For me the long, languorous days of summer and the arrival of the rains are inextricably associated with books and reading. In pre-television and digital times, when power cuts were more frequent and entertainment restricted to transistors and movie halls, books were an escape, a stimulant, a soothing elixir. It is a habit that has not faded. Here is my best list to fend off seasonal torpor and other disturbances.
The most applauded and talked about book of the year is Homo sapiens out of Africa. If his conclusion is plain (but not simple with its ugly, present-day ramifications) it is this: “We are all migrants. And we are all mixed.”
One of the invigorating pleasures of reading about the past is the way history is retold as an ongoing serial, weaving travelogue, memoir, architectural or political churning.
Giles Tillotson, the British but Gurgaon-based architectural historian, is a dab hand at this cross-fertilisation of genres. For fans of his earlier books on Agra and Jaipur, he now completes the Golden Triangle trilogy with Delhi Darshan: The History and Monuments of India’s Capital (Penguin; Rs 499). His knowledge is wide yet his dissemination often elegant and deftly diverting. Here is how he describes the disquiet of Delhi’s populace at the advent of the young Akbar in 1556: “Anyone born just before the [Mughal] conquest had seen such change that it must have left them reeling in dizziness. First the Mughals come and knock out the Lodis; then the Surs come and knock out the Mughals; then the Mughals come back and knock out the Surs; and now the emperor falls downstairs and is succeeded by a teenager.”
The layered history of old cities is not seamless; it is a saga of disruption, political revision and tectonic social shifts. I have come to the Pakistani anthropologist Haroon Khalid’s Imagining Lahore: The City That Is, The City That Was (Penguin; Rs 599) late but what a treasure trove of stories! Seat of empires, adored city of the Mughals, the capital of Ranjit Singh’s Khalsa raj, and the beating heart of Punjab, its frontiers at times stretched from the outskirts of Delhi to Peshawar. Mr Khalid’s wanderings take in Sufi shrines, the ruins of Hindu havelis and temples, and encounters with Lahore’s endangered minorities. He does not follow a structured design but creates a luminous, captivating tapestry.
Empress of the Taj: In Search of Mumtaz Mahal by Timeri N Murari (Speaking Tiger; Rs 350) is another kind of journey. Mr Murari carts his family — two sisters and wife — in Arjumand Banu’s footsteps as she trails her husband on ceaseless campaigns in the 17th century. Little remains; and in Burhanpur, Madhya Pradesh, where the young queen, who evoked such peerless passion, breathed her last, not a trace. It is a moving chronicle of the maelstrom of history.
Rescuing once-prominent figures from the margins to shed new light on modern history is also the job of the archivist and reporter. British journalist Andrew Whitehead’s satyagraha movement, and going to jail. Later Freda Bedi joined Sheikh Abdullah’s Naya Kashmir movement and became a high-ranking Buddhist nun. (There is a touching photograph of her young son, actor Kabir Bedi, being ordained a Buddhist monk in Rangoon.)
And for those wishing to celebrate Girish Karnad, his collected plays in three volumes by Oxford University Press (where he once worked in Chennai in the 1960s) have gone through numerous reprints. Few explored aspects of Indian history, myth and folklore in drama, film and public debate as vigorously to hold up a mirror to our times.
Missing one volume on my bookshelf, I rang my reliable, well-stocked south Delhi bookshop for a copy. “Sorry, Sir, all sold but we’re taking orders.” Mr Karnad, I imagine, would have chuckled and feigned mild surprise. Even so, a bibliophile’s summer can run into dry patches.