20 November 2011

Book Review: The Best of Quest

This selection of articles from Quest, a socio-political and literary Indian magazine from the 1950s and 60s, offers perspectives that are still relevant today

The Best Of Quest
Edited by Laeeq Futehally, Achal Prabhala, Arshia Sattar
Tranquebar Press
pp 694, Rs. 695


"To organize a new union between our political ideas and our imagination – in all our cultural purview there is no work more necessary," wrote the American critic Lionel Trilling in 1946, in an essay called 'The Function of the Little Magazine'. Trilling's words were originally written in praise of the Partisan Review, a political and literary journal which began life as an organ of the American Communist Party but broke away after Stalin's rise to power, going on to complete a long and influential innings (1934-2003), with contributors ranging from Hannah Arendt and George Orwell to Susan Sontag and Philip Roth. But they seem oddly and equally suited to a journal that emerged from the other side of the political spectrum, at the other end of the world.

Titled Quest ("a quarterly of inquiry, criticism and ideas"), it was a journal started in Bombay in 1954. Laeeq Futehally, its Literary Editor, describes it as the outcome of a post-World War II resolution by a bunch of intellectuals that "never again should the minds of men be enslaved by evil ideologies and rigid "isms"." The Congress for Cultural Freedom, founded in Berlin in 1950, was devoted, in Futehally's words, to "the task of creating a worldwide ambience of respect for free thought and speech". Chapters soon emerged in other countries, many with magazines. Poet Stephen Spender agreed to edit Encounter in the UK. The Indian Committee for Cultural Freedom (ICCF) emerged in 1950, and in 1954, Minoo Masani (one of India's first advocates of liberalism) founded Quest, with poet and critic Nissim Ezekiel as editor.

The Best of Quest is a selection of essays, poetry and fiction from Quest's remarkable life of 20-odd years: a life brought to a close by a refusal to bow to Mrs. Gandhi's Emergency diktat that it be submitted for review before publication. Edited by Futehally, Arshia Sattar and Achal Prabhala, the volume gives us a sampling of what was clearly a superbly eclectic body of writing, united only by Ezekiel's injunction that it must be "by Indians for Indians" – a difficult condition, as Futehally points out, in "those days [when] we still glamourised anything foreign, including writers".

The poetry section offers delights both expected ("To force the pace and never to be still/ Is not the way of those observing birds/ Or women. The best poets wait for words," writes Ezekiel) and unexpected (a 1975 poem called 'Dasara' by the well-known academic Tejaswini Niranjana, who only finished her BA in 1979). The fiction section features Keki Daruwalla and Kiran Nagarkar, as well as translations of Kamleshwar and Premendra Mitra (the latter a Bengali classic called 'Telenapota Abishkar' which – the editors should really be telling us this – was made into a haunting Hindi film called Khandahar by Mrinal Sen). My personal favourite here is Arun Joshi's story 'The Gherao': deceptively straightforward and terribly moving.

But the form that really characterises Quest is the long, opinionated essay, with writers of all stripes taking on socio-cultural, political or literary subjects with idiosyncratic ease. Some of these would never get commissioned today – they are not 'topical'. But Claude Alvarez's scathing account of the "fabrication of a new religion" by Aurobindo and his companion Mira (the Mother) and the murky politics of the Ashram's takeover of Pondicherry's White Town, or Roderick Neill's sustained, almost scholarly comparison between sadhus and hippies ("In as much as they all represent channels for social deviants and adventurous individualists...the sadhu sects of India are bodies of 'drop outs'"), for example, deal with things that are very much a presence in contemporary India, and offer a perspective that can still surprise us.

On the other hand, an exchange like the one between Jyotirmoy Datta ('On Caged Chaffinches and Polyglot Parrots') and P. Lal ('Indian Writing in English: A Reply to Jyotirmoy Datta') makes one simultaneously laugh and sigh at how the same debate can carry on for half a century: is it "natural" for Indian writers to write in English, or are their reasons for doing so merely "expedient, even artistically dishonest"? Khushwant Singh provides a different sort of glimmer of recognition, despite the fact that the Delhi he describes has been almost entirely transformed in the 44 years since he wrote: "If you move in the right circles in the Capital, you need not cook any food in your house. It can be one continuous round of lunch, cocktail and dinner parties."

These occasional chuckleworthy moments apart, however, Quest comes across as largely focused on important and high-minded subjects: 'Persistence of the Caste System', 'Reflections on the Chinese invasion', 'The Concept of Justice and Personal Law in India'. "Quest was so far above popular culture and so disdainful in its indifference to the strange and bizarre events of everyday India that it needed at least one regular column that did some lampooning," the poet Dilip Chitre writes in a postscript, explaining why he felt the need to complement his 'serious pieces' on Indira Gandhi or Nirad C. Chaudhuri (written under his own name) with the irreverent pieces he wrote under the pseudonym 'D.'. D.'s columns ranged from a self-described "barbaric comparison" of Raj Kapoor's "chocolate-box love story" Bobby with Satyajit Ray's "saccharinous famine" in Ashani Sanket – where Ashani Sanket is found wanting because it does not even entertain the masses – to the argument that the sexiness of Hindi film heroines depended on their plumpness, "which goes to strengthen one's suspicion that more than one kind of starvation accounts for the female star's appeal in the Hindi cinema".

Some advertisements from the pages of Quest magazine

The editors must be thanked for bringing us a volume of scintillating – if sometimes verbose – writing from an era that seems enormously distant in some ways and not quite over in others. They have provided for those who want the dope on Quest being indirectly funded by the CIA (apparently it was, but the editors didn't know that) and offered much joy by reproducing advertisements from the pages of the original Quest. (Sample: 'When Sol has done his worst/ And really got you down/ Turn on a RALLIFAN and be/ The coolest man in town") But I have one complaint, which is that they have provided no introductions to the essays. There is not even a list of contributors, so that one will forever have to keep guessing about the identity of the wonderful Hamdi Bey who tells us that George Orwell thought of himself as "civilised" as opposed to Kipling who was "coarse", and wondering whether the author of 'The Gherao' is the same Arun Joshi who wrote the marvellous The Strange Case of Billy Biswas. Such a brilliant act of excavation, and an uncurated display?

Published in the Sunday Guardian, 20 Nov 2011.

4 comments:

Ujjwal said...

P.R.& Quest shared the courage of conviction to swim against mainstream tide.For P.R.in fifties-McCarthy era and after,task was far more difficult than in Nehru era post-independence India.US society always treated l.of centre pinkism as pariah;does so even now.In India,"liberalism"was not mainstream as today but was never quite disdained except in eco/soc.sc deps in some univ.

Anonymous said...

Trisha, Hamdi Bey was a journalist with The Statesman for many years, and later with The Times of India. He lived in Calcutta and Assam.

Trisha Gupta said...

Thanks, Anonymous! And was that his real name?

My travelogue said...

Yes, Hamdi Bey is his real name. He was a renowned journalist of Times of India. He was a friend of poet Sakti Chattopadhyay and there are many gossips regarding drinking alcohol of the both.

Hamdi's book "Bey of Bengal" was published in Bengali from Aazkal Bengali daily magazine, which is still a popular book.

Hamdi's wife Jamal Ara was an eminent Ornithologist. Her book may be found in National Book Trust.

His daughter Madhuca Sing is a teacher of Geography in Ranchi. But she is famous for spreading Basket Ball in Jharkhand. She was also a Basket Ball player in her young age. Madhuca Singh, joint secretary of Jharkhand Basketball Association, has managed to pioneer a quiet movement on her own.