Got lynched, almost
Harish Dhillon

First Proof II (The Penguin Book of New Writing in India)
Penguin, New Delhi. Pages 288. Rs 275.

First Proof II (The Penguin Book of New Writing in India)I have never been able to understand the business of negative reviews. I cannot understand how the reviewer forces himself to wade through a book he does not like reading, and then spends so much time and effort tearing it to pieces. If I do not like a book beyond the first 30 pages, I put it away and pick up another one—after all, these are so many good books waiting to be read—and reviewed. This is what almost happened to me with this book. I waded through the first four short stories and was convinced that enough was enough. Fortunately, before I put the book away, I dipped into the fifth one and enjoyed what I read.

Likef First Proof 1, this book, too, has something for everyone—fiction, travel, memories, essays, poetry etc. In Luck, Dhruba Hazarika’s attempt to tame wild things is at once fascinating and poignant. Luck is a pigeon Hazarika has bought from a dealer at a weekly haat and, subtly and gradually, Luck displays his strong individuality and becomes the focus of Hazarika’s life. It is a beautiful story, told simply and effectively and also provides the reader with a vivid glimpse of life in semi-rural Assam.

Manpreet Sodhi Someshwar’s Mrs Anand is the story of a day in the life of a 40-year-old schoolteacher in a small town in the Punjab. Mrs Anand was once pretty, but the long years of coping with work at school, the household chores, bringing up three children and trying to make both ends meet have taken their toll. The once beautiful relationship with her husband has deteriorated into long, sullen silences or bitter remarks.

"The conservation dried up; there was no time, their differences crept up too fast, and they didn’t resolve their quarrels soon enough and as the reality of living took over, Mr Anand became an alcoholic and Mrs Anand a workaholic." It is the story of "every" middle-class housewife and yet there is something tremendously heroic in Mrs Anand’s will to go on that her daughter, Noor, recognises and admires.

The details emphasis the ordinariness of Mrs Anand’s everyday life and yet manages to lift it above the ordinary. Unlike the short stories, the poems in this volume are exceptional. It would be unfair to single out any for special praise, yet I must.

Annie Zaidi’s Roses is a nostalgic outburst for things that once were. I want to talk today about that shade of memory: crackly, sour, brittle, one dimensionally intact —inside the fact, hard-cover Oxford dictionary. In Celebration /Happy Birthday-3, she goes looking for happiness in a myriad forms, each form an excuse for celebration:

"But often I stumble on to you / and that is often / excuse enough." Both poems are truly brilliant.

In the prose section, A Riceball for Grandmother by Sheela Reddy is as endearing as Khushwant Singh’s Portrait of a Lady-this essay, too, paints the portrait of a strong, matriarchal personality, who lives life on her own terms and commands respect wherever she goes.

The Dipping Business is a funny-morning account of Pepita Sethi’s first experience of taking a holy dip in a temple tank and performing a puja thereafter. The whole experience is peppered with humour, as she is drawn, much against her will, into doing what she has never done before. Though she visits temples regularly, she does not believe in rituals and yet when she has finally bathed, done her puja, made her offerings to a departed soul and seen a crow devouring her offerings as a sign that her offerings have been accepted, there is a joy within her, a rekindling of faith, as it were.

Unlike First Proof I this book suffers from erratic selection and yet it is a great read. Two features mark this selection of new writers—the remarkable felicity of phrase in all works and the large number of works set in rural or semi-rural India. One hopes that this is a sign that the "other" India is finally coming into its own, as far as Indian writing in English is concerned.