December 09, 2019
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The Prose And The Cons

Essays from a motley crew of luminaries: dated, Yank-oriented, but totally irresistible

The Prose And The Cons
India: A Mosaic
By Robert B. Silvers And
NYRB Rs 720, Pages: 285
IN 1940, with Hitler in mind, Orwell wrote an essay called England, Your England. It began: "As I write, highly civilised human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me." Later, with larger bombs looming, E.M. Forster delivered a lecture: "Nuclear missiles are not in my line. Unfortunately, I am in theirs." In 1998, looking at an unpleasantly frontal view of India's arsenal, Arundhati Roy writes: "I'm going to step out of the fairy lights.... If protesting against having a nuclear bomb implanted in my brain is anti-Hindu and anti-national, then I secede."

Roy's essay is not titled India, Your India, but it could have been. It continues the Orwellian tradition of Literary-Left protest against weaponry, war-mongering and the majoritarian lunacies of muscular politics. "One cannot see the modern world as it is unless one recognises the overwhelming strength of patriotism and national loyalty," said Orwell, even as he demolished the chauvinism and xenophobia fig-leaved by nationalism. Roy's impassioned polemic performs the same hatchet job on India's ruling mob of pseudo-Hindus.

And Roy's whiplashes fall equally on Indira Gandhi as the initiator of a political degeneration that was accelerated by her progeny and facilitated by a servile Congress Party. Roy's critique is in line with those by Girish Karnad, Sumit Sarkar, Romila Thapar, Amitav Ghosh, Ram Guha and other such writers who have, in their writings elsewhere, kept alive the country's minority protest tradition despite threats of the sort that Orwell and Forster never had to face.

The New York Review of Books, alongside The New Yorker, the LRB and The Spectator, has been responsible for blurring the distinction between reviewers, newsreporters and literary writers. The essays here, all on India over the past decade, are culled from the nyrb. Some combine reportage with elan, others free-wheel with flair over books, urban landscapes and the thought-processes that have shaped India after Nehru. Pankaj Mishra does both: his first piece, Edmund Wilson in Benares is an exquisite etude prefiguring The Romantics. Its evocation of the boredom and inglorious lumpen swagger of small-town India has a Late-Naipaulean finesse. His second essay includes the best-ever review of Narasimha Rao's The Insider and surveys the retrogressive changes in India's political culture, its measured assessments nicely complementing the frenzied beauties of Roy's Introduction.

In a book of essays, ideological sanity can degenerate into a pious political correctness that only irreverence and literary wickedness can redeem. There's no such redemption here. There's no Auberon Waugh wielding a scimitar, no Isaiah Berlin, no Philip Larkin. But there is Amartya Sen. Since no intellectual volume on India can be complete without a Big Bong, we're served up a Doublebig-Bong for good measure: the New Laureate writes an informative propaganda piece on the Old Laureate. Like all good Bengalis, Sen was smitten early by Tagore. He is apprehensive that his deity's godliness, like Bankim's, will remain a well-kept Bengali secret and his essay does a great missionary job of preventing that inconceivable disaster.

Anita Desai uses the book-review as an entry-point to discuss oppressed Indian women writers, ancient and modern, and just as one expected, it turns out all of them were oppressed. Desai's review of A Suitable Boy (not included here), alongside the two conversationally insightful pieces on Women's Writing in India, Vols I and II, give the feeling that she missed her calling. Her non-fiction seems to possess so much more weight and body than her bloodless fiction.

There are four essays by Western India-watchers. Following in Sunil Khilnani's footsteps, these focus on urban and elite developments in the Idea of India. Christopher de Bellaigue's piece, Bombay at War, is the best of these. It records the change in the ambience of the city from a liberal, laissez-faire commercial dynamism to a venomous goon-squad thuggery that Al Capone would have envied. "Even now," says the author, "many Mumbaikars wonder how their city could have succumbed to a sectarian nationalism that is anathema to its traditional mercantile sophistication."

Ian Buruma (Ranji's biographer) overdisplays the range of his reading even as he acutely contrasts Nehruvian-secularist Chandigarh with Hindutva-reconstructed Ayodhya. Hilary Mantel's essay reviews the work of Rohinton Mistry; Roderick Macfarquhar contrasts India's Partition upheaval with the pleasantries of the Hong Kong handover.

The really readable essay, the kind in John Gross' Oxford Anthology of English Essays, has in India been throttled from above by academic jargon and gang-raped from below by cliched journalism. To those who feel besieged by the instant gratification of website visuals and the semi-literate prose of the Indian print media, this book comes like a dose of smelling salts to a fainting Jane Austen heroine: it revivifies. So what if some of the news it provides is now old hat? So what if some of the information here is strictly for the Yanks? Given the general level of English prose in India, there is a great deal to be said for news disguised as a literary essay, for information delivered in a form that never makes us wince.

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