The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, September 2, 2001

All quiet on the Alpine front
Review by Rumina Sethi

Women’s rights in folklore
Review by Harjinder Singh

Indian view of identity
Review by M.L. Raina

Talking much, saying little
K.C. Yadav reacts from Gurgaon

The tale of three wars as seen by a General
Review by Bimal Bhatia





All quiet on the Alpine front
Review by Rumina Sethi

by John Berger. Bloomsbury, London. Pages 180. £ 13.99.

IN "Photocopies", a collection of essays, John Berger traces in words moments lived in Europe at the conclusion of the millennium. These moments are not invented stories. They came to pass. As he wrote them, Berger sometimes imagined a frieze of photocopies set alongside, giving future readers a panoramic vision of what this moment in history was like when it was lived. Each photocopy is about somebody for whom Berger experienced a kind of love, but the book becomes an unpremeditated portrait of the author as well.

He meets a woman from Galicia, an unknown restorer of frescoes, for five minutes at a public reading in Madrid where she hands him a gift of a drawing and then disappears. Before he can ask her anything, she has vanished. He has not even had the chance to ask her anything, and the name on the drawing is too smudged to decipher her name. Then one day she unexpectedly returns. He discovers that her drawings are about animals; in fact she lives with animals: "She lives with them as she lives with her own kidneys, her own esophagus, her own gall bladder. If she were dissected on an operating table, her animals would no longer be there just as when the timber of a forest is felled, the wood-cutters never find boars or foxes or woodpeckers."

Berger looks at her as she examines the painting on the wall and almost creates a photocopy of her standing there: "She didn’t say anything or make any sign. Her face was turned away. Simply her body announced she was familiar with it. Her body made no movement. No gesture. Just a withdrawal which might be mistaken for insolence." Before she leaves she takes a photograph of both of them holding hands standing before her ancient pinhole camera: "Minutes passed. Whilst we stood there, we reflected the light, and what we reflected went through the black hole into the dark box. It’ll be of us, she said, and we waited expectantly." And here the story ends, rather tender and yet deeply gripping.

Rambling on all across Europe, Berger halts at one place to give a helping hand to a peasant in the Alps, or probes a scarecrow which he discovers in the Ramblas of Barcelona. He patiently gives a receptive ear to a girl on the coach from Dublin to Derry or goes on to deliberate on the softness of flesh. Here is an admirable attempt to assemble a Europe through fragments of lived occurrence in his encounters with his old friends in the beautiful and warm Alpine community where he has lived for a number of years.

Berger is fascinated with mountain meadows, called alpages, that spread out below the permanent snow line and give the range its name. The Alpine turf, which bears grass, shrubs and flowers, has captured his being. The clear Alpine lakes, set among magnificent mountain landscapes, are among the places he has spent most of his travelling years.

Berger is intensely at home with the distinctive forms of Alpine music, poetry and dance. He is adept at yodeling, a kind of singing, which is marked by rapid switching of the voice to and from falsetto. These are the reminders of his fixation with the peasantry of Europe which seems to be rapidly becoming extinct or changing its unforgettable complexion. This is visible in "Pig Earth" which is a study in stories, poems and narratives of the dilemma of the French peasant facing the menace of vagrant industrialised labour. His persuasive writings are replete with this inveterate desire to recapture the simplicity of existence in the country life of Europe. Berger has dwelt convincingly and with utter effortlessness on the instinctive yet cultured physicality of their daily life.

It is here that he is most sincere and straightforward in portraying a way of life that he is so familiar and at home with. His old friends, Angeline and Theophile, are not living any more. The account about the house designed by Le Corbusier is a sad story about his Russian friend André who has to reluctantly leave owing to a transfer; the unknown to him seems more threatening than the known, even when the latter is intolerable.

There are many more friends whom he meets and who are close to the grave almost like him who is almost 80 years now. But it becomes apparent from these moving accounts in the book that he would always care and love all whom he has met or known somewhere in his heart.

All his writings like the paintings of one of his friends are meant only for self gratification. The idea of monetary gains is never there as is obvious from his statement about artist Sven, his friend for 40 years: "We, however, each in his own fashion, were chronically unfashionable, or, to put it more baldly, we didn’t sell much. We weren’t somewhere between success and failure, we were elsewhere." Sven’s paintings, once complete, were packed away in an ever rising pile of canvases in the attic. It is these paintings that become carefree. They now need "no frames, no dealers, no museums, no literature, no worries."

He meets Sven in Paris, they go to Room 19 (the title of the essay) which has a yellowish wallpaper that is both bleak and friendly "like a vest which the room slept in and never took off."

Thirty years before they would walk through the melon fields of Vaucluse, Sven with his paint box and he with a camera, a Voejtlander. And now these two elderly men in rather crumpled clothes edge their weary way crab-like along the narrow path around the bed in Room 19. Intently, critically and silently, Berger reminiscences about that afternoon spent in the company of his dying friend. But what is remarkable is not the sadness of the moment, but the music that he hears looking at the colours and the lights and darks on the canvas, so unmistakably a drawing by his friend.

And like his friend, the unassuming Berger paints with words, his eyes open, observing thoughtlessly and never asking why. Nothing false ever creeps into such authenticity of narration. This was apparent in his book entitled "G " which received the Booker Prize in 1972 but did not appeal to a wide circle of readers, although I admire its highly self-conscious experimental style.

Novelist, film scriptwriter and art critic, John Berger now lives in a small pastoral community in the French Alps. He is the author of numerous novels including "A Painter of Our Time" (1958), "The Foot of Clive" (1962) and "Corker’s Freedom" (1964). Some other important works are "About Looking", "Ways of Seeing", and "Art and Revolution". Most recently he has published the trilogy "Into Their Labors", consisting of "Pig Earth", "Once in Europa" and "Lilac and Flag". His latest novel is "To the Wedding".



Women’s rights in folklore
Review by Harjinder Singh

Re-presenting Woman: Tradition, Legend and Punjabi Drama
by Pankaj K. Singh. Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, Shimla. Pages. xi+192. Rs 325.

THE pragmatics of folk sensibility has emerged as an active area of work in South Asian studies in recent times. In a rapidly changing world that South Asia presents, intra-civilisational debates are essential for maintaining a balance of perspectives. Especially in drama, the multiplicity of canons that performers invoke demands a thorough analysis. Much of it is a subversion of the traditional stereotype and challenging the status quo. There are varieties of magical realism in Punjabi folk tradition - in the swangs, in qawalis at pirgahs, in the range of drama performed in religious to political folk theater. Punjabi society is not highly literate and oral forms remain highly popular. The political theatre of activists like Gursharan Singh draws thousands when performing in villages and small towns.

Pankaj K. Singh has evolved a context with the construction of woman in two different textualities of legend and drama, juxtaposed against each other. Particularly in the context of love, sexuality and marriage, the Punjabi tradition has an exceptional richness in celebrating rebellion against paradigms of patriarchy. This can also be seen in modern writings of Amrita Pritam ("Dr Dev") and Krishna Sobti ("Mitro Marjani") and others. The interest in gender issues in South Asian folk expressions is very recent. Pankaj Singh chooses contemporary interpretations of the four major legends central to Punjabi cultural heritage - Hir Ranjha, Mirza Sahiban, Puran Bhagat and Raja Rasalu.

Challenging the hegemony of the conservative and patriarchal modern middle class thinking, these classics have remained exceptionally resilient. Though Pankaj Singh has taken a large region defined by a mainstream ethnic identity, these four classics also present a heteroglossic world in the variety of dialect and socio-religious fluidity they possess.

Pankaj Singh has used her experience and exposure to post-modern methods of literary criticism as a teacher of English literature and an associate editor of the IIAS journal, Summerhill, in writing a book using contemporary tools of analysis. She looks at drama as a special form of literary-cultural tradition, where binary opposites — illusion and reality, fact and fiction, the verbal and the non-verbal, the mimetic and the metaphoric — are reconciled into an aesthetic composition with a spontaneously evolved purpose. Unlike the patronised forms of literature, legend and folk drama are spontaneously diverse and in the context of Punjab, singularly secular.

Having said this, the reader should now become aware that though the author expresses keen interest in participating in the contemporary folk studies, especially as a part of women’s studies, her analysis of drama is mostly of modern writing based on the folk classics. Naturally, it is in interpretations that her attention is centred on. This also means that traditional tools of criticism do not suffice and newer methods are necessarily required.

Perhaps the most interesting of the four chapters in this book is the last one titled "Interrogating Tradition: Reconstruction of Puran Bhagat and Raja Rasalu". It starts very appropriately with a quote of Habib Tanvir proclaiming art to be like the hilsa fish swimming against the fast currents of the Padma river, thus necessarily subversive and engaged in reconstruction. The eighth century legends of Puran Bhagat and Raja Rasalu are tales of misogyny hidden in sweeping depiction of morality and male virtues. The women are portrayed as characters different from the stereotype framework of suffering and hardship. Here they take control and display human emotions that shake up the norms of morality.

Studying the contemporary interpretations, Pankaj Singh has presented a deconstructionist notion of a woman defying the specific nature of gender categorisation prevalent in the Punjabi psyche. The textual, historic and interpretive details that these two legends and their performances to this day offer constitute an endless khazana for the students of folk expressions.

Pankaj studies Puran by Atamjit, Luna by Shiv Kumar (Batalvi) and Salwan by Ajmer Singh Aulakh and reveals the desiring Luna as a human being trapped in a desperate search of self-identity and expression of life. Her commentary is an exercise in literary criticism with differences in the approach of the playwrights elaborated and perhaps mapped to the consciousness of her times. The different interpretations of the characters are reflective of the ideological perspectives of the playwrights and their socio-cultural struggles.

The ideological reduction in the other extreme is the representation during the nationalist phase. This is described in the second chapter of the book. Simplistic and of a social reformist or revivalist nature, the pre-independence Punjabi drama was immature and in the process of becoming. The author falters here like most native narrators of the colonial period and cannot avoid glorifying what was essentially of low quality compared to drama in many other parts of the country, notable in Bengal, the state of Bombay and places likeVaranasi. She does mention, albeit in a passing manner, that the nationalist spirit "invariably led to an uncritical revival of the past, accepting the traditional paradigms of power therein, patriarchy and monarchy included, and frequently idealising the past rather romantically to serve the immediate political purpose". Truthful reflections on history, if made as passing comments, remain submerged in bodies of other forms of descriptions.

It is important for every conscious commentator to recognise this, especially in these times of mindless state-sponsored revivalist efforts. Nonetheless, the chapter provides a good outline of the history of play-writing in the early 20th century Punjab.

A whole chapter is dedicated to the classics of Heer Ranjha and Mirza Sahiban. These two legends of Punjab defy the commonly accepted conservative notion that the Indian tradition does not allow freedom in love. Though the male lovers, "conditioned by the prescribed gender role, fail the beloved at the crucial moments", there is no part of Punjab and neighbouring areas where the spirits of Heer and Sahiban do not haunt the living minds.

Love as an anarchist mode of rebellion is at its climax in these variants from a common tradition of folklore in the greater region that stretches from West Asia to the hills of Shivalik. In contemporary interpretations, these women are represented as "more complete, complex and humane persons in comparison with the men who, blinded by their egos, have only a partial understanding of life..."

Works of this nature are important because they make us aware of the richness of expressions in the folk tradition and the need to preserve it. They have survived over centuries as stories told mostly by women to young men and women in domestic settings or in community performances. This form of perpetuation by the nonprofessional narrators is now at danger with the onslaught of modernity in all its forms, including the electronic media.

This is where the role of the contemporary playwright comes in. Rethinking and creatively reconstructing these folk classics provides an insight into the past, that is essential for critical understanding of our present.

This work is also important because of the gender context. It is important to understand gender issues in folk traditions because that helps us to remind ourselves how gender operates in our own individual and social activities. The author proclaims that the book belongs to the area of women’s studies, perhaps more to underline the separate attention that such works need. Put together with more general areas of literary criticism, it is likely to be subsumed by more dominant male models.

Pankaj Singh cites an impressive bibliography. Other than a complete bibliography at the end, each chapter has a fairly large, appropriately chosen and relevant set of references. One can only praise the quality of editing. An important work missing is the comprehensive one by Nahar Singh in Punjabi, that the author should find useful in her future efforts. The book has an excellent index at the end — a pleasant surprise for a book published in India. It also has an appendix consisting of two Punjabi playwrights, Manjit Pal Kaur and Balwant Gargi. Naturally one feels the writer could have interviewed a few more playwrights, especially Neelam Man Singh Chaudhary, who has blended in her casting of European classics, Punjabi folk forms and modern feminine sensibilities.



Indian view of identity
Review by M.L. Raina

States of Exception: Everyday Life and Post-Colonial Identity
by Keya Ganguly, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis. Pages ix+213. $ 35.

"Till they die, people keep adjusting to new ways of life." Amit Chaudhari in "New World".

"BE as obscurantist as you can decently get away with without your stuff going absolutely unread." This is rule one of Terry Eagleton’s proposed handbook for post-colonial theorists.

Contemporary post-colonial cultural theory is like a heart beating in systole. Working at high-pressure it turns out books and monographs, and organises conferences and gatherings in metropolitan cities with a quasi-religious fervour. It has young, eager Third World academics willing to act as cheerleaders for what is perceived as a multicultural world order.

It has its own pantheon of secular deities, its own meta-language and mythography. It rewards the faithful, as evidenced by the considerable number of Indian teachers in America lecturing and publishing in this area. It is, as the Americans would say, a "ticket" to a minor celebrity status.

Not always in major western universities though, but certainly at home where they expect to massage our torpid universities back to health. An Indian lecturer at Rutgers, where I taught for several summers, once hit me for a six: "Indian universities must replace antiquated literature courses with cultural studies." She herself taught only composition classes!

What is less obvious is the diastolic drawing-in of cultures, the quiet and pervasive ways they affect each other in our era of globalisation (the epigraph from Chaudhari’s new novel about immigrants sums it up). While expatriate academics strut about with a renovatory zeal, unobtrusive changes are visible in all cultures affected by globalisation. The cross-fertilisation of living styles across the world is a fact, though our theorists sweat hard to "problematise","’thematise"and "theorise" it. Globalisation causes tremors and heartaches whose essential human aspect escapes our new systemisers.

Keya Ganguly is an India-born academic who has lived in America for some time now and steeped herself in the entire scripture of post-colonial theory. She invokes her oracles, Said, Bhaba, Spivak and Fanon the way disciples at our gurukuls used to chant Vedic texts — with the regularity of a metronome..

In fact, the whole book is a reprise of their weighty pronouncements with extended occasional gloss by the author. Besides, she is impressively au courant with the work of the Frankfurt School theorists, Adorno and Walter Benjamin, who provide her arguments assurance and prestige. With Lukacs and Jameson also around, she can call up awesome weaponry to stun her graduate students and make her lesser peers at Third World institutions red in the face

This book uses theory for a purpose other than to read works of literature, both canonical and non-canonical. This is welcome relief from the ennui of reading the same interpretations of the same mediocre texts fifty times over. Ganguly wishes to understand what post-colonial identity is in metropolitan locations. Does it convey definite behaviour traits among those designated as post-colonial by historians and literary critics? Are these traits uniform and do they constitute post-colonial experience in any given situation?

Gangulay does not answer these questions directly but dons the robes of an ethnographer: she chooses to study the everyday life of an Indian immigrant community in New Jersey in order to find out how much of post-colonial consciousness they had imbibed. She is aware of the differences between studying Balinese cockfights (Clifford Geertz’s classic foray into ethnographic inquiry) and examining the daily life experiences of a prosperous New Jersey community. But everyday experience itself proves a red herring for her.

She leans on Geertz’s comparison between "experience-near" and "experience-distant", the former connoting unmediated "authentic" experience and the latter an expert report on it. Besides, she is beset by her own placement within the dialectic of post-colonial identity. She is what Gayatri Spivak, the ruling czarina of cultural studies in the West, would call "the native informant" ("Critique of Post-colonial Reason"). The native informant is some one like Spivak and Ganguly and interprets the Third World in the First World terms. How much of the information is descriptive and how much judgmental is the dilemma, which, neither Spivak nor Ganguly is able to resolve to our satisfaction.

However, the fact that Ganguly is aware of it complicates the problem of the rationale of immigrant experience in America. The complication is in the post-colonial identity hovering between the lure of the new and the pull of the old in the people Ganguly mentions as her interlocutors. In the three chapters on her interaction with them, however, she neither succeeds in pinpointing the precise nature of the identity in question, nor convinces us about the relevance of her "field work", ethnographical approach.

What should have been a clear enough fact of alienation in a different culture is sought to be presented as a major discovery. "The estrangement from prior community, from links with tradition; along with the distracted interactions of everyday life: such are the peculiarities of everyday life: such are the peculiarities of modern, reified existence…the present-day condition of the dislocated post-colonial…entrapped in capitalist alienation." Except for the bit about "capitalist alienation", any one who straddles different cultures could have told Ganguly this.

The trouble with such broad-brush generalisation is that in spite of the inquirer’s best intentions, the inquiry is limited by the composition of the interlocutor community, the biases of the inquirer and the contexts in which the ethnographer conducts the fieldwork. She admits that her interlocutors were "gender-divided": the men had one set of notions about their new identities and women another. The men welcomed their new freedoms in America, the women harked back to the past in India. The men said that they were better off here, the women believed the opposite. Reading this, I remembered a septuagenarian Panjabi-American housewife telling me in New York: "Pra ji, inan kol sub kuch hai par sabita nahin."

Ganguly’s own position with her interlocutors is somewhat questionable. She is an articulate academic moving among people who, though professionally well qualified, lack her critical self-awareness. Whereas she tries to accommodate them into her notions of "alienation", derived mostly from Ernst Bloch’s premises and Walter Banjamin’s idea of the flaneur, they refuse to be so accommodated. When she attributes the feeling of’ shock to her interlocutors as a result of their dual existence in the diaspora, she and her kind are clearly exempted by virtue of their privileged status in the academy.

The polarity of views about their condition is too visible to need comment. Without her open admission, the paradox of theory and practice is all too clear. Echoing the Elizabethan dramatist, Robert Greene, the general (Kenneth Branagh) says in "Conspiracy", the Kieth Pierson film about the liquidation of Jews by the Nazis, "theories are grey. Real life is green". Ganguly chooses not to listen.

She is silent on those segments of the immigrant populations that are tied down to their low-paid unskilled jobs, are less fluent in English and get harassed by their fellow immigrant employers. It is they who come out in large numbers to participate in the India Day parade on New York’s Fifth Avenue, with a movie star from India as the grand marshal.

Certainly they do not celebrate their "multicultural" incarnation in a new land, but nostalgia for the things they liked back home (like Ganguly’s women interlocutors). I have been watching this parade for several years now and have not seen the likes of Ms Ganguly’s interlocutors around. E.San Juan made such populations the focus of his more convincing study of post–colonial identity among Filipino immigrants.

The ambiguity in Ganguly’s investigation deepens further in the chapter on the food habits of her interlocutors. She gives an elaborate account of the symbolism of food and dinner gatherings. Basing her description on Roland Barthes’s references to the food fetishes among the French, Ganguly lays down two points, neither of them new. One, dinner gatherings are social occasions and are celebrated with zeal. Understandably, beef remains taboo on these occasions. "The Indian example is all but unique", she claims without adducing any reasons.

"Indian food functions metonymically in relation to Indian identity because the whiff of belongingness…is carried along by the taste and aroma of various dishes...Of course this has everything to do with the vastness and diversity of the sub-continent which...transports its linguistic as well as culinary diversity to its diaspora here and everywhere."

I quote these remarks just to remind Ms Ganguly that food has always been a source of sociality in most cultures .She has to open her English novels "Tom Jones" and "Great Expectations" to see Fielding and Dickens use food symbolically: Squire Western and Joe Gargery represent the ultimate culinary triumphs as does the idea of hospitality among Muslims and Christians.

The fact that the Indian diaspora carries these habits (or habitus pace Ganguly’s Bourdieu) with them only goes to show that the idea of multiculturalism and multi-ethnicity, which sends post-colonial theorists into raptures, is at best a self-begotten delusion common in the western academy. Even as Indian cuisine is becoming popular in American and British restaurants, the Indian chefs always tell you with glee that the real thing eludes the firangis. In spite of what the media said, Tony Blair’s success in the last election did not depend on the curry revolution!

As Ganguly studies her interlocutors’s responses to Peter Brooks’s Mahabharata, the clash of identities is further sharpened. Quoting liberally from the contributors to David William’s symposium on the epic, she records the reactions of her interlocutors to the adaptation.

She herself endorses their negative judgment of the PBS production, but for political not religious reasons, as did her interlocutors. Without explicitly saying so, she demonstrates the polarities in her own attitude to Brooks. Compare this with the media reactions to Branagh’s colour-blind, race-blind 1996 film Hamlet and the cultural fissures become impassable.

This time she notices that the polarities are not gender-based but reflect a certain "essential" Indianness violated by the production."In the case of Mahabharta", she says, "the centrality of a time- bound consciousness… sense of the synchronic as an opportunity…represents a certain aesthetic as well as an ethic of everyday life".

Here the very same "essentialism" that is derided by the post-colonial theory project is brought back reinforced by the author’s own biases. In other words, the resistance of the conditioned Indian psyche stymies the effort of locating post-colonial "identity" across the cultural divide.

Instead of admitting her incapacity to justify hybridity, syncretism and non-exclusivity — the pet dreams of the sponsors of multi-ethnic identities — Ganguly shifts the blame onto the "totality of capitalist globalisation in its abstract and concrete forms".".

Her theoretical equipment notwithstanding, she is unable to reconcile the claims of everyday life with the impulse towards systemisation. She has neglected the admonitions of Henri Lefevbre not to ignore the contradictions of actual living for the sake of the system.

This book exposes the pitfalls of inveigling abstractions to the discussion of everyday living. That, however, is also its negative virtue. But its major failure is its gothic prose. Hobbled by excessive dependence upon Ganguly’s ideological mentors whose apercus cling like gargoyles to every page, the prose lumbers, only to fitfully recover in non-theoretical descriptions of actual conversations between the author and her interlocutors.

Is not this condition symptomatic of all post-colonial theory practised on metropolitan campuses? Ironically if somewhat ruefully, Eagleton implies as much in the above epigraph, from the inaugural number of "Interventions", the flagship journal of post-colonial cultural theory.



Talking much, saying little
K.C. Yadav reacts from Gurgaon

I have read with interest Ram Vir’s "reaction" to the review of my book "The Laloo Phenomenon: Paradoxes of Changing India" by J.S. Yadav (The Tribune, August 12). I congratulate Mr Ram Vir on two counts: one, for his reacting without reading the book and, two, for keeping alive a great old tradition that Alberuni found our people practicing around 1000 AD expounding extensively on subjects that they knew absolutely nothing about.

In such efforts people invariably go loquacious. Their discourses come long on rhetorics and short on substance. Ram Vir has raised many questions and answered on the authority of a Bihari "rickshaw puller I (Vir) happen to hire". The "social revolution" happening in Bihar is responsible, he says, for the out-migration of the poor people of Bihar to the cities of Punjab, Haryana, Delhi, Kolkata, etc. How is that, he asks, that the fertile land of Bihar needs no harvesters? I have provided answers to all these and several other questions in my book. I have also discussed there at length as to who are responsible for Bihar’s sorrows and suffering, deprivation, and dearth, poverty and pillage.

Prodigiously biased against issues relating to social justice, persons like Ram Vir see in Bihar what they want to see but surely there is a lot there which is a great deal different. A "social revolution" is going on in Bihar, and Laloo Prasad’s contribution therein is not small. That explains as to why he is, despite his weaknesses and minus points where he is for such a long time! That is why the poor and powerless vote him to power election after election.

Ram Vir is wounded and dented all over, to use an old Punjabi phrase, seeing, "small men" rising to "big heights". In his scheme of things persons like Laloo Prasad and Phoolan Devi had no business to be shepherds. They were born to be sheep and sheep they should remain.

Last, Ram Vir’s dig — "in half jest and half seriousness" — on the subject of the book, the author and the reviewer being Yadavs. Surely, to a person wearing dark glasses the world will appear to be dark. Ram Vir should have judged us on the strength of our merit rather than on the fact of our caste. Ram Vir is being unfair. Tomorrow, he will say a Brahmin teacher should not examine a Brahmin student; a book on India, written by an Indian should not be reviewed by an Indian, and so forth.

In sum, Ram Vir’s reaction brings home the truth that when we talk much, very little is said.


Reviewer J.S. Yadav responds from Kurukshetra

This has reference to Mr Ram Vir’s reaction to my review of the book "The Laloo Phenomenon: Paradoxes of changing India" by K.C. Yadav. Before I read the book, I held Bihar and Laloo Prasad more or less in the same light that Ram Vir does. But the book has changed my perceptions. Indeed, Laloo Prasad is not a light weight as people usually take him to be. Not everything that is going on in Bihar is rotten and retrograde.

A perusal of Ram Vir’s Reaction to my review shows that he has penned it without reading the book. Had he gone through the "Laloo Phenomenon", the author as well as I would have been saved, I think, of most of the adverse comments that he has made. He says, at the very outset, that we have painted Laloo Prasad as a prophet. No way he is in the book as well as in the review a political activist, a leader of the masses with strengths and weaknesses, wisdom and follies, pluses and minuses of ordinary human beings.

Ram Vir does not see any social revolution in Bihar. He sees poor Biharis leaving the state for Punjab, Haryana, Delhi, etc. For him, Bihar has come to earn a bad name and Biharis a lower rank thanks to Laloo Prasad in the estimation of their countrymen elsewhere. This is absurd! Bihar is a social laboratory where a new India is taking shape. The poor, the down-trodden, the backward and the marginalised are marching towards the centre stage. They are asking for their rights and privileges. The vested interests refuse to give them their due. There is a struggle which appears to be "caste wars’"to Ram Vir.

The commentator has made a case against the "social revolution" and Laloo Prasad on the basis of migration of poor from Bihar. There are three things here. (I) migrations are not always bad, more often they serve a very useful purpose; (ii) it is not only poor people, others also move out of Bihar in good number; and (iii) it is not Laloo Prasad but the high caste/class minority (13.2 per cent) that holds the state’s almost total resources drive the poor Biharis out of their state. This has been explained at length by K.C. Yadav in the book under review.

Ram Vir comes to the rescue of the CBI, albeit implicitly, again without any evidence or supporting material. Is it for the reason that it is persecuting Laloo Prasad? But the author of the book does it for different reasons like its bending low to serve the commands of its masters. It is about time this process came to a halt. Let institutions like the CBI function freely and democratically.

Ram Vir also attacks Mulayam Singh Yadav for taking Phoolan Devi to Parliament; although it is not relevant to the book under review. Ram Vir is so unhappy with chhota log going up that he could not help giving vent to his irrelevant feelings. People like him cannot see Phoolan’s victory as the triumph of social justice, human honour and dignity. They cannot perceive it as a challenge to the perpetrators of zulum on the weak and the vulnerable!

Last about Ram Vir’s comment on the Yadav trio — Laloo Prasad Yadav, author and reviewer — in half jest and half seriousness the less said the better. It is a manifestation of his being:one who believes in casteism must see it everywhere, in everything. I was not even conscious of this coincidence when I reviewed the book. I did it all on merit — academic merit, to be precise. And this is what we do in universities, but what Ram Vir does and sees in his "world", I would not know; so no comments!



The tale of three wars as seen by a General
Review by Bimal Bhatia

With Honour & Glory: Wars Fought by India 1947-1999
by Jagjit Singh. Lancer Publishers, New Delhi. Pages 347. Rs 595.

INDIA and Pakistan have fought four wars against each other since Independence. How is it that Pakistan, a country one-fourth the size of India, has always been the first to start the war? Is J&K the core issue as Pakistan proclaims to the world? These are some posers by the author, a retired Major-General.

A recipient of two gallantry awards, Jagjit Singh started his military career as an officer in the Royal Indian Navy, seeing anti-submarine action in World War II. He later joined the Indian Army and had a distinguished career as a seasoned gunner. He was Brigade Major of 114 Infantry Brigade in Ladakh during the Sino-Indian war in 1962. An expert in the Russian language, he served as military attache in erstwhile Soviet Union. After premature retirement in 1977 he is now a dedicated educationist. Authored by him earlier are two books "The Saga of Ladakh — 1962" and "Indian Gunners at War: The Western Front — 1971".".

Pakistan failed to overrun the state of Jammu and Kashmir in 1947-48; it did not succeed in 1965; lost more territory than it could capture along the international border in 1971; and, finally, in 1999 Pakistan was humiliated at the Kargil heights despite the initial advantage of achieving total surprise.

Through neatly organised in crisp chapters, the author takes the reader through these wars. But just over a page covers the historic battle of Rezang La where the entire company under the heroic Major Shaitan Singh, save 12 soldiers, perished in a stunning display of valour. From an officer who happened to be the Brigade Major of the formation under which this battle was fought, one would expect a more real military history and slices of human interest accounts.

Of the 1965 war Jagjit Singh narrates an interesting conversation between two Pakistani commanders. After the initial reverse suffered by India, resulting in the loss of Khem Karan, 2 (Independent) Armoured Brigade blunted the offensive at Asal Uttar, which was turned into a graveyard of American Patton tanks with which Pakistan’s elite 1 Armoured Division was equipped.

Distinguishing themselves in this battle were 3 Cavalry, the Deccan Horse and 40 Medium Regiment, with the medium gunners earning the titular honour "Asal Uttar". Sample this conversation between the Pakistani commanders, indicating their desperation during the course of this offensive.

Divisional Commander: "It is most important that the advance is continued. Therefore, in the name of Islam, Pakistan and Hilal-e-Jurat, I command you to get up and go forward." To this the Brigade Commander quipped: "I will try my best. As things are, I do not know how the hell I am going to do that. The bloody enemy artillery is knocking the hell out of us and I am afraid, at the moment, I cannot do any better than this."

It was in the 1965 war that the strategic Haji Pir Pass was captured by India, aimed at blocking a vital infiltration route to the Kashmir valley. Unfortunately this gain was frittered away at Tashkent. In Jagjit Singh’s opinion, had a senior General accompanied Lal Bahadur Shastri to Tashkent, the strategic importance of the Haji Pir Pass would have been duly stressed, and India may well have retained this vital area. Regrettably, what the Indian soldier had won with so much loss of blood was given away at the political table.

Painting the canvas of the Indo-Pak 1971 war, Jagjit Singh gives the overall picture with relative ease. Major battles on the eastern and western fronts are encapsulated, accompanied with simple, neat sketches.

Just as the Pakistani defences in the east were crumbling, Major General Nagra took the initiative and sent his ADC and two other officers to Lieut-Gen Niazi, whom he had known earlier during his tenure as military attache to Pakistan. The message read: "My dear Abdullah, I am here. The game is up, I suggest you give yourself up to me and I will look after you."

Niazi’s response was immediate and Nagra, along with his leading Brigade Commanders, Kler and Sant Singh, drove to Niazi’s headquarters. Sobbing over Nagra’s shoulders Niazi commented: Pindi mein baithe huye haramzadon ne marva diya." (Those bastards in higher headquarters at Rawalpindi have let me down.) A few hours later Lieut-Gen Jacob flew to Dacca to finalise the surrender terms.

India later returned 13,309 sq km of captured territory to Pakistan and got back 916 sq km of its own. Also repatriated were Pakistan’s prisoners. Jagjit Singh laments the lack of military and political interface: "Regrettably, Indira Gandhi fumbled at the negotiating table at Shimla. What has never been explained to the militarymen, who shed their blood in the paddy fields of Bangladesh, is the reason for the return of 93,000 Pakistani prisoners of war without solving the Kashmir problem... If only Sam Manekshaw, representing the Indian military, had also been present as India’s military advisor, the outcome at Shimla might have been different. In consequence, Indian officers and soldiers are still losing their lives in J&K.

But the core motivation for this book is the Kargil intrusion.. Wanting to grasp the various facets of this unique operation, the author wished to delve into the enormity of the problems involved and how they were overcome. Also the grey areas in India’s defence and decision-making process needed to be explored. The author requested the then army chief Gen V.P. Malik for a foreward for this book. "I would be happy to do so," he replied. "But please do make sure that what you write is factually correct." With ample assistance from senior functionaries at Army Headquarters you can be sure that the battle accounts contained in this volume are close to official verssion.

Ironically, as Prime Minister Vajpayee embraced Nawaz Sharif at Wagah, Pakistani troops were preparing to intrude into Kargil. In essence, Pakistan’s Operation Badr was a follow-up of the concept of waging a proxy war against India, conceived by General Zia-ul-Haq. While the Kashmir valley had been the centre of militant activity over the years, the Kargil region had remained relatively peaceful. In the 140 km portion opposite Pakistan’s Northern Areas, wide gaps and the vacation of some posts during winter were exploited by Pakistan.

Pakistan had factored in a weak Indian response from a care-taker government and an army that was assumed to be a "tired force" as a consequence of long years of combating insurgency. Pakistan did achieve total strategic and tactical surprise.

What followed refuses to become part of history. The nation rallied behind the effort to evict the Pakistani army intruders sought to be made out as the handiwork of "Kashmiri Mujahideen". The utmost daring of our soldiers and junior leaders rewrote the saga of military valour.

Infantry officers led their men from the front into missions which were often suicidal. Massive use was made of the artillery as never before — in direct role to the extent possible — to destroy enemy defences and break its will to fight. And never before in military history had an air force engaged ground targets, well defended by enemy weapons, at heights of the mountain peaks of Kargil. Internationally isolated and without any support from its close ally China and egged on by Bill Clinton to withdraw, Pakistan faced yet another military defeat at India’s hands.

In his analysis of the country’s strengths and weaknesses affecting national security, the author indicts the intelligence and points out the lack of an interface between the political leadership and the military. Further, a bureaucracy that wields authority without accountability dominates the decision-making apparatus. But the mainstay of the Indian state has been the soldier. He had acquitted himself with honour and glory, despite many handicaps.



Ram Katha in different cultures
Review by Akshaya Kumar

Questioning Ramayanas: A South Indian Tradition
edited by Paula Richman. Oxford University Press, New Delhi. Pages 432. Rs 595.

IF appropriation of tradition by reactionary forces for political ends is dangerous; its outright dismissal by the so-called emancipated secular intelligentsia is no less alarming. Tradition is neither a trope of political rhetoric, nor is it a deadwood for any puerile academic autopsy. To relegate tradition to a remote past is an unredeemable cultural harakiri. Its projection as an unqualified construct of total or superior knowledge is equally lop-sided. Ram Katha as a grand narrative, informing the dynamics of our tradition in recent times, has suffered as much at the hands of our secular critics as from its rabid fundamentalist flag-bearers.

Paula Richman’s edited book "Questioning Ramayanas: A South Asian Tradition takes on the secular critics as well as the sacred priests of Ram Katha for generating misgivings about its possible role and relevance in the "continuous" making of a dynamic cultural consciousness specific to South Asia. The basic reactions for and against Ram Katha stem from a fallacy that it is taken to be "a" canonical tale, a fable without its local variants. It is a fallacy that both secularists and fundamentalists so fondly harbour and even propagate in the pursuit of their narrow political ends. The secularists lose their face the moment they concede the open-endedness of the tradition of Ram Katha, the fundamentalists too suffer the same predicament the moment they accept the multiplicity of Ram Katha. The book under review consistently argues for the diversity of Ram Katha as it is and has been told over the centuries across different sub-cultures of South Asia.

In her foreword Romila Thapar argues for a closer study of different versions of Ram Katha in their specific socio-historic contexts. It is not important to determine the historicity of any of the so-called "authentic" Ram Katha, what is important is to understand the social, political and cultural contexts of each of these versions. Narratives, she writes, "acquire historical encrustations", and it is important for us to understand the nature of these encrustations and the "processes" by which these change our perceptions of the original.

Such a shift in focus will help us negotiate with the diversity and self-reflexivity built in the tradition of Ram Katha. Neither Valmiki’s Ramayana, nor Tulsi’s Ramcharitmanas, nor even Ramanand Sagar’s tele-Ramayana, is authentic; authentic are the different renderings of Ram Katha sung, recited and performed by the various people at grassroots level.

The book suggests two models of Ram Katha tradition — one, "the geneological model" which creates a hierarchy of tellings in comparison to Valmiki’s text, another "the many Ramayanas" model (suggested by the late A.K. Ramanujan) that assigns independent status to each of the variants. Paula Richman opts for the latter model for it offers a new perspective on the complexity of Ram Katha tradition. While speculating on the presence of counter-Ram Kathas in the local languages, she observes that within the canonical Ram Katha, there are inconsistencies in character and doubts about the morality of some of the actions of Rama and other characters which subsequently make way for the different renditions.

In fact, there has been a shankavali ("Garland of Doubts") tradition closely linked to Ram Katha. Under this tradition, ordinary readers/listeners ask question to learned scholars on various discrepancies, literal as well as implied, in the received version of the Katha. Linda Hess, in her contribution, refers to a number of shaka-smadhan ratnavalis (jewel-garland of solutions to manas-doubts) in which questions pertaining to maryada and bhakti figure prominently. She furnishes the details of four such ratnavalis — 1. Manas shankavali of Vandan Pathak (the 1840s), containing 120 doubts, 2. Manas shanka-mochan of Babu Jang Bahadur Sinha containing 185 doubts published around 1899, 3. Manas shanka smadhan of Jayaram Das "Din", 1942, containing 39 shankas, and finally 4. The four-volume Manas shanka smadhan ratnavali of Pandit Ramkumar Das, published between 1962 and 1987, containing more than 400 doubts.

The above mentioned shankavalis prove beyond doubt the scope of questioning within the Ram Katha tradition. The "pervasive mode of doubt", though does not really radically disrupt the brahmanical forebearings of Ram Katha, it speaks volumes of internal deconstructive dynamics of tradition as such.

Even within the Sanskrit tradition of Ram Katha, there are different configurations of Valmiki’s Ramayana. In Bhavbhuti’s Uttara Rama Charita, Rama stands witness to his own story through a number of devices — first he is made to visit a gallery of paintings and murals on his own life; then he is made to pass through the same path through which he had travelled in the forest during his exile and, finally, he is made a spectator of a play on his own life. David Shulman sums up this unique situation of Rama being an actor and spectator at one and the same time as "the set that is a member of itself".

Among the post-Valmiki tellings, Ananda Ramayana, a voluminous Sanskrit text of nine cantos and 36 thousand slokas or verses, interpolates some stories pertaining to the progressive ideas of justice, equality and compassion. "Rama’s ban on laughter" is one such story through which the anonymous writer highlights the ananda-aspect of Ramayan as against the shokabhav of the war-centered Mahabharata.

"The crying dog" brings to focus the abstract concept of equitable justice. Robert Goldman in his contribution undertakes a closer examination of the epic tale’s dialectic of indulgence and restraint in the areas of food and sex.

The book is divided into four thematic parts — "Forms of questioning", "Assertion of social rank", "Modalities of saying" and "applied Ramayanas". In the second part, the stories of Rama are read from a subaltern perspective. Philip Lutgendorf discusses the cultural politics that goes into the making of Shabari episode through a comparative analysis of Valmiki’s, Tulsi’s and Sagar’s Ram Katha Valmiki, he discovers, is "spare in his description of Shabari", Tulsi uses this episode more or less as a subterfuge to introduce his concept of ninefold bhakti, Sagar also takes "a softer line" on the social status of Shabari. He informs that it is only in later texts like Bhaktamal by Nabhadas (1624), Bhaktirasbodhini by Priyadas (1712) and Mana-piyus by Anjaninandan Sharan (1925-26) that one finds a detailed description of Shabari.

Usha Nilsson takes a closer look at the lower caste and the higher caste tellings of Ram Katha, particularly by the women of both categories. Women’s tellings, in general, often present a contrary account of well-established events in Tulsidas. In Bhojpuri and Awadhi folk-songs, Kaushalya and Sita empower themselves through some of the non-vedic, non-male-officiated rituals. Among the songs sung by lower caste women (kahar and nai in particular), sexuality of Sita is asserted through her amorous relationship with Lakshamana. Sita is seen as an ordinary woman, a subaltern lost in the drudgery of household, Kaushalya is seen as a figure of authority and the employer.

In South India, the Dravadian/Aryan divide lends different twists to Ram Katha. Most of the versions in the pre-colonial period, even the ones composed by non-Brahmins, remain, more or less, subservient to canonical texts. Velchuri Narayan Rao in his paper refers to Bhaktisation and iconisation of Rama’s story in Andhra region around the 19th century. He cites the example of the mid-20th century Ramayana Sri Krishna Ramayanamu by Sripada Krishnamurti wherein the writer deliberately underplays all problematic incidents to avoid any caste or race acrimony. Ahalya is depicted as a chaste woman, Shambuka is not killed, etc.

With increasing caste consciousness, Telugu Rama stories become politically surcharged and constitute what may be termed as anti-Ramayana discourse. Ramasvami Chaudari’s Sambuka Vadha depicts the killing of Dravadian Shambuka as a murder committed by the Aryan king Rama at the behest of his Aryan Brahmin advisers. Narla Venketeswara Rao’s Sita Josyam (1979) and Muppala Ranganayakamma’s Ramayana Visavrksam, take umbrage at both high caste feudal Hindus and patriarchy in general.

Bali is another very controversial character in Rama Katha. In the Malabar region, in the Teyyattam festival of rites of possession, Bali is shown in two contradictory ways. There is one Bali who prefers death to living with injustice he has suffered through the acts of an Aryan lord; there is another Bali who seems converted by the lecture he receives on karmic orchestration of life, he seems to believe in the "gracious boon of dying", observes Rich Freeman. The question of Bali vadha is also taken up by a Muslim scholar from Tamil Nadu Justice Ismail in his 410-page-long "Munru Vinakkal".

Krttibasa’s Bengali Ramayana, like other local Ramayanas, gives a critical twist to Uttar Kanda. Stewart and Dimock in their joint presentation, refer to some of the stories incorporated in the Uttar Kanda, which offer a negative critique of Ramrajya. The model of kingship which Rama presents is deemed unfit for Bengal. In fact, in this Bengali version, Rama’s rule after the exile is termed as adharmic. Banishment of pregnant Sita is disapproved in non-ambiguous terms.

There are feminist interpretations of Ram Katha of late. According to Sally J. Goldman, Sundara Kanda is intensely patriarchal, wherein Sita is projected as a highly vulnerable and subdued woman. Rama, Ravana and Hanuman — with their varying levels of muscularity — seems to treat Sita either as an object of possession or protection. Madhu Kishwar, through a survey of housewives across a cross-section of social segments comes to the conclusion that Sita continues to be an arch-model of perfect wife. Rama as a husband is found wanting, almost by all. Interestingly it is Shiva who is reckoned as ideal husband.

The chapters on the political application of Ram Katha by the Indian diaspora both in England and Fiji do add fresh dimension to the onward extension of this, beyond South Asia. Southhall Black Sisters (SBS) Ramlila with its satirical references to gender, caste and race politics, vindicates the deployment of Ram Katha as a post-colonial text. In fact in different colonial periods Ravana has been perceived as a coloniser.

There are however some contestable propositions made by the different contributors in the volume. First, to hold Ramanand Sagar’s televised Ramayana as the third most significant Ram Katha after that of Valmiki and Tulsidas is overstatement. Second, if canonical authenticity of Ram Katha cannot be stretched beyond the point, its diversity too cannot be lionised.

Despite its tremendous sweep, there are significant omissions in the book. What is significance of Ram Katha in Sikhism? There are reference to Dasratha Jataka in which Sita is depicted as bother of Rama, but on the whole, the book does not explain the exact place of Ram Katha in Buddhist worldview. Jaina response to Ram Katha is altogether missing. The chapter on Kamban’s Iramavataram, and its subsequent use by various Muslim scholars of Tamil Nadu fails to explain the exact nature of Muslim response to Ram Katha.

The book overlooks the recent creative efforts of poets who have in their own specific ways re-written the archetypal Ram Katha. In Hindi for instance, Maithilisharan does revive the story of Ram in a didactic frame, in his "Saket" he offers a very "different" perspective of the Ramayana. Humanisation of the persona of Rama begins in Nirala’s "Ram ki Shakti Pooja", and continues till Naresh Mehta’s "Sanshay ki ek Raat".



From a spirited nomad to a degenerate noble woman
Review by Ram Varma

The Story of Noble Rot
by Uzma Aslam Khan. Penguin Books New Delhi. Pages 217. Rs 200

THE flowering of a new crop of the young men and women in Pakistan as in India, who have had brush with the West by being born to immigrant parents, is truly remarkable. They have acquired a real speech pattern an authentic voice. The great Urdu poet Firaq Gorakhpuri, who made his living by teaching the English language and literature at Allahabad University (and what an eloquent and outstanding teacher!), once told me that we in India have been rendered a language-less people by a quirk of history, inasmuch as the language we know best, English, is not our mother tongue, and the vernacular is too gross to be a fit vehicle for conveying the nuances of feeling unless loaded with words from Sanskrit or Persian, making it artificial.

Kamala Das had referred to the same predicament in one of her poems: "Don’t write in English, they said, English is not, your mother tongue. Why not leave me alone, critics, friends, visiting cousins, Every one of you? Why not let me speak in any language I like? The language I speak Becomes mine.... "

This dilemma does not torment the new generation of Indians and Pakistanis, and they have taken the English literary scene by storm, as it were. Uzma Aslam Khan, a young writer from Pakistan, has crafted this strange tale, as intricate as a Persian carpet. She has taken for her theme the new temptations that arise before the upwardly mobile women of Pakistan’s traditional society.

It is an incredible tale of this woman Hinna who has come a long way. She grew up among nomads roaming the vastness of the Baluchistan desert, imbibing the myth and folklore of her gypsy life. She was used to a harsh and precarious existence, trudging the unending sand dunes, pitching tents at nightfall near some water source, eating a sparse meal, and sleeping sandwiched among elderly women narrating weird tales of jinns and churails.

She is given in marriage to this wealthy man from Karachi who pays a good price to her family for her beauty, and comes to live in his palatial house with French windows opening onto a long driveway, clipped lawns, and sprinklers playing in unison. Sitting in the luxury of her living room, she would gaze insatiably at this newfound wonder world. She named the house Masood Paradise, after her husband and benefactor.

Although she cannot believe her luck, transported as she is from her impoverished past, her heart is among the nomads, who scan the sky for a hint of rain or the horizon for a trace of an oasis.

Her husband runs a carpet factory, and is looking for a market in France. The French are enchanted by the sheer richness of design and texture of the handcrafted carpets. But there is a snag. They are revolted by the fact that hundreds of, little urchins have been employed as weavers. Mr Masood overcomes this by feasting his foreign guests, serving choicest French wine, and offering them partnership in his company. As if to clinch the deal, the Frenchman’s young son falls for the exotic charms of their nubile daughter. The little matter of child labour gets evaporated in the fumes of Chateaux d’Yquem. The sweetness in the wine comes from the Frenchman explained, from the grayish mould that the crushed grapes attract called, pourriture noble the noble rot."

The red wines kept by her husband in a cabinet in the living room tantalise her no end. "It is sinful for her to drink" has been drummed into her ears, but one fine morning she pours herself a drink from a bottle of sherry. Its thick scent mingled with the perfume of the sandalwood table and the sweet song of free-flowing water. "She threw off her slippers and delved with her bare toes into the warmth of the burgundy rug... She tilted her glass so the amber liquid brushed her tongue like velvet, like the silken wool closing around her foot... The wine crystallised in the pockets of her taste buds like pearls in a shell. The pearls sank soundlessly to the spongy depths of her tongue, to the seabed... She took another sip, and another..."

That was her undoing. The guilt stays with her. The taste of the wine, at once sweet and searing, lingers on her tongue. The phantoms of her childhood beliefs arose from the dark recesses of her mind to torment and punish her for this trespass. The churail, Soomla, took the shape of a maidservants, her "noble rot" and extracted a heavy sum from her services, which cut into the dowry of her daughter. But she could not help savouring the wine again, and she imagined she was falling into a bottomless pit, "a sinner with a rotting, tumescent tongue."

How maidservant, Malika turned into witch Soomla, is another story. She represents the cocky breed with an indubitable spirit, who knowns that the antediluvian sahiblog living in large houses cannot survive without them. In a strange reversal of roles, the slave begins to enslave the master. In the process, she saves her six-year-old son, Momin, from the inhuman drudgery of a weaver in Mr Masood’s factory, and her carpenter-craftsman husband, Chaudry from being fleeced by Mrs Masood’s greed.

But events have their own logic and sometimes hurtle down unpredictably, which even witches cannot control. I find the metamorphosis of Malika into a tormentor and Mrs Masood into a willing victim somewhat hard to digest. But the tale is told imaginatively. It inexorably leads to a horrific denouement. It is a tale where the past clings to the present to the point of obliterating it, where the surreal shapes the real in its own hue.

Uzma Khan shows dexterity in juxtaposing the opulence of the banquet at Masood house with the simple meal of roti-subzi at carpenter, Chaudry’s with which he lovingly feeds his wife, Malika. The contrast is staggering. These subtle touches show the yawning abyss of inequality that exists in Pakistani society. The exploitation of the artisanand the practice of child labour go on, the dawning of the new millennium and the dictates of the WTO notwithstanding. The insensitivity of the rich and the hypocrisy of the West come through in deft touches of irony.

The steam of consciousness technique that was developed by Virginia Woolfe and perfected by James Joyce has now been internalised by modern novelists and is used to great effect in throwing juicy bits of sex life of the protagonists in the narrative. It brings in dollops of realism and teaches a thing or two to the uninitiated. Uzma Khan makes good use of this convention, one to shock her readers in Pakistan steeped in prudery and, two, to give depth to the characters. The Pathan gardener, with his sundappled eyes, and a torso like a bronze lingam, would not have come alive, as it were, but for his adulterous fling with Malika. She has also brought unintended (?) hilarity in the final scene where Mrs Masood is hurtling to her doom, and intermixed with her discovery of a "full, unveiled moon and the circle of gold that ringed it" and "miles of shimmering sand stretched" in front of her, Chaudry and Malika are enacting an extended love scene on the exquisite bed Chaudry has crafted for the Masood’s daughter’s wedding. I don’t know whether it enhances or takes away from the poignancy of the final scene.

On the whole, it is an amusing, shocking, haunting novel. As a debut, it is first rate. Uzma Khan has a way about imagery. "That night Malika dreamed she entered a room damp as wound." As she goes on to describe the dream and vividly brings out its palpable horror, one realises how appropriate the imagery was!

Penguin India usually does a good job in bringing out books. But this time they seem to have tripped. I find that some pages have not been printed at all, and blank pages stare the reader uncannily (pages 90, 98, 99, 102, 103).