The view from within

  • Sudeep Sen, None
  • Updated: Jan 31, 2015 15:12 IST

The venerable Granta magazine from the UK first did a special number on ‘India’ back in 1997. It was part of the 50th anniversary of India’s independence. Issue 57 (Spring 1997) titled ‘India: The Golden Jubilee’ was edited by its then editor, Ian Jack.

Two photographs — one of rural Indian women in colourful attire looking out to the sea, and another sepia-tinged one of a packed suburban railway platform in Mumbai — dominated the cover. The main typeface for ‘India’ was a fusion between Devanagari and Roman scripts. On the cover too, it boasted of names such as Anita Desai, V S Naipaul, RK Narayan, Nirad Chaudhuri, Vikram Seth, William Dalrymple, (even a Sri Lankan, Michael Ondaatje), and others — authors that were to be found inside along with British writers who specialised on India. It also, curiously announced, "introducing Arundhati Roy". In nearly 20 years since that special issue, so much has changed — some of the newer names in that issue have strengthened their reputation and are now firmly established. Some have changed tracks. And yet others have diminished their output.

The latest issue of Granta (Issue 130) is yet another India special titled ‘India: Another Way of Seeing’. The magazine’s logo and masthead have changed. The new cover design bears a modern minimalistic feel with a purposely-distorted image called ‘Virtually Extinct IV’. The roster of writers in this issue is relatively younger than in the earlier one. However, Ian Jack returns here as its guest editor. The back jacket of the current issue announces: "For a long time — too long — the mirror that India held to its face was made elsewhere. ‘What writer about the country would you recommend I read?’ first-time travellers to India would ask, and in the later twentieth century the answer was still Forster or Naipaul or even the longdead Kipling. In fiction, that changed with Rushdie. Now it has changed in all kinds of non-fiction. Narrative history, reportage, memoir, biography, the travel account: all have their gifted exponents in a country perfecting its own frank gaze."

As one would expect with a newer generation of writers, the contents and the issues discussed in the pieces are contemporary, localized, urgent and crisp. Aman Sethi writes, in a bracingly sharp style, on ‘Love Jihad’. Amitava Kumar mourns for his mother in ‘Pyre’ in a moving piece of prose. Hari Kunzru "imagines an Indian future" in his beautifully articulated piece, ‘Drone’. As in her recent debut novel, A Bad Character, Deepti Kapoor’s story ‘A DoubleIncome Family’ reflects her spunky writing style as she portrays an unsettling urban India story with brio. I especially enjoyed Upamanyu Chatterjee’s ‘Othello Sucks’, Amit Chaudhuri’s ‘English Summer’, and Neel Mukherjee’s ‘The Wrong Square.’

Factory and River from the series Fields of Sight by Gauri Gill and Rajesh Vangad

Vinod Kumar Shukla’s two Hindi poems, ‘This year too in the plains’ and ‘This colourful picture’, are deftly translated into English by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra. There are poems in English such as the brilliant, ‘Shunaka: Blood Count’ by Karthika Nair, set up as a dialogue in two mirrored columns. Anjum Hasan’s ‘Sanjay Nagar Blues’ and Tishani Doshi’s ‘Rain at Three’ paint specific local scenes of Bangalore and Tamil Nadu in south India with urgency and tightly wrought lines. And rather unusually, Arun Kolatkar makes his appearance not as a poet, but as a "most unjustly neglected" prose writer with the piece titled ‘Sticky Fingers’. It is perhaps a nod to his favourite Wayside Inn where he would meet writers, or to Crawford Market, but it is about much more. The story opens with his oblique humour: "My father had always been hard of hearing. Nothing was wrong with the old man’s ears, mind you — he could hear perfectly well when he wanted to — but he had this knack of going deaf at will. Whenever it suited him, as a matter of fact."

In this issue, the quality of both art and photography are outstanding, particularly Gauri Gill and Rajesh Vangad’s hauntingly gauze-like patterned black-and-white photomontages titled ‘Another Way of Seeing’. Katherine Boo’s visual reportage, a photoessay, ‘Annawadi’, captures in colour, "the incidentals" that she misses "in moments of intense reporting." The pieces in this new India issue of Granta certainly alter the focus on how we view India from within. It is not an external foreign gaze, but an intense and detailed view by some of the finest contemporary writers of India.

Sudeep Sen is the author of Fractals: New & Selected Poems|Translations 1980-2015, and The Harper Collins Book of English Poetry (editor)

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