Discovering India, and the world, with Ian Jack and Granta 

The veteran journalist and editor ensured the magazine of ‘new writing’ got attention for the themes it picked, from global warming to perceptions of America. He also reported from the subcontinent and the two editions on India introduced many new Indian writers to the world 

Published - November 03, 2022 10:30 am IST

Ian Jack in front of a window display of Granta magazines. 

Ian Jack in front of a window display of Granta magazines.  | Photo Credit: GRANTAMAG/ TWITTER

When Ian Jack stepped down as editor of Granta in 2007 after helming it for 12 years, he wrote in his last introduction that he felt it was just right to leave the UK-based magazine. He said a “magazine of new writing” needs perpetual enthusiasm for what “new writing” may bring, and he had begun to worry that he was missing things. “All I have done,” he said, is to obey “my instincts for the original, the interesting and the true.” He pursued the idea that writing, if it can do nothing else, “should at least tell the reader something he didn’t know before.”

Ian Jack passed away suddenly last week at Paisley on the Firth of Clyde in Scotland, and the publishing world, and more importantly, his readers have been remembering the legacy of a 77-year-old journalist, editor and columnist. When he edited Granta, he ensured that the magazine had “its face pressed against the window, determined to witness the world,” as a critic of the London Observer noted. He sent writers into the “real world” to describe the interesting or alarming things happening there which were yet to be turned into a book or manuscript. Jack’s heroes were Anton Chekov and George Orwell, for their brevity and their alertness to the world they lived in.

The first warnings on the climate

In 2003, Granta published an issue on global warming (This Overheating World), which seemed like a premonition of approaching calamity. Matthew Hart reported from Greenland, “In its currents the ocean is printing news about our future, and we must keep up on the latest bulletins.” He had joined a group of ocean scientists on board the research ship, Scotia, and they were studying the currents of the North Atlantic Sea, to check on the flow of warm and cold currents. From the collapse of zoo plankton due to overheating of the waters to a fall in cold-water production that would prove to be catastrophic in the future, Hart captured the changes in the ocean’s heaving waters.

Others like Philip Marsden were noticing changes in the weather in Mongolia: rains in summer were lighter, the permafrost was melting and violent weather was becoming more frequent. Bill McKibben’s title essay posed two questions ‘Worried? Us?’ He pointed out that by 1995, the world’s climate scientists had organised themselves into a collective called the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and declared that “the balance of evidence suggests that there is a discernible human influence on global climate.” And yet, “though we know that our culture has placed our own lives on a demonic fast-forward, we imagine that the earth must work on some other timescale.”

The edition is far-sighted, in the light of the fact that climate conferences are still debating on the right global response to the increasing threat of climate change. Cut to 2022, and the November international climate summit will see leaders gathering in Sharm El-Sheikh for the 27th round of the Conference of Parties, with data showing that the world is not doing enough to stop global warming despite the warnings.

Against the current

Another Granta edition (77) looked at global perceptions of the U.S. The Spring 2002 issue, coming after the 9/11 attacks, posed the questions: “Is the U.S. really so disliked? If so, why?” Jack asked 24 writers from across the world to explain the role America had played in their lives. In the introduction, he wrote, “The pieces are not about that day [September 11], nor are they excuses for it. They are about how America has entered non-American lives, and to what effect, for good and bad and both.”

Ramachandra Guha begins his piece with a delightful anecdote. At a garden party in Calcutta sometime in the late 1950s, a football kicked by the host’s son broke a whisky bottle. Fragments of glass entered the arm of the U.S. Consul General, and he had to be stitched up in hospital, prompting the biologist J.B.S. Haldane to comment: “A little Bengali communist has successfully attacked an American imperialist.” Later, when a Left Front government came to power in Bengal, one of its first acts was to name the street on which the U.S. Consulate stood after Ho Chi Minh. “The truth about America is that it is at once deeply democratic and instinctively imperialist,” Guha says. Harold Pinter did not mince words, saying, America is a “fully-fledged, award-winning, gold-plated monster…it knows only one language — bombs and death.” Egyptian writer Ahdaf Soueif wondered whether to be good for Americans the country had to be “bad for the rest of us.”

Tales on India

Over the years Jack was editor, Granta wrote on cities and countries, London to Russia, family, children, the sea, on the death of Princess Diana – ‘Those who felt differently’ – and, of course, India. Jack first arrived in India in 1976 during the last months of the Emergency as a reporter, and found the country “remote and austere, resolved to… fulfil its aspirations in its own way.” He travelled for weeks, and saw the force of “political freedom and universal suffrage” when his newspaper asked him to stay on and cover the 1977 elections called by Indira Gandhi. India became his second home for the next several years and he captured many of the changes, not least the movement of Hindu nationalism from the margins to the centre of politics. Granta did two editions on India, one in 1997 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of independence, and another in 2015, when Jack guest-edited issue No. 130/Another Way of Seeing. In it appeared the first excerpt in English of Vivek Shanbag’s celebrated novella Ghachar Ghochar, translated by Srinath Perur. Celebrating a bustling Indian publishing industry, Jack wrote, “The Indian writer need no longer look over his shoulder at his imagined audience abroad; many if not most of his readers are much closer — are Indian like him and need no telling about samosas.”

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