The Business Standard column: summer reading (non-fiction)

(First published in Business Standard on March 21, 2005)

This was part two of the summer reading special: non-fiction, this time.

It’s the buzz you hear from foreign publishers and editors eyeing the great Indian pool of talent: non-fiction in India is about to take off. The view from inside the well is interesting. Anthologies, fiction and non-fiction, have proliferated in the last few years; HarperCollins released an anthology of new writing last month, and Penguin’s collection, First Proof is out next fortnight.

Reissues are beginning to make their mark, though there’s only space to note one or two, such as EHA’s nature columns, collected as Zoo in the Garden by Permanent Black and Chitrita Banerji’s classic memoir Life and Food in Bengal (Penguin). And there’s some truly funky original writing out there from Indian writers, along with some good stuff from the international market. Here’s the summer reading non-fiction round-up—indicative rather than exhaustive.

Pundits from Pakistan: Rahul Bhattacharya (Picador India): Here’s a guy who can tell you why Sami is a hot favourite with eunuchs in Multan, analyse the peculiar blend of emotions that accompanies India and Pakistan onto the cricket field and sign off with a wry look at the border. Read it for the cricket, or for the gossip, or as a travelogue, or for the historical analysis, or just for Bhattacharya’s particular brand of wit, but read it.

Open Secrets: M K Dhar (Manas Publications) The problem with the memoirs of retired civil servants is that they’re usually less revealing than a nun’s habit. Dhar’s account of his innings as one of the keystones of Indian intelligence is explosively frank, whether he’s writing about Ayodhya or Kargil. He’s sparked off a debate over whether civil servants have a duty to be more reticent, with much muttering over the Official Secrets Act; but the issues he’s raised are troubling and compelling. If this isn’t already on your bookshelf, you’re missing out.

Fearless Nadia: Dorothee Wenner (Penguin) The inside story of the lady with the whip hand, from someone who knew Nadia’s family well. This is where you discover how a solidly built foreigner who couldn’t speak Hindi without turning “kabu” into “Kabul” became the Pauline of India. There are vamps and sirens and item girls galore, but there’s only ever been one Hunterwali, fighting villains by the dozen and leaping off roofs with casual abandon while wearing some of the most bizarre costumes ever designed.

Re-Visioning the Past
Malavika Karlekar (OUP)
Old photographs rescued from the attics and trunks of Bengali bhadralok homes led Dr Karlekar into this academic but very accessible study of the hidden stories lurking inside those early daguerrotypes and lithographs. Children in Little Lord Fauntleroy suits, married couples posed against a fake Victorian backdrop, clashes between Indian inventors and a British establishment unwilling to give them credit, carte-de-visits all tell a story of imperialism and the changing face of Bengali society.

Collapse: Jared Diamond (Viking)
There’s always a Big Idea book of the moment; with a writer like Jared Diamond, the moment tends to last a long time. You could see Collapse as the next part of the argument he started in Guns, Germs and Steel . He starts with a deceptively simple question: what makes societies collapse? The search for the answer takes him to Easter Island, to Greenland and to Rwanda among other places. Diamond has provocative arguments, as usual, backed up with awesome knowledge, but some sceptics contend that the human race isn’t going to head the earnest lemming way quite as soon as Diamond suggests.

Blink: Malcolm Gladwell (Little, Brown)
And there’s always a Big Idea book of the moment that is strictly of the moment. Gladwell’s thesis is that we make snap decisions far more often than we realise, that most humans process most of the useful information they need in the blink of an eye, and that intuition and “thin slicing” count for more than we think. Blink is a good, fast read and some of Gladwell’s analysis of relationships and how humans make decisions is fascinating. But the real triumph of Blink lies in the manner in which a relatively thin thesis can be stretched far enough for thousands of readers to intuitively thin-slice their way into buying the book.

India in Mind (edited by Pankaj Mishra)
Picador India
This should be read in tandem with Away , Amitava Kumar’s anthology on India seen through the eyes of travellers, expatriates, exiles and well, inmates. Mishra has attempted to cover a century of writers, chiefly from Europe or America, who traveled to India. In his words, “By attempting to understand India through their own cultural and intellectual inheritance, they reveal honestly a variety of assumptions and prejudices whose history goes back to Herodotus…” From Ackerley to Allen Ginsberg, Forster to Kipling, Jan Morris and Ved Mehta, Paul Theroux and Paul Bowles, there’s quite a collection here.

The Hall of a Thousand Columns
Tim Mackintosh-Smith (John Murray, distributed by IBH)
This is the second part of Tim Mackintosh-Smith’s travels in the company of a 14th century Arab wanderer. With Ibn Battutah as his guide, if somewhat disconcertingly abbreviated to a more casual ‘IB’, Mackintosh-Smith comes to India. Like other pilgrims, he finds the cartoon India, the cliché India…but also the India of Ibn Battutah’s manuscripts. And he’s good at making you journey inside a book.

The End of Poverty
Jeffrey D Sachs (Penguin Press)
From the Amazon page for Sachs, it appears that half the readers who bought this book also bought books by Amartya Sen and Joseph Stiglitz; the other half bought Jagdish Bhagwati’s In Defense of Globalisation and Martin Wolf’s Why Globalisation Works . That’s what I call a balanced audience. Sachs, director of the Earth Institute, weaves in personal experience into this passionate appeal for an end to poverty and a guide to how this might be achieved. He also got Bono to write the foreword—so what you’re getting is Sachs, no drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. Two out of three is just fine.

Human Cargo
Caroline Moorehead (Henry Holt)
Moorehead’s travels into some of the saddest stories ever told made one thing clear to this journalist and human rights worker: the 21st century will see the largest flows of refugees, displaced persons and forced migrants ever. She analyses the UN’s hampered and often compromised role and the Fortress mentality of many Western countries with passion and clarity. But she’s at her best telling the stories of those who’ve fled war, violence, poverty and other human tragedies and attempting to give back some of the dignity their journeys have taken away from them.

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