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the Complete Review
the complete review - non-fiction

India: A Mosaic

edited by
Robert B. Silvers and Barbara Epstein

general information | review summaries | our review | links

To purchase India: A Mosaic

Title: India: A Mosaic
Author: various
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: (2000)
Length: 306 pages
Availability: India: A Mosaic - US
India: A Mosaic - UK
India: A Mosaic - Canada
  • Contents:
    • Preface, N. Ram
    • Introduction, Arundhati Roy (a condensed version of her essay, The End of Imagination)
    • India: The Perils of Democracy, Ian Buruma
    • Bombay at War, Christopher de Bellaigue
    • Tagore and his India, Amartya Sen
    • "Women well set Free", Anita Desai
    • Damsels in Distress, Anita Desai
    • India: The Imprint of Empire, Roderick MacFarquhar
    • States of Emergency, Hilary Mantel
    • Edmund Wilson in Benares, Pankaj Mishra
    • A New, Nuclear India ?, Pankaj Mishra
    • Notes on the Indian Music CD, Gowri Ramnarayan
  • A CD of Indian music is included with the book
  • See also On Online Alternatives, a Literary Saloon dialogue in the complete review Quarterly

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Our Assessment:

B : good, broad overview of various aspects of Indian culture and politics

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Nation . 24/4/2000 Amitava Kumar
The Spectator A- 8/4/2000 Charles Allen

  From the Reviews:
  • "Two muted reviews by Anita Desai and Hilary Mantel seem misplaced. However, the remaining six contributions add up to a highly illuminating end-of-term report on the Indian Republic after five millennia of civilisation." - Charles Allen, The Spectator

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The essays collected in this volume originally appeared in The New York Review of Books. Some are book reviews, some are more general surveys -- unfortunately there is no brief introductory paragraph explaining what occasioned each piece (though some -- but not all -- give the date when they were written). From India's new nuclear might to early women's literature from India a wide variety of subjects are covered here. There is, possibly, too much variety -- pricking deep there is a lot of information about the specific issues at hand, but there are too many holes for a truly representative tapestry.
       Arundhati Roy recycles her famous essay, "The End of Imagination", once again, presenting a short form of it here as the introduction to this collection. No harm there -- it is a powerful and important piece. India's choice to go nuclear (followed by its separated-at-birth disowned sibling, Pakistan, compounding the mistake by following suit) was one of the final catastrophes of the old millennium, with repercussions that will likely haunt this area of the world for a long time to come. Certainly this show of technological ability (and misguided priorities) has not and will not make India (or Pakistan) a "player" on the international stage; indeed, more likely it has brought that region closer to being wiped off the stage. Roy (and Pankaj Mishra, in his essay that closes this collection) usefully focus attention on this important issue, one that has too readily been ignored in the West.
       Both Roy's introduction and Mishra's more detailed examination of Indian politics (and specifically the decision to go nuclear) offer a useful introduction to the complexities and vagaries of India that have led to this sad state of affairs. India's politics are also touched upon in several of the other pieces: Christopher de Bellaigue offers a glimpse at local politics in "Bombay at War", while Roderick MacFarquhar looks at "The Imprint of Empire", comparing the end of British rule in India (and the horrors of the Partition) with the handing back of Hong Kong to China.
       Ian Buruma has some fun using the example of Le Corbusier's Chandigarh, the planned city he designed, in his piece on "The Perils of Democracy", with Buruma then shifting to the sad example of Ayodhya (where Hindu fanatics destroyed a 16th century mosque) to show the shift in Nehruvian secularism since Independence.
       Politics and literature can also not be separated in the examples in this volume, from the influential figure of Rabindranath Tagore to the unlikely ones of Flaubert and Edmund Wilson. Amartya Sen's "Tagore and his India" -- the longest essay in the collection -- is an excellent introduction to the many facets of the great Tagore and his work. Sen presents the man and his work in all its complexity, addressing the question of the West's fickle enthusiasm and the ups and downs of Tagore's reputation (so very different from his standing in his native Bengal). "Drawing" on Sen's Foreword to the Cambridge University Press edition of the Selected Letters of Rabindranath Tagore (1997), Sen touches on many aspects of Tagore's life and thought, the figures that played a role in his life (Gandhi, Yeats, Victoria Ocampo, among others), and his international interests (looking both to Europe and Japan).
       Pankaj Mishra's "Edmund Wilson in Benares" is also an interesting piece, a curious meeting of East and West, fairly well-related. It is also, notoriously, the basis for Mishra's first novel, The Romantics (see our review) -- surely one of the rare cases of a New York Review of Books piece being turned into a work of fiction. (Given what a hash this talented writer made of this material in fictionalizing it one might perhaps hope that this experiment will not be repeated too soon; given how much he got paid for his efforts we'll likely see every other NYRB piece being shopped around.)
       Hilary Mantel offers a solid review of Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance, while Anita Desai tackles two volumes of anthologies of Indian women writers' work. Desai conveys her enthusiasm regarding the first volume (Women Writing in India: 600 BC to the Early Twentieth Century, The Feminist Press at CUNY, 1991) well, and the stories she tells -- of the difficulties women writers faced, and of their occasional success despite it -- are quite fascinating. There is useful information here, about authors and works most are unlikely to have ever heard of, and Desai makes a convincing case for seeking them out. In the companion piece, in which she reviews the second volume -- devoted to 20th century women writers --, her disappointment is almost as keen. Nevertheless, the review is a useful small survey of Indian women writers of the 20th century.

       The collection is called a mosaic, but it is one with many, many gaps. The essays are interesting, but they do not quite hold together as a collection. It is still only a shadowy picture of India that one gets here, bright shimmers in certain areas, nothing at all in (too many) others. Worthwhile, but not completely satisfying.

       A CD is also included with the book, with a generous selection of varied Indian musical offerings.

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India: A Mosaic: Reviews: Books under review by authors who contributed to this collection: Other books of interest under review:
  • See the Index of literature from and about India

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© 2000-2010 the complete review

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