Deccan Chronicle

BOOK REVIEW | What are the books we are excited about in 2021?

Deccan Chronicle| Jaya Bhattacharji Rose

Published on: January 2, 2021 | Updated on: January 2, 2021

So many frills, thrills and spills! Reading good literature will help survive this pandemic

Representational Image

Representational Image

Despite the pandemic fracturing publishing, 2021 is a promising year of riches for readers.

In non-fiction, Shashi Tharoor’s Pride, Prejudice & Punditry: The Essential Shashi Tharoor consists of essays and (surprise!) fiction; Salman Rushdie’s Languages of Truth has newly collected, revised and expanded non-fiction from the past two decades; Ruskin Bond’s It’s a Wonderful Life: Roads to Happiness calls for small joys to be found in everyday living even in times of extreme stress; A Functioning Anarchy (Eds. Srinath Raghavan and Nandini Sundar), a collection of essays by world-renowned historians, lawyers, scientists and journalists that is sparked by Ramachandra Guha’s work, promises new insights; Eric Hobsbawm’s On Nationalism is an enlightening collection of the historian’s writing and Nayantara Sahgal’s The Unmaking of India: Articles and Speeches & Encounter with Kiran discusses the "unmaking" of India, where liberty and equality are replaced by bigotry, communal politics, a "tame" media and all the concomitant dangers of majoritarian rule.

Books on diverse topics — history, business and science — are slated for release. Historian Upinder Singh’s Ancient India: Culture of Contradictions is sure to stir up debate and discussion; as would Amit Varma’s four books, converted from his podcasts and collectively called The Seen and the Unseen; Amitav Ghosh’s The Nutmeg’s Curse: A Parable for a Planet is about conquest and exploitation and geopolitical hierarchy; Manu Pillai’s The World of Raja Ravi Varma: Princes and Patrons paints the portraits of the maharajahs and women who defied norms and colonial expectations; and City of Gated Walls: The Map of Shahajahanabad by Swapna Liddle is a reproduction of that 1846 map created in Bahadur Shah Zafar’s time by a mapmaker who painstakingly depicted important buildings, streets and landmarks, providing a wealth of information about the city as it had evolved up to that time.

In Search of the Divine: Living Practices of Sufism in India by Rana Safvi is a unique treatise on the core of Sufi beliefs. The long-awaited books by Pramod Kapoor (1946: The Indian Naval Uprising that Shook the Empire) and Salil Tripathi (The Gujaratis: A Portrait of a Community) will also be released this year. Congress Radio by Usha Thakkar is about the establishment of the underground radio by Usha Mehta during the Quit India Movement; Aparna Vaidik’s Revolutionaries on Trial: Sedition, Betrayal, and Martyrdom uses a variety of sources to reconstruct a dramatic period in India’s struggle for Independence; and Angellica Aribam and Akash Satyawali are profiling The Fifteen: The Women Who Shaped the Constitution of India. Rupa Gupta and Gautam Gupta’s Lifting the Veil from India’s Past is about the Archaeological Survey of India. In Language of Remembering: Generational Memories of the Partition, Aanchal Malhotra shifts attention to the post-memory generation — how the generations that have not witnessed Partition engage with its history. Through the idea of "national symbols", Jana Gana Mana by musician-activist T.M. Krishna examines the idea of citizenship and belonging, while also investigating and problematising the symbol itself.

Yashaswini Chandra’s The Tale of the Horse: A History of India on Horseback is a tale of migration and permanent intermingling while Winged Stallions and Wicked Mares: The Horse in Indian Myth and History by Wendy Doniger examines the horse’s significance throughout Indian history and culture even though the animal is not indigenous to India. Voices from the Lost Horizon is a collection of folk tales and songs of the Great Andamanese as rendered by Prof. Anvita Abbi.

Publishing on science with an interdisciplinary approach and for the lay reader is a welcome trend. In Fellowship of Rivals, Manjit Kumar tells the story of the first great "Scientific Revolution", how a small group of individuals — including Isaac Newton, Robert Hooke and Christopher Wren — produced an explosion of knowledge unrivalled in the history of western civilisation. Elsewhere, Anjana Chattopadhyay discusses Women Scientists in India: Lives, Struggles and Achievements. Meanwhile, Pranay Lal’s Virus is a deep dive into its origin and evolution and his The Cretaceous is meant for younger readers.

Militant Piety and Lines of Control: The Lethal Literature of the Lashkar-e-Taiba, edited by C. Christine Fair and translated by Safina Ustaad, is the first scholarly effort to curate a sample of LeT’s Urdu language publications. The Muslim Problem by solicitor and human rights activist Tawseef Khan gets to the heart of Islamophobia and is a compelling mix of journalistic investigation, historical analysis and memoir. Military historian Shiv Kunal Verma’s 1965: A Western Sunrise is the definitive account of the 1965 war between India and Pakistan.

Meanwhile, Samira Shackle’s debut Karachi Vice is considered to be a fast-paced journey around Karachi in the company of those who know the city inside out. Project 39 is a collection of deeply personal stories that emerged from interviews conducted with death-row prisoners and their families. These were collected by Jahnavi Mishra and Project 39A, a research and litigation centre based out of National Law University, Delhi.

India’s First Dictatorship: The Emergency, 1975-77, by political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot and Pratinav Anil, draws upon a trove of new sources. When the Mask Came off: A People’s History of Cruelty and Compassion in Times of Covid-19 Lockdown (Eds. Harsh Mander, Natasha Badhwar and Anirban Bhattacharya) is crucial documentation by those who witnessed the immediate impact of the lockdown. Graphic narratives also abound, such as Azaadi: A Biography of Bhagat Singh by Ikroop Sandhu, Shaheen Bagh by Ita Mehrotra and Incantations over Water by Sharanya Manivannan.

Nature writing has plenty to offer this year. The Bera Bond is about Sundeep Bhutoria’s startling discovery of a little-known leopard colony in the forests of Rajasthan where the big cats live harmoniously with humans. In The Braided River: A Journey Along the Brahmaputra, journalist Samrat Choudhury sets out to follow the river’s braided course from the edge of Tibet where it enters India down to where it meets the Ganga at a spot marked by the biggest red-light district in Bangladesh. Earth’s Incredible Oceans by Dorling Kindersley is a must-have encyclopaedia. Waiting for Turtles by Pankaj Sekhsaria, illustrated by Vipin Sketchplore, sensitises children to the urgency to save turtles. Scientist Sukanya Datta’s Animal Architects is about the architectural wonders that animals build for themselves as homes. The Heartbeat of Trees by Peter Wollehben (translated by Jane Billinghurst) reveals the profound interactions humans can have with nature. Worryingly, climate change can wreak havoc on these ecosystems. Hence the relevance of environmental activist Vandana Shiva and Shreya Jani’s Slow Living: What You Can Do About Climate Change and billionaire Bill Gates’s How to Avoid a Climate Disaster.

Memoirs and biographies have always proven to be popular. The late Hindi writer Swadesh Deepak I Haven’t Seen Mandu, translated by Jerry Pinto, is a powerful first-person account of mental illness; Sharon Stone’s The Beauty of Living Twice about losing her family and fortune after her stroke and recovering; screenwriter Nikesh Shukla’s Brown Baby explores themes of racism, feminism, parenting and idea of home; and Kobad Ghandy’s Fractured Freedom: A Prison Memoir gives an insight into time in prisons across India.

Bollywood icons always make good stories: check out Yasser Usman’s Guru Dutt: An Unfinished Story; Kaveree Bamzai’s The Three Khans about Aamir Khan, Salman Khan and Shah Rukh Khan; and Gautam Chintamani’s Vinod Khanna. Adi Prakash’s Umar Khalid: Beyond the Anti-National intersects student politics, media fairness and the experience of growing up Muslim in India.

Business books have moved beyond standard accounts of business tycoons. Investigative journalist Josy Joseph’s The Business of Terror explores the militancy theatre as a flourishing, multi-faceted business enterprise in India where most of its actors are its beneficiaries. Tata: The Global Corporation That Built Indian Capitalism by Mircea Raianu is an eye-opening portrait of global capitalism spanning 150 years, told through the history of the Tata Corporation. Forgotten Brands: Fresh Marketing Lessons by Ramya Ramamurthy is about colonial Indian brands (both home-grown and foreign) that were produced, distributed and marketed between 1847 and 1947. Finally, House of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe is the story of the Sackler Dynasty, Purdue Pharma, and their involvement in the opioid crisis that has created millions of addicts, even as it generated billions of dollars in profit.

Literary fiction stalwarts bring promising new stories. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s The Last Queen is an exquisite love story about Maharaja Ranjit’s Singh’s last queen, a commoner, Jindan Kaur; Amitav Ghosh’s Jungle Nama: A Story of the Sundarban, is a verse adaptation of the timeless legend of Bonbibi and Dokkhin Rai, illustrated by Salman Toor; and Asoca by I. Allan Sealy is an imagined memoir of Ashoka The Great. Hussain S. Zaidi’s The Black Orphan centres on Asiya, Osama Bin Laden’s protégé and foster daughter. Anuja Chauhan returns with a grisly titled Club You to Death as does Padma Shri Temsula Ao with The Tombstone in My Garden. Deepa Agarwal’s Kashmir! Kashmir! and Unmasked by Paro Anand, too, are eagerly awaited.

Annie Zaidi’s novel, One of Them, is about people who live on the margins of a big city. Amitava Kumar’s A Time Outside This Time is about fake news, memory and how truth gives way to fiction. The Loves of Yuri by Jerry Pinto is a funny and heart-breaking novel about friendship, first loves and Bombay. Nobel Prize winners Kazuo Ishiguro and Orhan Pamuk’s novels Klara And the Sun and Nights of Plague, respectively, are hugely anticipated as are the mind-bending short stories, First Person Singular, by Haruki Murakami. Pulitzer Prize-winners Jhumpa Lahiri, Viet Thanh Nguyen and Colson Whitehead’s novels are called Whereabouts, The Committed and Harlem Shuffle. Tahmima Anam’s The Start-Up Wife is considered gripping, witty and razor-sharp. Second-time novelists who had glittering starts to their literary careers with their debuts like Sunjeev Sahota, Anuk Arudpragasam and Elizabeth Macneal return with China Room, In Search of the Distance, and Carnival of Wonder, respectively.

Debutant voices making their mark are Maithreyi Kapoor (Sylvia: Distant Avuncular Ends; she experiments here with the form of the novel), Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih (Funeral Nights, where the absurd and the sublime all freely mix in a history of the Khasis), Krupa Ge (One Hundred Autumns, set against the backdrop of the Dravidian movement), Ira Mukhoty Jayal (Song of Draupadi, which is vivid and imaginative), Raza Mir (Murder at the Mushaira, a cracking murder mystery) Devashish Makhija (Oonga, a powerful novel that transitions from a film and sits deep in the clash between adivasis, Naxalites, the CRPF and a rapacious mining company), Fahad Shah (The Unnamed, a searing novel set in Kashmir), Zakiya Dalila Harris (The Other Black Girl) Anindita Ghose (The Illuminated)  and Tavleen Singh (Everything Breaks).
Historical fiction is a well-defined niche this year with the first book of Madhulika Liddle’s Delhi quartet — The Garden of Heaven expected soon. It is a story playing out against a backdrop of Delhi, stretching from the end of the 12th century (when Delhi first came under the rule of Sultans) till 1947. Shubendra’s Sultan: The Legend of Hyder Ali, set in the 18th century, is the astonishing tale of an ordinary boy from Mysore who became one of the greatest rulers of India. Tarana Khan’s The Begum and the Dastan, although set in the late 19th century in the fictional town of Sherpur, is a work based on real events about a despotic Nawab who abducts a married woman, Feroza, and marries her against her wishes. Digonta Bordoloi’s Second World War Sandwich is an action-packed novel set in Nagaland during the WWII, when the Nagas resisted the incursion of the Japanese troops into Northeast India. Melody Razak’s Moth is a heart-rending story of a brahmin family living in 1940s Delhi.

Translations are rich fare. For starters, there is Ambai’s short stories A Red-Necked Green Bird, translated from Tamil by GJV Prasad; the Bengali classic, Manada Devi’s An Educated Woman in Prostitution: A Memoir of Lust, Exploitation, Deceit (Calcutta,1929), translated by Arunava Sinha; and Amrita Pritam’s The Cage, translated from Punjabi by Rita Banerji. There is also Munshi Faizuddin’s Bazm-i Aakhir, or The Last Assembly (1885), translated by Ather Farooqui. It is a rich and lively account of life in the royal court of the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar.

So many frills, thrills and spills! Reading good literature will help survive this pandemic.

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose is an international publishing consultant

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