Books that made the Coronavirus year —Part IV!

Way back in July (six months ago!), Reuters did an explainer on why the passage of time felt so weird during the lockdown (it’s a great test — you should try it out). Weeks passed in a blur, and October came after March, yet the days were so long. What did we do in April, and where did August go?

Thankfully, the one thing that felt normal was to read, albeit much of it was related to my own upcoming book on Nepal’s history with China (Amazon/Context, 2021). But it’s been a year of catching up with the books that had been gathering dust on our shelves [and in our cartons], so here’s the fourth annual list of the books that made the year of the Corona for me, broken down by subject:

China

Hessler is a writer with the New Yorker who is based out of China. Both these books are part travelogue, part journalism, and part history, and both describe the evolution of China, not just from the days of Mao, but also from antiquity (especially Oracle Bones). Hessler’s outlook on China is distinctive from most Western journalists who write on the country, and is one of the sharpest and most observant writers on a superpower whose rise is being contested across the world.

A superb text, richly detailed and most engaging, which breaks down how China’s view of the world has evolved since the days of the Qing empire (and helps one get rid of much of the bad China takes such as ‘all under heaven’). Norwegian historian Westad’s essay, The Sources of Chinese Conduct: Are America and China fighting a new Cold War?, is perhaps the best explainer on how China views its rise, and whether there are parallels in the new US-China contest with the US-Soviet race for supremacy. In Restless Empire, Westad takes us through nearly 250 years of turbulent Chinese history, and how its interactions with the world shaped both China’s own lens as well as the nation itself. Highly recommended.

Everybody knows about China’s rise and wealth in the last two decades. What Osnos does is to profile individual lives who are all part of this extraordinary growth story, and the struggle between the state’s desire for control and the individual’s need to break free. Featuring the stories of individuals such as a Taiwanese army captain who defected back to the motherland, an internet warrior upholding the tenets of Chinese nationalism, and the businesswoman who made a fortune out of trash, this is an extraordinary book that details the many struggles and contradictions that have come to define modern China.

Nature writing

Originally published in 1960 and now brought back into print, this is a classic collection of shikar yarns, but with a difference: Allen writes about following up on animals that have been wounded by others. In the tradition of Corbett and Anderson, Allen too laments the decline of wildlife in India. An easy read, his stories are set in his estate in Mandikhera, in Madhya Pradesh, and are a perfect accompaniment to a glass of whisky beside a fireplace, preferably somewhere in the jungle.

Wohlleben, a German forester, writes about some of the most fascinating aspects about trees in this short but incredibly moving book. How do trees communicate with each other? Do they feel pain? Do they make friends? How do trees share nutrients with other trees? This book tells you all about how a tree alone does not make a forest, and why forests are the best hope for a generation increasingly beset by the vagaries of climate change. An inspirational text.

A meditation on grief, a story about patience, and an exploration into whether it’s possible to truly tame a wild animal, MacDonald’s critically acclaimed book is about how she began to train a goshawk after the death of her father. Drawing on an older text by T.H. White, whose own failed attempts at taming a goshawk is mirrored by his inner conflicts, H is for Hawk is a dazzling work of art, and perhaps one of the finest bits of nature writing to emerge in recent years.

Thapar, in most texts, tends to drone about his observations in Ranthambore; to me, however, it is his archival work that stands out (such as Exotic Aliens, a historical investigation into whether the lion and the cheetah were native to the subcontinent). This book is a collection of Indian historical archives related to the tiger, starting from the Mughal emperor’s Babur’s words and coming down to the 20th century conservationists. Tiger Fire is an extraordinary book, with some crazy tales about a Gurkha killing a tiger with a khukuri, a tiger that took refuge from the flooded waters of the Brahmaputra on a boat with other people (a real life Life of Pi!), and a colonial surveyor fighting off a tiger with a ruler!

Anthropologist Radhika Govindrajan (whose Animal Intimacies is the finest inter-species ethnography in recent years) recommended this book to me, and I couldn’t be gladder. Among the Bone Eaters is a stunning work that combines anthropology, ethnography and natural history to present a moving portrait of the hyenas in Harar, Ethiopia, who walk about town at ease with the humans around. Perceptive and filled with deep insight, this is a story about how humans can co-exist with wild animals if only we wanted to, and how even the sciences sometimes needs a dose of humanity to look beyond empiricism. ‘The biological sciences’ behaviorally driven hyena is as much a construction as the Hararis’ socially engaged actor-hyena; both are empirically grounded and both make unsubstantiated claims about hyena subjectivities. For Hararis, it is a given that hyenas are persons with mental states; for those in the biological sciences, the null hypothesis holds that mammals other than humans are not. In both cases, it is this subjective attribution or otherwise of personhood that underpins their policies towards hyenas’. One of my favourite books of the year!

History

The RSS and the BJP’s obsession for Ram, the ideal hero, is widely known, as are their attempts to overturn history and turn the epic poem into an account of real events. Sankalia, also known as the ‘founding father of modern Indian archaeology’, considers the archaeological side of the Ramayana and discusses how much of the original narrative is fact, and how much is fiction. For example, when Hanuman hands over Ram’s signet ring to Sita in Ravan’s Lanka as proof of his identity, Sankalia argues the episode could only be inserted in the narrative after the first millennium BCE, since the signet ring was introduced to the subcontinent by Indo-Greeks. Or that Ravan’s Lanka itself was not the island in the Indian Ocean, but located in the forests of central India.

What Sankalia did was to introduce rational scepticism to the arguments about whether the Ramayana was ‘real’, and present a case built on the archaeological and historical evidence available. First published in 1973, this is a classic text to read among today’s contentious times, and tells us as much about how the narrative of the two Hindu epics have changed, and continue to change, across societies and cultures. You can get the full PDF here.

Mukhoty’s biographical profiles of the women of the Mughal Empire is a much-needed correction in the all-male narrative about the empire. This is the story about the women who were behind the scenes, and in their own way held up the banners of the kings across the subcontinent. From Khanzada Begum, Babur’s older sister, who was given the title ‘Padshah Begum’ and had been left behind in Samarkand as hostage when Babur lost the siege, to Nur Jehan, Jahangir’s favourite wife, who often held court in the king’s absence, this is a fascinating text about the women who made the subcontinent’s greatest empire.

Raja Balwant Singh of Jasrota viewing a painting at his court, with Nainsukh the painter bowing behind him. A rare work in Indian art traditions, where both the painter and the patron are in the same frame.

Indian art historian B.N. Goswamy’s magnum opus is a sprawling and beautifully designed text that breaks down the historical traditions of Indian painting in an introductory essay, and selects some of the greatest Indian works of art over nine centuries. His selection ranges from the Pahadi masters such as Nainsukh and Manaku, Mughal miniatures, Deccani painting, and Company art. This book is a collector’s delight; I read an essay every night at the beginning of the lockdown, and Goswamy’s lucid explanations introduced me to a new world of Indian art. A must-have!

Fiction

Perhaps the literary fiction of the year for me, and one that I found better and more lucid than James’ Booker-winning Brief History of Seven Killings, which I finally read this year after gathering dust for years. The Book of Night Women is, however, more powerful and has some of the most memorable characters: there’s the protagonist Lilith, born into slavery in a Jamaica sugarcane plantation; the ‘Night Women’, a group of other slave-women who are plotting a revolt; and the white ‘masters’ themselves, in varying shades of black and white and grey.

This is a brutal story about slavery and revolution in the 18th century, harrowing to read in portions, but nonetheless a vivid and sprawling portrait of what life would have been like on the plantations. The Book of Night Women is a truly epic novel, one that has no happy endings but only the realization of the evil, and goodness, humans are capable of.

A Pulitzer winner when it was published in 2015, The Sympathizer is one of the best political fictions in recent times. It is a story about an unnamed Vietnamese double agent soldier, one who has left to the US after the fall of Saigon but still remains a dedicated Communist agent. But it is also equally a story about immigration and the Western gaze on Asia and the world. Engrossing read.

Borges is always a delight to read, and this collection of essays on strange and magical beings from mythologies across the world makes for a great bedside read. Here there are creatures such as the Garuda and the Hydra, beasts such as the basilisk and the earthquake fish, and divine beings such as the elephant that foretold the Buddha’s birth. I’d love to get my hands on an illustrated edition!

Crime Fiction

I read a lot of crime fiction towards the end of the year, especially classical Japanese mysteries in the tradition known as honkaku, a genre that relies on a logical conclusion to a mystery and gives the reader all the clues required to solve the mystery within the text itself. “Those who write in this style abide by “fair play” rules, which requires that all clues necessary for the reader to solve the crime be present in the text, as dictated in 1923 by S.S. Van Dine in his Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories.”

Seishi Yokomizo’s The Honjin Murders and The Inugami Curse were published in 1946 and 1951 respectively, and their translations were published recently. Both stories take us deep into traditional Japanese culture, but with a twisted mystery at its heart. A clan chief dies, and the resultant battle over inheritance leaves behind several bodies in its wake. Enter Yokomizo’s stammering detective Kosuke Kindaichi, who brings his own take on how to solve a mystery.

The honkaku genre died out until the 1970s, when it was brought back again as shin honkaku (‘new honkaku’). Soji Shimada led the pack with The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, a fearsome locked-room mystery about the death of an entire family, with his detective Kiyoshi Mitarai going after the solution nearly 40 years later. Tokyo Zodiac is a mind-bending puzzle, and the solution to the mystery is truly innovative. Must-read!

Shin Honkaku also saw the publication of Yukito Ayatsuji’s The Decagon House Murders, inspired by Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, and establishing the genre as a counter to the hard-boiled realism of Chandler and co. If you are a mystery reader, all four books — and Shimada’s other translated work, Murder in the Crooked House (which I’m currently reading) — are a must-read.

I edited Bhaskar’s first mystery, Patang, while at Hachette, and the serial killer tale took me by storm. Bhaskar then wrote a series of novels with his fictional detective Janardan Maity and his sidekick Prakash: Penumbra, Here Falls the Shadow, The Disappearance of Sally Sequeira, and Best Served Cold. All follow the classical whodunit model, and are a joy to read for fans of Holmes and the great Bengali detective Feluda. I was so engrossed in them that I finished the first three over a weekend, and the fourth in two days. Highly recommended!

A group of retired friends meet up regularly at their retirement village to solve unsolved murders. Until one day, a dead body lands up at their doorstep. Thus begins what was, to me, one of 2020’s most delightful, witty and captivating reads. As much a murder mystery as a rumination on old age, The Thursday Murder Club looks like it is on its way to becoming a classic.

Nepali writing

I finally got around to reading the classic post-modern Nepali novel this year, and must say all the praise for Shirish ko Phool is thoroughly deserved. Parijat was a perceptive writer, someone who negotiated the patriarchy of Nepali society on her own terms, and this comes across in this wonderful novel about obsession, the male gaze, patriarchy and violence. Niranjan Kunwar has translated a wonderful conversation Uttam Kunwar had with Parijat in 1963 here.

B.P.’s short stories have a charm of their own. A bit of O’ Henry, a bit of the Russian masters, and loads of social realism. This collection is a most interesting take on feudal Nepali society, and the desires of men and women at the time. I’m looking forward to reading his other short stories.

I’ve always been fascinated by the history of the religion we’ve now come to know as Hinduism, and Michaels’ text, although not as much a history of Pashupati as much as an account of its festivals, is a great introduction to the sacred space that is Deopatan, God’s town, where the shrine is located. Michaels’ thesis also dwells on a curious juxtaposition: although Pashupati is a non-meat-eating deity (i.e. you don’t sacrifice to it) and is the primordial deity, the biggest festival in Deopatan is dedicated to Vatsala, said to be Pashupati’s consort and a tantric goddess who demands sacrifice (her temple doors are always kept open because that was her wish if human sacrifices were to be halted: so that the smell of burning corpses could reach her).

The Dang Tharus have a unique Mahabharata tradition that puts Bhim, the second Pandava brother and him of great strength, at the centre of the tale instead of Arjun: it is Bhim who shoots the arrow to win the princess Draupadi’s hand in marriage, and Bhim who shelters the Tharu kings from the god Krishna himself. This account is an English translation of the barkimar, the account of the great war, that is sung at the Barka Naach, a dance that was earlier held every 5 years, and most recently performed in 2019. A wonderful text that tells us about the diversity of the two epics' traditions across the subcontinent.

As always, you can see that most of these books aren’t ‘recent’, meaning published in 2020. But does that really matter with a good book? See my previous lists for 2019, 2018 and 2017.

Consulting Editor @ Writers' Side Literary Agency. Writes mostly on books & publishing, and Nepali history. More at amishmulmi.wordpress.com