In 2015, the hitherto unknown Oxford research fellow Peter Frankopan published The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, an engaging report of the history of the crossroads of the Old World, stretching from the account of Ibn Fadlan to the 20th century effects of superpower rivalry. It offered a picture of the past based on mass movement and connections, rather than the traditional picture of settled civilisation. In 2018, Frankopan follows on with The New Silk Roads: The Present and the Future of the World (Bloomsbury). Leaving history behind, he explores the new axis of the world, where all roads lead to Beijing rather than Rome. Like the past, the present is a story of new journeys, and the migrant is one of the defining images of the era that Frankopan investigates.
Frankopan’s predecessor at Oxford, Yuval Noah Harari, is also done with explaining the yesterdays and tomorrows of humanity, and has focused on the present in 21 Lessons for the 20th Century (Jonathan Cape), ranging from fake news that’s lasted seven centuries (the demonisation of Jewry) to the market prospects of terrorism in a world that is relentlessly getting safer. Historians who follow the tides of history seem to have cottoned on to a new trend: riding the wavefront of a rapidly changing world is more exhilarating than speculating about the future. Tomorrow’s world is relatively tame, and can be left to the attentions of the sci-fi mags.
Structural biologist Venki Ramakrishnan, president of the Royal Society and winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2009, published the extraordinary story of the hunt for the structure of the ribosome, one of the oldest quests in the life sciences. Structurally, there isn’t much to hang the tale on — the pursuit of a single molecule, with the aid of one weapon, X-ray crystallography. But Gene Machine: The Race to Decipher the Secrets of the Ribosome (HarperCollins) is a thrilling chase, and all the players are given their due. Ramakrishnan lists all the people who helped him find the grail of the ribosome’s structure, and provides brief sketches of their lives. In a non-academic work, that’s very unusual.
Srinath Raghavan’s The Most Dangerous Place: A History of the United States in South Asia (Penguin Allen Lane) looks back on the time after World War II, when the Great Game ended and superpower rivalry in Asia took its place. The celebrated “foreign hand” has cast a long shadow across Indian politics, starting from the operation that had the Indian Committee for Cultural Freedom, with national political leaders on board, being nudged in the 1950s into organising events that put across the American viewpoint on democracy and rights. Raghavan recalls the reasonable caution of the founding fathers about the postwar turmoil, but they could not anticipate that the projection of soft power — through Mickey Mouse and Duke Ellington — would prove to be more powerful than M16s and Phantoms.
That same anxiety about postwar turmoil is the linchpin of Gyan Prakash’s Emergency Chronicles: Indira Gandhi and Democracy’s Turning Point (Penguin Viking). Prakash corrects the widespread perception that under Indira Gandhi, the democratic system turned rogue. On the contrary, the Emergency was a legal suspension of the law, made possible by powers vested in the Constitution itself. It derived from the uncertainties of the founding fathers, who had created a strong Centre that could hold an emerging nation together. But in insecure hands, its strength could also be wielded arbitrarily.
The Spy Chronicles: RAW, ISI and the Illusion of Peace (HarperCollins) broke the mould in security literature, bringing together former R&AW chief AS Dulat and retired ISI head Lt Gen Asad Durrani in a cross-border dialogue, moderated by journalist Aditya Sinha. In the end, though, it’s not clear which is the more successful agency, as each chief is prepared to politely cede to the other.
The Idol Thief: The True Story of the Looting of India’s Temples (Juggernaut) is another unusual book, since the story is told not by the agencies which were tasked with protecting or recovering idols lost to the market, but by
S Vijay Kumar, the man who traced them and worked out the channels by which they reached buyers overseas. This book does what the government, which spends its resources on celebrating heritage rather than protecting it, has failed to do — draw attention to the volume of loot that has left the country.
Rich in the kind of anecdote and detail that is now a trademark of the Ramachandra Guha biography, Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World 1914-1918 (Penguin) is the culmination of the historian’s long engagement with MK Gandhi’s life and politics — even if it seems to eschew analysis for elaboration. The sequel to Gandhi Before India (2013), this doorstopper of a book takes its own sweet time to place him in a wide range of contexts: his makeover of the elitist Congress to a party that grew with farmers’ and workers’ movements; his insufferable dogmatism in his personal relations; the quiet strength of his relationship with Mahadev Desai. But, most interestingly, Guha places Gandhi at the heart of an ongoing debate of Indian politics: caste. The book highlights the debate between BR Ambedkar and Gandhi, where the former’s trenchant criticism forces Gandhi to revise his thinking and embark on anti-untouchability campaigns that cost him political goodwill within the Congress and earned him the ire of the Hindu right-wing. It is a debate in which Gandhi will always play catch up with Ambedkar, as current politics proves. But in Guha’s telling, Gandhi remains always on the side of justice.
Peddling a narrative of 1,200 years of slavery seems to have only stoked a new curiosity about the Mughals in India. Three popular histories, written for the layperson, attempt to make history a rollicking good read. Ruby Lal’s Empress: The Astonishing Reign of Nur Jahan (Penguin Viking) rescues the life of Jahangir’s co-sovereign from oblivion; novelist Parvati Sharma writes an accessible biography of Jahangir (Juggernaut); and Ira Mukhoty pieces together the story of the feisty Mughal zenana in Daughters of the Sun (Aleph). Not all their attempts are free of questions of credibility, but they reveal an appetite for history that is wholly welcome.
Amitabha Bagchi’s Half the Night is Gone (Juggernaut) is 2018’s standout work of fiction. That might not be saying much in a year of modest pickings for Indian writing in English (IWE). But Bagchi’s novel set in pre-Independent Delhi makes serious claims on posterity, with its intricate architecture, its frank ambition, and the way it makes Indian English forget its crippling anxiety about authenticity and imbue it with the lilt of Hindi-Urdu. It is a novel in conversation with Tulsidas Goswami’s Ramacharitmanas, and the hinterland of piety and politics that comes with it. Tucked in its folds is a lament for the possibility that the epic could have remained untainted by the hate with which it is being weaponised into statues and angry Hanuman posters. A novel about brothers, its cast of characters are linked by love, family and feudal and patriarchal inequality — the women can only do so much. But, like the rest of Bagchi’s oeuvre, this is a novel shaped and troubled by the demands of masculinity and patriarchy on men.
Foxy Aesop (Zubaan) is a fascinating fable by that most wry and wicked fabulist, Suniti Namjoshi. Her newest book is the retelling of the life of Aesop of whom little is known. Namjoshi imagines Aesop as a slave in 6th Century BC Greece, whose stories ingratiate him to his owner and sometimes lead to a thrashing. Can stories change anything? Will Aesop win his freedom? Namjoshi’s slim work is a subversive look at the human tick to tell stories, against all odds.
Translations of literatures in regional languages are the bracing gust of air which readers — and longlists of literary prizes — need, given the often narrow band of experience that IWE is occupied with. Another striking book of the year, therefore, was Malayalam writer Benyamin’s Jasmine Days (Juggernaut, translated by Shahnaz Habib). The tale of a young Pakistani woman caught up in the flowering of Arab Spring begins as a disarmingly simple story, but turns into a complex tale of migrants, loyalty and the bitter fruit of revolution. It is a more ambitious, less accomplished work than Benyamin’s searing Goat Days — but was good enough to win the JCB prize for literature.
The “death” and resurrection of Tamil writer Perumal Murugan is a now-famous cautionary tale of contemporary India. He finds his fictional voice in Poonachi or the Story of a Black Goat (Context, translated by N Kalyan Raman). While the consequences of writing about people and gods might be grave, “goats are problem-free, harmless and, above all, energetic,” he writes. He is kidding, of course. Poonachi is an undeniably political fable, where goats are tagged by a paranoid bureaucracy, taught to queue up and put under surveillance for any signs of dissent. Proof that Murugan is back to being unafraid.
We discover a delightful geography in Manu Bhattathiri’s works: his first, Savithri’s Special Room and other Stories (2016), introduced us to the fictional town of Karuthapuzha, somewhere in Kerala of the 1980s. It is also the setting of The Town That Laughed (Aleph), a lovingly detailed addition to that universe of wise animals and incredibly unwise humans. It reminds us of Malgudi, of course, but Bhattathiri’s collection of oddballs and odder rivalries is remarkably original. It reveals a comedic mind alert to the absurdities of human life, but also attuned to its tragedies.
Sally Rooney’s Normal People (Faber & Faber) came sailing on a showboat of expectations and did not disappoint. The 27-year-old writer from Dublin pulls off a clinically precise study of a millennial romance, where the love survives, despite the irony and examination of teenage ennui. It is narrowly focussed on the characters’ inner lives and their missteps. In the Austenian vein, it takes a scalpel to the self-delusions
of the human heart. But we are whole at the end of it.
Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles reinvented the wheel and the Iliad for a contemporary audience. Circe (Bloomsbury) is a prophecy come to pass: the lionesses have learnt to tell the story. A feminist retelling of the myth of the nymph who tempted Ulysses, it is just the book to read, as we watch the fury of women take toxic masculine culture down.
Godsong (Penguin Viking) is a translation of the Bhagavad Gita by a poet and a diagnostic nuclear radiologist in America. Amit Majmudar writes, “The Gita imagined a relationship in which the soul and God are equals. It’s a relationship missing from every other scripture: friendship.” The philosophic text is made anew in the poet’s startling fresh idiom.
Ranjit Hoskote’s Jonahwhale (Hamish Hamilton) compresses within itself ambition of a dizzying scope. The book is a meditation on the various currents of history which have come together to create the confluence of language and stories that is humankind’s collective legacy. While remaining anchored to a larger theme of the aquatic worlds, the poems spin out across a wider canvas, throwing up startling connections between places and people, across time and space.