From Malala to My Ainsel, HT Editors pick their best reads of 2019

From Oman and Botswana to Washington, from literary fiction, sci-fi and graphic novels to photo books, from politics and physics to foreign policy, the HT Editors’ list of recommended reads encompasses diverse settings, subject matter, and genres
The reading habit: MK Gandhi photographed on 20th May 1924 after he was released from prison.(Getty Images)
The reading habit: MK Gandhi photographed on 20th May 1924 after he was released from prison.(Getty Images)
Published on Dec 27, 2019 06:21 PM IST
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Hindustan Times | By

Harinder Baweja, Editor, Special Projects

Malala Yousafzai, the young girl from Pakistan’s Swat Valley, who was shot in the head by the Taliban when she was a mere 15 years old, is inspirational. Her journey from near death to Nobel peace prize winner has challenge and strife written all over it.
The book, We Are Displaced is born from her own displacement and her longing for home. Yousafzai can travel the world – and she did before she wrote this book – but cannot go anywhere near her own home country where she was shot for just going to school.
As an activist, who spread the message of the importance of education, Yousafzai met scores of young girls who were similarly displaced and cast away as refugees and migrants. The book tells the story of her and nine other young girls, all dealing with pain and loss, each one torn from home due to conflict.
Told in the first person, the journeys are deeply personal and disturbing: each of the 10 characters speaks of how they escaped violence, how they tried to resettle and how difficult it was to leave everything behind, particularly your home.

Marie Claire, one of the 10 girls, speaks of how difficult it is to even find a new home. She was forced out of Congo but found herself in Zambia amid slogans of “Go back to your country.”
Individual stories are not just that. They don’t stop at being individual stories. The book takes you through conflict zones. It gives you brief histories of the conflict while also exposing several warts. The young, too young, to be victims of violence also speak of discrimination and racism.
We Are displaced is an important work of oral history in which Yousafzai starts with her own experience but quickly moves on to tell other important stories. The real-life experiences of the young adults are devastating and traumatic but each journey also brims with hope and that’s what makes the book memorable. It was released in India in January 2019, but it is a book you could well end the year with.

Lalita Panicker, Consulting Editor, Views

If you love Africa as much I do, having grown up there, you will love Alexander McCall Smith’s 20th book, To The Land of Long Lost Friends in the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency series. If you are looking for complex plots, outstanding writing, or even any real structure or method, this book, and most certainly this series, is not for you. But the stories, set in Gaborone, Botswana, are humorous, filled with traditional Botswanian wisdom and suffused with a great love for the lovely southern African country. All the books in the series feature the two lady detectives who run the agency, the traditionally-built, infinitely-kind, investigator extraordinaire Precious Ramotswe and her acerbic assistant Grace Makutsi, holder of the as-yet-unparalleled score of 97% at the Botswana Secretarial College. In the backdrop, helping the two women with their soothing presence are their husbands, the charmingly named mechanic Mr JLB Matekoni, always referred to that way even by his wife Precious, and furniture store owner Phuti Radiphuti.

In the latest book, the intrepid investigators aided by Charlie, a mechanic and resident Lothario, set out to solve a number of mysteries. Often, the advice of the formidable Mma Potokwanik, who runs an orphan farm, is sought by the two. Cheating husbands, irrational daughters, unsuitable suitors and small village mysteries are pursued by the two and invariably solved thanks to their native wisdom and adherence to the unshakable principles contained in their bible, Clovis Anderson’s Principles of Private Detection.
The narrative shifts back and forth, the plot meanders on, the descriptions are needlessly long, some characters are thinly delineated but yet, this book, as its predecessors, lingers on in your memory long after you have read it. There are clear messages in the book: women cannot be taken for granted, one should not try to be something one is not, there must be no compromise in one’s love for one’s motherland, and wonderful descriptions of a lost and gracious Africa. All this is why I can hardly wait for the next in this series. There will be no surprises in this one either but the fact that so many people eagerly await it shows Alexander McCall Smith’s extraordinary ability to keep his readers in thrall. Do start reading this series. If nothing else, you will definitely want to visit Botswana, land of its founding president, the great Sir Seretse Khama, gentle people, and mellifluous cattle bells. As the sun sets over the vast Kalahari desert and on 2019, you will be enveloped by the peace and tranquility that characterises the magnificent African outback.

Manjula Narayan, National Books Editor

In an era of attenuated attention spans, when narcissistic posts and outraged tweets prove more seductive than literature that leads to a better understanding of the world, a good book is one that succeeds in weaning me away, however temporarily, from these wretched distractions. Two books managed that brilliantly this year – Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi and Sita Under the Crescent Moon by Annie Ali Khan.

Winner of the 2019 Man Booker International Prize, Celestial Bodies (translated from the Arabic by Marilyn Booth) packs the stories of sisters Mayya, Asma and Khawla, of Mayya’s husband Abdallah ibn Sulayman, motherless son of a slave-owning merchant forever traumatized by his father’s personality, and of their families into its 256 pages. The slave who loves the old man, the loquacious village matrons with their hierarchies, the mysterious Bedouin woman who seduces a family patriarch, the young woman whose husband strives to break her spirit… Alharthi’s people, magically fleshed out in a few words, bring alive the social transformation of Oman. For an Indian reader, these stories are at once foreign and familiar. They reminded me of dinner table conversations with older relatives that revealed forgotten family rituals, distasteful caste customs, and ill-fated pairings. Celestial Bodies is a wonderful book because it drew me into a different culture while also making me think of my own, the points of similarity and of great difference and of how the forces of modernity have shaped and changed us all.

I hadn’t heard of Annie Ali Khan until I began reading her hypnotic Sita Under the Crescent Moon. Two chapters in, I Googled her hoping to make contact. Alas, she had been dead a year, having apparently taken her own life. I wanted to ask her if the book was a travelogue as it follows women on pilgrimages to Sufi shrines at Mango Pir, Hinglaj, Thatta, and Sehwan Sharif in Pakistan; if, with its fantastic descriptions of dhamaals, it was an examination of ecstatic religiosity; if it was a plea to nurture the syncretic traditions of the subcontinent as the pilgrims worship the memory of Sita, that doomed paragon of virtue. It is all of these and it is more. It is an anguished cry against the limited lives of women in the cultures of the region. Sita Under the Crescent Moon is not an easy read but it is a moving and infinitely rewarding one.

Poonam Saxena, National Weekend Editor

An extremely enjoyable novel I read this year was Sufi – The Invisible Man of the Underworld. The author is 84-year-old Aabid Surti, who is quite a story in himself. Fluent in English, Hindi and Gujarati, Surti has written dozens of short stories and novels. For Indian comic book fans, he’s nothing short of a legend; this JJ School of Art alumnus created, among others, the insanely popular comic book character Bahadur, who made his debut in 1976 with Laal Haveli ka Rahasya. The blue jeans-orange kurta clad Bahadur fought against Chambal dacoits, and had a live-in girlfriend, Bela, an expert in martial arts. Unexpectedly, Surti is also a dedicated water conservationist, who’s gone from house to house in Mumbai fixing leaking taps.

Sufi was first published in Gujarati, then in English some years ago by Diamond Pocket Books, and now, this year, by Penguin. At the Mumbai launch of the book in August, filmmaker Sriram Raghavan (of Johnny Gaddar and Andhadhun fame) said that Sufi, for him, was “Shantaram meets Charles Dickens meets Once Upon A Time in Mumbai,” encapsulating all three stories perfectly.

The novel is a thrilling, occasionally poignant tale of two friends, Iqbal aka Sufi and Aabid, who grow up, desperately poor, in the dingy lanes of Dongri, go their separate ways and then meet 30 years later. Every Thursday, Aabid drops in at Sufi’s flat, they sit on easy chairs and talk about their lives. Aabid’s journey took him to the JJ School of Art and he became an artist, cartoonist and writer, but the cerebral, soft-spoken Sufi ended up as one of the city’s biggest smugglers. His story unfolds against the Mumbai of the 1960s and 1970s, when smuggling was at its peak. Surti gives a detailed, dramatic account of this world, from the modus operandi of smugglers (yes, contraband goods were unloaded from one ship to another in mid-sea at night) to its convoluted power hierarchies (Sufi’s ultimate boss turns out to be a nondescript-looking Gujarati seth in a kurta-pyjama). Real characters like Haji Mastan, Karim Lala, Vardha bhai flit in and out of the narrative, as do Mumbai landmarks and localities such as Ghadiyal Godi, Sion-Koliwada, Do Tanki and many others.

I hope Sriram Raghavan is already planning a film on the book.

Paroma Mukherjee, Head – National Photography Desk

I ran into NayanTara Gurung Kakshapati, founder of the Nepal Picture Library (a digital archive comprising a collection focused on Nepali culture, history and society) at the India Art Fair at the beginning of this year. She was carrying some copies of their new publication Dalit: A Quest for Dignity — a book I promptly bought knowing how important it would turn out to be as a historical photo book. A comprehensive use of the last six decades as its visual landscape, it is a visual primer on Dalit lives and experiences in Nepal, bearing an honest admission right at the beginning, of the difficulty in finding the “right” approach to voice the Dalit perspective, simply because photography is not a “straightforward” medium. Did photography play a purposeful role in Dalit emancipation or did the Dalit movement in Nepal lend the medium much weight? Likely not.

My case for the book is its fair critique of photography as a medium enabling biased representation and documentation, and yet its undeniable power to make visible the Dalits in Nepal, who, in turn, question the very way in which they are seen in society. The book addresses the upper caste savior complex precisely, as it urges readers to look beyond the obvious frame to find caste violence, and step away from the need to save those already wronged. From a page of seemingly innocuous selfies of a young man before he was found dead after eloping with his Brahmin girlfriend to a grid of repetitive tree images, where a young Dalit girl was kidnapped and raped, the book isn’t for the faint hearted for it is in the everyday that we hide the most violent of our crimes. A remarkable section comprising photographs from various temple-entry movements across Nepal shows how local movements were the original force behind the rise of a strong Dalit political consciousness. There’s much to learn and unlearn in this volume. To put it simply, this book is a way of seeing beyond our considered choices to merely watch.

Roshan Kishore, Data and Political Economy Editor

“No one who has been asked by an intelligent American student whether the phrase ‘Second World War’ meant that there had been a ‘First World War’ is unaware that knowledge of even the basic facts of the century cannot be taken for granted,” wrote Eric Hobsbawm, the legendary British Marxist historian in his Age of Extremes. Fortunately, Hobsbawm did not live to see post-truth being made the word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries in 2016. Lack of or incorrect knowledge about history is merely an academic problem today. It is exploited to shape public narrative, to help or discredit a particular or many stakeholders in politics.

Among the many things where public knowledge is often inadequate in India is our post-independence foreign policy, especially vis-à-vis the United States. The existing discourse is full of dogma driven assertions and half-truths. It is here that Srinath Raghvan’s The Most Dangerous Place: A History of the United States in South Asia fills an important vacuum. As the name suggests, the book deals with not just India but also Pakistan and Afghanistan.

There is a wealth of information in the book, even for the intelligent layperson leader, who has a background neither in international politics, nor history. A little bit of engagement with the text also brings to the fore how successive Indian leaders, from Jawaharlal Nehru onwards, shaped their policy towards the US based on three shifting goalposts: larger geopolitics, the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and India’s own strategic and material interests. The facts, especially official communication and statements from various archives, will force the reader to revisit her existing ideas based on suitable ideological narratives. Among the most fascinating parts of the book is how US-China relations have evolved over time, and what it has meant for Indo-US relations. Last but not the least, the book tells the reader of the importance of looking at current problems with a historic perspective. For example, it gives a lot of detail about how the US-Pakistan sponsored ‘struggle’ against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan was crucial in the proliferation of Islamic terrorism, including in India. To put it briefly, we need more books like these, which can narrate complex stories in simple terms.

Rudraneil Sengupta, National Sports Editor

Ted Chiang’s latest collection of short stories, Exhalations, navigates through familiar territory for science fiction readers: Can machines develop a conscience? What happens when the lines between virtual reality and reality are blurred? What dilemmas will be raised if time travel were to be possible? What if your memory can be fully digitized?

Yet, working within these commonplace — almost stock — frameworks, Chiang crafts masterful miniatures of such delicate sensibilities that the stories are unfettered from their boundaries and become deeply-felt meditations on what it means to be human.

Chiang’s prose is sparse, precise. The beauty of these stories is entirely functional — to draw the reader as gently and lucidly as possible into the weird worlds and profound thought experiments being unravelled in the narrative.

Exhalations begins with The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate, an idiosyncratic time travel story set in ancient Baghdad, told in the mode of The Arabian Nights. Here, in a series of interlinked narratives, the essential desire that underpins the human desire for time travel — to be able to change things — is subverted. The journeys through time do not afford the traveler the luxury to change anything, but merely to observe, and to learn anew from those critical gaps between memory and reality. “My journey to the past had changed nothing, but what I had learned had changed everything,” the narrator says. “Nothing erases the past. There is repentance, there is atonement, and there is forgiveness. That is all, but that is enough.” (Ah, if only therapists had access to such a time gate).

Contrast this to another story in the collection, The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling, which uses a similar memory trope, but with a subtle shift. This is set in a world where human beings have the option of seamlessly recording and storing every single moment of their lives since they were born (sounds familiar?), and then recalling them in their mind’s eye as and when required. Our protagonist is a man born before everything was recorded as digital video, but his daughter is a woman of the times. The father, as he argues with his daughter about shared events in their lives of which they have different recollections, must grapple with this question: Is the cold precision of a minutely recorded life better than to live with the vagaries of memory?

Read Chiang’s collection of stories for echoes of Phillip K Dick, Brian Aldiss, even Kazuo Ishiguro; and also for his ability to work with cerebral, weighty questions with a light, emotionally resonant touch.

Sanchita Sharma, Health and Science Editor

For those who are still puzzling over how Schrödinger’s Cat can be both dead and alive, how a particle can be in two places at the same time, and how a subatomic particle can simultaneously be a wave, British astrophysicist and bestselling science writer John Gribbin has put together six of the world’s foremost hypotheses about the quantum world. The reader can, like the Queen in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, choose to or not to believe these six impossible-sounding things, before breakfast or after.

As Gribbin puts it, “quantum physics is strange”, and its often contradictory interpretations are stranger. Be that as it may, the mysteries of the subatomic world are becoming increasingly hard to ignore. The legendary processing powers of quantum computing, for example, has turned classical computing on its head to offer limitless opportunity to push the boundaries of cybersecurity, finance, telecommunications and medicine, among others. Gribbin, who has also authored In Search of Schrödinge’s Cat, calls his latest attempt an agnostic interpretation of the theories of the quantum theorists, from Erwin Schrödinger and Werner Heisenberg to Niels Bohr and Louis de Broglie, among others.

The six impossible-sounding hypotheses discussed are the Copenhagen Interpretation, Pilot-Wave Interpretation, Many Worlds Interpretation, the Decoherence Interpretation, Ensemble Non-Interpretation or the Statistical Interpretation; and the Timeless Transactional Interpretation. “All of them are crazy, and some are more crazy than others, but in this world crazy does not necessarily mean wrong, and being more crazy does not necessarily mean more wrong,” writes Gribbin.

He brings non-specialists up to speed with the often contradictory, seemingly irrational, and always complex ideas about what makes up the subatomic quantum world, which megamind Albert Einstein once famously described as “spooky action at a distance”. Designed to be as accessible as a textbook for science and science-fiction enthusiasts, the slim book of six impossible things was among the six shortlisted for UK’s 2019 Royal Society Insight Investment Science Book Prize. It’s a must read for science enthusiasts and sci-fi fans, as well as newbies who want a working understanding of the quantum world.

Soumya Bhattacharya, Managing Editor

The finest, most moving novel I read this year was Ties by Domenico Starnone, who is widely regarded as Italy’s greatest living novelist. Short and intricately structured, it is a searing story of love, loss, damage, ageing and the complexity of family dynamics. Taut and slender, Ties shows that slender novels need not be slight, and most books are actually longer than they need to be. Jhumpa Lahiri has translated this novel from Italian to English. It made me dive straight into his backlist.

Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials by Malcolm Harris was the non-fiction book from which I learned the most this year. In this comprehensive study of millennials, Harris, himself a millennial, subverts some widely held notions about that particular, much talked about generation.

It has been a year of extensive rereading for me. For a number of reasons, I have gone back and read again, read differently, and responded differently, to books that I had first made acquaintance with ten, twenty, even thirty years ago. John Updike may not much be in favour nowadays, but his Rabbit quartet, all four novels taken together, is still a work that refuses to lose any of its magic. JM Coetzee’s Youth, one of his two volumes of fictionalised memoir, and William Styron’s Darkness Visible, his terrifying account of spiralling into depression, seemed to me gems that are not talked about as much as they should be while discussing those two writers’ work. I was happy to have reaffirmed to myself that Jhumpa Lahiri’s collection of stories, Unaccustomed Earth, is her finest work by some distance.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein celebrated two hundred years of its publication in 2018. I reread it this year and realised again why the book, a riveting discourse on the nature of good and evil (and often of the difficulty of telling which is which), is such a seminal, enduring work; why it has never fallen out of print; and why everything that has been written about artificial intelligence owes Frankenstein and Shelley a debt.

R Sukumar, Editor-in-Chief

Neil Gaiman’s American Gods came out in 2001. The Starz TV series of the same name, which, like TV usually does, introduced the book (one of the classics of the modern fantasy genre) to new readers came out in 2017. In 2018, Dark Horse Comics started publishing a comic book version of the same, adapted into a comic by the redoubtable P Craig Russell (a long-time collaborator of Gaiman’s) and Scott Hampton.

For those who have managed to miss any of these – the TV series was and is a big hit – Gaiman’s book, which won both the Hugo and the Nebula awards, is about a clash of old and new gods. The old gods include those from various myths (Odin, from Norse; Anansi, from Ghanian; Bast, from Egyptian; Kali, from Indian; and other such). The new ones are gods that symbolize the internet, the media, the market, automobiles, and others. Written well into the onset of the internet era, but much before the emergence of much of new media (and new social media), Gaiman’s work is prescient, poignant, and, above all, tremendously imaginative. After all, who worships the old gods anymore? And isn’t it natural for such gods, once powerful and venerated to do everything in their still-significant powers to stay relevant?

The comic book adaptation of the book is, like good adaptations should be, even better. The first trade paperback, a collection of nine issues of American Gods Vol 1: Shadows, was released in 2018; the second, that of nine issues of My Ainsel came out in 2019.

Russell’s adaptation makes Gaiman’s smooth prose, smoother. Russell has adapted other Gaiman works before, including the first-written-for-television Neverwhere, and he is well known for his adaptations of even operas. Adapting something into a graphic novel or comic isn’t merely about translating the word into images. That could work, but the result would be a very poor comic. The right way to do it is to understand the book, its structure, and its characters; break these down into building blocks; and then visually recreate the book. Illustrated mainly by Scott Hampton (and also by Russell), the result is a comic book that is as enjoyable, but different from the original (to which it is still true), and which is far better than the TV version.

The individual comics of the third volume, The Moment of the Storm have started being released (seven are out) and a trade-paperback compiling all nine issues of the third and final chapter of the comic version should be out sometime in 2020. That’s something to look forward to.

Sunetra Choudhury, National Political Editor

It’s been a year of discovery and learning. From my nine-year-old’s reading habits, I learnt that my old ways of finishing a book from Page 1 till the end before picking up a second book was a bit boring. It’s okay to put aside a book and read new ones that suddenly present themselves to you. I still have to plod through till the end and can’t get myself to drop a book when it turns out to be not so good a read after all. So, having gained this new ability in 2019, I read some really interesting ones this year and can’t decide on just one favourite. For instance, I discovered the joys of the 2013 American bestseller This Town by Mark Leibovich. The author, who is a White House correspondent, documents the Obama administration and those media outlets covering it. Leibovich gives a rare insight into how aides of politicians manipulate the media, how top news anchors have close proximity with those that they are supposed to cover, and how it results in some unseemly activities in Capitol Hill. Reading the book was like an eye-opener for me because it made me think about the need for reading something like this on the Indian scenario. If you don’t follow American politics then you may find this book a bit tricky but it is really worth your time.

My second recommendation is the writer Akhil Sharma. I discovered him a few years ago when I read his award-winning novel Family Life. It was the most beautiful, most moving and haunting story I have ever read and I can say the same for everything else that Sharma has written. I was thrilled to find a collection of his short stories called A Life of Adventure and Delight and I consumed it like a child that had discovered a hidden stash of chocolate bars. Yes, his writing is melancholic but there’s a beauty to that sadness that no one does better. So if you’ve not discovered him yet, I hope you do in the New Year and you can thank me later.

Zia Haq, Associate Editor

Everyone has heard of E=mc² but hardly anyone, save for physics graduates, knows what it means. Science writer David Bodanis tells its story in a brilliant little book, enthralling from the word go.

Many have romped through Einstein’s life in biographies, but it struck none that E=mc² had a life story of its own. There can be no mistaking that this is not a biography of Einstein, but of his most famous discovery, the theory of relativity, and the world’s best-known equation i.e. E=mc².

Bodanis was inspired to write it after reading an interview of actress Cameron Diaz, in which the journalist asked if there was anything she ever wished to know. “E=mc²?” Diaz said.

E=mc² is behind everything: From the mushroom clouds over Nagasaki and Hiroshima on that fateful day to electricity and PET scans. In the bombs, uranium nuclei were multiplying; from four to eight and then 16. Mass was vanishing within the atoms and racing out as energy. E=mc² was at work!

Bodanis plots the evolution of E=mc² at the hands of its ancestors, such as Michael Faraday. He breaks down each variable, namely e (energy), = (is equal to), m (mass) and c (celeritas, or the speed of light) as well as the exponent 2, offering glimpses of the social history of England that shaped it.

It all came together in 1905, in one of the five papers published by Einstein -- that clerk in Bern, Switzerland, whose high school Greek teacher, Joseph Degenhart, dismissed him thus: “Nothing would ever become of you.”

Back in the day, the universe was thought to comprise two unlinked spheres: energy and mass. In one, steam engines roared. In the other, all material things – you, me, stars – existed; mass was thought indestructible.

Einstein’s insights into light led him to find the link. Mass can be destroyed if it is converted into energy and vice versa. That’s what E=mc² means. The book brought to light the theory of relativity for a physics dunce like me in a chatty, entertaining way.

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