2014 for me was the year of reading long e-books, on Kindle as well as books borrowed from the local library using Overdrive. I finished not one, but 3 books, each more than 300 pages long. For someone who has struggled for the last few years to use an e-reader, it is a feat in itself.
The most important book of the year was undoubtedly “Kanshiram” by Badri Narayan, and the first long book read on the kindle app.
The biography was long overdue about the man who single handedly was responsible for changing the face of North Indian politics and bringing Dr BR Ambedkar to the center stage. The lingering image that I have carried from Dhananjay Keer’s biography of Ambedkar is when he spent a night under a tree because, despite his appointment to the court of the prince of Gaikwad, no one in the town was willing to rent out a house to him because of his belonging to the ‘untouchable’ Mahar caste.
The image that I carry from Badri Narayan’s book is that of Kanshiram sitting on a stack of the paper that he brought out and carried around on trains scouring the length and breadth of the country.
On a related note, “The Chamcha Age” by Kanshiram (available as a free pdf), was an eye opener. This is the closest to a ‘theoretical’ tract that Kanshiram ever wrote and provides a glimpse into his critical take on contemporary Dalit politicians and the subsequent praxis of the Bahujan Samaj Party.
I tried to re- read the “Muqaddimah” by Ibn Khaldun after a decade a half, and it confirmed my impatience and inability to re- read texts. Perhaps, as Borges once suggested, one should read books like a dictionary and not cover to cover. Nevertheless, it had nuggets of keen observations by the great Islamic historian of the 14th century.
A wonderful discovery this year was the fascinating blog maintained by Tom Gething. His review led me to read “The Book of Lamentations” by the Mexican woman writer of the Boom era, Rosario Castellanos. The vast canvas of the novel recounts a failed millenarian uprising in the 19th century and is reminiscent of Mario Vargas Llosa’s “The War at the End of the World”.
I went on to read the novel by “Under a False Flag” by Tom Gething himself. I have to say that it is one of the finer works I have read this year. It is marked by a clear and lucid writing that is as unpretentious as it is a scathing indictment of the CIA’s role in the overthrow of the world’s first elected socialist government of Salvador Allende in Chile.
The novel “Solo” by the British- Indian writer Rana Dasgupta turned out to be a page turner. Consisting of two very different “movements” or novellas, it centers around a 100 year old Bulgarian man, whose life and imaginations are also a peek into the former communist country’s history.
The first “movement” is in the realist style that recounts a long journey into the history of chemistry and music in Bulgaria in the 20th century, as seen through the eyes of its main protagonist Ulrich. The second “movement” is in a more contemporary, even post- modernist style and is based on the imaginary events in the mind of the now 100 year old man.
The book had me riveted throughout and one cannot complain about the quality of the writing. What I did find interesting is that the writer’s skill is not only evident but also overpowers the story. The end result is that I felt little sympathy for the characters while being in admiration of the Rana Dasgupta’s command over writing.
His effort in traversing a large chunk of history and a broad range of issues, comes at the expense of lack of insight into why things turned out the way they did. Ulrich, as well as his imaginary children are almost always at the mercy of forces that lie outside their control. Worse, none of them seem to be able to come out of it or make much of an attempt (and even when the attempt is made like in the case of Khatuna, it ends up going the wrong way). Despite its post modernist oeuvre, there is a sense of historical determinism in the novel.
As the year ended, I was midway reading “Capital” also by Rana Dasgupta. The book is a bit of a let down as it rambles across some of the noveau riche of India’s capital, New Delhi, seeking to provide a cynical picture of the class. For most Indians this is not really news, but then the target audience of the book seems to be Western. I find it difficult to reconcile a series of interviews and peek into the life of Delhi’s rich as a “portrait of the city in the 21st century” as the sub-title proclaims,.
One of the books that I haven’t been able to complete despite my interest in the subject is “Gas Wars: Crony Capitalism and the Ambanis” by Indian journalists Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, Subir Ghosh and Jyotirmoy Chaudhuri . The book provides an understanding into how the richest family in India – that of the Ambanis, seeks to control and create super profits from the natural gas reserves in the country. The book is a dull because of long extracts from judicial judgements’.
The recent elections in India that resulted in the ultra right wing BJP forming the new government with an unprecedented majority have reignited interest in the man who is supposed to have backed Narendra Modi to the hilt- Mukesh Ambani, who is at the center of the book.
Two works that I sampled on the local library’s e-book collection are “Americanah” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and “The Brief and Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao” by Junot Diaz. Both are promising so far, and these too are in my list of to- read books in 2015.