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The best books to read in 2016

January 01, 2016 11:57 IST

From Aurangzeb to Sangh Parivar, the year 2016 offers plenty of hope in historical and modern literature.

Jhumpa LahiriThe year 2016 is a year of possibilities: George RR Martin's fans have been quietened by the rumour that The Winds of Winter is coming, and there are murmurs that Vikram Seth might complete a draft of A Suitable Girl by the end of the year.

Speculation aside, some of the big books of 2016 include Elena Ferrante's In Fragments; Jonathan Safran Foer's first novel in a decade, Here I Am; and Thomas Piketty's Chronicles: On Our Troubled Times, a compilation of his columns.

Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich's Secondhand Time and Mikhail Gorbachev's The New Russia cover that country's past and present; Sebastian Junger's Tribe, on men in combat and post-traumatic stress disorder, will be released in the summer, while performance artist Marina Abramovic's memoir will be out in the autumn.

Nilanjana S Roy lists some of the books to look forward to in India, in no particular order.

#1. Things That Can And Cannot Be Said by Arundhati Roy, Edward Snowden, Dan Ellsberg

(Juggernaut)

This small but unsettling book of transcripts began as a stray thought in John Cusack's mind: what would a conversation between Arundhati Roy, Edward Snowden and Dan Ellsberg be like?

From "disappeared histories" to "sleepwalking into a surveillance state", the Moscow Un-Summit reformats conventional ideas of the nation, patriotism, wars and privacy.

#2. Kohinoor by William Dalrymple

(Juggernaut)

Dalrymple traced some of the history of the Samantik Mani in Return of a King, including the part where Ranjit Singh confiscated the diamond from the Afghans.

This book, probably the most ambitious history of the gem, allows him to traverse Indian history from the 13th- to the 20th- century and tackle the vexed question of who should own the Mountain of Light, and its equally famous curse: "Only God, or a woman, can wear it with impunity."

#3. Aurangzeb: The Man and the Myth by Audrey Truschke

(Juggernaut)

"I have no interest in vindicating or condemning the Mughals.

Rather, like all serious historians, I seek to make better, more productive sense of the past," Truschke, a Sanskrit scholar who also studies Persian, said in an interview.

Her biography of Aurangzeb will not please those who see the emperor as a cartoon bigot: she sifts through the evidence to come up with a much sharper portrait of a conservative, politically astute ruler in challenging times across the North and the Deccan.

#4. Maid In India by Tripti Lahiri

(Aleph Book Company)

There are few mainstream books that deal with the lives and challenges before India's estimated 4.2 million domestic workers, intimate outsiders in the rising Indian middle-class.

Understanding their lives is key to understanding modern India's class and gender politics, and areas of blindness.

"India's old rich always had help (but contrary to their reminiscences, noblesse didn't always oblige)," writes Tripti Lahiri. "But now Indians entering, at long last, the upper echelons of the middle classes, are hiring domestic help too. Having 'staff' is one more way to deliver this message to others: I am more important than you."

#5. Shadow Armies by Dhirendra K Jha

(Juggernaut)

Dhirendra K Jha has been a close observer of the Hindu rightwing, tracking the meetings of influential sadhus under the Vishva Hindu Parishad's umbrella in 1989 and 2013, to covering Ayodhya's dark night in 1992.

He turns his attention to the Sangh Parivar and the "fringe" elements whose influence on the Bharatiya Janata Party is so indelible, and powerful.

#6. Hindutva or Hind Swaraj by U R Ananthamurthy

(HarperCollins India)

U R Ananthamurthy had almost completed this "political tract" before his death in 2014.

He wrote this as a series of sutras and short aphorisms, examining the moral greed of the middle-class that, in his opinion, fuelled the rise of the rightwing, and assessing the opposing philosophies of Veer Savarkar and Mahatma Gandhi.

#7. Mother, Where's My Country? by Anubha Bhonsle

(Speaking Tiger)

Over her years as a reporter in Manipur, Anubha Bhonsle began to grapple with the large human rights issues that wind around the everyday lives of citizens in this state.

Her first insights came from covering Irom Sharmila's legendary protest; over time, she interviewed and reported on many aspects of insurgency, conflict and resistance in the state.

Mother, Where's My Country? examines the relationship between a state and its citizens, the appropriation and sometimes the muffling of the voice of an icon like Irom Sharmila.

#8. Democrats and Dissenters by Ramachandra Guha

(Penguin India)

Ramachandra Guha's collections of essays sometimes present pathbreaking research (An Anthropologist Among The Marxists), often rescue Indian history from obscurity or misinterpretation (The Makers of Modern India) and are always trenchant, sharp and fluent.

Democrats and Dissenters assesses the "hardware and software of democracy", analysing the role and constant presence of violence in a democratic state; presents new work on the plight of tribals in India; and from the contentious question of the role of writers to a reassessment of the work of Amartya Sen and Eric Hobsbawm, covers very topical terrain.

#9. The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee

(Simon & Schuster/Random House)

"If you're interested in what it means to be human, today and in the tomorrows to come, you must read this book."

Siddhartha Mukherjee's second book takes him from the mapping of cancer to the history of the gene via the disarming personal history of mental illness in his own family.

The Emperor of all Maladies won the Pulitzer Prize for the strength and poetry of Mukherjee's writing as much for his ability to tackle monumental scientific themes; the roughly 590 pages of The Gene promise to be just as revolutionary, and just as rewarding.

#10. In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri

(Knopf)

"How is it possible to feel exiled from a language that isn't mine? That I don't know? Maybe because I'm a writer who doesn't belong completely to any language."

As she wrote her novels and short stories in English, Jhumpa Lahiri found a language that was neither the mother-tongue she had an imperfect acquaintance with nor the "principal language" that she has known all her life.

Italian, which she learns slowly, haltingly, over two decades, fills an obscure but swelling desire; she will leave America for Rome, write her first book.

In Altre Parole, in Italian, a kind of "linguistic autobiography". This is her first work of non-fiction and her first book to be translated into English.

#11. A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee

(Vintage, Random House/ Harvill Secker)

Abir Mukherjee was born in London and grew up in Glasgow.

He used his "spectacularly dull career in finance" as a springboard to finer things: this first novel is a historical crime thriller that opens in Calcutta.

It is 1919; the body of a burra sahib, Alexander MacAuley, is found with "a note stuffed in his mouth warning the British to quit India".

His detectives are Captain Sam Wyndham and Sergeant Surrender-not-Banerjee, and his fascination with the history of the Kolkata Police, and the impact of Empire on its subjects, is obvious.

#12. Selection Day by Aravind Adiga

(Fourth Estate)

In Between The Assassinations, a collection of short stories, and Last Man In Tower, Aravind Adiga demonstrated a gift for collecting the inner lives and experiences of people who might otherwise slide through the large gaps in contemporary Indian fiction.

Selection Day is written from the perspective of Manju, a cricket-mad 14-year-old who learned the game in Shivaji Park, facing glory, defeat, obsessions and rivalries.

Lead image: Paresh Gandhi

Nilanjana S Roy
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