As the year 2018 came to a close, we asked some of our contributors and Southasia’s prominent writers, intellectuals and journalists about some of the most interesting books they read over the past year. Here’s what they had to say.
Nalaka Gunawardene, Journalist
In this fourth in a series of books exploring the creation and evolution of the Indian Republic, Ramachandra Guha once again offers fascinating insights in engaging prose. The book’s 16 essays contain perspectives that are mostly Indian, but sometimes, Southasian or global. The contest between democracy and authoritarianism in the world’s most populous subregion could not have a better chronicler. We ignore this historian at our peril.
‘How Cheeka Became a Star and Other Dog Stories’ edited by Dhiraj Nayyar
Every dog lover has tales, but not everyone knows how to tell them well. In this heart-warming collection, noted Indians from different backgrounds come together to share their favourite dog stories. Here is evidence, if any were needed, that human-canine friendship dating back to at least 33,000 years is still strong and enriching. I returned to this book a few weeks ago when I lost my beloved canine daughter.
Dealing with hate speech, both online and offline, poses a tough balancing act for democracies committed to safeguarding freedom of speech. As digital and web technologies spread, the challenge gets harder. Strossen, a professor of constitutional law at New York Law School and the first woman national president of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), combines concepts with practical insights to argue that hate speech laws are at best ineffective and at worst counterproductive. Instead, she shows how non-censorial countermeasures are more effective – when handled well.
Vijay Prashad, Writer and historian
The difficulty of asking an editor of a publishing house what he has read over the past year is that he will be tempted to tell you what he has actually read: namely, reams of manuscript paper, some of which will eventually be out in print. Amongst those books two are particularly important to me because they are books by intellectuals of great feeling who left us this year: Samir Amin and Shujaat Bukhari.
Samir Amin remains one of the most important Marxists of his time, a thinker of Africa who developed the Marxist method and theory with its feet firmly rooted in the Third World. We, at LeftWord Books, where I work, collected Samir’s political essays from the 21st century and were fortunate to have his friend, the Marxist intellectual Aijaz Ahmad, to write the introduction.
Shujaat Bukhari (1968-2018) was assassinated in Srinagar, leaving behind his colleagues and friends bereft. Shujaat was my colleague at Frontline. He was a sensitive journalist, who wrote of his beloved Kashmir with the undying hope that peace would come to the region. At LeftWord, we collected Shujaat’s most recent writings on Kashmir, which he had published in Frontline. The book comes with a preface and foreword by the magazine’s editor and associate editor.
One of the finest books I’ve read this year has been Anabel Hernández’s A Massacre in Mexico: The True Story Behind the Missing Forty-Three Students (Verso Books, 2018). It is a gripping account of the killing of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College. A sharp book to read that gave me a useful window into the problems in the Mexican state, where a new left-leaning government – led by Andrés Manuel López Obrador – has just taken power. I wish more journalists would be able to spend the time that Anabel Hernández gave to this story, and I wish that others had her sense of style.
Manjushree Thapa, Novelist and writer
A vivid and visceral coming-of-age novel set in Nunavut by one of the most innovative indigenous voices of our times.
A deeply felt philosophical treatise on how beauty can lead to justice.
Khademul Islam, Writer and editor
This book took me back to an enchanted boyhood time of reading Jim Corbett’s non-shikar tales of the Kumaon, where the sambar ‘belled’ and an artistic Himalayan black bear made its tree nest out of white butterfly orchids. On the face of it, Delia Owens’s book is a whodunit set in the coastal marshes of North Carolina. But really, it is a stunning lyric poem about the natural beauty of wetlands, about the intricate web of life suspended between marsh starlight and lagoon stillness. With an elegiac undercurrent for an ecosystem bound to be wiped out by climate change.
Angst-inflected Parsi psychotherapist Dr Farhad Billimoria, about to jettison cabbage-grot Mumbai for the pleasure acropolis of San Francisco, hooks up with NRI hottie Zahra. In the slipstream of that encounter spins this zeitgeist tale of modern India. A light touch and warm tone defined Chandrahas’s first novel Arzee the Dwarf. In this second work, he punningly (the doctor fears his ‘sang-freud’ is faltering), winningly extends his stylistic range, proof that there’s things stirring in Indian English writing!
The continuing throttling of dissent in Bangladesh made me seek out jail-time memoirs and diaries. In 1978, Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o was detained without trial for a year in the Kamiti Maximum Security Prison. His book (written on coarse prison toilet paper), is a complex, mesmerising blend of jail-life account, meditation on the power of language, and astringent Marxist commentary on ‘neocolonial’ states and societies. Thiong’o is a writer’s writer.
“All chowkidars are chors!” is what Rahul Gandhi should be yelling, given that the Manmohan Decade figures richly (pun intended!) in this scathing account of the plunder and pillage of public goods by the barracudas of the politico-private sector. The book, laying bare the venality and excesses of India’s super rich, is the perfect antidote to the continuing media-gasm of the Ambani wedding. India’s aam aadmi is wooed and wined only when elections near; the rest of the time s/he waits by the silent phone, cruelly ghosted and gaslighted.
Madhusree Mukerjee, Writer
If it weren’t for Diya Roy, who gave this slender novel to me as a parting gift, I would likely never have picked up The Story of a Brief Marriage by Anuk Arudpragasam. I was riveted from the moment I started it, the language so simple, so natural, like the breathing it describes in so many different ways. The story is set in a war zone, and describes one day – is that all? – in the inner life of a boy, perhaps 16 or 17, at a refugee camp that is under periodic bombardment. I found myself reading the book in a packed Manhattan subway, unable to stop my tears from welling up, unable to stop reading. The book is exquisite, so delicately balanced at the edge that separates life and death, so tenderly exploring what it means to be alive when all around you is death, when at any moment you could die. It sets you inside the war zone, inside someone living in it, right through that carnage, dying if not in body then in spirit. In our times, when carnage is all around us, with Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan, all bombed to bits, this is a vital book. Because it reminds us that every life is fragile and so utterly precious and beautiful and irretrievable. I haven’t read anything so powerful in years.
Habib Zohori, Writer and journalist
Like almost everyone else, I was bewildered by the recent wave of ultra-nationalism and tribalism, and the rise of anti-democratic and authoritarian figures across the globe from Modi in India to Duterte in the Philippines, and from Putin in Russia to Trump in the US. I wanted to get to the root of the everyday racism, misogyny and tribalism. Pankaj Mishra answers all the questions that I had in my mind by casting his gaze back to the 18th century before leading us to the present.
I have read a lot of fiction. Shantaram by far is one of my favorite novels of all time. Besides being a brilliant and engaging story, Shantaram, perhaps, is among the few books written by a Western author with the least prejudice and orientalism.
We are so overwhelmed by Western thoughts, philosophy, art, literature, political theory, etc that we totally forget that there are other civilisations, and men of wisdom and intellect whose ideas and writings have contributed to the building of big nations and shaping our modern world. In From the Ruins of Empire, Pankaj Mishra introduces us to thinkers whose ideas have shaped major economic and political powers like India, China, Japan, and the Muslim world.
Beena Sarwar, Journalist
It’s about a Syrian woman refugee, and a moving love story about hope and resilience. It is a book that humanises the refugees.
A book that was written in the 1990s but is still relevant. A beautiful and moving book.
A fictional spy thriller based on the life and death of Benazir Bhutto. It is a fast-paced page turner with an unexpected ending. Though at times it stretches our suspension of disbelief, and Bhutto supporters may cringe at it – I did too, at parts – I liked the way it takes off from one little point in history.
Daniel Bosley, Journalist
This book is one of the few attempts to write history based on an oceanic region, and helped provide me with a fantastic, and desperately needed, perspective for someone living on a small speck in the middle of the Indian Ocean. The Maldives is actually mentioned just four times in the entire book, and yet understanding the broader trends of the region’s history and subsequent culture enabled me to fill in many blanks in my understanding of the country in which I am living.
Being so geographically close to Sri Lanka, with friends and family travelling there so regularly, you would think that awareness of the Sri Lankan civil war arises naturally while living in the Maldives. Unfortunately, that isn’t really the case, and this was something I was able to rectify with this book, which takes you on a journey through the lives of those affected. Essential knowledge for anyone seeking to understand the conflict, and a great example to journalists of placing people at the heart of your stories.
Hari Sharma, Political scientist
A wonderfully readable book that helps understand the complex life and times of Gandhi. However much you read of Gandhi, there is more to read.
Borges brings books, writers, philosophers, history, literature and myths together with his vast insights and knowledge. Reading him makes one realise how incomplete we are.
One is always told that economics is about numbers and data, but this book challenges that dominant perception.
Salil Tripathi, Writer and journalist
The novel is dramatic, with a fast-paced plot that retells the story of Antigone, and is a thoughtful reflection on what constitutes citizenship, identity and belonging in our uncertain times. Shamsie’s earlier novels, too, have dealt with broader political questions, but this novel acquires a sense of urgency, given the Brexit crisis and Britain’s angst and failure about defining its role after the loss of an empire.
I also liked Anuradha Roy’s novel All The Lives We Never Lived, which has a feisty protagonist, Gayatri, who follows her heart, leaving a stable but boring marriage with a patronising husband. The story is told from the perspective of her son, who receives clues late in his life which might answer some of the mysteries of why his mother disappeared.
Meera Sanyal’s The Big Reverse is crucial to our understanding of how wrong the so-called demonetisation was in India – it failed to achieve any of its rapidly-changing objectives, impoverished many, and caused significant hardship to many poor people, some of whom died. Sanyal is a banker and has a firm grasp of banking and economics, and has been active in public life. She writes the story in lucid style, making the subject accessible to readers who are curious, are willing to listen, and not necessarily experts.
Tishani Doshi’s highly timely collection of poems are moving and profound, at times jarring, and uniformly impressive.
Kandara by Manisha Joshi
Towards the end of the year, I read Manisha Joshi’s amazing 1996 collection of Gujarati poems, Kandara, which is path-breaking for its candour, surrealism and erotic sensuality.
All five books I picked are – coincidentally – written by women. I didn’t intend it that way, but that’s how it turned out. It is time we men listened more.
Namit Arora, Essayist
A superb travelogue on India’s northeastern states by a poor, struggling journalist. Rich in truth, beauty and humour, it abounds in social, political and historical insights, as well as vivid details of daily life, including the quirky and the idiosyncratic. Destined to become a classic travelogue on the region, it was first published in Hindi in 2012 and was translated into English by Anurag Basnet.
“A peaceful state never existed in South Asia,” writes Professor Singh. Her well-argued investigation into a range of historical sources shows that despite a certain emphasis on non-violence in texts and inscriptions, especially of the Buddhists and Jains, the realities of kingship and of the evolving social order in ancient India were as steeped in political violence as anywhere else in the world.
A memoir of living with bipolar disorder with which Nevatia was diagnosed in 2007. It’s a sensitive and insightful account of coping with the cycle of intense euphoria and depression, how it impacted the author’s various relationships with friends, lovers, and family, and the woeful lack of institutional expertise and public understanding of mental health in India today.
Anand Teltumbde, Scholar and activist
A very lucidly written documentation of the unrest among the youth in India during the last five years. It holds its viewpoint but expresses it in a nuanced manner and makes you ponder the condition of the youth in a country that prides itself on its democratic dividends.
A wonderful book that details the hardships faced even by educated Dalit in the first three-quarters of the 20th century, and how the horror of caste is all-pervasive. It revolves around K G Satyamurthy, a Dalit poet who cofounded the Naxalite Party and provides a controversial history of the movement.
A seminal book written by a mathematician and analytics professional explaining the dangers of the world driven by mathematical models and algorithms. It explores how some big data algorithms are increasingly used in ways that reinforce pre-existing inequality.
A very engaging and moving account of the epic journey of a woman through many wrenching obstacles: patriarchy, poverty and feudalism. A very upsetting and moving novel – one that ultimately celebrates female resolve and resilience.
A S Panneerselvan, Writer and journalist
It has an important but rare trait, rare in the documentation of Indian languages: retaining a critical distance despite the writer’s love for the language. The threat of linguistic hegemony posed by the pan-Indian nature of Sanskrit and the role of Tamil in wresting a space for heterogeneity are political realities.
It is a fascinating story about Southasians where a rigorous approach and flair go hand-in-hand to make a compelling read.
Sarah Eleazar, Journalist
I read this book for a class in which we were looking at questions of war crimes, environment and establishing causality – that is pointing fingers – and the forums where evidence is presented. Weiszman teaches at Goldsmiths, University of London, and founded the organisation Forensic Architecture, which has taken on several cases of war crimes in different parts of the world. He reconstructs evidence to expose the destruction, violence and political intervention of imperial actors on various landscapes and geographies around the world.
This book looks to expose these crimes by reversing forensic work and taking a counter-forensic approach to reveal the fabricated truths circulated by the state under the name of security, capital, surveillance and sovereignty. He explains that forensics is a method of the state, but counter-forensics operates on the margins of erasure. It deals with evidence manipulated by the state, distorted use of technology, and tampered crime scenes.
The book falls in the genre of multispecies ethnography that has emerged alongside conversations around the Anthropocene. Govindrajan looks at the ways in which human lives are intertwined with those of the animals around them, how space is shared but also contested, and how individual human-animal relations can be used to talk about larger themes of colonialism, dispossession, inequality, racism, caste, feminist theory, etc. She documents everyday acts that shape the entanglements of human and non-human lives, and asks who gets to define what counts as ethical behaviour towards animals. Her ethnography shows how ethical concerns can sometimes be used to deflect from issues of class, caste and religious politics.
This book also engages with questions of the Anthropocene and climate change, and how the distinction between life and non-life is eroding in the wake of the crisis of late liberalism. Writing in the backdrop of how Aboriginal claims on life and non-life are treated in a particular case in Australia, she discusses the politics of the late liberal world – marked by governance of difference – and challenges the Foucauldian notion of biopolitics, which is based on “the idea of making life and letting die” and theorises a new mode of power: “geontopower” which operates through the governance of life (bios) and non-life (geos).
~This list was amended on 30 January at the request of one of the contributors to the booklist.