1. Granta 130 book review: Mystic country

Granta 130 book review: Mystic country

The second Granta devoted to India celebrates an ‘eruption of literary non-fiction’, holding up a mirror to the sweeping changes—social, political and economic—in the country

By: | Published: March 22, 2015 12:10 AM

Granta 130: New Indian Writing
Ian Jack
Granta Books
Pp 288
WHEN THE first Granta on India came out in 1997, it celebrated its golden jubilee as a country in the “middle of tumultuous change”. Editor Ian Jack, no stranger to the land—he had been reporting on India since the 70s—included some of the stunning changes he had witnessed down the years: population growth, economic reforms push, growing disparities, the aspirational struggle for jobs, money, land, power, mentioning even the advent of writers who were writing about this new vibrant India.

In the late 70s, when he came to India for the first time, a newspaper colleague who was Indian suggested that Jack carry some shirts from Marks & Spencer: “They never go wrong as presents. Indians love them.” Jack didn’t bring the shirts, but realised it was a good tip in a land that seemed “remote and austere…”, a world, where there was “no Coca-Cola or foreign cars, and certainly no shirts from M&S”. Cut to the late 90s and post-liberalisation. A friend of Jack told him before another of his India visits: “Don’t get anything… everything is available in the market here.”

In the 1997 edition, we had a mix of old, familiar and new exciting writers, from Anita Desai to William Dalrymple, Nirad C Chaudhuri to Mark Tully and Urvashi Butalia to Suketu Mehta writing on India. It also had an extract from Arundhati Roy’s novel The God of Small Things, which later won the Booker.

In this second Granta devoted to India, now guest editor Jack celebrates an “eruption of literary non-fiction”, from narrative history, reportage, memoir, biography and travelogue, holding up a mirror to the sweeping changes—social, political and economic in reassured voices—in the country, while also looking at its past.

In that, there’s Raghu Karnad’s The Ghost in the Kimono, a remarkable account about the untold story of the Japanese in Purana Qila, Delhi.

“They were tenants for one bewildering year, 1942,” writes Karnad, “when Britain was losing a war against Japan, and the fort was an internment camp for enemy civilians brought here from across its Asian empire.” It’s a fascinating story, not least because both India and Japan have done little to remember it.

Such delightful whiffs from the past are juxtaposed with reality stranger than fiction. Aman Sethi’s Love Jihad takes us through the casteist, divisive campaign that largely helped the BJP win 71 of the 80 seats in Uttar Pradesh in the Lok Sabha elections of 2014. He gives us more than a glimpse into the life of one of the BJP’s followers, and what motivates him to fight against Love Jihad on the astounding assumption that Hindu women are being held captive by Muslim husbands. There’s Samanth Subramanian’s Breach Candy, a probe into a no-holds-barred war among Mumbai’s elite over Breach Candy Club, a relic of the Raj.

New fiction from Hari Kunzru (Drone), Amit Chaudhuri (English Summer), Neel Mukherjee (The Wrong Square), Anjali Joseph (Shoes) and Deepti Kapoor (A Double-Income Family); Amitava Kumar’s poignant piece, as he mourns his mother’s passing away in Patna, Sam Miller’s look-in on Gandhi in London, poetry by Anjum Hasan, Tishani Doshi and a little gem of a story in prose from poet Arun Kolatkar (Sticky Fingers) are some of the pieces that round up this wonderful edition.

And, yes, Gauri Gill and Rajesh Vangad’s eponymous photo essay is truly “another way of seeing” India, giving an insight into the Warli people who are known for their folk paintings. Vangad, a celebrated Warli artist, welcomes Gill into his village Ganjad, a small farming village in danger of losing its land and livelihood, four hours from Mumbai. What follows is Gill’s sweeping landscapes of village life and Vangad’s Warli paintings composed on the photographs. Also interesting is Katherine Boo and her team’s Annawadi pictures, giving a peek into life in a small slum on Mumbai airport land. Many things have changed in India, but is the future looking glorious? Look into the mirror, along with these writers and artists.

Sudipta Datta is a freelancer

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