Sunil Sethi

Journalist in Delhi

My best bookshelf of 2016

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Business Standard, December 31, 2016

Some of the best reading were works of modern and contemporary Indian history

The inexorable rise of nationalism — in Britain, in America — the horrors of war in and the often traumatic economic fallout of in Modi’s India made real-life narratives stranger than fiction in a post-truth world.


On my year’s bookshelf, some of the best reading were works of modern and contemporary Indian history, gripping accounts of the making and unmaking of the nation-state.


Two expansive, ground-breaking works stand out: India’s War: The Making of Modern South Asia, 1939-1945 by Srinath Raghavan (Penguin; Rs 699) and The Burning Forest: India’s War in Bastar by (Juggernaut; Rs 699). Ramachandra Guha once applauded Raghavan’s ability “to make military history sound sexy”. An ex-army officer, who by his own admission abandoned “the seductive rigours of the army for the sheltered groves of academia”, Raghavan’s story is no arid chronicle of campaigns and commanders in theatres of war; it is a wide-ranging account of how World War II fuelled the nationalist struggle and with it sweeping political, economic and social change that also marked out India’s future role on the world stage. Embellished with a wealth of detail and splendid profiles, there is hardly a dull page in this commodious and superbly structured volume.


Unlike Mr Raghavan, Ms Sundar was a trained academic who made her first foray into Chhattisgarh’s Maoist-infested district 25 years ago as a field researcher and was transformed from a passive observer to a passionate activist. Her brave and forensically documented story of the raging civil war between insurgents and the government’s scorched earth atrocities by the vigilante is illuminated by her compelling voice. “This book is written because, in the absence of justice, at least the truth must be on record,” she writes of events leading to the Supreme Court’s intervention to curb human rights abuses inflicted on one of the poorest tribal populations. Ms Sundar has suffered reprisals since the appearance of The Burning Forest, yet her testimony is a triumph for maintaining the delicate balance between an impartial reporter, an involved crusader and, above all, a fine writer.


One objective of both the historians is that, in the end, their stories are also of people who struggled to remake history. Two biographies by journalists — of utterly distinct public figures — capably tackle how individuals can rise from relative obscurity to command national attention. Half Lion: How P.V.Narasimha Rao Transformed India by Vinay Sitapati (Penguin; Rs 699) fills an important gap in telling the story of the country’s first Congress prime minister from a non-Hindi speaking state. Narasimha Rao’s reputation is undervalued for precisely those reasons; but he was a linguist, speaking 17 languages, a shrewd manipulator of party politics, propeller of economic reforms in 1991, and cultivated old-school Hyderabadi. He also led an imaginative life penning controversial fiction. The low point of his career was the demolition of the Babri Masjid. With access to Rao’s personal papers and a range of new source material, Mr Sitapati’s portrayal of Rao is far from the customary hagiographic lives of Indian leaders.


Grovelling portraits of Indian movie stars are as commonplace as penny dreadfuls. Yasser Usman’s account of Bollywood’s enigmatic siren Rekha: The Untold Story (Juggernaut; Rs 499) rises above the mould of tawdry bodice-rippers. It’s a racy read alright; but, backed by diligent research, he builds a convincing account of a woman breaking the shackles of enforced victimhood and the star system by living life on her own terms. In its way, it unfolds like a radical feminist plot.


An unusual and concise business history also made its presence strongly. Fascinating for its subject and easy accessibility, economist Omkar Goswami’s Goras and Desis: Managing Agencies and the Making of Corporate India (Penguin; Rs 299) is an excellent study of 19th century business practices whose vestiges are contentiously felt today.


In fiction, three novels gave undiluted pleasure: Swimmer Among the Stars by Kanishk Tharoor (Aleph; Rs 499), a splendid debut collection of short stories for their amalgam of the past and present in far-flung locations and incandescent writing; the last of Namita Gokhale’s Himalayan trilogy Things To Leave Behind (Penguin; Rs 499), a period piece that melds 19th colonial history with the luminous folklore and family traditions of the Kumaon hills; and for its fanciful flights of character and situations punctuated with mordant wit, Sri Lankan writer Ashok Ferrey’s The Ceaseless Chatter of Demons (Penguin; Rs 399).


And for a delightful distraction and year-end smile in an otherwise gloomy time there’s nothing to beat Amul’s India 3.0 (HarperCollins; Rs 299), the incredible story of the utterly-butterly politically incorrect poppet in polka dots who marks 60 years of the most delicious advertising campaigns in the world.


Don’t miss it and have a happy New Year!

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