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Ten best non-fiction books of the year

In a year that saw some excellent works on nationalism, racism, climate change, the virus, and more, here is our pick of the Top 10 nonfiction titles from 2021. They are presented in no particular order.

December 24, 2021 12:48 pm | Updated December 26, 2021 07:05 pm IST

1232 km: The Long Journey Home by Vinod Kapri (HarperCollins)

Literary Review

Literary Review

The 2020 nationwide lockdown to stop the spread of COVID-19 was announced suddenly and left millions of migrant labourers without jobs, food, and homes. Desperate and helpless, many began walking back to their villages. 1232 km chronicles the bicycle journey that seven migrants from Bihar — Ritesh, Ashish, Ram Babu, Sonu, Krishna, Sandeep and Mukesh — undertook over seven days and seven nights, to go from Ghaziabad in Uttar Pradesh to Saharsa in Bihar. Accompanying them was National Award-winning filmmaker Vinod Kapri, and he bore witness to the tough ride, recording a new form of “mass civil disobedience” that battled hunger, insults, and police aggression.

https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/1232-km-the-long-journey-home-review-seven-days-and-nights/article34725886.ece

Despite the State: Why India Lets its People Down and How they Cope by M. Rajshekhar (Context/Westland Books)

Literary Review

Literary Review

In late December 2020, M. Rajshekhar’s ear-to-the ground despatches hit the stands, reaching readers this January. In the introduction, he says the idea was to study six States that between them capture a cross-section of India’s diversity: one from India’s hilly borderlands — Mizoram; one which is mineral-rich but poor — Odisha; one with irrigated agriculture — Punjab; another with rain-fed farming — Bihar; one relatively industrialised State from the north — Gujarat; and another from the south — Tamil Nadu. He found “democracy malfunctioning” in each State he was reporting from. “Mizoram was financially unviable. Odisha was dominated by a handful of families. Punjab, while I was there, was entirely controlled by one family — the Parkash Singh Badal clan. Under J. Jayalalithaa, Tamil Nadu had drifted from welfarism to messianic populism. In Bihar, the state was absent. And Gujarat? Majoritarianism was writ large.” Beneath these differences, he says, lurked similarities. “All of them struggled to deliver health, education and justice...”

https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/despite-the-state-review-a-developmental-cul-de-sac-in-a-functioning-democracy/article33939589.ece

The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis by Amitav Ghosh (Allen Lane/PRH)

Literary Review

Literary Review

Once it became known that a group of small volcanic islands east of Java were growing all the nutmeg in the pre-18th century world, European traders headed there, becoming conquerors, and creating havoc. The indigenous Bandanese communities were driven away, their language, culture, way of life extinguished. Ghosh narrates the story of the Bandanese and their “extermination”, connecting the dots between imperial practices and climate change. He argues that the nutmeg’s violent trajectory from its native islands reveals a wider colonial mindset that justifies the exploitation of human life and the natural environment, and which dominates geopolitics even now. Like his previous study on climate change, The Great Derangement , this book is critical of Western policies and their role in environmental degradation.

https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/the-nutmegs-curse-review-listening-to-natures-voice/article37122733.ece

Modi’s India: Hindu Nationalism and the Rise of Ethnic Democracy by Christophe Jaffrelot, translated by Cynthia Schoch (Princeton University Press & Westland Books)

Literary Review

Literary Review

Over the past two decades, Hindu nationalism has been coupled with a form of national-populism that has proved to be potent at the polls — first in Gujarat and then in India at large, writes French political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot. He says the change has been driven by Narendra Modi, who evolved his own style, promising development but also polarising the electorate along religious lines. Drawing on interviews conducted across India, Jaffrelot shows how Modi’s government has moved India toward a new form of democracy, an ethnic democracy, which equates the majoritarian community with the nation and relegates other minorities, particularly Muslims, to the shadows. Jaffrelot explains how the political system of India has also acquired authoritarian features, by centralising power at the expense of the federal structure.

https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/modis-india-hindu-nationalism-and-the-rise-of-ethnic-democracy-review-the-collapse-of-democracy/article37923912.ece

Why We Kneel, How We Rise by Michael Holding (Simon&Schuster)

Literary Review

Literary Review

In the wake of the senseless killing of George Floyd in America by a policeman who put his knee on George’s neck as he kept saying, ‘I can’t breathe’, and the Black Lives Matter movement, cricket icon Michael Holding wondered about “the best way to communicate how people of colour have been dehumanised for centuries.” He wanted to educate the world about why racism exists, how it works, and what it is like to “be followed when you go into a shop, To know that your life is valued less.” Featuring other athletes from Usain Bolt, Thierry Henry and Naomi Osaka, Holding writes that his tome is a book of facts. “I hope it will enlighten, inspire, surprise, shock, move. And, above all, help to bring about real change.”

https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/why-we-kneel-how-we-rise-review-voice-against-discrimination/article37823164.ece

Invisible Empire: The Natural History of Viruses by Pranay Lal (Penguin)

Literary Review

Literary Review

As scientists study the novel coronavirus and its variants, a biochemist provides a glimpse into the world of viruses, possibly the “most enigmatic” among all microbes and “certainly the most feared.” They waft around and show no sign of ‘life’ till they find a ‘host’, and they are labelled ‘obligate parasites’, which means that they do not generate energy to reproduce. “Everything about viruses is extreme, including perhaps, the reactions they evoke,” says Lal, as he profiles this abundant life form with the help of photographs, illustrations, anecdotes, and paintings. Talking about the novel coronavirus which caused COVID-19, he says, like any other pathogen that establishes itself as a persistent disease, SARS-CoV-2 too was a chance occurrence. “We enabled its crossover through destruction of habitats and trade in wildlife. For SARS-CoV-2, the pandemic is not just a one-off chance but an evolutionary moment. The effects of the pandemic will not wear off any time soon.”

https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/a-reminder-from-sars-cov-2/article37274221.ece

India and Asian Geopolitics: The Past, Present by Shivshankar Menon (Brookings Institution Press)

Literary Review

Literary Review

“While India is unique, and therefore a singular actor in many respects — geography, history, demography, culture — it has also always been a part of the Asian story and an active participant in it.” This is the context of the former National Security Adviser and Foreign Secretary’s book, which tells the story of India in a changing Asia. He examines India’s foreign policy, “not as an autonomous activity driven by personality and domestic politics and reacting to external stimuli, but as larger historical shifts in Asia and world geopolitics, of which India is a significant constituent.” According to Menon, “India’s biggest strategic challenge today is managing its relationships with China and dealing with the consequences of China’s rise. The former has to be done with China, the latter must include other powers that share India’s interests.”

https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/india-and-asian-geopolitics-the-past-present-review-india-in-a-changing-world/article34613537.ece

Born a Muslim: Some Truths about Islam in India by Ghazala Wahab (Aleph)

Literary Review

Literary Review

What does it mean to be a Muslim in India today? With history and lived experience, Wahab examines the backwardness of the community, attributing it to both internal (excessive reliance on dogma) and external factors. She shows how an indifferent and sometimes hostile government plus social prejudice have left the Muslim vulnerable and insecure. Wahab cites examples from her own life, how a mob had attacked their home after the rath yatra, and calls for help to the U.P. administration went unanswered. Her family survived the riots, but it left gaping wounds. Her parents became quiet, and it upset Wahab that a victim should feel ashamed. “Civility was the first casualty, replaced by communal prejudice and demonstrative religion,” she writes. Can they ever participate as equal partners in the country’s development? “Only 2.6 per cent of Muslims are in senior-level jobs and a small number have achieved a reasonable upward mobility,” she wonders.

https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/born-a-muslim-some-truths-about-islam-in-india-review-a-sense-of-disillusionment/article34556270.ece

Lady Doctors by Kavitha Rao (Westland Books)

Literary Review

Literary Review

This is the story of Anandibai Joshi, Kadambini Ganguly, Rukhmabai Raut, Haimabati Sen, Muthulakshmi Reddy and Mary Poonen Lukose — India’s first women in medicine. Rao begins the book by narrating an anecdote from Anandibai Joshi’s life when, as an 18-year-old, she announced to a group of men her intention of going to America to study medicine. “The want of female physicians in India is keenly felt in every quarter,” she said. All the other women Rao has profiled were equally fearless fighters and determined to break glass ceilings. Together, they made “medicine an acceptable profession for women, and later, even a respectable one,” despite facing intense opposition, religious, caste-based and patriarchal.

https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/lady-doctors-the-untold-stories-of-indias-first-women-in-medicine-review-freedom-from-patriarchy/article35891961.ece

Wild and Wilful by Neha Sinha (HarperCollins)

Literary Review

Literary Review

A collection of stories about India’s “wildest citizens” highlights why their lives are in peril because of what we are doing to the environment. In 11 chapters, Sinha takes readers through a stellar cast like the Indian leopard, the Asian elephant, the Bengal Tiger, the Great Indian Bustard, the white-bellied heron, the Amur falcon, the Ganges river dolphin, the King cobra, and right up to Rosy starlings. She begins with the leopard which lives in the political capitals of Delhi-NCR and Dehradun. It is in trouble — “persecuted, poached and trapped.” She points at the caste system even in conservation efforts, about how the tiger holds apex position, while a leopard or a butterfly is down the ranks. “Those who know wild animals most intimately understand that a wild animal requires acceptance for what it is, not enslavement for what we want it to be. This is part of the most profound truth of the wild, and the world at large — that we are a part of it, not its owners.”

https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/wild-and-wilful-review-reading-nature/article34106528.ece

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