It is that time of the semester again; everyone is about to get worked up for the end-semester exams. The photocopying of notes has begun and Rajender bhaiya’s Xerox machines have gone into an overdrive; which is why I must ask you to forgive me, for I ask you to look beyond the exams and into the summer vacations. I believe it is an apt time to write about books because usually everyone around me has their own preferred diet of TV shows and films to keep themselves busy throughout the semester and they tell me that they find the time to read only during the vacations. So, here are the five Indian authors I would like to suggest as your companions during your time at home or on your vacation:
- Em and The Big Hoom, Jerry Pinto
If you have to read one book this summer, read Em and The Big Hoom. This short novel will take you deep into the life of a family who never seem normal but yet tell everybody’s story. The book revolves around “Em” or Imelda, the protagonist’s mentally afflicted mother. Don’t go in expecting to sit through a serious tale of struggle and survival. Em brings oodles of humour into this tragedy; she laughs infectiously and jokes about everything including sex, abortions and love. This is a book of astonishing depth, each character’s journey has moments and descriptions that will stay with you much after you are done reading the book. Give this book a try, I promise you that this bidi-smoking mother of two will tug at your thoughts and emotions in equal proportion. Here is a small part of the protagonist’s world-
“If there was one thing I feared as I was growing up…No, that’s stupid. I feared hundreds of things: the dark, the death of my father, the possibility that I might rejoice the death of my mother, sums involving vernier callipers, groups of schoolboys with nothing much to do, death by drowning. But of all these, I feared the most the possibility that I might go mad too.
- This Divided Island, Samanth Subramanian
If you prefer non-fiction, this is the book for you. Samanth Subramanian’s study of the Sri Lankan civil war is one of the best written conflict accounts that you are likely to find. The most important fact about this book is that Subramanian does not take sides in his narrative. His side is that of the forgotten collateral that is the populace of any country that goes through a civil war. He meets people and questions them about the reasons, effects and consequences. What stands out about this gem of a book is its unique style. It is a travelogue combined with an account of the civil war and the author does justice to both. Throughout the book, he is never the one telling the story; he is merely receiving it from people he meets. Resultantly, the reader is introduced to Sri Lanka in a manner that is exceedingly intimate. For instance, as the author traverses through the country to follow the civil war terrain, he points out the number of old cars and the country’s love for it. He speaks to mechanics who have dextrously kept these vehicles running and innocently questions everyone about the conflict and the manner in which they see it. Of course, what is also noticeable is Subramanian’s penchant for beautifully crafted phrases, my personal favourite being “sodium lit emptiness”. The author describes the pos-conflict world best when he writes
“In the wretchedness stakes of post-war Sri Lanka, there was always somebody worse off. Even hitting rock bottom was difficult because it was so thickly carpeted by the dead”
Do read this book if the subject piques your interest, it will give you a new understanding and appreciation of what has been a mere international news story to you so far.
- Mumbai Fables, Gyan Prakash
This book caught my eye when I read about the fact that it had inspired Anurag Kashyap to make the film “Bombay Velvet”. While the film may have underwhelmed due to the manner in which Kashyap chose to tell the story and the parts that he chose to focus on, this book in and of itself, is an incredible read.
Prakash’s view is admittedly an outsider’s view of the story of Bombay. His desire is to capture the urban narrative that lies beneath the facade. He brings out Bombay’s conflict in vivid colours, be it the reclamation of Nariman Point or the tabloid coverage of the KM Nanavati case. This is not only a historian’s record of the past, for even at the smallest junctures the author compares incidents to the present day and offers a critique of the present. For instance, when he writes about Sylvia, Nanavati’s British wife who was in an adulterous relationship with another man, he says: “There was no insinuation (one very likely today) that she lacked the cultural values of India and exhibited lax morals of Western women”. His eye for detail and the ability to recreate the world as it existed then for the reader make this book an almost fiction-like read. Yet, he deals with very complex subject matter, as he himself describes his ambition:
“Now that the images of the cosmopolitan city lie shattered, deprived of the “aura” that enjoyed in their own time, a new historical understanding of the past becomes possible. The fables of the city can be unravelled to reveal how they came to be. We can cast a fresh look at the remains of the Portugese history and at the monumental structures erected by the British, turn over the soil of reclaimed lands, and read between the lines of official and unofficial documents. The shuttered textile mills, now overrun by residential and commercial towers, invite a fresh scrutiny of the enchantments of industrial progress that they once exuded and the aspirations and desires they stifled. The yellowing newspaper records and the archival documents, the travel writings, social commentaries, and political treatises that exist outside their time promise to reveal what was masked in the past”.
- Our Moon Has Blood Clots, Rahul Pandita
Rahul Pandita’s book is the most accessible work on the narrative of the Kashmiri Pandits, however, the fact that it is a memoir means that it reads as a personal narrative than a research piece on conflict and I believe that contributes towards making it more accessible. He is both, dispassionate and angst ridden in parts but the best part is that one never gets a sense of bias because there isn’t an overarching general narrative. It is just the author’s account. The following passage (one of my favourite ones from the book) will help you get a view of Pandita’s psyche:
“Years later, I saw father reading a report on the slain Ehsan Jafri, brutally done to death by a Hindu mob in Ahmedabad’s Gulbarg Society,a predominantly Muslim neighbourhood. As I sat next to him, I read how Jafri had nurtured a nest of barn swallows in his room and to protect them, he would not even switch on the ceiling fan. That day I realized that Father had gifted me something invaluable. Something that enabled me to calmly face an uproariously drunk army general one night in a television studio. We were there to debate human rights violations in Kashmir and I pointed out that there needs to be zero tolerance towards such crimes. ‘How can you say that?’ he barked. ‘It is they who have forced you out of your homes, turning you into refugees.’
I looked him in the eye and said: ‘General, I’ve lost my home, not my humanity.’”
- An Independent, Colonial Judiciary, Abhinav Chandrachud
This book is a special recommendation on this list because I feel that it is a very entertaining read for a student of law. Those that have been through their third year might remember reading bits of his earlier book, The Informal Constitution where he wrote at length about the informal criterion for the selection of judges post the three judges cases. Trust me; one has more fun reading it when one is not supposed to be writing an exam based on it. In his second book An Independent, Colonial Judiciary, Chandrachud seeks to cover the Bombay High Court in the pre-independence era. He starts with the premise that the instinctive belief with respect to a colonial court would be that it would have an obvious bias for the rulers and differential standards for the ruled. However, the author highlights that the Bombay High Court was one that maintained high standards of impartiality and independence in the administration of justice. He seeks to answer the question as to why a colonial court continued to flourish with largely the same personnel even after independence. He points out that “When regimes radically change, “collaborators” who are associated with the old regime are often persecuted and penalized. For example, after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, East German judges and prosecutors were purged from the legal system”. Yet, the Bombay High Court transitioned into the court of an independent country.
The book provides a highly educative perspective on the Indian judges in the colonial era, the judicial culture, the structure of the judicial hierarchy and the manner in which the Court managed to maintain the independence of the court in the light of the political structure. His book is laced with historical anecdotes. Following is an instance of his observation with respect to the appointment of the chief justice at the Bombay High Court:
“Accordingly, no matter how loyal or qualified an Indian was, colonial government could never get itself to trust him with post of Chief Justices of important court in British India, and British men always had to be at the helm of affairs. Some of the appointments were questionable. For example, some considered it as ‘matter of surprise’ when Basil Scott was appointed Chief Justice of the Bombay High Court. Previously, Scott had been an acting High Court judge in 1905, and all his decisions during that time had been reversed in appeal. The British Chief Justice was a powerful symbol for who was really in charge in India – no matter how many Indians got to High Court Bench, the British, this policy seemed to convey, were still in charge. Despite the fact that British Raj was formally predicated upon notions of racial equality, racial difference was still at the heart of its most fundamental decisions on questions of law and justice in the colonies”
You can read an article on Justice Chagla here to get a flavour of Chandrachud’s writing:
(Hat tip to Rishika Sahgal for telling me about the article)
I hope at least one book piques your interest and is worth your time this summer. Happy reading!