Under my byline

Good as new

Posted in Books by Rrishi on 28 February 2008

New fiction and non-fiction writing follows old pathways

First Proof 3: The Penguin Book of New Writing from India
Penguin India
xxiv + 224

One thing you lose with better customer service is time. The less you’re forced to wait, the less opportunity you have to fill passing minutes with soul-expanding activities like watching fellow queuers and bill-payers. You lose the periods of sanctioned suspense during which you might have read the stories and essays that compose this collection.

Like the previous editions, this too has a section each for fiction and narrative non-fiction — 21 contributions in all. The writing is “new” in the sense that the authors are not supposed to be well-known, and these works among their first to be published. Most of the non-fictioneers, however, are journalists (some of whom are well-known) and hence well-published — albeit not in this form or on these subjects.

Nirupama Dutt, for instance, wrote for the Indian Express for years, and is a published Punjabi poet. Her essay, “The Sufi Way in Malerkotla”, chronicles a flying visit to Malerkotla, a town in Punjab that was a place of peace in every sectarian storm, including the Partition-era riots.

It’s a wonderful and messy little account in which history and gossip, personal as well as political, mingle comfortably in the manner of a told recollection. In some ways, the Malerkotla of legend is a certain kind of ideal representation of India: spiritual but secular, not too big to imagine, and with women kept firmly in their place for their own safety and honour.

Aman Sethi is a Frontline reporter who’s also worked at Sarai, an urban studies group. “Khullam Khulla” is about policing a chaotic society. Delhi’s urban reality, he writes, cannot be contained by rules, no matter how many. The local constable, “a police officer of the lowest grade”, knows everything that happens on his beat, but can ignore minor illegalities (in return for regular compensation) so long as they are not perpetrated in plain view. It is a working compromise.

But what happens when technology tips the balance? CCTVs in public places mean a superior is always watching. Sethi’s answer: the Khullam Khulla Inversion! This is a delightful and mordant essay.

Among the fictioneers, professions are more diverse (and “writer” is one of them). Four are or were teachers at some level.

In “Kailla”, literature lecturer Neel Kamal Puri recounts the life of a young Muslim who becomes Sikh, from pre-Partition to 1984. Both ends of the story fall off the pages, and neither birth nor death is explicated. Kailla himself is almost absent from the telling, yet we get a powerful sense of his individuality. It’s a strange trick, although not a new one.

With such an ordinary, unexplained life compressed into a short story, the reader is left unmoored. If you can just grasp the moral, you think, the logic of Kailla’s existence (and your own) will be made clear. But that absence of meaning makes the story effective. “Kailla” is also a reminder that Partition is an unfinished story.

Shakti Bhatt’s “The Thief” follows another ordinary life: that of Narayani, a maidservant in a joint household. The narrator recounts childhood memories of Narayani and her life and particularly the little thefts ascribed to her and their consequences. This story, like others here, benefits from the child’s natural and indiscriminate ability to gather impression without imposing judgment.

In fact, seven of the 10 stories have to do with childhood experience, clearly a rich vein for “new” authors. And three are about domestic servants. Middle-class Indians are unusually lucky in the modern world to be daily exposed to the lives of the poor within the safety of our homes; thus we’re less likely to attach a moral value to their condition despite our familiarity with minor domestic theft. You can have noble and sympathetic characters even among thieving maids.

Obsolescence is built into the format — there are new writers every year — but should it be visible in the form? Fiction and non-fiction sections begin at opposite sides of the book, so the pages meet foolishly upside-down in the middle. Postmodernism has shown us that everything is fiction. A more radical (and truthful) design would interleave the two kinds of writing without discrimination. That thought-provoking form might also obscure the fact that, although these writers are good, and sometimes very good, none of them shows signs of greatness.

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