The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, January 28, 2001

Off the shelf 
What is history?
 Review by V. N. Datta

Punjabi Literature
Those were the revolutionary days
Review by Jaspal Singh

How to get rid of all your blues?
Review by Satya Pal Sehgal

Women’s freedom to choose
Review by Uma Vasudeva

Not memorable these short stories
Review by Priyanka Singh

Why are dalits so oppressed?
Review by Kuldip Kalia

Relapsing into chauvinism
Review by Akshaya Kumar

Fiction on Sri Lankan chaos
Review by R.P. Chaddah

The Sierra Leone threat
Review by Bhupinder Singh


Off the shelf 
What is history?
Review by
V. N. Datta

DURING the past two decades or so a controversy has raged on the meaning, purpose, scope and foundations of historical knowledge in the West and the USA, which has resulted in a spate of books on these sensitive themes agitating the minds of some leading historians. This venture had doubtless enriched our understanding of the concept and method of history writing and sharpened our analytical power to reconstruct the past.

In sharp contrast to the splendid progress in the history of historiography, the record in this sphere is dismal, primarily due to a failure in mastering the technique of ratiocinative analysis. In addition, we have not developed the habit of meditating over our past and on the corpus of historical literature.

That is why little historiographic work of significance has been produced in this country. Such a sorry state of affairs has tended to make us dependent on the western model of enquiry. And the worst sufferers in the field are post-graduate students who really do not know where to turn to for guidance in the field of historical research.

The book under review is "Telling the Truth about History" by Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt and Margaret Jacob (W.W. Norton, New York, London, pages 322). This study produced by three eminent historians of long standing deals with the underpinnings of history writing and the assumptions and values that lead to the search for historical truth. It examines critically the relevance of scientific models to this craft. It analyses the part which history plays in shaping national and group identity and offers some theories about how objectivity may be possible, and what sort of political circumstances promote critical inquiry.

It also gives a synoptic view of how historians have conceptualised their task in the past, particularly how history from telling simply a straightforward story has developed sophisticated techniques of historical analysis to answer a complex array of questions about human experience.

The treatment in this work is not chronological or thematic. The significance of this study lies in explaining the disturbingly important trends that are manifest in historiography. This work also gives a breezy account of what a historical professional encounters with post-modernism and multiculturalism. There is hardly a branch of historical knowledge which is not touched on. The whole study is suggestive, insightful and intellectually stimulating.

The authors emphasise that after World War II history has been shaken to its scientific and cultural foundations and the old intellectual absolutism has been dethroned. This study stresses that scientific revolution of the 19th century and the Enlightment had a profound impact on the writing of history. The scientific mode of investigation advocated by Francis Bacon and Descartes fostered a questioning spirit and developed a sceptical attitude towards theology and revealed religion. Thus began the fight of the secular against the religious, which lent much strength to the crusade for the freedom of the press. These developments led to the cultivation of a spirit of historical criticism and forged a link between history and science.

The 17th century Europe was notable for its relentless search for source material. History began to be studied seriously for understanding the past and the present. History was no longer to be treated as a story of kings and queens, but as an explanatory mode of thinking. In this context the whole range of history was divided into ancient, medieval and modern periods.

This work surveys brilliantly the contributions of Hegal, Marx and Freud who had discovered scientific laws which operate in society and which greatly stimulate the creation of important historical works. Because of these highly important studies, the technique and method of historical analysis underwent a revolutionary change and historical studies acquired altogether a new range and depth. Marx and Ranke became models for most historians.

This study summarises the main ideas of the French Annales School which highlighted the importance of climate and demographic changes in history. The Annales School developed the concept of "total history", which is reflected in the works of Lucien Febvre and Fernand C Braudel. Such an approach reduces all history to material causes, overlooking the influence of ideas, events, periodisation and accident. Fabvre wrote, "Man cannot be carved out into slices. He is a whole. One must not divide all history — here the events, there the beliefs."

The authors show how European notions of history worked in the American national saga, a saga informed by the beliefs in progress and democracy. For America, democracy and nationalism came to represent the people, the vehicle of social progress.

The American history began to concentrate on the study of social, political and economic institutions. It emphasised how American greatness arose from the commitment of its citizens to democratic virtues reflected in the historical works of Ramsay, Warren, Turnbull and Bancroft. The history of America began to be defined in terms of political liberalism and economic advancement.

Fredrick Jackson Turner’s "frontier thesis" offered distinctive American roots for the capitalist economy which came to dominate national life. Turner represented an American citizen as a type of the whole nation with his characteristic intellectual traits such as "coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness, that practical inventive frame of mind, that masterful grasp of material things, that restless and nervous energy, that dominant individualism with the buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom."

The authors show that in the 19th century, American history pivoted round the successful Protestant, whose features were turned into ideals for the entire human race. But by the beginning of the 20th century the conventional history of American people as champions of democracy had lost much of its credibility.

This work throws light on Herbert Butterfield’s contribution as a pioneer in the study of the history of science to which little attention was paid in academic circles. Butterfield delivered a series of lectures on the history of science at the University of Cambridge in 1948 which were later published as "The Origins of Modern Science (1300-1800)". Butterfield insisted that history of science should be a bridge between arts and sciences.

He assured the students of Cambridge that "since the rise of Christianity there is no landmark in history that is worthy to be compared to it". He also believed that living in the post-World War II era gave the historian a unique understanding of the historical importance of science in western culture since the 18th century.

To this day Butterfield’s lectures remain the most important general introduction to the scientific revolution written in English. Butterfield unravelled the wonders of scientific rationality and objectivity. He strongly believed that the scientific method, particularly its search for laws, could be safely transferred to social sciences and the study of history.

This study focuses on a new kind of history challenging the notion of objectivity which formed the theme of Thomas S. Kuhn in his famous book "The Structure of Scientific Revolution" published in 1962. That work had a profound influence on the mode of scientific thinking. It was translated into many languages and sold 750,000 copies worldwide.

According to Kuhn, scientific change occurs due to paradigm shifts. Kuhn’s thesis is that scientists reluctantly try to explain away any anomalies that their research might turn up but only when forced by mounting evidence will scholars make a material shift which permits them to break with normal science. Such an approach is designed to break new grounds in scientific knowledge.

According to the authors, Karl Popper added a new dimension to the understanding of scientific method by publishing his remarkable study on the logic of scientific discovery. In this popular work, Popper argued that if knowledge cannot be falsified, it was true for ever. Popper thought that the job of a philosopher was to understand "how the game of science is played and how the scientist probes the unknown reality behind the appearances and is anxious to learn from mistakes".

Popper condemned Nazi manipulation of science to attack the whole notion of rationality and objectivity as sinister. He emphasised that the rationalism of science lies not in a naive correspondence between the empirically tested world and the mind of the scientist but in the rules of logic and falsification and verification.

In one chapter, the authors highlight some of the basic features of post-modernism which has become an occupational disease of some historians. According to the authors, post-modernism has dethroned nationalism, rationality, capitalism, literalism and the use of grand narrative in the reconstruction of the past. The writing of history is not about seeking truth but about the problems of historians. All knowledge is thus political.

The authors decry post-modernism and write, "Our view is that post-modernists are deeply disillusioned intellectuals who denounce Marx, liberal humanism, capitalism and take a deprecatory view of the world which offers a little role of history."

This book has argued against the contention that history, science and efforts at seeking truth have ended in failure. Far from banishing post-modernism and relativism and other techniques of historical analysis, the authors of this study have pooled their learning to locate the relationship of these critiques to the old dialogue that began with the scientific revolution in the 17th century and provoked conversations among historians, sociologists and scientists.

It is from the battle of such ideas that new insights are gained which enrich the quality of knowledge and life.


Punjabi Literature
Those were the revolutionary days
Review by Jaspal Singh

HARBHAJAN SINGH DEOL is too much of an intellectual to be in politics though he dabbles in it from the periphery. Born in a politically conscious family of social activists of Ludhiana district, he went to England in 1965 where he worked in a factory while doing research in a university. He came back in 1972 and became a college teacher. In the late seventies of last century he was appointed an administrative member of the Punjab State Electricity Board followed by a stint in the Punjab Public Service Commission as a Member from where he resigned in the wake of Operation Bluestar in 1984.

Subsequently he joined Punjabi University,Patiala, as a Reader in the department of public administration. Soon after he was appointed Professor and chairman of the National Integration Chair set up by the university from where he was picked up by the central government to be the Commissioner for Linguistic Minorities from where he recently retired. He has produced some theoretical monographs in English like ‘‘Trade Unionism: An introduction’’, ‘‘Approaches to National Integration’’, ‘‘South Asian Spectrum’’ and "Socio-Religious Pluralism: An Identity Crisis’’.

His first book in Punjabi ‘‘Tarian da kafla’’ (Shilalekh Publishers, Delhi) has recently appeared adding a new dimension to Punjabi literary studies. The book is a collection of eight sketches of some western characters whom he came in contact with when he was living in England. Those were the heady days when the western world was in turmoil caused by student unrest.

The Vietnam war was being fought in all its ferocity and a popular anti-war movement was raging in the USA. In Europe, youth, disillusioned with conventional power structures, took to the streets everywhere raising slogans and waving banners in revolt which culminated in the thrilling events of Paris in May, 1968. Even today the Left Bank ‘‘insurgency’’ is remembered as a great student revolution.

The youth of the USA, France and West Germany had their ideological godfather in Herbert Marcuse, the high priest of the New Left movement which was more inspired by the ideas of Bakunin, Trotsky, Bukharin and Mao than by those of Marx and Lenin. Even Franz Fanon and Regis Debray, the ideologues of anti-colonialism from the Third World, were held as icons by the agitating students. History had never seen such an outburst of youthful energy which at that time seemed to overwhelm the entire world and transform it into a Utopia of the New Left.

It was during such times at the fag end of the 18th century on the eve of the French Revolution of 1789, young Wordsworth, the great Romantic poet of England, had sung, ‘‘... Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven! - Oh! times! In which the meagre, state, forbidding ways of custom, law, and statute, took at once the attraction of a country in romance!’’

Harbhajan Deol was in his twenties when he participated in this radical politics of university students inBritain. The sketches in this book are of those young men and women who were fully committed to radical humanism and they sought to change the highly traditional British society through their ‘‘revolutionary’’ activities among the youth.

Jimmi was a Polish worker along with Deol in a metal factory at Birmingham. During World War IIhe had undergone barbaric fascist persecution. But after his migration to Britain he lived the life of a recluse.

Deol was associated with socialist movement and was a regular reader of the trade union journal ‘‘Socialist Worker’’. By and by with persistent effort he was able to open up Jimmi who then told him that British working class was not very class conscious, rather it was a capitalist collaborator. He also believed that as European capitalism initially gave an impetus to fascism, similarly a different kind of ‘‘national socialism’’ (fascism) would destroy the Soviet state.

He maintained that the German people had acquiesced in Hitler’s idea of the superiority of the Aryan race since they found in it an expression of their innermost individualistic ideals. They also realised that powerful ideas of Hegel and Nietzsche held the central place in the ideological framework of the Nazi party.

Initially quite a few European intellectuals and writers sided with Hitler since they believed that only he could save Europe from a Bolshevik onslaught. Jimmi was a social democrat who believed that East Europe would be able to feel a glow of freedom only after the overthrow of the Soviet system which might help Europe in reorganising its socio-political structure.

Another powerful character is John Hutchinson who met the author in Birmingham in central England. He was working for the International Socialist Group and was deeply influenced by Marxist ideas. It was in 1968 that the British government effected a 400 per cent rise in university fees for non-British students though Britain at that time had a Labour government. Hutchinson, a native chemical engineer, was against this ethnic discrimination.

Being a social activist he wanted to organise a movement against this policy and be used very strong language against his government. ‘‘This Labour government has nothing to do with socialism. This action is an expression of the chauvinism of the British ruling classes. They are bootlickers of capitalism and flunkeys of imperialism.’’ He was a very effective debater and he always kept Marxist dialectical principles in mind.

Apart from his job as an engineer, social activism was his passion, on which he spent a lot of time, energy and money. He believed that all instruments of state — namely, the police, army, media, etc. — were trying to lull the people into inaction by offering a long romantic dream. So Marxism and social activism were necessary to sensitise the masses. Once he was in love with a pretty girl from a rich family who did not like his political activism. So he insulted her and threw her out of his car calling her a ‘‘bloody fascist bitch’’, and ‘‘revolution’’ got the better of love.

Now years later, he would sometimes get nostalgic and speak fondly of her.

Like John Hutchinson, Ray Osborne also came in contact with the author in the student movement against the hike in fees. In all universities of Britain there were demonstrations, seminars, lectures and debates against this step of the government. Osborne was one of the leaders of this struggle which was being waged under the aegis of the National Students Union.

He was a student of medicine and a member of the International Socialist Group. He had a Bengali Muslim girl friend from the erstwhile East Pakistan.

Looking at the European situation in 1968, Osborne would observe that it was taking shape in the same way as in 1848. ‘‘Will history take a new turn? Should we give it a powerful push to quicken its pace or should it be allowed to move at its own speed?’’

Such thoughts would depress him. Deol would try to take him out of this mood. He would say, ‘‘The crisis of capitalism is deepening day by day. Racism is again raising its ugly head with people like Enoch Powel around... America is in crisis over Vietnam and has to face a severe public opinion reverse across continents...."

Osborne was a great admirer of the Marxist concept of class struggle and would do a class analysis of every situation. He believed in Lenin’s ideological line, Trotsky’s militant action and Plekhanov’s historical perspective.

He was also aware of the ideas of J.D.Bernal, Deutscher, Marcuse, Lukacs, Althusser, Garaudy and Glamsci.

All groups celebrated in a ‘‘revolutionary manner’’ with lectures, debates and drinks when Osborne passed out of the university as a doctor.

Lorrie Bluart was a black student in the African Centre of Birmingham University. He was associated with the Socialist Student Centre as well which Deol usually visited to meet activists of the student movement. He had been to many countries and had worked in the American black movement. He had met people like Elijah Mohammed, Mohammed Ali and Huey Newton and was conversant with the works of Martin Luther King, Booker T Washington,Patrice Lumumba, Julius Nyerere and Jomo Kenyata.

He was a moving encyclopaedia of the problems of black people in the world.

Franz Fanon was the main source of his inspiration whom he held in high esteem. He would maintain, ‘‘These individuals, institutions or systems which do not respect basic human freedoms, and instead encourage social and economic disparities by accentuating class division of society should be opposed by all means.’’

Those were the days when Peter Griffith, Gordon Walker, Duncan Sands, Enoch Powel and other racialists were also very vociferous in the Midland. Their slogan was, ‘‘If you want a nigger neighbour, vote Liberal or Labour.’’

Lorrie was fighting such ideas and tendencies tooth and nail. That was why he always spoke for a social revolution.He had immense faith in black power and he predicted that the black races would lead mankind in the coming centuries. He sang, ‘‘What is Africa to me/copper, sun or scarlet sea/Jungles, star of jungle track/strong brazened men or regal black/woman from whose loins/I sprang when the birds of Eden sang.’’ He wanted the time to begin all over again so that he could rewrite the history of the world by undoing all the past wrongs.

Godfrey Webster, another friend of Deol, was a very competent civil engineer who was attracted by the radical ideas and in his free time would work for the International Socialist Group’ and distribute copies of the organ ‘‘Socialist Worker". Whenever he was free from his professional duties he would participate in seminars, discussions, debates and demonstrations. He would also help in organising public rallies and himself stick and distribute posters.

Once his group went to Highgate cemetery in London to commemorate Karl Marx’s birthday on May 5. They were going in Godfrey’s van and a small crowd of social activists — boys and girls — was discussing issues like British imperialism, Cuba, Che Guevera, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Solidarity, Italy and Gramsci and so on. The ideas were properly washed down with draughts of can beer.

When Deol told him that he was shifting to India he asked, ‘‘Is India in the midst of a revolution that you have to give it the lead?’’When the author told him about his compulsions, he moaned, ‘‘The ones required here are leaving and the others who can be easily dispensed with are becoming leaders.’’

The most passionate write-up in this collection is that of Mary Claridge who in 1968 was bubbling with revolutionary zeal. Deol was waiting for a bus after having delivered a fiery speech at a gathering of student activists in a pub about the revolutionary situation in Europe, when he was addressed by a pretty girl in a car. She told him that she had heard his speech and was much impressed by his ideas and analysis. She offered to drop him at his place. This was the beginning of a long affectionate friendship.

Once at a meeting of Indian workers a boy started misbehaving with her which she bore with patience. But when the boy learnt about her ideas, actions and ideals, he apologised to her with tears in his eyes. Time and again she would repeat these words of Marx, ‘‘Philosophers have interpreted the world in various ways, the point, however, is to change it.’’

She was a girl with very delicate feelings yet with a very strong will and action. She took interest in literature as well and was a great fan of William Shakespeare.

When the Industrial Relations Act and the Immigration Act were being passed by British Parliament, all trade unions decided to demonstrate against them and to give a memorandum to the Prime Minister. Their main slogan was, ‘‘One struggle, one fight; British workers black and white’’. The author and Mary were leading a demonstration. The police wanted to arrest Deol that was why a group of militant white workers threw a human wall around him so that the police could not lay its hands on him. Mary fought like a tigress and was dragged by the police but her comrades were able to free her.

In the evening when they were doing an appraisal of the events of the day in a corner of the Hyde Park, Mary said, ‘‘It was very important to save you from the clutches of the fascists. I would have done it even at the cost of my life.’’

The last sketch in this compilation is that of Kavlanko, a student from the Ukraine Republic of the Soviet Union. He was a very serious student of Russian history and was a great believer in democratic socialism. Even at that time he predicted that the Soviet Union would collapse one day because of the Russian hegemony and cultural imperialism that it imposes on the other republics of the country. History has proved him right.

All these write-ups depict vividly the student and working class movements in Britain during the turbulent days of the sixties and the seventies, the individual characters being only a point of reference. The great intellectual debates of the epoch along with the global revolt by youth are brought to life. The struggle of Asian workers in Britain for equality and dignity is also commented upon in patches.

The author has a clear vision, an animated narrative style and a passion for his ideas which make it very readable.


How to get rid of all your blues?
Review by Satya Pal Sehgal

IN the early nineties, Hindi criticism was convulsed with a new upsurge – a "desire" to understand and eulogise the prose of poets. Some called it an expression of "vested interests", since the lead came from the so-called "Bhopal school" which comprised mostly poets. A euphoria visible at that time could not sustain itself for long. Hindi criticism had other polemical fronts to engage in. Rather battles, fierce battles, between "formalists" and those who looked for the "political" in a work of literature. The war is still on.

It was noticed that mostly men got attention whenever the prose of poets was under discussion. Maybe, there were not enough candidates among women- poets. Perhaps there were not significant women poets around! Hindi poetry never had many prominent women-poets. Of late, the scenario has changed a bit. It has changed further as many women writers are venturing into different forms of prose-writing. Katyayani, Teji Grover, Gagan Gill and Anamika are some of the better known accomplished contemporary Hindi women poets and all of them have published some sort of prose, either fiction or a kind of belles letters. That this will attract discerning Hindi criticism in days to come is for sure. Even if judged critically, with notes of dissent .

Teji Grover’s novel "Neela" (Vani, Delhi ) and Gagan Gill’s memoirs "Dilli Mein Unidein" (Rajkamal, Delhi ) which she has chosen to call "samriti lekh" rather than the streotype "samsmarana" are two such examples. There are other reasons to chose them for an elaborate study. As writers, both of them show a pronounced fascination for ahistoricity. They share a sensibility which is abstract. And both of them have their roots in Amritsar of Punjab.

Teji’s (born in 1955) novel "Neela" does not fit into any genralisatison might have drawn from the discussion on Krishna Sobti and Alka Sarvagi’s novels in these coloumns last month.

Teji Grover, who is better known as a poet, has at least four anthologies to her credit. In prose, a few short stories and now this "Novel". The first line of the novel reads, "I don’t know, don’t know anything, about blue in "Blue eyes, black hair". "Blue eyes, Black Hair’ is the title of a novel by famous French women writer Marguirte Duras (1914-1996). Duras has also been quoted elsewhere in the novel. There may not be another example in contemporary Hindi writing where a writer shows such fascination for a French writer like Duras.

Duras is a difficult, enigmatic writer and many people here don’t find enough reasons to read her and see her films (she was also a film-maker). A controversial writer though, Duras does indulge in the politics of post-modren scene – of the marginal and the unspoken. So do her movies like "Love in Hiroshima" and "India Song".

An errant desire, an "extreme and all consuming passion ...disdain for socially legitimised relationships ... madness ... fraught and precarious relationships and expression to experiences that were otherwise denied any legitimate voice by the norms conventions of bourgeois society," is what characterises Duras’s writings and films. And for this Duras generally do not choose a single genre but what critics call a cross-genre or "generic displacement."

A Hindi writer who has Duras as her idol will have have to confront several questions and accusations, since the polemics in Hindi literary world has no scope for the point of view which writes like Duras purpose. That many critics appreciate it privately is a different matter.

Teji, who is generally believed to belong to the formalist school, does have this advantage. She has escaped the rejection which other members of the school generally face. Since Hindi criticism has also not dabbled in feminist forays, a serious reading is also not possible of her writings.

Despite these remarks, "Neela" does fall short of its own rationale (or ir-rationale?). Nonetheless, it has made a reasonably important statement on "expression" in Hindi literature. Of course, in the footsteps of Duras.

But first, what this neela is? The blue! Only a colour? Of course not. And there is brown (bhura) as well. And the story line? Yes, there is or there may be a story-line which not at all easy to divine even after a few readings. This novel is not a "fiction" as we understand the term. There are "incidents" which have fragment before they achieve a semblance of "real" coherence. "Neela" is not about some place. It has a beginning but no real ending. So space and time is actually no consideration. Though we can think of Sweden when the novel talks about Ingemar (Ingemar Bergman, the famous Swedish film director). Basically, it should be understood as a foreign land. And there is Swadesh as well. Its poets. And Bhopal. Even these places appear as colours. The same is true about characters like Abbu (the father) and the mother. And udyan. And a few distant references like somebody with white resham hair. And babu.

None of them is a character as we have understand characters. If there is any character in the novel, it is Neela , the blue. And neela is colour. Colour of a passion. Raw passion. Whole passion. The passion of a woman. As it understands itself. Is "Neela" an adventure for the truest erotic tale ever told by a women writer in Hindi? By likes of Krishna Sobti and Mridula Grag were before Teji. "Neela" argues whether a passion really be "expressed" in a "realistic" mode? Or in a "fictional" mode?

So in "Neela" there is a blue web. A rejection of the concrete. A free association of fatasies? "Neela", the novel, and neela, the colour, both defy a definition. Neela, the passion, indicates itself in so many ways in the novel, as if there are endless ways to understand blue. The desire. Ah! Finally we name it!

This "Neela" is a justification in itself. It is autonomous. So much so that words which express neela too get an autonomous character in the novel. Almost every second line is autonomous, if not independent. Fragmentation becomes the desired design of the novel. Interestingly, if any character comes out a little vivid, it is Abbu or the mother or Bhura who impersonates Abbu at times. The childhood! A good material for psychoanalysis!. Is it the total reincarnation of the unconscious Teji makes in "Neela"? But the novel is really beyond the realm of the psychoanalytical or experimental.

Teji has tried to put forward a new case for Hindi novel, if the writing necessarily needs to be fixed in some genre. Duras can help us here as she helps the narrator in the novel and the novelist Teji Grover. But this Duras factor should not be over-emphasised . "Neela" is capable of independent study .

It was in this context I said before that the novel "Neela" falls short of its own rationale? How ?

The "rationale" of the novel is the madness of Neela. The desire is its own justification. Or the marginality of Neela for this reason. Since it uses the medium of the writer, the medium, the writer, becomes important. The writer has failed the content of novel to an extent. It has given Neela a voice, a vivid description, pathos, but not enough force. Or has taken away it from Neela. From "Neela", the novel, which certainly has pain and compassion at base.

Teji’s fascination with the language is quite obvious. Look at words like Abbu, Babu, Rakkasa, Shua, Afsananigar – generally Urdu terms. The flashy charisma. She allows the language to run amuck if its ignites the imagination. This "running amuck" of the language is extraordinary in Teji Grover. There may not be another example in Hindi except perhaps Vinod Kumar Shukla (eminent poet and novelist). In the novel this has become her failing, in a subtle manner.

This novel presents a series of scintillating poetic lines and images. But they overpower the text. Great subversive meaning inherent to the content Teji has taken up, is overshadowed by this indulgence. The political context does not come profound (like the gas tragedy in Bhopal and suicides by farmers in Andhra Pradesh ). The concentration shifts from the colour of the "passion" to the colour of "words". It starts becoming a passion for words. As a result, the intensity of the meaning and the art of putting together the 13 chapters, composed of numerous disjointed images and surrealistic "incidents" suffers. "Language" defeats the "meaning". Words and lines defeat their own construction–deconstruction .

Admittedly, at some level, this indulgence is also an exploration. But this improves our comments only marginally.

"Neela", which is an unique adventure in Hindi novel, could have been more "meaningful". For posterity.

Admittedly, I have commented on this novel very very cautiously. That is the importance of "Neela". Isn’t it?


Women’s freedom to choose
Review by Uma Vasudeva

New Reproductive Tech-nologies, Women’s Health and Autonomy: Freedom or Dependency by Jyotsna Agnihotri Gupta. Sage Publications, New Delhi. Pages 706. Rs 775.

THE issue of reproduction has always drawn attention of women throughout the world and has always been the core issue of their lives. In all castes and creeds women have sought ways and means to either prevent conception, or get rid of an unwanted pregnancy, or to consciously remain childless, or to deal with involuntarily childlessness. Intervention in reproduction is not of recent origin. Contraception and abortion have been known for ages.

Until the Middle Ages in Europe, women who practised as healers and midwives, provided contraceptive measures, performed abortions, and offered concoctions to ease the pain of labour, according to methods and skills handed down from generation to generation. With gradual professionalisation of medicine from the 11th century onwards and with collaboration between male surgeons and the state health care system, it passed into male hands.

Delivery of the child by caesarian section is not of recent origin, however it came to be used on a wide scale only in the 19th century. The use of condoms and check pessaries to prevent conception has been known for a long time, as is abstinence, withdrawal and other traditional sexual practices which controlled birth. Research in animal and human reproduction made great strides in the 20th century. With the development of the contraceptive pill in the early 1950s, and later other contraceptive methods, fertility management through modern techniques became more efficient and reliable. Then came sophisticated technologies such as ultrasound for pregnancy management, followed by new ways of management of conception.

The author has divided her study into two parts. The first part consists of four chapters and lays the theoretical, conceptual and ideological basis for the study. The introductory chapter outlines research questions, methodology and research methods used and define important concepts such as autonomy and reproductive freedom. The following chapters deal with gender constructions of women’s bodies within the paradigm of medical science, women in development discourses and the concept of motherhood.

The author says that after the feminist movement in the 1960s, women’s control over their own fertility has been identified as crucial to their emancipation. The women’s movement and reproductive technology opened possibilities for some women to shape their lives and make independent choices for themselves.

The author is surprised that there is some confusion about what is meant by new productive technologies. Some understand only technologies such as in-vitro fertilisation by this term, whereas the term old reproductive technologies is understood to refer to technologies such as contraceptive pills, intra-uterine devices as well as sterilisation and abortion. The author has taken pains to explain and clarify how the term is used in this study.

The term new reproductive technologies (NRT) is used here to the technologies designed to intervene in the process of human reproduction in three areas: (a) for the prevention of conception and birth; (b) for assisting reproduction through artificial insemination and other surgical laboratory procedures; and (c) for genetic purposes and for prenatal diagnosis for improving the health and genetic characteristics of the foetus and the new born.

The author examines different technologies that are available in each of these categories, particularly their at the applications of prenatal diagnosis technologies and their uses.

While observations on NRTs are supported by empirical research throughout the study, chapter 9 reinforces the research findings further. This is done by introducing some voices from the field through a selection of two long excerpts from interviews conducted in the course of fieldwork.

In the concluding chapter, some of uses in India and the Netherlands. It helps the readers to understand ideas about the role of women and men from which the technologies emanate, politics of reproduction within which these technologies are used, role of the reproductive technology in gender relations, and power relations implicit in the development applications and the use of NRT.

The ideology of motherhood has been used in feminist writings to explain the power inequalities between men and women in different societies. How this ideology influences the development of reproductive technologies and how in turn it is affected by the technologies is examined. In chapter 4, the author has taken the discussion further by addressing the phenomenon of control over reproduction and population policies from gender perspective.

The second part comprises a study of literature and empirical works. Different technologies, their applications and the ideas behind the development of specific technologies are examined, the state of art and future trends are sketched, and the medical aspects of the technologies are explained to understand their implications for women’s health and autonomy. This part includes a discussion on technologies for preventing conception and birth and those used to assist reproduction, particularly conception through artificial insemination and in-vitro fertilisation.

Development in the field of genetic technology and the implications of genetic screening are also examined. Another chapter looks more closely the important effects of the developments of new technologies and their applications are reviewed. The role played by the main factors which influence women’s autonomy is summarised and conclusions are drawn to recommend strategies which could be undertaken to strengthen the agency of women and their movement to achieve the goal of women’s autonomy over their bodies and lives. A larger number of women have been turned into mainly consumers of these new technologies rather than being in control over them and in the process, have paid a heavy price in terms of costs, adverse effects on health, and loss of bodily integrity and autonomy. These women, the author, maintains, have ended up becoming more dependent on the providers of technology and on the technology itself.

Designed to reopen debates on the far-reaching implications and the new dilemmas created by the recent advances in reproductive technologies, this accessible and fascinating book will be of interest to all those involved in gender studies, maternal and child health, demography, sociology, and concerned lay reader.


Not memorable these short stories
Review by Priyanka Singh

Nainha Khan and Other Stories by Jaipal Singh Gupta. Minerva Press, London. Pages 125 £4.99.

THE book under review is an anthology of 20 short stories, most of which have appeared in different magazines (also in The Tribune magazine section) since 1964.

Jaipal Gupta's tales are set in post-independence India and in the style that is simple and masterly, convey the fear and uncertainties which haunted those who witnessed the gory times.

"Nainha Khan" concentrates on the friendship and responsibility which old Nainha Khan feels for a Hindu family in Lahore. The risk he is willing to take to ensure their safety forms the basis of the story.

"A Businessman" is a tribute to the integrity of a poor 12-year-old self-respecting boy who sells "bidi" packets but refuses to accept charity.

"Emancipation" talks of Kanti, a young man, who leaves his adoptive mother after he discovers, quite by default, her affair with his friend.

Jaipal Gupta's little blessing is a charming story about a wanderer caught in bitter cold. When offered shelter and food, he declines both, saying he is adequately stocked with food — jaggery and grain — and as for warmth, his companions (flock and pets) would provide it.

"High tribute" is about a guilt-ridden ex-armyman who carries a large canvas water bag to quench the thirst of others. This unique service he offers is cathartic for him as he was unable to provide water to his friend, dying in the middle of a war.

These perhaps are the best stories in the collection.

Though the tales are well told, they lack intensity and are vague. Short stories are usually open-ended and invite interpretations. However, his stories conclude just as your curiosity is roused. He builds the tempo with his easy-to-read narrative but fails to tie up the loose ends. His stories leave you with only a fleeting feeling of having read something.

His effort is commendable in that he sketches the lives of ordinary people caught in extraordinary situations and circumstances but he fails to deliver.

"The Lantern" is comical but dull; "Breach", "Fulfilment" and "Moment of Beauty" are average while "The Ballot Paper", "A Touching Simile", "Boycott" and "Jaan and the Baratis" are out and out vague and unimaginative.

This collection of stories is forgotten as soon as it is read — not a memorable book.


Why are dalits so oppressed?
Review by Kuldip Kalia

Scheduled Castes of Rural India: Problems and Prospects by Victor Sunderaj. APH. Publishing, New Delhi. Pages xx+228. Rs 500.

IT has become customary to show concern over incidents of atrocities on the dalits so that what prevails in one state does not spread to other states. States must appear to be more humane and democratic. However one cannot avoid agreeing with President K.R. Narayanan when he laments "the lowering the tolerance level in society". In Tamil Nadu, the dalits fight the enemy within the community. Moreover there are apparent inadequacies of welfare programmes targetted at the Scheduled Castes. Perhaps what is lacking is political will and sincere effort.

The book under review presents an overview of the rural Scheduled Castes; deals with various social welfare schemes; comprehensively studies the effect of changes in terms of upward mobility; profiles innovative and non-innovative rural Scheduled Castes, and offers suggestions to uplift and promote the welfare of the community.

A majority of the Scheduled Castes live in rural areas. It is odd that most of rural Scheduled Castes live outside the villages in separate areas, particularly in Tamil Nadu. They are landless agricultural labourers, backward, superstitious, and an exploited and oppressed class.

Untouchability, atrocity and the bonded labour system are the social disability which they suffer from. No doubt untouchability has been abolished and is punishable but it does exist in some form, particularly in rural areas. Fear psychosis and their economic dependence on higher castes are the reasons for not protesting against such violations.

Moreover lack of facilities to the dalits is another form of atrocity. Again, the Bonded Labour System Abolition Act of 1976 was passed and it is heartening to note that bonded labour has almost been abolished in Tamil Nadu. However there were about 38 per cent of bonded labor in 1971-72 in Tamil Nadu.

Generally speaking, the Scheduled Castes do not live in a joint family and the compelling reasons for this are the meagre income and forced migration in search of jobs. Despite poverty, family welfare programmes have no meaning for them; rather they produce children "by choice and not by chance". Probably, more children help them earn more. Woman are more vulnerable; kidnapping, rape, murder and eve-teasing are the incidences of crime from which hardly any Scheduled Caste woman could claim to have escaped.

When compared to the urban areas, the Scheduled Castes in rural areas favour education less. The low literacy level of parents, lack of faith in the government’s protective measures, indifferent attitude of the bureaucrats and, above all, poverty are said to be responsible for their educational backwardness. The drop-out rate at the primary level is reported to be high but the chances of continuing education become brighter after four years of schooling. Moreover in case of educated mothers, it is more likely that the children will continue their studies. For claiming equality in the field of education, the dalits would need at least six to seven decades more.

At the same time, in certain cases education has helped them in coming out of low status and low paying occupations. Another positive indication is that they have become less rigid in their attitude towards their role in developmental and progressive activities.

Reservations and positive discrimination are measures adopted for the upliftment of their socio-economic conditions. Such steps promote upward social mobility and guarantee a minimum share of society’s wealth. The danger, however, is that it might "accentuate alienation". The Union Government, state governments and several voluntary and non-governmental organisations are contributing significantly through various welfare schemes and plans. The abolition of scavenging, infrastructure development, reforms in the administrative and personal structure and development projects are some of the achievements reported in the Scheduled Castes areas, particularly in Tamil Nadu.

However, overlooking the local needs while formulating the policies and programmes, adhocism or half-hearted efforts in the formulation as well as implementation of schemes, lack of awareness, delay in releasing grants, cumbersome procedures, misutilisation and, above all, bureaucratic attitude are some of the reasons for the benefits not reaching the targeted groups.

Social mobility is undoubtedly a direct consequence of the extent of various benefits reaching the dalits. Such benefits and concessions are referred to by the author as "innovations". The innovation are said to be of those who adopt such schemes, and consequently move up in the socio-economic ladder.

That is why it is assumed that poverty of the rural Scheduled Castes is the result of "not being able to adopt the welfare measures". More often, the extent of adoption is also influenced by economic incentives, diffusion of knowledge or awareness and the attitude of the officials involved in the package of innovations. At the same, time, their active involvement in the process, right from the formulation to implementation level, can be used as a powerful devise for achieving desirable or positive results.

The situation demands that the rural Scheduled Castes should be organised, motivated and helped to reap the benefits of the so-called"innovations". Otherwise they are likely to be "plunged into more misery than what they suffer from".

The author leaves no scope for registering a dissenting opinion.


Relapsing into chauvinism
Review by Akshaya Kumar

A New World by Amit Chaudhury. Picador, London. Pages 200. £ 12.99.

AMIT Chaudhury, acclaimed for his sensitive and highly evocative portrayal of India, in his latest fictional endeavour "A New World", once again attempts to map, out the nation, its changing cultural configurations and economic preferences through the story of a globalised Bengali middle class family of Calcutta, now Kolkata. It is a "new world" because there are no maharajas, snake charmers, beggars or women in parda — the stereotyped characters of the orientalised India. It is a world of Grindlays Bank, multi-storeyed housing apartments, multi-channel television, STD booths and photocopying kiosks, hotels and restaurants. Surprisingly in this "new world", there is not even a passing reference to Calcutta’s (in)famous slums. Oriental India has given way to post-modern India — both approaches continue to elude the real India, a nation that refuses to fall into any easy theoretical slot.

On his return to India, Jayojit Chatterjee, the NRI protagonist of the novel, discovers an altogether different India. It is on this score that the novelist entitles his novel as "A New India". Such newness is rather simplistically bestowed upon India by the NRI protagonists of contemporary Indian English novel. India needs to be seen as a dynamic construct where tradition as a living continuum, despite pressures from outside, not only survives but emerges stronger by way of its assimilative and self-reflexive potential. More than a just spatial construct, India is a temporal entity — an aspect which the so-called post-modern Indian English fiction continues to gloss over.

The novel lacks conventional extended narrative as it restricts itself to a microscopic account of the summer stint of Jayojit in Calcutta. In this sense the novel moves more along a vertical axis than the usual horizontal one. The fact that Jayojit, very rarely moves less out of his "home", forecloses the scope of any action-oriented story-line in the novel. The movement in the narrative is realised through sudden flashbacks, partial memories or reflections on the possible future. The happenings at Claremont, the American abode of the divorced protagonist, are recounted in Calcutta through intermittent flashbacks. Such temporal shifts make the novel rather non-linear. Letters, newspaper reposts and telephone calls link the protagonist to the outer world.

The novel begins with Jayojit’s return to India after his divorce from his wife Amala. This return is not borne out of any overwhelming love for the motherland. After being denied the custody of his son Bonny by an American court, he decides to settle the dispute through the Indian courts. "Indianness" is invoked as a subterfuge to attain mundane ends. Otherwise, "It was not something that either Jayojit or Admiral Chatterjee had bothered about, except during moments of political crisis or significance, like a border conflict or elections, or some moment of mass celebration, when it seemed all right to mock ‘Indianness’, if only differentiate oneself from a throng of people..."

The novel is carefully structured through a play of contrasts and juxtapositions. Jayojit’s parents "entrenched in their unquestioning roles" of husband and wife bring into sharp focus the broken marriage of their son. Marriage, intact and secure, is a luxury of unproblematic old world. Divorce is the reality of Chaudhury’s challenging new world. The differences of Jayojit with his parents have been brought forth at many levels in the novel. For instance, "There was a difference between his parents with regard to appliances; his father distrusted them as he would a rival; his mother had no confidence in using them..."

The contrast of Amala, Bonny’s ultra-modern mother, with Sumitra Chatterjee, traditional and committed mother of Jayojit, is too overt and clear, but the contrast of Admiral Chatterjee with his son Jayojit is very subtle. Admiral Chatterjee’s post-retirement blues remind us Nanda Devi’s loneliness in Anita Desai’s "The Fire on the Mountain". It is more existential than cultural. Jayojit’s loneliness is multilateral. It is the a loneliness of a divorcee living abroad, involved neck-deep in legal battles over the custody of his minor son.

In terms of its social matrices, modern Indian English novel has more or less caterd to the burgeoning Indian middle class as a genre mirroring its predicaments and travails in the wake of growing metro-politicisation of Indian society. "New Indian novel" as distinct from "modern Indian English novel" however focuses on the internationalisation of this middle class as it invariably revolves around the continuously shifting cultural terrain of its second or third-generation migrants, preferably, to the First World. The existential concerns of modern writers like Arun Jothi, Anita Desai, Nayantara Sehgal, etc. are suddenly overtaken by the cultural concerns of new writers of the post-Rushdie brigade. Amit Chaudhury yokes together the modern sensibility of Indian fiction with its growing new (or what Vinay Kirpal terms as "post-modern") sensibility through the juxtapositional frame of the novel.

The new world of Amit Chaudhury is post-modern and at the same time rigorously localised. The post-modern mobility has made us all the more nostalgic about our roots. As a result of excessive cross-national nomadism, one discerns a growing regionalisation of our sensibilities. Localism and globalism bear a dialectical relation, and this dialectics perhaps accounts for the post-national dynamics of new Indian novel. There is a desperate attempt to regionalise the novel, even if it entails the marginalisation of the nation.

Calcutta is both a landscape of Bengali nationalism and post-modern cosmopolitanism. There is a fair amount of sprinkling of Bengali cliches such as: "esho shona", a term of endearment used by Jayojit’s mother for her grandson, "pranam karo" for greeting, "kaarur baadi giyechhuilen?" which means "are you visiting someone?" etc. Bengali appellations such as "ma", "baba", "thamma", "daddu" also contribute to the making of a Bengali ambience in the narrative.

Long and extended references to Bengali sweet sandesh and Bengali festival Puja border on the exoticisation of Bengali culture for the western reader. The association of Durga Puja with "distant drum sounds" however is disturbing as it only reveals a surface understanding of Bengali culture on the part of the protagonist. At another place, the Puja is described as "a brief but vivid illusion".

The Bengali forbears of the characters are closely scrutinised. Amala, the estranged wife of Jayojit, has North Indian features. During their marriage, when camera flash light falls on her face, Jayojit discovers "no hint or trace of high cheekbones, but in her forehead and mouth, a suggestion of elsewhere". In parenthesis, the novelist accounts for the non-Bengali look of Amala thus. "Her ancestors were Brahmins who’d moved to Bengal from Sind several generations ago, seeking a sanctuary".

Then, there are explicit reference to Marwari rituals. The Marwaris are addressed as "they" or "others" by the Chatterjee family. The practice of watching the moon during the fast of karva chauth, a famous Marwari festival, is ridiculed with nasty playfulness. Just after a neighbouring Marwari bride goes back to her house after watching the moon from their housetop, Bonny, the grandson of the Chatterjee family, jumps on to the roof "to play" there. The singing of bhajans by a gathering of Marwari women and children is dismissed as "discordant music". The Marwaris are addressed as North Indians.

Jayojit’s preference for Bangladesh Biman for his travel over other international airways smacks of his innate Bengali chauvinism. Air India is dismissed for its "rudeness"; Bangladesh Biman is preferred because "you have all these placid East Bengalis all around you, speaking to each other in their dialect". More than India, it is Bangladesh that enamours the protagonist of the novel for "his own parents were of East Bengali origin, the father coming from a landowner family in Chittagong, the mother from Mymensingh."

If the writers from north India have problematised the nationhood of India through the partition of Punjab in the post-1947 phase of history of Indian subcontinent, the writers from Eastern India have raised the same problem through the partition of Bengal into West and East Bengal. The East-West Bengal differences have been sufficiently hinted at in the text. For instance, the differences between the marriage customs among Bengalis from the two sides have been referred to thus: "West Bengalis carried the bride around the fire, in East Bengal — and he’d thought this was true of Bengal in general — she walked around it."

The fact that the protagonist holds East Bengal as the "true" Bengal points towards a subtle presence of cross-national Bengali nationalism in the novel. In "The Shadow Lines" by Amitav Ghosh, another Bengali writer in English, one comes across almost the same kind of pan-Bangla consciousness, across nations, religions and communities.

The novel conforms to most of the structural and thematic trends of contemporary Indian English fiction. One, it hinges around an NRI who has a disturbed marital life. Two, it seeks to undermine the role of the nation at the cost of the local and the global. It needs to be reiterated that Arundhati Roy, a self-styled "mobile republic", also romanticised Kerala at the cost of the nation in her "The God of Small Things". Three, it casts aspersions on communism or socialism as an ideology of social emancipation. Admiral Chatterjee has revulsion for trade unionism: "Everyone belongs to a trade union, and no one believes in service." Jayojit, a professor of economics, is all for liberalisation. Four, it has autobiographical bearings. Five, it deliberately employs the separatist strategy of using words and utterances from the native tongues to dehegemonise canonical English.

Overall the novel turns out to be just another specimen of stylised post-modern Indian faction. What Amit Chaudhury terms as "new" has already been explored many times by his contemporaries. "A New World", therefore, ends up in presenting a stale perspective of dynamic nation.


Fiction on Sri Lankan chaos
Review by R.P. Chaddah

In the Garden Secretly and Other Stories by Jean Arasanayagam. Penguin Books, New Delhi. Pages 151. Rs 200

SINCE the 1980s the Burghers of Sri Lanka are lending their name to writing of fiction, poetry, plays and short stories in English in a big way. Jean Arasanayagam has been a prolific writer for over two decades and her poetry, fiction and plays have been published in Sri Lanka and abroad. So much so that her work has also been translated into French, German, Danish, Swedish, Japanese and the Dutch and she has won several awards for poetry.

She is in the good company of fellow Burghers, Carl Muller — the writer of a Burgher trilogy — and Michel Ondaatje, the Booker Prize winner, now settled in Canada, to name only the famous ones. Why Burghers ? Because Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) was invaded first by Portuguese, then by Dutch and finally by the British. These invasions left behind a hotch-potch of mixed blood population, now classified as Burghers. The writer was born to a Dutch Burgher family.

Short story in the year 2000 A.D. has been on the upswing. Admittedly this was the year when Jhumpa Lahiri, an Indian by birth, reacquainted millions with the possibility of short story being awarded the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for her first collection of short stories. "The Interpreter of Meladies".

Anita Desai came out with "Diamond Dust," a collection of short stories said to be a take-off from the themes explored in her Booker-nominated novel "Fasting, Feasting". But short story has always lived in the shadow of the novel and it has always been looked upon as a minor undertaking and now it is known as instant and microwave fiction. Many writers of repute have excelled themselves in this shorter version of fiction.

According to the blurb, each story in this collection of seven stories of almost equal length (20 pages) captures a defining moment in the life of the narrator caught in a time of violent change in Sri Lanka — war, rebellion, displacement and dispossession. The backdrop of all the stories is the complex social and political scenario of contemporary Sri Lanka.

In the "Garden secretly", the title story, it is about the 17-year struggle between the state and the Tamil separatists. In the story, in an abandoned home a young airman re-evaluates what he is doing. A close look at the broken icon of Christ in the house disturbs his metabolism and he is overcome by feelings. In a sudden rush of emotion he takes the icon, knowing fully well that he is not supposed to take anything from an abandoned house.

"And if it had been another image, another icon, another deity? I would have left it behind." (Page 18). "Search my mind", another story, is also set against the 1988-91 revolution of the misguided youth, who were activiely involved in an ideological struggle to destabilise the existing set-up.

"Quail’s nest" explores the chaos and turmoil of the ethnic upheavel of the 1970s between the Tamil and Sinhala communities. The story is reminiscent of the plight of refugees who fled to India from West Pakistan after the partition of the country in 1947. "As I walked down the river road, I could see a motley band of young men, walking towards me with their sarongs tucked up and brandishing their wooden poles and roughly hewn clubs. I had taught some of them, they knew who I was, a teacher married to a Tamil."

"The wall" is almost the poetic prose version of Robert Frost’s famous poem "The Mending Wall". "Samsara", the last story, is about the character of simpleton Mudiyanse, who came as a help to clear the narrator’s garden of wild growth. The mistreatment at the hands of his brothers and sisters after the death of his parents, makes the narrator take keen interest in his wellbeing. A sudden fall from the tree kills him prematurely and the narrator philosophises: "My hope was that he would be reborn again to live a life that was full of all that he had been denied in this short life."

The writer has used the first person narrative and the stream of conscious technique in the stories. The word "garden" has been used as an inverted metaphor for disturbance reinforced by metaphor of alienation and violence. The stories blend autobiography and invention, thus creating a provocative hybrid. The writer seems to be full of recent Sri Lankan history and goes in for a catharsis of sorts by telling it in these short stories. The writer’s command in English comes out in the shape and form of poetic sentences which are spread all over the book.

"The clouds everywhere are tinged with the colour of blood, the wind rings with the wails of the dying. Death is an everyday fact I live with. All of us are caught up in this vast obsession of death."


"He carried on monologues with himself, perhaps to mitigate his own sense of loneliness."

The printer’s devil in a Penguin original is hard to find, but in this took, it makes appearance alongwith some clumsy sentence constructions. On page 21, lightning strike has been spelt as lightening strike; on page 44, it did not seem fair, appears as it did not seen fair. The quotation from Shakespeare’s play Merchant of Venic about the quality of mercy appears as "It droppeth as the gentle dew from heaven" but Shakespeare’s original reads as "It droppeth as the gentle rain" page 32

An award winner of short story competition in 1989 has said something succinct about the short story and it has relevance even today. "Good stories have always been there, the public excitement about stories, that’s what’s new."


The Sierra Leone threat
Review by Bhupinder Singh

The Coming Anarchy: Shattering the Dreams of the post-cold war by Robert D. Kaplan. Random House, New York. Pages 198. $21.95.

THE early 20th century saw an upsurge in East-West encounter in contemporary literature. This was caused primarily by the colonial expansion of the western world over the East. Joseph Conrad was an outstanding author who wrote much on this from first-hand experience.

Conrad was a Pole born in the Russian part of the country. He spent 20 years on sea before settling down in England. From the age of 38, he wrote a number of novels that established him as a novelist of import in English and in which he wrote about the East, including the psychologically penetrating and prophetic "Under Western Eyes" about the Russian revolutionaries of the time.

He also wrote about Africa, the East Asia and Latin America (in "The Heart of Darkness", "Lord Jim" and "Nostromo" respectively). He painted a rather dreary picture of the East. With the benefit of hindsight one can say that Conrad’s perceptive insights into the limits and ability of western ideas to break down the physical and mental structures in the East sound quite true. During those times, however, this was less clearly visible, even as critical a thinker as Marx had expressed the hope in his famous phrase about British colonialism in India creating the world in its own image.

As we are drawn by the wave of renewed imperial expansionism in the name of globalisation, there is a discernible trend in contemporary literature to reflect again on the East-West encounter.

Robert Kaplan, a long-time international correspondent with The Atlantic Monthly, bases himself on Conrad except the fact that he moves around the world in aeroplanes instead of ships and boats and that he is an all-American guy. He has also chosen to write nonfiction rather than fiction. This is a significant departure from his role model’s background and chosen genre of writing.

(The brief digression into Conrad’s works is important to place Kaplan in the context of the pessimistic tradition of western thought that includes, besides Conrad, Hobbes, Gibbon and Nietzche, and also to highlight the differences between Conrad and Kaplan. Conrad remained, with the influence of his father’s revolutionary ideals, a sympathetic liberal. Kaplan declares himself to be an admirer of Conrad, but this does not make him to be the latter’s logical successor. There is continuity as well as break, as will become clear below.)

Kaplan’s ambition is to show the dark side of the post-cold war world, as the sub-title of the book under review announces. While his reports clearly repudiate that Master Pangloss of the modern world, Francis Fukuyama’s, grand illusion of the final triumph of liberal democracy, at the same time, there are overtones of Samuel Huntington’s "Clash of Civilisation" thesis.

In fact he goes farther. He provides empirical arguments the essence of which is that the rest of the world (outside the West) is white man’s burden and, worse, the anarchy all over the world after the end of the cold war will one day engulf and permeate the "secure" citadels of the developed world. His concern is to somehow stop this. And to achieve this, what the West needs to do is to support strong states like China, Singapore, etc. that will act as a bulwark against the anarchy and rein in the wild, uncivilised people. Democracy, he contends, has failed all over the world outside the West.

The aim of the first few essays in this collection, according to Kaplan himself, lies in identifying the "terrors of the post-cold war", while the latter ones seeks a historical and philosophical framework with which to approach them.

Kaplan does a fairly good job in identifying the so-called terrors. In fact, he has done a fairly commendable job in one of his more recent articles in The Atlantic Monthly on the NWFP region of Pakistan. (It may not be surprising that he decides to delve in the near future deeper into the South-East Asian region and develops similar insights on the subcontinent.)

It is however on the "historical and philosophical" realm that Kaplan sounds unconvincing.

The theme essay in the collection starts with developments involving the army coup in Sierra Leone in 1995. He quotes a minister as saying: "In the past 45 years I have not seen things so bad. We did not manage ourselves well after the British departed. But what we have now is something worse — the revenge of the poor, of the social failures, of the people least able to bring up children in a modern society." Referring to the recent coup in Sierra Leone, he said: " The boys who took power in Sierra Leone come from houses like this."

One of the coup leaders, Solomon Anthony Musa shot the people who had paid for his schooling "in order to erase the humiliation and mitigate the power his middle class sponsors held over him". In the villages of Africa, the Minister explained, it is perfectly natural to feed at any table and lodge in any hut. But in the cities this communal existence no longer holds. You must pay for the lodging and be invited for food. When young men find out that their relations cannot put them up, they become lost and slip gradually into the criminal process."

In the poor quarters of Arab North Africa, there is much less crime. In the opinion of the writer, this is because Islam provides a social anchor: of education and indoctrination. Western Africa, according to Kaplan, is becoming the symbol of worldwide demographic, environmental and societal stress, in which criminal anarchy emerges as the real strategic danger. Disease, over-population, unprovoked crime, scarcity of resources, refugee migrations, the increasing erosion of nation-states and international borders, and the presence of private armies, security firms and international drug cartels are most tellingly demonstrated through the "West African prism".

In Sierra Leone, then controlled by the 77-year-old army captain Valentine Strasser, 400,000 citizens were internally displaced, 280,000 fled to neighbouring Guinea, and another 100,000 to Liberia even as 400,000 Liberians fled to Sierra Leone. Western Africa, the author concludes, is a microcosm of what is happening, albeit in a more tempered and gradual manner, throughout West Africa, and much of the underdeveloped world: the withering away of central governments, the rise of tribal and regional domains, the unchecked spread of disease and the growing pervasiveness of war.

Part of the problem in West Africa is that although its population belts are horizontal, with habitation densities increasing as one travels south away from the Sahara and toward the tropical abundance of the African littoral, the borders erected by European colonialists are vertical, and therefore at cross purposes with demography and topography.

Back in his homeland, in the safe, almost antiseptic environs of the USA, Kaplan indulges in much mortification at the rest of the world. His thesis, almost embedded in the deep recesses of his mind, unfolds finally in his observation: "Precisely because the technological future in North America will provide so much market and individual freedom, this productive anarchy will require the supervision of tyrannies, or else there will be no justice for anyone. Liberty, after all, is inseparable from authority." Well, Mr Kaplan, deep down in your concern for the underdeveloped countries, what finally emerges is nothing but a haunting concern for preservation of the islands of the developed world.

To many, including this reviewer, Kaplan is not only a prophet of doom but echoes the "white man’s burden" notion of the colonial period. Except that the current neo- colonial drive is not even ready to transform the "untamed wilds" outside the developed West in its own image, which the colonial drive attempted, howsoever clumsily and perhaps unsuccessfully.

The Enlightenment ideas still held ground then. In the current phase when post-modernism has emerged as a significant ideological critique of the Enlightenment notions of progress, Kaplan is more concerned with how to save the West from the catastrophe that awaits its precarious island-like situation in a sea of increasing anarchy. He fears not that the untamed wilds are dangerous for the inhabitants of those lands, but that these may one day engulf and destroy the safe harbours of the cocooned West unless, of course, the West, under the unquestioned hegemony of the USA, wields the baton.

With the arrival of George W. Bush and the hero of the Gulf War General Colin Powell by his side, we can expect to see Kaplan’s ideas getting much wider acceptance in the US ruling circles. That Gen Colin Powell happens to be the first African-American to hold the coveted post is both a tribute to his personal qualities and an ironic comment on the power relations in the contemporary world.