On December 19, a middle-aged man got off a DTC bus near Lal Quila, Delhi. His Tibetan-monkish shoulder bag did not have even a water-bottle, but he had not forgotten to carry along a copy of a verse translation in Gujarati of the Bhagavad Gita by Kishorelal Mashruvala, a close associate of Gandhi’s.
It was just a gesture, he admits. Waiting at barricades, trying the phone for information, tagging along with one or the other group, there was no time to read the Gita. Soon, he took shelter in the library of the National Gandhi Museum and forgot the rest, lost in tracing some archival material.
Still, the point remains: if you were the never-leave-home-without-a-book type and going to the protests, which would be one volume you’d put in your backpack? When you are back at home or the hostel, what would you read? And, to be prepared for the worst, if detained, how will you kill time in there without a book?
And then, think of the policeperson who now has time on their hands on the other side of the barricade. They too can keep a small book in one of the large pockets of their uniform. Here, then, is a short list of books that everyone can read in these times.
All Men Are Brothers, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi
The father has a few words of advice to the members of the family busy fighting. This book was the result of a UNESCO initiative, aided by S Radhakrishnan and Krishna Kripalani, and was meant for global readership. If nonviolence be your keyword, also read Gandhi’s The Power of Nonviolent Resistance: Selected Writings, edited and introduced by Tridip Suhrud).
My Seditious Heart: Collected Non-fiction, Arundhati Roy
This edition puts together all the non-fiction writings of the patron saint of pluralism. Not that Roy’s pieces stop here – the Jonathan Schell Memorial Lecture 2019, referring to a new trigger, came after the book. The volume is so hefty, it can be construed as protest material in ways you may not have imagined. But look at it this way: if picked up, you can argue your innocence by showing a flagged page to the policeman and claim, “I was provoked.”
Makers of Modern India, Ramachandra Guha
The nineteen “makers of modern India” here range from Rammohan Roy to Jayaprakash Narayan. But you may wish to proceed to the chapter on Mohammed Ali Jinnah (“Steps towards a Muslim nation”), followed or preceded by the one on MS Golwalkar (“The Hindu Nation and its Enemies”). These pieces explore an entire range seemingly abstract nouns: caste, religion, colonialism, the economy language, gender, nationalism, democracy, and secularism. The “makers” in the title blatantly provokes you to imagine a sequel in our times with its antonym.
Hindu Nationalism: A Reader, edited by Christophe Jaffrelot
It’s always a good idea to know the other side: after all, the protesters might be going by a bad caricature of the Hindu Right. Reading its founding texts can make you realise it’s worse than you imagined. For some, it is thought provoking. For others, it can be just plain provoking. A related title is Awakening Bharat Mata: The Political Beliefs of the Indian Right, edited by Swapan Dasgupta, with a broader and more varied conception of the Right. In case, however, Hinduism itself is what you are interested in, you may turn to Kshiti Mohan Sen’s Hinduism, starting with the foreword by his grandson, Amartya Sen.
The Truth About Us: The Politics of Information from Manu to Modi, Sanjoy Chakravorty
In this lucid exposition of the identity question which is at the heart of it all, the author distills the best of academic research from recent decades for the benefit of non-academics. While at it, a quick reading of The Idea of India by Sunil Khilnani is not a bad idea at all. It narrows down the narrative to the Nehruvian idea, which, happily, was not narrow at all.
Malevolent Republic: A Short History of the New India, KS Komireddi
Arriving with endorsements by Amitav Ghosh and Ramachandra Guha, this book should keep widening its readership, going by the visuals of protests.
Strength to Love, Martin Luther King, Jr
If Gandhian prose is not to your taste, King’s eloquent words should convince you that non-violence is not just a passive noun indicating the absence of something, but an active force full of love for the other side.
The Responsibility of Intellectuals: Fiftieth Anniversary Edition, Noam Chomsky
Everyone can benefit from reading the foundational writing of the global icon of anti-authoritarian agitations of our times. The original article in the New York Review of Books will also serve the purpose.
The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt
Needs patience, talks a lot about the 1930s, and so on. But more than one generation of professors of humanities argues that no other work can help us make sense of our present predicament – and proposed future.
The Complete MAUS, Art Spiegelman
Time was when a few of the Indian liberals were advising the rest against the hyperbole of fascist similes. Unfortunately, reality is going hyper now. So, a Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel can enlighten us like nothing else about the cat-and-mouse games people play. One can add here a host of Holocaust works, from Primo Levi to Schindler’s List – the movie or the novel – and so on. Or one can move on to the comics of Joe Sacco, including Journalism, which also features Dalit travails in India, and Palestine.
Why Orwell Matters, Christopher Hitchens
The pantheon of patron saints of protesters is not small. Within these few hundred words, the moniker runs the risk of turning into a cliché against which George Orwell asked us to be alert. Orwell’s political writings, collected essays, fiction, everything can fuel the much-needed exercise of building the muscles of our imagination and empathy. Why do the obvious of naming any of the works, when one can name this title which reads Orwell for our times? A little bit of Hitchens can go a long way these days. Consider his Letters to a Young Contrarian next.