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Publishers pick their favourite reads of 2018

By December 25, 2018No Comments

Source : Hindustan Times

From books on the nature of religion, to narrative non-fiction, and a novel based on the life of a Hindustani classical singer, it’s a wide-ranging list.


The book that I most enjoyed buying, reading and re-reading this year isLiving With The Gods by Neil MacGregor, who very famously gave us A History of the World in 100 Objects.

Based on the 30 part BBC radio series, which I haven’t listened to, I was very lucky to have caught the exhibition itself at the British Museum earlier this year. Beginning with the 40,000 year old Lion Man sculpture to fascinating art and artefacts, the book weaves the incredible story of our existence through not just practise but also our individual understanding of faith. The convergence of many of the beliefs, the reasons why communities often choose to ignore them, and wear the differences as a badge will make us think hard about the need and purpose of religion.


Very early in the introduction MacGregor spells it out quite simply – ‘that in deciding how we live with our Gods, we also decide how we live with each other’.

Illuminating, thought provoking and quite simply, staggering in its scope, Living With The Gods will remain one of the most important works (across its many formats) including as a print book.



I had loved and his new novel Michael Ondaatje’s Cats Table, a small, retro little gem, and his new novel Warlight is a deeper, more beautiful and haunting version of it. It returns to the writer’s old terrain, WW2, this time telling the story of two siblings in post-blitz London left to their own devices by a mysterious and glamorous mother and looked after by a host of colourful characters.

And, of course, because this is Ondaatje there is tragedy and bloodshed and deep love at the centre of it — in particular about a mother and her children. Maybe because I have a two-year-old and am immersed in motherhood, maybe because it seems to me Ondaatje has returned to real form with the last two books, this moved me and stayed with me this year like nothing else.



Hate, investigative reporter Revati Laul tracks the lives of her characters — ordinary men and women caught in an extraordinary time — through transformative moments in their lives over a decade-and-a-half. Gradually, she paints a canvas for us, of the way hate and violence play out among neighbours and strangers, of relationships built and damaged, of caste and class, tradition and rebellion, as they intersect and culminate in specific individual actions.

And yet, all of this sits lightly on the page. On the surface, it’s pacy and anecdotal — and shocking, given the subject. It’s only as you get deeper into the narrative that you realise how every sentence has been born of years of research and reading, and hours of interviews, beginning in 2002, the year that changed something fundamental in India. This is a book that demands nuance and engagement from the reader, and I would recommend it without hesitation.



The best book I read this year – which we didn’t publish – was Red Birds by Mohammed Hanif. With Hanif, the thing that draws me in, always, is how he never paints an underdog; even his victims are fighters and survivors. This is richly rewarding for the reader; we are often so buried under misery narratives (not that there’s anything wrong with portraying the bleak perspective!) that the dauntless righteousness and the survival instincts of Hanif’s characters are, quite apart from being tremendously entertaining, very gratifying indeed. For me, the novel felt like a reminder that we’re all in this together, and we all had better count on each other if we are meant to survive the times we’ve found ourselves in.

I would also like to mention another extraordinary book: What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape by Sohaila Abdulali, which we did publish, and which I think will always be urgent, necessary, valuable and game-changing. This too is a book about survivors, and absolutely no one in the world could have written the book that Abdulali wrote.



The two books that I really enjoyed reading this year are The Epic City by Kushanava Choudhury (Bloomsbury Circus) and Great Textpectations by Ruchi Vadehra (Rupa). The Epic City portrays the world on the streets of Calcutta. The book is a fascinating read not only for those who have lived in Calcutta, but also for those who have only heard  about the mystery surrounding the city. Having lived the better part of his youth in the USA, the author decided to return home and take up journalism as a profession in Calcutta. Obviously, he loves the city of his birth and his observations are honest and insightful. Interspersed with a lot of humour and sunny sarcasm, the book is his soulful, compelling and often hilarious account of life in a city that often looks like it lives in its own time zone. After Suketu Mehta’s classic Maximum City on Mumbai, Epic City is the best city-centric book that I have read so far.

Ruchi Vadehra’s debut novel, Great Textpectations, seems to suggest that ‘text is the new talk’. Though a breezy read, it is not a mushy love story. The author breaks new ground by highlighting the fun text conversation between two young persons, which becomes instrumental in connecting their worlds. Amaya is a Delhi-based intellectually inclined 35 year old single woman who is financially independent and sexually liberated. She wants to open a boutique bookstore and live life on her own terms. While playing Scrabble online, she comes across Rohan and they soon get chatting. The actual texts the author weaves into the narrative are realistic, while also being highly original in their tone and tenor. When Amaya’s boutique bookstore, to which Rohan has supplied a lot of concepts, is to be inaugurated, they decide to meet. Rohan goes to Delhi from Mumbai and the apprehension of a face–to–face meeting with all its concomitant baggage vanishes and their ideas resonate well with each other. We close the book with a satisfied chuckle as it ends with hints of a happily-ever-after.



One of the best books I’ve read this year is The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry. I came to it later than I should have (it was published in 2017) – the perils of being in the business of books! – but it came highly recommended (and beautifully packaged), and I waited for the right stretch of time so I could read it at one go. And I’m so glad I did! After a long time I think I found a book that had me completely immersed in it.

The story is set in Victorian England; the recently widowed (read liberated) Cora travels away from London to recuperate at Essex, where she hears of a monster water serpent that is said to be haunting the area. The eerie, gothic setting and tone, the overwhelming ‘presence’ of the mythic monster that leaves you guessing, the turns the plot takes – it is just a fabulous example of old-fashioned storytelling, the stuff that the best books are made of. It also has a tremendously layered narrative – you have the play-off between faith and science (as Cora goes hunting for fossils – and the serpent – she meets the rector of Aldwinter, who does not quite (or is it wish to) believe the creature exists); reality and the imagination; the expectations of men and desires of women.

And through all this what really kept me reading is the exquisite use of language. The descriptions of the marshes especially, the moss and fungus and bugs and mud, and the waters that seem to hide in them a constant menace. Not to mention the dialogues and exchanges between the characters, be it debate or banter or snarky disdain or confessions of vulnerability. I could go on and on, but yes, this is a book I will come back to again and again. I’ve recommended it and gifted it a dozen times over, and will continue to do so for some time to come.



In 2018, I have been inspired by the idea of travel and read through Stewart Gordon’s book on great routes of human history. His There and Back (Oxford University Press 2018) is one of the memorable books I read this year. Also, my interest in the reasons for the rise of Hitler and his appointment as Chancellor in January 1933 led me to read about the failure of Social Democrats in Germany and I picked up The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg (Verso, 2011).

I also read through BR Ambedkar’s Pakistan or the Partition of India (Samyak Prakashan 2013) and Ishtiyaq Ahmad Zilli’s translation of Tarikh I Firozshahi (Primus 2015). In fiction, I picked up Italo Calvinos 1993 classic If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller, Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings (Oneworld, 2015) and Jack Arbor’s The Russian Spy (2017) and thoroughly enjoyed reading them.



In February, we published what is perhaps our most important and yet endearing book, The RTI Story: Power to the People by Aruna Roy and the MKSS Collective. The book charts the journey of the movement, from a call to action to legislation and how, along the way, ordinary citizens joined to relentlessly fight for transparency in governance. It is an extremely readable book, full of anecdotes and in the inimitable deferential style of Aruna Roy it gives credit to no one person, or organisation but to the thousands who rallied around the movement to empower people through the Right to Information. I particularly enjoyed reading about the remarkable RTI soldiers such as Norti Bai who dropped out of school at age 10 but went on to be computer literate, a sarpanch of her panchayat and teach girls computer studies, or Sushila who was a Class 4 pass who coined the slogan Hamara Paisa, Hamara Hisaab! When asked by journalists why she was fighting for the RTI she answered, “When I send my son to the bazaar with Rs10 ask him for an account of what he spent; why should I not ask the government to be accountable when they spend crores in my name?”

With the RTI Act under threat there has never been a better time to read this book. A line from the introduction sums up best why I recommend this as the book of the year. “This collective history empowers young readers to understand their capabilities and possible roles in shaping governance.” In these dim times, read this “story of the success of Indian democracy” to, perhaps, feel a sense of hope again.

If I could be indulgent and include another book! My Paper Chase by Harold Evans. I stumbled across this book this summer even though it was published nearly 10 years ago. What a charming, engrossing read by one of journalism’s finest. Evans is a natural storyteller and his account of growing up in middle class Britain and being amongst the first editors from a background other than the typical public school-Oxbridge pool, made the book all the more engaging. Its pace and energy is matched with the stories he recounts of his time as editor of the prestigious Sunday Times – from the murder of his correspondent David Holden and the investigation into his death, to the Philby exposure, and the scoops by the Insight team… A brilliant read.



One of the best books I’ve read this year, and which I wish we’d published, is Neelum Saran Gour’s Requiem in Raga Janki, based on the life of the Hindustani singer and tawaif Janki Bai Allahabadi (1880-1934), a contemporary of Gauhar Jaan and just as famous. Neelum is an extraordinary writer of fiction who deserves far greater recognition than she has received, and this is perhaps her finest novel. Janki’s life is the stuff of legend, full of glory and tragedy — born to a wayward wrestler and a woman who was later sold into prostitution, she survived an attack in which she was stabbed fifty-six times (after which incident she was nicknamed ‘chhappan chhuri’).

Trained in Hindustani music by the biggest ustads, she eventually gained great fame as a singer, being invited to perform at mehfils and royal durbars across India, and becoming the first artist recorded by HMV. She amassed great wealth, loved freely and lost much, and converted to Islam — but in the best traditions of Hindustani music, continued to find beauty and solace in Islam and Hinduism as in secular and sensual experiences forbidden in both religions. It couldn’t have been an easy task to strike the right balance between credible storytelling and the melodrama necessary for a full telling of such a life, but Neelum pulls it off. The prose is brilliant, even if not all her experiments with language are successful.

It’s a capacious novel, gloriously rich in period detail and rare histories. But its real triumph is the feisty narrator, a 90-year-old who may well have been a tawaif herself, a survivor and a bit of a subversive. The perfect voice to tell the story of a woman who pursued art, love, fame and wealth with equal passion.


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