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Sunil Sethi: The best bookshelf of 2012

As non-fiction writers increasingly employ the fiction writer's inventive art to tell stories, some of the most compelling, bestselling titles of 2012 are non-fiction

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At a litfest discussion with novelists I moderated the other day in Bangalore, the topic under discussion was, “Is fiction losing its magic?” A participant wrote worriedly to ask if the subject referred to magic realism or the fact that publishers were less keen to invest in fiction rather than non-fiction. Neither is the case, but as increasingly employ the fiction writer’s and time traveller’s inventive art to tell their stories, some of the most compelling, bestselling titles of 2012 are non-fiction.

Arguably the masterclass of the year is the American Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity (Penguin, Rs 280). From the four years she spent investigating lives in a swampy, mosquito-ridden slum marooned between luxury hotels and the international airport, comes a living narrative, with situations and characters that have the driving force of fiction by or John Steinbeck. Some have questioned Ms Boo’s interviewing technique of penetrating her subjects’ inner lives, but few will argue the importance of her work as a study in urban poverty.

Many also find Salman Rushdie’s memoir, (Jonathan Cape, Rs 799), of his long crusade to free himself of the fatwa and find liberation, as a self-crucifying portrait of an obsessive, egotistical figure. It is nevertheless a remarkably racy read: as dare-to-bare autobiography, a celebrity’s name-dropping digest and its use of a fictional alias to create another voice.

Two other works of historical non-fiction stand out for their depth of research, command of storytelling and for carrying echoes of present-day strife that haunts two South Asian nations. (Curiously, they have similar-sounding titles.) William Dalrymple’s Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, 1839-1842 (Bloomsbury, Rs 799) is a dramatic and devastating account of the horrific reprisals faced by the British Indian army at the hands of tribesmen following its invasion of the country through high passes of the northwest frontier.

The King in Exile: The Fall of the Royal Family of Burma by Sudha Shah (HarperCollins, Rs 799) occupies a smaller canvas, but is no less tragic an account of the fallout of colonial expansion on India’s eastern frontier. Inspired by Amitav Ghosh’s novel, The Glass Palace, it tracks the story of Thibaw, the last Burmese king, his wife and four daughters in Ratnagiri on the Konkan coast after the sack of Mandalay in 1885. Thibaw died in 1916, but what happened to his family and their descendants? Ms Shah spent seven years researching the story in India, Myanmar and elsewhere and tells a poignant tale of the deep scars left by the juggernaut of history.

If fiction is an intensified version of the lives of others, the two best titles of the year are studies in miniature. The Pakistani novelist Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s Between Clay and Dust (Aleph, Rs 450) is a parable, luminous like a Mughal painting, of the association between an ageing tawaif and a pahalwan in an inner city that “intoned its past splendours in broken whispers”. It is an elegiac rumination on the ephemeral nature of power and beauty. Equally penetrating is The Householder by Amitabha Bagchi (Fourth Estate, Rs 399), a darkly comic journey into the murky depths of Delhi’s low-level bureaucracy.

As further proof of the blurred line between fiction and non-fiction, Hilary Mantel’s Man Booker prize winner of 2012, Bring Up the Bodies (HarperCollins, Rs 399) clinches the case of how a novelist can take an old chestnust of history (the tawdry saga of Thomas Cromwell-Henry VIII-Anne Boleyn) and remake it in a resonant, contemporary, original way.

And here’s one for the birds. Nature lovers and others shouldn’t miss a beautifully produced collection of the late naturalist M Krishnan’s Of Birds and Birdsong (Aleph, Rs 595), edited by Shanthi and Ashish Chandola — a treasure to cherish. Merry Christmas and a happy New Year!

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