Four Ground-breaking Things In Five Issues of Civil Lines or, Ways to Get Your Head Out of the Postcolonial Sand

An Essay by Vivek Narayanan

2008

[Note: while preparing this piece, I benefited greatly from the ideas of Rashmi Sadana, in her essays and in personal conversations; her book about the literary sphere in Delhi is now in preparation. Though the inevitable and even willful distortions are my own, I’d like to thank her for that.]

Thus far, there have been five episodes of Civil Lines, operating in that valuable grey area between “journal” and “anthology”. Like the short-lived but influential India Magazine that came just before it, it is loved and mythologized and kept still going not, alas, by the easy currency of its issues, in its homeland or elsewhere, but thanks to the loyal memory of a relatively small, intricate and probably shockingly incestuous network of middle- and upper-class Anglophone Indian intellectuals, many with a Delhi connection, a network of which, I guess, I myself am now a late-coming member. There it is. So it goes. You might choose your politics, but you don’t choose the circumstances of your politics. The name “Civil Lines” points not just to a disciplined and polite ethics of argument, but also to a location, a part of Delhi where the non-military White people used to live that has now been smoothly transitioned by institutions of higher education, intellectuals, and a brown-skinned English-speaking liberal elite, a place of lovely lawns and space and bungalows in sharp contrast, for instance, to the intense, knotted, and sometimes anguished streets of nearby Old Delhi. The cover of CL 2 featured a photograph of a western-style commode in an Indian-style open air setting. Indeed.

The first thing that was ground-breaking about a journal like Civil Lines in India, then, was precisely this: it revealed exactly where it was coming from, its hybridity, limitations and possibilities, without shame, without deception, without fronting, without pretensions to subalternity, without abandoning politics. Case in point: Dilip Simeon’s thinly disguised memoir in CL 3 about his years as an underground Maoist, when he worked as a trucker’s dogsbody. It’s an experience that gives the elite, English-speaking Simeon (and, by extension, us leisurely readers) deep insight into the everyday life of a long distance trucker who, despite having an instinctive aversion to greedy policemen and other forms of authority, shares neither Simeon’s politics to the letter nor his love of books and ideas received through English and French. There is a bond that develops between the two, as well as an enduring distance. If it weren’t for Simeon’s political inclination, such an encounter would not have been possible; and yet, if Simeon had not later left the Maoists and their strict ideological living, if he were, for example, still waiting for the latest cues from Peking about what to think, he would not have been able to write the experience, at least not with the honesty, depth and texture that is achieved in this piece.

Strangely, in the advertisements of the first pages of the first issue itself, we find a catalogue of both friends and enemies. On one page, there is an ad for an early book by Shobha De, writer of slightly juicy pulp (the sexual innuendo laughably timid by non-Indian standards) who has now become almost, not quite, an apologist for India’s neo-colonial rise and its new, sickeningly filthy rich- her new over-promoted bestseller is called, disturbingly, Superstar India (she was skilfully skewered by Amit Chaudhuri in CL 5). On another page, there is an ad for Yatra, a well-meaning journal, interesting in flashes and in a survey-sort-of-way, that was deeply mired in the time-honoured, simplistic and often bureaucratic polemical lockjaw against Indians writing in English, and in favour of Indians writing in “Indian languages” or, at the very least, writing somehow like bonafide natives. Unfortunately, the deep irony was that the journal had to make its point, on the national stage, in English, and the journal, like others of its ilk, could never sing true in English; its translations were usually more dutiful and hollow than luminous or gripping. An unsigned piece of verse in the editorial of CL 4 (later revealed to have been written by Mukul Kesavan) showed that the debate was so old it could now be summarized cheekily in rhyming stanzas:

[…]The trouble is our lives are polyglot,
to write them down we have to
cheat a lot.

Where life occurs in more than one notation,
all writing is a kind of
translation.

… and so on. Civil Lines agonized about identity too – whether or not it was to be about India, by India, from India, in India, into India etc., but usually happily relaxed into the answer, “Whatever,” with the rider, “whatever- as long it’s good writing.” This was the second groundbreaking thing about Civil Lines: it felt free to explore where it was going without a set programme or a five year plan. That wasn’t a small achievement, you understand, in an India painfully awakening from Nehruvian dreams.

Where exactly the good writing was going to come from, though was a difficult and ongoing question. This was perhaps, in part, why the journal began with the intention of having two issues a year and eventually stalled for years at a time: there was the conviction that, unlike capitalism, literature involved waiting, for the right texts to arrive and take shape. Fair enough. Of course that in turn meant, I suspect, that the editors didn’t always cast their net far enough: the table of contents, in the earlier issues especially, look suspiciously like a roster of drinking buddies.

Still. There was the question of what constituted good writing and this, in the case of Civil Lines, very often meant non-fiction. This particular brand of non-fiction, carried on from India Magazine, was the third ground-breaking thing about Civil Lines. Oh, they published a token couple of poems, and they published fiction by writers who would later become well known, but in my opinion, much, not all, of the fiction tended to be fuzzy and shapeless, still working itself out.

The need of the hour, in the early nineties that is, was texture and detail that came from observation- Indian writing needed something to bite and chew on. Remember that, post-independence, Indian self-understanding was under risk of being no more than a smudge of hand-me-down colonial wisdom pummelled by a mindless native aspirational, often Brahminical, geekiness- see, for instance, Dharma Kumar’s anecdote about the contents of her son’s Indian history textbook in CL 2. What first saved us from this fate, then eventually limited us, was radical history and social science, the non-doctrinarian Marxists and their descendants, the feminists and the subalterns. By the time Civil Lines came along, however, some of these strands were beginning falter too, stifled by disciplinary machinations or utterly lost among the funhouse mirrors of postmodern theory. There was a need for texts, the editorial of CL 2 said a little wearily, that were “written for the lay reader and free, therefore, of long abstract words and the fatiguing apparatus of contemporary learning.”

The pioneering publisher of Civil Lines, Ravi Dayal was spearheading this defection of academics to something called “literature”, a bit of a con, at times, but signifying total freedom. The editorial board of Civil Lines was clear proof of such conversions: Dharma Kumar was an economist by training; Mukul Kesavan, a historian-turned-novelist; Rukun Advani had edited the subalterns and other theorists / social scientists while at Oxford University Press, then mercilessly parodied them in his novel, Beethoven Among the Cows. Among the contributors was Amitav Ghosh, later a Ravi Dayal staple, who had taken a Ph.D in anthropology. Ramachandra Guha’s famous essay, “An Anthropologist Among the Marxists”, appeared in CL 1, and made hilarious hay out of orthodoxy. The result of writing “for the lay reader” was at times not so successful- spineless and vaguely poetic or worse, awful assignment-like essays worthy of graduate school, like Amitav Ghosh on “the Indian story” in CL 1 or M. Krishnan on Tamil verse in CL 2. (Both authors later made up for these lapses- Ghosh with his wonderful translation of a Tagore ghost story in CL 2 and his novels, and Krishnan with his surprising, delightful and deeply perceptive account of his years as a wildlife photographer in CL 3.) Interestingly, in the pages of Civil Lines at least, non-programmatic, literary autobiography became the best way for converts- Dilip Simeon, historian, Andre Beteille, anthropologist, and so on, joined by non-academic civilians like Sheila Dhar – to explore writing that was at once detailed, varied, imaginative and honest. Soon this style circled back into innovative travel writing by the likes of Allan Sealy and Kai Friese (who had been at the helm of India magazine and joined the Civil Lines editorial team from CL 5). By then, gradually, the pages of Civil Lines had become more full of frustrated journalists than frustrated academics, and yet another wave was upon us.

Now, of course, we are struggling to transcend these legacies too. Indian English writing’s “sociological obsession”, as Amit Chaudhuri has noted, is no longer necessarily a good thing, nor (as Rukmini Bhaya Nair has noted) is the subordination of literature into merely another extended arm of glorified journalism. These modes that shaped us and made us distinctive could now be holding us back. These are still modes of writing that we do well, and are still getting better at, but I believe it’s time to also take bigger risks, and to take on the nature of consciousness and perception, as art has always done. At the same time, it’s not just new aesthetic challenges that today await the editors of Civil Lines and other contemporary Indian literary journals. When the first issue of Civil Lines came out, every kid with literary fantasies who saw it thought, “Great! Now I don’t have to spend all my living days courting editors in the US or Britain with my very Indianness!” Civil Lines, at its inception, was among the first to imagine, when it was still practically impossible to imagine, an Indian market for imaginative Indian writing in English; it saw the value of this, when it didn’t even quite know who it was speaking to. That was the fourth ground-breaking thing. It was as labour-of-love as labours of love get. It was sending a message out in a bottle, hoping someone got it. Today, with new publishers in India opening and also closing faster than you can say, “Dot-com?”, everybody’s trying to get a piece of the projected pie. The market, even the market for English books in India, is rapidly growing bigger and badder than pretty much anyone predicted. But the irony is-now that it’s here, what this new baby monster really wants is blockbusters. “Superstar India”! The dreamed-of market- the markets- have arrived, but their idea of “literature”, I fear, is very, very different.

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