My favourite things: Writers on the books they loved in 2017

My favourite things: Writers on the books they loved in 2017

By GUARDIAN20 | | 30 December, 2017
In this Guardian 20 special, authors Amitava Kumar, Anjum Hasan, Chandrahas Choudhury, Jerry Pinto and William Dalrymple write about the books they most enjoyed reading in 2017.

Anjum Hasan

One of the most arresting books I read this year was Eunice de Souza’s final collection Learn from the Almond Leaf, which appeared just a few months before her death. It consists of a clutch of tiny poems each one step away from silence. De Souza’s verse can be rich with voices and characters but here she is alone with—not the world—but the earth, a wearied earth about to implode or fall apart from exhaustion. The sea is dying, the stars blanked out, the sun relentless, the trees chopped up, the moon feeling her age…

Anjum Hasan is an essayist, poet, and the author of ‘The Cosmopolitans’, ‘Neti Neti’ and ‘Lunatic in My Head’

Chandrahas Choudhury        

Jerry Pinto’s Murder in Mahim was a pitch-perfect comedy with a strong progressive theme, great Mumbai locations, and wonderful dialogue. I burst out laughing many times, but also thought the book marshalled a great tenderness and love of human diversity much needed in our times—it seems our own government is incapable of these things. 

Romila Thapar’s Talking History was a wonderful insight into the historian’s craft and an invitation to jump onto its merry-go-round, showing us that seventy years into our experiment with democracy, Indian history is becoming ever more capacious and exciting as we bring new questions and methods to bear on the analysis of three thousand years of life in the subcontinent. 

Last, Indian thinking on Kashmir and Kashmiris suffers from a great empathy deficit that demands an answer from fiction, and it was provided this year by Shahnaz Bashir’s Scattered Souls, a collection of short stories with some very memorable characters and exquisitely balanced and heartbreaking predicaments.

Chandrahas Choudhury’s new novel, ‘Clouds’, will be published in January 2018 by Simon & Schuster

Amitava Kumar

I will cheat and offer you my favourites from different genres. Denis Johnson died this year and I taught in my writing class his marvellous novella, Train Dreams. If you have ever wanted an epic compressed into a hundred pages, you need to read this book. The best work of nonfiction I read in 2017, and then immediately re-read, was Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts. Any great work breaks rules, crosses boundaries, and Nelson makes the act of thinking both pressing and personal. I have yet to encounter such an ecstatic and urgent mix of theory and experience. And finally, a recommendation from the world of art and photography. Witness, a book of photographs from Kashmir, 1986-2016, stages a monumental recovery of memories from oblivion. So much pain that you don’t notice the beauty, not just in the land but in the book you are holding in your hands.

Amitava Kumar’s latest book is ‘The Lovers: A Novel’, published by Aleph

Jerry Pinto       

Smritichitre: Memoirs of a Spirited Wife by Lakshmibai Tilak, translated by Shanta Gokhale.

Lakshmibai Tilak lived an interesting life. Her husband was a seeker who converted to Christianity much to her horror; but when she followed him, she did so because of her belief and not as his wife. Lakshmibai fascinates me because she writes simply. This is the most challenging trick in the writer’s book. Perhaps because she was unaware that she was creating great literature—that was what her husband Na Va Tilak did—she turned out a masterpiece of autobiography. It has now been translated in full by someone whose hand is sure and who brings across the easy, conversational tone of Lakshmibai’s prose.

Jerry Pinto is the author of the novels ‘Em and the Big Hoom’ and ‘Murder in Mahim’

William Dalrymple

Maya Jasanoff’s Dawn Watch, a profound mediation on globalisation and colonialism, takes us from Russian-occupied Poland, around South East Asia and up the Congo in Conrad’s footsteps. Jasanoff writes beautifully and the book is well worth reading alone for her evocative and beautifully crafted descriptions of 19th century Singapore, Marseilles and London, as well as her mastery of 19th century seadog slang: where else can you enter a world of dogwatches, pollywogs and shellbacks? But it is far more than that, as she shows how Conrad was among the first writers to grapple with the great issues of our time: terrorism, immigration, the ramifications of rapid technological change and globalisation, and “the way power operates across continents and races.” “Conrad’s world,” she writes, “shimmers beneath the surface of our own.”  

I learned a great deal from Jon Wilson’s India Conquered, an admirably concise, balanced and thoughtful look at the degree to which British colonialism maimed India, and the sheer exploitative wickedness of so much of what we did there. The product of many years of detailed archival research, Wilson’s book is without question the best one volume history of the Raj currently in print, and a book I will be recommending to all who assume British colonialism was somehow more altruistic, gentle and benign than its French, German or Belgian counterparts.  

I also hugely enjoyed John Keay’s The Tartan Turban. Keay has been writing about Himalayan history for almost half a century, but his latest, about the allegedly half Aztec half Scottish mercenary Alexander Gardener, is one of the most remarkable of his many books on south and central Asia. Gardener was, in Keay’s words “a be-turbaned colonel of uncertain nationality with a chequered past and a hole in the throat”. This throat wound was a dramatic souvenir of his days as the last of the Western freelances and renegades who had fought for the Indian princes in the period before the Raj seized South Asia, and the age of regulated colonialism replaced the anarchy of the disintegrating Mughal Empire. Many mysteries remain—Keay admits he is still uncertain where Gardner was born or how he really made his way to Central Asia—but The Tartan Turban nonetheless brings back from the dead and largely vindicates the reputation of one of the most extraordinary figures in the history of travel and exploration. Minutely researched, wittily written and beautifully produced, it stands as one of John Keay’s most memorable achievements. 

William Dalrymple is the author of ‘The Last Mughal’ and ‘Return of a King’ among other acclaimed works of history

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