Vol. 12 No. 9 · 10 May 1990

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Audiences for Satyajit Ray

Raakesh Ibraheem Anant’s letter in your issue of 19 April does Satyajit Ray a number of injustices. He says he is ‘not sure if the distributors in India are entirely to be blamed for the fact that Ray’s work is not easily available to a common Indian outside Bengal.’ But the facts of Indian movie distribution are unarguable. If you don’t make Hindi movies, your chances of wide national distribution are minimal. This applies to ‘commercial’ as well as to ‘art’ films. However, Mr Anant wishes to blame Satyajit Ray. He suggests that Mr Ray is ‘not really interested’ in reaching a wide Indian audience: but The Chess Players, the movie whose distribution difficulties were referred to in my original piece, was made by Ray in Hindi precisely to try and reach the audience about which he supposedly does not care.

Mr Anant then wonders whether it is just a ‘coincidence that it is far easier to find copies of Mr Ray’s films with subtitles in French than in Hindi or in any other Indian language.’ Well no, it’s not. Subtitled versions are very uncommon in India owing to low literacy levels. The absence of versions dubbed into Hindi is the result of the dominance of Hindi movies referred to above.

But of course Mr Anant has only been preparing the ground for his real attack. Satyajit Ray has been influenced by Cartier-Bresson (and by Renoir, one might add): his gaze is therefore, in Mr Anant’s view, ‘colonialist’. Not even Satyajit Ray’s harshest Indian critics have ever suggested such a thing. Mr Ray is profoundly a man of his own culture and recognised by Bengalis as one of their cultural giants. To call him a ‘colonialist’ because he is also knowledgeable about the West is to be guilty of an extreme form of parochialism. That Mr Anant has chosen to sneer at Mr Ray’s Western influences from an address in Massachusetts makes his narrow-mindedness look a little comical.

Lastly (since Mr Anant has some sharp words for me too) may I say, for the record, that I have never made the absurd suggestion that ‘India was not ready for the kind of large writing’ I wanted to do. Neither have I ever thought to ‘justify’ living in Britain or writing in English. Like any other British Asian I am here because I am here. To suggest that further justification is necessary – now, that is a leftover colonialist attitude.

Salman Rushdie

Homicide in Colombia

I read Malcolm Deas’s ‘Homicide in Colombia’ with interest (LRB, 22 March), but feel that some of his conclusions are rather evasive. Formal democracy certainly exists in Colombia, but it is ‘regulated’ by mechanisms whose importance he has underestimated. The elections, as he makes clear, happen regularly, with low turn-outs by any standard (except that of the USA). Continued attempts to ‘read more Gramsci and embark on a frank struggle for a new hegemony’ have been made, and there is a clear correlation between levels of political violence and the success of these frank struggles. The assassination of Gaitan did, after all, produce a civil war which has passed into history as La Violencia, and which lasted for 17 years. Political violence has worsened considerably since the mid-Seventies, whose murder rate Deas chooses to quote. Recent figures for political deaths and disappearances given in Jenny Pearce’s Colombia: Inside the Labyrinth show an increase from 96 political murders in 1978 to 2182 murders and 1140 disappearances in the first 10½ months of 1989.

Deas comes to the rather relaxed conclusion that Columbia will just sort of get by, in its rough-and-ready democratic-ish way. The US Government is embarking on a ‘War on Drugs’ which is likely to have serious consequences for Colombia, as well as the other Latin American countries affected, Bolivia and Peru. Whilst there is no doubt that the international drug business is a problem, there are strong grounds for believing that armed intervention by the US will be worse. The US has long proposed a policy of ‘substitution’: that is, the replacement of coca with other crops. The ‘War on Drugs’ initiative aims to back this with steel. The problem is that where there is large-scale drug cultivation in Latin America there are also guerrillas. Wherever there is large-scale cash crop cultivation for export, involving repression of peasant organisation by legal (or quasi-legal) force, or displacement of the peasantry, there are also guerrillas. There is no reason to believe that the US intends to replace coca cash-cropping with effective land reform, nor is there reason to believe that the ‘War on Drugs’ will take precedence over the ‘War against Subversion’ that the US has waged since the Alliance for Progress. There is ample anecdotal evidence for this claim: vide Noriega and drugs when he was ‘our sonofabitch’, and before he got uppity.

Gordon Guthrie
London W6

Where Israel is concerned

It is my observation that David Gilmour (LRB, 5 April) is an anti-Zionist, and that to him, Zionism – i.e. Jewish nationalism – is illegitimate. This is a view that the Arab states have been pressing with some success and with the concrete aim of de-legitimising the State of Israel. It is also my observation that where Israel is concerned Mr Gilmour is incapable of constructive criticism – only of unrelenting hostility. It is to this view that you consistenly give the hospitality of your pages, and I must presume that this is editorial policy. I am myself no supporter – in fact, a harsh critic – of the policies of the Israeli Government towards the Intifada, and towards Palestinian nationalism. Nevertheless I can still tell the difference between legitimate political commentary, even if adversarial, and ideological enmity. Mr Gilmour, in his writings, falls into the latter category.

Michael Nelson
Dunstable, Massachusetts

Where Ireland is concerned

It was very disappointing to read, in such a distinguished publication as yours, Denis Donoghue’s review of Ulster Politics: The Foundation Years 1868-86 and Ireland 1912-1985 (LRB, 5 April). His potted history of Irish Unionism made no attempt to understand the Unionist position – just as legitimate as the Nationalist – or even to suggest the appearance of impartiality. Your reviewer’s analysis offers the unfortunate Ulster Protestants the choice either of absorption into a monotheistic state dominated by Catholicism or annihilation by the IRA. Even the present Irish government purports to offer them something better than that.

R.G. Steele

Work and Play

In his interesting discussion of Margaret McMillan’s work (LRB, 5 April), Ken Jones seems to me to have misunderstood what is particularly valuable in her work. He remarks that her emphasis on the human being, and not on the worker, leaves education with little to say about work. But is this not the direction of good current theories of education? One might take a leaf from the books of feminist discussion to investigate to what extent McMillan’s rhetorical stand was but a way of holding back the rhetoric of the day, while she went about her proper business – which was to pay attention to the actual children in her daily care at the beginning of the 20th century. Whether they learned a trade, became good citizens, fitted into a preconceived and inadequate role, was a secondary element in education. In a purely practical sense, she has been proven correct. How many workers were trained in certain vocations which they had then to abandon when the world changed? Or to defend ‘irrationally’ because there was no alternative, and they had been trapped by the ‘vocational’ or ‘work’ system of education?

That McMillan appealed to Nancy Astor seems to show that it was women who understood what she was getting at. It seems to me a grave error not to listen for what someone like McMillan can teach us, as a voice coming from the front line of tedious daily work in the classroom. The error is especially egregious when it involves not listening to what a woman has to say about the education of small children.

Gabriel Austin
New York


Philip Martin asks in your letter page (Letters, 19 April) if I plan to attend and record the wedding of the couple ‘saddened by a profusion of images’. The answer is no. I attended far too many weddings as a school-girl. If the couple concerned had advertised for a poet to attend their wedding night – an occasion much more suited to my muse – I might well have been tempted.

Fiona Pitt-Kethley

Off the shelf

As a novelist and critic partly dependent on Public Lending Right income, I deplore the new policy of Cambridgeshire libraries. In future, they will buy almost no hardback fiction. This means that novels which never get into paperback will not be available at the public library, or anywhere else after their shelf-life (about three months) is over. The implications are serious. Those of us who need professionally to keep abreast of current fiction will have to find twelve or fifteen pounds a time in order to find out whether the latest fashionable book is worth reading. Most readers either borrow or wait for the paperback. Readers stand to lose access to new fiction; authors stand to lose both library sales and PLR income. Publishers are already wary of publishing any novel not likely to make a hefty profit. The new American publishing consortia (for example, Gollancz, under new management) are axing fiction from their lists. When even library sales of hardbacks disappear, the plight of the novelist, apart from a blockbusting few, will be desperate.

Valerie Grosvenor Myer
Haddenham, Cambridge

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