If I’m asked about my booklist of the year 2020, the year hasn’t been that productive for me. Went through a very less number of books, at a very sluggish pace. Still, these books that I read last year left their imprint on me.
The first book I came across 2020, in the first week of the year, was Shaheen Bhatt’s ‘I Have Never Been Unhappier’. The book is a beautiful exposition of the struggles a person undergoes every moment. As somebody who has experienced three major bouts of depression in the last ten years, I found the book enlightening. A must read.
Three books I went through in the months of January and February:
1. ‘The Brothers of the Gun’ can easily be described as the best book on the Syrian war from an ordinary youth’s perspective. Marvan Hisham, the author, is marvellous in the narration of how war changed the life of common people in Rakka, Idlib and Aleppo cities of Syria. It has the beauty of detailing every microscopic facet of life in the cities of Syria before war set in as a horrible nightmare.
There are hundreds of books on Syria and the Syrian war by armchair experts who call themselves authorities on the subject, but this one is special. The art by Molly Crabapple in the book is piercing. Highly recommended.
2. ‘A Case of Exploding Mangoes’ by Mohammed Hanif, a highly acclaimed Pakistani writer, is a fictionalised story of Gen Zia’s murder and the various guesses made about the event. It shows the ever-pervasive control of the army on the Pakistani state. Its central character is a young air force officer, Ali Shigri. The stance of liberalism is a bit distasteful in the book. The author seems to have made fun of the religious piety of General Zia. However, I particularly liked one sentence: “Answered prayers are sometimes more painful than the sad echoes of the unanswered ones.” A good read.
3. ‘City of Joy’ by Dominique Lapierre is testimony to the resilience of the human character. It is quite an old book, set in erstwhile Calcutta’s one of the most pestilential environs, named Anand Nagar. It shows how people remain happy in such cramped and inhuman conditions. A must read.
The four books I read in the months of March and April were:
1. ‘A Stranger to History: A Son’s journey through Islamic Lands’ by Aatish Taseer. Aatish Taseer is a writer of Indo-Pakistani origin. I must say that the book doesn’t have any substantial point of view about life in the Islamic countries, from Turkey to Pakistan, except that it is fabulously written. Taseer is surely one of the most impactful writers of our times. But what one encounters in his writings is an underlying grouse against Muslims and Islam, which seems to have got to do with his father, Salman Taseer, completely disowning him.
2. ‘Pax Sinica’ by Sameer Saran, head of the Observer Research Foundation in Delhi, and Akhil Deo, a young scholar, is a very erudite attempt at explaining the rise of China and the success of its debt-trap economy, which has beaten almost every economic model hollow. For anybody interested in China and its rise, and not the rhetorical myths, the book is a must read.
3.’The Anarchy’ by William Dalrymple is surely the best book on the subject of British economic imperialism in India. The figures regarding the loot by the British in India mentioned in the book are simply astonishing. It explains the journey of how Indian economy fell from 25 percent of the world economy in 1750 C.E. to just around 0.8 to 1.5 percent in the 20th century. A very well-researched book. It shows how the British had zero concern for the welfare of their colonial subjects.
4. ‘A Chequered Brilliance: The many lives of V. K. Krishna Menon’ by Jairam Ramesh is a bulky book on the life of V. K. Krishna Menon, the right hand man of Nehru at the time of Indo-China war of 1962. Jairam gives insights into different aspects of this brilliant, but chequered life of this personality.
The books I came across in the months of May, June and July were:
1. ‘The Nehrus and The Gandhis’, a book on one of the foremost political dynasties of the Indian subcontinent. Tariq Ali is surely one of the best known commentators of our times. Almost everything is known about the Nehrus and the Gandhis but this book is different. The sad part is that the book is overpriced on almost all the ecommerce sites.
2. ‘Backstage’ by Montek Singh Ahluwalia is a very fine commentary on the story of liberalisation in India. He truly is a modern-day architect of the school of Manmohan Economics.
3. ‘The Underground Girls of Kabul’ by Jenny Nordberg is a very poignant and piercing book on the tragedy called Afghanistan and how the tragedy is even more so for the women of that country. Those who laud Afghanistan and the Taliban must read the book to understand how painfully ugly the society of Kabul is for women.
4. ‘2019: How Modi Won India’ by Rajdeep Sardesai is a racy book on how Modi and Shah have trumped over all opposition in present-day India. Rajdesai offers a unique perspective, even though large parts of the book are common knowledge. The Modi Kurta phenomenon and the rise of Jade Blue brand associated with it are very well explained.
5. Sanath Jayasuriya’s biography. I always wanted to understand how this sportsman, who revolutionised modern-day cricket, rose from the small town of Matara in south Sri Lanka to the highest stage of competitive cricket.
Between August and December I read these:
1. ‘Savarkar’ by V. S. Sampath, a young writer who has made a very good attempt at filling up the historiographical void that existed otherwise in the absence of any major work on a leader of the extreme right. It is a definitive biography of a person whose godchildren are today ruling the roost, even though there are certain areas where one feels the biography isn’t without the bias of sympathy. Though the book is a fat one and there are repetitions in the book, there are some of the most exquisite disquisitions made on how Savarkar became the godfather of the modern-day Hindutva. The book is exaggeratingly painful in mentioning the trials and tribulations faced by Savarkar in the Cellular Jail, Port Blair.
Pertinent to mention the fact that the word Hindutva was never coined by V. D. Savarkar; it was first used by Chandranath Basu in the 1890s.
2. ‘Breaking Through’ is a beautiful autobiography of a very famous economist, Dr Isher Judge Ahluwalia, who passed away in 2020, just days after the release of the book. I particularly liked the book because it is short and easy. Also, it is a very inspiring story of a girl who grows up in a household where she is one out of 11 siblings, with very modest means to feed themselves, and reaches the pinnacle of success. Very good read.
3. ‘Bland Fanatics’ by Pankaj Mishra, one of the world’s most powerful intellectuals at present, is a prosaic, odd, though deeply researched compilation of articles written by the author in the last decade. Though the author is very lucid in touching on different issues from Xenophobia in the West to the religious polarisation in India and the election of Donald Trump as the President of America in 2017, I didn’t like the book. I found the book extremely tedious. On one page, I might have used the dictionary 4-5 times, on average. Though I endorse that all the earlier books of Pankaj Mishra, from ‘Temptations of the West’ to ‘An Age of Anger’, are very readable.
4.’The Truths We Hold’ is the autobiography of Ms Kamala Harris, the Vice-President elect of the United States of America. She is a great lady, a great author. The book documents the work done by Harris, from dealing with the foreclosure crisis of 2008-09 to the Affordable Care Act to working towards better treatment of Latin American refugees and fighting for LGBTQ rights. It is a fabulous book.
5. ‘A Promised Land’ by Barack Obama is the account of Barack Obama’s political career. The book is unnecessarily long. 700 pages could have been easily compressed into 300-350 pages. Though Obama is a lyrical writer, his winding his way through various issues makes the book quite boring at times. The last time I read Obama’s books was back in 2008 and 2009 – ‘Dreams from My Father’ and ‘The Audacity of Hope’, respectively. I had particularly liked them, maybe because the grime of murky politics hadn’t touched the garments of Obama then. He was an idealist in those books, but in the present book, he is more of a pragmatist, though there are signs of unsaid idealism in between.
6. ‘Honour Among Spies’ by Lt General Durrani is a sob-story of how he, the author, despite being the top-notch spy in the world of espionage, was put on the exit list by the ISI of Pakistan. It was after he wrote the book, Spy Chronicles, jointly with the ex-R&AW chief. Though a well-written book, written in a novel style, there is nothing riveting in the book.
—The writer is a UK-based teacher. [email protected]