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MAKING PEACE [image, unknown] Book Reviews

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This month we review the film that has brought home Ghandi’s ideas to a new generation; and we look at an alarming study of drug marketing in the Third World.

Editor: Anuradha Vittachi

Gandhi: message for today

Gandhi The best thing about Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi is its timeliness. Twenty years in its gestation, the film has been delivered to a public that is disenchanted with slogans parading as solutions and scared witless at the dance of death between two Super Powers who seem to imagine that they are the protagonists while the rest of the four billion of us are just bit-players and passive spectators who must make room for their dangerous cavortings.

1983, the run-up year to 1984, finds those billions of people alienated from the centres where economic, political and military decisions affecting their lives are being made; impotent to make their cries of despair heard above the cacophonous din of arguments about Dense Packs of movable nuclear missiles, about the subtle distinctions between monetarism versus the ‘magic of the marketplace’ — while the number of destitute people soars from 600 to 800 to 1,000 million, and ‘coping’ is the only evident purpose of life.

Gandhi was the apotheosis of the alienated human individual in his time. This film Gandhi magnificently depicts how the least among us could cast fear out of our heads and act with heroic courage if we welded our littleness to a big purpose; how individual needs and social needs need not be opposed when people see that ‘I’ and ‘we’ are not natural enemies; how strength and power are not the product of having more and more but that a willingness to do with less and less leaves one invulnerable; above all, how marvellously effective the power of the powerless can be, when its people move and mass together to overthrow a tyranny.

Gandhi’s central ideas were rejected in his own land long before he died. He was immensely saddened to see the India he led to freedom preparing itself to become a modern nation state by abandoning the principles on which independence had been founded. India adopted not only the panopoly of imperial authority but its values and structures. Instead of the country of village republics where the people would rule themselves, it became a ‘Permit Raj’. a centralised bureaucracy choked by documents in triplicate. It developed not as a nation embodying the principle of non-violence but one like any other in the northern hemisphere, ‘defended’ by an army, navy and air force against other military establishments; not concerned with mutual obligations but with divisive rights: not directing its economic energies to supplying peoples’ needs but to serving the purposes of the market place, so that during the Premiership of Moraji Desai. a self-proclaimed ‘Gandhian’, 200 million people existed at the edge of starvation while 20 million tonnes of ‘surplus’ grain were held as a buffer stock.

But ideas have more than one life. And there are eternal human values that feel and are right whatever the time, place and circumstance. Uncounted millions of people, especially the young, now reject the values of the merchants, which are determined by prices and profits, and of the military-industrial complexes of every armed nation, which are determined by the capacity to kill more of’ their’ human beings than they’ would kill of ’our’ human beings. And the very notion that war has ever or can now resolve any human dispute is being shown up as the most distorted principle of all. The world of human dissidence, which is characterised by ‘a decent loathing of the Right and a suitable fear of the Left’, has been searching for socialism with a human face. Could it be Gandhi’s?

Tarzie Vittachi

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Bitter pills

Bitter Pills: Medicine and the Third World Poor
by Dianna Melrose
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Oxfam (pbk) £4.95
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A woman was crying. We found her with a dead baby in her arms and a collection of medicine bottles beside her. She had spent all her money on these expensive drugs. She could not understand why they had not saved her baby. This Bangladeshi woman had never been told what was obvious to the doctor ... The baby had become severely dehydrated from diarrhoea,

Her death could have been prevented with a simple home-made solution of water salt and sugar. No amount of medicine could have kept her alive.

The opening words of this excellent OXFAM publication are worth quoting at length; they introduce three important themes which are developed in the remainder of the book. The first point is the most important and frequently neglected in debates about drugs. The most virulent disease in the Third World is not malaria, leprosy or even diarrhoea. It is poverty. Diseases thrive on malnourished bodies; most drugs are only treating the secondary effects of poverty.

Secondly, drug manufacturers throughout the world, both TNCs and small companies, seek to sell their products at a profit.

We are shown a very few encouraging signs that some TNCs admit some responsibility. We find much more about corporate amorality and immorality and this, unfortunately, is an accurate reflection of the reality.

Thirdly, the access to health care services is usually mediated by professionals. Traditionally doctors and, to a lesser extent, pharmacists, nurses, midwives and the like, have sought to maintain their position. It is only relatively recently that we have begun to see the value of medical devolution, and drug supply features in this further issue: all progress requires, above all, political will. Power is wielded by, a variety of groups, amongst whom the drug manufacturers and the rulers of Third World countries are only the most prominent.

Bitter Pills draws on OXFAM’s participation in many countries and gives examples of developments initiated both by voluntary and state organisations. One chapter, in particular, ties the issues in the Third World to activities in the West; participants include the international agencies, rich world governments, non-governmental organisations and the drug manufacturers. And there is a valuable description of recent events in Bangladesh, where the traditional TNC drug suppliers have felt threatened by a combination of government legislation and vigorous competition by a non-profit-oriented manufacturer. The treatment of this subject, like the great majority of this book, is penetrating; above all, it never loses sight of the effects on ordinary people.

Andrew Stoker


All Quiet on the Western Front
...being the book that makes you feel you’ve been there

LAST DECEMBER, on a freezing, mud-soaked day, thirty thousand women from all parts of the UK and even beyond came to Greenham Common to protest against preparing for nuclear war.

I went there with my two small daughters, full of conventional anxieties. Should I be taking them to a demonstration that might end in violence? My younger child kept asking for reassurance that I wasn’t going to be arrested.

All my regrets vanished on arrival. The children marvelled. We’d never seen so many women together before, standing up for what they believed in, whether their families or society at large approved of them or not. It was a moving sight— but not just because of the numbers. It was the quality of the atmosphere that made Greenham memorable.

By the flickering light of hundreds of candles edging the grass, we gazed at the homemade posters, the toys and clothes pinned up on the nine-mile wire fence enclosing the airbase. Earlier in the day all the women present had joined hands around this fence to ‘embrace the base’. Not aggression, not brute force or cunning, but the sane, positive force that arises from focusing hard on what one cares about that was what made Greenham unique. I was forcibly reminded of Gandhi and his insistence on the distinction between ‘passive’ resistance and satyagraha: ‘the force of truth’; and of Erasmus wise words:

‘Give light and darkness will disappear of itself.’

But how do you ’give light’ when only the fear of darkness seems to galvanise people, even if it only makes them run towards more darkness; more violence, more enmity? Reading All Quiet on the Western Front again after the Greenham experience made me realise one reason why the book might have had such an impact on so many readers.

The book has had the largest sale of any war novel. It has been translated into several languages; the British version alone was reprinted twice a year in 1981 and 1982. The 1930 film of the book has become a classic in its own right, and another film version was made fifty years later. So Erich Maria Remarque’s message is still getting through, loud and clear.

But what exactly is this message? On the face of it, that war all war is shocking and brutalising, But it is also a reminder of what there is in humans that is worth preserving, If all there was to men and women was the barbarity they express through making war, why bother to save them?

The book is set in the first world war and tells the story of Paul Baumer, a German boy sent to the Western Front. It is written in immediate, dramatic form— his thoughts recorded moment by moment as the events occur. He witnesses the war slaughtering his friends one by one; gradually he realises that the lives of his whole generation have been distorted by war, even those who escaped its shells. They have become prematurely wise; they know death intimately before they have more than glimpsed the delights of life. Cut off irrevocably from those they have left behind — by the hearty jingoism of the older men, and the tremulous, uncomprehending grief of the women — they return to the camps with a sick relief. Here, they may die or be maimed at any moment but at least their experience is understood.

Reading Remarque’s book helped me to see why older people sometimes talk about ‘the war’ as in some way the highlight of their life. In All Quiet, the camaraderie that makes life bearable is not there as a means of glorifying war; on the contrary, the palpable intensity of the war-forged relationships makes the deaths inescapably bitter. But the stress of war simplifies and polarises what counts as good and as bad. The bad is the cold terror of death; the good resides in whatever helps warm one back to life — a mug of food, a pair of boots and human caring: a raw, unsentimental caring that has been stripped of all peacetime niceties and offers an oasis of security in a world where everything is as insecure and bizarre as possible.

Without this vivid evocation of humanity under fire, the novel could have degenerated into a gruesome diatribe. As it is, All Quiet stands out as a true classic of human values because it focuses on the light of human tenderness glimpsed between the dark terrors of war.

Both Greenham and All Quiet stand in danger of being dismissed as ‘emotional’ appeals, that endanger ‘clear thinking’ based on ‘hard facts’. But facts are meaningless when detached from the values that inform them, the human principles that guide their use. All Quiet, like Greenham, reminds us of our values.

Anuradha Vittachi

All Quiet on the Western Front
by Erich Maria Remarque (1929)
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Triad Granada (pbk) UK: £1.50/Aus: $5.95/NZ: $5.95
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New Internationalist issue 121 magazine cover This article is from the March 1983 issue of New Internationalist.
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