2020 in review: The year that was

Year of calamity and a new normal

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Unprecedented. That has been the preferred adjective to describe the COVID-19 world of 2020, caught unawares by a virus and followed by lockdowns, quarantines, social distancing, economic crises, and the race for a vaccine. History perhaps will not agree with this word, having seen cycles of disaster — war, earthquakes, famines, plagues — with unerring regularity. In the meantime, America elected its 46th President, with the incumbent refusing to concede even though the results gave Joe Biden and the Democrats a clear majority.

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As for India, like many other countries around the globe, the virus preyed on the poor and vulnerable. Books of the year reflected on the pandemic and the trauma and with too many countries taking an authoritarian turn, several writers looked to the past to explain the present. In Brand New Nation, Ravinder Kaur sifted through India’s mega-publicity campaigns and said the state has transformed into a powerful authority which can brand the nation as an attractive destination. “The infusion of capital not only rejuvenates the nation; it also produces investment-fuelled nationalism, a populist energy that can be turned into a powerful instrument of coercion,” she said, even as critics questioned some of the harsh tactics adopted by the state on various issues from agriculture, COVID to lockdowns.

Taking on COVID

Writing a few months after SARS-CoV-2 took a stifling grip over the planet, The Lancet editor Richard Horton admitted in The COVID-19 Catastrophe that many questions about the virus and the disease it causes remain unanswered, leaving important gaps “in our understanding of the pandemic that make its control exceptionally difficult.” By the end of the year, three of India’s eminent medical experts, Dr. Randeep Guleria, Dr. Gagandeep Kang and Dr. Chandrakant Lahariya, outlined India’s response in Till We Win, answering questions on when we can expect a safe and effective vaccine, how long we have to wear masks, and the way forward.

In The Fury of Covid-19, Vinay Lal, a professor of history at the University of California, looked beyond COVID numbers to ask social, cultural, and philosophical questions: what does ‘social distancing’ mean in a caste society? Is it right to say “we are all in this together” when the pandemic has struck different people differently?

Writers from around the world (Mario Vargas Llosa, Jhumpa Lahiri, Juan Villoro, Arshia Sattar et al) tried to make sense of it in And We Came Outside and Saw the Stars Again, an anthology edited by Ilan Stavans.

Strain on the economy

The fallout has been bitter, with shutdowns and a slide in consumer spending, and closing of borders impacting every country, some more so than others. India, which had already been in the midst of an economic slump, has been hit hard with job losses, lack of demand, and other factors leading to contractions in GDP for two straight quarters of 2020-21. But even before the pandemic, the non-performing assets pile-up threatened to get out of hand. Former Reserve Bank of India Governor Urjit Patel stressed in Overdraft that there is no time to waste on NPAs. The Narendra Modi government attempted a clean-up with the passage of the Insolvency & Bankruptcy Code (IBC), but, he said, it regressed swiftly, to the advantage of big loan defaulters.

Viral Acharya, former deputy governor of the RBI, gave his ideas in the Quest for Restoring Financial Stability in India, complete with a plan on how to recapitalise public sector banks, improve credit allocation and establish efficient capital markets.

In December, economist Arun Kumar took a hard look at the government’s handling of the pandemic and the economic effect of the virus in the Indian Economy’s Greatest Crisis, saying the situation is worse than a war. The recovery will be slow, he pointed out, suggesting ways to bring the economy back on track.

History and politics

When the first lockdown was announced by Prime Minister Modi in March, protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019 that introduced religion as a factor in granting Indian citizenship were still on. Two volumes (Shaheen Bagh: From a Protest to a Movement by Ziya Us Salam and Uzma Ausaf and Shaheen Bagh and the Idea of India, edited by Seema Mustafa) chronicled the dharna, by the women of Shaheen Bagh in Delhi, many of whom had never stepped out of their homes before.

Through the year, several books dealt on the politics of the time, and some writers scoured the past to understand the present, including historian Vinay Sitapati, who charted the birth and growth of Hindutva in Jugalbandi: The BJP before Modi, through the lives of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L.K. Advani.

In the new year we will read several volumes on India and China, given the heightened tension on the border, but at least two tomes in 2020 provided a clue — Tanvi Madan’s Fateful Triangle: How China Shaped U.S.-India Relations during the Cold War andw Ananth Krishnan’s India’s China Challenge, which looked at China’s political, economic and social transformations over the past few years and explained what they mean for India.

Look back in candour

From a throwback to a historic presidency to a Mughal king, from growing up in diverse India to cricket, there was plenty to choose from in memoirs and biographies. The end of the year was bookended by the first part of Barack Obama’s presidential memoirs, A Promised Land.

Historian Ira Mukhoty profiled the Mughal emperor Akbar, and in her narrative, he is an able reformer and one of the earliest advocates of inter-religion dialogue. Writer and historian Ramachandra Guha, who has spent a life in cricket, offered a personal memoir in The Commonwealth of Cricket, tracing India’s most-loved game across all levels. Journalist and writer Annie Zaidi contemplated on burning contemporary issues like the citizenship rights in her eloquent memoir, Bread. Cement. Cactus.

In an extraordinary year, one writer shone a light on forgotten lives: Journalist Ashutosh Bhardwaj narrated his many encounters with the police, Maoist rebels and informers in the Dandakaranaya forest, telling the story through the life and death of Korsa Joga, a Naxal commander, in The Death Script. Nitasha Kaul and Ather Zia edited a collection of narratives from Kashmir, Can you Hear Kashmiri Women Speak?

And last, but definitely not the least, a host of writers tried to understand the influence of Big Tech (Facebook, and hence Instagram too, Google, Amazon etc) on lives.

To mention just one, Jill Lepore (If Then) came across The Simulmatics Corporation’s papers in MIT’s archives and set out wto tell the chilling “back story to the methods, and the arrogance, of Silicon Valley.” Launched during the Cold War, the Simulmatics Corporation mined data, manipulated consumers and disordered knowledge. Sounds familiar? As for 2021, publishers have already sent their advance lists, with more books on politics, history, foreign policy, pandemics and people.

Happy reading.

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Printable version | Mar 7, 2021 12:22:18 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/year-of-calamity-and-a-new-normal/article33422441.ece

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