By V.N. Datta
Swift and sharp is his satire
JONATHAN Swifts "Gullivers Travels" is recognised worldwide as an outstanding contribution to literature.
Indian philosophy: what
is it anyway?
Reinterpreting Indian Philosophy by S.S. Barlingay. D.D. Printworld, New Delhi. Pp. 371. Rs 480.
When bestiality is way of life
JONATHAN Swifts "Gullivers Travels" is recognised worldwide as an outstanding contribution to literature. Alexander Pope wrote, "From the highest to the lowest, it is universally read from the Cabinet Council to the Nursery." It is a book in which everyone sees himself mirrored from his childhood to old age. With this work of great merit, Swift earned the distinction of being a literary giant of all times.
In this new biography of Swift (Huchinson, p 320, £ 20) Victoria Glendinning provides not a "full and responsible" account but "a mere portrait or character". She paints Swifts story with a modern brush, and goes to the extent of including physical details like his height and weight and attempts to engage us "with the man and the writer in human terms". She presents Swift as a creature of a paradox, undoubtedly a curious genius whose prose, like himself, was savage, tidy, ironical and playful. Dr Johnson was struck by the wonder and originality of his works.
Born in Ireland in an English Protestant family in 1667, Jonathan Swift was educated in Kilkenny School and Trinity College, Dublin. As dean of St Patrick cathedral, he spent his last 30 years in Dublin. He died in 1745.
In the intervening period he shuttled between England and Ireland. He kept in close touch with literary and political circles. He got stuck in England and never had chance of going abroad. He did not formally marry.
Swift had an unhappy childhood. His father died before he was born, and his mother was mostly absent from home. He had a lonely childhood. He sulked, grumbled, and simmered with discontent. Because of his leaning to Protestantism, he fled Ireland after the Catholic, James tried to recapture it. He took up a job in England with an influential diplomat and a man of letters, Sir William Temple, a close relation of his mother. His association with Temple helped him become politically influential. He also sharpened his considerable skill as a writer of English prose.
In 1707 Swift graduated from Dublin, and in 1704 he published anonymously "The Tale of a Tub", written in 1696, to which was appended "The Battle of Books". In 1708 he published an attack on astrology under the title "Predictions for the year 1708 by Isaac Bickerstaff Esq". In 1709 he brought out another work, "A Project for the Advancement of Religion", the only work to which he lent his name. To him good writing meant use of "proper words in proper places".
Swifts influence touched the peak during Queen Annes reign when Tory Government leaders, the Earl of Oxford and Viscount Biolingbrooke, employed him to propagate the Tory cause. Swift was held in high esteem by the Pope who corresponded with him occasionally.
Swift joined the Tory Party and he was severely attacked by the Whigs for his defection. Though he was a Whig in matters of state, he was a Tory in church affairs. Temporal matters weighed with him more than the spiritual. His two pamphlets, "The Conduct of the Allies" (1711) and "The Barrier Tragedy" (1712) greatly helped the Tory Party.
Swifts attitude towards Ireland was ambivalent. He claimed to hate it and yet his writings show his deep and abiding concern with its sensitive problems. His well-known literary piece "A Modern Proposal" shows that he was deeply troubled by the problem of dire poverty in Ireland which he thought could be solved by "eating the children a most delicious, nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, baked and boiled". "The Drapers Letters" blocked Englands introduction of that cheapskate copper coin, Woods halfpence, in Ireland.
Swifts written works are voluminous and his verbal agility was remarkable. His "Gullivers Travels" is unique and original, possessing the rare virtue of timelessness. Glendinning writes, "What child or adult can forget the giants of Brobingnog and to what extent are we all Yahoos?" She seeks its parallels in Rebelais, through Lewis Carroll and the mystery of Mary Nortons "She Borrows". She finds an echo of Gulliver as well as Swifts much discussed scatological writing in "Goya" and in the film of Quentin, "Tarantino".
Glendinning dilates on Swifts love life, his relationship with Stella and, above all, with Vanessa (Hester Venhonrigh). He was emotionally attached to both simultaneously. He lived with neither, and possibly married Stella in a private ceremony in a garden. Victoria Glendinning thinks that some kind of wedding did take place. According to the author, Swift teased both of them with a degree of sadistic pleasure. He could not return Vanessas overwhelming love but the love of Stella remained something of a mystery.
Glendinning points out that the end of a painful situation came in 1723 when Vanessa wrote a letter to Stella asking her if she was Swifts wife. Stella gave the letter to Swift, who rode and flung it down at Vanessas table without speaking. Vanessa died within a few weeks. Stella could have been the daughter of Sir William Temple and Temples sister, Martha Gitterd; Swift could, just possibly, have been the son of Temples father, Sir John.
Stella died in 1720 and after her death Swift led a more retired life and became more morbid and misanthropic. He relentlessly championed the Irish cause and made efforts to improve the miserable condition of its people. His influence in Ireland was substantial. Once he asked his servant to announce before some noisy star-gazers that an eclipse has been postponed by order of the Dean of St Patricks. The crowd thinking him almost omnipotent dispersed immediately.
Swift became insane in 1742 and had to be restrained from hurting his eyes. He sank into idiocy which lasted for three years before it was ended by death. He donated the bulk of his fortune to found a hospital for lunatics.
"The Table of a Tub", one of his most characteristic writings, is a brilliant satire on the Roman Catholics and Puritans. "The Battle of Books" is the source of the eternal phrase "sweetness and light". "Gullivers Travels" is by far the most famous of his works, and one of the greatest books in English literature. Satire becomes scathing in the end.
The author emphasises that Swift was highly original and owed little to his predecessors. Indifferent to fame, he published only one of the last of his works under his name. As regards the style of his writing, it is generally considered well nigh perfect clear, precise, and entirely free from rhetorical devices.
Most of what he wrote was a sad and moving comedy on the politics of his time the aftermath of the glorious Revolution of 1688 to the establishment of the Hanoverian succession. The great concerns of the day were patronage and preferment.
His comments on the government at the turn of the 17th century have much relevance to our times. Many would agree with Swift that, "Government is not a profound science, but requires no more than diligence, honesty and a moderate share of common sense."
Do we like Swift? Was he likeable? Would we like to keep his company? Glendinning writes that "not always nice in our sense of loveable and pleasant, in keeping company with him we are not wasting time". This is despite the fact that Swift wrote scatological poems.
The author also highlights his obsession with bodily functions and the preoccupation with defecation. Thackeray wrote of him: "An immense genius, an awful downfall and ruin, so great a man he seems to me that thinking of him is like thinking of an empire falling."
The biography is thoroughly researched, and relates to the spirit of the age, which he captured in his inimitable style. Swift talked too much in his books, but in the voice of his own authentic, original and clear.
Indian philosophy: what is it anyway?
Reinterpreting Indian Philosophy by S.S. Barlingay. D.D. Printworld, New Delhi. Pp. 371. Rs 480.
IN his last major work, "Reinterpreting Indian Philosophy", S.S. Barlingay has taken up cudgels on behalf of Indian commentators of ancient Hindu philosophy, a field in which western scholars and commentators ruled the roost till the other day. First of all, he makes it clear that there is nothing as Indian philosophy. "To me philosophy is philosophising. It is neither Indian nor non-Indian. It is not determined by geographical boundaries. The expression, Indian philosophy, is an instance of transferred epithet. It is philosophy propounded by Indian philosophers," he asserts.
He then rejects the Hegelian approach of treating philosophy as a system or an organism. By confining it to certain fixed limits, he feels it is not possible to "allow it to expand, develop or breathe fresh and free air". He examines all philosophical issues with a critical eye and in a sceptical manner.
Not satisfied with the interpretations of the words Nirakara, nirguna and ajata appearing in Advaita philosophy of Adi Sankara, he delves deep into the mystery of words and comes out with a plausible explanation to match the profundity of the scriptures.
In the third step, he rejects the contention that Hinduism is a religion like Islam or Christianity. He says Hindus worship their gods and goddesses and also visit the shrines of Muslim "fakirs" and revere Christian saints with religious fervour.
The work under review is a collection of papers he read at conferences held in the country and abroad. There are 23 essays on various subjects, which include "Sankara on prescriptive and descriptive sentences" and "Vedantic theory and practical Vedanta of Vivekananda". In "Religion, philosophy and culture" he extols the approach of Sankara when he observes that the knowledge of something which exists in its own right cannot be dependent on anybodys will, desire or impulse. This, Sankara says, is true with regard to the knowledge of Brahman or Atman which exists in its own right. Sankara does not see eye to eye with Jaiminis view that the sentences in the Vedas are "one and all prescriptive".
In the essay "Nyaya, logic and epistemology", he makes certain pertinent points and brings out the differences between Indian philosophers and the Buddhists. He observes, "There are, however, differences amongst Indian philosophers about the status and relations between the two kinds of knowledge." nirvikalpa and savikalpa or determinate knowledge." Most Buddhists think that the first moment of our perception (and by this they, in fact, mean visual perception) is svalakshna that which defines itself or that which exists in its own right. Just as from a long distance a thing is only vaguely perceived, and it becomes clearer only gradually as we approach the thing, similarly, they (nyaya philosophers) also think in the first moment we have knowledge of things qua things and subsequently knowledge."
In "Mayavada" Barlingay makes a critical examination of the theory of world-illusion in the post-Sankara period. In "Reunderstanding Indian philosophy", he makes a remarkable observation which is likely to stand the test of time. "I think the main proposition of Advaita theory tells us that propositions of Purva Mimansa are the creations of a make-belief system. Of course, while asserting this, the Advaitin also creates certain other make-beliefs, viz. the world is an illusion i.e. everything is a make-belief."
Barlingay says it is not correct to say "Aham Brahmosmi" or "Tattvam asi" since the reality and its shadow cannot co-exist. Brahman is like an ocean, absolute consciousness, and jivas (individual consciousness or ego) are just like waves in the ocean. We cannot see ocean as a single entity, however, vast it may seem, and at the same time perceive it as a collection of infinite waves of water. "There is no identity between I and Brahman. I simply does not exist when there is a realisation that there is Brahman."
He has shed valuable light on Purva Mimansa, Sankhya, Vedanta and Buddhism. The style of Barlingay is deductive and his inferences are worth a careful study by modern scholars. He treats every topic with a high degree of seriousness in the Socratic vein.
In the essay "Four phases of Hinduism", he has dealt with the main problems confronting Hindu society and this essay makes an in-depth study of "Hindutva" and its implications. He repudiates the thesis of separatists. In his remarkable way he comments: "Excepting a microscopic tradition, the Hindu community did not go either with the RSS or Hindu Mahasabha or the Jan Sangh. Of course, the rigidity of the Hindus helped the two-nation theory and brought about the division of India into India and Pakistan. It points out that when religions become rigid and political they lead to splinter groups within each religion. Events in the context of Sikh politics will bear testimony to this....It may be pointed out that in all its first three phases, Hinduism was not rigid. It absorbed and even swallowed other religions and kept Hinduism alive. The rigidity of Hinduism is likely to split into several fragments. This is desirable neither from the religious point of view nor from the political."
Barlingay has a message for philosophers and in a most emphatic way he says, "To me, if India has to make any progress, there must be renaissance, particularly in philosophy. Swami Vivekananda, to my mind, is an epitome of such philosophical renaissance." He places philosophy and religion on the same footing.
The book is comprehensive, offering valuable new insights and is valuable for those who want to grasp the essentials of Indian thought.
When bestiality is way of life
The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosinski. Second Edition with an introduction by the Author. Grove Press, New York. Pp. xxvi+234. $ 15.
"Sometimes they burn the tongue, the red candies of memory." Arab-Israeli novelist Anton Shammas in "Arabesques".
FIRST published in 1965 and now available in a revised edition with extra material and a long introduction by the late author, "The Painted Bird" continues to exercise a strange fascination over the reader. One reason could be that its subject, The Holocaust, has not so far receded from our collective memory. It is kept alive not only by numerous documentary histories and photographs, but also by some memorable films such as "The Schindlers List", "Europa, Europa" and "Shoah". The other reason is the continuing ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, Rwanda and Kashmir. Present-day racial killings make the Nazi extermination of Jews and gypsies a significant event in a continuous chain.
Though the objective documentation of The Holocaust is quite extensive, we still respond with singular feeling and sympathy to literary creations that make it their principal concern. I still read with total involvement Thomas Keneallys original "The Schindlers List". There are other novels that similarly invite repeated readings, notably "Blood & Ashes" (now filmed by Andrej Wajda), "The Beautiful Mrs Seidenman" (earlier reviewed in these pages), besides Elie Wiesels "The Gates of the Forest". What makes these novels haunt us still is their handling of recent history in terms of individual misfortunes.
Whereas historical accounts rely for the most part on copious generalisations, fiction accentuates the terror of history by examining how individual psyches cope with the pressure of extreme situations. Pondering on individual fates makes you doubt the whole enterprise of the broad-sweep history, how little it tells us, how brittle are the conclusions based on mere statistics in the face of what we can imagine for ourselves by immersing in the novels dealing with the event.
A parallel event would be the Irish famine: tomes have been written about it by historians and economists, but read the observations of Hermann Melville in "Redburn",, watching migrants fleeing Ireland arrive in Liverpool, to get the real, the personal scars of the tragedy.
The novelist of extreme situations faces the problem of perspective and tone. Adorno once felt that after Auschwitz there could be no writing. How does one write about The Holocaust? What is the relationship between catastrophe and narrative, between what most thinkers thought the unspeakable horror of the events and their rendering into fiction? By personalising each experience, say the persecution of Madame Seidenman, the hounding of Gregor and the death of Gavril in Wiesels novel, or the registering of numbing impressions by the child-narrator of Kosinskis novel, we may come as close as possible to the real emotion, probably closer than in a film, since the cinematic medium is fleeting in its image patterns.
Wiesel speaks as a committed Jew while Kosinski negotiates different tones but settles for one that is neither totally judgemental nor totally neutral. This is why, as Kosinski recognises in the introduction to the new edition of the novel, he had to face flak from the Communist regimes of the country of his birth, as well as from fellow victims of Nazi atrocities who thought the book was too mild in its condemnation of racial terror. I think it is because the novel appeals on the trembling-lines of varying tone and attitude that accounts for its recurrent hold on our minds.
Jerzy Kosinski, as the name suggests, is a Polish-American and writes in English, which explains the controlled nostalgic lyricism of the book stopping short on this side of sentimentality. It has the same tenderness which in Polish would seem effortlessly earned, but is here filtered through an allegorical expression contained well within the grasp of an 11-year-old child. Allegorical expression blends with historical memory to create a vision of terror looming large in the present.
The result is what Milan Kundera would call "the world of grinning idiots" a vision of totalitarian ideal becoming real and yet fantastically hovering over every individual in the book. The minor characters in the book are so dehumanised by their hatred of the other that they become incapable of acting normally. They become willing executioners of cruelty on the peasant boy-narrator.
Kosinski finds no redeeming elements in their warped personalities. I have a feeling that complicity with cruelty by large populations may have driven film directors like Wajda and Zannusi out of the country. Is it that they wanted to avoid being reminded of the collective guilt of their people in the Nazi terror?
Unlike Wiesel whose method is discursive and rhetorical, Kosinski operates through imagery, building a cluster that acquires the status of a character, a statement. Animal imagery permeates the novel to suggest the authors despair at the human capacity for devising acts of cruelty against people with different colour of eyes and skin (the child-narrator is set apart from the rest).
To establish the fiendish character of the book, we are treated to a skinning alive of a rabbit: "The struggling rabbit fell down and started running immediately, now forward, now backward. With her skin hanging down behind her... she lost all sense of direction." This description speaks eloquently for the thousands trapped in the railway coaches awaiting transit to the Nazi death camps (compare this scene with "The Schindlers List"!).
The utter helplessness of people under Nazi rule is foreshadowed in the image-cluster of rats scurrying on the barnyard floor: "Like the spray of a wave, dozens of long scrawny rats ascended with spasmodic leaps the smooth inner wall of the bunker, only to fall back on the spines of others. I gazed at this rippling mass and saw how the rats were murdering and eating one another, pouncing on one another, furiously biting out chunks of flesh and shreds of skin."
Similar is the fate of Jewish children thrown out by their parents in the hope of saving them: "Slashed by the wheels, their mutilated trunks rolled down the embankment into the tall grass."
The over-arching symbol of the painted bird serves to further forge the bizarre correspondence between animals and predatory men and women. The correspondence emerges from the superstitions of the peasant community wherein the novel is located. A peasant paints birds and sends them off to join their own kind. They are rejected and killed.
In relating the frightful adventures of a dark-eyed boy (the "gypsy-vampire" of the book) to the world of blond hair and light eyes (also a major symbol in the film "Europa, Europa"), the novel proposes a contemporary parable: anyone different from the pack, anyone out of step with the superstition-ridden peasant community becomes the whipping boy of the entire communitys dark underside.
What is a firm belief among the community members becomes an instrument of the torture of the other, the alien and the non-conforming. Absurd beliefs from the past transform relationships into a means of infernal infliction by putting on the other the brand of Cain. At Nazi concentration camps prisoners were branded before being gassed.
"The Painted Bird" is about a backward, superstitious and illiterate peasant community in which strange things occur that strain our credulity and sense of logic. The time is the nightmarish period of World War II and God has been replaced by obscurantist rural beliefs and rituals.
When the boy-narrator is hung by his wrists by the peasant whose dog thirsts for blood, he takes recourse to prayer, a superstitious way of warding off evil. But the prayer is bereft of religious sanctity as it no longer reflects a community inspired by the religious virtue of tolerance of the other. With revenge and rapine the prevailing demons, there is nothing for the boy-narrator but to spend all his time in merely surviving.
His pilgrims progress in this book is inverted into staying intact as a simple creature. If there is any progress in his life, it is from one calamitous involvement to another in a bid to stave off his man-shaped predators.
Other characters in the novel, the peasant who beats the narrator, Lekh, Maria, Ekwa, Garbo and a host of shadowy beings, are mere attitudes and lack the human attributes of compassion and fellow-feeling. The racial hatred of which the boy is a repeated victim has passed beyond the point where it can be contained within bearable limits. It has become a way of life for this unredeemed community.
The fact that the novel has no recognisable plot structure can be explained by the accretion of cruelties whose sole purpose seems to convey the utter irrationality of this world.
Kosinski is not carried away, as Elie Wiesel occasionally is, by the intensity of the horror; nevertheless, he puts across the boys taut experiences of this horror chamber in a language that disorients without ceasing to be under control: "Together... they brought the culprit to the forest. There they prepared a twelve-foot stake, sharpened at one end to a fine point like a gigantic pencil.. Then a horse was latched to each of the victims feet while his crotch was levelled with a waiting point... When the point was deep into the entrails of the victim, the men lifted the stake together with the impaled man upon it and planted it in a previously dug hole."
Very few novelists can handle unadulterated cruelty in the matter-of-fact way that Kosinski does. The matter-of-factness itself is deadly for being unvarnished. It hits home without the need of an explicit comment.
A similar quality is conveyed by the later scenes in the novel after the boy-narrator is liberated from the Kamluks by the advancing Red Army. Indoctrinated into the Stalinist version of total subservience of self to the Party, the boy is convinced by Gavrilla about the effectiveness of Comrade Stalins hold on man and God. (There is a scene in "Europa, Europa" in which candy falls from the sky as the teacher tells her class how Stalin has supplanted God as the provider of earthly bounty). Our protagonists naïveté has to be seen to be believed. In "The Painted Bird" Stalin represents another turn of the screw in the endless twistings of the boy-narrators fate.
This plotless episodic novel is a major document in that it shows how evil registers on the impressionable mind of an 11-year-old who "matures" into the knowledge of savagery lurking behind even the most innocent human action. Its surrealistic episodes, its grotesqueries and its seeming lack of structure tear apart the mendacities of our centurys political and social creeds.
There have been great works of war writing before. We recall the dismembering of Hector in The Iliad, the corpse-littered battle scenes in the Mahabharata, the retreat from Borodino in Tolstoy. But these have been on a heroic scale and stand at a distance from our own predicaments. "The Painted Bird" is close to our own bones in the sense that the hatreds and cruelties depicted in it form the stuff of life of ordinary people who live and perform bestialities on ordinary people like themselves.
The book has an archetypal core surrounding an individual boys travails. To have achieved this trip-wire balance, this penetrating revelation of an ordinary psyche under stress, is the special merit of Kosinskis moving novel.
A hills people struggling to retain identity
The Karbis (from the papers of Edward Stack) edited by Sir Charles Lyall. With a new introduction by Tanmay Bhattacharjee. Spectrum Publications, Guwahati. Pp. 184. Rs 290.
Are the tribals losing their identity? Have they lost their social values and customs?What has happened to their instinct for cultural unity and homogeneity? Can they sustain and maintain their distinct identity in the changing politico-economic milieu?
The book under review deals with almost every aspect of life relating to the Karbi tribes, discusses in detail their customs and laws, languages and religion. But the most interesting and distinctive feature of this book is an analysis of their folklore by providing the original language pronunciation.
The Karbis, previously known as the Mikirs, occupy a significant place in the tribal community, particularly in the North-East. Inhabiting the hills between the Brahmaputra and the Dhansiri, they maintain their cultural identity by avoiding contact with other ethnic groups.Their love for homogeneity helped them remain a close-knit, small but isolated group or society. Before 1886, not much was known about the Mikir Hills. Perhaps that is why the origin of the Mikirs is unknown. The name Mikir is said to have been given to the races by the Assamese.They call themselves "Arleng".
Primarily they are agriculturists but they do manufacture certain products, practise "jhum" or shifting cultivation and rice and cotton are the main crops. Vegetable is also grown.
Young unmarried boys and girls usually lived together in a place called "Terang" and illegitimate births were common. The villagers are fond of "deka" clubs which help in cultivation, practising dancing and preserving tribal customs and traditions.
There are three sections of Mikir people that is, the Chintong, Ranghang and the Amri. However, this does not reflect the true division and the fact remains that the tribe is divided into patrilineal and exogamous class such as the Ingti (priesly clan); the Lekthe (the military clan); the Terang (lower strata) and the Timing (rest of the people but claiming the status of priests).
Marriages are not allowed within the "kur" (class). Child marriage is unknown. There is a difference of opinion about the prevalence of polygamy and monogamy. Adultery is unknown and seduction is rare. Widow remarriage is allowed. The procedure for divorce is simple but a rare phenomenon. Once a boy is attracted towards a girl, his parents go to her house with a bracelet and if the offer is accepted, it is considered that an agreement has been reached and after that if the girl marries somebody else, the village council will impose a fine of Rs 25 to 30.The village headman is elected. In case of a despite, a settlement is imposed by the village council.
Significance is not attached to a persons name and whatever word comes to the mind is given to a person as his name such as "Ba"(a goat), "Long" (stone) but to distinguish one individual from another, his "kur" is used because there is no tradition of using surnames.They give names of dead relatives to children, perhaps believing that the dead have come back.
The common family drink is "hor" but the so-called "sharabi" is found nowhere in the village. Addiction to opium is common.
Tribal gods are worshipped with animal sacrifice but there are no temples or shrines or idols.They do wear amulets, some piece of stone or metal but in no way these are objects of worship. Gods are worshipped in different ways, at different times and in different places. For instance, "Arnamkethe" is a house god and pig is sacrificed once in three years; to "Peng" goat is offered every year. "Rek-anglong" is worshipped in the field and said to grant prosperity and avert misfortune.
Then there are gods for special diseases like "Ajo-ase" (deity of cholera), "Chomang-ase"(rheumatism)and "Theng-then" (recurring sickness). There is no indication of worshipping trees or animals.
Tribal people do believe in witchcraft and in the event of persisting sickness, the services of the so-called "ojhas"are utilised. Charms are also used as cure for diseases. Stomach ache is said to disappear after rubbing a little mud on the abdomen and in case of rheumatism, a castor oil leaf is stuck on the place.
The people are fond of telling stories. Folklores appear to be similar to those elsewhere in the world but lending them local dress and characteristic makes these distinctive.The legend about creation describes how gods Hemplu and Mukrang worked the creation of the world, including the earth, trees, plants, animals and finally creating a being called "Arleng" (man). Such legends have not been handled by Stack. He does not even mention general taboos.
They speak a Tibeto-Burman language, akin to the Naga and Kuki dialects. The Roman alphabets are employed to write in the language. The Khasis contributed many words to their speech. Assamese words also appear in a significant number.
The originality of the work of Edward Stack and Sir Charles Lyall is maintained but the scholarly introduction by Bhattacharjee has given a fresh touch to the social structure and a new meaning to the non-existent political entity and constitutional aspirations.
years of undoing Gandhi
A Nation in Transition: India at 50 edited by N. Radhakrishnan and N. Vasudevan. Gandhi Media Centre, New Delhi. Pp. 232. Rs 300.
COME to think of it, 50 years is not such a long period in the life of a country the size of India for a balanced and objective analysis of its grades as a free and independent nation. Yet it is not too short a period either for professional commentators and writers to examine where we are heading and whether midcourse corrections are necessary. The book under review does just that, highlighting the countrys doings (and undoings), as we charge ahead with shaky steps but with a sense of determination, striving for a modern version of Ram Rajya, quite distant from that of Gandhis dreams.
President K.R. Narayanan leading the 20-old contributors to this collection of essays, is hopeful of the future of the Constitution and Parliament and says, "This Parliament maintains its wonderful capacity to soften and to blunt the rough edges of even radical differences to create a consensus on issues that touch upon our basic national interests and principles." He goes on to point out that "our political scene is in a state of fragmentation today", something like a "broken mirror", where the image of India can still be seen in the tiny bits and broken pieces which can still be put together. It would, of course, take Herculean effort to get our politicians and the political system they have so insanely corrupted, back on the rails.
J.N. Dixit, a former Foreign Secretary and political commentator, lauds Indias role in maintaining world peace and its multifaceted achievements in defining the principles of panchsheel in the 1960s, and the "non-partisan and tempering role in defusing tensions and specific conflict situations". Dixit traces Indias distinct brand of diplomacy and foreign policy to the Gandhian heritage of commitment to freedom, democracy and reason in international relations, and suggests that there must be a balance in the worlds over-competitiveness in controlling natural resources, quoting Gandhis famous line "nature provides enough for everybodys needs, but not for everybodys greed".
Poet and bureaucrat Ashok Vajpayee examines the rich cultural mosaic of the 5000-year-old Indian civilisation and points out that the "inacessibility of wisdom to the people is contributing a great deal to the cultural illiteracy of the burgeoning middle classes of India". But this observation throws up much larger questions that need an answer. One, the middle classes are not bothered about their lack of cultural literacy and understanding as living in these inflation-ridden days is in itself a daily grind. Only when the basic needs of our society are first met, will it be in a mood to appreciate a Ravi Shanker or a U.R. Ananthamoorthy.
And second, the peculiar kind of culture that is now being dished out to the masses from the Department of Culture and other bureaucratic outfits will never find acceptance with the common man.
In this collection, nearly every facet of Indias existence during the past 50 years has been covered: swaraj of the people, empowerment of women, interface of religion and politics, eradication of poverty, and even policing in the past five decades. A heady mix that leaves one smothered with details. Two subjects that definitely merit mention and do not find space in this book are the role of the armed forces and the Election Commission of India, two major pillars of democracy. Had it not been for the Army pulling everyones political chestnuts out of the fire, the government might well have had a new face by now. Yet no writer has covered the armed forces and their worthwhile contribution, though we have the regulation K.F. Rustamji article on the police.
Justice has not been done either to the Election Commission which even more than the judiciary and Parliament, is trying to restore a semblance of decorum in our democratic process. Inclusion of some of these subjects would have added a distinct flavour to a book published as recently as 1998.
This informative and well-packed book, brought out by the Gandhi Media Centre leans (and rightly too) on the ideology of Mahatma Gandhi and examines whether or not his advice and precepts have been followed by the rulers in the past 50 years. Gandhi had said, "Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you may have seen, and ask yourself if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he gain anything by it? Will it restore to him control over his own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to Swaraj for the hungry and spiritually starving millions?"
By now the reader would have all the answers to how we rose or slipped to meet Gandhis expectations. A young Gandhian scholar, K. Chellamuthu sums it all up brutally: "Over the past fifty years of our emancipation we have practised the reverse of what Gandhi had preached. All these years, we have organised political power in such a way that the resources of the state are to be distributed around definite grades of distinction caste, religion, region, gender and any other subaltern identity that an insidious polity will make allowances for."
As India prepares to enter the next century, one thing is sure. It certainly needs major midcourse corrections in integrity, morals and mindset of the political leadership, if the country is to in any way fulfil Gandhis dreams.
Himmat Singh Gill