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From Dark Circles to The Children Act: The most evocative books of 2018

By January 2, 2019No Comments

Source : Business Standard – WEEKEND    –    Karan Thapar 

My book of 2018 is David Gilmour’s delightful study of the British in India. It may be long and detailed but it’s a joy to read, says the author


Let me start with an admission. I’m an eclectic reader. I can choose to read a book because I know the author, or because I’m fascinated by the subject or, even, because the cover has caught my fancy. Consequently, a strange but very individualistic collection of sits on my bedside table. At any given time, it includes biographies, histories, novels, specialist accounts and memoirs. I dip into them as the mood takes me. Rarely do I finish a book at one go. But over a period I’ll have read several.

For me the greatest surprise this year was Aatish Taseer’s new book, The Twice-Born: Life and Death on the Ganges. It’s a delight to read. It reveals a command of the English language as well as a mellifluous fluency of expression I had not thought the author capable of. It’s remarkably different and infinitely better than anything he’s written so far.

he Twice-Born: Life and Death on the Ganges | Aatish Taseer, Fourth Estate, Rs 599, 256 pages

The book is an account of Taseer’s attempt to understand India and Hinduism. Set in Varanasi, its style veers between the portentously anecdotal and the beguilingly analytical. Consequently, it’s a demanding book but it’s also a richly rewarding one. It’s not for reading in the car but it’s gripping late at night stretched out on a sofa.

Ashok Alexander’s A Stranger Truth: Lessons in Love, Leadership and Courage from India’s Sex Workers is a very different book. It’s about sex workers. The author’s career started as a high-profile executive with the international consultants McKinsey & Company. Then, one day, he threw it up to head Avahan, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s programme, to fight HIV. He ended up running this organisation for a decade. The book is based on his experiences.

What caught my attention is the image Alexander paints of sex workers. He compares them to business leaders and, believe it or not, they come out better!


A Stranger Truth: Lessons in Love, Leadership and Courage from India’s Sex Workers | Ashok Alexander, Juggernaut, Rs 699, 320 pages

As Alexander points out, business leaders have the attributes they need to have and “very often just one or two might suffice”. Rarely does a business leader have to be an all-rounder in terms of leadership qualities. He has people to cover for him.

A female sex worker is very different. “Her world is far more complex, much more challenging. She must deal with emotional, health and financial crises all the time. There’s the constant threat of violence and her first mission is really to survive. She has no power, but she still must stay in control. She has no support system, but she must cope. She simply cannot win with just one or two shots in her game. She needs a whole repertoire,” he writes.

Alexander got to know sex workers well. He says they’re “tremendous judges of body language”. They develop this faculty to survive. This also means “they’re amazing judges of people, especially of men”. They can size up an individual not just in a moment but from as far as 20 feet.

Not surprisingly, negotiation is one of their prime skills. “It’s not just business leaders who have to be adept at negotiating. A sex worker negotiates all the time with her clients for safe sex.” On the outcome depends more than the success of a business. It can determine the sex worker’s life.

The two novels I fondly recall are very different from each other. Translated from the original Kannada, Vivek Shanbhag’s Ghachar Ghochar is a small book but unputdownable. The name is an onomatapoeic construction for the state when things get all tangled up. It’s the story of a family experiencing enormous change in the material conditions of their life. As money becomes plentiful, their values loosen, fragment and erode. The changes the book describes happen at two levels — physical and, more importantly, moral.


| Vivek Shanbhag (translated by Srinath Perur) HarperPerennial, Rs 299, 128 pages

Shanbhag has an eye for little details and telling mannerisms. His writing has an intimacy that becomes irresistible and you keep wanting to read on. Alas, the book is short and ends quickly. In fact, it closes abruptly, leaving the reader wondering if there was more we haven’t been told.

In contrast, Udayan Mukherjee’s Dark Circles is a poignant and emotional book that tugs at your heartstrings. It’s both a simple and complicated story and I have to be careful how I describe it because I don’t want to give it away.

Dark Circles is about love and dislocation, parental betrayal and family discord, deep hidden memories and shattering revelations, losing your mother and then discovering you didn’t really know her, remembering your long-dead father and realising how well you instinctively understood him and coming to terms with yourself as you struggle to remake your life.


Dark circles | Udayan Mukherjee, Bloomsbury India, Rs 499, 208 pages

knew Mukherjee in the days when he was managing editor of CNBC. I had not expected him to be capable of such deep, complex emotions. Market analysts tend to be clinical and dry. If they have emotions, they suppress them. In Dark Circles, Mukherjee’s flow fluently. Few people who knew him from his CNBC days would have guessed he has such emotional depths.

The other surprise is his delightful use of the English language. Describing the moment dusk turns to night in the Uttarakhand hills, he writes: “In the distance, the lights of Almora were slowly beginning to come on. Soon, they would begin to look like a swarm of distant fireflies.” I don’t recall the Mukherjee I knew talking in such evocative terms.

In fact, the misty mountain sunshine of the Uttarakhand hills is perhaps the only light in this book. It is a sad, dark story but one that forces you to think as you get drawn deeper into it. This is one book I read in a single sitting. It captured my attention completely.

When I finished, I felt both sad and bereft. The first emotion was because I had been completely engrossed by the book’s tragic story. The second because I was sorry it had finished. I felt a little lonely when I turned the last page.

However, my book of 2018 is David Gilmour’s delightful study of the British in India. It may be long and detailed but it’s a joy to read. The pages almost turn themselves. Once you pick it up, you want to put off everything else so that you can carry on to the next chapter.

Called The British in India: Three Centuries of Ambition and Experience, it’s the story of how they lived, what they did and the way they explained themselves during the three-and-a-half centuries they spent in India. Its dramatis personae includes viceroys and officials, soldiers and missionaries, planters and foresters, mercenaries, engineers, teachers and doctors. Many of them were devoted to the country and several committed to its best interests.


The British in India: Three Centuries of Ambition and Experience | Author: David Gilmour, Allen Lane, Rs 999, 640 pages

However, it was part three of the book, called “Experiences”,that had me riveted. The description of the British memsahib and her attitude to her servants or her fascination with shopping reveals how the smallest detail of manner and protocol mattered so much to the English. Five thousand miles from home and often, as a result, discombobulated, they needed to stiffen their resolve with the straitjacket of rigid rules and practices which they unfailingly adhered to. Manners, it seems, maketh the British Raj!


The Children Act | Ian McEwan, Penguin Random House, Rs 399, 144 pages

Now, as 2019 creeps upon us, the book I most want to read is Ian McEwan’s The Children Act. It’s not a new book. It was published four years ago. At the time I made the mistake of not reading it. I thought it wasn’t for me. Then, in September, I saw the movie in London, directed by Richard Eyre and starring Emma Thompson. It’s perhaps one of the best I have seen in a long time. Next year, I want to atone and read the book.


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