The best books of 2014

  • Manjula Narayan, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Dec 28, 2014 17:55 IST

This has been a good year for Indian writing in English, with excellent books appearing in a range of categories. From superbly produced field guides like Pradip Krishen's Jungle Trees of Central India to volumes that examine the contribution to the Hindi film industry of personalities as diverse as SD Burman (SD Burman: The World of His Music by Khagesh Dev Burman) and Sahir Ludhianvi (Sahir Ludhianvi, The People's Poet by Akshay Manwani), to the memoirs of a working journalist (Off the Record: Untold Stories from a Reporter's Diary by Ajith Pillai), readers were treated to a variety of books that engaged with the preoccupations of urban Indians.

One of those preoccupations, our affection for linguistic code-mixing, has led to the growth of a whole body of writing in English on Hindi cinema. Perhaps this was the year Indian English publishing properly jettisoned that still-lingering colonial hangup about popular Hindi cinema being unworthy of study. Serious writing on the Hindi film industry including book length interviews (Nasreen Muni Kabeer's Conversations with Waheeda Rehman) and examinations of a film star's place in cinematic history and through him of a whole era - Gautam Chintamani's Dark Star; The Loneliness of Being Rajesh Khanna comes to mind - especially, seems to have come of age. And then there were the much-discussed autobiographies of Dilip Kumar (Dilip Kumar: The Substance and the Shadow) and Naseeruddin Shah (And Then One Day).

It was a good year for Indian English poetry too with Arundhathi Subramaniam (When God is a Traveller), Keki Daruwalla (Fire Alter: Poems on the Persians and the Greeks) and Manohar Shetty (Living Room) all bringing out memorable works. The publication of Kamala Das' Selected Poems and Arvind Krishna Mehrotra's Collected Poems has underlined why we continue to turn to these poets: in times of confusion and uncertainty, truth shines in poetry. Rarely does it shine so bright.

This year's non-fiction list has included excellent cookbooks like Pamela Timms' Korma, Kheer and Kismet and Apara Jain's The Sood Family Cookbook, and incisive books on the neighbours. Both Samanth Subramanian (This Divided Island) and Rohini Mohan (The Seasons of Trouble) tackled Sri Lanka; Reshma Patil recorded Chinese perceptions of India in Strangers Across the Border, and Prashant Jha's Battles of the New Republic; A Contemporary History of Nepal traced the country's transition from a Hindu monarchy to secularism.

The year, however, belonged to non-fiction that focussed on the contemporary Indian political scene. All conversation in an election year - especially one as polarising and keenly contested as this one - naturally veers towards politics and so it was with books too. Some like Sanjaya Baru's The Accidental Prime Minister made more news than others. Every work of political non-fiction hasn't been flying off the shelves but many - apart from the laughable hagiography of Narendra Modi by Andi Marino - have been interesting. If SY Quraishi (An Undocumented Wonder; The Making of the Great Indian Election) wrote about how the Election Commission conducts elections in this diverse land, Kingshuk Nag's The Saffron Tide: The Rise of the BJP explained how the party reached where it has 67 years after a disgruntled Congressman, Syama Prasad Mookerjee, founded its precursor, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh.

With so many good books, it is almost foolhardy to hold up what you believe are the best ones. But more dangerous endeavours have been attempted in the history of mankind and so here's an entirely subjective list of the best books of 2014:


Poetic and political with a warm sensuousness entombed in fearful sheet ice, Mirza Waheed's The Book of Gold Leaves, that's as moving as an evocative Urdu couplet, is the year's best book. As beautifully written as the paintings on papier mache that one of its central characters executes, this fine examination of the Kashmiri condition through a Sunni-Shia love story leaves the reader both wretched and transformed, and brings her to a greater understanding of the fragility of love in a harsh climate. OUT OF LINE; A PERSONAL AND POLITICAL BIOGRAPHY OF NAYANTARA SAHGAL by Ritu Menon

Ritu Menon's absorbing biography of novelist and political commentator Nayantara Sahgal, who was her cousin Indira Gandhi's most outspoken critic during the Emergency, recreates a whole world. Using interviews, letters and archival documents, Menon has drawn a faithful picture of an admirable subject. Weaving together the personal and the political, she gives readers an insight into the Nehrus and life in newly independent India, and shows how much even the most accomplished women will endure to preserve a collapsing marriage.


Former external affairs minister K Natwar Singh's autobiography deals with his life as a diplomat and a politician and touches on a range of issues, including US interference in Indian government. Most readers though were interested in its revelations about Rahul and Sonia, whom the author, a former Gandhi loyalist, labels a prima donna, not to mention Machiavellian and arrogant. The book's juicy bits are remarkable for their burn-all-bridges recklessness that could only be attempted by someone with nothing to lose. Still, in the end, Natwar Singh, who also writes about his friendships with RK Narayan, MF Husain and EM Forster, among others, comes across as erudite and definitely more multifaceted than the average politician.

THE BANGALA TABLE by Sumeet Nair, Meenakshi Meyyappan, Jill Nonenfeld and Rohit Chawla

The Bangala Table, which presents recipes of the Chettiar and Anglo Indian dishes served at a boutique hotel, The Bangala, in Chettinad, is a classic. Beautiful pictures, a good mix of recipes and interesting pieces on the Chettiar community and the food served at the hotel make this a cookbook to relish.


Paul's biography of Kanu Sanyal, a key leader of the Naxalbari movement that began as a peasant uprising in West Bengal in 1967, presents the evolution of a Communist rebel and highlights the stages of the Naxalite movement in India. Based on more than 120 interviews with Sanyal, the book, which looks at the impact of his ideological differences with Charu Mazumdar, and at his journey to China where he met Mao Zedong, presents a rounded picture of an important but neglected figure.


Journalist Sujata Anandan's book is required reading for a generation that's only aware of the wisecracking old man that Bal Thackeray eventually became. An account of how the Shiv Sena changed the character of Mumbai, this book is a must read especially for the crackling chapter on Thackeray's role in the riots of January 1993.

THE LIVES OF OTHERS by Neel Mukherjee

Shortlisted for the Booker this year, Neel Mukherjee's intensely written novel follows the lives of the members of an upper middle class Bengali joint family in the Calcutta of the late Sixties. A realistic novel that recalls Ian McEwan, Tolstoy and Mahasweta Devi, it lets the reader into the minds of its huge cast of characters and successfully explores both, the private and the public, the power struggles within the family, and the larger class struggle in West Bengal. A rewarding read but not an easy one.

HALF GIRLFRIEND by Chetan Bhagat

Half Girlfriend isn't about to win any literary awards but then it isn't aiming for one. A straightforward story told without frills, it's destined to become a successful commercial Hindi film. What it has going for it is an absence of pretension. The same cannot be said about the many treatises devoted to attacking Bhagat's work. All of them smack of intellectual snobbery and an unwillingness to appreciate that his success is good news for Indian writing in English in general; proof that the market really does exist.


If Manmohan Singh had made himself heard more often, his former media adviser Sanjaya Baru's book might not have been as successful. The Accidental Prime Minister offered readers a glimpse of the silent former PM's mind and insights into his relationship with Sonia Gandhi and was immediately propelled to the top of the non-fiction bestseller lists.


The best chapter in Sardesai's book is the one on reporting from Gujrat in 2002. The rest dealing with Team Modi's conquest of the media during the general elections are a lot like the stuff the author's says on air - informative and smoothly delivered but not deeply insightful. The increasingly upbeat tone of the latter half of the book also makes the reader wonder if Sardesai is attempting to recast himself as a little less "sickular" in these Hindutva times. Still, an interesting account of an election that has definitely changed the country.

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