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.
I saw her even as I went in. Though I didn’t pay attention then. She looked the same. Like all the regulars I was used to seeing, at Mocha Adyar. She fit right into the familiar, and my eyes let her blend in. Into dim lighting and low voices, into the smell of coffee beans.
As they say, the human eye sees only what it wants to.
I was looking for the corner place I loved, where I could put my feet up on the couch and read.
I found it.
My fingers went to the Flipkart bookmark. And Turkey came alive. I was reading Orhan Pamuk’s ‘My Name is Red’. It’s a stunning tale, told from viewpoints of paintings, dead men, dervishes, dogs, colors, artists and murderers. Delicately written and intricately detailed, the book represents more than the story itself – it shows us the evolution of Islam as a religion, the interpretations of its beautiful teachings into something darker, it shows us the art of the miniaturist, the skill of an artist. It had me captivated.
I only looked up because my coffee had arrived.
And there she was again.
She wore glasses. That’s the first thing I noticed. Duh, of course. There was a jute bag on the table. Must have been something handmade. Um, I don’t really know. She looked like she’d value something like that. I’m just guessing.
Long, black hair, a strand of which she was twirling with her finger.
Feet on the table.
In the other hand – a book. Ayn Rand. The Fountainhead.
Now if you haven’t read ‘The Fountainhead’, you certainly should. It’s a seminal work by one of the world’s most revered writers. Ayn Rand was a firebrand, and her philosophies, contained in her books, are the same. Objectivism continues to thrill, enrage and move people to this day, and I myself have been witness to charged discussions on it at the Romain Rolland, Pondicherry’s old French library. I should warn you that reading the book is not easy at all. It took me more than a month and I had to go back to certain passages again and again. But you should take that time. It’s an important book.
She had a faint smile, eyes down, a finger holding the corner to turn the page. I wondered which one of Roark’s antics she was smiling about. Then it disappeared, that hint of tiny delight. Her expression went neutral, then serious.
I sipped my coffee.
The finger kept twirling the hair. Pretty as that was, I hoped she’d let that strand rest. But no. She kept doing it.
And she kept reading.
Writing is, by definition, a very lonely exercise. It needs concentration, imagination and practice. It needs hours of dedication, hours of devotion.
Reading is different. It’s not lonely, in fact, far from it. When you read, you are with the characters, within stories. Actually, you don’t ‘read’, it is the tale that takes you along, drags you in, slowly, unconsciously, opens your eyes to places you have never seen, or indeed, might never see.
The irony is that something so lonely can produce something so comforting.
You can get lost inside a book. I know. I have.
She was lost. I could see it. In her gleaming eyes as they moved across the timeless print, in the way she leaned forward into the book as if she wanted to fall into it. I watched her in intervals, tearing my eyes away from my book, and I could see myself in her sometimes, in the way that we see mirror images of ourselves in puddles of water as we walk in the rain, snatches of reflections caught in traces of time.
She was in New York, in the 1920s. I was in 16th century Istanbul. And we both were in Chennai, in a coffee shop in a quiet street, with an old tree arching over the door, in the 12th year of the 3rd millennium.
As I walked out into the night, I stole a last glance at her. She looked up then. And gazed straight at me.
I stepped outside and kept walking.
I did not know her, that girl in the coffee shop, but I sure would like to.