spake the Tenth Guru
Review by M.L. Sharma
the Social Thought of Guru Gobind Singh
by Dharam Singh, Publication Bureau, Punjabi University,
Patiala. Pages 159. Rs 180.
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".
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
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.
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.
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).
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
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.
"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.
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
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
line to preservation
by Jaswant Kaur
by Bill Aitken. Penguin Books, New Delhi. Pages 280. Rs 295.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
prescriptions to public probity
Review by Ram Varma
Sector Governance and Management: Emerging Dimensions
by N. Vittal and S. Mahalingam, Vikas Publishing House, New
Delhi. Pages 299. Rs 350.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
shift the whole working environment for the PSEs changed. The
regime of administered prices disappeared; global prices
became the determining factor.
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.
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
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
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.
to today’s devil
Review by R.P.
Spare Me, O
Lucifer — Poems
by J.S. Anand. Rs 100.
Kingdom of the Dead — Poems
by Harish K. Thakur. Rs 100.
Theophany — Poems
by Kanwar Dinesh Singh. Rs 100.
All published by Writers Workshop, Calcutta.
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.
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:
not/a tale told by an idiot
Nor is it an
illusion/a walking shadow"
rich harvest/of vestal beauty
She was an
ode to autumn."
nightingale/Singing her melodious tunes/in Arabian sands.
appears to be in the habit of watching TV so that TV jingles
come naturally, and land in his poetry.
smiles on my white lips
teeth/Sparkling with happiness/
comes out with something different in the poems "The
Possessed" "Contours of Beauty" and "A
is the condensation/of pent-up emotions
too fine for
physical reaction/too sensitive/
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
our lives/like a cigarette/
crematorium/A witness to countless ends
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.
famished child/carries the funnel/bearing the mark of bread.
through hunger/life drowned to dregs
phiz issues a cheque/from midst the weary legs."
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
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.
autumn she torments me by ullage of/her soulful visage.
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.
and foeless Man Friday
Novel by J.M. Coetzee..Penguin, New York. Pages 157. $11.95.
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.
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"
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
Review by Deepika Gurdev
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.
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.
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.
excerpt from "Inner Poise" for instance:
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
Return to bed in sulk over state. Head-state bad. Sleeping or
getting up equally out of question. Think about Daniel.
Hunger pangs force self out of bed. Make coffee, consider
grapefruit. Defrost chocolate croissant.
7.55 am: Open
wardrobe. Stare at clothes………
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.
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
camp Belsen revisited
by Isaac Levy. Peter Halban,. London. Pages 136. £9.99.
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
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.
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.
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
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.."
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.
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.
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.
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".
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.
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?
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
market and unfree labour
Review by Surinder S.
Comparative Political Economy of Unfree Labour: Case Studies
by. Tom Brass.: Frank Cass, London.. Pages xii+348.
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
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!
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
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
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.
have for long believed that the development of capitalism in
agriculture leads to freedom of the labour in a double sense
of the term.
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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..
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".
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
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