The Crossword Book Awards, founded in 1998 have been recognising Indian writing for nearly two decades. Restricted only to fiction when it first began, the literary award added a non-fiction category in 2006. True to the role of literature, this year’s shortlist reflects some of the issues that plague us most today – climate change, national identity, corruption, sovereignty and colonialism and the rise of the right-wing. It’s curiously an all male list (a mist?) and even this year’s fiction shortlist only featured one woman writer, leaving one to wonder about how widely books were entered by publishers and read by jury members. But let’s jump into the nominees.
The Great Derangement, Amitav Ghosh
One of India’s most celebrated writers, Amitav Ghosh is of course best-known for the stunning Ibis trilogy – first in the series, Sea of Poppies, won the Crossword Book Award in 2008 – and for his novels The Hungry Tide, for which he won in 2004, and The Shadow Lines. With his most recent book, Ghosh returned to non-fiction with an urgent question about our blindness to climate change. The Great Derangement is not a scientist’s account of how climate change affects us. While it lays the groundwork for an engaged understanding of global warming and the climate crisis, Ghosh is more concerned with the glaring omission of this engagement in the literature and politics of our times.
It’s a question that, once raised, hangs in the air, casting a long shadow. After all, here is a phenomenon that threatens our very existence. Will future generations not think us deranged for our imaginative failure in telling the story of climate change, for not grasping and communicating the sheer magnitude of the problem? Ghosh explores this failure in politics, history and journalism but he returns always with greatest fervour to the power and unfortunate failing in this regard of something he knows best – fiction. It is a form that Ghosh argues is best suited to representing the scale of change that climate change involves, yet writers have remained passive and not risen to the occasion. Passionate in its appeal and measured in its reasoning, The Great Derangement is a clarion call to everyone with the ability to speak up.
Borderlands: Travels across India’s Borders, Pradeep Damodaran
Journalist turned author Pradeep Damodaran’s book on India’s borders raises questions of nationhood, citizenship while challenging traditional narratives of the stereotypical “border towns”. Borderlands is an account of Damodaran’s journey to ten places where India shares a border with other countries, places whose residents might have more in common with the cultures of the countries across the border than India itself. From a Lakshwadeep island that is just 70 nautical miles from Maldives to Dhanushkodi in Tamil Nadu, just a few miles from Sri Lanka. these are locations that are excluded from the popular imagination of “India”.
While the book opens up fascinating details about these far-flung places and muses on the nature of identity, its publication was tainted by charges of plagiarism. In March 2017, just days before it hit stores, Chennai-based writer, lawyer, photographer Suchitra Vijayan moved the court, accusing the author and publisher, Hachette India, of copying a book that she was working on in “storyline, plot and narrative” as well as the title and cover design. The case was eventually settled out of court, with the charges being dropped, and for Damodaran, earning a spot on the shortlist might just be validation of his travelogue-meets-sociological-study.
Age of Anger, Pankaj Mishra
A particularly timely book, Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger seeks to identify the roots of anger and discontent that seems to have swept the world, leading to the the rise of Hindutva in India, right-wing nationalism in Europe and of course, the election and proliferation of bigotry under Donald Trump as the president of the United States. Mishra is of course, no stranger to intellectual enquiry, famously dubbed “the heir to Edward Said” by The Economist. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Guardian and The New Yorker and he is the author of several books including From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia for which he won the Crossword Award in 2013.
In Age of Anger, Mishra argues that the state of world today can be better understood by analysing the Enlightenment period in 18th and 19th century and the political, social and economic changes that it caused. Western modernity, he says, failed to fulfil its promises and the result is here for all to see. It is not a particularly easy read and alongside Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire, Mishra summons other writers and thinkers from the 18th and 19th century that can have lay readers scrambling for Wikipedia but it provides answers to a world that seems to be engulfed in flames of fury. The Age of Anger won the Tata Lit Live Best Book of the Year Award earlier this year and was listed as one of its 100 most notable books of 2017 by The New York Times. A Crossword award might be next.
A Feast of Vultures, Josy Joseph
Undoubtedly one of the most explosive books to be published last year, investigative journalist Josy Joseph’s revelatory account of the collusion between politicians, bureaucrats and corporate India is no-holds-barred and eye-opening. A Feast of Vultures draws on Joseph’s experience of over 20 years as a journalist across eight media organisations and paints a terrifying picture of high-level corruption and shadowy middlemen, unafraid to touch anything from arms dealers to the underworld.
As Joseph himself anticipated, legal action against the book was swift in coming and in December 2016, Jet Airways and its founder-chairman Naresh Goyal filed a civil defamation suit against the journalist seeking thousands of crores of rupees in damages due to a section of the book that alleges links between Goyal and underworld don Dawood Ibrahim. Joseph stood by his book, stating “Every word in the book is backed by documents.” One of the most disturbing yet necessary accounts of the failings of modern India, A Feast of Vultures makes for the most essential reading from this year’s non-fiction shortlist.
An Era of Darkness, Shashi Tharoor
It all began with a speech. In 2015, Congress MP Shashi Tharoor made an impassioned case for the apology owed to India by the British in a debate on colonialism and reparations. The 15-minute speech went viral among Indians and achieved the unthinkable – support across the political spectrum. It was when he realised that what he thought of as self-evident wasn’t actually so, prompting the writing of his newest book
An Era of Darkness systematically dismantles arguments that paint the British empire as benign and establishes instead just how disastrous the British rule was for India. The insidiousness of the East India Company, the crafting of laws that still hang over our heads and the myth of the British role in Indian political unity, all are examined critically and unsparingly in Tharoor’s comprehensive narrative. These arguments may have been made before but Tharoor avoids the stodgy style assumed by most historical accounts, and assembles them together in one place, presenting them in compelling prose for a generation of Indians who are only vaguely aware of the magnitude of harm done by colonial rule.