Column in Business Standard, December 18, 2015
Turbulence in love and war were the two main themes explored in many of the year’s best books. But as in many a recent year, the quality and range of non-fiction far outpaced that of fiction in 2015. The major novel that sticks in memory is the final part of Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy, Flood of Fire (Penguin; Rs 799), another deep immersion in 19th century colonial history set against the backdrop of the First Opium War. Some of the characters of the earlier books are still here, such as the American sailor Zachary Reid and the Bengali feudal Raja Neel Rattan Halder, while others, including an East India Company sepoy and Parsi widow make their first appearance. Caught in the maelstrom, they are mere specks in a larger conflict that will decide their fate. As one of them asks, “How was it possible that the outcome of those brief moments could determine who would rule whom, who would be rich or poor, master or servant, for generations to come?”
This year commemorates the quiet, almost unnoticed arrival 60 years ago, of an Anglo-Indian teenager called Rusty. Ruskin Bond’s creation in his first novel The Room on the Roof (Puffin; Rs 250), written when he was only seventeen, captures the tremulous angst of adolescence so precisely, that several Rusty sequels have appeared, and another is due. That makes Ruskin Bond, now 81 and 150 works of fiction and non-fiction later, a cult figure. All Rusty novels are back in print but it would be wrong to think of them as children’s fiction. They have an ageless appeal.
This was unquestionably the year of the journalist as chronicler and historian. Akshaya Mukul’s Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India (HarperCollins; Rs 799) is an astonishing story of a small printing outfit and its owners, set up in Gorakhpur in the 1920s, and today the largest purveyor of Hindu religious texts (71.9 million copies of the Gita, and millions of other scriptures sold) that decisively shaped the forces of Hindutva. Its Hindi journal Kalyan, with a circulation of 200,000, continues to support retrograde casteist, misogynist and communal views.
The year marked the centenary of the Great War, and Vedica Kant’s “If I Die Here Who Will Remember Me?” (Roli Books; Rs 1,995) is a painstakingly compiled photographic narrative of the 72,000 Indians who lost their lives fighting in global battles; journalist Shrabani Basu’s For King and Another Country (Bloomsbury; Rs 599), no less moving an account, restricts itself to the Western Front. The question of whose war these men were fighting, and all but forgotten by Western and Indian historians, lingered till World War II (1939-45). Amends are memorably made by Raghu Karnad in Farthest Field: An Indian Story of the Second World War (Fourth Estate; Rs 550). He weaves strands of long-buried family history and military history to create a masterly work of “forensic non-fiction”.
Closer in time but no less harrowing a story of conflicted politics is Coomi Kapoor’s The Emergency: A Personal History (Penguin; Rs 599), an unsettling account of the 21 dark months in 1975-77 when democracy was derailed with as many as 150,000 held in prison. Ms Kapoor was both observer and victim, and that is what makes her rigorous research come alive.
Much has been said of the bestselling Aarushi (Penguin; Rs 299), Avirook Sen’s chilling recapitulation of the double murder involving the 14-year-old daughter of dentist parents that shook the nation in 2008; all I can add is that it should be read for both its forceful repudiation of ramshackle criminal investigation and justice procedures as for its skilled reportage in reconstructing the fallout of a sensational crime.
As explorations of personal sexual history, two books broke new ground: journalist Siddharth Dube’s brave, sensitively told coming-of-age account as an upper class gay man and the persecution he faced in No One Else (HarperCollins; Rs 599) and the joyfully uninhibited A Handbook for My Lover (HarperCollins; Rs 499) by arts curator Rosalyn D’Mello, of her love affair with an older man, a photographer.
The cold reality of Amitav Ghosh’s fictional question -“…who would rule whom, who would be rich or poor, master or servant, for generations to come?” is dealt with authoritative ease in T N Ninan’s The Turn of the Tortoise: The Challenge and Promise of India’s Future (Penguin; Rs 699). The sure hand of India’s foremost business editor is visible in the range of subjects he addresses – corruption, the citizen versus the state, industry and politics – by adroitly highlighting the large picture with telling anecdote and detail. It is the best guide to India’s aspirations and failings. And, lastly, Barkha Dutt in This Unquiet Land (Aleph; Rs 599) takes us through stories from India’s fault lines in her inimitable voice: argumentative, fluent and passionate.
A very happy Christmas and New Year!