The two volumes of Sahitya Akademi’s publication The Best of Indian Literature 1957-2007 is a must have collection for any connoisseur or even someone who is interested in Indian literature of the post-Independence period. This collection in two volumes covers the best of Indian literature written from all corners of India in the first fifty years of Independence. Since all the writings have previously appeared in the Akademi’s journal at some point or the other in the last fifty years, they would be familiar to many readers, who may have read some of the pieces in isolation. The uniqueness of this volume is in a number of things. Firstly, it brings together in a single collection writings from nearly 24 Indian languages in translation. Second, the collection gives an insight into the major literary movements, issues of this period. And third, it brings together, in one collection nearly all the major literary icons of modern India.
This is indeed a collection of some outstanding writings, by some of the luminaries and best known names of Indian literature. It epitomizes the motto with which one associates the Sahitya Akademi—that ‘Indian literature is one, though written in many languages’. From Bengali, Tamil, Telugu to Maithili, Konkani and other not so well read and ‘popular’ (and I do not mean popular here in the normal sense, but in the sense of the less well-known perhaps in our predominantly majoritarian discourse), the collection is, as already mentioned above, a jewel in any individual’s book collection. It also repudiates Rushdie’s claim that prose writing—both fiction and non-fiction—by Indian writers in English, is a stronger and more important body of work than most of what has been produced in the regional language, during the same time.
Cutting across genres—from short stories, poetry, drama and non-fiction prose—the collection exposes the reader to the dominant genres in Indian literature, even though the short story and poetry clearly occupy centre stage. The themes running through the collection are also many—from the pangs of Partition to the marginalization faced by the people living in the North East. And indeed Indian literature refers here to both works written in English as well as the regional languages—an Anita Desai, Mulk Raj Anand or a Jayanta Mahapatra fit as much into the collection as a Bonophool, Fakir Mohan Senapati or Faiz Ahmed Faiz.
The evolution of post-Independence Indian literature is also clearly evident in the way the collection is organized. The first volume in its two parts is dominated by poetry more than the short story or non-fiction prose, reflecting the literary trends of the period. This volume covers literature up to the early 1980s. Interestingly, since the collection is arranged alphabetically, it is not as though one is reading literature from the same period one after the other, and this allows for a greater and more in-depth understanding of the progression of Indian literature. Also, the first volume is also unique for including writings by Pandit Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi. Pandit Nehru’s speech, delivered during the 1962 Sahitya Akademi awards discusses the issues confronting Indian literature in the 1960s, as well as the debate between Indian languages and English—a debate that still continues today. I was interested to note Gandhi’s name in the list of writers in the contents, considering he had been martyred long before the publication started appearing. The actual piece is a tibute to Maxim Gorky by Gandhi, published in a special centenary issue brought out by the Akademi’s journal on the latter, thereby giving an example of the wide reach of topics and issues covered in the journal in the last 50 years. Reproduction of speeches delivered by the likes of Senghor and Aldous Huxley also add to the richness of the volume. Writings in translation from Bangla, Malayalam, Telugu, Tamil, Hindi as well as those written in English dominate the first volume, with only a few writings from Konkani, Manipuri, Maithili, Assamese etc. While it is very difficult, almost impossible to choose, Anita Desai’s ‘Private Tuitions by Mr. Bose’, Bonophool’s ‘A Piece of Diamond’ and Krishan Chander’s ‘Kalu Bhangi’ leave an indelible impression for various reasons.
The second volume covers roughly the 25 years from the 1980s to 2007. As can be expected, short stories and prose writings now begin to dominate over poetry, there are more variety of voices heard from different parts of India—lesser known voices mingle with more well-known ones. The themes in the poems and the stories also deal with a number of issues—poverty, gender issues and patriarchy, identity, environment etc. It is clear that whichever part of the country one may belong to, certain issues will remain pertinent to the entire country. Therefore Bhisham Sahni’s story ‘The Portrait’ talks about the inherent patriarchy in our system, wherein after the death of the husband, the father-in-law takes over the patriarchal role in the family. The short story is also a poignant account of the woman who has gradually seen her dreams of matrimonial happiness evaporate over the years; in contrast, the children remember their father fondly. His garlanded photo therefore has different resonances for every member of his family.
Mahasweta Devi’s ‘The Son’ is an account of a situation that is becoming increasingly common in today’s age—of sons and daughters ignoring parents and slighting them in their old age, a world where material comforts and family comforts do not and cannot coexist. It also addresses the issue of generational gap. Shubhro’s father tells him, ‘You’re just one of a generation whom we, of another generation, just do not know…How can I say whether you are a wretch or a beast or a human being. I simply do not know you.’ And Shubhro realizes that one day his son may just do the same to him. The Manipuri short story ‘The Taste of the Hilsa’ is a poignant and symbolic tale of a young boy who has caught a big hilsa in the morning, and has been eagerly waiting and dreaming the whole day to eat it in the evening. However, he sees his dream disappearing before his eyes when his father is forced to sell off the fish because there is no rice in the house to eat with it! The money from the hilsa will buy the rice that will enable the family to have a meal. Ganga Prasad Vimal’s short story ‘Farewell to You’ sums up in one word the internalized feelings of guilt that many women feel when their marriage breaks up—that it was their fault and that they are, in many ways, a ‘murderer’. Interestingly, translations of Premchand’s well known story ‘Mandir, Masjid’ and Manto’s ‘Black Marginalia’ were published in 1991 and 1985 respectively in the Akademi’s journal, many years after they were originally written. The time of their publication in the journal also coincided with landmark events in the Indian polity at around the same time, and therefore their relevance becomes all the more pronounced. The stand out short story for me in the collection was Navaneeta Dev Sen’s ‘Stand back please! It’s the Nobel’. A hilarious satire on herself, on contemporary society, the story is also presumably a partly true account of her own experiences when Amartya Sen won the Nobel. Being a Bengali myself, I could very clearly identify with the situations created in the tale. The ending too is the icing on the cake.
Like the short stories, the poems in the collection also deal with a variety of issues. ‘Dregs’ by A.K. Ramanujan brings across the theme of diaspora—underlining as it does the irony of the immigrant experience. In Gulzar’s provocative composition, ‘The Hunter’, there is a sudden reversal in roles. A number of poems deal with the dalit experiences—such as Meena Kandaswamy’s ‘Eklavya’ or Namdeo Dhasal’s ‘The Tree of Violence’. Voices and scenes from India’s North East can be seen in Desmond. L. Kharmawphlang’s ‘Thaiang Buried Roots’ and ‘Dikrong River’—they bring alive the beauty and destruction of the natural beauty of the region. Similarly, Mamang Dai’s ‘Man and Brother’ works on the ancient myth that killing a tiger is equivalent to killing a man. They are essentially brothers—‘brother! Man brother! /Have mercy for our destiny’. In a day and age where the tiger population has reached alarming levels, therein lies an important message. Interestingly, one of the translators of Tamil in the collection is Kanimozhi—this is an avatar of hers that not many young people may be familiar with. Her translation of ‘Techniques of Destruction’ is superb. It is naturally impossible to mention all the pathbreaking poets that have found place in this superb collection—suffice to say that it is a microcosm of all that is ‘India’ today.
As already mentioned above, plays and non-fictional writing get much less space in the collection, and this is perhaps to be expected. Many of them like Namwar Singh’s ‘Decolonising the Indian Mind’ are now part of canonical reading lists. Mulk Raj Anand’s essay ‘From the Progressive to the Post-modern’ is an autobiographical account written in first person narrative of the author’s own experiences, and their impact on his mind and writings. As he says: ‘My earlier writings were naive, impetuous and sporadic utterances coming from intense feelings. I found myself embroiled in sad moods, despairs and agonies.’ He talks of his engagement with Iqbal, the influence of his time abroad, and of people like Annie Besant and Gandhi in his development as a writer. Rang Rao Bhongle’s ‘A Semiotic Study of Dalit Poetry in Marathi’ questions the inherent hegemonic sensibilities prevalent in literature, while Robin S. Ngangom’s essay, ‘Poetry in the Time of Terror’, talks about the nature of poetry from the troubled North East region. My only quibble with the collection is that there are only five pieces of drama in the whole two volumes. Interesting and pertinent works as they are, the absence of the likes of Vijay Tendulkar, Habib Tanvir or Usha Ganguly to name just a few is very striking. Also striking is the absence of any non-fictional critical essay on the genre.
Nevertheless, the collection is an invaluable treasure-trove for literary aficionados and any person interested in the growth and development of Indian literature, not just in English but also in the regional languages. One must commend the editors Nirmal Kanti Bhattacharjee and A.J. Thomas in undertaking such a herculean exercise and painstakingly compiling the volumes.
Madhumita Chakraborty is Assistant Professor in the Department of English, Zakir Husain P.G. Evening College, University of Delhi, Delhi.