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Introducing the new writer

This issue of Civil Lines has few new names, yet it provides rich fare. The stories are varied and enjoyable, the non-fiction narratives make us think. The pieces are written with elegance and freshness, says noted literary critic and writer MEENAKSHI MUKHERJEE.

THOSE who have been reading Civil Lines (ir)regularly from its first appearance nearly seven years ago, are likely to pick up a new issue with expectations. The covers have invariably been unusual and striking — generally based on photographs by Sanjeev Saith — in keeping with the breezy unconventionality of the contents. The present cover too is a visual delight.

One of the expectations from this periodical is that it would introduce us to previously unknown writers. It is on the pages of Civil Lines that I first sampled the works of Manjula Padmanabhan, Susan Vishwanathan and Ruchir Joshi, who have since then more than satisfied the appetites they had whetted.

Although Mukul Kesavan in his editorial preempts criticism by his disarming declaration that the subtitle of the journal is misleading — that not all writers included here are either new or Indian — I was nevertheless a little disappointed, not by the quality of the pieces, which are on the whole excellent, but by the near-total absence of new names this time. There is only one writer here I had not read before. Amit Chaudhuri (two pieces by whom appear in this issue) is already well-known not only for his four novels but also as the editor of the controversial Picador Book of Indian Literature; even before Urvashi Butalia's first book The Other Side of Silence (1998) won critical acclaim as well as a large readership, she had frequently appeared in print; Avtar Singh's The Beauty of These Present Things published last year drew attention because it is so different from the usual run of novels; Amitava Kumar is the author of Passport Photos and like Anita Roy, another writer included in this volume, has been doing literary journalism for some time; Suketu Mehta has not only been published before this, but has collected a few awards as well. But despite this cavil, I have to admit this issue of Civil Lines provides a rich fare. The stories are varied and enjoyable, the non-fiction narratives make us think — and all the pieces are written with elegance and freshness.

Perhaps elegance is not the right word. "The Persistence of Memory" — Urvashi Butalia's account of the travels of 70-year-old Bir Bahadur Singh from Delhi back to the village of his youth — now in Pakistan — is written in an unadorned prose that moves the reader because of its stark simplicity. Sonia Jabar's 35-page piece describing her exploration of the rich past of Kashmir "hovering somewhere between the 9th and 14th centuries", begins and ends with an identical assage describing an idyllic scene, but in between it is a matter-of-fact narration with figures and statistics and a three-page long inventory of names of people killed by the militants in just two years. The co-existence of the documentary and the evocative creates an impact that a single mode could not have achieved. These two non-fiction pieces give the volume a palpable involvement with contemporary history of our sub-continent.

In the fictional pieces style plays a major part. Suketu Mehta's "Sexual History of an Accountant" works through the unexpected contrast between the pompous official language of the accountant and the lurid details recounted by him. Amitava Kumar's story succeeds because of the understated abruptness of its prose. The encounter of two Biharis in an American university campus is presented without comment, without judgment or explanation. The relation between the narrator and the young wife of his older friend is allowed to remain ambivalent and unresolved. Elegance has been the hallmark of Amit Chaudhuri's prose and his readers have come to expect from him sentences like the following : "Former colleagues are happy to meet and depart from each other like ghosts, in an evanescent zone of their own making that lies somewhere between their working life, leisure time , memory and the future." But in "Prelude to an Autobiography" he creates a persona and a style quite far removed from his own. Inspired by the success of Shobha De and a mythical figure called David Davidar who can make writers out of ordinary mortals this woman plans to become an author by writing about her trivial life. Part funny, part serious, part ironic, part direct social documentation — this piece begins differently, but ends up as undefined and "evanescent" as Amit Chaudhuri's other writing. His second story "The Old Masters" is also social documentation of an impressionistic kind — tracing the twin trajectories of the corporate world and the art market. Mina Kumar is the only other writer who has two stories in the volume of which "Water" creates an atmosphere of waiting, anxiety and suspense through very little action, but "Reading" promises more than it delivers. She is the only "new" writer in this volume, and all we are told about her is that she lives in New York.

The first issue of Civil Lines had boasted of its irregularity, the second and third issues declared it will be numbered and not dated like other journals, thereby refusing to acknowledge the passage of time. This fifth number surprises the readers — perhaps the editors too — by appearing in the same calendar year as the fourth. This has never happened before. What is more, we are promised two issues every year in future as well. If this regularity actually materialises, the readers will no doubt be pleased, but not if Civil Lines decides to settle down to a predictable format.

Civil Lines 5: New Writing From India, edited by Kai Friese and Mukul Kesavan, IndiaInk, New Delhi, p. 200, Rs. 250.

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