Erudite escorts


Sorry for the silence, guys. Work, work and more work has ensured that I only write for the magazine and not for the blog. This, I assure you, will change in the coming months. For now, enjoy this short Q&A I did with Chandrahas Choudhury on his new book, India: A Traveller's Literary Companion.

In a new anthology, Chandrahas Choudhury has compiled 13 works of fiction set in different parts of the country to portray a theatrical version of India. He has included pieces by writers as Salman Rushdie, Vikram Chandra, Kunal Basu and Qurratulain Hyder. In an email interview, Choudhury explains why he chose the smooth world of fiction to describe the turbulence of reality.

Are these stories meant to highlight the underbelly of India to audiences that have been enamoured by the “‘great India story?”
I did want the book to provide the greatest possible diversity of viewpoints. That’s why literature in English is balanced with literature in translation from several languages, and older Indian writers with newer ones. I’d say that the stories cumulatively reveal both the strengths of India – the complexity of its history, the many layers that make for personal identity in India, the liberatory potential of Indian democracy – and its flaws and stresses, such as the ubiquity of hierarchical thinking and the pervasive suspicion and misrepresentation of the “other”. I didn’t want a formulaic or shallow picture of India to emerge from my selections, especially when the idea of the book was to highlight the particularity and density of “the local”. 

How did you select these pieces? 
Well, I had all of modern Indian literature to choose from, because the concept of the book was “stories that engage powerfully with place”. Now place is integral to the human sense of self, to our awareness of history, to our dreams – and therefore to storytelling. This meant that the scope of the book was vast. So in a way I was being paid to teach myself a lot more about Indian literature than I did when I was offered the editorship of the book. Many older Indian writers, from the first half of the twentieth century, haven’t really got their due in English – Fakir Mohan Senapati and Phanishwarnath Renu, for example – so I was keen to include them.

Why didn’t you include any non-fiction in this anthology?
The idea of the anthology, and indeed of the entire series of traveller’s literary companions to different countries, was that it was all going to be fiction. There are lots of non-fictional guides and introductions to India anyway. And in moving between character, society, and landscape, all the while telling a story, fiction offers an intensity and depth of representation that most reportage cannot achieve.

Why aren't any of your pieces in the book?
Well, usually as an editor of a book it's not considered good form to select your own work. And there was so much good writing to choose from – about a hundred years worth of modern Indian fiction – that it wouldn't have been right to put my own writing into the book. At the same time, I did feel ambitious for the little bit of the book that did feature my own writing – the introduction, and the notes to each story – so I threw myself into making these bits as vivid as possible.

The stories in this anthology reflect the political turmoil of the region they're set in…
Literature can't but help address questions of politics, social injustice, gender and history. These issues always come up in the telling of stories. Obviously I did want the stories I chose to be a complex as possible, so that they both fulfilled the demands of the theme of the book but also transcended it. I just chose the stories I loved best.