Seeking escape in words

Books provided the anchor readers needed in these times of flux

Roopinder Singh

A shortage of good books? Yes, the New York Times ran a story about how Christmas shoppers were running out of titles to give to their friends because bookstores, even Amazon, did not have enough copies of books. 2018 was a blockbuster year in the US, with non-fiction like Fear by Bob Woodward, Michelle Obama’s biography Becoming and The President is Missing, a work of fiction by Bill Clinton and James Patterson, ringing in over a million copies each.

In India, too, many readers turned to books to understand the world around them better. These provided the anchor that these readers needed in these times of flux. Non-fiction books, autobiographies and biographies did well, even as fiction filled in the gaps.

Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Changing India takes the multi-volume cake weighing in at five volumes, giving his perspective on a range of economic, social, and political issues.

Ram Guha’s Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World explored the years from 1914-48 during which the Father of the Nation saw his country awaken to freedom, and strife that he had worked hard to prevent. Within the non-fiction category, Rajmohan Gandhi released Modern South India: A History from the 17th Century to Our Times and Shashi Tharoor opened his innings this year with his well-received Why I Am a Hindu and closed it with The Paradoxical Prime Minister in which he skewered Narendra Modi.

Arun Shourie turned a searing light onto the judicial system in Anita Gets Bail: What Are Our Courts Doing? What Should We Do About Them? Justice Markandey Katju asked Whither Indian Judiciary. Illiberal India: Gauri Lankesh and the Age of Unreason, Chidanand Rajghatta’s memoir about his former wife, was touching.

Arvind Subramanian, unfettered after leaving the government wrote Of Counsel: The Challenges of the Modi-Jaitley Economy and Kapil Sibal’s Shades of Truth: A Journey Derailed, gave his story. Former Vice-President M. Hamid Ansari wrote Dare I Question? Reflections on Contemporary Challenges. But the most devastating book against the Modi regime was former Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha’s India Unmade: How Narendra Modi Broke the Economy.

James Crabtree’s The Billionaire Raj: A Journey through India’s New Gilded Age told the story many want to read, as was The Spy Chronicles: RAW, ISI and the Illusion of Peace, a collaboration between two rival spymasters RAW’s A.S. Dulat and ISI’s General Asad Durrani. The latter’s other book Pakistan Adrift: Navigating Troubled Waters also found many takers. Khushwant Singh’s essays published posthumously in Punjab, Punjabis and Punjabiyat demonstrated the continuing appeal of the late writer.

In the world of fiction, Malayalis dominated the awards with Anees Salim winning the Sahitya Akademi Award for The Blind Lady’s Descendants and Benyamin’s Jasmine Days, the English translation of the 2014 Malayalam book Mullappoo Niramulla Pakalukal, a story of foreign workers in the Middle East, winning the JCB Prize. The DSC Prize for South Asian Literature has not yet been announced though its shortlist includes Jayant Kaikini’s No Presents Please, Manu Joseph’s Miss Laila Armed and Dangerous, Neel Mukherjee’s A State of Freedom and Sujit Saraf’s Harilal & Sons, besides the two Pakistani authors listed earlier. Aatish Taseer’s journey to Benaras in The Twice Born was interesting for the questions it raised.

In sports, Sanjay Manjrekar’s Imperfect was at the top. Karunya Keshav and Sidhanta Patnaik’s The Fire Burns Blue: A History of Women’s Cricket in India recounted the history of women’s cricket in India in an appealing manner. Cricket dominated the genre with A Century is not Enough: My Roller-coaster Ride to Success by Sourav Ganguly, Shane Warne’s autobiography, No Spin and 281 and Beyond by VVS Laxman.

We could well say that in times of ambiguity and impermanence of changing news stories, books provided readers with the depth they sought.

Death of an era

Nobel Prize-winning author V.S. Naipaul (85), known for his critical commentary on colonialism, idealism, religion and politics, died in August. Naipaul wrote more than 30 books, his most celebrated being A House for Mr Biswas. Awarded a knighthood, he was the recipient of numerous honours, including the Man Booker and the Nobel Prize.

In the news

Noble for a cause

Nadia Murad (25) survived hell and lived to tell the tale. She recounted the brutalities inflicted on her and her people, the Yazidis of Iraq, by the Islamic State group in her book, The Last Girl: The story of My Captivity and Fight Against The Islamic State. Murad was taken hostage by IS but escaped and became a champion of Yazidis cause and won the Nobel Peace Prize in the process in October. She is the first Iraqi to receive the prestigious award.

SC to the rescue

The Supreme Court refused to ban the Malayalam novel Meesha in September. It dismissed a plea seeking a ban on the book for allegedly depicting Hindu women visiting temples in a derogatory light. A conversation between two characters in the novel was picked out and circulated on social media, claiming that the novel was anti-Hindu. The author S. Hareesh had withdrawn the novel, published in Mathrubhumi weekly, after facing heat from right-wing groups.

This roundup on books was published in The Tribune special issue dated Sunday, December 30, 2018; titled 2018: The Year of Polarisation.

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