The Granta Book of India
[Reading Challenge 2023]

The Granta Book of India

Edited by Ian Jack
Granta Publications, 2004

[ #15:  East meets West:  A book taking place in Asia (Turkey to Japan, Siberia to Vietnam) ]

The local Little Free Library has, again, provided me with a challenge book! This one, The Granta Book of India. I had a good experience with the last Granta anthology I read some years back so figured I’d slot this one in as my Asian challenge, because Asia, contrary to how I think of it, also includes the Indian subcontinent.

Because I was still not sure what Granta is, I looked it up, and discovered it was founded as a literary magazine in 1889 by students at Cambridge University. It went pro in 1979 when it became a quarterly literary journal and has also been publishing specialty anthologies, like this one.

This was one of those books I found a joy to read. Of the seventeen stories, essays, and articles, I can call only two of them duds. The rest I’d rate four to five stars. All of them dealt with India and/or Pakistan: rural villages, big cities like Mumbai, memoirs of travelers to both. The India/Pakistan conflicts were touched upon in several, a subject which I didn’t know much about; one excellent article, “Jihadists” was about the conflicts that led to the 9/11 attacks and what was going on in Pakistan and Afghanistan afterward. Although the political commentary was outdated (most of the book’s material was from the 1990s) most of the writers were from India or Pakistan and so it was interesting to hear their viewpoints. The fiction was mainly slices-of-life from the lives of ordinary Indian people, like a businessman who is embarrassed by, but also enjoys, his wife’s singing talent (“White Lies” by Amit Chaudhuri).

Other favorites of mine were “What Bengali Widows Cannot Eat” by Chitrita Banerjee, in which an Indian-American cookbook writer describes her mother’s Indian widowhood customs, one of which is not eating any meat, ever again. According to custom widows are treated as bad luck in India among all classes and the older generation of women, at least, is still buying into this. It could have been another “Gee-it-sucks-to-be-woman-in-[name of country]” story that usually pops up whenever some Asian country in essayed, but the descriptions of the food were truly sumptuous.

The other article I enjoyed, also about a woman, was “Little Durga” by Shampa Banerjee (not related to the author above, Banerjee is something of the “Smith” of India). This was the adult recollections of the child actress who had played the role of  older sister to Apu, the main character in the Apu movie trilogy of acclaimed director  Satyajit Ray.

The other was the recollections of the actress who became famous for playing a little girl in an acclaimed Indian movie.

The two duds were an incoherent article/memoir about dervishes and a story about an Indian tutor, Ivy League educated, who agrees to ghost-write a college entrance essay for an unmotivated American girl living in Bombay with her expat father. The tutor has a bit of a crush on the girl. This wasn’t badly written, but just rubbed me the wrong way. First, the main character knowingly participates in fraud, second, I don’t have a lot of sympathy for spoiled teenage girls who can’t be assed to write their own essays, no matter how young and rich and beautiful they are.

The story just sort of… ended, without much of a conclusion, as most of the fiction did, and not a few of the essays. Which wasn’t necessarily bad, I enjoyed reading them. But I do wonder if that is considered the thing to do now when writing modern essays. I was raised, for example, to write a beginning, a middle, and an end, and if not handing the conclusion to the reader, point them to it with some very strong hints. But a lot of the material forced me to draw my own.

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