Condensed capsule of reality and fables

First Proof: The Penguin Book of New Writing Various Penguin 2010, pp 217  250

While fiction and non-fiction have eight writers each, verse, two in number, keeps lean. The anthology puts these together with a throwaway panache, certain that the words will speak for themselves. Since it tosses in three genres, each can claim only a brief spotlight. The sweep is in time periods, with more than one piece harking back to the past, so that the reading — right from A Young Man by Sunanda Sikdar, which is excerpted from the Bangla Dayamoyeer Katha, to the very last poem, Soulless, by Ashoke Bhattacharjee with its imagery of archers and necklaces — has a distinctly conscious old-world Indian cadence.

Anis Kidwai's In Freedom’s Shade, translated from Urdu by Ayesha Kidwai, documents the case of the missing girls post-Partition. The Central Recovery Organisation, which worked until 1954, rescued 17,000 women from Pakistan and sent them to India, and 20,000 women from India to Pakistan. Kidwai mentions the girls who did not want to return to their husbands, scoffing: ‘You ask us to go back to those impotents? We kept on crying out to them, help us… Why are you running away like this… But for each one, his life was most dear to him. There was no love or concern for us.’

In Aaba and Other Mysteries by Deven Sansare, ‘Old men, who smelled faintly of piss and paused on every step on the staircase as we raced past them, remembered a time when the whole city was under prohibition and everybody believed in Mahatma Gandhi.’  There are the cusp characters too who have one foot in modern India. In Purnima Rao’s Mrs Dhillon, the older Mrs Dhillon attempts to decode new-age lingo — ‘Aren’t those the words that Minty always flings at her? This food pisses me off, this house pisses me off, you piss me off’ — before giving away her share of happiness to the new Mrs Dhillon, her firang daughter-in-law.

In Bollywood: Where the Twain Meet, Mayank Shekhar records the filmi effect we have on an outside audience. From Raj Kapoor to Shah Rukh Khan, desi matinee idols have hugely enjoyed foreign fanfare.

There are the age-old problems and prejudices that refuse to slink away despite swanky legislations. A eunuch’s nostrils flare in D Rege’s Stink. ‘Jamuna is short but quite formidable, with high breasts men find attractive. Rumour has it that one of her patrons, a Marwari, paid for the operation. Eswari is tall and flat as plywood. She takes pride in never having sold her body, and plays the dholak for a living.’

And finally, there are the time-transcendental sentiments told in a contemporary voice like in Keyur R Patel’s Conversations: ‘You know that you, Want to love me to, The fullest of depths, And yet, You cunningly deny…’ The collection shakes and stirs the decades to present perhaps a kind of condensed capsule of reality and fables by mostly first-time writers. Going by the sheer length and breadth of India, not to mention its history and intoxicating diversity, a non-thematic compilation with the main focus only on debutant contributors appears more to be a tip of the iceberg.

Very, very interesting, but truncated before one gets his teeth into it. Seen as a sample rather than a deeper delving, however, it stands out for its unapologetic arraying in the realm of reading material. Grouped with other collections of its ilk, like Indian Literature, The Little Magazine, Atlas, etc, such mosaics aid literary perspectives, adding to the whole by playing out significant roles.

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