Keeping with tradition, here’s the third instalment of the books that made my 2019. Happy New Year, folks!
I’m yet to finish James’ Booker-winning A History of Seven Killings, but frankly, I was more excited to read this sprawling African lore-fantasy that’s the first part of a trilogy. Drawing on African history, myth and legends, and set in an epic struggle between the North and the South, this is the story of a search for a boy. It takes a while to get into the book, but once the pace is set and you become familiar with the characters, it’s unputdownable. One of my favourites this year.
Two China travelogues, both written in the early part of the 80s, both depicting the blank vastness that is (or rather, was) the Chinese landscape, and both written by writers who would gain fame as novelists. Seth wants to go home to Delhi via Lhasa and Kathmandu, and Ma wants to escape the scrutiny of the Public Security Bureau in Beijing. What follows are two incredible tales of adventure, of solo travel, of a personal quest for meaning. My heart-in-mouth moment: when Ma crosses a raging torrent and almost falls off a cliff in south-western China, only to find himself being caught by the China-Myanmar border police.
This had been on my reading list for long, and I should have read it earlier. It’s a simple fable, a Naga folk tale about a man who loses his family in an unyielding famine, and leaves the village on an endless journey. Until he comes across two women who tell him about the tiger-widow, and how a single drop of rain will impregnate her and give birth to a child who will slay the spirit-tiger and bring forth the rains. This is extraordinary storytelling, magical, beautiful and charming. And it does what all good stories do: give you hope.
Quite simply, the book of the year for me. Govindrajan’s research on the Kumaon Himalayas, and how its people view their relationships with various animals — cows, pigs, goats, leopards, bears, dogs — is original scholarship at its best, and yet eminently readable. I reviewed it for Scroll earlier this year, and I wrote, “Govindrajan has offered us an extraordinary work that breaks down these real or imagined relationships with animal species within a larger inter-disciplinary context of politics, identity, livelihood and gender relations… There is a tenderness to her writing that goes beyond just empathy with those she spent five years with. By incorporating the voices of locals within a framework of academic analysis, she allows a larger picture to emerge, one that is undiluted by moralistic hubris.” I have raved about this book endlessly, so I will stop with one last bit: This book needs to be read by anyone who’s remotely interested in the Himalayas.
Muslim, Trader, Nomad, Spy: China’s Cold War and the People of the Tibetan Borderlands — Sulmaan Wasif Khan
Historian Sulmaan Wasif Khan is one of the few scholars in the West who bring out a Chinese view of the world, as seen in his more popular text, Haunted by Chaos. Muslim, Trader, Nomad, Spy is particularly interesting to readers of the subcontinent’s mountains because of the dilemmas the PRC faced in dealing with the traditional nomads, the traders, and the residents who crossed Himalayan passes with ease at a time when the PRC was unsure, desperate even, to know where Tibet’s traditional frontiers lay. If you’re interested in China, pick this up.
I travelled to Lo Manthang, the capital of the Tibetan kingdom of Lo in upper Mustang earlier this year. Peissel’s recollection of his own travel to the forbidden kingdom from the 1960s was my companion for the most part, although the old man could be irascibly oriental at times, and also display his romanticism with all things Tibetan at others. But coupled with Manjushree’s 1992 text, the two books become an illuminating study of how little Mustang had changed in the 30 years, and yet, how much it had. Highly recommended as a package deal.
Both Kire’s book and this short story collection by 21 Tibetan writers were part of my reading list for books from South Asia beyond India and Pakistan. For me, this book represents something beyond just the stories: “This is an important work not just for how it epitomises the Tibetan struggle, but also because it tells us about Tibetan expressions in the modern day.” While the collection is uneven at times, and it steers clear of the Shangri-la romanticism associated with the culture, the stories demand attention, giving voice to a new generation of writers making sense of their culture.
In a year when Game of Thrones severely disappointed, and the wait for the winds of winter continues, Arden’s quick trilogy based in Russia reminded me why reading fantasy is such a great immersive experience. Arden’s trilogy is about a girl who finds herself right in the middle of a struggle between the Tundra’s old gods and man’s new gods in the form of evangelical Christianity. It reminded me of the Russian folk tales one used to read as a child — except they were far more terrifying, and far more powerful in this book. Highly recommended for readers of the Kingkiller Chronicles and ASOIAF — basically any fantasy reader who has been waiting for years for the next book, if you know what I mean.
For years I read bits of Ka, and then I stopped. Until this year — when a Goa holiday provided the perfect excuse to sit down and start all over again. I’ve always been interested in Hindu tenets and their historicity, and Calasso’s framing of the evolution of Hindu thought through Vedic, Upanishadic and ultimately Buddhist philosophies is a wonderful introduction. Especially important at a time when saffronised racketeers want us to believe their lies.
Dunlop’s book is a must-read for anyone who loves Chinese food. Witty, charming and mouth-watering, Dunlop takes us on a culinary adventure across China. I wrote in my column: “I chuckled as I read through what is essentially a food adventure across the country, coupled with a nostalgic sense of how Chinese cities are losing their heritage in the face of concretised development.”
Historian Sudipta Sen’s inter-disciplinary account of the subcontinent’s holiest river navigates histories, geographies and political economies to bring us what is, till now, the definitive biography of the Ganga. A sprawling tale that emphasises on the river’s importance to kings, dynasts and modern leaders alike, this is the story of a civilisation that saw a river as its fount.
In a year when I read several crime fiction, and almost all with disappointment (especially one set in the Kumaon mountains!), Indriðason’s The Draining Lake stood out for me for its simplicity and a return to the espionage novels of the Cold War. Lots of fun, lots of Nordic bleak landscapes, lots of spies, and an intriguing mystery — this was a charming reminder of why pace is so important in a crime novel.
My first Coetzee in perhaps two or three years — I am not sure — but certainly a reminder of why he is so gifted. This 1980 novel takes us back to an unnamed Roman garrison and its commander, and is a brilliant take on the notions of nationalism and who the other is — as always, extremely relevant to our times. A haunting book, this is Coetzee at his best.