HT contributors pick their most interesting reads of 2017
Nature offers many great mysteries waiting to be solved: How do migratory birds find their way across vast distances? How are molecules in the air perceived as a smell? How do tadpoles lose their tails? Theoretical physicist Jim Al-Khalili and molecular geneticist Johnjoe McFadden have been discussing how quantum physics might affect biology, providing insights that may help us answer those questions.
Life on the Edge - The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology by Jim Al-Khalili and Johnjoe McFadden begins with the migration of the European robin. Every autumn the birds migrate from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean, using magneto-reception to navigate. This extraordinary sense involves a chemical called cryptochrome, which is found in many birds and insects. The authors suggest that this remarkable ability is based on quantum entanglement.
A lot of the book is speculative, and given the weirdness of quantum physics can be hard to wrap your head around. To understand these ideas in quantum biology requires a handle on a fair bit of quantum theory. The authors teach (or attempt to) many complex quantum phenomena – states, entanglement, coherence. The example I found most impactful in the book is their quantum explanation for photosynthesis. To think that all life on earth owes itself to a quantum trick – one that plant cells use for photosynthesis to power life itself using energy from the sun.
The book isn’t structured particularly well; the authors wander a lot. Perhaps that’s a result of the nature of the subject. A lot of complexity is explained up front and then drawn on in later chapters. You do need to go back and forth a fair bit to get it. Also, it’s important to keep in mind that the science around the examples is anything but settled. However, just the hypotheses are amazing to read about. The last few years have seen some great science books for laypeople. One of these books is Life on the Edge. I felt the same sense of fascination and excitement reading this book as when I read Dawkin’s Selfish Gene for the first time.
This book on quantum biology is heavy reading without some knowledge of basic sciences, but given some time and effort, it is an extremely rewarding book. Recommended if you have even a basic curiosity about the fundamental question: What is life?
Abhijit Kadle is an avid birdwatcher and collector of books. He presses buttons for a living. He lives in Pune.
This year I pledged to read 150 books. After novel number 11, my mathematically-challenged brain lost count. Also, I stopped keeping track. It’s safe to say that about half of the books I picked up or bought were left unread after the first few chapters. Many of them were horrible.
However, two novels stood out for me in 2017. Prayaag Akbar’s Leila was my favourite read from all the Indian books published this year, debut or otherwise. It chronicled the story of an upper caste Hindu woman’s journey to find her daughter from a mixed-religion marriage. Akbar’s novel took no prisoners. Deftly written, Leila called out Hindu fundamentalists who appear to have taken over our country, but it didn’t let liberals off the hook either.
This year, when atrocities against minorities have risen to the point of becoming everyday news; while Hadiya waits for her chance to speak in the Supreme Court; with the horrific video of a Muslim man being hacked and burned to death; and with the liberal left playing the same polarisation game as their right-wing counterparts, Leila is never far from my mind.
The other book I cannot leave out is a collection of essays We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates, which was published two months ago. The book does not contain new work. But when placed together and bound by a red and white cover, the context, and your awareness of his powers of observation expressed in these pieces is heightened. Coates always came across as a cool journalist — he quotes Jay-Z, he trolls back on Twitter using video game references. We Were Eight Years In Power made me see him as a ruthless realist.
The essays are about America and its first black President, but it is also about the backlash to Obama’s years in the Oval Office. It’s also about Trump, whom Coates calls America’s first white President. But it wasn’t the hip-hop references or the undeniably clear-cut writing in those essays that moved me. His words about America are relatable to our situation in India. We were 60 years in power, and by ‘we’, I mean the elite, the well-heeled, the ‘Lutyen residents’ of India. And that time was squandered. Worse, our liberal politicians played on the hopes of minorities to stay in power and delivered nothing. In the process, they alienated a vast majority of Indians. What we are witnessing now is the backlash of our inaction because dictators don’t rise unless there’s a vacuum, and anger isn’t generated, only capitalised upon.
The books I’ve picked hold up mirrors to our society, and we would be wise to take a good hard look at ourselves before it is too late.
Avantika Mehta is an independent journalist. She lives in New Delhi.
This year, the New York Review of Books republished Norman Podhoretz’s Making It. In 1967, against the advice of his friends and mentors, Podhoretz wrote unabashedly about how, through his ruthless ambition, he worked his way up from the Brooklyn slums to the upper crust of New York’s intellectual circles. He was the editor of the reputed Jewish magazine Commentary then. The book was widely damned, even by his friends, and Podhoretz was nearly ostracized by what he called “the Family”, the small group of left-wing, largely Jewish intellectuals. It is an enlightening read on the idea of success in the intellectual sphere, in fact, on the idea of success itself.
I reread Polish journalist Mariusz Szczygiel’s Gottland: Mostly True Stories from Half of Czechoslovakia. Szczygiel is the true heir to Ryszard Kapuscinski in the Polish tradition of reportage. Gottland is a collection of subtle portraits of people and their immediate political and cultural atmosphere in a country that long suffered under authoritarianism. So much so that when the author asked a writer why Czechs appear to be reluctant to remember the past, he is told that, for the older generation, the past 15 years of change have been only a small episode in their lives to instill confidence. The book’s appeal was enhanced after I, as an editor of a newspaper that was banned last year, had a nasty encounter with state power. The longest chapter is devoted to the rise of the Bata empire. Tomas Bata, the founder, developed his own set catechisms for capitalism. He recommended to his workers to drink milk, not alcohol. Workers should not succumb to idleness. So the best is to read, but not the Russian novels. Why? Because “Russian novels kill your joie de vivre”.
At a time when a man was hacked and burnt alive simply for being who he was, reading Nirad Chaudhuri’s The Continent of Circe: An Essay on the Peoples of India offered useful insights into the underlying causes of such fault lines and hatred. About Muslims, he says, “Judged by the position they hold in relation to their strength they might be said to be the least of the minorities. Perhaps in the eye of their Hindu rulers they have even less importance than the Goanese Christians with Portuguese names. He wrote this when the Socialist Congress ruled India. His diagnosis of the Muslim community’s ailments are unbiased. The thought that springs in his mind at the sight of a burqa-clad woman in the streets of Delhi is: “‘Sister! You are the symbol of your community in India’. The entire body of the Muslims are under a black veil.”
Hilal Mir is a Kashmiri journalist. He lives in Srinagar.
LAMAT R HASAN
After an email exchange with Shamsur Rahman Faruqi (The Mirror of Beauty, The Sun that Rose from the Earth) a couple of years ago, I hung my head in shame as I hadn’t read any of the Urdu books he was talking about. I decided to start reading (at least) the English translations of Urdu books.
When Pakistani writer Bilal Tanweer’s translation of Muhammad Khalid Akhtar’s Love in Chakiwara and Other Misadventures presented itself, I was thrilled. Faiz Ahmed Faiz, one of the best-known writers of the Urdu language, had described Akhtar’s Chakiwara mein Visaal, published in 1964, as the greatest novel in the Urdu language.
That the story of the love meter, a watch-like device which helps measure love, still amuses half a century after it was written, is telling of Akhtar’s genius and wit.
The inventor of the Love Meter is Dr Ghareeb Muhammad. The doctor is certain other earlier inventions like the radio and the atom bomb will pale in front of his, and the future generations will refer to the time before him as “the Dark Ages of Humanity”.
The love meter is easy to read. Worn like a watch on the wrist, if the hand moves towards the right – the object of desire is interested; if it moves anti-clockwise it means bad news. The meter was first tested on two donkeys.
The book is set around a small Karachi neighbourhood called Chakiwara and the chronicler of the daily drama is Iqbal Hussain Changezi, a bakery owner and “collector of writers and geniuses”, who loves feeding his own habit of writing - 70,000 pages, at last count.
Then there is a story about Qurban Ali Kattar, a young writer, suffering from toothache, which he thinks has been triggered by the nuclear tests that have made him radioactive.
The other book I enjoyed reading, despite its many flaws, was A Requiem for Pakistan: The World of Intizar Husain by Mahmood Farooqui. It was perhaps the only book I have ever held that included no details of the author. I later discovered why; but I won’t get into that here.
Urdu literary great Intizar Husain lived a long life - 93 years, and wrote for 70. Husain was a lifelong anti-progressive. Pakistan’s nuclear test troubled him deeply. Farooqui’s translations gave me the goosebumps. “Suddenly one morning I realised that the place where we live is a good vantage point to witness those public hangings”. The deep irony hits hard.
Husain, whose move to Pakistan was an unthinking act, wrote Basti about a mythic and tranquil city called Rupnagar in pre-Partition India where the poor and rich, young and old, Hindu and Muslim lived in harmony. In 2012, Basti was included as the only South Asian novel in New York Book Review’s Hundred Classic Novels of the 20th Century.
Husain wrote across genres – covering themes as diverse as Partition, exposing the hypocrisy of the religious brigade, shaming the ugliness of modernity, the rape of the environment included.
Little post-Partition anecdotes are heartwarming. Mim Hasan Lateefi, who lost everything during Partition and was forced to live like a faqir in Lahore, would ask Husain to buy him tea and two pieces of toast.
The toast for the birds and dogs.
Lamat R Hasan is an independent journalist. She lives in New Delhi.
At a time when history appears to be contentious and the politician’s history is emerging in popular consciousness as the authentic one, I would begin by urging readers to have a serious look at Talking History (Oxford 2017). Based on a conversation between historian Romila Thapar, Ramin Jehanbegloo and Neeladri Bhattacharya, it could be hailed as an intellectual biography of Professor Thapar. The book addresses a number of themes such as the function of a historian, the ongoing conflict with religious fundamentalists, and the polymorphous nature of Hinduism, among other subjects.
For readers interested in biographies, Walter Isaacson’s Leonardo Da Vinci: The Biography (Simon and Schuster 2017) is fabulous. It starts with a discussion about a letter that Da Vinci wrote to the ruler of Milan, in which he talked about his engineering skills, including his ability to design bridges, waterways, cannons, armoured vehicles, and public buildings. Then he wrote, “Likewise in painting, I can do everything possible.” If you have visited Florence, as I did recently, you will enjoy this book or you may feel encouraged to plan a trip soon while reading it.
In fiction, I would recommend Paul Auster’s 4321 (Faber and Faber 2017). Auster’s detailed portrayal of four accounts of growing up in America in the decades following World War II; the characters’ passion for politics, sex, films and sport with all its attendant frustration, anger and awkwardness is everything a reader hopes to find in fiction.
Tishani Joshi’s Girls Are Coming Out of The Woods has revived my interest in poetry. In a subtle way, she has reflected on the politics of our time, particularly the multiple facets of female suffering.
Everyone should read Upinder Singh’s Political Violence in Ancient India (Harvard 2017). The book suggests that the idea of violence was deeply rooted in the pre-Islamic Hindu mind. At a time when the idea of nationalism is evoked so fiercely, Sugato Bose’s The Nation as Mother (Penguin 2017) enlightens readers about the multiple visions of nationhood and the limits of majoritarianism.
Sheikh Mujibur Rehman teaches at Jamia Millia Central University. He is the editor of Rise of Saffron Power (Routledge, forthcoming)
PRERNA SINGH BINDRA
Trees feel lonely, love society, can be bullies, nurse an ailing neighbour and even have conversations, warning each other of danger and such like through a fungal network, or the ‘wood wide web! It is with such startling revelations that I began 2017, reading Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees The author travelled a long journey of discovery as well. When he first began his career as a forester in Germany (in 1987), he knew “as much about the hidden life of trees as a butcher knows about the emotional life of animals.” Wohlleben’s language is chatty, accessible and the book has become an unlikely international bestseller -- telling of our yearning to be reconnected with nature. The Indian edition has a foreword by Pradip Krishen. The sal (dominant species of tropical deciduous forests that you would see in say, Kanha or Corbett, writes Krishen, is a gregarious tree. You won’t find it standing alone in say, a park or an avenue. Because, and I quote from the book, “foresters say that sal trees die of ‘loneliness’ when they are planted singly. This epithet is used in right earnest completely without wry humour by British foresters because they could find no other apt word to describe why sal trees died when they became isolated!’
It’s been a ‘tree year’, with my second — and strong – recommendation being Sumana Roy’s How I became a Tree. This beautifully crafted collection of essays is impossible to classify. One imagines Roy among trees, watching, understanding, absorbing, and then assimilating her relation and empathy to trees through her own self. It is at once botany and science, philosophy and poetry, and a deeply personal memoir. From the droll ‘at first I wanted to be a tree because they do not wear bras’, to the deeply reflective desire to follow a ‘tree time’, where you move to the same rhythm as trees – not hurried, rushed, or‘ deadlined’. This book is a work of art, it’s meditative, staying with you much after the last leaf… err… page is turned.
An important book this year was Jairam Ramesh’s Indira Gandhi: A Life in Nature, because it shows the importance of political leadership in environment at a time when the country is suffering the consequences of Climate Change, pollution, deforestation and extinction. It chronicles Indira Gandhi’s contribution to saving our natural and cultural heritage, thus redefining the idea of Indira, a Prime Minister, who is equally hated and loved.
All three books are special because, in their own way, they led to the rediscovery and reimagining of my own sense of self, of the natural world and of a political personality, whom we thought we well knew.
Prerna Singh Bindra, Author, The Vanishing, India’s Wildlife Crisis Prerna Singh Bindra is a former member of the National Board for Wildlife. She is the author of The Vanishing: India’s Wildlife Crisis. She lives in the National Capital Region.
When I was asked to recommend the best books I had read during the last year, I thought of MG Parameswaran’s intriguingly titled Nawabs, Nudes and Noodles, KV Sridhar’s 30 Second Thrillers (both wonderful books on Indian advertising), Anita Nair’s excellent Chain of Custody and John le Carre’s masterful A Legacy of Spies.
I finally settled on Murder in Mahim by Jerry Pinto because it belongs to my favourite genre and it is set in Mumbai, my favourite city. It is an excellent read.
Murder in Mahim is almost exclusively about the gay underworld scene in Mumbai; the main protagonist is a retired journalist; it is devoid of sensationalism; there is no femme fatale; it does not have a denouement where the murderer is revealed with a grand flourish of ratiocination.
Yet the book is a page-turner primarily because the author draws you into a sordid Mumbai that lurks beneath the one with which we are familiar -- a world of ageing queens, male prostitutes, corrupt cops and other very well portrayed characters.
Jerry Pinto is a great guide to this alternate city. He is aware of the streets, the grimy railway stations and all their smells. He also knows how Mumbaikars talk. He has an excellent ear for the patois and this is reflected in the conversations of his characters. In fact, it is these conversations that set the book apart from others of the genre. They are matter-of-fact, gritty and real.
One suspects that the plot, which revolves around a male sex worker found brutally murdered in a railway station toilet, is just an excuse for the author to take us on a tour of a Mumbai we barely know.
While this book does thrill the voyeur in the reader, it is also a decent murder mystery but one where the twists come at a measured pace. Most of the violence happens backstage and the mystery more or less solves itself with a little help from the characters and the protagonist.
Murder in Mahim succeeds not just because it is a well-plotted whodunit but also because it is a non-judgmental tale of characters rarely cast in Mumbai’s hoary narratives.
Jerry Pinto has definitely written one of the better Indian crime fiction books.
Simha Sagar is an independent creative consultant. He lives in Mumbai.
The most important thing I learnt from this book is that women’s education is essential not so much to make India a great country, but to empower a girl to live a fulfilling life, experiencing herself as an autonomous person deserving respect and equal rights.
Reaching for the Sky by Urvashi Sahni is the documented history of Prerna, a school in Lucknow, written by its founder. Established in 2003, Prerna’s students are underprivileged girls and part of the book is their story, with their photos and in their voices, and it shows how a school can change a girl’s life. These six girls were among the first to join Prerna, and have articulated their experiences objectively. They are girls who come from homes so poor that some were cleaning others’ homes along with their mothers at age seven. One had a brother who drowned in a pond at the construction site where their mother was working. Some had been forced into sexual intercourse by their own fathers. These and other Prerna girls belong to that enormous population of Indian women whose fathers and husbands exercise almost absolute control over their minds and bodies. So Prerna’s educational goals, Urvashi Sahni writes, in addition to imparting the government-mandated syllabus, include guiding a girl to recognize herself as an equal person and emerge with a sense of control over her life and aspirations for her future, with the confidence and skills to realize them.
One of the instruments described is critical dialogue, a conversation in which a girl describes her life situations and begins the process of understanding the social and political structures that restrict her, empowering herself to deal with them. Another is the use of drama through which a girl may immerse herself in role-model characters learning, for example, to speak loudly, walk tall and hold a steady gaze – things her real-life contexts have taught her not to do.
It turns out that Dr Sahni is an entrepreneur like her father, SP Malhotra of Weikfield, with a group of entities, one funding the other. Her first school, Study Hall Educational Foundation (1986), supported Prerna for its first four years. In 2008 she established DiDi’s, a social enterprise to provide livelihood to mothers, its profits diverted to support the education of their daughters in Prerna.
The part of the book that moved me most was Urvashi’s own story: a brave and gracious exposé of her own gradual liberation from strongly patriarchal, if privileged, situations. A family tragedy propelled her into social work, and her higher education at Berkeley University imbibed in her the value that the teacher-student relationship must be one of mutual respect, response, acceptance, empathetic understanding and care.
Saaz Aggarwal is the author of Sindh — Stories from a Vanished Homeland. She lives in Pune.
As a book lover I usually shun hype. However the stand-out book for me this year is The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. A good novel always presents a world view, a way of seeing life and this is true of Arundhati Roy’s book. It really is a novel born out of lived experience. As someone who loves Delhi, I was moved by the passages that evoked the charm of old Delhi. Roy’s empathy for people who are overlooked by everyone else, is what drives the narrative. Sample her philosophical prose: “And she had learned from experience that Need was a warehouse that could accommodate a considerable amount of cruelty.”
I also enjoyed At the Existentialist Café’ by Sarah Bakewell, which demystifies existentialism. In1933, at a café in Paris, Raymond Aron made Sartre and De Beauvoir sit down and talked excitedly about phenomenology. In his words ‘See you can have this cocktail and make a philosophy out of it.’ And thus were sowed the seeds of existentialism. Sartre later expanded this idea into a philosophy and gained a huge following. With the ubiquity of social media, I think existentialism has more meaning and context today.
Robert Pirsig died in April this year and that made me think of his hugely influential Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Essential reading for anyone growing up in the 1980s and 90s, this beautiful meditation on life in the industrial age continues to be relevant in the technology era. Sample this: “Is it hard?’ Not if you have the right attitudes. It’s having the right attitudes that’s hard.”
Harappa by Vineet Bajpai, India’s answer to Dan Brown, caught my eye for its sheer ambition. If this genre interests you, this book is a light and pacy read.
Since Indian sports persons have been in the news, I revisited one of my old favourites, ‘The Inner Game of Tennis’ by W Timothy Gallwey. First published in 1973, the book, which had a huge influence on sports and sports psychology, emphasized the importance of the mental side in sports. The title comes from the distinction between ‘outer game and inner game’.
A film buff and an avid collector of trivia to do with pre-Liberalisation India, Satya Prakash is the Founder Partner of The Beach, an advertising agency. He lives in New Delhi.
I began the year by resolving to counter its pace by cultivating slowness. Reading, therefore, was done primarily to slow the pace of time and to reflect upon the times. In Tadeusz Borowski’s This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen (1967), one glimpses a world stripped of all humanity. ‘We have figured out a new way to burn people,’ says an inmate put in charge of a crematorium in a death camp by the Nazis. In The Last Jew Of Treblinka, Chil Rajchman narrates how Jewish inmates in Treblinka were made to stand naked in the cold and beg to be sent into the ‘warm’ gas chambers. ‘Warm deaths were preferable’, he recounts. Then, Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man (1979) destroyed me. ‘For us, history has stopped,’ says Levi.
Shūsaku Endō’s saga of Christian crisis, Silence (1969), compares with Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ in a manner that it contrasts Jesus’ right to suffer for faith with his own disciples’ right to apostatize.
In summer, at a deserted island in Lakshadweep, Hermann Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund gave me company.
George Saunders’ Booker-winning ingenious novel, Lincoln in the Bardo taught me a thing or two about craft. The sentence — The moon shone down brightly, allowing me a first good look at his face. And what a face it was — is possibly the best literary sentence of the year.
In Arvind Gigoo’s Gulliver in Kashmir, Gulliver travels to Kashmir and sees ‘the dual nature of man, the marriage of opposites and contradictions, the proximity of love and hate, the distance between old compassion and new callousness.’ Gulliver gets to meet the Buddha and hear a retelling of the Fire Sermon. ‘And some among them wrote books which nobody read,’ observes Gulliver.
Mir Khalid’s Jaffna Street, a haunting memoir of growing up in downtown Srinagar in the 1990s, explores the irreconcilable paradoxes of human existence in Kashmir. The book profiles the old city and its residents with their infallible capacity to rise from the ashes.
The Best Asian Short Stories (2017) edited by Monideepa Sahu features some of Asia’s finest short stories of the year.
Tikuli’s poetry collection, Wayfaring, sheds light on what it means to have loved and lost, to have been at the crossroads of life, and not abandoned the will to create beauty even in despair.
Hang Kang’s The Vegetarian is keeping me engrossed these days.
Siddhartha Gigoo is a Commonwealth prize-winning author.
Of over two dozen titles that I chanced to read during the year, three titles drawn from history, philosophy and ethology interconnect to create a better understanding of our times.
The memory of childhood curiosity about the Queen who said ‘Let them eat cake’ in response to the widespread bread shortages during a famine that occurred during the reign of her husband, Louis XIV, in 18th century France prompted me to read Marie Antoinette’s Darkest Days (Rowman & Littlefield). Historian Will Bashnor has brought out the shocking facts of the Queen’s last days before she was sent to the guillotine or the ‘national razor’. The book offers a riveting account of her tragic fate, with the jury predisposed on its verdict. The narrative captures the compelling conditions in which the royal prisoner, registered as Widow Capet No. 280, was torn from her family, especially from her eight-year-old son who was made to die in tragic solitary (dark) confinement. This is a painful reflection on the justice system of which Napoleon commented: “The queen’s death was a crime worse than regicide”.
The quest for power and the lure for riches can drive anybody nuts. Yet, there remains a conflict between the virtues of the simple life and the merits of extravagant living. The Wisdom of Frugality (2016) may be a boring idea amidst the quest for more, but the need for frugal living is more pertinent now than ever before. Philosopher Emrys Westacott has pulled together over two thousand years of moral philosophy, from Socrates to Gandhi and from Buddha to Thoreau, to drive home the contemporary relevance of an idea that counters the apparently irresistible economic imperative to grow. What is baffling, however, is that luxurious living continues to be viewed as morally suspect but not without being equally envied and admired. The book rightfully concludes that the idea and appeal for frugality is more than just nostalgic because the very survival of mankind rests on simple and less wasteful existence, thus giving ancient wisdom a new relevance.
We might consider ourselves to be the wisest on the earth, but in reality we have yet to outsmart animals. Renowned ethologist Frans de Waal brings together amazing surprises from the cognitive world of animals in his fascinating book Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are (Granta). It puts to rest many myths around the wisdom of animals including the story of the thirsty crow. Experimental observations have proved that if there are pebbles lying around a jar, the crow is sure to pick these up to source water from the depth to quench its thirst. Interestingly, the book offers a corrective to so-called human exceptionalism. It is a must-read for young students and adults past their prime.
Dr Sudhirendar Sharma is an independent writer, researcher and academic. He lives in New Delhi.
2017 has been a grand year for Indian Business Writing in English. Two features have energised IBWE in 2017. Blossoming business opportunity has fetched in its wake original non-fiction (far removed from dreary text books) authored by business management gurus. Topping my list is A Biography of Innovations From Birth to Maturity by R Gopalakrishnan, former vice-chairman of Hindustan Unilever and former director of Tata Sons. Gopalakrishnan pioneered innovation in a clutch of Tata companies, getting them to change mildewed mindsets. He also helped shape national policy during the Decade of Innovation 2010-2020 overseen by the Nation Council of Innovation. Sadly, these were scrapped in 2014 and replaced by the Atal Innovation Mission. AIM members are strongly advised to read Gopal’s book and learn what business innovation really is.
Number two in non-fiction is a book that teaches but neither pontificates nor bores. Entrepreneurship Simplified: From Idea to IPO coauthored by Ashok Soota and the late lamented SR Gopalan has successfully hand-held thousands of start-ups and helped bravehearts navigate the treacherous quicksands that stymie the fulfilment of original ideas.
My other favourites include You Cannot Miss this Flight by GR Gopinath, which is an exciting autobiography of the man who introduced no-frills air travel in India. An idea ahead of its time often fails. Gopinath began with hiccups which never stopped. He clung tenaciously to his dream. In a sector where outdated laws of 1937 vintage are unimaginatively enforced, his ambition to open the skies to all Indians, especially the 97 per cent who travel by rail remained a dream. Desperate for cash, he sold the business to the wrong man -- Vijay Mallya. The rest is history. I have no great fancy for Mallya but Kingfizzer: The Rise and Fall of Vijay Mallya by Kingshuk Nag finds a place on my booklist; full marks to Nag for telling the tale of a charming rapscallion in a neutral way.
Sujoy Gupta is a business historian and biographer. He lives in Kolkata.
With all the technological distractions around us, it is not easy to find time for books these days. I managed to lay my hands on quite a few books this year, but most of them still lie around half-read or not read at all. But one that I managed to read, cover to cover, not once but twice is Pico Iyer’s The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere (TED Books: 2014).
There are some books you can read selectively, like academic ones, when the purpose is to get a reference or an argument. There are others you prefer to read slowly, pondering over every word, lingering on every page, absorbing every sentence. This tiny book is one such.
Pico Iyer is renowned as a travel writer. I came upon him mainly through his occasional New York Times essays with titles such as The Value of Suffering, or The Joy of Quiet.
This book is about the value of taking a pause, the power of staying still. It is written against the backdrop of the maddening rush that characterizes modern urban living. Drawing on his own years of globe-trotting as a journalist and writer and experiences of Leonard Cohen, Marcel Proust, etc, Iyer argues that learning to stay still, to go nowhere has become essential to “gather less visible resources” and come back closer to one’s senses. “Every time I take a trip,” he says, “the experience acquires meaning and grows deeper only after I get back home and, sitting still, begin to convert the sights I’ve seen into lasting insights.”
There is something ironic about a globe-trotter arguing for staying still, away from technological interruptions. But then, as he pointed out, “the people who seem wisest about the necessity of placing limits on the newest technologies are also, often, precisely the ones who helped develop those technologies.” Kevin Kelly, one of the most passionate advocates for new technologies, he says, lives without a smartphone, a laptop, or a TV in his home. It is common these days in western corporations to devote time for a “Quiet Period” or “thinking time” to make workers more productive. Just a decade on, internet fatigue has already set in.
The basic trouble with technologies, especially the ubiquitous hand-held screens, is that they don’t provide us with the sense of how to make the best use of them. We have to figure that out for ourselves. For that, this book is a good place to start.
Thangkhanlal Ngaihte is an independent researcher based in New Delhi.
In Kim, Rudyard Kipling’s classic account of the Great Game played out between an expanding Tsarist Russian empire and the British Raj, Sarat Chandra Das makes a cameo appearance as Hurree Chunder Mukherjee, a spy for the British Raj. His mission was to gather intelligence about the isolated and mysterious kingdom located beyond the Himalayas, the mightiest mountain range that both protected the empire and obstructed its imperial reach.
In real life Sarat Chandra Das was a spy, whose whispered exploits in Tibet and well-known scholarship on the forbidden kingdom might have inspired and provided Kipling the details of the espionage work captured in Kim.
Sarat Chandra Das’s reports of his two clandestine journeys to Tibet in 1879 and 1881-1882 was published in 1902 as Journey to Lhasa and Central Tibet. It has now been re-published by Speaking Tiger as Journey to Lhasa: The Diary of a Spy which provides for those interested in Tibet a detailed and fascinating account of a lost world and a way of life.
Sarat Chandra Das was more than a spy. He was a linguist, scholar and traveller. His espionage work in Tibet for the British Raj led to his scholarship on the country. He became a spy who fell in love with his prey. His two for-your-eyes-only reports on Tibet informed the diplomacy behind the British invasion of Tibet in 1903. His mastery of the Tibetan language and scholarship on Tibet threw up one of the great Tibetan-English dictionaries that paved the way for new generations of Tibet scholars a helpful entry into the world of Tibetan Buddhism and culture.
A little known aspect of Sarat Chandra Das was his friendship with another great traveler, Ekai Kawaguchi, a Japanese Zen monk who became Das’s student in Tibetan language and Buddhism. Das, at the time, was lodged in Darjeeling in his beloved Lhasa Villa. In his biography of Kawaguchi, A Stranger in Tibet: the Adventures of a Zen Monk, Scott Berry has this to say about the Indian scholar and spy and would- be Japanese traveller, “Darjeeling… was also the home of one of the finest scholars and explorers of Tibet the age had yet produced. History has failed to remember him, but it was because of him that Kawaguchi went to Darjeeling… He was a Bengali named Sarat Chandra Das.”
A year before he died in 1917, Das, accompanied by Kawaguch, visited Japan.
The Diary of a Spy comes as a breath of fresh air in our depressing times and I recommend it to all who are interested in travel, travel writing and adventure.
Thubten Samphel is the director of the Tibet Policy Institute and author of Falling Through the Roof. He lives in Dharamshala.
My reading this year was eclectic, something “old”, something new, and here are three books I would particularly recommend. Billy Collins: Sailing Alone Around the Room; New and Selected Poems (2002) celebrates one of America’s best-loved poets and its Poet Laureate from 2001 to 2003. Deceptively simple, Collins describes his poems as “unashamedly” suburban, domestic, and middle class but repeatedly startles us with unusual insights. “Candle Hat” is a clever take on self-portraits with Goya’s notorious candle hat becoming a way to understanding him: once you see this hat there is no need to read/any biography of Goya or to memorize his dates. “Questions about Angels” satirizes pointless quibbling over non-issues: Of all the questions you might want to ask/ about angels, the only one you ever hear/ is how many can dance on the head of a pin...
In Black Water Lilies (Michel Bussi, 2016), the French village of Giverny, once home to Claude Monet, becomes the centre of a gripping murder mystery. Art, Monet’s luminous landscapes, and human folly dominate this dark, cruel narrative of love, lust, jealousy and betrayal. In the world of the here and now with which it begins and ends, thirteen days uncover events that span two generations, keeping us on edge and jolting us with the unexpected denouement. Coincidentally, this seems to have been the year of the Impressionists, what with the release of the film “Loving Vincent” and a review in The Economist of “Cézanne’s Portraits” (National Gallery, London).
Finally, every book lover should read My Life with BOB by Pamela Paul (2017), editor of The NYT Review of Books, my only pick among this year’s releases. The salacious-minded should note that BOB is no male hunk but an acronym for “The Book of Books” – Paul’s record of books read over nearly three decades, and a throwback to the kind of endearing, hand-written, coffee-stained, unravelling at the spine journal one kept in a time before tablets and e-readers. My Life with BOB maps Paul’s own inner odyssey, connecting her reading with different phases in her life. Paul has commented on literary pretension (her own included) with refreshing self-deprecation: at Brown University, eg, “You didn’t talk about liking a book: you ripped it to pieces”. Books one knows leap out of chapters but the many unknowns are a humbling reminder of how much remains unread.
Vrinda Nabar is the author of “Caste as Woman” and a former Chair of English, Mumbai University.