A massive two-volume anthology that makes an effort to stay both balanced and representative.

How does one judge quality writing, outstanding in character, across genres over half a century in post-independence India?

Essentially a subjective decision in the literary field, the answer will depend arguably on the standards of critical judgment, literary and cultural world view, contextual factors, intellectual disposition, and ideological predilections. Adoor Gopalakrishnan's adage could be one way of deciding the issue: "It is not uncommon," he says, "that once in a while, one comes across a book that can radiate different vibrations in you at different times, at different stage of your growth and experience. In short, the work comes to assume a property that can be legitimately described as epical."

Adoor Gopalkrishnan’s views on the ‘great books’ could be applied in the case of The Best of Indian Literature from the Sahitya Akademi, published from 1957 to 2007. In late Sunil Gangopadhyay’s words, the Sahitya Akademi weaves an all India sensibility, ‘ linking the expressions and articulations of the people in the various regions of the country.’ The idea behind the celebration was to undertake a two volume anthology comprising ‘great masters,’ significant literary movements, contemporary literary icons over half a century, in brief, volumes that could be carried conveniently 'on a journey' or daily commuting: a set of 'modern classics', if you will. The texts, selected with love and care, by the editors Nirmal Kanti Bhatacharya and A.J. Thomas, both with long associations with the Akademi, along with their team of young researchers, depended primarily on translation from 24 major languages of the country. Selections of poetry and short fiction, drama and non-fiction prose from the back issues of Indian literature of half a century now come alive in the four book collection, recently published by the Sahitya Akademi.

Short story and poetry clearly take centre stage in this remarkable collection; the known and the not so well known rub shoulder together. The 1997 poem 'Dregs' by A.K. Ramanujan underlines the immigrant experience in America in a tone of gentle irony: 'reddish water with dregs/I waited for a long while / for water to clear. / I am waiting still (Trans.: Kannada, Ramachandra Sharma). Similarly, ‘Lessons for my Father’ by Archana Sahni, 2007, is a touching account of a father's presence at home, post-retirement. Memories of the past and present jostle for attention: ‘it doesn’t matter / what the hands touch / it’s the hands that matter … your hands, father. My father’s hands.’ The 1998 Marathi poem 'Photo' by Arun Kolatkar (trans.: the poet) ‘offers a deromaticized view of faith: prostitutes on a pilgrimage to Pandapur visit the ‘Photographer’s tents during the annual Ashadi Fair’.

Likewise, Durga Prasad Panda’s Odiya erotic poem, 'Hand' comes up with an arresting tone: ‘like the cat’s burning eyes, perhaps, the secret truths of the body are revealed only in the darkness.’ In Gulam Mohd. Sheikh, ‘Delhi’ the stone of Tughlaquabad ‘woos the grass’ and ‘Jumma Masjid’s string of stairs / tears the eyes like a needle.’

In Gulzar’s provocative composition, ‘The Hunter’ , there is a sudden reversal in roles: ‘may be, after all, / it is the dear / who will march / to his lair with my body / pinned to his horns,’ just as in his poem dealing with cross border rivalry, aptly called ‘The Knock,’ there is an inexplicable ‘Knocking of a dream’ and the sudden disappearance of the visitors: the fact remains surreally true that the ‘Tandoor’ was ‘warm’ a taste of gur / lingering on my lips’. The realization is sudden and nightmarish: 'Was it a dream?/It must be/I learned,/That last night/There was a firing/on the border./I learned/that last night/some dreams were shot dead. (Trans.: J.P. Das)

The poetic resonances continue: H.S Shivaprakash’s poem, ‘To Tehri About to Go Under Water’ makes a plaintive appeal of the river Tehri to save ‘a thousand years’ history’ so that ‘my memories and hopes, cradles and tombs’ can be saved. On the other hand, in Harbhajan Singh’s lyric ‘An Accident’, there is a desperate desire for an accident. The monotonous flow of traffic should be broken and be a prelude to ‘a new creation’: ‘I wish an accident would happen on this road / so I could go home’ (trans.: from Punjabi by Surjit Kalsey).

K. Sachidanandan’s Malayalam poem, ‘Daughter’ goes back inescapably to the memories of a lost fatherhood: ‘I see my thirty years old daughter once again / this time as six months old’. Kamala Das’ last of the ‘Anamalai Poems’ pays lyrical tribute to the love that goes beyond ‘random caress of the lust that ends in languor’. Meena Kandasamy’s angry poem ‘Ekalavya’ is a contemporary reworking of the Mahabharata tale viewed essentially from the Dalit perspective. Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s ‘Un-engraving of a Bison on a Stone’ and ‘Distance in Statute Minds’ demonstrate the working of the modern sensibility. The minute and the commonplace get illuminated by the poetic lens. Such notes get echoed recurrently in Bibu Padhi’s unnamed poem of 1980 and the one called ‘Puri’ that ‘takes you’ / to the temple door’, and ‘publishes your grief.’

The Bengali pioneer Buddhadeva Bose’s memorable poem, ‘Death by Accident’ is a skillful working of the romantic and the modernist. The same spirit is seen in Devdas Chhotaray’s ‘The Long Haired girl’ and ‘Sunday’, ably translated by Jayanta Mahapatra. Ranjit Hoskote’s 2005 poem, ‘Passing a Ruined Mill’ deploys cameos of a cityscape in capturing a sense of loss. Again, Nissim Ezekiel’s 1971 composition shows the modernist sensibility of irony and word play evidenced in ‘The Mirror’ and ‘The Hill’. Odiya Poet Sitakant Mahapatra’s, ‘The Other View: Yashoda’s ‘Soliloquy’ 1979, (trans.: Jayanta Mahapatra), is a modernist reworking of an ancient myth adapted from the Mahabharata. His contemporary, Ramakant Rath’s (1980) poems, such as ‘Afternoon’ and ‘The Memorial’, (trans.: Jayanta Mahapatra) employ a conversational tone to seek answers to ordinary events of everyday life that become epiphanic: ‘hospitals will bloom like flowers / invisible Goddess will return’.

The stories in the four book collection are equally noteworthy. In the 2003 Bengali story, ‘Morninger’ by Amitabha Dev Choudhury, we see a Partition motif of a different kind: lost identities of a set of people bereft of lineage ‘rotating their dreams’ with ‘memories of lost times’ (trans.: Shubha Prasad Majumdar). Similarly, in 1993 story ‘The Portrait’ by Bhisham Sahni (trans.: Anna Khanna) the legacy of a domineering husband is involuntarily passed on to the woman’s father-in-law. (‘He had already started goading me in exactly the same way that my husband had done.’) The portrait of the husband is an unwelcome irritant. : ‘once it was out of the house, there would be peace again.’ Anita Desai’s 1970 story ‘Private Tuition by Mr. Bose’ is written with amazing skill and sensitivity. ‘Mr. Bose’s moustache lifted like a pair of wings, and beneath them, his smile lifted up and out with almost laugh of ‘delight and tenderness’. In Bonophul’s ‘A Piece of Diamond’ (trans.: the author), we see grandfather Niranjan Sen’s unflagging search for Bimol and the character Bikash’s tryst with destiny; the tale a searching commentary on the meaning of ‘illusion and reality’. Similarly, Fakir Mohan Senapati’s classic tale ‘Father and Son’, showcases language politics and the colonial rhetoric of progress. Hari Singh, the Postman, and his ambitious son Gopal Babu, the Post Master, play out their designated roles in this colonial drama. Gopinath Mohanty’s equally memorable tale, ‘Ants’, offers a fabular reading of the tribal situation, as seen by the essentially ‘civilized’ bureaucrat, Ramesh.

Naa Parthasarathy’s ‘Fair Deal’ (trans.: Asokamitran), one of the best in the collection, deals with the protagonist Pa Sokkanathan Chettiar, Paso, who combines poetry with pawn broking. Pasu recognizes no greed. Remarkably, he refuses to accept from Velusamy ‘more than what is due’ to him.

The inimitable Nabaneeta Dev Sen’s ‘Stand Back Please! It’s the Nobel’, comes pretty close to being a front runner in the collection. Written in an unforgettably hilarious manner, combining real life events with social commentary, the story creates a genre of its own where competing sub-sections vie for our attention in a spectacle that is uniquely Bengali. It remains my favorite, among a host of such tales.

Nirmal Varma’s ‘A Splinter in the Sun’ offers an evocative account of separation after eight long years. A close competition to Varma is offered by Paul Zacharia’s unique tale ‘A Day’s Work’ (trans.: A.J. Thomas), an incredibly humorous study of a doted son’s instructions to a would-be nurse for the upkeep of his ailing mother, written in the form of a business letter, recognizably Malayali.

Prem Chand’s ‘Mandir Masjid’ (trans.: Rakshanda Jalil) sees Choudry Itrat Ali and his loyal assistant Thakur Bhajan Singh’s interesting relationship against the backdrop of communal violence and interfaith understanding. Far more macabre is Sadat Hasan Manto’s ‘Black Mariginalia’ (trans.: from Urdu by Jai Ratan), that comes with a sense of shock and despair. Likewise, in the 1992 Malayalam story ‘The Colonel’, we see the delightful play of disguised identity typical of Elizabethan drama. Equally compelling is Krishan Chander’s moving story ‘ Kalu Bhangi’ , 1959, (trans.: Urdu Ralph Russell). The character, Kalu, the sweeper, urges the author compellingly: ‘Would you write a story about me?’ What after all, can one write about a life so dull and uninteresting’? Lyrically told, the tale is a self-reflection on the meaning of everyday life of the common man. To the author, Kalu Bhangi lives in death as in life: Perhaps a day will come when someone will take you broom from you and gently press you hand and take you beyond the rainbow’.

In Manoj Das’ 1980, Odiya story ‘The Bridge in the Moonlit Night’, the bridge becomes a metaphor for betrayal, the story an exploration of interpersonal love viewed from the prism of memory. Mulk Raj Anand’s 1980 tale ‘The Breath in the Mirror’, is a powerful reading of conjugal love and sexual violence.

As expected, there are lesser number of essays and plays in the collections. Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s ‘Growing up with Books’, goes over the familiar terrain of reading but comes up with rare nuggets of insights. G. Parameswaran Pillai’s fin-de-siècle letters offer arresting cameos of the West. Jayanta Mahapatra’s essay, ‘Poetry as Freedom’ suggests that writing poetry quintessentially ‘fulfills an inner need’ which takes the poet past himself: ‘poetry is the stranger within oneself – the man inside one is unaware of.’

Mulk Raj Anand’s, 1993 essay, ‘From the Progressive to the Post-modern’ exploring the truths of the writer’s mind, is written in an engagingly autobiographically mode. Likewise, Nirmal Verma’s 2002 essay, ‘Apna Desh Vapsi’, questions the meaning of homecoming. ‘A Semiotic Study of Dalit Poetry in Marathi’ by Rang Rao Bhongle is a powerful critique of the hegemonic literary sensibility, just as Robin S Ngangom’s essay, dated 2005, ‘Poetry in the Time of Terror’, talks about the nature of poetry from the troubled North-East.

Amiya Chakravarty’s 1960 piece ‘Pasternak: Poet of Humanity’, comprising select correspondence, is a classic study of the meaning of life. Aldous Huxley’s seminal 1961 essay ‘Literature and Modern Life’, asks as to how literature affects life. It examines issues such a literature and propaganda, poetry and prophesy, literature as self understanding, and finally, the perennial question of what is good and bad literature.

Of the plays in the four book volume, mention must be made of ‘Gabar Ghichor’ by Bhikari Thakur which brings in riveting debates between Galiz, Gadbadi, Ghichor, Panch, wife of Galiz and Chorus. At the heart of this Bhojpuri drama (trans.: Meenu Gupta), full of humor and word play, is the question of legitimacy of motherhood and ownership over a son. With an earthy idiom and rhetoric dangerously risqué, the Bhojpuri play combines folk wisdom with a radical feminist sensibility.

Clearly, not every writer or text can be included in such volumes or a review essay.In both the exercises, an effort must to be made to be balanced and representative in one’s selections and assessment. Opinions will inevitably differ. Perhaps, we should return to Adoor Gopalakrishnan : ‘The pleasure that a good book can impart,’ he says, ‘is unique, there is no substitute for it. It converses with you personally, secretly, warmly, and intimately. It lets to be yourself, the other person, and yet another and several at the same time. You can’t ask for more!’

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