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An Embarrassment of Riches

Alok Rai

By Penguin
Penguin, Delhi, 2007, pp. 533, 570, Rs. 395.00

By Penguin
Penguin, Delhi, 2007, pp. 459, 487, 450, Rs. 395.00


In celebration of 20 years of publishing in India, Penguin India have produced a handsome set of five fat volumes: two of fiction, and three of non-fiction. This is, in fact, a variant on the publishing strategy that was employed by Penguin UK. They published short pieces and extracts from things on their backlists in the small, Penguin 60s format, designed to slip into pockets. These fat volumes won’t fit into any pockets I can imagine, but they are a particularly Indian, cost-effective way of packing a lot of value into a set of volumes that will, even unread, embellish any bookshelf. On the other hand, there is a lot of good reading here—which is hardly surprising, as the extracts and short pieces are drawn from a very wide range indeed. Thus, Desani is there, Hatted and all, in the fiction volume. Hatterr was first published in 1948 in the U.K., but Penguin India had the good sense to appropriate the Original Prankster by virtue of a reprint in 1998. So are Jawaharlal Nehru and P.V. Narasimha Rao, Mother Teresa and Osho a.k.a. Rajneesh. Premchand and Tagore are here through chronologically apt translations, and the Redoubtable Rao, who puts in an appearance in the non-fiction volumes through a pained and painful account of his doing, non-doing and undoing in the Babri Masjid fiasco, is also present in the fiction volumes as the author of something called The Insider, published in 1998—i.e. probably written sometime after the undoing, when he had ceased to be ‘The Insider’. (So does the no less redoubtable Roy, Arundhati. She is there with an extract from God in the fiction volumes, as well as a splendid defence of the writer’s vocation in ‘The Ladies Have Feelings, So…’ in non-fiction, vol. 3. Likewise Seth, Vikram.)   In some respects, these volumes are very much like India itself—there is everybody and everything here, but one searches in vain for some higher principle of order. Chronology would be simply chaotic—year of publication, year of translation, year of reprint?—so the unnamed editors have resorted to the most modest ordering principle of all—the alphabet. The authors are there in alphabetical order. Thus, the non-fiction volumes open with Bill Aitken and Mani Shankar Aiyar and close with Fareed Zakaria on ‘The Future of Freedom’: a 2003 piece on what we too are unaccountably pleased to call ...

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