The Book of Indian Essays : Two Hundred Years of English Prose – Arvind Krishna Mehrotra (Editor)


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Indians have been writing prose and poetry in English for the past two centuries. Anthologies of the country’s poets and poems have appeared regularly, but it is difficult to come across a wide-ranging historical anthology of the Indian essay in English. This collection starts with Derozio in the 1820s and ends with writers admired for their prose in the twenty-first century.

This pioneering assemblage – of great Indian short prose within a single volume – is equally impressive for its range. The reflective essay, the luminous memoir, the essay disguised as a story, the memorable prefatory article, the newspaper column that transcends its humdrum origins, the gossip piece that oozes literariness, the forgotten flower in the long-dead magazine, the satirical putdown – all these find place here.

A literary anthology also works as an alternative history. This volume resembles a map of middle-class India’s social life and aesthetic sensibilities from hybrid perspectives – Indian and Western, feminine and masculine, anti-colonial and anti-nationalist. To be found in it are diverse characters in scattered locations – including Victorian Calcutta, modern America, village Egypt, elevated Oxford, feudal Kerala, cosmopolitan Mumbai, bureaucratic Delhi, Buddhist Benares, Civil Lines Allahabad, and small-town India.

The essays amuse, surprise, edify. The feelings and ideas in them provoke thought, compassion, and a sense of the wonder that was India.

About the Author

Arvind Krishna Mehrotra was born in Lahore in 1947. He has published six collections of poetry in English and two of translation — a volume of Prakrit love poems, The Absent Traveller, recently reissued in Penguin Classics, and Songs of Kabir (NYRB Classics). His Oxford India Anthology of Twelve Modern Indian Poets (1992) has been very influential. He has edited several books, including History of Indian Literature in English (Columbia University Press, 2003) and Collected Poems in English by Arun Kolatkar (Bloodaxe Books, 2010). His collection of essays Partial Recall: Essays on Literature and Literary History was published by Permanent Black in 2012. A second book of essays, Translating the Indian Past (Permanent Black), appeared in 2019.

Mehrotra was nominated for the post of Professor of Poetry at the University of Oxford in 2009. He came second behind Ruth Padel, who later resigned over allegations of a smear campaign against Trinidadian poet Derek Walcott (who had himself earlier withdrawn from the election process).

Mehrotra has translated more than 200 literary works from ancient Prakrit language, and from Hindi, Bengali and Gujarati.