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Annie Zaidi’s Known Turf is a wonderfully engaging example of a puzzling trend in contemporary Indian writing in English. Despite the hype surrounding the novels-with-large-advances, the best writing today is happening in non-fiction. Of course, fiction presents certain unique problems—and, after Rushdie, mainly addresses them by horsing around in different registers. Entertaining enough, I suppose—but the gravity, let alone tragedy, of human existence apparently lies beyond its clownish scope.
Non-fiction, on the other hand, is inevitably subject to the discipline of reality and—in India, alas—gravity and tragedy are inescapable. But Annie Zaidi brings to her representation of these grim matters a quality that can only be called grace, a delicacy of touch that I hesitate to call feminine. Of course, that fact of her being a woman in India is a large part of her experience of the place, and contributes to both the anger and the humour in her writing. But the subtlest effect of this might be something else altogether. Zaidi writes, obviously, with a great deal of inwardness with her subjects. Her writing is driven by a serious and durable engagement with Indian realities, by compassion as well as a quiet rage at injustice that is particularly impressive in someone of her generation. But for all that, there is a marked absence of ‘knowingness’, the smug assurance—hardly a masculine monopoly—that the journalist knows pretty much what needs to be done, whether on the battlefield or the cricket field!