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Why a good literary essay never gathers dust

Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s new anthology is a tribute to the supple beauty of the essay as a literary form

Arvind Krishna Mehrotra brings together 200 years of English prose. (Mint)
Arvind Krishna Mehrotra brings together 200 years of English prose. (Mint)

In the 16th century, French philosopher Michel de Montaigne, who is considered to be the progenitor of the modern essay, explained that his “essais” (the French word means “attempt”) were meant to record “some traits of my character and of my humours”. A reclusive and melancholic man, Montaigne retired from worldly affairs at the age of 38 and spent the next decade locked up in his library, reading and writing. The themes of his essays hopped, skipped and jumped amongst everything that interested or intrigued him (fears, pedantry, smells, idleness, tyrants, women, friendship, books), bringing the weight of his eclectic subjectivity to bear on them.

Some 500 years later, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra sings a similar paean to the essay as a literary form. “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,” he writes in the introduction to the newly published The Book Of Indian Essays. “The essay gathers no dust.”

As an anthologist, Mehrotra is pre-eminent in India, a formidable scholar, a poet and an essayist who has put together an acclaimed history of Indian literature and a collection of modern Indian poetry, among others. In this volume, he brings together 200 years of English prose—from Henry Louis Vivian Derozio to Pankaj Mishra—that conveys a fair measure of the chameleon-like gifts of the essay as a literary genre.

The ambition of this volume, Mehrotra explains, is to transcend the humdrum of daily social and political commentaries that fill the oped pages. “From essays that dovetail to essays that form a daisy chain,” he writes, “what if one were to read this anthology as a book of interlinked stories, as a single piece of non-fictional fiction; or as something else again, as an exercise in social history?”

True to its promise, The Book Of Indian Essays abjures hot takes tied to the news cycle. Perhaps the only conventionally “political” pieces are by Rabindranath Tagore (The Nation) and Jawaharlal Nehru’s speech at the opening session of the Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Areas conference in Delhi in 1952. Both have weathered the distance of decades decently. The rest are a treasure trove of styles and approaches, the much familiar personal essay (long before it became a ubiquitous free-for-all on the internet), eccentric travel sketches, a few pieces of literary criticism (notably, an incisive analysis of V.S. Naipaul’s An Area Of Darkness by Nissim Ezekiel; and an evisceration of Aravind Adiga’s Booker-winning The White Tiger by Sanjay Subrahmanyam), and much more.

The Book of Indian Essays: Edited by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Black Kite & Hachette India, 462 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>699.
The Book of Indian Essays: Edited by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Black Kite & Hachette India, 462 pages, 699.

If there are (somewhat) uneasy presences, they far outweigh those that take wing and transport the reader to other realms. Shoshee Chunder Dutt takes us to an era when the streets of Calcutta would ring all day with the cries of sundry vendors, including that of the “Kooar-Ghotee-Tollah”, whose job was to fetch bits and bobs that had fallen to the bottom of wells. Chitrita Banerji (born more than a century after Dutt) remembers the “skeletally thin” Patoler Ma, whose daily task at her ancestral home in Calcutta was to hand-grind the many spices that would go into cooking the meals of her joint family. “I thought of her as a woman warrior, despite her frailty,” Banerji writes in a haunting essay that is an ode to lost time as well as the unsung labour of women and domestic workers.

There are essays that feel a bit obtuse, in spite of the writing. Irwin Allan Sealy’s The Anglo-Indians mixes social history with personal reminiscences, while Meena Alexander’s In Whitman’s Country is a delicately hewn statement of her love for the eponymous American poet. Dom Moraes writes about his faithlessness in On God, while diasporic writer Victor Anant debates identity in The Three Faces Of An Indian. The luminous passages of prose notwithstanding, these pieces may irk at times for their occasional pomp and borderline solipsism.

It’s a tricky balance to hit the sweet spot when it comes to the tone of an essay, where an individual writer’s interest or self-scrutiny begins to matter to every reader, however far they may be in time, place and temperament. The best essays in the book draw us in with their wit and charm, pathos and poignancy. Sheila Dhar documents, in wrenching detail, the humiliation she, her siblings and her mother faced from Dhar’s father. The piece simmers with a quiet rage, even as it tries to make sense of the complicated circumstances of her parents’ marriage. Aubrey Menen casts a tender, and characteristically acerbic, look at his mixed heritage as he chronicles his visit to his Malayali paternal grandmother (who considered it bad form to cover her bosom in public), accompanied by his Irish-origin mother. At once hilarious and harrowing, that trip left a profound impact on the 12-year-old Menen, a sense of wonder and woe that the reader shares with him. Santha Rama Rau’s account of a visit to her uncle Shivan and aunt Kitty, another mixed marriage couple who set up home in Delhi, thrums with a robust sense of humour.

As several states threaten to draw up laws to prevent inter-faith unions, these stories from a not-so-distant past, when clashes between cultures could be settled with civility and grace, feel especially resonant. Indeed, there is an air of nostalgia in the conception of the anthology, harking back to a time when the essay used to be written, published and cherished as a literary form. If this volume, with its magpie selection, helps revive the genre in the mainstream, that will render an invaluable service to India’s media and publishing industry.

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