In 2016 I decided to try to read a book from every country in the world. That plan had been coming along quite well until November that year. Before then, what did politics matter? Some power-hungry idiots were playing twisted games in a faraway capital.
When the blacklisted massacre-overseer Narendra Modi came to power in India at the helm of his ultra-conservative Hindu-supremacist party, alarm bells didn’t go off. Sure, you have the unpleasant revelation that a few friends and classmates are bigots, but that’s really it. Well yes, there have been “lynchings” of Muslims in India, but it doesn’t really raise a red flag as a synonym for “brutal murder by a large group of people over dietary preferences” [Reuters], and sure, in a country where safety for women is on increasingly tenuous ground, members of the BJP attend a rally in support of the accused rapists [BBC] of an eight-year-old girl but enough people will say “it happens in a country this big” or “innocent until proven guilty even though the police officers tasked with the investigation were the ones who were later arrested” to brush it under the carpet, and sure, members of the ruling party have repeatedly upheld their homophobic views and maintained a stony silence at the Supreme Court’s decision to decriminalize homosexuality, a basic human right to live and love, but so what?
“But!” they say, “in a developing country we need development!”
To hell with human rights as long as there’s money to be made.
Of course, forcing qualified individuals like Raghuram Rajan to quit or posturing with “demonetisation” that brought the largely cash-based economy to its knees hasn’t done the BJP any favours, so it has pivoted with a vengeance to bringing its extremist Hindu agenda “Hindutva” back to the forefront.
But here’s the question.
What does it mean for us if we’re willing to sacrifice freedom for monetary gain?
Is it ever OK to kill, maim, assault another human being for the greater good?
To strike terror into the hearts of a few for the benefit of many?
November 2016 brought the same sort of resigned optimism as 2014 did. “Maybe he won’t be so bad”, “He’s all for business, so the economy will prosper”, “There’s no way that basic human decency will be flouted – stop being so dramatic”: Famous last words for both Trump and Modi, as it were.
If 2017 was the year of awakening, of realizing that the freedoms we take for granted, freedom to say what we feel, to love whom we want to, to roam around the world without fear of violence, are freedoms not just to be expected, but also protected.
And we’re down to the last few hours of 2018. Change is in the air. With the rise of the unsavoury opinion, there’s been an equal and even more heartwarming rise of people speaking up in protest, that no, murder or assault are not ok even if we forsake the fevered daydreams of overflowing treasure chests of vast riches.
With that, my favourite books this year have been:
1. January: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
The Handmaid’s Tale was even more terrifying than 1984 since it seemed so much more real. A government run on a twisted extremist interpretation of a religion? *shudder*
Too real, it hit home hard, especially with it’s core focus on the very realistic violation of human rights. Definitely read it to gear up for the major elections in 2019 and 2020 – there’s a lot at stake here!
Of course, as usual, Tharoor says it best.
2. April: Inferior by Angela Saini
You know that bigot in your life who uses “biology” and “science” and “the natural nurturing ability of women” as excuses to condone misogyny? Think about this book while you’re fuming at Sexist Uncle who asks why you aren’t smiling or Sexist Aunty who condescendingly explains the “right” places in life for women, and men, for that matter.
Remember kids, smashing the patriarchy (or being a feminist) isn’t about women vs. men, it’s about offending your misogynistic family by suggesting that both girls and boys can choose not to conform to traditional gender roles! *gasp*
3. May: Nevermoor by Jessica Townsend
Not another book on “minority rights”?, one might be inclined to ask.
No actually, I do have fun most of the time. I think the real trouble with growing up is the crushing disappointment that you’re suddenly confronted with from the people that you love dearly. Think of this as a successful attempt at experiencing the blissful and carefree joys of childhood, with monsoon rains lashing at the windows and you curled up in a blanket with the latest Harry Potter. I can’t wait to read the sequel!
4. Also May: Ismat Chughtai Ke Afsaney (Short Stories by Ismat Chughtai)
How in the world did I end up listening to an Urdu book this year? I have no idea. It was on Spotify, accidentally queued because of what should have been a Google search and the most serendipitous book accident this year, since I discovered that there actually was some fantastic Indian literature written in the twentieth century, that there have been Indian feminists in history and modern history at that, and more than anything else, this lady might be the funniest author that I’ve ever “read”! Her short stories are simple and hilarious gems of everyday life!
5. June: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
A generational story of a Korean family that eventually ends up in Japan and how they navigate life as a discriminated minority there. Pachinko left a mark long after I had finished reading it. So much of the story rang true not just as a Korean or a Japanese story, but as a human story. I loved it, highly recommend it, and it got me excited to continue to seek out stories from around the world even though my momentum has slowed in the last several months.
6-8. August and September: The Stormlight Archive by Brandon Sanderson
This is the first series of Sanderson’s that I have read. He’s been really famous in fantasy circles for a while (think: N. K. Jemisin who I haven’t read either) for his much acclaimed Mistborn universe and I can attest that The Stormlight Archive is so good that I finished the three thousand-paged tomes released so far in about a month! I’m looking forward to the next two books in the first set.
9. November: Destiny Disrupted by Tamim Ansary
I don’t quite like Destiny Disrupted as much as the other books on this list, though it deserves honourable mention for its topic and also to round off my list to a perfect 10. Ansary is an Afghan-American author writing world history from an “Islamic” perspective, which is a “world” comprising largely of the Middle East facing West. It’s clearly meant for a Western audience, and my most niggling critique of it would be the usual erasure of Eastern history in World History despite the fact that the Indian Subcontinent, the South-East Asian Islands and the China-Mongolia region (that’s not even mentioning entire continents of Africa and South America) have actually been integral parts of human history for all the bits that are skipped in most lists of world history. (Or mentioned in passing like “Rome” yadayadayada “European exploration of the world”).
That said, reading the history of Islam itself was illuminating in this climate of abject Islamophobia. Though of course, no academic or theoretical collection of facts can ever make up for the real thing: That people are people. Good and bad and no righter or wronger than anyone else.
10. December: Becoming By Michelle Obama
Perhaps the reason that I’ve been contemplating politics so much at the end of the year.
Michelle Obama’s memoir isn’t meant to be political, but it did serve as a reminder to expect the best out of our leaders. Politicians aren’t just people playing games, they are elected representatives. We can expect them to be held to higher ideals, to be people to look up to, people who inspire us, and those who show the way to being our best selves.
It seems incredible that a wholesome, kind, generous family like the Obamas actually lived in the White House not so long ago, and changed the face of the world because of it. Obama may not have been perfect, and I don’t think that leaders need to be, but he did aspire to be the sort of leader who made the world a better place. Why are we willing to settle for those who don’t even have the baseline intention of equality for all, whether economic, religious or biological?
Looking Ahead – 2019
Last year I read books from the US, India, Canada, the UK, Russia, Israel, Afghanistan (Afghan-American) and Korea (Korean-American). I also read two Urdu books and two books translated into English.
This year, I want to read at least one book from each continent (last year I only managed four out of six eligible continents), a book in translation from each continent (that’s six compared to two this year), and books in three languages (as opposed to two this year).