More fact than fiction

A tome on Hinduism, a biography of a city, and essays on a ravaged people all make their appearance on HT’s list of the 10 most interesting books of the year
Updated on Dec 30, 2013 06:14 PM IST
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Hindustan Times | By, New Delhi

While some remarkable fiction, notably Shamsur Rahman Faruqi’s Mirror of Beauty, Prajwal Parajuly’s Land Where I Flee and Chetan Raj Shrestha’s The King’s Harvest, made an impression in 2013, the year really belongs to non-fiction: Memoirs, reportage, biographies like Ramchandra Guha’s Gandhi Before India that study specific eras in the lives of historical figures, big India books like Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen’s An Uncertain Glory, photography tomes supported by illuminating text, incisive writing on popular Hindi cinema that included, among others, Siddharth Bhatia’s enjoyable book on Amar Akbar Anthony and Tapan K Ghosh’s book on villains and vamps,

graphic novels that explore serious themes as wide ranging as the Partition (This Side, That Side: Restorying Partition curated by Vishwajyoti Ghosh) and Hindu myth, even erudite cookbooks, have all made an impression. Here’s HT’s entirely subjective list of the most thought-provoking and intellectually-satisfying books of the year.

On Hinduism
Wendy Doniger
Rs. 995, PP 680

Wendy Doniger’s 660-page volume deals with the big questions facing modern Hinduism. Her intellectually challenging work answers many questions including the one about the coexistence of polytheism and monotheism within Hindu spiritual practice, dogs as reviled figures and thus representations of the ‘other’, the idea of ahimsa, and the increasing influence of Hinduism’s Puritanical stream. Scholarly but accessible, Doniger’s work helps the reader arrive at a fresh understanding of a complex religion.

Of Occupation and Resistance; Writings from Kashmir
Ed Fahad Shah
Rs. 395, PP 264

The tragedy of Kashmir has been presented unflinchingly in the essays, articles and first-person accounts that make up this slim book. While some pieces like the story of the digger of mass graves and of the death of a 17-year-old are almost too painful to read, others like David Barsamian’s essay on journalism contain nuggets of wisdom: “… state officials want to seduce journalists with access to power and manipulate the flow of information...” A remarkable book.

The Ultimate Army Cookbook
Kikky Sihota
Roli Books
Rs. 795, PP 176

The Army’s preservation of the institutions handed down by the British finds an echo in its kitchens too. Kikky Sihota, the daughter and wife of army officers is uniquely placed to write about the recipes specific to the Indian army and she does this with style in a beautifully produced book that’s part photo album, part vintage scrap book, part compendium of recipes handed down from generation to generation. Photographs of officers and their wives socialising and of grand banquets infuse this volume with romance.

Adi Parva: Churning of the Ocean
Amruta Patil
Harper Collins
Rs. 499, PP232

Drawing deeply from Hindu philosophy and the Mahabharata, this 274-page book replete with beautiful illustrations and text that’s controlled poetry, is simply breathtaking. The cyclical structure means that even if you open the book at random pages, you’d still find much to marvel at, much to learn even from Patil’s treatment of myth. Patil’s retelling deals with the timeless issues of sexuality, love and politics and infuses an ancient myth with contemporary meaning.

A Matter of Rats; A Short Biography of Patna
Amitava Kumar;
Rs. 295, PP144

Amitava Kumar’s biography of his home town manages to amuse, move, inform and appall the reader. That’s a big deal for a slim book that weaves together bits of memoir to present a picture of a man (and the boy he once was) looking at a city that’s synonymous with his parents and therefore prompts both tenderness and an awful awareness of the passage of time. Kumar’s stories about the reporter who accompanied Shiva Naipaul, about Marlon Brando’s visit to Patna in the late 1960s, of the huge rats that made off with his mother’s dentures, his encounter with Lalu Prasad Yadav, even characters from the works of other non fiction writers all mesh together to give you an exceptional portrait of a city.

Against the Madness of Manu...
Selected and Introduced
by Sharmila Rege
Rs. 350, PP266

Sharmila Rege brought together the writings and speeches of Dr BR Ambedkar on the thorny issues of caste and gender in this volume. These works, which have never appeared together, reveal Ambedkar’s thinking on how caste inequality and patriarchy are intertwined. Here you will find selections from Ambedkar’s ‘Riddles in Hinduism’ and extracts from speeches on the Hindu Code Bill, among others. While these selections reveal Ambedkar’s sharp mind and sense of humour, this book is also remarkable for the late Rege’s (she died a few months after this book was published) erudite introduction to the book and its sections, and for the picture of Dalit life that emerges.

Our Moon Has Blood Clots
Rahul Pandita
Random House India
Rs. 499, PP258

Rahul Pandita’s Our Moon Has Blood Clots about the exodus of the Pandits from the Kashmir Valley speaks of the pain of fleeing a beloved home and of the loss of close family to violence and grief. An aching nostalgia that emerges through moving descriptions of rituals and festivals specific to the community, snatches of poetry from, among others, Lal Ded and Agha Shahid Ali, and oral histories that illuminate the larger story of the Kashmiri Pandits are deftly woven together in a deeply affecting memoir that takes the reader through the wretched innerscape of the refugee, one who can no longer go home. The beauty of the valley and the shabby shared homes in Jammu are both powerfully evoked. The tone of controlled grief seems to embrace all that Kashmiris, both Pandit and Muslim, have lost. This could easily have been a rabid anti-Kashmiri Muslim rant. That it is not, makes this book eminently readable.

Photographing India
Sunil Janah
Oxford University Press
Rs. 3995, PP300

As if 174 pages of vintage images from India are not fascinating enough, Sunil Janah’s book also has an extensive section written in the first person by the photographer himself. From Gandhi to humble workers, agricultural labourers, bare-breasted peasant women, everyone was a fit subject for Janah who chronicled the young nation with sensitivity and enthusiasm. The text which reveals his time with the Communist Party, his terrible business sense, his travels to inaccessible parts of the country, his feelings about the Partition, and his interactions with the community of photographers at the time, his unhappiness at the riots and devastating natural disasters so frequent in the first decades after independence, makes for great reading. The text is as rich and detailed as Janah’s rewarding and totally unforgettable pictures. This is a wonderful capsule of a young as-yetunsullied nation, and an unforgettable picture of a lost time.

Sadhus; The Seekers of Salvation
Rajesh Bedi
Bedi Films Visuals
Rs. 2950, PP280

A volume of stunning photographs of sadhus at the Maha Kumbh, in the remote mountains, holding up skulls, mortifying their flesh, walking in single file through an eerie landscape, haunting cremation grounds… in short doing the things that sadhus do. The photographs taken by Bedi and his late father (photographer Ramesh Bedi) are supported by detailed text that informs the reader about the beliefs and arcane rituals of sadhus, the ancient rules that govern their behaviour, and, most rewardingly, the experience of women who join the holy orders. Some of the pictures have a grisly beauty and give the reader/viewer a new understanding of the ascetic life. A work that stuns with the magnificence of its pictures and the depth of knowledge of its supporting text.

Master of Arts — A Life in Dance
Tulsi Badrinath
Rs. 419, PP 312

Male dancers, even exponents of classical forms, often have to contend with the stereotype of the effeminate male dancer. Tulsi Badrinath interweaves three narratives – that of V P Dhananjayan, a celebrated Kathakali and Bharatanatyam dancer and teacher, the author’s own experience and her interaction with her gurus the Dhananjayans, and that of the male disciples of her gurus. While examining the particular circumstances of the dancers and the hurdles they come up against, the author touches on the lack of transparency of funding agencies and organisations that host performances and also reveals all that a dancer has to endure for a good slot. An acute picture of a dancer’s life and how much individuals will endure to follow their true calling.

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