About the Book
India's poets have been among the finest writer of English prose earlier, Henry Derozio and Toru Dutt; more recently, Nissim Ezekiel, A.K. Ramanujan, Dom Moraes, and Adil Jussawalla. Writers of this kind, representing the 'common reader' tradition of unpretentious writing about literature and life, are something of a rarity in India. Arvind Krishna Mehrotra renowned poet, critic, translator, editor, and anthologist enriches an uncommon stream with this brilliant collection. The essays gathered here, rich in literary detail and accessible insight, were written over the past thirty years. Among them are Mehrotra's homage to his friend and fellow poet Arun Kolatkar; a perceptive appreciation of A.K. Ramanujan; a scathing scrutiny of R. Parthasarathy; a radical redefinition of the modern Indian poem; a literary-historical view of Kabir; and a wide-ranging introduction to the entire corpus of Indian writing in English from 1800 to the present.
Mehrotra, who has lived much of his life in Allahabad, writes also about the provincialization of India's middle-sized cities, the decimation of cultural heritage across urban north India, and the joys and pains of growing up in a small town where everyone knew everyone. Forthright in manner and co mopolitan in their references, Mehrotra's writings are an exceptional mix of the autobiographical and the literary, an antidote to the everyday annihilation of English prose by journalists at one end and literary critics at the other.
This is a book to be enjoyed, savoured, dipped into, and read again and again.
About the Author
Mr. Vind Krishna Mehrotra was born in Lahore in 1947 and educated at the universities of Allahabad and Bombay. He has published four collections of poetry, two volumes of translations, and edited several books, including An Illustrated History of Indian Literature in English. He lives in Allahabad and Dehra Dun.
Broadly speaking, my two preoccupations in the essays that follow have been the nature of the multilingual imagination and the invisible web of connections that lies beneath a literature, the stories that are hidden behind the stories we read. The two preoccupations, which really are one, are guided less by a desire to interpret the pattern in the carpet than to understand how it came to acquire the shape it did. While my writerly soul has travelled through realms of gold, the body, for at least part of the time, has been immured in Allahabad. Three of the essays, 'Descendants', 'Partial Recall', and 'Mela', are glimpses into this other world that I've inhabited.
'Towards a History of Indian Literature in English' ends with the examples of writers who, when they looked in the mirror in the hallway, saw more than their own smiling faces staring back at them. I. Allan Sealy saw Henry Derozio, Nirad Chaudhuri saw Toru Dutt, Salman Rushdie saw G.Y. Desani. I had hoped that the awareness of their precursors shown by these writers would lead critics to explore the idea further. A decade after writing the essay I realize that this was wishful thinking on my part. A literary landscape is made up of much more than isolated works of literature; it requires critical scrutiny, intelligent encouragement, and credible evaluation, but there is such a scarcity of these that the Indian one looks more barren than ever before. If there are any productive intellectual communities living in the scrub, whether nomadic or settled, freelancers or attached to universities, they've kept themselves well hidden from view.
The great betrayal of our literature has been primarily by those who teach in the country's English departments, the: academic community whose job it was to green the hillsides by planting them with biographies, scholarly editions, selections carrying new introductions, histories, canon-shaping (or canon-breaking) anthologies, readable translations, revaluations, exhaustive bibliographies devoted to individual authors, and critical essays that, because of the excellence of their prose, become as much a part of the literature as any significant novel or poem. Little of this has happened. Writers die, are mourned. by other writers, and the matter ends there. A year goes by, then a decade, and nothing appears to tell the reading public why the author deserves to be read and how he fitted into the larger story of a literature to which he spent a lifetime contributing. Whether it's Srinivas Rayaprol, or Nissim Ezekiel, or A.K. Ramanujan, or Dom Moraes, or Arun Kolatkar, or Agha Shahid Ali, or G.S. Sharat Ch and ra, or Gopal Honnalgere, or Kamala Das, or Dilip Chitre, to mention only the poets, the story's been the same. And the dead writer is now twice dead. If we can't read or rediscover our contemporaries, what chance of doing this for our classics?
'Intelligent criticism may be said to be a thing unknown to the Native Press', bemoaned Bankimchandra Chattopadhyaya in 'A Popular Literature for Bengal' (1870): There is some inherent defect in the Bengali character which renders the task of distinguishing the beautiful and the true from the gaudy and the false a task of even greater difficulty than the higher effort of creation. This deficiency in the culture of the cultivated Bengali reacts on the literature. The blundering critic often passes a verdict, which, if he happens to be an authority accustomed to command respect on literary matters, misleads by its error and strikes at the root of all excellence.
A year later the subject was still on his mind, only this time he broadened the scope of the attack: But while books and newspapers are daily pouring from the press, the quality of our current literature is by no means proportioned to its bulk. In fact, by far the greatest part [of] what is published is absolute rubbish. There are several modern Bengali books of which we shall have to speak in terms of high praise, but the number of these is so small in comparison with the mass of publications yearly vomited forth by the Bengali press, that they go but a little way towards redeeming the character of the whole. The case of criticism is worse. We can hardly hope for a healthy and vigorous Bengali literature in the utter absence of anything like intelligent criticism. (‘Bengali Literature')
What Bankim said about the state of Bengali literature in 1870 could be said about many Indian literatures, particularly the one in English, in 2011. Books continue to daily pour from the press and some of them are reviewed. The reviews here, unlike reviews elsewhere, seldom connect the tide to anything that's been done previously in that genre by others or by the same author. Reading them, you'd think that the book had emerged from a literary nowhere, which it hasn't, though headed for nowhere, 'in the utter absence of anything like intelligent criticism', it certainly is. The first few weeks in which the reviews appear are, for the book, like the first few weeks of a newborn's life. This is the period of rampant infanticide, a time when books are killed not by hostile reviews but by meaningless ones. This happens all the time. The review of an Oriya novel in the literary section of The Hindu of 6 August 2006 began: 'The English translation of this first fruit from the late flowering tree of Oriya prose allows a peek into Oriya novel's Darwinian past.' And it continued: 'In an opening that is strikingly unusual for its time, a wealthy young man with raging hormones sees an exquisitely beautiful 16-year-old maiden. My favouritebabu sentence though is not by an English professor from Bhubaneswar but a Delhi journalist who began his review of Naipaul's collection of essays The Writer and His World thus: 'The heart of darkness beats on the pacemaker of history' (India Today, 16 September 2002). The decline of the English sentence is no laughing matter, but say that to an Indian and he'll look at you asquint. (Indian art critics are no better than Indian book reviewers. Meera Devidayal's catalogue of her 2009 painting exhibition in Bombay contains the following gem: 'She [Devidayal] has opened up the fractal that is Bombay and immersed herself in the lattices of its constituencies.')
The thought never seems to have crossed the minds of these reviewers that the function of language is to communicate. In his 'Letter to Humayun', which appears towards the end of his heartbreaking memoir which we know as The Baburnama, the first Mughal emperor touches on many things, among them the importance of clarity in writing:
As I asked, you have written your letters, but you didn't read them over, for if you had had a mind to read them, you would have found that you could nor. After reading them you certainly would have changed them. Although your writing can be read with difficulty, it is excessively obscure. Who has ever heard of prose being enigmatic? Your spelling is not bad, although it is not entirely correct either. You wrote iltifot with the wrong to you wrote qulinj with a y. Your handwriting can be made out somehow or other, but with all these obscure words of yours the meaning is not entirely clear. Probably your laziness in writing letters is due to the fact that you try to make it too fancy. From now on write with uncomplicated, clear, and plain words. This will cause less difficulty both for you and your reader. (Translation by Wheeler M. Thacksron).
The lesson is hard to escape: great empires-or modest literary cultures-are not built on a foundation of muddled prose. 'They all wrote; some wrote well', Gore Vidal says in his essay on 'Robert Graves and the Twelve Caesars'. 'Julius Caesar and Augustus were distinguished prose writers; each preferred plain old-fashioned Latin. Augustus particularly disliked what he called the "Asiatic" style, favoured by, among others, his rival Marc Antony, whose speeches he found imprecise and "stinking of far-fetched phrases".
After the reviews stinking of far-fetched, not to say Asiatic, phrases; after that very Indian tamasha, the book launch, which is part Monsoon Wedding and part Irish wake; after the initial print run of 1100 or 2000 copies is exhausted, the book drops out of sight. The sad part comes now, for the book, however good it may be, stands little chance of being remembered again, whether in essay, anthology, or history. It becomes part of the scrub. But do a poll today and ask the Indian reading public whether it is happy with the state of affairs and you'll get a high percentage of yeses. Were there a literary happiness index, Indians would be at the top, the happiest people in the world: instead of the writing, all the focus seems to be on the advances a few authors get, the Man Bookers they win, the festivals they attend, the number of European languages they get translated into. The reading public is not complaining. Come to think of it, neither are the jet-lagged authors, even as they watch their life's work disappear into critical oblivion.
Through all this, sitting behind editorial desks, goggles pushed back above hairline, plump women go about their business, efficiently running their clubby magazines and journals, their heads lost in a great cloud of amnesia. There's always a new book to review or send out for review or an appealingly young Pakistani writer to meet; it's a pleasant enough life. While the women pictured above are wholly real, as are the magazines they run, ours still remains a literature in search of one. It's a literature without a serious literary magazine. It has to be said though that even if one existed and the editor (our Barbara Epstein ina Dacca sari) wanted to commission an essay (4000 words), where would she find her Susan Sontag?
Death of a Poet
The Bradman Class
The Emperor Has No Clothes
Towards a History of Indian Literature in English
Looking for A.K. Ramanujan
Street Music: A Brief History
What is an Indian Poem?
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