The Mahabharata will always take you back to the deepest existential questions. It continues to instigate superlative writing as well. Karthika Nair’s Until the Lions (Harper Collins) is an unshakeable masterpiece of modern poetry, and one of the great retellings of the text. Sibaji Bandhopadhyay’s Three Essays on the Mahabharata (Orient Blackswan) opens up extraordinary vistas through an amazing intellectual history of one shloka of the Gita (2.47). It shows how thought and action were reconceptualised in the modern Indian revolt against Shankara. Staying on the theme of dharma, Shabab Ahmed’s What is Islam is one of the most stunning books you will read, both for philosophical profundity and historical depth. As Syria burns, it is worth reading Adonis’s newly-translated essays, Sufism and Surrealism (SAQI Books). Amos Oz’s novel Judas takes us into an exploration of faith and identity by raising the counterintuitive question whether Judas was the only true believer.
This was also the year when globally the foundations of liberal democracy became more fragile than ever. Here are sober reflections on the deep challenges: Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels’s Democracy for Realists (Princeton University Press) amasses comprehensive evidence to show that even informed voters vote based on social identity and partisanship rather than political reason; Richard Tuck’s The Sleeping Sovereign (Oxford University Press) asks whether a condition of the emergence of democratic government was the idea that the sovereign demos will sleep most of the time; Jan Werner Mueller’s What is Populism (University of Pennsylvania Press) is a sharp guide to the global populist shadow that haunts democracies. Timothy Garton Ash’s Free Speech (Yale) is a reflection on and manifesto for the global crisis of free speech. It is also a year to read and reread Book VIII of Plato’s Republic, still the most acute moral psychology of post truth and the paradoxically tyrannical potential of democracy. It explains why free speech does not always lead to frank speech.
As regimes around the world invent new economics, Robert Gordon’s marvellous The Rise and Fall of American Growth (Princeton University Press) took us back to another foundational question on the link between innovation and productivity. I cannot judge the validity of its pessimistic conclusions, but the history is riveting, and the central argument important. Dani Rodrik’s Economic Rules (Norton) is a characteristically sober defence of economics especially against its friends. For a reminder of how law structures the economy, Tirthankar Roy and Anand Swamy’s Law and the Economy in Colonial India (Chicago University Press) explains why our laws are so convoluted in the way they are.
All unhappy nations seem to be unhappy in their own way. One of Us: The Story of a Massacre in Norway and its Aftermath by Asne Seierstad is written with the vividness of a movie, and the insights of a great novelist. It is a great political sociology of contemporary life: the roots of radicalism in Europe and the pathologies that even the most sophisticated welfare states produce. Svetlana Alexieivich’s Second Hand Time (Juggernaut) is a reminder that a loss of a utopian aspiration can produce a crisis of meaning; that a mall is not a replacement for a motherland. On the other hand, Chinese Indologist Ji Xialin’s memoir of the Cultural Revolution, The Cowshed: Memories of the Cultural Revolution (NYRB Books) is remarkable not just for depicting the neurotic character of the Revolution, but the fact that people still keep the faith; Minxin Pei’s, China’s Crony Capitalism: The Dynamics of Regime Decay (Harvard University Press) offers a detailed and pessimistic look at China’s structural problems. Cixin Liu’s Death’s End, the third and final book of his extraordinary science fiction trilogy that began with the Three-Body Problem, is a superb tribute to the powers of the imagination, sprinkled with keen human insight. It is a masterpiece. The Korean novelist Han Kang’s The Vegetarian won the Booker Prize. But her novel, Human Acts, on the Gwangju massacre is an artful reflection on torture, memory and violence.
India has so many stories waiting to be written about: Akshay Mukul’s Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India (Harper Collins) is a wonderful social and cultural history. Barkha Dutt’s This Unquiet Land (Aleph) was not reassuring reading about India’s future. Vijay Trivedi’s Hindi biography Haar Nahin Manoonga is a bit hagiographic, but has incredible material on the life of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and is particularly good on his relation with the RSS. The new edition of BR Ambedkar’s Riddles of Hinduism by Navayana is worth engaging with.
But this year, the most significant books also happen to be written by friends and colleagues. They are so compelling that one has to put aside the awkwardness of mentioning friends. So, with this full disclosure, it was a joy to read my colleague Srinath Raghavan’s India’s War (Penguin) about a breathtaking intervention in Indian history; Vinay Sitapati’s Half Lion (Penguin) started a serious scholarly debate on Narasimha Rao; Shiv Shankar Menon’s Choices (Brookings) is Indian foreign policy thinking sober, not drunk. Devesh Kapur, Nirvikar Singh and Sanjoy Chakravarty’s The Other One Per Cent (Oxford University Press) is not just the best study of Indians in America, it has profound implications for understanding India’s elites; Nandini Sundar’s The Burning Forest: India’s War in Bastar (Juggernaut) is a reminder of how awfully our states can fail. Just as the year was ending, Milan Vaishnav’s magnificent When Crime Pays: Money and Muscle in Indian Politics (Harper Collins) arrived. This book examines why we vote for criminal politicians. Prerna Singh’s How Solidarity Works (Cambridge) has won more social science awards than any recent book in American academia; it asks, is sub-nationalism good for service delivery? For stimulating ethnographic and meditative reflection on moral lives, it was rewarding to engage with Bhrigupati Singh’s Poverty and the Quest for Life (Chicago).
The human complexities of the world were sublimated in art in the fourth and final volume of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, The Story of the Lost Child. Germany and Russia are testament that great art cannot always resist bad politics; but there is still reason for hope in melancholic times.
Pratap Bhanu Mehta is president, Centre for Policy Research and contributing editor to The Indian Express