3 March 2012

A Very Long Engagement: a review of Civil Lines 6

Civil Lines 6: HarperCollins India, 248 pages, Rs. 350.

Civil Lines 6 begins with an editors’ note that makes apologetic reference to the “elephantine gestation” of the current issue. Since practically every issue, except the first, seems to have been inaugurated with statements about how long it’s been in the making, this feels almost traditional; even the phrase “elephantine gestation” has already appeared before in the introduction to Civil Lines 4 (2001).

In other ways, though, Civil Lines 6 does seem to be a departure from the previous volumes of what the editors tell us was conceived as a “literary miscellany” rather than a literary magazine. Simply put, there is less of a Stephanian air about it: no smart-alecky contributor bios (“This bit about Tenzing is all perfectly true because he just sent it to us, asking incredulously if…”), no sardonic poem about literary authenticity (“Sternest are the guardians of Hindi:/can alien okra ever taste/of bhindi?”), even a reference to cleverness having “a sell-by date”.

The collection contains 16 contributions, of which two are poems by Rimli Sengupta and one a photo-essay by Gauri Gill. A lot of the fiction is from unexpected sources: the literary critic and columnist Nilanjana Roy, the academic Ananya Vajpeyi, the designer Itu Chaudhuri (who contributes two stories, containing such lines as, “I shall not describe the beauty of the scene, you have seen it on television”). Roy’s Sugarcane evokes an adolescent anger against the stifling mustiness of old age, giving us a carefully wrought coming-of-age tale in which the arrival of adulthood rests, among other things, on understanding the thin line between a grandmother’s omnipresent power and her immanent frailty.

Treading on less familiar ground, Vajpeyi’s The Archivist also involves an encounter with age. A young doctoral researcher called Nira keeps an appointment with an old Poona librarian, and is struck by how feeble he seems: “It was his usual energy that ought to have amazed her, not his present exhaustion.” Although the end is rather mystifying, The Archivist has a pleasingly straightforward sense of place—and of how people might deal with placelessness: “The place Nira lived in most of the time made little sense to her... But she had to be there, so she switched into a different mode of being in order to cope with it. In this mode, she never sought meaning, she never found it.”

The fiction I liked most was Ruchir Joshi’s Great Eastern Hotel, a cinematic arrangement of characters who brush past each other in the crazily crowded streets of Calcutta (now Kolkata) on 7 August 1941: the day of Rabindranath Tagore’s funeral. It is a piece redolent with the sights and sounds of an imagined Calcutta day, recognizable even across the 70-year gap: the street full of abandoned chappals (slippers) outside Jorasanko Thakurbari, the man who clambers on to the truck to pull some hairs off the dead poet’s famous beard, the sound of the radio in the surprising emptiness of a north Calcutta gali (lane).

Monochrome: Images from Gauri Gill’s photo essay in  Civil Lines 6. Images Courtesy Gauri Gill

Monochrome: Images from Gauri Gill’s photo essay in Civil Lines 6. (Images Courtesy Gauri Gill)

Of the non-fiction, I thoroughly enjoyed Benjamin Siegel’s Raagtime, an archivally informed but un-footnoted account of the rise and fall of the fascinating Alice Richardson, a mezzo-soprano from Yorkshire who married the art historian Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy. He pieces the tale together beautifully, recreating the rich and strange world in which a British memsahib could take a summer of music lessons in a Dal Lake houseboat and emerge into the light of the Western hemisphere as Ratan Devi. The erudite Coomaraswamy comes off rather badly, with his misogyny (“Indian women, he posited, found in intercourse sacrament, while their Western counterparts could, through sex, only vitiate themselves”) and his depressingly museum-izing view of culture, but Siegel retains a poised historian’s distance.

Then there is a range of pieces that might be described as autobiographical. Manu Herbstein’s episodic but detailed, honest account of what it was like to be a white South African in 1960s’ Bombay (now Mumbai) stands in stark contrast to U.R. Ananthamurthy’s too-slight, distressingly romantic account of his “remembered village” (“The jathre was also the place where women from all communities came by… I might have learnt logic from the Brahmins but my aesthetic education came from all communities”). There is also Achal Prabhala’s affecting memoir of a year he spent teaching at a boys’ boarding school in Dehradun. Officially the squash coach, he finds he is also director of the school play, escort for the school trek and unlikely counsellor to various school misfits, perhaps precisely because as Prabhala puts it, “My attitude towards the students, and my feelings about their general self-development, mirrored their favourite word: whatever.”

Naresh Fernandes’ exploration of the death of community in Bandra, Mumbai, through the death of one Peter Rebello is readable, even engaging, but ultimately unsatisfying either as personal or communal history. Shougat Dasgupta’s piece, without trying to be either, is both. Though sometimes unnecessarily wordy (“The Iraqi invasion barely made a scratch on the resilient carapace of my fantasies”), Dasgupta’s is an insightful, often brutally honest look at the shaping of his “twelve-year-old cosmopolitan” self in 1990s’ Kuwait, and raises again the question of place: “(People like my parents) had found homes, not in Kuwait… but in each other, in the idea that it was people who mattered, not place. I had acquired something else entirely in Kuwait—the armour of solipsism.”

West Asia is also at the core of Anand Balakrishnan’s superb, elliptical account of how the idea of failure—the word in Arabic is fashil—keeps cropping up in his physical and readerly travels through the Arab world. Balakrishnan’s Arabic teacher, a US political science student in Cairo, and a whole host of texts, from the newspaperly to the jihadi, come together to create a piece that deserves a second reading.

A lot of the pieces here are reproduced from elsewhere, which feels a bit like cheating in an anthology that pronounces itself “written for ever”: A version of Herbstein’s piece was first published in Chimurenga, a version of Balakrishnan’s in Bidoun, and Ananthamurthy’s derives from an Outlook Traveller magazine interview. But this collection of “new writing from India”—and the idea of India here is clearly that, an idea rather than a geographical entity—has enough newness despite that.

Published in today's Mint Lounge.

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