Sunil Sethi

Journalist in Delhi

10 best books of 2014 Sunil Sethi’s end-of-the year listing of best books, in conventional hardcover format

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Column in Business Standard, December 20, 2014

At the bustling literary carnival hosted by The Times of India in Mumbai earlier this month, a leading Indian publisher and British literary agent were asked how they tackled the flow of frequently unsolicited manuscripts that landed on their desks. What was the yardstick by which they judged a work worthy of publication from the mounting “slush pile”? David Godwin, the agent, said he had a rule of thumb, and it was quite simple. If a manuscript held his attention from beginning to the end, he would back it wholeheartedly. David Davidar, the publisher, agreed. It didn’t matter what the genre was – fiction, history, biography, politics or travel writing – if the material was original enough for him to finish reading, he would publish it. Literary ambitions so often override limitations nowadays that many aspiring writers seem to hold down day jobs merely to hone their creative outpourings after hours. Social media, on the other hand, can serve to compress rather than expand the writer’s craft to an evanescent degree. (The film maker Shekhar Kapur showed me haiku-like short stories he composes to fit less than 120 characters on Twitter.)

As has long been the custom with this column, here is my end-of-the year listing of best books, in conventional hardcover format. Top of the list is Neel Mukherjee’s compelling fictional narrative The Lives of Others (Random House; Rs 599) from the Man Booker shortlist that darkly mirrors Kolkata’s decline in the late 1960s in the disintegration of a joint family. Cast in the mould of a cross-generation realist-bourgeois novel, Mr Mukherjee’s gifts enthrallingly capture the idiom of spoken Bengali in English. Two debut novels stood out: A Bad Character (Penguin; Rs 499) by Deepti Kapoor is a bold story of a young woman’s alienation in Delhi, and her seeking escape in illicit sex and drugs. In lower, even-handed key is Saskya Jain’s Fire under Ash (Random House; Rs 499) of the cultural clash unleashed in the capital’s Metroland.
In non-fiction, the standout surprise was Naseeruddin Shah’s memoir And Then One Day (Penguin; Rs 699) that became an instant critical and commercial success. As an actor’s ability to tread the boards at many levels, and convey the timbre of life before and beyond the footlights, Shah’s combination of swaggering critique and candid self-scrutiny is summed up in lines such as: “I am still often mistaken for Om Puri or Girish Karnad or Nana Patekar … who they get mistaken for, I don’t know.” Shah-speak challenges the idea that actors are often mechanised marionettes and that stardom is merely an arid celebrity scam. From another generation in Indian cinema an original voice rang out, also with pitch-perfect clarity: Conversations with Waheeda Rehman by Nasreen Munni Kabir (Penguin; Rs 499) is a candid, an astute and a witty account by a great star of the golden screen.

Biographies of living subjects can end up as exercises in vanity publishing. Out of Line: A Literary and Political Biography of Nayantara Sahgal by Ritu Menon (Fourth Estate; Rs 699) is the rare exception. Packed into a layered life are insights into the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, the hardships borne by a woman’s struggle for independence and her rigorous nurturing of the fictional imagination. The 87-year-old Ms Sahgal lays bare her life with uncompromising courage and her biographer mines her large archive with assiduous research and sympathy.

In a watershed election year Rajdeep Sardesai’s 2014: The Election That Changed India (Penguin; Rs 599) is more than a heat-and-dust campaign report or turgid analysis of the making and selling of Narendra Modi. Text, subtext and context are seamlessly interwoven in a sharp-witted journalist’s story that brims with information, colour, political drama and personal anecdote. Among the many battles recorded here are not just of the main political parties and contestants but of newsroom warfare as played out on remorseless round-the-clock TV news.

Perhaps because things have quietened down in the island-nation, Samanth Subramanian’s This Divided Island: Stories From the Sri Lankan War (Penguin; Rs 499) did not receive the attention it deserved. Still, it is a powerful account of the brutality and violent reprisals of the Sri Lankan war and the lives it changed – of “how victory can be put to the task of reshaping memory and burying histories”.

A more luminously told 800-year-old history, of Indian miniatures, comes from the art historian B N Goswamy in The Spirit of Indian Painting: Close Encounters with 101 Great Works, 1100-1900 (Penguin; Rs 1,499). And if memory is incomplete without taste, unquestionably the best food book of the year is Korma, Kheer & Kismet: Five Seasons in Old Delhi by Pamela Timms (Aleph; Rs 395).

Happy holiday reading, Merry Christmas and a joyous New Year!

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