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A stately bank’s progress
The Evolution of State Bank of India — Volume 2 by Amiya Kumar Bagchi. Published by SBI, Mumbai. Pp. 664. Rs 450.

Taj fairytale —
western style
Taj Mahal Lovers Story by Mantoshe Singh Devji. Two Lions, New Delhi. Pp. 279. Rs 295.

A touch of
body energy
The Complete Reiki Handbook. Pp. 191. Rs 85.
Rainbow Reiki. Pp. 175. Rs 85.
Both by Walter Lubeck. Motilal Banarsi Das Publishers, Delhi.

Huxley’s experiment with God, drug phase came later
Huxley and God: Essays edited by Jacqueline Hazard Bridgeman. Harper Collins, New York Pp 286 $13.

Mysteries of the
female body

The Penguin India Guide to Women’s Health by Pushapjeet Sidhu Phadke. Penguin India, New Delhi. Pp. 471. Rs 295.

Life of a family as history
When Memory Dies by A Sivanandan. Penguin Books, New Delhi. Pp. 411. Rs 295.

50 years on indian independence 50 years on indian independence 50 years on indian independence
50 years on indian independence

A stately bank’s progress

The Evolution of State Bank of India — Volume 2 by Amiya Kumar Bagchi. Published by SBI, Mumbai. Pp. 664. Rs 450.

THE banking industry in India is about two centuries old. The State Bank of India which traces its origin from the Bank of Bengal set up on July 8, 1806, stands out as the oldest and the first banking institution in the country. Several others like the Allahabad Bank set up in 1865, celebrated their centenaries three decades ago.

Despite its old age, the common man had the real feel of the banking industry only in 1955 when the State Bank of India replaced the Imperial Bank of India. The industry became the topic of national debate when 14 major banks were nationalised in July, 1969. That snapped the ties of the banks with the upper strata of society — namely, big businessmen, industrialists and big landlords.

The SBI had a chequered history before reaching the present status. It started as the Bank of Bengal, a presidency bank. On the merger of all three presidency banks in Bengal, Madras and Bombay in 1921, it assumed the character of the Imperial Bank. It was rechristened as SBIin 1955 and switched from the private sector to the public sector with the specific objective of extending banking service to rural and semi-urban areas which were until then untouched by banking service.

Apart from its contribution to the economy, the SBIhas been witness to important developments in the social, political and economic spheres since 1806. The swadeshi movement in the wake of the freedom struggle inspired Indians to promote wholly-owned institutions like the Peoples Bank Ltd and Punjab National Bank.

A giant in size, a pioneer and peerless in its field and senior in age as the SBI is, it is thoughtful and befitting that its official history should be written. The book under review covers the bank’s history from 1876 to 1920. It is the second volume and the first dealt with the first seven decades. Prof Amiya Kumar Bagchi, a noted economist and historian, is the bank’s official historian.

To a lay reader unconcerned with the financial system and money matters, this is one more addition to the mass of intimidating books; however, to a student of economics interested in money, banking and financial institutions, it is a valuable asset.

A bank’s history generally lies in its old records which the banks as a rule preserve as long as their importance warrants. Thus the author had easy access to old balance sheets, proceedings of annual general meetings, meetings of the board of directors, sanctioned letters of loans, correspondence with branches, etc.

Only a bank like the SBI could afford to preserve such a massive archives. Interestingly, the bank has decided to throw open its archives for the public after listing and classifying the material. This has been indicated by the Chairman of the bank in the foreword.

It is a monotonous and arduous exercise to extricate usable material from a mountain of records. It should be said to the credit of the author that he has brought out interesting facts like the impact of the freedom movement on the banking industry. Swadeshi banks like the Peoples Bank of India (extinct) and the Punjab National Bank (still in operation) were set up in 1901 by Indian promoters. The motivation for these enterprises came from the swadeshi upsurge, discrimination against the Indian clientele at the hands of the banks under British management and to cash in on the boom in the export of agricultural commodities.

The Indian staff was discriminated against by the British officers who monopolised top positions. The salary of English officers was revised at regular intervals, but not that of the Indian staff. No Indian officer could conduct treasury transactions. During World War I the strength of white officers in 15 branches of the Bank of Bengal plunged to one either due to war efforts or sickness of officers, but no effort was made to Indianise the officer strength and the treasury work was staggered. All this has been skillfully brought out by the author.

There was a special cadre of employees called subordinate Indian establishment. It comprised chaprasis, daftaris, darvans, khidmatgars, coolies, gatekeepers, etc. They not only looked after office work but also served in officers’ residential quarters above the bank premises.

Clerks belonged mostly to Bengali Hindu upper caste and in the subordinate cadre were Hindi-speaking Hindus or Muslims. The salary started from Rs 9 and reached Rs 23 a month after 15 years. Inefficient Indian staff could be forced to retire. Salarywise discrimination was very acute. The total establishment expenditure of the biggest branch was only Rs 990 a month in 1900 and out of this Rs 688 went to the agent/manager (an Englishman).

Trade transactions ensured that India remained the biggest importer of British cotton textiles. Also Britain was the main source of whatever foreign capital flowed into India, which mostly constituted the profits of the British trading firms in India.

A lacuna which still persists in banking activities is the deployment of funds siphoned off from one centre to another where there are more opportunities to earn profit or to a favoured area of the powers-that-be. The author points out that the funds of two centres in Delhi and Lahore, rich in agricultural produce, were utilised by the Bank of Royal at Rangoon, Calcutta and Bombay to finance export trade. These imbalances continue to persist and are unsuccessfully countered through the lead bank scheme and area approach, etc. but there is no light at the end of the tunnel.

The author has given a brief but comprehensive account of the banking crises of 1913-14. It should act as an eye-opener to the authorities to thwart the attempts of the so-called non-banking finance companies.

It may interest a student of economics how the depreciating value of the rupee, which was stable against gold and pound sterling till 1878, was arrested. From around 2 shillings to a rupee it came down to one shilling a rupee in early 1890. Then the practice of unlimited coining of the silver rupee was stopped to spark monetary contraction. The rupee moved up. The development in India’s foreign exchange market in 1913-14 is highly educative.

— B.S. Thaur

Taj fairytale — western style

Taj Mahal Lovers Story by Mantoshe Singh Devji. Two Lions, New Delhi. Pp. 279. Rs 295.

IN India anything associated with the Taj Mahal evokes an instant sense of deja vu, thanks to our major tourist trump card having been made the subject of numberless publications and Bollywood films. A foreigner, of course, is besotted with the Taj as the ultimate expression of the surreal and the sublime, a love story which is ironically anachronistic in his or her world, yet incredibly fascinating.

More recently, the first cracks in the much hyped love life of Diana, Princess of Wales, could be sensed when she sat in solitary desolation before this monument of love.

Now an NRI journalist, Mantoshe Singh Devji spins a yarn quite obviously keeping in mind the penchant of the western readers for eastern mystique and romance. The prologue, I almost wrote the opening scene, sounds a straight lift from a Bollywood film version. The death scene at Mumtaz’s bedside, the emperor and she are involved in a mushy dialogue.

Says she: "When you went to war, you were always beside me. Please don’t desert me in the midst of the last battle of my life!"

And he: "Essence of my soul, breath of my life, my beloved Mumtaz, how will I survive in this arid land without you? You will take my paradise with you."

And she again: "I leave you with a mighty task, my beloved. A love such as yours has never adorned a woman before. I ask that you give the world a gift of eternal love that would speak to all men and women forever."

And his tear-soaked pledge: "Yes, yes, my love. In the very same garden where the moon conjures up images or magic, I will build you a marble palace with my tears and life breath. It will be as pure as your heart and as sensuous as your beauty. It will speak for all time of an Emperor’s sorrow and it will tell the world that I have always loved you, you and no one else."

Thus was built this monument of love and eternal commitment. (The words outside the quotes are my comments.)

The chapters narrate in lyrical prose the story of each Moghul emperor who formed part of the powerful dynasty which ruled India for well over three centuries. As an Indian reads on he will realise that the narrative style and content would easily captivate the western reader. "The ground beneath the horses crunched icily and the wind whipped the horses’ manes. The men, mostly mercenaries, had set out to loot whatever they could lay their hands on. They mumbled quietly to each other, their words forming little puffs of steam as they hit the frigid mountain air. After days of hard riding they slouched over their exhausted horses and pulled the collars of their thick lambskin coats tightly around their necks."

The writing is racy, not scholarly. It has no pretensions either. The author seems to have tapped easily available historical source material, although I cannot identify it. Nor is there any mention of the source in the introduction and there is no bibliography.

The author goes over the entire Moghul lineage, right from Babar, on to Akbar and then to focus on the hero Shahjahan or Prince Khurram. For the Indian reader, there is nothing fresh, unless a school student wants to acquaint himself with Moghul history.

Chapters like "An emperor plays hide and seek — ankh micholi" would delight a foreigner taken in by eastern royal whims. "Akbar roared with delight as he played hide and seek with the women of his harem. Blindfolded, he groped and slashed at the air, hoping to catch one of the nimble young beauties who adorned his palace. He had a childlike streak in him, which made him laugh and play like a little boy and yet he was a monarch of great pomp and splendour. He had stretched the borders of his kingdom far to the south, where rebels always lurked, and deep into the north, where his forefathers had wrestled with the Persians for control of Kabul and Kandhar. The Moghuls claimed these cities as their own: hadn’t their great sire Babar come over them like a furious storm and covered the path of his conquest to India with the lesser conquest of Afghanistan? At this moment he was not the conquering warrior, but a man-child at play."

The book continues as a perfunctorily pleasant read. Yet there are inevitable titbits. I did not know that before his death Akbar turned a vegetarian. He had stopped eating meat, the Jains had convinced him of the great principles of nonviolence. "Akbar did not wish to be among the flesh eaters any longer, the same mighty hunter who had once wrestled tigers and broken in elephants, lay dying. Khurram sensed his vulnerability and clung to him."

Of course, we have all read about his secularism. But reading books of this genre, which romanticise and fantasise history, sets off in the mind of the reader an uncanny struggle between myth and history. Myth is usually the winner as reading and digesting facts are an arduous task and myth is palatable.

Interestingly, women had a share of power even then, though from behind the scene. And this excerpt would please those working for the empowerment of women. "We pretend to let men rule, Ami Jaan," Mehru confided in her mother Begum Asmat. "Don’t we? A woman may rule through a man and let him revel in his assumed cleverness, no?"

Begum Asmat was no fool but she did not have the predatory instincts of her daughter.

"Mehru bete," she half pleaded, "let the men play their game of power. We women are best suited to sustaining our men. The world is a hard enough place. When we help a man rule through our counsel and intuition, it is best to leave that unsaid. It is a cruel world in which men must survive. Like pawns in a chess game, they make their moves and sometimes they win and sometimes they lose."

An Indian historian would scoff at the book but an American would accept it as an escape into the fairytale world of India. Youngsters could take a look at it if they want to escape from the rigours of plodding through the straightlaced works of history. After all, who doesn’t fancy frills, though an expensive bargain for the Indian pocket.

— Cookie Maini

A touch of body energy

The Complete Reiki Handbook. Pp. 191. Rs 85.

Rainbow Reiki. Pp. 175. Rs 85.

Both by Walter Lubeck. Motilal Banarsi Das Publishers, Delhi.

REIKI ( a Japanese word, pronounced, ray-key) implies universal life-giving energy which can be used not only for physical treatment but also for all purposes, conditions and situations, including spiritual enlightenment, mental peace and harmonious relations in families. "Rei" stands for universal life-giving and "ki" for light, prana, chi, cosmic energy or universal radiant energy.

Reiki masters believe that our hands are an extension of our heart and we can use our hands to transfer energy to ourselves and to others as it is from our hands that this energy flows.

They say all illnesses are caused by imbalances in the flow of energy and that energy blockages could be traced to the deeper levels of emotional, mental or spiritual aspects.

Fear usually constricts energy in the solar plexus region. All negative emotions — fear, feeling of guilt, jealousy, dejection, etc. — cause imbalances in the flow of energy with the result that energy accumulates in greater quantity at one point and is in very little quantity at another. Reiki masters remove these imbalances by laying their hands on specific chakras in the body to help the flow of energy in a balanced manner. Neither positive energy is given nor negative one taken away, only blockages are removed.

"The most common effects of a reiki session are deep relaxation and a sense of inner peace," says Mari Hall in her book "Practical Reiki". According to a Mumbai-based reiki master, Kamal Bhojwani, the only qualification for practising reiki is to be a human being.

"The Complete Reiki Handbook" is a laudable effort by Walter Lubeck, an experienced German reiki master, to offer comprehensive guidance on the subject. Reiki, he says, helps "initiate" a number of deep inner processes. Fear and hidden parts of the personality like a feeling of guilt surface to the consciousness as they require integration for the betterment of mental and spiritual growth and result in energy blockages. Some of the blockages are very stubborn. For these problems he suggests the use of amethyst, rock crystal and rose quartz. Amethyst activates the third eye with energy while quartz awakens the resonance of its vibration of love energy.

Reiki masters have studied Indian yoga system and work with seven major chakras and 10 minor chakras. The names of the major chakras are : root chakra, sexual or sacral chakra, solar plexus or personality chakra, heart chakra, throat or expressive chakra, third eye chakra and crown or knowledge chakra. The last one is situated just above the crown (choti), the sixth at the third eye, the fifth at the throat, the fourth near the heart, the third near the solar plexus, the second just below the navel and the first in the pelvic region. The chakras are the main centres in a human being, linking high subtle planes to the lower and material levels. The author has found Chinese I Ching of great use in diagnosing physical problems and has advocated the use of pendulum as an oracle.

The subjects covered are reiki with plants and animals, reiki and meditation, reiki and scents, reiki and crystals, reiki and colours. In the chapter, "The possibilities of the second and third degree reiki", he explains the principles of distance treatment. The book offers several tips for meditation for a loving relationships between couples.

In "Rainbow Reiki" Lubeck traces its history. It is based on the traditional Usui system of reiki. Dr Mikao Usui, a Japanese monk, rediscovered reiki in the writings of an unkown disciple of the Buddha. Dr Mikao’s disciple, Hayashi, used it in his hospital for healing physical disorders. Lubeck presents his own maxims for rainbow reiki which he discovered in his studies of Sufi, Tao, Zen, Huna thoughts besides Shamanism. Some of them are interesting and elevating. A few samples: Everything can be found in every other thing and is connected with everything else. Everything is brought into the world through feminine power. Due to this, the feminine aspect in everything should be respected, protected and supported. The great feminine force is that of mother earth. Children should be protected from harm and supported in their development to become loving, conscious and responsible adults. Do everything necessary so that life can develop in the sense of the cosmic order. Without devotion there can be no power; without service, no ruling power. What separates makes one sick, what unites heals.

The author refers to the connection of human beings with subtle beings, who are not God or his substitutes, but are capable of helping them by doing certain things much better. He also deals with complete training programme for contact and effective work with subtle (invisible) beings and for those who have been initiated into the second degree, he gives guidance on setting up a power place. Shaman rituals and healing mantras like hey loa, key loa, manaho lo and "Om" are presented in order to supplement reiki for effective treatment.

The second book gives a new insightful exposition of reiki and is more occult and mystical in theme than the first one. "Rainbow Reiki" deals essentially with reiki essence, guided aura and chakra work, reiki mandalas and with subtle beings as teachers. It is full of information on angels and invisible forces which help human beings in health and peace.

Both books are finely printed, with attractive illustrations, and can interest all those who believe in alternative medicine and holistic treatment.

— M.L. Sharma


Huxley’s experiment with God,
drug phase came later

Huxley and God: Essays edited by Jacqueline Hazard Bridgeman. Harper Collins, New York. Pp. 286. $13.

"THE boundless of its (the desert’s which Huxley liked much for its symbolic power) sands spreads a mantle of sameness — hence unity — over the world’s multiplicity in the way snow does. The Nothingness to which the Desert Fathers were drawn is not a blank negation. It is a no-thing-ness in which everything is so interfused that divisions are transcended. Pure light contains all the frequencies of the rainbow, but undemarcated. The void is the vacuum-plenum complex, grasped by it vacuum pole."

That is what Huxley told a friend, Huston Smith, who has deservedly written an informative but impressive introduction to this anthology of 26 essays by Aldous Huxley. Right from 1916 — that is, when his first book of poems, "The Burning Wheel", appeared —till the 49 years of writing that followed, Huxley was both subliminally and consciously fascinated by religion, God and void. It was this "fascination" for true religion that had eventually drawn him towards eastern wisdom, particularly towards Zen and tantricism. In fact, the present essays were originally printed in the bimonthly magazine Vedanta and the West between the years 1941 and 1960 and are here published in book form for the first time. The essays are new to the reading public. For 30 years they, as the editor of the collection claims, "lay lost in the files of the Vedanta Society".

Jacqueline Hazard, the editor and author of "The lonely sky", "She lives in Malibu", and "California", holds in her preface that "in his novels and essays of the 1920s Huxley was scathingly skeptical of religion and its life-retreating pious aspirants," that his gods were life, love and sex and that he rejected the views of Swift, Pascal, Beaudelaire, Proust and even St. Francis of Assisi. Very true. But at the same time one has to be aware of the fact that all this was temporary. In fact, Huxley’s "mystic germ" in him continued to grow gradually in order to find its way in his mature writings, such as "The Perennial Philosophy", "Eyeless in Gaza", "Island" and even all the essays selected in this book.

What he wrote in a letter to Chad Walsh of Beloit College is of great interest in this regard. "My (Huxley’s) preoccupation with the subject of mysticism...dates back to my youth. The title of my first volume of undergraduate verse "The Burning Wheel", is derived from Boehme, whom I read while at Oxford. In a later novel, "Point Counter Point", there are episodes in which something in the nature of mystical experience is interpreted in terms of Leuba’s explaining-away hypothesis. ...art, science, literature, the pleasures of thought and sensation came to seem (as patriotism came to seem to Nurse Cavell) ‘not enough’. One reaches a point where one says, even of Beethoven, even of Shakespeare, ‘Is this all?’"

Thus, Huxley’s mystical commitment never wavered. He possessed an unusually sensitive ear towards mysticism (particularly towards oriental mysticism) and was self-conscious about the conclusions to which that ear led him, recognising that "an exclusively humanistic attitude towards life is always fatal", and that all strictly human activities must therefore be made instrumental to a realisation that the finite manifests the infinite in its identification with what James called the cosmic consciousness and what in the East is called atmanic consciousness.

To my way of thinking, the present collection of essays reveals that Huxley had the gift of negotiating between the finite and the infinite, which made him a very rare mystic. To put it more precisely, Huxley offered in this book is a man of universe, the ultimate transcendental pragmatist arguing to resolve the fundamental tension between the spiritual and the material in one timeless reality, and always open to whatever religious mystical philosophy comes his way, never bound by the local.

However, it would not be possible to provide here a catalogue of the many excellent observations and penetrating insights that make this book a valuable contribution to the understanding of being, good and evil, religion and superstition, language, time, beauty, grace and progress. It is fascinating, nevertheless, to note, for example, one of Huxley’s views that "so long we remain average, sensual, unregenerate individuals, we shall constantly be tempted to think God-excluding thoughts and perform God-eclipsing actions."

Likewise there are brilliant discussions of individual topics, such as "Religion and temperament", The philosophy of saints", "Man and reality", "Knowledge and understanding", and "Shakespeare and religion". In these thought-provoking and philosophically rich essays Huxley displays such a comprehensive grasp of religion, reality, and knowledge that he is able to differentiate easily between the induced visionary state and the genuine spiritual experience. In fact, one learns something from each essay.

Thus "The minimum working hypothesis", the essay with which the collection begins, and which I take as projecting the theme of the volume (that "there is a godhead, ground, brahman, clear light of the void, which is the unmanifested principle of all manifestations") is highly educative and finally rather mystical. Indeed, all the essays in the volume are so. However, some essays, like "Seven meditations", and "Religion and time", are simply too short or too pinpointed, but solid nonetheless.

Some essays (such as, "Who are we", "The ‘inanimate’ is alive") are so dense with philosophical potentialities that they simply become intellectual exercises in regard to a realisation of "Self with a large ‘S’, the atman-brahman". What the modern general audience may like in them are Huxley’s altogether too generous pieces of advice for the spiritual progress of contemporary man. Thus one fine piece of advice says to us that "Going to war like the heroes of the Gita, indulging in unlimited sexual promiscuity, like some of the illuminati of the West, are activities which cannot result in anything but an enhancement of the separate personal self and an eclipsing of divine reality".

However, each essay is quite enlightening and is not really limited by intellectual constraints within some boundary of place and time. But they do not seem complete, "not told unless we tell them" to ourselves. Nonetheless, they encourage the reader to participate in the completion of meaning. Probably Huxley thinks that his "delivery" must figure somehow in the phenomenon under investigation.

Yet all readers of this valuable book, even while questioning a particular comment or meaning, will recognise that Huxley was a great seeker of truth and developed his voracious reading throughout with subtle argument and immense and scrupulous scholarship. No one interested in "true religion" can ever afford to neglect the volume which has a philosophical, cultural and literary importance far exceeding what one may usually suppose.

Finally, the volume seems an occasion to celebrate Huxley’s view of "divine reality" that may prove relevant and prophetic in addressing the critical environment, social, political and spiritual issues man faces today.

— B. L. Chakoo

Mysteries of the female body

The Penguin India Guide to Women’s Health by Pushapjeet Sidhu Phadke. Penguin India, New Delhi. Pp. 471. Rs 295.

THIS is a very informative book about the female body and how it functions and how to spot its dysfunction or abnormality. It deals with all problems in general like gynaecological, pregnancy-related and, above all, social problems a woman faces in her day-to-day life. The idea is not to make the common woman a doctor but to create general awareness so that she can understand and solve routine difficulties. This way she can know what the gynaecologist or obstetrician is going to do, which makes communication easier and removes dangerous obscurantist ideas. Besides, she will not be unfamiliar with the terms a doctor uses while treating her problems. Whatever may be the difficulty a woman has or likely to have, a clarification is there in this book in one chapter or the other.

It is a comprehensive book about health awareness, educates the woman from all angles and narrows down the gap in doctor-patient relationship. It essentially deals with woman and her complete health, rather than focusing on woman and her diseases in detail.

Topics about the younger generation, particularly teenaged girls, which are never discussed due to inhibition or taboos, have been crisply dealt with. The teens is a very tender age and the life style will decide their future, and hence teenagers should not go astray or be distracted by the erotic propaganda through the national or global media.

A full chapter has been set apart to discuss human sexuality, which is based on a comprehensive study of middle class families. The author, a woman herself, has compared the behaviour of the rural women, who are more satisfied with their life, with the urban population which is not. She has discussed all aspects from the physical necessity to sexual harassment. Contraceptive measures have also been discussed to limit the family size in these days of rising expectations and, also, prices.

As regards pregnancy, childhood and motherhood, every detail has been taken into account. Anyone can with the help of this book treat common ailments to a great extent. Much emphasis has been placed on counselling before pregnancy so as to mentally prepare young women for motherhood. The antenatal period is an important aspect of pregnancy and hence it has been discussed in detail covering every possible difficulty.

These days there is a fetish about male child, born out of orthodox cultural ethos and socio-economical compulsions. When this aspiration is not fulfilled, the woman is always blamed. This myth has been scientifically exposed by establishing that it is the separation of the X and Y chromosomes of the male which determines whether the child will be male or female, not that of the female. This information will be very helpful for those who are victims of such cruel myths in our society.

In a chapter on systemic diseases, all types of infectious diseases common during pregnancy have been discussed. In addition, non-infectious disorders like hypertension, hormonal problems related to thyroid or parathyroid and diabetes mellitus are covered. Other deficiency disorders like anaemia which is a basic problem among Indian women, have been examined and due importance has been given to diagnosis, prevention and treatment.

A special chapter discusses pregnancy-related disorders like infertility and sterility, use of drugs during pregnancy causing deformation of the baby and sexually transmitted diseases. A couple is considered infertile if there is a failure to conceive within one year of marriage with normal sexual activity. If conception has occurred earlier but is not repeated, it is termed secondary infertility. Sterility is when there is a total failure to conceive or an absolute state of inability to conceive. Diagnostic guidelines and therapeutic modalities of infertility have been provided in detail.

Some gynaecological disorders of childhood, adolescent years, reproductive period and menopausal age have been described in a separate chapter. Menopausal age is responsible for manifold psychosomatic disorders in woman.

Although psychiatry is not a field of specialisation of the author, she has tried to focus on the psychiatric disorders found in woman, either independently or as an outcome of somatic diseases. If such problems are handled at an early stage, remedial measures become very easy. She has also discussed the ways to tackle these psychological illnesses at the level of the general practitioner.

A healthy way of life includes nutrition, dieting, mental health and dealing with mental stress. The same chapter also elaborates the effect of alcohol, drugs and smoking as also exercise and health, and finally the body image.

There is an index and a glossary of commonly used terms which makes it easy to make out the meaning of frequently used words.

— Anuradha Chander

Life of a family as history

When Memory Dies by A Sivanandan. Penguin Books, New Delhi. Pp. 411. Rs 295.

THIS touching and disturbing book deservedly won the Commonwealth Writers Prize. It is the kind of book which gives you a feel of the travails of a family living in South Asia and how deeply the family has been traumatised by the social and political tensions which rocked the region during much of the 20th century. It is also a book celebrating the human spirit which battles adversity, doesn’t necessarily succeed and still has hope.

The family which is the subject of this book is from Sri Lanka. It might just as well be from any small town in UP or Sind or neighbourhood of Chittagong and Dhaka. Battered by the waves of colonialism, ethnicity, cut off from their social moorings, propelled into a modern, technology-oriented world which was entirely new to them, the members of this family make desperate and disparate attempts to keep afloat. Some succeed, others do not.

The gripping history of three generations of the family narrated in first person by one of the protagonists, would outclass the work of any professional social historian in its ability to make the reader understand the complexities which external forces subject private lives to.

Sahadevan of the first generation starts the story by explaining how colonialism stripped his people of their history as early as the 16th century. Since then they are trying to find a history for themselves. As Sahadevan’s story unfolds, we get a perambulatory vision of Sri Lankan politics in the early 20th century. Sahadevan’s vision of moulding a great future through committed political activity is shattered when he discovers that the best of politicians have feet of clay, and a barely suppressed selfishness prevents them from fighting for the ideas by which they swear.

Political selfishness and ineptitude of most South Asian politicians have brought about much disruption of the lives of Sahadevan’s next generation which grows up in an anglicised world where all dogs are named either Jimmy or Rover or occasionally Rex. "I hated the village and all its rules and customs," tells Sahadevan’s son who becomes the second narrator of the family history. His world is soon disrupted by the ethnic conflict which tore the land apart.

The next stage comes about as a consequence of the people having taken to the gun in a struggle to reconstruct a history for themselves and have a land they could call their own. But the culture of the gun has its own problems as people living in North-West India know from the years of terrorism.

Change does not necessarily come about for the good, the evil minded get an opportunity to pontificate, play by the law of the jungle and establish themselves in positions of power. It was under these circumstances that the third hero of this tale is shot dead by his comrade in cold blood. All his adult life he had struggled to established a place for his people in the fractured history of his island home. He could easily outwit his enemies and eliminate them, but a betrayal by friends is something else. At his death, one of his friends says to the murderer: "You have killed the only decent thing left in this land." The hero of this family history has fallen tragically, but the story does not end just yet, for the evil doers are promptly removed from positions of authority to enable the living to fight for a better future for themselves.

If this gripping story seems to be something of a morality tale, it is simply because it touches the strings of one’s heart so deeply. A reader less inclined to read deep meanings into the text would find enough of good story-telling to keep him or her interested till the end.

— Kavita Soni-Sharma

The Tribune Library

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