The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, June 18, 2000


The classic love tragedy
Review by Himmat Singh Gill
These poems in one’s father-tongue
Review by Shalini Kalia
A reformist’s revelations
Review by T.V. Rajeswar
What is karma?
Review by Satish K. Kapoor
Hear the unlikely revolutionary
Review by Shelley Walia
Colonial twist to development
Review by Surinder S. Jodhka
Build a battlefield in the air
Review by R. S. Bedi

The classic love tragedy
Review by Himmat Singh Gill

Moth Smoke — A Novel by Mohsin Hamid. Penguin Books, New Delhi. Pages 244. Rs 250.

This is a first novel by Mohsin Hamid, who grew up in Lahore and now lives in New York, and is about his motherland of 1998, riding high on nuclear tests but dismally low on economy. A country that just about provides an apt setting for the drunken hero Darashikoh Shezad to jet set his way to his own decline, after he has fallen in love with his best friend’s wife Mumtaz. In true oriental philosophy and thinking, he now suffers all the consequences. It is a swinging novel of life in the 1990s in Islamic Pakistan, where the poor and the rich (read very rich) exist side by side, and the dirty, mean streets of its cities are as much at ease with its cordless phones and Pajeros, as its humble hand-pulled carts for a living.

Hamid writes casually (and that is his strength) and honestly (and that provides the truth and transparency so necessary in a fiction) and paints a vivid picture of a rigid society now on the fast track of western capitalism and consumerism (for good or ill). The farm house parties (like our own variety in Gurgaon and Mehrauli) are there with Ecstasy pills at Rs 2000 each that go half and half down Mumtaz’s and Darashikoh’s throat, the buying of the mobile police patrol’s silence with a few hundred rupees after being found drunk behind the wheel and the Dobermans that were set upon Ozi (Mumtaz’s husband) and Daru in a friend’s house.

The cigarettes ("Reds") and the poor McDowell, smuggled from India, superior brand Black Label going at Rs 4000 a bottle, are all there to project a very modern picture of our neighbour, that very few of us really seem to understand.

The hold of the mullahs notwithstanding the youth in Pakistan, going by "Moth Smoke", are definitely having a good time, and Hamid does paint a vivid contemporary social landscape.

Besides this, one finds him immensely humorous: "I was happier when we had load shedding five hours a day: at least then a man didn’t have to be a millionaire to run his AC", or, in talking of Khurram uncle, the author says, "He has an unmistakable tone of command I associate with Sandhurst and the experience of sitting comfortably in an office while ordering men to die".

But while Lahore swings away with "mulligatawny soup and roast beef", our hero in spite of all his parties and all his scotch, is not happy what with his rumbling bowels and dehydrated self. "Liquid. Completely liquid. And acidic. The worst kind. Frothy and all that I need some Immodium, a double dose, double quick or I’ll be dehydrated by sunset." Quite obvious, what else would you expect if he has taken to selling "charas" and giving heroin a try; and when his lifelong servant Munuchi advises him against it, Darashikoh bashes him up, leading to his departure and symbolically announcing his own imminent downfall. That does not take very long in coming.

Daru’s love affair with Mumtaz is actually at the root of it all. She is already married and has a child and so does not wish to marry Darashikoh. He loves her and wants her to leave Ozi for good. She leaves Rs 100 notes in his purse after spending hours with him, yet cannot take his criticism when he tells her that she is neglecting her son. Both are attracted to each other, live with each other and steal moments of affection and sex, but the more pragmatic of the two does not wish to break up her household and her husband’s heart. A typical situation of the moth and the candle.

"She’s drawn to me just as I’m drawn to her. She can’t keep away. She circles, forced to keep her distance, afraid of abandoning her husband and, even more her son, for too long. But she keeps coming like a moth to my candle staying longer than she could, leaving late for dinners and birthday parties, singeing her wings. She is risking her marriage for me, her family, her reputation. And I, the moth, circling her candle, realise that she’s not just a candle. She’s a moth as well, circling me."

There is another complication in this complicated love tie. Muazzam, the son of Ozi and Mumtaz, who according to Daru, provides all the guilt complex to his mother. "Muazzam is what stands between Mumtaz and me. She feels so guilty about leaving him that she’s willing to stay in a meaningless marriage. I wonder what would happen if Muazzam got into a car accident, if he died suddenly."

It is here that this reviewer must leave this climax of the narrative and let the reader imagine what happens next in the last few chapters of the book. A little later Darashikoh, graduates to robbing a boutique in league with underworld rotter Murad Badshah. "A joint in my mouth heavy on the hairy and a 9-mm automatic tucked into my jeans", they hold up the joint successfully, but while making the getaway in his Suzuki car, Darashikoh according to the prosecution, overruns over and kills an ugly little boy, who Daru believes so closely resembles Muazzam, and lands himself in jail. The Muazzam coming between him and Mumtaz syndrome again.

But much later many witnesses and even some members of the Accountability Commission off the record have continued to maintain that it was a Pajero (a car that Ozi uses) that killed the boy at the red light. It cannot be proved conclusively outside the courts, but the cuckolded husband possibly has the last say and the last laugh with his wife and her lover Daru.

This racy novel follows the theme of paying up on this world for your actions and deeds. Temporary triumphs aside, finally Daru, Ozi, Mumtaz and every other character of some consequence meet their nemesis. All these characters also carry out a self-assessment of themselves which is not such a bad thing after all, especially for the reader who often just skims through a book wishing to take everything in but with little effort on his part. Examples: Aurangzeb or Ozi, "I’m Aurangzeb, Ozi to my wife, my friends and even those of my friends who sleep with my wife. But mostly I’m Aurangzeb. And regardless of what you’ve heard, I’m not a bad guy."

Mumtaz. "Maybe" I am a monster, after all." Or, "When I met Darashikoh Shezad I didn’t know whether I was going to sleep with him but I knew I wanted to. He seemed the perfect partner for my first extramarital affair. He was smart and sexy, and since he was one of Ozi’s best friends, I knew he’d keep his mouth shut." And so on.

Read about all this and more of what the razzle-dazzle in Pakistan’s Lahore do today. At least as the US-settled Mohsin Hamid sees it, one thing is certain. Mohsin couldn’t have got this one published in Pakistan and then stayed on there to savour its early success. Which raises one nagging doubt in this reviewer’s mind. Do most Indo-Anglian writers write for themselves, or the western readership?

* * *

Polo in India: A Tribute to Maharaj Prem Singh by Sarina Singh. Roli Books/Lustre Press, New Delhi. Pages 128. Rs 595.

Polo in IndiaTHE game of the princes, the cavalry and the well-to-do, polo (for the uninitiated many) is a sport played like hockey on horseback with long-handled mallets and plenty of guts, vigour and elan.

"Polo in India" written by Sarina Singh, a roving writer based in Australia but who loves to travel, and printed most artistically and in arresting style in Singapore, is not only about this great game, but also about one of the polo legends of the world, Maharaj Prem Singh, a third generation player from Jodhpur, who stormed the polo fields of many continents from the early 1950s, bringing India glory and honour, like only a very few have done during their times. Published in association with the Maharana Mewar Historical Publication Trust, Udaipur, and illustrated with dozens of rare and antique colour-plates, this is a book-lover's delight, if ever there was one.

Who was this great polo player, about whom Prince Philips, the Duke of Edinburgh, has said: "Prem.... had an extraordinary talent with a polo pony, he combined strength with consideration and always got the best out of his ponies...."Or for that matter, Rajmata Gayatri Devi of Jaipur in talking of Prem Singh, "A gentleman, a fine sportsman... an intellectual and a philosopher... a traditionalist with a modern outlook. A complete man."

This is what Sarina has to say about the first player honoured with the Arjuna award for polo and the man who triumphed in 1953 at Deanville to win the world cup: "He has certainly rubbed shoulders with the "caviar" of society, playing polo with the likes of Prince Philip, Lord Mountbatten and the Sultan of Brunei, to name but a few. Yet there is not a pretentious bone in his body. On the contrary, Maharaj Prem has a propensity to make everyone feel special. That’s what makes this man shine."

Now this humble octogenarian, for whom polo was his full lifetime, recounts, "I never ever wanted to stop playing polo and even if I can no longer play it, I still love it."

Maharaj Prem was "a man extraordinaire, brimming with zest and vigour, fun and laughter", as Arvind Singh Mewar, ex-Maharana of Udaipur, so aptly puts it. Right from his school days at Jodhpur playing polo at the age of 12 to active field service in World War IIin the famous Jodhpur Lancers, his father’s regiment, to coaching young polo players at the Calcutta Polo Club, to winning the Centenary Gold Cup versus the Rotananda team in 1962, to managing the Glendale Polo Club in Illinois along with Harold Reskin, and to winning the Queen’s Cup at Windsor in 1959 along with the Silverlay’s team, Maharaj Prem Singh’s commitment to the game was all-encompassing and enduring.

His love for polo, his infectious enthusiasm and capacity to groom the youngsters with his tireless coaching point to a man who has even gone beyond the game, to near-perfection in not only playing and managing the sport, but also in human relationships and true sportsmanship. What a change from some of the cricketers of India today, who have muddied their name in one controversy or the other. Rightly it has been said:" Let other people do other things, The king of games is still the game of kings".

From the 19th century onwards the game of polo was actively promoted and patronised by the British Cavalry (then they had horses and not tanks), and the royal houses in Rajasthan. Polo was played pretty seriously till independence and later on due to a paucity of ponies and the added infrastructure, the Indian cavalry regiments like the Poona Horse, 7th Cavalry and this reviewers’ own regiment Hodsons’ Horse (now also called 4 Horse) switched over to polo of the other kind with bicycles with many cycle polo tournaments in the cavalry cantonments of the country, especially in Patiala and Jhansi — Babina in Madhya Pradesh. All said and done, cycle polo always came out as a poor second to the real polo played on horseback.

Maharaj Prem Singh fortunately lives on today with great names in the game adorning many playing fields in India and abroad. Billy Sodhi, Pinka Virk, Rupi Brar, Bhawani Singh and Kuldip Singh Garcha are some who have donned colours for many teams with distinction and aplomb and one is happy that by writing this book, Sarina Singh (and Arvind Singh Mewar of Udaipur) have woken up our countrymen to this robust and manly sport which had it not been for the patronage of some of the royal houses and many commercial companies and corporates, could have wasted away in the humdrum of a largely middle-class India and government apathy.

Prem Singh was the only Indian polo player to have raised his handicap from one to four in one season. He also holds the record for having scored the longest goal not once but twice, hitting from one goal mouth to the other! Prem Singh took part in three World Cup competitions in which India won in 1953 and 1957 in France.

Colonel Kishen Singh, another big name in polo says, "Whatever Maharaj Prem went, he promoted polo in a big way.... I think his contribution cannot be compared to that of any other player’s in this country." And on a lighter (but quite frankly a serious note), Prem Singh was so good in polo that it is worth quoting Brigadier V.P. Singh, another polo player: "Maharaj Prem Singh would make the very most of every situation. If you gave him a donkey, he’d sit on a donkey and play polo — he was that good".


These poems in one’s father-tongue
Review by Shalini Kalia

Woodcutters by Arun Gaur Aadhar Prakashan, Panchkula. Pages. 112. Rs 150

THE mist deepens. There is something that we remember, something that cannot be forgotten, something that must be, in spite of never existing outside us. On both sides of the walls are portraits of our literary forefathers. Dark, gloomy colours clouding stern, fair faces usually with sideburns, concealing smiles of alien lands.

We come out and in the mirror in the hall we see we resemble no one. We have neither Pound’s long artistic, probing fingers nor the swagger of a Shelley or a Keats in our walk. We neither sing like Whitman nor talk wittily like Pope; we have neither Eliot’s appetite nor Donne’s ingenuity.

Who do we take after? Indian poets — the "sons of the gods" who left us only a language — have grappled for long with the questions of lineage and style. Traces of the Shakespearean Rag juxtaposed with hot, dusty journeys on Indian roads and trains.

Where the tracks meet lies the essence of poetry for us. No purging of our emotions. We are what we are. And also a little of what we are made out to be. So we talk of our literary fathers in our father-tongue and desperately hold on to our thoughts and idioms in our mother tongue. Maybe that is why for us "the washer women/Merciless beauties/their sarees pink blue green/scintillate in early morning light."

No asphyxiating grammer, no punctuation, no "law of the father". Here is an anthology of perfectly Indian poems, perfectly valid but satiating the palate of the "empire" or the empire-admirer only. The poet tries to deny rhyme and it creeps in surreptitiously: "one needle like steeple". And he tries to swap the post-post-modernism’s "global bug on the head" — swap! But the imprints of the "son of man" and his "coy mistress" are deeply embedded in the pages. There is no getting away from Eliot and Marvell. The fire in the words at times is however, fire-flies. The pain is original.

The author has confessedly shed his pretensions of being surrealistic and pedantic. But learning and the "anxiety of influence" cling hard to the compositions as in "cube on squarish platform/And remnants of tower/As stone displaces Buddhist brick/Northern spire is born...". Like the skin we can’t shed off. At times the simplistic doha-like writing manages to shine through the chinks "Artist chisels his tender kid/And when law forbids this chiseling/Tradition dies...". At other times poetry appears as flat translations — all the dynamic bubbles dying away. "Mr You have not come here/To have leisure of company garden..."

The poet works from the margin inwards. The shifting of subject positions and of voice, where a voyeuristic tourist peeps into where the "Great God slumbers/Great God dreams..." Caribbean writer Jamaica Kinciad states bluntly: "One of the crimes of the colonial era was the violation of the colonised people’s language. For isn’t it odd that the only language that I have in which to speak of this crime is the language of the criminal who committed this crime?"

Arun Gaur has most certainly "written back" through "the native’s eyes" of travels in his own country, but of much else besides. Throughout the compositions railway lines and roads criss-cross. And Shivpuri’s lost glory, Sagar’s perfect symmetry, Viket Bhairav’s passion and Badami’s panting rocks are redeemed from the oblivion of centuries.

Tigers, snakes, lotuses, Gandharvas and elephants are dusted off and resuscitated. The scars left by the "Afghans Turks Mughals Bundelas Britons/And adventurers burglars" are poulticed. From a mere poet, his role changes into that of a roaming mendicant, the eternal seeker of truth looking behind boulders in the cold Tabo desert, to the rocks of Alwar and Aihole, to peering inside dim Buddhist caves and behind the "immovable crocodile" stones on the river Betwa. He passes through the ennui of the military town of Chakrata and the "demonstrative" greetings of Hyderabad and the ironic journey goes on in a country where, "Burglars are icon-lifters/But caretakers of history lift entire structures."

What remains is the yearning and some crumbs of answer: "O let us build something/That should remind generations/what we were/Not what became of us..."


A reformist’s revelations
Review by T.V. Rajeswar

Plain Speaking by Chandrababu Naidu with Sevanti Ninan. Viking, New Delhi. Pages 263. Rs 395.

ANDHRA Pradesh Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu’s experiments in improving his state administration are explained in this book. Naidu became the Chief Minister in 1995 after an internal party struggle which had all the markings of a palace coup. Naidu’s organisational skill, demonstrated while his charismatic father-in-law N.T. Rama Rao was running the state in his own fashion, enabled him to take over from him fairly smoothly. He proved his mettle in the Assembly and parliamentary elections subsequently. He currently controls 29 TDP MPs crucial to the survival of the Vajpayee government.

The overwhelming strength in the State Assembly has given him a free hand in going ahead with reforms which are largely information technology-driven. Karnataka and Tamil Nadu are ahead of AP in software development, export and in the number of software engineers. And Naidu will not rest till he pushed AP ahead of every other state in the country.

He came out with a Vision 2020 document about the role which his state should play in the new millennium and it primarily focuses on improvements in the fields of agriculture, industry and services. Assisted by a set of devoted civil servants who are all experts in computer technology, Naidu was able to locate the various bottlenecks which are holding up progress in the state.

He found the administrative machinery "huge and self perpetuating, slow and accountable to nobody and, above all, obstructive and it essentially exists for itself and not for public service". This is basically true of the administrative set-up, both in the states and at the Centre.

Naidu found that while in 1984-85 the expenditure on salaries and pensions of employees accounted for 76.98 per cent of the revenue, by 1996-97 it has risen to 94.5 per cent. A close look showed that certain departments had more than twice the number of people they really needed. Out of the 2,70,000 posts, the review found that 1.96,740 posts, or 40.62 per cent, to be redundant.

He began the slimming operation by downsizing and freezing new posts. As for files in the government offices, Naidu says they proliferate alarmingly and if they are staked one on the other, we can build a staircase to heaven. Target dates were fixed to reduce the files drastically and by September 2000, the number may come down by more than half in the secretariat alone.

It would be a good idea if a similar exercise is carried out by the central Ministries. There was a recent report that in one of the Central Government departments it took two years and 48 nothings to clear a deputy adviser’s application to attend a ten-day course.

There are several other administrative reforms like abolishing interviews for recruiting teachers and doctors and going entirely by the marks secured by the applicants; this was to eliminate the subjective element and make the process transparent. In the matter of tenders for awarding contracts for carrying out public works, Naidu claims to have worked out a foolproof system after discussing the matter with the officers, engineers, builders and contractors.

Naidu has discovered that providing a subsidy is like mounting the proverbial tiger and that a subsidy gives diminishing political returns. He cites the case of Punjab where the Badal Government lost heavily in the 1999 parliamentary elections in spite of a free supply of power and water to kisans. This explains why Naidu eventually toned down his opposition to the NDA government’s cut in the subsidy for fertilisers and an increase in the PDS grain prices.

The power situation in Andhra Pradesh had been abysmally poor for the past few years. Naidu has since restructured the entire system and set up the AP Electricity Regulatory Commission to take care of generation, transmission, etc. Towards the end of May the APERC came out of with new rates for domestic consumers, increasing the tariff to Rs 7.05 per unit for those consuming more than 400 units; this is more than double the existing rate. For the farm sector an annual fees of Rs 500 will be charged for a 10 HP motor set and the revised rates will bring in an additional revenue of Rs 1095 crore. Naidu has set a bold example in cutting down subsidies in the power sector which the Chief Ministers of other states would do well to emulate.

However, it is in the field of electronic conferencing that Naidu has made remarkable progress. All his 30 Ministers, 294 MLAs and 641 officers from the All India Services have been put through computer training. It is claimed that the state can boast of having the largest number of computers in the government departments which make it easier for improving the levels of service.

At a more basic level all administrative details from the village upwards have been fed into the computer. At any given moment, Chief Minister Naidu, sitting at his residence at Hyderabad, can find out how much power has been generated in a particular power project during the day or how much the Godavari river would rise during floods and which are the villages likely to be submerged.

He has his interaction with the village people in weekly tele-conferencing. All the district headquarters and the DMs are cyber-linked and there could be video conferencing by the Chief Minister from Hyderabad with any one of his DMs or all of them together. Naidu hopes that soon all the 1125 mandals of the state would be likewise cyber connected.

This has been facilitated by Naidu using his influence to get the Department of Telecommunication to lay more than 20,000 km of optic fibre cable connecting all these places. Moreover, remote sensing by satellites has also been fully utilised and it is claimed that the entire state’s 23 districts, 1125 mandals, 224 Assembly constituencies and 28,245 revenue villages have been digitalised. The state’s roadwork has been mapped out and an engineer sitting in Hyderabad can find out the state of affairs of a particular section of a road after a flood.

In this bright picture painted by Naidu there are some black patches such as the state’s inability to work out a practical system of crop insurance, minimum subsistence wages for landless labour and credit for marginal farmers. Otherwise there would not be so many cases of farmers committing suicide year after year when crops fail, sell kidneys to raise money for paying the money lenders or sale of babies by the very poor in villages. What the DMs and mandal pramukhs have done to prevent such distress is not clear. A sensitive administrator like Naidu should be anxious to prevent such incidents and hopefully they would become rare in the coming years.

Chandrababu Naidu says that to innovate in this country, you require political courage more than resources. Well said and for the first time this is practised by the NDA government. Naidu’s book should be compulsory reading for every Minister and bureaucrat and if only even half of his sensible and innovative ideas is followed and adopted in all areas of administration, this country would indeed leap ahead.


What is karma?
Review by Satish K. Kapoor

The Doctrine of Karma: Its Origin and Development in Brahmanical, Buddhist and Jaina Traditions by Yuvraj Krishna. Motilal Banarsidass. Pages xviii+650. Rs 595.

LITERALLY, "karma" means action. But actions are not isolated acts. They culminate in inevitable consequences, both good and bad, in this life or in a reincarnation. In Hinduism, "karma" is regarded as "a neutral, self perpetuating law of the inner cosmos much as gravity is an impersonal law of the outer cosmos. "Karma" is of four types: the accumulated actions of previous births which do not influence a man’s present life are called sanchita: the actions of past life which determine his destiny are called prarabdha; and the actions which are now performed are called kriyamana. The kriyamana is transformed into sanchita and becomes the basis of agami.

"Karma" has also been classified as white (meaning good) black (meaning bad) and colourless (meaning insignificant). In a ritualists sense "karma" has six more categories to it. They are: daily (nitya), occasional like pilgrimage, fasting, etc. (naimittika), those performed with a specific purpose such as a sacrifice to obtain a son (karya), those activities undertaken with a spiritual motive (adhyatmika), those relating to tutelary deities such as the repetition of a mantra (adhidaivika) and those related to living beings (adhibhautika).

This book provides a comprehensive study of the doctrine of "karma" in its various ramifications. It takes in its gamut such questions as how do Indian religious traditions view "karma"? How does "karma" operate? How has the "karma" theory helped the evolution of the ideal of liberation? Is the doctrine of "karma" entwined with the concept of the four yugas? What is "nishkama karma"? Is there a balancing of "karmas"? How is "karma" linked to social responsibility?

To begin with the author describes three essential features of the doctrine of "karma". First, it is an ethical and moral law; second, it is a law of restributive justice; third, retributive justice is possible only through rebirth. The doctrine of "karma" exists in an embryonic form in the "Samhitas" and "Brahmanas". Although the Rigveda mentions it about 40 times, it is primarily used in the sense of sacrificial acts. The "Brahmanas" specifically identify "karma" with liturgical acts. Although there is "absence of ethical or moral concepts in pre-Upanishadic Vedic literature", the ideas of transmigration and rebirth occur both in the "samhitas" and the "Brahmanas".

The Upanishadic exposition of "karma" is somewhat ambivalent in the sense that they uphold "karma" as a moral law, and in the same vein, teach how they can be "destroyed or arrested and rendered sterile."

The heterodox elaboration of "karma" is unique in many ways. Jainism, for example, regards "karma" as a form of matter which is atomic in its nature. The "Uttaradhyayana Sutra" states that the number of atoms of each "karma" is infinite and is to be found in all the six directions of space. "It is this atomic matter which binds all souls."

Jainism classifies "karma" in eight forms: that which impedes right knowledge; that which shakes right faith; that which causes delusion; that which leads to pleasure or pain; that which determines the nature of one’s existence; that which prescribes the specific form of existence; that which determines one’s status in society; and that which prevents a person from doing philanthropic acts.

In the Jaina way of life five "mahavratas and five anuvratas are prescribed for monks and laymen, respectively, for the creation of a righteous social order.

Like Hinduism and Buddhism, Jainism explains the factor of inequality among human beings as a product of good and bad "karma". As many as 16 types of "karma" are mentioned in the Buddhist texts.

Buddhism believes that man is tied to the wheel of birth and death and can attain nirvana only by breaking the chains of "karma". "Karma" is regarded as a causative force, as a law of personal responsibility and as a law of inexorable retribution. Reincarnation is the working out of this law. None can escape the consequences of his deeds.

In Buddhism what distinguishes a Brahmin from an outcaste is not birth but "karma". The "karmic" law is not discriminatory "like the man-made law codes". According to the Buddha, past "karmas" determine the present caste of a human being and the present "karmas" determine the caste status in future births.

The book crisply delineates the doctrine of "karma" as it occurs in the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the Puranas and the six systems of Indian philosophy. It also relates "karma" to Indian astrology, to Hindu law, to Sanskrit drama, to Ayurveda and to the incarnations of God.

The "karma" doctrine was opposed by the "Charvakas", "Niyativadins", "Svabhavavadins", "Ajnanavadins" and other schools of thought. But the real danger to it came from the "shunyavada" and "Vijnanavada" of the Buddhists and the Advaits of Sankaracharya. It survived nevertheless.

The book contends that even though the doctorines of "karma" cannot be experimentally or empirically proved, it provides the best possible explanation for inequality and suffering in life, for the immense diversity in the universe and for varying results produced by "the equal human effort with identical environment or other related factors". Besides, it debunks the view that "karma" breeds an attitude of resignation or fatalism.

The book having five useful appendinces, select bibliography, a comprehensive author, title and subject index, be speaks of the author’s erudition and the publisher’s skill in producing flawlessly.


Hear the unlikely revolutionary
Review by Shelley Walia

I, Rigoberta Menchu: An Indian Woman in Guatemala by Rigoberta Menchu translated by Ann Wright Verso, London. Pages 251. £ 12.99.

NOBEL Peace Prize winner, Rigoberta Menchu’s autobiography, "I Rigoberta Menchu: An Indian Woman in Guatemala", is set in the 1970s, a period when the native population of the Maya Indians faced genocide which almost uprooted entire villages. It was during this time that the Maya Indians began their agitation for land and founded unions which threatened the rule of the totalitarian and ruthless government of Efraim Rios Montt. Menchu’s book is an account of this terrible violence, and its publication is largely responsible for the international attention to the crime against human freedom which might have gone unnoticed because of the remoteness of the highlands in Guatemala where militarisation and systematic killings were taking place.

Rigoberta Menchu, perhaps the most talked about woman in Guatemala, is a leader who had advanced beyond mere reformism. Her concern is to be oppositional, to be a public intellectual (though she is hardly literate) who takes up any issue of injustice, dogma or oppression, particularly the dominance of certain forms of human exploitation so as to develop a politics of resistance. Though Spanish is not her mother tongue, she had to learn the language of the oppressor and use it as a tool against the Spanish imperialist rule backed by the USA. A Quiche Indian, her struggle has been to assert her individuality and cultural autonomy. The supression of the past 500 years led to a determined revival of the culture, language and faith of the Indians she so wholeheartedly represents.

Having survived the genocide which liquidated hundreds of her countrymen, she tells her fascinating and sad story about her suppressed history and the fundamental questions about the identity of her race. It is a work of great humanity, poignancy and courage giving the account of the dreadful moments when her 16-year-old brother, Petrocinio, was burnt alive in front of family members and the weeks of agony her mother went through before the army left her to die. Menchu proclaims her allegiance to her ethnic group, devoting her life to overthrowing the relations of dominance and exclusion which characterise internal colonialism.

In her writings she takes up issues of difference and marginality, and looks intensely to the future when her people would finally live in a world that no longer rests on European hegemony. She emphatically maintains that we in the Third World inhabit the structures of violence and violation. Ours is the dilemma of the marginal, incapable to an extent of a radical critique of the dominant. Either we have to re-identify our culture and integrate with the dominant or we risk our political survival.

Very realistically she presents some of these risks which a vulnerable and economically and militarily backward race faces; the more vulnerable the position, the more one has to negotiate. Menchu has created a demand for a dialogue, and not, as Gayatri Spivak says, "a neutral dialogue which essentially results in the death of history". Menchu refuses to be defined by negation and exclusion.

Her story is deeply moving because what she has to say is simple and true. It is not a fictional but a real world that she creates that constantly questions metropolitan cultures and all this is sincerely woven into the first-person narrative. It is a cry for the restoration of humanism and in particular the classical value of harmony. Menchu’s voice is one the people around the world are able to hear, especially because it is full of triumph, sadness and sensitivity. She tells her story well with the art which conceals art, so that a series of narratives becomes a complex exploration of the meaning of the history of exploitation.

Speaking for all Indians of Latin America, she has succeeded in unmasking their historical reality. She traces the meaning of the rhetoric of nationalism to her own life, the history of the land and the inhuman treatment of the natives. Needless to say, rhetoric that concerns issues of wider consequence are often sincere in the very articulation, a fact often misunderstood by short-sighted and conformist critics of capitalist development and the inevitable change that goes with it. Menchu’s story is about slavery and suffering through history, and its sheer authenticity demands worldwide attention.

Rigoberta Menchu’s work and personal history are not external to each other, but have an inter-connection, always suggesting a fresh range of investigation. Her autobiographical novel should be read in conjunction with works such as Chinua Achebe’s "Things Fall Apart" or Tyeb Salih’s "Season of Migration in the North", which "write back" to the cultural assumptions and modes of representation of western history. At the top of her agenda is the study of de-colonisation within which she and her people begin to recognise the centrality of violence in European culture and the brutalisation of the Third World. She does not view her people as objects of history, but as subjects forced to sacrifice all for the reconstruction of a new and independent nation.

And ironically, her appeal is to the old European ideology of nationalism towards which she and her people endeavour to channel their energy. Like the Martiniquean poet Aime Cesaire or the Trinidad-born British author C.L.R. James, her work is based on studies of domination and control, made from the standpoint of a struggle for independence and fundamental human rights. The result of such efforts is the upsurge of unprecedented opportunities for the oppressed who are imperceptibly moving into positions of power. It is only last year that the Commission for Historical Clarification issued its report describing the government’s act "racist" and highlighting the "massacre, scorched-earth operations, forced disappearances and executions of Mayan authorities, leaders and spiritual guides". This indicates the attempt to destroy the "social base of the guerrillas" as well as the cultural values that ensured cohesion and collective action in Guatemalan society.

Menchu’s sister aptly remarked at a rally held recently in Guatemala, "A revolutionary isn’t born out of something good, he is born out of wretchedness and bitterness." The revolutionaries like Menchu are the avengers of death and their race cannot be extinguished "while there is light in the morning star". They have no personal needs while their countrymen live in horrifying conditions. But there will be a time when, "we’ll all be happy perhaps not with nice houses but at least we won’t see our land running with blood and sweat".

Such politics are not learnt at school. Like Menchu one has to turn "One’s own experience into something which is common to a whole people", to "rise and demand" (in the words of Miguel Angelo Astureas) so that "the universe will bear your hope". And in this spirit Menchu continues to "speak truth to power" in spite of the death threats and telephone harassment she and her friends in the Menchu Foundation have been victim to in the last few months.

She holds the government of Alfonso Portillo responsible for this "climate of terror" and has warned the powerful leaders of Guatemala that she would never retreat from her defence of human rights and a universal set of concerns, all of them relating to emancipation, including revisionist attitudes to history and culture.

Her voice shall always seek connections with her culture and her community to contest the dehumanising effects of dictatorships. This capacity for resistance is the most significant location of the human agency of colonised peoples.

Menchu’s humanism is not homogenising so much as liberational and oppositional, not embedded in any theoretical paradigm so much as being located in a historically bound category.


Colonial twist to development

Review by Surinder S. Jodhka

Post-Colonial Developments: Agriculture in the Making of Modern India by Akhil Gupta. Oxford University Press, New Delhi. Pages 256. Rs 310.

Words like "progress" and "development" naturally evoke a positive response. In a country where nearly half the people do not get minimum required nutrition for survival and where nearly than half the population does not know how to read and write, why should anyone question the desirability of such a process? However, we also know that things are not as simple as they are made out to be by economic textbooks. Development is not merely a process that brings in material progress and riches to a society. Development is also an idea, a theory and a way of looking at existing state of affairs in the world.

During the 1960s and 1970s, the theories of development and modernisation were extensively criticised for their obvious West-centric biases. The evolutionary mode of theorising the processes of social change placed the countries of the West as being ahead of the "new" nation-states of the Third World. The "underdeveloped" or the "developing countries" were to "catch up" with the already modern West by following policies and programmes suggested by these development theories.

The most serious objection that the critics had raised against these evolutionary theories of development was their complete ignoring of the experience of colonialism. The contemporary position of the Third World, or for that matter even of the West, could not be comprehended without giving centrality to the experience of colonial exploitation of the countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America by the countries of the First World, they argued.

Most of these debates on development have been carried out at a "grand" level. They were not of much help when it came to examining the micro level situation or the specific programmes of development under way in different "developing societies". At the concrete level, social scientists, particularly economists, have been working on the nature and extent of social and economic changes that have been produced by different policies and programmes of development, which programmes work better and why.

Another problem with much of the existing literature on development has been that it does not deal with the question of culture in any satisfactory manner. Even when economists or sociologists looked at culture in relation to development, they viewed it in terms of the "enabling" or "disabling" qualities of different cultures in the process of economic development. While some cultural values were considered conducive to development, others — mostly those of the "Oriental" societies — were seen as creating hindrances.

In a remarkably refreshing departure from these "old" debates on development, in a recent book entitled "Post-colonial Developments: Agriculture in the Making of Modern India", Akhil Gupta looks at development as a discourse of post-colonialism. Though based on ethnographic fieldwork carried out in Alipur, a village in western Uttar Pradesh, the book makes many interesting theoretical interventions in the current debates on the issues relating to development and the emerging nature of the global world order.

His main contention is that development is not merely a programme of social change. It is also an ideology and a discourse, a body of knowledge that has been used by the new elite of the Third World countries to gain legitimacy for their rule and has shaped the everyday lives of the common people in a specific manner. As Gupta argues, "since World War II, the everyday life of poor people in the Third World have been thoroughly transformed by the ‘Age of Development’, during which have occurred some of the most ambitious national and international experiments in social engineering that the world has ever witnessed."

Underdevelopment for Gupta was not merely a structural location in the global community of nations; rather, it was also a form of identity, something that informed people’s sense of self. "Who people thought they were, how they got that way, and what they could do to alter their lives had been profoundly shaped by the institutions, ideologies, and practices of development". On the basis on his fieldwork, he claims that in rural north India, a pervasive feeling of being underdeveloped, of lagging behind the West, articulated with other identities of caste, class, region and sexuality, produced people’s sense of their selves.

Central to the discourse of development, according to Gupta, is to look at things through a specific set of binary opposites — East-West, orient-occident, backward-advanced and traditional-modern. It was during the colonial period that these binaries and this language of understanding differences between the West and the "rest" were first worked out by the colonisers. However, even after the end of colonial period, the language in which the West understands the Third World and the way Third World understands itself has not undergone much change. The most obvious and influential of these has been the traditional-modern dichotomy that continues to be used quite frequently, and very often uncritically, even today.

However, there is one crucial difference between the language of the colonial rulers and contemporary discourses of development. Gupta contends that the cultural logic of development is closely linked to the question of nation. It was after the reorganisation of the world into nation-states during the post -World War II period that the discourse of development acquired ascendancy.

Gupta also points to the fact that though development is generally understood as "national development", right from the beginning it has also had a global context. The idea of development visualised a new global regime with its own norms of governance. This new regime allocated specific positions to the nations of the Third World. Temporally, the Third World nation-states were positioned and were seen as being "behind" the West. Geographically, newly emerging nation-states, no matter what their position in the map, were located on the "periphery" of a world system whose centre lay on the Euro-American axis.

Gupta uses "post-coloniality" as a central category for his analysis of the contemporary Indian agriculture. For him "the apparatus and discourse of development is a key to any definition of the ‘postcolonial conditions’." However, despite this close association with the colonial period and the continuous global context of post-colonial conditions, Gupta chooses not to view the contemporary situation as one that could be defined either as being marked by a complete break from the colonial period or simply a state of "neo-imperialism". Post-colonialism, for him, does not signify temporality, as a historical stage that follows colonialism.

For Gupta, post-colonialism is a methodological category that enables him to view the micro level ground reality in terms of its hybrid nature. It is for this methodological condition that he criticises those who celebrate "indigenous" identities. Given the legacy of colonialism and the impact that global capitalism has had on ground reality, one could not think of an untouched, pure "indigenous" surviving anywhere in the world. The "continuously transforming impact of global inequalities on the lives of marginal people in the Third World" make the very idea of "indigenous" meaningless. He views the "indigenous" as a twin to the idea of "tradition" that essentially means the Third World and subaltern cultures into a motionless and dormant reality. The so-called "indigenous knowledge is not static or closed system but is itself heterogenous, hierarchical, and infused by relations of power and inequality".

It is through this recognition of the hybridity and multiplicity of discourses that Gupta analysis the agricultural practices in Alipur. The farmers of his village "did not confirm to the descriptions of ‘traditional’ farming or to the idealised picture of subalterns earnestly guarding ‘indigenous knowledges’ against the insurmountable odds of a homogenising world system". However, they also differed from the industrialist-agriculturists of the West.

This, Gupta argues, was not merely a recognition of the complex empirical reality. Such a framework of understanding would also have serious implications for politics, particularly for those raising issues of environment and ecology or those fighting against globalisation. Although he does not celebrate globalisation or liberalisation policies, the point that Gupta wishes to make is the need to recognise the fact that, in a sense, we were all already globalised. Thus questions around which politics needed to be articulated today ought to go beyond the "binaries" that feed into the politics of the dominant West.


Build a battlefield in the air
Review by R. S. Bedi

Air Power in New Millennium by N. B. Singh. Manas Publications, New Delhi. Pages 284. Rs 595.

ANYBODY reading through the 284 pages of this riveting book will have only admiration for Air Cmde (retd) N.B.Singh’s comprehensive study. His "empirical research and analysis" of wars in West Asia during last 50 years validates the view that high technology air power has become an important element of force projection. "In mere 100 years, there has been an exponential rise in importance of air power as a war winning factor". The Arab-Israeli war of 1973 and the Gulf war of 1991 have transformed the air power from a support to a predominated element of warfare. Nearer home, Kargil points in the same direction.

The book aims at highlighting the impact of technology on air power and the need for continuous re-evaluation of doctrines, strategies and organisational structures. However, I must mention here that there is another school of thought which believes that demands of doctrine and strategy must be met by developing matching technology.

The author has tried to cover a vast canvas and "attempted to integrate the creative streams of thoughts on air power strategy from the early beginning" to date. The capabilities claimed by great visionaries when the technology was not yet an asset have largely come true. Mitchel’s "global reach, global power" prediction is the most significant one.

The Arab-Israeli war of 1967, the last one fought with conventional weapons and aircraft, brought home some very important lessons which were emulated the world over. Lightening pre-emptive strikes by Israelis that decimated the Arab air forces on the very first day led to hardened shelters for aircraft, extensive use of SAMs and integration of fighters with early warning radars. India was no exception. Here one cannot help it but compare Israeli retaliation (air strikes) against Arab guerrilla operations inside Israel with Indian inaction (except for rhetoric) against Pakistan-sponsored terrorism in J&K since 1989.

The Egyptians reviewed their doctrine and re-organised their forces after their stunning defeat at the hands of the Israelis. The seemingly defensive strategy of extensive development of the SAMs and guns, strangely helped them acquire the "command of air". Which resulted in initial success and "psychological boost for the Arabs that they could after all win from the tenacious Israelis". In this novel situation "the Israeli ground forces had to support their air force and attack the Egyptian missile and gun sites before their air force could operate effectively".

The pinnacle of hi-technology air power was reached during the Gulf war of 1991 which revealed an unprecedented technological marvel in aerial warfare. In this 43-day air campaign "the emerging technologies made air power a very potent force in international politics". Here the author makes an interesting observation that the air power and missile combination may soon push the infantry and the armoured duo to the back seat, if lessons from the Gulf war and Kosovo are any indications.

The last chapter is of great importance. It deals with air power in the South Asian context. He highlights an interesting but not quite well-known fact that it was Galbraith, US Ambassador to India, who advised the Indian leadership against the use of air force in 1962. He was asked for US air force protection for Indian cities so that the IAF could be employed tactically against the Chinese. Had the IAF been employed the ignominy suffered by the nation might not have been that much hurting.

Somehow the author is not quite forthright in respect of Air Force decision to start the air war in 1965 with outdated Vampire aircraft. The IAF lost all the four Vampires and three pilots in the very first wave. Even if the urgency of halting the Pakistani thrust was grave, it did not justify this faux pas.

The Air Force has been supporting the anti-insurgency operations in the North East for last 50 years but when it comes to the West (J&K), the author avoids the oft-repeated question as to why the same is not being done on this side. Strange but true, the militants have not harmed any IAF establishment or personnel in J&K as part of their offensive against the armed forces.

It is rather sad for the fourth largest air force in the world with a long history of wars that there are just a handful of books authored by its men. To that extent, Air Cmde N.B. Singh’s maiden effort is not only welcome but commendable. Coupled with good research, its racy and precise narrations are its added strength. Reading through this book is an illuminating experience.


Balkans endemic to big power play

This is an abridged chapter from "The Balkans 1804-1919: Nationalism, War and the Great Powers" by Misha Glenny.

There are important practical reasons for the West’s final involvement in Yugoslavia. Most of them are prompted by extra-Balkan considerations: the place and future of NATO, the role of the United States as the global military superpower and especially its strategic stake in European affairs, and so forth. All of this is euphemistically enveloped in the favourite word in recent American diplomatic vocabulary: credibility. If ancient examples are any good, perhaps the most evocative is the behaviour of the deities in the Trojan war who followed their own game when tipping the scales without, however, ever pretending they were doing it for the sake of humankind. But they were deities, after all.

— Maria Todorova

THE propaganda war accompanying the conflict in Kosovo was intense even by modern standards. In Serbia itself, Milosevic’s government likened the airstrikes to the Nazi bombardment of Belgrade in 1941. This was a cynical appeal from a regime that regularly used violence against its opponents at home and abroad. Yet the imagery reinforced the sentiment inside the country, shared even by many of Milosevic’s most bitter opponents, that the NATO campaign was at best inappropriate and at worst immoral.

The leaders of NATO claimed that the organisation’s first unilateral military intervention "out of area" was a moral act, driven not by the strategic or economic interests of its members but by a commitment to humanitarian values.

The struggle for moral superiority during this war centred on two opposing concepts of international relations. Serbia relied on the long-established if frequently violated idea of sovereignty — that if a country had not actually threatened a third party, then there could be no justification for military intervention against it.

NATO was acting upon a new premise that had emerged during the conflicts in Bosnia and Croatia. Military intervention against sovereign states, so this embryonic doctrine proclaimed, is legitimate if it prevents or halts the abuse of human rights by a state against its own citizens, in this instance, the Kosovo Albanians. Humanitarian considerations alone may justify war.

This represented a clear break with the morality of the cold war, established at Yalta in 1945 and symbolised by the Brezhnev doctrine of limited sovereignty, during which NATO was not prepared to disrupt relations with the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe over human rights abuses. NATO, of course, expected reciprocity on Moscow’s part with regard to western complicity in human rights abuses, notably in Indo-China, Latin America and the Middle East.

The implications of the new doctrine of humanitarian intervention, still ill-defined, extend far beyond the Balkans, especially since the creation of the International War Crimes Tribunal on alleged crimes against humanity in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. They are intimately connected with the Spanish government’s attempts to bring the former Chilean dictator, General Augusto Pinochet, to trial. If it is applied with any consistency in the future, the elevation of humanitarian issues to a central position in foreign affairs will necessitate a fundamental revision of international relations.

Both sides presented the war in Kosovo as a clash over the principle of sovereignty in order to bolster public support for their position and to obscure less convenient matters. Milosevic made the simple calculation that his political position would be strengthened if he defied NATO’s ultimatum. NATO’s leadership highlighted the humanitarian issue, less to cover up any ulterior motives it may have had in waging war than to camouflage its own deep confusion regarding its aims and tactics.

A more serious consequence of framing the war in this language of sovereignty emerged after Yugoslavia had capitulated militarily. The bombing inflicted severe damage on Serbia and Kosovo, while their Balkan neighbours suffered collateral economic damage. Estimates of the losses sustained by Serbia, including Kosovo, during the three-month war range from $ 7-10 billion. Reconstruction of Serbia and Kosovo alone will cost some $ 10 billion over a three to five year period. But other countries also need assistance in the short term to offset the drop in GDP caused by the war, from 5 per cent in the two worst-affected states, Macedonia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, to 0.5 per cent in Romania and Hungary. This is quite apart from the much greater sums required for the long-term recovery of the region caused by 10 years of instability in Yugoslavia. Early estimates from the Vienna Institute for Economics suggest that as much as $ 100 billion will be needed to create stability in the Balkans.

It is these issues of reconstruction and recovery that will in retrospect define the morality of the Kosovo war, rather than the Manichean battle proclaimed by NATO and the leadership in Belgrade. The West’s claim to a moral victory in the Balkans when Yugoslavia surrendered in early June, 1999, was unsurprising but irrelevant, within the larger historical context of relations between the great powers and the Balkans. To claim such a victory honestly would require the reversal of a pattern that has persisted for over a century. This has seen the great powers intervene massively in the region, either deploying or exciting violence, before beating a retreat and disclaiming any responsibility for the consequences of the original intervention.

Before 1999, the great powers had intervened three times in the Balkans. The first was at the Congress of Berlin in 1878 when European diplomats agreed to replace Ottoman power by building a system of competing alliances on the Balkan peninsula. The second began with the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum to Serbia in the summer of 1914 and culminated in 1923 with the Treaty of Lausanne and the Great Population Exchange between Greece and Turkey. The third started with Italy’s unprovoked attack on Greece in March, 1940, and ended with the consolidation of unrepresentative pro-Soviet regimes in Bulgaria, Romania and a pro-Western administration in Greece.

These three interventions were so destructive that they guaranteed the Balkans’ relative economic backwardness, compared to the rest of Europe. And the violence that these interventions encouraged, often inflicted by one Balkan people on another, ensured the continuation of profound civil and nationalist strife. In the West, however, these events are rarely regarded as the result of external intervention. On the contrary, the Balkan countries are seen as culprits who force the reluctant outside powers into their unfathomable conflicts. This imagined Balkans — a world where people are motivated not by rational considerations but by a mysterious congenital bloodthirstiness — is always invoked when the great powers seek to deny their responsibility for the economic and political difficulties that the region has suffered as a consequence of external interference. "The Balkans," Theodore Geshkoff wrote in 1940. "are usually reported to the outside world only in time of terror and trouble; the rest of the time they are scornfully ignored." It is during these long periods of neglect that the Balkan countries have badly needed the engagement of the great powers. Yet the only country to demonstrate a sustained interest in the economic development of the Balkans was Nazi Germany during the 1930s.

The NATO assault on Serbia and Kosovo should be judged above all in this light. Should the West fail to address the effects, not merely of a three-month air war in 1999, but of 120 years of miscalculation and indifference since the Congress of Berlin, then there will be little to distinguish NATO’s actions from any of its great power predecessors. The NATO campaign can hardly claim either a moral or political victory if its sole achievement is expulsion of Milosevicy’s Serbia from Kosovo.

There is an unassailable case for political and economic restitution in the Balkans. Yet this is a daunting challenge. The lack of preparedness on the part of NATO was obvious during the air campaign. It was evident after victory, when the Alliance proved incapable of stopping the KLA from imposing a regime of intimidation and murder which provoked the departure of almost the entire Serbian minority population from Kosovo within weeks of the Albanians’ return. If the greatest military machine in history is unable to impose law and order in a small province, one cannot help wondering what the future holds for the international community’s other, larger Balkan protectorate, Bosnia-Herzegovina; and whether the great powers, above all, the USA, have the political and economic resources to deal with Serbia as it hovers between civil war, economic collapse and conflict with its sister republic, Montenegro. Yet if the great powers fail to seize the present opportunity by investing heavily in the region, the suffering of the Balkans will surely continue for several decades into the new millennium.