Which are the books we reach out for in a year that is undoubtedly one of the most violent in recent history? In an effort to make sense of the senseless violence that assaulted us, starting from the devastating earthquake in Gujarat and going on to man-made disasters of unimaginable dimensions, readers, who ranged from ministers and parliamentarians to historians, writers, sociologists, actors and models, sought comfort and understanding and even escape in books—new and old favourites, poetry, novels, essays, thrillers...
Poems by Faiz
Romila Thapar, Historian
"One book that I felt compelled to read this year is Poems by Faiz—Faiz Ahmed Faiz, translated and introduced by Victor G. Kiernan (oup). He seems to have so many insights into what has been happening in the Indian subcontinent in the last century."
The Last Jet-Engine Laugh
Mukul Kesavan, Writer, Historian
"I don't think people read what they read because of current affairs but two books made an impression on me this year: The Idea of India by Sunil Khilnani (Viking Penguin) and The Last Jet-Engine Laugh by Ruchir Joshi (HarperCollins). Khilnani's book is a wonderfully lucid history and definition of the republican principles that established India. I liked Ruchir's book because, like Khilnani, it is passionate in its many stories about the Nehruvian world he inherited. He is also blackly funny about the dystopia that might lie in the future if the present mood of intolerance lasts."
Ashis Nandy, Sociologist
"The two books that I found very relevant in this year of senseless violence are not very recent publications. One is The Aftermath by Aaron Hass (Cambridge University Press) and deals with how we live with the aftermath—memories and scars—of violence, and how individuals and communities react to the experience of large-scale violence. It helped me to see and sharpened my sensitivity to how human beings react in the face of violence.
The other book which I found very pertinent to this year is Crisis of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis and History (Routledge) by Soshana Felman and Dori Laub. This book deals with victims and students of violence and tries to examine how both constitute a new species of witnesses in our times. Those who suffer and those who witness talk of their experience which creates in them a unique responsibility, and it is this responsibility that these two writers focus on."
The Two Vietnams
Mani Shankar Aiyer, Congress MP
"One book that helped me a great deal in comprehending the events of this year is Propaganda and the Public Mind by Noam Chomsky (South End Press). It reinforced my deep apprehension about the quest for dominance and the reliance on violence that so informs the American approach to international affairs.
As an antidote to the quest for violence, I went back to two old books: In Retrospect—The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam by Robert S. McNamara (Vintage) and The Dark Side of Camelot by Seymour M. Hersh (Little Brown). McNamara as US Secretary for Defence under John F. Kennedy was a leading advocate and practitioner of a military solution to US problems in Vietnam. It is his searing experience of the futility of military might that caused him to review his own thoughts and actions. Hersh tells the story of various attempts by the CIA, particularly in the time of Kennedy, to solve America's foreign policy problems through assassination and terror. The numerous attempts that were made include several unsuccessful attempts to kill Fidel Castro and a successful one on the Congo leader, Patrice Lumumba.
I also revisited another book which deeply moved me in my youth: The Two Vietnams by Bernard B. Fall (Praeger). When the proposal came for King Zahir Shah to be the fulcrum around which the new government of Afghanistan would centre, I remembered how in a similar manner the Americans in 1964 had thought the ideal solution to their problems in Vietnam was to build the new government of South Vietnam around the installation of Bao Dai.That was a disaster, but America is not willing to learn from its own experience.
The ultimate solution really lies in another book I won at school: Non-Violence in Peace and War by M.K. Gandhi (Navjivan). "We must have more faith in our non-violence than the terrorist has in his violence," Gandhi says in one of these essays and it's worth reflecting on after the terrorists' attack on Parliament and as we move out of one of the most violent years in history."
Life And Times Of Rumi
Gulzar, Writer, Poet
"The Little Magazine, one of the best literary magazines I've read, published an issue recently on terror in all forms which made a lot of sense. Also, Life and Times of Rumi by Schinnell. The book is about the life of Rumi, a great Sufi poet, and Schinnell describes his journey, the people, the culture and the life he walked through along with references to his poetry. Poems by Hafiz in translation was another book that gripped me this year. But a very beautiful book was Vaikom Mohammed Basheer (Katha Classics), the translated short stories of the famous Malayali writer."
Saare Sukhan Hamare
Shabana Azmi, Actress and Rajya Sabha MP
"Two books I keep going back to are Saare Sukhan Hamaare by Faiz Ahmad Faiz (Rajkamal Prakashan) and Awara Sajde by Kaifi Azmi (also Rajkamal Prakashan). I think poetry is really the voice of sanity for all times. And beautiful poetry is timeless. Both these collections, while rooted in a particular time, are for me the voice of caution and sanity. I don't read novels but I've read all of Arundhati Roy's essays (now published by Penguin, The Algebra of Infinite Justice) and I was extremely moved by all of them. I find her voice to be one of the most persuasive of our times: her language is flawless and she is the most seductive writer I have encountered, a completely wonderful writer with sentences like: "The next war will be fought with box-cutters, pen-knives and anger. And anger doesn't show up at customs."
A Painted House
Omar Abdullah, Minister of state for external affairs
"I always prefer to read thrillers and books that I don't have to concentrate too hard on and this year, especially, I preferred to stick to those kind of novels. A Painted House by John Grisham (Random House) is unlike the usual legal thrillers I love and is set in a cotton plantation in Arkansas, US, and describes the struggle to survive among the cotton plantation workers that I found very gripping.
The Sigma Protocol by Robert Ludlum (St Martin's Press) has a plot that seems so outlandish but after 9/11, I guess, anything is conceivable. It's about a secret organisation of businessmen, including former Nazis, and basically says that the Cold War was an initiative of business houses. Shock by Robin Cook (Putnam) is about two Harvard students who donate eggs for a childless couple and uncover a sinister plot by those using this cutting-edge technology for their own unscrupulous ends. What I like about Cook's medical thrillers is that his scenario is much worse than it is already, providing some cold comfort."
Lord Of The Flies
Manil Suri, Novelist
"I reached out for two old favourites and a new biography for making sense of this year—Lord of the Flies by William Golding (HarperCollins): I read this first in college like many students all over India and the world, and went back to read it again this year.A brilliant illustration of how differences in motives and values can pit human beings against each other.What is so ultimately devastating about this book is the way it shows how evil is always present within the human race, just waiting to hatch—no amount of innocence or goodwill or rationality can ever make it disappear; Siddharta by Hermann Hesse, a new translation by Sherab Chodzin Kohn (Shambhala Classics): Although some aspects of this spare and beautiful classic are exoticised, what comes through poignantly is the journey of self-determination it describes. No matter what is happening around us in the world, we are all responsible for our own spiritual determination in life; Indira by Katherine Frank (HarperCollins): The controversy and hoopla surrounding this book and its accuracy may have obscured the fact that this is an excellently-written story about human endeavour in the face of adversity. One is reminded that India's turbulent past is (like the history of so many countries) a microcosm of what may be happening today on a global scale."
Khushwant Singh, Writer, Columnist
"Of the 36 books I read this year, including new novels by Salman Rushdie and V.S. Naipaul, only three dealt with violence perpetrated by men on each other. Acts of god like the catastrophic earthquake in Gujarat which took a toll of over 30,000 lives on Republic Day remained outside the purview of men of letters.
Shashi Tharoor's Riot (Viking) was significant as it analysed how mistrust between two communities can grow into hate and hate explode into violence which amongst dozens of others takes the life of an American girl involved in family planning. Tharoor injects dollops of sex into his plot and holds the readers' interest till the last page. Death of Vishnu by Manil Suri (Viking-Bloomsbury) deals with the same theme with a sharper focus. His characters live amicably in the same apartment block in Mumbai till a Muslim boy falls in love with a Hindu girl and elopes with her. Their friendships fall apart and hate rules the roost. Suri injects a lot of humour in his narrative.
Bin Laden: Behind the Mask of Terrorism (Vision Books) by Adam Robinson is the biography of the most wanted criminal of the year. It tells of the life of bin Laden: born into fabulous wealth, in his youth into heavy drinking and patronising prostitutes, suddenly turning into a devout Muslim bent on destroying what he regards as enemies of Islam: Christians, Jews and Hindus, and how his fanatic followers take Islam's jehad to Chechnya, Yugoslavia, Kashmir and finally into the very heart of America.
What remains unwritten is violence visited by god on innocent humans as in the Gujarat earthquake. This perhaps is due to the fact that no one has a clue about it and rational people are no longer willing to buy the fiction of paying for sins committed in previous lives."
Madonna: An Intimate Biography
Sushmita Sen, Actress
"A book I read recently that made a lot of sense to me is Madonna: An Intimate Biography by J. Randy Taraborrelli (Simon and Schuster). What I liked about it is that it's very inspirational. It talks about how people handle problems and life. And when you're talking about someone as controversial as Madonna, you sort of get inspired to understand that your problems are not big enough. That you can always handle it."
Interpreter Of Maladies
Sonali Kulkarni, Actress
"The books that made sense to me this year have nothing to do with violence. One is Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri (HarperCollins). It speaks of relationships and why and how they work. Not only a marriage but all relationships and she delves deep into them."
Secular Common Sense
Shyam Benegal, Director
"Secular Common Sense by Mukul Kesavan (Penguin) made a lot of sense to me.It's a very fine, thought-provoking and intelligently-argued book on secularism. Particularly in the light of December 13, I think we have to function in a seriously united way. We need to be inclusive in our ideas in terms of our own people and not function with attitudes which are either patronising or downright hostile to the minorities, which is usually happening for political reasons in our country. It's high time that we thought of our diversity as ourselves and not go on to create circumstances where we've got to be asking different kinds of people and communities to prove their nationalism and patriotism."
N.R. Narayanamurthy, Infosys Chief
"My choice is India Unbound by Gurcharan Das (Penguin). Outlining the business history of India in an objective and story-like manner, I found Gurcharan's masterpiece unputdownable. Apart from the literary style and the personal anecdotes, it has many invaluable lessons for the reader."
The Chronicles of Narnia
Milind Soman, model
"This year I preferred to read fantasy: The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis (HarperCollins). It speaks of another dimension—a boy and girl who enter fantasy land by using a magician's ring."
Meghna Gulzar, Film-maker
"The only book I was in the mood for in these past few months full of images of WTC destruction and attack on Parliament was On Love by Alain de Botton (Random House)—it's one person talking about falling in love and how the rose-tinted view kind of gets squashed as it confronts practical reality."
The Making Of K3G
Karan Johar, Film-maker
"Frankly, this whole year has been taken up by Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham and the only book I read was on my own film—The Making of k3g by Niranjan Iyengar. I went through it in one sitting and was surprised by it. It was Niranjan's interaction with the cast and crew and I'd thought I was dependent on them but the kind of confidence they professed startled me—they seemed to have complete faith in what I was doing and I was a little nervous after I read that."
Way Of The Peaceful Warrior
Farhan Akhtar, Film-maker
"My choice is Way of the Peaceful Warrior by Dan Millman (H.J. Kramer), based on the story of athlete Dan Millman. It's a combination of fiction, autobiography and self-help. Dan meets this one character who is a kind of evolved being just because of the way he lives his life—the kind of food he eats, the meditation he does—and how he is guided by this guy. It teaches you to live like a warrior but a peaceful one where you are completely in command of every emotion, every decision just by the way you condition your mind."
Narasimha Rao, Former PM
"Frankly, I've been too engrossed this year in my court cases to have time to read anything but legal briefs."