Book review: First Proof

(This was written for Time Out Mumbai, about the only magazine I’ve ever worked for where the editor has mastered the art of screaming with EXTREME POLITENESS whenever I overshoot my deadlines, which is pretty much all the time.)

First Proof
The Penguin Book of New Writing From India: 1
Penguin India, Rs 295,
218+202 pages

Has Indian writing in English ever been formally taken off the Endangered Species List? There are only a handful of R K Narayans, people said just before a guy called Salman Rushdie quit advertising to become a writer. There’s only one Midnight’s Children , I was told just before A Ghosh, V Seth, Sealy and company took centrestage. The new generation has produced no one like A Ghosh and company, we were informed the year before The God of Small Things and the boom in big advances ushered Ruchir Joshi, Pankaj Mishra, Raj Kamal Jha, into the spotlight. Roy’s Booker was a flash in the pan, said doomsayers a few months before Jhumpa Lahiri won the Pulitzer. There was a brief, and we hope, embarrassed, silence, before a brand-new refrain came up: see, the best writing will come from the diaspora, everything in the homeland is dead.

It doesn’t take a First Proof to tell us that reports of the demise of Indian writing have been greatly exaggerated. As the editors write: “The future looks good (though we are constantly, casually told otherwise).” They’ve got a mixed bag of allsorts to back up the claim. Of the 17 short stories and 13 essays, travelogues, and assorted pieces of non-fiction here, there’s little that stands up and demands to be called a classic—but even less that doesn’t deserve to be here at all.

First Proof is planned as an annual event, and if it’s meant to showcase the best of new, original and brilliant writing from India, the editors have a tough job ahead. The Little Magazine and a few others of its kind aside, there are few forums where you can publish original short fiction, and fewer still where an editor will push hard enough to coax a brilliant story from the author of a merely adequate one. Civil Lines got past the problem of acquiring sterling writing from writers who’re seldom allowed to break the 300-word or 900-word barrier by delaying publication until the editors felt they had a good enough set; this led to magisterial delays, two-and-a-half years between volumes in one case.

This hits the journalists hardest: Nirmala Subramaniam has a great subject in Prabhakaran as does Saba Naqvi Bhaumik in a more legally acceptable Don, and both of them do a solid reporting job—but they don’t produce great writing. Sankarshan Thakur’s controlled rage leads to something more memorable in his foray into “the heart of Backward country”, as does Mishi Saran’s focused passion on the distant journeys of a long-dead monk. The lack of experience also mars the fiction, where the quality wobbles from the spectacular to the devastatingly mundane.

But First Proof scores in its variety. Some writers here have familiar bylines, but, like Mitali Saran or Anuradha Roy, are making their first foray into fiction; some, like Ranjit Hoskote, are better known in other fields; some are seasoned authors, like Indrajit Hazra or at a more austere level, Andre Beteille. None of them lack confidence. The fiction ranges from the wildly experimental, as with Sarnath and Rana Dasgupta, to Arun John’s quiet, moving tale of a young man setting out in search of the parents who disappeared years before into Africa, to Renuka Narayanan’s florid imagining of Vaak, the deity of speech. The non-fiction takes in the familiar—grandmothers, boarding school odysseys, the world post 9/11—and the unusual—colonial bibis, vamps, Cuba. What comes through is absolute confidence: postmodernism, no problem; journeys to the centre of the human heart, coming up; the markets of Matunga, Fidel sightings in Cuba, Turki in North Bihar—it’s all accessible, none of it beyond imagination.

It’s a bumpy, uneven ride, with more than a few potholes thrown in. But what First Proof says is, buy the ticket, take your chances, come on board—the view’s pretty good from where we sit. This anthology is a brave attempt; and even if it’s a bit of a chalta hai collection, we’ll use the oldest Indian mantra of them all, and simply adjust.





2 responses to “Book review: First Proof”

  1. Anand Avatar

    I think the issue/concern is that of influence and appeal, not only popularity and celeb-appeal. Any source can cobble together an assortment if one looks hard enough–perhaps it is the presentation which nneds to be bolstered, and not only the content.

  2. tilotamma Avatar

    Loved Civil Lines – I ahve seen only one dition of it so far

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