In The Vintage Book of Modern Indian Literature editor-writer Amit Chaudhuri makes a couple of significant assertions: First, contrary to Western perception, Indian writing extends far beyond the recent spate of Western-style writers. And second, Indian literature encompasses much more than just Indians writing in English. To underscore his claims Chaudhuri has assembled works dating from the mid 19th century to the present, including the translated works of eminent vernacular writers. Like Hindi pioneer Premchand’s “The Chess Players,” a romp about a pair of nobles so obsessed with checkmating one another, “no yogi could have been more profoundly plunged in trance.” And “The Postmaster,” Rabindranath Tagore’s heart-wrencher about a young mail clerk’s tender relationship with an orphan servant girl. Other writers include Pather Panchali author Bibhuti Bhushan Banerjee and the venerated Kannada author U.R. Anantha Murthy.
Among the English-language writers: Graham Greene favorite R.K. Narayan, renowned curmudgeon Nirad C. Chaudhuri, Amitav Ghosh, Pankaj Mishra, and a host of lesser-known talents, including Dom Moraes and Ruskin Bond. The few women writers include Urdu poet Qurratulain Hyder, whose diary-like “Memories of an Indian Childhood” sparkles with the intricacies of everyday life in an Indian hill town, and the redoubtable Bengali litterateur and activist Mahashweta Devi, who tells a touching story of fleetingly victorious tribals who connive to save a tree in “Arjun.” And just like the arjun tree, whose leaves “are like the tongue of man,” this collection is an eloquent tribute to a literary heritage that runs wide and deep.