The Year Gone By: 2008

My reading year came to a grinding halt not on the 31st, but the 28th of December this year as I finished Gioconda Belli’s riveting memoir The Country Under My Skin: A Memoir of Love and War. Belli spent nearly two decades as a sandinismo, working for the overthrow of the dreaded US backed Somoza regime in Nicaragua. When revolution finally arrived, she contritely observes  that “it was good to remember that political power, even when it was considered revolutionary, had been for the most part a man’s job, tailored to its needs”. Women cadres that had fought arm in arm with men were sidelined once the Sandinistas came to power in 1979, starting with the disbanding of the women’s militia.The book delves rather long on the writer’s numerous affairs and escapades with the half a dozen or so men in her life but, in the second half of the book, thankfully meanders towards the victory of the Sandinista ‘revolution’. This successful revolution, the second one in Latin America after Cuba, is what leads her to end the book with a sense of optimism, despite the patriarchy and its subsequent failure.

I dare say, after the life I have lived, that there is nothing quixotic or romantic in wanting to change the world… My deaths, my dead, were not in vain. This is a relay race to the end of time. In the United States, in Nicaragua, I am the same Quixota who learned through life’s battles that defeat can be as much of an illusion as victory.

Another book that I have thoroughly enjoyed this year has been A Brief History of Neo- liberalism by David Harvey that I happened to read a couple of months before the financial crisis hit Wall Street on 15th September.

Harvey’s authoritative exposition of neo- liberalism, just when it was approaching its death bed could not have been a more timely read. This book was at the back of mind when I wrote a couple of posts on the crisis. If I were to recommend one book that one needs to read to understand contemporary capitalism, this is it.

Chandra Bhan’s Dalit Phobia was a disappointment. Even as I sympathize with some of Bhan’s points, I have to state that book jumps from one fact to another in a frantic bid to establish some strange correlations. Thanks to him, I avidly read Macaulay’s oft quoted speech “Minutes on Education” (1835). However, some of Bhan’s sweeping statements are ludicrous and hurt the cause that he seeks to represent. Some statements are hard to digest, for example, according to him

(Macaulay) laid the foundation of India’s independence and saved the country from going the way of the present- day Afghanistan. (page 94)

Some of his recommendations in curing the dalit phobia among caste Hindus are far- fetched. His call for the role of international pressure as in case for ending South Africa’s apartheid system ignores both the intense grass- roots struggle waged by the ANC as well as the relations that the ANC established with other struggles world wide. Dalit politics in India is yet to demonstrate either feature beyond a purely political mobilization in UP.

Thanks to Arvind Gupta, I was introduced to three wonderful books by the Polish children’s writer Janusz Korczak. I wish I had read him much earlier, indeed, his books should be part of any adult’s upbringing (besides that of children). In King Matt, the First, Matt becomes a child- emperor and decrees that dolls be distributed to all children in his kingdom, besides other such initiatives. The point that Korczak makes is that the child is in awe of adults and the power that they wield. He gives that power to Matt, thereby giving a sense of empowerment to the child- reader. J.K. Rawling has used the same idea and instead of making children remain in awe of the magic power of witches has given that power to Harry Potter and the band of children around him. There is a method behind the madness for Potter- mania.

In Loving Every Child, Korczak provides little nuggets of wisdom for parents:

From the very earliest times, there is a feeling that anything big is more worthy than anything small.

“I am big”, announces the child with glee, standing on top of the table”.

Everything that is big and takes up more room is respected and admired. Among things which impress everyone are big cities, high mountains, or a lofty tree.

The child is small, lightweight, and there is just less of him. We ought to stoop and come down to his level.

Korczak was sent to the Warsaw ghetto after the Polish occupation by the Nazis. He was in charge of an orphanage there and before his death by the Nazis wrote the “Ghetto Diary”. All the three books by Korczak are available as e- books at Arvind’s site.

In literature, Nazi Literature in the Americas by my old favourite Roberto Bolano was a fine read. His three- volume magnum opus, 2666 published in November this year, lies besides me as I write this post. It will have to stay there for some time, given the fact that it is a thousand page long tome.

The Assistant by Robert Walser, an early 20th century Swiss writer was published in English for the first time this year. Given that a century separates us from the time when the work was written by the then 27 year old Walser, I found it to be as contemporary and fresh as it could be. It is a novel as if written by Anton Chekov.

American Visa by Juan de Recacechea, the first work by a Bolivian author I ever read, is a racy novel written in the popular style of Raymod Chandler, but with the serious theme of globalization (and immigration) at its core. A delightful read, a good “time- pass” , in Bambaiya- speak.

The much acclaimed The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, half- read, I am afraid, is a page turner though I got fatigued somewhere in the middle. It is a novel based around a lost book and a labyrinthine plot. I would like to return to it sometime, if I were in a long flight or a noisy train journey.

Talking about books about books, Alberto Manguel’s The Library at Night, a collection of 16 essays was a nice read. Manguel brings forth a number of facts and insights in the essays titled “the Library as Myth”, “the Library as Order”, “The Library as Space”, “The Library as Power”, “The Library as Shadow” and so on. Somewhere he quotes his teacher, the great Borges, that books need not be read cover to cover (as I read them), instead they can be read as dictionaries, randomly, an advise that I intend to follow if only to increase the extent of my reading!

In line with Borges’s recommendation, some of the books I have flipped through and will hopefully read cover to cover at some point are, Hindutva and Dalits by Anand Telumbde, Revolt of the Masses by Jose Ortega Y Gasset and In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin.

Manguel’s classic A History of Reading is on my reading list too for the next year.

Given my dislike for Khushwant Singh, it was sheer chance that I read his  City Improbable: An Anthology of Writings on Delhi, . I am glad to have done so because it brings together some very fine writing about Delhi. Among them are some wonderful short stories translated from Hindi, “Delhi, 1947” by Yashpal, “Bitch” by Mrinal Pande and articles “Now the Tears have Dried Up” by Dhiren Bhagat and “City Without Natives”. There are short extracts from writings by Amir Khusrau, Ibn Batuta, Meer and Ghalib that take one to an era when Delhi was a far cry from the mongrel culture of today.

Besides reading, this year I made my first foray into publishing. Some time was spent on helping out with editing my friend Rahul Banerjee’s book Recovering the Lost Tongue whose US edition I published in July. I am happy to state that the book is now available in India as well, the Indian edition published by Comrade PPC Joshi of Prachee Publishers. Another book that I published is the collection of Santokh Singh Dheer’s poems translated from Punjabi into English, most of them by me. My involvement in these projects led to a decline in my reading at least in terms of the number of books, though not, I am happy to state, in quality.

Related Posts:
The Year Gone By: 2007
The Year Gone By: 2006
The Year Gone By: 2005

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4 Replies to “The Year Gone By: 2008”

  1. Wish you a wonderful year, Bhupinder!

    I keep looking forward to your blog for a balanced view, on anything that you write about. To me, it was instrumental in developing a perspective on matters. Thanks for that!

    Keep reading and writing! Take care

  2. I haven’t been able to fully figure out why I read 😦 But I know that I write to clarify my own thoughts, and sometimes to vindicate them. Glad that in the process this blog is of some use to you and others.

    Wish you a rocking year ahead too!

  3. I was looking for Bolano’s books, but somehow they are very hard to find. Can you recommend a great one, so that I start reading his works. I haven’t and everybody keeps recommending them. Thanks and good luck.

  4. I would recommend Distant Stars to start. Then  Nazi Literature in the Americas, Last Evenings on Earth and finally Chile, by Night. I would rather ignore Amulet and leave Savage Detectives for the last (even after 2666, going by what I read about 2666).

    Here is a post with links to online writings by RB. I have also been reviewing and linking to some of his online works on this blog.

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