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A daisy chain or complementary angles to reality

Sudeshna Shome Ghosh | Updated on December 14, 2020

A moment’s notice: Mehrotra writes about the perfection of a moment to be captured forever — in poetry, photography, or painting — and, sometimes, in the literary essay   -  SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Edited by poet Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, ‘The Book of Indian Essays’ is an ambitious attempt to bring together 200 years of Indian prose, and succeeds delightfully in its lofty aspirations

* From Henry Derozio to Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, Rabindranath Tagore to Dom Moraes, the essays straddle three centuries and a multitude of thoughts effortlessly

* Many essays in the book deal with family — grandparents make appearances, as do parents, flawed and misunderstood

* It talks about why the political essay is largely missing from this collection

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“One minute in the life of the world is going by. Paint it as it is.” This line by French artist Paul Cézanne appears in the introduction to The Book of Indian Essays, edited by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra. Mehrotra, poet, translator and anthologist, writes about the perfection of a moment, to be captured forever — in poetry, in photography, or in painting — and sometimes, in the literary essay. The essay, in its brevity and concentrated thought, lends itself to capturing anything from big ideas to fleeting moments vividly and memorably within the space of a few pages.

The Book of Indian Essays: Two Hundred Years of Indian Prose/ Edited by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra/ Permenant Black-Hachette/ Non-fiction/ ₹699

 

In this handsome volume of essays gathered in one place by Mehrotra, readers can treat themselves to a wide variety of thoughts, people, moments and actions. It is an ambitious attempt to bring together ‘Two hundred years of Indian prose’ and it succeeds delightfully in its lofty ambition. From Henry Derozio to Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, Rabindranath Tagore to Dom Moraes, the essays in the collection straddle three centuries and a multitude of thoughts effortlessly. It begins in mid-19th century Calcutta, where gossip and scandal proliferate in tea parties and newspapers. At the same time, Shoshee Chunder Dutt writes eloquently on the hawkers who ply their wares with different types of cries in the city’s lanes and streets. Even today, being in Kolkata translates to lazing sleepily in bed, while people walk up and down the streets calling out their offerings. Where once they offered to take old bottles, shine brass pots, or to dive into wells to retrieve lost earrings and nose pins, now their cries are about locks and keys, breads, and cotton fluffing.

The essays move easily from one topic to another. Tagore meditates on nationalism, a piece that is startlingly relevant today, more than ever, while Hasan Shaheed Suhrawardy writes a wonderful piece on meeting Tagore for the first time in Oxford. He describes how the poet, awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, could hold everyone in his thrall with both his conversation and his calm and peaceful mien.

Many essays in the book deal with family — grandparents make appearances, as do parents, flawed and misunderstood. Aubrey Menen, the English writer of Irish and Malayali parentage, writes of his grandmother whom he meets in her Kerala home, the matriarch who tells him how to conduct his future life among the none-too-clean British. Santha Rama Rau writes about Shivan and Kutty, her uncle and aunt. The essay With Shivan and Kutty in New Delhi has a description of a car ride from the Delhi railway station and finding “a strange geometrical world — New Delhi. A flashily gauche city of straight streets...” This is a city that is still being built and at night one can hear the “grinding of axes”. Baua — Sheila Dhar’s portrait of her mother, her unhappy marriage, and a strange, tense household — lingers long after it’s read, especially when juxtaposed with her cousin Madhur Jaffrey’s account of the same extended family, where Baua appears briefly yet again.

Some essays are in the form of literary reviews or on literary personalities. Poet Nissim Ezekiel’s gentle but razor-sharp dissection of VS Naipaul is a masterpiece, and in fact made me want to revisit Ezekiel myself. Buddhadeva Bose writes warmly and intimately about Henry Miller and the time he spent a few months with the American writer’s family in the Big Sur. April breeze and sunshine permeate the piece. Historian Sanjay Subrahmanyam’s A Booker Flop is a review of Aravind Adiga’s White Tiger which won the Booker Prize in 2008. But it is also sharp social commentary. On the other hand, Anita Desai’s A Secret Connivance examines literature from different perspectives — that of the writer who comes from the East, who may be a woman, and who is writing of a notion of India that does not fit into the popular tropes of maharajas and palaces or hunger and disease. From here she goes on to ask the question: What is the purpose of literature? Her answer is simple yet profound.

Essays about places and people are always a pleasure to read; to acquaint oneself with unknown roads and persons one would have never met otherwise. Qurratulain Hyder’s Aunt Gracieis the entertaining but tragic story of Gracie, who was once an ayah. Ashok Mitra’s An Ordinary Man is about Amal Sen, a homoeopath — outwardly ordinary and, yet, is anyone ever really just ordinary? And then there are essays about well-known names from a new viewpoint: Sunil Khilnani’s Gandhi’s Styled Life is an examination of how Gandhi orchestrated an image of himself and of Indian politics, indeed of Indian public life, that would endure over decades and hold a nation, even the world, in thrall.

Deeply private or inhabiting the public world, these essays are, as Mehrotra writes in his introduction, either a daisy chain that one can follow sequentially to see a pattern emerge, or they can dovetail each other to show complementary angles to reality. In fact, the introduction is itself a wonderful essay, as it sets the book in perspective, and explains the reasoning behind the choices. Candidly, it talks about why the political essay is missing from this collection, other than two pieces — and those look at politics from new and different angles. It is a bold decision to leave out politics but one that actually works very well here. I only wonder, could there have been more essays on caste, on environment, and on sports? Or perhaps there is a need for another volume of such a collection? And how about one that looks beyond English? That then, would truly sum up the idea of India comprehensively.

Sudeshna Shome Ghosh is a Bengaluru-based editor

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Published on December 14, 2020
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