In the year 2000, Ahmed Rashid wrote a book titled Taliban. A radical Islamist group that came to power in Afghanistan in early 1990s, the Taliban ran an already battered country to the ground. However, the story of a homicidal government didn’t matter much to a western world, for whom Afghanistan was nothing more than a former Soviet bastion. Then, 9/11 happened. The fall of the twin towers made Al Qaeda America’s most infamous enemy. The Al Qaeda trail led to the Taliban and everyone scurried around to ferret information about these outfits that had shaken the world. Rashid’s book provided the answers.
Typically, a book follows an event, adding a forensic postscript to the drama and spectacle of life and death. Ahmed Rashid’s book, written earlier, set up an unusual arc.
Why am I bringing up a story of Taliban and 9/11 in the middle of a pandemic?
Every cataclysmic event or disaster provokes readers to look up books that may have prophesied its occurrence. However, rare occurrences or unpredictable happenings such as 9/11 are unlikely to have been imagined by many people, which leaves readers searching for books that help them understand better the protagonists or causes of such events.
Early days of the pandemic: An Indian doctor in China
How much do upheavals or major events dictate people’s reading choices? In the early stages of the pandemic, while news trickled in about deaths in China, the virus was yet to make its presence felt in India. It was largely unknown and aroused curiosity and compassion in equal measure. Books on past epidemics such as the Spanish flu and the Bengal plague made it to people’s reading lists. Around this time, a lesser known story started to get noticed: that of an epidemic in China in the 1930s and the role of an Indian doctor-messiah.
In 1938, during the 2nd Sino-Japanese war, the Chinese General Zhu Dewrote to Jawaharlal Nehru, requesting for doctors who could save the lives of their soldiers. When a young doctor from Sholapur heard of this opportunity, he volunteered. And so, Dwarkanath Kotnis and a team of Indian doctors travelled to China in 1938 as part of a medical mission.
Around that time, a plague was threatening to devastate China. The absence of proper medical infrastructure made matters worse, resulting in large-scale deaths and misery. After his teammates returned to India, the intrepid Kotnis remained in China where he treated thousands of patients in Yan’an and north China. His commendable but punishing schedule endangered his health. When he died in 1942, felled by severe illness, he was all of 32. His work made him a cult hero in China.
Unfortunately, as relations between the two neighbours plummeted, culminating in the 1962 war, Kotnis’s story was forgotten. In subsequent years, Chinese leaders continued to meet his relatives in India and used Kotnis’s contribution to build a diplomatic outreach towards India. Kotnis remains a hero in China to this day: postage stamps in China bear his picture and he featured in a list of the century’s “top 10” foreign friends of China.
Not much is remembered about the doctor in India, except for a film made in 1946 titled Dr Kotnis Ki Amar Kahaani, written by Khwaja Ahmad Abbas. The reports on viral deaths in China early this year revived the Kotnis saga and illustrated the human spirit between the two civilisations. However, as the year progressed, human interest stories such as this one involving India and China would be forgotten in the midst of volatile geopolitical events and a belligerent China.
A mysterious guest sits on our bookshelves
In the absence of verifiable information, the mysterious virus sparked dissimilar emotions, predictions and reactions. Whatsapp groups, Twitter users, newspapers, news portals, television news channels – all of them scrambled to decode this novel strain. Amongst readers, spooky coincidences popped up: a book titled The Eyes of Darkness, written by Dean Koontz in 1981, mentioned a virus named Wuhan-400. In the novel, the virus was created in a laboratory outside Wuhan and used as a biological weapon that only afflicted human beings.
There was a revival of interest in Albert Camus’s classic The Plague, whose sales rocketed. The book describes a plague and misery in a North African town. Katherine Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider – a romance between a soldier and young woman set in the time of the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918 and World War I gained new popularity too.
In the future, when the virus is tamed and sanity returns, one might be tempted to classify books launched in 2020 by their pre- or post-covid avatars. My debut book on an event in India-China history, Watershed 1967, was neither of those: it actually arrived alongside Covid in India and took an unusual trajectory over the course of the year.
Unlike in the US, UK and a few other democracies where secret state files relating to past events are declassified after a certain period of time, India’s policy has always been opaque. This has impacted the recording of key historical events in books. During the research for my book, owing to the lack of declassified information, I had to put together shards of inputs accumulated from my meetings with primary sources who were now in their late eighties or nineties, or by trawling through CIA archives, other books and secondary sources.
One of my most memorable times during the research was listening to octogenarian veterans from the 1960s, who surprised me with their robust memories as they narrated specific details of battles they had participated in. The research for the book connected several disparate dots of information and revealed to me key narratives that influenced the political history of that period in South Asia. When the book was launched in February, my publishers and I were thus very hopeful that the fifty-year-old untold story would be of interest to many readers.
A few days after my book event at a prominent Kolkata bookstore, the world walked into an unanticipated “viral headwind” and braked to a halt. A book about India’s forgotten victories against an adversary fifty years ago was now unlikely to be preferred over tales about a new, shadowy virus that was staring us in the face.The priorities of the reader had changed.
The virus was expected to wilt in a few months, fazed by a combination of our immunity and an unrelenting Indian summer. Nothing of that sort happened. Bookstores were shuttered. Warehouses stopped supplying. I remember my book wasn’t available for online purchase for a couple of months. Publishers discovered newer forms of outreach. My publisher made the book available for reading online and organised reader interactions on social media.
Soldiers arrive at the border: India-China becomes the theme
By mid-year, as the novel appeal of books on plagues and pandemics began to wither, a different but equally dangerous issue began to emerge. As China and India mobilised their militaries, reading attention began to shift from the corona pandemic to the critical border issue. As the two nations edged towards the possibility of war, readers scrambled to find a book that told us about their past history of tussle.
Several books recounted the 1962 conflict between India and China, which India lost. Shiv Kunal Verma’s A War That Wasn’t and John Dalvi’s A Himalayan Blunder became staple reading. Bertil Lintner’s expansive works on China lined bookshelves again, while Neville Maxwell’s historic book favouring China made its customary appearance.
However, a key question remained: Did India ever win a battle against China?
Watershed 1967: India’s Forgotten Victory over China is a book about a certain period of history that has largely been overlooked. 1967 was a year of political and military turbulence similar to the one now. Tensions between India and China in Ladakh this year led to commentators and experts drawing comparisons with the tussles at the Sikkim-Tibet border in 1967, which culminated in a conflict between the two large countries.
The conflict of 1967 had resulted in a surprise victory for India, paving the way for a change in the India-China narrative. Ironically, a book about an event that heralded an era of argumentative peace between India and China would be read at a time when that peace was undone. In June this year, China violated the peace protocol and attacked Indian soldiers, resulting in the biggest clash since 1967. The forgotten story of 1967 was finally revived in 2020, quickly becoming a subject of frenetic public debate.
The US has played a key role in India-China rivalry over the decades, even though it has switched sides a few times. Recently, under President Trump, as the US government turned vocal in its stance on the India-China issue, Tanvi Madan’s book, The Fateful Triangle, about China’s link in US-India relations became more relevant.
China’s actions in the South China sea conjured curiosity about the aspirations of Xi and the country. Michael Pillsbury’s The Hundred-year Marathon, about China’s goal of ruling the world by 2049, began to sound plausible, while hair raising truths were dug out in a lesser known book titled Unrestricted Warfare, written in 1999 by two Chinese military scholars about China’s long-standing plans to grab global power using every means possible.
Why books are essential for recording our narratives
A wryly dramatic year couldn’t have not involved America. As Covid and riots split American society down the middle, Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel A Handmaid’s Tale – with its narration about unfortunate slave women who bore the children of the elite – made a mark all over again amongst activists and general readers. John Brunner’s book Stand on Zanzibar, written in 1969 and set in 2010, prophesied a rise in global terrorism.
And now, the forthcoming US elections have spawned a series of tell-all books on the irrepressible Donald Trump. With the US presidential elections around the corner, it’ll be interesting to see which of the current books occupy our future.
I wish more of our politicians wrote, because such books can capture the themes of our times. Jairam Ramesh’s exceptional book, The Chequered Brilliance, on VK Krishna Menon, India’s defence minister during the debacle of 1962, is one such example. Similarly, foreign minister S Jaishankar’s recent release, The India Way , opens a window to India’s approach to the frozen border imbroglio.
I hope books become part of essential items during future emergencies because they fulfil certain desirable goals. One, barring exceptions, they present a more reliable narrative on human conditions and experiences than frothy social media. Two, to quote author Jim Trelease, “A nation that does not know (read) much is more likely to make poor choices in the home, the marketplace, the jury box, and the voting booth”.
Books are a window to our pasts and present
Nicholas Nissim Taleb’s Black Swan described the deep impact of rare and unpredictable events on our lives. In his book, Taleb believes that human beings are likely to try and rationalise such happenings almost immediately after they happen, though they could alternatively think of accepting them as chance events over which they had little control.
Taleb’s book spawned the term “black swan” – an unforeseen event – which resonates with the pandemic of 2020. In 1665, a bubonic plague wrecked Britain, wiping out a quarter of the population of London in a span of 18 months. Over 50 years later, Daniel Defoe used this information to write the classic A Journal of the Plague Year.
Readers in 2020 have seen parallels with Defoe’s disturbing book about quarantines, infections and deaths written in 1722. It is a stark truth that despite all outwardly inventions, two centuries later, human beings continue to be defenceless against primary threats to their health. If there is a singular reason why publishing must flourish in uncertain times, it is because books are the only means to discover our history, and, with luck, not be Fooled by Randomness anymore, to borrow from the title of one of Taleb’s books.
This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.