Writer Anita Desai in her foreword to India: A Traveller’s Literary Companion declares the short-story collection to be ‘curious’, ‘original’ and, ‘audacious’. In the initial impression the book does seem curious. And, in a cynical moment, the collection even appears contrived. Something that may compel the reader to ask: How desperate are the publishers to conjure a title? A Traveller’s Literary Companion? What next? A Curry-lover’s Literary Companion? Valid questions albeit asked a bit too fast. In fact as you read the book, carefully compiled by writer Chandrahas Choudhury, you may even inspiringly ask: Why Not? To get rid of another tedious question: Is the book to be read especially during a travel in India? Though the stories accurately inform on the landscape and the location, this certainly is not the concern of the book.
Then what is? Is it to inform the readers about how famous Indian authors have written about India? Not at all. Actually, as far as the authors go, they are the least concerned about anything other than telling their stories. They have not been told to write to a brief. These are well-known stories, published before and picked to suit the purpose of the book. That brings us back to the question. What is the purpose of the book that, according to Desai, is audaciously titled ‘India’ What is so ‘India’ about it? As things stand so far, India cannot be easily assumed into an identity. Indians, individuals or communities, only flatter themselves in claiming ownership to the title in entirety. At home we are reluctant fellow residents. But around the world aren’t we pleased to drop the name of India mostly to find favour? So is the book audacious to assume the title India? Yes, and the audacity is well earned. Because the contents are as fiercely and arrogantly differen-tiated as Indians themselves. Differentiated in language, religion and expression. A differen-tiation that Indian communities have travelled over at least three and a half thousand years. It is this variety of travel the book reflects or aims to achieve.
“These are well-known stories, published before and picked to suit the purpose of the book. …that, according to Desai, is audaciously titled ‘India’.”
Choudhury has divided the book into the four regions of East, West, North and South. Picking three writers for each direction the compilation accounts for Indian writing of around 100 years in the past. This way the book travels chronologically, in each of the four sections starting from early 20th century to contemporary India.
Qurratulain Hyder’s ‘The Sound of Falling Leaves’ dominates the North collection (for me all four directions) not just in terms of the strength of the protagonist’s voice but also the way it makes the all powerful human spirit look so fragile tangled in the conflicts of morality, mobility and mortality. Hyder’s much-married protagonist, in the autumn of her life is capable of remembering her long- lost lover with this last refrain-‘On dark nights I lie awake quietly, my eyes open. Science has acquainted me with a number of secrets of the universe. I have read countless chemistry books. Thought for hours and hours. But still I am scared. I get really scared in the middle of the night.’ The story travels between Delhi and Lahore. Between Hindus and Muslims. Between domestication that violates, to simply domestic violence. But the humanity of the characters makes all these terms mere signifiers. That’s the genius of Annie Hyder.
Nazir Mansuri rises like a storm from the West and saturates all the senses of the reader with the ‘seething sexuality’ of the story of Lakham: the tall, robust, and pock-marked handsome Portuguese whale-hunter with blond unruly hair and bidi-smoking. His stint with the eunuch kidnappers and the sexual tension between him and Rani, the wife of his missing brother, yearning for Lakham. ‘How he dances while hunting the whales….but the moment he sees a woman, he cowers like a green crab, this vile panderer, son of a portugis. Kills whales….Tell him to marry, and he acts as if he knows nothing. What does one do with this poisonsucker?….
Mansuri’s fecund prose is well lined with fish of all variety ‘the ravas, the dara, the chhapra-chapri, the ghurkas, the large pomfrets, the jewfish, the shark younglings and the eels lying in the broad iron buckets…. The young author from the coastal town of Navasari in Gujarat is a gifted master of the erotic prose: ‘The whale struck the shore, pushing sand and foam further in.’
In the East Bibhutibhushan Bandopa dhyay’s ‘Canvasser Krishnalal’ brilliantly narrates an account of a life in Calcutta, in contrast to the few days the protagonist is forced to spend in his village. And believe me, nothing escapes the eyes of Krishnalal, who has a 30-year experience of selling oil to cure ‘all kinds of aches, and itches … instantly.’ Salman Rushdie’s story ‘The Prophet’s Hai’’, set in the dark alleys of the picturesque Kashmir, is told in his signature style of fact and fantasy. The story offers a grand and miraculous end. That which cures the cripple and cripples the intents of miracle mongers (read militant evangelists). The only represen-tative from the North East is Arunachal Pradesh’s Mamang Dai. ‘The Scent of Orange Blossom’ is a story of a content young wife whose view of life has immense space and possibilities. Could this be attributed to the landscape she occupies?
Lalithambika Antherjanam’s ‘In the Moon-light’ and Gita Hariharan’s ‘Halfway Animals’ represent the southern territories. Lalitham-bika at the early 20th century end and Gita at the end of the millennium both recount the story of a couple. While Lalithambika quite simply and powerfully deals with the theme of primal love, Gita in a stunning use of techni-que revisits that forgotten feeling through a visit to a primate’s enclosure at a zoo.
Other territories and their borderless masters include Bihar’s Phanishwarnath Renu and his story ‘Panchlight’; Orissa’s Fakir Mohan Senapati and his story ‘Asura Pond’; ‘Ganesh Gaitonde Sells his Gold’ by Vikram Chandra from Bombay; and Anjum Hasan’s Goa story titled ‘Eye in the Sky’.