Last year I tried reading books from countries around the world – The World in Books. It made me realize how little I knew of the world; most importantly how similar our human stories were. L.P. Hartley said, “The past is like a foreign country: they do things differently there”. Douglas Adams describing time travel in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy emphasizes the notion with:
The Campaigners for Real Time claim that just as easy travel eroded the differences between one country and another, and between one world and another, so time travel is now eroding the differences between one age and another. “The past,” they say, “is now truly like a foreign country. They do things exactly the same there.”
I’m inclined to agree whole-heartedly with Adams. In the past couple of years of reading and travelling, I have realized that the differences that I drew between countries and their inhabitants are really rather superficial boundaries, though after reading Sapiens I understand why it is necessary to buy into the fiction of nations and patriotism. It’s how we survive and swear allegiance to millions of strangers who we have never and shall never meet.
This year was meant to be a continuation of the quest for the human story, but instead of continuing my journey through (mostly) world fiction, my instincts seemed to have veered towards a specific kind of fiction: history.
The lesson for 2017?
History doesn’t provide answers. It provides context. – John Green
If I had to trace the beginning of this year’s journey, it probably began with Partitioned Histories. It is a book that juxtaposes Indian and Pakistani narratives of our shared history, and it is breathtaking when realization dawns at how the same incidents are viewed so differently to further the political agenda on either side of the border. Worse, when I met Pakistanis to discuss the book, I couldn’t tell them apart from Indians. Even when we cracked bilingual jokes, we understood one another perfectly, without the need to explain cultural context.
In the quest to further my adventures in anarchy, here are my favourite books from last year:
Honourable Mention: The Palace of Illusions
The Mahabharata told from the point of view of Draupadi, maybe the most memorable female character of the epic, unfortunately memorable for being gambled away by Yudhishtra and being stripped in the royal assembly by the “winner” Duryodhana. The Palace of Illusions greatly expands Draupadi’s narrative by collecting her mentions from various versions of the Mahabharata and filling in the gaps. It’s interesting to read about the great battle from a woman’s point of view and Banerjee spins an amusing yarn of historical-mythological-fiction.
15. Dreams From My Father
Barack Obama’s autobiography, much like the man himself, is thoughtful, intimate and surprising. I wish I had followed him more closely in the time before The Election. For the immense respect that I have for him, and especially, perhaps more, Michelle Obama, this book was revelatory in exactly what odds Obama was up against when he became the President.
14. The Mahabharata, R. K. Narayan
A retelling of a classic. It’s impossible to grow up in India without growing up with the epics: The Mahabharata, the Ramayana, Layla Majnu, Heer Ranjha, Panchatantra, the Shahnama, Jataka Tales, The Arabian Nights… R. K. Narayan is one of my favourite authors as the writer of Malgudi Schooldays. His writing is simple and succinct with clever twists of language to elicit frequent laughs. He narrates an old tale in his distinctive style, illustrated by his brother, the equally famous R. K. Laxman, creator of The Common Man.
13. Dear Ijeawele, Or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions
Later in the list is my love letter to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Here is her talk on “We Should All Be Feminists” instead. It’s a book too.
12. The Elephant, The Tiger and the Cellphone
Shashi Tharoor is my favourite author-politician. He’s erudite and eloquent and he writes for public consumption (unlike many Indian historians) and understands the ethos of India (unlike many Western historians). Also, he quit his awesome job at the UN to make a difference to his country.
I’ll put the translation here.
11. No God But God
“La ilaha illallah” – No God But God. As the name suggests, it’s a book about Islam by Reza Aslan. As preconceived notions might not suggest, as they didn’t for me, this is a book about the history of Muhammad’s message, and that’s it. I downloaded the Kindle sample on a whim, not intending to ever read it but mildly curious about the title since I had seen another book by Aslan at a bookstore (“God: A Human History”). On perhaps a non-wifi-enabled-stalled-subway-ride, I don’t exactly remember, I started reading the sample and was quite astonished to find myself waiting to be connected to the internet again so I could buy the book. Muhammad’s story is truly compelling, the history is exciting and as a lover of stories bred from a childhood of the chaotic intertwining tales that is The Mahabharata, I found myself quite drawn to this journey of a man, just a man, and his very real, very human struggle. It also gave me greater ammunition to counter whatever nonsense one finds the Protectors of the Purity of Islam spouting (not to mention the Racist Haters of Islam also echoing). As John Green so succinctly puts it, much of the hadis really reads like “middle school gossip”. I’m glad I read this book if for nothing else but the next time someone dares to annoy me with misguided notions of sanctity, segregation and intolerance.
10. I, Robot
Isaac Asimov. For a child who grew up on fantasy and science fiction, it took me a long time to come around to this luminary of the field. I’m usually quite wary of classical science fiction because so much of it is so sexist and distasteful. And Asimov is a startling, pleasant surprise. Brilliant, engaging, polished short stories that give us the legendary Three Laws of Robotics:
- A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
- A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
- A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
9. Born a Crime
I love Trevor Noah on The Daily Show. I never watched the show when Jon Stewart was the host, so I don’t have that point of reference, though I know his replacement is why several people resisted and perhaps still resist Noah’s charms. He brings a refreshing often non-mainstream-American and sometimes non-American perspective to the news and one might not expect his personal story to be so interesting! While Adichie’s middle class Nigerian background is very similar to an Indian middle class background, Trevor Noah’s poor, apartheid-fraught upbringing is not and yet, again, I find a human story and a shared history and empathy and laughter in his work that very easily overcomes the distances of continents and cultures.
8. In Spite of the Gods
I really can’t honestly say that I place “In Spite of the Gods” higher than “The Elephant, the Tiger and the Cellphone” for content. In content, Tharoor has a far greater fundamental understanding of India. But the book, which a collection of Tharoor’s essays, is often repetitive. Luce’s “In Spite of the Gods” is much narrower in scope: it doesn’t talk about either cricket or Bollywood, without which a modern Indian narrative is woefully incomplete, nor does he talk about the West (Bombay), South, East or North-East regions of India as much, choosing instead to focus on the seat of political power – Delhi and the culture of North India. This again paints an incomplete picture of India, because the many of non-North parts of India are the more literate, less corrupt, and often it’s people from these regions that find themselves in seats of power, even in and especially Delhi (Tharoor is an example).
That said, what Luce does focus on is superb. Tharoor, as much as I do admire him, has a mild case of the common Indian affliction of brushing its most unsavoury bits under the carpet or making them seem not-so-bad-after-all. Edward Luce has no such qualms. As the South Asian bureau chief of the Financial Times at the time and married to an Indian, his is not a typical outsider’s view. His book is well-structured and unabashedly political. He interviews several interesting characters, and some of them are truly “antique pieces” as one would say. He talks about Hindu nationalism, the plight of India’s Muslims, India’s place in the world and how the 21st century is India’s to lose. His perspicacity is biting and brilliant. Though he does sometimes take the traditional British (or American or Pakistani) view sometimes of seeing this part of the world as a clash of civilizations, when it is much more a melting pot, it does not invalidate his opinions. Also, I do like the tongue-in-cheek title of the book. This is a Tharoor recommendation by the way.
7. Indian Summer
In the beginning, there were two nations. One was a vast, mighty and magnificent empire, brilliantly organized and culturally unified, which dominated a massive swathe of the earth. The other was an underdeveloped, semi-feudal realm, riven by religious factionalism and barely able to feed its illiterate, diseased and stinking masses.
The first nation was India. The second was England.
I cannot praise Alex von Tunzelmann enough. And it isn’t just because of her stellar opening to the book. Her book is about the British Raj, Indian Independence and Partition, and I loved it because she does something that too few historians do: she puts the people first. The book, which is very firmly history and not historical fiction, reads like a novel. The characters are everyone from Gandhi to Nehru, Jinnah to Mountbatten and Churchill. And even better, she sheds light on Edwina Mountbatten, Betty and Nan Nehru, Ruttie Jinnah, Kasturba Gandhi, Kamala Nehru and Indira Gandhi. I like that Tunzelmann devotes equal screen-time, if you will, to the women and men of the drama playing out on the Indian stage and that she doesn’t make gods or demons of any of the characters. They were all human, well-rounded and fallible, and leave you feeling ultimately conflicted about your views of these “great men” and women. If all history could feel this realistic and interconnected and human, it would be truly incredible. Amazingly, this is her debut work.
Life in America would not be the same without Americanah. This book by the immensely talented and wonderful Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is fantastic and insightful, though I would not be exaggerating if I said that it’s a mere shadow of the intelligent, compassionate, independent and articulate author.
It’s the story of an African in the US, and what it means to be black and what it feels like if you look like an African-American but do not share the legacy of the history as an African, until you realize that you do and we do. The story of some people is really the story of all people, and skin colour cannot divide us as completely as it often does. This book also inadvertently set the stage for Dreams From My Father and put into context the magnitude of his victory, success and humanity.
5. The Shadow Of the Wind
Carlos Ruiz Zafón is a Spanish author. His book is set in Barcelona. After reading this book, I wanted to travel to Barcelona immediately but I’m afraid that I will break the spell if I do so.
The book begins at “The Cemetery of Forgotten Books”. As a book-lover, merely the title of the first chapter sends shivers down my spine. And the book does not disappoint. It is a magical tale of mystery and romance. Not Taylor Swift’s Love Story romance, but Capital-R the headiness of the Romance languages, the symphony of a deep culture, the exhilarating beauty of well-crafted prose and of course, twisted and fatal love Romance. Spellbinding, breathtaking, tear-jerking and please-read-it-already.
4. The Reluctant Fundamentalist
What if a book was written to you, the reader? You are having a conversation with a character, the protagonist of this novella, and he takes you on a journey. From historic Lahore to the hallowed halls of Princeton, from working at a bank to being ostracized when buildings collapse. Do you believe the narrator? Who are you and why are you having this conversation in the first place?
I loved the book. It’s short, but it has stayed with me. The dramatic monologue, identifying with the protagonist’s cultural background, the theme of the persecution at the wake of 9/11. It left me feeling melancholic, thoughtful and hopeful. Needless to say, my optimism assumes Changez’s best intentions. It reminded me of My Name Is Khan, which is a movie that I loved the first and only time that I watched it.
3. The Twentieth Wife (The Taj Trilogy #1)
Noor Jahan was a badass woman. I love her and she’s amazing and I wish that I had understood how truly exceptional she was when studying history. A Mughal Queen who fought and ruled and was the first Indian woman to have coinage made in her name. Wow. Indu Sundaresan stays mostly true to historical events and notes her deviances in the epilogue. The trilogy brought history to life for me and is such a thrilling adventure that I blazed through all three books, loved the historical context and makes me giddy to think about these being the people and moments in history that brought us to where we are today!
2. Exit West
I was at the launch of Exit West at the Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn. Mohsin Hamid read out “In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war, a young man met a young woman in a classroom and did not speak to her.”
I wish I could describe this gorgeous book, but the words flow so effortlessly through the pages, that I fear mine cannot compare. A story about leaving home, of a world beset by war and migration, of refugees desperately trying to find a place in the world and in places that are not-home. A more timely and exquisitely crafted book there cannot be.
1. The Great Gatsby
I couldn’t decide how to rank the top five books that I read last year because they were all so compelling and fabulous that I finally settled on arranging them in order of how deeply they affected me. It’s not a great benchmark because the order changes based on my mood, the time of day, and frequently. However, it would be a travesty to rank The Great Gatsby any lower. I’m surprised that I read it only last year because I feel like I read this book ages and ages ago and it has been with me ever since.
I read the classic alongside annotations from Genius, which helped me a great deal in understanding the context of the book and in my connecting with it very deeply. It also opened up awareness into a deep love for New York that I seemed to have imbibed somewhere along the way. It’s a city that grows on you, creeps under your skin and stays in your heart, quite like this book and quite like the country that I still call “back home”.
The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and beauty in the world.