At the beginning of this century, playwright Harold Pinter, while discussing Milosevic, the “Butcher of Belgrade”, was reported to have said “Milosevic is innocent”. Mayhem ensued, and what Pinter said in his defence gave the world a pertinent quote on dissent: “It is so easy for propaganda to work, and dissent to be mocked.”

Dissent may or not work in favour of the dissenter but it remains an integral part of a robust social order. In contemporary Indian conditions one can even claim, as Howard Zinn, the American historian, playwright and activist has said, “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.”

“Dissent” is the theme of the newest volume of New Writing published by the online magazine Helter Skelter. Conceptualised in 2010 by Arun Kale to promote emerging writers in India, Helter Skelter has evolved from a fledgling online platform for independent art to a literary magazine coveted by serious and aspiring writers alike. Their sixth anthology, which is their third one in print, was published in August 2018 and has fiction and poetry handpicked by the late Professor Eunice de Souza (it was one of the last works she had taken on before her passing in 2017) and poet and writer Meena Kandasamy.

Original voices

The 19 original works in the anthology comprise both prose and verse, with accompanying art and illustrations. The interpretation of “dissent” was left to the writer or artist and the resultant works have retained the flavour of the theme without much polemic but with intensity. From anti-establishment experiences to to silent restraint within domestic fortifications, the volume bursts with voices that beg to be heard.

Inconsistency in quality is not unusual in literary collections that look for writers beyond proven voices. New Writing, by and large, escapes this charge; except for one or two prose pieces that do not quite match up with the rest. The overall quality of work selected is very high; especially the poetry. Younger voices sit comfortably with known ones and poetry and prose pair up in their choice of dissent in more than one instance.

The canto segment in the volume is delightful, strong and soul-stirring by turns. Chithira Vijayakumar’s poem on “a list to make the woman safer in a city”, dwells on the call to have more lighting everywhere: “But what about those of us who like to walk in the dark?” In her poem “Kitchens”, Harnidh Kaur writes: “All the women I know move like their bodies house kitchens that have not been stocked with food for days. they walk like there is a refrigerator under their breasts which was left unopened so long, that it’s better off thrown away.”

Not just words

In “The Self-arranged Marriage”, Eloise Stevens presents a bare sketch of a woman who is loved with possessive intensity and dissents in a wild remembrance note, which “she folded but did not send”. Binu Karunakaran’s “Primal Cut” is sharp, incisive and crisp in rebellion as he rips apart religiosity. Baidurya Sen’s “Bidrohi” points to how “such world intricacies are beyond’’ the grasp of the man who has a well right in his own backyard, but has to watch his son go and fetch water from the river. The man’s views on that essential element of life, water, bloom in the layers of the verse, meriting a few more reads. Akhil Katyal’s “First Week in IOWA City” wonders about the proximity of Kashmir and Palestine in terms of distances from our minds. Tanya Singh, in “Poems From Inside A Locked Room”, laments “this moment behind a locked door”, and “all this love, but only in this room”. Dissenting love? Perhaps. And how lyrical.

From the prose pieces, “Choke” by Mansher Dhillon and “A Fine Family” by Karthik Venkatesh both choose values that dissent from our conditioning and put their point across with beautiful subtlety. “A User’s Guide to Compliance” by Dyuti Mishra weaves a tale around a sort of dissent that’s not a rebel’s choice while Shreya Ila Anasuya’s “Pre-Written” addresses a dissent from mythical times that should have happened but didn’t. Praveena Shivram’s “Uterus” is a consciously unemotional take on a gang rape, making the reader speculate about “the colour of pain” in the worlds of those men.

No mention of the collection would be complete without talking about the artwork that livens up its pages. Appupen’s strokes drip with delightful sarcasm – “Complain Boy and Complain Girl” rise from the panels to poke your eyes. The other illustrators – Tanya Eden, Osheen Shiva, Sonali Zohra, and Mira Malhotra – have interpreted the writings to complement or supplement the ideas in turn and add life to the collection. Malhotra has also designed the book’s distinctive cover and her illustration for Harnidh Kaur’s “Kitchens” deserves special mention.

“Dissent” is a collection that does not disappoint, and one that deserves more than a single read.