I recently met an exceptionally interesting man. He told me that he was a historian, and that he had a theory. According to the Hindu scriptures, he said, ancient India was full of winged machines in which the gods flew from place to place, showering the earth with blessings as they passed over it : I suppose this was the Vedic equivalent of a Presidential plane. Anyway, my historian said, as the gods flew around, paying state visits, they acquired a lot of knowledge from other countries, though I personally would have thought that if they were gods, they already knew it all. However, I do not want to be too carping a critic. My friend then told me that amidst the other titbits of information brought home in these divine aeroplanes was an English grammar. He was very serious about it. He said that that was the reason Indians today spoke such excellent English : they had been speaking it since the days of the Mahabharata. I would acccept this more readily if it were not a fact that in the days of Mahabharata, English as we know it did not exist. No. I think we must accept, however reluctantly, that English first came to India with the British.
What we must come to now is the fact that all colonial literature, written in the language of the colonist, is bound to be provincial. A kind of Indian literature in English started at the same time as a kind of literature started in the other colonies of Australia and Canada. It cannot be said that the literature produced by any of these three colonies was any better or any worse than the literature produced by others. Indeed, they all resemble each other to some extent. One of the facts about colonies, especially in the days when ship under sail from England to the outposts of Empire were, considered the quickest and most reliable carriers of news and mails—there was no alternative but pigeons—was that the colony was always some weeks or months behind the mother country in the receipt of pure news. This being the case, the colony was usually some years behind the mother country in the receipt of new literature. The lonely writers of Australia and Canada, and therefore of India, for those who chose to write in English, were always some years behind contemporary literary movements in England.
In the 1930s three Indian novelists, all of whom are still alive, emerged. These were Mulk Raj Anand, R. K. Narayan, and Raja Rao. Mulk Raj Anand is an old and dear friend of mine, yet to much of his writing, as writ ing in English, Yeat’s criticism applies. He writes as though he was trans lating from his native Punjabi into English, hence the recurrent phrases in his work which may sound ridiculous to the reader—for example—”He waved his head in silent assent,” or “O thou raper of thy mother ! Thou raper of thy sister !” Anand started to write his novels at a time when the English book market was (a) empty of exotica and (b) when the intellectuals in England were mainly leftists. He wrote of India, which made him exotic, especially since, unlike Kipling, still alive then, he was an Indian. He wrote of the deprived and poor from a Marxist standpoint, which made him popu lar with the intellectuals. But his work still demands respect, especially his latest work. R. K. Narayan was a very different figure. While Anand lived in England, Narayan never strayed far from his own Mysore. While Anand never seemed to have taken breath in pouring out his sentences, Narayan was a very careful novelist, with a perfect sense of time and place. The town he created, Malgudi, has a truth of its own, drawn from observation and sympathy. Narayan had no political bias, but an intense awareness of people and a sense of sympathy with their predicaments. Anand wrote of huge pre dicaments, Narayan of small ones. But a lot of novelists, like Forster—and Narayan is a sort of Indian Forster, dryly witty, though never cynical, always watchful, and able to construct wordlessly upon his words—have described huge events through small ones. Narayan is incidentally the first Indian writer in English to have shown himself to be a rider of that strange beast, a sense of humour. Mr. Khushwant Singh, the other day, described Narayan’s style as “too simple”. I think his style is very complex. Anyone who is able to be simple is far more likely to be complex than a person who is striving to be complex in thought and style. This is my main criticism of Raja Rao, and perhaps this is why I find his books utterly unreadable. But an interesting common denominator between these three writers is that all of them achieved some reputation abroad, and that until they had achieved this reputation, they were uniformly without honour in their own country. Mulk Raj Anand lived abroad for a number of years, Raja Rao still lives abroad. R. K. Narayan has always lived in India, though since the 1950’s he has travelled a lot. Apart from the obvious differences between them as writers, there are differences between the degree of each one’s success. Narayan, for example, is probably the most successful in America : on the European continent, where they still entertain the myth of the mystical Oriental, Raja Rao is a coterie figure : Mulk Raj Anand is mainly read in Russia and the Eastern European countries, where the roubles pile up around each of his books. Yet for the normally literate reader of English in India, all three are the same. They are all equal in splendour, because they have made names for themselves abroad—abroad being a term that embraces Connecticut as well as Kiev, and assumes both to be the same. Since the war, of course, there has been a flood of Indian novelists who produce in English. They are all fairly competent and fairly unremarkable. The exception is G. V. Desani, who is a kind of freak. Desani in 1948 produced one book, All about Mr. H. Hatterr, which seems to me a prose master piece. T. S. Eliot was one of those who praised it when it first appeared, but it was then forgotten for more than 20 years.
Desani, like all the others I have mentioned, won a reputation for himself in England, and he was accepted in India because of this. One reason for this uncritical acceptance of English critical praise seems to me the complete absence of any Indian criticism of English writing. This in itself is due perhaps to the initial fact of Macaulay’s system of education. The English told one, in the textbooks, what should be read and what shouldn’t. Ours not to question why. Naturally, therefore, it appeared to college instructors and school teachers that if and when Indian writers received the imprimature of an English publisher and the praise of English critics, they were OK. This lasted for a while, and then the tide turned. As with Professor Iyengar, so with most other Indian critics; every writer who was able to hobble as far as a printer’s shop and pay to be published was assured of a decent review, so as to enable the homegrown product to flourish.
This has led to a really dramatic fall of standards in Indian literature written in English.
…there have been others of promise, when they lived overseas, whose promise seems stifled when they come home. One of them is Adil Jussawalla. His first book, Land’s End seemed to me, and to many other poets in England, one of the most brilliant first books published since the war.
I have talked tonight about the fact that no proper criticism of Indian writing in English exists in India. There is no real literary magazine : there are no really professional critics. One reason, it seems to me, is that there are few really professional writers. Until quite recently, I lived purely on my earnings as a writer : in a sense I still do, since the function I perform for the United Nations is that of a professional writer. But very few writers in India have ever been professional in that sense—that is, that they exist and support their families on what their pens spit out and their typewriters cough up. Thus one has an enormous number of what could be called Sunday novelists and Sunday poets, and such writers deserve whatever criti cal appreciation is available : i.e. that of Sunday critics. Poets of potential like S. Santhi and Arvind Mehrotra have often spoken to me of the difficulty of obtaining proper criticism in India, and I would say this is one of the most gigantic drawbacks for any writer who works in English in India.
India International Centre Quarterly, Vol. 3, No. 2 (April 1976), pp. 143-156
16 March 2017
( I wrote an article for the amazing literary website Bookwitty.com on “Penguin on Wheels”. An initiative of Walking BookFairs and Penguin Books India. It was published on 28 June 2016. Here is the original url: https://www.bookwitty.com/text/penguin-on-wheels-walking-bookfairs-and-penguin-b/57725752acd0d076db037bf7 . I am also c&p the text below. )
Literature does not occur in a vacuum. It cannot be a monologue. It has to be a conversation, and new people, new readers, need to be brought into the conversation too.”
-Neil Gaiman, Introduction, The View from the Cheap Seats ( 2016)
On the 16th of May 2016, Penguin Random House India circulated a press release about Penguin Books India’s one-year collaboration with Walking BookFairs (WBF) to launch “Penguin on Wheels”, a bookmobile that will travel through the eastern Indian state of Odisha promoting reading and writing.
This is not the first time Walking BookFairs has collaborated with a publishing house to promote reading. Their earlier “Read More, India” campaign saw Walking BookFairs supported by HarperCollins India, Pan MacMillan India, and Parragon Books India. Apart from these three publishers, WBF stocked books from various other publishers, including Tara Books, Speaking Tiger Books, Penguin, Duckbill, Karadi Tales, and Scholastic. “We got books delivered by our publishers on the road wherever we were displaying books.”
The concept of bookmobiles is not unusual in India, for some decades the state-funded publishing firm, National Book Trust, has maintained its own book vans. Yet it is the duo of Satabdi Mishra and Akshaya Rautaray that has captured the public imagination.
Walking BookFairs was established two years ago while Satabdi Mishra was on a break from her job and Akshaya Rautaray quit his publishing job to set up an independent “simple bookstore” in Bhubaneshwar. The shop, which they prefer to think of as a “book shack”, runs on solar power. It is a simple space with the bare necessities and a garden. They allow readers to browse through the bookshelves, offering a 20-30% discount on every purchase throughout the year.
WBF also doubles as a free library. They introduced the bookmobile in 2014, as part of an outreach programme that would see them travelling to promote reading in the state. Speaking to me by email, Satabdi said,
“There are no bookshops or libraries in many parts of India. There are thousands of people who have no access to books. We started WBF in 2014 because we wanted to take books to more people everywhere. We have been travelling inside our home state Odisha for the last two years with books. We found that most people do not consider reading books beyond textbooks important in India. We wanted people to understand that reading story books is more important than reading textbooks. We wanted to reach out to more people with books. We also wanted to inspire and encourage more people across the country to read books and come together to open more community libraries and bookshops.”
India is well known for stressing the importance of reading for academic purposes rather than reading for pleasure. In a country of 1.3 billion people, where 40% are below the age of 25 years old, and the publishing industry is estimated to be of $2.2 billion, there is potential for growth. Indeed,there has been healthy growth across genres, quite unlike most book markets in the world.
The WBF team has been keen to promote reading since it is an empowering activity. They began in the tribal district of Koraput, Odisha, where they carried books in backpacks and walked around villages. They displayed books in public spaces like bus stops and railways stations or spreading them out on pavements or under trees, whatever was convenient and accessible. “That works because people in smaller towns feel intimidated by big shops,” they say.
Apart from public book displays, they also visit schools, colleges, offices, educational institutions, and residential neighbourhoods. They soon discovered that children and adults were not familiar with books. Bookstores too seem only to be found in urban and semi-urban areas and are lacking in rural areas, but once easy access to books is created there is a demand. As Neil Gaiman says in the essay “Four Bookshops”, these bookshops “made me who I am”, but the travelling bookshop that came to his day boarding school was “the best, the most wonderful, the most magical because it was the most insubstantial”. (The View from the Cheap Seats)
Speaking again via email, Satabdi says that they’ve found, “Children’s books are always the most sought after. We have many interesting children’s storybooks and picture books with us. We found that in many places, not just children but also adults and young people enthusiastically pick up children’s books, browse through and read them. Beyond a couple of urban centres in India, big cities, there are no bookshops. Most bookshops that one comes across are shops selling textbooks, guide books or essay books. Many people were actually looking at real books for the first time at WBF.”
In India the year-on-year growth rate for children’s literature is estimated to be 100%. Satabdi Mishra and Akshaya Rautaray stock 90% fiction. Rautaray says, “We believe in stories. I think, if you need to understand the world around you, if you need to understand science and history and sociology, you need to understand stories. I believe in a good book, a good story.”
The categories include literary fiction, classics, non-fiction, biographies, books on poetry, cinema, politics, history, economics, art visual imagery, young adult, picture books, children’s books, and regional literature from Odia and Hindi. The emphasis is on diversity, but they do not necessarily stock bestsellers or popular books like romance, textbooks, or academic books. That said, the Penguin on Wheels programme will dovetail beautifully with, “Read with Ravinder” another of the publisher’s reading promotion campaigns, spearheaded by successful commercial fiction author Ravinder Singh.
In December 2015, Satabdi and Akshay launched their “Read More, India” campaign (#ReadMoreIndia), which saw them take their custom-built book van, loaded with more than 4000 books across India. They covered 10,000kms, 20 states, in three months (from 15th Dec 2015 to 8th March 2016).
Over the course of the journey, they sold forty books a day, met thousands of people, and had a number of interesting experiences. One anecdote that gives an insight into the passion and trust that the young couple displays is of that of an elderly gentleman in Besant Road Beach road, Chennai. The older man was out for his daily jog and stopped to look at the books. He wanted to buy some books, but had left his wallet behind.
“We asked him to take the books and pay us later via cheque or bank transfer. He seemed surprised that we were letting him take the books without paying. He took the books and sent the money later with his driver. We want people to read more books. And if people cannot buy books, we want them to read books for free for as long as they want. People pay us in cash, in kind, sometimes they take books pay later, pay through credit/debit cards.”
The Penguin on Wheels campaign was launched because Penguin Books India had been following WBF’s activities and reached out to them. Earlier, they had collaborated for an author event in Odisha, but this new move is a focussed effort that will see the bookmobile travel within Odisha.
The books are curated by Akshay as Penguin Books India said graciously that “they [WBF] know best what their readers like more”. It will consist of approximately 1000 titles from the Penguin Random House stable. The collection will have books by celebrated authors, including Jhumpa Lahiri, John Green, Orhan Pamuk, Amitav Ghosh, Devdutt Pattanaik, Salman Rushdie, Ravinder Singh, Twinkle Khanna, Hussain Zaidi, Khushwant Singh, Roald Dahl, Ruskin Bond, and Emraan Hashmi.
Contests and author interactions will also be organised with the support or Penguin Random House. It will start with Ravinder Singh’s visit to Bhubaneshwar for the promotion of his newly launched book, Love that Feels Right. Satabdi Mishra adds, “We are happy to partner with PRH through the WBF ‘Penguin on Wheels’ that will spread the joy of reading around.”
Jaya Bhattacharji Rose
28 June 2016
Zafar Futehally was a well-known birder, naturalist and writer. He was one of the pioneers of the conservation movement in India and was instrumental in making it an important middle class concern. For instance getting an advertisement for WWF in a popular magazine of those days.
We had no scruples in ‘using’ any of our friends to advance our work; Khushwant Singh was the editor of The Illustrated Weekly of India in those days, and he promised Shama a full-page advertisement for the WWF in the Weekly if she wrote a completely original article on sparrows. Shama wrote it, and we got our first big advertisement for the Indian appeal. It was designed by Alyque Padamsee, and showed a tiger with the caption ‘Born Free, Sentenced to Death’. ( p.138)
Zafar Futehally’s fascination for bird watching began when accompanied Salim Ali on his expeditions. There are some fabulous memories he recalls of those expeditions. This book was written in collaboration with Shanthi Chandola and Ashish Chandola. They persuaded Zafar Futehally to email them short articles/notes recalling his life, especially related to conservation. All though charmingly written and a little uneven, it is a valuable addition to the history of conservation in India. As George B. Schaller says in his foreword:
Wildlife was little studied or appreciated in India during the 1960s, other than along the sight of a gun. But Zafar already had a vision, as he expressed in 1969 in a keynote speech at the General Assembly of the International Union for Conservation of Nature ( IUCN) held in Delhi, an event I also attended. ‘What I came to do is to reflect the concern of the ordinary citizen about our deteriorating environment.’ And he turned this thought superbly into action. With tenacity and tact, he built bridges between organizations, nurturing their conservation efforts, whether it was promoting green areas in Bangalore ( now Bengaluru), establishing the Karnala Bird Sanctuary or other initiatives that revealed his deep concern and respect for the natural world. He knew that unrestricted development would deprive India of a healthy environment and a secure future, a message he delivered persistently and with the quiet authority of someone who was a high-ranking member of every major conservation organization in the country and a Founder of World Wildlife Fund ( WWF)-India. He, more than anyone in India, helped forge awareness that the environment, with all its species of animals and plants, must be protected. That is his lasting legacy. ( p.xiii)
Zafar Futehally’s wife, Laeeq Futehally, was a notable writer about nature herself. She wrote many books, including co-authoring some with Salim Ali. But A Sahib’s Manual for the Mali of articles edited by her is an all-time favourite of mine. ( http://permanent-black.blogspot.in/2008/08/cricket-music-gardening-new-paperbacks.html )
Zafar Futehally The Song of the Magpie Robin: A Memoir Rainlight, Rupa, New Delhi, 2014. Hb. p.200 Rs. 500
Some of the other books and essays related to Nature that I came across in 2014 were:
1. George Schaller Deki, the Adventures of a Dog and a Boy in Tibet A lovely, moving and brilliant story about a boy and his dog also an introduction to the environment. It is scrumptiously illustrated by an artist from the Tibetan art collective, Gyurmey Dorjee. According to the publisher, Permanent Black, on their blog,
DEKI is a magical book that will have you instantly under its spell. It is a blend of great story-telling and acute observation of nature and animals. As you read it you travel the stark, barren plateau of Tibet and discover its animals, monasteries, birds, nomads. Thrilling chases and cliff-hanger moments decide the battle between good and evil as the book explores the question: freedom or security, which do you choose? ( http://permanent-black.blogspot.in/2014/05/the-story-of-book.html )
I agree. I read it slowly. Savoured it.
It has been jointly published by Black Kite and Hachette India.
2. Vivek Menon Indian Mammals: A Field Guide It is described a reference and exceptionally usable guide to the mammals of India. It is four-colour with more than 400 species of both land and water mammals.
3. George Monbiot’s essay “Back to Nature”. The first article in BBC Earth’s ‘A World of View’ series of essays by leading environmental authors. ( http://www.bbc.com/earth/bespoke/story/20141203-back-to-nature/index.html )
4. The Wild Wisdom Quiz Book published by Puffin India and WWF India. It consists of questions, trivia and illustrations compiled from India’s only national level quiz on wildlife.
29 Dec 2014
(In December 2014 David Davidar’s A Clutch of Indian Masterpieces, published by Aleph Book Company will be released. I interviewed him for the Hindu Literary Review. My review of the book is forthcoming. The online version was published on 6 December 2014. Here is the url: http://www.thehindu.com/features/lit-for-life/not-so-tall-tales/article6667709.ece . A shorter version will be published in the print edition of the Hindu Literary Review on 7 December 2014.)
David Davidar on his fascination with short stories and how he put together “A Clutch of Indian Masterpieces”
Apart from being a well-known publisher, David Davidar is also a novelist, editor and anthologist. He has been an attentive reader of Indian fiction from the time he was a teenager. His latest anthology, A Clutch of Indian Masterpieces, has 39 short stories from across Indian fiction selected by Davidar. From Khushwant Singh, Munshi Premchand, Chugtai and Vaikom Muhammed Basheer and Ruskin Bond to new voices like Shahnaz Bashir and Kanishk Tharoor, the volume covers a spectrum of Indian fiction. In this interview, Davidar talks about the short story and the making of the anthology.
What makes a short story?
R. K. Narayan, one of the world’s greatest writers, tells an amusing story about creative writing in general and the short story in particular. He writes: Once I was present at a lecture on creative writing. The lecturer began with: “All writing may be divided into two groups—good writing and bad writing. Good books come out of good writing while bad writing produces failures.” When touching on the subject of the short story, the lecturer said: “A short story must be short and have a story.” At this point I left unobtrusively, sympathizing with the man’s predicament. The story is amusing but when you come down to it, the short story is devilishly difficult to define if you exclude length as a criterion. Dictionary definitions are banal in the extreme. Here is one example: “A story with a fully developed theme but significantly shorter and less elaborate than a novel.” A creative writing class instructor may say your story would need to have the following elements — exposition (the setting up of the story, its backdrop, main characters etc.), conflict, plot, theme, climax and so on. If s/he was of a Chekhovian bent of mind, s/he might tell you to write a ‘slice of life’ story that was relatively loosely constructed when compared to tightly plotted stories that hinged on events and turning points. There are many other categories that short stories are classified under but I think one should never be too prescriptive or didactic. Great literary short stories should have an electrifying impact on the reader because of their complexity, mystery, layering, and special effects. And because they can usually be read at one sitting, their impact is different from that of a novel, which usually immerses the reader in a world which it has created. William Boyd, the British writer, provided one take on the form: “Short stories are snapshots of the human condition and of human nature, and when they work well, and work on us, we are given the rare chance to see in them more ‘than in real life’.” That’s as good a description as any.
What was the principle of selection?
I decided to pull this anthology together on the basis of a very simple premise: it would only include stories that I loved, stories that had made their mark on me in the 40 years or so that I had been attentively reading serious Indian literature. Like the Chekhov quote I’ve used as an epigraph to the book, the basic criterion for featuring stories in this book would be whether I liked them or not. I decided to leave out commercial fiction because there would then be no focus to the anthology. There would be no other exclusions. It wouldn’t matter to me whether the writer was Dalit or Brahmin, old master or 21st century star, Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Parsi or Sikh, man or woman, straight or gay, Tamil or Kashmiri, Punjabi or Malayali. Nor would it matter if the writers wrote in English or in any of the other Indian languages, whether they lived here and carried the blue passport with the Ashok Chakra, or plied their trade in foreign lands… no, the only thing that would influence the selection would be whether or not they were — in my subjective view — breathtakingly good Indian stories. What did I mean by Indian? Either the stories would have to be about India or they would have to be written by an Indian or someone of Indian origin. Necessarily, they would need to possess an ‘Indian sensibility’.
Now, there are learned tomes on ‘the Indian sensibility’, a sensibility that is rooted in Indian culture, history, society, language, but that is not what I am trying to get at here. No, what I am trying to define is that elusive, ineffable quality to ‘serious’ poetry and prose that is unmistakably Indian. If you learn this quality from books, or by over-flying the subcontinent, all you will be able to produce is a variant of the Inspector Ghote mysteries — entertaining but shallowly-rooted writing and without any great insight into anything of consequence. I do not think an Indian sensibility is to be found only in writers who are Indian by nationality or domicile or language. Rather I think it is inherent to writers who were born here, or have lived here for enough time, for distinctive aspects of this country, this civilisation, to shape their view of the world, their creative consciousness, and their style. Their writing, whether about India or elsewhere, is informed by this ‘Indian sensibility’ — when their subject matter is India, they tend not to exoticise, but deepen our understanding of the country.
Having figured out the basic qualifications any story would need to have in order to be included, I refined the criteria for selection. Every story that made the cut would need to be a proper short story. (Vikram Seth’s ‘The Elephant and the Tragopan’ is a short story, although it is told in verse.) This meant I wasn’t going to be able to include any extracts from novels, or works in progress. It was also important that none of the stories had dated, or appear quaint to today’s reader. And, finally, every story would need to work perfectly in English, as the anthology was aimed squarely at the reader in English. Other than these qualifications I wouldn’t be excluding any writer.
Are you creating a canon of literature with this collection?
I don’t think any single anthology can canonise a writer. Not that the majority of these writers need ‘canonising’; they are already among the greats of Indian literature. I am hoping that these stories will whet the appetite of readers to explore more of the work of these writers, and other Indian fiction writers.
Do you think there is a “return” to the short story with technological developments?
I don’t think so. We have always had accomplished literary short story writers and novelists and I’m delighted to see new stars working in both these areas.
Why did you commission new translations of well-known stories that were already available in English? Does the flavour of translation change with every generation of readers?
Two reasons. The first is because, as you point out, the great classics do deserve a new translation every generation (20 years) or so to make them work for contemporary readers. The second reason was because, to be honest, a number of the existing translations were appalling. I believe this anthology features some of our greatest ever translators.
What do you like about a short story collection?
In terms of anthologies that range across multiple genres and languages I like the fact that you are transported to different destinations with every story — the voices, subjects, the styles all change. It’s quite overwhelming, rather like taking a slow train through a variety of breath-taking landscapes.
How was this anthology arranged?
We decided to adopt the simplest possible arrangement, and ordered these stories according to the date of birth of the authors, because it was difficult to find the date of first publication of many of the stories, which would have been the other option. As a result of this arrangement, there were a number of unexpected and delightful pairings and juxtapositions — a mystery story from Bengal would be followed by a darkly comic story set in the cow belt, followed by a poignant story about a dog trapped in floods, followed by a ghost story, for example. The reader will be surprised and delighted at every turn I hope.
Why do you call it a “clutch” of Indian masterpieces?
No particular reason, except it sounded nice when you spoke the title out aloud. Also, it seemed an unusual and apposite collective noun for this particular bunch of stories.
What were the stories you excluded?
Stories that fell into four categories: Stories I didn’t like; great stories from Indian languages other than English that didn’t travel well into English; stories that were not literary; stories that I didn’t know about. Given that Indian short stories have been written for over 100 years in 30 different languages (a lot more if you include the less ‘major’ languages and dialects), I think we should all agree that, no matter how well read we are, we are all ignorant to a greater or lesser degree about aspects of modern Indian literature.
Many readers say short stories are ‘easy to read’? Do you agree?
No, I don’t think so. Certainly, most of them can be read at one sitting, but to absorb and appreciate their richness, complexity and brilliance, it is incumbent on the reader to engage deeply and as fully as possible with them.
6 December 2014
The first time I met Khushwant Singh was when I drove my grandfather, Mr N. K. Mukarji, across to Sujan Singh Park to meet him. It was a meeting between old college friends. Khushwant Singh and my grandfather’s eldest brother became friends in St. Stephen’s College and remained very close. Unfortunately my granduncle Atul was diagnosed with galloping cancer at a very young age. The first person Uncle Atul informed of the doctor’s diagnosis was Khushwant Singh. They were posted in London– Uncle Atul was a Customs officer and Khushwant Singh was with the Indian High Commission. Within a few months my granduncle had passed away. Recounting the conversation decades later, the events of the late 1950s were crystal clear to Khushwant Singh. By the time the two men finished reminiscing they were both crying. I was stunned to see these two legendary men weeping. But what stayed with me from that morning meeting were not the tears as much as the lucidity with which the two men recalled events as if it had happened only yesterday. In a way it also made history come alive for me.
I get a similar feeling of history being told in an accessible way when reading 99: Unforgettable fiction, non-fiction, poetry and humour by Khushwant Singh. You can read the book cover to cover or dip into it. The non-fiction essays are particularly fascinating for encapsulating a moment in time but in a breezy way, without being dull. Khushwant Singh was always very confident of what he wrote and said. He never minced words. It showed in his writing. Lucid. Sharp. Even if he went against public opinion (famously when he supported the imposition of Emergency in India by Mrs Indira Gandhi), he said what he had to say clearly. The language he uses too is simple, conversational and never highfalutin. He was in the business of communication and he did it well. The translations included in this book especially the two spectacular ones of “Toba Tek Singh” by Saadat Hasan Manto and “The Night of the Full Moon” by K. S. Duggal are excellent examples of this philosophy. He knew the language of origination and destination very well, so was able to create translations that are not clunky to read.
In his tribute (it is the introduction to the book) David Davidar says “…’All human beings have three lives–public, private and secret.’ These three lives of Khushwant Singh infused every aspect of his writing. They gave it its honesty, originality, humour, immediacy, accessibility, pugnacity and brilliance. Heightening the impact of the content was the fact that quite early on in his career he decided to write clear, simple prose, abjuring flowery phrases, clever wordplay, or pretentious words. It was a combination of all this that made it impossible to mistake his work, either good or ordinary, for that of any other writer.”
Khushwant Singh will be missed. Fortunately Aleph has published this anthology that gives a wonderful bird’s-eye view of this legendary man’s writing. It is worth buying.
Edited by David Davidar and Mala Dayal Khushwant Singh 99:Unforgettable Fiction, Non-Fiction, Poetry and Humour Aleph Book Company, New Delhi, 2014. Hb. pp. 430. Rs. 699.
17 August 2014
Another memoir by an ex-civil servant. An account of thirty-six years of service in the Bengal and Punjab cadre, but mostly focused on events in Punjab. A memoir like this is useful to read since it records socio-historical and economic events that tend to be easily forgotten — at least in public memory. But to wade through this book you will have to ignore the “I, me. myself” tone that does get a tad annoying. In the introduction Robin Gupta says “I should confess at this stage that I have, in these memoirs, permitted myself an element of the writer’s licence to interpret and depict places, individuals and happenings.” Then he should have called it “bio-fic”, a term coined by David Lodge.
In his endorsement of the book, Khushwant Singh says, ” Robin Gupta …memoirs mirror the chiaroscuro of contemporary India as observed by a civil servant…[This book] is a literary milestone.” But in his recently published Khushwantanama says “it is tempting to write one’s life experiences. A first novel is very often autobiographical. However, non-fiction is a different ball game altogether. Memoirs of retired generals and civil servants rarely make for good reading. …What is permissible in a biography is not suitable for an autobiography.”
26 April 2013
Robin Gupta And what remains in the end: The memoirs of an unrepentant civil servant Rupa Publications India Pvt.Ltd. Pb. pp. 290. Rs. 350
Khushwant Singh. Two books published in quick succession by two publishing houses. Both books have been written when, “according to traditional Hindu belief, in the fourth and final stage of life, sanyaas. …At ninety-eight, I count myself lucky that I still enjoy my single malt whiskey at seven every evening. I relish tasty food, and look forward to hearing the latest gossip and scandal. I tell people who drop in to see me, ‘If you have nothing nice to say about anyone, come and sit beside me.’ I retain my curiosity about the world around me; I enjoy the company of beautiful women; I take joy in poetry and literature, and in watching nature… I have slowed down considerably in the past year. I tire more easily, and have grown quite deaf. These days I often remove my hearing aid…and I find myself relishing the silence that deafness brings. As I sit enveloped in silence, I often look on my life, thinking about what has enriched it…My life has had its ups and downs, but I’ve lived it fully, and I think I have learnt its lessons.”
Khushwantnama is a collection of reflections. Honest, Straightforward. Crisp. Acerbic. Tongue-in-cheek. Ruthless. The essays range from being a “Dilliwala”, the importance of Gandhi, what religion means to Khushwant Singh ( ” It is not God who created us, but we who created God. I am an agnostic. However, one does not have to believe in God to concede that prayer has power.”), on writing, on watching nature, on poetry especially Urdu poetry and Ghalib. The essays I have read over and over again have to be on the business of writing, what it takes to be a writer and dealing with death.
In his reflections upon writing and dealing with publishers, Khushwant Singh does not mince any words. Having written many books, his experience was that he never had any trouble finding a good publisher. But now “the whole business resembles a whorehouse. Publishers can be compared to brothel keepers; literary agents to bharooahs (pimps) who find eligible girls and fix rates of payment; writers can be likened to women in the profession. Newcomers are naya maal ( virgins) who draw the biggest fees for being deflowered. Advance royalties being these days run up to Rs 50 lakh, sometimes even before a word of the projected work has been written. Advances offered to authors in India are often higher than those offered in America or England or in any other European country. But they are offered only for works in English, not for works in our regional languages.”
And his advice on what it takes to be a writer. “Along with hard work, read whatever you can– whether it’s the classics or fairy tales or even nonsense verse. Reading will make you capable of distinguishing between bad and good writing. There is no substitute for reading. This is also the only thing that expands your vocabulary.”
This has to be read along with The Freethinker’s Prayer Book a collection of quotes that he gathered from his reading and many visitors. He maintained many notebooks. The best of these have been published in this beautiful volume. Quite literally from the cover onwards with its Sanjhi artwork of the tree of life to the text within. It is a book that you will want to dip in often.
In Swahili there is a saying that when a person dies it is equivalent to the loss of a library. These books exemplify that it certainly holds true for Khushwant Singh. I have enjoyed reading these books and keep them on my writing desk. Buy these books as companion volumes.
Khushwant Singh Khushwantnama: The Lessons of my Life Viking, Penguin, New Delhi, 2013. Hb. pp. 190 Rs. 399
Khushwant Singh The Freethinker’s Prayer Book and some words to live by Aleph, New Delhi, 2013. Hb. pp. 190. Rs. 495