The Arvind Krishna Mehrotra interview | 'There’s a lack of historicity in way we think, talk, write about Indian literature'

In 'The Book of Indian Essays: Two Hundred Years of Indian Prose', Mehrotra collects some of the best Indian essays of all time — including works by old favourites like GV Desani, RK Narayan, Nissim Ezekiel and Shama Futehally, all the way up to contemporary luminaries like Pankaj Mishra and Amitav Ghosh.

Aditya Mani Jha December 09, 2020 09:16:38 IST
The Arvind Krishna Mehrotra interview | 'There’s a lack of historicity in way we think, talk, write about Indian literature'

Arvind Krishna Mehrotra. Images courtesy Hachette India

Arvind Krishna Mehrotra (b. 1947) is one of India’s best-known English-language poets but his work as a critic, editor and translator has been every bit as valuable. His 2012 essay collection Partial Recall: Essays on Literature and Literary History is part-memoir, part-meditation on the way Indian literature has shaped up since the 1970s. And now, Mehrotra has edited The Book of Indian Essays: Two Hundred Years of Indian Prose (Black Kite), an anthology collecting some of the best Indian essays of all time — including works by old favourites like GV Desani, RK Narayan, Nissim Ezekiel and Shama Futehally, all the way up to contemporary luminaries like Pankaj Mishra and Amitav Ghosh. There’s also some very important work by people better known for their contributions in other realms of human endeavour, like Amrita Sher-Gil and Madhur Jaffrey.

The following are excerpts from an interview with Mr Mehrotra.

There haven’t been too many serious anthologies collecting Indian essays, as you acknowledge in the introduction. Aren’t university ‘Readers’ heavily dependent on the anthology as a genre, though? And yet, even New Writing in India (1974; edited by Adil Jussawalla), which is an outstanding anthology otherwise, has very few essays.

What you call “Readers” are small collections of essays or poems, often put together by a committee and taught at the university the committee is from. Once in a while a publisher takes the initiative and asks an individual to put a collection together, which a university then picks up and prescribes. One such collection, and a remarkable one, is Statements (1976) edited by Eunice de Souza and Adil Jussawalla. I call it remarkable because it only includes essays by Indian writers — Ashok Mitra, Geeta Kapur, Prakash Tandon, KPS Menon are some of them. Unless things have changed, I suspect most of our BA English “Readers” will have more British and American essayists than Indian ones, which remains their problem and is quite separate from their having been edited not by an individual but by a dull committee, and perhaps none would have only Indian essayists, as Statements does.

The other part of your question has to do with Adil’s New Writing in India. We tend to forget that Adil was collecting and commissioning work for it half a century ago. And it aimed at representing new writing, chiefly short fiction and poetry, from all Indian languages. But it had one essay, Nissim Ezekiel’s passionately written review of Naipaul’s Area of Darkness (1964), which I include in my anthology but which I would not have known of had Adil not put it in New Writing. We’ve certainly not paid as much attention to the essay as we should have. Actually, there’s a lack of historicity in the way we think and talk and write about Indian literature. We are particularly ignorant about 19th century writers. I could include only four essays from the period and wish I had had space for more. Who’s even heard of Shoshee Chunder Dutt (1848-1909)? But his essay ‘The Street-Music of Calcutta’ remains one of the most unusual things you can read on the city even today.

Your introductory essay ‘When the Gas Cylinder Comes’ talks about Indian ‘little magazines’ with a great deal of affection, acknowledging the role that they played in nurturing literature. During your teens you published one such magazine, damn you, along with your friends Amit Rai and Alok Rai. In the book Partial Recall, you characterise this phase as one of discovery, wherein you were exploring different literary universes, “trying to inhabit each as my native place”. Could you tell us a bit more about what that line meant to you?

Amit and Alok were Amrit Rai’s sons, Premchand’s grandsons. We were neighbours and Amrit Rai’s publishing house, Hans Prakashan, bought out Premchand’s books. At home, the atmosphere was culturally eclectic and literature was almost a way of life. But at the same time, in 1964, the idea of an Indian literature in English was in its infancy. Where was a sense of tradition going to come from? It wasn’t going to come from Sri Aurobindo and it wasn’t going to come from Sarojini Naidu. Hindi, a relatively new language, had poets like Nirala and Muktibodh. But we [English writers] had to look towards Europe and the United States to discover traditions to which we could belong without quite belonging to them. We read the Beats, people like Corso and Ginsberg, and felt closer to the language they used, the spoken idiom, than to anything that we saw around us.

‘When the Gas Cylinder Comes’ takes its name from a phrase used by Shama Futehally in the 1970s, to describe her search for Indian English writers who were in touch with the texture of lived reality in the country, who wrote in an approachable register (“writers who would be out when the gas cylinder comes”). It is a quintessentially middle-class image, and yet, it’s not restricted by that, is it? I remember when my mother would send me out for the cylinder I’d see richer people sending their domestic workers (and not their kids).

As you say, it is an image a lot of us can associate with, whichever part of the country we may be from. It makes literature “approachable”. I also linked this image to the Anita Desai essay in the book, ‘A Secret Connivance’. She writes that truth is “often ordinary, commonplace, colourless and dull”. In the 1960s and 1970s, if you wrote in English, finding Indian writers who sounded like regular people was a problem. The poets felt it, the fiction writers felt it. Who are we writing for, they’d ask themselves, as Shama did. VS Naipaul or Kamala Markandaya would obviously not have awaited the arrival of the cooking gas cylinder van as anxiously as we did and still do.

The Arvind Krishna Mehrotra interview  Theres a lack of historicity in way we think talk write about Indian literature

Futehally was looking for writers who understood class inequities, among other things. But wouldn’t you say that some essays in The Book of Indian Essays are about the opposite, i.e. privileged writers ‘discovering’ how out-of-touch they are with the 99 percent, so to speak? I mean, Amit Chaudhuri is a great writer who’s written some landmark novels, but the entire point of his essay ‘Money Matters’ is discovering why autorickshaw drivers seldom seem to have change in the mornings (“they start each day afresh”, they don’t keep the money from the previous day on them). People like me, who’ve grown up outside of the metros, have always known this and what ‘bohni’ means; it’s hardly a ‘revelation’ in the way it clearly is for Chaudhuri here.

It’s an important question and I’m glad you asked. Only a small part of Amit’s essay is about what you say, and it comes at the end. The essay is about our “curious, grudging relationship to money”. Anybody who knows Hindi and has grown up speaking the language and has lived in a Hindi-speaking area knows what the concept of ‘bohni’ is. They are unlikely to be mystified by the fact that autorickshaw drivers never seem to have change in the mornings. Amit’s essay uses this as yet another example of our “curious relationship to money”. The example he picks is more likely to be revelatory if you are somewhat unfamiliar with the ways of Delhi’s working class.

The question of privilege is a tricky one. To be writing in English — to be writing at all — is to belong to a privileged middle class.

If you go down the list of writers in the anthology, an unprivileged writer would be hard to find. To hear the thud of a gas cylinder and to put it in a piece of writing is an indication of a fine literary sensibility, rather less importantly an indicator of your background. These are essays and may or may not be seen as income tax returns.

You’ve written a lot about the ‘multilingual imagination’, as you point out in the book Partial Recall. Do you feel Indian academia is doing enough to develop writers or translators with the kind of sensibilities that a ‘multilingual imagination’ would entail?

Indian academia has nothing to do with developing sensibilities. It is designed to kill them. And this has not changed over the last 150 years. Let alone a “multilingual imagination”, even a monolingual imagination would be hard to nurture in the environment of an Indian university. The saddest part is that our linguistic horizon is constantly shrinking. Not more than six departments in India would be teaching Pali. But to cut a long story short, let me just quote Sheldon Pollock: “India is about to become the only major world culture whose literary patrimony, and indeed history, are in the custodianship of scholars outside the country. . . . This would not be healthy either for India or for the rest of the world that cares about India.” And this was said 10 years ago.

You admit in the introduction that for the purposes of this anthology, you decided to stay away from the newspaper-mode ‘political essay’ as far as possible; Arundhati Roy et al are not included here. Even Pankaj Mishra’s ‘Mashroba’, which is the last essay in this collection, is a stylistic departure for him. Talk us through this choice.

You know, including the kind of political essays that I write about in the introduction would’ve lent the anthology a quite different flavour. I wanted to keep politics out of this volume, for no other reason than the fact that there’s so much of it around. Most political essays cannot be read with the same sort of interest 10 years down the line. To an extent, it’s the nature of the genre. It’s like the political cartoon: it’s there, it’s topical, but after a few years the references don’t resonate in quite the same way.

Of course, there’s also the odd piece like M Krishnan’s ‘The Jellicut’ (which is about jallikattu), which may appear to be apolitical at first glance, but through a mixture of understatement and allusion, put their point across unforgettably. When did you first read Krishnan’s work? Strangely, it reminded me of how some Hindi writers, including Premchand, used animals in their stories to communicate matters of life and death.

That’s wonderful to hear. I had read some Krishnan essays in the 1960s and 1970s, back when he used to have a column in the Statesman. Later, in 2000, Ramachandra Guha edited a volume of his essays, Nature’s Spokesman, which has ‘The Jellicut’. The qualities Krishnan admired in the Old Tamil poets — they were, he said, “direct, terse” — are qualities of his prose as well. He was also a very visual writer, as a nature writer must be, and he often tells it with a bemused smile. A writer like him is an endangered species, perhaps more so than the “Dwindling Animals” he wrote about. He lived a life “of self-imposed obscurity” Guha says of him, in which there is a lesson for all of us.

In Partial Recall, you mention how Indian writers “look into the mirror of history” and see familiar faces from the past looking back at them. According to you Salman Rushdie sees GV Desani, Nirad C Chaudhuri sees Toru Dutt and so on. After a lifetime of reading and writing, who do you see smiling back at you in the mirror?

I see my contemporaries: Arun Kolatkar and Adil Jussawalla, but also AK Ramanujan and Nissim Ezekiel. Nissim is a figure I rebelled against initially, only to understand, decades later, how difficult it would have been for him to keep the idea of writing in English alive through the 1950s and 1960s. I was young and judged him too rashly. Not that sobriety, in matters literary, is such a good thing either.

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