Arvind Krishna Mehrotra tells Nandini Nair about India’s changing relationship with English and the essays that will last and those that will not.
Let’s start with the dedication of the book. Why Ram Advani, who had a bookshop in Lucknow and was an institution in the city?
A lot of people who are in the anthology—Ruskin Bond, for instance—knew him personally and some of the others would have visited the bookshop. Meena Alexander’s husband David Lelyveld sent me a picture which showed him and Ram Advani standing outside it. It was a picture taken to remember an occasion. This is one reason why the book is dedicated to him. The other reason is that booksellers are an unsung part of the book trade. And now with online buying even less so. Ram Advani would know your interests in much the same way that Amazon does, but he’d even know the latest books in your narrow academic field and drop you a line when they arrived. Scholars who lived and worked abroad valued this immensely. It is not that I knew him very well, but I visited the bookshop whenever I went to Lucknow. I look upon the dedication as a collective one, from all the contributors to the anthology.
In a 2014 interview you mentioned the “growing ugliness” and “increasingly provincial” nature of Allahabad, where you lived for many years. Can you expand on that? How do you see it now that you live in Dehradun?
The ugliness happened over many years. At first the change was imperceptible. But the decline of the Indian city is not limited to Allahabad. More and more Indian cities are becoming unliveable. Maybe cities in the south are better. But the south is a different country. I still don’t know why the south chooses to be a part of a nation that includes the wretchedness of north India.
Where do I begin telling you about the decline of Allahabad? The big bungalows were the first to go. And as far as I know, no one took pictures or made drawings to tell us what they even looked like. Those bungalows existed from the late 19th century to about the 1980s, say a hundred years. In my book The Last Bungalow (2006) there is a fair amount on this, on life in those houses. Things change, but there could still have been some record kept, not for the purposes of nostalgia but as urban history. What replaced the bungalows was So-and-So Colony or So-and-So Vihar. Recently I was told that part of the bungalow in which I grew up, 20 Hastings Road, has been turned into a mithai shop and a party hall is coming up on the grounds. The last blow was when they changed the name of the city to Prayagraj. The Hinduisation of north Indian cities is more than painful. It is also disorienting. I was born in the year of independence and now I can barely recognise the country in which I was born.