Dimple vs Ray: The Best of Quest

Signs of the times, in prose and poetry
Akash Bisht Delhi

BOOK: The Best of Quest
EDITED BY: Laeeq Futehally, Achal Prabhala and Arshia Sattar
PUBLISHER:Tranquebar Press, 2011
PAGES: 660
PRICE: 695
YEAR: 2011

AFTER WORLD WAR II, there was universal disgust against the holocaust and war that had left millions dead. No more monsters who feed on barbarism and destruction, this was a shared feeling. To spread the message of peace and freedom of expression, a group of intellectuals set up the Congress for Cultural Freedom. They published their first journal Encounter from England. In 1954, the Indian version – Quest – was launched. The idea was to counter fascism and encourage writers to elevate the level of liberal debate.

Both journals kicked off in style after poets Stephen Spender and Nissim Ezekiel decided to edit Encounter and Quest respectively. Ezekiel insisted, the magazine will be written by Indians, for Indians. It was a revolutionary approach as most writing in English those days arrived from foreign shores. It was challenging. It was difficult to find Indian thinkers easy with the language. Ezekiel persevered, and Quest became a highly regarded journal of its times. Soon, comparisons were being drawn with Encounter, Quadrant in Australia, Transition in Africa and Imprint in India – all offbeat spaces with emphasis on original writing.

An intellectual rite of passage, the journal went on to publish some of the finest writings in English for around 20 years until it succumbed to restrictions imposed during the Emergency. Quest faded into oblivion. Resurrected, The Best of Quest offers a heady mix of scintillating essays, viewpoints, poems and short stories.

Among others, you will find legends of those times: AK Ramanujan, P Lal, Rajni Kothari, Nirad C Chaudhuri, Sudhir Kakar, Agha Shahid Ali, Adil Jussawala, Arun Kolatkar, Jayanta Mahapatra, Arun Joshi, Kamala Das, Kiran Nagarkar, Premendra Mitra, Claude Alvares, Jyotirmoy Dutta, Khushwant Singh, Dilip Chitre, Marie Seton et al. The first section begins with a hard hitting piece by Kothari: a critique of the parliamentary form of government. Nirad Chaudhuri explains the dichotomy in the Hindu way of life; he doesn't apologise for using 'Hindu' instead of 'Indian'. Jyotirmoy Dutta, in his debatable piece, calls Indo-Anglian writers inelegant: they use the language like social climbers. His views are challenged by P Lal, "What should matter is the quality of writing turned out, not the hows and whys of the choice."

Serton, Satyajit Ray's biographer, delivers eulogies on the erotic aesthetics of the Sun Temple in Konark. "What strikes me about western erotic art – pornographic or otherwise – is the strange absence of delight, of any real sensual pleasure, or even profoundly of passion... It is not the grandeur of Konark that has captured me, but the intense humanism." The article includes sketches of Konark by Ray.

Chitre evokes passion about 'growing pornophobia' in the context of the ban on DH Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover. Typical of the times, Roderick Neil writes how sadhus and hippies have so much in common. The book has an English translation of Mujibur Rehman's proclamation of Independence of Bangladesh.

Mysterious D writes about films, sexuality, art and politics, laced with insight and humour. He says the only one person in India whose charisma surpasses Indira Gandhi's is Rajesh Khanna. His other provocative pieces include 'Sex and Samadhi' and 'What has Dimple got that Satyajit (Ray) hasn't?' (D is Dilip Chitre.)

There are brilliant poems by Agha Shahid Ali, Ezekiel, Allen Ginsberg, AK Ramanujan, Arun Kolatkar, among others, and the fiction is refreshingly original – by Arun Joshi, Abraham Eraly, Yashwant Chittal. Print ads from yesteryears are featured, too, and evoke innocence and nostalgia: 'Go ahead... Go Rajdoot'.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: DECEMBER 2011-JANUARY 2012