There’s so much to put on your bookshelves this year, but here’s a look at ten of the best. Admit it. (I certainly do.) Social media has done great things for surfacing public opinion, forcing the truth to be unlocked, and confession-boxing. But the reading experience in the world of Facebook and Twitter somewhat lacks in variety. So let’s pick a reading shortlist for 2011 that tips the hat to uniqueness of voice. Here is my High 5 x 2: Five books from India and five International books that I want (all of you) to read.
The Sly Company of People Who Care
If you’ve read Rahul Bhattacharya on cricket, you already know he’s one of the very few stylists among Indian writers. It’s no surprise then that Bhattacharya’s first novel depicts a young man’s fantastic journey across and inside, Guyana. It’s as much an exploration of a geography with a history of colonisation as it is about traversing a mental landscape of relationships with unknown people and a hunt for home. Written in a wise, slow and original voice, this novel will be a reading experience to be savoured.
The Harappa Files
You know you’re on to a seditious perspective on modern Indian lifestyles when a book sets out to present the findings of the Greater Harappa Commission. Comprising bureaucrats, its mandate is to record a society undergoing severe hormonal change. All its findings are now revealed in the form of graphic notes – stories with pictures, if you prefer. With that kind of a premise, how can you resist the consistently whimsical but satirical Sarnath Banerjee’s new work of graphic fiction?
The Butterfly Generation
Palash K Mehrotra
They constitute some 60 per cent of the country’s population, but Indians below 30 inevitably get short shrift when it comes to documenting the transformation that the nation is going through. Palash Krishna Mehrotra more than compensates for this in his new book. Using the seductive conceit of the transition of India from Russification – during his own youth – to Americanisation – the world of today’s young people – Mehrotra journeys in and out of this generation’s lives, while recounting his own existence at the same age as a point of contrast.
Dork 2 – Einstein Makes Vice President
The thousands of happy readers who were introduced to Robin ‘Einstein’ Varghese in the first book in the Dork Series must be drooling at the thought of Dork 2. Tie those bibs around your neck, because in 2011, Einstein is off to London. As Vadukut himself describes it, “This does not bode well for the United Kingdom. Within days Varghese manages to create havoc in a travel agent’s office with a wax statue. (He does this out of love.) This is closely followed by an incident involving explosive diarrhoea and corporate strategy.” And this is just the beginning of what is certain to be a laugh-a-para romp through the absurdities of corporate India.
Old-fashioned story-telling is no longer easy to come by. Anuradha Roy’s second novel, told gently and with assurance, goes back to the basics beautifully: following the lives of real-life human beings – not embodiments of cutting-edge ideas – in the theatre of environmental, religious and political upheaval that is the India we live in. By shifting the landscape to a remote Himalayan town, the novel succeeds in focusing on people and relationships without the distraction of the city as a character. And in addition to a captivating storyline, there’s also a series of imagined exchanges between Jawaharlal Nehru and Edwina Mountbatten to look forward to.
The best novels in the world draw you into a beguiling web of fact and fiction. Once trapped, you cannot tell them apart, and are convinced that all that you read about actually happened. Karunatilaka’s novel about a declining cricket journalist’s attempt to write a biography of a brilliant bowler whom, somehow, everyone has forgotten, is one such book. And since it’s about cricket on the surface – underneath, it is unmistakably Sri Lankan – its story, characters and ups and downs are no less exciting than the best matches.
Kabul Disco 2
Kabul Disco, Nicolas Wild’s comic-book account of the time he spent in Afghanistan, made for instantly endearing as well as illuminating reading. An innocent plunged into war-torn terrain as an employee of a firm owned by opportunistic global entrepreneurs, Wild had the job of drawing a comic-book. His introduction to, and growing familiarity with, the mores and methods for survival in Afghanistan continues to be captured in this sequel.
The Mountain Shadow, Shantaram 2
Gregory David Roberts
Sometimes you have to scratch an itch, even though it isn’t necessarily a pleasant experience. Reading the sequel to Shantaram might prove to be like that. Or, it might turn out to be like reading a movie. Happy and in love, Shantaram aka Lin is suddenly called out to help a friend in trouble. He meets eight men, one of whom will become a friend, one an enemy, one a would-be assassin, another a murderer you can see the screenplay seeping out of the pores. And yet, as Shantaram was, its energy makes it oddly compulsive.
India – A Portrait
‘India… may be the world’s default setting for the future.’ With that one sentence Patrick French has you hooked. By turn controversial and original, French is a writer you may not agree with, but cannot ignore. His canvas is vast, for he researches as well as sees first-hand what today’s India is all about. Best of all, perhaps, is that he has just the right degree of detachment, but no agenda to run the country down to satisfy the people of western nations past their best-before dates.
The Bed of Procrustes
Nassim Nicholas Taleb
The person you are the most afraid to contradict is yourself. * An idea starts to be interesting when you get scared of taking it to its logical conclusion. * The test of originality for an idea is not the absence of one single predecessor, but the presence of multiple but incompatible ones. * Modernity’s double punishment is to make us both age prematurely and live longer. * If your anger decreases with time, you did injustice, if it increases, you suffered injustice. * If you know, in the morning, what your day looks like with any precision, you are a little bit dead – the more precision, the more dead you are.
When an entire book is composed of aphorisms like this, can you let 2011 pass by without reading it? Especially when its author is the world’s most celebrated contrarian, Nassim Nicholas Taleb of Black Swan fame. As Taleb urges, embrace the unexpected. Most of all when choosing what books to read.
From HT Brunch, December 26
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