Read To Win

Five new books to read in January (and set the tone for the new year)

A novel, a work of reportage, a book on language, a collection of poetry, and a translation.

Apparently the days of spontaneous reading have long been left behind. Even that pure act of pleasure, immersing yourself in a book, needs to be planned. Especially since, like every year, 2018 too will see a huge number of books we can’t wait to get our hands on. To begin with, here are our picks for five in January.

Dreamers: How Young Indians Are Changing Their World, Snigdha Poonam

Snigdha Poonam has been writing as a journalist about a rapidly-changing India, particularly its small town residents, for years – a delicious combination of rigorous reporting, an eye for unusual details and good old-fashioned flair for crafting a good story. Her work has appeared in publications including The New York Times, Guardian and Granta and with her debut book coming out in January, readers can expect a large dollop of her compelling storytelling.

Dreamers: How Young Indians Are Changing Their World attempts to offer unique insights into the mind of India’s Generation Y through the stories of six young people and their ambitions, frustrations and hopes in small towns and villages across India. With more than half the country’s population below 25 years, this is a generation that is more connected and determined than ever before, regardless of whether the spaces they inhabit are prepared for the scale of change they’re envisioning. I’m expecting vivid characters, surprising details and a re-framing of what we assume to know about the Indian millennial.

Clouds, Chandrahas Choudhury

Chandrahas Choudhury’s first novel Arzee the Dwarf was about a three-and-a-half foot tall protagonist who dreams of becoming the head projectionist at one of Mumbai’s most iconic cinemas, overcoming his shortness by finally looking down at the world from the projection room. As life continues to pan out in a manner that’s not of his choosing, Arzee begins to discover the secrets and problems faced by the rest of the colourful cast of characters in the novel. In the process, we get one of the most unusual lead characters in recent Indian fiction and a dark but warm, richly-told story of life in the throbbing metropolis. The novel was shortlisted for the Commonwealth First Book Prize in 2010 and had us waiting for what comes next from Chandrahas Choudhury.

With that second novel, Clouds, finally coming out in January, all the ingredients seem to be in place for yet another fascinating tale. The city of Mumbai returns, brought to us this time through Farhad Billimoria, a 42-year-old Parsi psychotherapist who is ready to bid goodbye to Mumbai and is taking a final nostalgic trip through the city in his old Maruti 800. A second protagonist appears in the form of Rabi, part of a sky-watching tribe from Odisha, who has become a caretaker to two old Odia Brahmins who have little sympathy for the plight of the Cloud people. Intriguing characters, a city uniquely brought to life and a story mingled with politics about “earth and sky, love and friendship, language and power”. Sign me up. And if you need more convincing, there’s this oddly delightful excerpt from the book featuring our prime minister delivering a rather ominous speech.

A World Without “Whom”: The Essential Guide to Language in the BuzzFeed Age, Emily J Favilla

Has social media killed the period? Does using “whom” make you a linguistic fuddy-duddy? Should it be “damnit” instead of “dammit”? Does it even matter how you spell it? Written by the former copy chief at Buzzfeed, A World Without “Whom” sounds like the perfect book for language geeks everywhere to begin their new year.

When faced with the daunting task of creating the style guide for Buzfeed, Emily Favilla decided to embrace the evolving language of the social media-friendly digital age. Rules change, as does language, she argues, saying “It’s funny to me how everything else in our world evolves – technology, the food we eat, our fashion – but for whatever reason, language is this one thing that people are such sticklers about.” With social media clearly split between the “sticklers” and those who have dived whole-heartedly into “internet speak”, the book promises wry and irreverent takes on capitalisation, numbering, the myriads of online acronyms and reinforces the fluidity of language. Although it will probably be particularly captivating for writers, editors and digital journalists (complete with thumping agreement or aghast gasps), anybody who loves language should give it a read IMHO.

Jonahwhale, Ranjit Hoskote

Art critic, cultural theorist, curator and translator, Ranjit Hoskote wears many hats but above all, he’s a poet. Hoskote has published several collections of poems that he has either written or translated (such as those of the 14th century Kashmiri mystic, Lal Ded) and is one of the most celebrated contemporary Indian poets writing in English, following in the tradition of Bombay poets like Dom Moraes. “Mine is a hybrid practice. It is a collage of practices – writing, curating, editing, art-making, listening, and other forms of cultural production – in which poetry is a thrumming, compelling, insistent, incessant centrality.” he says.

His latest collection of poems, titled Jonahwhale, is largely aquatic in theme, drawing from the stories of Jonah, the biblical prophet who spends three days in the belly of a giant fish, and Moby Dick. The ocean, the Ganga, Marine Drive all make an appearance, shifting in the meaning they hold and the themes they convey. Poetry is often tricky territory for me to navigate, but 2018 feels like a good year to dive in and Hoskote’s newest offering might be the ideal place to test the waters.

Chinatown Days, Rita Chowdhury

A searing tale about the horrors faced by Chinese labourers who were brought to work in the tea gardens of Assam and Bengal and the tragic consequences of the India-China war of 1962, Chinatown Days is a story that needed to be told. Written by Sahitya Akademi-winning Assamese author Rita Chowdhury, the book is the much-awaited English translation of her original Assamese novel Makam, published in 2010 – a sprawling work of historical fiction spanning over 600 pages.

Tracing the origins of indentured labourers who were smuggled from China by the British in the early nineteenth century, the book follows Mei Lin, a descendant of one of those Chinese slaves brought over generations ago. Her idyllic life is torn apart in 1962 as war breaks out between India and China and Lin finds herself suddenly becoming the enemy in the country that is her home. Poignant and evocative, Chinatown Days throws light on the persecution of a community that is rarely spoken about.

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