Six months of the year have flown by and here are six books
that you should read, if you have not already. There is no logic to these suggestions except that I personally loved each of them. These books
did to me exactly what great Literature
promises – kept me engrossed within their pages and made me think about their subjects, long after I completed the last page.
Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy (1875 – 1877)
If there is a character I loathe in all of Literature, it is Anna Karenina. And if there is a character I empathise with the most, it is Anna Karenina. And thus lies the genius of Leo Tolstoy. Published between 1875 and 1877 in Russia, the novel is much wider in its scope than an affair between a bored aristocratic wife and an army officer. Rather, it is the most prolific account of a society in flux, and the evolution of politics that slowly changes and shapes history, and the divergent sections of society that inhabit this evolution. It is also contains the most intricate depiction of the human mind, wrapped in all its complexities, misguided judgments. It is about the conflict between morality, reason and wants. There are lots of epic novels that should be read, but among all, the first on the list should be this one.
Secular Common Sense, Mukul Kesavan (2001)
On first read Mukul Kesavan’s slim pamphlet dissects Indian Secularism in all its glory and faults and explains its context, limitations and necessity. Dr Kesavan explains the use of secularism – both as a strategy and conviction by the Congress in a pre-partition India ¬– and its necessity in a newly independent nation. He elucidates the historical and ideological context that went into the initial shaping of the Indian National Congress and its governance structures and approaches. The essay touches on many intangible discourses of relevance in contemporary day: caste and class, reservations, partisan politics, political ideologies, beef bans, and appeasement politics, among others. There are many hidden nuggets of interesting trivia about a post-Independence India. Written in 2001, this is an essay of grave relevance especially today – even for those who will disagree with its premise.
When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalanithi (2016)
Dr Paul Kalanithi after being diagnosed with Cancer wrote the book in the throes of his illness. The first part describes why he became a doctor, especially a neurosurgeon, after obtaining a double BA in Literature
and Human Biology, an MA in Literature, and an MPhil in the History and Philosophy of Science. The second part finds him coming face to face with Cancer and understanding mortality. It sees him coming to terms with the meaning of ambition, a career, relationships and life itself. Poignantly written, much of the book resonates with Dr Kalanithi’s passion and reverence for his vocation and for neurosurgery (and its need for absolute perfection) in particular. However, it is also about him finding this passion after deep exploration of other academic disciplines – especially Literature
and Philosophy – that fascinated and often frustrated him. Dr Kalanithi is clinical in his acceptance of his disease and his eventual end, yet reflective in a way few writers can be. What strikes through is the irony of him finding himself at the other end of the table after investing a decade into becoming a surgeon and scientist – as a debilitated patient. There is no happy ending, but after finishing the book, it is comforting to know that people like its writer have been around.
My Son’s Story, Nadine Gordimer (1990)
Nobel Prize winner Nadine Gordimer’s My Son’s Story is a novel that has multiple layers. Set in an urban South Africa, it is narrated through the eyes of an adolescent Will whose father, Sonny (the protagonist) has an affair with a white woman, later discovered by Will. The novel is set in an era in South Africa, where inter-racial relationships are not outlawed, but the political, economic and social tensions between the races are throbbing. The evolution of Sonny from an earnest civil servant to someone who gradually finds himself at the helm of a political struggle and activism is effortlessly narrated. This novel is about universal predicaments faced by the protagonists at a personal level – of loss, infidelity and betrayal. But at another level, it dissects the ideological evolution of a man and his politics, and eventually how this comes to define a nation in unrest. The novel at its core is about one’s life choices pitted against one’s personal and political principles and ethos. Aggressive, political and brilliantly intricate, this is one of the most engrossing and intellectual novels ever written.
The Noise of Time, Julian Barnes (2016)
Julian Barnes latest is a fictional biography of the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich. This short narrative, written as an internal monologue, peeks into three incidents that encapsulate his life. The novel begins in 1937, with Shostakovich, waiting in his apartment in the middle of the night, for Stalin’s secret police to arrive. Stalin has disapproved his latest opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, and Shostakovich must face the ramifications from which few return. Most of the narrative flits between Shostakovich’s present and his memories, with the other two parts capturing different phases of his life. Shostakovich’s tragedy is that he is forced to bear witness to the decay and destruction of his own reputation, his public persona and his place as a musician for the sake of his family and his art.
His biggest battle is the one he forges with himself, clinging on to his music and his talent. Even in all the action, nothing really happens in this slim novel. But what each section reveal is the psychology and mind of a flawed genius, embittered by an authoritarian regime, unabashed talent, fear and insecurity. This is Julian Barnes at his best as a storyteller and writer.
The Burden of Democracy, Pratap Bhanu Mehta (2003)
Never before has discussing democracy been this fashionable. Or this necessary. Whether the upcoming US elections, the outcome of Brexit referendum, or the election cycles across the Indian states – understanding the scope and the limitations of ‘democracy’ both in principle and practice is necessary to augment its nature and embolden its function. This short essay by Dr Mehta probes into the boldness and ambition of the Indian democracy, and how politics in India allowed its citizens to participate in the society. The essay emphasises on self-respect being the crux of a democracy and delves into how inequality and lack of accountability have hindered any form of collective action towards attaining this self-respect. Dr Mehta lays out some of the greatest challenges and limitations of a democracy with sharp analysis and arguments, without being cynical or pessimistic. It is a realist take on democracy as an idea and as an institution, and is a must read for anyone who wants a nuanced understanding of the subject.
Sarah Farooqui is a pathological reader and bibliomaniac currently based in Bangalore. She was previously the Editor of Pragati – The Indian National Interest Review and and ran the Takshashila Institution's flagship Graduate Certificate in Public Policy course. She discusses fiction & non-fiction writing on her blog - The Bookend, a part of Business Standard's platform, Punditry.