Books Read/ Reviewed: 2019

2019 has been a well-read, well-reviewed year for me. Actually, half-year. For most of the books that I read/reviewed happened between the Bengali New Year (Nabo Borsho) in April and the biggest Bengali festival (Durga Puja) in October. They are Bengali markers in an English calendar simply because the first and last books I read – by some chance – coincided with the Bengali festivals.

I took a photo of the small wall of books after reading the last – and felt, strangely, grateful! Most of this year – like most of the last 3 – has been an uncertain one for me; it thus felt good to still have the reassurance of books to fall back on in trying times. I just hope this one factor remains constant in my life! 

So, here's my book list.... 
(NB: they were all read, but not all published in 2019).

My Book List: 2019

My Daughter's Mum (Natasha Badhwar)  The best thing about this book is getting to know how the mother grew up with her daughters & not how she brought them up!

The Scent of God  (Saikat Majumdar) –  To read this book is to indulge in a riot of the senses. The sexual awakening  of Anirvan – in what is supposed to be a spiritual, almost ascetic environment – is explored with great honesty and remarkable sensuousness by the author.

I read College: Pathways of Possibility (by Saikat Majumdar) on an insomniac night – choosing it for its slimness. The idea was to finish it off in a few hours and hopefully go to sleep after being done. No such luck! Because after reading, I found myself doing mental exercises with Howard Gardner’s categorisations of intelligences (dealt with in Chapter 3 of the book): linguistic, logical-mathematical, musical, spatial, body-kinaesthetic, personal, naturalist, spiritual, existential and moral.
This little book is a delight - equal parts informative and insightful. I was also pleasantly surprised... because I had expected the detached register of the author’s online articles on education in this book, but what I got instead was a fine weaving of a personal journey into the educational history of India. It is precisely because of that, that I found the book very engaging and will remember it better.

How I Became a Tree (Sumana Roy) – A truly unique, genre-defying book of immense beauty. At the heart of it lies not only the author’s profound love for trees, but also a reckoning of man’s organic relationship  with nature – something we all seem to have forgotten. The book resonated with me at multiple levels  - not the least being my own love of trees!

Out of Syllabus (Suman Roy)  Remember the subjects of your school syllabus: Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Maths, History, Geography? Here is a book of poems that sees human life and relationships through the prism of those disciplines. I am not a great reader or lover of poetry, but this slim volume arrested my attention – primarily because of the poet’s sustained use of precise images, that are as startling as they are original.

The Bengalis: A Portrait of a Community (Sudeep Chakravarti) – Ambitious in scope, imaginative in structure, and inclusive in its approach, this book is a most provocative and insightful study of the history of a community beyond its stereotypes. This is history made accessible to the general informed reader, with a liberal dose of humour and sarcasm.

The Last Vicereine (Rhiannon Jenkins-Tsang) – That Jawaharlal Nehru shared a very special relationship with Edwina Mountbatten  is well known. This novel aims at a fictionalized account of that most enigmatic of affairs. Interestingly, of the two parallel love stories in the novel, the imaginary one (between Nehru’s doctor friend and Edwina’s ‘Special Advisor’) is rendered more imaginatively and successfully than the historical one!

The Bengal Diaspora: Rethinking Muslim Migration (Joya Chatterjee, Claire Alexander & Annu Jalais)  A historian, a sociologist and an ethnographer come together to pull off a tremendous feat - they fill in a major lacuna in Partition Studies and open up a new discursive space in Migration and Diaspora Studies.

Filling in what is missing in existing knowledge and opening up new vistas of it – both are at the heart of any research in any field. It’s rare, though, to find a single book doing both. And also speaking to our times. 'The Bengal Diaspora: Rethinking Muslim Migration' is that rare work.

Gun Island (Amitav Ghosh)  Are you holding a copy of Gun Island? Welcome to The Hungry Tide, Season 2. Also, to the fictional sequel of The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable.  
In The Great Derangement, Ghosh had taken literature, history and politics to task for their failure to grapple with climate change. While doing so, he had not spared himself, too, as a writer. In Gun Island, he seems to be making amends: he confronts climate change and the contemporary global refugee crisis head on with a story that has a Bengali folkloric legend at its core — that of a gun merchant (‘Bonduki Sadagar’), who ended up in Venice when pursued by ‘Ma Manasa’ (the goddess of snakes — celebrated in the cult 14th century Bengali poem, Manasamangal Kavya).

The Ungrateful Refugee – Dina Nayeri’s own experience as a refugee (fleeing revolutionary Iran as a child with her mother and brother) has shaped her life and informs most of her work – including her latest non-fiction book. Divided into five segments – ‘Escape’, ‘Camp’, ‘Asylum, ‘Assimilation, and ‘Cultural Repatriation’ – this book memorably covers the entire arc of the refugee experience. It combines Nayeri’s own life story with other refugee experiences which she came to know through her involvement, after her relocation to London, with organisations like Refugee Support Europe, among others. This is an important book for our times.

Diwali in Muzaffarnagar (Tanuj Solanki) – In most of the reviews I have read of this collection of shorts, the book has been lauded for (if I may phrase it so) holding up a mirror to small-town India. While it obviously does so, I liked it for a completely different reason: I felt that because it is convincingly local, it also ended up being successfully universal. The way I see it, what it basically deals with is the delicate balance of gains and losses that we all have to weigh in our lives (in different permutations and combinations): small town vs. metropolis, freedom vs. responsibility, adventurous uncertainty vs. stagnant stability, romantic vs. filial bonds. Though I liked all the stories, I was particularly drawn to ‘My Friend Daanish’, ‘Good People’ and ‘Compassionate Grounds’. 

Quichotte – Salman Rushdie is a bad habit that dies hard. At least, that's the case with me. Little wonder that I bought and read his latest novel as soon as it hit the stands!

Unfortunately, this book could not add itself to the list of my favourites, but I did like a few (once again, predictable) things about it: Rushdie's undeniable delight in language that suffuses the text, for one (which, unfortunately, also makes it bloated, as he tends to get carried away by it); the meta-narrative, for another - the tale within the tale, the writer writing about a writer in the process of writing a new book. I loved the point where the two tales exactly mirror each other. On the whole, however, I found the mediocre (spy fiction) writer's mid-life crisis (esp. his poignant reunion with his sister after decades) far more engaging than his fictitious character's (Quichotte) picaresque quest for love across America. Hence, the most important aspect of the novel - i.e., Rushdie's 21st century take on Cervantes' 17th century classic - didn't have much of an impact on me. It would have, perhaps, if the "take" was somewhat restricted in nature, allowing me the time and scope to relish the parallels across centuries. But no - the encyclopaedic nature of the cultural references that kept bombarding the pages too often stood in the way of the narrative, impeding its flow and reducing its effectiveness.
Quichotte's imaginary son, Sancho (who else?), held my attention, though (in the first half of the novel) - giving me a major déjà vu of the imaginary Jodha in 'The Enchantress of Florence' (2008). Some of my favourite passages in the book are his musings.

Rasia (Koral Dasgupta) –  Anything to do with dance intrigues me. That’s because I have seen a dancer from very close quarters: my sister, who was born to dance, but didn’t/couldn’t follow her passion. As children growing up in 1980s India with only the state-owned Delhi Doordarshan (DD) for entertainment, we sisters made the most of it by regularly watching the ‘National Program of Dance’; and though I didn’t dance myself, I eagerly watched all the great names of the day – Sanjukta Panigrahi, Swapna Sundari, Leila Samson, Mallika Sarabhai, to name only a few – and knew exactly which Indian classical dance form they specialized in. Most of these amazing artists danced solo, but there was a couple, too – Raja and Radha Reddy. They were a great pair, but they were later joined – both on the stage and in their marriage – by Radha’s sister. A most unusual matrimonial alliance! Rasia reminded me very much of both that famous couple, and then trio, in its delineation of the dynamic between Raj, Manasi and Vatsala. It was a refeshing change to read a book of fiction with dance at its centre! 

You Beneath Your Skin (Damayanti Biswas) – This is an indubitably disturbing novel. It holds up an ugly mirror to a deeply entrenched misogyny in Indian society that manifests itself all too often in gruesome crimes against women. The crime dealt with here is acid attacks on vulnerable women in Delhi. 

It is easy for a writer dealing with such an incendiary theme to easily slip into sensationalism, especially while writing in the crime fiction genre – where people expect “action-packed thrillers”, the “thrill” element coming primarily from the peddling of violence and sex. Biswas steers clear of that route with élan – giving us all the necessary details of what it means to be an acid attack victim (from the nature of the chemical through what it does to the skin to the painfully long and complex recovery process), but never allowing it to slide into a “thrill”.

(My Review in Scroll -

The best takeaway from any book is, of course, the (memory of the) pleasure of reading it! The books I read in 2019 were no exception to that. But it has been a memorable year in another way: not only did I review books by friends but also made new author-friends after reading their work. As always, books have given me far more than I asked for....!


Griselda Heppel said…
Gosh, lots of reading ideas here! Many thanks for opening my eyes to a much wider field of genres and authors than the usual UK Sunday paper Books of the Year lists. I'm particularly intrigued by all the different kind of intelligence examined in College: Pathways of Possibility. And My Daughter's Mum looks fun.
Damyanti Biswas said…
Thanks for the wonderful review, Rituparna, and I look forward to our meeting in Kolkata!
Rituparna Roy said…
I look forward to meeting you, too, Damayanti!
Rituparna Roy said…
Thank you, Griselda, for reading this post! Ypu have been cery kind - you have read & commented on several of my posts. Thank you for that! I am glad my 2019 book list has opened up a wider field of genres for you to read from. Actually, quite a few are by Indian writers. I have a selfish reason for keeping myself updated on that front (I mean, English books by Indian writers), apart from the fact that I have always enjoyed reading them since my college days in the early 1990s (when they were not that much in vogue). But overall, in my list this year, I have enjoyed reading non-fiction more.

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