Books in 2009: What authors were reading

(From the Business Standard special year-end issue on books, published in December 2009)


Gurcharan Das, author of The Difficulty of Being Good:

My choice would be the battle books–Books Six to Nine–of the Mahabharata in the recent, beautiful, parallel texts in English and Sanskrit published by the Clay Sanskrit Series/New York University Press (2005-2008). Ten volumes of the epic have appeared in this series. Like the Book of Bhishma preceding them, the epic has named the battle books after the successive leaders of Duryodhana’s army. Notable for its poetic rendering is Drona by Vaughan Pilikian but Adam Bowles’ Karna and Justin Meiland’s Shalya are also impressive. Some of the verses from Pilikian’s translation seem to jump of the page.

I only wish that Clay had employed the Sanskrit Critical Edition, compiled painstakingly over half a century by comparing several hundred versions from across India and beyond. Clay follows the ‘vulgate Mahabharata’ of the 17th century scholar, Pandit Nilakantha Chaturdhara (Kinjawadekar R, The Mahābhāratam with the commentary Bharata Bhawadeepa of Nilakantha, 2nd ed. 6 vols, New Delhi: Oriental Books Reprint Corp, 1979.) Hence, its numbering of chapters and verses is different.

Alice Albinia, author of Empires of the Indus:

There’s been something interminable – literally – about previous
translations of the Mahabharata. Bookness does not become this
epic-poem-genealogy-story, and there’s no reason why it should. Indian
audiences have generally absorbed it as a recital or performance;
previous translations into English have been cursed by its
extraordinary length; so this abridged version by John D. Smith is a
feat. The summaries and abridgements aid the flow, bringing out the
operatic, or sometimes even soap-operatic, quality of people telling,
and re-telling stories to each other.

It’s always pleasing to have one’s prejudices about a book confounded.
Last night I read Summertime by J.M. Coetzee, expecting to find it
self-referential and dull. But I liked it. I liked the ‘dour comedy’,
and the teasing overlap between memoir and fiction, and the questions
it poses about politics and truth. It’s good.

William Dalrymple, author of Nine Lives:

Sam Miller’s Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity teems with strange stories and bizarre quiddities, rich discoveries and unexpected diversions that will delight Delhi lovers and baffle and amaze those who have so far remained oblivious to its erratic charms. Doggedly pursuing his subject through the meandering back lanes of the old city, its spiralling markets and its gleaming new highways, Sam Miller has created a book that is both a quest and a love letter, and one which is as pleasingly eccentric and anarchic as its subject.

No less eccentric is Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History. I loved its brave and even reckless quirkiness (why all that focus on animals—but then why not?) and thought it an earthy, revelatory and brilliant book by one of the world’s greatest Sanskrit scholars, and certainly its most unpredictable. It’s a model of how scholars can make their work accessible to a general rather than an exclusively academic audience, without any way losing their authority

[Other Rooms, Other Wonders is an astonishing collection of short stories by the new star of Pakistani fiction, Daniyal Mueenuddin. Like Turgenev, Mueenuddin creates a world peopled by rural folk, generously sketched with a wonderful freshness and lightness. I also hugely enjoyed Basharat Peer’s moving and beautifully written Curfewed Night, a worthy winter of the Crossword prize, John Guy’s Indian Temple Sculpture, and Shazia Omar’s Like a Diamond in the Sky: I predict she will be one of stars of the next Jaipur Literary Festival, which this year runs from the 21st-25th Jan.]

For me, though this was the year of Cormac McCarthy. There is no question in my mind he is one of the two or three the greatest living novelists writing in English today, and The Road for my money the great dark masterpiece of this decade.

Aravind Adiga, author of White Tiger:

Thomas Pynchon is becoming unfashionable, but his latest novel, Inherent Vice, a detective story set at the end of the psychedelic 60s, reminds us why he is worth reading. If you can put up with the bad puns and the sometimes heavy-handed caricature, you’ll find an edgy, energetic, and often very disturbing book.

In Soumya Bhattacharya’s If I Could Tell You, a man who has always wanted to make it as a writer tells his daughter his life’s story. Opening with quiet, precise strokes, Bhattacharya’s new novel builds up to a terrifying–and ambiguous–crescendo.

Sam Miller, author of Delhi: Adventures in a Mega-City:

My favourite book of the year is, without question, The Running Sky by Tim Dee. It’s a remarkable memoir by a man who is obsessed with birds – and always has been. It’s a graphically unsentimental book, about a subject which, hitherto, was of no interest to me. Dee writes beautiful prose which never collapses into the breathless, saccharine hyperbole of so much ‘nature writing.’

My other book of the year is about Delhi, and no it’s not mine, but a gorgeously produced, weighty volume called New Delhi: Making of a Capital by Malvika Singh and Rudrangshu Mukherjee. The text is an excellent introduction to the building of New Delhi and the photographs are extraordinary. They include superb images of the blasting of Raisina Hill to create the plateau on which Rashtrapati Bhavan was built, and another that shows the Indian Parliament, mid construction, looking like a bomb-site.

Namita Devidayal, author of The Music Room:

I loved Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road. After it won the Oscar in 2009, I decided to read the book instead of watching the film, and loved how it unravelled the dark side in a seemingly normal family. I found it particularly inspiring because i am working on a similar kind of novel — about a big happy Indian family and the duplicity that takes place…how things that get pushed under the carpet only to pop up later in a dream or through a child. For, the past is the present.

I also loved Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Missing Servant, where a marriage broker turned “most private investigator” tracks down a missing maidservant in Delhi– it was light and funny and perceptive!

Ruchir Joshi, editor of Electric Feather: The Tranquebar Anthology of Erotic Stories

I’ve been reading Anthony Beevor’s books on the second world war. I started with `Stalingrad’ and then, having begun `Berlin’, I made a detour into `D-Day’, just to get the chronology right. Beevor’s is an amazing talent, he’s someone who can score facts and testimony into a gripping narrative symphony on the bloody grandeur, the tragedy and complete absurdity of war, a compostion where you can simultaneously hear the waterfall of massed brass and rhythm along with the faintest notes of an oboe or a violin.

In the first book, you can see and understand the sweep of large history as the German Army rumbles across the steppe, almost unopposed; you can feel the baffled frustration of the star Generals of the Wehrmacht as their collective greatcoat catches on the large, rusty nail of Stalingrad; you shiver with the young Soviet Frontnik as he attacks the panzers with rationed ammunition, the SS facing him and the NKVD waiting behind to shoot him if he tries to retreat; you can see Samuel Beckett in the detail of the defeated, starving, frostbitten German soldier as he scoops off a lump of live lice and throws it at his Russian guard, knowing full well that this could mean instant death.

Weaving through soldiers’ love letters and brilliantly collated army memos, you stumble into the cross-machinations of three old men in Tehran and Yalta as they carve up the world among themselves, an ailing Roosevelt almost enamoured by the wily Stalin, ignoring Churchill’s huge and accurate misgivings about the Georgian’s post-war intentions.

Moving west, in `D-Day’ you witness the gargantuan logistical madness as Operation Overlord goes into first gear, participate in the gamble with the weather which could have meant thousands of lives lost and the war prolonged by months, suffer with the Americans stuck on their landing boat, suspended between the roiling sea and the toilet chute of their British transport, cursing and shouting as the oblivious Royal Navy sailors empty their bowels on the GIs’ heads and heavy combat gear.

As the competing`Yanks’ and `Limeys’ move into the deadly maze of Normandy hedgerows, you see the petty jealousies of the generals on both sides, the peacocking stupidity of Montgomery, the bluster of Patton, the senility of Von Rundtsedt, the fury of Rommel teh first one on the German side to do his sums and come up with the answer: total defeat. Across all three books a masterful portrait is also built up of one Adolf Hitler and his circle of poisonous sycophants and you understand eaxctly to what extent the war was lost by this madman as it was won by the Soviet Army with a little help from the Allies. Finally and most importantly, because of Beevor’s subtle rigour and supple story-telling skills you understand how the British Empire ended, why the Cold War began, why the post-war United States behaved as it did, how, in the short span of those five years was compacted the course of the next seventy.

(Compiled by Rrishi Raote and Nilanjana S Roy)






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