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Literary Review

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It's not evidence


This annual collection of new writing does not represent the best that India has to offer…

First Proof: The Penguin Book of New Writing, Penguin India, p.211, Rs. 250.

This is the sixth time Penguin India have presented us with new “fiction, travel, memoir, poetry, essays”. Theirs is a praise-worthy effort and has won lavish praise. “Worth waiting for – year after year — The Hindu” is blazoned, or at least printed, on top of the cover.

But if one good custom begins to corrupt the world, it's because that custom has itself grown stale. So has this offering, which should come as fresh air every year to a jaded inspiration. The reason could be that First Proof has become customary, and Penguin are content to sit back and wait for submissions instead of going out and getting them. If they only asked each Penguin-published person to recommend a new writer or piece of writing, they'd have a collection to be proud of.

I've just dug out my copy of the first volume, from 2005. It's twice as big as this one, with a glossier and handsomer cover, and far better production values. It also has a Publisher's Note which says among other things: “We hope that the absence of a single established name as editor has made this a more eclectic and varied collection than it might otherwise have been.”

It might have been a plus then, but there is an ostentatious lack of editing in 2010 that leads to what can only be called sloppiness. Young and first-time writers need editing! Isn't that obvious? No one dares to edit Roth or Rushdie (though they could both use it), but today with the blatant heterodoxy of SMS and e-mail, new writers need editing more than ever. It's distressing how imprecise the diction of many of the younger writers in First Proof 6 often is.

The specifics

Grace spoken, let me get to the meat. As often these days, the line between fiction and non-fiction is blurred. The excerpt from Sunanda Sikdar's Bangla memoir is good and understated, an important virtue for a translator from the bhashas. Annu Jalais is recognised for her work in the Sunderbans. This piece, about her first visit there as a schoolgirl, is interesting but needed editing. (I thought at first it was a translation! – a bitter thought.)

Chatura Rao's quest for stories is really quite fine. (But is it non-fiction?) The next, “Professional Negligence” by Dr. Shri Gopal Kabra, is weird. It's nothing but propaganda; not even tarted up, what is it doing here? Anindita Ghose's “Cabbie”, set in New York, is good if slightly pretentious: “très impressed”? It could go deeper. Here the editor has woken up and converted a check in a New York restaurant into a cheque.

Anis Kidwai's “In Freedom's Shade”, about her work after Partition, was published in 1974. I presume it's just been translated (by her granddaughter). It fulfils every criterion of good non-fiction: descriptive, poignant, analytical, and asking questions of humanity. Mayank Shekhar's piece on Bollywood also asks questions: “Who is it written for? Why is it published here?” K.R. Guruprasad's on the cricketer Ravindra Jadeja aspires to do what many great cricket writers have done, go to the roots and find what made the star. I love nothing better than good cricket writing, and am sorry this fails as both reportage and profile.

So to fiction. Ranjan Nautiyal's “Triptych” from the Mussoorie hills is pleasant stuff. So is Ruskin Bond's. Bond was first. Kanchana Ugbabe's story of a Nigerian conman is nice, but leaves you missing something, like the point. The excerpt from Makarand Sathe's novel (translated by Shanta Gokhale) is reassuring: Marathi writers are carrying on their tradition of creative weirdness with panache.

Deven Sansare's story from the Bombay mills is full of energy, and there's much material here. It also has a punchline, which is good to see. Purnima Rao's “Mrs Dhillon” is a stock figure of domestic tragedy, but she retains all the virtues of that character in this sensitive story. D. Rege writes, again from Bombay, from the hijra viewpoint. It's a gripping story, but the style and language are not quite in keeping with the theme, which gives you the feeling she's slumming.

Somnath Mukherji's story of boyhood is well conceived, though it lacks punch. Here again I must complain of the lack of precision in language. The extract from Benyamin's prize-winning Malayalam novel is exact and minimalist – as is most of the good writing here.

Both poems in this volume are jejune in every sense of the word: malnourished, immature and juvenile. A good poem comes from a personality that is attractive in some way, has something to offer. I cannot believe Penguin had to dredge up something like this in the name of poetry. Far better to have done without, as in 2005.

I think I shall curl up with that collection now, to remove the aftertaste of writing this review. Heaven knows I don't delight in savaging the already crippled, but if this is a representation of the best India has to offer, someone's fallen down very badly on the job.

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