My 2021 Book Rack in Review

By Om Chadha

THE year 2021 was erratically paced and so were our reading and retention. Still, I managed to sneak in some readings which have been valuable additions to my book collection.

Here is a list of the best ones from 2021, from me to you.

FALSE ALLIES: India’s Maharajahs in the Age of Ravi Varma

By Manu S. Pillai; publisher: Juggernaut; price: cover price INR 899

Challenging the long sedimented image of Indian maharajas as lavish puppets of Raj, given to luxury and indulgence, the book points to more nuanced and intriguing drama of colonial royalty. It follows the ‘painter prince’ Ravi Varma as he brushes the portraits of Indian Maharajas and reveals to the reader underlying politics, negotiations and manipulations beyond the immediate modality of his subjects. The book addresses the questions like: Were the Indian Maharajas really nothing more than their baser instincts? Were they just puppets in the hands of the British? Were they so lost in their own self-grandizing image that they felt the state and its people were just another ‘silly distraction’?

India and Asian Geopolitics: The Past, The present

By Shivshankar Menon; Publisher: Penguin Allen Lane; Price INR 699

The book offers a substantive chronology of the transformation Indian Foreign policy has been through the decades since independence. Author S. Menon, former NSA, charts the course of India’s foreign policy with an eye on history and domestic politics; while this analysis remains cast in the logic of hard power providing the reader with a much more nuanced view over current phenomena in the international arena and their historical backdrop.  He also revisits the history of 1962 Indo-China war and reveals a new dimension of India’s position vis-à-vis China and bipolar cold war reality to refute the popular imagination putting much of the blame on Nehru.

Ghalib: A Wilderness at my Doorstep

By Mehr Afshan Farooqi, publisher: Allen Lane; Price INR 799.

A genuine work on Ghalib scholarship, the book reveals to us the poet Ghalib, in a new light, who was in most part concerned with the presentation of his art. Book, in detail, deals with the sojourn years of Ghalib to Calcutta and explores how it affected Ghalib’s spiritual and linguistic judgement. It details how Ghalib gets introduced to the print medium and what makes him choose and leave Persian as a chosen language of his poems and latter choice of Urdu poetry. Ghalib who lived in times of great flux: linguistic and political is revealed as such; negotiating and redrawing himself within Urdu, Arabic and Persian in the last years of Mughal rule.

The Light of Asia: The Poem that Defined The Buddha

By Jairam Ramesh, publisher: Penguin Viking; price: INR 799

Buddha certainly didn’t become Buddha by following one, but if he is the defining and a uniting pan Asian figure, ‘The light of Asia’ is certainly a defining text on Buddha. Jairam Ramesh offers in this book a biography of one of the most influential texts orientalism produced. Its influence is palpable on nationalist leaders like Gandhi, Nehru and Ambedkar but also on a much larger literary world with poets like Tagore, Eliot, Tolstoy and Joyce getting inspired by and getting familiarized with the text. The book also familiarizes the reader with more political dimensions of the text by stressing questions like: Who can claim Buddha and why? Why did buddha sleeke nirvana in the first place? What makes Buddha humanistic?

Rumours of Spring: A Girlhood in Kashmir

By Farah Bashir, publisher: HarperCollins; Price INR 499.

The chapters in the book follow the day of bobeh’s funeral (protagonist’s grandmother), while doing so it touches on the life of an adolescent girl living in conflict ridden Kashmir of 1990’s. She brings to forefront the human cost of a conflict so usually seen through the lens of politics and power. We find in her chronicles a voice of life lived under sounds of gunfire, curfews, convoys and perpetual “vigilance”. In her subjectivity we also get a glimpse of a Kashmiri’s relationship with mass media, as it illustrates the narrative. The difference of national newspapers with- puzzles, colourful ads and horoscope readings, while the Kashmiri dailies -shrouded with horrific headlines and punctuated with equally horrible photos of killed and disfigured faces.

Born a Muslim: Some Truths About Islam

By: Ghazala Wahab Publisher: Aleph Price: Rs 999

The book knits together a plethora of reports, personal interviews, biographical references and scholarship to illustrate the contemporary situation of the largest minority of the nation. The book rather reveals to the reader a situation where Muslims in India are not only subjected to prejudice by civil society but a much subtler, and at times more direct, repression at the hands of law making and law enforcement authorities. Making their marginalization a structural one. Moreover, the book offers a more grounded etiological account of the phenomenon with analysis of sociological, political and historical dimensions of the situation. What we get, the book argues, is a perpetual cycle of poverty, violence and marginalization leading to orthodoxy and the disproportionate influence of the mullahs on the community.

Midnight’s Borders: A people’s History of Modern India

By Suchitra Vijayan; Publisher: Context, Price: INR 499

India’s borders stretch from Myanmar in the east to Pakistan in west, this long stretch of border creates a venue for dispute, fracture, state violence and corruption. The division of geography in the subcontinent has a history and this history, so the book argues, of colonial separation and oppression continues to shape the lives of people living on borders with value of human life being suspended by the logic of citizen and state. Illustrated by 40 photographs and authors eye for novel narrative the book recaptures the value of humanity of the people living on the “Midnight borders” of the subcontinent.

The Fractured Himalaya: India, China, Tibet 1949-1962

By Nirupama Rao, Publication: Penguin/ Viking; price: INR 999.

The book is certainly a major work of scholarship where the author being a former Ambassador to China, and as former Foreign Secretary brings to her reader a detailed and nuanced chorology of events that lead to the war with China in 1962. It reads like a tragedy with its own tragic characters, unfolding at unpreceded times in history: when for the first time India and China shared a border after thousands of years of co-existence. It in its sharp eye for detail and smoothly constructed narrative the book casts a light on the formation and execution of India’s foreign policy and choices.

A Map of Longings: Life and Works of Agha Shahid Ali

By Manan Kapoor, Publisher: Penguin Random House India, price: INR 350

A biography of one of the most iconic poets from Kashmir.  One who not only accepted his identity of being a Kashmiri but rather embraced it with much more personal of his dimensions- a gay, and American with both ease and apprehension. The book portrays the poet as not just one with artistic sensibility and beautiful vision for life but also as one with deep-rooted humanity. The humanism of Shahid Ali seems to precede his great achievements in life. The most interesting part of the book covers the influence of popular culture with a deep sense of heritage and culture made on the poet.

  • The author is an intern at Kashmir Observer

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