The editors of Future Library share their must-reads from the anthology!

By Sampurna Chattarji and Anjum Hasan

The cover of Future Library showing the silhouette of a purple person against a lavender background
The cover of Future Library

Sampurna Chattarji

A challenging proposition — to select just 3 favorites from an anthology made with so much love, over so many conversations with the texts (and their authors) over such a significant period of time! Having taken on the task, however, I plump for 3 authors — Irwin Allan Sealy, Mani Rao, and Mona Zote — whose contributions to Future Library are special at more than one level.

Allan’s oeuvre as a novelist is well known. I have always admired the way in which he has repeatedly reinvented the genre, from chronicle to sutra, alphabet to almanack. In our anthology, we have a prose excerpt from his book-length series of poems, Zelaldinus: A Masque. Set against the backdrop of history (Zeladinus is none other than Jalal-ud-din Akbar, the Mughal Emperor) “crossing the line” tells, with quixotic humor and crackling satire, of the border-crossing of a young man desperate to unite with his love. As Perce, the young man from a recognizable present, journeys with the pragmatic and gleeful saboteur’s spirit of Z, the piece expands what it means to reimagine the past, and crosses the line not only between nations but also notions of formal constraint. Signature Sealy, it will (I believe!) tempt readers who are encountering his work for the first time to seek more.

A portrait of Jalad-ud-din Akbar
A portrait of Jalal-ud-din Akbar

Mani Rao features in two avatars — as poet (in English) and as translator (from Sanskrit). Mani’s poetry has morphed and mutated through the years as she tussles with new preoccupations. The prose poems you will find here are from Echolocation, and they haunt at every reading. For Mani, eyes can be emissaries or itineraries; nib, tongue, or fang. Through the sharpness of her observations and the tenderness of her touch, she records this violent, unstable world where “everyone is innocent, contagious”; where “it’s all been said and yet, need, blowing between our lips, streams inside a tree.” I feel particularly glad that we were able to include excerpts of her version of Kalidasa’s 5th-century poem, Meghadutam, in a clean, crisp, contemporary voice that makes it accessible and alive for the 21st-century reader.

A landscape photo of Aizawl at dusk
A landscape photo of Aizawl, where Mona Zote resides. Photo credit: Vanlaldin puia, Unsplash

Mona Zote is, to my mind, a bit of an anomaly in the world of English-language poets writing in and from India. She prefers to downplay (indeed, often denies!) the poet-persona — beavering away at her full-time job in the tax-department of Aizawl, the capital of the North-East state of Mizoram. She continues to resist, with her trademark openhearted guffaw, both publicity and publication (rare traits in a world that suffers from a surfeit of both!). Her long poem “Rez” is an all-time favorite of mine, not least because she brings often overlooked aspects of “Indian tradition” — that of church committees and King James Bibles, of “Sunday ceremonies of mantraps / and armageddon now!” — into the literature being written today. An ebullient voice undercut by sadness, Mona throws a keen light on mainstream India’s attitude towards its outliers in this important poetic statement, quite untrammeled by polemic.

Anjum Hasan

Future Library presents an unusually wide range of contemporary Indian poetry and prose. We’d like to believe there is something in here for all manner of literary tastes. The three below are among my many favorite pieces in the collection. There is a personal quality to the voice without it veering to the outright confessional and a discreet art to the writing without it being showily experimental. Also, all three touch on minor aspects of everyday Indian reality. The half-constructed upstairs room in Rohan Chhetri’s poem, taking on different aspects through the narration, is utterly recognizable as is the traveler in Monika Kumar’s poem, anxious to have that window seat and avoid run-ins with her co-passengers. And most moving and familiar of all, the ancient courtesan in Shrikant Verma’s poem, reflecting on time and timelessness.

The Blueprint among the Ashes

ROHAN CHHETRI

The old man loved his sleep,
my father remarked to the visitors
a week after Grandfather died.
I was twelve
& the cruel metaphor wasn’t lost on me.
And indeed, that’s how I remember
him in his final days, slumbering
through afternoons on end, alone
in the dank, half-constructed first floor
of the house we called “upstairs,”
with stray cats for company,
the other rooms crammed
with old wood & chests of rare coins,
brooding over this failing architecture.
This man once feared by the whole town
now reduced to a fetish
of hoarding lumber, an unreasonable fear
of hospitals, & a refusal
to face the waking hours.
So when he did die, for days
it felt like he would cough at the door
& enter & no one would dare say a word.
Upstairs, where I never went alone
for years until
my mother cleared a room
& opened a beauty salon.
One day I took my friend there
& plucked his eyebrows clean
gnawing at a thread wound round my fingers,
just the way I’d seen my mother do it.
Five years later, a fever killed him.
I came to the city.
My uncle married again & moved
to a room on the first floor with his wife,
& my mother closed down the salon.
Now when I’m back home & go upstairs,
sometimes there is a moment
when I walk across the balcony
& enter the hall. A moment
when the old hesitation comes back
in the cobwebbed dark when a bruised cat
slinks through a broken window,
& I smell Grandfather’s musk
in the sunless air, fossilized in the dust
& old teak hollowed by termites.
I think of the dream my father had,
months after Grandfather’s death:
the old man waking up here,
resigned & hysterical as the night he died,
making a soft noise of our names in the dark,
still hearing our voices downstairs,
tentative laughter testing the air,
us going about our days through
the quiet, forgetful grief,
& hearing too the gray clamor of the street.
I imagine him wanting to burst forth
into our bright static of flesh,
through my father’s dream,
& now through this air I stand on
that his will is kneading so thin
& timeless, like a yawn that quietens
the whole world for a few edgeless seconds
to a seclusion of jaws.

A window on an airplane looking out over clouds
The view from a window seat in an airplane. Photo credit: Suhyeon Choi, Unsplash

Window Seat

MONIKA KUMAR

Translated from Hindi by Sampurna Chattarji in collaboration with the author

To be happy in life one needs very little.
That “little” can sometimes be no more than this:
when we are all set to travel by bus or train or plane
we should be lucky enough
to get a window seat.
And, having bought a ticket,
avoided arguments with co-passengers,
stowed away our luggage safely,
after all of this,
we should be lucky enough to slip easily into ourselves.

Between home and the wild how hard to find such places
where we can take naps light as flowers,
have hundreds of trees cradle our sleep
or the whiteness of clouds carry us towards nothingness.
To wake from this small sleep is a miracle,
this sleep repairs our dwindling being,
restores us to our position,
brings us back to the question
of who we are,
which we ask ourselves once again,
even if our only answer
is to burst into tears.

Disillusionment of a Courtesan from the Time of the Buddha

SHRIKANT VERMA

Translated from Hindi by Rahul Soni

With each caress
the breasts quiver

From the navel a fragrance rises

Astride
these thighs
only the mighty
can ride their
horse into the river

In search of unending pleasure come
the general,
the prince.

Women swoon.

Malati,
it won’t be the same tomorrow
The breasts
will be filled
with pus,
the thighs
will lie broken
like monuments

You’ll only be able
to hear footsteps —
whose?
The general’s?
Or the prince’s?

The river of pleasure
will have run dry

They’ll joke
those who rode their
horse —
you too will laugh.

Fetching a corpse from the river
people leave it
at the ghats
and say —
Here lies Time

No one sees Malati.

With each caress
the breasts
quivered.

Only the mighty
straddled
these thighs.
In search of
unending pleasure
came the prince.

Women swooned.

The irony
Malati,
you’ve always been
Malati.

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