I read a total of 51 books this year, the last of which I put down only a few hours ago, shivering in the chilly winds of the capital. It was a book about a city, Calcutta, which I thought was fitting, as most of what I read this year was somehow or the other related to places, and by extension, identity and belonging.
This is a direct result of the way I grew up – in several Indian towns and cities, and having never really had the concept of ‘home’ clear in my head, I continually search for it in literature.
2013, then, the year I turned 26, has been my most aware year of reading. I have chosen books, have let books choose me, and have let my friends force me to read one or two too.
I started the year with Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, and enjoyed it immensely. I have been reminded, though, that the style of The Original Scroll, which I read, is not entirely agreeable, and therefore I would recommend the other, properly punctuated version. It’s a dream of a novel, with words and phrases falling over each other and sometimes not making any sense. But I loved it; it’s an ode to the hope and beauty of the open road and of travel; to a young and open soul, it can be a call to rebellion.
The classics came through as well, with Charles Dickens’ Hard Times and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, but the one that truly tugged at my heart was Richard Llewellyn’s How Green was my Valley. The adjective ‘beautiful’ is overused when describing literature, but it has to be used for this novel, set in the collieries of Wales in the early part of the last century. There is certain music in this novel, and a certain sadness for a time lost; perhaps one of the reasons why we read books at all.
I discovered VS Naipaul this year, who I had always been meaning to read but had always found cause to avoid too, because of the weight his name carries. I needed time, space and some more intelligence to read and understand a Nobel laureate, I thought. And I think I grew up enough this year, because I read two of his books, and was blown away. A Way in the World is a masterpiece, an absolutely gorgeous body of work, which I can only compare to chocolate melting in your mouth. The words dance, they coalesce into sentences that melt into others; reading Naipaul is an experience. His other book I read, Half a Life was a little gem, a story told with brevity and precision and at the same time managing to make quite an impact. His themes of colonialism, identity and migration are very close to me, and there shall definitely be more of Naipaul next year.
Speaking of impact, the books which moved me – sometimes to tears, sometimes to sadness, and sometimes to thoughtfulness – were, in retrospect, the short ones. Kamala Makandeya’s classic Nectar in a Sieve took me back to newly independent India, and cracked me open with a strong, sad story of my own people. So did Sri Lankan Nayomi Munaweera’s Island of a Thousand Mirrors. Journeys in the Night, a collection of writings about AIDS and sexuality in India, was also a very haunting read. With pieces from Salman Rushdie, William Dalrymple, Nikita Lalwani and Kiran Desai in it, the book was a literary whistle-stop tour of our country.
Let’s go back to places. I read and thoroughly enjoyed William Dalrymple’s City of Djinns early this year, and in a curious twist of fate, found myself in Delhi a few months later. I wrote about that too, and the book is an absolute must read. So is Janice Pariat’s collection of mountain stories about Shillong and Meghalaya in India’s north east. Boats on Land is perfect for the winter; filled with magic and folklore and the spirits of the night, Janice Pariat brings to life a landscape that is at once mysterious and inviting. It’s a lovely book.
John Green’s The Fault in our Stars is my YA book of the year. It’s a slow, sweet, sensitive story, masterfully told, and shall be reread again and again. This book is important to me as some books are for all of us – they stay inside us for some reason. Read it.
My year’s best nonfiction included Gladwell’s What the Dog Saw, Aman Sethi’s A Free Man, and Tavleen Singh’s Durbar. Nobody needs any introduction to Gladwell, and I shall only say that What the Dog Saw is for me, his best.
Aman Sethi’s A Free Man is an account of a daily laborer’s life and times in Delhi. Don’t let that premise fool you, the book is about much more than that. As the title posits, Aman Sethi’s idea that his protagonist, the laborer who we are reading about, is more ‘free’ in the life he lives and the choices that he makes than you and I are. In the same vein, Tavleen Singh’s Durbar is a memoir of the famous journalist’s early years, and a sort of critique of the Congress government of the 70’s and 80’s. For me, it was a much needed history lesson, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in post-independence India.
Lastly, just for glittering prose and evocative stories, I’ll leave you with four novels, each of them very different from the other. Jerry Pinto’s Em and the Big Hoom is a love story set in Bombay, and it’s a work of art in its depiction of mental illness. Ian McEwan’s Atonement was a book that held me captivated and horrified with its examination of an emotion we seldom find reason to think about – guilt. Graham Swift’s Last Orders is a celebration of ‘the courage of ordinary lives’. The story of three friends who set out to put to rest another friend’s ashes, the novel is a portrayal of human behavior and emotion at their rawest. It took me quite some time to get over it. Manu Joseph’s The Illicit Happiness of Other People, set in Madras, is a deep, intelligent masterclass. The book was a pleasure to read, and the characters Manu Joseph drew up were so realistic I could almost recognize them. A beautiful, beautiful book.
I haven’t covered all the books I read in the year that was, of course, but these are the ones that I think, were the best of them. And like the best Year in Reading posts, I hope I have put a few more books on your never ending to-read list.
Don’t waste another second, gentle reader. Words beckon.
It’s almost gone, 2011, and try as I might, I really don’t know what to label it as.
Eventful it has been, my masters is over, and I find myself working. I have changed jobs already, been lucky enough to find something I love doing. I have been distressed, I have been lost. I have been confused. I have walked for hours in the Hyderabad rain. I’ve earned real money for the first time in my life. I’ve made new friends. I’ve run away from love, hunted by the demons of my past.
I’ve tried to hide from myself, and at the same time found a way through it all.
I have lived in three different cities, each one special to me in it’s own way, each having a story of it’s own.
I don’t know what to call 2011, it has been a slideshow of emotions – mostly sad, sometimes happy, but always special. But this also means I’ve lived life, and I suppose that’s something.
I have discovered, or rather rediscovered things that used to mean a lot to me.
Music. I sang a lot this year. At parties, at friend’s places, at get-togethers, on my own. Among friends in Hyderabad, at joints in Chennai. Some times this year, music was all I had.
Cricket. I donned the red and white of the Amrita School of Business for my last university game. I bowled reasonably well, batted very badly & lost that game. It hit me hard. My final university game deserved better. I wasn’t sad about the loss – that’s part of the game, and of life. But I was certainly disappointed. At that point of time, my game could have given me some kind of solace. It didn’t. Even my beloved game deserted me.
But these won’t be the things that will say ‘2011’ when I think about them, many years from now. I will remember 2011 for something else entirely.
For abstractness, for meaning, for imprints left in the mind.
My love for the written word came back with a vengeance this year, and having nothing else to hold on to, I clung on to it with everything I had. Probably more.
It was “one of those days”, as we call them – evenings when existence seems to question itself and your heart lurches in the misty memories of times gone by. I was chatting with a friend. Nothing big, just your basic depressing gtalk chat about the futility of it all, when she said something that made my heart stop.
Sai. Love is terrible, in that one taste of it is never, ever enough.
I don’t know in what context she said this. I don’t remember. Maybe I was just being my usual cynical self, but that string of words is an observation so deep and so true, the meaning of it is enough to knock you over.
Words have a way of doing that.
I found refuge in my books this year. I read so many, sometimes a book a night. There have been nights when I’ve finished a book at 1am & started another. It has been my year of books.
I’m so thankful that I read, though. I of course don’t remember the exact moment I became a bibliophile, but it must have been something like Alberto Manguel describes here –
At one magical instant in your early childhood, the page of a book – that string of confused, alien ciphers – shivered into meaning. Words spoke to you, gave up their secrets; at that moment, whole universes opened. You became, irrevocably, a reader.
I don’t think there’s a better way that can be put.
I was woken up one morning last month by a phone call which asked me simply this – “Do you remember what you tweeted late yesterday night?” I didn’t. I just knew that I was sad, & I was sleepy. “I have sent you a mail, check.” I woke up and did what he told me to do. I checked.
Twitter has become something of a diary for me, and of millions like me around the world. It records my moods, my thoughts, my opinions, my every move.
Those 140 characters sometimes can become mirrors, reflecting things from the crevices of your soul, things you try hard to keep hidden.
My friend had sent me a curation of my tweets from the last night. It must have been a godless, moonless nightfall. For the darkness in my own words scares me.
Her haunting presence in your every waking minute. The knowledge that you never were for her what she was to you. That.
The trauma of beautiful loss. Knowing that as she walks in your head, she tramples on your dreams.
The World went on. She has moved on. But your heart screaming out what you already know – You will never be the same again. Never ever.
The letters she never wrote. The kisses that never transpired. A love that never was love. What happened doesn’t matter. What didn’t, does.
When words are all you have left. And flashes. Of memories, that is. Distant, cold. And the laughter that once ruled your life.
When all I want is for my thoughts to fade away. The flicker of a lamp, the damp of the night, her hold on my heart, the time that flew by..
The songs she demanded you sing. The rains she demanded you bring. When all she loved was what you gave her. Not you. It was never you.
Where that came from, or where it went, I do not know. But there it is.
From the contemporary science and fiction of Richard Dawkins, Ian Rankin to classics from Wodehouse, to some heartbreaking Rumi and Neruda poetry, I have uncovered gems, but some of the most beautiful pieces I read this year were not on paper at all.
This one, from someone I know only as mentalexotica, is something I just cannot have enough of.
Why I will write you four letters in one night
Because I cannot keep away from you. Because my nights are yours in thought and memory of the morning before, of the unexpected detonation of desire beneath the sheets at 6:49 am. Because my days are filled with disinterest and wild distractions both. Because your lips keep the memory of my tongue pressed upon them like unwithering flowers. Because my skin is stained by the fingerprints of your craving. Because breathing reconciles itself only with short, sharp pulls and forgets how to exhale. Because writing to you is not writing but an accident of words; colliding, spilling, revealing. Because my body is sore but my longing goes un-neutered. Because the amber-gold highlights of your hair spilling across your face tease a wicked game. Because the white in your smile is a reminder of the bruise on my neck. Because love is a four-lettered word when we make it. Because I cannot keep away from you.
I cannot keep away from you.
If that doesn’t take your breath away, I don’t know what will. I will not try to describe the words above. I don’t possess the intellect to, and I will fail miserably. I’m only a guy who reads. I’ll just get lost in the turmoil it throws my soul into.
It’s time to end 2011 on my blog. What better way than a poem? But first, a small story.
There was a boy, in London. He loved a girl madly, hopelessly. She loved him too.
And then she died in a plane crash in Canada, far away from him.
It was Christmas, 1943, World War 2. He wrote a poem in her memory.
The boy, Leo Marks, was a cryptographer. In March 1944, he used that poem, to encrypt secret messages for the Allies. He used the words he wrote for the girl he loved, to fight Hitler’s evil empire. He was fighting for nothing less than the freedom of the known world. It’s only a few lines, but they do not betray easily the secret they carry or the emotions they were born from. Read it once, and then read it again. Then read it once more. These words demand it.
The life that I have is all that I have
And the life that I have is yours
The love that I have of the life that I have
Is yours and yours and yours.
A sleep I shall have, a rest I shall have
Yet death will be but a pause
For the peace of my years in the long green grass
Will be yours and yours and yours.
I wish I was home in Pondicherry, so I could be with you & Mom & Sahaana, but seeing as I’ve finished my days at University & got myself a job, I have to work now, and so Hyderabad it is, for now.
I have never even wished you on Father’s day before. I don’t remember having done so at all. I don’t think you ever expected me to. Because that’s the kind of person you are. You just gave me & Sahaana everything that we could ever want. And of course Mom too. We are blessed, all of us. Thank you Daddy.
When I was 5, you bought me books that cost half of your salary. Just because your son said he wanted to read. We sometimes had no money at all, but you would still buy me Gokulam & Chandamama, so I wouldn’t feel bad. We may have come a long way from those days, Daddy, when we used to live in a single room in Jamnagar, but I will not forget what you and Mom did for me. Thank you Daddy.
When I was 10, Mom had this severe typhoid attack, and we were all still in Gujarat, with the rest of our family over here in Pondicherry. I remember how you took care of her, of us kids, & still found time to read “The Mahabharata” at night for us. I remember when Mom was better & you took us all on a tour to Rajasthan. I remember holding your hand at eating Ice Cream on Mount Abu, thinking how much I loved you. Thank you Daddy.
When I was 15 and we all came back to Pondicherry, I knew it was because of me, because you wanted your son & daughter to grow up in the town where you were born. You had to take a major career transition. You had to write exams, study for them, with your son, as I prepared for my 10th boards as well. You had a great career, a content life, but you chose to drop all that, come back and struggle, all for us. It was so difficult. You made it through that too. But then, I always knew you would. You are my hero. Thank you Daddy.
I never fulfilled what you expected of me. I fell apart, neglected my studies, got into so much trouble, broke yours and Mom’s heart at one point of time, but you still believed in me. When I was suspended from engineering college for hitting a HOD, you still didn’t even scold me. I had 12 papers in backlogs at that point, but you said nothing. You were breaking inside, the boy for whom you had given half your life was turning into something else. But you still believed in me. It is that unflinching belief that is the reason for my being someone today. Thank you Daddy.
When I got admission to B School, and the time came to pay the huge fees, Mom had second thoughts. She was afraid I would do what I did in engineering. But you, you believed in me. You sent me to University. But this time it was different. I did what I went there to do. I finished my masters, I came out with a job, and here I’m, two months into it. Last week, I sent my first salary home, not that you need it, but because I want to. You have given me everything that I have asked for, and so many things I didn’t even ask. You’re the greatest in the world. Thank you Daddy.
I’m 23 today, and I wanted to tell you how much you mean to me. I can’t put it into words, Daddy. I wanted to be a good son, I have failed a lot of times, but I want you to know that I tried.
I want you to know that I’m proud. Of a decorated Indian Air Force officer, who defended our country, fought for it, and bled for it. Of a soldier who served our nation, on the heights of Kashmir, on the mountains of Shillong, in the deserts of Rajasthan and even fought for peace on the Sri Lankan plains. I’m proud of the man who taught me honesty, integrity, discipline and love. Without you, these would have been mere words, Daddy. I’m proud of the person that you’re.
I’m proud that I’m your son.
Thanks, Daddy, for everything.