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Sunil Sethi: The best bookshelf of 2013

This was a rather better year for non-fiction than fiction. That exciting serial known as history, as a form of storytelling, yielded a rich and varied crop

Sunil Sethi
More Columns by Sunil Sethi

It is the season of good cheer. And as has been the custom for the year's last instalment of this column, one way to celebrate is to look at some of the best books. Despite the sad decline of retail bookstores (how many people drop by at the neighbourhood bookshop any more?), one of the advantages of online book buying and growth in e-book sales is the staggering range of instantly discounted titles, available in a few hours or home-delivered in a couple of days.

This was a rather better year for non-fiction than fiction; in fact I can hardly think of an outstanding novel in English out of India. That exciting serial known as history, as a form of storytelling, yielded a rich and varied crop.

By far the most original contribution to colonial studies, for its combination of scholarship, field research, fluency and wit, is Flora's Empire (Penguin; Rs 799) by the historian Eugenia Herbert. Professor Herbert's investigation into "garden imperialism" - how the British radically, often ruthlessly, remade the Indian landscape in their own image - shows us what India looked before their takeover. It helps us reconstruct Shah Jahan's gardens at the Taj Mahal and the Red Fort, imagine the Himalayan forests and the towns of the Ganges (Ghazipur was "a sea of roses") before they became littered with cantonments, hill stations, opium and tea plantations to enrich the Empire or reckless destruction in the craze for botanical research. Perhaps because she is American and an Africa specialist, she explores the Indo-British encounter with fresh insights, among them a memorably robust debunking of sacred cows such as Lord Curzon and Sir Edwin Lutyens.

Combining passion with compassion is Rajmohan Gandhi's Punjab: A from Aurangzeb to Mountbatten (Aleph; Rs 695). This is, possibly, an over-explored subject. But Professor Gandhi's account of the subcontinent's largest British-administered province shows that Hindu-Muslim antagonisms had a long incubation prior to Partition; more valuable is his account of the tragic truncation of a vibrant culture.

History can also be told as memoir, and in this genre, the Goan writer Maria Aurora Couto's Filomena's Journeys (Aleph; Rs 495) is an exemplary addition to her much-applauded Goa: A Daughter's Story, which came out in 2005. It is the story of the privations of her mother's life - a Brechtian figure - told against a period of convulsive political and social change in 20th-century Goa.

The best in journalism, when expanded and contained, holds a mirror to the choicest running stories and to contemporary realities. Anita Raghavan's vigorous cops-and-robbers story, The Billionaire's Apprentice (Hachette; Rs 499), of the rise and fall of Raj Rajaratnam, Rajat Gupta and others is a harsh retake of the Indian-American elite: a further splintering of the American Dream exemplified in Gordon Gekko's infamous axiom: "Greed is good." Like the investigative saga of 26/11 in Mumbai, The Seige by Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark (Penguin; Rs 499), it can hardly be bettered.

On a more reflective level, of how outsiders perceive India and Indians the outside world, Mofussil Junction: Indian Encounters 1977-2012 by Ian Jack (Penguin; Rs 599) and Punjabi Parmesan: Dispatches from a Europe in Crisis by Pallavi Aiyar (Penguin; Rs 599) contain a trove of what the reporter's radar can scoop up. "Abolish caste and India is in trouble," declared G D Birla to Ian Jack in a 1983 profile. Asked what his friend Gandhi would have been like were he alive, the industrial patriarch added: "He would have been an interfering old man." Ms Aiyar captures equally surprising home truths among Sikh farmers in Italy, Jain diamond merchants in Belgium and Chinese vineyard owners in Bordeaux.

My top prize for best fiction goes to two accomplished Pakistanis: Between Clay and Dust by Musharraf Ali Farooqi (Aleph, Rs 295) is a gem-like interplay between a wrestler and courtesan, decaying remnants of Mughal culture; How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid (Penguin; Rs 499), conversely, is the rousing story of a slumdog's rise to become a country's biggest bottled water billionaire. Acutely observed, both novels are short but told with controlled detachment. They are also ruminations on the entangled nature of desire: elusive, obsessive, evanescent.

Happy holiday reading and a joyous New Year!

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