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Review: Civil Lines 6, New Writing from India

Amitava Sanyal   July 06, 2012
First Published: 19:18 IST(6/7/2012) | Last Updated: 19:18 IST(6/7/2012)
Civil Lines 6: New Writing from India

Harper Collins

Rs 350 pp 248

Civil Lines, a rare literary miscellany, has come out with its sixth edition. It’s rare because though varied collections of flighty fictions and rooted non-fictions are to be found in languages such as Marathi, Bangla and Malayalam, there are few such efforts in English in India. It’s also rare because it has come out after a decade. Given that the first five editions were published between 1994 and 2001, this is a late coming.

One tends to blame the laziness of its editors and the whimsy of the writers. But the arch of the brow is set in a note prefacing the latest publication, written by its editors Mukul Kesavan, Kai Friese and Achal Prabhala: turning up their nose at the technological strides that have changed publishing in the lapsed decade, they promise instead to focus on works that will stand the test of time. The infuriating thing is that they ensure it by putting the copies to the test first.

Many of the 16 pieces occupy the self-absorbed zone between autobiographical sketches and anecdotal histories. The first copy, an excerpt from Ruchir Joshi’s work-in-progress Great Eastern Hotel, is however a screaming-kicking work of fiction set in a Calcutta coping with the death of its greatest icon, Rabindranath, in 1941. It’s a noisy clash of three seemingly unconnected worlds — that of a pickpocket, an English lady and a Bengali Europhile — typical of the films of Alejandro Inarritu.

It sets the tone for some of what follows. Like Joshi’s cinematic close-ups that keep the historical tumult in a blurry background, a 12-year-old Shougat Dasgupta stays absorbed with Anglophilia in his “metaphorical suburban bedroom” in Kuwait while Saddam Hussain invades the country, a young South African engineer Manu Herbstein pursues women of all denominations in a 1960s’ ‘cosmopolitan’ Bombay while racism rages around him.

Even when not coming up against grand backdrops, all writers dive into their own rabbit holes.  Prabhala’s stint chaperoning whitener-sniffing boys at a Dehradun boarding school compares in that light with Binyawanga Vainaina’s Idi who works in an Indian household settled in Kenya, or Itu Chaudhuri’s storyteller in Scheherazade who presses pause on time to explain why he cannot pee when there are other people around.

There is a mysterious similarity in the gentle pacing of two tales of death — of Pandurang Sukthankar in Ananya Vajpeyi’s The Archivist and Nilanjana Roy’s grandmother in Sugarcane. Both Vajpeyi’s terse librarian and Roy’s dementia-ridden grandmother leave much unsaid, while those telling the stories come of age in their own ways. Like Vajpeyi’s Oriental Institute and the city of Pune, Roy’s sugarcane patch in her Delhi garden absorbs, then reflects some of the silent, scrambled emotions.

The most dogged of all the historical pursuits is Benjamin Siegel’s story of Ratan Devi, a woman born in Yorkshire as Alice Richardson who became the first person to perform Indian classical on stages across the US in the early 20th century. Through her performances, Siegel connects the personal tale of her marriage and breakup with Ananda Coomaraswamy, a Sri Lankan who went on to become a passionate art critic, and the universal motif of musical crossovers in a colonially connected world.

Apart from Rimli Sengupta’s trippy a-page-in-the-life-of prose poems, the counterpoint to the thicket of texts is provided by photographer Gauri Gill. Her black-and-white images in Nizamuddin, a Delhi suburb defined here more by its absence, ends the collection. One could perhaps look at the lapsed decade of Civil Lines, named after another posh Delhi neighbourhood, in a similar light.


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