I have loved my tryst with William Dalrymple’s The Anarchy (2019), which covers the days of the East India Company.
I came across The Girl from Aleppo: Nujeen’s Escape from War to Freedom (2016) by Christina Lamb and Nujeen Mustafa — the account of a disabled Syrian girl’s travels across 15 countries in a wheelchair, till she finds sanctuary in Germany — at the Jaipur Literature Festival this year. I attended Lamb’s session on the book and picked it up. It turned out to be a great read.
– Keki N Daruwalla, poet and novelist
I have always found both instruction and great solace in the sub-genre known as ‘Big History’. As described by David Christian in the preface of Origin Story (2018), it is an effort made by storytellers to understand the history of humanity via a profuse cluster of stories that derive from “self to the family and clan, to a nation, language group, or religious affiliation, to the huge circles of humanity and life, and eventually to […] entire universe and cosmos.” Another author to look out for in this sub-genre is Eduardo Galeano (Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone, 2008).
Certain poets offer similarly sweeping, unsentimental sagesse. My other recommendation would be I: Lalla (2011), Ranjit Hoskote’s sublime translation of Kashmiri Shaivite mystic Lal Dedh’s vaakh. Another work of similar span is Arundhathi Subramaniam’s Love Without a Story (2019).
– Amruta Patil, graphic novelist
I am a poet first, and, in these dark times, I’ve been seeking solace in poetry. The two books that I’ve been reading slowly and savouring each verse are The Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Diaz (2020) and In The Lateness Of The World (2020) by Carolyn Forché. I first read Carolyn’s work in the 1990s and her book of poems, Country Between Us (1981), is my favourite — it is a book of witness, that tackles difficult subjects with fearlessness and razor-sharp language. It’s the same with Natalie. Her first book, When My Brother Was an Aztec (2012), tackled hard topics with pointed observation. Their new books have been amazing to read, especially their precision of craft and gorgeous language.
– Devi S Laskar, poet and novelist
I first read Bhisham Sahni’s Tamas (1988) in the late 1970s. Hindi is not my first language, but I understood enough for this work to bring home for me the horrors of Partition, the politics of religion, and the deliberate mechanics of rioting, in a way no work had done. It has remained my compass while writing about religious schism in my work. The Mahabharata is timeless. Not for the glorification of fantastic war machines and racial or religious prowess, but to understand how utterly mythological it is. It is, of course, a superb story of our self-aggrandising dream-memories, a morality tale, an immorality tale, a tale that is more grey than black and white. I first encountered the Mahabharata in classical Bengali. My grandmother would sit cross-legged on the floor, my sister and I likewise, and Dadu-ma, as we called her, would read to us the epic in verse, explaining things as she went. The story has remained for me riveting, through several readings in Bengali, English and Hindi.
– Sudeep Chakravarti, novelist
I can’t remember the last book I read that had as much heart as Jane Borges’s charming novel Bombay Balchao (2019), and it might be exactly what we need in these anxious times. It is a tender and joyful account of life in a Catholic neighbourhood in south Mumbai, and immerses the reader in the history, architecture and culture of this little-known but fast-changing part of the city. It might seem odd to try and take your mind off a pandemic by diving into a literary encyclopaedia of medicine, but The Afflictions (2014) by Vikram Paralkar is truly wonderful. This novel is an inventory of bizarre and terrifying imaginary diseases (thankfully!), many of which pose profound philosophical questions about the human condition. Bonus: Each chapter is only a couple of pages long, perfect for our tattered attention spans.
– Amrita Mahale, novelist
Like a marooned sailor, my glance has flitted over my bookshelf and come to rest on the Lebanese-French author Amin Maalouf’s extraordinary Leo the African (1994). This 16th-century tale charts the travels of Hasan al-Wazzan (better known as Leo Africanus), whose country is the caravan. Forced to flee the Inquisition in Granada, he makes his passage through Timbuktu, Cairo and Constantinople to Rome. The journey reveals him to be a scholar, a maverick, celebrant of many faiths, a poet and a lover, but, ultimately, a realist and a true cosmopolitan. A refugee, he reminds us that one’s true home is the mind, unsullied by the contamination of hate.
A similar journey, but one of sensibilities, spans the correspondences of two great minds of the 20th-century — Rabindranath Tagore and Romain Rolland. In an ably translated and curated volume, Bridging East & West: Rabindranath Tagore and Romain Rolland Correspondence, 1919-1940 (2019), Chinmoy Guha illuminates a rare and poignant encounter.
– Kunal Basu, novelist
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