Wednesday, December 02, 2009

On Written For Ever: The Best of Civil Lines

Like Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, the literary journal Civil Lines has for many years been an entity thought by most to be dead, even as a few of the faithful still insist it is alive and kicking, and merely waiting for the right moment to return to public life. Five issues of this journal of (to quote the editors) “fine unpublished writing” came out between 1987 and 2001, each edition, published and priced like a paperback, a celebration of the essay, memoir, long-form reportage, and the short story, while at the same time impervious to the charms of writing in translation, literary criticism, interviews, or poetry.

The magazine’s idiosyncracies of taste, irregularity of publication, somewhat cliquish circle of contributors, and lack of either a precise editorial manifesto or a market ambition were all repeatedly explained by the editors (perhaps a little too emphatically) as a symbol of their devotion to no other deity but quality. Since the last edition of Civil Lines appeared at the far end of this decade, might one then interpret this long hibernation as a damning comment on the state of Indian writing in English today – a kind of literary criticism of silence, just as vipassana is of the world of empty talk? Could be.

Alternatively, and much more realistically, one could attribute the disappearance of Civil Lines to financial issues, unsteady support from publishers, the involvement of the editors in more urgent projects, and the vacation air inherent to the magazine’s modus operandi from the very beginning (this when literary magazines usually begin with nothing less than a plan for world domination). In the same way, if one takes some of the editorial preening and pompousness on offer with a pinch of salt, (the introductions to each issue are included in the book, usually directed towards such revelations as this one from CL 5: 'We think that the seven stories in this issue add up to the best and most diverse collection of short fiction you're likely to read till...well, till Civil Lines 6 comes along) one might find plenty to enjoy in Written For Ever, a compilation of some of the best pieces published in the journal as chosen by one of its editors, Rukun Advani.

It is immediately clear from Advani’s anthology that the magazine published some outstanding non-fiction in its heyday (the late eighties, when three issues came out in quick succession). Dilip Simeon’s “O.K. TATA: Mobiloil Change and World Revolution”, an essay about a truck driver who discovers that his khalasi, or helper, is a Naxalite, evokes life on the road in the most sumptuous detail, while Ramachandra Guha’s “An Anthropologist Among The Marxists” describes with a giddy devotion the author’s first-hand knowledge of the various Calcutta factions of Marxism gleaned as a doctoral student in Calcutta. Alongside Pankaj Mishra’s “Edmund Wilson in Banaras” (published elsewhere), these essays must rank as two of the greatest in modern Indian prose. Indeed, Simeon’s piece deserves further praise for the acuity with which it transforms the substantially non-English world of truckers into an English that never seems incongruous. Here is a passage from his essay: here we see the driver, Hardip Singh, meeting his prospective khalasi Partap for the first time, after which there follows a description of a khalasi's duties:

The youth was a bit of a greenhorn and seemed delicately constructed to the driver. He was already on the truck when Hardip approached its owner, a Punjabi lala in his mid-twenties from a Partition refugee family in Delhi's Rohtak Road area. The khalasi seemed to go with the vehicle, though he had only been on it for a couple of month or so, he said. Hardip didn't care. One khalasi was as good as another so long as they kept awake on night journeys, were quick on their feet, and good at massaging one's back and legs. Most drivers' apprentices were teenagers and aspired to become drivers themselves. Glad invariably in grease-stained cotton knickers in summer and threadbare pyjamas or pants in the winter, they were human appendages to the trucks, odd-job hands who leapt out at brief stoppages bearing tyre levers, with which they knocked at the tyres to hear them ring (to confirm they were not punctured), rushed out at octroi barriers to pay the clerks, leaned out of cabin windows slapping the door in city traffic and yelling at rickshaws, two-wheelers, cyclists and pedestrians (here insults could be exchanged and colourful abuse hurled depending on speed and distance), stood behind the vehicle when it was being reversed shouting affirmatives, wiped the smudges of shattered insects off the windshield at night, washed the truck at long halts (hence their other appellation, clean-der), supervised loading and unloading, spread the onboard tarpaulin on to consignments by tying it down with the onboard rope, performed hard labour with jacks and roads during tyre changes, checked engine oil and radiator-water levels, stayed awake all twenty-four hours unless instructed to sleep, and were honoured occasionally by being asked to take the wheel.

This is someone who really knows how to write a sentence, laying into its folds bright, memorable details (knocking at the tyres to making them ring), little jokes ("shouting affirmatives"), and delicately ironical remarks (working all twenty-four hours a day unless given leave) just as efficiently and suavely as the khalasi is supposed to do his job.The essays by Simeon and Guha are easily worth the price of the book, and there are a number of other good essays: a charming memoir about animal-watching by M.Krishnan; a tribute to his father by Brijraj Singh; Advani's own introduction, mostly an account of the origins of the magazine; and and a very funny “prelude to an autobiography” by Amit Chaudhuri in which the writer sets himself up against none other than Shobha De.

In the realm of fiction, however, the magazine's record appears in hindsight more modest. Other than Manohar Shetty’s diverting tale of Goan gossip, “Lancelot Gomes”, it is a struggle to find fiction here that is formally inventive, aesthetically satisfying, or in any way “written for ever”. A number of them work within a narrow palette of first-person reminiscencerealism; while this method can lead to many good things, many stories here are sunk by cliched descriptions of states of mind and feeling. One love story ends with “two anonymous beings at the edge of a sea that threatened every moment to engulf”, while in another story we are told that “Yet out of the blue a new twist did appear, irrevocably changing the status quo of 'Neelu and I.'” This is itself status-quo storytelling. Narrative artistry is a rare quality at the best of times, and the editors’ skepticism towards work in translation – the only example here is a translation by Amitav Ghosh of an unbearably mawkish story by Rabindranath Tagore called "The Hunger of Stones" ("Where had she lived and when, this ravishing, ever-changing beauty? Where was she born, in which palm-fringed oasis, by which desert stream? Who was the tented nomad who brought her into this world?") – seems to have meant a kind of willed fishing in shallow waters, or, to move the metaphor from sea to street, a refusal to engage with any place very far away from the comfortable Civil Lines of a city. Some of the stories collected here supply, I suppose, serviceable descriptions of conditions like immigrant life, society's callousness towards women, or personal angst. Very few work as story.

Civil Lines 6 is apparently to be published next year by Tranquebar Press. It may be very different from its predecessors, but more likely it won’t; journals are usually as stable, in a broad way, as the people who run them. In that case, there will still be much about the Civil Lines to enjoy. But the literary values and assumptions held by much Indian writing in English the late eighties and early nineties seem slightly musty when aired today, and given how much has changed about that literature in this decade, the journal might find itself today, in a far more diverse and energetic literary scene, more to the fringes than it would like or, even with its deliberately contrarian air, can be proud of .

And here is an older post on a recent anthology of essays on Salman Rushdie: "Salman Rushdie and Midnight's Diaspora."

A shorter version of this essay appeared last weekend in Mint Lounge.

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