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Vagaries of Life

G.J.V. Prasad

By Mukul Kesavan, Kai Friese, and Achal Prabhala
Harper Collins, New Delhi, 2011, pp. 248, Rs. 350.00


This issue of Civil Lines appeared a decade after the previous issue, and this review a year after that. If, as the editorial claims, the issue contains ‘work that has been written for ever’, the two delays matter little. A little creative re-reading of the editorial claim would let us think that there is nothing new about what exists between the covers of this issue but thankfully such an interpretation is belied almost immediately.   Civil Lines is an urbane journal, one that calls for lazy evenings and long drinks—it is a miscellany for the gentle folks who think reading is a worthy pastime, one that takes them to different worlds and to a heightened sense of awareness, and also one that is a game of language, where you wait for a few pages to utter ‘Well said’. It is akin to watching a game of cricket played by the rules by well-spoken fellows who politely applaud each other. It has no settled batting order though, you turn pages till you find something that seems interesting and the innings begins.   Let me give you the team first—Ruchir Joshi, Itu Chaudhuri (twice), Achal Prabhala, U.R. Ananthamurthy, Ananya Vajpeyi, Shougat Dasgupta, Naresh Fernandes, Manu Herbstein, Anand Balakrishnan, Binyavanga Wainaina, Rimli Sengupta (twice), Nilanjana Roy, Benjamin Siegel, and Gauri Gill. Most of us will recognize some of the names and while the temptation to begin or not begin with their works was there, I began with the essay by the intriguingly named (and for that reason alone) Manu Herbstein.   The piece by Manu Herbstein is titled ‘Building Bridges’ and it has some photographs of actual bridges in India. A South African by birth, Manu was not named so—it is just that as a child he could not pronounce his name Moritz Herbstein and would say ‘Manu’. Curiously, Manu means the ‘second born’ in Ghana, a country he adopted, and we of course know what it means in India, a country he worked in for a couple of years. This essay is about his connections with various Indians and with India, beginning with Sir Benegal Rama Rau who visited their house in South Africa in 1941. The long leisurely and fascinating essay is mostly about life in Bombay in the 1960s, where the author worked for Gammon India, and his social and sexual life there. He makes friends, and meets up with ...

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