The BS Column: Civil Lines, Redux

(Published in the Business Standard, November 10, 2009)

“Civil Lines hopes to appear irregularly, twice a year for a start.” Among the many promises this magazine of “fine unpublished writing connected with India” made and kept, the first part of their opening manifesto was religiously adhered to. It is only now that the best of Civil Lines has been collected in Written For Ever (Penguin India), some 16 years after the magazine’s birth.

The first issue of Civil Lines came out in 1994; between that date and 2001, the magazine took on a mythical aura, assisted by the fact that Civil Lines sightings and basilisk sightings occurred at roughly the same frequency. The cover photographs by Sanjeev Saith became as iconic as the contents between the covers.

It’s easy for any literary magazine to make an impact with its first issue, and in this case, the first issue was an absolute gem. Edited by the late, formidable Dharma Kumar, the late and equally redoubtable publisher Ravi Dayal, Mukul Kesavan, Ivan Hutnik and Rukun Advani, it included work by I Allan Sealy, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Radha Kumar, Ramachandra Guha, Bill Aitken and Khushwant Singh. Alongside this embarrassment of riches came a prescient warning: “The length and content of future numbers are as uncertain as the periodicity; we’ll play it by ear.”

Civil Lines is notorious for its elusiveness–five issues between 1994 and 2001, followed by an eight-year-long silence. (There will, however, be a Civil Lines 6: the contract was signed while I was still at the publishing house Tranquebar.)

Readers have consoled themselves with the reflection that Civil Lines shares its somewhat erratic tendencies with some of our finest Indian writers and thinkers, who seem unnaturally disinclined towards actual publication. But for those of us who have—and incessantly talk about, much to the annoyance of those who don’t—the complete collection of those five slender volumes, Civil Lines evokes a rare admiration.

It’s not just the roster of names who were published by Civil Lines, or the fact that many of them became names (or became much bigger names) post-publication: the editors, with their collective knowledge of the Indian intellectual circuit, had a knack for spotting emerging talent just before it became established talent.

Some, like Manjula Padmanabhan, Raj Kamal Jha, Ruchir Joshi, Amit Chaudhuri, Amitav Ghosh, Suketu Mehta and Allan Sealy, were evolving into the writers they are today. Some, like Radha Kumar, Bill Aitken, Sonia Jabbar and Tenzing Sonam, are well-known for their work in other fields, and add the label of “professional writer” to a host of other achievements. Some, like Dilip Simeon, first gave notice of brilliant work to come in the pages of Civil Lines—Simeon’s novel, expected out soon, grew out of the incredibly incisive and funny ‘OK TATA: Mobiloil Change and World Revolution’.

To establish a literary magazine where the first issue is a collector’s item is commonplace; to establish a literary magazine where every issue is a collector’s item is extraordinary. Civil Lines found its identity from the first issue onwards. In comparison, even the New Yorker shuffled uneasily in its first decade between being a vehicle for humorous writing and an arena for news of interest to a metropolitan audience. (The New Yorker, however, came out with admirable, even monotonous, regularity.)

Civil Lines was shifty about its stated manifesto: issue one commits itself only to “fine unpublished writing”. Civil Lines 2 admitted: “’First-rate writing’ is a good intention, not a usable manifesto,” and then stubbornly refused to set down a manifesto of any kind. Civil Lines 3 helpfully pointed out thematic links: trucks seemed promising, relatives were in abundance, and the editors continued bravely, “Then there are animals.”

Civil Lines 4 eschewed a manifesto in favour of a poem, the delectable ‘Tonguing Mother’: “When words float free of local reference/ writing happens in a fog/ of deference.” And Civil Lines 5 drew our attention to the fact that it advertises itself as ‘New Writing From India’: “This,” said the editors with what one couldn’t help feeling was perverse glee, “is misleading.”

In many ways, Civil Lines mirrors the successes and failures of the wider world of Indian writing in English. Here, in its five volumes, is the brilliance, self-referential wit and passionate engagement of some of the best of our writers. The magazine’s appearances may have been erratic, but the editors, with Kai Friese joining their ranks, displayed a virtue unusual in Indian literary circles—quality control.

And it’s significant that the silence from Civil Lines is mirrored by a decade of uncertainty in Indian writing in English—more writers have been writing to the marketplace, rather than for themselves, in the last decade than ever before. It is perhaps too much to expect that Civil Lines 6 will herald a return to the glory years when the magazine was an annual affair, but I would be content to see the magazine reach Civil Lines 10 before—well, let’s say 2030 to be on the safe side.





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