The subject of India dominated many bookish conversations in 2018. So we spoke to five writers who engage with the historical and socio-political landscape of India in their books, asking them about their most memorable reading from the year gone by, including the well-written and the ground-breaking, the educational and the absorbing.
The authors, who include a journalist, historians, and a fiction writer, responded with recommendations for recent explorations of caste, ecology, and garbage in India, historical accounts about Indian soldiers in World War I, the stories of indigenous people around the country, fiction they personally found compelling, and more. Together, the five writers offer a reading list invested in the recent history and contemporary state of India’s various geographies.
This year, 2018, was when I finally read Anuk Arudpragasam’s award-winning The Story of a Brief Marriage, profound and elegant in its rendering of loss and war. I revisited Hindi writer, Yashpal’s Partition masterpiece, This is Not That Dawn originally titled Jootha Sach, which really should be considered required reading all over the world for its sensitive and candid portrayal of the gendered and turbulent birth of Independent India and Pakistan.
Chinmay Tumbe’s India Moving: A History of Migration is a fascinating and vivid account of how, when and why Indians have migrated the way they have. Andrew Otis’s Hicky’s Bengal Gazette chronicles the story of the first newspaper ever printed in South Asia by the Irishman, James Augustus Hicky in 1780, through rare and passionate research. The Hungry Empire: How Britain’s Quest for Food Shaped the Modern World by Lizzie Collingham is an incredibly original work revealing the contentious culinary history of the Empire. Imagining Lahore by Haroon Khalid was a delightful account on the history of the legendary city.
Having slowly shifted focus from the Partition to the World Wars in my own personal research, I am currently in the midst of reading The Indian Empire At War: The Untold Story of the Indian Army in the First World War by George Morton Jack and India, Empire, and First World War Culture: Writings, Images and Songs by Santanu Das.
Next on my list are The Beekeeper of Sinjar by Dunya Mikhail, the story of a beekeeper, Abdullah Shrem, who smuggled women of the local Yazidi community, whose lives had been terrorised by ISIS, to safety; and Anuradha Roy’s All The Lives We Never Lived.
Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar
Interrogating My Chandal Life: An Autobiography of a Dalit by Manoranjan Byapari, translated from Bengali by Sipra Mukherjee, is a fearless and forthright account of not only a person’s life, but also of a place and the politics of that place. Reading this book was an enriching experience.
Samboli! Beware! by Lakshman, translated from Kannada by Susheela Punitha, is another moving account of caste and caste politics. Though much of the narration in this book might seem rambling, one cannot miss the memories associated with that narration. The author’s memories of how caste shaped his childhood and his job as a government employee need to be read and understood.
A Girl Swallowed by a Tree: Lotha Naga Tales Retold by Nzanmongi Jasmine Patton is more than a retelling of folk stories. It is an insight into a people and a place that has, perhaps, not been written about a great deal. Though this book was published in early-2017, I got to finally read it only in mid-2018 – and I am happy I did!
Nightmarch: A Journey into India’s Naxal Heartlands by Alpa Shah is another insightful book I read in 2018. This book focuses primarily on the lives of Naxalites and Adivasis in Jharkhand and Shah’s knowledge of this place and her people shows in her writing. This book exposes the contradictions within the Naxalite movement and tries to decide if the Naxalite movement is good or bad for the Adivasis.
Year of the Weeds by Siddhartha Sarma was, I felt, a YA novel with a difference as it did not hesitate in laying bare the damages that the nexus between corporate houses, government, and politicians does to indigenous people and natural resources. This is one book which, I repeat, needs to be read by anyone who can read. I interviewed Sarma about Year of the Weeds which was published here.
Romantic Encounters of a Sex Worker by Nalini Jameela, translated from Malayalam by Reshma Bharadwaj, is an engrossing and entertaining read. It is taboo-breaking and humanising, certainly, but what I admired most about this book was how strongly it asserted that it was neither wrong nor shameful for one person to love more than one person at the same time.
Manu S Pillai
I began the year reading Leila Slimani’s Lullaby with its simmering, intense discussion of race and class through a polite, murderous nanny. And now at the end of 2018 I’ve just finished Amrita Mahale’s superb Milk Teeth, a brilliant debut that I couldn’t put down – I read it in bed, on a plane, between meetings, and even under my mobile phone torch light in a dark taxi. The writing is excellent but what is a real relief is that the author avoids that self-conscious “voice of the generation” nonsense in her tone: the book is a delight because it focuses on the story and tells it marvellously well.
I also enjoyed Srividya Natarajan’s The Undoing Dance on the collapse of the devadasi tradition and the rise of the Bharatanatyam “industry”, though the book’s cover seemed to have nothing to do with the very good story inside.
Non-fiction, largely for reasons of work, has otherwise dominated my reading list. I was gripped but also disturbed by Victor Mallet’s book on the Ganga, River of Life, River of Death: The Ganges and India’s Future, and about the layer after layer of crises we are inviting upon ourselves. Robin Jeffrey and Assa Doran’s Waste of A Nation: Garbage And Growth In India, which studies India – caste, politics, society, and much more – through our handling of garbage is another book full of insight and fascinating research. Finally, this year has been great for readers of history like me – more and more women are retelling tales from our past, including Parvati Sharma, Ira Mukhoty, Rana Safvi, and others.
And if I think one book will make a splash early in the new year, it is Tony Joseph’s Early Indians: The Story of Our Ancestors And Where We Came From, which tells the story of our ancestors, featuring archaeology as much as it does genetics, the Harappans as well as the “Aryans”.
Sujatha Gidla’s Ants Among Elephants was phenomenal and helped me understand the history of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, the tyranny of the Nizam reign and the most cruel land system vividly described – besides, of course, the story of being Dalit and the story of the author’s uncle who was a leader of the extreme left underground.
Gene Machine: The Race to Decipher the Secrets of the Ribosome by Venki Ramakrishnan (who won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2009) is a fascinating account of trying to crack the code of the Ribosome. A lay reader never really understands the science, but it’s a fascinating account of what goes into big research and discovery – the multiple scientists trying to crack the same mysteries, the politics of competing research labs, the politics of winning a Nobel (that Ramakrishnan shared with some while others were left out). Very readable.
In fiction, I read murder mysteries, from dark to frothy. One that I particularly remember is a frothy one set in Oxford by a little-known author, Victoria “Plum” Sykes, titled Party Girls Die in Pearls with nice descriptions of the rich students and their ambitions, and a very likeable student from humble origins.
In The Monarchy of Fear, philosopher Martha C Nussbaum looks at the political crisis confronting the world.
The history we read is usually very Mughal and North India centric. Rebel Sultans by Manu S Pillai takes a detailed and slightly irreverent look at the Sultans who ruled the Deccan and we come out richer for that from the book.
We normally hear the word “harem” with reference to Mughal women. Daughters of the Sun by Ira Mukhoty is a detailed look at flesh-and-blood women who rode on campaigns with their men, wrote memoirs, advised emperors and were powerful women in their own right. It lifts the veil covering the Mughal harem.
As a movie buff, I’ve grown up watching Hindi films. Yeh Un Dinon Ki Baat Hai, selected and translated by Yasser Abbasi, is an anthology of stories written in the days when movie stars had a lot of mystique attached to them and weren’t seen too much. It took me back in time.
With the Taj Mahal in the news so much and for all the wrong readings, it was wonderful to read a book which sets records straight. Taj Mahal: Multiple Narratives by Amita Baig and Rahul Mehrotra describes the story of a religious monument being transformed into a monument of love!
Note by Note: The India Story (1947-2017) by Ankur Bhardwaj, Seema Chishti and Sushant Singh links all the important events of our country to Hindi film songs. This lovely book is a musical narration of our history from independence.