Summer 2005
Testing the Waters
by Anjana Basu
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First Proof: An Anthology of New Indian Writing in English
Penguin India. Rs 295

There is a slapdash air about Penguin’s anthology of new Indian writing that makes the title First Proof fairly apt. The book is like an experiment. The air of testing the waters begins with the cover. Half right way up, half upside down, it’s meant to be flipped. It’s the sort of thing that happens in Cosmopolitan or Man’s World, a magazine gimmick. Someone is testing the way an anthology of new writing should be--different at a glance. Of course, if you look at the spine where the bar code is situated, there can only be one way up. And to align the book according to its spine brings you straight into the non-fiction section. However, to confuse matters more, the editor’s note appears just before the fiction section, which means that if you follow the spine and dive into the non-fiction, you will begin the book without any idea as to its intent. Upon requesting an autograph from one of the writers I was asked whether I had the book the right way up, since the author’s son had got his autograph in the wrong section at the Delhi launch. 

This is the first of an annual venture planned by Penguin India, a book of new writing that will eventually cover everything from prose to graphic novels to poetry. The only reason why poetry isn’t included in this one is supposedly because the editors had no idea how to lay their hands on any good verse. Strange, thinks the reader: They  say this despite being based in Delhi, in the heart of India’s publishing capital with contacts networking all around! All you have to do to find good poetry is to ask! 

The sense of strangeness continues when you discover that despite being an anthology of “new writing” many of the authors included are not new writers at all. Some have two or more books to their credit. Comes another expla- nation – these writers did not get the publicity they deserved in their first books, so we included them here to do them justice. Willing suspension of disbelief is the fair reader’s response to this. Until you flip through the contents and find a story by the immensely hyped Rana Dasgupta. Curiouser and curiouser, as Alice would say. 

The non-fiction section has a piece by Sunanda K Datta-Roy, a very senior and equally distinguished journalist. His Dida and her ‘we understand the English better than anyone else’ is an entertaining and accomplished memoir, but hardly new writing. The list of other well-known bylines includes External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Navtej Sarna, distinguished academician Andre Beteille and former Outlook magazine's bureau chief Saba Naqvi Bhaumik. The result is that the non-fiction has weight, even though it fails to live up to the anthology’s stated mission.

The fiction, after the required back flip, is less enlightening. Subtlety is the forte, but subtlety is not always as entertaining as it might be. And there is an overwhelming darkness about the themes, which range from a search for identity to family ties and incest. For sheer readability, the stories that stand out are Rana Dasgupta’s and Mita Ghose’s – the latter being a genuine new writer. Arun John’s ‘The Kopjes of Serengeti’ impresses, though the ending demands something more than mere groping for a meaning. There are of course also interesting experiments like Alban Couto’s ‘The Road to Barabar.’ Also worth noting: Sarnath Banerjee’s adult cartoon strip and some stories which deserve to be in verse rather than prose. 

Could it be improved upon? Of course it could, with a conservative and better-designed cover, for a start. With more method to the selection process, and perhaps an editor with a name to lend the whole thing more weight and take it out of the experimental arena. The late Civil Lines, which kept India’s intelligentsia entertained for eight years with fine writing, was possibly a step in the right direction, the Granta direction, which is where First Proof tries to head. Even though, again, it must be admitted that a lot of pieces in Civil Lines were not by new writers and not always by Indians.

As it stands, the first edition of First Proof deserves a quick flick through at an airport terminal or a railway station. But we’re prepared to wait for what's to come.

(Anjana Basu's novel Curses in Ivory was published by HarperCollins India in January 2003. A second novel, The Black Tongue is under contract  to Rupa. Ms Basu is also the author of The Agency Raga, a collection of short stories [Orient Longman], and her poems have been featured in an anthology published by Penguin India. Her work has appeared  in Wolfhead Quarterly, Amethyst Review, The Blue Moon Review, Kimera and Recursive Angel.)