The Hindu on Books | Booker Prize for Paul Lynch, biography of Elon Musk, the rise of Hindutva pop and more

Updated - November 30, 2023 12:55 pm IST

Published - November 28, 2023 01:12 pm IST

(This article forms a part of The Hindu on Books newsletter which brings you book reviews, reading recommendations, interviews with authors and more. Subscribe here.)

Welcome to this edition of The Hindu on Books Newsletter. On Sunday, the Booker Prize winner of 2023 was announced. Irish writer Paul Lynch took home the Prize for his dystopian fiction,Prophet Song (Oneworld/Harper) which imagines Ireland’s descent into totalitarianism. The Jury chairperson, Esu Edugyan, said it was not a unanimous choice but that Lynch’s “soul-shattering”cautionary tale powerfully sees into “the modern chaos.” Lynch, who admitted in his acceptance speech that it was not an easy book to write,had been agitated with the unsympathetic response of the West to the turbulence in Syria and its aftermath, the refugee crisis and the widespread displacement, and wanted to see what would happen if the situation were to unfold in Ireland. The protagonist, Eilish Stack, a mother and microbiologist, struggles to keep her family and work together as the world collapses around her. In reviews, we read the biography of Elon Musk, a book on women runners in India, two new thrillers and more. We also have an essay by Kunal Purohit who has traced the rise of Hindutva pop in his new book.

Books of the week

In the Prologue to Elon Musk (Simon & Schuster), Walter Isaacson writes that Musk’s heritage and breeding – and a difficult childhood in South Africa – along with the hardwiring of his brain, makes him at times callous and impulsive but it has also led to an exceedingly high tolerance for risk. For Musk, 2021 had been a glorious year. Tesla had hit $1 trillion in valuation, SpaceX was valued at $100 billion, The Boring Company was worth $5.6 billion, Neuralink had touched $1 billion, and Time magazine had anointed him Person of the Year. As Isaacson notes ruefully, “If only he could leave well enough alone.” Musk could not. In early 2022, he announced his bid for Twitter -- an impulsive move that goes to the heart of what makes Musk tick, and sometimes, blow up. In his review, G. Sampath says Isaacson’s narrative of Musk’s greatness, while expertly crafted, is saturated, rather than nuanced, with Musk’s own perspective on things. “To be fair, Isaacson does document all of Musk’s meanness, pettiness, his utter lack of empathy, his impulsiveness. However, Isaacson’s gloss on the ‘supervillain’ side of Musk’s character is to suggest that it is inseparable from his ‘superhero’ side: ‘Could you get the rockets to orbit or the transition to electric vehicles without accepting all aspects of him, hinged and unhinged? Sometimes great innovators are risk-seeking man-children who resist potty training’.”

Sohini Chattopadhyay’s The Day I Became a Runner (HarperCollins), a profileof Indian runners, raises several pointed questions about gender and society. “What does sport offer women in a viciously gendered society? Do women who take up running pose a more direct challenge to patriarchy than those who play sport like badminton, cricket and tennis?” In her review, Veena Venugopal says the book is both an educative exercise in introducing the reader to members of the hall of fame of women runners in India like Mary D’Souza, Kamaljit Sandhu, P.T. Usha, as well as an editorial on the cultural and societal mores about the role of women in India’s homes and streets. “Running is a solitary sport. But nothing in their training prepared some of India’s former champions who got mired in the ambiguous world of gender/sex testing.” Santhi Soundararajan’s story is particularly poignant, and the book is dedicated to her. She was a silver medallist for India in the 2006 Asian Games at Doha. Soon after the race, she was subjected to a “sex test”, which they claimed she’d “failed”. She was stripped of her medal and debarred from future competitions. Although she is now an NIS certified coach, she is still subject to humiliating gender slurs. “Chattopadhyay sketches her not as a person broken by the system, but as one who has risen above it.”

What connects a novel set in the Lahore in 1968 and another located in Birmingham in 2023? Well, says Vayu Naidu, both handle murder and escape exceptionally. British writers Aamina Ahmad and Louise Doughty prove why women make for excellent writers of thrillers with their newest works, The Return of Faraz Ali (Tranquebar) and A Bird in Winter (Faber). Asked what drew her to the mohallas of Lahore, and a world of politics, sex, murder, Ahmed says, “Born British, of Pakistani origin, the conversations in middle-class drawing rooms in Lahore and Karachi made me curious about the lives of others, beyond those compound walls. How do women sex workers live without choices and cope across decades and generations?” If everyone wants to escape from the clutches of a system that holds them captive in Ahmed’s novel, Doughty’s characters too want to escape an oppressive future. “My novels are about placing a woman in a circumstance,” Doughty tells Naidu. Her protagonist, Heather, nicknamed ‘Bird’, is a military-trained secret service agent-turned-survivalist who goes off radar as she sets out on a new journey that will take her all the way to Iceland. “Both novels deal with actual and virtual disappearances.... these are thrillers about survival, where characters are interlocked by unpredictable circumstances.”


In 2019, travelling across northern and central India, Kunal Purohit witnessed Indians outside the big cities swaying to Hindutva music, “in places where hate is ensconced in catchy tunes and hypnotic beats, often to fatal, bloodied results.” He writes about this in his new book, H-Pop: The Secretive World of Hindutva Pop Stars (HarperCollins). In an essay, he writes: “And I found it wasn’t music alone – pop culture, from poetry to books, was being weaponised silently in service of Hindutva all over India.” How has hate become a profitable proposition? Purohit tries to understand what are the motivations of those at the core of the Hindutva pop ecosystem. Are they opportunist operators or are they hardline, ideological hawks? “Taking our eyes off this silent radicalisation is not a luxury we can afford. Trying to comprehend this brand of pop culture and what it is doing is only the first step in trying to challenge it.”

For A.S. Byatt, who passed away on November 16, writing was the most important thing in her life. For half a century and more, she pursued the written word, publishing novels, short stories, essays, which were informed by her great interest in literature, history, myths and folktales, poetry, art – and life. She wrote critical works on Wordsworth and Coleridge and the novels of Iris Murdoch, she took up the Frederica quartet in the late 1970s, but she made a name with her 1990 novel, Possession: A Romance, a steeped-in-literature bestseller which went on to win the Booker Prize. Under the calm and serious background of two academics researching the life of two fictional Victorian poets, something else is going on, something wild and less influenced by reason and order. A layered novel about secrets and romance, and the relationship of the living with the dead, past and present. Byatt writes all the poems in Possession attributed to the fictional poets. And there’s Shakespeare, Donne, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Lamb, Mary Shelley, Byron, Goethe, Carlyle, Tennyson. To read Byatt is to immerse oneself in literature, and Possession is a fine example of this attribute in her writing.


Walter Reid’s Fighting Retreat: Winston Churchill and India (Penguin/Viking) reveals Churchill at his worst: “cruel, obstructive and selfish.” Why was he so strangely hostile towards India, though at the Colonial Office, he risked his career with his generosity to the Boers, the Irish and the Middle East? Churchill strove to sabotage any move towards Independence, delaying the process by at least a decade. He is also held personally responsible for the Bengal famine of 1943.

City on Fire (Harper) by Zeyad Masroor Khan is about growing up in Aligarh. In his coming-of-age tale, he writes about the undercurrents of religious violence and the ‘othering’ that followed. “Rumours were worse and sometimes scarier than the actual riots themselves,” he writes. “Rumours of an impending confrontation were a monthly ritual, causing my mother to be on her toes constantly, even as she dealt with raising, feeding and bringing up her kids.” The journalist says that in Delhi being denied an apartment because of his name was a norm.

Old age, death, love, friendship, desire – these are the themes J.M. Coetzee explores in his new collection, The Pole and Other Stories (Vintage). In the title story, after his piano recital in Barcelona, Witold Walczykiewicz who is a controversial interpreter of Chopin, finds himself drawn to Beatriz, a dazzling patron of the arts. She does not return his affections initially but is soon drawn to his world.

The Girl in the Magical Flute: Stories from Myths and Folktales of India (Aleph) by Meena Arora Nayak and illustrated by Priya Kuriyan gives classic folk tales and lore from India – and beyond – a contemporary makeover. Sourced from classical religious texts such as the Ramayana, the Quran, and the Bible, and from oral traditions across India, including those of the Ho, Munda, and Khasi tribes, there are 19 stories in the collection.

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.