Once upon a time there existed a magazine which was a “quarterly of inquiry, criticism and ideas” and fittingly enough called Quest. It had very clear-cut guidelines for its content: everything and anything published in the Quest had to have “some relevance to India. It was to be written by Indians for Indians” (p.xix).
It was because of these guidelines that Quest was able to publish highly original writing in English in the form of essays, opinions, book reviews, film reviews, critiques, stories, poems, memoirs, etc. The writers were a mix of the new and the established, academicians and journalists, politicians and poets — Rajni Kothari, Nirad Chaudhuri, Kiran Nagarkar, Ashis Nandy, Khushwant Singh, and Neela D’Souza, to name a few.
Published from Bombay, Quest was born in 1954 with Nissim Ezekiel as its first editor. After Ezekiel, A.S. Ayub and Dilip Chitre were the editors of Quest, and both of them stayed true to the founding vision of publishing writing relevant to India. In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, Quest died an untimely death with the imposition of the Emergency about 20 years later. In the decades that followed, Quest got relegated to the realm of nostalgic memories of people who were associated with it, or in wooden boxes stored in lofts and attics. Some forgot about it and some like me did not even know that Quest had once existed. Till recently, that is.
The Best of Quest is, as the title suggests, the best of all that was ever published in the Quest magazine in the 20-year period of its existence. Edited by Laeeq Futehally, Achal Prabhala and Arshia Sattar and published by Tranquebar, this book is a labour of love that is reflected in the compilation. Apart from the sheer range of topics covered and the quality of writing, what comes through is the relevance that many of articles have today, in spite of having been written 40 years back. For example, Rajni Kothari’s article on “Direct Action: A Pattern of Political Behaviour” (pp.3–29) gave me goosebumps. Written in 1966, it has contemporary relevance, particularly in the context of the Anna Hazare “phenomenon”. Yet another article that I found particularly relevant today is “Sri Aurobindo: Superman or Supertalk” (pp. 395–418) by Claude Alvares. Though this article is largely about Aurobindo’s philosophy, it also touches upon the process of setting up Auroville via land acquisition that led to displacing local people from their habitats and their livelihoods. When I visited Auroville in 1997, this was still a matter of concern, one that I am has not gone away today. And in today’s development-based agenda, this article assumes even more importance than ever before.
Then there is an essay on Indians writing in English, and fat advances received by such writers—a topic that is still debated fiercely and hotly today. “On aged Chaffinches and Polyglot Parrots” (pp. 42-52) by Jyotirmoy Datta is on the Indo-English Writer (a term I came across for the first time here!), English versus vernacular languages, and the huge advances received by the Indo-English writer. Interestingly, the rejoinder to Datta’s article, titled “Indian Writing in English: A Reply to Jyotirmoy Datta” (pp.53-58) and written by P. Lal is also included in this volume. Both the articles make for an enjoyable read.
It is also evident from the essays in this book that India’s obsession with its neighbours and its national security is not a recent thing. There are two articles on fears of a Chinese invasion, one on Islam and Bangladesh, another on Independence by Mujibur Rehman, and yet another on Mohammad Ali Jinnah. There are essays on India’s security options, its foreign policy and also the appointment of Henry Kissinger as the US President’s assistant for National Security Affairs. No, we have not really changed.
The arts have been represented fairly well in this collection: there is an essay on the National School of Drama, as well as one on erotic art in the Konark Temple. There are also essays discussing the charisma of Rajesh Khanna, and the charms of Dimple Kapadia as compared to the lack thereof in Satyajit Ray. I particularly liked Saleem Peeradina’s essay on “The City as an Antagonist: Three Recent Films” (pp. 223-239), wherein he discusses the portrayal of the city in Pratidwandi, The Girl on a Motorcycle and Bombay Talkies. Though the first two films and the cities they are based in are discussed at length, Peeradina has only this to say for the last film, “About Merchant-Ivory’s latest production, all one can say is that it takes guts to make a film as bad as Bombay Talkies.”
The remaining articles are a delightful potpourri of topics and opinions, with some evoking images of an era gone by and some mirroring contemporary realities. I present a sample here: self-aggrandisement by Nirad C. Chaudhuri, the persistence of the caste system by Subhash Chandra Mehta, women’s lib in India by Dilip Chitre, Srinivasa Ramanujan’s conflict with science and tradition by Ashis Nandy, the similiarities between sadhus and hippies by Robert Niell, the idea of a free press by C.R. Irani, and Delhi as the eternal capital of India by Khushwant Singh, among many, many others. The last essay is a peek into what Indian
torture chambers airports and customs were like in the 1960s, and also how efficient Air India was then. Today, both images have changed considerably, haven’t they?
The essay and opinion section in the book is the largest section. In addition, there are sections on poems as well as short stories. The former section, in my opinion, is a mixed bag with contributions from Darius Cooper, Kamala Das, Gauri Deshpande, Nissim Ezekiel, Arun Kolatkar, Dom Moraes, A.K. Ramanujam, and others. One of the most gripping poems is by Agha Shahid Ali and the following lines from his “Qawwali at Nizamuddin Aulia’s Dargah” simply floated of the page and got etched in my mind:
Time has only its vagrant finger:
Knowing no equal, it paused for massacres
There are 11 short stories in all, including 2 translations. Two stories in this compilation stand out for very different reasons: Neela D’souza’s “Aunt Matilda is Ninety Years Old” for its sheer, everyday, ordinary setting; and Kiran Nagarkar’s “The Moon had to be Mended” for the negligent callousness conveyed. Another one that I liked very much, just for its beautiful narrative, is “The Gherao” by Arun Joshi.
Interspersed between the essays and stories and poems are advertisements, which were once carried in Quest. So we have ads for Rallifan, Air India, Rajdoot Motorcycle, Lambretta Scooter, Ambassador Car, Favre Leuba Watches and Modella Suitings. Apart from evoking a sense of another time, these make for a delightful break between the thought-provoking, and often heavy, essays.
I would love to go on and on about each essay, poem or short story in this volume. But then it would no longer be a book review, would it? The next best thing is then just to give my verdict in a few words…
The Best of Quest. 690 pages, 7 sections, 75 articles, essays, poems, stories, etc. A wonderful variety of topics “united by a commitment to liberal values and stylish prose” in one book. One fantastic book.
I say, go for it
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