December: a time to pin down the meanings of a patch of time just gone by, and to look forward hopefully to a new time when things will be different. For me, December is also the time when I decamp from Mumbai to Delhi to enjoy a real winter; when I hang above my desk a fancy new calendar (with paintings, or dogs, or cartoons) which I then never look at for the next 12 months; and when I sit down to make a list of all the great books that have come my way from January, thereby ensuring that—although my salary does not rise, my romance does not evolve, and my phone does not ring—I have at least one sign of unmistakable progress to show for my year.
The other India: There is heartfelt poetry in Curfewed Night, Peer’s book about Kashmir; Bengalis in America provide Lahiri (right) with enough fodder for her work.
I recall moments from each book and where I was when I encountered them (in the packed and rattling train to Churchgate, on a bench at Bhopal station, on a bitterly cold evening in London in August, on a mountain in Matheran, in the dismal waiting room at my dentist’s) and many bits and pieces of my life come floating up to me.
Books are life distilled and intensified; they are thought and imagination and language at their best; they are an intimate encounter between one mind and another; they are a challenge to us to live better, richer, more thoughtful existences. My own preference in books is for fiction—I like Dickens, Dostoevsky, Cather, Chekhov, Mahfouz, Singer and from the present time, Orhan Pamuk, Vikram Chandra, José Saramago, Leila Aboulela, Alaa al Aswany. But one of the perks of writing for this newspaper is all the marvellous non-fiction that comes my way, and which allows me the chance to absorb and transmit sophisticated positions on matters as diverse as India’s syncretic traditions, American foreign policy, the relationship between fundamentalism and terrorism, and how, when you really, really want something, the universe conspires to grant it to you (I was sent Paulo Coelho one week).
Here then, under these two heads, are some of my choices for the best books of 2008.
The most enchanting novel of the year, almost by general consensus, was Joseph O’Neill’s pitch-perfect Netherland(Fourth Estate), which dredged the agitation beneath the placid and unprepossessing exterior of Hans van den Broek, a Dutch banker in New York. Hans—that is how we always think of him, by his first name, because of his vulnerability—is going through a marital crisis, and while it seems to the reader that his wife is at fault, it is Hans who takes the blame for it. Hans finds unlikely redemption in a motley band of cricketers—of Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan and Jamaican extraction—who meet and play every weekend, and who evoke the multicultural world that is the future of humanity. The marvel of O’Neill’s narration is rooted in the voice—rich with regret and yearning, shot through with doubts and qualifications—he finds for Hans, and his painstakingly laid links between self, family, sport, and life. Writing about Netherland, the novelist Zadie Smith offered this criticism: “It seems perfectly done—in a sense that’s the problem.” That seems also to have been the problem of this year’s Booker Prize jury, which perplexingly left Netherland off the shortlist.
The Egyptian novelist Alaa Al Aswany scored a surprise international hit last year with his novel The Yacoubian Building, a portrait of Cairo society as seen through one building, and his follow-up, Chicago(Fourth Estate), was just as good. Some readers find Aswany, with his love of sex and seediness, his gossipy narrators and his lush language, too coarse but these criticisms cannot obscure the fact that he is an extraordinarily deft writer, able to work dozens of characters around while seeming absolutely interested in the interior life of each. Set in a university department with many expatriate Egyptian students and teachers, Chicago daringly turns a great American city into a little Egypt.
I didn’t much care for Jhumpa Lahiri’s previous, overpraised, book of stories The Interpreter of Maladies, but I found the work in her new collection, Unaccustomed Earth (Random House India), extraordinarily good. Lahiri is like an MP who never leaves her constituency—Bengalis in America—but that doesn’t matter, as the world she finds within them is a very large place. These slow-burning stories, patiently and discreetly accumulating details, observations, and epiphanies lead us to that state of heightened feeling and sensitivity that all great art does.
Like Aswany, the Portuguese novelist José Saramago, winner of the Nobel Prize in 1998, is an absolute original whose work—with its enormous paragraphs, long, spiralling sentences with no punctuation except full stops and commas, and a wizened and gnomic narrative sensibility like that of a very clever grandmother— resembles no other. His novels always start from some interesting premise, and Death At Intervals(Harvill Secker) considers what it might be like if death suddenly abandoned humanity, and every person could contemplate eternal life. Would we be happy, depressed, bored, weary, gloomy? What would happen to human institutions? Would we still believe in god? Surprisingly, the most affecting character in Saramago’s book is Death herself, struggling, after thousands of years on the job, to cope with the burden of humanity. A thrilling book.
For a long way through David Leavitt’s The Indian Clerk (Bloomsbury), a fictional retelling of the Indian mathematical genius Srinivasa Ramanujan’s years in England, I remained sceptical about Leavitt’s project. But the book, which is told from the point of view of several British characters—including Ramanujan’s associate and mentor G.H. Hardy—but leaves Ramanujan inscrutable, a cipher, finally won me over with its majestic orchestration of voices and period details. The second half, with its marvellous recreation of a Britain in crisis during World War I, provided some of my best reading days this year.
Some people consider Philip Roth the greatest living American novelist today but my vote would go to the Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, whose ninth novel A Mercy (Chatto and Windus) was a small masterpiece. Morrison is one of those rare writers who attempt sophisticated experiments with voice and narrative structure while also appealing to a mass readership through her compelling characters and situations. A Mercy gives us, in a language of sculpted cadences and great emotional force, the stories of five individuals—white, black, and native American—battling against society, the elements, and their private griefs on a farm in Virginia in 1690, at the dawn of American history.
Finally, the careful detailing, corrosive rage and violent juxtapositions of Aravind Adiga’s Between the Assassinations (Picador) made for much more compelling reading than his facile Booker winner, The White Tiger. Anuradha Roy’s An Atlas of Impossible Longing (Picador) was, at the level of language and structure, a clear notch above most Indian novels, and its rapturous descriptions of houses and landscapes were especially memorable. Some of the stories in Kunal Basu’s The Japanese Wife (HarperCollins) were marvels of fictional roving compressed into small narrative spaces, especially the title story, which records the yearning of a schoolteacher in a village in Bengal for a spouse he has never set his eyes on. The Adventures of Amir Hamza (Random House India), Musharraf Ali Farooqui’s English translation of a popular Mughal epic, was a winning combination of humming language and exciting storytelling.
The most engrossing work of non-fiction I read this year was Steve Coll’s brilliant and complex The Bin Ladens (Allen Lane), simultaneously the biography of the world’s most feared terrorist and the story of the great business empire founded by his family. Most of us only know Osama Bin Laden the rootless holy warrior, spewing hatred against the West, America, modernity, secularization, usury, but his positions have not always been so consistent. He is the son—one of 54 children from several wives—of one of Saudi Arabia’s biggest business scions, and in his youth he worked as a junior executive in the family construction firm. Tracing the radicalization of the black sheep of the Bin Laden family against the expanding range and influence of the Bin Laden business group, Coll, formerly of The Washington Post and now at The New Yorker, has put together the unforgettable story of one of the world’s strangest and most fascinating dynasties.
Some of the best Indian works of non-fiction this year arrange themselves neatly into pairs. All Indians now know that the Naxalite insurgency presents a serious threat to the stability of the Indian state but beyond this our comprehension of the world and the motivations of the Naxals is shadowy. Indeed, “Naxalite” has become a convenient banner under which tendentious arrests and gross human rights abuses are conducted; it would seem that any Indian citizen who is not stridently anti-Naxalite is potentially a Naxal.
Read it yet? Obama’s The Audacity of Hope is now available in paperback; O’Neill’s Netherland is about a Dutch banker in New York; and Adiga’s Between the Assassinations is much more compelling than his Booker-winning work. Lisa Ackerman / Random House / Bloomberg
Journalist Sudeep Chakravarti travels through the desperately poor and backward regions of Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal and Nepal to tell us the tragic story of the state, the rebels and the people caught in between. His Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country (Penguin Viking) steers clear of the one-note politics of many commentators on the issue; the book is a judicious mix of criticism and sympathy.
And Basharat Peer’s Curfewed Night(Random House India) does for Kashmir what Chakravarti does for the Naxal heartland, showing us a land and its people that have felt both the negligence and then the lash of the Indian state far more than they have partaken of its privileges and freedoms. Unlike Chakravarti’s book, Peer’s is both reportage and memoir. He recalls how the the Kashmiri resistance spiralled around him from 1990 onwards as he reached adulthood, and his account of how, on first coming to Delhi, he found a liberal and dynamic India that he had never seen before will come as a jolt to many readers who take this world for granted. There is a heartfelt poetry in Peer’s book to go with the prose of machine guns, arrests, and curfews, such as in his description of Srinagar as a city of absences.
The historian Vinay Lal’s The Other Indians (HarperCollins) is an intriguing account of the history of Indians in America, from the curious and often socially marginal mix of farm labourers, students, and political activists of the early 20th century to the mass of economically, academically, and politically influential diaspora in America today. Anand Teltumbde’s Khairlanji: A Strange and Bitter Crop (Navayana), a disturbing study of the origins and the meanings of the heinous massacre of four members of a Dalit family in a village in Maharashtra in 2006, might also have been called “The Other Indians” for what it showed us about the ubiquity of caste prejudice in both state and society. For Teltumbde, Khairlanji “transcends the context of space and time and interrogates our claim to be humans”.
The impact of the moving image on India in the last century has been immense, and the magisterial essays of Chidananda Das Gupta’s Seeing Is Believing(Penguin Viking) made for one of the most fulfilling books ever written on Indian cinema. Das Gupta argues that although film originated in the West and was associated there with the march of science, its transplantation in the early 20th century to a pre-industrial society heavily invested in faith and in myth instantly made it a very different thing in India. To this day, Indian films, under their glitzy surfaces, draw upon the currents and structures of Indian religiosity. Das Gupta’s observations on the significance of the songs in popular cinema, on the work of the “New Wave”, and of the rise to political power of movie stars such as N.T. Rama Rao and M.G. Ramachandran brilliantly illuminated the connections between Indian society and cinema.
2008 was also the year of Barack Obama’s rousing and improbable ascent to the presidency of the US, and you should read, if you haven’t yet, his excellent book from last year, The Audacity of Hope, now available in paperback edition. Statesmanship is a craft of almost impossible complexity, and two other books illuminated the lives and conundrums of widely admired politicians. Nehru: A Contemporary’s Estimate (Random House India), a reissue of a book written in 1964 by the Australian diplomat Walter Crocker, is an uncannily acute and often prescient account of Nehruvian policy and the future of Nehru’s vision of India. The cast of Nehru’s mind, his intellectual models, his relationships with people, his idealism, his energy, and his fallibility are all brilliantly analysed by Crocker. To the Castle and Back (Portobello), a memoir by the great political dissident and playwright Vaclav Havel of his 14 years in office after his surprise ascent to the presidency of post-communist Czechoslovakia in 1989, is a riveting study of the responsibilities and pitfalls of democratic politics.
Paul Ginsborg’s Democracy: Crisis and Renewal(Profile) synthesized a huge amount of old and new scholarship to construct some sophisticated insights into the quality of and possibilities for world democracy today. Ginsborg’s book is all the more attractive because it is set up as a debate between John Stuart Mill and Karl Marx, two of the most demanding influential theorizers and critics of democracy. Whether on the subject of how capitalism and consumerism have eroded the public sphere or the role of the family as a school for a thriving democracy, Ginsborg offers much to think about as we enter our own election year.
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