Prime Edition

Civil Lines 6: New Writing From India

Edited by Mukul Kesavan, Kai Friese, Achal Prabhala

HarperCollins

Pages: 248 Rs. 350

Uneven yet pleasing blend of writing on India

It was years and years in the making, yet Civil Lines 6 is a worthy collection of the work of some of the best young writers in India, writes Aditya Mani Jha

ADITYA MANI JHA  8th Apr 2012

Ruchir Joshi’s novel-in-progress presents a virtuosic portrait of 1940s Calcutta

here's a funny thing about anthologies, something which I've felt on several occasions and can hence wholeheartedly endorse: Even with the very, very good ones, you sometimes feel like you've walked into a restaurant where the food's out of the world but the waiters are prone to snatching your plate away after a couple of bites. With anthologies designed as a continuing series (like Granta, which was one of the publications Civil Lines was modeled on), one could, at the very least, always wait for the next installment.

Only with Civil Lines, the waiting period has lasted a full decade this time around, a feat of "elephantine gestation", as the editors confess in the introduction to the sixth edition of the series famously started by the late Ravi Dayal in 1994. Civil Lines 6 starts off with Great Eastern Hotel, a thirty-page extract from a novel-in-progress by Ruchir Joshi. This is easily the most satisfactory fiction entry in the collection, as Joshi chooses to focus, once again, on his beloved Kolkata, circa 1941 (Joshi's hilarious, slice-of-life articles on Kolkata appearing in The Telegraph, as well as Poriborton, his recent Bengal election diary, are essential reading for those fascinated by the City of Joy).

The date is important too: 7 August, 1941, the day of the funeral of Rabindranath Tagore, arguably the greatest Indian poet of all time. Joshi delivers a virtuosic portrait of the city of Kolkata, and the sensory assaults which are part and parcel of the city's unique culture. When the character Kedar witnesses the teeming masses at the great man's funeral procession, he muses:

"One song ends and another begins: Aanondolokey, mongolalokey, beee-raaa-jo...In the blissful land, in the blessed land, may you rule- it's too much, and the old man was never about much, there was always a holding back, even in his storms and tempests. His genius was that he broke open your own monsoon inside you, and this sweaty, crowded death was not right for him. Unavoidable perhaps. But not right."

For an anthology of previously unpublished works (although as many as four pieces in this collection previously appeared elsewhere), perhaps an aspect of its worth can only be known sometime in the future. Oh, and one hopes that this time, the wait for the next edition is a bit shorter than a decade.

Ananya Vajpeyi's short story The Archivist features an old librarian as its central character, an autodidact who helps out a young female researcher in her studies. Vajpeyi is an academic who's taught at Columbia and the University of Massachusetts, and this story is, in part, a moving tribute to the academic life; to the sheer love of knowledge and the joy of sharing it. In recent times, Vajpeyi has written some superb articles (featured in The Caravan) about prominent intellectuals like D.R. Nagarajan and the polymath father-and-son duo of Dharmanand Kosambi and his son D.D. Kosambi, who the author calls "a mathematician, a historian and a Marxist"; that is, "If we aim for brevity." Kosambi, or rather his Poona house, makes a cameo appearance in this story (in the Caravan article, too, the eventual sale of this house is a much-lamented event), in a passage which is characteristic of the nostalgia the author clearly has for these Renaissance men from India's past.

"Off Bhandarkar Road to his left was a street he passed with a pang. There used to be the home of a renowned professor, long dead, one of India's greatest. He had been a mathematician and an archaeologist, a Marxist long before the days when it became fashionable for Indian intellectuals to be Marxists — and somewhat unexpectedly, the builder of a beautiful house, with a red-tiled roof, a verandah running around its sides, and a courtyard at its center. The house had been sold off to its builders now, and Pandurang didn't want to contemplate its present form."

The other short stories in the collection, like Scheherazade and Flight, both by designer Itu Chaudhuri, (the man behind the distinctive book covers which are now the Civil Lines signature) have flashes of brilliance, but ultimately do not match up to the lofty standards set by the rest of the collection. (Or if you consider the previous installment of the series, which featured such memorable stories as Amit Chaudhuri's The Old Masters, Amitava Kumar's Indian Restaurant and Suketu Mehta's delightful black comedy Sexual History of an Accountant) Nilanjana Roy, the noted critic, (who runs the excellent lit-blog Akhond of Swat) weighs in with Sugarcane, a story about the frequently constricting nature of parenthood; while the Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina presents a fictionalized version of dictator Idi Amin as a youthful houseboy in an Indian household in Kenya.

taying true to what has been one of the defining trends in Indian literature of late, the non-fiction section is in excellent health. Manu Harbstein's Building Bridges is a meticulous, engaging account of the author's stint as an engineer in Bombay in the 1960s, and it succeeds marvelously at presenting a white man's reactions to the most cosmopolitan of India's megacities. Shougat Dasgupta's Exit The Gulf recalls the author's formative years in Kuwait, and the shaping of a generation of "twelve-year-old cosmopolitans, defined not so much by where we came from as what we read, watched, heard and thought". Even the often jarring intrusion of words like "mephitic", "panoply" or the relatively guessable "chimerical" does not derail Dasgupta's quicksilver narrative, which is reminiscent of Suketu Mehta's opening riffs about a globalized childhood in Maximum City. Editor Achala Prabhala contributes Erazex, a somewhat fuzzy yet ultimately harrowing sketch of an all-boys' boarding school, which keeps true to some of the horror stories you might have heard, while offering up a few of its own.

The non-fiction entries, in particular Dasgupta and Herbstein, also make it clear that the phrase "New Writing From India" (as well as the deliberate usage of the chaiwallah's tea stand on the cover, an ubiquitous sight in small-town India) is meant to be metaphorical. Perhaps the most promising non-fiction entry in the collection, Benjamin Siegel's Raagtime also illustrates this; it tries to piece together the story of Alice Richardson, "a slight Yorkshire mezzo-soprano" who married the Ceylonese scholar and art historian Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy, went to India with him to learn Indian classical and folk music, and briefly took Western audiences by storm as "Ratan Devi". Clearly, this is an Indian anthology, but one unbound by lines on a map.

The dark horses of the collection are Mobius and Nest, a pair of prose poems by Rimli Sengupta; as well as Gauri Gill's Nizamuddin At Night, a collection of photographs. I enjoyed the latter in particular, because of a couple of particularly expressive, intriguing photographs of a white van and a pet dog respectively. (To say more defeats the purpose, one feels)

So how good is Civil Lines 6? Consider the previous edition of Civil Lines, the contributors in question, and the yawning, decade-long gap between numbers five and six. In that decade, Amit Chaudhuri has gone from strength to strength, with such sublime works as A New World (which won the Sahitya Akademi award in 2002) and The Immortals. Amitava Kumar has built an exceptional body of work in non-fiction. Suketu Mehta has given us Maximum City, without question one of the finest books on Bombay you'll ever read. Hence, for an anthology of previously unpublished works (although as many as four pieces in this collection previously appeared elsewhere), perhaps an aspect of its worth can only be known sometime in the future. Oh, and one hopes that this time, the wait for the next edition is a bit shorter than a decade.

 
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