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Documenting India

Stuti Kuthiala

By Ian Jack
Penguin Books, Delhi, 2013, pp. 323, Rs. 599.00


On the one hand there is reportage and investigative journalism. On the other, travel writing and adventure story telling. And then there is Ian Jack who combines all these genres with fine felicity in his book Mofussil Junction: Indian Encounters 1977-2012. This collection of essays encapsulates his experiences and encounters in India.   The terms ‘mofussil’ and ‘junction’ in the title could easily mislead one to believe that the book is about a bygone era—one in which administrators in sola topis managed the affairs in the Indian hinterland and heaving steam engines drew up to deserted and dark railway platforms. Although references are made to such times the bulk of the writings are about an India spanning the period between 1977 and 2012. The articles have been divided into five sections making it easier for the reader to skip back and forth among them according to his preference.   ‘Places’ takes the reader from remote Motihari in Bihar to the teeming cities of Bombay and Calcutta. With acute perception Jack picks up on the unique character of these metros. ‘Clever Calcutta’ is a place where ‘it is easy to feel ignorant’ and where the ‘bhadralok’ are fiercely protective of their culture. Bombay, of course, worships only wealth and the corruption that accompanies it is plain to see. Moving from the suburban sprawl to the iconic Taj Hotel via Crawford Market, Jack makes the reader travel the distance. ‘Serampur’ could well be read as the centre piece of this section. Indigo farming, caste distinctions, district life and missionary activity are all part of its canvas.   ‘People’, the next section, as one can guess contains portraits of a variety of luminaries ranging from Nirad Chaudhuri to Benazir Bhutto and Sonny Mehta to G.D Birla. Jack chooses not to sensationalize what may have been considered the notorious and infamous incidents in the lives of these individuals, but instead meets and interacts with them, extracting their human traits with empathy and understanding. Responding to Jack’s honest and direct queries, they too are candid and open. Though witty and humorous he neither lowers his writing to caricature nor slips in unnecessary malicious content.   >p?‘The Dynasty’ contains seven articles exclusively on the Gandhi family. Ian Jack arrived in India at the tail end of the Emergency and was retained by his paper to follow India’s progress in the years once it had been lifted. He ...

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