The Best Reads of 2016
The HT editors’ list of favourite books includes everything from literary fiction and memoirs to serious writing on Hindi cinema and political biographiesbooks Updated: Dec 31, 2016 21:45 IST
Like all Best-of Lists, the HT Editors’ list of the most interesting reads this year is subjective. However, unlike lists that emerge from a single literary critic’s fevered brain or from sales figures collated from book stores across the country, this one manages to be at once engaging, wide ranging and intelligent with a good mix of Indian and international titles across genres. Diatribes against Empire, literary fiction, works of art that are also explorations of tribal identity, memoirs by those who have fought against India’s apathetic legal system, autobiographies by political figures and by rock musicians, a much loved children’s book and impo rtant studies of popular Hindi cinema, all feature.
A wide-ranging list. Just like the team that works on the newspaper.
Editor - Special Projects
Trial by Fire
Neelam and Shekhar Krishnamoorthy
Penguin Random House
The authors were parents to two teenagers, Unnati and Ujjwal, who were amongst 59 who died of asphyxiation in Delhi’s Uphaar cinema. The book is a story of their grit and determination and the content is searing and damning. Neelam and Shekhar – now familiar faces in court and on television screens – were a happy couple who stole out of the gynecological ward at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) to watch a movie at the same hall – Uphaar, a night before Unnati was born. Seventeen years later, their lives ended in so many ways when they were back at the theatre and the same hospital, to find their dead children laid out on stretchers.
Trial by Fire details the long and lonely battle for justice in the face of bureaucratic and political adversity that has not ended in the 19 long years since a swirling mass of thick smoke enveloped the theatre’s balcony where the victims were watching a movie in June 1997. Devastated by the loss of their children, the Krishnamoorthys had two choices: accept the tragedy as a bad card that fate had dealt them or take the road to justice.
The book painstakingly documents their journey through various courts in the quest for justice: an elusive, slippery customer subject to frequent adjournments despite an order that placed it in the ‘fast track category’. The 251-page book often hits straight in the gut. The case appeared fairly straight: none of the victims died of fire injuries but choked to death because extra seats had been put up by the owners, the Ansals, for profit. The seats blocked the exits through which the victims could have escaped and the functional door was bolted from the outside as 59 people slowly gasped for their last breath.
Read the book for the resilience shown by parents wracked by grief. Read it to find out the real meaning of the word, apathy. Read it also, for an insider’s account of what it means to be a litigant in court. Read it to realise the pain of being let down by a system that we all continually pin our hopes on. Finally, shudder when you think: but this is not fiction.
Alfred A Knopf
I find it both impossible and unfair to single out one particular book as my favourite of the year. I can at best pick out a clutch of books I enjoyed and admired in 2016. It is a pity that I can’t include several more that gave me pleasure and companionship in the past 12 months.
One of the most powerful novels I read this year was Graham Swift’s Mothering Sunday. Taut as a coiled spring and harrowing, it is a fascinating exploration of gender, class and Englishness. I don’t know what it is about Swift’s generation of English writers that makes them, in the autumn of their careers, produce short, polished gems as opposed to capacious novels (Julian Barnes did so with The Sense of an Ending and The Noise of Time; Ian McEwan with On Chesil Beach and The Children’s Act).
Hisham Matar added to his already impressive body of work with The Return in 2016. As poignant as it is frightening, this is a masterful portrayal of the relationship between a father and a son, the vacuum an absence leaves behind and the manner in which it scars one for life.
A History of Pictures by David Hockney and Martin Gayford was a sumptuous visual and intellectual treat. Presented like an artful dialogue between Hockney and Gayford, it offers us valuable insights into art and photography (and what lies at their confluence) in a manner scholarly art books never can. Hockney is always lively, and the close attention and ways of seeing he brings to bear upon the works under discussion enlightens as much as it entertains.
Jon Hotten’s The Meaning of Cricket is not - as it might seem - a philosophical disquisition on the profundity of the game we so adore. Rather, it is quirky, discursive, erudite, funny and filled with sharp observations and interesting anecdotes. If you happen to be an intelligent cricket fan and have not yet made acquaintance with Hotten’s writing, this is a good place to start.
The Turbulent Years: 1980-1996
Turbulent Years: 1980 –1996, the second part of President Pranab Mukherjee’s autobiography makes for interesting reading for two reasons: one, the author has long been an insider both in the Congress and the government, and second, it narrates the twists of political plots during one of the most eventful periods of Indian politics. This insightful and sharp account takes in the 16 years that saw the air crash that killed Sanjay Gandhi, two assassinations (of serving PM Indira Gandhi and ex-PM Rajiv Gandhi), five prime ministers, the demolition of the Babri Masjid, and the launch of economic reforms – all events that shaped India’s political, socio-religious and economic history.
While giving a first person account of realpolitik and intrigues (with calculated restraints, of course), Mukherjee also captures several emotional moments: “I saw Mrs Gandhi walk up to where Sanjay’s body lay. She seemed to notice that part of the sheet covering his foot had gone slightly askew. Murmuring softly that he might feel cold, she gently pulled the sheet back over his foot”
Every major event of the time has been dealt with: from Rajiv Gandhi’s appointment as prime minister to Bofors; from Operation Blue Star to Babri Masjid.
He also touches upon the issue that led to many misgivings – rumours that he wanted to edge out Rajiv Gandhi for the top post. ”Many stories have been circulated that I aspired to be the interim Prime Minister, that I had staked claim and had to be persuaded otherwise. And that this created misgivings in Rajiv Gandhi’s mind. These stories are completely false and spiteful.”
Mukherjee, for the first time, opens up about the events that led to his dramatic ejection from the Rajiv Gandhi cabinet, resulting in his exit from the Congress and his eventual return to the party.
Written by an active participant in the events, this book is a must-read for all those interested in getting an insight into the 16 years that shaped India’s modern history.
Not Dead Yet
Till recently, most autobiographies by rockers fell squarely into two categories – tell-all tomes that were more concerned about a musician’s raunchy lifestyle and philandering, or airbrushed and sanitised versions of their life story that revealed little about the person.
Things changed when Keith Richards and Bob Dylan released their autobiographies some years ago, launching the golden era of the memoirs of classic rock stars. The trend continued this year with excellent books from three elder statesmen of rock and pop – Phil Collins’ Not Dead Yet, Bruce Springsteen’s Born To Run, and Robbie Robertson’s Testimony.
The most fun to read is the autobiography of Collins, who shot to fame with the prog-rock group Genesis before launching a huge solo career in the 1980s. Collins displays lots of dark humour as he chronicles three failed marriages, his alcoholism and his health problems, including nerve damage that forced him to stop playing the drums.
Some of Collins’ revelations about his struggles with alcohol and marriages are especially surprising, given his clean cut image as the purveyor of songs such as Sussudio and I Can’t Dance. Also thrown in are some great rock’n’roll stories, such as the story behind the shambolic performance by a reunited Led Zeppelin at Live Aid with Collins on drums, and the singer dealing with Tony Bennett’s fragile ego during a tour of Europe.
Robertson’s memoir features by far the best writing, which is hardly surprising since he’s the author of classic tunes such as The Weight and The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down. The book features rich imagery as Robertson traces his journey as a teenage musician from Canada who moves to the US and joins the group that would go on to become The Band and back Bob Dylan as he transformed from an acoustic guitar strumming folkie into a rocker.
Robertson writes of blackmailing a Canadian detective to avoid jail time after being arrested for possessing marijuana, the dark days when Dylan was constantly booed by audiences for switching to electric rock, going from watching Muddy Waters play live in a club to playing with the blues great at The Band’s final concert, and the stories behind some of his greatest songs. Surprisingly, Robertson ends his memoir with The Last Waltz, his group’s final concert in 1976, though he has promised a second volume.
Springsteen’s autobiography, written over nine years, is like the rocker himself – a solid, no rubbish account of his rise from playing with small bands in New Jersey to ruling the charts around the world in the 1980s with his album Born In The USA. But it’s not just about the good times, as Springsteen recounts his edgy relationship with his father who struggled with mental illness and his own problems with depression. The book gives us greater insight into how his personal experiences helped shape his music. Not bad for a book that Springsteen says he wrote just to pass the time.
National Books Editor
Finding My Way
Venkat Raman Singh Shyam , S Anand
I read books for a living so it is difficult to pick a favourite at the end of the year. But a few do stand out; books that enriched my perspective on relationships, examined the slow, difficult change in a society, or documented with great precision the many ways of living, of being.
Brothers by Manju Kapur, clearly inspired by the fratricidal Mahajan brothers saga that had the nation agog in the early noughties, is a fine novel that studies family loyalties and how great love can curdle into deep, murderous resentment.
A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin is really one of those books that makes me want to resort to hyperbole. Apparently, Berlin’s superb short stories that create whole worlds complete with petty jealousies, joys and fears have been well known in some circles in the US for decades now. The writing is so good, there are points when you put down the book and stare out into the distance thinking about the secret abortions, bad tempered dentists who make wonderful sets of fake teeth, and beautiful mangled Mexican jockeys in these stories.
Amit Pasricha’s collection of panoramic pictures, India at Home, that features the interiors of huts, mansions, shelters, apartments, and palaces across the nation is simply breathtaking.
You were also astounded by Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich’s Second-hand Time that captures the fall of Communism, the breakup of the USSR and the emergence of contemporary Russia through the stories and memories of ordinary people.
Most of all though, you loved Finding My Way by Pardhan Gond artist Venkat Raman Singh Shyam and S Anand. Told through gorgeous visuals and text that merges poetry, family and tribal history, race memory, myth and stories of survival, of clinging to one’s art and self belief even in the most trying circumstances, this is a beautiful book, both to behold and for the pictures it conjures in the reader’s mind. A real achievement.
Deputy Editor - Comments
An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India
Some time ago, my mother-in-law, while travelling to the UK was asked at the immigration counter how long she intended to stay. “Not as long as you did in my country,” she told the astounded officer. Many books have been written on the Raj, which many of us romanticise but Shashi Tharoor minces no words on how much the British overstayed in India and how ruinous it was for us. I listened to a fascinating conversation between Karan Thapar, ever the elegant Anglophile, and Tharoor at the release of An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India. Tharoor seeks to upend that other similar sounding book An Area of Darkness by VS Naipaul, whose early sneering description of India suggested that the British were knights in shining armour civilising the natives wallowing in their backwardness and squalor.
An Oxford union debate by Tharoor on how the British should apologise for their conduct during the Raj transformed itself into a book, which has won acclaim across India’s fractious political spectrum. Tharoor disputes the civilising mission theory and rips wide open the cavalier manner in which the British treated the lives and customs of Indians, considering the millions who died as mere collateral damage for the greater good of Britain’s advancement. Yes, the British set up the railways, educational institutions and jurisprudence but none of this was to give India a leg up but rather to institutionalise their rule. The British efficiently destroyed local enterprise, put up trade barriers and heaped hardship and scorn on the local populace. The laws for the natives and for the British were vastly different and were aimed at subjugating Indians. Many ugly laws which persist today like that of sedition are a legacy of that fateful era. But Tharoor is equally scathing about the fault lines in Indian society, its indulgent and inept royalty, and its vast unwieldiness. Could India have done better without the Raj? Tharoor suggests so but that is open to question and may be the theme for another book. The author has written many books but this one stands out for its provocative arguments. Not an easy read for the cream tea classes in the salubrious confines of Lutyen’s Delhi who have long considered Tharoor with his cut glass accent as one of their own.
Deputy Executive Editor
There is such excruciating profundity in Ian McEwan’s writing that it has never been easy for me to dive into his books. I buy them, display them, vow to read them immediately, but end up reaching for something else, until it becomes impossible to put him off any longer. Then, once I do read, I enjoy them thoroughly.
This sense of foreboding stems not from his lack of charm or freshness. It springs from how his writing has almost overwhelming amounts of both. McEwan’s turn of phrase can get so intertwined that it feels impossible to untangle, until he effortlessly disentangles it. You sometimes feel he’s added an extra word in a sentence, or put in one less word than you thought was required, just to show that he can.
Over the years, I’ve jealously grudged McEwan for his skill and ardently admired him for his ability. But I was never been able to truly love any of his books – until this year.
McEwan’s latest novel, Nutshell, is anything but a simple slice of life. It’s a mad journey from the womb to the world, written from the perspective of an unborn baby, fully alert, in a translucent bag, “upside down in a woman.” This unborn baby’s thoughts are not an unbridled stream of consciousness. They are the acute observations of a detective trying to unravel the mysteries of the universe and the people who inhabit it.
Things get crazy when this baby realises that his mother is not exactly a “good” woman. Not only is she having a roaring affair with his uncle, she is also conspiring with him to do something positively ghastly -- something it’s hard to come back from. Can a helpless unborn baby, the only witness to the plot, do something, anything, to stop her?
Nutshell has been written with a lightness that McEwan has possibly never displayed before. There is playfulness amidst the darkness that makes this tale of murder and deceit delightful.
It is a book that has made sure the next McEwan shall be devoured as soon as it is procured – without having to wait on a shelf.
National Weekend Editor
When you’re an unabashed Hindi film fan and also someone who believes books are the best things ever invented in the history of human civilisation (having run out of space in every room, I’m now contemplating stuffing novels behind masala bottles in the kitchen), well then, new books about Bollywood are always more than welcome. Considering Hindi cinema is more than a hundred years old, there should be shelves upon shelves groaning under the weight of film books. But it’s only in the last few years that there’s been a flurry of activity. The year 2016 has been a good one – there have been at least three very different but enjoyable film biographies. (Disclaimer: all three authors are friends, but I don’t see why I should hold that against them).
Aseem Chhabra’s book on Shashi Kapoor is a breezy, nostalgic read about India’s first true international actor, his rise back home as a big star, and his financially disastrous but creatively dazzling run as a producer of arthouse films. But mostly, it’s an ode to one of the most handsome and charming (crooked teeth and all) Hindi movie stars we’ve had. Chhabra captures the essential likeability of Shashi Kapoor and reminds us that he remains a very underrated actor. The book steers clears of all personal controversies but is no less delightful because of that.
Akshay Manwani’s book on Nasir Husain is a painstakingly researched, detailed analysis of the filmmaker’s cheery, bubbly musical entertainers, from Dil Deke Dekho of the 1950s to Hum Kisise Kum Naheen of the 1970s. The sheer wealth of information and Manwani’s persuasive argument that Husain always displayed modern sensibilities even in these frothy films makes the book a solid read. The author concentrates on Husain’s movies and skips personal controversies, but once again, it really doesn’t matter.
Yasser Usman’s book on Rekha does nothing of the sort and takes a close, intimate look at the actress’ life, scandals and all, but remains sympathetic throughout. What made the book interesting for me is the fact that Usman puts forward a compelling theory of how and why Rekha became the reclusive star she is today. That’s what lifts it from merely being a fast, racy read.
So if you’re a Hindi film *and* book lover, you know what to do.
National Health Editor
The Gene: An Intimate History
“What makes us who we are?” The Gene deconstructs this metaphysical question using a language of science that’s been stripped bare of its hazmat suit and immersed into a swirl of emotions that define life across cultures, religions and continents.
For me, it does a lot more than that. It answers the question that’s haunted many of us since kindergarten: “What came first, the chicken or the egg?”
The answer, it seems, lies in spontaneous mutation: “A chicken was merely an egg’s way of making a better egg,” writes cancer physician and geneticist Siddhartha Mukherjee, who won the Pulitzer for his book on cancer, The Emperor of All Maladies.
There’s no blueprint, no template, that makes us who we are. Around three billion letters in the human genome intersect within environment and random chance to make each one of us alike in many ways and profoundly different in others. Even identical twins are similar at best, they’re never identical. And this is what forces us to ask ourselves, why are we the way we are and what are we likely to pass on to the next generation? Scientists have no definitive answers.
Genomics proves there’s no “normal” and effort to homogenise people goes against biological imperatives to maintain diversity. Normalcy is the antithesis of evolution. Each generation produces variants and mutants, with mutation being “abnormal” only in a statistical sense – when it is the less common variant.
The Gene is an intimate history, not just because it flirts closely with our innermost codes of heredity and identity but also because of its link to the history of mental illness – schizophrenia, in particular -- in the Mukherjee clan. It made “heredity, illness, normalcy, family and identity… recurrent themes of conversation in my family,” he writes.
Like most forms of complex human diseases, there is no one single gene for schizophrenia, yet Mukherjee became so concerned about his “scar of history” that he told Sarah, now his wife, about the splintered minds of his cousins and two uncles on their fourth or fifth meeting. He briefly considered sequencing his own genome, but decided against it.
“The genome is the testing ground of our fallibilities and desires, although reading it does not require understanding allegories and metaphors,” he writes. “What we read and write into our genome is our fallibilities, desires, and ambitions. It is human nature.”
National Business Editor
Room on the Broom
Julia Donaldson, Axel Sheffler
It has not been long since my son Sahir, two-and-a-half, learned to be articulate. But his voice modulation is spot on when he says: “I am a dragon.” The voice becomes a little louder, its pitch a little lower, the words a little rounded. The dragon is his favourite part in his favourite book, Room on the Broom, written by Julia Donaldson and illustrated by Axel Sheffler. Sahir is, of course, too young to read. That gives me the chance to read it to him. It is something I do every night at his bedtime. Yet, it does not feel like a chore. Room on the Broom is full of all the things essential to a good story: friendship, compassion, and courage, and their role in the fight between good and evil. To top it all, the lead character is an old witch – in itself a delightful novelty.
The story is dramatic. The witch is flying on her broomstick with her cat and cauldron. As they go over the reeds, rivers, fields and mountains, a stormy wind blows off – one by one – her hat, bow, and wand. A dog, a bird, and a frog help her find those things and she gives them all a ride. Until a dragon attacks them, snaps the broomstick in two, and wants to have “witch and chips” for his tea. That is when the cat, the dog, the bird, and the frog rise from a bog to impersonate a horrible beast that scares the dragon away. The witch then brews a new broom with seats for herself, the cat, and the dog, a nest for the bird, and a shower for the frog.
The writing is wonderful, the words carefully chosen to rhyme and yet be succinct. The visuals are a feast for the eyes, capturing the drama in all its hues and detail.
And then there is the dragon: fiery and frightful when it is about to begin on its feast (“Maybe this once I will have witch without chips”), and meek and simpering when faced with the ‘beast’ that rises from the bog.
Sahir’s fascination with the dragon adds another layer to my lifelong quest to fathom why Gabbar Singh was the most popular character in Sholay, and why his dialogues are recited the most. I can almost hear my son say in a loud, low register: “I am Gabbar Singh.”