Far away from the mainstream, on the fringes a literary revival is taking place. Let us salute the little magazines.
It is not mainstream literature and the media hype that accompanies it, nor the glossy interviews and journalistic reviews in the print and broadcast media, that provide an authentic barometer to the health of a nation’s literature. The true test and taste for literary climate reside within the unpretentious pages of literary magazines; here you can hear genuine outcries, conflicting unfashionable views, hard criticisms, cutting edge experiments in writing, opinionated editorials, and individual signatures which one respects in spite of one’s personal views.
So it indeed is great news that there has been a birth, rebirth and sustenance, in the last few years in South Asia, of a range of literary (and arts) magazines—traditionally known as ‘little magazines’. A tiding all the more remarkable since most of these little magazines and annuals suffer from the problems of financial support, inefficient distribution networks, and the difficulty of having a consistent roster of dedicated contributors who will write regardless of payments.
There are several publications that could have been featured in this essay—The Brown Critique (edited by Gayatri Mazumdar), Kavya Bharati (edited by Paul Love), Poesies (published by The Poetry Circle), The Indian PEN (edited by Nissim Ezekiel), The Journal (published by Poetry Society of India), Haritham, NIRIEL, The New Miscellany (edited by P Lal of Writers Workshop), Indian Literature (Sahitya Akademi journal edited by K Satchidanandan) and Yatra (published by HarperCollins). Most of these are active, while some remain inactive (coming out occasionally). Others are defunct like the excellent The Bombay Literary Review (edited by Vilas Sarang) and Kavi India (edited by Santan Rodrigues).
But, for reasons of space and immediate relevance, the ones discussed here are: Chandrabhaga, Katha Prize Stories, Civil Lines, International Gallerie, The Little Magazine and Six Seasons Review.
One of the recent joys—as the editorial in the current Civil Lines states, “resurrections are momentous, joyous”—in the specialised area of literary magazine-publishing has been the wonderful rebirth of Chandrabhaga in a sophisticated matt-finished avatar. The current issue (New Series, Number 3, 2001) edited, as earlier, by senior English-language poet Jayanta Mahapatra, has all the hallmarks of the previous series, plus an injection of new blood and direction.
One of the most gripping items is a powerful long poem by Gajanan Madhav Muktibodh titled “The Moon Wears a Crooked Smile” (the Hindi original has been translated by Karni Pal Bhati). The translated version retains the visual and rhetorical force of the original, delivered in a contemporary free-verse idiom.
Here is an extract:
The wind’s sari border quivers
bullets pierce empty nests on the
Bald detective of pale moonlight
wander the city streets
penetrating its many secret woes
in multiangular corners…
and further on:
Her lips turn dark
a sculpted torso in a harijan temple
gnarled banyan roots
misty ghosts of lime-smeared rags.
The lustful eye
of the bald crooked moon…
There are two engaging essays on poetry itself—Pramod K Nayar’s “Persistence of Memory” and Krishna Rayan’s “The Poetry is in the Pity”—plus fine pieces of writing by some of India’s better known contemporary poets. For these alone, it is worth subscribing to this journal, and most certainly, Chandrabhaga is one of the best sources for new poetry in India.
The Katha Prize Stories is in its tenth volume. Geeta Dharmarajan’s fantastic crusade for over a decade to get translated literatures of India on an equal footing with English language writing, is clearly one of a huge but quiet success. Volume 10 presents the best short fiction published during 1999-2000 in 13 Indian languages—Assamese, Bengali, Dogri, Hindi, Maithili, Malayalam, Manipuri, Marathi, Oriya, Sindhi, Tamil, Telugu and Urdu— chosen by a panel of distinguished writers and scholars. It would be unfair to pin-point specific stories or their authors, as the fact that they have made it to a nominated volume itself is a source of pride and celebration. The English translations read well, and some exceptionally well.
Civil Lines’ fourth number appears unannounced and under the guise of self-confessed erraticism— an aspect I have been quietly attracted to over the years of its publication. The editors simply and plainly state that if there aren’t enough writing in India worth publishing, then an issue just needs to wait until it has garnered sufficient material. A refreshing aspect of Civil Lines (like Chandrabhaga) is that it is largely edited by practising writers (Rukun Advani, Mukul Kesavan and Ivan Hutnik) rather than academics. This brings a sense of verve and edge to the selections that appear here, rather than staid middle-of-the-road literary drones.
The pieces in the current issue that stand out for me are Kai Friese’s prose piece, “Liver is not Mutton”, and two convincing pared-down poems—”Delete” and “The Parable of Mr Paranjpe” by Amarish Satwick. Increasingly, for obvious reasons of viability, these kinds of magazines are getting co-published. In the case of Civil Lines, this time around, it is jointly published by Ravi Dayal, Permanent Black and The Hindu.
And as usual, its cover is stunning— a partial front image by Lauent de Gaulle of a parked Fiat taxi, where the old-fashioned metre and the underside of a driver’s foot resting on the dashboard, are in primary focus—both in visual harmony but contradicting each other’s intent. For every issue, the selection of a very unusual cover photograph is in itself an indicator of the kind of content the magazine generally tends to have—eclectic, intelligent and wry.
International Gallerie is graphically and visually outstanding. Its sense of design and layout ought to be models for many who aspire to such sophistication. Edited by Bina Sarkar Ellias, and supported by Rafeeque Ellias and his design team, Gallerie is now in its third successful year. Another attractive aspect (apart from the highly charged individualised writings) is its large format of 33 x 24 cm. Gallerie not only has liberal space to do justice to photographs and artwork, but also cleverly uses typography and white space to enhance the all-important text itself. The current issue (Vol 3 No 2/2000) is a special on India and Pakistan—to “the peace process that should have begun a long time ago”. There are excellent pieces—fiction, poetry, essay—by Altaf Fatima, Moeen Faruqi, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Teesta Setalvad, Salima Hashmi, and a superb duo-tone sepia-tinged photo-essay titled “A Day in the Life of Pakistan” by Ayesha Vellani.
I have, like many others I am sure, been following this magazine ever since its first issue over three years back. What perhaps started out as a high-quality literary and arts magazine, has now grown to being a platform where the boundaries between the creative arts and the polemics merge, the borders between opinionated pieces and subtle creative writing are finely defined, and above all, for almost all the issues, there is a specific topic-thread that runs seamlessly through the genres. It is the organic nature of both its content and presentation rather than the traditional sewn-spine that makes Gallerie stand out even among so many glossies that compete for commercial space.
The newest and the most exciting entrant in this genre is The Little Magazine. I was bowled over by its classy understated persona, its balance of high-profile and unknown contributors, its stylish design sense, and its peculiarly witty subversive editorial stance. I have seen and read all the issues that have appeared so far, and to produce a 100-odd-page ‘A4′ format magazine every two months without diluting its content or quality is a fine testament to its editors’ talents.
The Nov-Dec 2000 (Vol 1 Issue 2) has two fine essays—”Queering the Family Pitch” by Shohini Ghosh, and “The Voice of Sadhvi Rithambhara” by Tanika Sarkar. The lead piece is by India’s most recent Nobel laureate, Amartya Sen, followed by pieces each by Nabaneeta Dev Sen, and Ashish Nandy—quite an arsenal- packed opening volley that.
But the most moving and evocative contributions in this issue are by the poets, fiction writers and visual artists—Arun Kolatkar, Nirmal Verma, Ram Rahman, Sudip Roy, Gopi Gajwani and Raghu Rai. I could go on and on about other aspects as well—such as typography and design, sections like “Mapping India”, and the editorial gnome who mouses around in “Readers Block” and “For New Writers”.
The Little Magazine is a refreshing, unapologetic, clever, well presented magazine of ideas that make and break other ideas of literature, politics, and art. Highly recommended—go ahead and subscribe!
Six Seasons Review is published by Mohiuddin Ahmed of University Press Limited (formerly Oxford University Press, Dhaka) and edited by writers, translators, and academics. It is a journal I am proud to be associated with as its international editor. It is perhaps the first significant and professionally produced literary and arts magazine from Bangladesh. The unusual name of the magazine is derived from the fact that South Asia is the only place in the world that officially has ‘six seasons’— Summer/Grishma, Monsoon/ Barsha, Autumn/Sharat, late-Autumn/Hernanta, Winter/Sheeth, and Spring/Bashanta.
Inspired in part by the London Magazine and Granta, Six Seasons Review uses the same paperback book-format, and is devoted to new writing in English, and English translation—poetry, fiction, nonfiction, drama, belles-lettres, interviews, and other arts. Of course, due to its provenance, it has a special interest in writings from the region and the Bengali diaspora, but it is by no means restricted to just that.
Six Seasons Review is international in scope, a fact well borne out by its contributors’ nationalities which is as wide ranging as the writing itself. The inaugural issue had pieces by Jibanananda Das, Rabindranath Tagore, Shamshur Rahman, Rafiq Azad,’ Shaheed Quaderi, Kaiser Haq, Fakrul Alam, Syed Manzoorul Islam, Bernard Bergonzi and William Radice. It also featured an outstanding black and white photo essay, “Life in a Char”, by a talented young Bangladeshi photographer, Mahmud. Six Seasons Review is a biannual publication, and the new issue has contributions on Ted Hughes by Daniel Wiessbort, James Sutherland Smith, Anne Rouse, Tomas Salamun, Chung Hee Moon and Hans van de Waarsenburg. In the forthcoming issue, a selective portfolio of the architect Bashirul Haq’s red-brick-and-concrete signature works will be presented. Six Seasons Review’s strength lies in its intelligent and unpretentious approach, where the art of writing and that of the other arts are given premium space and value.
That in effect, is what all these little magazines are about—big space, and value for the arts.