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‘The Book of Indian Essays’ review: Inside the club compound

The sub-heading of this book is ‘Two Hundred Years of English Prose’, and as you begin to flip the pages you understand that this means non-fiction pieces in English written by Indians. For a moment after that you find yourself noting the preponderance of Bengali names in the contents pages. Of the 45 pieces of prose collected here, 14 are by Bengalis, 15 if you count Ram Guha as an honorary Bong. From a Calcuttan’s p.o.v this is a paltry 30% strike rate. To be fair, this over-representation isn’t the fault of the Bengalis/Kolkataiyas: what were they to do if other desis slouched for a hundred years before picking up the auxiliary Bengali language called English?

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Arvind Mehrotra has included a couple of gems here from the 19th and early 20th centuries, such as Shoshee Chunder Dutt’s witty compilation of Calcutta street-vendors’ calls and Rabindranath Tagore’s succinct challenge to the very idea of a nation. For an example of genuine Bengali cosmopolitanism you can’t do better than Buddhadeb Bose’s lovely recounting of visiting Henry Miller in California in the mid-50s. In contrast there is Ashok Mitra’s superb rendering of a deeply local Calcutta life in ‘An Ordinary Man’. Besides these pieces there are many other lovely bits of writing to be found in the book, by both Bengalis and the non-blessed. However, the more you read more the questions start to bubble up about the organising principle of the anthology and the selection Mehrotra has made.

Many exceptions

“...it was decided to restrict this anthology as far as possible to ‘Indian’ writers. Literary geography, unfortunately, had to be mapped on to the political one, but only loosely,” writes Mehrotra in his introduction, explaining why he has left out people such as Ved Mehta, Salman Rushdie and Vikram Chandra while having “allowed in” Santha Rama Rau and Victor Anant.

This doesn’t hold water: if a certain weight of residence in India was a serious criterion for inclusion then not only Rau and Anant but also Aubrey Menen, Amrita Sher-Gil, Nirad Chaudhuri, G.V. Desani, F.N. Souza, Madhur Jaffrey, Anita Desai, Dom Moraes (at the time of writing), Chitrita Banerji, Amitav Ghosh and Sara Rai, i.e. nearly one third of the writers, are exceptions to the ‘rule’.

As with other aspects of the selection, this codification begins to feel more arbitrary than ‘loose’ in a way that doesn’t enhance the quality of the collection.

Mehrotra also explains the exclusion of political essays and of someone like Arundhati Roy thus: “Political writing is urgent but it is soon replaced by something as urgent the next day... we need it more than ever before; but so do we, as urgently, the essays in this anthology.” This claim to urgency leads to a bit of head-scratching because it’s not as if very many of the essays throw other kinds of sharp light on our current reality. Mehrotra claims various serendipitous connections between different essays but the one ‘link’ that emerges is his fondness for novelistic family memoirs, of which there are several. These pieces read like slight variations on the same theme; of the eight, all are to do with the middle or upper class, seven are filled with cousin sadnesses, six are to do with urban north India, only one is not set in middle of the 20th century. Such a bloc do these pieces form that one wonders if it might not have been an idea to do a collection solely devoted to these sort of dissections of the peculiarities of Indian kinship.

Way with words

Arbitrariness also seeps in from yet a different angle. The first two-thirds of the anthology has a certain tenor, a certain way in which the English is used. With the brilliant exception of G.V. Desani’s ‘The Benares that Was’ — where Desani cracks open the language as only he can — and also Dharma Kumar’s light way with her words, there is a similarity to the smooth rounded prose so respectful of British cadences, a far cry from the photographs of Walker Evans and the paintings of Cezanne that Mehrotra cites in his introduction, more the written equivalent of Rubens and Ravi Varma. Perhaps the anthology should have ended with the piece by Chitrita Banerji who was born in 1947.

Mehrotra is one of the most generous intellects in the Indian world of letters. Therefore, it is mystifying to see the parsimony and timidity of his choices as we come to our own times.

It’s as though Mehrotra’s great erudition has been denied a proper visa into the zone of contemporary Indian writing in English. With the exception of Allan Sealy on the Anglo-Indians, Mukul Kesavan’s delicious evisceration of the Indian male and Sara Rai’s extremely moving memoir ‘On Not Writing’, the array of usual suspects and some truly bizarre choices is disappointing. It’s not only the NRIs, Mehta and Rushdie et al who have been banished outside the club compound. How do you have an anthology of Indian essays in English that includes not even one writer from Paromita Vohra, Kai Friese, Ambarish Satwik, Rahul Bhattacharya, Samanth Subramanian, Snigdha Poonam, Raghu Karnad or Aman Sethi?

The Book of Indian Essays; Edited by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Black Kite/Hachette India,₹699.

The reviewer is a filmmaker and columnist.

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