A sense of an ending: the literary world of 2017

The literary world reflected the tumult in the world with books on politics, the economy, migration and gender

Updated - December 30, 2017 10:22 pm IST

Published - December 30, 2017 07:17 pm IST

Political ferment, India’s relations with neighbours, state of the economy, the end of globalisation and liberalism, migration, gender relations, sport — the literary world was kept busy trying to make sense of 2017.

The year began with sales of 1984 , George Orwell’s classic dystopian drama of life under a totalitarian regime, soaring. Coinciding with the entry of Donald Trump into the White House, the novel’s prescient themes of censorship and distortions (of truth) resonated with today’s world. Words from the book, “doublethink” (holding two contradictory beliefs), ‘newspeak’ (ambiguous propaganda) and Big Brother (controlling power), helped explain some of Trump’s actions and those of other totalitarian leaders across the world. Soon new fiction — and non-fiction — began reflecting the tumult around.

Explaining India

Milan Vaishnav’s When Crime Pays: Money and Muscle in Indian Politics (HarperCollins) crunched data from nearly 60,000 candidates spread across 35 State elections and two national elections to understand the nexus between politics and criminals and why voters readily forgive politicians, forgetting crimes they perpetuate. With 2017 being the centennial of Gandhi’s first public movement at Champaran, there was an outpouring of content on the Mahatma, and one — a translation — stood out for the lessons we can imbibe from his last years. Gandhi: An Impossible Possibility by Sudhir Chandra translated by Chitra Padmanabhan (Routledge India) explained his complex legacy: “Had Gandhi survived we may possibly have been a little different today. We may not have perpetrated the kind of enormities we have, and still do, with growing impunity. But then equally possibly, the impatience and the vexation vis-a-vis Gandhi that had built up before independence might have kept mounting, making the country supremely indifferent towards him. In that case, the same enormities would have continued or maybe even aggravated.”

There were several books on demonetisation; while one former governor of the Reserve Bank of India, Y.V. Reddy, penned his memoirs ( Advice and Dissent: My Life in Public Service, HarperCollins), and was candid about the many roles he had to play while in office, former deputy governor of the RBI, Rakesh Mohan, edited a book on 25 years of India’s economic reforms, a critical appraisal of 1991 which freed the economy and why the next round of big bang changes is yet to take off.

Amid all this data, a Dalit Christian’s memoirs, Ants among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), a searing portrait of growing up poor in India, told us that some things are yet to change. Sujatha Gidla took on the Indian state for often failing to stop the inhumanity endured by the wretched of our hearth.

Even as writers tried to comprehend the present, a biochemist, Pranay Lal, took us back to the past, unravelling the origins of the Indian subcontinent, telling stories about how its seas, hills and rivers were formed. Indica: A Deep Natural History of the Indian Subcontinent (Allen Lane) brought to life grey rocks around the Nandi Hills, corals in Jaisalmer and giant giraffes in the Siwalik Hills, three times larger than their present counterparts. Victor Mallet’s River of Life, River of Death: The Ganges and India’s Future (Oxford University Press) highlighted, among other things, the complications of cleaning it up.

The ‘quirky matrix’ of ties with our neighbour was brought to life by an insider, a former Indian high commissioner to Pakistan, in The People Next Door: The Curious History of India’s Relations with Pakistan (Harper). T.C.A. Raghavan’s underlying theme held out hope in the time of a freeze in relations: that spells of heightened hostility and suspicion between the two countries also suddenly give way to efforts at reconciliation and problem-solving. Another former envoy, Shyam Saran, gave us a ringside view of India’s foreign policy, especially relations with China ( How India Sees the World: Kautilya to the 21st Century, Juggernaut ). Larry Pressler added another perspective in his agitating account of America’s approach to South Asia in the decades preceding 9/11 and the rise of the Taliban in Neighbours in Arms: An American Senator’s Quest for Disarmament in a Nuclear Subcontinent (Penguin Random House).

Eye on the world

A superb outlook on Trump came from the candidate he defeated — Hillary Clinton pulled no punches as she explained why she lost the presidential election in What Happened? (Simon & Schuster). Mid-year, Edward Luce’s stark and worrying portrait of the world pointed out that liberal values were under threat. David Grann’s masterful investigation into the murders of Osage Native Americans in Oklahoma where they had struck rich because of oil was a story of a social cleansing that began in the 19th century; closer to home Azeem Ibrahim wrote about the Rohingyas, their exodus and ways to tackle the crisis ( The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide (Speaking Tiger). There were two stunning reads on gender relations as well, Rebecca Solnit’s The Mother of All Questions (Haymarket Books) and Mary Beard’s Women & Power: A Manifesto (Profile Books).

What’s a best-of list without sport? We read quite a few, not least a retelling of the life of Brazil’s well-known footballer, Socrates, captain of the 1982 World Cup team ( Doctor Socrates: Footballer, Philosopher, Legend by Andrew Downie, Simon & Schuster), Maradona’s account of winning the World Cup in Mexico in 1986 ( Touched by God , Hachette) and the customary Wisden India Almanack 2017 (Bloomsbury).

As for 2018, with the world such a divided place, we are looking forward to essays by Marilynne Robinson ( What Are We Doing Here? ). Also on the list are Husain Haqqani’s tome on Pakistan as a nuclear state; Salman Khurshid on triple talaq; Omar Abdullah on Kashmir; M.S. Dhoni’s biography; and books on Vidarbha’s widows, Aadhar, and a portrait of Malayalis by Paul Zacharia. Happy reading.

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.