The past year has been a flurry of reading. Books recommended, some judged solely by their cover (beauty? skin deep?), those gifted, those bought in the throes of being broke. I trudged through some, whooshed past others. It's time for some reviews me thinks.
After reading the very readable India Unbound by Gurcharan Das (a must read definitely), I invested (time and money) into the gargantuan India After Gandhi by Ramachandran Guha (912 pages!). Tracing "the history of the world's largest democracy", Guha is a ruthless chronicler, and creates an India I can only imagine, being born of a generation so far removed from the freedom struggle, Nehru's vision and the emergency that these seem like fantastic stories, with an almost mythical aura about them. Unbiased and well-written, Guha's epic on India after she gained independence is an education in itself. The Gandhi and the Gandhi Family, he traces the various movements for Khalistan, Nagaland, Telangana, Naxals: events that we are following to this day. There are some hilarious election slogans and advertisements he mentions (none of which I am quoting. Go read!). I only wish he had spent more time on the economic reforms of the 90s and their repercussions. For a book so well laid out, the ending seemed a bit hastily written, as if he was tired and overwhelmed by his own creation. Do read, but only when you have the time and inclination to absorb it to the fullest. Otherwise its just not fair to the writer.
Not many (of the people I know at least) have heard of P. Sainath, who likes to describe himself as a rural journalist. Traveling amongst the poorest of India's districts, this Ramon Magsaysay award winner grips with stark bitter tales from India's rural landscape in his book Everybody Loves a Drought: tribals forgotten, development schemes gone awry, empty school buildings being used as cattle sheds, corrupt officials and populations forgotten. There is a cruel detachment with which Sainath writes. He is not patronizing. He is not begging for sympathy. He is simply stating facts like a well-trained journalist, leaving the reader to decide. And as that reader, I often myself pausing at the sheer impact of his words, mulling over the scale of mismanagement and corruption. Yes, these are the things we all know. Or at least have an inkling about but choose to ignore (bliss?). The Commonwealth Games Scam makes headlines but what of the Cut Off Area in Malkangiri, Orissa where "152 villages, completely isolated, afford two states huge amounts of electricity by their sacrifice. Yet it is virtually impossible to find a single household with electricity in any of these villages." Each story is forceful yet bitter and tracing Sainath's words, a feeling of despair often wells up. "Paharia women walk a distance equivalent to that between Delhi and Bombay - four to five times a year" for water and earning a deplorable living. Still half-way through this exceptional piece of journalism (still to reach the chapters I dread - Drought), my only regret is that published in 1996, the numbers may be outdated. However, as a portrayal of India's poor, there is no denying Sainath's compelling stories. Here, is a more detailed review.
It Rained All Night by Buddhadeva Bose (translated by Clinton B. Seely) is one of the best fiction stories I have read in a very long time. Barring the extremely frivolous cover that does no justice to the story (perhaps it was put there by some over-enthusiastic promoter to increase sales), the book is beautiful. Beautiful. I'll quote from the blurb "Banned when it was first published in the Bengali in 1967 on charges of obscenity, It Rained All Night went on to become a best-seller. Bold, explicit and shockingly candid, it is an unforgettable tale of desire, adultery, jealousy and love." It definitely deserves its share of the limelight.
The books I did not particularly fancy:
- Temptations of the West: How to Be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet, and Beyond by Pankaj Mishra (the words within did not justify the title, the book was a let down. Better books have been written on the topic I felt. Well Pankaj Mishra himself has written so much better!!)
- Wise and Otherwise by Sudha Murthy (the stories were too random for my taste and even though it could have been completely unintentional, Murthy's tone often came across as condescending, sometimes a bit arrogant. A philanthropist without humility?).
As I quickly chomp through my reading list, I'm itching to start on a new one. And this time more global and more fictiony. Suggestions?