What we read in 201215 min read . Updated: 28 Dec 2012, 05:20 PM IST
Mint staffers and columnists pick the best book they read in the year gone by
Merchants of Tamilakam, by Kanaklatha Mukund
The book chronicles the forgotten and glorious sea-faring history of South Indian merchants that once forced Roman senator Pliny to call India “the sink of the world’s gold." It is part of Penguin India’s 15-part series on the history of Indian business, edited by Gurcharan Das. The book is replete with fascinating insights such as the existence of tradesmen guilds and the role of the Temple in international commerce.
R. Sukumar is editor of Mint
What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, by Michael Sandel
Michael Sandel is a philosopher who not only tries to speak to the average person, but also succeeds. His book “What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets", which is based in part on his Tanner Lectures at Oxford, is another such success.
It’s an engaging account of how we have moved from being a market economy to a market society. Using a fascinating range of examples, from sale of organs to selling advertising space on rockets, Sandel makes a consistently readable case. The importance of civic values, fairness and the fact that human relations are not reducible to market relations come alive in this case.
It’s also a case which I agree with, and even if you don’t, you will find it provocative. We need more public voices that speak with this simplicity and directness, without compromising substance. As an aside you can watch Sandel in the recordings of his (deservedly) super-popular Harvard course “Justice" at� http://www.justiceharvard.org/watch/
Anurag Behar is CEO of the Azim Premji Foundation and writes the Other Sphere column
V. ANANTHA NAGESWARAN
Crisis, Recession and Uneven Recovery, by Y.V. Reddy
Unhesitatingly, I pick this book as the best one I have read this year because it pulls no punches for the most part. Reddy was in the hot seat in India as the country was booming for the wrong reasons and he had a ringside view of the global crisis of 2008. He makes no secret of his suspicion that more than intellectual capture of regulators and policymakers by the financial sector was at work. His sensitivity to the political economy of global power balance is evident as he analyzes the implications of G-20. Of course, G-20 has not evolved into an alternative to G-7, the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund, and the latter two still remain firmly in control of the US and Europe, respectively. His attitude towards financial markets is simple: they do not treat emerging economies and assets the same way they treat developed economies and it is only reasonable that policymakers in emerging economies respond to them differently than policymakers in developed countries do. His preference for the tilt in the power balance to the East is evident in his arguments. It is understandable. His distaste for Western double standards in economic policies (as in much else) perhaps made him wish for Eastern ascendancy. That prevents him from examining the Eastern unpreparedness as critically as he dissects the Western policy framework that led to the crisis.
V. Anantha Nageswaran is the cofounder of Aavishkaar Venture Fund and Takshashila Institution. He writes the Bare Talk column
Joseph Anton, by Salman Rushdie
Rushdie’s account of his post-fatwa life is one of the most important stories of our times. Told in masterly prose, as gripping as a thriller, Joseph Anton is essentially about the basic freedoms that should define any just and humane society, any society that intends to be a better one—the freedom to imagine, to argue, to wiggle one’s ears, to give a damn, and yes, to blaspheme. Joseph Anton is not just about� Joseph Anton, a man who never existed except in the British Special Branch A Squad records, but the most precious ideas that make us what we are, or can make us what we must be. In my mind, some of its passages rank with the most luminous words ever written about these values. And I say this as someone who has long regarded Rushdie as primarily a linguistic trickster of rare sneering arrogance!
Sandipan Deb is a senior journalist and writes online commentary for livemint.com
The Best of Quest, edited by Laeeq Futehally, Achala Prabhala and Arisha Sattar
This is a selection of essays, poetry and fiction from a now-forgotten quarterly journal that was a product of the Cold War. Its very existence in those years is a reminder that ideas matter. And what a line-up of thinkers Quest could boast of: Nirad Chaudhuri, Rajni Kothari, Satyajit Ray, K. Subramanyam, A.B. Shah and S.H. Deshpande, among others. Some of the most delightful pieces are short vignettes by the poet Dilip Chitre, writing as D, on everything from the Shivaji cult to Rajesh Khanna. Some of these gems reminded me of the short pieces by E.B. White in the New Yorker. Other than the Economic and Political Weekly, intellectual journalism is dead in India. The Quest collection is an echo from a lost era of independent thinking.
Niranjan Rajadhyaksha is the executive editor of Mint. He writes the Café Economics and Impartial Spectator columns
The Coming Insurrection, by The Invisible Committee
Do you believe that society sucks? Do you think mainstream political parties are boring, scared and compromised? Are you looking for magnificent contempt, scathing analysis and a stirring call to arms? Then you have to read this extraordinary book, the Manifesto for our times.
The book is written by an anonymous French anarchist group calling itself the Invisible Committee, who have ‘only determined a few necessary truths, whose universal repression fills up the psychiatric hospitals and the painful gazes.’ It brilliantly describes seven circles of alienation: alienation from self, from society, from the city, from work, from the environment and from civilization.
To whet your appetite, here are some quotes:
On the West: ‘What we have here is a clinically dead civilization.’
On productivity: ‘France couldn’t be the fatherland of anxiety-pills, the anti-depressant paradise, the Mecca of neurosis that it is if it weren’t for its simultaneously being the European champion of hourly productivity.’
On alienation: ‘we aren’t from anywhere anymore, and that as a result we have at the same time an unusual penchant for tourism, an undeniable suffering.’
Manas Chakravarty is a consulting editor. He edits the daily Mark to Market and writes the Capital Account column
Intekhab-o-Lughat, by Sultan Nathani
Surat’s Sultan Nathani died in 1992, but his book Intekhab-o-Lughat is republished every few years. It is a most useful volume for the interested amateur who dabbles in Indo-Persian poetry or literature. The book is a dictionary of Urdu in the English alphabet (what is called Roman Urdu).
This makes it easy to use for those unfamiliar with the Perso-Arabic script, but its collection of 10,000 words makes it valuable even for scholars. I use it along with the authoritative 1,500-page Steingass dictionary of Persian, and rarely need to consult the fatter tome.
Nathani writes entertainingly and with knowledge about Greek philosophy, which was so important to the early Arabs. It is pleasurable just to flip through the volume at random on afternoons with little to do.
According to the dictionary, its name means selections (Intekhab) from a dictionary (Lughat). I cannot recommend it strongly enough.
Aakar Patel writes the Reply to All column in Lounge
Joseph Anton, by Salman Rushdie
The book that stood out for me this year was Salman Rushdie’s memoir, Joseph Anton. The story of the fatwa on his fourth novel, The Satanic Verses, and his years in hiding, has been known in an abbreviated form: its publication, the import ban and riots in India, the fatwa, the attacks on bookstores, translators, and publishers, the division among authors, the cowardice of some and heroism of others, and eventually triumphant survival of the novel. All sorts of assumptions were made about Rushdie’s motives and choices, usually poorly-informed. In Joseph Anton, Rushdie is candid in describing his intellectual journey that led him to write it, revealing his scholarship, curiosity, and ambitious imagination that has been the heart of the novel. He also names who stood by him and who didn’t. And places this major work of 20th century at its centre, revealing how important it was in anticipating our Manichean time.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. He writes the Here, There, Everywhere and Detours columns
The Rise of China vs. The Logic of Strategy, by Edward N. Luttwak
Edward Luttwak’s book on the limitations of China’s ascent to power blends careful observation of recent events with an understanding of its past. There are separate chapters on how individual countries—from Australia all the way to Norway—will deal with this emerging behemoth in the time ahead.
The explanatory innovation that lifts Luttwak’s book above the ruck of recent books on China’s rise is his use of geo-economics—an expression he coined in 1980—to explain global resistance to Beijing’s march. He argues that countries across the world, without explicit coordination, will resist China’s export-oriented strategy to generate wealth and military power. This “invisible hand" explanation is in refreshing contrast to the usual containment and other political explanations about what may happen in East China in the coming years.
Siddharth Singh is the editor of the Views pages. He writes the Reluctant Duelist column
The Man Within My Head, by Pico Iyer
I first picked up Iyer’s latest book simply because I am a devout Graham Greene fan. Iyer’s life shadowed that of Greene, with whom he felt a “kindred spirit", in strange and fascinating ways though he never did meet the great English author. That biographical sub-text serves as an elaborate attempt by Iyer to understand his ambiguous feelings towards the kind of father-figure he made Greene into.
But Greene’s moral ambiguity and his inability all his life to “settle down", not physically but spiritually, is what draws me to him and in turn to Iyer’s rendering of Greene’s wanderings. The interplay between the two authors, both riven by doubts, with Iyer trying to make sense of his own peripatetic life through the book, makes it more than a biography. Like all works of great art, the book transported me into an uneasy reverie, exploring the other man inside me.
Sundeep Khanna is the executive editor of Livemint.com and an online columnist
Em and the Big Hoom, by Jerry Pinto
“She was always Em to us. There may have been a time when we called her something ordinary like Mummy, or Ma, but I don’t remember." The titular Em and the Big Hoom are mother and father to Roger Mendes, narrator of one of the finest novels published in India this year. In Pinto’s novel, two children, boxed into a tiny flat like millions of other immigrant families in Mumbai, grow up sharing space with their parents’ histories, their memories, and, most seriously, their mother’s grave mental illness.
The book’s scope is seemingly small, like the one-bedroom flat which the Mendeses occupy. But the tiny family at its heart deals with some of the biggest, most open-ended questions we ask in literature—about the dividing line between sanity and madness, about illness and health, and the nature of love. Em and the Big Hoom brings everything it touches to life.
Supriya Nair is a Mint staff writer
Land of The Seven Rivers: A Brief History Of India’s Geography, by Sanjeev Sanyal
The book is a refreshing, unique view of India’s history and culture derived from India’s geography and landscape. Taking this kind of a view is also new way to understand India’s diverse communities.
The book enlightens one about many facets of our culture that just seem to be there, but nobody knows how or why it came to be that way. The book also helps one understand India’s economic history. The style in which it is written breathes life into the subject. I find it to be immensely readable and a page-turner—a great volume that helps one make sense of our incredibly diverse and vast nation.
Rajeev Mantri is director of GPSK Investment Group and an online columnist
Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, by David Quammen
Any story that drags the author from an Australian suburb to the forests of Central Africa, through US laboratories and Chinese rat farms, uses as its protagonist an invisible “piece of bad news wrapped up in a protein" and must use as its primary sources dense scientific journals, is a narrative challenge—especially if it deals with real life.
Spillover is a racy investigation of pathogens that might cause the next human pandemic. Sometimes, I found it hard to believe I was reading a work of non-fiction, a tribute to the story-telling powers of David Quammen, one of the finest—if not the finest—science writers of our time. Quammen’s central topic is the arcane word, zoonosis—the process that describes a virus jumping from an animal host to humans. Quammen resists the temptation to make predictions; instead he explores obscure, deadly virus attacks and provides a fresh—if frightening—perspective on how they might shape humanity’s future.
Samar Halarnkar is a senior journalist. He writes the Frontier Mail column
Hamilton’s Paradox: The Promise and Peril of Fiscal Federalism, by Jonathan Rodden
Rodden, a political science professor of Stanford University, uses the views of Alexander Hamilton, an American founding father, as a connecting thread to compare various kinds of federalism. The “paradox" is that spending/borrowing devolution without taxation autonomy will lead to irresponsible fiscal behavior by sub-national units, and any no-bailout credibility of the center is likely to be low (unless the markets see it stand by as states declare bankruptcies, as Washington DC did in the 1840s and New Delhi does not today—notice the latest state electricity boards bailout). US states and Swiss cantons are seen as fiscally sovereign and hence differentiable by creditors and voters; most sub-national units are fully dependent, or worse, as is the case with Indian states, “semi-sovereign". Policy implications for the Euro-crisis could be for Brussels to transparently raise taxes, not just indulge in ad hoc monetary bailouts, and for India to let go of the idea of a same-rate good and services tax (GST), because that would either lead to Delhi controlling more state spending, or future macroeconomic crises.
Harsh Gupta is a Hong Kong-based co-author of an upcoming book on financial derivatives and an online columnist
Breakout Nations: In Pursuit of the Next Economic Miracles, by Ruchir Sharma
The book sums up the prospects of different emerging and “frontier" markets. Sure, it has its share of dry statistics, but Sharma, who has a day job as a fund manager, spices it up by using interesting examples—like the price of Bellini cocktails to measure purchasing power parity. The book’s main thesis can be stated thus: the boom periods which we saw between 2003 and 2007 in different markets was not wholly due to their individual efforts but was part of a synchronized global boom. Ergo, things would be very different from now. The book stands out because Sharma has done a good bit of reportage, and anecdotes and stories liven up the weight of numbers. Written in the breezy style of a travelogue, it is all the more refreshing because unlike most fund managers who are forever switched on in the bull mode, Sharma’s assessment of India is more sober. It is turning to be almost prophetic now going by the latest statement of the Prime Minister.
Ravi Krishnan is a Mint staff writer
The Meadow, by Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark
Written by two British journalists, Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark, The Meadow provides a gripping account of the kidnapping of six foreigners in Kashmir in 1995 and the aftermath. With access to a wide cast of actors who were involved in the hostage drama and to classified records of the police and intelligence agencies, the narrative climaxes in a startling yet unmistakable conclusion: elements within the Indian intelligence establishment had subverted successive efforts to secure the release of the hostages, probably to lengthen the crisis and discredit Pakistan. The authors skillfully lift the veil on the machinations of Indian and Pakistani intelligence agencies in Kashmir, and show how ordinary people turn pawns in a great ‘game’ between the two nuclear powers. The Meadow is ultimately much more than a kidnap drama; it is a stinging indictment of the role of the Indian state in conflict zones such as Kashmir.
Pramit Bhattacharya is a Mint staff writer
Lost Years of the RSS, by Sanjeev Kelkar
This is an honest insider account of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). It was formed in 1925 by Keshav Baliram Hedgewar in Nagpur to strengthen and reform Hindu society. Hedgewar never advocated hatred of Muslims. Kelkar, who has been an RSS activist since 1967, shows how the organization changed course after the death of Hedgewar in 1940, when M. S. Golwalkar became sarsanghachalak. Gowalkar transformed the RSS into a sect.
The lost years were the Golwalkar era, says Kelkar. Golwalkar was succeeded by Madhukar Dattatraya Deoras , with whom he had major differences. Deoras was in internal exile for nearly a decade because of these differences. He tried to make the RSS more inclusive after he was made its chief. This book shows that the sangh parivar is not as monolithic as some of its enemies make it out to be. Rather, there are different streams of thought in the sangh parivar.
Sunil B.S. is a Mint staff writer
The Racketeer, by John Grisham
Like many of John Grisham’s previous works the protagonist in The Racketeer, Malcolm Bannister, is a lawyer. Bannister is a 43-year-old black lawyer who is halfway through a 10-year prison sentence for a crime he didn’t commit. When a conservative judge is murdered, Bannister is confident that he knows who did it and why. And for the reward money, release from prison, Bannister will tell the authorities everything that they need to know.
Prosecutors are confident that they know the law better than any convicted lawyer and see no issue with making a deal. Of course getting out of prison is only the first part of Bannister’s plan. He has plans within plans.
At first appearance, the book is formulaic Grisham: small town US, judges being arbiters of power in that society, and, of course, a quiet American winning against formidable odds. Nonetheless, what makes the book interesting is its clever plot, fast pace and neat mirroring of how the legal system works in the country. The Racketeer illustrates varied ways to circumvent the FBI and the fascination that Americans have that that crime just might pay.
Sarah Kadan is a Mint staff editor