Review: The Book of Indian Essays edited by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra
The central subject of the personal essay is the author himself. Its undying father, Montaigne, said: “I am myself the matter of my book,” when the first two books of his essays appeared in 1580. The essay is a kind of vanity publishing in this sense. Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s introduction to The Book of Indian Essays (which he has edited) is great prose in pursuit of its authors. But the personalities lack the pioneering grandiosity of a Montaigne. Naturally; for the day of the heroes is long over. This is especially true of the writer posing as a personality hoping to make himself interesting to the reader, who, in a paradigm shift in collective behaviour brought about by social media, finds himself, dramatically, at centre stage, contributing to a kind of tyranny of the masses. This is the Age of the Mob, not just of the killing fields and streets, but also of the drawing rooms.
The names here are very good, and their work is delightful. The subjects dealt with are varied: gossip in British India, assimilation of tribes into the mainstream, the angst of the Anglo-phonetic Bengali Hindu (as opposed to pretty much any other Hindu), the cries of the Calcutta streets, painting, family, memories, Anglo-Indians, writing, etc. There is an element of contrariety that the collection attempts; but on the whole, it is all quite genteel and correct.
In this scheme of overall sophistication of vision and values, appears, like laughter at a wake, Aubrey Menen’s wicked My Grandmother and the Dirty English: ‘She (Menen’s Nair grandmother) rarely spoke to anyone who was not of her own social station, and she received them formally; that is to say, with her breasts completely bare… in her view, a wife who dressed above her waist could only be aiming at adultery.’
The essays often speak to each other. Menen’s grandmother, a few pages down, is contrasted with Sheila Dhar’s Baua, on her selfless and emotionally-abused mother who, at the end of a long chapter of sustained condemnation of her husband by Dhar, silences her daughter with her short explanation of why she put up with him until his death: “The truth is that I loved him.”
In contrapuntal play, as observed in the introduction, Anita Desai in her essay A Secret Connivance, argues with the certainty of the urban sophisticate that “a woman will state in her dying words that her man is not guilty…” But there is a possibility, surely, that selfless suffering, historically untenable in terms of a group, is still a source of an individual’s sense of fulfilment? Think of Robert Hayden’s lines on his (the narrator’s) father: …Speaking indifferently to him,/who had driven out the cold/and polished my good shoes as well./What did I know, what did I know/of love’s austere and lonely offices? (Those Winter Sundays).
Quite a few of the essays here are well known and worth reading again; after so many years, they almost look and feel new. Salim Ali’s Indian House Crow, a far cry from the sad and epic monster Ted Hughes thought up, builds a nest entirely of gold and silver spectacle frames pilfered from an optician’s shop in Fort, Bombay, exuding traits — smart, industrious, family-oriented — often underlined in matrimonial columns.
There is a case, then, for the crow to be India’s national bird, not the eye candy peacock, which could perhaps be reassigned as the national bird of Bollywood.
Other remarkable essays include GV Desani’s The Benares that Was, on the city’s squalid occult mystique; Buddhadeva Bose’s To Remember is to Live Again, on his meeting with Henry Miller; Gautam Bhatia’s Art as Politics, on the giant monuments and idols that small leaders build, and Ruskin Bond’s minimalist, dry-eyed last meeting with his mother in the cancer ward, and of her desertion of him when very young.
A central theme, unintended possibly, emerging in this book, is the despair of being an Indian. Starting with Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay (The Confessions of Young Bengal) the nature of the agon that a man or a woman born and made in India entails, surfaces in essay after essay in various disguises.
But the man who addresses it heroically and almost without hope is Nissim Ezekiel, whom, this writer last saw from the window of an incoming morning train from Borivili, sitting on a bench at the far end of cavernous Churchgate station, looking out, chin in hand, the sunlight falling on him like muslin.
Naipaul is not a contributor to this collection, though mentioned in the introduction. Yet, his prickly presence can be sensed in the thick of the thicket. He is a contributor in absentia. (There is likely a Latin term for this, and Nirad C Chaudhuri, represented in the book, would have known.) The fact is you would find it hard to imagine or define an India without Naipaul’s disgust of this country: the great “Indian shoddiness.” To use a fashionable term, he “othered” India for Indians.
Ezekiel, characteristically catholic, was hurt to the quick because he was, by implication, part of the eternally suffering, featureless crowd, the Area of Darkness that Naipaul identified with India. Ezekiel’s polite but blistering critique of Naipaul’s vision (Naipaul’s India and Mine) reads great after decades. Somewhere in the The Dyer’s Hand and Other Essays, Auden says that redemption from the irreversibility of events is possible only through forgiveness. This is essentially a Christian view. Naipaul was a fatalist (The World is What it is) who could not forgive what India was doing to Indians and vice versa. So he did the only thing he could to let us know damnation was near: he fulminated like a charismatic. As a man is, so he sees, as Blake puts it.
Ezekiel’s defense of India is almost an apology for himself. Because he admits to the many flaws of the Indian, despite his indignation at this Curse with a Sneer, his essay reads like a spirited act of confession, owning up: this no-good child is mine; I will make something of him yet. What Ezekiel may have missed in his essay is Naipaul’s own dread of a loser’s fate that might have awaited him had his family not migrated. To Naipaul, India must appear as an accident he escaped only because he switched trains midway; but how not to wonder at the narrow miss?
RK Narayan’s short and spare essay (Elephant in the Pit) describes villagers trapping an elephant in a pit in a festive spirit and ending up killing (strangled, spine broken) it in the process of hauling it up is essentially about that pointless cruelty (the villagers don’t even know they are being cruel; they are only saving the elephant from its wild ways) and the idiocy of the degradation of man and animal, all translating into a great sense of featureless waste; the massive anomie that follows most Indians, whether they are aware of it or not, like a dark cloud. It is in this context that the hard state, or Hindu India (on which burning topic, there is not even smoke in this collection), on the make can be seen as a salvaging effort from chaos to order. In one of the first essays, Bankim Chandra aspires for the perfect, all-conquering ( Bengali-speaking, naturally) Hindu who had already disappeared in the mists of the past. It is just the Indian’s peculiar luck that the Hinduism now gaining popularity is more the repressed, regimented Victorian variety.
Some of the authors could have been better represented. Dom Moraes’s bleak take on an evil god, a theme that finds expression in his later poems, is not the best he has written in prose. Some of his journalistic pieces are more illuminating of the mother country he returned to somewhat out of helplessness. Dom must have been contemptuous of Wager by Pascal — a great mathematician and essayist of the 17th century who disliked Montaigne (again!) for his “lack of system” — in which essay he wrote it was best to pray just in case there was a God; you lost nothing if there was not. Dom’s god, if he exists, is an owl perched in the dark, cracking bones.
A fastidious critic may complain that The Book of Indian Essays has too many Bengali writers. True. Another might say the underprivileged are not sufficiently represented. True again. But there will be other books, less elitist. Besides, beauty in all aspects of the imagination must surely revolt against the idea of the tyranny of the masses.
CP Surendran is a poet, novelist, and journalist.
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