Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Our India by Minoo Masani illustrated by C H G Moorhouse

Every now and again in this business you pick up a book of no particular value or, to be honest, interest and are led into it by something striking about the book as an object: the binding, the illustrations, the patterned endpapers... something about it physically which makes you stop and pay attention. The copy of Our India by Minoo Masani that I picked up today dates from 1945, is tatty and tired, a paperback without much of its spine left and curled, dog-eared corners. But, as the cover tells us, it has over 100 illustrations. The illustrations appear to be woodcuts (and what a labour of love that must have been) and are thickly redolent, in places, of the kind of heroic, idealised imagery used by Socialist art in the first decades of the twentieth century. They immediately strike you as perhaps a little too interesting for a book of such humble production values, they are printed with wonderfully thick black ink that you can feel under your finger. 

It begins to make sense when you know that Our India is something of a twentieth century classic in India: a prescribed textbook in Indian schools and a runaway bestseller that was reprinted in its hundreds of thousands over many years. It's author was, in the 1930s, an admirer of Soviet Communism, an admiration which didn't survive the Stalinist post-war purges, and following Stalin Masani had to rethink his socialism. Perhaps one of the reasons this book was such a success was its breezy optimism about India's future. Masani carried on in Indian politics most of his life but became disillusioned and by the time of his death in the 1990s he believed he belonged to a generation which had made a complete mess of India and failed to live up to their post-war aspirations. There is a fascinating short biographical piece about him on the liberalsindia website on which he is described as India's post prominent Liberal.

The illustrations are by C. H. G. Moorhouse, about whom I find precious little, except that this wasn't the only one of Masani's books he illustrated and, if the images on this bookseller's page are anything to go by, he had a fair talent when it came to colour as well as black and white illustration.

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