Tucked away in a local library in Shillong, somewhere in the mid-1980s, Karthika Nair’s adolescent fingers found a dog-eared copy of Granta . Over the years it rose in her consciousness as a colossus of a literary magazine. It shaped her sense of literature’s limitless possibilities. So to be published in Granta is like being included in a monumental photograph. “I am part of a very vibrant, polyglot and multifarious Indian literary landscape. Like all snapshots, even with the most powerful wide-angle lenses, some things of great beauty and urgency will fall outside its focus and I was fortunate to fall within its ambit,” she says.
In 1997, the landscape captured by Granta to commemorate India’s 50th anniversary of independence included ‘Five Hours to Shimla’, (Anita Desai), ‘Kabir Street’ (R.K. Narayan), ‘Mumbai’ (Suketu Mehta), ‘Caste Wars’ (William Darlymple) and other established authors. The issue also introduced Arundathi Roy, who said about great stories. “They have no secrets. You know how they end, yet you listen as though you don’t. In the way that although you know that one day you will die, you live as though you won’t.”
Eighteen years later, Ian Jack has curated yet another issue set in India, with writers like Aman Sethi, Samanth Subramanian and Raghu Karnad attempting to give away the secret of great reportages. “As a reader, I am drawn to reportage that renders a world rich in enchantment, possibility, and danger, rather than one of cynicism and exhausted sorrow,” says Aman Sethi, whose ‘Love Jihad’ explores the mounting religious tensions in a melodramatic country.
Raghu Karnad was on a city bus when his phone beeped with an e-mail from Ian Jack, accepting a revised piece days after he had down turned down the first draft. “I think the issue demonstrates the freshness and variety of what’s coming up in India’s non-fiction garden. So that’s a thrill. The story of the Japanese interned in the Purana Qila was one offshoot of the research I’ve been obsessed with: on the history of India’s World War II. I have a book about that — Farthest Field — coming out in May. We’ve had this dramatic and utterly astonishing national experience, and legacy really, hidden from us for decades. One part of it was the deluge of foreigners into the country: Italian prisoners of war; Jewish child refugees from Poland; American pilots; tens of thousands of Chinese and African troops; plenty of others, and, of course, stranded in the fort these unfortunate Japanese civilians,” says Karnad.
The common point in these pieces is the effort to capture the sweeping social changes by moving away from one’s self. Subramanian, for instance, liked the idea of thinking about and observing a little storm in a teacup within the confines of a very elite Bombay club.
“I don’t subscribe to the notion that one ought to tell a story from India ONLY if it says something about India at large; it’s too narrow and restrictive a view of storytelling. But in this case, it happened that the Breach Candy affair showed glimpses of the way India is at the moment and the way things work within a particular, elite sliver of society. And it was appropriate for Granta , given the Breach Candy Club’s ties to the British Raj,” he says.
Despite the criticism for all that this anthology could have been but isn’t, one can’t help but romanticise about its making. Jack has triumphed in nitpicking shards that individually and collectively paint a poignant landscape of life and loss in contemporary India.
“It is, I find, one of the most exciting things about the issue. The freshness in reportage, the features, the non-fiction … it was a reminder of the prolificacy of form burgeoning in Indian literature. I know that is not necessarily new, but rarely does this gets highlighted in such an empiric way on any platform, Indian or otherwise.
“Personally, what I cherish the most came from a research scholar on Indian literature who spotted Shunaka: Blood Count for what it actually is — a modest, but very loving, homage to Arun Kolatkar’s pi-dog in the Kala Ghoda poems, one of the most singular canine voices ever, a magnificent and laconic mongrel who lounges around Kala Ghoda, never missing a sight or smell or sound,” Nair adds.
A compliment or criticism from a third eye often accomplishes more than a mirror does, which is quite what Granta achieves with this imprint. While this stands true, the greatest feat for several of these writers is to share pages with Arun Kolatkar.