As the year 2021 came to a close, we asked some of Himal’s contributors and Southasia’s prominent writers, translators, intellectuals and journalists about some of the most interesting books they read over the past year. Here’s what they had to say.
Geoffrey Aung (Anthropologist of Myanmar, and PhD candidate at Columbia University.)
Social Contagion: And Other Material on Microbiological Class War in China by Chuang. Charles H Kerr (2021)
Chuang is a collective of communists who locate the “China question” at the heart of contemporary capitalist contradictions. For years now, they have provided the most penetrating English-language analyses of capitalism and state power in China to be found anywhere, with a welcome emphasis on drawing out practical implications for communist struggle more broadly. This book, based on their article “Social Contagion,” published in the early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak, is an indispensable guide to understanding the contradictions of the pandemic. It argues that, far from the notion of an authoritarian state that successfully controlled the outbreak, the Chinese state dramatically failed to do so. In the absence of an effective state response, instead, what has emerged has been a genuine global catastrophe only partially held at bay by the extraordinary actions of ordinary people, including volunteer networks in Wuhan where many volunteers died trying to contain the outbreak. This is essential reading for grappling with our present reality – and the possibility of overcoming it.
All Incomplete Stefano by Harney and Fred Moten. Minor Compositions (2021)
Harney and Moten’s latest collaboration builds on their influential volume The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study, bringing forward their critical study of logistics and logistical capital, individuation and sovereignty, and the promise and possibility of collective life as such. Demanding and rewarding in turn, these essays recall and extend the Black radical tradition, ultimately articulating a partisan call, following Manolo Callahan, to renew our habits of assembly.
Cities of Salt by Abdelrahman Munif. Vintage International (1989)
First published in Beirut in 1984, Abdelrahman Munif’s marvellous novel about an unnamed Persian Gulf kingdom chronicles the discovery of oil, the social upheavals that follow, and the making of vast extractive infrastructures – ports, pipelines, impossible cityscapes – that continue to ground the epochal ecological destruction at the heart of capitalist modernity. Born in Jordan and later stripped of his Saudi citizenship, Munif’s clear-eyed literary critique of Arab authority and American oil has made his literature a guide of sorts to some of West Asia’s most penetrating analysts, from Edward Said and Robert Vitalis to Laleh Khalili. In exile, Munif once explained to Tariq Ali that “When the waters come in, the first waves will dissolve the salt and reduce these great glass cities to dust.” It is no wonder Munif’s fiction is experiencing something of a revival. Albeit decades old, there is arguably no more urgent literature for a planet on fire.
Vajra Chandrasekera (Writer, fiction editor at Strange Horizons. Based in Colombo.)
Chosen Spirits by Samit Basu. Simon & Schuster India (2020)
Samit Basu’s Chosen Spirits, published early in the pandemic in 2020 and set in the very near future, is a deeply angry novel, one of the finest speculative fiction works we’ve yet seen out of the region: a world so close to hand that it feels stranger for being so real.
Minor Detail by Adania Shibli, translated by Elisabeth Jaquette. Fitzcarraldo Editions / New Directions (2020)
The deservedly lauded Minor Detail by Adania Shibli, translated by Elisabeth Jaquette, is short and devastating – wonderful at indirection and the telling detail, both minor and otherwise, and masterful in its language and construction.
War, So Much War by Mercè Rodoreda, translated by Martha Tennent and Maruxa Relaño. Open Letter (2015)
I first encountered the work of Mercè Rodoreda this year: one of her novels I read and loved was War, So Much War, translated by Martha Tennent and Maruxa Relaño. Like Minor Detail, the title is an irony: the details are not minor, and the war, while undoubtedly present, is not the centre of the narrative. These books have different literary strategies – Chosen Spirits feels vividly, intentionally direct, whereas both Minor Detail and War, So Much War work with a kind of dreamlike, anxious indirection – but all three are books with a strong sense of history and justice, that speak plainly of what they have to say.
Swati Chawla (Historian of migration, citizenship-making, and contemporary Buddhisms in the Himalayan regions. Assistant professor at Jindal School of Liberal Arts and Humanities.)
Yasodhara and the Buddha by Vanessa R Sasson. Bloomsbury Academic (2021)
This is easily the most beautiful book I have read in many years. The title only mentions Siddhattha’s wife, Yasodhara, but Sasson’s imaginative retelling humanises several others in the Buddha’s story. The character that stayed with me was Suddhodana, his father – and the king. He wanted and needed his son to inherit the throne, and embarked upon a long and futile quest to shield him from all suffering: “He convinced himself—and tried to convince everyone else— that he could raise his son to become a king without having to raise him as a man.” Sasson’s Suddhodana is not misguided or villainous, an obstacle to be overcome in the hero’s quest, but utterly and unabashedly human as father, husband, widower, king, even gardener. Through Sasson’s characters, we experience the suffering left in the wake of the one who was destined to lead the path out of suffering: “According to the stars, the prince would achieve more than any man had ever achieved. He would, in fact, offer freedom to the entire world… But in the process, he would break everyone’s heart.”
The Truths and Lies of Nationalism: as narrated by Charvak by Partha Chatterjee. Permanent Black in association with Ashoka University (2021)
A story of India for the initiated and the uninitiated alike, this one could just as easily have been called “the truths and lies of nationalisms” for it is about the Subcontinent’s many nationalisms: colonial, postcolonial, regional, linguistic, monarchical, democratic, territorially fixated, and territorially amorphous. It was instructive to see sections on the Himalaya interspersed across different chapters of the Subcontinent’s history: our origin stories, the multi-layered histories of our borders, the postcolonial integration of the princely states, and debates around citizenship – with each episode exposing knottiness, eschewing seamlessness. There are lessons galore for students of history – be wary of words like natural and timeless; and exhortations to the youth: “immerse yourself in the language of solidarity.”
The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse by Charlie Mackesy. Ebury Press (2019)
A birthday gift this year from a dear friend who held my hand through my mother’s passing, and herself lost both parents to COVID-19 in the summer. She wrote, “I love this poignant, whimsical book, and hope you enjoy it too. As Mole says, have some cake today and everyday!” I returned to it several times this year, and approached its counsel as the voice of friendship, and, vicariously perhaps, of parental love. My favourite part:
“What’s the bravest thing you’ve ever said?” asked the boy.
“Help,” said the horse.
Shradha Ghale (Novelist, writer and researcher. Author of The Wayward Daughter.)
A Passage North: A novel by Anuk Arudpragasam. Hogarth (2021)
I accidentally came across a radio interview with this young author and was struck by his distinct sensibility, his deep but unshowy intelligence. His book did not belie my expectations. The narrator of this novel is a young Sri Lankan Tamil, much like the author. Although the book is mainly about the legacy of Sri Lanka’s civil war, the passages that impressed me most were ones that were less directly related to the war – the ageing process as shown through the narrator’s ailing grandmother, his memories of his former lover and the opposing facets of their desire, and his beautiful retellings of ancient Tamil myths.
The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-First Century by Amia Srinivasan. Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2021)
Everyone – at least in the US, where I’m based now – was talking about this book, so I became curious. In five compelling essays, philosopher Amia Srinivasan deconstructs current discourses on gender and sexuality, including the MeToo movement and the idea of “consensual sex” between teachers and students. Although at times I wondered if she was being a tad moralistic (a question she anticipates and responds to), overall, I was swept by the force of her reasoning, her richly nuanced argument and her clear, sharp prose.
The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by David Graeber and David Wengrow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2021)
David Graeber, who died in 2020 at age 59, was in my mind one of the most brilliant and interesting thinkers of our time. He was also a great writer, which makes his work immensely readable no matter how complex the subject. This book, published soon after his death, dismantles some of our most fundamental assumptions about human history. To me, it was nothing short of a revelation. Among other things, it completely altered my understanding of early societies, the nature of the encounter between Europeans and indigenous peoples, and the seeming inevitability of social hierarchy and inequality.
Palden Gyal (Doctoral candidate in Modern Tibetan and Late Imperial Chinese history at Columbia University.)
Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town by Barbara Demick. Random House (2020)
In Eat the Buddha, Demick offers us a beautifully written garland of rich and rare portraits of Tibetans struggling for the future of their culture, language, and way of life under an increasingly brutal and intransigent regime. Most importantly, Demick painfully recounts and meticulously foregrounds the voice of local Tibetans in her investigative reporting to explore why a relatively small and obscure town like Ngawa (Ngaba) became a hotbed of political dissent and the epicentre of Tibetan self-immolations in protest against the Chinese state. The book also presents a brief yet fascinating glimpse into Ngawa’s history of the early 20th century and of the Mei kingdom, one of the last independent Tibetan polities in the Sino-Tibetan borderlands that was dissolved with the advent of the PLA in the 1950s.
The Chinese Revolution on the Tibetan Frontier by Benno Weiner. Cornell University Press (2020)
The Chinese Revolution on the Tibetan Frontier provides a rare inside view of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) efforts to transform and integrate Tibetan regions into the nascent Chinese nation-state. Relying chiefly on official archival materials, Weiner demonstrates how the CCP’s rhetoric and rally against the “great Han chauvinism” of the nationalists and the promise of national autonomy for the Tibetans in the early 1950s failed to “erase empire” and “make minorities” in building a multiethnic nation-state. This gradualist policy lost its currency to the revolutionary impatience of the CCP and precipitated a violent and destructive reconfiguration of Tibetan frontier communities like Tsékhok. His discussion and analysis of the democratic reforms and the revolts of 1958 in Eastern Tibet also offer fresh insights into this tumultuous period of modern Tibetan history.
Mushfiq Mohamed (Lawyer, writer, and human rights activist working on the Maldives.)
The Last Girl: My Story of Captivity, and My Fight against the Islamic State by Nadia Murad and Jenna Krajeski. Virago (2018)
Nadia Murad’s memoir of surviving the ISIS-led Yazidi genocide, The Last Girl, is a book that fearlessly and viscerally describes Kocho, her northern Iraqi village descending into sectarian violence. It perfectly illustrates how genocide finds fertile ground in a history of apathy, discrimination, exclusion, and reprisals. In August 2014, ISIS rounded up and killed most men and the elderly, including Nadia’s mother and six brothers. Young Yezidi women, like Nadia, were abducted, raped and sold to terrorists. Her story is nuanced despite the innumerable harrowing experiences wrought by terrorism. Nadia’s gripping escape from sexual violence is woven into the cycles of failed Western intervention that created the political climate for groups like ISIS to thrive and turn genocidal language into acts of violence.
The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by David Graeber and David Wengrow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2021)
David Graeber and David Wengrow’s book examine the facile and romanticised ideas around modernity and inequality. This book reads like a postcolonial critique of the Eurocentric story of human civilisation. Armed with anthropology and archaeology, the two writers render a critical view of the enduring narrative of hunter-gatherers, as bands of foragers; becoming modern humans, hierarchical and organised into nation-states. They argue that the idea of the early man remaining in a prolonged state of primitive bliss is ahistorical and a highly circulated myth. In this bold and mammoth work, Graeber and Wengrow also argue that mutually constitutive narratives of the Enlightenment, as formed in particular through the consolidation of indigenous and European knowledge, have been systematically erased. The culprit of the anxious present, they say, is a ‘linear sense of time’ that fails to question the fault lines between popular ideas of ‘modern’ and ‘primaeval’.
Amish Raj Mulmi (Writer, editor, and author of All Roads Lead North: Nepal’s Turn to China.)
The Frontier Complex: Geopolitics and the Making of the India-China Border 1846-1962 by Kyle J Gardner. Cambridge University Press (2021)
This is a detailed monograph about how an undemarcated Himalayan frontier in the Ladakh region came to be incorporated and contested by India and China in the modern era, and how the Himalayan borderlands were transformed into frontier zones of the centre’s ambitions.
There’s Gunpowder in the Air by Manoranjan Byapari, translated by Arunava Sinha. Eka (2018)
Byapari’s short novel based on his own experiences in prison as a Naxalite in the 1970s is a powerful tale that resonates as much today as in the past. This is a story from the margins, told in an impeccable voice, and brilliantly translated by Arunava Sinha. A Southasian classic.
Demoting Vishnu: Ritual, Politics, and the Unraveling of Nepal’s Hindu Monarchy by Anne T Mocko. Oxford University Press (2015)
While the chronology of the political collapse of the Nepali monarchy is well-known, very little has been written about the monarchy’s deep-rooted cultural affiliations, and how they were handled in the aftermath of Nepal turning into a republic. Mocko’s excellent monograph details the cultural side of the monarchy’s fall, starting with the symbols and the rituals of monarchy that needed to be replaced in a republic Nepal. Highly recommended for anyone interested in how culture intersects with politics, and for those surprised at the popularity of the cult of the Hindu monarchy in Nepal.
Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town by Barbara Demick. Random House (2020)
Demick’s narrative about Ngaba, a Tibetan town that was the epicentre of self-immolations between 2008-2012, and its people creates a rich and nuanced historical tapestry about why China has never been able to assimilate Tibet within its nationalist narrative. Profiling different individuals, this is a book about generations, about resistance to imperialism, about the will to survive, and about a history that is purposefully erased.
Thant Myint-U (Writer, conservationist, and historian of Myanmar.)
Conquistadores: A New History of Spanish Discovery and Conquest by Fernando Cervantes. Viking (2021)
A superb retelling of the story of the conquest of the New World, which brilliantly illuminates the world-view of the Spanish invaders themselves and which sets their brutal actions within the context of both Iberian politics and the native American societies they encountered and soon destroyed. Drawing on the most recent scholarship and written with great narrative flair, the book is almost impossible to put down.
India in the Persianate Age: 1000-1765 by Richard M Eaton. University of California Press (2019)
The best book on Southasian history I’ve read in a long time, a masterpiece that entirely reframes India between the eleventh and nineteenth centuries, not as a period of Muslim conquest but a time of unique and complex interaction between Persian and Sanskrit language-based cultures. The most authoritative account we have of pre-colonial India.
The Horde: How the Mongols Changed the World by Marie Favereau. Belknap Press: Harvard University Press (2021)
A wonderful window into the world of the Golden Horde, a nuanced and exciting history that reveals not only how the Mongols conquered much of today’s western Russia and Ukraine but how they ruled these vast regions, adding enormously to our understanding of nomadic peoples as key drivers of the story of Eurasia. Integrative history at its best.
Shabnam Nadiya (Writer and translator of Bangla literature.)
The Woman in the Purple Skirt: A Novel by Natsuko Imamura, translated from Japanese by Lucy North. Penguin Books (2021)
The Woman in the Yellow Cardigan starts off by telling us that the Woman in the Purple Skirt is a local celebrity of sorts and everyone is interested in her doings. Are they, though? How much can we trust the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan? The novel, a quick read which is creepy, quirky but funny, focuses on workplace politics in a working class setting, loneliness, manipulation and obsession. It’s one of those stories where the more the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan talks about the Woman in the Purple Skirt, the more she reveals about herself. The narrator’s absurd, slightly sad, odd fascination with another woman subtly grows darker and darker as you read on (if you’re not paying attention, you’re likely to miss ‘innocent’ details that point towards stalkerish behaviour) although clearly she sees nothing wrong with it, until everything comes crashing down. Lucy North’s deft translation manages to keep the tone understated yet ominous throughout. And it all starts with a simple description of Purple Skirt’s habits and the frank confession, “I think what I’m trying to say is that I’ve been wanting to become friends with the Woman in the Purple Skirt for a very long time.”
When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife by Meena Kandasamy. Atlantic Books (2017)
I put off reading Kandasamy’s novel for several years; as a survivor of intimate partner violence, I knew it would gut me. The book is an unflinching look at what violence within the intimate sphere can look like and the different forms it can take. I was also appreciative of how she showed the continuum that this kind of violence operates across (from psychological manipulation to brutal rape), the enabling dynamics of Southasia families and broader communities, and the vicious reality of domestic violence in progressive spaces (both the protagonist and her husband were active in the communist movement). Graphic, propulsive, and lyrical, the first-person narrative voice of When I Hit You is also, unexpectedly at times, funny. “I must learn that a Communist woman is treated equally and respectfully by comrades in public but can be slapped and called a whore behind closed doors. This is dialectics.”
A Silent Fury: The El Bordo Mine Fire by Yuri Herrera, translated from Spanish by Lisa Dillman. And Other Stories (2020)
“Silence is not the absence of history, it’s a history hidden beneath shapes that must be deciphered,” Herrera tells us. The most striking thing about Yuri Herrera’s non-fiction book (most ably translated by Lisa Dillman) is how he uses absence and silence to drive home his point about injustice and the callous disregard the powerful have for the lives of ordinary people. Herrera revisits his hometown Pachuca in Mexico to delve into an old tragedy: in 1920, 87 labourers were locked underground by the mine-bosses to die in a fire. When the mine was opened again, in addition to the welter of dead bodies, there were seven survivors.
Searing, rage-inducing, and exact, this is a tale of corporate greed as old as time indeed. It was impossible for me to not think of my country of birth, Bangladesh, where worker deaths – sometimes in the hundreds – from factory fires caused by corruption, negligence and avarice are as inexorable as the change of seasons.
Timothy Nunan (Author of Humanitarian Invasion: Global Development in Cold War Afghanistan, and lecturer in the Department of Global History at the Free University of Berlin.)
The American war in Afghanistan: A history by Carter Malkasian. Oxford University Press (2021)
Why did the American-backed government in Kabul fall so swiftly to the Taliban in August 2021? Was the American mission in Afghanistan doomed from the start? Readers seeking to make sense of the longest war in American history will do well to start with this history from Carter Malkasian. Malkasian’s experience as a political advisor in Afghanistan gives him insight into the inner workings of American policy toward the region; but he also approaches the conflict as a historian and with a wide range of sources, including Pashto-language sources from the Taliban. Malkasian takes the reader into the labyrinth of Washington policymaking and Hamid Karzai’s juggling of intra-Pashtun relations. But he also explores what the war meant for Afghans through figures like Afghan feminist and politician Shukria Barakzai; the poetry of Taliban fighters; and stories of martyred police officers and soldiers drawn from his work in southern Afghanistan. As figures associated with the Trump Administration and the two Afghan governments of Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani attempt to spin their narrative of events in months to come, Malkasian’s work offers an essential touchstone for making sense of the American war in Afghanistan.
Imperial Mecca: Ottoman Arabia and the Indian Ocean Hajj by Michael Christopher Low. Columbia University Press (2020)
The Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted nearly every sphere of life around the world, not least the hajj to Mecca. Prior to the pandemic, some 1.8 million foreign pilgrims travelled to Saudi Arabia every year for the event, a quarter of which arrived from Pakistan, India or Bangladesh. The pandemic forced Saudi Arabia to curtail the scale of the pilgrimage, banning foreign visitors and allowing only a limited number of Saudis and foreigners in the country to perform the hajj. Yet as Michael Christopher Low shows in his book, 2020 was not the first time that public health transformed the hajj and the politics of its administration. Low shows how the intersection of the Indian Rebellion of 1857 and cholera pandemics led British officials to see the hajj to Mecca as a potential vector for pan-Islamism and pandemics. Drawing masterfully on sources from British and Ottoman archives, Low shows how London and Istanbul competed over control of the hajj to Mecca through new public health infrastructures and consular claims to represent pilgrims from the Subcontinent in the Two Holy Cities. Imperial Mecca uses the hajj to explore the geopolitics of global public health. As uncertainty prevails over the fate of the 2022 hajj and countries have erected entry restrictions based on vaccination status, Low’s book reads as a history of the present.
Wazhmah Osman (Academic, filmmaker, and assistant professor in Media Studies and Production at Temple University. Author of Television and the Afghan Culture Wars: Brought to You by Foreigners, Warlords, and Activists.)
Games without Rules: The Often-Interrupted History of Afghanistan by Tamim Ansary. PublicAffairs (2014)
History repeats itself and nowhere is that more true than in Afghanistan. In Games without Rules, Tamim Ansary, who is one of my favourite Afghan-American authors, tells the history of Afghanistan from 1840 to today, showing the efforts of locals to build a better society and the constant disruption and destruction of those efforts every forty to sixty years by powerful empires with their own ambitious geopolitical agendas.
One Story, Thirty Stories: An Anthology of Contemporary Afghan American Literature edited by Zohra Saed and Sahar Muradi. University of Arkansas Press (2010)
One Story, Thirty Stories is also a wonderful volume edited by two of my favourite writers and poets, Zohra Saed and Sahar Muradi, featuring the creatively told personal stories of young multicultural Afghans.
Afghan Modern: The History of a Global Nation by Robert D Crews. Belknap Press: Imprint of Harvard University Press (2015)
I’ve also been rereading historian Robert Crews’ Afghan Modern. It offers a refreshingly alternative view of Afghans, one that focuses on change, reform, and global interconnections. Crews and I are currently writing Afghanistan: A Very Short Introduction (forthcoming with Oxford University Press). We both seek to redress the dominant view of Afghan history, which is one of a people and culture bound by regressive traditional practices, tribalism, despotism, and failure. Certainly, there is some truth to those stereotypes, but there have also been many progressive reformers, women and men, who had a pan-Asian vision and wanted to create a modern Afghanistan at peace with its neighbour.
Sarita Pariyar (Kathmandu-based writer, activist, and founding convener of the international Darnal Award for Social Justice.)
The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story edited by Caitlin Roper, Ilena Silverman and Jake Silverstein. Created by Nikole Hannah-Jones and The New York Times Magazine. One World (2021)
The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story was created by Pulitzer Prize winning, New York Times Magazine journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones. This painstaking work is an extraordinary collection of long essays, brilliant short fiction based on historical events, bone-chilling poems, and powerful photographs. Even those who already have a basic understanding of the US racial caste system will feel like these powerful expressions have walked into a dimmed room and opened the window. It is a must-read book.
The 1619 Project: Born on the Water by Nikole Hannah-Jones and Renée Watson. Kokila (2021)
Born on the Water by Nikole Hannah-Jones and Renée Watson is written in lyrical verse with strong emotions and deep knowledge. The illustrations by Nikkolas Smith are extraordinary. This book brings to light a new narrative on the history of Black Americans in the US, and powerfully demonstrates why their story is not an immigration story. Every word undermines the idea that a racial caste system is only a phenomenon of the past. This book stands not only to inspire Black children and adults, but also to ignite oppressed communities to define who they are beyond their US experience.
Hurmat Ali Shah (Journalist and writer focused on Pashtun socio-political and cultural issues, history and Islam.)
What Is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic by Shahab Ahmed. Princeton University Press (2015)
This book has, over the last few years, achieved much-deserved popular as well as critical acclaim. I got to read this book a year and a half back and since then haven’t stopped recommending it to anyone wanting to know Islam. Shahab Ahmad opens with the most fundamental of questions, for our era to say the least, about what Islam really is through six questions. What follows is not only a thorough engagement with the historical and philosophical context and practice of Islam, but also a detailed critical assessment of available scholarship on the subject.
Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution by David Harvey. Verso (2013)
David Harvey assesses the role of developing cities as the primary mechanism through which capital is circulated and absorbed. The urban expansion which is happening throughout the world can be seen in the context of capital replicating itself but in the process consuming local cultures, spaces and distinct histories. But the book also discusses how the same urbanisation process which has become an instrument for powers of capitalism can be used as venues of anti-capitalism organising and mobilisation.
Cities of Salt by Abdelrahman Munif. Munif. Vintage International (1989)
This classic of Arab literature, or for that matter world literature, is engrossing from the first page and tells the story of how ‘modernisation’ brought by the oil industry disturbed or uprooted a whole way of life. Although I have yet to finish this book, the power of depicting the human condition in an oasis has made it one of my favourite fiction books of all time. The story of how the ‘new’ comes to existence is always ensnared with violence. This book details the subtle and otherwise violence that accompanied the process of ‘modernisation’.
Mallika Shakya (Sociologist, Senior Assistant Professor at South Asian University, and author of Death of an Industry: The Cultural Politics of Garment Manufacturing During the Maoist Revolution in Nepal.)
2021 has been called a year of reflection. The pandemic forced us into social distancing but it also allowed deeper bonding between those within homes. Especially for women raising children, this has been a year of intense motherhood. Working mothers have had to strive for and cope with new (im)balances between life and work. The three books I list here reflect my personal foray into pandemic-era mothering, poeting and intellectuating.
The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou by Maya Angelou. (1994)
Poems is a collection of over 150 short poems by legendary poet and performer Maya Angelou whose legacy became all the more relevant as the little brown and black girls from around the world watched the rise of Kamala Harris (and Joe Biden) amid the coronavirus (and Donald Trump) crisis. Better known poems in this volume including “Still I Rise” and “Phenomenal Woman” have become classics in their own right but lesser known ones like “Harlem Hopscotch”, “Bump d’Bump” and “Life Doesn’t Frighten Me” speak to the younger audience in a voice ringing with pity and despair but also courage, hope and playfulness.
Do Parents Matter? Why Japanese Babies Sleep Soundly, Mexican Siblings Don’t Fight, and American Families Should Just Relax by Robert A. LeVine and Sarah LeVine. PublicAffairs (2016)
Not many academics choose to write fun books but the two accomplished (and married) anthropologists Robert and Sarah LeVine provoke parenting in a compelling and culturally nuanced way. It weaves anecdotes from their fifty-year study of how families work in faraway places ranging from Yemen to Nigeria and Mexico to Nepal. Written as storytelling, this book is a gripping read, especially for those exploring parenting beyond stereotypical ‘family-ness’ but also the mega-industry of parenting toolkits and templates.
Classes of Labour: Work and Life in a Central Indian Steel Town by Jonathan Parry. Routledge (2020)
Classes of Labour is Professor Jonathan Parry’s magnum opus which consolidates over two decades of fieldwork and engagement into an ethnographically rich account that runs over seven hundred pages. For a scholar who was earlier occupied with the spirituality and scrupulousness of death in Varanasi, probing of labour in a modern industrial town has also meant probing of lifestyles, kinship, marriage and suicide. This book is state of the art in the way it rescues labour from reifying dichotomies and situates class as an emerging anchor while reinterpreting caste and culture in the context of Southasian modernity.
Makepeace Sitlhou (Independent journalist and researcher covering India’s Northeast for several international publications.)
The Silent Coup: A History of India’s Deep State by Josy Joseph. Context (2021)
At a time like now in India, or really any other time in history, questions of accountability never seem to go much further than corruption and economic growth. A lot of systemic injustices and violations of civil and human rights have been reasoned, if not justified, under national interest or national security that simply should not be questioned lest we, the citizens, be called ‘anti nationals’. Joseph’s The Silent Coup puts a spanner to the status quo narrative by raising uncomfortable questions over the actions of intelligence and state agencies in past instances of ‘security threats’ to the country. This book is not only a must-read for every Indian but would easily speak to anyone in the world open and curious about what governments do and get away with in the “service to their nation”.
No Land’s People: The Untold Story of Assam’s NRC crisis by Abhishek Saha. Harper Collins India (2021)
When the National Register of Citizens in a relatively lesser known part of India first made international headlines in 2018, it shook ‘mainland’ India and the world. While the NRC continues to make news more than two years since it was published, little is still known and understood of its antecedents and history in the context of Assam, colonial partition of Bengal and the creation of Bangladesh. With the NRC threatening to disenfranchise 1.9 million people that didn’t make it to the list, Saha’s book is the very first primer on the exercise and faithful record of his reportage over two years in Assam. While the book could have thrown a few more punches, No Land’s People very illustratively illuminates the reader of the inner workings of a bureaucracy and just how unprecedentedly dangerous such a tool is in the hands of any government or country.
Shash Trevett (Poet, translator and Ledbury Critic.)
A God at the Door by Tishani Doshi. Bloodaxe Books (2021)
2021 has been a wonderfully enriching year for poetry. Tishani Doshi’s masterful fourth collection, A God at the Door, shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Collection, examines with humour and precision of vision both the micro and macro poetics of everyday life.
Writing the Camp by Yousif M Qasmiyeh. Broken Sleep Books (2021)
This is a hybrid collection of prose and lyrical poetry, by a poet born and raised in Baddawi Refugee Camp, Lebanon. This phenomenal collection defies easy categorisation: it is part autobiography, part poetry of witness, part an examination of the fluidity of memory and identity.
Utøya Thereafter: Poems in Memory of the 2011 Norway Attacks by Harry Man and Endre Ruset. Hercules Editions (2021)
This is a collaboration between British poet Harry Man and Norwegian poet Endre Ruset. Working between the two languages, this is a book of elegies for the young people killed in Oslo and on Utøya Island, by Neo-Nazi Anders Behring Breivik. Written in concrete form (in the shape of faces) these are tightly crafted, deeply moving poems which memorialise and celebrate the lives behind the statistics and was a worthy winner of the Stephen Spender Prize 2021.
Finally, I would like to celebrate Poetry Journals which work tirelessly to bring new poetry to readers. Worthy of mention in the UK are Poetry Birmingham Literary Journal (ed. Naush Sabah), an exciting new journal which is cutting edge in its editorial approach and in the poetry it publishes. The long-running Modern Poetry in Translation (ed. Clare Pollard) which has been the doorway through which global poetry has entered Britain since 1965. The work of Adda (the online literary magazine of the Commonwealth Foundation), especially their 4 issue series Translations: South & Southeast Asia, which featured a treasure trove of translations from 15 languages across the region.
Suchitra Vijayan (Founder and Executive Director of The Polis Project, and the author of Midnight’s Borders: A People’s History of Modern India.)
Prelude to a Riot: A Novel by Annie Zaidi. Aleph Book Company (2019)
Annie Zaidi’s Prelude to a Riot is a slim novel of great erudition, fearlessness, and a chilling account of our present. Zaidi is India’s finest writer who consistently writes with courage and compassion. A writer at the height of her literary powers.
Despite the State: Why India Lets Its People Down and how They Cope by M Rajshekhar. Context (2021)
M Rajshekhar’s Despite the State is a story of India’s democratic decay told through in-depth research and reporting, with an eye for detail. Rajshekhar shines as a journalist who tells uncomfortable truths and challenges the many truisms accepted by false gods of what development means for democracy.
Unsettling Utopia: The Making and Unmaking of French India by Jessica Namakkal. Columbia University Press (2021)
Namakkal is an important young historian to watch out for, and a joy to read. In this book, she complicates the messy histories of postcolonial French India, and through her work dismantles the many imposed and accepted categories of how to write local history as global history. An important work that furthers the conversation about writing postcolonial history and understanding settler-colonial societies.
Benno Weiner (Author of The Chinese Revolution on the Tibetan Frontier and Associate Professor of History at Carnegie Mellon University.)
Monkey King: Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en, translated by Julia Lovell. Penguin Classics (2021)
At once irreverent, spiritual, subversive, satirical, bawdy, action-packed, and a bit bizarre, Journey to the West (Xiyouji) or Monkey King is among the most beloved and irrepressible works of Chinese literature. Reimagined repeatedly over centuries by storytellers, dramatists, animators, and more, Julia Lovell’s wonderful, playful, and mercifully condensed new translation updates for modern audiences the classic story of Monkey and his band of pilgrims as they travel to India to recover original Buddhist scriptures.
In the Camps: China’s High-Tech Penal Colony by Darren Bylar. Columbia Global Reports (2021)
Essential, accessible, erudite, empathetic, and deeply troubling. Told through individual stories of a handful of the hundreds of thousands trapped within China’s “extrajudicial mass internment program,” In the Camps is required reading for anyone who wants to better understand the plight of Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in China today, and more generally for those concerned about the proliferation and deployment of new hi-tech methods of state surveillance and control over vulnerable populations.
Forbidden Memory: Tibet during the Cultural Revolution by Tsering Woeser. Potomac Books (2020)
As a poet, essayist, blogger, and independent researcher, Tsering Woeser has long been among the most prominent, thoughtful, and courageous Tibetan public intellectuals working within China. Featuring roughly three hundred photographs taken by her father in Lhasa during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) and containing a terrific introduction by Robert Barnett to situate readers, Forbidden Memory is a visually stunning and deeply personal exploration of victimhood and culpability, violence and loss, culture, language, identity, and much more.
Shamara Wettimuny (Historian and doctoral candidate working on identity and religious violence in Sri Lanka at the University of Oxford.)
Agent Sonya: Moscow’s Most Daring Wartime Spy by Ben Macintyre. Crown Publishing Group NY (2020)
This is the most recent book by my favourite author, Ben Macintyre, who for the first time follows a woman’s path to and life in espionage during the Second World War and early Cold War. Ursula Kuczynski, codenamed Sonya, was a German Jew who witnessed the rise of fascism in Berlin during the 1920s, and the violence and chaos of 1930s China. Her recruitment by the KGB, and her advancement to a colonel within the KGB’s ranks for services rendered in China, Switzerland and Britain are told in typically nail-biting fashion by Macintyre. As an aside, two other fascinating books by Macintyre that I would swear by – for historical insight and pure excitement – are The Spy and the Traitor, and Operation Mincemeat.
When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism, and the Genocide in Rwanda by Mahmood Mamdani. Princeton University Press (2002)
I read this in 2020 not 2021 but felt this deserved mention because of its resonance in postcolonial, post-war societies like Sri Lanka. In this book about the politicisation of indigeneity in Rwanda, Mamdani explores a type of violence that can be more closely defined as ‘racial’ cleansing. Mamdani’s scholarship remains highly relevant today as he offers his readers a lens through which we can understand the construction and deployment of ‘race’ during both our colonial past and our ultra-nationalist present. Crucially, he focuses on the way laws can breathe ‘political life’ into group identities, and how such laws can be used to discriminate against certain groups with disastrous, and violent consequences.
Slave in a Palanquin: Colonial Servitude and Resistance in Sri Lanka by Nira Wickramasinghe. Columbia University Press (2020)
Nira Wickramasinghe’s award-winning book on slavery in colonial Sri Lanka pulls back the cobwebs on previously obscured narratives of enslaved men and women. Slave in a Palanquin also centres the island of Sri Lanka in the trans-Indian Ocean movement of slaves, and makes a valuable contribution to the growing body of scholarship on Indian Ocean slavery during the early modern and modern periods. Through an extraordinary use of slave registers as sources, Wickramasinghe offers a “descent into the ordinary” and a chilling reminder of the ways in which slavery endured and was endured less than 200 years ago in Sri Lanka.
Suraj Yengde (Scholar, writer and author of Caste Matters.)
Republic of Caste: Thinking Equality in the Time of Neoliberal Hindutva by Anand Teltumbde. Navayana Publishing (2018)
Republic of Caste is one of the most urgent and profound texts by India’s most cherished organic intellectuals. His collection of essays in this book has put into question the entire paradigm of India and its scalar political program. Teltumbde holds no loyalties to mediocrity. He draws his knives at everyone who stands in the way of change. His concerns are poor people’s concerns and that is why he echoes their frustrations through the critique of constitution, neoliberalism, casteism, Hindutva, reservation, Naxalism. Teltumbde is currently incarcerated without trial for over twenty months.
The Impossible Indian: Gandhi and the Temptations of Violence by Faisal Devji. Harvard University Press (2012)
Faisal Devji is easily our generation’s most gifted intellectual historian. His subjects are novel and nuanced. He pairs his vision with critical sentiments, so the calibre of the individual(s) he is studying and their political project is analysed for the public good. Devji has done that brilliantly with Gandhi’s objectification of violence. Gandhi brought spiritual moralism and violence to anti-imperial struggles. He did not shy away from the idea of death and sacrifice that relates him to other 20th-century revolutionaries.
An Uneasy Embrace: Africa, India and the Spectre of Race by Shobana Shankar. C Hurst; Co Publishers (2021)
An Uneasy Embrace was such a compelling read. It charts out African, Indian, and African Indian relationships, especially the Afro-Dravidian connections. Afrocentrism and Dravid culture provided a critique of white supremacy and dominant caste hegemony for someone like Senghor. This book has vignettes of personal stories, and is an anthropology of a community in West Africa; it unpacks Third World politics, and postcolonial politics of race. Hinduism’s Black Atlantic Itinerary proffers a complicated picture of Hindu presence in the settled colonies that speaks to diaspora. I learnt that there are African Hindu monks, a Ghanian Hinduism that is bereft of caste, and it works with indigenous ideas about mixing African spiritualism.
Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion by Jia Tolentino. Random House (2019)
Trick Mirror is a coming-of-age text essential for parents and children alike. It is a cultural commentary on various issues from social media to the current generation’s urgencies. The author calls this “self-delusion”. It is a message to everyone trapped in the cage of superiorities and inferiorities of self. It is an easy read and catered to people generally interested in various dimensions of contemporary life – internet, sexism, left activism, conservatives, scams, libertarians, and money.
Read What has Southasia been reading: 2018 Edition