Reviews of the latest books from and on Southasia
Writing on the Wall: Reflections on the North-East
by Sanjoy Hazarika
Given the rooted-sounding title of this new work, it is odd to find such a scarcity of on-the-ground, well, reflections. Part of the problem is that very little of the content here is actually new, having been previously printed in a range of Indian publications. While this leads to an inevitable unevenness, it is not the repetition that crops up from piece to piece that eats at a reader. Rather, what is frustrating is the work’s odd cumulative lack of depth. This is only compounded by a confusion over audience, with Hazarika’s tendency to say ‘we’ when referring to the Northeast. Reminders of the plight of the Gangetic Dolphin and of the great curiousness of Bhupen Hazarika are always cogent, but lose much of their impact for any reader, in or out of the Northeast, when they are not fleshed out with a bit more personal storytelling.
At 160 pages, Writing on the Wall is no massive tome, but its size nonetheless offers any writer enough space to stretch out and develop some significant themes. That it is unable to do so beyond the broad brush is in spite of what any reader can intuit about Hazarika’s – the longtime head of the Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research, in Guwahati – notable and sensitive understanding of his subject matter. Indeed, the author’s blog on the CNES website is chockfull of telling details carefully observed. In Writing, however, they are few and far between – though the adamantly insider remark that “there are times when I feel that the more floods hit places like Guwahati, the better” is one precious exception.
Much of the time, the gloss of introduction and policy prescription here only allows for tantalising references to the writer’s lifelong Northeast experience. During floods in 2006, we are told, the city of Dibrugarh was “saved by hundreds … led by young men who once worked with [ULFA] … So far that story is unknown and unheard.” A heady build-up, but then – new paragraph. Much of these problems can be attributed to the problematic genre of the ‘collected essays’ in the first place, but for the moment this collection only makes one look forward to Hazarika’s new new work. (Carey L Biron)
Recess: The Penguin book of schooldays
edited by Palash Krishna Mehrotra
Here is a 350-page anthology of stories to commemorate traumatic childhood experiences, while testifying that memories from our formative years seem too often to stubbornly stick to the psyche. The book manages to accumulate anecdotes from a plethora of famous Indians – politicians, writers, activists, poets, religious leaders and even sportsmen – with each narration prefaced by a summary of the individual’s life and achievements, written by editor Mehrotra. Despite revealing that a person’s fame is an inadequate scale by which to measure their skills of articulation, the stories afford the reader comforting schadenfreude, which emerges from the realisation that even the fine and famous suffered at the hands of their peers, educators and academic institutions.
Vikram Seth, in a speech delivered at his school, admits his unhappiness while studying at that very establishment, and Rabindranath Tagore mellifluously protests: “Children are not born ascetics, fit to enter at once into the monastic discipline of acquiring knowledge.” For the Tibetan activist Tenzin Tsundue, school is also a place where one learns one’s place in society; for him, his refugee status. But for others, the ride is not as onerous, affirmed in Premchand’s “Big Brother”, where younger brother flutters through school in a flurry of kite-flying and sports-playing. Overall, this book is a multifarious, almost reminiscent, medley of poems, essays and stories from days of yore. (Smriti Mallapaty)
A Century of Trust: The story of Tata Steel
by Rudrangshu Mukherjee
Portfolio / Penguine, 2008
Historian Rudrangshu Mukherjee does himself a disservice by acceding to write an unabashed paean to the Tatas. While hagiography is undoubtedly a hazard when attempting to document the accomplishments of one of India’s best-known industrial houses, a historian would do better to stick to history. The early days, which include snippets about patriarch Jamsetji Tata’s tenacity and determination to put up a good show on behalf of India, make for fascinating reading. The success of enterprise and grit is certainly evident, with Tata having completed 100 years in 2008, the year the company bought out Dutch giant Corus to become the sixth-larger steel manufacturer in the world.
The flap tells us, “Long before the term Corporate Social Responsibility was coined, a company in India chose to give upto 14 per cent of its profits to charity.” The text of the book, however, fails to explore this controversial claim. Likewise, though notable labour disputes are discussed, the recent Nano manufacturing misadventure in Singur does not find mention, nor do the several controversies about toxic-waste dumping or other corporate misconduct. Even if the author was bent on presenting only the gilt, the myriad other Tata concerns, as well as the reputed educational establishments, hospitals and other institutions into which the Tatas have breathed life, find no place here. In the end, by focusing solely on steel-making, Mukherjee fails to provide a comprehensive picture of the Tata empire. That might have been his brief, but in itself that is an ironic departure from the Tata’s catchy 1990s commercial, “We also make steel.” (Laxmi Murthy)