Another fine collection, comparable to Vintage’s recent volumes of Scottish and Latin American fiction, and that rarest of contemporary publishing rarities: a real bargain.
The Anglo-Indian author of Real Time (p. 120) has assembled 38 examples of fiction and nonfiction prose ranging from the early-19th century through the contemporary period and representing Bengali, Hindi, Urdu, and English literatures. Several of its earlier entries demonstrate that (as Chaudhuri’s eloquent introduction and headnotes to individual selections attest) we in the West tend to know a little about trendy writers of the moment like Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roy, and virtually nothing about such important forerunners as India’s only Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore (represented by his limpid short story “The Postmaster” and charming “Essay on Nursery Rhymes”); Sukumar Ray (author of the delightful animal fable “A Topsy Turvy Tale”); and Bibhuti Bhusan Banerjee (whose famous novel of childhood Pather Panchali inspired the “World of Apu” trilogy of Sukumar Ray’s son, celebrated filmmaker Satyajit Ray). The remarkable R.K. Narayan is represented by a pungent excerpt from his wry nostalgic novel The English Teacher, and Chaudhuri also offers self-contained chunks from Raja Rao’s important novel of exile, The Serpent and the Rope, and Nirad C. Chaudhuri’s seminal Autobiography of an Unknown Indian. Conversely, do we really need large dollops of Sunetra Gupta’s pedestrian Memories of Rain, Vikram Seth’s distinctively un-Indian verse narrative The Golden Gate, and the exceedingly well-known Midnight’s Children? One of Rushdie’s elegant short stories might better have been chosen, to set aside such gems as the pseudonymous Premchand’s Borgesian-Nabokovian classic “The Chess Players” (also filmed by Satyajit Ray), Nirmal Verma’s disturbing “Terminal,” and Naiger Masud’s Kafkaesque “Sheesha Ghat.” One further cavil: Why nothing from Rohinton Mistry, whose award-winning novels have virtually reinvented the Victorian family chronicle?
Quibbles, these, nonetheless. Chaudhuri has given us an immensely revealing and engagingly readable introduction to a literature whose evident riches will lure many readers to further exploration.