Author and critic
The best books I read this year? That’s always a difficult one to do because the book you finished last night is always clearer in your head than something you read a while ago. But, I keep lists. It’s an old habit, and so here’s my pick. The usual disclaimers apply. I have many friends in the world of publishing and writing, as I have been part of it for more than 25 years now. I make no bones about my opinion that some of my friends write the best books there have been. You don’t like that? You go elsewhere and look at someone else’s list, someone who’s also going to be implicated in the same way and who isn’t going to tell you. Otherwise, just make your own list and put it on Facebook. Those Facebook guys just love lists. And, the likes you’ll get will startle you.
This is also difficult to do because one reads books from other years too. I read dozens of novels in 2014, but not one of them was published this year. Why? Because I spent most of this year off my lifeline. I wasn’t writing a books column for anybody — I’m back, I’m back — so I did the decent thing and cut off my supply of new books that publishers would send me. That left me with buying books off the shelves, and I am a cautious person when it comes to that sort of thing. I buy only things I want to keep. I borrow the other books. From friends who are rich enough to buy on speculation. From those friendly guys on the street at Flora Fountain, Mumbai, who will give you 75 per cent back if you bring the book back in a week. From libraries, heard of those? No, I don’t have a Kindle, but if I did I would have overloaded it. I was just looking up the prices of Stephen Booth’s murder mystery novels, to which I could get addicted, and found that the paperback editions were retailing at Rs 900 or thereabouts while the Kindle editions were at Rs 200 or thereabouts. I might be tempted but I shall let you know how things develop. So here goes.
Instead of a Book: Letters to a Friend by Diana Athill
I must admit I haven’t read many letters. I think they are pointless if they are ordinary, real letters and performances when they are otherwise. But the best book of letters I read this year was Diana Athill’s Instead of a Book: Letters to a Friend (Granta, Rs 499). The tone can get a little too lovey-dovey from time to time, and everything seems to fill Athill with immeasurable delight, but she still writes well without too much performing. Oh, the letters are to a poet-friend Edward Field in New York. His letters aren’t in here.
Adventures of a Brahmin Priest: My Travels in the 1857 Rebellion by Priya Adarkar and Shanta Gokhle
The best translated book I read this year was Maza Pravas by Vishnubhat Godse, a resident of Varsai, Pen district, Maharashtra. Godse is that rare bird, a traveller in the 19th century, a time when most Indians thought the next village ought to be labelled There Be Dragons. Godse was a Brahmin, but he was a poor Brahmin and he thought he might make some money if he got about a bit. Only the year was 1857 and those bullets were being distributed. The version you ought to get is Adventures of a Brahmin Priest: My Travels in the 1857 Rebellion (Oxford University Press, Rs 650 and worth every last paisa) translated by Priya Adarkar and Shanta Gokhale. I must also here mention a series of novellas that OUP has brought out that look very juicy. I read one, which had to do with bull wrestling: Arena by C S Chellappa, translated by N Kalyan Raman from Tamil.
When God is a Traveler by Arundhati Subramaniam
The best book of poetry was Arundhathi Subramaniam’s When God is a Traveller (HarperCollins, Rs 399). It’s been a good year for poetry but an even better year for Subramaniam, whose book was shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize. Subramaniam is a fine poet who has the ability to turn out phrases that become part of one’s vocabulary. They settle into some layer of the linguistic topsoil, because perhaps that was what you wanted to say all along, and then someone comes and does it for you and does it in a way that does not require you to reach for another. Here you can see she has moved away from the realm of language while still retaining an ability to conjure up startling images (“And all around/thick, warm, motiveless green” or “Between the doorbell/and the death knell/is the tax exemption certificate”). But there is now something deeper going on here, something that moves at the level of spirit, of quest, of the seeker. The Shakuntala sequence, for instance, is among the strongest collection of poems I have read.
And Then One Day by Naseeruddin Shah
The best autobiography was Naseeruddin Shah’s And Then One Day (Penguin India, Rs 699). We knew him as an actor. Now we know him as a writer. And, he is a fine one, it would seem, who knows how to stare straight at himself and give us something that looks like the truth. He is cheerfully rude about other people, but he is tough on himself and that is something no one in Bollywood has ever been. This one is a keeper.
Being Mortal by Atul Gawande
The best book on the human condition was Being Mortal by Atul Gawande (Penguin India, Rs 599). I read this last night, and at the end I was crying. I cry easily, yes, but this was a startling and magnificent book. It is about growing old, and that is what will happen to all of us, unless we are unlucky enough to die young. Now read Being Mortal and ask yourself: is it really unlucky to die young? You might get old. You might lose control of your bowels. You might need help moving. You might not have family to help you. You might end your days on a bed with impersonal hands to care for you… or on a street with no one. You might be rich enough and fortunate enough to afford top-line medical care. And, if you think that is to be fortunate, once again, read Dr Gawande’s book and his stories of those nightmare operations and their terrible aftermaths and… shit, I was lucky I wasn’t crying all the way through.
Shikhandi and The Other Tales They Didn’t Tell You by Devdutt Pattnaik
The best book on that religion and its traditions was Shikhandi and Other Tales They Didn’t Tell You by Devdutt Pattnaik (Penguin and Zubaan, Rs 299). It’s about queerness and it’s about that religion, so you should go out and get it quick before someone reads it and sends it to that man and he says those ones about that thing. You know what I’m talking about. And, that may well be the best thing I could possibly say about the state of you-know-what under you-know-who where that thing called f of e is becoming a rare thing and no one seems to give a damn.
Author of An Obedient Father and Family tree
In The Light of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman
In the Light of What we Know, Zia Haider Rahman: It was one of the great literary events of the year. This outstanding work is like Conrad in that it takes the reader through exotic locations in the form of different people telling stories. This quality allows for both a dense meditative feel and speedy transitions. This book should be read by every thinking person who likes mysteries.
Bark by Lorrie Moor
Surely there is no better short story writer writing today. By turns funny, grief-struck, and profoundly insightful, there is nothing that Lorrie Moore cannot do.
A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride
This coming-of-age story of a young woman is absolutely terrific. There is a granularity to the writing, which reminded me of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I was struck again and again by how funny the book was and how much it revealed about young women. If you want to learn about young women, this is the book to read. Be warned though that it might scare you.
Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill
It is one of the best books I have ever read on affairs and the devastation they cause to marriages and families. It is a proudly modernist novel, and here, the armature of modernism, the way that the same scene gets repeated, feels an essential part of how trauma is experienced. I knew Jenny many years ago and have waited for a decade for this fantastic book.
Poet and author, currently books editor for the caravan
Odysseus Abroad by Amit Chaudhuri
A novel to delight in for its probity and its curiosity about English literature, family relations and London life in the mid-1980s.
Capital by Rana Dasgupta
A book that takes apart the clichés about Delhi and submits the city’s recent past and present to a calm and tender scrutiny.
Crow Fall by Shanta Gokhale
Gokhale’s own translation from her Marathi novel Tya Varshi, it captures the texture of artistic experience very delicately and minutely.
Vaadivaasal by CS Chellappa, translated by N Kalyan Raman
A fascinating novella, considered a modern Tamil masterpiece, about bull-taming and man versus beast.
This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett
Charming essays on literature and life from a very warm-hearted writer.
Author of Vanity Bagh, which won the Hindu Literary prize in 2013
The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri
This book may not have left as deep an impression on me as Jhumpa’s other books, especially Interpreter of Maladies and Unaccustomed Earth. But, it is still one of the best books I read in 2014. It is amazing how Jhumpa blends snapshots of India and America with such ease and elegance.
In the Light of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman
I read this book before it was published in India. Pan Macmillan sent me a copy with a request to write a blurb for it. I found everything about this book brilliant — the voice strong and startling, the language fresh and impeccable, and the setting vast and epic.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanangan
By the time I finished reading this beautifully written, heart-wrenching story of POWs building the notorious Burma railway, I knew Richard Flanangan’s novel was going to bag something really big.
Brilliant by Roddy Doyle
I bought Brilliant for my son but read it myself before giving it to him. Beautifully crafted and illustrated, this funny little book deals with economic and psychological depressions. I think this book is cleverly packaged and not meant for young readers alone. It is almost brilliant.
The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly by Sun Mi-Hwang
This tiny gem of a book is from South Korean literature. A simple, charming fable, it tells the story of a hen called Sprout. I found it totally fresh and powerful in a different way. It is a great read, though, I suspect something is lost in translation.
Managing editor at HarperCollins India
The Way Things Were by Aatish Taseer
I am really excited about his new book, to my mind his most ambitious, which combines big ideas and a historical sweep with riveting storytelling.
Being Mortal by Atul Gawande
One of the most illuminating surveys of death, dying, and caring for the elderly, it weaves together science, sociology and human interest stories.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
The title alone should encourage you to pick it up. Suspenseful, sad but also gripping till the last page.
Hangwoman by K. R. Meera
This translation from Malayalam re-imagines a young woman in the role of a public executioner. Chilling, audacious, and disturbing to the core.
Karachi, You’re Killing Me by Saba Imitiaz
Imagine Bridget Jones’s Diary set in Pakistan, and this is pretty much what you will get: social satire and uproarious comedy told in a smart, stylish and sassy new voice.
Literary critic and author of The Wildings and The 100 Names of Darkness
Angarey, Translated by Vibha S. Chauhan and Khalid Alvi
Four authors, nine stories, burned and banned in 1932, Angarey is a rare example of a book making it back from oblivion.
Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood
Sharp as a blade, Atwood’s disconcerting fables are not for the faint-hearted. For those of stronger stomach, this is an immensely satisfying collection.
Capital by Rana Dasgupta
A fiction writer’s exploration of Delhi reveals its appetite for excess, and also its savagely violent past and present.
Being Mortal by Atul Gawande
A compassionate, incisive and practical appeal for a better way of handling ageing and dying, this account by a surgeon could change the way we do both.
H is For Hawk by Helen Macdonald
A year spent training a goshawk brings Helen Macdonald back from grief country, but not before she has walked the shadowlands between animal and human, mad and sane.
Poet, critic, curator
3 Sections by Vijay Seshadri
He breaks new ground in the practice of poetry, especially in the manner in which he blurs the territorial boundaries between lyrical cadence and vernacular speech, the poem and prose, the prognosis and the hallucination.
The Small Wild Goose Pagoda by Irwin Allan Sealy
Sealy disrupts our expectations of genre, choosing the form of the almanac, which is both the navigator’s and the agriculturist’s bible, melding memoir, fiction and travelogue.
Eating God: A Book of Bhakti Poetry, edited by Arundhathi Subramaniam
This anthology is a capacious, scintillating, magical record of the mystical quest and the life of the questor, across generations, regions, centuries, and languages.
The Mirror of Beauty by Shamsur Rahman Faruqi
He takes us into a world of phantasmagoric realism, richly informed by multiple languages, with a richly hybrid Urdu culture that we ought to claim proudly as our heritage.
The Courtesan’s Keeper by Kshemendra, translated by AND Haksar
At a time when Sanskrit is sought to be forced down the throats of people, we are blessed to have a translator of the brilliance of AND Haksar, who has brought into English many classics.
Author of Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay’s Dance Bars
The Book of Gold Leaves by Mirza Waheed
It is a love story set in war-torn Kashmir, and it’s beautifully written and haunting.
Hangwoman by KR Meena
I raced through Hangwoman, a door-stopper of a novel that is, without a doubt, one of the most unusual books I’ve read.
Shadow of the Crescent Moon by Fatima Bhutto
I read this book in one sitting. It’s a taut, suspenseful and smartly constructed novel that follows three brothers one rainy afternoon.
The Magic Moonlight Flower and Other Enchanting Stories by Satyajit Ray and Rabindranath Tagore for the 21st Century Reader, translated by Arunava Sinha
I thoroughly enjoyed both.
The Colonel Who Would Not Repent by Salil Tripathi
I was also very impressed with Salil Tripathi’s account of the consequences of the Bangladesh war.