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HT Editors pick their favourite reads of 2017

From Mohsin Hamid to Jeff Kinney and Korey Stamper, from graphic fiction to books on the Indian Constitution, the HT Editors’ collective reading list presents some surprises

books Updated: Dec 30, 2017 13:55 IST
Hindustan Times
Steve Bannon,TCA Raghavan,Hisham Matar
Any place is a good place to read: In a garden near Raj Ghat in New Delhi. (Sushil Kumar/HT PHOTO)


Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag, translated by Srinath Perur
‘Ghachar ghochar’ may be jibberish but it doesn’t really need to be translated. In any culture, in any part of the world, traditional vocabulary fails to fully describe the mess you’re left with when, say, the string of a kite becomes so entangled that it is nigh impossible to untwine. Growing up in Lucknow, my childhood term for this was guchar muchar.
So Ghachar Ghochar, which was published last year but fell into my hands only this autumn, is a novel about how things get complicated to a point where they cannot be simplified any longer. It is a small book (115 pages long) with a big heart and an astonishingly grand narrative.

Written in Kannada by Vivek Shanbhag, and translated to English by Srinath Perur, it tells the story of one family in two different Bangalores. A lower middle-class household – father, mother, uncle, sister, brother -- moves from an ant-infested hovel to a noveau riche bungalow that “feels like a hotel”.
Their new fortune does strange new things to them, and as the old drifts further away, the money that once “behaved meekly” starts to “become brash and have its way”. Family equations are realigned, potential is defeated by comfort, and the longing for more is replaced by the tyranny of having everything you thought you ever wanted.
It pushes our narrator, a simple boy who grows up to be a lazy young man, to seek solace in a café and in the wise words of a laconic waiter who hangs over his life – sometimes as chronicler, sometimes as philosopher.
When a new member enters the family in the form of the narrator’s wife, she is unable to understand the dynamic she is now a part of. Hilarity ensues, but only in small measure. What comes with it is contradiction, conflict, and eventually danger.
Shanbhag’s work is as playful as it is dark. It turns the spotlight on what can happen if we allow the strings that hold us together to get so entangled that our emotions, our desires, and our lives become all ghachar ghochar.


Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
“The end of the world can be cozy at times,” says Saeed, one of the main characters in Mohsin Hamid’s fourth novel, Exit West, to Nadia when they are sitting in the darkness following a terrorist invasion of the city they live in. An odd remark, but one that signals the sanity of ordinary people in extraordinary times. The two meet in an evening class and their story takes off from a meal at a restaurant. The seeming normality of their romance is in the backdrop of their country being sucked into a violent vortex of war, a place where humdrum activities can coexist with apocalyptic events.
Global migration, the immigrant crisis, all problems we face today, forms the central theme of this disturbing novel, the kind of story where you might say, ‘This could be me.’ There is no light at the end of the tunnel here, rather the unraveling of comforting old systems are repeated on a loop even when the reader gets the feeling that things are going to take a turn for the better.

The location of the story is a city overrun by refugees where there is a frightening lava of discontent simmering under the surface. It could be any one of the trouble spots in the world today. Saeed and Nadia are like young people anywhere connected to a borderless world of the internet. He is conservative, lives with his parents, she is different in that she wears a hijab but rides a motorcycle, the two melding surprisingly, seamlessly.
The progression of their story is in tandem with the developments around them as incidents of violence acquire their own life and threaten the fragile social order. As in the iconic film Apocalypse Now, the recurring theme becomes the helicopter in the sky, its ominous sound offset by the silence of the drones. In the manner of ISIS, militants begin to assert themselves, inching across territory, throwing all normal life out of kilter. The phones no longer work, essential services shut down, a macabre football match gets underway with the ball being a human head. It is gruesome but conveyed to the reader in a matter-of-fact manner. These things happen, let us not get our knickers in a twist.
Nadia and Saeed finally cannot take it anymore, they leave their homeland to what they feel is safety. It is a journey to another world but one full of trial and tribulation, an uneasy journey to an unknown, even frightening destination. The choice between a rock and hard place brings out the survival instinct in the two, they have no choice but to fit into their new surroundings.
They go to Mykonos with its sleek sun worshippers and private yachts, to London which has become a squatter’s paradise. Rather than the grim and gore of migration journeys, the story is told through the allusion of doors. Nadia and Saeed come to understand that the world has an entry and exit system through these man-made doors. “The doors out,which is to say the doors to richer destinations, were heavily guarded, but the doors in, the doors from poorer places, were mostly left unsecured.” The doors through which Saeed and Nadia escape does not necessarily bring them to safety, those whom they are running from, the dystopian world left behind too moves through those doors. The fears that they were fleeing confront them once again.


The Lovers by Amitava Kumar, The Sun and her Flowers by Rupi Kaur, Temporary People by Deepak Unnikrishnan, Foot Soldier of the Constitution by Teesta Setalvad, Manaku of Guler by BN Goswamy

I’m always interested in what the male of the species really thinks about love, about sex, about that messy cellophane-wrapped-sticky-toffee yearning that can make you rage and retch in between the good times when the world is bathed in bracing winter sunshine. Yes, men have written about these things since forever but rarely with the intensity or the honesty of women. Naturally, as part of my lifelong project to understand men - I’ve been married two decades and only produced sons, who are perfectly transparent until the age of 16, when they morph into hairy aliens -- I had to read Amitava Kumar’s The Lovers. So I followed Kailash, a boy from Bihar -- much like the writer -- as he explores living, loving, thinking and just being in America. This is a good read not just because it made me thankful Indian women can opt for abortions without enduring the disapproval of religious busybodies or because I learnt that numerous Indian monkeys were shipped off to America to be lab animals, or because I kept wondering about the identity of Cai Yan, one of Kailash’s girlfriends, but because, in the end, the protagonist’s understanding of his relationships mirrors my own perennial incomprehension.

If Amitava Kumar blends quasi-memoir and non-fiction to create a work that seeks to get at the ‘truth’, Canadian Rupi Kaur attempts it by melding poetry and illustration. The death of Eunice de Souza earlier this year, strangely, made me return to an appreciation of poetry. And while I’m rediscovering the once-familiar comforts of her work, I’m also enjoying Kaur’s savage young woman poems:

i bleed
every month.
do not die.
how am i

- the lie

This is poetry that speaks directly of sexual politics within relationships, of family bonds, of self acceptance, of the immigrant experience. It is honest and unafraid to be vulnerable, as the best poetry always is.

I especially enjoy short fiction and this year has been one of discovery. Deepak Unnikrishnan’s Temporary People, which tells of the Malayali experience in the Gulf with much linguistic inventiveness, is superb. The story on the telephone that allows the caller, a lonely toiler out in the desert, to watch who he’s talking to back home grinds together homesickness, jealousy and desire. It’s a piece I’ll be reading over and over. No, things don’t go well with that instrument.

Teesta Setalvad’s memoir, Foot Soldier of the Constitution, left me struck by the author’s indefatigable spirit, her bravery, her optimism, and most of all, her belief that she can make a difference.

Among art books, BN Goswamy’s Manaku of Guler replete with beautiful colour plates, left me speechless. I often gaze at Manaku’s surreal ‘The celestial musicians milk the earth cow’ (from the Bhagavata Purana series) and at Krishna combing Radha’s hair (from the Gita Govinda series) when I’m disturbed. It always works. Incidentally, Manaku was the brother of that other great Pahari painter Nainsukh.

I still haven’t found what the male of the species really, really thinks about love and its attendant suffering but it’s alright… I’ve read some great books this year. #noconnection!


Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump and the storming of the presidency, by Joshua Green
Steve Bannon is described as brilliant, charismatic, “brimming with vigor” in Devil’s Bargain, journalist Joshua Green’s book about how Donald Trump won the US presidential election and caused “the greatest political upset in modern American history”.
Bannon is also a “populist-nationalist” who runs the far-right website Breitbart, which publishes headlines like ‘Birth Control Makes Unattractive and Crazy’ and has been accused of racism and xenophobia. He managed Trump’s presidential campaign and later became his chief strategist at the White House before being sacked in August.
Bannon’s campaign strategy did not “make” Trump president, but he let “Trump be Trump”. As a book review noted about Devil’s Bargain: “Trump wouldn’t be president if it weren’t for Bannon.”
“Where’s my Steve? Where’s my Steve?” Trump said about his future advisor when he was searching out for him at a conference more than a year before he announced his presidential bid. Trump once said he doesn’t read books. Bannon, in contrast, is a “voracious autodidact” who is well-versed in obscure philosophers, Buddhism and the Hindu concept of Kali Yuga.

Trump is the privileged son of a New York City real estate mogul. Bannon is a self-made entrepreneur raised in a traditional Catholic working-class home. Trump never did military service. Bannon is a former US Navy officer.
How did these two men who are so different come together? Shared ideology or world view, Green writes.
“Everywhere Bannon looked in the modern world, he saw signs of collapse and an encroaching globalist order stamping out the last vestiges of the traditional,” he writes. Bannon believes the influx of Muslim refugees and migrants across Europe and the United States is “civilizational jihad personified by this migrant crisis”.
According to Green, Bannon’s “response to the rise of modernity was to set populist, right-wing nationalism against it”.
Enter Trump, with “his willingness to flout any norms”, his “Make America Great Again” slogan, his loud and clear opposition to immigrants, Islam and liberalism.
“America First” united the two men and though they have fallen apart they keep promoting their ideology: Trump with his tweets and Bannon with his website.
Green’s book is racy and detailed, but it fails to explain one question: how is a brilliant and talented man like Bannon a xenophobe and believer of racist nationalism theories?


Word By Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper
Can a book on dictionaries be an exciting page-turner? If it’s Word By Word by Kory Stamper, yes. I read it late into the night, all agog, as if I were reading a thriller. Stamper is an editor with Merriam-Webster, an American company that publishes dictionaries, and in this book, she tells us what it’s actually like to write those fat doorstoppers. Her work includes, among other things, defining words (far more complicated than one thought, I’ll never take the dictionary definition of any word, even ‘a’ and ‘the’ for granted again), deciding which new words to incorporate (sometimes there can be as many as 10,000 new entries), proofreading pronunciations in six-point type for eight hours a day (in the bargain, slowly going blind), corresponding with readers (replying to queries like ‘Are babies natural?’ No wonder Stamper laments that questions about the English language are often not even in the English language). And doing all this – and more -- in near-silence. (Chatting is not encouraged in the Merriam-Webster office.)

Stamper was probably a good candidate for a job which is all about words -- she was reading a medical dictionary at age nine (for pleasure) and by 16, was muttering “Troglodyte” and “Cacafuego” at obnoxious boys in her class.
The book is enlightening, and written with lively wit and humour. It felt like I was discovering a mysterious, exotic, secret world. Even reading about the history of lexicography was thrilling -- I learnt that the first monolingual English dictionary came out in 1604 (and that in 1785, one Francis Grose wrote A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue). I also learnt that exactly 11 per cent of a dictionary is made of words that begin with ‘s’. And that smaller, commonly used words are the hardest to define -- defining the word ‘take’ with all its meanings (senses, as they are called) took Stamper one month of work, while another lexicographer took nine months to revise the word ‘run’. But that’s probably a mere blip given the glacial speed at which dictionaries are compiled (one of Merriam-Webster’s dictionaries took 12 years to complete, with a staff of almost 100 editors and 202 consultants).
The most interesting part of Stamper’s book is her approach to her work and thereby, to language. Dictionaries are not about protecting the English language, keeping it right, pure, good (“prescriptivism”), she says. “We are just observers, and the goal is to describe, as accurately as possible, as much of the language as we can” (“descriptivism”). This is the philosophical basis for almost all modern dictionaries.


Mission Overseas: Daring operations by the Indian Army by Sushant Singh, The People Next Door: The Curious History of India’s Relations with Pakistan by TCA Raghavan.
Looking back at 2017 and there are only two books that stand out among the ones I read – army officer-turned-journalist Sushant Singh’s Mission Overseas: Daring operations by the Indian Army, and diplomat-turned-author TCA Raghavan’s The People Next Door: The curious history of India’s relations with Pakistan.
Singh is probably the perfect author for the current crop of attention-deficit readers – his slim volume detailing three missions by the army on foreign soil works as both military history and irresistible page turner. In less than 200 pages, he explains why these missions were or weren’t a success and how they affected India’s geo-political standing.

With a quick eye for detail, Singh recounts how Operation Cactus – the daring 1988 mission to thwart an attempted coup by mercenaries against President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom of the Maldives – could easily have turned into a disaster. Troops were sent into action with tourist maps and coffee table books to identify landmarks!
Even the most accomplished author would have faltered in trying to compress Operation Pawan, India’s disastrous intervention in Sri Lanka during 1987-90, into such a slender volume but Singh succeeds by using the highly effective device of framing the mission through the massacre of 29 Indian soldiers during a poorly mounted helicopter-borne assault against the LTTE in Jaffna University.
Maybe Singh will do us a favour by coming up with more such books looking at other key episodes in military history.
All diplomats write and some, after retiring, inflict the dull, jargon-laden prose they employed in their cables on unsuspecting readers. Happily, Raghavan is not one of those diplomats. The People Next Door is much like former Pakistani ambassador Husain Haqqani’s India vs Pakistan: Why Can’t We Just be Friends – a handy primer for anyone who wants help in deciphering the tortuous course of relations between the two countries.
Raghavan’s book is neither a memoir nor a sweeping look at the history of bilateral relations. It instead focuses on little-known but extremely interesting individuals and episodes to nudge readers towards developing a better understanding of the people living next door and their – in the words of the author – Rashomon-like accounts of key events.

Thus we get a get a cast of colourful characters such as the sensational Lahore writer Kanhaiya Lal Gauba, who converted to Islam and became Khurshid Latif Gauba, the Buddhist Chakma Raja, Tridiv Roy, who opted for Pakistan when Bangladesh was liberated in 1971, and Bhupat Daku, the criminal who hopped across the border to evade arrest in Gujarat, leading India to demand his extradition in a move that would have a parallel decades later with the case of Dawood Ibrahim.
Clearly, Raghavan is an author to watch out for and hopefully he’ll detail the intricacies of diplomacy and India’s relations with other nations in his future books


Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
Mohsin Hamid, always a writer in tune with the zeitgeist, offered us in The Reluctant Fundamentalist one of the most disquieting novels in the sub-genre of post-9/11 novels. His latest, Exit West, can lay claim to being one of the first post-Brexit, post-refugee-crisis fictions, preoccupied with the will to leave and the wish to remain; about being torn asunder; about the meaning of migration and belonging. It is a profound – and profoundly complex – meditation on the psychological uncertainty, anguish and alienation engendered by leaving one’s homeland. The prose, rich with details, often freighted with irony, and unfolding in long sentences that beg to be reread, has about it an incantatory quality. Hamid has again written a poignant, relevant parable of our times.

The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst
In his new novel, Alan Hollinghurst returns to – and revels in – his favourite tropes: gay life, and how it changed, in a changing England; the line of beauty (to borrow the title of the novel that made him famous) that runs through art, architecture and literature; and how the passage of time – inevitable, cruel, kind – burnishes or alters reputations as well as our memory and perception of events. The Sparsholt Affair is made up of five sections, and is spread across three generations. As richly layered as his previous – and, for my money, best – novel, A Stranger’s Child, the new book is as good with its panoramic sweep as its remarkable close-ups. Hollinghurst’s attention to detail is magnificent, making for vivid set pieces and beautifully realised characters. His prose is at once expansive and precise; Hollinghurst is undoubtedly one of the finest writers of an English sentence. The Sparsholt Affair is a gem, polished to perfection. With The Line of Beauty, The Stranger’s Child, and now, The Sparsholt Affair, Hollinghurst has sealed his reputation as one of England’s greatest living novelists.

The Return by Hisham Matar
The Libyan-American writer, Hisham Matar, is the author of two successful novels. In The Return, which won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography, is a searing, haunting memoir. When Matar was 19, his father – a dissident during the Gaddafi regime – was picked up from home and imprisoned. Amid the torture and other hardships of prison life, he would write to his family. Then, the letters stopped. To this day, Matar does not know if his father died in prison, was executed, or is alive somewhere. This is the harrowing account of Matar’s search for his father. In turns tender and angry (and at times both), The Return is an exploration of the bond between a father and a son, the notion of home, and the terrible price one can pay for one’s political and intellectual beliefs.


The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui, Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York: 2140, The Dry by Jane Harper

I used to write a weekly column on comics for Lounge, the weekend magazine of Mint, Hindustan Times’ sister publication, and, in one part because I’m still obsessed with comics and graphic novels, my first pick is The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui. This is a memoir of a refuge family’s journey from Vietnam to the US, and its minimalistic style is complemented by an intricate non-linear narrative and a depth of feeling that not too many people (at least not anyone unfamiliar with good graphic novels) would associate with a comic. Like the best coming-to-America books, The Best We Could Do is a mixture of happiness and struggle and hope and to me it somehow seemed apt that I was reading it in 2017, a year when talk of refugees dominated headlines in the US and Europe.

For my second pick of the year, I am going to fall back on what started by happenstance but has since grown into a ritual – reading an end-of-the-world (perhaps as we know it) book at the end of the year. I don’t really remember when this began, but I’ve read some cracking end-of-the-world books (Oryx and Crake sometime in the first half of the 2000s to The Dog Stars a decade later). This year, I read Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York: 2140, a book about very real people and very real problems in a New York ravaged by climate change, so much so that there are no streets, only canals, and each skyscraper is an island, connected to other skyscrapers through walkways. Water or the lack of it was the subject of two compelling end-of-the-world books I read in 2015, Claire Vaye Watkins’ Gold Fame Citrus and Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife.

And finally, while on climate change, my third pick of the year is a thriller set in the midst of a drought. Jane Harper’s The Dry is a murder mystery in a very dry Australia. It is as atmospheric as Thomas Hardy (I kid you not, although I have been accused of attributing literary characteristics to popular fiction), and as page-turnable as the best the genre has to offer.

I’ve kept details to the minimum so as to avoid spoilers – but do the read the three books. They made my year (or at least, a small part of it).


Working a Democratic Constitution: The Indian Experience and The Indian Constitution; Cornerstone of a Nation by Granville Austin

For those whose self-imposed task is to bring out the newspaper each waking day or keep a news website ticking round the clock, the low level of public discourse is of concern but not alarm. In the making of this nation, there have been moments that are best forgotten. This current low should be one such. What about a high, a moment that can be best remembered, revered and reread? Refreshingly, we can go to the very beginning of the Indian republic — the making of the Indian Constitution. A chronicle of those years is best read in the words of Granville Austin in the Working a Democratic Constitution: The Indian Experience.
In an age when the founding fathers of this republic are being used and misused this book comes as a erudite reminder that the concerted effort at running down a Jawaharlal Nehru, or misrepresenting a Sardar Patel and using a BR Ambedkar for political expediency has serious implications for how this generation will understand what it took to get here.

They will not know that for the finest moment in our history one does not have to rely on some quackery that supposedly happened in hoary antiquity, but just a few decades ago. This book is a reminder that the work in progress can be done with the finesse of the men and women in the Constituent Assembly who first undertook the task.
To stay the course and not sink into cynicism, next up is another seminal work by the late professor Granville Austin — The Indian Constitution Cornerstone of a Nation.


Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Double Down by Jeff Kinney
Dear fans of Greg Heffley (the Wimpy kid), here’s a confession I have to make. I got introduced to Greg only a few months ago. My 13-year-old nephew, a fan of Greg, was surprised that I hadn’t read a single book of the Wimpy series. “I am sure you’ll like him,” he assured.
And he was so right. Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Double Down, Jeff Kinney’s 11th on the Wimpy series, left me in splits. While my heart went out to Greg so many times, his idiosyncrasies kept me wondering what I would have done if I had a kid like Greg! So then I empathised with Greg’s parents.
In an interview with Hindustan Times, Jeff Kinney said he actually had adult readers in mind when he started the series. “I first wrote these books for adults. I worked for eight years thinking that I was writing a book that grownups would like, where they were looking back at their childhood. With my books now, I still imagine that I’m writing for adults. So, I try to have a sort of imaginary adult reader in mind,” Kinney said.
Filled with Kinney’s trademark hilarity and jolly sketches Double Down is a delightful read. The book, which revolves around Greg, his parents, two siblings and his best friend Rowley Jefferson, is bound to remind you of a crazy cousin’s antics or that wacky friend of your schooldays. It certainly reminded me of some of mine.
Bordering on comic strips, the Wimpy Kid books have been sold in more than 63 editions in 53 languages. This year is a milestone for the series as it completes 10 years.

No less entertaining than the Harry Potter series, Kinney’s characters and situations, you feel, are taken from everyday life. The parent in you is bound to relate to those PTA meets, that eccentric school teacher and the problems and joys of bringing up kids. Maybe you can pick up some parenting tips from Susan Heffley, who always has her hands full. Her overprotective, technology-hating nature is bound to touch a chord with at least some.
Like several children’s books, the Wimpy series, though meant for children and teenagers, is bound to gladden adults. So next time you buy a new Wimpy for the young adult in your home, please read it first. You might enjoy it more than that Maggi-chomping kid sitting next to you and trying to pass off as an adult. You may also thank your stars that you don’t have to deal with a Greg clone!

First Published: Dec 29, 2017 22:44 IST