Scattered by a lack of coherence

Scattered by a lack of coherence

The New Anthem: The Subcontinent In Its Own Words
Edited by
Ahmede Hussain
Tranquebar, 2009,
pp 338, Rs 350

The rather perfunctory one-page introduction to this anthology fails to say very much except to note that it tries to gather “all the new major writers of South Asian fiction,” especially those who have “endeavoured to reinterpret the region’s turbulent history.” Many of the pieces included have little to do with the region’s history or, in some cases, with the region itself.

There are 22 pieces here: some short stories, some excerpts from novels. Nine of the pieces are set partly or wholly outside the subcontinent, with London appearing to be a hub of sorts. Of the pieces not set in the West, five employ the device of an American visitor to whom things must be explained. (This might as well be named the ‘Call me Al’ sub-genre of South Asian writing: A man walks down the street/ It’s a street in a strange world/ Maybe it’s the third world/ Maybe it’s his first time around.)

If the perspective of the writing often seems outside-in (or simply outside) with respect to the subcontinent, it is no fault of the writers: 15 of the writers live outside the subcontinent, some were born there; one is an American living in Bangladesh; a few author bios read like accounts of a minor explorer’s life. All this cultural rejiggering no doubt gives rise to rich material for fiction and it would be perverse of a writer to ignore it. But a preponderance of such perspectives in an anthology subtitled The Subcontinent in its own Words is unrepresentative and only suggests a subcontinent in exile. Why weren’t more of those ‘homegrown’ writers we’ve heard so much about in the last decade included? The category ‘South Asian fiction’ is an academic construct that no doubt makes sense from the distance of the West. But given that practically no one living in South Asia thinks of themselves as South Asian, what does it mean to present us an anthology of South Asian writing? The introductory note might fruitfully have engaged with questions such as these, but it doesn’t.

Among the better-known names here are Kamila Shamsie, who opens the book with a polished short-story about an ayah who is being cast to the domestic sidelines; Mohsin Hamid, with an excerpt from The Reluctant Fundamentalist; and Amit Chaudhuri, who in quiet, precise prose captures the ennui and hope of an Indian couple arranging from London what will be a second marriage for them both. (From Chaudhuri’s The Second Time: “In everything they said, there was an air of acceptance, and tentatively, experimentation rather than celebration, of a resolve towards provisionality rather than finality.”)

One of the revelations of the book is Khademul Islam’s taut and powerful short story, ‘Cyclone’. Set in Chittagong when it was still in East Pakistan, the story tells of the aftermath of a cyclone as seen through the eyes of a 10-year-old boy. With the city in shambles, a motley group of journalists, singers and writers take to the street to collect funds for relief. Amidst this landscape and the warmly depicted community, there are portents of the revolution that is to come. Some other pieces that stand out are Padma Viswanathan’s early twentieth-century tale of forbidden love (or at least lust) ‘The Barber Lover’, Raj Kamal Jha’s ‘If You Are Afraid of Heights’ and Ravinder Randhawa’s lushly imagined ‘Normal Times’.

Altaf Tyrewala’s ‘No God in Sight’ was that rare thing — a novel novel. It evoked the teem and bustle of Mumbai and an underlying sense of community by employing what was essentially a narrative relay race: one narrator does his part, hands over the narrative baton to another, and so on until the novel has breathlessly rushed by. To have only a single narrator’s account extracted in this anthology, even one previously published as a short story, is to not do justice to the book.

There are some fine pieces of writing in the book, and some that are unremarkable. But taken together as an anthology, their thrust is scattered by a lack of coherence.

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