Reviews of the latest books from and on Southasia

Written For Ever: The best of Civil Lines
edited by Rukun Advani
Ravi Dayal, 2009

What is one thing Suketu Mehta, Amitav Ghosh, Amitava Kumar, Ruchir Joshi and Allan Sealy have in common, besides falling under that catchall term 'Indian writing in English'? They all appeared, many of them quite early in their writing careers, in the now-defunct literary journal Civil Lines: New writing from India, which lived a short but vibrant life between 1994 and 2001. Editor Rukun Advani, while putting together the anthology, unabashedly reveals the fine art of selection, "If, for example, I had taken an irrational dislike to a piece, I kept that piece out for no fault of the author's. Some pieces I kept out for reasons I can't myself fathom." Either way, it is a treat to be able to read early works – such as Amitava Kumar's "Indian Restaurant", Allan Sealy's "Ethical Cowboys", Khushwant Singh's "Village in the Desert" and Ruchir Joshi's "My Father's Tongue" – all in the same volume.

Besides the splendid pieces from the now-out-of-print journal (back issues are known to have been filched by wily guests while their host momentarily turned away to refill their drink), the editor's introduction, "Civility, Civilization, and Chivas Regal" is a gem. Advani is truly droll as he paints an intimate portrait of the "mummy" of Civil Lines, Professor Dharma Kumar, that "perfect blend of vigour, charm, and sarcasm". This "affluent Nehruvian intellectual", as Advani calls her, having plied him with a barrel of scotch, let him loose to contact "writerly people", asking them to "send us anything fresh they happened to be writing, that connected in some loosely literary or imaginative way with India and that hadn't already been published". The result is a superb set of writings that have now made their way to this collector's item. (Laxmi Murthy)

Mumbai Post-26/11: An alternate perspective
edited by Ram Puniyani & Shabnam Hashmi
Sage, 2010

As the trial of Ajmal Kasab, the sole surviving perpetrator of the November 2008 attacks in Bombay, drags on in Kafkaesque style, along comes a collection of published articles that purports to analyse the tragedy and examine the discrepancies in the various versions of the attacks that emerged in the media. Some of the pieces here are certainly worth a read, for those who missed them the first time: Tarun Tejpal's moving yet incisive "Death of a Salesman"; Gnani Sankaran's acerbic critique of the upper-class bias of the television anchors in "Hotel Taj: Icon of whose India?" and lawyer Prashant Bhushan's "Terrorism: Are stronger laws the answer?" Nonetheless, the rambling, shabbily edited introduction manages to do exactly what the editors claim should not be done: whip up hysteria. Likewise, the hastily tagged-on appendix, "Acts of Terrorism by RSS Combine", perhaps in an attempt to appear 'unbiased', is completely out of place. (LM)

The Diary of Unreasonable Man
by Madhur Mathur
Penguin, 2009

Mathur's new work is a masterpiece of paperback packaging. Red and black, the anarchist colours that its protagonists purport to champion, it promises something provocative, intelligent and biting – especially with a blurb from Anurag Kashyap, one of Indian cinema's most interesting current filmmakers. Instead, readers are given something while painfully earnest, disappointingly incoherent and tepid. Admittedly, the opening sequence is daring, dealing with an apparent act of terrorism on a train; but Mathur, perhaps in hoping to keep his protagonist likable, keeps pulling his punches. Pranav Kumar is a smart, successful adman who hits a crisis of conscious over his peddling of commercial crap to the masses. He quits his job and, after returning to his youthful political writing, cooks up a scheme to subvert the dominant culture of materialism and corruption with a series of publicity stunts carried out by his band of similarly situated friends. His writings become pamphlets signed Your Anarchists – the extent of their capers against the system.

No Baader-Meinhof gang, these 'anarchists'. Indeed, the mounting action hardly offers more than some modestly entertaining tableaux, barely raising a pulse. And Mathur seems incapable of turning a critical eye to his self-identified characters, something that would immeasurable improve the book. The author might have hoped for something truly countercultural, but instead penned a throwaway novel that resembles a coke can and not the cultural Molotov cocktail that it seems to aspires to. Like the trappings of the commercial, materialistic culture it seeks to critique, The Diary is an initially attractive product that leaves its consumer ultimately unsatisfied. (Alston A D'Silva)

Dancing Earth
edited by Robin Singh Ngangom & Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih
Penguin, 2009

India's Northeast is more of a terrain of imagination than just another name on the map. For the more poetically inclined, it is an amorphous area where insurgents prowl the forests, soldiers patrol the highways and spirits walk freely in the hills. Caught in the web of multiple contestations between geography, history, culture and politics, people endure life with a gaiety that can be done only when one has come to terms with inevitability and inescapability of sudden death. It is difficult to capture the essence of this complexity in prose.

Poetry does full justice to the interplay of emotions, ideas and dreams of people living in perpetual transition, even as nothing changes while everything is in a whirl. No wonder, the editors of this anthology have decided to use a title that underlines the idea that ordinary mortals are merely moving their feet with the Cosmic Dancer. The poems included here have been translated with true feeling from their originals in Assamese, Manipuri, and even Hindi and Nepali. The poets represent multiple generations, while recurring themes include the night, the womb from which the morning is born. But it is hope that helps one to survive dislocation, just listen to Khasi poet Soso Tham: "The heart too will grieve/ Alone faraway;/ The tears that gather/ Are actually pearls." The sea is indeed far away from Northeast, and it lives only in tears in the mountains and valleys of the long-suffering land. (C K Lal)

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