Not quite a literary magazine
Civil Lines: New Writing from India
Edited ByRukun Advani, Ivan Hutnik, Mukul Kesavan and Dharma Kumar
Ravi Dayal Publisher
I was told, when sent this new magazine, that “it was a bit likeGranta“. It is not very much likeGranta, except that it is a book length magazine and, as its role model often is, loosely thematic in its material.
There are seven prose pieces here, most of them autobiographical in one way or another. Why it should have required four editors, Rukun Advani, Ivan Hutnik, Mukul Kesavan, and Dharma Kumar, to assemble them is beyond me.
Two of the contributions are excerpts from books soon to appear: Allan Sealy writes, rather disappointingly, about travels in the American south-west and Khushwant Singh offers two fragments from his autobiography.
Amitav Ghosh muses upon the Indian short story and Bill Aitken on ecology; but for my money the three best pieces in this first issue are by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra on his adolescence, Radha Kumar on her brief imprisonment – she seems to have been arrested by mistake – in Bhopal after the Union Carbide tragedy, and Ramachandra Guha on his experiences with Calcutta Marxists.
All the pieces in the magazine are workmanlike, none is badly written but none of them has the surprise element one sometimes finds in contributions to Granta. None of them could be called literature. They are journalism, all seven of them; but journalism of a much higher order than that normally found in Indian magazines.
Each is written in a low key, but also in an individual voice. Journalism only needs to be preserved when it is very good, and I think several of these pieces are. But, put together in this way, they do not add up to that delicate and subtle artefact, a literary magazine. The title is brilliant but the totality of the contents is not.
It seems a pity, particularly since this is the first issue, and the concept of the magazine is excellent and adventurous. Ravi Dayal has some claim to be called the first quality publisher in India, or perhaps more accurately, the first person who aspires to be a quality publisher. Civil Lines aspires to be a quality magazine.
The only reason that this first issue does not measure up to this aspiration is that it is unexciting. I said that the contributions are workmanlike: this implies honest labour rather than brilliance. They are readable, but there is nothing that stands out, or leaps out of the type-face to startle one.
Nobody looking for literature is likely to be greatly benefited by Civil Lines. The introduction to this issue leads off rather endearingly, “Civil Lines hopes to appear irregularly….Twice a year for a start”, and continues to say that “anything at all that the editors believe will endure” will be published.
In other words, the magazine hopes to become a miscellany, a rag-bag, which is what the better literary magazines have always been like.
This issue suffers, perhaps, from not being a rag-bag. The contributions are too even in tone and pace. What one also misses, despite there being four editors, is an editorial presence. This may in fact be because there are four editors: too many cooks, and so forth.
Good literary magazines have always been good because of their editors. The more quirky and idiosyncratic they have been, the better the magazine is, at least as a general rule. To have four editors for an issue that contains only seven contributions, not only sounds, but is, a bit silly to start with.
Furthermore, to edit by committee, as it were, would prevent any magazine from finding its own identity. And there is one other comment to be made about the first issue of this new venture. The only writer in it whose name is unfamiliar to me is Radha Kumar, and so I do not know how old she is.
But all the other writers have had time to make reputations of one kind or another. That is to say, they are not young. A literary magazine ought by its nature to provide a platform for young writers; and I have not seen many in India which do. The editors, when asked, have told me that there aren’t any, and if true this is very sad. Perhaps Civil Lines will have more luck in finding them.