I did get lucky the fourth time and how! After three disappointing books, the universe conspired to bring me the Best of Quest through Blogadda’s book review program, and I haven’t stopped reveling in the 660 odd pages of sheer brilliance in the last 10 days. I knew when I applied to review it, that if I got the book, I’d be laying my hands on a minor treasure. Perhaps these parallels are not apt, but when researching Quest, I was most strongly reminded of Tehelka and Open, the magazine – two extraordinary periodicals of our times. It has everything, from articles on political reform, history, the arts, psychology and education to a most wonderful section of poetry to a fantastic collection of short stories. Not to forget the enigma attached to it because of a mysterious CIA connection!
Because the book is an anthology, I decided to be random with my reading. The introduction had one of the editors talking about the erstwhile editor of Quest, Dilip Chitre, who was also apparently the mysterious columnist, D. I was immediately drawn to the last sections, where Mr. Chitre himself makes the admission, and also talks about his life and times and contemporaries at Quest. I, then, scurried to gobble up a few pieces written by D. While most were amusing, witty and even incisive, my favourite was the very tongue-in-cheek ‘Marriage & Morals: Updating the Pavitra Prostitute’. True that Chitre had to hide behind a pseudonym (a lone acronym really) to mention the unmentionables in a not-so-grown-up nation, but his take on issues such as sex, religion and women are refreshingly real. Writing as Dilip Chitre, he is a little more serious, a little more guarded, albeit equally insightful. His piece ‘Aspects of Pornophobia’, for example, deals with a hush-hush matter in a matter-of-fact manner.
The introductions and endnotes also pointed me towards another one of the enigmatic editors of Quest, Nissim Ezekiel. The In Memoriam section, comprising letters of people reminiscing about Nissim, the person and the poet, is heartwarming. Some of his poems in the poetry section, ‘Poet, Lover, Birdwatcher’ being my favourite, show just why the man earned the place that he did in the line of Indian poets.
Then there are many more pieces of social, political and cultural commentary by several authors, but I will remember very distinctly the following pieces because they are as relevant today as they were in the 70s India:
1. ‘The Persistence of the Caste System: Vested Interests in Backwardness’ by Subhash Chandra Mehta – We all know too well what the race to be backward is all about, and what its consequences are.
2. ‘Am I a Muslim? Islam and Bangladesh’ by Mahbubul Hok – A bold piece by any measure questioning the validity of Islamic states and practices.
3. ‘Autobiography of Violence’ by Mihir Sinha – Though set in Calcutta, this account of how violence has seeped into our collective minds and lives is true of all of India.
4. ‘The Married Woman and Our Sex Morality’ by Sudhir Chandra – A piece way ahead of its times (even so now), discussing the possibilities of polygamy/polyandry within marriage and its acceptance.
5. ‘The Coffee-Brown Boy looks at the Black Boy’ by J.S. Saxena – An insightful article exploring the deep racial biases that pervade nearly all humanity.
Some other articles/essays also found favour with me, because I have personal inclinations towards the topics. Among them are the point and counterpoint essays by Jyotirmoy Datta and P. Lal respectively on Indian English writing, ‘Konarak’ by Marie Seton – a detailed analysis of the erotic art of Konarak, ‘Sadhus and Hippies’ by Roderick Neill – where he is mainly showing off his knowledge of the holy men in India but pretends to draw a comparison between those mentioned in the title, ‘ An Interview with V.S. Naipaul’ by Adrian Rowe-Evans – A wondrous journey into the career and mind of the writer that is Sir V.S. Naipaul and ‘The City as Antagonist: Three Recent Films’ by Saleem Peeradina – the most detailed and ruthless film reviews I ever saw.
And while I did cheat through the Essays and Opinions section, often skipping a paragraph or two when the gravity of it all got too much for my frivolous mind, I was most agog when it came to the poetry and fiction sections. I lapped up every last turn of phrase, every dainty word, down to the last comma. And while most pieces were indeed masterpieces, I’d easily hand over the ‘Most haunting piece’ awards to the poem, ‘3 Cups of Tea’ by Arun Kolatkar and the short stories ‘The Discovery of Telenapota’ by Premendra Mitra and ‘The Moon Had to be Mended’ by Kiran Nagarkar. Other memorable works in this compilation are ‘The Accompanist’ by Anita Desai, ‘Sword and Abyss’ by Keki N. Daruwalla, ‘Tangents’ by Abraham Eraly, ‘Love’ by Adil Jussawala and ‘Madurai: Two Movements’ by A.K. Ramanujan.
There is so much more meat, so much covered ground and so many perspectives for those who will care to plunge themselves into The Best of Quest.