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Booked for the season

Too busy to read? Too stingy to spend on those rectangular objects with pages? Here are seven books that should set you on a reading course. And no, there’s not a single self-help book. Read on...

books Updated: Sep 26, 2009 01:45 IST

If you aren’t familiar with the dark comic genius of the late Manohar Shyam Joshi, this is the book to correct your situation. It’s also the book to shut those wags up who think that vernacular fiction in India is all about domestic sagas and old Films Division-type social realism.

Translated with the straightest of straight faces by Robert A. Hueckstedt from the Hindi original, Hariya Hercules ki Hairani (1999), The Perplexity of Hariya Hercules (Penguin, Rs 199) tells the story of the unflappable Harihar Datt Tiwari — who gets his nom de guerre from the brand of bicycle he rides — finally being perplexed by what his ailing and chronically constipated father Girvan Datt Tiwari leaves behind after his death.

7 best picks

Best Fiction: The perplexity of Hariya Hercules
Best Current Affairs: The Ayatollah Begs to Differ
Best Crime Fiction: Flesh House
Best Science: Quantum
Best Chick Lit: The Great Indian Love Story
Best Travel: Spiritual India Handbook
Best Coffee Table: Indian Saris

This slim novella describes Hariya’s stifling life as he moves deeper and deeper into the concentric circles of a jolly hell that is his community — with his father — both before and after death, forming its radiating core. Joshi’s telling of this slapstick story is strangely horrific. (The description of his hero conducting a rubber-gloved ‘de-excrementation’ on his father is joltingly scatalogical and tragic both at the same time.)

The story of Hariya Hercules is that of a latter day Gregor Samsa, caught in an unbearably absurd world in which the protagonist almost sleepwalks his way through. The ‘tragic’ discovery of his father’s past leaves Hariya’s world wobbling. Joshi’s language is dead pan right from the start: “Before the legendary day in 1969 of the Christian era (we had already forgotten what year it was in our own Vikrami era) Harihar Datt Tiwari, also known as Hariya Hercules, had never been distressed or perplexed, so for us his perplexity became a long and involved story.”

Joshi was the creator of the iconic TV series Hum Log, Buniyaad and Mungeri Lal ke Haseen Sapne. But it was last year with the award-winning translation (by Ira Pande) of T’Ta Professor that a larger English-reading readership stumbled on to his writing genius.

The Perplexity of Hariya Hercules is the story of how purposeless life is, even as he takes the recourse of making us laugh at this tragic condition.

Hooman Majd is an Iranian who lives in New York City. He is also the grandson of an Ayatollah and is, as he describes himself, “both a hundred per cent Iranian and a hundred per cent American”. But if that raises any warning about yet another run-of-the-mill ‘insider-outsider’s’ understanding of an Islamic country, banish the thought. Majd — with dollops of humourous observations, self-critical descriptions and a keen stereo-civilisational eye — takes the reader away in The Ayatollah Begs To Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran (Penguin, Rs 425) from the stereotypes and counter-stereotypes of modern Iran and into the much more complex, rich world where the 21st century Iranians reside.

His understanding of Iranian politicians, especially of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, not only lifts the veil off the ‘official’ pictures that we depend on mainly through the Western media But it also brings us deeper into the politics and culture of a people whose pride and identity as a civilisation take various shapes, sizes and statements. He positions Ahmadinejad not as ‘mad, bad and dangerous’ but as a master of public image — his working class roots on display courtesy his ill-fitting jacket and ‘bad’ haircut. He also tries, through the logic of a Jewish-Iranian friend, to make ‘Iranian’ sense of the president’s ‘Holocaust denial’: “‘You’re not monsters,’ Ahmadinejad was saying. ‘Surely not? Surely you’re a great civilisation,’ a sentiment that could only compel the Europeans, and particularly the Germans, to respond in effect, ‘No, no, no, we were. We really were monsters. The very worst kind.’ And by further asking why Israel had to be created by them, he was essentially getting the Europeans to admit that they were entirely capable of genocide again.”

As Majd says, it doesn’t matter that most Europeans didn’t squirm, “for Iranians and Arabs got the message, if only subconsciously”.

The book is a mix of documentary style observations — witty, without being based in ignorance — revealing and, at some fine moments, digging into cultural tics and traits that required a lucid, colourful engagement rather than a heavy-lidded grave one. This is not only a book that’s a must read for Western readers, but also for those whose sustenance for information about Iran comes from the Western trough — or from its equally knee-jerk opposite, the anti-Western trough. With Majd, you come close to understanding the Iranian psyche.

That science is a many-splendoured sexy thing is the radiating message that comes out of this fabulous book. Manjit Kumar writes a pulsating narrative about the history of modern science’s most fundamental revolution in Quantum (Hachette, Rs 495). The great debate about the nature of reality — between Albert Einstein and Neils Bohr where they and their ‘two schools of thought’ face each other off reads like Corleone-Tattaglia feud from the Godfather minus the machine guns, plus the atom-smashers.

Even in the prologue of this historical journey of science, Kumar knows how to hook the reader. “Paul Ehrenfest was in tears. He had made his decision. Soon he would attend the wee-long gathering where many of those responsible for the quantum revolution would try and understand the meaning of what they had wrought. There he would have to tell his old friend Albert Einstein that he had chosen to side with Niels Bohr.... In a note to Einstein as they sat around the conference table, Ehrenfest scribbled: ‘Don’t laugh! There’s a special section in purgatory for professors of quantum theory, where they will be obliged to listen to lectures on classical physics ten hours every day.”

Kumar brings lucidity and a sense of drama to what is usually considered by lay readers as an esoteric, bubble-chambered subject. He does this without sacrificing the ‘science of it’ at the altar of readability. The triumphs and the tribulations, the politics and the physics, the humanity and the genius of the protagonists all collide to produce the sort of energy that we usually expect in a Le Carre thriller.

To see how such a pivotal sub-discipline like quantum physics — now a canonical field that continues to push the frontiers of physics further — first came into being and emerged from a quarrelling cloud is like peering into the birth of the creation of the universe. Except with people involved, as Kumar tellingly exposes, it’s much more messy.

If you like Ian Rankin, you’re bound to love this other Scotsman, Stuart MacBride with the prose of a jack-knife. Moving out of the Edinburgh of Rankin’s Rebus, we enter the shadowy, slippery world of Aberdeen and Detective Sergeant Logan McRae. The problems of Flesh House (Harper, Rs 250) have their origins 20 years ago, when the killer dubbed ‘The Flesher’ was murdering people and making them ready for the tandoor (shades of something that Delhiites might still remember from their past). But he’s jailed and all seems well — except it isn’t. The Flesher has been out of prison for nine years on appeal and he’s gone AWOL. And most disturbingly, when a ship container is found stashed with human meat, the dots joined up form a sickeningly familiar picture.

MacBride’s dialogues are 21st century noir — as are the descriptions. What makes Flesh House a departure from even the finest crime novels is its detours into other writing styles without diluting any of the adrenaline. Here’s a typical scene where the author swerves away from the straight narrative style and goes into a ‘script’:

“Exterior: A graveyard in Aberdeen — Union Street. Church in the background. Noises of traffic and seagulls.

Caption: Detective Sergeant Logan McRae.

McRae: I’d rather not, to be honest.

Voiceover: But you were instrumental in catching The Mastrick Monster?

McRae: Do we have to do this, Alec?

Voiceover: Come on, it’ll make for good telly. And if you don’t tell us we’ll just get it from someone else.

McRae: [shifts uncomfortably] Look, there’s nothing to tell. It was a joint operation, I just happened to be there at the end. Now can we just drop it? [end tape]

This kind of playfulness, rare in contemporary crime fiction, when coupled with hairs-on-the-back-of-the-neck-a-tingle passage makes this a powerful paperback tale of detection. The pages of ‘real’ newspaper clippings with reports of The Flesher’s arrest and subsequent goings-on, adds that special creepy flavour to a stylishly written book that conjures up the smells of grease, rain, wet cobblestones and blood on a cold Scottish evening. MacBride brings us a gripper.

Just the right sign that Shobhaa De’s Bombay may have just moved to Ira Trivedi’s Delhi. Serena and Riya meet at a gym, become friends and party a lot. So far, so cute. Serena goes to pick Riya up (for a party, of course). While Riya gets dressed, Serena waits in her beat-up Maruti Esteem, lights a cigarette and thinks about her dead father and her hateful mother who remarried and had someone else’s child. Soon, Riya gives Serena a missed call. Time to stop, snap out of it and drive.

Low on bakwaas and high on masala in a Swarovski tumbler, The Great Indian Love Story (Penguin, Rs 199) is set is Delhi that is gloriously Page 3 and swimming with the Beautiful People. No long drawn-out descriptions of Lutyens shehar or tributes paid to roads in and around Lodhi Colony and Khan Market. Much of the action takes place inside in a blur of sex’n’drugs’n’remix music.

There is Parmeet, Chandigarh housewife, philandering punjaban, and mother of reverie-indulging Serena that are especially fun. Parmeet loves lassi and her bright yellow Patiala salwars, and cannot gel with ladies at the Gymkhana who wear chiffons in pastel shades and nibble on cucumber sandwiches.

Ira Trivedi’s second novel is brimming with high society, cheating spouses, broken hearts, bankruptcy, murder and an overdose of casual drug-taking. It’s all a little familiar — coke lines cut with credit cards and snorted through rolled up thousand rupee notes, lavish farmhouse parties that carry on till 5 a.m. and sniggering servants who need to be generously tipped to keep their mouths shut.

Racy, sleazy, moneyed Delhi in its glittered-up best and with descriptions like, “Serena looked spunky tonight... She wore a tiny pair of dark blue denim shorts that ended right below her butt. They matched the blue of her eyeshadow. With the shorts she wore a white wife beater that revealed just a peek of her lacy blue bra. To complete the outfit she wore her highest pair of heels” — what’s here in Trivedi’s streaking book not to absolutely love, dahling?

Not a travel book in the traditional sense, Stephen Knapp, traveller and president of the Vedic Friends Association, brings something that was sorely needed: a guide to temples, holy sites, festivals and traditions all across India. Peppered with tidbits as well as descriptions, not to mention practical suggestions, Spiritual India Handbook (Jaico, Rs 395) is a must-have for culturewallas with the travel bug inside them. Knapp makes a helpful division of pilgrimages according to eastern and central, south, northern, western, eastern and north-eastern sites on the map, including Nepal in the first category

As one can make out by flipping the pages, the book is essentially a guide to visiting Hindu places of worship — by sheer dint of the numbers of temples that India has — even though there are entries for Buddhist, Sikh, Jain, Parsi and Muslim pilgrimages. While the introduction is a giveaway that the book is meant for a non-Indian reader-traveller, the rich sprawling info that follows is bound to benefit all of us.

A book on saris had to be gorgeous and this coffee-tabler is that and more. The brilliantly produced Indian Saris (Wisdom Tree, Rs 3,495) has, along with nearly 900 images — that perhaps for the first time replicate the aesthetic beauty of saris in print — an engaging and knowledgeable commentary by Vijai Singh Katiar, senior faculty member of the National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad. Providing a fascinating tour into the world and art of saris, Katiar goes into the warp and woof of various styles, not leaving anything out of a sumptuous feast.

The historical milestones of Indian textiles is transposed seamlessly with current trends that make this book, in conjunction with the NID, a full-fledged book on fashion, rather than on a boring social overview of a ‘handicraft’.

Whether it’s about Dharmavaram or Bomkai silks from Andhra Pradesh and Orissa respectively or mekhlas from Assam, or even about designer ‘interventions’, this book is what one would call a precious wrap.