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Advance booking: What to read in 2008
Jai Arjun Singh
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January 25, 2008

Some 'big books' to look forward to in 2008...


The acquisition of Amitav Ghosh's forthcoming Ibis trilogy by Penguin India made big news in literary circles earlier in the year and the first book in the series, The Sea Of Poppies, will be out within the next six months. The blurb calls the trilogy 'a work of stunning sweep, destined to become a classic' and while marketing talk of this sort needn't be taken at face value, Ghosh is one of the most accomplished Indian writers in English and any new work by him can be expected to create excitement. Not many details are available about the trilogy at this point, except that it spans three continents, two centuries and 'combines the drama of individual lives with the big themes of history.' It should be interesting to see what Ghosh -- a master of the essay form -- does with such a wide canvas, larger than any he's worked on before.

Among the many fascinating things about the Mahabharata -- one of the world's great works of literature -- is that it continues to spawn contemporary writings. Apart from numerous academic studies, we have had imaginative retellings of the epic from the perspective of different characters such as Bheeshma, Karna and Gandhari. Pratibha Ray's Yajnaseni and Elaine Aron's Samraj were among the works that focused on Draupadi, one of the epic's many strong women characters, and now Chitra Divakaruni does the same with The Palace Of Illusions (Picador India), a feminist interpretation of the epic.

Jhumpa Lahiri's Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of stories The Interpreter Of Maladies and her novel The Namesake polarised readers: while many love her lucid storytelling, others have accused her of stereotyping the Bengali community or, more generally, the Indian diaspora, whose adjustments problems she often writes about. Lahiri's new short-story collection Unaccustomed Earth (Random House India) will probably draw similar reactions, dealing as it does with Bengalis living in Boston.

The latter half of the year will see a new novel by one of India's most underrated writers. Manjula Padmanabhan's dark, subversive, often downright cruel writing isn't for all tastes, but her stories always provide a disturbing new lens through which to view the world. While her play Harvest was an eerie futuristic work about the sale of body parts, her latest, Escape (Picador India), is a science-fiction set in a country where women have been exterminated and one surviving girl must find her way to a safer land.

Another underrated writer, though for different reasons, is Manju Kapur, whose seemingly simple stories about family life in middle-class India show an acute understanding of the hypocrisies and double-think that are essential to the survival of any social institution. Her new novel The Immigrant (Random House India) is the story of Nina, a 30-year-old English lecturer, who marries a Canada-based dentist and leaves her home and country to build a new life.

Literary imprint Tranquebar will be publishing Ammi: Letter To A Democratic Mother, filmmaker-screenwriter Saeed Mirza's first novel. This is a love story, a diatribe against the Iraq war, an exploration of Islam in the face of contemporary ideas about the religion and a partial autobiography.


A collection of firsthand reports by heavyweights including Kiran Desai, Vikram Chandra and William Dalrymple, AIDS Sutra: The Hidden Story Of AIDS in India (Random House India) promises to be one of the year's most gripping anthologies. As these writers meet various people who live under the shadow of the disease -- including devadasis, drug-users in the northeast, red-light workers and respectable family men who get their treatment done in neighbouring towns to avoid being recognised -- what should emerge is a complex (and, importantly, a compellingly written) account of AIDS in India: who it's affecting, how and why. AIDS Sutra is published in collaboration with Avahan, the India AIDS initiative of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and sales proceeds will go towards a fund for AIDS victims.

Zubaan Books doesn't publish new titles every month, but it publishes with discernment. A Sense Of The Past: Women's Writings On Partition edited by Urvashi Butalia, is a collection of essays that explore the impact and experience of Partition, particularly for women, with contributors from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Though it's debatable whether Patrick French's authorised biography of V S Naipaul can be called an Indian book, The World Is What it Is (Picador India) should be of interest not just to fans of the great -- and latterly, controversial -- writer but to lovers of literature everywhere. French examines Naipaul's first memories, his life within a displaced community in Trinidad, his talent and fierce ambition, and his journey out of his constraints -- a journey that has had an immeasurable impact on 20th-century writing.

One of the largest and most ambitious books of 2008 will be Amaresh Misra's two-part The War Of Civilisations: India AD 1857 (Rupa & Co), which details the most bitter conflict of the 19th century, the 1857 mutiny. Delhi naturally plays a big part in this epic story, but for a more modern take on the city, there's Ranjana Sengupta's Delhi Metropolitan: The Making Of An Unlikely City (Penguin), about how different groups have set up their own different universes in the national capital over the past few decades -- transforming it from the unruffled imperial town it once was to the fearsome metropolis it is today.

Two books involving former president A P J Abdul Kalam are The Family And The Nation, written by Kalam and Acharya Mahapragya, which emphasises the importance of the family as the basic social unit in India; and Five Years With Kalam by the president's secretary P M Nair, which is an inside account of Kalam's popular presidency. Meanwhile, T S Krishnamurthy, former chief election commissioner, having observed the workings of the Indian democracy at close quarters, has written Amazing Democracy (Harper Collins; title not yet finalised), a thoughtful account of the successes and failures of the system.

Nandan Nilekani's Imagining India> (Penguin) has been billed as one of the biggest titles of the year ahead, and little wonder given the recent popularity of books about contemporary India -- and the fact that Nilekani is the CEO of Infosys [Get Quote]. Hopefully the book itself will be more insightful than Shashi Tharoor's recent clich�-compendium The Elephant, The Tiger And The Cellphone.

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