“Future Library: Contemporary Indian Writing”, edited by Anjum Hasan and Sampurna Chattarji

Future Library: Contemporary Indian Writing, Anjum Hasan (ed), Sampurna Chattarji (ed) (Red Hen, July 2022) Future Library: Contemporary Indian Writing, Anjum Hasan (ed), Sampurna Chattarji (ed) (Red Hen, July 2022)

A new anthology of Indian authors writing in, and translating into, English, Future Library: Contemporary Indian Writing creates a new sense of contemporariness on the Indian literary scene. This arrangement distinguishes the book from other anthologies of Indian literature which are for the most part organized around a linguistic binary: they are collections either of Indian writing in English or of Indian writing in regional languages English translation, while the project of anthologizing as a whole also seems to be restricted to English for it is difficult to recall any anthologies putting together regional literatures in a single volume.  

Editors Anjum Hasan and Sampurna Chattarji, the former a writer and editor and the latter a writer, editor and translator, have aimed for coherence rather than unity in their curation. Hasan frames the rationale behind the book:



We have the word “contemporary” in the subtitle of this anthology, even though it includes some writing from several centuries ago, because these translations are contemporary – thus signalling the independence, in some ways, of a translation from its source… This modest variety will hopefully reveal to the reader something of the original literature, but also how we use English today to convey, for want of a better word, our Indianness.


This is a poetry-heavy volume covering one hundred authors from English, Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada, Bengali, Urdu, Kashmiri, Punjabi, and Marathi. Some elements stand out: some pieces come from the mid-20th century writers writing in modern, “unshowy” English. Gieve Patel’s poem “Postmortem” would be an example:


It is startling to see how swiftly
A many may be sliced
From chin to prick,
How easily the bones
He has felt whole
Under his chest
For sixty, seventy years
Ay be snapped,
With what calm
Liver, lung and heart
Be examined, the bowels
Noted for defect, the brain
For hemorrhage,
And all these insides
That have for a lifetime
Raged and strained to understand
Be dumped back into the body,
Now stitched to a perfection,
Before announcing death
Due to an obscure reason.


Another commonality among some pieces is a concern with tradition or mythology. Here is a modern translation of Andal, a 9th-century Tamil poet, on her love for Krishna:


Dear mothers, can’t you see I quiver when you say “Madhava”?
I’m cut bowstring vibrating for his touch. Your counsel’s
incomprehensible like the deaf talking to the dumb.
Uncover me. Why should I wear modesty when the world knows
of my barefaced love? If you wish to be dazzled anew by me
there’s only one cure: I must see the lord of illusion.


Here is diaspora author-scientist Inderjeet Mani merging Kabir, the 15th-century mystic poet, with the rap of Ali G:


Bruvvers, me life’s been pissed away
In silence, widout thinkin to pray
Me shawty days wasted in play
Me macho struttin so totally passe.
Hear me, bonin blew all me mula away
But me brain still hankerin fer payday.
So listen up to what me man Kabir say
Dem wicked seers be in nirvana today.


Then there is the northeastern poet Lalnunsanga Ralte playing with language:


Fak you.
And before your take your head back
I am from a people with names
Such as Faka and Faki
And coincidentally you probably have guessed their gender correctly.
See, in my language,
Fak, spelled F-A-K, is a good word.
It is a word that blesses,
It means to praise or to exalt.
So fak Eliot and fak Shakespeare
And fak you!!!!


Thus, there is a lot going on in the anthology: mythology crisscrossing with modernity, home juxtaposed with the diasporic condition, and new poets sitting with the very well known ones. As Sampurna Chattarji points out in her introduction to the book:


Moving on – and away – from reductive binaries and anguished reckonings, what travels in these pages alongside the shapeshifting idea of belonging (still a work-in-progress) is the equally fluid idea of becoming. To borrow from Ramanujan, perhaps what distinguishes writing from India is its ability to turn “all things, especially rivals and enemies, into itself”! … To those interested in seeing “contemporary Indian writing” for the many-hued thing it is – going against the grain, free to align, re-group, un-belong, free to go renegade – this [anthology] will be, we hope, a temptation to seek the plenitude that exists outside the confines of these covers; an acknowledgment of tangled genealogies; a way of making our alliances visible.


Because there are no claims to defining Indianness, the book can be read in several individual parts. There is no chronology or alphabetical-based or language-based structuring to it, which in a way liberates the book instead of confining it. Future Library might prompt future editors to think of new ways to transcend linguistic boundaries and share Indian literature for its variety.

Soni Wadhwa lives in Mumbai.