Those Bloody Indians in a Major Key

Some excellent writing as well as some serious editorial grandstanding

01 February 2010
Written For Ever The Best of Civil Lines Ed. Rukun Advani Penguin Books India and Ravi Dayal Publisher, 2009 Rs 499, Pp 420

IT APPARENTLY STARTED “one day in 1992” when the historian Ramachandra Guha was summoned by his “formidable professorial Tambram aunt,” the economic historian Dharma Kumar. Guha “declined her offer” to edit a new literary journal on the lines of the New Yorker or Granta “devoted to ferreting out ... new literary writing ... by paying its writers well” and suggested the novelist Mukul Kesavan and the scholar-publisher Rukun Advani instead. Scotch was consumed – “an old Chivas Regal” – and erudite banter exchanged. Cut to 1994 and the first issue of Civil Lines. Seven years, five issues, and some “vaguely better than modest” sales later, the whole thing starts to disintegrate and the “sixth issue of Civil Lines is about seven years overdue.”

This rise-and-fall story we know because Rukun Advani narrates it at length in his editor’s introduction to this recently published ‘Best of’ anthology (whence the quotations above). It is an uneven collection that emerges, but there are more highs than lows. It can in good faith be recommended.

There is much charm in the vivid details of a childhood among the sand dunes of undivided Punjab in the extract from Khushwant Singh’s memoirs. Inevitably, with its accounts of the “taut, shapely, black-nippled bosoms” of the women of his boyhood, they are fated to be memorable chiefly as a portrait of the artist as a dirty young boy. Tenzing Sonam brings a refreshing personal angle to the ever-expanding corpus of Tibet travelogues in his A Stranger in My Native Land: A Journey Through Tibet. The familiar elements are all there – the stark landscape of the Tibetan plateau and the depressing facts of the Chinese occupation – but there are many new ones:

Nakul Krishna is a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Cambridge.

Keywords: Rukun Advani Amitava Kumar Arvind Krishna Mehrotra IWE Indian Writing in English The Best of Civil lines Nakul Krishna literary journal Civil Lines