Books that made my year
The fact that I quit my job mid year meant I had more time to read, and it’s been a good year. I began reading beyond my usual comfort zones, and ventured into Nepali history, something I had wanted to do for a long time. There was less fiction that I had anticipated, but I put it down to my own state of mind. I was particularly curious about the many political processes that have come to shape this decade and its rising conservatism, not just in South Asia, but across the world. I also took refuge in biographies, and in 2018, maybe I’d like to read more about greater men and women.
In no particular order, here’s the list of books that made my year (be warned: it’s dominated by nonfiction):
A superb retelling of a horrific event in the dark, racial past of the United States. In the 1920s, Osage Indians, who owned lands rich in oil, were being murdered inexplicably. This is the story of those murders, steeped in greed, evil and the utmost corruption of morality.
Yuval Noah Harari argues that human history must be seen from the perspective of its advancements, its future based on how we’re evolving in the 21st century. While Sapiens is a magnificent retelling of the human story and how we’ve shaped civilization and the planet, Homo Deus is about how humans will evolve. Both are must-reads in a world where technology evolves at a faster rate than any time in human history.
I had the good fortune of reading an early draft, then the final version of this superb piece of reportage. Prashant Jha’s book breaks down what many on the Centre-Left have been pondering: how on earth is the BJP so successful? He’s got the answers: excellent organisational skills, a clear understanding of who the BJP voter is, Narendra Modi, and a healthy dose of othering the Muslim. A must to understand where Indian politics is placed at this current moment in time.
Abraham Eraly is a rare historian: a gifted storyteller who doesn’t stray from the facts. The Age of Wrath is a recounting of the ‘dark years’ of the Delhi Sultanate — from the very first Muslim emperors of Delhi to the last just before the Mughals entered India. A fascinating account of politics, power, religion and culture — and how the intersection of all of these shaped the Sultanate.
Jane Goodall is a personal hero, and this is her story. It begins with a student arriving in the wilds of Gombe with her mother, and ends with a fascinating view of our closest relatives and how very alike we are. Some heroes do not need to wear a cape, and Goodall is one such hero.
Donald Trump and Steve Bannon couldn’t be more different, yet together they stormed the White House. In a year where I kept ruminating over the rise of right-wing politics across the world, this account of their alliance was a fascinating study of what makes right-wing politics the easy way out in an era of discontent, fear and paranoia.
I began to take my health a little more seriously this year, and decided to start running. Murakami’s book was a great starting place, an inspiring read as much as it is a thing of beauty. One sentence keeps coming back to me whenever I now pick up a physical activity:
“Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional. Say you’re running and you think, ‘Man, this hurts, I can’t take it anymore. The ‘hurt’ part is an unavoidable reality, but whether or not you can stand anymore is up to the runner himself.”
I discovered Kenan Malik’s writings after Trump’s victory last year, when he — at least to me — explained better than anyone why such a buffoon could win over an entire electorate. From Fatwa to Jihad is a socio-political study of a tumultuous era, beginning from the fatwa against Salman Rushdie and how British multiculturalism enabled it, and ending with the Charlie Hebdo cartoons and their aftermath. It calls for a universal enlightenment based not on narrow identity politics and their appeasement, but on the value of free speech and argues for progressivism in all aspects of socio-political affairs.
If there were any doubts that India is on its way to imitating the best and the worst of American neoliberalism, this book removes it. Josy Joseph’s piercing investigation into crony capitalism is a revelation about how corporates have bent rules and tuned policies in their favour — and the government has looked sideways. A simple example: one of the most popular private Indian airlines today was helped by an assassination, and maybe even funded by the underworld.
Pranay Lal is a gifted writer, and this magnum opus about the natural history of the subcontinent needs to be on bookshelves across all our schools and libraries. This is the stuff that’ll get people to run to their nearest hills and dig for fossils, or explore rock formations from the Jurassic. It’s a magnificently designed book too, and an extraordinary study of this land we live in.
The Return is a book filled with pain. Hisham Matar’s father was a Libyan dissident, who was picked up by Gaddafi forces and made to disappear. This is the story of Hisham’s return to Libya after the Arab Spring and Gaddafi’s fall, and his search for the answer to what happened to his father. Evocatively written, this is a memoir that makes you pause at the evil that men do, and the hope that sustains us all.
Anil Yadav’s travelogue from Northeast India, brilliantly translated by Anurag Basnet, is a reminder of why the region is disconnected from the mainland. Unlike most travelogues, there’s very little about the land itself. But it’s an absorbing study of the many political and cultural fissures in a land that some say was forcefully included into the Indian republic (and are willing to fight for it). It’s a study in tribalism, and how narrow identity movements have sustained themselves via political manipulation, extortion and the threat of violence.
The Rise of the House of Gorkha
Ludwig Stiller was a fascinating man, and I wish I would have known about him sooner. A Jesuit who came to Nepal first to teach then to study, The Rise of the House of Gorkha is his masterpiece, a PhD thesis that is eminently readable than most historical accounts of Nepal. It outlines why the Gorkhas were such a formidable war machine, and created an empire nearly 200,000 sq. km in size. Anyone who wants to know more about Nepal needs to read this now.
Kings and Political Leaders of the Gorkha Empire
Nepali history is fascinating, yet popular narratives are filled with errors, either intentional or uninformed. Mahesh Chandra Regmi was one of the few historians who’d call a spade a spade, and this short concise study of the Gorkha Empire until 1816 is a fascinating story about what made the Gorkhas different than other ruling dynasties of the time.
Atmabrittanta: An Autobiography
BP Koirala, Nepal’s first ‘elected’ prime minister — the emphasis on elected because in Nepal, prime ministers were at the beck and call of the ruling kings — must have died a depressed man. His vision on what Nepal should have been, his efforts to create such a Nepal, and his fierce belief in what needs to be done to achieve such a Nepal were all extinguished the day Mahendra dismissed the BP cabinet in 1960. That, in my view, marked the fissure point from which most of modern Nepal’s troubles took off. This is his autobiography in his own words, narrated to a friend in the days before he died of cancer in 1982. One gets a sense BP is being circumspect, doesn’t want to leave any bad blood behind, and stops short of what happened after his release in 1968 — presumably due to his exile in India.
I didn’t read much fiction this year, but of what I read, I am glad I finally read eight of the Kurt Wallander novels. They are Nordic Noir at their best, and show the evolution not just of a character — a cop who is consumed by the violence he comes across every day — but also of the genre itself, with the last novels focusing on technology and Wallander’s apparent ineptitude with it. The books are also a criticism of Swedish social inequities and the treatment of refugees — equally relevant in today’s time as when Mankell was writing the books.
As I wrote earlier, I didn’t read any of the reviews of Roy’s second novel, simply because Roy is herself such a polarising figure. I am glad I didn’t. I loved the book, perhaps more than God of Small Things. Ministry may not have the intimacy of Small Things, but it was an ambitious, much-needed book — and who better than Roy to tell the story of an India where minority rights are the last thing on anyone’s minds.
Chabon’s best work is a massive opera about the comic book industry, superheroes and their creators, Nazism, the Holocaust, art and culture in a time of war, homosexuality, and war and the immense violence it brings. This is a novel of immense ambition, and housed in many realities from the time. If you’ve ever read or watched anything about superheroes, read this beautiful novel.