The year that was, in six books

Seeing off 2015 with recap of conscience calls, mystifying ‘sequels’, bewildering trends, wartime histories and dazzling fiction

December 27, 2015 01:32 am | Updated March 24, 2016 12:51 pm IST

Who Was Shivaji?, by Govind Pansare

On February 16, 2015, Govind Pansare, a public intellectual and rationalist, was shot at, at point-blank range, outside his house in Kolhapur. This English translation of Shivaji Kon Hota? from the Marathi original of a 1987 speech, and published by Leftword, was one among many important quick turnaround books published after the murder to retrieve the texts and ideas for which Pansare, Narendra Dabholkar and M.M. Kalburgi were killed. Indeed, Kalburgi’s murder, in August this year, turned out to be a tipping point, and sparked a movement by writers and artists to protest increasing incidents of intolerance in India. Writers, with Nayantara Sahgal among the most prominent and articulate in stating their concern, returned their Sahitya Akademi awards, to protest the institution’s — and the Central government’s — inaction on defending freedom of speech and expression. Soon enough, the movement caught the imagination of civil society — with film directors, artists and scientists joining the protests, and leading historians issuing statements — and the questions raised will surely continue to demand answers in the new year.

Go Set a Watchman , by Harper Lee

Surely the global publishing event of the year, its eventual release on July 14, 2015 took everybody by surprise. Lee, who never published a book again after her instant classic, To Kill a Mockingbird , was not at hand to explain Atticus Finch’s racist feelings in GSAW, which set off a wave of confused re-appraisal of the old favourite. Often missing was the context in absorbing a “sequel”. The newly published book was, in fact, an early draft, which Lee’s editor told her to rewrite, and the exercise eventually yielded everyone’s most beloved, Mockingbird. With Lee not telling whether the older Scout and older Atticus of GSAW were anticipated by Mockingbird, or whether she had in fact simply abandoned GSAW and started Mockingbird with a plan to address racism differently, no one knew how to come to grips with the new book. We still don’t. But what did help was to go back, with a clearer head, to Mockingbird and try to recall one’s first reading of the book — and wonder once again, why did Lee not write more?

Lost Ocean , by Johanna Basford

This is not exactly Basford’s most popular book, but its publication in 2015 marks the year adult colouring books went mainstream. Basford’s Secret Garden and Enchanted Forest flew off the shelves this year, as “adults” sharpened their colour pencils and publishers worldwide went rushing to commission new colouring books. Theories about to explain the craze — for instance, we no longer doodle as much as we used to, since we take notes on computers and tablets, so the calming effect of these books — but the bet is now on about whether this is a lasting trend, or whether it’ll taper off once the next new obsession appears.

Farthest Field , by Raghu Karnad

This year marked the 60th anniversary the end of Second World War, and Karnad’s was of two new books that deepened inquiry into India’s participation. His is a very personal family story that illuminated the landscape and scope of Indian fighting in the war. Yasmin Khan’s Raj at War uses oral histories, letters, etc to examine how lives were transformed in the course of the war, and also how India was transformed in its final push for independence.

The Story of the Lost Child , by Elena Ferrante

You must have been sleeping all year if you evaded news of Ferrante. For years Ferrante’s fiction had been published to great acclaim and sold in significant quantities, especially in Italy, but globally 2015 can be called the Year of Ferrante. Lost Child , the concluding volume in the Naples quartet, came out in English translation late in the year, but by then Ferrante fever had already built up, and conversations can still be heard about which of the four books about friends Elena and Lila one should begin with. Believe it or not, many recommend starting with the second, looping back to the first, and then to the third and fourth! There is still a mystery about who Ferrante is, whether “she” is in fact a woman, and there has been much analysis about what it means to be able to remain anonymous in our hyper-wired and networked age. And sportingly, in the interviews she occasionally does, she takes the inevitable question about her “identity”, without of course giving anything away.

Don’t Let Him Know , by Sandip Roy

This was a year of dazzling fiction, in India and globally. But among the shortlisted and prizewinning books, the novels by master storytellers like Salman Rushdie and retrievals like Lee’s Go Set a Watchman , we leave you with recommendation for Roy’s debut. Don’t Let Him Know is a set of intertwined short stories about a single family across geography and time, that has as a running thread the mystery of the recipient of a long-ago letter. With writing that recalls Jhumpa Lahiri’s, Roy shows he can evoke individual loneliness and joy better than most others.

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