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Picks of February

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Afghanistan, Gujarat, Kolkata, Congo - the focus this month is on places

THE BLIND MAN’S GARDEN
Author: Nadeem Aslam
Publisher: Random House
In his fourth novel, appears to be at the height of his powers, his prose as molten, clear and beautiful as just-blown glass. “Wounds are said to emit light under certain conditions — touch them and the brightness will stay on the hands,” he writes, and that image lingers through this story of darkness and love in Afghanistan post 9/11. In a time when Afghanistan is often written about from the point of view of the soldier who’s survived his tour of duty, the outsider visiting Kabul for a brief and intense moment, or stock stereotypes, Aslam cuts to the heart of writing about any kind of place trapped in any kind of war — people remain human and individual in his universe.

A good man loses his son; the son’s friend and the son’s wife must find ways to build lives that have some kind of meaning beyond bare survival. In this novel of startling, vivid images — a tree laced with pinioned birds, horses bursting out from under the surface of the earth — perhaps the most startling idea is Aslam’s reminder that people trapped in conflict and pummelled by history have rich, complex lives beyond simple victimhood.

RIOT POLITICS: HINDU-MUSLIM VIOLENCE AND THE INDIAN STATE
Ward Berenschot
Publisher: Rainlight Rupa
Over 18 months or so, Berenschot, a political scientist who is also an expert in conflict studies, spent time in Ahmedabad in Gujarat interviewing “netas, chamchas and sycophants” in an attempt to understand how riots work. As Ananya Vajpeyi writes of his work, “he wishes to enter into the intricate ecology of relationships — the infrastructure of violence — the social psychology of a place that is diverse but also divided.”

As Berenschot has written, “The co-operation during the riots between policemen and various types of rioters — from local criminals, Hindu-nationalist activists, neighbourhood leaders to police offcials — can be understood in the light of the daily functioning of the local patronage networks that help citizens deal with state institutions.” This way of examining riots, of seeing violence as something that might have a viral pathway and a disease vector, might be far more useful for those seeking to understand and change communal violence than the usual approaches. It also shifts the narrative away from “bad” and “good” political parties, allowing the reader instead to analyse states in India and political systems in terms of whether they are more or less conducive to riot conditions.

CALCUTTA: TWO YEARS IN THE CITY
Author: Amit Chaudhuri
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton
“Growing up in Bombay, I used to feel a charge of anticipation on visiting Calcutta as a child. This had little to do with actually knowing anything about the transformation in the 19th century that had made the city what it was: a completely contemporary thing. The Bengalis had no recognisable grand history, in the way the Rajasthanis or Biharis did. ‘Even the Oriyas have a history,’ said Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, the first major Bengali novelist, scathingly: Bengalis had to make their own history; they did it in their houses and rented rooms, and in neighbourhoods connected to each other by stifling alleys.”

This account of two years in a city that he can both claim as home, and see without the cataract vision of nostalgia, comes from one of our most broadly read and sensitive critics and writers. This is not a definitive history of the city, and doesn’t pretend to be; instead, Chaudhuri (who has also compiled an anthology of writings on Calcutta) offers a very personal walk through its changing streets, its shifting landscape.

STRINGER: A REPORTER’S JOURNEY IN THE CONGO
Author: Anjan Sundaram
Publisher: Penguin India
In an essay on his journalism, the pieces that would eventually become Stringer, Sundaram writes: “Congo, remote, disregarded by the world, had become the place where I discovered an essential piece of my vocation. I felt free in this land. I could turn myself into anything I wanted — reporter, pimp, businessman. I could pursue any dream.” Writing about the Congo, and Africa, is riddled with as many pitfalls and potential cliches as writing about India (or China), and Sundaram does his best, with his curiosity and his craft, to rise above the usual stereotypes, interviewing the Indian community in the Congo, discovering mass graves.

But he will set off a debate, since as Binyavanga Wainaina pointed out in a dry and often-quoted essay, love for Africa and Africans is not enough of an excuse. As Wainaina wrote, in “How To Write About Africa”: “Establish early on that your liberalism is impeccable, and mention near the beginning how much you love Africa, how you fell in love with the place and can’t live without her.” Even so, Sundaram’s intelligent but light style might help to draw in those Indians who rarely read or think about anywhere that isn’t the US of A or Europe.

FAR FROM THE TREE
Author: Andrew Solomon
Publisher: Random House
Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon was a sweeping and courageous memoir of depression, where he used his own struggles to explore and compile a wider history of that widespread and debilitating affliction. It was almost taboo, at that time, for someone widely seen as “successful” to speak with openness and honesty of depression; and in Far From The Tree, Solomon takes on a related but distinct taboo.

He interviews and studies families who have to handle children who are unlike their expectations — some have serious medical conditions, some have personality disturbances, some are born in unusual and trying circumstances, such as children born to women who have been raped. With his trademark compassion and acuity, Solomon attempts to understand difference, and the way it changes and reshapes the family. He found, he said in an interview about the book, two things that families with these parenting challenges had in common. Often, they expressed great frustration and an anger that they were not, in ordinary life, often allowed to express. And they also expressed joy; they also, often, enjoyed being with their children, no matter how those children had turned out.

LENIN’S KISSES
Author: Yan Lianke
Publisher: Grove Atlantic
Yan Lianke is one of China’s sharpest writers, his novels as satirical and pungently funny as some of Chinese contemporary art. Lenin’s Kisses has an unbeatable premise. The peace of the small village of Liven is disrupted when a government official decides that they must buy back Lenin’s embalmed corpse from Russia, and have it displayed as a tourist attraction. Liven itself is blackly drawn, a village populated by the crippled and the disabled, with “wholers” moving out as soon as they can; but it is also dysfunctionally normal, with the official’s photographs joining the obligatory pictures of Chairman Mao and the Buddha on the walls of villager’s homes. Messy, rough but surprisingly satisfying despite its unsmoothened edges, Lenin’s Kisses might have unexpected resonance for readers in India.

FALLEN ANGEL: THE MAKING AND UNMAKING OF RAJAT GUPTA
Author: Sandipan Deb
Publisher: Rupa
The story of Rajat Gupta is something straight out of a Harold Robbins or Sidney Sheldon thriller — an orphaned immigrant from a Third World who rises by dint of sheer talent to become the youngest-ever head of a prestigious management consultancy, earns millions of dollars and fraternises with heads of state and companies, is a good human being too, by all accounts, and then is found guilty of insider trading and goes to jail. So it is only fitting that the rise and fall of Gupta should get written up as a thriller. Senior journalist Sandipan Deb, who interviewed Gupta for his 2004 book The IITians, does a fine job, spinning a gripping tale that focuses, now that the question, “did he do it”, is finally settled, on the “epic enigma” — what made him do it?


 

(“Picks of...” provides a selection of books to look out for in the coming month)

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