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Books

The Wire Recommends: Books We Read and Loved This Year

The Wire's staff brings you a list of books – some old and some new – that gave us some peace, joy and insight in the midst of everything else.

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As another year draws to a close – one that brought with it more uncertainty, loss and fear – The Wire‘s staff brings you a list of books – some old and some new – that gave us some peace, joy and insight in the midst of everything else. We hope you all have a safe and warm end of year, perhaps in the company of a book that brings you similar happiness.

1. Ismat Ara: Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb

When COVID-19 hit in 2020, I suffered the worst kind of anxiety. Almost desperately, I started therapy to deal with it. After the second wave, the SOS messages for oxygen and hospital beds, condolence messages doing the rounds and closely seeing the destruction it caused, my anxiety went through the roof.

A few months later, I came across this book neatly kept in a friend’s bookshelf. I was still dealing with some leftover anxiety, depression and trauma. I picked it up for the pretty blue on the cover and the catchy title. I opened a page and was instantly hooked because of the subject and writing style.

Gottlieb’s personal experiences as well as her client’s experiences described in the book all point to one very significant fact – the “presenting problem” after which someone joins therapy is often just the tip of the iceberg, only the shell of the coconut. This is exactly what had happened with me, I thought. The presenting problem was COVID-19, but of course as I realised over a period of time, there was a lot, lot more underneath.

Throughout the book, we learn about a young newlywed who is diagnosed with terminal cancer, an old woman with a sad life story who is determined to kill herself on her next birthday, a narcissistic film producer and a young girl addicted to alcohol and stuck in a cycle of toxic relationships. (Voyeurism? Gottlieb, in an author’s note, says that she took all the clients’ consent and went to extreme lengths to disguise their identities.)

We not only hear about the experiences of the author as a therapist and her exchanges with her patients, but also about her own journey with her therapist.

Maybe the book worked for me because I was dealing with a hard time. Maybe we all are?

2. Soumashree Sarkar: Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-joo and translated by Jamie Chang

The woman Kim Jiyoung came out of South Korea and is very deeply Korean, but she could have come out of any country. Within layers of economic development is nestled comfortable prejudice against women – and Korea is no exception. The book is brutal and brutally written, with little narrative artifice. Nothing distracts the author from delivering a clear idea of the matter-of-fact injustice women go through in every step of life and work. Some truths it recognises are stirring, like how the book sees the role that money plays in determining all relationships between men and women, even those deemed traditionally romantic.

In spite of its popularity and its role as a rite of passage into Korean culture, the novel is an outlier. As popularity of Korean music and drama soars, this book helps ground a fan – as it did to me. It is also truly enjoyable.

3. Mitali Mukherjee: On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

“They say nothing lasts forever but they’re just scared it will last longer than they can love it.”

I cannot recall where I read about the book or who recommended it, but I remember clearly being struck by the beauty of the cover right away. Book covers are art forms, and the cover of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is at once stunning and evocative of the author’s cultural roots.

A reviewer described On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous as a “devastatingly beautiful first novel” and that seems like the most complete way to describe Vuong’s writing.

This is a coming-of-age story by a young Vietnamese American writer. The layers of trauma he slowly reveals are heartbreakingly sad to read and yet gilded in such beauty through his masterful embrace of writing.

The story itself is two chords. It weaves between the experiences of the author’s mother and grandmother in Vietnam through and after the war and of the boy they raise together, who is beaten often and violently by his mentally ill (yet affectionate) mother, schoolmates who throw racist jeers at him and the bone cracking sorrow that living in poverty brings.

He finds love briefly, and also faces the truth of his sexuality in a love affair with another young teenage boy.

The book alternates between a letter the author is writing to his illiterate mother, to lived experiences for the family in the dystopic land they now call home, America.

It is a cliché to say great pain births great beauty, in writing, art, dance or any other creative expression. But this book is searing in both the beauty of every word and the deep ache each sentence weaves.

In a year that has been marked by sorrow and loss, for many across the world and certainly our country, the reason I’d love for people to read this book is because even at the depth of our grief, sorrow and suffering, human beings turn to the light. And I hope we always will.

4. Faiyaz Ahmad Wajeeh: Hajur Aama by Shabbir Ahmed

I’d heard the term hajur aama before reading this novel. Someone in Nepal had told me that’s what you call your paternal grandmother, or dadi in Hindi.

As the book’s title suggests, it’s about the story of a woman, her citizenship and her identity. Then again, as Maya Angelou’s words from ‘Phenomenal Women’ quoted in the book suggest, it’s about a lot more than that. Stories of women tend to be of course.

It’s in the reach of my arms,
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Shabbir Ahmed’s book is 460 pages long, which you may not notice because it is remarkably readable. The story of Deb Leena, a woman who comes from the Dalit Bhadi community, lingered foremost in my mind after.

Hajur Aama’s vocabulary, dialogues and ideas recall contemporary discourses around the Constitution, protests, freedom of speech, religion, nationalism, country and government – a reminder that fighting for one is to fight for all of them at once.

“You can’t belong to this country,” someone says. “You people talk of breaking it into pieces, raising anti-national slogans?” Just like that, the text resembles a clear reflection of the solidarity at Shaheen Bagh, the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, Muslims and the leadership of women. Especially the dadis, our hajur aama.

Here, I remember why Ahmed believes that “fiction writers are liars”. The biggest lie of the novel is that it mirrors contemporary politics, in the garb of fiction. Hajur aama deals with the existence of a particular community, but it is also the story of the existence of women. Ahmed touches on issues like their freedom to have sex, to drink, to marry, and so on. Its spirit ranges from gritty to poetic to the mythological, including one dream sequence that takes us back a thousand years.

This novel deserves to reach everyone, whether or not they understand Urdu.

5. Siddharth Varadarajan: Five books

Of the new and older books I got around to reading this year, Jyotirmaya Sharma’s Elusive Non-Violence: The Making and Unmaking of Gandhi’s Religion of Ahimsa (2021), and Antonio Skarmeta’s The Dancer and the Thief (2003) really stand out. Sharma’s book traces the emergence and maturation of the ‘religion’ and politics of nonviolence in Gandhi’s thought but also offers rich insights into the debates around Hinduism and Hindu-Muslim relations that pitted Gandhi against Swami Shraddhanand of the Arya Samaj, V.D. Savarkar of the Hindu Mahasabha and other figures of the period. The contemporary significance of Sharma’s latest work for us today – which follows his landmark books on Hindutva, Savarkar and Vivekanand – cannot be understated.

Skarmeta’s book, to my mind, confirms his place as the leading literary conscience keeper of Chile with a story of love, poverty, violence and crime set against the backdrop of his country’s painful return journey to democracy. If his Burning Patience, made into the hit film Il Postino, took us up to the Pinochet coup, The Dancer and the Thief begins in 1988, the year a national plebiscite saw the dictator lose control. The book was lying with me for years, unread, when I chanced upon and finished it in a single sitting – coincidentally just a week before the socialist Gabriel Boric’s spectacular election as president. Could that be the happy ending Skarmeta’s novel couldn’t deliver?

I also read, and recommend, Sudhir Hazareesingh’s Black Spartacus: The Epic Life of Toussaint Louverture (2020) – whose complex account of the great liberator of Haiti extends and retells a story first made familiar to many by C.L.R. James in the Black Jacobins – and Sanjib Baruah’s In the Name of the Nation: India and its Northeast (2021), a book that is essential to understanding the longer history and significance of the events now playing out in Assam and Nagaland.

Against the recent calls for the genocide of Muslims made by various Hindutva groups in India, I cannot also resist mentioning a fifth book, also an older one, that I read this year: The Mark of Cain: Guilt and Denial in the Post-War Lives of Nazi Perpetrators (2013) by Katharina von Kellenbach. The Biblical analogy – Cain’s murder of Abel – didn’t move me as much as her accounts of how ordinary Germans consciously papered over their own moral culpability for not taking a stand against the Nazi’s genocide of the Jews. Even when it was safe to do so, after 1945, many Germans preferred not to insist on an accounting of the crimes committed – sometimes by members of their own family –  in the name of the German people. Despite this handicap, “the political culture of Germany has shifted its energies from hiding and whitewashing its past toward commemoration, reparation, and reconciliation”. In India, our political culture is taking us towards genocide. Let it not be that future historians look back at our time and scratch their heads in puzzlement over our silence.

6. Jahnavi Sen: Cantoras by Carolina de Robertis

There is something unequivocally special about being by the sea – it brings a silence, an awe, a thrill, somehow all of that and more. In Cantoras, Carolina de Robertis captures that very feeling, as well as the magic of finding people who instantly make you feel like you belong, like you have been able to find love, find a home, in a time and place otherwise marked by uncertainty, fear and violence.

Set in 1977 Uruguay, where a military government is making sure dissenting voices are immediately strangled, Cantoras follows the lives, loves and friendship of five queer women, brought together by chance and bound together by ties that are intense enough to be almost other-worldly, yet are imminently believable.

Beyond all else, this book is an homage to solidarity, to love and friendship, and to loyalty. Like all of those things, the book brings with it joy and heartbreak, laughter and tears – and for me, it was worth every minute.

7. Pariplab Chakraborty: The Arrival by Shaun Tan

Producing art works in tune with the news cycle sometimes puts you in a non-creative limbo. As I was suffering from post-COVID brain fog during the disastrous second wave this year, I started reading and re-reading Shaun Tan’s silent graphic novel, The Arrival. It took me ten minutes each time to complete the entire book. Tan has refused to use words and language to narrate a story; the images in sequence create an independent narration.

The Arrival tells a story of an immigrant father who leaves his home to find better livelihood opportunities. The book eloquently encapsulates his struggle to find a new home and job, all his everyday negotiations with a new existence. By the end of the book, he reunites with his family and gradually makes the new place ‘home’.

Tan showcases an immigrant’s alienation in a new land by juxtaposing photorealism and abstract surrealism. The nuances and detailing of characters make the book attractive but also grounded and relatable. The Arrival blurs the line between picture book and graphic novel, and paves the way for many possibilities, interpretations and meanings.

8. Naomi Barton: Thud! by Terry Pratchett

“Light only ruined your vision, it blinded you. You stared into the dark until it blinked. You stared it down.”

Thud! is one of the inimitable Terry Pratchett’s finest works, and I believe is very important reading for today. The story is an old one, and one that might sound a little familiar to us: Dwarves and Trolls have been fighting against the threat of each other because of a terrible thing that happened a long, long time ago, which serves as an excuse to do terrible things today. Into this comes Captain Vimes of the Night Watch, a police officer who is keenly aware that the most important thing that one needs to guard against is the darkness inside us.

Pratchett deals with themes like communal violence, prejudice and rage by breaking it down to its human components: fear and power. He manages, somehow, to do this with a relentless wit and absurd shenanigans, dismantling the idea that serious literature somehow cannot be fun. While he deals with these huge themes, he also infuses smaller, more personal conflicts with an ageless universality – will I make it back from work in time to read my child his favourite book? What happens if I ignore paperwork for several months? How do I keep my temper under control when faced with the most annoying person on the planet?

Pratchett leaves us not with a happy or sad ending, but an ending which is human. I borrow a quote from one of his other books to qualify this: “Humanity is the point between the falling angel and the rising ape.”

I think in times like this, where the world is really going out of its way to put our capacity for bashing on through its paces, it’s important to be given a roadmap for what militant kindness looks like. This is what Pratchett is best at – and it doesn’t hurt that he comes with a dozen horrific puns thrown in.

9. Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprashasta: Falling Off the Map by Pico Iyer

This collection of Iyer’s delightful travel essays chronicle his journeys into some of the most uniquely ‘detached’ places in the world. From Iceland in the north to Australia in the south, not only does this gem of a book navigate vibrant geographies, it also brings forth cultures that seem to be insulated from the larger currents of the outside world or what Iyer calls “remoteness from the present tense”.

Iyer, in his inimitable, wry writing style, takes us to Cuba, North Korea, Iceland, Bhutan, Vietnam, Australia, Argentina and Paraguay – all places he feels (in their own ways) “don’t fit in”. As a second year draws to a close with the world still firmly caught in the throes of a global pandemic, Iyer’s evocative words and self-deprecatory humour provide much needed respite and a window into an eccentric world full of peculiarities and quirks.

10. Devirupa Mitra: Fifth Sun by Camilla Townsend

One of the tales that is repeated ad nauseum is that the native Americans gazed upon Herman Cortez and his band of Spaniards as Gods. It is a pretty tale, embellished and repeated even in modern times in lazy narratives – and completely untrue.

This is just one myth that historian Camilla Townsend busts in her award-winning book, Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs. It is breakthrough history in which Townsend draws upon the written sources of the Aztecs themselves to portray how they looked at themselves, observed the sudden appearance of the Spaniard newcomers, analysed the complete collapse of their world and looked back at their complex, rich intellectual traditions.

She uses the histories written in Nauhatl language by “Indigenous intellectuals”, the grandchildren of the generation that were eyewitness to the conquest of the New World. In the end, her book also lifts the story of the Aztecs from one about tragedy and destruction to one of survival and hope, showing that the aftermath of the Spanish Conquest could not obliterate or erase the sense of identity of the indigenous people.

11. Mahtab Alam: Furrows in a Field by Sugata Srinivasaraju

In popular imagination, H.D. Deve Gowda, the 11th Prime Minister of India, is remembered and portrayed as a sleepy prime minister or MP, who didn’t know any English or Hindi and is a rank patriarch. However, Sugata Srinivasaraju in this biography of the former prime minister reveals that all these claims about him are either completely wrong, or of little substance. In addition to busting these myths about one of the shortest serving prime ministers, he also highlights his role in peace building in conflict-ridden regions like the Northeast and Kashmir.

The author also highlights Deve Gowda’s contributions as the chief minister of his home state, Karnataka, and most importantly as a leader of the opposition and politician over seven decades. What I really liked about the book is that despite making an apparent effort to recognise Gowda’s good work, the author doesn’t shy in highlighting his faults. Another important aspect of the book is that while it is based on very rigorous research, it does not get monotonous as the book is full of stories. It is also not about one man, but many men and women of importance, their times and political trajectories. And that’s what makes this book even more insightful and lively.

12. Sidharth Bhatia: Modi’s India by Christophe Jaffrelot and Scoop by Evelyn Waugh

This year, with a bit more time on my hands, I caught up on my reading and would like to mention two books – one of which is very old but is extremely relevant to our times.

Christophe Jaffrelot’s Modi’s India: Hindu Nationalism and the Rise of Ethnic Democracy is the best book on the contemporary social and political scenario we are all witnessing. Jaffrelot has been studying and writing about India for decades and is the most insightful scholar on the subject.

Just months before this book, he co-wrote, along with a young Indian academic, another on the Emergency which is a comprehensive look at that dark period in Indian democracy.

Modi’s India is not just Narendra Modi the man, but the circumstances that made him and the environment that led to someone like him emerge on the national scene. It talks about his early days in the RSS and the shaping of a young volunteer into a leader, but also takes stock of how society was changing all these years in front of our very eyes. The rise of Hindu nationalism was written about but for the first time we can make the connections and join the dots. I would recommend this as a book anyone interested in India should read.

The second is a novel, Scoop, by Evelyn Waugh. I re-read it from time to time and each time I come away marvelling at Waugh’s sharp observations back in the 1930s.

Scoop is about a columnist who writes on nature from his country home. A mix-up leads to him landing up as a foreign correspondent in a former colony in Africa, out of his depth and clueless about what he is supposed to do.

Waugh, in his usual lacerating style, sends up sensational journalism, unprincipled hacks, local administrators of the small country who have their eye on the main chance, pompous newspaper owners and London society – no one is spared. More than 80 years later, the book still rings true, since journalism and journalists have not changed that much.