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Civil Lines

An Essay by Achal Prabhala

At some point in the 1980s – I can’t remember exactly when – curiosity led me to pick up The Illustrated Weekly of India from a pile of newspapers and periodicals that constituted my parents’ daily reading. The middle pages contained photographs of two totally naked women, one Indian and the other blonde. The last pages were given over to the erotic fiction of Khushwant Singh; a young sahibís afternoon tryst with a sweaty female construction worker whose navel smelled of damp mud. And I was hooked.

The Illustrated Weekly existed in an incredible time. A middle-class family in Bangalore could sit down together and read this, an intelligent popular magazine that was equal parts sensational, sensual and just plain strange. (And definitely edited by Men). No one seemed to notice that I was about fifteen years old, or that my other reading consisted of such lusty classics as Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa and Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch, the latter unwisely chosen on the basis of certain misleading clues on its cover.

The finer traditions of The Illustrated Weekly are continued today by the wildly popular Crime & Detective. A cornucopia of all things criminal and carnal, my favourite section is the soft-core photo-story (“With the pen of my desire, I want to write the story of our intimacy on your alluring body. Would you permit me?”) But those with an instinct for baser things – such as “New Writing from India” – will be offered little satisfaction in the magazine marketplace.

This is a puzzling phenomenon in a country with a thriving, linguistically diverse publishing industry (Though I only speak for the Indian language I know best, English). It wasn’t always so. Imprint and Quest paved the non-academic highbrow way until the mid 1970s, when they gave way to New Quest. The 1960s also saw the emergence of a slew other magazines, most important of which was A.D. Gorwala’s celebrated Opinion. Anglophile intellectuals in India often subscribed and contributed to Encounter, of Spender-Lasky fame, and later, of CIA-funding notoriety.

The Illustrated Weekly shut shop in 1993. Kai Friese’s India Magazine created a distinct cultural excitement until it was jettisoned by careless proprietors in 1999. New Quest soldiers on as a staid shadow of its former self. To be sure, contemporary intellectual life still has some wriggle-room in English-language media. Outlook magazine has hosted a number of public spats; Biblio intermittently winks at its non-octogenarian fans; Economic and Political Weekly steadily publishes the dignified academic left; the Journal of Arts and Ideas, while it existed, pushed the academic envelope to include cultural studies; the Sarai Reader pushes the cultural studies envelope to include critical accounts of popular media and street life. And so on.

Imagine my excitement then, on discovering a copy of Civil Lines back in 1994. Finally: a literary magazine. Here was Dharma Kumar, dryly alarmed at her daughter’s history lessons: “‘Ancient India was very civilized. Men took daily bath and used eye make-up.'” Or the sublime short fiction of Telegu writer Caso, published in translation. And the warmly comical literary journalism of Sheila Dhar. Mukul Kesavan, a founding member of the editorial collective, was probably only half-joking when he wrote in the introduction to its fourth instalment that “besides carrying pieces by the already famous (Khushwant Singh, AK Mehrotra, Amitav Ghosh, Allan Sealy), Civil Lines also published the early works of Manjula Padmanabhan, Ruchir Joshi, Raj Kamal Jha and Susan Vishwanathan. They’ve all gone on to write and publish successful and celebrated books of fiction… and Civil Lines basks shamelessly in this reflected glory.”

A magazine that is really a journal and is actually a book. No wonder that it exhibits an unflappable insouciance in the face of taxonomic transgressions. In his introduction to the fifth instalment, Mukul writes, “Civil Lines advertises itself as New Writing from India. This is misleading (as most advertisements are) because in its short life Civil Lines has been host to old writing newly translated, writing by not-Indian writers, writing by Indians Elsewhere and so on….But to return to the question of content so that anyone who plans to write for Civil Lines (or, for that matter, to read it regularly) will have some sense of what it is likely to publish. Civil Lines will publish good writing by desis (loosely defined to include all kinds of south Asians), it will publish anyone (Indian or otherwise) whose work has something to do with our part of the world and (just to make things really precise) it will publish anything the editors like.”

So far, so wonderful. For many years, Civil Lines sustained my belief that writers actually existed in India. Then it fell off the map, transforming from a publication into something that might be best described as a fervent hope. Five issues have been published (in 1994, 1995, 1997, and two issues in 2001). The astute will observe a trend, and perhaps, also the bucking of it. The astutest will recall that we are now in 2008. This march of time – and the mild indifference of this publication to march along – indicates that at least one challenge facing Civil Lines is the new “New”. Or whatever; you get the idea. Itís all a bit confusing and how it will work out is still a mystery. But having thrown in my lot with the folks who make up the editorial collective, I can happily report that Civil Lines 6 is imminent and no longer merely immanent.

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