Speaking Volumes: 2011’s best S Asian non-fiction

(Published in the Business Standard, December 27, 2011)

From the biography of a killer disease to a tale of three lovers and one murder, the Opium Wars to the life of a woman who found madness instead of God, this year’s non-fiction by Indians or set in Asia took a wide view of the world. What follows is a highly eclectic selection.

The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism (Deborah Baker, Penguin): The author photo of Maryam Jameelah, writes Baker, was that of “a shapeless black ghost: not even her eyes could be seen behind the dark folds of her veil”. Under the careful scrutiny of Baker, the convert came into sharper focus: Maryam Jameelah was born to a Jewish family, fled her home and faith in search of a truer religion, became a disciple of the fiery Islamic preacher Mawdoodi and stumbled between apparent schizophrenia and a state of temporary belonging.

The Convert is one of the most searching biographies of recent times, in the uncomfortable questions it asks about faith and the certainties of both West and East, and in Baker’s final, disconcerting encounters with the real Jameelah, born Margaret Marcus, who lives in Pakistan today.

The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams and the Making of China (Julia Lovell, Picador): Lovell is one of the few historians of the 19th century Opium Wars who has an understanding of the two competing views of the battles between China and Britain. Her lucid, complex account is finely detailed — and for added enjoyment, it should be read alongside Amitav Ghosh’s fictional trilogy, the Ibis saga, set against the same background and period.

The Emperor of All Maladies (Siddhartha Mukherjee, Simon & Schuster): The jubilant acclaim Mukherjee received in India for his monumental biography of cancer belied the fact that there is little Indian about the book itself. Mukherjee’s research into the history of cancer was all developed and conducted in the US.

But this minor quibble shouldn’t detract from his achievement: this is one of the most illuminating and moving books of the year. The quotations from Herodotus and the personal stories from patients give this already impressive biography even more intimacy.

Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty (Abhijit Banerji/Esther Duflo, Random House): Why would a kilo of dal be enough incentive for families in Udaipur to complete an immunisation programme? How complex are the choices made by really poor families, and how can that decision-making be improved? Duflo and Banerji offer a new way to think about and address poverty. Constantly updated with new research from India, China and elsewhere, their website has grown into a resource that complements but goes beyond the book.

A Free Man (Aman Sethi, Random House): For five years, Aman Sethi followed the life of Mohammed Ashraf, a mazdoor in Delhi, and attempted successive interviews, often abortive. What began as a promising research project grew into this biography of a labourer, one of the millions of migrants who flock to the capital in search of work. Ashraf, with his philosophical bent and a Chekhovian approach to life, opens up another city for Sethi and his readers, one where you can live a life of azaadi (freedom) and akelapan (loneliness).

The Red Market (Scott Carney, William Morrow): The hair shorn from devotees at the Tirupati temple forms the centre of a brisk trade in wigs; less well known is the red market in human wombs, tissues and remains. His investigation of the vampiric harvesting of blood in parts of India was grimly shocking; the ins and outs of the skeleton business are equally unsettling. But what raises this book above ordinary journalism is Carney’s ability to ask the darker and more uncomfortable moral questions, about the ethics of the surrogacy business as well as more obvious crimes.

Death in Mumbai (Meenal Baghel, Random House): Instead of treating the murder of Neeraj Grover as a sensational crime of passion, Baghel asks a simple question: what would make an aspiring model, Maria Susairaj, and her naval officer boyfriend kill her former lover, hack his corpse into pieces, and look for a cold-blooded cover-up?

It’s the normal, small-town backbeat to the lives and aspirations of Grover and Susairaj that makes the murder doubly chilling, and Baghel quietly draws a picture of a generation growing up in Mumbai, unmoored but easily seduced by the city’s promise of making it big. As with Sonia Faleiro’s 2010 Beautiful Thing, Death in Mumbai is another small indicator that Indian writers are finding their voices outside of the enclaves of fiction.

Taj Mahal Foxtrot (Naresh Fernandes, Roli Books): It was about 15 years ago that Naresh Fernandes began wondering about the backstories to the musicians who lit up Bombay’s jazz age. For years afterwards, friends and acquaintances would receive unexpected presents: MP3s of Lorna’s sinuously honeyed voice singing Goan anthems to love and drunkards, for instance. It seems unfair for Bombay to have two unforgettable city biographies coming out in the same year, but Fernandes’ homage to the city’s jazz age captures Bombay in swing time. The men and women who lit up the city, the era of “music without birth control”, the clubs and the small tragedies — all of these are captured perfectly. Get the book, and the soundtrack.






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