From Delhi’s courtesans and merchants at the time of the Mutiny to the search for the perfect hilsa, Indian non-fiction had more variety on offer this year than in the previous five. Here are some of the highlights—an indicative rather than comprehensive list, for reasons of space—of 2010 in general non-fiction.
Business: The second-best thing about All The Devils Are Here (Portfolio/ Penguin, Bethany McLean and Joe Nocera) and The Big Short (Allen Lane, Michael Lewis) is that these two business books read like well-written, fast-paced thrillers. The best thing about McLean’s history of the 2008 financial crisis and Short’s dissection of the “tiny handful of investors… for whom the trade became an obsession” is that they are snapshots of a time of greed and hubris. In comparison, Hamish McDonald’s long-anticipated Ambani and Sons (Roli Books) is big on gossip, comprehensive enough, but lacked the punch and the rigorous analysis that a Michael Lewis brings to the table. It reads like a rehash of McDonald’s earlier book, the controversial Polyester Prince.
History: Ramachandra Guha’s Makers of Modern India (Viking/ Penguin) drew crowds and intense debate, over those the historian chose to include in this collection of 19 profiles. Despite its many insights, it fell short of Guha’s best work—a milestone rather than a monumental work in his career. Mahmood Farooqui’s Besieged: Voices from Delhi, 1857 (Viking/ Penguin) was a welcome reminder of the missing oral histories and the untouched records in our libraries. A lasting addition to Mutiny scholarship, it could, however, have done with more commentary and analysis from Farooqui. Madhushree Mukherjee’s Churchill’s Secret War (Tranquebar) offered both in a trenchant criticism that directly linked Winston Churchill’s biases to the great famine of Bengal. And one of the more entertaining analyses of contemporary India was Santosh Desai’s collection of essays on the middle classes, Mother Pious Lady: Making Sense of Everyday India (HarperCollins).
Travel writing: Samanth Subramanian’s Following Fish (Penguin), winner of the Shakti Bhatt First Book prize, was one of the discoveries of the year. Marrying a journalist’s eye to a writer’s turn of phrase, Subramanian made his travels up and down the Indian coast come alive, for foodies and travel junkies alike.
Sadanand Dhume’s gripping My Friend The Fanatic: Travels With A Radical Islamist (Tranquebar) is one of the more illuminating and thoughtful examinations of contemporary Islam available, which includes meetings with top Al-Qaeda chiefs and the inventor of an especially risqué dance called drilling. Balance this with Amitava Kumar’s rigorous but personal Evidence of Suspicion: A Writer’s Report on the War on Terror (Picador India), which moves between India and the US and is a brilliant study of how governments have internalized paranoia at the expense of the rights of their citizens.
The arts: Deepanjana Pal’s Life of Raja Ravi Varma (Random House) was one of the few approachable and entertaining artist’s biographies—as opposed to hagiographies—to be written in recent times. Pal’s bland and slightly workmanlike style is offset by her intimate understanding of the period and of art. With Penguin Studio’s monumental tribute to Dayanita Singh, it’s the photographs that do the talking as much as the perceptive essays by Sunil Khilnani and Aveek Sen—definitely a collector’s item, and an essential guide to the work of one of India’s most celebrated photographers. And well worth its Rs 6,000 price tag is the Khoj Book (HarperCollins), with well-curated profiles of 101 Indian artists, from one of India’s most experimental and freewheeling art galleries.
For Charles Correa fans, A Place in the Shade (Penguin India) is a quiet, thoughtful and inspiring collection of the maestro’s essays on architecture—again, essential reading for anyone interested in India’s cities and buildings. And on a lighter note, don’t miss Jai Arjun Singh’s Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (HarperCollins)—a cult film and books blogger on one of our funniest and most intriguing cult films.
Next week: the year’s best biographies and memoirs, fromfrom the lives of bar dancers in Bombay to Mark Twain’s irreverent take on Samuel Clemens and the ultimate assessment of the man in the White House.