“The essay, like a penknife, can be put to many uses; like a newspaper aeroplane, it can fly and crash and fly again; as a literary genre, it is unfussy. An essay gathers no dust.”

Unless you’re a literary buff who seeks out good non-fiction writing, especially essays, written by Indians, the chances of your having read something outside of your school and college syllabi (which somehow includes mostly British and American essay writers) are low. Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, poet, writer, and critic puts it rather bluntly: “We’ve certainly not paid as much attention to the essay as we should have. Actually, there’s a lack of historicity in the way we think and talk and write about Indian literature.”

Range and style

And so, when you pick up The Book of Indian Essays: Two Hundred Years of English Prose, edited by Mehrotra, you find within the purview of the anthology the sparkle of academic intellect alongside humour, personal opinions and reflections that engage both the critical eye as well as a non-academic audience. To reflect on Mehrotra’s introduction, the curation is symptomatic of a dual progression, where the stress is not only on stylish prose, but also on a delectable range of subjects.

While the inclusion of a few more contemporary essayists could certainly have upped the ante, it is perhaps Mehrotra’s sense of history that makes him partial towards work that provides a setting for an anthology that celebrates two hundred years of Indian English prose. Throughout, the book moves at different levels, capturing not only stylish writing but also making sure that the reader is engaged with a wide variety of subjects that range from the sport of Jellicut to an exploration of Anglo Indians, from musings on An Ordinary Man to ruminations On God.

Read in this day and age, most of the writers appear to be groping for a balance between the emotional and intellectual. In that sense and more, the creative personal essay enjoys a certain lack of boundary and allows the writer an ease of reflection, on matters perceived as less academic and more personal. Imagine then, the startled joy of a reader at finding the odd piece of writing far more resonant of the writer’s personality than of crafted prose or imagined fiction. Therein lies the reason for the popularity of this genre perhaps.

Speaking of the curious and the eclectic, Shoshee Chunder Dutt’s essay, Street Music of Calcutta, is perhaps one of the quirkiest essays you’ll read about a city. In fact, the piece makes you realise that words are not only capable of creating resonating sounds, but that they also articulate within themselves the most unexpected variants:

“Poorana Loha Bikree!
Poorana Chatta Bikree!
Poorana Nakhra kani Bikree!

Your old iron, your old chatta or parasol, all your tattered rags, are marketable articles: there is no destruction for them, but a statutory change.”

The public and the private

Or there is Gautam Bhatia’s interesting essay on Art as Politics, where he scrutinises Indian politicians’ penchant for building statues after themselves. Anecdotes reveal the process that goes into the commissioning of such statues while also recounting the number of politically motivated structures build over the years: “Much before Mayawati’s memorial building encountered rough weather, a Delhi architect, a Dalit himself, had proposed a thirty-storey statue of his leader to be built as a focus of a memorial in central Lucknow. The monument was to be 340 feet high, and if built would have dwarfed not just the tallest building in Lucknow but the Statue of Liberty as well.”

Every once in a while, the essays offer glimpses into the personal lives of the writers whom the reader has so far known only through their prose. Take, for instance, Hasan Shahid Suhrawardy as a student describing his youthful glee at meeting Tagore in Oxford, or the inimitable academic whom Amit Chaudhuri found discussing the rather insistent habit of Indians (and Indian auto rickshaw drivers) refusing to part with change, while standing on the pavements of Khan Market in Delhi with fellow poet CP Surendran in his essay Money Matters, or for that matter Arun Kolatkar discussing the furniture in his ancestral house in his unassuming manner in House with Nine Rooms.

Other than these personal pieces, there are some literary ones too, like Sanjay Subrahmanyam’s critique of Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger, or Nissim Ezekiel’s incisive essay on Naipaul’s An Area of Darkness, Pankaj Mishra’s ever elegant description of his literary getaway in Mashobra, or Buddhadev Bose recounting his unusual friendship with author Henry Miller in Big Sur.

Mehrotra belongs to the rare breed of writers who still believe that the best of literature must be approachable – in fact you see it in his own writing too. I remembered Pankaj Mishra’s words as I closed on the last chapter: “...on days when I’m far away from Mashobra, in very different landscapes, I only have to see a patch of mellow light on a lawn, only have to feel a fresh bracing quality in the air...” Sparkling prose does that to you I suppose, it makes the journey to the larger world lighter.

The Book of Indian Essays: Two Hundred Years Of English Prose

The Book of Indian Essays: Two Hundred Years Of English Prose, edited by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Black Kite.