Sunday, October 22,
the glass anti-colonially
Review by Akshaya Kumar
Palace by Amitav Ghosh. Ravidayal, Delhi. Pages 552. Rs 425.
Ghosh is one of the less hyped writers of Indian English today.
Never does he promote a pre-publication hysteria about his
forthcoming work. Yet his novels survive much longer than the
works of many of his contemporaries. Rather with each work, he
grows stronger and maturer as a writer of fiction.
Seth, Ghosh does not revel in drawing a gallery of caricaturised
middle-class characters. Nor, like Salman Rushdie, does he
fiddle with history to generate a highly personalised discourse
of playful uncertainties.
In his case,
each novel is a revelation, an exploratory enterprise, an
excavation of self. It is perhaps this metaphysical intensity of
his creative enterprise that redeems him from the 15-minute fame
syndrome that other writers suffer from.
of purpose, the poignancy with which he narrates his events, the
meticulous research that he undertakes to approximate the
cultural and intellectual forbearings of his characters — all
these things lend epic dimensions to his creative output. Never
has he been a butt of attack of the hardcore nativists who
otherwise are very hostile to anything written in Indian
English. His classic seriousness coupled with depth of vision
disarms his critics.
While in the
case of most of Indian English novelists, language becomes an
end in itself, in the case of Ghosh there is no linguistic
razzmataz. Never does he sell his English, as perhaps Arundhati
Roy or Shashi Tharoor would do. His intense preoccupations with
the contemporary volatile issues of nationalism, statehood,
cross-civilistional exchanges, etc. at once throw the reader
into the very vortex of his racy and lucid narrative. There is
no post-modern jugglery, no atavistic somersaults, no burlesque
returns to reality. His novels are cast in the usual realist
mode with no jerks or flashbacks.
Palace" is a narrative of those brilliant imperial
illusions which even in moments of total collapse and utter
surrender continue to haunt as living presences. The name of
Dinu’s photo studio as "The Glass Palace" much after
the fall of the palace at Mandalay is a grim reminder of its
presence in the psyche of the post-colonial subjects. As a
monument of oriental opulence, it, ironically enough, continues
to fascinate even those who were exploited by its royal
If in the
pre-colonial period, palaces symbolised autocracy and authority,
in the colonial period the rubber and tea estates emerged as
sites of exploitation. Morningside Rubber Estate of Saya John
with Rajkumar as a sleeping partner could be seen as another
imperial edifice which too is eventually shattered by the bombs
of Japanese forces.
The novel has a
rather ambitious canvas as it narrates the history of three
generations entangled in the turmoil of colonialism in Burma.
Ghose has an uncanny capacity of setting his narratives in
different cultures. His earlier works are located in Columbia,
Egypt, Bangladesh, etc.
The novel under
review is, however, not Burmese by any stretch of imagination as
characters frequently cross over to nations and cultures in
their search for business and security. Since colonialism was
not a local phenomenon, the novel as a narrative of colonial
excesses does spill over beyond Burma to India, Singapore and
America even. The novelist handles well the multiple
displacements as his characters inevitably enter in and out of
the cultural cauldron called colonialism.
chronicles the story of an Indian named Rajkumar who, to begin
with, works as a waiter in a tea stall, but due to a sudden
invasion of the British Army in Burma, he smells his chances of
making a mark in the teak wood business. Teak brings Britain to
Burma, and it is this teak, and later on rubber, that keeps
Rajkumar in Burma. Rajkumar marries Dolly, a beautiful Burmese
girl, who worked as an attendant with the royal couple for 30
long years first at Mandalay and later at Ratnagiri.
triggered many such inter-racial marriages engendering cultural
mutations in the ethnography of the entire Third World. Such
marriages cause displacement of a very disruptive nature
threatening the very continuity of marriage as a bond of
his nemesis and is ultimately hounded out of Burma, almost
penniless. Dolly goes back to Burma in search of her second son
Dinu and dies in a monastery unnoticed. The survival of
Burmese-looking Dinu is contrasted with the death of his
Indian-looking brother Neel.
in the novel passes through ordeals of self-definition. Dolly,
who along with the Burmese royal couple is expatriated from
Mandalay to Ratnagiri, grows up more like an Indian. When she is
married, the whole of Ratnagiri wishes her well as though she is
a daughter of the town. Back in Burma, when she is caught in an
anti-Indian riot, she has to struggle hard to convince fellow
Burmese that she had been a true servant of Burmese kings.
Uma, the wife
of the Collector of Ratnagiri who mediates between Dolly and
Rajkumar to facilitate their marriage, has a rather disturbed
marital life. Her husband, estranged from her, dies soon
afterwards. She as a widow is "freer", she undertakes
a visit of Europe and America and comes in contact with Indian
nationalists. Towards the end she dies as a staunch critic of
colonialism and Rajkumar, the two sources of her initial growth.
It was Rajkumar who sponsored her visit to the West.
Arjun, a nephew
of Uma, however, undergoes multiple displacements. He joins as
an "Indian" officer in the British army because for
him it is a decent job. He believes the British army is the real
benefactor of Indian people as it liberates them from the
oppression of local princes and nawabs. On the war front against
the aggressive Japanese army, when death stares in his face, he
realises that joining the British army was not just a question
of job. It is a question of sacrificing one’s life.
colleagues and subordinates decide to desert the British army to
join the Indian national Army (INA), he faces yet another crisis
of fighting against those who were his colleagues a few days
earlier. When he finally decides to abandon the British army,
his boss calls him a traitor. He is totally lost, as his friends
had described him as a traitor so far. Ultimately he is killed
in the war.
The ending of
the novel could well have been the beginning of it. The last
section titled as "The Glass Palace" is in a very
subtle sense the residue of the novel, its very core in terms of
the legacies that a grand royal palace leaves behind. In this
section it provides a name to Dinu’s photo studio. In the
hands of any post-modern practitioner of novelwriting, "The
Glass Palace" as a photo-studio would have been used as a
fitting trope to "indulge" in the history of Burma.
But Ghosh as a writer of linear narratives, normally
concentrates of transitions, slow and natural transformation of
history into memory, reality into myth.
In the end, the
novelist does try a backward journey from memory to actual
history through an orphaned granddaughter of Rajkumar, named
Jaya, who as a part of her Ph.D. project goes back to Burma to
discover her "historic" lineage and who eventually
meets her 70-year old uncle Dinu, living in post-colonial Burma
under a Burmese name U Tun Pe. But this does not amount to a
full-scale reconstruction of history through fractured memories,
traces or mythical heresies as such.
The novel is an
allegory of colonial politics. Imperialism shooting from
"The Glass Palace" is undone, ironically enough, by
the British army. One type of imperialism takes on another to
ensure its continuity in one form or the other. Small-time
servants like Rajkumar take advantage of the clash of two
imperialisms — one decadent and other rising — only to grow
as greedy owners of teak plantations. Dolly, the servant in the
king’s retinue, becomes the wife of a teak business tycoon,
Rajkumar, in the post-Glass Palace politics.
In the absence
of the king, Rajkumar, which in translation means "the
prince", takes over. the killing of Rajkumar’s elder son
Neel by the panic-stricken elephants towards the end is almost a
re-play of the killing of an English assistant Mckay by Shwe
Doke, a female elephant, in the beginning of the novel.
oppressed are tomorrow’s oppressors The oppressor-oppressed
binary, nevertheless, remains functional.
World War II,
of which Burma was a hot site, offers another paradoxical
situation in man’s search towards freedom. The forces of
militarism, fascism and gross nationalism represented by
Germany, Italy and Japan challenge British imperialism. One evil
The war does
hit the British army and the Japanese forces snatch power from
it, but imperialism as a way of life continues. Japanese
excesses on the local Burmese outdo the British rapacity for
plundering the rich Burmese resources. Freedom is an illusion.
Ironically Burma suffers more under Japan than it ever suffered
under the Raj.
not simply a cultural disaster, it destroyed ecology as well.
First it "assassinated trees". These "trees would
sound great tocsins of protest as they fell, unloosing
thunderclap explosions...". Then, in its effort to harness
the elephants for transporting heavy logs of wood, it made them
violent, unpredictably aggressive. An echo of gunshot startles
an old cow elephant into producing a distinctive trumpeting
The novel can
be read as a fitting sequel to his "The Shadow Lines"
as the writer continues to negotiate with culturally contentious
issues of nationalism and statehood, rendered porous and almost
defunct by colonialism. If "The Shadow Lines"
underlined the arbitrariness of political boundaries in the
post-colonial phase, "The Glass Palace" brings forth
the irrevocable in-betweenness engendered in our identities by
the imperialists during the colonial period itself.
outdoes theory as well as history in terms of its subtle
treatment of colonialism. "The Glass Palace" is an
instance of novel overtaking history as an authentic and
reliable source of understanding the micro-level subtleties of
Except for Uma’s rather long
and prosaic speeches on colonialism, the novel has the makings
of a classic. Her later interventions in the narrative are too
direct and overt to integrate well with the narrative flow. The
transition of Uma from being a wife and later a widow of a
Collector to a firm activist has not been adequately accounted
for. Also the way she wields influence in the private lives of
Dolly and Rajkumar appears somewhat unconvincing. The events
woven around Saya John also seem to fall apart.
new star from, yes, Kerala
Review by Deepika Gurdev
Promises by Jaishree Misra. Penguin Books India, New Delhi.
Pages 309. Rs 250.
WOULD have certainly missed out on this heart-rending novel
had it not been for Ajay’s (of Capital Book Store)
recommendation. Let me first begin by thanking Ajay who makes
every visit to Sector 17 and Capital memorable with not just
his amiable personality but his impeccable recommendations as
Promises" is a tale of love and family loyalty. Apart
from that, it is a brilliant debut by Jaishree Misra. The
narration is amazingly simple, yet intensely alive. It is a
simple tale but in Misra’s deft hands it evokes tears, joy
and feelings just like the author’s as she gently steers you
along with the protagonist Janaki’s (Janu’s) tale.
The plot is
something that is easy to relate to. Set in Delhi and the lush
backwaters of Kerala, the novel is imbued with richness not
just of the characters but of the environs as well. The plot
falls thin at times but is made up for by the richness of
style. Misra’s details of the lives she sets to describe in
"Ancient Promises" illuminate a larger subject and
at a deeper level the novel explores feminine angst.
reads something like this: a 16-year-old Janu, an Air
Commodore’s daughter, grows up in cosmopolitan Delhi,
studies in a convent school under Sister Seraphia’s constant
stern gaze, goes back home to Thakazhy in Kerala every summer
to spend her holiday with grandparents. Life is blissful just
like the placid backwaters she sees at her grandparents’
home. But still waters always run deep.
vulnerable, Janu’s troubles start when she hopelessly and
helplessly falls in love with Arjun while she is still in
school. She manages to keep her secret emotions hidden from
her parents but not for too long. All the hidden rendezvous in
the Chor Minar and the aloo tikki sessions at Khan
Market come to an inevitable end when she is spotted on a
motorcycle by a neighbour who takes it upon himself to inform
her parents about their daughter’s shameful act.
holiday in Kerala that is to mark Janu’s 18th birthday
changes everything for her. She is forced into an arranged
marriage in the very rich and the very established Maraar
community and the marriage is arranged on the day of her
birthday. "Happy birthday, Janu, I said to myself, trying
to be cheerful. Just imagine, a wedding for a birthday
present, a big expensive wedding for a growing up and going
away present. Eighteen now, everyone has to grow up some time
or the other...."
This is the
day that would mark the beginning of a painful journey of
self-discovery. Ignored by her husband, despised by her
mother-in-law, scorned by her sister-in-law, Janu grows up
believing that she does not deserve to be totally happy
because she fell in love and betrayed the trust her parents
had in her. And like many before her, she thinks that a child
would resolve all her woes.
The baby only
makes things worse for her on the husband and in-law front but
helps Janu evolve as a strong person with a thinking mind of
her own. Riya is born with a disability and that makes the
coldness and hostility in the Maraar household grow. As her
husband Suresh distances himself even further, Janu embarks on
a voyage of reading and doing things that could bring Riya
back to normality. She manages to get a B.A. and an M.A.,
enrolls Riya in a special school and then goes a step ahead to
look for universities overseas so that she can get a better
education for Riya and a life for herself.
receives admission at Arizona State University, Janu is
overjoyed, for here is her escape. But then there is the
problem of getting funds. That sets her on yet another tedious
process of sourcing for scholarships.
This is when
the improbabilities and the weaknesses in the plot surface.
When Janu goes to Delhi for her interview at the India
International Centre, she decides to look up her old school
friend Leena and it is anybody guess who she would meet here.
Her childhood lover, Arjun. Then the novel seems to rush a bit
to its climax.
happens? Does Janu leave Suresh to get a life of her own? Does
she manage the scholarship that would be her passport to
freedom, discovery of herself and much more? Does Riya make it
to the special school that Janu wanted her to so badly attend?
More importantly do Arjun and Janu finally find love together?
have to read "Ancient Promises" to find out all that
and much more. I can assure you that it will be worth staying
up till 4 a.m. and finding out what happens.
While you are
at it, remember to read the author’s note lest it is a bit
of a give away. I don’t know about the rest but I am
definitely waiting for Jaishree Misra’s next offering. Hope
it’s as heart-rending as this one.
* * *
Women by Jerry Pinto. Penguin Books, New Delhi. Pages 187. Rs
Jerry, so we are the "La Belle Dames Sans Merci",
the politically conscious women of the new millennium. You
know that we know our Camus from our Sartre and we know for a
fact that Khalil Gibran said, "let there be spaces in
your togetherness," not "let there be lacunae in
your togetherness" (page 58). We know our ps from our qs,
speak our minds out and have finally found our way out and
carved a niche for ourselves in the modern urban jungle. So
tell me, what’s wrong with that? That means we need a new
survival guide for men from the new, confident, liberated us.
Going by this
book, guess that is what it is all about. "Surviving
Women" who are looking for the right mix betwixt Bill
Gates and the Buddha. It is a little hard to imagine that the
new Indian man was just so many centuries behind the new
Indian woman who one imagines would have spent at least a few
years seeking out and speaking out on her own.
clearly fails to analyse the point that the relationship
between men and women is changing in so many fundamental ways.
With the information revolution, the understanding of gender
sensibilities, the opportunities and the ability to speak from
an equal platform and everything else that is happening so
rapidly in the new age, never before has there been such a
tremendous possibility of positive growth and understanding
between men and women.
book would have been fairly acceptable if the image painted of
the modern Indian woman was not so arbitrary and the book was
not attempting to tell all Indian men about all Indian women.
"Surviving Women" abounds with cliches of the
all-knowing woman as someone who knows what she wants, had
dimples, reads Rosa Luxemburg, etc. etc. You get the picture.
And just as you are getting comfortable with that, you are
confronted with Ayesha and her dim-witted friend Lajwanti who
can perhaps make a Pinto special on surviving friends and
of the modern Indian woman that emerges is of someone who is
clearly argumentative. Sample this: "There is only one
way to survive an argument with a woman," one of Pinto’s
many cynical friends quoted in the book says, "Lose
it!" Surely this is not the same woman who just spoke
about combating insurgency and some kind of training in
Israel... you wonder?
is not just with the definitions of the modern Indian woman;
it is rather hard to digest the dialogue and the observations
of the AIMs (the Average Indian Males) who sound more like the
CIMs (Confused Indian Males).
Women" reads like a strange mix. Helen Fielding (of
BridgetteJones fame) meets John Gray (Men are from Mars, Women
are From Venus fame). And that’s when the trouble starts.
For just when "Surviving Women" book tends to sound
provocative and wise it ends up reading funny and so
While the book abounds in
racy turns of phrase when it comes to research, the book falls
flat with the redeeming exception of "Surviving Your
Wife" where the men quoted don’t end up sounding like
Savio and Harish — quaint new men, to say the least.
as fictional memory
Review by Bhupinder Brar
the Partition of India edited by Alok Bhalla. Indus Harper
Collins, New Delhi. 3 volumes. Pages xxiii + 746. Rs 195.
nearly a century, Indian historians were busy writing
nationalist accounts of the Indian "nation". It is
only in recent years that efforts have begun to be made to piece
together histories of the Indian "peoples" as well. In
the process, a subject like the partition of the subcontinent in
1947 has acquired qualitatively different dimensions. It can no
longer be subsumed as a mere episode in the "history of the
techniques used for doing this kind of "people’s
history" are naturally innovative and unconventional.
Hermeneutic use of memories has been made to construct oral
history of partition, even though memories are by nature
"shifting, changing, unreliable". That in turn has
lent validity to another source now increasingly in use:
historians naturally suspect the validity of such sources. They
allege that rather than the complexities of how people actually
"lived" their lives, oral history and fiction reflect
more often the attitude of the author, always subjective, always
preconditioned, secular and humanist at its best but also
sentimental in a puerile way at its worst.
against such objections usually is that archives of any kind
need interpretation. Interpretation has to make sense not of one
particular isolated text or the other, it has to make sense of
all of them together, and of "their inter-textuality".
Given this, a large body of fiction with diverse authorship
appears as good a source of history writing as any other.
In the context
of this debate, the three-volume compilation of partition
stories put together by Alok Bhalla acquires permanent
significance. The volumes, published some years ago but
reprinted repeatedly ever since, contain more than 60 stories
written by nearly as many authors. Based in India, Pakistan and
Bangladesh, most authors write out of first hand experience of
partition, and read together, bring a vast range of perspectives
on partition to the reader.
stories be read as an inter-textual archive for a historian?
Probably the best way to answer this question is to take up
Bhalla’s detailed introduction wherein he divides the stories
into four major types: communally charged stories; stories of
rage and hopelessness; stories of lamentation and consolation;
and stories of retrieval of memories. One suspects that he also
puts the four types in some sort of ascending order, based on
how he evaluates "the ways in which writers tried to make
sense of events which were otherwise unimaginable".
But for our
purpose, let us take up the third type first: the stories of
lamentation and consolation. These stories are, in Bhalla’s
own words, "concerned with survivors of those
genocidal days". By that he means "those people who
refuse to give in to rage and struggle to discover ways of
living which could restore us to sanity and redeem us".
interesting to note the way in which the word "redeem"
occurs in the passage cited above, and the way in which it is
exemplified by the stories Bhalla lists under the type. In one
story, a woman, abducted and forced to marry the killer of her
parents, lives with such scrupulous regard to her
"duty" as a wife that she soon comes to be respected
as a "devi" of the family. In a second story, a man,
once violent and lustful towards his wife, is a changed person,
not only kind and generous but also solicitous, once she is
restored to him after having been abducted.
In the third
story, a woman, whose own child was killed, adopts as her own a
lost child, but later agrees to restore the child to its
parents. Still later, the man she had started living with asks
her to return to her husband when the husband turns up to claim
her. In yet another story, a woman discovers that she is
pregnant with the child of her rapist, wants to initially abort
it, but comes finally to "own up" the foetus.
coincidence, two long-lost friends meet while on a hunt, and
while they share their experiences of the violence of partition,
they come to recognise hunting as violence and renounce it.
The way the
characters in these stories redeem themselves or the situations
in which they are caught is typical of the conventional meanings
of the term "redeem". These meanings are: preventing
an unpleasant situation from being completely bad or
unacceptable; doing something that will give others a better
opinion of a person after he/she has behaved badly, and getting
something back after paying back the debt itself. They search
for sanity and coherence, and also for a moral order in which
sanity and coherence are embedded. They are survivors, thereby,
not only in physical and emotional terms but also in a moral
sense as well. These are "exemplary" characters
but, and this is important, not necessarily typical
is extremely important because if we do not maintain it, we end
up not only not understanding the latter kind of characters but
also misunderstanding them. These characters are also about
survival although not in the exalted moral sense of the term.
These are the characters which re-deem their lives in the
sense that they deem life to be "whole" again, a life
that was once "whole" but had been disrupted,
truncated, and even shattered.
these characters adopt may be repugnant to liberal, nonviolent
humanism. But these are effective methods nonetheless. They are
adopted not so much out of free choice as out of desperation
when survival, physical and emotional, is at stake. Hatred,
vengeance and violence against the communal "other"
could be therapeutic, as Franz Fanon, among others, pointed out.
This brings us
to Bhalla’s first category directly: the "communally
charged" stories. The designation itself is interesting,
for the term "communal" has come to acquire in India a
meaning different from the conventional sense. Communal does not
refer in this second sense to what belongs or pertains to a
community. It refers instead to the sectarian and prejudicial
attitudes which communities develop and maintain against one
It needs to be
pointed out that in the dialectics of the "self" and
the "other", the two meanings are actually intimately
related. The dialectic can operate in substantially different
ways under different conditions. We should be interested in
"communally charged" stories to understand this
dialectic as it operated under conditions of partition.
unfortunately, does not do that. For him, "communally
charged" stores are the "opposite" of the stories
of the moral "survivors", and he judges them
accordingly. He goes to the extent of calling them
"graceless" stories. He includes just a few of these
in order to acknowledge that they do exist, and then declares:
"I have deliberately excluded from this anthology other
communal stories". If this does not amount to moral
censorship on the part of the editor, we have no other
explanation for such an editorial policy either.
attitude certainly helps in lending credence to the charge of
the sceptics that fiction fails to provide firm enough archival
base to write history bacause fiction reflects more often the
attitude of the author (or the editor), always subjective,
always preconditioned, secular and humanist at its best but also
sentimental at its worst.
charged stories are important to those of us who want to
understand how the partition is "ever present" in our
lives, and is present in myriad ways: during cricket matches
between India and Pakistan, each one of which is viewed by
viewers on both sides as another war; during the boot-stamping
ritual on the border check posts that we earlier described; on
the inhospitable Siachen glacier where lives are lost everyday
to maintain vigil against threats to the "sacred
land", and in the in hysteria created during the Kargil
In all these
situations "nationalism" and "communalism"
(religious sectarianism) blend so completely that it is
impossible to separate them at all. Partition produced these two
kinds of emotions together, or even as one two-sided emotion.
Call it ugly or what you will, these are two ways in which
people have typically re-deemed their lives as a whole not by
personal redemption but by merging, even dissolving, the
personal self into the communal/national collective self.
If those who
study history of partition through the oral narratives or works
of fiction have failed to take note of this kind of re-deeming,
it, is not because its instances are difficult to find — for
these are everywhere — but because they decided not to take
notice. In making such selective reading, they are no less
guilty than the conventional nationalist historians who "in
their patriotic... magnified the virtues and minimised the
defects of their own people".
in his anthology the largest number of stories belonging to the
second type, the stories of rage and hopelessness. Is this
incidental or deliberate? Is it that how more writers were given
to respond to partition in this way or is it that such writers
are the editor’s personal favourites?
We might get a
clue if not an answer to these questions if we take notice of
what Bhalla finds common to these stories: "These stories
offer no historical explanation for the carnage and see no
political necessity for the suffering.... as if partition had
not only shattered the narrative continuity of the traditions of
the nation in which the Hindus, the Sikhs and the Muslims had
defined their individual and communal identities, but it had
ensured that it will never again be possible for anyone to
imagine a community in which serious moral and political choices
valid for all can be made".
When we read
this statement closely we see in it several strands of
assumptions and inferences. First, there is the assumption of a
pre-existing nation with its traditions and continuities.
Second, it is assumed that individual members of different
communities and the communities themselves defined their
self-identities within and as part of this
pre-existing nation. Finally, when these assumptions proved
false with violence and partition the writers are left with no
political or historical explanation whatsoever, or even with the
possibility of constructing explanations. No wonder that the
writers are driven to write what is at best "ironic in
tone" but "still fragmentary in nature".
Why did so many
writers of fiction subscribe to these assumptions which led them
sadly but inevitably to write stories of sheer "rage and
helplessness?" One answer that comes immediately to mind is
that, barring exceptions, writers of fiction are, as a rule,
politically naive, in that their fictional imagination works
within the hegemonic political ideologies of the time. Even
though not very complimentary to the writer’s own sense of
creative autonomy, this does sound like a fairly valid
explanation for this kind of fiction.
made such assumptions because the dominant ideology of the time
was indeed nationalism which presumed that as an "ancient
nation" India possessed what nationalist historians
routinely described as "composite culture", a culture
which not only tolerated but also accommodated within its fold
diverse communal and personal identities. After naming some
prominent literary personalities who upheld this view, Bhalla
thinks it no longer necessary to mention more because, "One
could add endlessly to the catalogue of the people who thought
that the notion of a unified state, with its multiplicity of
religious, social or moral ideals, had legitimacy, not only
because it made good sense, but also because it was derived from
a long practice of living together."
clearly a part of this "endless catalogue". He
believes in this theory of composite national culture as an
incontestable historical truth: "Indeed, one can
assert with confidence that the dominant concerns of the Hindu
and Muslim intellectuals throughout the 19th century and until
about 1935, were more with creating free spaces for enlightened
thought than with confining people within their narrow religious
fourth set of stories are about "retrieval of
memories". What distinguishes this set from the previous
one is that writers here "accept without ambiguity the fact
of the partition as an irreversible part of our geopolitical
reality", and having done that, "draw upon their
historical, cultural and personal memories to organise
their narratives in the hope that such narratives would humanise
us and so persuade us to find a way out to a different
future". As an example of this genre, he describes
Intizar Husain as a writer who, "Like all fine writers, ...
wants to give back to us a world in which we can cultivate
reason and our moral goodness; but like all fine writers, he
also knows how difficult that task really is and how often we
fall into evil."
"Cultivating reason and
moral order" and "falling into evil" are Bhalla’s
descriptions. Our suggestion would only be that rather than
juxtaposing these two scenarios in opposition as if one was the
potential and the other the pitfall, we should recognise that
they are two alternative ways of redeeming lives that survivors
have to choose from. If one fails, they inevitably turn to the
other. Having made this point, one could not agree more with his
conclusion. "How we read ... these stories ... will
determine the kind of politics we choose to practise in the
This is in
response to H.P. Sinha’s reaction to my review article
entitled "Translator as writer..." Translation is an
exercise of rewriting the so-called original. This rewriting is
never a literal re-rendering, nor is it a radical departure from
the contextual grid of the original. Tulsi’s Ramacharitmans is
a creative version of Valmiki’s grand-narrative the Ramayana
which itself is a derivative of many folk tales and beliefs.
I wonder if we
can at all attribute originality to any text, written or oral.
Translation needs to be seen as a dynamic process which allows
the writer as translator the freedom to interpolate events and
episodes to suit the matrices of time and space. It is not a
question of Ramacharitmanas being 85 per cent different from the
quantification I don’t think can help us understand the
dynamics of exchange between the two texts. The derivative
nature of Ramacharitmanas cannot be underplayed. Of course, this
is not to say that Tulsi was not a creative genius, or that
Ramacharitmanas cannot be studied as an autonomous text. The
derivativeness in case of Tulsi is a process of gain as it not
only de-sanskritised the canonical source text, but also
liberated the story of Rama from the theological fold, back to loka.
controversial General recounts his experience
Review by Rajendra Nath
In the Line of
Duty — A Soldier Remembers by Harbaksh Singh. Lancer
Publications and Distributors, New Delhi. Pages 628. Rs 595.
SINGH was certainly one of the best military commanders that
this country has produced since independence. This well-written
book by him describes his experiences in peace as well as in
war. He did well as battalion and brigade commander in the
1947-48 Indo-Pak war. However, his contribution in the 1965
Indo-Pak war was of an exceptional order. It is therefore
worthwhile to review his book which depicts not only his
experiences in wars but his thoughts about warfare.
the shortfall in strategic thinking on the part of military
commanders and it should be taken in proper spirit by the
readers, as commanders in all wars often tend to disagree with
each other regarding the planning and conduct of operations.
This autobiographical book recounts all details of the eventful
life of a distinguished commander.
He was born on
October 1, 1913, in Punjab. After his education in Lahore, he
took his test for entry to the Indian Military Academy. He was
amongst the first batch of officers commissioned from the Indian
Military Academy, Dehra Dun. He joined 5/11 Sikhs and started
his military career in a war zone in the North-West Frontier
Province of erstwhile British India in 1935. Later his battalion
sailed for Malaya for fighting the Japanese in World War II.
What was the condition in South-East Asia when the author’s
battalion was deployed in Malaya in 1941? The Japanese had
achieved air and naval superiority against the British in the
We in India
have legitimately criticised our intelligence failure as well as
wrong assessment regarding Pakistan’s encroachment of Indian
territory in Kargil in 1999. It is interesting to note as to
what was the thinking of the British military and civil
authorities regarding the Japanese invasion of Malaya in 1941.
The Japanese forces in Indo-China were poised for an attack on
Malaya anytime with superior air and naval forces. But the
British High Command felt that the Japanese forces would not
the British military authorities down the line fully agreed with
this assessment. So the forces were preparing their defences on
the border and the coastline to deal with the Japanese invasion,
while discounting the chance of invasion from Indo-China. The
British felt that these ships were perhaps heading for Thailand
and not for Malaya! When the Japanese did land their forces in
Malaya, the British commanders were totally surprised and never
recovered from their earlier reverses.
No wonder, the
Japanese managed to capture Malaya and Singapore in a short
campaign. The author describes the low morale of the Australian
air force pilots who would not take off from the airfields to
take on the Japanese fighters.
The author did
not join the Indian National Army, though he has lot of respect
for the leadership qualities of Subhas Chandra Bose, with whom
he had a personal meeting also. The author talks of kamikaze —
the divine wind (suicide) Japanese fighter pilots —who would
hit the Allied ships with their small aircraft which had
explosives packed in their noses while shouting their war cry
"banzai". Such fighter pilots were all volunteers.
After World War
II ended, the author returned to India and attended a course at
the Staff College, Quetta (now in Pakistan). He then tells us
about his active role in 1947-48 Indo-Pak war. He was appointed
Deputy Brigade Com-mander of 161 Infantry Brigade at Srinagar in
1947 and was in charge of the brigade till Brigadier Bogey Sen
arrived to take over. As Deputy Brigade Commander, he conducted
the famous battle of Shelatang on November 22, 1947, in which 1
Sikh, 4 Kumaon, a squadron of armoured cars and our air force
conducted a joint operation against a few thousand raiders who
had concentrated four miles west of Srinagar. It was a
well-deserved success which broke the raiders’ back who ran
away leaving behind over 300 dead.
later Lt Gen, Sen was at his Brigade HQ during the battle of
However, in his
interesting book, "Slender was the Thread" about the
operations in J&K in 1947-48, Gen Sen had claimed to have
personally controlled the battle of Shelatang, though he was
nowhere near the scene of the battle, according to the author.
Well, war is a strange phenomenon where such things do happen,
where a few senior commanders at times want to take credit for
the success while scapegoats are found to pass on the blame in
case of failure. No wonder Gen Har-baksh Singh is highly
critical of Gen Bogey Sen whom he calls "Bogey the
Kulwant Singh had taken over as GOC of the J&K forces. The
author blames both Gen Sen and Kulwant Singh for not chasing the
raiders well beyond Uri, actually upto Domel, near the J&K
border with Pakistan, which would have secured the valley, as
the raiders were on the run after their shattering defeat at
Shelatang. According to the author, Gen Kulwant Singh stopped
his forces at Uri and made no effort to capture Domel and
Kantura which were vital for the defence of J&K. He calls
these actions as Gen Kulwant Singh’s great follies. He feels
that Gen Kulwant Singh was not a military strategist.
writers have remarked that Gen Kulwant was ordered by the Army
HQ to halt operations at Uri and send a strong column to Poonch
to save it from the raiders, as large number of refugees from
Pakistan had collected there. Whatever the reasons for halting
the troops at Uri, it was indeed a grave mistake on India’s
part to do so, for it allowed Pakistan to retain a part of the
The author then
took over 1 Sikh Battalion which fought very well under his able
command. It was awarded many decorations also, the author
himself was given Vir Chakra for the successful operation in
capturing Tithwal, which posed a threat to Pak-held Kashmir.
the author, Pakis-tan’s action in capturing the northern area
from Gilgit, Skardu and upto Kargil was facilitated by the
communal hatred amongst the J&K state force units, where the
Muslim elements joined the Pakistani forces, enabling them to
capture the large northern part of J&K. The author
criticises Gen Kulwant Singh for not sending a strong enough
force to recapture Skardu which was surrounded by Pak forces. We
sent a few companies of various J&K state forces units under
a Lt Col from the Indian Army which were ambushed en route. Even
Gen Thimayya who took over later on, took little interest in
recapturing Skardu, nor did the Western Command for that matter,
which is a pity, for Indian army never sent a proper force to
recapture Skardu. The Skardu fort fell after a gallant
resistance of over six months, the Pakistani forces then
occupied area upto Kargil. The Indian Army has always neglected
the northern part of J&K. No wonder we had a serious problem
again in northern J&K in and around Kargil in 1999.
As regards the
1962 India-China war, the author rightly criticises the Indian
commanders who agreed to set up small check posts along
India-China border to stop further occupation of our territory
by the Chinese. These were quickly overrun by the Chinese. After
the Chinese had run over the forward Indian brigade at Nam ka
Chu, 4 Infantry Division troops fell back while Gen Kaul was
evacuated on medical grounds. Gen Harbaksh Singh was then
appointed GOC 4 Corps in place of Kaul. He energetically started
visiting forward areas and laid down his policy of holding of
certain important features in Sela-Bomdi La area as well as in
the Walong sector. Before Gen Harbaksh could implement his
plans, Gen Kaul returned along with his personal doctor and took
over 4 Corps from him. The rest is history.
Singh was posted to 33 Corps which was not involved in the 1962
war. It would have been much better if Gen Harbaksh Singh had
been allowed to command IV Corps and not the physically unfit
Gen Kaul, but that was not to be. The country and the Army had
to pay the price.
The 1965 war
was his glorious hour in his otherwise bright career. He was
fortunate to have served in Western Command from 1947 onwards in
various command and staff appointments. This had given him an
insight into the problems of the theatre of operations. This
must have been of great help to a capable commander like
best portion of the book deals with the 1965 Indo-Pak war in
which the author played a vital role. In 1965, the Western
Command consisted of J&K as well as the entire western
border with Pakistan upto the Rann of Kutch. So Harbaksh
commanded all the forces that fought against Pakistan in 1965
and he did well by the country indeed.
against a likely Pakistan attack in J&K had been carried out
in advance. It was decided that in case of a Pak attack in
J&K, India would retaliate by attacking Pakistan in Punjab.
There were differences of opinion between Gen Harbaksh Singh and
Gen Chaudhury who was Chief of Army Staff. Harbaksh wanted to
attack in the Lahore sector with XI Corps upto the Ichhogil
Canal, while 1 Corps would attack Pakistan across the Ravi
between Gurdaspur and Pathankot. This would allow Gurbaksh to
have sizeable reserves in Punjab to deal with any eventuality.
Gen Chaudhury felt that 1 Corps should attack from J&K in
the north from the area Jammu-Samba while XI Corps would attack
in Punjab. He was afraid that an assault by two infantry
divisions and an armoured division across a river obstacle,
could pose major administrative as well as tactical problems. So
it was decided by the Army HQ that XI Corps would attack in
Punjab and 1 Corps with the armoured division from the
Pakistan had a
better quality of weapon systems in 1965 due to liberal US help
while India had superiority in numbers, but its equipment
comparatively was out of date. Pakistan was hopeful of success
as it was Pakistan which started the war. Pakistan felt that the
performance of Indian forces would be of the same order as was
the case during the 1962 India-China war. However, good fighting
qualities of our brave soldiers and officers and excellent
leadership of senior commanders resulted in Pakistan’s losing
much more area as well as much useful equipment like the latest
The 1965 war is
well illustrated in this book. Of course, there were serious
differences of opinion between Gen Harbaksh Singh and Gen
Chaudhury but this did not affect the outcome of the war. But
such differences often occur during wars. In World War II, after
the successful Normandy landing, Mont-gomery recommended that
the Allied armies should advance towards Germany on a narrow
front and try to capture Berlin by making a deep but narrow
thrust. Eisen-hower’s thinking prevailed. The controversy
whether Gen Chau-dhury gave the orders to Gen Har-baksh Singh to
withdraw behind the Beas will be cleared only when the
Government of India publishes the official account of the 1965
Indo-Pak war. Unfortunately, there were differences of opinion
between Gen Harbaksh Singh and his well qualified and
experienced Chief of Staff Gen Joginder Singh during the 1965
The fact that
the Western Com-mand controlled the war well proves the point
that it functioned in an efficient manner. As a matter of fact
in the 1965 war, the Pakistan’s war machine suffered heavy
losses, particularly its tank fleet while its ammunition stock
was very low when Pakistan accepted the ceasefire. Prime
Minister Shastri was highly impressed by Gen Harbaksh Singh’s
performances and so was the nation. If Shastri had lived, Gen
Harbaksh might have been given a place of honour by the Prime
Meanwhile, Gen Harbaksh Singh
has done well by leaving behind his experiences of war to
younger generations of officers by writing this book.
Incidentally, the royalties from this book will be donated to
Can Support, a registered cancer charity.
Issues at stake
Review by Bimal Bhatia
Instrument of Foreign Policy by Kshitij Prabha. South Asian
Publishers, New Delhi. Pages viii+185. Rs 185.
Mr Atal Behari Vajpayee in his address to the joint session of
US Congress highlight the menace of trans-border terrorism? He
talked about how nations have fashioned the medieval concept
of waging a "religious war" or jehad into an
"instrument of state policy". This is a concern
which President Bill Clinton voiced separately as did Russian
President Vladimir Putin more recently during their Delhi
concern over Kashmir, President Putin put in an appreciative
word for India’s intent on forming a collective front
against terrorism, which, he said, had spread itself from the
"Philippines to Kosovo to Kashmir to Afghanistan to the
in terrorist attacks against India, sponsored by Pakistan
after the Kargil conflict and the hijacking of the Indian
Airlines flight from Kathmandu to Delhi, are examples of
terrorism being utilised by Pakistan as an instrument of its
foreign policy objectives vis-a-vis India. It is in this
context that J.N. Dixit, in his foreword, considers this book
not only timely but a very relevant contribution to the study
of the dangerous and destabilising phenomenon of terrorism.
Prabha, an Associate Fellow at the Institute for Defence
Studies and Analyses, has earlier worked on a UGC-sponsored
project on ‘‘Narco-terrorism: case of monetary
transactions with special reference to Pakistan-sponsored
terrorism in India’’. She is currently researching on
‘‘Transnational terrorism: implications for India’s
In this book
she devotes the first three chapters to introduce the
challenging topic and dilate on the conceptual aspects of
terrorism and the use of terrorism as an instrument of foreign
policy. Covered in the subsequent chapters is the promotion of
terrorism in Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir.
In pursuit of
its foreign policy objectives several instruments are
available to a nation. Diplomacy, propaganda, international
law and organisations, foreign aid and overt warfare are some
of the acceptable means through which nations realise their
foreign policy goals. These conventional approaches often do
not yield results because of ambiguity of approach or
prevailing hostility, about which Prabha has prepared a model
and cites several examples.
diplomatic approach to China has a spot of ambiguity. While on
the one hand the government intends to normalise relations
with China the Defence Minister’s remark that China is India’s
enemy number one has scuttled the process somewhat. Hostility
is an impediment to diplomacy, and Indo-Pak animosity comes
out as the example of how diplomatic efforts can be
fails to realise foreign policy goals because of its
self-contradictory nature and false propagation of facts and
ideas. For instance, Pakistan’s propaganda against human
rights violations in Jammu and Kashmir which, even if it is
the case, is mainly because of terrorism caused by Pakistan’s
involvement which contradicts its allegations. Put
differently, Pakistan accuses India for human rights
violations caused due to an environment created by Pakistan
fails to achieve its objectives because of parity in forces,
as between the USA and the Soviet Union during the Korean war.
Also resulting in a failure to achieve objectives through war
is the formulation of ambiguous aims, as in the Gulf war. The
USA went to war as the liberator of Kuwait, but it also wanted
to oust Saddam Hussain and destroy Iraq’s chemical weapons
conventional means fail terrorism has been resorted to as an
alternative means to achieve results. Aimed at destabilising
an established government with violence and conspiracy,
terrorism threatens international body politic.
evolved in the midst of terrorism, which Palestine used as a
weapon to claim its territorial right. Israel’s foreign
policy was thus centred on the need to counter terrorism. Even
the USA which worked towards countering terrorism in West
Asia, resorted to terror tactics in the pursuit of its
objectives in South America.
example of escalation of terrorism in the post-cold war scene
is the use of Afghan mujahideen by Pakistan to achieve its
goal in Jammu and Kashmir. The stockpile of arms and
ammunition siphoned by Pakistan from its Afghanistan kitty,
supplied by the USA, to Kashmir gave it the low-cost option to
bleed India with those "thousand cuts".
never been an end but means to a political end, in which there
may be associated social or economic objectives to achieve.
Prabha’s academic research comes through vividly as she
dilates on the conceptual aspects of terrorism in the first
promotion of terrorism in Punjab was inspired by three major
objectives: creation of a separate Sikh state; to discredit
India’s secular credentials; and, fragment India. Creation
of a friendly "Khalistan" was of strategic
importance to Pakistan. Scholars in Pakistan believe that the
absence of a barrier on the Indo-Pak border is dangerous for
the security of Pakistan which has always perceived a threat
from India. Khalistan as a buffer state would provide it with
this barrier and ensure its territorial integrity.
As an aim
plus, the carving out of Khalistan would severe the
communication links of Jammu and Kashmir from the rest of
India and help Pakistan to annex the northern state to avenge
the secession of East Pakistan.
goals in Punjab were different from what it is now pursuing in
J & K. Likewise, the nature of terrorism it tried in
Punjab differed from what it is now sponsoring in Kashmir.
Religious propaganda did not work in Punjab while in Kashmir
it is the most dominant strand. In the chapter on Pakistan’s
promotion of terrorism in Punjab, the reader is given a
comprehensive background — the emergence of Sant
Bhindranwale, political game of Indira Gandhi and the
inseparable link of religion with politics in Punjab, before
being led on to the analysis of Pakistan’s game plan.
chapter on Pakistan’s use of terrorism in Kashmir, Prabha
argues that Pakistan’s sole objective in Kashmir is
territorial. She adds that the challenges as perceived by
Pakistan from India are: (a) to maintain territorial integrity
and (b) India’s efforts to undo the politics of religion.
It is true
that in the beginning Indian leaders could not reconcile
themselves to partition. But after the creation of Bangladesh
the question of territorial challenge to Pakistan did not
arise. After the Bangladesh war Indira Gandhi made it clear
that Pakistan is a reality and there is no logic for Pakistani
leaders to think in terms of a territorial threat from India.
On the ideological front, Indian secularism is considered a
threat to a theocratic Pakistan.
of J & K will therefore help Pakistan to reassert the
two-nation theory which was put on its head in 1971, apart
from avenging its inglorious bifurcation. J&K would
compensate Pakistan for the loss of its eastern wing.
in its attempts to grab Kashmir through the political process
and three wars, Pakistan is deploying terrorism as the
ultimate weapon. In a systematic ploy to put a pincer of
subversion and terrorism in J&K, General Zia implemented
the plan defined by Indian defence analysts as "Operation
India is the
victim of Pakistan’s proxy war, which our hostile western
neighbour has employed as a low-cost option. While India has
succeeded in isolating Pakistan in the diplomatic arena, signs
of fatigue are slowly but surely showing up in the Indian
Army, which is the main agency to counter the proxy war.
terrorists freedom fighters? This is an extreme dilemma
because one man’s terrorist could be another’s freedom
fighter. If terrorism in sovereign countries is identified as
freedom fighting, it will tantamount to encouraging growth of
sub-nationalism and vivisection of a state, opines the author.
In the ultimate analysis,
while one may introspect and grope for the ideal
counter-terrorism strategy, it would be useful to recount that
it was possible for Pakistan to wage its war of insurgency and
terrorism in J & K only after the conditions were made
conducive for such an interference by India’s own neglect of
the state and its people in more ways than would have been
expected by the gladdened hearts of India-baiters in adjoining
Organised idleness is good for society
This is an
article written by Bertrand Russell in 1933 and included as a
chapter in one of his books.
most of my generation, I was brought up on the saying:
"Satan finds some mischief still for idle hands to
do." Being a highly virtuous child, I believed all that I
was told and acquired a conscience which has kept me working
hard down to the present moment. But although my conscience
has controlled my actions, my opinions have undergone a
revolution. I think that there is far too much work done in
the world, that immense harm is caused by the belief that work
is virtuous, and that what needs to be preached in modern
industrial countries is quite different from what always has
knows the story of the traveller in Naples who saw 12 beggars
lying in the sun (it was before the days of Mussolini), and
offered a lira to the laziest of them. Eleven of them jumped
up to claim it, so he gave it to the 12th. This traveller was
on the right lines. But in countries which do not enjoy
Mediterranean sunshine idleness is more difficult, and a great
public propaganda will be required to inaugurate it. I hope
that, after reading the following pages, the leaders of the
YMCA will start a campaign to induce good young men to do
nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain.
advancing my own arguments for laziness, I must dispose of one
which I cannot accept. Whenever a person who already has
enough to live on proposes to engage in some everyday kind of
job, such as school-teaching or typing, he or she is told that
such conduct takes the bread out of other people’s mouths
and is therefore wicked. If this argument were valid, it would
only be necessary for us all to be idle in order that we
should all have our mouths full of bread.
who say such things forget is that what a man earns he usually
spends, and in spending he gives employment. As long as a man
spends his income, he puts just as much bread into people’s
mouths in spending as he takes out of other people’s mouths
in earning. The real villain, from this point of view, is the
man who saves. If he merely puts his savings in a stocking,
like the proverbial French peasant, it is obvious that they do
not give employment. If he invests his savings, the matter is
less obvious, and different cases arise.
One of the
commonest things to do with savings is to lend them to some
government. In view of the fact that the bulk of the public
expenditure of most civilised governments consists of payment
for past wars or preparation for future wars, the man who
lends his money to a government is in the same position as the
bad men in Shakespeare who hire murderers. The net result of
the man’s economic habits is to increase the armed forces of
the state to which he lends his savings. Obviously it would be
better if he spent the money, even if he spent it in drink or
But, I shall
be told, the case is quite different when savings are invested
in industrial enterprises. When such enterprises succeed and
produce something useful this may be conceded. In these days,
however, no one will deny that most enterprises fail. That
means that a large amount of human labour, which might have
been devoted to producing something that could be enjoyed, was
expended on producing machines which, when produced, lay idle
and did no good to anyone. The man who invests his savings in
a concern that goes bankrupt is therefore injuring others as
well as himself.
If he spent
his money, say, in hosting parties for his friends, they (we
may hope) would get pleasure, and so would all those upon whom
he spent money such as the butcher, the baker and the
bootlegger. But if he spends it (let us say) upon laying down
rails for surface cars in some place where surface cars turn
out to be not wanted, he has diverted a mass of labour into
channels where it gives pleasure to no one. Nevertheless, when
he becomes poor through the failure of his investment he will
be regarded as a victim of undeserved misfortune, whereas the
gay spendthrift, who has spent his money philanthropically,
will be despised as a fool and a frivolous person.
All this is
only preliminary. I want to say, in all seriousness, that a
great deal of harm is being done in modern world by belief in
the virtuousness of work, and that the road to happiness and
prosperity lies in an organised diminution of work.
First of all:
what is work? Work is of two kinds: first, altering the
position of matter at or near the earth’s surface relatively
to other such matter; second, telling other people to do so.
The first kind is unpleasant and ill paid; the second is
pleasant and highly paid. The second kind is capable of
indefinite extension: there are not only those who give
orders, but those who give advice as to what orders should be
given. Usually two opposite kinds of advice are given
simultaneously by two organised bodies of men; this is called
politics. The skill required for this kind of work is not
knowledge of the subjects as to which advice is given, but
knowledge of the art of persuasive speaking and writing —
that is, of advertising.
Europe, though not in America, there is a third class of men,
more respected than either of the classes of workers. There
are men who, through ownership of land, are able to make
others pay for the privilege of being allowed to exist and to
work. These landowners are idle, and I might therefore be
expected to praise them. Unfortunately, their idleness is only
rendered possible by the labour of others; indeed their desire
for comfortable idleness is historically the source of the
whole gospel of work. The last thing they have ever wished is
that others should follow their example.
beginning of civilisation until the Industrial Revolution, a
man could, as a rule, produce by hard work little more than
what was required for the subsistence of himself and his
family, although his wife worked at least as hard as he did,
and his children added their labour as soon as they were old
enough to do so. The small surplus above bare necessities was
not left to those who produced it, but was appropriated by
warriors and priests.
In times of
famine there was no surplus; the warriors and priests,
however, still secured as much as at other times, with the
result that many of the workers died of hunger. This system
persisted in Russia until 1917, and still persists in the
East; in England, in spite of the Industrial Revolution, it
remained in full force throughout the Napoleonic wars, and
until a hundred years ago when the new class of manufacturers
acquired power. In America, the system came to an end with the
Revolution, except in the South, where it persisted until the
which lasted so long and ended so recently has naturally left
a profound impress upon men’s thoughts and opinions. Much
that we take for granted about the desirability of work is
derived from this system, and, being pre-industrial, is not
adapted to the modern world. Modern technique has made it
possible for leisure, within limits, to be not the prerogative
of small priviliged classes, but a right evenly distributed
throughout the community. The morality of work is the morality
of slaves, and the modern world has no need of slavery.
It is obvious
that in primitive communities peasants, left to themselves,
would not have parted with the slender surplus upon which the
warriors and priests subsisted, but would have either produced
less or consumed more. At first, sheer force compelled them to
produce and part with the surplus. Gradually, however, it was
found possible to induce many of them to accept an ethic
according to which it was their duty to work hard, although
part of their work went to support others in idleness. By this
means the amount of compulsion required was lessened, and the
expenses of government were diminished. To this day, 99 per
cent of British wage-earners would be genuinely shocked if it
were proposed that the king should not have a larger income
than a working man.
of duty, speaking historically, has been a means used by the
holders of power to induce others to live for the interests of
their masters rather than for their own. Of course the holders
of power conceal this fact from themselves by managing to
believe that their interests are identical with the larger
interests of humanity. Sometimes this is true; Athenian
slave-owners, for instance, employed part of their leisure in
making a permanent contribution to civilisation which would
have been impossible under a just economic system.
essential to civilisation, and in former times leisure for the
few was only rendered possible by the labours of the many. But
their labours were valuable, not because work is good, but
because leisure is good. And with modern technique it would be
possible to distribute leisure justly without injury to
technique has made it possible to diminish enormously the
amount of labour required to secure the necessities of life
for everyone. This was made obvious during a war. At that time
all men in the armed forces, all men and women engaged in the
production of munitions, all men and women engaged in spying,
war propaganda, or government offices connected with the war
were withdrawn from productive occupations. In spite of this,
the general level of physical well-being among unskilled
wage-earners on the side of the allies was higher than before
significance of this fact was concealed by finance: borrowing
made it appear as if the future was nourishing the present.
But that, of course, would have been impossible; a man cannot
eat a loaf of bread that does not yet exist. The war showed
conclusively that by the scientific organisation of production
it is possible to keep modern populations in fair comfort on a
small part of the working capacity of the modern world. If, at
the end of the war, the scientific organisation, which had
been created in order to liberate men for fighting and
munition work, had been preserved, and the hours of work had
been cut down to four, all would have been well.
that the old chaos was restored, those whose work was demanded
were made to work long hours, and the rest were left to starve
as unemployed. Why? Because work is a duty and a man should
not receive wages in proportion to what he has produced, but
in proportion to his virtue as exemplified by his industry.
This is the
morality of the slave state applied in circumstances totally
unlike those in which it arose. No wonder the result has been
disastrous. Let us take an illustration. Suppose that, at a
given moment, a certain number of people are engaged in the
manufacture of pins. They make as many pins as the world
needs, working (say) eight hours a day. Someone makes an
invention by which the same number of men can make twice as
many pins as before. But the world does not need twice as many
pins: pins are already so cheap that hardly any more will be
bought at a lower price. In a sensible world, everybody
concerned in the manufacture of pins would take to working
four hours instead of eight, and everything else would go on
But in the
actual world this would be thought demoralising. The men still
work eight hours, there are too many pins, some employers go
bankrupt, and half the men previously making pins are thrown
out of work. There is, in the end, just as much leisure as on
the other plan, but half the men are totally idle while half
are still overworked. In this way, it is ensured that the
unavoidable leisure shall cause misery all round instead of
being a universal source of happiness. Can anything more
insane be imagined?
The idea that
the poor should have leisure has always been shocking to the
rich. In England, in the early 19th century, 15 hours was the
ordinary day’s work for a man; children sometimes did as
much, and very commonly did 12 hours a day. When meddlesome
busybodies suggested that perhaps these hours were rather
long, they were told that work kept adults from drink and
children from mischief. When I was a child, shortly after
urban working men had acquired the vote, certain public
holidays were established by law, to the great indignation of
the upper classes. I remember hearing an old Duchess say:
"What do the poor want with holidays? They ought to
work." People nowadays are less frank, but the sentiment
persists and is the source of much of our economic confusion.
Let us, for a
moment, consider the ethics of work frankly, without
superstition. Every human being, of necessity, consumes, in
the course of his life, a certain amount of the produce of
human labour. Assuming, as we may, that labour is on the whole
disagreeable, it is unjust that a man should consume more than
he produces. Of course he may provide services rather than
commodities, like a medical man for example; but he should
provide something in return for his board and lodging. To this
extent, the duty of work must be admitted, but only to this
I shall not
dwell upon the fact that, in all modern societies outside the
USSR, many people escape even this minimum amount of work —
namely, all those who inherit money and all those who marry
money. I do not think the fact that these people are allowed
to be idle is nearly so harmful as the fact that wage-earners
are expected to overwork or starve.
ordinary wage-earner worked four hours a day, there would be
enough for everybody, and no unemployment — assuming a
certain very moderate amount of sensible organisation. This
idea shocks the well-to-do, because they are convinced that
the poor would not know how to use so much leisure. In America
men often work long hours even when they are already well off;
such men, naturally, are indignant at the idea of leisure for
wage-earners, except as the grim punishment of unemployment;
in fact, they dislike leisure even for their sons. Oddly
enough, while they wish their sons to work so hard as to have
no time to be civilised, they do not mind their wives and
daughters having no work at all. The snobbish admiration of
uselessness, which, in an aristocratic society, extends to
both sexes, is under a plutocracy, confined to women; this,
however, does not make it any more in agreement with common
The wise use
of leisure, it must be conceded, is a product of civilisation
and education. A man who has worked long hours all his life
will be bored if he becomes suddenly idle. But without a
considerable amount of leisure a man is cut off from many of
the best things. There is no longer any reason why the bulk of
the population should suffer this deprivation; only a foolish
asceticism, usually vicarious, makes us continue to insist on
work in excessive quantities now that the need no longer
In the new creed which
controls the government of Russia, while there is much that is
very different from the traditional teaching of the West,
there are some things that are quite unchanged. The attitude
of the governing classes, and especially of those who conduct
educational propaganda on the subject of the dignity of labour
is almost exactly that which the governing classes of the
world have always preached to what were called the
"honest poor". Industry, sobriety, willingness to
work long hours for distant advantages, even submissiveness to
authority, all these reappear; moreover authority still
represents the will of the ruler of the universe, who,
however, is now called by a new name, dialectical materialism.