The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, July 1, 2001

Thus spake the Tenth Guru
Review by M.L. Sharma

Main line to preservation
Review by Jaswant Kaur

Vittal prescriptions to public probity
Review by Ram Varma

e-mail to today’s devil
Review by R.P. Chaddah

Foe and foeless Man Friday
Review by Manju Jaidka

Fielding a diarist
Review by Deepika Gurdev

Horror camp Belsen revisited
Review by Shelley Walia

Free market and unfree labour
Review by Surinder S. Jodhka



Thus spake the Tenth Guru
Review by M.L. Sharma

Dynamics of the Social Thought of Guru Gobind Singh
by Dharam Singh, Publication Bureau, Punjabi University, Patiala. Pages 159. Rs 180.

AS is evident from the very title of the book, the work under study deals with the social philosophy of the last Sikh Guru who needs no introduction. He was a man of sterling virtues, a poet, a prophet, a philosopher, a mystic, a warrior and a social reformer who reorganised the Indian social set-up and set new standards for achieving a cherished goal, one similar to Ram Rajya. He founded the Khalsa and combined spirituality with martial qualities in order to make man a "sant-sipahi".

There is little doubt about the erudition of the writer, but he has indulged in overphilosophising. The book has covered in its expanse the whole gamut of Hindu philosophy and rudiments of Islam, besides Indian history. What the author desires to say is present in the last chapter, "Conclusion", and that too in the two paragraphs on page 149. In the earlier chapters he writes in the vein of a philosopher or a metaphysicit.

Spread in 12 chapters, the book presents a brief profile of the last Guru, contemporary social and religious praxis, text and discourse, philosophical rationale, dimensions of social thought, the Khalsa Panth: the ideal social structure, etc. The author underscores the fact that the Guru made a bold attempt at humanising the spiritual and mystical in Hindu religion. The chapter, "Philosophical Rationale", aims at expounding the whole philosophical thought of Guru Gobind Singh in his social milieu in a pragmatic manner.

The Guru gave a new interpretation to the concept of gods and goddesses and has clipped their wings of deification. They are simply powerful and mighty entities who rid humanity of evil forces and fought tyranny and oppression in order to curb their onslaughts on humanity. Rama, Krishna, Shiva, Durga, etc. are no more divine personages or avatars worthy of worship but represent humans crusading against immoral and evil forces with a big army. What is ontological is made by the Guru empirical and rendered in social terms.

There is a deep metaphysical discussion on the concept of Akal Purakh: the concept the author could have expressed in simple terms. He says the concept of Ik Onkar is different from Om and the Koranic utterance of the creed "There is no god except God and Muhammad is His messenger". But in truth they imply one and the same thing, that the Supreme Reality is non-dual. The kalma implies that the Prophet has brought the message: There is nothing separate from God — that is everything else is relative reality dependent upon the Absolute or God alone is worthy of worship. This is what the Vedas also declare: brahman is real, the world false — that a relative truth.

The author says casteism has created many ills in the social fabric of life and that Hinduism lays stress on asceticism and does not encourage social and individual life and calls the world maya (illusion). Even if we accept his argument, this too is basically the product of one thought of Shankara’s mayavad (which too is not properly understood). But there are various other schools of thought in Hinduism which propound active social life, for instance Lord Krishna’s concept of nishkam karma (selfless work). Mahatma Gandhi, Lokmanya Tilak, Swami Vivekananda, Aurobindo, Swami Rama Tirtha drew inspiration from the same scriptures to regenerate Hindu society and they were tireless workers to fight against social injustices. The barbarities of casteism were also decried by many saints like Kabir, Ravi Das, Dadu and Shah Abdel Latif. The Sikh Gurus were remarkable men, the like of whom are rarely found in the world and therefore, their philosophy could not be separatist. They jolt those who are stupefied and are in stupor.

The example of Bhai Kanhya, who quenched the thirst of the wounded soldiers on the battlefield irrespective of caste, creed and religion, foe or friend, is the most appropriate example of a true Sikh, Guru Gobind Singh has lauded his sincere act of selfless work. In terms of the Bhagavad Gita he was a noble example of selfless worker who acted for the pleasure of the Divine (Akal Purakh).

Whatever findings the author has brought out are well known to history students and scholars. He has couched them in philosophical or metaphysical terms. In telling sentences, he describes the role of the Gurus: "Thus the Sikh Gurus envisioned an ideal man and an ideal social structure. Both man and the material phenomena, according to them, are realities, relative realities though. This precept provides for their essential unity with the Divine, on the one hand, and spiritual unity and ethnic equality among the entire mankind, on the other. Since man is, in essence, divine, truthfulness in his thought and deed is declared the highest, higher that the ‘Truth Itself’.

Guru Gobind Singh had given a reinterpretation of all Hindu myths and Puranic avatars. Bhagwati (Durga) with a sword in her hand has become a symbol of the spirit of fearlessness and the warrior fighting against the evil forces and the most befitting model for the "Sant-Sipahi", just like Joan of Arc and Maharani Laxmibai of Jhansi. Durga is not to be worshipped or deified but invoked to fuse a new lease of life brimming with courage in man and woman. Rama is not to be deified but his example is to be followed to vanquish evil forces like Ravana. They can never be coequal with Akal Purakh.

The chapter, "Text and the Discourse" is an account of Guru Gobind Singh’s poetical and other literary compositions. In the chapter "Philosophic Rationale" there is a metaphysical discussion on the relation of the creator and the creation. He says they are identical in essence. "This is the basis of the spiritual unity of jiva and other elements of samsara". This speaks for equality between all human beings. The author contends that all events are taking place in a historical perspective and, therefore, the material phenomena is not illusory (maya). But according to Vedanta, maya also implies relative reality: it has the same implication which is evident in the Guru’s thought. By maya is implied that which is devoid of individual and independent existence, solely dependent on Brahman just as a sand house on a river bank is dependent upon the existence of sand.

The author has made a fine attempt at presenting a comprehensive account of Sikh philosophical thought but he has not adopted a straight path as he delves in ontological study. In making comparisons and contrasts with Hinduism, Jainism and Islam he gives an impression of diversity instead of unification or unity. The Gurus, like prophets, awaken people from the slumber of sloth and their shying away from moral duty to protect the weak and the oppressed. They are never iconoclasts.

The book will generate a deeper interest in students as well as scholars of Sikh thought. The book sheds more light on the metaphysical concepts of the 10th Guru rather than social concepts and reads like a thesis. The distinctiveness of the metaphysical doctrines of the Sikh Gurus from the Hindu and Islamic doctrines is not borne out from the study. There is a vast similarity.



Main line to preservation
Review by Jaswant Kaur

Branch Line of Eternity
by Bill Aitken. Penguin Books, New Delhi. Pages 280. Rs 295.

THE author is a Scot by birth and a naturalised citizen of India. Bill Aitken came to India in 1959 to study religion but soon took a fancy for the steam engine. He has written several articles and books on travel and tourism.

At first he was stuck by the strange combination of fire and water and the key role of the steam engine in transporting the rich and the poor. This has inspired him since childhood. He was living in a village of Tullibody in Scotland where he first saw trains thundering on the Devon bridge. The boom of the moving steel horse over a river left a lasting impact on the author. A travel writer was thus born.

Spread over 18 chapters, the book is a tribute to the long lost era of steam engine and an exuberant account of the joys of travel. Capturing the last traces of steam engine in India, the frozen wonder of Ladakh, the colourful South, the dense jungles of Arunachal Pradesh and the arid flat lands of Rajasthan produces a scintillating effect on the reader.

Aitken says that in 1960, India had a 200 year reserve of coal to fuel its vast fleet of 10,000 locomotives. Britain had at that time already decided to phase out steam locomotives. This had a knock on effect as India too followed suit by switching over from coal-fired to diesel or electric engines. The reasoning is not clear.

Different interpretations have been offered. One theory is that political considerations influenced the decision. Others say that it was because locomotives consume large quantities of coal. But in practice coal was mainly sold as domestic fuel to villagers and only a very small portion was shoveled into the boiler.

Most of the steam engines were so well built that they worked much longer than their expected life. They gave excellent service. The author says that the beautiful zonal markings and the pleasant sound of its clanging parts opened the doors to eternity. The steady clacking of the railway carriages indicated the changing landscape, leaving the soul as relaxed as the body. Still the steam locomotive is about to become history.

The steam engine is on its last legs in India. The Indian Railways are not interested in saving this fast disappearing heritage. Even a private operator like Telco had not shown any interest in preserving its own history.

Of all the Railway Ministers, Madhavrao Scindia was keen on retiring the steam engine as soon as possible. Strangely, the Minister had added 40 trains in his Gwalior division but did not present even a single engine to the National Rail Museum, New Delhi.

In fact, the credit of whatever there is in the NationalRail Museum goes to Mr Mike Satow, chairman of Imperial Chemical Industries in India, who went round the country spotting vintage models for preservation. But for him we would have done grave injustice to our cultural heritage. Even after Satow’s visit, no one has ever cared to expand the collection. However, some regional rail museums are being established.

Unlike all railway officers, a private workshop foreman, Sardar Arjan Singh, whom the author met during his visit to the eastern Himalayas in 1986, is proud of his fleet of five vintage engines and is hopeful of running it as long as he can.

Compared to a steam engine, the author considers a diesel engine as a soulless block of unromantic parts. Even the horn of a diesel engine sounds morose in contrast to the attention-commanding trill of the steam whistle. The only advantage which the diesel has over the steam is of providing a clean journey. The greater efficiency of a diesel engine is neutralised by the indifference and boredom it induces in travelling public.

After years of writing, Aitken feels delighted that his efforts are bearing fruit. In October, 1997, the Fairy Queen, a 1855 Kitson "single" was put on broad gauge rails and this beautiful engine won itself a place in the Guiness Book of World Records as the oldest running steam locomotive.

The author concludes that although steam engines have gone, a new but an advanced generation still persists. He may not be delighted by their looks but thrilled to see them accelerate which overcomes their external ugliness.

It is sad but instructive that an outsider, a Scot, has to come and lend a hand in egging us to think of our tradition. Why should we Indians be coarse to our legacy?



Vittal prescriptions to public probity
Review by Ram Varma

Public Sector Governance and Management: Emerging Dimensions
by N. Vittal and S. Mahalingam, Vikas Publishing House, New Delhi. Pages 299. Rs 350.

MOST of India’s public sector enterprises (PSEs) are like outmoded, giant ocean liners which buffeted by global winds are in doldrums, if they have not run aground yet. Earlier, they had been gaily parading themselves in the sheltered lagoon of India’s "command economy", flying their banners and colours, cheered and applauded by the simple folk on the shore for their splendour. But once the tranquility of the lagoon was disturbed, as the protective walls crumbled in the past decade, and the rough waves from the high seas began lapping the country’s shores, these gilded vessels are all at sea, or running for cover, pathetic in their plight. High on intake but low on delivery, gargantuan in size and slow in manoeuvre, they appear to be fated to extinction like dinosaurs.

The authors of the book under review, N. Vittal and S. Mahalingam, have a wealth of experience and erudition and are eminently qualified to suggest a way out. They begin by diagnosing the problem and discover that the basic ailment of the PSEs lies in confusion of goals. Originally the objectives of the public sector were (a) to build infrastructure for economic development, (b) to create employment opportunities, (c) to promote balanced regional development, (d) to create a self-reliant economy through the development of local industries, (e) to generate investable resources and (f) to prevent/reduce concentration of private economic power. The charter was wide-ranging and flexible and with social goals being dominant, the PSEs were not expected to make profits. However, they were not supposed to incur losses either.

To borrow a term from gardening, they were to be mother plants, providing seedlings, saplings and bud wood for new orchards, as it were, a nursery for industrialisation. Some of them did subserve the larger purpose, providing industrial raw material at cost price, helping industry in import or export, etc. But somewhere along the way, inevitably, bureaucratisation set in and employee welfare became the dominant theme. Confusion set in, and rather than creating avenues for employment, PSEs themselves began to be treated as employment providers, and were saddled with unnecessary staff. PSE’s were also floated in areas best left to the private sector like hotels. The administrative ministries brazenly interfered in their functioning through "backseat driving". This road led naturally to statism. Their losses began to mount and were written off, straining the nation’s economy and creating huge budget deficits. Until the staggering subsidies and losses outweighed ever their social purpose.

The authors disclose that the goverment of India has so far invested Rs 190,000 crores in as many as 242 PSEs! One does not know how many were set up in what states and at what cost.

It should have been educative if some analysis of the areas covered by these numerous PSEs, their relevance or otherwise to the original objectives, their relative success or failure and insight into the causes thereof were given. The authors just offer a cryptic remark that every sick unit in the public sector is sick in its own way, and of course recommend that a diagnostic exercise be undertaken followed by a SWOT analysis and a brainstorming session to suggest ways for their rehabilitation. They also note in passing that many units are being scrutinised by the BIFR for evolving suitable rehabilitation packages. The seven reports submitted by the Disinvestment Commission and the tardy pace of their implementation have also been mentioned. But one certainly wishes for a fuller comment on these vital aspects of the problem.

The shift in national policy in 1991 from command economy to a global market economy raised the existential question of the raison d’etre of PSEs. The Government of India announced that the portfolio of public sector investment would be reviewed, confining it to strategic, hi-tech and essential infrastructure. It further announced its intention of opening the door to the private sector in a selective manner, referring sick PSEs to the BIFR, allowing disinvestment of government share holding in PSEs and introducing professionalism and autonomy in PSEs. The Disinvestment Commission, which was set up in pursuance of the policy shift, later evolved concepts of core and non-core industries and paved the way for disinvestment.

With this shift the whole working environment for the PSEs changed. The regime of administered prices disappeared; global prices became the determining factor.

Monopoly gave way to competition. The "navratnas" (nine best PSEs like VSNL, BHEL, ONGC, IOC, etc.) were asked to prove themselves in the international arena. Efficiency, which in other words means cost-cutting and improving product quality and customer satisfaction, became high priority areas.

But PSEs are dogged by intrinsic problems. Many remain headless due to archaic selection procedures requiring approvals at various levels: the Department of Personnel, Public Enterprises Selection Board, Central Vigilance Commission, Administrative Ministry, Home Ministry, Cabinet Secretariat, PMO. Recently a case of the airport authority was reported where the author as CVC, had held back an officer’s name. The High Court has frowned on this. Then there is the problem of pay. How much do you pay the CEO of one of the "navratnas", with a turnover of Rs 1000 crore or more? Rs 26,000 per month? That is the highest the much-maligned Fifth Pay Commision has allowed. It is a pittance, considering their stakes and responsibility. But that it what the Permanent Secretary of the administrative ministry draws, to whom the CEO reports.

As Vittal says in his colourful language: "PSEs are tied to the apron strings of the administrative ministry. As a result there in an attempt to calibrate the CEO’s pay with that of the pay of the Secretary of the Department." He suggests a two-part pay package, the first part being the existing any packet, plus a second part directly linked to performance, with no ceiling. He also suggests the CEO’s should be given stocks of their companies as a direct incentive to raise productivity. He goes on to suggest that a code of conduct and ethics should be enforced among all employees of PSE’s and of the administrative ministries, so as to ensure their personal integrity and loyalty to organisational goal. He had drafted a code which he had sent to the Government of India for adoption, where it is gathering dust. He believes that its adoption would go a long way in ensuring good governance and accountability. The code tries to resolve the problems arising out of interest, pur pressure and abuse of official position, and to encourage professionalism and responsiveness to the public.

Vittal’s passion for bringing about cleanliness in public life is amply reflected in this book. Corruption, its genesis and ramification, have received his earnest consideration and he has coined some pithy epigrams about the "neta, babu, lala, dada and jhola", the last being NGO’s. He illustrates how widely the cancer of corruption has spread. He has been writing articles and delivering lectures on this theme. "Our politics has deteriorated from an era when we were casting the vote to an era where we are voting the caste", "If you do not want to commit yourself, committee yourself", to quote only a couple of his formulations. He uses his extensive knowledge of the ancient Indian scriptures to good effect by quoting from them to clinch his argument, particularly while concluding his discourse.

The blurb does not mention it but I have a strong suspicion that the book has been fashioned out of his occasional speeches and addresses given at different venues. There is nothing wrong with this. Only it spawns repetitions. For instance, in the last chapter on page 297, a paragraph on Disinvestment Commission appears, which has already been quoted in the same chapter on page 288. And there are jerks and jolts in the reasoning. The reader’s irritation is increased by mistakes in proof reading. Besides, Vittal is fond of using slang, which is certainly effective before a live audience but takes away the grace of a treatise. I also feel that proper referencing is essential in a serious book, which is missing in this book.

Let me hasten to add that Vittal is an original thinker and a crusader for values. Some of his perceptions are truly refreshing and thought provoking. His insights into the working of the Indian bureaucracy are most valuable. This book will be greatly prized for these, especially by those who have not had the pleasure of listening to him in person.



e-mail to today’s devil
Review by
R.P. Chaddah

Spare Me, O Lucifer — Poems
by J.S. Anand. Rs 100.

In the Kingdom of the Dead — Poems
by Harish K. Thakur. Rs 100.

The Theophany — Poems
by Kanwar Dinesh Singh. Rs 100.
All published by Writers Workshop, Calcutta.

THE three books under review are from the part-time pen of academics turned poets who work in remote colleges in Himachal and Punjab. They are just like the "Country Clergy" of R.S. Thomas, who work in God’s way in obscure places in Great Britain. The only difference is that they follow the muse of poetry in the coveted hope of getting noticed by the metro literati at some stage. This strong urge gives them enough stimuli to get their work published.

The take-off point of "Spare me O Lucifer" by J.S. Anand is the play "Doctor Faustus" by Christopher Marlowe. The play is based on the legend of a German magician and necromancer who bartered away his soul to the Devil, for knowledge and power. As Anand is a product of the techno-savvy 20th century, he is able to summon Mephistophilis on the Internet to give him wealth, power and fame (not knowledge) in exchange for his soul. Over the centuries, even Mephistophilis has undergone a change in his ideas and attitudes. So he says, "Look within, man, Do you still have a soul". Anand weaves his verses around remembered incidents or half-memories with half-borrowings from the prescribed text popular poems of Shakespeare, Shelley, Keats, Wordsworth. All these pyrotechnics give his poetry the look of a derivative:

"Life is not/a tale told by an idiot

Nor is it an illusion/a walking shadow"

"With a rich harvest/of vestal beauty

She was an ode to autumn."

A nightingale/Singing her melodious tunes/in Arabian sands.

The poet appears to be in the habit of watching TV so that TV jingles come naturally, and land in his poetry.

Mirror/Paint smiles on my white lips

Draw Close-Up teeth/Sparkling with happiness/

On my ravished face.....

The poet comes out with something different in the poems "The Possessed" "Contours of Beauty" and "A Poem."

"Poetry is the condensation/of pent-up emotions

too fine for physical reaction/too sensitive/

for emotional inaction."

"In The Kingdom of The Dead" is the second collection of poems of Harish K. Thakur who teaches social sciences. The poems exemplify more of the sordid side of our existence. The give-away titles of the poems reveal all this — Life’s Bastille, In the Kingdom of the Dead, The Crematorium, Poor Father etc.

"We burn our lives/like a cigarette/

Carboned consciousness/seeks solace."


"The crematorium/A witness to countless ends

of warm beginnings/from hot cradles to cold beds."

Thakur has an observant eye and he draws our attention to some potentially powerful themes — exploitation, distrust, loneliness, betrayal — that afflict the contemporary set-up. The teacher in him, like D.H. Lawrence, observes and consciously obtrudes.

"A famished child/carries the funnel/bearing the mark of bread.

Fate leers through hunger/life drowned to dregs

"Stoned phiz issues a cheque/from midst the weary legs."

Thakur feels tethered when he comes to writing about his remote village in Himachal Pradesh and is compelled to state the obvious. "You check my advancing feet/in every vista of life."

Writing appears to be a pastime for Kanwar Dinesh Singh. He brings out collections of poems at regular intervals. The present collection "Theophany" contains about 60 well-rounded poetic exercises with no fixed parameters. He writes on almost everything under the sun — temper transitions, silence, apparition of love, myopia, friendship, relationships and mountains.

"As autumn she torments me by ullage of/her soulful visage.

Mountains/stand/Rocksteady/As Poetic Truth.

Now she lurks to come before me/in the garb of nature.

She fears I would/denude her/into a poem."

Friendship for Dinesh is a "compromise of egos" and relationships "form a gossamer/Envelope with a web/of frail ties" and "Ideals are barren as fire." Dinesh brings the feel of local colour when he writes of the natural phenomena of Shimla, mountains, Tattapani et al.



Foe and foeless Man Friday
Review by
Manju Jaidka

Foe: A Novel by J.M. Coetzee..Penguin, New York. Pages 157. $11.95.

IN the year 1703, a young adventurer called Alexander Selkirk ran away to the sea and joined the expedition of the explorer and buccaneer, William Dampier. On board, he quarrelled with the captain and insisted on being put ashore on the uninhabited island of Juan Fernandez where he survived alone for more than five years until rescued by a passing ship. Returning to England, he met the writer, Sir Richard Steele who later published an account of Selkirk’s unusual experiences in his periodical, The Englishman.

The adventures of Selkirk, a saga of survival through determination and grit, fired the imagination of his contemporaries, among them Daniel Defoe, who blended reality with fantasy and immortalised the story in his book Robinson Crusoe (1719). Often hailed as the first English novel, Robinson Crusoe’s success was astounding. It was translated into diverse languages and followed by many imitations which came to be called "Robinsonnades". Among the imitations are "The Adventures of Philip Quarll" (1727) which narrates the 50-year-long lonely existence of a certain Quarll on a South Sea island. Other inspired works are "The Life and Adventures of Peter Wilkins, A Cornishman (1751) – a fantastic tale of a shipwrecked mariner in the Antarctic region, and "The Swiss Family Robinson" (1812-13).

Defoe himself, aware of the great interest generated in his protagonist, followed his novel with a sequel entitled The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe in which his hero, much after his rescue, re-visits his island, is attacked at sea and loses his Man Friday.

The story of Robinson Crusoe is kept alive even today. This is not surprising as we know that some classics remain evergreen and continue to perplex readers with countless unanswered questions: what happened next? Did their troubles cease? Did they live happily ever after? And so on. Some writers, taking up these nagging questions, have revived immortal tales and tried to write beyond the ending. A popular example would be "Scarlet" which came as a sequel to "Gone With the Wind" many decades after the latter made its appearance, and continued the story of the vivacious Scarlet beyond the ending of the first novel.

Sometimes the sequel is presented from a radically different point of view, giving a reverse picture of the original story. Naguib Mahfouz’s "Arabian Nights and Days", for instance, continues the story of "1001 Arabian Nights" but from the point of view of the queen who is unhappy even though she has survived the wrath of her eccentric husband and her life has been spared. Jean Rhys, in "Wide Sargasso Sea", is inspired by "Jane Eyre" and tells us the story of the wronged Mrs Rochester in the attic. Other examples may be cited: Emma Tennant who continues to rewrite the stories of Jane Austen. Or Tom Stoppard who presents Shakespeare’s characters from Hamlet in different situations.

In every narration there are fresh interpretations: new concerns are foregrounded while older issues are relegated to the background, depending on the narrator’s/reader’s standpoint. So even though the story may be familiar, it is adapted to contemporary situations and changes with the times.

Daniel Defoe’s story, the influence of which lingers mutatis mutandis through the present times in literary/academic circles and also in the popular sphere, is similarly subjected to changes. Through the written text and also through popular film adaptations of the castaway motif, it continues to captivate the imagination of the masses. Among other works, we find remnants of the theme in William Golding’s "Pincher Martin and Lord of the Flies". Most of the adaptations simply rework the shipwreck story, focusing on the marooned character’s struggle for survival in a hostile landscape. The survivor is generally a larger-than-life hero with the ability to emerge triumphant above all adversity.

A totally different perspective, however, is presented by J.M. Coetzee in his short novel "Foe", where the centre-stage is occupied not by the castaway hero but by another character who is inserted into Robinson Crusoe’s life in order to view the well-known story and its eponymous hero from a totally different perspective. This is a woman called Sue Barton who is brought into Crusoe’s exclusive world in such a way as to give his story a relevance to the times we live in – times when the academia prefers to view a text not from the conventional centre but from the point of view of the Other. So the approach to a familiar story changes and presents a different version of the narrative: as seen by a woman placed in an all-male scenario, a woman representing the minority, the marginalised, or the silenced other.

Coetzee’s novel, "Foe", is thus a take-off from "Robinson Crusoe" but with a difference. One may choose to read it either as a sequel or as an independent story. Apparently Coetzee wants the reader to see a continuity with the 18-century novel and hence employs names that echo the original. The author Daniel Defoe figures in person as Daniel Foe (giving the novel its title). He is approached by this lady called Sue Barton who has a strange story to tell: as a castaway on a desert island inhabited by Robinson Cruso [sic] she was rescued by him and later became his companion and lover. Cruso is now dead, she and the man Friday have been "rescued" by a passing ship and are now condemned to roam the streets of London, looking for refuge. Will Mr Foe tell the world her story?

Telling a story, or the art of narration is what Coetzee’s "Foe" is all about. It takes us deep into metafiction as we hear a story about a story that has been told in the past, that is being told in the present, and that will continue to be told even after we put the book down. So we have several tales within a tale, different from the "connected" stories that one is familiar with in serialised narratives. The central action may be singular (the return to England and the rehabilitation) but there are different levels of narration being presented simultaneously. Coetzee is thus experimenting with forms of narratology.

In the first place, the narrator of the original story is brought into the novel as Mr Foe who is supposed to tell Mrs Barton’s story. Ironically, even though Sue Barton approaches him for assistance, she does the story-telling herself, penning all her experiences on paper in an epistolary form, whereas Mr Foe remains conspicuous by his absence through much of the book. It is Sue Barton whose account we read, who retrospectively tells us how she intruded into the secluded space of Cruso and his Man Friday, how they spent their time on the island, how her relationship with Cruso developed, how he died while being removed from his island kingdom.

Of the four principal characters – Mrs Barton, Cruso, Friday and Foe – Mrs Barton is placed at the centre. Foe who should have been the actual narrator, is not allowed to be the story-teller in Coetzee’s version. Similarly, Cruso is given a marginalised role. As for Friday, he is dumb and so incapable of speech. How did he lose his tongue? Did the barbarians, from whose clutches Cruso rescued him, pull out his tongue in some bizarre ritual? Or – and this could be a horrifying possibility – was it Cruso himself who cut off Friday’s tongue in order to subjugate him? So that there would be no witness to testify against whatever wrong he, Cruso, had done? These are questions that are raised in Sue Barton’s narrative – questions that make us deliberate the role of the oppressor and the oppressed, the coloniser and the colonised, and the ongoing power politics between them.

"Foe" is a feminist text in its decentering of the male protagonist of the original story. It focuses on a female protagonist who is a victim of circumstance, following an uncertain destiny through hostile terrains. She becomes the dominant figure in the story, first taking on Cruso as her lover and then, symbolically, even the writer, Daniel Foe. Coetzee allows her to reconstruct the history of Robinson Crusoe. The pace of the narrative may flag at times and it may not always be as gripping and powerful a story as John Coetzee’s other novels, but "Foe" is an interesting experiment that deals with issues which matter today, reviving an old adventurer’s tale, narrating it from a fresh perspective, making it relevant to the contemporary situation.



Fielding a diarist
Review by Deepika Gurdev

Bridget Jones’s Diary
by Helen Fielding. Picador, New York. Pages 310. Singapore $ 16. Cause Celeb by Helen Fielding. Picador. Pages 341. Singapore $16. Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason by Helen Fielding. Pages 422. Singapore $16.

SOMETIMES you really do wonder why one book manages to get exceptional critical acclaim, while another one in the same genre, by the same author in the same era is not quite talked about.

Take Helen Fielding, for instance. The first I heard of her (and I do tend to keep my ears glued to the ground in search of that perfect read) was when there was all the hype and hoopla about the famous diary that provided interesting takes on singlehood. In fact, I loved the book so much that each day I read a page at a time so that there would be some way of extending the drama of the diary. I still recall laughing out loud in the bus when I went through the devilishly witty text.

Sample this excerpt from "Inner Poise" for instance:

Tuesday April 4: "Determined now, to tackle constant lateness for work and failure to address in tray bulging with threats from bailiffs, etc. Resolve to begin self-improvement programme with time and motion study.

7 am: Get weighed

7.03 am: Return to bed in sulk over state. Head-state bad. Sleeping or getting up equally out of question. Think about Daniel.

7.30 am: Hunger pangs force self out of bed. Make coffee, consider grapefruit. Defrost chocolate croissant.

7.55 am: Open wardrobe. Stare at clothes………

10.35 am: Leave house

Three hours and 35 minutes between waking and leaving house is too long. In future must get straight up when wake up and reform entire laundry system. Open paper to read that convicted murderer in America is convinced the authorities have planted a microchip in his buttocks to monitor his movements, so to speak. Horrified by thought of similar microchip being in own buttocks, particularly in the mornings."

There is all this and a whole lot more in a diary that is guaranteed to make even men laugh. A zeitgeist of single female woes it touches at the humour strings by providing a dazzling urban satire of human relationships in our age and time.


"Cause Celeb"

Like several others having enjoyed the "Diary" incessantly, was merely curious to see what else Fielding had written and why this novel unlike the celebrated "Diary" didn’t quite make it to the top of the charts even though the publishing imprint says it was out in 1994. As luck would have it, I came across a slightly dog-eared "Cause Celeb" ($16) going for a mere $2 at a book warehouse sale. Made a dash for it, as Bridget would. Had no expectations really of the book, just looking for more insights. Viola! Discovered the less talked about first book written by Fielding impresses with her (now) pretty established capabilities as an author. This novel grew out of her experiences at the BBC where she produced documentaries in Africa.

The lady in question is Rosie Richardson, a London woman who has somehow fallen into a career that she doesn’t quite seem to like or understand, has a penchant for the wrong type of man, and ditches it all to do relief work in famine-stricken Africa. There is the media-infested London and the starving Africa. Then there are the media celebrities who sign up for Rosie’s campaign to bring famine relief to the fictional African state of Nambula. The contrasts are rich, the moments poignant, the characters some funny, some idiotic, others strong. The deeper question that of questioning the ethics of First World charity to Third World countries.

The characters are wonderful, from celebrities to fellow relief workers to the Africans. Rosie’s encounters with all of them leave a lasting impression. The concept of celebrity gets re-defined, their irks, quirks and a whole lot more significantly highlighted. Its not all funny, the seriousness of a famine, the starvation tugs at the heart strings and the you can almost sing when you finally see relief in the horizon. Those who loved the "Diary" are bound to love this rare but not overdone story.



Horror camp Belsen revisited
Review by Shelley Walia

Witness to Evil
by Isaac Levy. Peter Halban,. London. Pages 136. £9.99.

THE psycho-history of Hitler undertaken by many 20th century scholars endeavours to explain the reasons behind the holocaust: his sexual life, his childhood when he was beaten up by his class teacher leading to a trauma that propelled him towards abandoning his interest in painting and moving towards literally redrawing the map of Europe, or the theory that he had only one testicle, a deformity that was responsible for his demonic attributes.

But why this narrow scapegoating in holding him solely responsible for all the mischief? Is not the historical moment as liable for the ascendancy of the Nazi ideology and its conception? The 13 million Germans who voted the Nazi Party into power in 1932 hankered after nothing else but the economic welfare of the state even though at the cost of democracy. It was expedient for them to eventually turn their back on this liberal ideology and uphold a party that believed in the total overthrow of the Left, along with the restoration of the military might of the state that stood for the concept of teutonism or racial distinctness through the principle of racial determination.

Fundamental policy for the extermination of the Jews and the compulsory sterilisation of the weaker sections of society, especially the mentally and physically handicapped, became the basis of Hitler’s "war of annihilation". The pogrom of November, 1938, against the Jews had his unflinching support. Hitler could tolerate no obstacles to his inhuman and inconceivable experiment. Such a course could have only one finish: the disintegration of a modern society and a swift plunge of its national character into barbarity. All his officers and the soldiers as well as the Gestapo willingly came under his hypnotic spell, as like him, they also believed in the broad ideological imperatives of Nazism which alone could fructify into national salvation and recovery.

The complicity of the feeble, the naive, the credulous and the ambitious created circumstances and conditions congenial for the rise of this national "savior" or, from another standpoint, a "bully". The Nazi jackboot was always ready to stamp its foot on the face of those who stood in the way of this "total extermination".

And thus was born Aushwitz, the shameful concentration camp, and along with it the metaphor which many have heard repeated often when questions of human liberty come up.

Other camps that received mention around 1945 were Dachau and Buchenwald. The most notorious concentration camp which the British Army liberated on April 15, 1945, was Belsen and when this happened for the first time the world realised the malicious Nazi activity in such "death factories".

It is Isaac Levy, who in "Witness to Evil" presents his testimony as an eye-witness, almost reviving faded memories and reliving the experience of that distant and horrifying past.

He writes about one eye-witness account: "I talked to those people who still had a minimum of strength to communicate and from them learned at first hand what they had suffered. All agreed that Belsen was by far the worst . . . . What is one to a woman who relates how her child was snatched from her breast and ripped apart? Or what can one say to a man whose wife was cast alive into an open furnace? And what of the SS and their commandant who stand in parade as their victims are driven into the camps? The commandant stands at their head and to the rhythm of the music swings his thumb to the right and left — right means life, left means death.."

Levy was persuaded to write this book, a devastating account of the Nazi outrage, because with the passing of years there would be "a paucity of reliable witnesses to that painful chapter in Jewish history". He was born and educated in London and in 1939 became the first Jew to volunteer for active service as a chaplain to the British armed forces.

He later took up the office of Senior Jewish Chaplain to the British Liberation Army and subsequently became Senior Jewish Chaplain to all Armed Forces. In April, 1945, he accompanied the forces to Germany and on reaching Bergen-Belsen came in contact with the prisoners there who at last realised that they had been rescued from gas chambers with the arrival of this man wearing the Star of David in his cap.

Proceeding further into the recesses of the camp, Levy came face to face with the horrors of death. Overcome with a sense of helplessness, he joined hands with his fellowmen in the task of burying more than 30,000 deceased.

At this camp, after the rescue, supplies for the living dead were utterly insufficient. England was very supportive in coming forth with all the relief it could afford, which were often not adequate to meet the grim requirements of the ex-prisoners. Levy often had heated exchanges with the British authorities who displayed a profound deficiency of understanding "of the fact that the Jews could not return to their native lands where they had been persecuted and seen their families sent off to the gas chambers". Nor would the authorities look into the question of a Jewish homeland in Israel.

The results of Hitler’s callous inhumanity and the horrors of Belsen took a long time to make an impact on the mind of the allies. Jewish refugees were admitted into England but on the condition that they would be supported by Jewish organisations so that they did not become an encumbrance on the state; a kind of extraordinary stubbornness not to come to terms with the genocide and torture of the Jews. It was the hallmark of the British response towards the problem of the Jews. As Levy argues, "Only when it suited the war propaganda machine were efforts made to circulate the truth. The full implications of what concentration camps were designed to achieve were all too vaguely described or understood." Hitler’s rise to power was considered by the allies as Germany’s internal matter; the policy of appeasement was integral to their international operation. This amounted to casting a blind eye to the destiny of the Jews.

The Jewish community worldwide could hardly be appeased by quiet voices, fully "hushed" for political expediency. An anti-fascist policy was what the international Jewry cried out for as the exigency of the hour was "a due consideration for the special needs of Jewish inmates of the camps".

The eruption of Hitlerism and the outbreak of war ultimately brought the British to a shudder whereby they decided to adopt measures to combat all threats to world peace and to democracy from Germany and its fascist satellites.

Levy’s book is the result of his personal experiences and the outcome of the impact of all that he witnessed in the German wartime machinery. As he writes, "1995 will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the end of World War II and the liberation of Belsen. I can only hope that my memoir of 1945 will serve as a contribution to the observance of that historic event".

In my view, the book is also an admonition to humanity that it must take all measures to see to it that such history is not ever repeated. But is this likely? If Hitler does not surface ever again, can we ensure that the material and cultural conditions that created him will also not recur? In Germany possibly not, because democracy is unmistakably and resolutely implanted in the psyche of the post-war German; the neo-Nazi skinheads are a passing phase, I should think. But what about the bygone Yugoslavia where ethnic cleansing is part of the racial nationalism overwhelming the xenophobic political machinery?

The erstwhile Soviet Union, likewise, is going through a phantasmagoric crisis akin to Nazi rule in Germany which brought with it phobia, insecurity and a transformation into savagery never experienced before. History, unequivocally, does not repeat itself but it can regurgitate events that are the outriders of the times that we shudder to ponder over.

Against the background of these considerations our future behaviour must be oriented. And if humanity has made mistakes in the past, now is the time to ensure that there is no further recurrence of crimes against humanity.



Free market and unfree labour
Review by Surinder S. Jodhka

Towards a Comparative Political Economy of Unfree Labour: Case Studies and Debates
by. Tom Brass.: Frank Cass, London.. Pages xii+348.

UNTIL sometime back, the framework of Marxist political economy was perhaps the most popular theoretical perspective among the students of agrarian change in the Third World. This was partly because, though quite different in terms of their theoretical orientations, the Marxists were able to engage quite actively and meaningfully with the questions of development and change. In countries like India where planning for development was being used for bringing about a social and economic transformation, the Marxist intellectuals, within and outside the government, could play a rather effective role. It was partly because of them that the questions of social inequality and distribution remained central issues, not only in the debates on issues relating to development and social change but also in the official policy documents of many developing countries.

The decade of 1980s was, however, an important turning point. It saw many shifts and new trends in the Third World politics. The various "new" social movements that emerged "from below" in different parts of India, for example, questioned the philosophy and strategies of development. The idea of State-sponsored planning began to lose its appeal. The subsequent developments in the following decades saw a complete shift in the politco-economic and academic atmosphere all over the world. The collapse of the Soviet Union and disintegration of the socialist bloc further marginalised the idea of development. The newly found fascination for "market" on the one hand and the ascendancy of various forms of "post-modernist" perspectives on the other, made the "old questions" of inequality and distribution much less significant. Marxism too began to lose its appeal!

"Towards a Comparative Political Economy of Unfree Labour: Case Studies and Debates" by Tom Brass, the British Marxist who currently edits The Journal of Peasant Studies, is a rather passionate attempt at rehabilitating the perspective of Marxist political economy among the students of agrarian social structure and change. Brass is extremely critical of the "new" writings on peasantry, such as James Scott’s "Weapons of the Weak" or Ranajit Guha’s "Subaltern Studies". Brass contends that though these writings appear to be radical in nature, their notions of peasantry are not very different from the classical conservative writings on the subject. Calling them "populists/new populists", Brass claims that their main objective is not very different from their counterparts in the late 19th and early 20th centuries Russia. The main problem with the populists is that they did not recognise class differences, and therefore the possibilities of class conflict, within the peasantry. As a consequence, the political effects of their positions are conservative in nature.

Apart from attacking these "new" writings on the Third World peasantry, Brass also presents his own position on the subject. He has also himself carried-out his field-works in Peru (Latin America) and India. The central question that Brass deals with in the book is the manner in which production relations, specifically those between the labourer (mostly landless) and their employer farmers are conceptualised by various streams of scholarship, in particular by the post-modernists.

The empirical context of his arguments is the capitalist agriculture – namely, the post-green revolution agriculture in the Third World countries. His focus is mostly on India and to a lesser extent on Latin America. The main theoretical contention of Brass is to question the popular assumption among the Marxists and the neo-classical economists that modernisation or capitalist development in agriculture automatically frees bonded and other forms of unfree labour.

The Marxists have for long believed that the development of capitalism in agriculture leads to freedom of the labour in a double sense of the term.

The labourers are freed from the ownership of means of production, which in most cases implies peasants’ dispossession of land and, second, they are also freed from the extra-economic coercive power of the employers. This process, in the Marxist vocabulary, is popularly known as proletarianisation. According to Brass, much of the contemporary literature on agrarian change in the Third World has been produced within this framework. Even where the unfree production relations, such as debt bondage have been found to exist, the general tendency has been to attribute them to the innate conservativeness of the peasantry, an evidence of the continuation of "pre-capitalist" or "semi-feudal" relations.

As against this popular Marxist common sense that characterises all unfree labour as a pre-capitalist relationship, Brass argues that capitalism and unfree labour were not only not incompatible but the employers could introduce or reintroduce unfree relations from above at any historical conjuncture.

It could, for example, happen precisely at a time when labourers begin to assert themselves and start demanding higher wages and better working conditions. He describes this as a process of "deproletarianisation".

In order to fully appreciate his notion of unfree labour, it may be worth while to understand how he conceptualises free labour. A worker, according to Brass, is free

when he/she posses an ability personally to choose his employer or, as he puts it, "commodify and recommodify labour power" at any given moment in agricultural cycle. Where such ability is constrained, either wholly or in part, the worker in question cannot be considered to be free.

The typical mode of enforcing contemporary forms of unfree labour, according to Brass, is through debt. Indebtedness of a labourer to a farmer invariably leads to loss of workers’ freedom. The enganche system in Peru and attached labour in India were examples of debt bondage that were present in many different rural contexts throughout Latin America and Asia. Since it was the dependence created by debt that instituted bondage, such a relationship was not confined to the permanent workers who worked with a particular farmer over a long period of time.

Bondage or unfreedom could be easily found even among casual labourers who are compelled to work with a specific farmer during the peak season, often at wages lower than available otherwise. Likewise, Brass argues that migrant labourers could also be unfree.

Brass seems to disagree virtually with everyone who has written anything on the nature of agrarian change in India. Broadly speaking, he identifies two sets of formulations on the question of unfree labour. First, those that recognise the existence of unfree/bonded labour but view it essentially as an evidence of the continued prevalence of pre-capitalist/semi-feudal relations of production in agrarian sector. An obvious corollary to this is the assumption that as the productive forces advanced, such relations would eventually give way to free wage labour.

This, according to Brass, is closer to the position of the neo-classical economists who also see unfree labour in evolutionist terms — namely, . the development of modern economy inevitably leads to the freeing of labour..

The second set of scholars with whom Brass disagrees is the ones who conceptualise unfree or attached labour as something that is good for workers. Such conceptualisation tends to present attached as "a materially reciprocal exchange between landholders and worker".

While the employer gets an assured supply of labour, the worker gets regular employment. The employer, in such cases, not only provides work and wages to the worker but also takes care of him/her during emergencies.

Such a view, according to Brass, is widely prevalent, particularly among the students of agrarian change in India. This list includes not only scholars such as Wiser, Eipstein and Bardhan, who are known to have used "functionalist" or "neo-classical" theoretical perspectives, but also those who have been using categories of Marxist political economy in their works, such as Rudra, Harriss and Breman. According to Brass, they all "theorise" unfreedom benignly: as a form of "patronage’" to the advantage of what others term bonded labour, and thus freely entered into or actively sought out by its subject. He not only questions their theoretical formulations but attributes political motives to their positions and goes to the extent of labeling them as "apologists of slavery and serfdom" and proponents of "employer/landlord ideology".

It is rather interesting that though he is essentially making an empirical claim, his criticisms of the above mentioned scholars are primarily political.

The manner in which he frames his argument leaves no space for anyone to have a respectable disagreement with him. He structures his argument purely in oppositional terms.

There is no possibility of a third position. Anyone disagreeing with his position is essentially an apologist of the landlord! Even when, for example, some scholars talk about the growing assertiveness among workers and as a consequence of which employers’inability to enforce their writ as they could do earlier (a purely empirical claim), Brass would see conspiracies in such claims. What if agricultural labourers are indeed not bonded or that they say that their dependencies on their employers have considerably come down!

There seems no way that one could observe and report such processes if one is working within the framework suggested by him. Brass is a master polemicist and provocative writer. His book is certainly worth reading.