Best of this. Best of that. For twenty years, India Currents has re-invented its end-of-year offerings with the hope of bringing the best of everything Indian to our readers. But somehow we never quite got around to having a “Best Books” list. This year the magazine’s regular reviewers decided to look back on the year and share two books each: one that we reviewed in these pages in 2007 and fell in love with, and one from the past twenty-four months that we’ve been lusting over but just haven’t gotten around to reading. As a result, what follows is a “Books We’d Like to Share” list rather than a “Best Books” list. Both kinds of lists are highly subjective, but we’d like to think that the former is a bit more like a gift.
Each of us comes to our books in a very personal way. Some read books recommended by Oprah (of course, there are sure to be subscribers to the New York Times who avoid books recommended by the diva of daytime talk shows). Others have books gifted to them (of course, many of these books go unread). For those who eschew television and are wary of gifts by well-meaning friends and family, there are book clubs—both the online kind that readers pull from, and the old-fashioned Book of the Month Club that pushes off books to readers as regularly as the calendar turns pages. And, yes, there are still readers who wander around bricks-and-mortar bookstores, browsing through stacks, serendipitously bumping into a book, opening it to a random page, reading a paragraph or two for the frisson that only ink on paper can give off, and perhaps taking the writer home for a longer read. We hope our reviews give India Currents readers a taste of what these wonderful books have in store for them.
Happy Reading and Happy Holidays.
IN SPITE OF THE GODS: THE RISE OF MODERN INDIA by Edward Luce. Doubleday January 2007. 383 pages. $26.
Edward Luce’s In Spite of the Gods: The Rise of Modern India is an antidote to books that suggest that the vitality of Indian civilization expired sometime between the Mughal period and British Imperialism. Page after page is filled with quote-worthy insight. The careful reader is rewarded by questions that these insights raise. For example, Luce notes that “in India the modern lifestyle is just another layer on the country’s ancient palimpsest … Most Europeans tend to think of modernity as the triumph of a secular way of life: church attendance gradually dwindles and religion becomes a minority pastime confined to worshipers’ private lives … In Europe the past is the past. But in India, the past is in many ways also the future.” In Spite of the Gods stirs the reader out of sleepy indifference about the dreams and nightmares of the palimpsest that is India—living at once in the past, present, and future.
MOHANDAS: THE TRUE STORY OF A MAN, HIS PEOPLE, AND AN EMPIRE by Rajmohan Gandhi. Viking/Penguin. April 2007. Hardcover, 745 pages.
While Mohandas K. Gandhi is a much-celebrated part of India’s past, it seems that he is not considered relevant to the modern world. For many years I’ve been confused by the odd conflation of hero-worship of the Mahatma and dustbin-relegation of the message. I’ve read many books by and about Gandhiji to try to understand this odd phenomenon of casting aside the nonviolent philosophy of the 20th century’s most influential social and political leader.
Perhaps by reading Rajmohan Gandhi’s Mohandas: A True Story of a Man, his People and an Empire, I’ll be able to reconcile myself to the sad fact that the man who was able to stir a nation to march against colonialism, now walks alone, largely abandoned by Indians in India and of the diaspora. Or perhaps by cracking open this biography written by Gandhiji’s grandson, I’ll find a glimmer of hope for future generations.
—Rajesh C. Oza
THE STRIKE by Anand Mahadevan. TSAR Publications. October 2006. Trade paperback, 216 pages. $18.95.
Of the many books I’ve been privileged to review for India Currents in 2007, the one that impressed me the most was The Strike by Anand Mahadevan. Written as a drama of errors that segues into a coming-of-age tale, The Strikeis carried off with a sensitivity and empathy not often found in debut novels. Too often adults fail to recall what it was like to be a pre-teen in a decidedly adult world. While 12-year-old Hari’s world 20 years ago has unique history attached to it, the basic confusions and miscommunications of the age remain common to all children. The series of unfortunate events that challenges the charming and curious protagonist carefully and realistically tells a mature story that does not allow the reader to be a remote observer; adolescence and its all-too-familiar growing pains revive memories we may have forgotten and fill our hearts with knowing anticipation.
TAJ MAHAL: PASSION AND GENIUS AT THE HEART OF THE MOGHUL EMPIRE by Diana Preston and Michael Preston. Walker and Company. March 2007. Hardcover, 336 pages. $25.95.
I love historical narratives because they breathe life into the past, while putting people, places, and events into context with the rest of their contemporary world. Taj Mahal: Passion and Genius at the Heart of the Moghul Empire by Oxford historians Diana and Michael Preston takes high priority on my reading list because it promises to investigate the complex Mughal saga and integrate it with the architectural icon rightfully named one of the seven wonders of the world.
The authors pledge to convey the intricacy of the empire and the resilience of the people as the back story of the magnificent monument. While parts of the world were first being discovered and explored, the Mughal Empire was reaching the pinnacle of its grandeur and reach, creating a part of world history that is not only passionate but enduring as well.
—Jeanne E. Fredriksen
SACRED GAMES by Vikram Chandra. Harper Collins, January 2007. Hardcover, 928 pages. $27.95.
In spite of its formidable length, Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games is easily the best book that I reviewed in 2007. It is the epic story of India’s most exciting city, Mumbai, where I last lived before coming to the United States. It is a multilayered work of fiction that delves into the dark side of the Indian ethos. It is the story of the activities of the Mumbai mafia, which has connections to both domestic and international terrorism. Ganesh Gaitonde, the underworld don, is pitted against Sartaj Singh, the good cop. Chandra’s canvas stretches from the partition to the terrorist activities of the ’90s when there were several bomb explosions in Mumbai. The novel depicts a broad spectrum of life: mobsters, politicians, Bollywood figures, the intelligence establishment, the police, ordinary middle class people, and the marginalized poor living in slums. At the end of the novel, one can only marvel at the resilience of Mumbai where, in spite of a nuclear threat, life goes on as usual.
PLANET INDIA: HOW THE FASTEST GROWING DEMOCRACY IS TRANSFORMING AMERICA AND THE WORLD by Mira Kamdar. Scribner. February 2007. Hardcover, 336 pages. $26.
India is very much in the news these days. Mira Kamdar, an associate fellow of the Asia Society, and former fellow of the World Policy Institute, gives us one more perspective on the possibilities as well as some of the dangers that await the emergence of India as a significant world power, in her book Planet India: How the Fastest Growing Democracy Is Transforming America and the World. “As goes India, so goes the world,” she says. But this optimism is tempered with a caveat. I would like to include this book in my reading list since it suggests a new paradigm of democracy that combines change in environmentally sustainable and politically viable ways and avoids the shortcomings of western capitalism.
A THOUSAND SPLENDID SUNS by Khaled Hosseini. Riverhead. May 2007. Hardcover. 384 pages. $25.95. www.us.penguingroup.com
To dismiss the phenomenally successful Kite Runner as being the right book at the right time would be to discount the prodigious talent of its author. Khaled Hosseini demonstrates his marvelous storytelling again in A Thousand Splendid Suns by weaving the dramatic story of two women over decades of Afghan history. As Afghans moved from the rule of King Zahir Shah to the Soviets to the Northern Alliance to the Taliban, women receded from public life into the shadows of the burkha. But under the burkha, the story pulses with life. If Kite Runner took on class and ethnicity, A Thousand Splendid Suns looks at gender and maps the betrayal of women’s lives against a backdrop of thirty years of war. Following the intersecting lives of Mariam and Laila is heart sinking, for you know that moments of happiness will be short-lived like stolen kisses. Yet Hosseini imbues the novel with flashes of joy and dark humor, for example comparing a relentlessly howling baby to warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. A Thousand Splendid Suns might be accused by some of resurrecting the familiar figure of the suffering third-world woman, but even those skeptics will be forced to concede that Hosseini is a damn good storyteller.
THAT SUMMER IN PARIS by Abha Dawesar. Anchor. August 2007. Paperback, 352 pages. $13.95.
The book that I wish I’d had time to read was That Summer in Paris by Abha Dawesar. Ever since her first novel, Miniplanner, where she inhabited the mind of a white bisexual miniplanner-wielding Manhattan yuppie, Dawesar has been a daringly different writer. Her second novel, Babyji, explored sex and class with refreshing candor. And she’s one of the few desi writers to really be able to write about sex without seeming coy or florid. That Summer in Paris, about a 75-year old Nobel-winning writer, part Henry Roth part Salman Rushdie, trying for love in an Internet chat room, sounds very enticing.
THE LIZARD CAGE by Karen Connelly. Nan A. Talese. March 2007. Hardcover, 448 pages. $26.
When I reviewed The Lizard Cage by Karen Connelly, I was unprepared for my own reaction to the book. Burma (now Myanmar) is such a mysterious country save for the glimpses the news media gives us of Aung Sung Su Kyi, lifting her hand, with great forbearance, in greeting to her supporters from behind the gates of her Rangoon home where she is, and has been, under house arrest. It took years for Connelly to write the book, traveling to Burma, spending time with the people, and transforming what could have been straight and stark reportage into a gorgeous, though painful fictional account. Teza, the “songbird” who composes and sings songs of protest against the brutal and senseless regime in power, undergoes an unspeakably horrific imprisonment in Burma’s notorious Insein prison and begins to let go of the horror of his own life, which is destined to end in the prison, while at the same time befriending a young orphan who has grown up in the jail, giving him not only hope but the means to survive on the outside. Connelly shows us the resilience of a beautiful and gentle people beaten into submission by greed and power.
ENCOUNTERING KAMALA by Kamala Das. Gorgoues Notions Press. October 2007. Hardcover, 183 pages. $22.
I am looking forward to reading Encountering Kamala, the first American publication of the poetry of Kamala Das. Das is always controversial, never boring, and admittedly inconsistent. This first American edition will give many readers a glimpse into the poetry of a woman who was short-listed for the Nobel prize in 1984 amongst such heavy hitters as Nadine Gordimer, Doris Lessing, and Marguerite Yourcenar. Her blatant sexual desires, shocking (and some believe fake) conversion to Islam, and lyrical and lush lines of poetry have made her, if not an icon to many Indian women, an interesting woman living a life far different from that of others of her generation.