particularly since most of the decision-makers of the country are men.
Yours faithfully,
Sandhya Upadhyay, Hyderabad

Sir — There has been plenty of speculation in the media about the likely contest in the forthcoming presidential elections. But the right candidate for the post would be none other than Atal Bihari Vajpayee. For a chair that has been glorified by the likes of Rajendra Prasad, S. Radhakrishnan and Zakir Hussain deserves an individual of more than average calibre.

Yours faithfully,
C.R. Bhattacharjee, Calcutta

Sir — Since independence, only Rajendra Prasad has enjoyed two terms as president of India. Subsequently, no other president has managed to stay in office for two consecutive terms. K.R. Narayanan has been president for one term now. But his handling of the situation after the fall of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government in 1999 left much to be desired. Given this record, his name should not be considered for a second term. On the other hand, P.C. Alexander, one of the front-runners in the contest, has vast experience as a bureaucrat. He has worked with several political leaders who have often been at loggerheads. There has also never been any allegation against him that question his impartiality or credibility.

At this critical juncture, when coalitions have become the order of the day, Alexander is the best candidate for the president’s post.

Yours faithfully,
Hara Lal Chakraborty, Calcutta

Sir — Various names are being proposed for the post of the president of India. Though the election is indirect, citizens must try and ensure that support is built up for a good candidate. Amongst the many names doing the rounds is that of A.P.J. Abul Kalam, a person who would do India proud as president. As a leading scientist and technologist, he has the ability to think rationally and independently. Since he has not been associated with any political party, he can be trusted to act with fairness.

India is in need of a leader who can be respected without reservations and be expected to provide sound solutions when required. Kalam’s seminal contribution and leadership in the fields of science, technology and defence, besides his age and sharp intellect make him the ideal candidate for the chair. Kalam is unlikely to canvass for himself. So all well-wishing Indians must make an honest attempt to give India the leadership it deserves.

Yours faithfully,
Shailesh Gandhi, Mumbai

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