2018 Highlights: The Caravan on Culture

A selection from The Caravan's coverage on culture in 2018

27 December, 2018

The Caravan presents a selection of some of our top stories on culture from 2018. Subscribe here to support another year of bold, committed journalism.

1. The Great Outdoors: The picnicking subculture in eastern India

A photo-essay by Arko Datto, with text by Tanvi Mishra, in February.

The presence of improbable man-made objects in an unassuming, suburban landscape occurs repeatedly in Pik-Nik, Arko Datto’s series of images, which examines picnicking as a cultural practice in regions across eastern India, including Odisha, Jharkhand and West Bengal.

2. Globalisation’s Fabulist: Joseph Conrad and the world

Sunil Khilnani in March.

Sunil Khilnani decodes The Dawn Watch, a vivid biography of the writer Joseph Conrad, by Maya Jasanoff. The story attempts to examine the many contradictions of Conrad’s life through Jasanoff’s book: how did a central European of vaguely aristocratic descent, born in a landlocked Ukrainian town, grow up to sail the world, become a fabulist of empire and come to be revered as one of the great writers in his third language, English?

3. Where The Wild Things Are Not: The curious absence of contemporary nature writing in India

Shashank Kela in April.

Ronny Sen

Much of what we recognise as nature writing dates from a period when the destruction of the natural world seemed unprecedented in its scale and thoroughness. As the natural world seems more endangered than ever before, one would expect to find a growing number of books about nature and a more varied corpus of nature writing. But even a cursory survey of the literature is enough to falsify this assumption, Shashank Kela argues.

4. Chasing the Machine: India’s first computers and the Cold War

Nikhil Menon in April.


Unlike most countries that used computers in the mid twentieth century, in India their earliest use was for development, rather than in the military. The computer’s potential for planning was how Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis—the founder of the Indian Statistical Institute and the driving force behind India’s Second Five Year Plan—and the Indian government justified their pursuit and enormous expenses.

5. Setting the Table: KT Achaya’s pioneering scholarship on Indian food

Mayukh Sen in June.


Though KT Achaya has been dead for more than fifteen years, his pioneering scholarship broadened the landscape of writing on Indian food and continues to challenge long-held assumptions about what Indians eat. Behind each element of the Indian diet, Achaya seemed to find a story. Some of these tales are as complex as the idli’s, others more mundane.

6. Silencing Sita: Why the Ramayana’s many voices provoke outrage

Audrey Truschke in June.

Sita’s censure of Rama in Valmiki’s Ramayana finds no place in the Doordarshan version of the tale or in many other popular adaptations. Audrey Truschke argues that the logic of modern misogyny demands female voices in the grand Ramayana tradition remain subordinate to male feelings, and that in order to understand Valmiki’s text it is important to recover Sita’s voice.

7. Negative capability: Munshi Premchand’s hidden gifts

Vineet Gill in July.


In April 1936, at the inaugural meet of the All India Progressive Writers’ Association in Lucknow, Munshi Premchand delivered a famous address entitled “Sahitya Ka Uddeshya”—“The Purpose of Literature.” Drawing upon figures such as Maxim Gorky, he urged Indian writers to wake up from their romantic slumber, stop thinking of themselves as mere entertainers and assume a more socially responsible position. However, in Premchand’s literary philosophy, there was room for negative capability—the faculty, as conceived by the poet John Keats, that allows writers to accept life’s mysteries and contradictions “without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” He was more open-minded than Gorky in this regard, and more susceptible to forming unlikely intellectual alliances.

8. The Centre Cannot Hold: How GN Devy challenges our concept of knowledge

Martand Kaushik in July.

Sateesh Bhandare/G N Devvy

What ought to be ascribed the status of knowledge, and thus deemed worth studying, is a deeply political question for any society. While many writers and authors, have grappled with this issue, Martand Kaushik suggests that there are few who have delved as deeply into it as the scholar Ganesh Narayan Devy. Over his four-decade-long career, Devy has examined the links between knowledge and power. In his latest work, he explores how the worldviews of the disempowered in India have been historically destroyed through a sidelining of their languages.

9. Man of Letters: The unlikely correspondence between Srinivas Rayaprol and William Carlos Williams

Arvind Krishna Mehrotra in August.

Srinivas Rayaprol Literary Trust

Srinivas Rayaprol first started writing to Williams, a poet-pediatrician from Rutherford, New Jersey, as a 21-year-old engineering student, conflicted about pursuing poetry as a profession. In his prompt reply, Williams said, “Write again if you want to.” Their subsequent correspondence, which influenced Rayaprol’s work, carried on for at least eight years.

10. Fahrenheit 2018: A Kashmiri poet who lost a lifetime of writing

Huizhong Wu in September.


Madhosh Balhami, a 52-year-old saffron farmer and poet, had been writing poetry for more than thirty years. On 15 March this year, after militants pleaded with him to let them take shelter in his house, Balhami left the premises along with his family. Hours later, the Indian security forces set his house on fire. Balhami lost almost everything—his clothes, his family’s cooking vessels and a lifetime’s worth of poetry. Huizhong Wu explores how living in the conflict-ridden state shaped Balhami’s life and writing.

11. The Sorrow of War: The long silence of Bao Ninh

Rohit Inani in September.

Rohit Inani

The Sorrow of War, Bao Ninh’s daring and wildly popular 1990 novel, was based on his experiences in the Vietnam War. When Rohit Inani met Ninh at a cafe in downtown Hanoi, Ninh said, “I’m a writer. I can write but I’m not very good at talking about myself.” In this piece, Inani interviews several of Ninh’s friends, writers and veterans, most of whom spoke of his two defining traits, traits that have remained unchanged for years: his silence, his sadness.

12. The Chap inside: RK Narayan’s second opinions

Nakul Krishna in October.

T Satyan/Dinodia Photo

Nakul Krishna reflects on Narayan’s writing, particularly his last productive decade, and explains that Narayan wore the charge of unsophistication with pride: he was not, and did little to cultivate the image of, a serious literary intellectual. His self-assessment, Krishna argues, is accurate: his writing did develop in old age, and not always in predictable ways. In his somewhat paradoxical formulation, it was deep without being profound.

13. Art of Darkness: An exhibition in a Paris hospital casts new light on a forgotten Indian painter

Blake Smith in October.


For half a century, nearly a hundred water colour paintings by an artist known only as the “Anonymous Indian” sat in the basement of a French psychiatric hospital, forgotten among old files and debris. Featuring scenes of nature and daily life as well as allusions to contemporary politics, the works were sent in 1950 to the Saint-Anne hospital in Paris by Ramanlal Patel, a psychoanalyst based in Bombay. Blake Smith explores how Patel encouraged his patients’ creativity, as he had done with the Anonymous Indian.

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