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Updated: July 6, 2013 17:28 IST

The best of Indian fiction

Latha Anantharaman
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50 Writers 50 Books: The Best of Indian Fiction; edited by Pradeep Sebastian and Chandra Siddan, Collins, Rs.499
Special Arrangement 50 Writers 50 Books: The Best of Indian Fiction; edited by Pradeep Sebastian and Chandra Siddan, Collins, Rs.499

An anthology that reaffirms one’s love for good writing.

For students of literature, the books we love suddenly become “primary texts.” We end up reading far more secondary texts, or books about the books we love.

In 50 Writers 50 Books: The Best of Indian Fiction, the editors have compiled such secondary texts by well-known writers about celebrated writers. A detailed introduction (a tertiary text?) pulls together the wide range readers expect from such a compilation. The editors disclaim the “best of Indian fiction” tag at the outset, of course. A telling quote from E.M. Forster heads one of the essays: “The final test for a novel will be our affection for it, as it is the test of our friends, and of anything else which we cannot define.”

The anthology is meant to open the reader’s vistas, not limit them. For a reviewer to assess that editorial endeavour would take literary comment to an absurd level. Instead, this review is as idiosyncratic as the essays in question. In short, I read the contributions of writers I knew, or about books I knew, or about books I want to know. I’ll read the rest when I feel like it. I’m sure that’s how the editors intended the volume to be used.

Ananya Vajpeyi, who has taught Rabindranath Tagore’s Ghare Baire for years, uses the novel to decipher life. In her essay, she explores the personal and political actions of the characters in Tagore’s love triangle, particularly the “perfect coincidence between Bimala’s sexual infidelity and ideological error.” She brings to the fore the fragility of the home Tagore depicts: Bimala and Nikhil’s lives are doomed from the time Nikhil brings his friend Sandip and the idea of Swadeshi into his house. Seeing a new staged version of the novel made this contributor look at the work anew. Her essay is bound to have the same effect on readers.

In an essay on Bama Faustina’s autobiographical novel Karukku, S. Theodore Bhaskaran sets this powerful speaker in the context of Dalit society and literature. The title of her novel and of his essay refers to the jagged edge of a palmyra leaf. The novel is written in colloquial Tamil rather than high Tamil, and it is earthy, full of the “dirty” words that are often a Dalit woman’s only weapon against caste violence. Bhaskaran notes also the honest bitterness of her work. Bama Faustina is not the kind of writer to offer readers an illusory sense of reconciliation between Dalits and their oppressors. Another essay that will send readers to the original work.

Vaikkom Muhammed Basheer’s Poovan Banana and Other Stories is the focus of an essay by Kala Krishnan Ramesh. Basheer seemed to live inside his stories, she writes, not just making them autobiographical but entering them in order to confuse and challenge the reader. Basheer’s comic writing revels in the absurd. In ‘The World-Famous Nose’, a cook loses his job because his nose has grown down to his navel. He then becomes a millionaire because people pay to gawk at him and because poets write epics about him. It may be, as the essayist suggests, that Basheer is “really talking about the writer’s ability to construct an artifice of words”. Or sometimes a very long nose is just a very long nose. Again, we’d want to read the story to figure it out.

Even when the writing is rather flat-footed, the eager reader is inspired to explore. Vijay Nair’s essay is repetitive and uneven but he still evokes a treasure in his account of how Attia Hosain came to write Sunlight on a Broken Column and how he came to read it.

And when the book is one we’ve been waiting to read, the effect is instant. In her essay, Padmaja Challakere explores V.S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas and her own father’s world view at the same time. Its understated poignancy held my attention till the end. Then I put down this volume and reached for the book I already love.

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