Books that made my year: The 2021 edition
The Dangers of Smoking in Bed by Mariana Enriquez: An extraordinary short story collection about the macabre and the supernatural in everyday life, I read this book by Argentinian journalist in bed, and the stories began to haunt my dreams: little girls’ bones, young women’s crushes, a town haunted by dead children. A modern-day fairy tale collection to be read on a dark night.
Piranesi by Susanna Clarke: A long-awaited novel by the writer of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell that could well have summed up our year of the pandemic. It’s a meditation on loneliness, about human curiosity, and about the prisons that we build within our own minds.
Land of Big Numbers by Te-Ping Chen: With stories that reveal the complexity of modern China in all its many ways, this collection came with high praise, all richly deserved. One for the must-read-again list.
Stick out Your Tongue by Ma Jian: I read China Dream and this short story collection based on Ma Jian’s travels in Tibet one after another, and came to prefer the latter. While China Dream is audacious and bold, Stick Out Your Tongue is Ma Jian at his best: spare but effective prose, creating rich worlds that are filled with the extraordinary and the normal, and with characters you’d never expect to find in a book. Read this along with his travelogue Red Dust.
The Light of His Clan by Chetan Raj Shrestha: Chetan Raj Shrestha is one of the most underrated writers from our part of the world. This is a brilliant novel about a patriarch coming to terms with his loss of prestige and power, and could very well be the story of any of our families.
There’s Gunpowder in the Air by Manoranjan Byapari: Byapari’s short novel based on his own experiences in prison as a Naxalite in the 1970s is a powerful tale that continues to resonate in the modern day. This is a story from the margins, told in an impeccable voice, and brilliantly translated by Arunava Sinha. A South Asian classic.
I read a lot of historical Indian crime fiction this year — stories set either in the early days of the republic, or during the freedom struggle, and one during the 1857 revolt. The genre seems to be rich for the taking, and my sense is that there will be more in the years to come. It’s a setting that allows both for cosy crime mysteries such as those by Sujata Massey, and crime noir such as those by Nev March and Vaseem Khan. And then there’s Murder at the Mushaira by Raza Mir, whose hero is the poet Ghalib, and whose setting is 1857, just before India explodes in a revolt against British colonialists.
If you like this genre, I recommend starting with Vaseem Khan’s Murder at Malabar House and The Dying Day, moving on to Murder at the Mushaira for a break from Anglophilic India, then returning to it with Sujata Massey’s The Bombay Prince (the third novel featuring her spunky hero Perveen Mistry) and Nev March’s Murder in Old Bombay. I’m looking forward to reading the new novel by Abir Mukherjee, The Shadows of Men, whose Wyndham & Banerjee series is equally fun to read.
Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future by Elizabeth Kolbert: With greying skies, erratic rain, nonseasonal weather, and melting glaciers, climate change is real and already here. I’ve long believed we are past the point of no return, as detailed in Kolbert’s previous book The Sixth Extinction. In this follow-up text, Kolbert takes us to CRISPR labs working against invasive species, scientists developing artificial coral reefs to offset our devastation on natural reefs, and techno-evangelists advocating for solar farms as big as countries to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. I wrote about the book in a column, but you need to read this if you want to get a sense of how humans will live in a hostile planet in the future.
Age of Pandemics (1817–1920): How they shaped India and the World by Chinmay Tumbe: Between 1817 and 1920, three different pandemics hit the Indian subcontinent: cholera, plague and influenza. Reading Tumbe’s magnificent work of scholarship in a year of Covid-19 told me how the official response to such pandemics hasn’t really changed. Highly recommended, if only to understand how pandemics have shaped our societies and our states.
Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town by Barbara Demick: My book of the year, if I had to select among all these. Demick’s narrative about Ngaba, a Tibetan town that was the epicentre of self-immolations, and its people creates a rich and nuanced historical tapestry about why China has never been able to assimilate Tibet within its grand nationalist narrative. Profiling different individuals, this is a book about generations, about resistance to colonialist forces, about the will to survive, and about a history that is purposefully erased.
Somanatha: The Many Voices of a History by Romila Thapar: The myth about Somanatha’s wilful destruction by multiple Muslim invaders continues to be a bedrock of the Hindutva ideology. Eminent historian Thapar turns this narrative on its head, explaining how tales of the sacking were imagined by successive generations of Muslim historians to put rulers on a pedestal, contrasting them with local Hindu chronicles which do not have many records of the multiple sackings. Thapar writes: ‘[T]he memory which may come to envelop the event and its evolution is often the contribution of elite groups, later in time, motivated by wishing to use the past to legitimize their present concerns.’ She argues that the British colonial imagination of the subcontinent’s past in Hindu and Muslim dichotomies was ‘useful to colonial political policy’, and that along with the Hindu, Jain and other local sources around Somanath, the Islamic narratives that depict Mahmud’s raid equally served to present their own varying agendas around the temple. Thapar’s work is a well-argued historical punch to those who believe faith is history.
Tiananmen Square: The Making of a Protest by Vijay Gokhale: One of the most welcome developments in the past few years is the slew of books by former Indian diplomats and foreign policy officials giving us a window into how Delhi thinks. Former foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale’s memoir about the Tiananmen Square incident is a welcome addition to this corpus and tells us much about how Delhi saw the protests and their eventual violent suppression. If you’re looking for a more detailed narrative about the incident and its disappearance from public memory, I’d recommend Louisa Lim’s The People’s Republic of Amnesia.
The Scandal of the Century and Other Writings by Gabriel Garcia Marquez: Gabo’s journalism underpinned much of his fiction, and this collection tells us how. It’s a delectable read, one that takes us from Italian scandals and fish falling from the skies to the beginnings of the House of Buendias, written in Gabo’s inimitable prose. One for the bedstand.
Butterflies on the Roof of the World: A Memoir by Peter Smetacek: Unlike my fascination with birds and mammals, I’ve never paid much attention to butterflies. But lepidopterist Smetacek’s beautifully written memoir that details his passion for the insects turned my worldview around, and convinced me I needed to educate myself about these fascinating animals. A wonderful read, something I needed this year with all the horror around us.
The Great Soul of Siberia: In Search of the Elusive Siberian Tiger by Sooyong Park: This is a tiger tale unlike others. Sooyong Park is a documentary-maker, and he spends six months living by himself in a hide filming these elusive and magnificent beasts. This is a memoir of his life, detailing the hidden lives of these rare tigers, and drives you to tears when most of the tigers he observes are killed by poachers. A tender and delicate memoir, one that fills you up with wonder for the natural world, and horror at the realization that human greed is insatiable.
Vesper Flights by Helen MacDonald: This collection of essays on the natural world by the critically acclaimed H is for Hawk author is a rich example of how literature can help bring nature closer to people than plain science alone. While the essays about the English countryside did not really appeal to me — maybe because I’ve never been to England — this is a rich collection about observation and the human ability to see poetry in everyday nature.
Whispers from the Wild: Writings by E.R.C. Davidar: A memoir about life and conservation in the Nilgiri mountains of south India, this collection joins the ranks of Corbett, Hugh Allen and others like them who were former hunters turned conservationists. Tenderly written, it’s also as much about living near a forest, and perhaps that’s why this book endeared itself so much to me.
Leopard Diaries: The Rosette in India by Sanjay Gubbi: Written by a conservation scientist, this book is a firsthand account of the struggles the leopard has to face in modern-day India. While the prose may appear spare Gubbi’s work is rich in detail and observation; he’s studied the big cat for more than a decade, and his knowledge is evident on every page of this fascinating book.
Tripwire for a Tiger: Selected Works of F.W. Champion: Champion was an English photographer who pioneered the art of camera trapping in the subcontinent. This collection is a reminder of his conviction that a photograph is always better than a stuffed trophy, and reveals his affinity towards less-popular species such as the jungle cat and the nilgai. A historical must-read.
South Asian borders
If you’ve read my book All Roads Lead North, you will have come to know of my fascination with statemaking and borders in South Asia. This year, I read [or am currently reading] several academic works that detailed how states have historically incorporated borderlands into their territory, and how the borderlands traditionally functioned.
Kyle J. Gardner’s The Frontier Complex: Geopolitics and the Making of the India-China Border 1846–1962 is a detailed monograph about how an undemarcated Himalayan frontier in the Ladakh region came to be incorporated and contested by India and China, while Berenice Guyot-Richard’s Shadow States: India, China and the Himalayas 1910–1962 shifts the lens to the eastern Himalayas and documents the statemaking practices enabling the incorporation of modern-day Arunachal Pradesh state into the Indian state, while paralleling it with Chinese attempts to incorporate Kham (I’m yet to finish reading, but this is excellent scholarship that I’d recommend to anyone interested in the political economy of the Himalaya must read).
Bernardo A. Michael’s Statemaking and Territory in South Asia: Lessons from the Anglo-Gorkha War (1814–1816) is a richly documented and dense monograph on the territorial disputes that led to the war, and how the border was differently imagined by the East India Company and the Gorkhas respectively. On the other hand, Indian foreign affairs historian A.S. Bhasin’s Nehru, Tibet and China goes deep into archival material to inform us about the limitations of Nehru’s Tibet and China policy, and how his belief in the sanctity of the MacMahon Line was one that was incorrect, with China clearly indicating its non-acceptance since the beginning. Bhasin’s important work revises many of the popular narratives about India-China tensions.
Finally, Dutch geographer Wim Van Spengen’s Tibetan Borderworlds: A Geohistorical Analysis of Trade and Traders is a rich study about the economic practices of communities living in the Himalayan borderlands, focusing particularly on the Nyishangba traders of Manang who traded as far as Southeast Asia before 1950 (and whom I wrote about separately here).
To me, the Himalayan borderlands represent a dynamic indigenous space that have been viewed largely as territory alone. Statemaking practices in this region thus follows an idealized sense of how the centre views the periphery, but inherent contradictions in such a view often result in messy on-ground results, as was seen in the recent food shortage in Limi valley, Nepal.
Demoting Vishnu: Ritual, Politics, and the Unraveling of Nepal’s Hindu Monarchy by Anne T. Mocko: 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’s decision to become a republic. Religions scholar Mocko’s monograph is an excellent work that 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.
Mero Katha by Daman Raj Tuladhar: This memoir by a former Nepali bureaucrat makes you wish more Nepali civil servants had written about their careers after their retirement. The most fascinating bits to me were Tuladhar’s account of how the Nepal-China border was demarcated in the early 1960s, which I’ve written about in more detail here.
Expedition to Nepal Valley: The Journal of Captain Kinloch by Yogesh Raj: It was a disastrous expedition to begin with: the East India Company decided to come to the rescue of Malla kings when Prithvi Narayan Shah laid a siege on the Nepal valley in 1767. Kinloch’s retinue climbed up in the rains, lost their way, were taken for a ride by local guides, ran out of provisions, and suffered from malaria and other ailments. This account is a horrific reminder of how badly outmatched the English were, and how woefully underprepared they were: who decides to launch a military expedition in the Himalaya during the monsoons?
Sotala by Dor Bahadur Bista: The anthropologist Bista also dabbled in fiction, and this historical novel about a Lhasa Newar trader can be regarded as his best work. His writing reflects his anthropological qualities too, and the novel is as much an account of how the trade was conducted as it is about a young man from Kathmandu who decides to go to Lhasa to make a fortune. I translated a chapter earlier this year, which you can read here (as for translating the entire book, let’s just say the stars have not aligned in its favour).
You can see my previous book of the year lists here.