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Saturday, January 23, 2021

Reading recommendations from a pandemic year

Poets and politicians, sportsmen and theatre personalities look back at 2020 through the books they read

Updated: December 20, 2020 12:12:44 pm
Here are the books authors read this year. (Source: Getty Images)

Aruni Kashyap
writer

I think everyone in India should read Samit Basu’s Chosen Spirits (2020, Simon and Schuster) — it is an urgent and topical book set in an India of the future, a work of speculative fiction. I don’t read a lot in this genre, but I think speculative fiction has the ability to
caution us.

I have long admired Moroccan-American writer Laila Lalami’s fiction but Conditional Citizens: On Belonging in America (2020, Pantheon) is my first introduction to her nonfiction writing. Through a set of essays, Lalami talks about what it means to be a Muslim-American citizen, a naturalised American citizen; and how acceptance by the establishment comes with some conditions. Reading this book will let you know that the divides that the US seems to be reeling under since 2016 have always been there, but it was experienced only by people of colour.

Chika Unigwe has the envious ability to write riveting short stories. The stories in Better Never Than Late (2019, Cassava Republic Press) are about Nigerian immigrants in Belgium, where the author lived for many years. In English fiction, the immigrant experience of Africans is often dominated by the depiction of life in the US or the UK, but these stories introduced me to a new immigrant experience. The themes of belonging, home and nostalgia are present, and yet, handled differently so that the reader is always surprised.

I came across The In-Betweens: The Spiritualists, Mediums, and Legends of Camp Etna (2019, Highbridge Co) by Mira Ptacin when the first chapter was excerpted in a magazine. Since I have some experience of visiting fortune-tellers and psychics in Assam, and owing to my family connection to Mayong — often wrongfully dubbed as the land of black magic in India because of the large numbers of people who practise sorcery in that region — I was instantly drawn to this book. This is wonderfully told nonfiction, which you will go back to again and again just for the craft.

I love a good gothic horror novel and Mexican Gothic (2020, Jo Fletcher Books) by Silvia Moreno-Garcia didn’t disappoint. When I was young, we lived in a haunted house for several years, and reading this book took me back to those years.

“I love a good gothic horror novel and Mexican Gothic (2020, Jo Fletcher Books) by Silvia Moreno-Garcia didn’t disappoint. “

GN Devy
writer and cultural activist

FOR ME, 2020 has been a year spent more in dealing with national issues such as the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, National Education Policy, 2020 and agriculture-related laws than in reading and writing. However, the few books that caught my imagination have been of substantial interest to me. The most remarkable among these is The Diary of Manu Gandhi (2019, Oxford University Press), translated and edited by Tridip Suhrud. With an impressive corpus of translation from Gujarati to English and with a body of Gandhi-related literature to his credit, he has already set high norms for editorial scholarship. The book offered a lot more. It covers the period of 1943-44, the crucial years in the Mahatma’s life during which he lost Kasturba as well as Mahadev Desai to death in the Aga Khan Palace prison, becoming forlorn. The completely guileless diary entries by the hesitant young Manu, discovering the Mahatma as a person, hold a luminous mirror to the mind of a witness to the Mahatma.

The other book that I read with great interest and would like to re-read was by the historian Vinay Lal. COVID-19 has already generated a huge amount of writing. However, The Fury of COVID- 19 (2020, Macmillan) has a class that is going to keep this work alive for decades. Lal has woven the narrative of the global response to the catastrophe by bringing in profoundly disturbing questions of politics, ethics and social histories. It is primarily about contemporary human society and its response to the decay within. Politicians, corporate heads, religious leaders have much to learn from it.

Who We Are and How we Got Here (2018, Oxford University Press) by David Reich belongs to a class of its own. It is based on monumental research in the field of genetics and aided by a deep understanding of social anthropology and archaeology. Reich is a Harvard scientist; but his work has so much for India that anyone interested in Indian history, society and culture must read it. It tells the story of Indian population, its origins, migrations and reason for its immense diversity. I liked the work so much that I decided to have an online conversation with him, transcribe it and publish it in English, Kannada and Marathi.

Gulzar
poet, filmmaker and lyricist

This year, I read Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2017, Vintage) by Israeli author Yuval Noah Harari. While reading his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2011), I started underlining what I liked so I could remember them. I underlined too much and ended up spoiling the book. When I went to buy another copy, I found Homo Deus.

I have always been fond of reading history. My daughter Meghna, too, often makes movies related to history. During my visit to a book shop, whenever I come across a book concerning her subject, I pick it up for her. That’s how I came across The Forgotten Army: India’s Armed Struggle for Independence 1942-1945 (1993, University of Michigan Press) by Peter Ward Fay on Subhash Chandra Bose’s efforts to liberate India by forming the Indian National Army.

“I have always been fond of reading history.”(Source: Tashi Tobgyal)

Shashi Tharoor
Congress leader

Two books that stood out for me are The Deoliwallahs: The True Story of the 1962 Chinese-Indian Internment (2020, Pan Macmillan) by Joy Ma and Dilip D’Souza and Midnight’s Machines: A Political History of Technology in India (2019, Penguin Viking) by Arun Mohan Sukumar.

It remains a blot on our democracy that after the Sino-Indian War of 1962, India transported 3,000 residents of Chinese heritage to a disused World War II POW camp in Deoli, Rajasthan, and interned them forcibly in appalling conditions for nearly five years. We disrupted and destroyed the lives of people who knew no other homeland but India, only because of their ethnicity. This marked the first time since the adoption of the Constitution that neither birth nor belonging were deemed sufficient to accord nationality — just as today, to some unsavoury nationalists, Muslim Indians’ religion is deemed to raise questions about their entitlement to be regarded as citizens on a par with others.

I have no doubt that Midnight’s Machines will be heralded for years to come as the definitive account of India’s attempts to negotiate its technological destiny. Sukumar masterfully blends history, science and politics to deliver a narrative that both enthrals and informs. He proves himself to be that rare historian with a journalist’s eye for detail and a novelist’s ear for prose.

Bhupender Yadav
National general secretary, BJP, and Rajya Sabha member

If there was an upside to the unfortunate pandemic and the resultant lockdown, it was the endless hours we got to do things we had been complaining of not having the time for. I devoted the time to practise yoga and to read. The two books that are my top picks for the year are Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari and Amit Shah aur Bhajapa ki Yatra (2019, Bloomsbury) by Anirban Ganguly and Shiwanand Dwivedi.

Harari provides a rare understanding of our present lives through the history that we have lived. The book tells us how humans came to dominate the world by being the only species that can cooperate in large numbers, a trait others lack and thus perish. This is a crucial read for a post-pandemic world.

Amit Shah aur Bhajapa ki Yatra is a captivating read about Shah and his organisational skills. The book takes the readers on a ride through BJP’s history and parallely tracks Shah’s journey from a booth-level worker in BJP to getting to the helm of the party as its president. His journey began at the age of 13 with the political campaign for Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel’s daughter Maniben Patel. The book tracks his rise from that campaign in 1977 and delineates how Shah came in touch with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and how they formed one of the strongest political alliances. This book is as important to understand Shah as it is to understand BJP’s organisational prowess.

Kenneth I Juster
US ambassador to India

I read many great books in 2020. Two that I especially enjoyed were William Dalrymple’s The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company (2019, Bloomsbury), and George Packer’s Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century (2019, Jonathan Cape). The Anarchy, written by one of the great historians of India’s past, provides a vivid and gripping story of the personalities and behaviour of those involved with the East India Company and the late Mughal India. It is not a pleasant tale, but is a page-turner, told with wonderful detail and deep passion. Our Man, also written by an award-winning author, tells the story of American diplomat Richard Holbrooke through an engaging style that mixes the author’s voice with that of the subject, from his diaries and tapes. I worked with Dick in the mid-1970s (as he was called then) and stayed in touch with him thereafter, so this book dealt with many facts with which I was familiar. Holbrooke was a larger-than-life figure, brilliant and fully committed to solving some of the toughest problems in US foreign policy, relentless in his style, and yet undercut by his own ambitions and related flaws. Packer wonderfully captures all of this in his highly readable book.

K Srinath Reddy
President, Public Health Foundation of India; member of the India’s Covid-19
task force

The two books I pick are Survival: One Health, One Planet, One Future (2018, Routledge) by George Lueddeke and Humankind: A Hopeful History (2019, Bloomsbury) by Rutger Bregman. In the year of COVID-19 and fake news, the first makes a well-argued case for protecting our interconnected and interdependent world by profiling the confluence of forces that are threatening a sustainable future — from environmental degradation and zoonotic diseases to corrupt governance and misused technologies. Bregman’s uplifting book provides an optimistic view of human nature, arguing how its basic decency can be fostered to create a better world.

Walter J Lindner
German ambassador to India

None of the two books I recommend are easy night-table accessories, neither in content nor in weight (750 and 1,500 pages, respectively). Part I of Barack Obama’s memoirs, A Promised Land (2020, Viking), is a fascinating, deeply personal account of history in the making by one of the most inspiring personalities of our times. A must-read for all who — as I do — share his dreams of justice, moral standards, hope and change, to make this world a better place. Equally indispensable to understanding the fabric of Indian family and day-to-day life is Vikram Seth’s 1993 novel A Suitable Boy (Harper Collins).

Set in a two years-period of post-independence and post-Partition India, the complex four-family story has invaluable political, social and spiritual insights to understand the DNA of today’s India. I prefer the book to the recent BBC and Netflix version. It’s a serious read, yes, but it’s utterly rewarding. The list wouldn’t be truthful without mentioning two always-present tempting competitors to novels and books: Lonely Planet’s travel books (India, but also others) and musical scores by Bach, Händel or Mozart.

Rohini Hattangadi
Actor

I recently read a book called Close Encounters (2019, Rajhans Prakashan) by Purushottam Berde, a well-known director of films and theatre, whose childhood was spent around a red-light area of Mumbai’s Kamathipura. In the book, he talks about his old neighbourhood and the people who lived there — from a hoarding painter to pimps — who became his friends and the camaraderie between Hindu and Muslim families. What I found fascinating was how he writes without the burden of making a statement. He weaves a tale that stays in the mind long afterwards.

Sanjna Kapoor
Theatre person

I thought this year would be my year of reading and I would dive into my neglected shelves of books, only to find that this was not as easy as I thought. My concentration seemed to be mercurial, fiction could not hold my attention, and so the dozen or so books that I did manage to read this year were either biographies, education-based or historic, including contemporary classics such as A Moveable Feast (1964, Jonathan Cape) by Ernest Hemingway. Soon after I read this memoir of his Paris years, I saw the movie Hemingway and Gellhorn (2012).

As I went through my old wildlife photographs, reading the classic adventure Serengeti Shall Not Die (1960, Hamish Hamilton) by Bernhard and Michael Grzimek on their exploration of Serengeti in the 1950s was riveting. During the lockdown I also attended a few online seminars for teachers and discovered The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life (1997, John Wiley & Sons) by Parker Palmer, an education classic full of poetic wisdom and inspiration. My last recommendation would be 1599 : A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare (2005, Harper Perennial) by James Shapiro. This deeply researched book brings the Elizabethan times alive.

“The dozen or so books that I did manage to read this year were either biographies, education-based or historic, including contemporary classics” (Express photo by Rohit Jain Paras)

Feisal Alkazi
Theatre person

I have a great fascination for cities and their histories. One book that I read during the lockdown was The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta (2017, Bloomsbury) by Kushanava Choudhury, about a man who grows up in Kolkata and then migrates to the US to study. He misses India so much that he comes back and takes a job with The Statesman in Kolkata. As people do, when they return to cities, they have completely changed in the interim. He goes back looking for the places he hung out as a child. He is so evocative in writing about the city that anybody who has been to Kolkata would relate to the book and those who have not will want to get on to the next flight. The other one that I read is Half the Night is Gone by Amitabha Bagchi. Set in Old Delhi, Bagchi has written in such a way that as you read, you can imagine every sentence in Hindi.

David Abraham
Fashion designer

I’m always on the lookout for authentic queer fiction. This year has been good, with new works achieving recognition on mainstream reading lists. In Real Life (Daunt Books), shortlisted for The Booker Prize, Brandon Taylor gives us a story of a young Black gay man. He captures the loneliness and the turmoil that comes from being an outsider in a voice that is both quiet and powerful. Shuggie Bain (Picador) by Douglas Stuart, this year’s Booker Prize winner, is another powerful novel by another new writer that deals with the enduring bonds of filial love and struggles of growing up gay in a world where heterosexual norms determine the way lives are expected to be lived.

PR Sreejesh
Former India hockey captain

At the start of 2020, my target was to read four books a month. But I ended up reading six a month. One of the best books I read recently is Relentless: From Good to Great to Unstoppable (2013, Scribner) by Tim Grover. If you are an athlete recovering from injury, are out of form, just playing or are preparing for a tournament, this is the best book you can read to motivate yourself. Another book I would recommend is Atomic Habits (2018, Penguin Random House) by James Clear. It gives you ideas to get over your old habits and develop new ones. Last, the one book I have started to read every day is the Bhagavad Gita.

Varun Grover
poet and lyricist

Naiyer Masud is probably the best Indian short-story writer you haven’t heard about, primarily because less than half of his works have been translated into Hindi from Urdu. Ganjifa (translated by Mahesh Verma, Neel Ranjan Verma, Nazar Abbas, and Maulana Mashkoor Hasan Qadri; 2018, Rajkamal Prakashan) has seven stories of such beautiful language, complex characters, and thrilling twists in the tales that I decided to learn Urdu during the lockdown to be able to read his complete works in original. Masud translated many of Franz Kafka’s works to Urdu and one can see the same existential dread running through his works — but that’s just one layer. Imagine a mix of Kafka and Roald Dahl, set in the old city of Lucknow, and narrated like a qissa by an old friend.

The mammoth Kai Chaand The Sar-e-Aasman, Shamsur Rahman Faruqi’s novel in Hindi (translated by Naresh ‘Nadeem’, 2012, Penguin), is an awe-inspiring work by the legendary Urdu critic and poet. Kai Chand… traces the social, literary and colonial history of the Indo-Islamic culture in the 18th-19th century through fascinating, often surreal tales of many generations of a single family.

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