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12 February 2008

Polemic Articles

Are book fairs serving their purpose?

We are told that books are important, and they indeed are. However, what comes across from the sight of authors and poets -- some singers and actors too, if you consider the Kolkata Book Fair -- chatting in circles inside and outside the stalls, taking themselves for Socrates, is the fact that intellectuals are perhaps more important.

Indians who have lived in the eastern parts of the country will recall that once upon a time parents used to exhort their children to read The Statesman to improve their English, if nothing else. Trying to please the parents thus was quite tasking for the li'l ones though. If allowed to celebrate the naïveté of this nincompoop a little, I'd recollect how painful it was those days to sit with both the newspaper and a voluminous dictionary, underline the most unusual of words -- curse the self-indulgent reporters/sub-editors who had a fascination for them -- in order to enhance one's vocabulary instead of concentrating on what had actually transpired in the world the previous day. Vestiges of such journalism remain, with a few aging columnists bothered only about the phone calls (and SMS?) of a small peer group, congratulating them for their 'brilliant' piece the next morning.

It's the two groups above -- 'men of letters' who write "ludicrous" and "rudimentary" when the average reader understands "ridiculous" and "fundamental" respectively -- who benefit the most from book fairs in the shape they come today. This is more so because almost everyone is writing a book today, 'networked' journalists included.

Never mind those who leave Kolkata's Park Circus Maidan -- this year it will be held in Salt Lake due to the Calcutta High Court putting its foot down for environmental concerns -- and Delhi's Pragati Maidan littered with leftovers of kebabs, chow mein and paper plates, who couldn't care less. They are just having a jolly good time; it could well have been Kolkata's Monginis or Delhi's Barista. The fair is just an excuse.

There is of course a third and a fourth group -- students of universities and those who want to learn ardently all their life. It's the last category for whom nothing can replace a book fair experience. For, what is the difference between College Street's Boi Pada and Maidan's Boi Mela, if not for the springtime occasion? Using an analogy, marketing gurus say that the Akai TV does not sell much because it is available on discount throughout the year. Thrill is to rush for the choice that you get to exercise only once in a while. An engineering student, like the buyer of a television set, can buy Thermodynamics for Chemists by Samuel Glasstone from College Street any day, but he too would love to flip through the pages of any book, bland or brain-churning, that catches his fancy almost all day long, without any sense of urgency and not because he has to rush back home before the time to prepare for GATE runs out. Hence the book fair. But that's not to be. Book fairs should cater for them, but they cater to the bourgeoisie of the Kolkata variety (not the nouveau riche of Delhi who would rather invest in cars and electronic gadgets).

I wouldn't complain if the hangouts were to resemble the legendary Mermaid Tavern of the Elizabethan era frequented by John Fletcher, Francis Beaumont, John Selden, Ben Jonson, John Donne, Robert Bruce Cotton, Richard Carew, Thomas Coryat and others -- including, perhaps, William Shakespeare. Far from that, it appears even less than the 18th century Samuel Johnson's circle of which Edmund Burke, William Pitt et al were part. For a while forget that corner of the arena where some emaciated men from suburban Bengal peddle thick tomes of Marx and Engels; they are not associated with the powers that be.

But finally, if knowing the world by reading books hasn't left you utterly cynical, book fairs do provide the much-maligned 'network' of writers, publishers and journalists with a forum to give a direction to the polity. After all, American author Paul Theroux, quite a fan of Kolkata, saddened by the High Court's ban on holding the fair in Maidan this year, did come to know of Rajat Neogi, publisher of the first anti-colonial magazine in Uganda, Colonial Times, through books. And a strong anti-imperialist message traversed the world.

If such ends too can't be met, which is normally the case, whether you eat kebabs, ordering their home delivery, or you feast on them as much as the sight of giggling college girls near a stall at the book fair, who cares?


When PM Manmohan Singh frowned at people flaunting wealth

How many television viewers, after watching a programme like Night Out, and newspaper readers, after sifting through Page 3 in a newspaper's colour supplement, recall who was who? Few among the rich and fewer among the lower middle class; and those below the poverty line don't have access to media. Hence, to suggest that the poor would suffer bouts of depression on being told of high lifestyle, and thereafter create "social unrest", as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh would have us believe, is stretching imagination a bit too far.

Frivolous as it may sound, Mr Singh with all his Oxford erudition, Doctorate of Philosophy and more has reminded me of Keshto's lebu cha (lemon tea) we college-going good-for-nothings used to swear by in the early 1990s. The decrepit tea stall, a few furlongs away from the college gate, was the shelter that innumerable frustrated Bengali youth of that era sought, as college textbooks — and The Statesman, a newspaper that may be called the epitome of seriousness — bored them to death.

Those days, parents of most Kolkata students would bestow upon each ward the largesse of Rs 10 — in due consideration of the up and down bus journey of 50 p each. They didn't know we smoked Rs 6-a-pack 'Filter Wills' (as Kolkatans call Wills Navy Cut). Amid the penury of scores of late adolescents fighting over one priceless fag of a bidi, whoever came to college by a motorbike, sported a jazzy wrist watch, or even wore a well-ironed shirt, would instantly become every tramp's object of jeers. And none among those despondent youth of that era got to see lifestyle events on sarkari Doordarshan, or read about them in grandpa-oriented newspapers. Clearly, dull programmes on television and textbookish write-ups in papers may bore even the poor infinitely, but razzmatazz has no established link with their depression.

Yet, Mr Prime Minister, as your Cabinet colleague Mr Mani Shankar Aiyar has successfully planted doubt in your mind about the free market that none other than you had once pioneered, the gentry in Keshto's lebu cha stall is whistling in admiration, much as you would have liked the adulation of intellectuals. Your rapt audience overlooks its compulsive inaction and romanticises itself as deprived by the state and the upper class which, it alleges, is enriched by the state at its expense.

Whoever has had the chance to do a comparative study of the cultures of Kolkata and Delhi, would say that the rich are pet hates only for the people of the first (at least this was the attitude of Kolkata till the mid-1990s). This despite the fact that the dominant business class of West Bengal's capital, Marwaris, are far less ostentatious than the flamboyant Punjabis of the country's capital. Yet, as a typical Marwari's white kurta-pyjama repels a frustrated Bengali lower division clerk, the Ray Bans and Armani suits of the Punjabi nouveau riche inspire millions of Delhiites to resign from — or find spare time out of — their salaried jobs to launch enterprises all over the city to create ever new avenues of employment. Many from the latter group bluntly declare that with the added income they wish to soon afford a Versace and look as "vulgar" as those who inspired them. This disproves our Prime Minister's theory that ostentation of one person depresses another.

After a Balance of Payment crisis left the PV Narasimha Rao Government in 1991 with no option but to liberalise the economy under the stewardship of today's Prime Minister as the then Finance Minister, the only section of society that could not shrug off indigence in the last 16 years has been the uneducated. For, this class did not, and still does not, know how to extract the maximum from the free market. It is the failure of successive Congress Governments to educate this lowest stratum that the Prime Minister has tried to obfuscate by sermonising, "Vulgar display (of wealth) insults the poverty of the less privileged."

Egalitarianism is funny mathematics. If you cannot pull the poor up, drag the rich down. At the annual conference of the Confederation of Indian Industry, the Prime Minister did not seek to educate media alone. I n his 10-point charter for India Inc, he proposed slashing of high salaries of executives, keeping profits "within the limits of decency" and shunning the "wasteful lifestyles of the West". Mr Singh may have theorised that there should be no richness left in the country to be reported by media!

But if the Prime Minister's plea of "decency" is to be honoured, media can only report such sights of Indian poverty that Western tourists love to feast on — places like Keshto's lebu cha stall.

When the Supreme Court of India wanted a 10-yr moratorium on divorce

Those who argue that divorce is an option — just in case one's relationship with his or her spouse does not work out — may well contemplate abortion as an option of contraception, just in case there is accidental pregnancy. If the latter shocks you, so should the former. If abortion means being callous about one life you have created, divorce means being callous about two lives you had once committed yourself to.

With the demand for high educational and professional status of eligible bachelors and spinsters constantly on the rise, the age at which people are getting married, too, is rising. Hence, the chances of an 'accidental' choice of life partner should diminish in inverse proportion.

Besides, in this country where marriage is mostly not a mere union of two individuals, as in the West, but an association of two families, the antecedents of the would-be brides and grooms are verified and discussed so threadbare before finalising the date of wedding that the chances of a sudden discovery of an oddity in the character of one or both the partners after marriage is far less than what it is in Occidental societies. Despite such an airtight social apparatus in place, if the number of divorces in the country is increasing by the day, it shows that the institution of marriage is not being approached with the sincerity it deserves. If so, the state cannot be expected to support the frivolity of the youth and facilitate the wrecking of families, the basic units of the consolidated body of people that we call society.

Just as a body will collapse if its constituent cells are damaged, society will cease to exist if the families it is made up of break up one after another in quick succession. And end of society is end of civilisation. The cancer of divorce is spreading. The doctor, the judiciary, is desperately trying to check the malignancy. It is in this light that the obiter dicta issued by the Supreme Court — that a given couple should be married at least for 10 years for them to decide conclusively that despite all efforts, staying under one roof is not possible for them any more — must be viewed.

The view to the contrary could be that once serious differences have cropped up between man and wife, forcing them to stick together for 10 years is prolonging the agony. This is gross simplification of the apex court's observation. What the court has said rather means that if you have decided to part with your spouse before 10 years, you have not worked on saving the marriage long enough.

Next comes the study of divorced people. Why only divorce, the end of even an undocumented relationship is painful. And how does one treat this pain? Often with a second attempt. Psychologists and marriage counsellors say that, mostly, an individual chooses his or her second partner sparing far less thought and much less time than he or she did in case of the first partner (this is because the depression caused by a wrecked relationship triggers desperation). Therefore, chances of the so-called wavelengths matching with the second partner are even less.

But then you remember your first marriage and its sad ending and try all out to prevent history repeating itself. As a result, you try your best to live with your second partner despite all that you dislike in that person. And this time, it is you, prolonging the agony, with no court asking you to do so - in fact, you squirm at the idea of approaching a divorce lawyer again. This, in turn, means that while you frowned at the intervention of the judiciary in the first case, this time you are the court whose 'wisdom' you have to bear and live with. Poetic justice?

If 10 years of a dysfunctional marriage is an untenable proposition, spend 10 years to be sure whether you should marry a given person. And then, the likes and dislikes of which two individuals in this world are identical? There will be a few problems in living with any person you choose. Either approach marriage with the mentality of a Government employee in yesteryears' socialist India - you have to work till retirement (in case of marriage, till death) though it's a bad office. Or, work on your marriage like a suave corporate manager of today's liberalised India — turn challenges into opportunities.

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Surajit Dasgupta treats no individual, organisation or institution as a holy cow.