Year in review Reviews

The end of the line

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As 2018 draws to a close, it is clear that toxic politics isn’t the only talking point in a deeply polarising world. There are apprehensions about the domestic economy, impact of demonetisation, jobs, plight of farmers, foreign policy, global recession, climate change — and writers held a mirror to the depressing present even as they searched for answers for the future. Some like Hans Rosling (Factfulness), however, urged us to remember that “the world, for all its imperfections, is in a much better state than we might think.” The professor of international health points at ten instincts, including negativity and fear, that prevent us from seeing the miracle of human progress like the decrease in child mortality for instance.

From the ground

In reality, things seem to be moving ever so slowly. To give one example, if India is such an economic powerhouse, why does the trickle-down effect appear to be missing? In Ground Down by Growth: Tribe, Caste, Class, and Inequality in Twenty-First Century India, Alpa Shah, Jens Lerche and other social researchers show how economic growth hasn’t really benefitted the poor, particularly Dalits. Manoranjan Byapari’s powerful memoir (Interrogating My Chandal Life) tells us about people on the margins, a story of wants and deprivation but also a fierce will to live.


If Snigdha Poonam’s Dreamers: How Young Indians Are Changing Their World reported on the lives of India’s youth and the hunger that drives them, James Crabtree’s The Billionaire Raj: A Journey through India’s New Gilded Age gave us a peek into contemporary India with its private wealth and public squalor. The ‘Other’ got more than a look-in as Alpa Shah spent time with Naxals and examined what pulls people to them despite inherent dangers (Nightmarch: A Journey into India’s Naxal Heartlands).

All across the country, farmers marched in protest; a government paper, later withdrawn, admitted demonetisation had hurt agriculture and other sectors. The former chief economic adviser, Arvind Subramanian, (Of Counsel: The Challenges of the Modi-Jaitley Economy) says demonetisation was a “massive, draconian, monetary shock” but is puzzled by “how small the effect was compared to the magnitude of the shock.” He offers a set of reasons but admits that there could be “completely different explanations that have eluded my understanding of demonetisation, one of the unlikeliest economic experiments in modern Indian history.”

The economy apart, the nature of divisive, contemporary politics caused deep concern. Shashi Tharoor (Why I am a Hindu) delved into the heart of it, by writing on Hinduism’s many “incompatible strands” and tracing the growth of Hindutva, making an impassioned plea that a narrow understanding of the religion shouldn’t be anyone’s Hinduism.

Historian Ramachandra Guha chronicled the life of the Mahatma in Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World 1914-1948, reminding us of the value of religious pluralism. Several other writers looked back to the past, hoping to unearth some lessons.

Rajmohan Gandhi’s masterly biography (Modern South India) studied four powerful cultures, Kannada, Malayalam, Tamil and Telugu, and other influences on them, from Konkani, Kodagu, Marathi, Tulu, Oriya to indigenous tribals, exploring the ties that bind such diverse people.

Spotlight on history

Manu S. Pillai probed into the Deccan from Khilji to Shivaji (Rebel Sultans) and found a cosmopolitan world with fluid identities. At least two books shone a light on a leader of the past and her policies — Jairam Ramesh’s Intertwined Lives: P.N. Haksar and Indira Gandhi is as much about an influential civil servant as it is about how we took a populist turn in the 1960s; Gyan Prakash focussed on those 21 months starting June, 1975 in Emergency Chronicles: Indira Gandhi and Democracy’s Turning Point.

Picking on the chaotic Trump administration, there were several tell-alls about the U.S. Presidency with Bob Woodward’s account in Fear: Trump in the White House, being one of the most damning. Steve Coll dug deeper into the complex world of the Inter Services Intelligence of Pakistan, its relationship with the American establishment, and the reluctance to be a player in the fight against terror in Directorate S: The CIA and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, 2001-2016. Historian Srinath Raghavan wrote about The Most Dangerous Place: A History of the United States in South Asia explaining why America’s attempt to unravel threads that choke the region have bound the country closer to it.

Scientific temper

In a great year for non-fiction, there were several books on science, led by Nobel laureate Venki Ramakrishnan’s Gene Machine on the secrets of the ribosome, the machine which decodes our DNA. Thanks to new DNA analysis we came to know more about our ancestors (Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past by David Reich).

A gripping Test series is on in Australia, and several former players from Sourav Ganguly (A Century is Not Enough) and V.V.S. Laxman (281 and Beyond) to Sanjay Manjrekar (Imperfect) wrote about their cricketing lives, a fascinating insight into highs and lows as an individual and the team. Two books (The Fire Burns Blue and Free Hit) mapped the history of women’s cricket in India. In a football World Cup year, we relished reading about one intense rivalry in Jimmy Burns’s Cristiano & Leo.

As for 2019, it’s the 150th birth anniversary of Gandhi and several new books have been announced, including Tridip Suhrud’s The Diary of Manu Gandhi. Also on the list are Every Vote Counts: The Story of India’s Elections by Navin Chawla, and former foreign secretary S. Jaishankar’s All Against All: Navigating the Global Disorder and more. Happy reading.

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Printable version | Nov 29, 2021 3:01:35 PM |

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