2020 in review: The year that was

How 2020 emerged as the year of the book

They say you are never alone with a book. If we had to name one positive fallout of this pandemic year it would be that it made us appreciate books anew. In the first half of 2020, as we found ourselves locked up inside and the chatter outside receded, old volumes were dusted off the shelves and lined up on bedside tables.

The book you always wanted to read but somehow hadn’t found its moment.

We were suddenly back to an older, wholesome world — of touching pages, smelling them, day-dreaming about literary characters, living lives other than ours. One might even say 2020 was the Year of the Book. For those of us privileged enough to spend time on reading, that is.

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“Even with a multitude of other options, we saw people turn to books during these strange times,” says Nandan Jha, Senior Vice-President, Product & Sales, at Penguin Random House India. What kind of books have been picked up most often? Usha Jha, Vice-President, Sales, at Speaking Tiger, says, “There was a greater demand for non-fiction, especially crime and travel, and for science fiction.”

There was indeed a spate of speculative fiction, responding to and reflecting our need to fly far from the fever and the fret. But speculative fiction is also hyperreal, magnifying existing anomalies. Gautam Bhatia’s The Wall, for instance unfolds in a circular city enclosed by an unbreachable wall — the ultimate gated community. Lavanya Lakshminarayan’s Analog/Virtual: And Other Simulations of Your Future, set in a futuristic Bengaluru, subverts ideas of class, power, dissent to show what the world looks like when boundaries are closed for good.

Boundaries breached

Another boundary being breached in India today is that of language, if the increasing popularity of translated fiction is anything to go by. Translated literature got a further boost with the JCB Prize 2020 going to Malayalam author S. Hareesh’s translated novel, Moustache. Perumal Murugan’s novels sell well, as do those of Manoranjan Byapari, who is out now with the first part of his autobiographical trilogy, Chandal Jibon. The year also saw books rendered into English from relatively less-explored languages like Gujarati, Bhojpuri and Assamese — Ratno Dholi: The Best Stories of Dhumketu, translated by Jenny Bhatt; Pandey Kapil’s Phoolsunghi, translated by Gautam Choubey; and The Loneliness of Hira Barua by Arupa by Patangia Kalita, translated by Ranjita Biswas, respectively, did fairly well.

The collapsing of walls was apparent in poetry too. A Poem a Day by Gulzar, published recently, has 365 poems in 34 languages translated into English. Gulzar says, “I firmly believe that poetry doesn’t know any borders, so, along with poets from Gujarat, Punjab, Kerala, Goa, Odisha, I included poets writing in Tamil in Sri Lanka, in Bangla in Bangladesh and in Urdu and Punjabi in Pakistan.”

Poetry for solace

Similarly, The World That Belongs to Us, an anthology of queer poetry from South Asia put together by Aditi Angiras and Akhil Katyal, features poems not just from different regions of India but from the entire subcontinent. Unpacking fixities of every kind, it stretches the idea of poetry itself to include ghazals, sonnets, the spoken word, even rap.

Not surprisingly, readers turned to poetry for solace in these distressing times. Paperwall, the publishing house founded by poet and translator Hemant Divate, witnessed steady sales through the year, with a surge in international orders.

Another refuge turned out to be nature: we suddenly realised it was there all along, only we had forgotten to appreciate it. When we did look, nature seemed a little chipped — green spaces had shrunk and less birds sang. Robert MacFarlane and Jackie Morris’s book of exquisitely illustrated poems, The Lost Spells, continues the effort of their 2017 book, The Lost Words, to re-wild the world, within and without. Conjuring up red foxes, birch trees, jackdaws — beings at once commonplace and magical — it evokes the wonder of everyday nature. It’s odd that the trend of eco-fiction hasn’t caught on in India — is there a message here? Stephen Alter’s Feral Dreams can be seen as a good start though: taking off from The Jungle Book, it re-examines certain persistent and pressing concerns — ecological, social, existential. Alter is finely tuned to nature: the forest in Feral Dreams is beautiful, menacing and fast-vanishing.

Race, rage, retribution

The stillness of the lockdown was broken by the death of George Floyd in America, sparking off a movement that crossed the Atlantic to spread all over Europe. The wokeness it inspired was reflected not just in the new set of diversity rules made mandatory by the Academy of Motion Picture or in the sudden influx of web series with coloured protagonists but also in the nominations of important literary prizes like the Booker.

While announcing the 2020 Booker Prize longlist, the chair of the judging panel, Margaret Busby, said that the selected books “represent a moment of cultural change”. While this might be an overstatement, it’s true that of the 13 longlisted books, nine were by women and more than half by writers of colour. One of them, Such a Fun Age, a debut novel by Kiley Reid, an author who fits both categories, is a fiery story driven by three trending words, Race, Rage and Retribution.

Things were on the boil back home too. The discontent over the ever-worsening situation in J&K was making itself felt in novels on Kashmir by Kashmiris — such as Shabir Ahmad Mir’s The Plague Upon Us, Sandeep Raina’s A Bit of Everything, Nitasha Kaul’s Future Tense. There is pain and anger in equal measure in these stories written by those who have felt it in their bones.

Home fires

Meanwhile, another tragedy, perhaps the greatest and the most muted in recent history, was unfolding in the country as thousands of labourers trudged home from cities in the wake of the lockdown. We wait for one of them to write about the trauma of being rendered jobless overnight, of being shoved out of cities they have called home, of the long journey on foot under the blazing summer sun.

Till then, we have writers like Udayan Mukherjee showing us how class and caste divisions stay firmly in place even in life-and-death crises like the pandemic. His collection, Essential Items: Stories from a Land in Lockdown, is a stark portrayal of life in lockdown India rife with hunger, displacement and uncertainty.

We, the readers, who have the luxury to stay at home, can glimpse the suffering through literature. And we did, spending more time on books than on OTT platforms. With bookshops closed, e-portals buzzed with activity. Speaking Tiger’s Usha says, “Dynamics of sales changed this year — e-com contribution to overall sales went up from 10% to 45%. Retail is still struggling for footfalls. But I was pleasantly surprised by how distribution partners and retail channels supported us by finding new ways to sell books. Major retail stores like Crossword, Bahrisons, Om Books, Midland and Sapna are delivering books to loyal customers through their own resources.”

So pick up your favourite book, switch off your phone and curl up. Winter has arrived, a vaccine is on the horizon, and the cup of coffee is steaming. Here’s to happy endings.

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Printable version | Dec 5, 2021 11:46:15 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/how-2020-emerged-as-the-year-of-the-book/article33411027.ece

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