Like Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, the literary journal Civil Lines has for many years been thought by most to be dead, even as a few of the faithful still insist it is alive and kicking, and merely waiting for the right moment to leap back into public life. Five issues of this journal of “fine unpublished writing” (to quote the editors) came out between 1987 and 2001, each edition a celebration of the essay, memoir, long-form reportage and the short story.
The magazine’s idiosyncrasies of taste, irregularity of publication, somewhat cliquish circle of contributors and lack of either a precise editorial manifesto or a market ambition were all repeatedly explained by the editors as a symbol of their devotion to no other deity but quality. But since the last edition of Civil Lines appeared at the far end of this decade, one might interpret this hibernation as a damning comment on the state of Indian writing in English today—a kind of literary criticism of silence, just as vipassana is of the world of empty talk.
Alternatively, and more realistically, one could attribute the disappearance of Civil Lines to financial issues, unsteady support from publishers, the involvement of the editors in more urgent projects, and the vacation air inherent in the magazine’s modus operandi from the very beginning. In the same way, if one takes some of the editorial preening and pompousness with a good pinch of salt, one might find plenty to enjoy in Written For Ever, a compilation of some of the best pieces published in the journal as chosen by one of its editors, Rukun Advani.
Roadie: One of the best stories in the collection, by Dilip Simeon, is about truck-driving and Naxalism. Vikas Khot / Hindustan Times
It is immediately clear from Advani’s anthology that the magazine published some outstanding non-fiction. Dilip Simeon’s O.K. TATA: Mobiloil Change and World Revolution, an essay about truck- driving and Naxalism, evokes life on the road in the most sumptuous detail while Ramachandra Guha’s An Anthropologist among the Marxists describes with giddy devotion the author’s first-hand knowledge of the various Kolkata factions of Marxism gleaned as a doctoral student in the city.
Alongside Pankaj Mishra’s Edmund Wilson in Banaras (published elsewhere), these essays must rank as two of the greatest in modern Indian prose. Indeed, Simeon’s piece deserves further praise for the acuity with which it transforms the substantially non-English world of truckers into an English that never seems incongruous. These two pieces are easily worth the price of the book, and there are other good essays: a charming memoir about animal-watching by M. Krishnan, a tribute to his father by Brijraj Singh, and a very funny “prelude to an autobiography” by Amit Chaudhuri in which the writer sets himself up against Shobhaa Dé.
In the realm of fiction, however, the magazine’s record is more modest. Other than Manohar Shetty’s diverting tale of Goan gossip, Lancelot Gomes, it is a struggle finding fiction here that is formally inventive, aesthetically satisfying, or in any way “written for ever”. A number of them work within a narrow palette of first-person memoir-style realism; while this method can lead to many good things, many stories here are sunk by clichéd descriptions of states of mind. One ends with “two anonymous beings at the edge of a sea that threatened every moment to engulf”, while in another we are told that “revulsion articulated itself in wild rage as she ran in search of her husband”. Narrative artistry is a rare quality at the best of times, and the editors’ scepticism towards works in translation—the only fiction in translation here is one by Amitav Ghosh of an unbearably mawkish story by Rabindranath Tagore—meant a kind of willed fishing in shallow waters.
Written For Ever: Penguin / Viking, 392 pages, Rs499.
Civil Lines 6, apparently to be published next year by Tranquebar Press, may be very different, but more likely it won’t; journals are usually as stable, in a broad way, as the people who run them. In that case, there will still be much about the Civil Lines to enjoy. But the opinions and literary values of the 1990s sound slightly musty when expressed today, and given how much has changed about Indian writing in this decade, the journal today might find itself a little more marginal than it would like or can be proud of.
Chandrahas Choudhury is the author of Arzee the Dwarf.
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