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Coexistence of civilizations
  By Prabhleen Kaur Pabla  
  Encounters with Civilizations: From Alexander the Great to Mother Teresa
Alpion, Gezim
Chapel Hill, NC: Globic Press, 2009,
Pages xxiv + 303, ISBN 13: 978-0-9801896-2-9

CIVILIZATION refers to a broad cultural entity. It involves the human achievements aimed at making life easier, more practical and more convenient.

Intercivilizational contacts and relations, which bring different civilizations closer and enrich them, date centuries back. Such 'encounters' were limited in the ancient period but have become intense nowadays.

Since civilizations as comprehensive units shape the identities of people to a large extent, these interactions become an important field of study. The book under review pertains largely to such socio-cultural issues.

This book by Dr. Gezim Alpion who teaches Sociology and Media Studies at the University of Birmingham, United Kingdom, is a collection of 13 essays that appeared in the leading journals and newspapers in the UK, Australia, the Middle East and elsewhere between 1993 and 2007.

In addition, the book includes a foreword and two essays by Gaston Roberge, Professor of Film and Communication Studies, St. Xavier's College, Kolkata, India.

The anthology deals with a range of subjects. The volume is structured into four parts: Albania, Egypt, the UK and India.

The first essay of 'Part One: Albania' deals with the relationship of Mohammed Ali, Albanian-born former ruler of Egypt, with the Egyptians. The essay captures the relationship of migrants with native people and vice-versa. The second text of this part puts a strong case for the full independence of Kosova which, the author feels, can ensure lasting peace and tranquillity in the Balkans.

In 'Part Two: Egypt', Dr. Alpion explores and traces the evolution of some of the specific aspects of Egyptian culture. In the first essay of this section, entitled 'Foreigner Complex', the negative impact of the Egyptian 'foreigner complex' or 'okda al khawaga', has been mentioned.

In the essay 'Egyptian coffee shops,' the author traces the origin of the drinking hotspots of Egypt which later came to be called the 'qawhas' or coffee shops. 'The Bride of Hapi -- female sacrifice and cosmic order' deals with the cruel ceremony of sacrificing the most beautiful girl of Egypt to please the river Nile. 'A parade of porters', on the other hand, focuses on the irreplaceable porter/doorkeeper of Egypt.

'Part Three: The United Kingdom' includes three essays. The first essay of this part is a scene of Dr. Gezim Alpion's play 'If Only the Dead Could Listen' which depicts the treatment meted out to the refugees and the asylum seekers in Britain, the prime focus being the Albanian community. In the other two articles of this section, an attempt has been made to underline that the ongoing 'academic and media demonology' in the West has resulted in the poor depiction of the regions around the world.

The author here takes up the not so well researched dimension, that is, the literature specifically dealing with Albania.

'Part Four: India' begins with a brief article 'Oh! Not Calcutta' which makes a mention of the supposed harmful impact that Mother Teresa has had on the city of Kolkata. The author challenges this notion and explains the stigmatised image of Kolkata in the West in terms of media misrepresentation. The other articles in this section too relate to Mother Teresa. In this part, there also appear two texts by Gaston Roberge.

The last part of the volume entitled 'Envoi: "No" to social closure' exposes the social closure prevalent in the Western academia. The text focuses largely on the marginalisation of the foreign scholars coming from Central, South-East and Eastern Europe, especially those belonging to Albania, Bulgaria and Romania in the West.

The articles in this volume, on the whole, are more about statements of facts. The author does take up certain controversial issues in the book. The volume argues for cross-cultural understanding and co-existence of civilizations. It gives the message to people across civilizations to embrace the 'other' without prejudice.

The work in a way becomes an essential reading for the migrants to foreign soil. To sum up, the book carries messages for those migrating to other lands and also those who receive migrants from other countries. And Gezim Alpion, himself being a migrant to a foreign land, gives added depth to the work by drawing from his own 'encounters' with civilizations.
Prabhleen Kaur Pabla is with the Department of Sociology, Cordia College, Sanghol, District Fatehgarh Sahib, Punjab, India.
Photo caption: Gezim Alpion
Bringing memories of Emergency back
  By J. Sri Raman  
  India since Independence: Making Sense of Indian Politics
By V. Krishna Ananth
New Delhi
Pages: 435, Price: Rs. 750.

"THE Emergency, which lasted for 19 months between June 1975 and March 1977, has been the subject of many books... The point being that the Emergency marked an important watershed in the evolution of democratic practice in India, most of the published works are either in the nature of holding a brief for Indira Gandhi or accounts that present her as an autocrat..."

So writes V. Krishna Ananth, and his is not one of these books, of either category. It sets out to treat a wider theme as the title suggests. The nation's political trauma of 34 years ago, however, finds a place at the centre of his narrative. There is more to this than the space the landmark event occupies in his story -- with three of the total 14 chapters revolving around it.

Talking of what prompted him to write the book, Ananth recalls his experience while "formulating and teaching a module on political reporting" in the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai. "The module was intended to equip he aspiring journalists with a sense of history while they looked into the contemporary political events. However, I found in them a sense of remoteness whenever I lectured to them about an event that I felt was contemporary."

Adds the author: "It then occurred to me that even the national Emergency of June 1975-March 1977 belonged to the distant past to them. This book was conceived in that context."

The volume, thus, reflects a view of India's post-Independence history where the Emergency occupies an obviously central place, a political consciousness where it is almost a "contemporary" event.

Such an Emergency-centred India-view (if the coinage is allowed) can raise questions of two kinds. In the first place, it can provoke posers about the perspective itself. Some may suggest an Ayodhya-centered alternative, others may see the Gujarat pogrom as the vantage point for the overview. To still others, the epic Telengana Rebellion that ended in 1951 may seem more of a turning point. Not a few may see the linguistic reorganisation of states in 1956 as a larger event with a more far-reaching impact.

Secondly, those who agree on the Emergency as an extraordinarily important event can and do differ on why it deserves such importance. Some saw and still see it as preceded by a democratic surge and followed by a furtherance of democracy. Others were not and are not sure. At least some of them would see a travesty of a democratic movement in the 'total revolution" that led to the Emergency and a mockery of the voters' post-Emergency verdict in much that it led to.

Ananth makes it clear right at the outset that "this book is an account of the events as they occurred in history, and is not an attempt to look at the undercurrents and construct a theory". On the Emergency itself, he aims only to "present the developments as they happened and in their context". A strictly factual narrative of this kind can, obviously, help towards an informed debate on the Emergency along with allied issues and meet the need of those trying to find and fathom the event's extra-party-political significance.

For those like this reviewer, who was a political journalist in New Delhi during the stormy seventies, Ananth's story brings a slew of memories back. The excitement of the events around the event, the many secrets of mandarins' and censors' creation, the sordid saga of Sanjay Gandhi, the "spirit of 77" displayed in contrasting styles in the street and the new dispensation, the post-Emergency parade of political opportunism -- it is all recalled for the reader not too far removed from those days.

What brings out the newsman in Ananth best, perhaps, is the cast of characters in the whole drama. The minor characters range from M.O. Mathai (Jawaharlal Nehru's secretary who turned into a detractor of his daughter) and Dhirendra Brahmachari (the yoga guru of some grossly un-spiritual reputation). The middle-level characters include the then would-be Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral (who, according to one of the author's many tidbits, grew his French beard during his term as India's ambassador in Moscow).

Of the major players, there is no doubt who the biggest and most buffoonish of them all was. He was the "Socialist" politician who went to the Allahabad High Court against the election of then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to Parliament and had got her disqualified (on grounds including the police help in constructing the dais for an election rally. The verdict set in motion a very unfortunate chain of events, but the victor was to surprise a vast constituency of new-found admirers.

Ananth records Raj Narain's betrayal: "The former health minister, whose election petition... turned out to be the immediate cause for the Emergency and in a logical way (led) to the formation of the Janata Party and its victory in 1977, would establish contact with Indira Gandhi's son Sanjay Gandhi by March-April 1979 and finally ensure the fall of Morarji Desai's (post-Emergency) government on 16 July 1979."

Another big player was to commit a betrayal much later. The book chronicles: "On 7 and 8 July 1979, George Fernandes held a convention of former socialists... the socialists now resolved to render themselves into a pressure group within the Janata Party. The high point of the two-day convention was a scathing attack by speaker after speaker, including Fernandes..., against the Jan Sangh (the parent of today's Bharatiya Janata Party) bloc in the Janata Party."

Years later, Fernandes was to become the best friend of the BJP and preside over the National Democratic alliance (NDA) headed by it. The former Socialist, who protested against India's first nuclear tests in 1974, was to become the Defence Minister in a BJP-led government that presided over the nuclear-weapon tests of 1998.

The BJP, too, has reversed its relations with pro-Emergency politicians. Jagmohan, once held one of the guilty men of the Emergency, became a minister in an Atal Bihari Vajpayee cabinet. Bansi Lal, once berated as a brutal oppressor, became an ally of the BJP for years. V. C. Shukla, again considered part of the Emergency establishment, went on to contest an election as a BJP candidate.

Most ironically of all, the Sanjay Vichar Manch (Sanjay Thoughts Forum) of Maneka Gandhi had no problem merging with the BJP. And Sanjay's son Varun is now the blue-eyed boy of many in the BJP leadership, after his videoed anti-minority rhetoric of the most rabid kind in an election rally.

The well-researched book, presenting a wealth of information about the politics of this period in particular, should provide Ananth's students and others much food for thought. After all, Indian democracy survives not always because of, but often despite its self-proclaimed "saviours".

Story of IT, story of progress
  Laurinda Keys Long  
  The Long Revolution: The Birth and Growth of India's IT Industry
Dinesh C. Sharma
Harper Collins
Rs 595

ONE lesson from Dinesh C. Sharma's well-written and meticulously researched history of India's IT industry is the caution against presuming one can find a moment when this phenomenon is static long enough to examine, categorize, guide or predict it. This leads to the question: Was the book not obsolete by the time it rolled off the printing press?

The answer in this case is no. And not only because of Sharma's skill as a story-teller who, even with a subject some might consider dry, writes with humor, a sense of adventure, painting portraits of flawed heroes, the best intentions gone awry through human hubris and just plain fallibility. For Sharma's story, just as a classic Greek drama, has a moral, more than one. His tale reminds us of the adage that those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

With the natural fit between Indians and information technology that is so clear today, it's clearly tragic that the development of the industry here had to be, as Sharma calls it, a "long revolution." Indeed, in his journalistically well-reasoned work, Sharma uses, as I recall, only one exclamation point, and it's reserved for the activities of the "license raj" that delayed development of an industry that the government itself was trying to build in the national interest. He makes the interesting observation that those who gained power over imports, licenses, etc. did not view computers as office equipment, but as tools of power, and power had to be controlled. As we know, there are governments today that know the Internet means power, for the individual, and are desperately trying to control it.

Sharma's book is of interest not only to historians and IT professionals, but psychologists, statisticians, and students of social and political science. His writing is also forward-looking, with a careful examination of India's higher education system and how it can be developed to produce the graduates the country needs, not only for institutional research and national development, but to lead the businesses and private industries that will create jobs for the growing population.

Sharma thoughtfully analyzes how the noblest purposes behind the development of India's IITs -- to build them on a par with the world's best, like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—doomed them, in one way, to creating MIT-type graduates. Sounds great, but he explains that these bright, accomplished, successful young men and women had few choices for careers in a system which cut off avenues for them to contribute to their nation. So they went where most MIT graduates went, to the United States. The brain drain. It's a depressing chapter until Sharma develops it, showing that, without any five-year or other master plan, circumstances beyond any one entity's control formed a new phenomenon. It's true that loosening controls on technology imports and investment regulations played a part. But other factors -- not the least the longing of India's IIT elites to come home, with their successful business plans and entrepreneurial spirit nurtured in America's more open economy -- brought about what Sharma describes as "brain circulation."
It sounds much healthier.

Ironically -- and oh how many instances of irony does Sharma relate -- this brain circulation, characterized by cross-disciplinary and cross-border networks, informal and formal, is not only what impels the growth of India's IT industry now. It is the key to how it all began.

"A constant exchange of information, knowledge and experience took place between Indian scientists and leading Western groups through education, training, lectures and employment," Sharma says. The giants of India's early computer usage and IT development, Homi Jehangir Bhabha and Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis -- engaged in an epic struggle over which institute would become the "National Computer Centre" -- were both educated in the West. They had contact in 1947 and 1955, respectively, with the father of modern computing, John von Neumann at Princeton University in New Jersey. They "maintained their links with top scientists and scholars," Sharma says, "created and nurtured networks with their Western counterparts while building teams of scientists at home. This networking helped a great deal in their endeavors in the emerging field of computer technology as well." One example of this is Samarendra Kumar Mitra, who was "not an engineer, but a graduate in chemistry" when he was chosen by Mahalanobis to head an electronic computer lab in 1950. Kumar had spent the previous year in the United States, visiting laboratories that were using computers. American scientists and engineers involved in the new field of computing were also visiting India as early as 1950, some through an agreement signed that year between U.S. Ambassador Chester Bowles and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. American academics, such as those at the University of Illinois, simply mailed control logic schemes and programming manuals when their Indian colleagues asked.

The University of Illinois' Digital Computer Laboratory also played a role in the selection and acquisition of India's first large-scale digital computing system. Bhabha appointed a committee of four of his staff, who were working at the Illinois lab and other U.S. institutes, to make a recommendation. They visited manufacturing and research facilities across America and settled on the CDC 3600, made by Control Data Corporation of Minneapolis, Minnesota. "The large computer arrived in Bombay on the morning of 11 May 1964, on a chartered Boeing PanAm," Sharma says. Control Data had given a $1 million discount and the U.S. Agency for International Development granted another $1.5 million to defray the cost.

Serendipity is also part of India's IT history. Although there are unconfirmed reports of Nehru's visit to an IBM plant in 1956, Sharma reveals that the first apparent high-level contact between IBM and a key Indian policy maker occurred in June 1959, when Bhabha chatted with IBM's research director, E.R. Piore, on a flight from Paris to Zurich. Sharma has been granted amazing access to historical documents from institutions, the government and individuals and has done a lot of digging for gems. The reader is the beneficiary.

Sharma gives a complete, balanced and educational review of IBM's history in India, elucidating the clash between the American company's desire to maximize profits and the Indian government's desire to build up its own computer industry and preserve foreign currency reserves. He explodes many myths regarding these interactions and shows that there was a chance for compromise, which would have allowed the industry giant to remain in India while giving the government some of what it felt was needed in the nation's best interest. Not for nothing is Sharma an award-winning journalist. In 2007, he was given the National Award for Science Writing in print by the National Council for Science and Technology Communication. He depicts fascinatingly how different world views, personalities and expectations seemed to compel each party to take actions that can only be fully understood in hindsight. He gives a balanced analysis of the benefits that IBM's first 25 years in India brought to the nation and the boons incurred by its departure. Interestingly, Sharma tells us, within two years of that exit, IBM was sending feelers to do business in India again and the company is now fully back, working with Indians on every level of the IT industry.

Nehru is rightly given much credit for nurturing the development of computers, and Sharma tells how the prime minister charmingly handed out certificates to graduates of the first IBM training class and continued doing this until just a few months before his death. But the germ of the idea for Indian institutes of technology began before India's independence, Sharma relates. During World War II, Sir Ardeshir Dalal, an Indian Civil Service officer, tried to get capital goods and experts to build up India's scientific research and development sector. Realizing that Britain could not spare the manpower or equipment, Dalal turned to America. He led an industrial delegation looking for machinery and skilled personnel and studied "the working of government projects such as the Tennessee Valley Authority and setting up institutions like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology."

This germ came to fruition under Nehru's prime ministership. Different nations were asked to sponsor individual IIT campuses in India. With funding from the Ford Foundation, MIT led a consortium of nine American engineering and technology institutes in 1961 who sent "highly experienced and specialized faculty to Kanpur." Also sent was a $7.5 million IBM computer that was used to train thousands of people, not only IIT students. By the way, Sharma refutes the folklore that this computer arrived at the campus on a bullock cart. When the American consortium project ended in 1972, Sharma says, 122 U.S. faculty members had served 200 man-years at Kanpur while 50 Indian faculty had been trained in the United States. The institute had an enrollment of 2,000 and a faculty of 260, more than half recruited from abroad.
"The IITs have played a pioneering role in the development of computer science education. The trigger for this" was at Kanpur with the installation of the IBM 1620 computer in 1963 and an IBM 7044 in 1966, Sharma says. These "formed the core of the Computer Centre at the institute, which became the training ground for the first generation of Indian computer programmers and computer science graduates. The center benefited not just undergraduates, graduates and the faculty of the institute, but scores of people from research, academia and industry all over the country." (Courtesy: SPAN)
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