What is history?
V. N. Datta
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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".
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
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.
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
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.
Those were the
Review by Jaspal Singh
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.
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’’.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
later, he would sometimes get nostalgic and speak fondly of
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.
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
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
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.
celebrated in a ‘‘revolutionary manner’’ with
lectures, debates and drinks when Osborne passed out of the
university as a doctor.
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
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.’’
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.’’
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
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.
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.
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.’’
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.
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.
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.’’
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.
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.
to get rid of all your blues?
Review by Satya Pal Sehgal
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 .
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.
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.
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 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".
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
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
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.
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
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
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 ?
"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.
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.
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
some level, this indulgence is also an exploration. But this
improves our comments only marginally.
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?
freedom to choose
Review by Uma Vasudeva
Reproductive Tech-nologies, Women’s Health and Autonomy:
Freedom or Dependency by Jyotsna Agnihotri Gupta. Sage
Publications, New Delhi. Pages 706. Rs 775.
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
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
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.
examines different technologies that are available in each of
these categories, particularly their at the applications of
prenatal diagnosis technologies and their uses.
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.
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
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
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.
memorable these short
Review by Priyanka Singh
Khan and Other Stories by Jaipal Singh Gupta. Minerva Press,
London. Pages 125 £4.99.
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.
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
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.
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.
talks of Kanti, a young man, who leaves his adoptive mother
after he discovers, quite by default, her affair with his
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.
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.
are the best stories in the collection.
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.
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.
are dalits so
Review by Kuldip Kalia
Castes of Rural India: Problems and Prospects by Victor
Sunderaj. APH. Publishing, New Delhi. Pages xx+228. Rs 500.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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".
leaves no scope for registering a dissenting opinion.
Review by Akshaya
World by Amit Chaudhury. Picador, London. Pages 200. £ 12.99.
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.
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.
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..."
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.
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.
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".
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".
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.
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."
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.
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
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.
on Sri Lankan chaos
Review by R.P. Chaddah
Garden Secretly and Other Stories by Jean Arasanayagam.
Penguin Books, New Delhi. Pages 151. Rs 200
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
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.
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".
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
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.
"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.
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.
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."
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
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.
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."
carried on monologues with himself, perhaps to mitigate his
own sense of loneliness."
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."
Review by Bhupinder Singh
Anarchy: Shattering the Dreams of the post-cold war by Robert
D. Kaplan. Random House, New York. Pages 198. $21.95.
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
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.
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
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.)
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"
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 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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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.