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Book Review: 50 Writers, 50 Books


Many writings, many mood
SAURABH KUMAR SHAHI | New Delhi, September 12, 2013 15:28
Tags : Guinness Book of World Record | 50 Writers | 50 Books: The Best of Indian Fiction | Guide | A House for Mr. Biswas |

Long ago, in a collection of essays dealing with aspects of societies in the Third World, the name of which escapes me now, I stumbled upon an essay that dealt at length with India’s fixation with numbers and how that leads to meaningless, often wasteful, record entries in Guinness Book of World Records. A cartoon that followed the piece had a couple engaged in coitus, an English translation of Kamasutra lying open by their side, with the woman saying, “Now that we have tried 48th, can we leave the rest for tomorrow?,” or something to that effect.

The journey towards more meaningful, intellectually fulfilling, number games such as list of great songs, books etc was slow. Rather painfully slow. Under the circumstances, when I got hold of the copy of 50 Writers, 50 Books: The Best of Indian Fiction, I found myself full of delight even before opening the preface page. That might colour my perspective about this book. So whether this book is good or bad, I leave it on readers’ discretion.

The book has 50 contemporary Indian writers trying to convince the readers why their favourite book should make this cut. Thankfully, while commissioning the essays, the editor did not restrict the choice merely to original writings in English, but also welcomed translations from vernacular world. I might be wrong here, but in my knowledge, this is the first book of its kind to come out in India, and the effect has been stunning.

So, while you have usual suspects like R. K Narayan’s Guide and Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas, you also have vernacular bombs like Nabarun Bhattacharya’s Harbart and Pudumaippithan’s Pudumaippaithan Kathaigal. And the inclusions are not the only things interesting. Since some of the contemporary greats are writing about their favourite books, the write-ups are top-notch.

Take for example A. R. Venkatachalapathy’s take on Pudumaippaithan Kathaigal. The writer insists that in an era when the art of short stories was still trying to find its feet, here was one author who not only decided to make writing his profession, but also to introduce the genre of short stories to the Tamil audience. In fact, so sure was Pudumaippaithan about his talent that he came out with not one or two, but actually five such collections. It is also interesting to read snippets of some contemporary review that these short stories collections attracted.

On the other hand, Abhijit Gupta’s tribute to a more contemporary writing, Nabarun Bhattacharya’s Harbart, takes into account a writer’s disillusion because of the decay in literary world and his lone attempt to wake it from the stupor and arrest the fall. “Harbart was a Molotov cocktail hurled at the heart of the literary establishment at a time when the Bengali novel increasingly resembled a never-ending tele-seriel,” writes Gupta, and one can’t help but nod, vigorously.  
Amitava Kumar’s passionate billing for Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy has the characteristics of a call that comes from somewhere deep within the heart. Kumar takes us to the journey of small town India through Seth’s eyes and make us realise that there is a world parallel to us where dreams and its realization might bring reactions that are not known to us.

S Theodore Baskaran’s book of choice is Bama Faustina Soosairaj’s short novel Karukku. Baskaran says that the novel makes the cut because it achieves two important milestones in Tamil Literature. For the first time, a Dalit, and a Christian at that wrote of her experience in a caste-ridden nunnery in Tamilnadu.

These are just some of the names that figure in the list of 50. I am sure that with every page you’ll read, there are revelations knocking on your door. Not only will it reaffirm your faith in some of the brilliant books you have read in the past, it is going to open a whole new world of vernacular literature to you.

The list cannot be called exhaustive, as no such list can be. What is heartening here is that awards like Man Booker or Sahitya Akadami is not a criterion here. And it is primarily because such gimmickry has been avoided that over-rated fare like The White Tiger has not made the cut. A few omissions do leave me dissatisfied, especially from Hindi.

Chatursen’s Vaishali ki Nagarwadhu, Shrilal Shukla’s Raag Darbari and Renu’s Maila Anchal has the calibre to take on high and mighty. But I guess it has more to do with the rot that has set in the contemporary Hindi literature.

We are living in a time when Hindi writers and critiques, bathed in inferiority complex, seem to loathe anything that has anything remotely English about it. When you indulge in pursuits as grand as changing Google and Gmail settings into Hindi, making it laughable and pitiful at the same time, smaller pursuits such as introducing great Hindi writers of yore to the English readers should not distract you.


Author: Various

Edition: Paperback

ISBN: 978-93-5029-428-4

Pages: 350

Price: Rs. 499

Publisher: Harper Collins

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017