2018 was a commendable year for offerings in fiction, history and biography.
Column in Business Standard, December 29, 2018
In a long-held tradition the last column of the year is dedicated to some of the best reading of the year across genres. If fiction, in Albert Camus’s words, is the lie by which writers tell the truth, then three novels by accomplished Indian practitioners stood out for the intricacy and innovation of the form.
Amitabha Bagchi’s earlier works, Above Average and The Householder, are deft explorations of middle-class life but his latest, Half the Night Is Gone (Juggernaut; Rs 599), is altogether more ambitious. Part epistolary novel, part family chronicle spanning the 20th century, its fiction-within-fiction layering is an exhumation of a Hindi writer battling personal demons as he spins out his narrative.
True to its title, award-winning novelist Anuradha Roy’s All the Lives We Never Lived (Hachette; Rs 599) pools imagined and real-life characters across time and space. A man’s quest for the story of his mother, who eloped with a German in the late 1930s, turns out, in fact, to be Walter Spies, the famous gay artist and composer who put Bali on the world map. Figures such as Tagore, Begum Akhtar and Beryl de Zoete appear in nuanced reflections on the disruptive forces of nationalism, war and the feminist impulse.
Mahesh Rao’s Polite Society (Penguin; Rs 599), stretching Camus’s dictum to its satiric possibility, is a retake of Jane Austen’s Emma set in Delhi here and now. Like Zadie Smith’s reinvention of E M Forster or P D James reimagining Pride and Prejudice as a sequential crime thriller, Mr Rao has huge fun. He expands Austen’s small canvas to romp through Delhi’s mansions, nearby rural estates and hill stations, Paris catwalks and Italian retreats. Believable characters talk fast and loose as they negotiate Austen’s thorny paths of class, money and romantic attachment. It’s delicious — and not just for diehard Jane-ites.
2018 was a commendable year for offerings in history and biography. I have often wondered why no brave amateur will cock a snook at academic historians with an accurate yet alluring study of a historic figure, in the mode, say, of Nancy Mitford or Harold Nicolson.Jahangir: An Intimate Portrait of a Great Mughal by Parvati Sharma (Juggernaut; Rs 599) admirably bridges the gap. Long the subject of pop mythology and Bollywood fantasy, the fourth emperor, sandwiched between Akbar and Shah Jahan, has suffered unfairly. Historian Ebba Koch in Ms Sharma’s substantial source notes calls Jahangir “something of a Cinderella…[of] Mughal studies”. Rebel, aesthete, passionate romantic and obsessive sybarite, Parvati Sharma’s gripping biography brings Jahangir’s world alive as no movie or stage drama can.
Destined for as long a shelf life is journalist and music aficionado Namita Devidayal’s account of a life closer to our time in her fascinating account of the sitar maestro, The Sixth String of Vilayat Khan (Context; Rs 699). Ms Devidayal’s original account of her transformative experience — a privileged Mumbai ingénue’s sudden immersion into the world of classical music — in The Music Room (2009) made her book a bestseller. Now, her story of a complex, competitive, colourful genius takes her musical odyssey forward through wide research and travel. It’s a must-have for music lovers.
Two widely reviewed works by well-known writers illuminate new facets of enigmatic subjects. Australian writer John Zubrzycki’s Jadoowallahs, Jugglers and Jinns: A Magical History of India (Picador; Rs 699) is an expansive conjuring of the dark arts — both as enlightenment and entertainment — from ancient times. And psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar sheds new light on the early life in Punjab of arch imperialist and writer of all-time classics Rudyard Kipling in The Kipling File (Penguin; Rs 499).
For an extended foray into the harsher realities of Indian life nothing can better than A Stranger Truth: Lessons in Love, Leadership and Courage from India’s Sex Workers (Juggernaut; Rs 699) by Ashok Alexander. Mr Alexander gave up a comfortable position at McKinsey’s to join the Gates Foundation at the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis in 2003. During his extensive travels then, and later, when he set up his own NGO, he took copious notes of his encounters with women in the sex trade. Yet his gruelling journeys are not entirely a chronicle of despair and abject hopelessness. They are shot through with hope, and even humour, making it a deeply moving and uplifting account.
Fans of Hindi film music will rejoice at the appearance of S D Burman: The Prince-Musician by Anirudha Bhattacharjee and Balaji Vittal (Tranquebar; Rs 799). Despite its wealth of material, however, this long overdue tribute to a trailblazing talent is bulky, disorganised and in need of a skilled edit. For my money Jiya Jale, The Stories of Songs: Gulzar in conversation with Nasreen Munni Kabir (Speaking Tiger; Rs 499) is how the well-springs of a much-loved poet and popular song writer should be recorded.
Finally, as a palliative to the poisoned politics and polluted air of the capital, lawyer and Urdu scholar Saif Mahmood’s Beloved City: A Mughal City and Her Greatest Poets (Speaking Tiger; Rs 599) is an exhilarating, heart-rending and elegant escape.
Happy New Year!