Best Books of 2015

Three novels and an investigation to remember the year for

Reputed authors returned and didn’t disappoint; nor did a study of a murder and a trial.

It’s hard to shortlist the best books of any given year, but in the interests of a curated, well-rounded list of wonderful Indian books published in English, here’s a closer look at what I enjoyed reading this past year. It’s a very subjective list, as any readers’ list is bound to be.

Indian publishing being what is, and our jobs being what they are in the media, I have also had the great good fortune of meeting all the writers on this list. Their work more than speaks for itself, and I am delighted to recount that the reading relationships also survived the real-life encounters intact. (It isn’t always the case, but that’s another story!)

She Will Build Him a City, Raj Kamal Jha
One of my favourite books this year. Many things about this book took my breath away, but what has really stayed with me is the story of a fundamental, powerful love – the mother towards her taciturn daughter, who has suffered beyond anything she can imagine. The giants that the daughter imagines being as a child – those giants aren’t just a comfort to the mother, but balm to the reader’s soul. I still find them comforting!

All of this is against the backdrop of a violent plot, which shines a mirror on a darker, more twisted urban reality than one we usually want to contemplate, morning news aside. The Metro plays a pivotal role in a story which tracks the changing face of a city that seems to be crumbling around us, its fabric rent by all kinds of brutalities. I may never take a Metro ride in quite the same way again… I plan to closely observe the brooding, quieter passengers, so consider this fair warning! The power of the story apart, there is so much beating heart in this one.

Flood of Fire, Amitav Ghosh
Like so many thousands of others, I’ve been reading Amitav Ghosh for years. My first Ghosh was not The Hungry Tide or The Shadow Lines, but In An Antique Land – a book I chose as a prize, as an admittedly nerdy undergraduate. I remember picking the book out at a Kamla Nagar bookstore, expecting an edifying read, and being duly gratified when I finished it.

About five years on, I delved into the carefully constructed world of the Ibis, her crew and an epic voyage with The Sea of Poppies. The Ibis Trilogy comes to a fitting and quite glorious end in Flood of Fire, which was released this year. It’s an epic in and of itself, though the trilogy is best enjoyed in chronological order.

Offering us a glimpse into a fractious history in the lead up to the Opium Wars through a multi-cultural voyage, Ghosh is equally evocative with the relationships and human stories that power the entire series. Readers have to put in a little effort, as he doesn’t pander or simplify the language, which becomes its own glorious sort of argot. All in all, an immersive – and educational – experience.

Wingless, Paro Anand
I bought Wingless, which is quite obviously a children’s book, after hearing Paro Anand’s phenomenal and dramatic enactment a few months ago at a writers’ festival in Landour, where she had kids sitting on a stage in absolute splits, not to mention the adults in the audience. A “fairly weird fairy tale” about a fairy princess born without wings, considered an abomination, almost certain to be murdered by hordes of angry fairies, it’s as strong an indictment of our fear of the Other as anything could be.

A delightful tale for all that, because this is a fairy tale, albeit one that is probably best read out aloud, for the names and words that will have you in giggles along the way. I was quite eager to see how it all plays out, and I think you will find the ending quite sublime, as well. Highly recommended for any of you with kids, or those who regularly sneak a dose of children’s fiction into their reading regimen as well.

Aarushi, Avirook Sen
Yes, it’s not fiction. This is a powerful and important, but ultimately distressing, book, because of its subject matter. I was initially hesitant to read it, given the wall-to-wall coverage of the Aarushi-Hemraj double murder investigation and ensuing courtroom drama, but I’m certainly glad that I did.

The book is important from the standpoint of narrative journalism, but also as a case history, revealing as it does glaring inconsistencies, and lapses in the investigation, as well as in the judgement. Sen was the first to find out and then reveal – through an off-the-cuff remark made by the son of the judge in question that he helped draft the judgement (an odd enough state of affairs) – that the court judgement was drafted even before the defence had begun its arguments. In how many ways can one spell travesty of justice?

Apart from what transpired in court, there is also fresh in the collective memory the media trial of Aarushi’s parents, the Talwars. Their character assassination and the dubious treatment of the Talwars prior to and after their arrests, “in the court of public opinion” as it were, is also given due attention. The fact that these are real lives – a truth that sometimes gets lost in the sensationalism and trials by media we are all too familiar with — is hammered home periodically and to great effect.

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