The end of imagination

Print edition : August 29, 1998

It was a pleasure to read Arundhati Roy's powerful essay ("The end of imagination", August 14). It was widely circulated among and appreciated by the Indian and Pakistani physicists present here at the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste. Roy has, using her beautiful novelist's language and imagery, clearly stated what many of us practising physicists from the subcontinent feel. Pakistan and India are headed towards disaster if this nuclear madness is not stopped, and stopped soon. Voices like Roy's are very precious and I hope that people in Pakistan and India listen to them.

Dr. Faheem Hussain Trieste, Italy * * *

I am overwhelmed. Your issue dated August 14 will go a long way in making us shed the conceit we have accumulated after Pokhran-II. The force of the brilliant essay by Arundhati Roy was intensified manifold by the pictures. Together, they arouse feelings of nausea and frustrated anger in the reader about the mutually destructive gimmick by both countries.

Your magazine has already done yeoman service to the cause of restoring sanity amidst fanatical frenzy. I have one more request. In the issue nearest to Gandhiji's birth anniversary, please publish two separate sections in pictures: one of the devastation caused by nuclear and chemical weapons, say, in Japan and Vietnam, and the other of snapshots of Gandhiji's life.

Sanjay Basu Calcutta * * *

Arundhati Roy in her exceptional book The God of Small Things gave us a glimpse of our inner selves and the perceived links we share with our past and our society. In "The End of Imagination", she has said what needs to be said not only just to herself but to thousands, and hopefully millions, of world citizens. I request her to say it again and again. There are many who will echo these sentiments.

A. Didar Singh Chandigarh * * *

We (with us many whom we would like to call right-thinking people) were stunned into disbelief when the nuclear tests were conducted by India. The reasons that flooded our minds against the Government's decision to make India nuclear were so numerous and emotion-charged that we could not even get ourselves to articulate them without frothing at the mouth. Arundhati Roy's essay has given a voice to us. She has said everything that we were trying to say, and more. We wish there was some way of ensuring that it is read by every Indian.

We also refuse to accept the argument that comes from "pragmatic intellectuals". Their argument goes like this: now that we have the bomb, and hence are nuclear, we have first to accept the situation, and define our positions after that. No, we refuse accept it. We are Indians, this is also our country, and we do not want the bomb.

Anjum Rajabali Gouri Dange Mumbai * * *

Having been a reader of Frontline for several years, I congratulate you for publishing lucid, factual articles exposing the ills of our society and our Government. By involving writers like Arundhati Roy, we create deep social awareness and mould public opinion in our struggles towards justice and peace. "The end of imagination" is a powerful expression of anger at a decision taken by the Government in callous disregard of the most basic right of a nation - the right to peace.

The essay is not an epistle on the sins of war. It is essentially the expression of pain of a sensitive heart that has been shattered by many instances of injustice and broken promises over the years. It is not just Roy's anguish but that of a people. And it is a call to all to rise in revolt against the shackles of ignorance.

Even as we shed tears with her and hang our heads in shame, for one brief shining moment we rejoice in the brilliance of an enlightened mind.

Chitra Amarnath New Delhi * * *

Arundhati Roy has let her emotions instead of knowledge guide her pen. I wish she had understood the basics of India's security considerations before rushing to chastise the men behind the blasts.

Pakistan's proxy war in Kashmir with mercenaries acting as terrorists is well known. But what are not so visible are the skirmishes occurring on the Siachen front. The number of soldiers killed while safeguarding India's border with Pakistan is over 2,000 while India lost only 3,000 men during the entire span of the 1965 war. India was initially in a position of strength, owing to the numerical superiority of its men and weapons. Its status was downgraded in 1987 when Pakistan overtly acquired nuclear capability with clandestine help from China. It was not until 1989 that India equalised Pakistan's superior status by its own covert capability in this field. What India did in May 1998 was to make this covert capability known to the world at large. By design or owing to peer pressure, the tests made Pakistan call its own bluff. The scientists assigned the task of assisting the defence forces required physical testing of their work before going to the next stage of improvement. And this they did. It is not as if Atal Behari Vajpayee had any choice in the matter.

One should recall that India was left to fend for itself and it faced an ignominious defeat and loss of territory in 1962 when its defence preparedness was next to nothing. During those years, China and the United States were inveterate enemies. Now that the U.S. is wooing China with the ardour of an ageing heiress, the chances of getting any succour from it in the event of any conflict along India's borders is even less.

Uma Suresh Chennai * * *

Arundhati Roy's essay is less erudite than I imagined. It is more about the writer's preoccupation with her own precious world than about the actual socio-economic conditions of a country that has been through turbulent and uncertain times. The essay advertises with sophistication her own lofty opinions about what the world ought to be like and her somewhat exaggerated 'doomsday' pronouncement about the fate of this country. The essay is written on the presumption that the reader is interested in her endless railing against the nuclear tests. It would have been all right if she had admitted that the essay was subjective and if she had not suggested how the masses should react. Unfortunately, even as the writer concedes that there is no single divine committee that has the right to sanction one single authorised version of what India is or should be, she seems to suggest obliquely that her outrage is shared by people who are too poor and too uneducated to have an elementary idea of the extent and complexity of their country. But how can she not see that her essay, her language and her thinking would be as remote to them as the reality of the tests?

The essay would have been appropriate if she had not written it like a proxy for a nation that is capable of expressing diverse points of view. It would have been acceptable if she was not hanging her head in shame on behalf of the people of a nation. Launching a tirade against the Government is Roy's prerogative but it is disconcerting to note that magazines like Frontline project her views as the high water mark of public opinion. It does not deserve the media space it received. For while it discusses the injustice of triggering a nuclear arms race, it blissfully ignores the equally appalling acts of injustice committed by superpowers such as the United States which blatantly appropriated the patent on basmati rice and turmeric from local communities in India. Why does Roy gloss over the sheer exploitation of our resources, communities and people by a 'superpower' that has the temerity to take a 'holier-than-thou' attitude towards India and Pakistan on the issue of nuclear tests? Quite apart from its own disastrous track record on the nuclear front, the U.S. indulges in unfair trade practices. I cannot help wondering if world citizenship (or being a mobile independent republic) means keeping quiet about the hypocrisy and injustice meted out by the economically stronger countries of the West.

The essay unmistakably projects Roy's point of view, which by her own admission is a rich writer's point of view, undoubtedly individualistic and elitist.

Devaki Panini New Delhi * * *

The nuclear tests seem to have contributed only to an extra hot summer, a rise in the prices of vegetables and some extra dates to remember for general knowledge tests for students like me. I read Arundhati Roy's essay and gave, perhaps for the first time, serious thought to the nuclear issue. Now I am convinced that those against the bombs have not done even that. India was a great economic power when it was captured by a handful of Britishers. Did our strong economy save us from their weapons? Can we get back the 300 years we spent under British rule? From A.D. 1000 onwards we kept losing wars and it is high time that we got rid of our defeatist mentality. Of course many have suffered owing to nuclear explosions; but they suffered because of their mistake of not having a bomb. The U.S. has had bombs for the past 50 years and in this period the Americans have not seen even a bullet being fired at their country by a foreign army. Had Japan had a nuclear bomb, perhaps history would have been different.

Rajen Mishra Chennai * * *

No one denies the horrors of nuclear weapons. However, May 1998 was not when Arundhati Roy's world so eloquently ended. That happened way back, with the success of the Manhattan Project. Her nightmare of mass destruction can come true without the testing, manufacture or use of a single Indian or Pakistani nuclear device. The other five nuclear weapon states have a stockpile that is enough to kill all of us several times over. We have not heard Arundhati protest against that.

Her moralistic finger ought to have been pointed at the worst perpetrators of nuclear crime - the Five Nuclear Powers - and not at nations which attempt to maintain their geographic, political, economic and ideological sovereignty in the face of pressure from the "superpowers".

China's hegemonistic intentions are clear to all, including Japan, which is increasingly nervous about the U.S.-China axis, Russia, which spends enormous resources to protect its eastern flank, and the ASEAN countries which fought off pressures from the U.S. and China to take a hard line on the nuclear tests by India and Pakistan. As far as Pakistan's neighbourly sentiments are concerned, it is we Indians who insist on viewing them with rose-tinted nostalgia. We speak from our own experience as primary school students in Islamabad when we were victimised, humiliated and physically attacked by teachers and students alike merely because we were of Indian nationality. Improving relations with either Pakistan or China is a myth perpetuated by the Indian media and a section of self-serving politicians and bureaucrats.

Rashmi Singh Siddharth Singh New Delhi Shah Bano case

In the article "The Ram temple drama" (July 17) by S.P. Udayakumar, a footnote (No. 22) on the Supreme Court judgment in the Shah Bano case (1985) says that the Court treated the divorce of Shah Bano on the basis of Islamic custom as invalid. This is not correct. In fact, the validity of the divorce was not even an issue in that case. The issue was whether a divorced Muslim wife is entitled to maintenance under Section 125 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973. Section 125 entitles, inter alia, a wife to get maintenance from her husband and the explanation to the Section says that "wife" includes a divorced woman who has not remarried. However, Section 127(3)(b) makes Section 125 inapplicable if the divorced woman has received the amount payable on divorce under the personal law of the parties concerned. The argument was, "Dower (mehr) is a sum payable to Muslim wife on divorce and if she has received her dower, she cannot ask for maintenance under Section 125." Rejecting the argument, the Supreme Court said that the right of a Muslim wife to receive dower is not dependent on the incident of divorce and so dower is not an amount payable on divorce as contemplated under Section 127. Thus a divorced Muslim wife can also get maintenance under Section 125.

Recently in Noor Saba Khatoon vs Md. Quasim (AIR 1997 SC 3280), the Supreme Court ruled that children of Muslim couples, divorced or otherwise, can still obtain maintenance from the father under Section 125, the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, 1986 notwithstanding. This decision seems to have escaped the attention of the fundamentalists.

Ravi Shekhar Singh New Delhi

S.P. Udayakumar writes: Thanks for pointing out the inadvertent error. Shah Bano, an elderly Muslim woman, had sought maintenance support from her former husband through courts. In 1985 the Supreme Court ruled that Shah Bano could also use the recourse that had been available for Hindu women ever since the passage of the Hindu Succession Act in 1956 to inherit and to seek recourse through the civil courts. To put it in Sandria Freitag's words, Shah Bano's being a Muslim "did not prevent her from being a citizen in a state that treated all citizens equally." Many Muslims objected that this decision denied their group rights which were more important than individual rights (see Sandria Freitag, "Contesting in Public: Colonial Legacies and Contemporary Communalism" in David Ludden, Making India Hindu: Religion, Community, and the Politics of Democracy in India; Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1996; p.224).

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