The Best of Quest, edited by Laeeq Futehally, Achal Prabhala and Arshia Sattar, Tranquebar, 2011, pp. 660, Rs. 695.
There are some books that you want to keep. You don’t want to read them at a gallop. You don’t want to give them away after a hurried read. Instead, you want them on your bookshelf so that you can pluck them out and dip into their contents at your leisure, sometimes even again and again. The Best of Quest is one of those books. What is more, it is a repository of the best and brightest stars in our country’s literary firmament -- some of whom shone brightly and were widely known in their time, but have been sadly obscured by the mists of heedlessness in recent times.
Quest was a pioneering journal; set up by the Indian Committee for Cultural Freedom, led by Minoo Masani, it was launched from Bombay in 1954. A ‘quarterly of inquiry, criticism and ideas’ it was edited by the redoubtable poet, critic and teacher, Nissim Ezekiel. Together with its counterparts in different parts of the world, such as Transition in Africa, Encounter in the UK and USA, Quadrant in Australia and the Imprint in India, it moulded public opinion through a range of informed opinion that was eclectic, liberal and often idiosyncratic. However, with Ezekiel as its editor, it also took on the mandate of encouraging budding talent. The Best of Quest is, therefore, as much a tribute to Ezekiel as it is a compilation of the best the journal had to offer in the two decades of his editorship before the baton passed to A. S. Ayub and till the journal folded up during the Emergency.
Masani, ever the maverick Socialist, decided that Quest must suspend publication in protest of the draconian censorship; in contrast Prof A. B. Shah, who served on its Editorial Board, wanted to defy censorship laws by continuing to publish the journal without submitting its contents for review. The deadlock was broken and Quest was re-invented by Shah as New Quest in 1977. But things were never the same. New Quest continues to be published. But does it have the vim and vigour of Quest? I think not. Moreover, it never quite recovered from the mud-slinging of the 1960s when allegations of ‘foreign funding’ rocked Indian intellectual circles. A grant from the Ford Foundation (in the words of Dilip Chitre ‘capitalist, yes, but State Department controlled, positively no’) financed the Congress for Cultural Freedom in India through A. B. Shah who was also its Director of Programmes.
In an endnote entitled ‘Looking Back’, R. Srinivasan describes Quest thus: ‘Like Stendhal’s works, it was addressed to the happy few and commanded fierce loyalties; its contributors remained the very select of the Indian intellectual world.’ Within the pages of The Best…, you will find some known names such as Nirad Chaudhuri, Rajni Kothari, P. Lal, Khushwant Singh, K. Subrahmanyam, Satyajit Ray, Ashis Nandy, Sudhir Kakar, Agha Shahid Ali, Kamala Das, Dom Moraes, Anita Desai, Keki Daruwalla, Kamleshwar, and many more. But what is more delightful is the introduction for several young readers to names that were once very well read. One such person is Dilip Chitre who features prominently throughout this collection, both under his own name and under the pseudonym ‘D’.
In the postscript called ‘I am D’, Chitre writes, ‘Pseudonyms are like beards. They conceal one’s real face.’ He then goes on to say why a journal such as Quest felt the need for a columnist and agreed to take on someone like him, someone who had a ‘comedian inside’ him. Chitre notes:
‘Quest was so far above popular culture and so disdainful in its indifference to the strange and bizarre events of everyday India that it needed at least one regular column that did some lampooning.’
Chitre’s identity as the writer of the column remained a closely-guarded secret and he contributed regularly on different aspects of popular culture, and in his own words:
‘I used the column to write on popular and art-house cinema, painting and artists, populist movements and politics, upcoming gurus and godmen, theatre, music, and the variously hued moral police who sought censorship of art….Now the column is dead and my pseudonym will hardly ring a bell. Few readers of the current age will care to dig through the archived coffins in the expired journal’s graveyard to find D.’
Dilip Chitre has passed on, but his writings and that of many other contributors to Quest have been retrieved from ‘archived coffins’ by this volume’s dedicated trio of editors: Laeeq Futehally, Achal Prabhala and Arshia Sattar. One can only hope, after reading The Best of Quest, that someone soon decides to bring out The Best of Dilip Chitre.
(This review appeared in The Hindu, 1 January 2012.)