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.
The countdown to the Nobel Prize for Literature 2022 has begun with several names including Salman Rushdie, who was viciously attacked in New York at a book event recently, Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, Iranian novelist Shahrnush Parsipur, Nigeria’s Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on the contenders’ list. The Literature Prize has had its own share of controversy – and surprises — after American singer/song-writer Bob Dylan was conferred the prize in 2016 and the Austrian writer Peter Handke in 2019, despite his open support of former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic whose regime was deemed responsible for atrocities in the Balkan war. The Prize will be announced this Thursday (October 6), and we will bring you a profile of the winner in the next edition; last year it went to Tanzanian-British writer Abdulrazak Gurnah for “his compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism.”
In other news, 10 books covering a wide range of themes from governance, state of Muslims in India today, border politics to nationalism, what the numbers tell about a country like India, a biography of the house of Tatas and the Chipko movement are on the Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay NIF Book Prize 2022 longlist. In the 75 th year of independence, the diverse titles take on the past, present and future of India. For instance, in Born a Muslim: Some Truths about Islam in India (Aleph), Ghazala Wahab examines the backwardness of the community, attributing it to both internal (excessive reliance on dogma) and external factors. With examples from her own life, she shows how an indifferent and sometimes hostile government plus social prejudice have left the Muslim vulnerable and insecure. With climate change a critical issue, Shekhar Pathak’s The Chipko Movement: A People’s History (Permanent Black) profiles the people who contributed to the extraordinary Chipko movement and why the battle to protect forests and mountains is far from over; Rukmini S. tells the story of India through numbers in Whole Numbers and Half Truths (Context/Westland); Mircea Raianu profiles the long journey of the Tatas in Tata: The Global Corporation That Built Indian Capitalism (Harvard University Press); Suchetra Vijayan travels up and down the country’s borders to explore what maps and lines mean to people hastily divided in 1947 in Midnight’s Borders: A People’s History of Modern India (Context/Westland); Usha Thakker looks back in time to write about a unique pre-independence project, Congress Radio: Usha Mehta and the Underground Radio Station of 1942 (Penguin). Swethaa S. Ballakrishnen’s nuanced study of feminism ( Accidental Feminism: Gender Parity and Selective Mobility Among India’s Professional Elite/Princeton University Press); Partha Chatterjee’s The Truths and Lies of Nationalism as Narrated by Charvak (Permanent Black); Yashodhara Dalmia’s biography of Raza ( Syed Haider Raza: The Journey of an Iconic Artist/HarperCollins); and Subrata Mitra’s Governance by Stealth: The Ministry of Home Affairs and the Making of the Indian State (Oxford University Press) complete the list. For the fifth edition of the prize, the shortlist will be announced on November 8, and the winner on December 1. Past winners include Milan Vaishnav (When Crime Pays: Money and Muscle in Indian Politics/HarperCollins), Ornit Shani (How India Became Democratic/Penguin); and Dinyar Patel for his biography on Naoroji: Pioneer of Indian Nationalism (Harvard University Press).
In reviews, we read a new biography of Ambedkar, the latest novel in Robert Galbraith’s (alias J.K. Rowling) detective series; and talk to Kamila Shamsie about her new novel, Best of Friends, and Vafa Payman, the Asia head of the London-based publishing house Bloomsbury which celebrated 35 years in publishing last year.
Books of the week
Shashi Tharoor has written Ambedkar: A Life (Aleph) — another biography of B.R. Ambedkar is always welcome because there are many Ambedkars: the emancipator of Dalits, the constitutionalist, the economist, the historian, labour rights activist, water management expert, critic of Hinduism, to name a few. In the first half of the book, Tharoor recounts the pivotal moments of Ambedkar’s difficult journey: the humiliations, the poverty, the tragedies in his personal life, and also the moments of otherworldly courage, defiance, and iron will – with an admirable economy of words. The reviewer, G. Sampath, writes that in the more engrossing second half, Tharoor explores Ambedkar’s legacy: the imprint of his ideas abroad, his notion of ‘constitutional morality’, and the widespread symbolic appropriation of Ambedkar by parties he would have considered his political opponents. “Where he slips, however, is in his elaboration of what he calls ‘Ambedkar’s Four Flaws’.” For Tharoor, Ambedkar’s flaws are: his patronising attitude toward Adivasis; his “denigration” of Hinduism; the “ungraciousness” of his disagreement with Gandhi; and his absolute faith in the state as an instrument to transform society. “Tharoor’s reckoning of Ambedkar’s ‘flaws’ is short on the relevant context. But despite some misses, it is an engaging introduction to Ambedkar’s life and legacy.”
The sixth novel in the Cormoran Strike series, The Ink Black Heart (Hachette), keeps the romance-fuelled tension between private detective Strike and his partner Robin Ellacot bottled up and unreleased as they crack open the newest case. Robert Galbraith (a.k.a. Rowling) is aware that crime novels can be much more than crime novels, says Mukund Padmanabhan in his review. “At over 1,000 pages, it is arguably a little too long, but the reader is well-rewarded for staying until the end.” Size apart, the novel has been caught up in a contentious debate, which has its origins outside the book. “The controversy over whether some of Rowling’s tweets on sex and gender were transphobic continues to haunt her...” That a character in this novel, Edie Ledwell, creator of a popular cartoon, is killed after her cartoon is criticised for being transphobic (also racist and ableist) has led to “suggestions that The Ink Black Heart is Rowling’s personal retort to the death threats and the torrent of abuse she received for her views on sex and gender. She has clarified that the first draft of the book was already written before the controversy broke, but this hasn’t stopped the accusations that this is the work of a victim hitting back.”
Kamila Shamsie’s eighth novel, Best of Friends (Bloomsbury), is about childhood friends who grow up to be diametrically different but familiar to each other. Maryam is designated to be an heiress till a fateful evening turns her life awry; she is best friends with Zahra, the daughter of a journalist and a teacher, and their story plays out in the backdrop of Karachi and London, decades apart. Asked what is so unique about female adolescent friendship, Shamsie tells Anindita Ghose, “There is a real intensity in adolescent friendships… you are becoming adults together… With female friendships, you are also experiencing the change from girlhood to womanhood together.” As a South Asian writer, is there a sense of duty to bring up certain issues? “My duty is to the novel, to write the best novels I’m capable of writing, and to do that without cynicism.” Asked whether she believes, like one of her characters, that you can’t let politics come in the way of friendship, Shamsie says, “Politics is part of the fabric of life… I don’t think you can separate the two.”
Bloomsbury, which completed 35 years in publishing last year, also reached a milestone in India – last month, they turned 10. Vafa Payman, the Asia head of the London-based publishing house told Ziya Us Salam in an interview that counting Rowling, Khaled Hosseini and William Dalrymple among its authors, Bloomsbury is poised to widen its offerings, with translations to and from Indian languages and an increased share in the academic books market. Payman says post-COVID, the publisher is seeing the “re-emergence of offline retail sales,” and that India is a great opportunity to do business.
- See Things as They Are: Life Lessons from the Buddha (Aleph), edited by Nanditha Krishna brings together the Buddha’s core teachings, mainly the Eightfold Path and the Four Noble Truths, which form the basis of the Buddhist tradition and are followed across the world.
- Shrabani Basu has updated her book, Curry: How Indian Food Conquered Britain (Bloomsbury), to report on the latest trends in the curry industry of Britain. “We hear less of chicken tikka masala,” she writes, “and more of dishes like Tellicherry prawns.”
- Vishnu, a 21-year-old Indian student out drinking in a bar in Washington D.C., is murdered in a hate crime. Karan Madhok’s debut novel, A Beautiful Decay (Aleph), looks at the barbarity that lies just beneath the surface in countries like India and America and the toll it takes on the lives of innocent people.
- An advocate from Kerala attempting to correct a ‘typographical error’ is brutally murdered in Bangalore. When two post-mortems and multiple police probes yield nothing, CBI officer Kuppuswamy Ragothanam reopens the case. V. Sudarshan writes a story of true crime, Dead End (Hachette), based on his interviews with CBI officer Ragothanam.