Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Book Review - The Best of Quest by Laeeq Futehally, Achal Prabhala and Arshia Sattar

Daring, illuminating, and inspiring. These best describe a journal that took birth not so way back in the pre-emergency days in 1954.  It was called Quest – ‘a quarterly of inquiry, criticism and ideas’. With a prolific writer, poet and social commentator Nissim Ezekiel at its helm, this magazine commented on the political, social, philosophical, cultural and ideological environment of a newly liberated India.  The magazine featured a motley of brilliant writers and poets of the time that included great names such as the zesty Dilip Chitre, sociologists such as Ashis Nandy and Sudhir Kakar, and the feisty Khushwant Singh and the haunting poet Agha Shahid Ali to name a very few of those geniuses.

In its short life of 2 decades, this insightful magazine was forced to down its shutters, but fortunately for our generation today, The Best of Quest, an anthology of the very best essays, critiques, poems and stories from an era bygone provides us with a superb insight into the thinking of the intelligentsia of those times.

The Best of Quest edited by Laeeq Futehally, Achal Prabhala and Arshia Sattar showcases writers from different backgrounds, and conversations on a myriad themes and topics. Divided into seven parts interspersed with old ads and including a worthy introduction and endnotes, this book features in three parts, Essays and Opinion, Poetry and Fiction.  Several translated works are thankfully included in this volume that might just have been lost.  At the end of the book, I am already wishing, there was a second volume in this series!

In the Essays section, what struck me was that so many of the articles commented on the questions that are still raging more than 50 years down the road. This section, includes writings on the still debatable caste system, the place of women in an evolving society in articles such as Women’s Lib in India, The Married Woman and Our Sex Morality, Fair and Free; cultural discussions on the Konark temple; the Islamic connection in a still relevant article Am I a Muslim. On a lighter note, the spirited two articles, On Caged Chaffinches and Polyglot Parrots and a reply to it in Indian Writing in English on the usage of English as a medium of expression were uplifting.  Movies have always been ingrained in the fabric of India and these were seen in caustic critique of Satyajit Ray juxtaposed with the hit movie Bobby by the then mysterious ‘D’ aka Dilip Chite and in the Charm of Rajesh Khanna. I wish I could quote or just list down all the well researched articles that said so much in so few words and truly provided a glimpse into the world which barely seems to have changed since then.

Poetry included works by the editor and great poet himself, Nissim Ezekiel, Kamala Das, A.K. Ramanujan to name a very few.

Some lines that I think will stick on in my head are in

Stance by Nissim Ezekiel
Elusive for ever,
the middle road
is never
in the middle.

From Three Cups of Tea by Arun Kolatkar –
i went to Burma
i was arrested and sent back
            to Manipur
no passport
                        the police commissioner asked
why did you go to burma?
                        Prickface i said
what’s there in India?

I also particularly enjoyed ‘City Streets’ by Santan Rodrigues which echoes what I think of Indian cities today with the scum and filth in them. 

In the fiction section, a fantastic array of haunting, satirical and charming stories has been selected with great care in this book. I loved the twist in The Departure, the simplicity in Aunt Matilda turns ninety and the poignant story The Accompanist.  Again, an enthralling anthology of fiction.

The endnotes and the story behind the magazine Quest were illuminating and I felt privileged to read so much more about Nissim Ezekiel, Dilip Chitre and the other scintillating men behind Quest. Kudos to the editors for the incredible collection of the essays, stories and poems in this terrific book.

My verdict is a thumping 4.5 on 5 for this book.

About the Editors -

Laeeq Futehally is a writer and garden designer. She worked as the Literary Editor of Quest for over twenty years.
Achal Prabhala is a writer and researcher in Bangalore
Arshia Sattar works with classical Indian literatures and teachers at various institutions across the country

This review is a part of the Book Reviews Program at BlogAdda.com. Participate now to get free books!


  1. Fabulous review of a fabulous book, Richa. Don't you think we were lucky to get picked to review this book? :-)

  2. @sudhagee - absolutely! One helluva read after a long time!

  3. Another great review of the book. Now I must get it fast. Ezekiel's poetry is really out of this world.

  4. Thanks for the review. I must look this up. Cheers!

  5. @Zephyr - you must! Did you or your family read this magazine back then anytime?

    @Manreet - you certainly must!

  6. Nice!

    Love those lines <3