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Books

Best Books of 2017: My Choice

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MJ Akbar | Pratap Bhanu Mehta | William Dalrymple | Amit Chaudhuri | Aatish Taseer | Tishani Doshi | KR Meera | Vivek Shanbhag | TCA Raghavan

MJ AKBAR, AUTHOR AND MINISTER OF STATE FOR EXTERNAL AFFAIRS

The oldest advertisement for travel claims that it broadens the mind. The anonymous chap who thought this up was probably referring to culture, architecture and possibly a variety of victuals he encountered on the long road to anywhere. In an age of widespread conflict, travel might equally easily narrow the mind. But if your work involves some pretty intense flying and drive-through airports, there is one certain way of improving your vision. Books.

Books have been good travelling companions over the past year. Reading splits into two categories: the worthy, and the fun. They are complementary. Try one without the other, and you might merely broaden into a bore.

There is always something to learn from a classic of another land. One does not expect too much sentiment from a conqueror and skull-pyramid architect like Amir Taimur, and there is none on offer. But even as it deals summarily with enemies, Taimur’s treatise on the art of governance is thoughtful and even wise. It can’t be called modern, having been written more than six centuries ago, but there are rules that are timeless. I also thoroughly enjoyed a second look at Percival Spear’s Twilight of the Mughals, a study in erratic decline that is an excellent metaphor for dynasty.

More contemporary themes were also on my flight-list: I recommend Frank Dikotter’s The Cultural Revolution, a studiously researched and brilliantly written study of Mao Zedong’s final upheaval in which he set the Chinese young, mesmerised by his charisma, upon the establishment that Mao himself had created. If it had succeeded, the principal beneficiary would have been Mao’s last wife, with unpredictable consequences for Communism, China and its neighbourhood. On par is Catherine Nixey’s The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World. Those who believe in faith supremacy have spawned terror all through history.

Azeem Ibrahim’s The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide is a catch-up book on the subject that remains off-focus until it suddenly takes centre-stage. Shiraz Maher’s Salafi-Jihadism: The History of an Idea traverses familiar ground but possesses staying power. But enough of the worthy lot.

The spectacular book of the year is The Spanish Ambassador’s Suitcase, a collection of farewell dispatches by British envoys, written, by tradition, without evidence of fear or expectation of favour. There is at least one story about a Turkish ambassador that would never be printed by a magazine devoted to family values. May I clarify that whatever happened was not the Turk’s fault, but it is massively funny nonetheless. What cowardice on the part of British foreign service mandarins to have ended this tradition! They did so because, apparently, in the current culture these post-mortems would be leaked to the media, causing frowns in Whitehall and heartburn across chanceries. That of course is precisely why they were worth preserving.

To an Agatha Christie aficionado like me, nothing was more welcome than Sophie Hannah’s Closed Casket, a post-Christie Hercule Poirot murder mystery. I gather that Poirot has been updated to a quasi-Bond in the latest film version of Murder on the Orient Express, but the more Poirots we have, the merrier.

No one should get away with murder. Amen.

PRATAP BHANU MEHTA, POLITICAL SCIENTIST

Pratap Bhanu MehtaRoger Backhouse’s Founder of Economics: Paul A Samuelson Volume I, was the surprise read of the year. It is a detailed and riveting intellectual biography of a man whose ideas changed the way we think about the world. It is also particularly good on the evolution of economics as a discipline from the 1920s to the 50s: on debates over the place of mathematics in economics and on intellectual milieus at the two influential departments in Chicago and Harvard.

Gopinath Kaviraj’s Bhartiya Sanskriti aur Sadhna is an old classic that has been reissued. It is a glimpse into what erudition in classical studies looks like, what it means to treat tradition as living rather than dead dogma, and what acuity of thinking about consciousness—the central problem of Indian thought—is like.

Pratap Bhanu MehtaStephen Kotkin’s Stalin, a two-volume biography of Stalin, has to rank amongst the great political biographies of all time. It provides unparalleled insights into the man behind the totalitarian ruler, and his times.

Democracies inevitably disappoint in how much they empower people. Jeffrey Green’s The Shadow of Unfairness: A Plebeian Theory of Liberal Democracy is a thoughtful examination of the fact that we cannot escape the shadow of unfairness in democracies. How do we cope with this? What is the moral psychology appropriate to this recognition? (Photo: Rohit Chawla)

WILLIAM DALRYMPLE, AUTHOR

William DalrympleMy favourite novel this year was Exit West by Mohsin Hamid. A profoundly contemporary story about civil wars, unstable countries and refugees pouring towards the cities of the West, it is also beautifully written and wonderfully observed, with the ghost of Camus hovering at the edge of the frame, as he did too in The Reluctant Fundamentalist.

Two wonderful travels books on South Asia also gave me great pleasure this year. Both are by talented journalists who have spent long stints in the region, but they are very different books. Isambard Wilkinson’s Travels in a Dervish Cloak is a discursive, funny, moving and often witty portrait of Pakistan, one of the most complex countries, but here rendered in bright chiaroscuro and with obvious affection. It a brilliant debut by a major new talent.

William DalrympleVictor Mallet’s book on the horrifying pollution-apocalypse of the Ganges, here turned into a metaphor for modern India—River of Life, River of Death—is also a wonderful achievement, but more political and analytical and serious in tone, as one would expect of a correspondent of the Financial Times.

Finally, Maya Jasanoff’s The Dawn Watch, a profound mediation on globalisation and colonialism, takes us from Russian-occupied Poland, around South East Asia and up the Congo in Joseph Conrad’s footsteps. The book is well worth reading alone for her evocative and beautifully crafted descriptions of 19th century Singapore, Marseilles and London, as well as her mastery of 19th century seadog slang: where else can you enter a world of dogwatches, pollywogs and shellbacks? But it is far more than that, as she shows how Conrad was the first writer to grapple with the great issues of our time: terrorism, immigration, the ramifications of rapid technological change and globalisation, and ‘the way power operates across continents and races’. ‘Conrad’s world,’ she writes, ‘shimmers beneath the surface of our own.’

AMIT CHAUDHURI, AUTHOR

Amit ChaudhuryFortuitously, all three books I’m going to mention have something to do with how we read. The first, a novel called Testament, is by my former student, Kim Sherwood. I’m reading the proofs now and am absorbed by the delicacy, even the beauty, with which she writes of the trauma of history. At the narrative’s centre is the posthumous presence of a Jewish-Hungarian-British artist, the narrator’s grandfather, who remade his life in England but left behind a ‘testament’ about a period he later chose to forget: his internship in an Austrian labour camp during World War II. It’s a real pleasure to see Sherwood approaching this theme—to do with how we discover, read, and reread our past—with subtlety, playfulness, and elegiac sadness.

Amit ChaudhuryPeter D McDonald’s scholarly Artefacts of Writing presents a challenge—again, at once perspicacious and playful—to how we read literature in a time when diversity is being invoked again, but when its promise will lead to disappointment unless we tackle the question with imagination and singularity, as McDonald does. I should declare an interest: about ten of its 326 pages are about my work. But the ingenuity of this book, which brings together the League of Nations, Unesco,Finnegans Wake, Tagore, Rushdie, Antjie Kroge, Coetzee, and other works, replacing the conventions of the ‘multicultural’ with the open-ended creative exchanges of the ‘intercultural’, makes it necessary for me to mention it as an important publication this year.

The third book has been a long time in the making, but the ‘final edition’ came out last year. Tom Phillips’ A Humument comprises an emerging narrative created by painting on and partly obliterating the pages of a book Phillips bought from a second-hand bookshop in 1966. I thought of Tagore, who arrived at his first paintings from the deletions he made to his poems in his manuscripts.

To read is also to look, or see, again.

AATISH TASEER, AUTHOR

Aatish TaseerNeither fish nor fowl, The Dawn Watch by Maya Jasanoff is one of those wonderful composite histories, like Justinian’s Flea, which is part biography, part literary criticism, part history. We are reintroduced to Joseph Conrad against the background of a globalising world. Conrad (and four of his books) becomes a prism of sorts for certain major historical turning points: the appearance of revolutionary ideologies and international terrorism; Belgium’s rape of the Congo, and the White man’s burden curdling into something altogether more sinister; the rise of America, and its willingness to intervene internationally in order to defend its mercantile interests. ‘Industrialism and commercialism…stand ready, almost eager,’ writes Conrad of this changing world, ‘to appeal to the sword’. It is a world where money will be all, and henceforth ‘no war will be waged for an idea’. This is one of those marvellous books that captures in miniature what would be impossible to see if writ large.Without question, my top recommendation for 2018!

Next, The Hall of Uselessness by Simon Leys. Leys was a Belgian Sinologist, and what I like most about this collection of essays is the China section, which serves as such an interesting counterpoint to reflect on India. ‘…the Chinese everlastingness,’ Leys writes of the Chinese attitude to history, ‘does not inhabit monuments, but people.’ It is a past of the mind. We are introduced to concepts such as ‘tongbian’: ‘tong’ means a deep knowledge of past practice, ‘bian’ a creative transformation of custom, and this is all to suggest a certain inner vitality within the world of tradition. ‘…the vital strength, the creativity, the seemingly unlimited capacity for metamorphosis and adaptation which the Chinese tradition displayed for 3,500 years may well derive from the fact that this tradition never let itself be trapped into set forms, static objects and things, where it would have run the risk of paralysis and death.’

The essays deal with much else besides—everything from Evelyn Waugh to Andre Gide—but it is on the subject of China that I found them to bear the force of a revelation.

Aatish TaseerThen, The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig. I can’t think of a book better suited to our time than this one. Zweig’s memoir of the end of his world in Austria, and the rise of Nazism, was completed less than a year before the Zweigs killed themselves in Brazil by taking a massive overdose of barbituates. It is a book about homelessness, the rise of mass hysteria, and how an age of uprootedness seems almost to feed a politics of revenge and revival. ‘National Socialism,’ writes Zweig, ‘with its unscrupulous methods of deception, took care not to show how radical its aims were until the world was inured to them. So it tried out its technique cautiously—one dose at a time, with a short pause after administering it. One pill at a time, then a moment of waiting to see if it had been too strong, if the conscience of the world could swallow that particular pill.’

This is a chilling book which reads like a manual for the inner workings of crowd hysteria.

The Vanity Fair Diaries is the story of Tina Brown’s (former editor of Vanity Fair and The New Yorker) conquest of New York in the 1980s. It’s full of names and gossip, and so exalted and intimate a form of bitchiness that it transcends the personal, and becomes what we might even describe as cultural criticism. I inhaled it, and found it even quite moving in parts, especially in the descriptions of the tradeoff between success in New York and the loss of one’s own place. ‘I sometimes feel,’ Brown writes, ‘there’s a bravery, even nobility, to people who leave their own country for some other dream. It makes you so vulnerable. There’s a bit of my own expatriate heart that’s frozen, not here, not there, a lonely thing.’

A delicious compulsive read that one wants to take to bed with a hangover, or a slight cold.

TISHANI DOSHI, AUTHOR AND DANCER

Tishani DoshiEvery once in a while, a novel comes along that smacks the breath out of you. Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire not only smacked but restored my breath with a conclusion so satisfying, so operatic and so complete, it made me want to read it all over again.

Meena Kandasamy’s When I Hit You is this brave, visceral anomaly of a book that sits between life and the imagination, holding that space and demanding you examine it—beautiful, necessary reading for our times.

Tishani DoshiAnd Janice Pariat’s The Nine Chambered-Heart pieces together many broken shards to make a whole—a novella of exquisite vision, showing us the fragility of our own love stories. (Photo: Rohit Chawla)

But the book that changed the year for me transcends time altogether. James Salter’s Light Years does with language the opposite of what spring does to Neruda’s cherry trees. Everything is contained and perfect, yet languorous. It made me think if books like this still exist, the novel can never die.

KR MEERA, AUTHOR

KR MeeraHere are the 2017 books which have kept me unsettled ever since I read them. I don’t classify books as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. All that is expected from reading these days is creative inspiration to write more. So these books are important to me because they have inspired me as a writer as much as they intrigued me as a reader.

Anees Salim is one of my favourite authors who wields enough power over me to lure me to a small-town sea shore and drown me treacherouslyin it with masterly narration. The Small Town Sea is about how a 13-year-old discovers the sea which has shaped his father too. It is a tricky story, told from the viewpoints of not only a teenager, but also from that of a fish in the sea and a bird in the sky.

KR MeeraThe Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy is a grave book which makes me envious that I couldn’t imagine such a book before she did. I was awe-struck by the setting and plot. The prose is mesmerisingly poetic. And it is not a single story but a collection of all the stories we have been living in recent years in India. The book is a political treatise in the guise of personal tragedies. The insights it provides into human nature are epic.

Meena Kandasamy’s When I Hit You or a Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife is neither a novel, nor an autobiography. It is truthful and poignant. The book is effective because it refuses to leave me even after so many months. The book is important because it is a documentation of the type of oppression a woman we consider empowered undergoes in the present world. When Kandasamy writes, ‘Hope prevents me from taking my own life. Hope is the kind voice in my head that prevents me from fleeing. Hope is the traitor that chains me to this marriage,’ I can only laugh, realising the story which our daughters tell is the same one our mothers had been telling.

Shinie Antony’s The Girl Who Couldn’t Love is a small novel, which weaves a large shroud of gloom and depression. The story is haunting. The plot is convulsive. The characters are wretched. It leaves a lump in the throat which stays there for a while. (Photo: Getty Images)

VIVEK SHANBHAG, AUTHOR

Vivek ShanbhagMukunda Rao’s The Buddha: An Alternative Narrative of His Life and Teaching tells the story of Buddha to discuss his teachings in physiological terms. It is an interesting way to look at Buddhist philosophy, which treats the body as an obstacle in the path of spirituality. The narrative brings together and connects the ideas of Indian and Western thinkers. Being a novelist, Rao knows the power and importance of stories to draw home a serious point.

Vivek ShanbhagDavid Grossman’s beautifully crafted Hebrew novel A Horse Walks into a Bar is set in a comedy club in a small Israeli town. An audience that has come to enjoy the evening sees the main player falling apart on stage as he unravels his story. A powerful account of betrayal, violence, guilt and friendship.

Saraswatibai Rajwade, born in the early 20th century, was a pioneer of women’s writing in Kannada. This little book Just a Few Pages: Some Memories of Saraswatibai Rajwade by Vaidehi, translated by Deepa Ganesh, captures her eventful life. Born in a poor family, Rajwade becomes a child actor, marries a rich man much older than her, turns into a writer, editor and finally gives up everything to take up spirituality. Vaidehi, herself a brilliant writer, depicts Rajwade’s life with great finesse. (Photo: Getty Images)

TCA RAGHAVAN, AUTHOR AND FORMER DIPLOMAT

TCA RaghavanUpinder Singh’s Political Violence in Ancient India is a work of great scholarship, remarkable both for its broad sweep and meticulous detail. I enjoyed reading it tremendously. In the end, I did feel that as an exploration of classical Indian thought by a historian, its scope is much wider than is suggested by the title of the book. There is much more meat in this book than a critique of the view that Indian civilisation had a predisposition to non-violence and I liked particularly the interweaving of political ideas and statecraft.

During a visit to Bhutan, coincidentally during the Dokalam crisis, I chanced upon Karma Phuntsho’s The History of Bhutan which was published in 2013. This treatment of many aspects of Bhutan’s history—which during my years of living there in the early 1990s had been largely closed subjects—is as good an illustration as any, to me at least, of how much and how quickly our Himalayan neighbour has changed.

TCA RaghavanI also liked Lloyd and Susanne Rudolph’s Romanticism’s Child, about James Tod and Indian History. The Rudolphs represented the great contribution of US scholarship to the serious study of Indian history. As Rajput identity asserts itself over the battle of Haldighati and the Padmavati film, scholars and historians have pitched into the debate with equal doses of scholastic and polemic vigour. This book, published posthumously, is an example of how an older tradition of scholarship on issues of memory and identity can be vivid, enlightening and objective without giving offence.

A great Pakistani novel Snuffing out the Moon, by Osama Siddique, looks at dissent over six periods from Mohenjodaro to some 60 years into the future—in brief, from 2084 BCE to 2084 CE. A cast of characters keeps reappearing, demonstrating that while time and material civilisation changes, the dilemmas that confront us don’t. Amazing sweep. (Photo: Ashish Sharma)

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