reviews and essays

Those Bloody Indians in a Major Key

Some excellent writing as well as some serious editorial grandstanding

By NAKUL KRISHNA | 1 February 2010

IT APPARENTLY STARTED “one day in 1992” when the historian Ramachandra Guha was summoned by his “formidable professorial Tambram aunt,” the economic historian Dharma Kumar. Guha “declined her offer” to edit a new literary journal on the lines of the New Yorker or Granta “devoted to ferreting out … new literary writing … by paying its writers well” and suggested the novelist Mukul Kesavan and the scholar-publisher Rukun Advani instead. Scotch was consumed – “an old Chivas Regal” – and erudite banter exchanged. Cut to 1994 and the first issue of Civil Lines. Seven years, five issues, and some “vaguely better than modest” sales later, the whole thing starts to disintegrate and the “sixth issue of Civil Lines is about seven years overdue.”

This rise-and-fall story we know because Rukun Advani narrates it at length in his editor’s introduction to this recently published ‘Best of’ anthology (whence the quotations above). It is an uneven collection that emerges, but there are more highs than lows. It can in good faith be recommended.

There is much charm in the vivid details of a childhood among the sand dunes of undivided Punjab in the extract from Khushwant Singh’s memoirs. Inevitably, with its accounts of the “taut, shapely, black-nippled bosoms” of the women of his boyhood, they are fated to be memorable chiefly as a portrait of the artist as a dirty young boy. Tenzing Sonam brings a refreshing personal angle to the ever-expanding corpus of Tibet travelogues in his A Stranger in My Native Land: A Journey Through Tibet. The familiar elements are all there – the stark landscape of the Tibetan plateau and the depressing facts of the Chinese occupation – but there are many new ones:

… Mr Chen and the interpreter admit that they cannot speak the Xining Chinese dialect very well and that this part of China is completely different from their native province… . They talk about the difficulty of adjusting to the altitude … and of getting used to the different food habits and customs. A certain wistfulness creeps into their conversation. The absurdity of their situation becomes clear; here they are, playing out the fiction that we – Tibetan and Chinese of Qinghai Province – are brothers when the reality is that they are themselves strangers to this region … the bureaucratic elite of a colonial power, serving time in a distant corner of the empire.

The similarly bleak landscape of Ladakh is the backdrop for Kai Friese’s virtuoso account of his pursuit of a story about the curious efforts of a Kashmiri tourism secretary hoping to revive an old attraction: a ‘lost tribe’ of ‘Dardic Aryans’ known as the Brokpas. “They are so pure,” [the tourism secretary] was quoted as saying, “that neo-Nazi women come from Germany to get impregnated with Aryan seed.”

The stage is set for a long comic romp, a ‘Carry On Up the Rohtang,’ but what follows is unpredictable and breathtaking. It takes Friese a breezy twenty pages to weave together a story that marries the absurd conceit about neo-Nazi sperm tourists with oddities from nineteenth-century race theory, the ancient history of Ladakh, parallels between Brokpa and Biblical genealogies, and detached yet moving reportage of the Kargil conflict as it unfolds. Friese is possessed of an enviably sharp set of senses and a quick grasp of context. Consider this passage of description:

We reached the western edge of Dha, a bluff overlooking the Dabar, and were greeted by the hysterical tintinnabulation of a jackhammer. The machine paused for breath, and the patient throb of an idling bulldozer took its place. The army was building a road to Nirda. There was a flash on the other side of the gorge and then a blast, like a thunderclap going off in a small room. As the sound went rumbling down the valley I saw the dust-cloud, then the howitzer, and then the delta of cardboard shell cases that had accumulated at the bottom of the slope. By the time I heard the second jackhammer approaching from the skies I knew what it was. We watched the machine land. It sat flapping steadily for a while until an officer climbed in, then whooped off again towards the pasture. The theatre of war.

It is a master class in good writing: note the choice of verbs (‘whoop’ and ‘flap’), the aural contrast between ‘tintinnabulation’ and ‘throb,’ and the pun on ‘theatre’ in the last sentence. Clever and wise, funny and humane, Liver is not Mutton is the work of a natural writer and (almost) worth the price of the volume. Many good things could also be said about the contributions of Ruchir Joshi and Brijraj Singh, who both write movingly about their fathers, Radha Kumar, whose arrest after a protest in Bhopal forms the basis of an engaging essay about her subsequent incarceration in a women’s prison, and the extract from I. Allan Sealy’s From Yukon to Yucatan: A Western Journey (1994), which is full of insights into the moral underpinnings of modern myths about the Wild West.

Advani contends in the introduction that “many readers of Indian fiction … ha[ve] had their fill of Malgudi.” This might be true, as long as it will be conceded that many have not. The endearingly sycophantic classical musician in Sheila Dhar’s short story The Taming of Raga Adana is like something out of early Narayan, as are many of the characters in Manohar Shetty’s Lancelot Gomes, which tracks a piece of local gossip, transformed unrecognisably in the course of a chain of Chinese Whispers. Shetty paints a vivid and entertaining picture of modern Goa and its diaspora, a world in which people say things like “Yah, man … Whadda heck – variety is the spice of life. But why you not geddin’ married, man? Already you’re geddin’ grey hair.”

There are many delights in Dilip Simeon’s story about a Punjabi trucker and his Marxist apprentice, his khalasi. About Simeon’s contribution, the worst that can be said is that it ends too abruptly, and it gladdens the heart to learn that a novel is on its way. The humour in Suketu Mehta’s Sexual History of an Accountant is pitch black and owes much to the deliciously baroque prose of his accountant narrator. “It was evident that the woman desired slumber rather than union,” he informs us in one instance. Another character complains that a certain “personage … wished to imbibe substantial quantities of beer and then micturate upon attractive women. He was prepared to pay generously for the privilege.”

With such an assortment of riches at hand, it is hard not to wonder about the wisdom of including some of the anthology’s weaker pieces. Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s memoirs of early years in Bhilai and Allahabad are full of carefully recalled detail, only some of it interesting. The less said about RK Laxman’s account of his Mysore childhood the better. Its prose style – “[The gardener] was my friend. Oh, what stories he would tell me! All about his own brave deeds and strange experiences” – seems better suited to a primary school textbook. The larger part of the story is familiar from his brother’s far more interesting memoirs of the same years. Bill Aitken’s Beating a Green Retreat is bearable when it restricts itself to describing the “south-facing limestone slopes of Mussoorie” and his “south Delhi garden [with] its abundant variety of trees,” but his stabs at New Age profundity lead each time to mangled metaphors and bad writing:

As the seasons cycle remorselessly to offer the reflective citizen a glimpse of a benign revolving force in charge of planetary evolution (as opposed to the Judaistic illusion that human progress is the captain of the ship), it grows upon the student of religion that our common creator/wellspring of energy yields more meaningfully to poetic intuition than theological definition. The alchemist Vaughan neatly expressed the situation when he declared, ‘Life is magical not peripatetic.’ Rumi, the piping mystic-bard, had earlier clarified the proposition with dramatic directness: ‘Sell cleverness. Buy bewilderment.’

Plodding and humourless, the least interesting of the anthology’s short stories are tired variations on that oldest of novelistic tropes: the bored housewife. In Sunita Thakur’s Neelu and Amitava Kumar’s Indian Restaurant, there is some cursory examination of the pains of the recent immigrant. The immigrant housewife in Manjula Padmanabhan’s Stains prompts a series of laboured conversations between her son and his black American girlfriend on the lively subjects of menstrual blood, the sacredness of cows, and cultural relativism. The interracial relationship in Susan Visvanathan’s Something Barely Remembered is adulterous; in Shashank Kela’s Bougainvillea, the adultery borders on the incestuous; neither is particularly memorable. The incest in Raj Kamal Jha’s The Blue Bedspread is enlivened by rape, more incest, and not much else.

Other readers will no doubt find different things to like and dislike in the collection. Indeed, the judgments above might well be idiosyncratic, but no more so than those of Rukun Advani, who says in his editor’s preface that his principle of inclusion was simply “personal prejudice. … Some pieces I kept out for reasons I can’t myself fathom. I think this is more or less how all anthologies are made.” (Think again.)

What’s more: “this ought certainly to be seen by one and all as the finest anthology of Indian writing in English that it is humanly possible to produce, the defining and definitive work in its field, the lodestar in a milky way strewn with stardust and rubble.” And again: surely not. Or, to adopt Advani’s idiom: this and other bits of editorial grandstanding ought certainly to be seen by one and all to be demonstrably false. It is probably supposed to be funny. What is the kindest way to say that it is not? This might be a matter of taste, but the problem with having your tongue so resolutely in your cheek while speaking is that your words cease to make sense.

THERE ARE MANY CLAIMS in Advani’s introduction with which it is possible, in the spirit of a constructive critic, to take serious issue. Start with this claim about the aptness of the journal’s title: “Indians who could write beautiful English were all people of privilege. They either lived in the Civil Lines areas or had gone to Civil Lines missionary schools or had close social connections with the upper-class civilities that had given rise to the Ghosh Generation of new writers.” Let us be fair and concede that what he writes contains at least a grain of truth: any Indian able to write any English at all is (ipso facto) privileged. It turns out, however, that he does not mean just that. In the manner of an old Tsarist aristocrat, he sighs wistfully (and only half-ironically) at the thought that “happy days in cherry orchards are over for the old aristocracy,” and then proceeds to take the requisite dig at Shobhaa De and – wait for it – the “blogger-novelists and other such linguistically-challenged and attention-deficient plebs who would never have been allowed entry into the sort of Civil Lines that Dharma Kumar … wanted.”

This is the sort of thing that turns otherwise sensible people Bolshevik. Who are these ‘blogger-novelists’ of whom he speaks? He might mean Manjula Padmanabhan (http://marginalien.blogspot.com) or Amitava Kumar (http://www.amitavakumar.com), but that cannot be, since they are both in this anthology. It is more likely that he means Chandrahas Choudhury (Arzee the Dwarf (2009), http://middlestage.blogspot.com), or Amit Verma (My Friend Sancho (2008), http://www.indiauncut.com). Opinion is divided on the quality of their offline prose offerings, but Advani’s epithets quite miss their mark in both instances, possibly because he has not actually bothered to read them.

What can be said about the future of a journal about which no one under 25 has heard? (The evidence for the claim is anecdotal, but it is easily tested). Not that it matters, since Advani does not seem to want any readers from outside his little patrician clique: you do not call your potential readers plebs and then expect them to buy your book. Looking in from the outside, the gilt-edged world of frightfully grand people engaged in learned repartee has a certain attraction, but its realities (as any reader of the nineteenth-century novel will tell you) are inevitably disappointing.

Advani holds forth at length about the reasons of health, finance and clashes of personality that stymied the enterprise at various points, and one is inclined to be sympathetic. One understands that it is very difficult to run a literary journal. Some of these difficulties are financial, and the New Yorker has had to face them too. But there are other problems. Advani almost puts his finger on it when he writes: “the people writing in those book-mags were mostly born speaking high-class idiomatic Anglo-American English, brought up in cultures well stocked with libraries and literary wealth, and probably getting paid hundreds of dollars to write – in rooms of their own, each with a view.” By contrast, the “English skills of the Indians who contributed to Civil Lines were, in most cases, acquired within circumstances of greater cultural, linguistic, and economic difficulty,”

So far so reasonable, but this swiftly turns to whining. “Sales of the journal had been … far from spectacular.” Why? Because “high quality reading material does not respond in India to low prices along the same curve as telephone conversations – Indians want to talk much more than they want to read,” and “there is in fact a great lack of Indians who can write superior, literary English of the kind published [here].” And so on and so forth, like a piano solo titled Those Bloody Indians played with one missing note – the note of self-criticism. There is mention in one place of ‘editorial lethargy’ but this is worn as a badge of honour. Advani’s introduction and the introductions to each volume included here display the enviably brazen ability to make vices seem like virtues. Lethargy is a symptom of genius, irregularity is a guarantee of quality, pretentiousness equals sophistication, and cliquishness equals high standards. And the blame always lies elsewhere: publishers, writers, ‘the new middle class,’ or Shobhaa De.

As it happens, a literary journal needs not (only) good writers, but editors with the competence and confidence to enforce high standards, prepared to take the responsibility for failure. It needs not an already eager reading public (no such luck) but a coherent strategy of marketing and distribution, not a literary manifesto (whatever that is) but a business plan. The people who run the New Yorker know this. As one of India’s most successful publishers, Advani must know this as well.

But most importantly, a journal needs to accept change with grace, and adapt to it. There is no need to pretend that nothing of importance will be lost along the way (cue to join Advani in a spot of feudal nostalgia), but some of us are too excited about what is coming to be altogether glum. The next big bright young literary journal will have to be built of something other than nostalgia. In fact, it will most likely be built of HTML.

Advani’s summary judgments about the quality of writing on blogs proves only that he is reading the wrong blogs. From behind the colonial windowpanes of Civil Lines bungalows, the free (in both senses of the word), open, and democratic culture of the Internet must appear intolerably plebeian. But it is the future. In fact, it is the present. The New Yorker has come to terms with it, as have the New York and London Review of Books, and these publications now have well-designed websites, each with a larger and more diverse readership than its print avatars ever managed.

Young Indian writers in English now have easy access to archives of decades of good writing from which to learn the craft. Publishing gets simpler, faster, and cheaper every day, rendering one set of economic constraints redundant. The material is out there, as it always has been. These writers will work in a marketplace freer and fairer, quicker to spot talent, better able to reward it. The old guard will simply have to stiffen that upper lip and cope.

Here is a friendly suggestion: make the Civil Lines archives available for free online. More people will read it there than will pick up this volume. Online advertising will probably make at least as much money. Checking if www.civillines.com is available might be a good place
to start.  

IT APPARENTLY STARTED “one day in 1992” when the historian Ramachandra Guha was summoned by his “formidable professorial Tambram aunt,” the economic historian Dharma Kumar. Guha “declined her offer” to edit a new literary journal on the lines of the New Yorker or Granta “devoted to ferreting out … new literary writing … by paying its writers well” and suggested the novelist Mukul Kesavan and the scholar-publisher Rukun Advani instead. Scotch was consumed – “an old Chivas Regal” – and erudite banter exchanged. Cut to 1994 and the first issue of Civil Lines. Seven years, five issues, and some “vaguely better than modest” sales later, the whole thing starts to disintegrate and the “sixth issue of Civil Lines is about seven years overdue.”

This rise-and-fall story we know because Rukun Advani narrates it at length in his editor’s introduction to this recently published ‘Best of’ anthology (whence the quotations above). It is an uneven collection that emerges, but there are more highs than lows. It can in good faith be recommended.

There is much charm in the vivid details of a childhood among the sand dunes of undivided Punjab in the extract from Khushwant Singh’s memoirs. Inevitably, with its accounts of the “taut, shapely, black-nippled bosoms” of the women of his boyhood, they are fated to be memorable chiefly as a portrait of the artist as a dirty young boy. Tenzing Sonam brings a refreshing personal angle to the ever-expanding corpus of Tibet travelogues in his A Stranger in My Native Land: A Journey Through Tibet. The familiar elements are all there – the stark landscape of the Tibetan plateau and the depressing facts of the Chinese occupation – but there are many new ones:

… Mr Chen and the interpreter admit that they cannot speak the Xining Chinese dialect very well and that this part of China is completely different from their native province… . They talk about the difficulty of adjusting to the altitude … and of getting used to the different food habits and customs. A certain wistfulness creeps into their conversation. The absurdity of their situation becomes clear; here they are, playing out the fiction that we – Tibetan and Chinese of Qinghai Province – are brothers when the reality is that they are themselves strangers to this region … the bureaucratic elite of a colonial power, serving time in a distant corner of the empire.

The similarly bleak landscape of Ladakh is the backdrop for Kai Friese’s virtuoso account of his pursuit of a story about the curious efforts of a Kashmiri tourism secretary hoping to revive an old attraction: a ‘lost tribe’ of ‘Dardic Aryans’ known as the Brokpas. “They are so pure,” [the tourism secretary] was quoted as saying, “that neo-Nazi women come from Germany to get impregnated with Aryan seed.”

The stage is set for a long comic romp, a ‘Carry On Up the Rohtang,’ but what follows is unpredictable and breathtaking. It takes Friese a breezy twenty pages to weave together a story that marries the absurd conceit about neo-Nazi sperm tourists with oddities from nineteenth-century race theory, the ancient history of Ladakh, parallels between Brokpa and Biblical genealogies, and detached yet moving reportage of the Kargil conflict as it unfolds. Friese is possessed of an enviably sharp set of senses and a quick grasp of context. Consider this passage of description:

We reached the western edge of Dha, a bluff overlooking the Dabar, and were greeted by the hysterical tintinnabulation of a jackhammer. The machine paused for breath, and the patient throb of an idling bulldozer took its place. The army was building a road to Nirda. There was a flash on the other side of the gorge and then a blast, like a thunderclap going off in a small room. As the sound went rumbling down the valley I saw the dust-cloud, then the howitzer, and then the delta of cardboard shell cases that had accumulated at the bottom of the slope. By the time I heard the second jackhammer approaching from the skies I knew what it was. We watched the machine land. It sat flapping steadily for a while until an officer climbed in, then whooped off again towards the pasture. The theatre of war.

It is a master class in good writing: note the choice of verbs (‘whoop’ and ‘flap’), the aural contrast between ‘tintinnabulation’ and ‘throb,’ and the pun on ‘theatre’ in the last sentence. Clever and wise, funny and humane, Liver is not Mutton is the work of a natural writer and (almost) worth the price of the volume. Many good things could also be said about the contributions of Ruchir Joshi and Brijraj Singh, who both write movingly about their fathers, Radha Kumar, whose arrest after a protest in Bhopal forms the basis of an engaging essay about her subsequent incarceration in a women’s prison, and the extract from I. Allan Sealy’s From Yukon to Yucatan: A Western Journey (1994), which is full of insights into the moral underpinnings of modern myths about the Wild West.

Advani contends in the introduction that “many readers of Indian fiction … ha[ve] had their fill of Malgudi.” This might be true, as long as it will be conceded that many have not. The endearingly sycophantic classical musician in Sheila Dhar’s short story The Taming of Raga Adana is like something out of early Narayan, as are many of the characters in Manohar Shetty’s Lancelot Gomes, which tracks a piece of local gossip, transformed unrecognisably in the course of a chain of Chinese Whispers. Shetty paints a vivid and entertaining picture of modern Goa and its diaspora, a world in which people say things like “Yah, man … Whadda heck – variety is the spice of life. But why you not geddin’ married, man? Already you’re geddin’ grey hair.”

There are many delights in Dilip Simeon’s story about a Punjabi trucker and his Marxist apprentice, his khalasi. About Simeon’s contribution, the worst that can be said is that it ends too abruptly, and it gladdens the heart to learn that a novel is on its way. The humour in Suketu Mehta’s Sexual History of an Accountant is pitch black and owes much to the deliciously baroque prose of his accountant narrator. “It was evident that the woman desired slumber rather than union,” he informs us in one instance. Another character complains that a certain “personage … wished to imbibe substantial quantities of beer and then micturate upon attractive women. He was prepared to pay generously for the privilege.”

With such an assortment of riches at hand, it is hard not to wonder about the wisdom of including some of the anthology’s weaker pieces. Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s memoirs of early years in Bhilai and Allahabad are full of carefully recalled detail, only some of it interesting. The less said about RK Laxman’s account of his Mysore childhood the better. Its prose style – “[The gardener] was my friend. Oh, what stories he would tell me! All about his own brave deeds and strange experiences” – seems better suited to a primary school textbook. The larger part of the story is familiar from his brother’s far more interesting memoirs of the same years. Bill Aitken’s Beating a Green Retreat is bearable when it restricts itself to describing the “south-facing limestone slopes of Mussoorie” and his “south Delhi garden [with] its abundant variety of trees,” but his stabs at New Age profundity lead each time to mangled metaphors and bad writing:

As the seasons cycle remorselessly to offer the reflective citizen a glimpse of a benign revolving force in charge of planetary evolution (as opposed to the Judaistic illusion that human progress is the captain of the ship), it grows upon the student of religion that our common creator/wellspring of energy yields more meaningfully to poetic intuition than theological definition. The alchemist Vaughan neatly expressed the situation when he declared, ‘Life is magical not peripatetic.’ Rumi, the piping mystic-bard, had earlier clarified the proposition with dramatic directness: ‘Sell cleverness. Buy bewilderment.’

Plodding and humourless, the least interesting of the anthology’s short stories are tired variations on that oldest of novelistic tropes: the bored housewife. In Sunita Thakur’s Neelu and Amitava Kumar’s Indian Restaurant, there is some cursory examination of the pains of the recent immigrant. The immigrant housewife in Manjula Padmanabhan’s Stains prompts a series of laboured conversations between her son and his black American girlfriend on the lively subjects of menstrual blood, the sacredness of cows, and cultural relativism. The interracial relationship in Susan Visvanathan’s Something Barely Remembered is adulterous; in Shashank Kela’s Bougainvillea, the adultery borders on the incestuous; neither is particularly memorable. The incest in Raj Kamal Jha’s The Blue Bedspread is enlivened by rape, more incest, and not much else.

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Nakul Krishna is a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Cambridge.

READER'S COMMENTS

2 thoughts on “Those Bloody Indians in a Major Key”

Well written, but a bit too wordy for a book review. What I want to know is: 1. Did the reviewer like the book. 2. What was the perceived style of writing: For adults only? Teens? Women? Men? etc. History?, Scifi?, Romance?, Mystery? etc.

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