Political ferment, India’s relations with neighbours, state of the economy, demonetisation, the end of globalisation and liberalism, migration, gender relations, sport — the literary world was kept busy trying to make sense of 2017. There were spectacular biographies, long-form writing, essays, and memoirs to choose from. This being the centennial of Gandhi’s first public movement at Champaran, there were many books on the Mahatma, including a brilliant translation of Sudhir Chandra’s Gandhi: An Impossible Possibility (Routledge India) about his last years and its impact on our polity. It was also the centenary of Indira Gandhi’s birth, which saw Congress leader Jairam Ramesh writing a biography on her environmental legacy ( Indira Gandhi: A Life in Nature (Simon & Schuster)). To pick the 10 best books in an incredible year of non-fiction books is perhaps an impossible task, but here goes our list, subjective, and by no means the last word on it.
1. When Crime Pays: Money and Muscle in Indian Politics by Milan Vaishnav (HarperCollins)
The book crunches 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. Pointing at ways to curb the menace, Vaishnav points out that of utmost importance is “clearing the morass around election campaign finances” and improving transparency and inclusion in political parties. Read review.
2. Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India by Sujatha Gidla (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux)
A Dalit Christian writes a searing portrait of growing up poor, taking on the Indian state for failing to stop the inhumanity endured by the wretched of our hearth. Besides other things, she highlights the degrees of untouchability her family and others like hers had to endure with people being forced to live in prescribed-by-custom ghettos. Read review.
3. Where India Goes: Abandoned Toilets, Stunted Development and the Costs of Caste by Diane Coffey and Dean Spears (HarperCollins)
Coffey and Spears have come out with a deeply researched and thoughtfully written book about open defecation, the role of caste, and the challenges of implementing policy interventions at this scale. They explain why Indian children are stunted, pointing out that poor nutrition is not the only reason. Read review.
4. Indica: A deep Natural History of the Indian Subcontinent by Pranay Lal (Allen Lane)
A biochemist connects our rich natural past to the present, going back millions of years to find out what shaped our seas and hills. To give just two examples, he tells us the story of the grey rocks around the Nandi Hills outside the city of Bengaluru, and that once there were corals in the sand dunes of Jaisalmer in Rajasthan because the region was a shallow sea. Read review.
5. Women & Power: A Manifesto by Mary Beard (Profile Books)
In a year when there has been an outpouring of women’s voices against sexual harassment, the Cambridge University professor’s powerful manifesto traces misogyny’s long roots. She helps us understand the silencing of women’s voices in the modern day by connecting the dots to Rome and Athens. Read review.
6. In The Retreat of Western Liberalism by Edward Luce (Hachette)
Luce, a journalist with The Financial Times , portrays a stark and worrying idea of the world pointing out that the rich, across nations, have tended to dismiss democracy in recent years. “In 1995, just 5% of wealthy Americans believed Army rule would be a good thing. By 2014 that had more than tripled.” Luce also raises objections against robotisation, which he argues is leading to critical loss of jobs. Read review.
7. Neighbours in Arms: An American Senator’s Quest for Disarmament in a Nuclear Subcontinent by Larry Pressler (Penguin Random House)
The book is a gripping, sad and agitating account of America’s approach to South Asia in the decades preceding 9/11 and the rise of the Taliban. As an influential lawmaker, he could foresee what was looming in the subcontinent — a nuclear rivalry, embroidered with religious fanaticism and terrorism by numerous non-state actors. Read review.
8. What Happened by Hillary Rodham Clinton (Simon & Schuster)
In her compelling account of why she lost the U.S. presidential election to Donald Trump, the former First Lady and Secretary of State also raises questions about the direction in which America is headed, rife with sexism and misogyny, and ruled by a fearful, hateful conservative class who can stoop to any low to maintain its grip on power. Read review.
9. The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide by Azeem Ibrahim (Speaking Tiger)
The book unravels the magnitude of the Rohingya crisis. By November, some 6,20,000 Rohingya had arrived in Bangladesh from Myanmar’s western state of Rakhine. Prof. Ibrahim argues that the Rohingya tragedy has been unfolding for decades, going back to 1948 when Myanmar gained independence. While the road to repatriation is long, it is imperative for the international community to “stand up to the regime” in Myanmar. Read review.
10. The Mixer: The Story of Premier League Tactics, from Route One to False Nines by Michael Cox (HarperCollins)
Cox narrates a modern history of the English Premier League to tell the story of how teams in England abandoned “ugly, straightforward, direct football” and embraced a “more cultured, continental, technical style.” The Premier League, hugely popular in India thanks to television, was founded in 1992. Read review.