A rapid reader for 2019

In his coruscating slim volume The Uncommon Reader the British playwright and screenwriter Alan Bennett describes what happens when the Queen of England suddenly, and unaccountably, becomes a voracious reader. This habit is met with alarm by her staff and consternation by loyal subjects on her walkabouts. Instead of exchanging polite nothings Her Majesty starts quizzing the public on what they read and discussing the merits of Trollope, Dickens, and Virginia Woolf. A few misguided folk mention Harry Potter — “but to this the Queen (who had no time for fantasy) invariably said briskly, ‘Yes. One is saving that for a rainy day,’ and passed swiftly on.”  

Whether you love or love to hate Harry Potter, Keshava Guha’s debut novel Accidental Magic (HarperCollins; Rs 599) is not just for rainy days. It’s the pick of the crop in a strong year for fiction — a hugely inventive and entertaining foray into the intricate, interlinked virtual world of Potter fandom. Kannan, the Bangalore boy’s initiation into American college life and the Yahoo! group HP4BK (Harry Potter for Big Kids), is an escape, an intellectual quiz, and an emotional link to diverse milieus and relationships. Vividly observed and articulated, it is a classic bildungsroman of our time.

Madhuri Vijay’s prize-winning The Far Field (Fourth Estate; Rs 599), deservedly praised novel, is a young daughter’s unsettling requiem for a lost mother, a brittle, high-strung woman who forged a relationship with a Kashmiri salesman. Her search takes her to the Valley, with the torments of an unresolved past intensifying turbulent lives stained by violence and fear. Fiction can plunge us into those dark recesses that no amount of reportage can; and Ms Vijay’s dense narrative is remarkable for its evocation of a fractured land. The City and the Sea (Penguin; Rs 499) by Raj Kamal Jha is also about a disappearing mother who fails to return home from work. Partly inspired by the Delhi gang rape of 2012, the book’s episodic, intercut structure weaves imagined, often dream-like realities in experimental form.

Several of the year’s best non-fiction titles such as Early Indians by Tony Joseph were reviewed here (“A bibliophile’s summer reading”, June 15, 2019) but here are some notable recent arrivals.

Shanta Gokhale, the novelist, prolific translator from Marathi, theatre archivist, and critic has written a memoir, One Foot on the Ground: A Life Told through the Body (Speaking Tiger; Rs 399) that can hardly be bettered. As a femme de lettres her British counterpart would perhaps be the celebrated Diana Athill, who died this year at the age of 101. Ms Gokhale’s unusual education in middle-class Mumbai and London neighbourhoods, her two broken marriages, earning a living, and bringing up a family are sustained by passionate intellectual rigour. It is the rewinding of life illuminated by candour, insight, humour, and brevity. On the perils of being a bilingual writer, she quotes Arun Kolatkar, “the quintessential Bombay poet” who said, “Well you see, I have a pencil with two points.”

Indeed, if life is being dealt an unpredictable hand of cards, then the most engaging memoirs are those able to shape it into a series of surprising sequences. Fiji-born Bhaichand Patel had many avatars — as journalist, barrister, and UN diplomat — and habitats — Delhi, London, Bombay, New York, and Manila — before coming to roost in the capital as bon vivant and raconteur par excellence. He has the talent of treating the weightiest of subjects weightlessly and making you laugh out loud. I Am a Stranger Here Myself: An Unreliable Memoir (HarperCollins; Rs 699) is a pleasure.

Two musical journeys added immeasurably to my year’s reading list. Those who admire Shubha Mudgal as a diva of commanding power and range may be unaware that both her parents taught English Literature at Allahabad University and she has a natural gift for storytelling and comic timing. Looking for Miss Sargam (Speaking Tiger; Rs 499) is her fictionalised encounters with characters and situations in the madcap musical whirl: Cut-throat producers, ambitious ustads, conniving accompanists et al. It’s a delicious concoction. Despite its genealogical sprawl, documentary filmmaker Saba Dewan’s Tawaifnama (Context; Rs 899), a fly-on-the-wall account of the kinship of courtesans and dancing girls in the geographically small Purvanchal region of Banaras and Bhabua is unique for its historical and social investigation. Among many things, it details, how male progeny are sidelined as second-class offspring in a matriarchal community that prizes girl children as bread-winners and keepers of musical tradition.

It’s been a fruitful year for scholars. A couple of works of history stand out: Kim A Wagner’s Jallianwala Bagh: An Empire of Fear and the Making of the Amritsar Massacre (Penguin; Rs 599) unveils new research on the city as religious centre and commercial trading post. In sinewy prose it traces the roots of the 1919 tragedy from 1857 and the unravelling of the Raj. And for a history buff’s bedtime reading, Manu S Pillai’s The Courtesan, the Mahatma & the Italian Brahmin (Context; Rs 599) is the ideal companion — more than 50 tales familiar and unfamiliar. 

Happy New Year!



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