It was a year of exceptionally heavy and eminently satisfactory reading, when even the books I one-starred served a purpose.
The year was almost equally split between fiction and non-fiction, with fiction having the slight edge. Of the non-fiction ones, the outstanding reads were Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond, a history book which actually looks at the whys and not only the hows; and Being Reshma, the horrifying yet uplifting memoir of an acid attack survivor. Another book which repays attention is by another brave girl, Payel Bhattacharya, who is fighting a desperate battle against VHL syndrome, a rare and life-threatening genetic disease. Her book, The warrior princess, is not exactly award material: but she definitely is. I know her personally, and her pluck.
India is slowly sliding into fascism, in a classical example of the “boiled frog” syndrome. To understand this drift towards the right, I read a lot of books from various genres: politics, history and reportage. These being from the whole range of the political spectrum, there were some I abhorred, the explicity right-wing ones: but I had to bite the bullet and forge ahead, as they were required reading to obtain a first-hand peek into the brain of the Hindu right-wingers.
The most famous (and IMO, the most poisonous) among them is V.D. Savarkar, whose book Hindutva is the core of the philosophy of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), India’s answer to the Nazi party. This year, I read his even more obnoxious Six glorious epochs of Indian history, in which he advocates the ethnic cleansing of Muslim men and the wholesale enslavement of Muslim women. This sentiment of “de-Islamising” India is echoed by Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar, who was the second supremo of the RSS, in his book We Or Our Nationhood Defined.
Savarkar’s disciple and friend, Nathuram Godse, murdered Gandhi in 1948. His justification for doing so is set out in his deposition before the court, finally declassified: I read that too, to understand the spread of the right-wing cancer into the Indian psyche. (There are still people in India who consider Godse a hero. Need I say more?). Interestingly, Savarkar was implicated in the Gandhi murder and just escaped by the skin of his teeth: the history of which is set forth in Savarkar and Hindutva ; The Godse Connection by A.G. Noorani.
Fascism has deep roots in the falsification of history. The creation of a fictitious super race or a mythical homeland is part and parcel of all fascist philosophies and Hindutva is no different: but here, the country already exists and they only have to imagine a “golden past”, dismissing all mainline historical research and filling the vacuum with their kooky mix of mythology and legend. Such an exercise is Rajiv Malhotra’s Breaking India: Western Interventions in Dravidian and Dalit Faultlines, where this guy with a right-wing agenda and no background in history tries to overturn widely accepted theories of Indian history – viz. the migration of Aryans into the subcontinent. He even denies that the Dravidian language exists! The ignoramus has no valid arguments, other than it’s all a conspiracy theory by “leftist historians”.
The prime accused is, of course, Romila Thapar, whose left-of-centre views seem to irk these bigots. Her book The Past As Present: Forging Contemporary Identities Through History is the perfect antidote to idiots such as Malhotra; her erudition and balanced voice as she analyses how the present is affected by the past makes it clear why the right wants to rewrite Indian history at all costs. The same theme is explored further in On Nationalism, of which she is one of the contributors: about how a false national identity based on a “Hindu” past is created.
Did I mention conspiracy theories? Well, the one to end all of them that is currently the rage in India is the one about “Urban Naxals” – a sort of “deep state” akin to the one imagined in the USA in the McCarthy era. Urban Naxals, written by the right-wing filmmaker Vivek Agnihotri, is responsible for creating this tag which has been taken up enthusiastically by the powers that be. These are incidentally imagined left-wing “moles”, hidden among the intelligentsia, who support the Maoist subversives in India’s so-called Red Corridor. Agnihotri’s book is a classic case of right-wing paranoia, short on facts and long on insinuations – yet dangerous all the same. I could see McCarthy’s ghost being revived in India, especially after I read the pamphlet The Time of the Toad by Dalton Trumbo, one of the famous Hollywood Ten. (BTW, anyone interested in Maoists in India should read Hello, Bastar – The Untold Story of India’s Maoist Movement by the award-winning journalist Rahul Pandita – another excellent read from the year under review.)
Again coming back to politics, I read The Hanging of Afzal Guru and the Strange Case of the Attack on the Indian Parliament, a collection of essays by various left-wing and liberal writers who raise the disturbing possibility that Afzal Guru, the alleged mastermind behind the 2001 attack on the Indian parliament and who was subsequently executed, might in reality may have been innocent. Compellingly written, this book gives ample substance to the argument that there may have been a miscarriage of justice. Similarly, eminent journalist Barkha Dutt’s collection of reports on the chronic ills plaguing India (This Unquiet Land) and Mother, Where’s My Country?: Looking for Light in the Darkness of Manipur, by another journalist Anubha Bhonsle about Manipur were also disturbing yet enlightening reads.
Moving on from politics to religion, I read two books which have tried to remove the mask of piety from the facade of the modern-day saint Mother Teresa: The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice by Christopher Hitchens and Mother Teresa The Untold Story by Dr. Aroup Chatterjee. The first one was polemical and entertaining; the second, balanced and a bit dry. However, both of them present a strong case against this Catholic icon.
I love to read the views of non-Hindus on Hinduism: Wendy Doniger’s On Hinduism was an interesting read. This lady is roundly reviled by the Hindu right, but there is nothing in her views that denigrate the religion: it just does not conform to their idea of a fictitious monolithic faith, that’s all. Similarly, Prof. D. N. Jha’s book, The Myth of the Holy Cow had also invited the wrath of the Hindutva gang because he tears apart the lie that the cow has always been a sacred animal to Hindus: with textual and archaeological evidence, he proves that the Vedic Indians positively revelled in cow meat. It is a wonder that the author survived, because so many rationalists who tried to cleanse the Indian psyche such as Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, M. M. Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh were murdered by Hindu right-wingers. I read one book by Pansare, Who was Shivaji about the great Maratha leader Shivaji, where he argues that contrary to popular belief, Shivaji was really a people’s ruler and not “protector of cows and Brahmins”.
As part of my decision to explore Indian culture, I started my Sanskrit reading project last year. I read through the Manusmriti and the Bhagavad Gita in the original. Manusmriti is a toxic document, patriarchal and racist; the Bhagavad Gita contains some great mythic imagery, but it also is tainted with caste and gender prejudice. I have blogged my reviews of both the texts (here and here).
Continuing in the same vein, I read Dance Of Shiva by Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, a book recommended by the famous mythologist Joseph Campbell as required reading. However, the book is terribly dated and carries a lot of the misconceptions of the early Indologists. I also read The Flight of the Wild Gander: Explorations in the Mythological Dimension ― Selected Essays 1944–1968 by Campbell himself – as always, a pure pleasure to read.
On to other subjects now.
I read three books by Bill Bryson – two travelogues and a book on language. I liked one travelogue (The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America), the other one, not so much (Neither Here nor There: Travels in Europe) and loved the book on English (The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way), written in his quirky style with weird factoids peppered all along. And speaking of English, I loved Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss too – being the spelling Nazi that I am.
Other non-fiction books of note: The Brain: The Story of You by David Eagleman, How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World by Francis Wheen, The New Adventures of Socrates: An Extravagance by Manny Rayner (thanks for gifting me the book, Manny!) and Two in the Bush by Gerald Durrel. Akkarmashi, the autobiography of Dalit Indian which I read in its Malayalam translation was also a poignant read.
That is it for the non-fiction. Onward to fiction now!
I would like to call this the year of reading the classics. I decided to stop buying books temporarily and finish off the ones languishing on my shelves – and it paid rich dividends.
Most definitely, the top fiction read of the year was All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. It reminds one that book doesn’t have to be fat and full of dense prose to be profound. This slim volume hits like a sledgehammer: the futility of war is laid out in spare and even humorous prose. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich also had the same effect, but to a lesser degree.
The Woman in Black by Susan Hill is all it’s hyped up to be. Frightening and literary at the same time, this horror story will stay with one a long time after one closes the book.
Another book which blew me away, with its mixture of humour and pathos, is Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday. I read it without any expectations, and was pulled into the tale. A hilarious look at the cockeyed world of projects in the Middle East, carried out with only political intent and no thought of scientific feasibility.
Once one gets past the opaqueness of impressionist writing, one can swim with the tide and enjoy it. This fact was proven to me once again by Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, a true classic.
Angela Carter got me again with Nights at the Circus. Such a magnificent writer! Sadly, she passed away too soon…
Lolita! Read it finally… the book is well-written, and the prose is extremely powerful, but I couldn’t bring myself to wholeheartedly ‘like’ it – because the subject matter was so repugnant.
Also, finally managed to climb all the way to The Castle, after a few aborted attempts, unlike Franz Kafka’s protagonist. Disturbing and frustrating, he may be – but Kafka is certainly compelling.
And I must not forget to mention Collected Stories by Gabriel Garcia Marquez – the idol of my youth, still the most magical writer I have ever read.
Other books of note I enjoyed: Jazz by Toni Morrison, The Famished Road by Ben Okri, Selected Stories by Jerome K. Jerome, The Country Girls by Edna O’Brien, The Secret History by Donna Tartt, What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller, Small Island by Andrea Levy, The Reader by Bernhard Schlink, Mystic River by Dennis Lehane, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg and I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith.
The big disappointment of the year was The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy. It seems years of writing only political essays have blunted her pen. This book read like a political essay disguised as a novel.
Coming to genre fiction:
SF and Fantasy
The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin, my first experience of SF by a non-European author, was a qualified success: strong on science, a trifle weak on fiction.
The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham – an SF classic, but unfortunately has not aged well.
Un Lun Dun by China Mieville: typical Mieville stuff, with drawings by himself. Enjoyable dark fantasy for Young Adults.
Northern Lights by Philip Pullman – a much-touted fantasy classic. It has fantastic world-building and an engaging story-line. But I felt the author let the reader down a bit at the end.
I had become a fan of Basil Copper after reading his terrifying story The Janissaries of Emillion. So it was with some anticipation that I read volumes two and three of his collected works (Darkness, Mist And Shadow: Volume 2: The Collected Macabre Tales Of Basil Copper and Darkness, Mist & Shadows – Volume 3 pb ). However, I was sorely disappointed. Maybe Volume 1 is better.