One night in 2007, Achal Prabhala picked up a magazine from the stack that had been mouldering gently by his bedside for months. It was a pile his parents had regretfully handed him to give away to a public library, as they redid their century-old Bangalore home. Prabhala, who had not gotten around to doing so, opened an issue at random. Then, suddenly thrilled, he stayed up reading one issue after another.

Here, in the pages of a forgotten title called Quest, was the colossal Nirad Chaudhuri, writing in his characteristically provocative style about “the Hindu order" (at the end, a note: “The writer does not apologise for using the word ‘Hindu’...instead of ‘Indian’"). Here, many years later, was Dilip Chitre attacking Chaudhuri’s “hate-affair with India" with silken vigour. Here was Jyotirmoy Datta arguing that Indian writing in English was the work of “caged chaffinches", to evoke a response from no less than Purushottama Lal—Prof. P. Lal—about the form and function of Indian English literature.

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The Best of Quest: A collection of essays, fiction and poetry from the journal Quest.(Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint)

Fascinated, Prabhala dug deeper. He discovered that Quest had begun life in 1955 and run for 20 years, as a quarterly and then a bimonthly. It had published poetry, fiction, intellectual debates and political essays. Some of its bylines were now obscure, but many were not. The magazine had carried original poetry by Jayanta Mahapatra and Dom Moraes. A young sociologist, Ashis Nandy, had had some early essays published here. Film-maker Satyajit Ray’s illustrations appeared alongside a piece called Konarak by Marie Seton, later Ray’s biographer. Quest’s first and most influential editor had been no less a poet than Nissim Ezekiel.

It was 20 years of independent India’s intellectual history stitched together in the suave, yellowing pages of almost 100 issues, which the Prabhalas had collected for decades.

“It had disappeared off the map," Prabhala, a writer and researcher, says. “There are no archives to look up—this collection existed in my parents’ home."

The journal impressed him on many levels. “It mixed high-level political commentary with good, daring new fiction," he says. “It was a magazine in which you could read a new poem by Kamala Das immediately after a lengthy essay on the Chinese invasion. The cover art was imaginative and sophisticated, and the language was perfect."

Years after it first got his attention, The Best of Quest, the book Prabhala helped put together—a collection of essays, fiction and poetry from the journal—is finally available in book stores. His co-editors had even closer relationships with Quest. Writer and scholar Arshia Sattar’s mother had once worked as Ezekiel’s assistant, and Quest had been part of Sattar’s childhood landscape. And the first name on the anthology, Laeeq Futehally, had been Quest’s literary editor for its entire run.

Now in her 90s, Futehally writes in an essay at the start of the book, “When World War II (WW II) finally came to an end in 1945, the overwhelming reaction throughout the world was Never Again... For every man—we now said—the only “ism" must be a personal brand of idealism."

Photo by Ryan Lobo

Its mandate was quickly adopted by local chapters around the world, many of which began their own magazines, most famously Encounter in England, edited by the poet Stephen Spender.

The Indian Committee for Cultural Freedom (ICCF) was also born in 1950, presided over by Jayaprakash Narayan. In 1955, the lawyer, freedom fighter and politician Minoo Masani, one of its leading lights, founded a literary journal in the ICCF offices in the Army and Navy Building overlooking Kala Ghoda square, in Mumbai.

Its principles were both liberal and sharply defined. “Quest was opposed to collectivist thinking in any form," explains S.V. Raju, secretary of the ICCF and editor of another magazine, the political monthly Freedom First, which continues to publish. “It never imposed its views on writers, but it championed the idea of the individual as the centre of society, as opposed to the collective, which was a big part of thinking at the time."

The bare bones of this old ideological battle may seem brittle today. In the 1950s, they were at the centre of a new country’s intellectual life. Coloured now by nostalgia or a philosophical opposition to “Nehruvian" India, it is not always apparent to us how nuanced and contested that Nehruvianism was for the people living its realities—or striving to improve them.

Masani became one of the country’s most vocal advocates for a liberal economy. Culturally, the ICCF’s members had always found themselves closer to Ambedkar than to Gandhi. While some of them remained sceptical of Jawaharlal Nehru’s politics, others thought him a worthy counterweight to the advancing global influence of Mao Zedong.

From the archives: (top) A page from the magazine; and advertisements that appeared in Quest.

Ezekiel was a literary modernist. He shared the CCF’s disinclination for ideologues, but hoped, it appears, to represent a fair spectrum of political views in the magazine. His non-partisan politics led him to fashion a new imagination for the journal.

“The principles which Nissim laid down for himself have shaped the character of Quest," Futehally writes in her introduction. “Everything about it must have some relevance to India. It was to be written by Indians for Indians."

“Nissim was privately an anti-Communist," says Raju. Yet he was to fight several battles with the journal’s advisory board because of his belief that Quest should represent views opposed to those of its founders.

His Quest was to publish Gauri Deshpande, Adil Jussawalla, Mahapatra, Moraes, A.K. Ramanujan, and the young Saleem Peeradina, Kolatkar and Chitre. Its fiction contributors included Keki Daruwalla, Anita Desai, Kiran Nagarkar and Abraham Eraly.

Reading them today, the sheer verve and range of these writers is inescapable. Peeradina wrote not just poetry, but lucid film criticism. Chitre translated the work of pioneering social activist Hamid Dalwai. In its later years, a mysterious “D.", who wrote a widely read column on pop culture, made waves—poet and professor Eunice de Souza remembers selecting a “D." column on actor Rajesh Khanna for a Bombay University course, and the storm of argument that followed it.

“It was read in almost every university, every library, and by intellectuals and professionals," Raju says. “Its circulation may have been 3,000-4,000." It is not always simple to quantify intellectual influence. In Lal’s essay on Indian writing in English, he remarks in a throwaway line that T.S. Eliot’s legendary The Criterion, after all, had no more than 800 subscribers at one time.

Quest brought together English-speaking Indians across what Prabhala today describes as a “centre-right to something of a wide left" spectrum in the days of inland letter cards and expensive telegrams. “Independence was seven years past when Quest began," Sattar remarks. “The writing shows you the concern about how you were going to create the consciousness of a new world—how you would inhabit a new world, and a new South Asia."

The clearest indications of its target audience are the advertisements directed at them—ads reproduced painstakingly in The Best of Quest. Here, Mafatlal “puts colour into my life", suggests a man posing as a painter. “For elegance and comfort, Lambretta 150 li," says an ad for the famous scooter. With their sparkling, lengthy copy and sophisticated models in translucent saris, they recall a time when such advertisements targeted a very small, but fairly homogenous band of English-speaking sophisticates across the country. In its last years, the magazine cost a generous 2.

But money was always a question. “If you look at the minutes of the meetings, you will come up again and again against records of people fighting about 15-20," Raju points out. Futehally writes that Ezekiel’s literary principles—insisting that people should submit work because they wish to be heard, rather than paid— added a layer of complication; she often had to ignore his injunction that book reviewers return the review copies to the magazine after they were done.

Ezekiel’s depoliticized vision for the magazine proved difficult to sustain. Conflict with Masani and Quest’s advisory board increased. A few years after inception, Ezekiel was asked to stay on as “reviews editor" in Bombay, while the CCF appointed two new co-editors in Calcutta: the philosopher Abu Sayeed Ayyub, and the economist Amlan Datta.

“Nissim was perhaps a more accessible prima donna, but the editors of Quest were all prima donnas," says Raju. “They were people who were very particular about not being told what to do." Ayyub and Datta’s clipped introduction to an early anthology, Ten Years of Quest (1965), gives us a sense of their cast of mind, as well as their style, well removed from Ezekiel’s.

“We have been devoting much more space to discursive writing than to creative literature—for one obvious reason," they write. “Quest is an English language magazine, and English is not the mother tongue of 99% Indians… While we welcome adventures in germinal ideas of permanent interest, we are not averse to those which are ephemeral if they are timely. But what we would like to promote most….are timely thoughts—analytical, critical and constructive."

By 1975, the magazine had lost none of its liberal vigour, but had reduced its literary content greatly. Meanwhile, the political climate of India had changed. When Indira Gandhi’s government declared a national emergency, Quest faced its ultimate challenge. The government required it to be submitted for review before publication.

Masani went to court to ensure the liberty of his other magazine, the straightforwardly political Freedom First. But his relationship with Quest had only grown more ambivalent since the early years of debate with Ezekiel. “He made no special efforts for Quest," Raju recalls.

Instead of bowing to government diktat, Quest chose to cease publication. It was never to resume.

But well before its end, the story of Quest had received a true Cold War denouement. In the late 1960s, the international CCF had dissolved amid increasing evidence that it had, at various points and during various programmes, received funding from the US’ Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) for its activities.

Around the world, intellectual leaders who were part of the CCF disclaimed all relation to this development. In India, Masani went on record to state that no one at Quest had had any dealings with or knowledge of CIA funds. All its editors, past and present, likewise denied knowledge.

“The Indian Committee for Cultural Freedom was rocked when its alleged CIA connection was exposed," Chitre writes in an essay in The Best of Quest. Raju speculates that if there was any indirect contact with money from the CIA, it had come from Paris, from where the committee had occasionally helped out the Indian chapter with bequests of newsprint—frequently in desperate shortage in India in those years.

“It was a pity it was hidden from us," recalls Sheila Masani, Minoo Masani’s wife, and the business manager of Quest for years. “The magazine was such an important thing for the world: all those editors from around the world getting in touch with each other, all the writers who wrote for us."

It was gone. Eventually, so was the age of the journal of arts and letters from English-speaking India. “Two decades on from the end of that big chill," Prabhala writes in his introduction to The Best of Quest, “who could have imagined that one effect of imperialism was the idiosyncrasy and iconoclasm you now hold in your hands?"

The Best of Quest contains some belated surprises. It closes with a declaration from Chitre—written before his death in 2009. In it, Chitre, one of India’s best-known English-language poets, discloses that the whimsical, hilarious “D." was, in fact, his own pseudonym.

Prabhala’s parents’ archives, now donated to the ICCF offices—still in the Army and Navy building, now taken up on the ground floor by one of the biggest Westside outlets in Mumbai—are currently being digitized; Raju hopes to put them all on the Internet by March and make them freely accessible to all.

The Best of Quest makes the value of that archive palpable—not just because it documents a crucial piece of modern literary history, but because it reveals its breadth and range of concerns.

Quest’s mix of culture and politics encompassed writers and editors from around India. In a post-and-trunk-call era, it encompassed writers and editors nationwide—its last editor, V.V. John, was based in Jaipur.

Its headquarters arguably contributed to its sophistication. The Bombay in which it took root was much smaller than today’s. Yet, within its charmed circles, it was a more open city too: one where English-language cultural production accommodated a range of artistic struggles and political sensibilities. Masani’s Swatantra Party, begun with C. Rajagopalachari and N.G. Ranga, and a key early opponent to the Congress, was the only major political party to have had its headquarters here. Its political climate fostered the idea of the magazine as a broad church of opinion.

“It could have happened only in Bombay," Prabhala says, “and only in the Bombay of that time".

“Today, we might be critical about the fact that Quest spoke only for some people, and essentially to a Westernized middle-class with intellectual aspirations," Sattar says. “But we have to acknowledge that different things come to us from a different time; that they can tell us how our time became our time."