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Ink, Mortar And Canon

A hundred essential books, chosen by our jury, and the reasons they should be read—and reread

Ink, Mortar And Canon
Ink, Mortar And Canon
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1984
George Orwell
1949; Pages: 267

The novel that made ‘Orwellian’ synonymous with oppressive regimes that use surveillance to control its citizens, it had a great opening line: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” The dystopian novel features Win­ston Smith, an emp­loyee of the Ministry of Truth. His doubts lead him to secretly begin a critique of the Party. He also falls in love with Julia, a co-wor­ker, and in an eerie twist they have to betray each other to survive. Smith is re-educated to be filled with unsurpassable love for Big Brother, the supreme leader.


A History Of The World In 100 Objects
Neil MacGregor
2010; Pages: 707

A simple idea—to tell the history of the world through the artefacts and objects collected in the British Museum—touched by the genius of its director Neil MacGregor. It started as a radio series for the BBC, which was later turned into a book. So, for instance, object 33 is a slab from the Ashoka Pillar, 68 is the Shiva and Parvati sculpture and 82 is the miniature of a Mughal prince, telling the history of India in these periods. 


A Suitable Boy
Vikram Seth
1993; Pages: 1349

If Rushdie served up a dense, rich, fantasy-laden tale of modern India, Seth aspired to Tolstoyan simplicity and insight. Mrs Rupa Mehta’s quest for a husband for her daughter Lata spirals into a 1,500-page-long perambulation among four large Indian families, and plunges boldly into the political, social and economic life of newly-independent India. In this, it captures the zeitgeist in unusual depth and colour.


A Time To Be Happy
Nayantara Sehgal
1958; Pages: 292

In this book about an elite family in pre-independent India by Nayantara Sehgal, nothing really happens. It’s all about atmosphere and mood. But it captures the time so vividly, full of rich details, it remains undated. Sehgal is a prolific writer, her other books and essays may be more serious but this novel by a woman writing in Eng­lish, one of the very few in the ’50s-60s to do so, captures the social mil­ieu, especially women’s place in an urbane setting.


Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn
Mark Twain
1884; Pages: 366

The story Twain tells through Huck Finn, in his own words and native Missouri dialect is, firstly, an immortal picaresque adventure and a journey towards manhood. Huck’s runaway thrills with the kind-hearted slave Jim on a raft down the Mississippi, their encountering and surviving a series of challenges from outlaws, murderers, mobs and a general culture of cruelty is dealt with in a breezy, satirical manner. Villainy rears its head, fortuitous coincidences occur, situations are saved. Yet the book has a moral dimension rare in an adventure story, as it is a savage indictment of the practice of slavery. At its end, Huck seems to repudiate the cruel world he inhabits, denying people a chance to ‘sivilise’ him. Huck’s decision is our hidden dream.


Alice In Wonderland
Lewis Carroll
1865; Pages: 192

All sorts of analyses—political, social, Freudian, Lacanian and many more—have been (and continue to be) applied to this hyperkinetic frolic through the illogical and ever-ramifyingly anarchic world of mystery and delight that a math don created for children, who were beloved to him. Despite the anatomisations, Alice and the oddball inhabitants of her frabjous world will endure in the minds and hearts of children and adults for many generations to come. Let’s say ‘Callooh! Callay!’ to that as, in some place ethereal, Carroll chortles in his joy!


All The President’s Men
Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein
1974; Pages: 349

Bernstein and Woodward broke the Watergate scandal, which led to the resignation of president Richard Nixon. The details are well-known, the break-in at the Demo­crat national committee’s offices in the Watergate hotel, the dogged pursuit by two young Washington Post reporters, the trail finally leading to the White House itself. Written in the third person, the book focuses on how the story came together, one lead at a time.  The story, which ran for two years, was described by the Post’s rival NYT as ‘maybe the single greatest reporting effort of all time’.


Annihilation Of Caste, Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar
1936; Pages: 100

Ambedkar’s explosive, erudite and evocative short treatise on Hinduism and its curse of caste will make the hair stand on end of every reader even on multiple readings. Ambedkar takes on Gandhi on his stand on the caste issue and shakes up the reader from the inside with the power of his language, his incisive arguments and his sharp wit to bare the gangrene that caste inflicts on Hindu society. It was to be a speech, undelivered eventually, for the Jat-Pat Todak Mandal, a reformist Hindu group in Lahore in 1936. The organisers found the content ‘unbearable’ and demanded a few changes, but Ambedkar shot back: “I will not change a comma.”


Behind The Beautiful Forevers
Katherine Boo
2012; Pages: 256

It took Boo’s rigour and vim to show us the inside of what we pass every day in cities without a thought—an urban slum. It’s an extraordinary piece of journalism, combined with an empathy for the people she is writing about that makes it a compelling book. Like in great fiction, it commands readers’ attention with its narrative power. Now, the book is a successful play running to full capacity in London.


Beloved
Toni Morrison
1987; Pages: 256

An honest examination through ‘white’ eyes is one matter, but speaking of the long injustice from the inside, as it were, is another. In this Toni Morrison dons the mantle of Richard Wri­ght, James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison. The death-haunted world of Beloved is the years immediately after the Civil War, its protagonists are ex-slave Sethe, her daughter Denver, Paul D. and the spiteful spirit of her murdered daughter. Morrison’s lyrically muscular prose proves equal to the task of expressing the brutality and pain of plantation slavery. This is one of the greatest novels of the exorcision of bondage ever written.


Bitter Fruit
Saadat Hasan Manto, translated by Khalid Hasan
2008; Pages: 708

Manto appeared in the literary firmament like a meteor; in a brief span of time he established himself as one of the first modernists in the subcontinent. Savage, bitter, cynical, darkly humorous, Manto exhumed the noxious and the malodorous of society—most significantly the sham, absurd hypocrisies of Partition (on all sides)—to lay them bare. The writer of Toba Tek Singh, Kaali Shal­war and Colder Than Ice also wrote about the dropouts of society’s reviled figures like prostitutes, pimps, profligates, and the flotsam. True to his death wish, in the art of the short story he can give God a run for his money.


Blood Meridian
Cormac McCarthy
1985; Pages: 327

As literary westerns go, Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian can hold its own in both the gruesome stakes and the grand sweep descriptors. The setting is the 1840s and his hero, The Kid, prone to violence himself, joins up with the Glanton gang who have a contract with the Mexican authorities to bring in Indian scalps. Which is where Judge Holden, he of the bald body (a constant on Ame­ri­can lists of the top 20 villainous characters) holds forth. In the border badlands the gang terrorises, there are no ‘civilised devices’ anymore. As one character put it, “When God made the man, the devil was at his elbow. A creature that can do anyt­hing”.


Book of Ecclesiastes
The Bible

Remove the few references to God and to keeping His covenant, and this short and powerfully poetic tract by an anonymous preacher, with eerie, pluripotent images like the blossoming of almond trees, the grasshopper being a burden unto itself, and the low sounds of grinding stones, becomes a melancholic song of nihilism. It sings of the vanity of earthly desires. Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher, all is vanity.


Capital In The Twenty-first Century
Thomas Piketty
2014; Pages: 696

It has the dubious distinction of being the most unread bestseller in a straw poll by a British paper. But those who get beyond the longish Introduction are in for a real treat of lucid writing and clear thinking of this French economist on income inequality in the US and Europe since the 18th century.  Piketty argues that if return on income is greater than the economic growth of a country for a long period of time, it makes for the rich getting richer, the poor poorer and leads to grave social unrest.


Citizens: A Chronicle Of The French Revolution
Simon Schama
1989; Pages: 976

The French Revolution has attracted the services of some of the best historians of the past 200 years. Schama’s book, published in the bicentennial year of 1989, covers the first momentous years and shatters received wisdom of a decrepit monarchy and a grasping, backward-looking reactionary nobility. Revolutionary violence, says Schama, was spurred more by hostility to modernisation than by a will to achieve it. The inability to introduce tax reforms and manage the huge debt led to the disaster. Indeed, the ‘profligate’ monarch and his queen spent far less than their British counterparts and the bureaucracy was so efficient that they were recalled by Napoleon to mend the chaos of the revolution years.


Cleopatra: A Life
Stacy Schiff
2010; Pages: 432

Cleopatra—queen, master schemer, lover of Caesar and seducer of Anthony and tragic heroine—has fascinated everyone for two millennia. Stacy Schiff, in this celebrated biography, tries to uncover the person from layers of myth that cling to her larger-than-life persona. What emerges is a portrait of a ruthless ruler and an astute gambler. At the height of her powers, Cleopatra controlled the whole of the Levant and “for a fleeting moment she held the fate of the western world in her hands”. Schiff rescues Cleo’s image from the well-worn idea of a ‘sexual temptress’ to reveal a complex individual and describe her world in compelling detail.


Collected Poems
Philip Larkin
1988; Pages 240

Larkin is the great poet of the demotic, the domestic, the crass, cruel, even cringe-worthy. He is also the least solipsistic. Part of his genius lies, like that of Eliot, in the exquisite phrase-making. The poet who’d write movingly about the dead of the Great War (“Never such innocence,/never before or since. / As changed itself to past/without a word—the men/Leaving the garden tidy./The thousands of marriages/Lasting a little while longer:/Never such innocence again”) would also capture the ’60s zeitgeist in slangy aptness (“When I see a couple of kids/And guess he’s f***ing her and she’s/Taking pills or wearing a diaphr­agm,/I know this is paradise.”). This explains his sheer quotability. In Larkin, pessimism found its Keats.


Communalism In Modern India
Bipan Chandra
1984; Pages: 412

One of the best historians of India’s freedom struggle, Bipan Chandra was also a vocal, lifelong opponent of communalism. In his seminal 1984 book, he inquires into the roots of communalism in India—looking at its social roots, the role of ideological, social and cultural elements, role of British policy and the use of history as a communal tool. As it took roots in the second half of the 19th century, says Chandra, communalism took the form of an ideology, a belief-system through which society and polity was viewed. Though some historians feel this book is historiographically dated, the book’s centrality in understanding a phenomenon that continues to plague India remains undiminished.


Crime And Punishment
Fyodor Dostoevsky
1866; Pages: 545

Deluded enough to believe that crime—even grave crime, like murder—is permitted to individuals like him (or Napoleon!) who are driven by a greater purpose, Rodion Romanovitch Raskolnikov, an indigent student in mid-1800s St Petersburg, axes an old pawn-broker and her sister to death. His confession to Sofia (also called Sonya), a prostitute, gradually diverts him from the febrile ramblings of his mind, his frenzied night walks through the gas-lit streets and his cat-and-mouse game with the police, leading him towards clarity, acceptance of his punishment and eventual redemption.


Discovery Of India
Jawaharlal Nehru
1946; Pages: 584

One of the makers of modern India, he wasn’t just concerned about politics and policy-making. While incarcerated in the ’40s, he wrote this classic, a somewhat rambling account of the history and culture of India—from the Indus valley civilisation to the British Raj. A reflection of Nehru’s depth of learning, he looks back at the harmony in which diverse peoples had lived in India and argues for freedom from the foreign yoke. This is a book that generations of Indians—and people across the world—have turned to, to discover India.


Dispatches
Michael Herr
1977; Pages: 272

Dispatches did for the Vietnam war what Ernie Pyle, John Steinbeck and Alan Moorehead’s reports did for WW II. It brought to entire generations the hallucinogenic absurdity of war—the bloody courage, the many motives and the various perversions of bravery. Herr’s writing has an awful music; the tone is harsh, and scenes shift with nouvelle vague rapidity. In the stink of war is mixed the smell of hash and the pleasures of flesh. “In Saigon and Danang we’d get stoned together and keep the common pool stocked and tended,” writes Herr, Esquire’s war correspondent.  Dispatches is hell after rock n ’roll. 


Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?
Philip K. Dick
1968; Pages: 210

Philip K. Dick’s dystopian 1968 offering is set in 2021 San Francisco, a nuclear wasteland where people are encouraged to migrate to Mars and androids are “almost human”.  Which means some of them do go rogue and have to be “retired”, which is where our hero, bounty hunter Rick Deckard, comes in. So far, so good, but then Dick takes a giant leap from the usual SF sweeps to the grand scheme questions: what is human, what is not? Is empathy the ultimate test?  Is collective suffering a way to stave off the “bleak decay” that surrounds you? Then, as now, there are no easy answers. Oh, and the electric sheep in the title, well, would you still love your pet as much if it could be repaired in a shop?


Epic Of Gilgamesh
Author Unknown
Mesopotamian Civilisation

The oldest extant story of humankind (c 2000 BC), Gilgamesh is a Baby­lonian epic poem. In its present form it is pieced together from nearly 30,000 tablets or fragments in three langua­ges, including Sumerian. It tells the adventures of Gilga­mesh, a harsh ruler who battles a primitive figure, becomes his staunch friend, loses him despite trying his best, and finally confers with his shade in the land of the dead. One of its most interesting sections is the talk of the Flood—a remarkable precursor to the story of Noah’s Flood in Genesis.


Ex Libris
Anne Fadiman
1998; Pages: 162

The Fadiman family sits down to dinner at a restaurant, takes up the menu and...starts correcting the typos on it. Journalist and editor Fadiman’s book is a celebration of bookishness, book-love and bibliomania. Through a series of essays—‘Never Do That To a Book’, ‘My Odd Shelves’—Fadiman explores the world of books and characters who are immersed in it. Fadiman’s subjects, presented in her playful, witty prose, range from butterflies and insomnia, Antarctic explorers (her favourite topic) and writers such as Coleridge, Caroll and Lamb. This list deserves a book about books, and their hopelessly smitten lovers.


Gandhi And Churchill
Arthur Herman
2008, Pages: 721

In this fresh approach to history, Herman falls in step with the lives of two great 20th century lives to show how each man’s starkly different worldview was informed by nationality, clan, upbringing and that, when pitted against each other through opposing ideologies of their respective nations for 40 years, the final conclusions were momentous. Chu­r­chill saved the hour for Britain through five years of resolute leadership, but had a big role in losing its crown jewel. Gandhi’s great moral leadership gave spine and purpose to the freedom stru­ggle. The former’s contempt for the latter was legion; the feeling was probably mutual. Their lives were entwined, but they only met once.


Ghosts Of Empire
Kwasi Kwarteng
2011; Pages: 488

Even in this age of post-colonial studies, there exist apologists of empire. Kwasi Kwarten, a British MP of Ghanaian origin, examines the long history of the British Empire through the eccentrics, egoists, oddball romantics and know-alls who populated the colonial services, and whose callous and misguided policies were responsible for the disorder and chaos of the past, and their present problems. Personalities like Younghusband, Gertrude Bell, Harry St John Philby and Cecil Rhodes might add colour to the colonial canvas, but are guilty of transplanting the snobberies and gradations of rank of Britain on to the colonies. This is empire stripped off its ideals, glitter and pageantry—only of its human costs.


Globalization And Its Discontents
Joseph Stiglitz
2002; Pages: 304

“In terms of wealth rather than income, the top one per cent control 40 per cent”, wrote Stiglitz in an article in, guess where, Vanity Fair, in 2011 and it ignited the imagination of millions, leading up to Occupy Wall Street. One of the few rockstar, Nobel-winning, left-leaning Ame­rican economists in the world working today, this book rubbishes the policies of the International Mone­tary Fund and The World Bank, saying their policies are grossly against the interests of poor countries. Coming from an insider, (he was the chief economic advisor to the World Bank), Stiglitz’s arguments that much more stinging.


Godaan
Munshi Premchand
1936; Pages: 352

The trials and travails of the poor farmer Hori Mahato and his family caught the period perfectly—the hopes, the fears, the despair, the greed, the urbanisation of 1930s India, waiting to be freed of foreign rule. Godaan was Premchand’s last full novel and perhaps modern Hindi literature’s first. Numerous films, other books, were loosely based on the various strands this novel unfolds, and many of the questions it raises about inequality and injustice are unanswered even today. It’s also perhaps the cheapest book to buy in this list: Rs 30 online, a little less than half the price Mahato borrows from Bhola to buy a cow, which starts off Godaan.


Gora
Rabindranath Tagore
1910; Pages: 497

Gora is a quintessential novel of ideas. The central question is the idea of India, the correct path of progress, nationalism itself and the age-old clash between tradition and modernity. Gora’s austere, highly-strung Hinduism meets the ambivalence of Binoy; Pareshbabu and his daughters Lolita and Sucharita practise the different orthodoxy of Brahmoism, while the devout Krishnadoyal is a classic case of radicalisation turning reactionary with age. Gora is a fascinating echo-chamber of debate and discussion, yet shows the power of emotions to influence even the hardest-held ideologies. The knowledge of his true identity frees Gora from the carapace of religious rectitude and sets him towards a liberal acceptance of his world; modern India needs a similar reawakening.


Great Expectations
Charles Dickens
1860; Pages: 544

The story of Pip’s expectation of being a gentleman throws the reader into a journey from the mist-swaddled Kentish marshes to the upwardly mobile clubs of London, by way of the timeless, catatonic Miss Havi­sham in Satis House, gol­den-hearted Joe Gargery and the eternally grateful Magwitch. It was Dickens’s unique achievement to create characters who live on in readers’ memories, and so it is here: the mysterious Jaggers, Herbert Pocket, the histrionic Wopsle and the eccentric Wemmick. Despite its neatly melodramatic plotting, this is a book of sober purpose; at the end of it Pip learns both loyalty and Christian humility. Pip’s narrative voice, through various stages of his ‘expectations’, gets our complete sympathy. After all, don’t each one of us have our own Estella?


Guns, Germs And Steel
Jared Diamond
1997; Pages: 480

This book is a rarity—a bestselling science book which people read enthusiastically. Jared Diamond, an American scholar of physiology, ecology and evolutio­nary biology, explains why things happened in the various parts of the world as they did but consciously steers clear of it becoming a racist treatise. Instead, his focus is on how geography, linguistics and cultures spurred or spurned the rise of capitalism, mercantilism and scientific inquiry. And of course it’s about the nasty germs “that killed peoples of other continents when they came into contact with western Eurasians”.


Heart Of Darkness
Joseph Conrad
1899; Pages: 200

Conrad fictionalises his experience of commanding a steamboat on the Congo for a Belgian trading company into a forceful damnation of colonialism that uses a framed tale for psychological distance. Conrad’s narration is the holder and the picture is a yarn Charles Marlow spins of a dangerous quest for the storied Mr Kurtz, manager of an inner station supplying highly profitable ivory. The station is found ringed by stakes topped with the skulls of natives and Kurtz turns out to be depraved, mad and ill. He dies uttering, “The horror! The horror!”


I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings
Maya Angelou
1969; Pages: 304

Any notion that the Ame­r­ican classics of being Black are treasured relics of a bygone era was dispelled by the recent racial tensions in the country. Like Richard Wright’s Native Son and Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land, I Know... depicts what it’s like to spend one’s childhood and youth in a defiantly racist society. Angelou’s memoir follows her from ages 3-17, and speaks of her emergence as a future civil rights activist braving poverty, displacement and prejudice. Not only deprivation, Angelou was also a victim of rape and molestation. Her masterpiece is a testament of the triumph of the human will.


In Cold Blood
Truman Capote
1966; Pages: 368

In clean prose, milestoned with concrete details, Capote recreates the Kansas hamlet of Holcomb, down to the lurching tumbleweed. Six years in the research and writing, In Cold Blood used fictional techniques to holistically capture the 1959 murder of four members of the prosperous Clutter fam­ily—Herbert, a farmer, his invalid wife, and two of their children—and get into the minds of the killers, Richard Hickock and Perry Smith, who were hanged in 1965. Smith said he hadn’t intended to kill the soft-spoken Herbert right till the moment he slit his throat.


In Patagonia
Bruce Chatwin
1977; Pages: 240

A piece of a ‘Bronto­saurus’s skin’ in a family spurs a child’s dream of Patagonia, “at the far end of the world”. Years later, the man made the long journey to the wind-carved, remote Chilean province. A book that is as much about wandering, exile (with a cast of anarchists and bandits in Argentina and Chile), as about the fact of arrival and exploration past and present, Chatwin’s richly anecdotal book wears its erudition lightly. Along with The Road to Oxiana and Arabian Sands, In Patagonia is a true travel classic.


India Discovered: The Achievement Of The British Raj
John Keay
1981; Pages: 224

The early colonial players in India—the Dutch, Portuguese, French and English—mostly dismissed it as a place with little culture and the pop­u­lation little better than barbarians. Yet, within a few decades of firming up their possessions, a remarkable group of Orientalists descended upon the country. Their story for the next 150 years—parallel to that of the British Raj—is one of learning and discovery. Art, literature, linguistics, sculpture, architecture, ethnography, geology, arc­h­aeo­logy—their assiduous cataloguing and the writing of texts of knowledge was undertaken. Keay’s book is the tale of changing British attitudes to their colony through the awe-inspiring adventure of coming to terms with its ancient culture. This is the story of the reconstruction of Indian history, piece by piece, by generations of scholars.


Interpretation Of Dreams
Sigmund Freud
1899; Pages: 630

Freud, who formulated psychoanalysis, drew his understanding of the unconscious largely from the study of dreams. This was a pioneering work: dreams had till then been seen as an occult subject. Freud’s genius lay in positing that dreams were symbolic manifestations of wish-fulfillment; the symbols could represent repressed sexual desires. His ‘talking cure’ was built upon dream analysis, through which he helped patients gain insight into the inner conflicts that caused their neuroses.


Into The Darkness
Gitta Sereny
1995; Pages: 400

A journalist and writer of German-Hungarian parentage, Gitta Sereny was among those who saw the rise, rule and defeat of Hitlerism. Into that Darkness is a remarkable piece of investigative journalism; its centrepiece is Sereny’s interview with mass murderer Franz Stangl—one-time commandant of the Treblinka and Sobibor extermination camps. A steadfast denier of responsibility, Stangl adm­itted his guilt under Ser­eny’s close interrogation. Hours after his final capitulation, he was dead. Ser­eny’s great work shows that evil wasn’t ‘banal’; it was frighteningly ordinary and commonplace. It is in us.


Invisible Cities
Italo Calvino
1974; Pages: 165

Fabulist, folklorist and novelist Italo Calvino brings together an ageing Kublai Khan and the young Marco Polo, where the Venetian traveller regales the Tartar emperor with tales of all the cities he has seen—each imbued with memory, desire, signs, eyes, the dead, the sky. It has the charm of the travelogue, perfumed by a curious medieval mysticism. His are cities of ideas, feeling long-forgotten dreams and unquenched thirsts. Like Isidora: “The dreamed of city contained him as a young man; he arrives at Isidora in his old age”. Desires are already memories.” Or Tamara: “You leave Tamara without having discovered it.” Isn’t life, so like a dream, just like that?


Lord Of The Flies
William Golding
1954; Pages: 182

Golding’s allegory dee­ply explores human savagery and the conflicting needs for peaceful society and for individual power. A group of British schoolboys stranded on an uninhabited island start out decently enough. But they soon des­cend into primitive rivalry. Simon, the mystic, and Piggy, the intellectual, are killed. Drawn by a fire intended to kill Ralph, the isolated leader of the boys, a naval officer from a passing ship arrives just in time to save him. He is stupefied by what he sees.


Lords Of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke The World
Liaquat Ahamed
2009; Pages: 576

The timing of Ahamed’s book, which won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize, could not have been better. The book, which deals with the fallacies of the heads of the central banks of the US, UK, France and Germany betw­een World War I and the Great Depression of the ’30s, came out bang in the middle of the financial crisis of the late 2000s. It had many lessons for the present times, but it seems few were learnt.


Lucky Jim
Kingsley Amis
1954; Pages: 256

Lucky Jim, in a way the forerunner of the ‘campus novels’ of David Lodge and Malcolm Bradbury, is renowned as a great comic novel. Jim Dixon, a gauche lower middle-class lecturer of history at a redbrick university, gets into awful scra­pes—setting fire to his bed while smoking, drunkenly delivering a rebellious lecture—and draws the laughs. But Amis goes beyond farcical comedy. Dixon, in his own way, is a radical and, clumsily attacking the moth-eaten Bri­tish class system of cozy privilege.


Madame Bovary
Gustave Flaubert
1856; Pages: 256

Flaubert’s novel is one of the crown jewels of the genre. The tale of a bored and disillusioned housewife taking lovers and coming to a sorry end is gripping, but not unexceptional. But the restrained, yet poetically vivid style, the realistic tre­atment of the country-town environment, and life-like characters we all know. With a cast of characters like Homais, Lheureux and Charles Bovary, Flaubert painted a gallery of the shallow, shabby and vulgar that symbolises the middle-class scratching at life and their thwarted ambitions. At its centre is Mad­ame Bovary, wrapped in dreams, delusions and debt, walking towards the end.


Making Sense Of Pakistan
Farzana Sheikh
2009; Pages: 274

As Pakistan lurches from crisis to crisis, its woes have been traced to weak civilian rulers, corrupt politicians and most importa­ntly, rule by the self-serving military. Shaikh delves into the very idea of Pakistan, and crucially, the ambivalent role of Islam in it. The country’s problematic relationship with Islam has decisively frustrated its quest for a coherent national identity, she writes. This dithering started with Jinnah himself, as he veered between the idea of a multi-religious secular state and an Islamic one. The nation’s constitution too became a zone of competition, as religious parties pus­hed for greater Islam­isation. The bitter, bloody squabble that we see today der­ives its potency from Pakist­an’s decades of military rule, broken by inte­rmittent spells of dem­ocracy, where each one used Islam to his own end, always decla­iming the so-cal­­led “Islamic purpose of the state”. Yet, there’s eno­ugh in this comp­lex country—a free press, pow­erful judiciary, educa­ted middle class and increasing opposition to jehad—for Sha­ikh to be optimistic about its future.


Man’s Search For Meaning
Viktor E. Frankl
1946; Pages: 184

From the abysmal darkn­ess of the soul that conc­entration camps rep­res­ented, Frankl brought back sustaining life lessons—going bey­ond endurance to create mea­ning, even beauty. The lessons are from Frankl’s distillation, as a trained psychiatrist, of how inmates like him used imagination to transc­end the demoralisation that killed before the labour, the torture and the gas did. Fra­nkl’s dispassionate eye picks out the states of mind of a prisoner in different stages of the interment, the different techniques of survival, to keep hope alive. Contempl­ation in the constant shadow of death leads Frankl to conclude the high truth, “love is the ultimate, the highest goal to which man can aspire”.


Midnight’s Children
Salman Rushdie
1980; Pages: 647
Born at the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947, Salim Sinai’s life is yoked to the history of his country and to others born at that fortuitous moment, with whom he shares a str­ange telepathy and magical gifts. Linguistically rich, formally inventive, this fantastic saga of independent India won Rushdie the Boo­ker, the Booker of Bookers and remains a cult classic.


One Hundred Years Of Solitude
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
1970; Pages: 448

The years of rain passed, so did the insomnia plagues, Macondo and the Buendias continued to live, brood, breed, prosper. Six generations of them, in fact, compressed into one magical book, One Hundred Years of Solitude. In between, they warred, against the priests, against the foreign banana company, and in that ‘pox of solitude’ with their own illegal loves. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s lyrical, fecund, incestuous book opened up Latin American writing to the western world, pig’s tails, marauding ants and all.


One Thousand Years Of Annoying The French
Stephen Clarke
2011; Pages: 685

For the insufferable Brits, the French are ‘frogs’, their greatest man merely ‘Boney’; their superiority over the French couched by Crecy, Agin­co­urt and Wat­er­loo, 1066 be damned. Clarke, in an engaging, historically rich and boastfully prejudi­ced book, puts forth the thesis that the English always were open to accepting the French; it’s the latter who have been duplicitous, besi­des being second-best at everything. Clarke’s list of French historical blunders range from the murder of Thomas Becket to the 100 Years War, personalities crucified include Napoleon and De Gaulle. And finally, Brit­ownership of great Fre­nch traditions—like cha­mp­a­gne, guillotine or even the unassailable French cuisine— is claimed. This is history at its most palatable.


Origins Of The Second World War
A.J.P. Taylor
1961; Pages: 296

That Taylor’s book is a classic is indisputable now, and many generations have grown up with it. But when it first appeared in 1961, it broke new ground and punctured old wisdom too. Peering into Europe’s crisis-ridden two decades that sowed the seeds of another conflict—from Versailles and Locarno to the Saar plebiscite, the Czechoslovakian affair and the final crisis over Dan­zig—Taylor debunks the theory that laid the blame solely on Hitler’s door. He masterfully shows how the origins go back to confusions and intellectual dishonesties of the western, especially Brit­ish, leaders and to the injustices of Ver­s­ailles, and says that Hitler, a master opportunist without a grand blueprint of world domination, acted as any nationalist German politician would do.


Other Inquisitions
Jorge Luis Borges
1964; Pages: 223

A man so bewilderingly versatile in his labyrinthine short stories and informed by unmatched erudition would naturally gravitate towards non-fiction too. Much of Other Inquisitions, a collection of his essays from 1937-52, have circular arguments woven through them. Borg­es’s prodigious knowledge of everything is apparent from the subject matter: Joyce, P.H. Gosse, John Wilkins’s Analytical Lang­u­age, literary descriptions, Coleridge, Beckford’s Vat­hek, Apollinaire, Wilde, Buddha, Pascal, Kafka, Edw­ard Fitzgerald, Flaub­ert, a history of the Tango. The cerebral metaphysician carries into his non-fiction his other signature property—an extraordinary bre­vity. The book includes such classics as A New Refutation of Time, The Wall and the Books and A History of the Echoes of a Name. “I have always ima­gined that Paradise will be a kind of library,” says Borges. He seems to have arranged his life in like manner.


Peter Pan
J.M. Barrie
1911; Pages: 267

Barrie’s timeless fantasy play has had its hold over generations of child­ren. Peter, a boy who ran away the day he was born, visits the Darlings and stri­kes up a friendship with their three children, especially Wendy, and teaches them to fly after getting back his shadow, left beh­ind when he had fled with their dog. He takes them to Never Land, a country of lost boys who haven’t grown up and who are protected by a tribe of Red Indians, where a life-and-death contest ensues with the evil pirate gang of Captain Hook. Wendy becomes a mother figure to the boys and Hook is killed in the final fight. Peter takes the Darling children back home, with a promise that Wendy would return once every year to do the spring-cleaning. Peter Pan gave us Never Land, a place where we may escape the artifices of adulthood.


Portnoy’s Complaint
Philip Roth
1969; Pages: 274

American Jewishness has been put under the fictional scanner before (Bellow, Malamud, Schw­a­rtz), but no one was ready for Roth’s comic-abs­­urd-insulting scream in Port­noy’s Complaint. Alexander Portnoy, his domineering and guilt-inducing mother, wimpish and constipated father, and pious sister are all agents of Portnoy’s guilt, chronic rebellion and reve­nge (through constant masturbation, and as an adult, affairs with thoroughly obj­ectified Gentile women). Indeed, along with the solipsistic and agonising Jewish hero concerned with shvitz, goys and shiksas, Portnoy’s world is sch­long-obsessed, and Roth’s lexicographic explanation is a masterpiece of mischief. Clarity, at last, comes to Portnoy in Israel, with a Jewish girl, who confronts him with the contradictions of his existence. The Yid finds his shetl.


A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man
James Joyce
1916; Pages: 329

Stephen Daedalus’s growing consciousness—art­istic, emotional, political—is the stuff of Joyce’s immortal work. Formally and linguistically, it’s a prog­ression from innocent baby-talk to complex half-tones: schoolroom banter, Father Dolan’s cane at Clongowes, temptations of the flesh and inte­nse Catholic remorse for­t­ified by the terrifying ‘Hellfire’ sermon, the seductions and rejection of priesthood, and the formation of Stephen’s artistic credo to encounter ‘the reality of experience’, and to ‘forge the uncreated conscience of his race’. With its hazewrapt Dublin, richly symbolic prose, impressionistic setting and the brilliantly-lit central character, Portrait of an Artist leaves a lasting impact.


Pride And Prejudice
Jane Austen
1813; Pages: 272

The plot of Austen’s great comedy of manners and sensibilities does not bear to be repeated. It’s made of Mr and Mrs Bin­g­ley, of Jane, Elizabeth, Mary, Kitty and Lydia, of Darcy and Bingley, of Lon­gbourne, Netherfield and Pemberley, of country balls and carriage drives, of pride, prejudice and redem­ption, of rejection and acc­e­ptance of love. But now con­­s­ider this. How does Austen’s novel, published in 1813, with a first draft dated almost to 1796, survive two centuries to remain as fresh and immediate as if it were written yesterday? In the answer to that lies the key to Jane Austen’s genius.


Psmith In The City
P.G. Wodehouse
1910; Pages: 122

Before Wodehouse crea­ted a long line of unge­n­tlemanly aunts and bum­­bling gentlemen of leisure, he created Psmith—loose and long of limb, animated only by his madcap schemes. In this novel, circumstances force Psmith to don the bowler and take up a banker’s job in Lon­don. He rebels in exhilarating fashion, with close fri­­end Mike always at hand. His adventures in the city is a torrent of timeless fun. It shows that Wodehouse’s world of inspired madness has a lunatic logic of its own.


Raag Darbari
Sri Lal Shukla
1968; Pages: 334

Perhaps the greatest state-of-the-nation novel to have come out of north India, Raag Darbari, as suggested by its name, is a measured, melancholy look at the Hindi heartland after two decades of Nehruvian idealism. The premise is a well-tested one: an outsider’s view of a well-structured society. The Uttar Pradesh village of Shivpalganj is scrutini­sed by an educated, idealistic young man, Ranga­nath, who spends six months in the house of his uncle, Vaidji, an influential and dishonest power-broker. Shukla’s unsparing critical eye satirises every level of this smallest unit of society—the economy, education, social structures, the pol­itics, nothing escapes. Needless to say, the rot that Shukla laid bare in his celebrated work is there for all of us to see even today, if we choose to look.


Savaging The Civilised: Verrier Elwin, His Tribals And India
Ramachandra Guha
1999; Pages: 416

This Englishman who worked in India in the 1930s was many things: anthropologist, social worker, evangelist, Gandhian, politician, social activist, writer and commentator but he is most remembered for his work with the tribals—first in Central India, specifically on the Gonds and Baigas, and later after Indep­end­ence in the Northeast. Guha’s book brought the limelight back on Elwin amid some controversy about Elwin’s description of free sex and the hedonistic attitude of the tribals.


Shake Hands With The Devil: The Failure Of Humanity In Rwanda
Lt Gen Romeo Dallaire
2003; Pages: 592

There have been many books and documentaries on the genocide in Rwanda, but French-Can­adian Lt Gen Dallaire’s is unique and particularly heart-rending because it’s by a man who was on the forefront of it as the United Nation’s force commander in 1994 during the horrific period of Rwanda’s history. The force did help save thousands of lives but also had to stand helplessly and watch Hutu terrorists massacre many more Tutsi people. A compelling and traumatic account of a war by an armyman.


Silent Spring
Rachel Carson
1962; Pages: 378

Few ‘isms’ have a truly great source book. Modern environmentalism though has Silent Spring. Emerging in 1962, amidst the boom years of econo­mic progress, degradation of the environment was far from everyone’s mind. Carson’s long concern for the deleterious, often fatal consequences of using chemical pesticides, especially aerial spraying and other uses of DDT, led to years of research, and the unearthing of hundreds of cases of poisoning in humans and animals and a definitive establishment of pesticide carcinogenesis. Carson’s revolutionary achievement was to show the general public, with particular moral force, how pesticides—essentially poison—killed germs, but also entered the food chain, threatened birds and fish and ultimately humans. In her warning to humankind about the dangers of poisoning nature which would, inevitably, poison us, Carson not only pioneered modern conservation and ecology but laid the path on which others would follow.


The Alexandria Quartet
Lawrence Durrell
1962; Pages: 884

Lover of the Levant and the Near East and one of the most celebrated men of letters in the mid-20th century, Durrell’s Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive and Clea was termed an “investigation of modern love”. Mid-century Alexandria, in its perfumed decadence and shadowed by its cosmopolitan history, is evoked in classically allusive and sensuous prose through a rich cast of characters—the vibrant, diva-like Justine, her lover and the narrator Darley, prince Nessim, Scobie, the artist Clea and the insightful Balthazar—and a sprinkling of Cavafy’s poems. The four novels are also unified—Justine expl­ains Balthazar on one level, while Clea explains it at another, deeper level, and Mount­olive keeps time moving.


The Arabian Nights
1706

Full of magic and fantasy, valour and romance, ribaldry and eroticism, tales from the One Thousand and One Nights is something that everyone has read in some form or the other. The orally transmitted Arabic tales were popular as early as the 10th century, and through centuries of accretion and framing, gained their current form around 1450, when some of them were known in Europe. Since then, the jealous sultan Shahryar and his resourceful young wife Shahrzade have become a staple of story-telling. The first European translation was the French one by Anto­ine Galland (1704-17) and distinguished English ones include one by Richard Bur­ton. The Arabian Nights—with stories such as Ali Baba, Aladdin and Sinbad the Sai­lor—is an important cultural artifact, and played a role in forming western assumptions of the “exotic east”.


The Baburnama
Zahir-ud-Din Muhammad Babur
1529; Pages: 446

Of all potentates who ever took up a pen—Caesar’s campaigns and Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations spring to mind—Babar holds a special distinction, for his Baburnama is the only true autobiography from the medieval Islamic world. “In the month of Ramadan of the year 899 and in the twelfth year of my age, I became ruler in the country of Ferghana,” says Babar in the opening sentence. It ends in mid-sentence in September 1529, a year before his death. Written in Chagatai (later translated into Persian), Babar tells of his struggle to defend his throne, his early failures, the move and consolidation in Kabul and his famous foray into India. But Baburnama is perhaps more famous for the emperor’s lyrical observations of new lands, people, flora and fauna, cities with their distinctive architecture, and music and literature. Lover of the fruits, wines, poetry and gardens of central Asia, Babar found India “as a place of little charm”. In wealth of detail, Baburnama remains one of the most significant royal memoirs of all time.


The Book Of Laughter And Forgetting
Milan Kundera
1979; Pages: 320

Like many 20th century novels, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting aspires to being many things—memoir, philosophy, political tract, erotic speculation and fantasy. Moreover, the personal in Kundera is also the political. It starts from the notorious airbrushing of Communist leader Klement Gottwald in 1952, and plunges into 1971, in Mirek’s life, who says, “the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting”. Kundera’s fragmentary, seven-part structure allows him to explore his great theme—the public ironies and private tragedies (soaked in litost, “a state of torment caused by a sudden insight into one’s own miserable self”) of post-war Czech history. Magic impinges when Kundera comes across the Communist poet Paul Eluard dancing on a street in a ring of people, mouthing a poem, as the group takes off and floats in the sky. It is a circle of Communist exclusivity and self-deception that is happy to forsake dissidents like the author. As such, to the reader, the airborne circle remains rooted to the ground of realism. Only a great novel can achieve that.


The Communist Manifesto
Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels
1848; Pages: 287

The Communist Manifesto famously starts with the lines “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles”, and ends in the celebrated clarion call: “Working men of all countries, Unite!” In the intervening 12,000 words, Marx and Engels lay bare their understanding of society and their prediction for it—history stretching back to antiquity and towards the future, its internal mechanism a conflict between rulers and the ‘proletariat’, spanning ancient, feudal, early modern, modern economies, each society pummelled by the ructions of ever-changing ‘modes of production’ and exchange, throwing up new superior classes. The modern world of rapid industrialisation is the age of bourgeois dominance, says Marx, and would in the end, through the system of natural competitive materialism (‘dialectical materialism’), lead to a glorious future—socialism and rule of the proletariat. One of the most influential books ever, this purportedly ‘scientific’ text took on the role of a holy book, with millions counting Com­m­unism as their creed. Communism might have been on the wane everywhere, but in an unequal world of continuing capitalistic exploitation of both humans and their environment, the Manifesto has continued relevance.


The Dark Valley: A Panorama Of The 1930s Piers Brendon
2000; Pages: 701

It is the ’30s, experts say, that created the framework of world politics that we see to this day. The decade’s early years were spent cowering before an unprecedented economic depression, which itself fanned the fire of totalitarian regimes in three European states. But the ’30s were also a time of bourgeois comfort, with mass-produced cars and home appliances changing middle-class lives forever. Though criticised for overly blaming the tribulations of the Depression for the rise of Fascism, Brendon’s lavishly detailed account of the innards of the decade, including personal lives, is wonderful history.


The Diary Of A Young Girl
Anne Frank
1952; Pages: 360

“I should like to call you all by name,
  But they have lost the lists.”

— Anna Akhmatova

The six million victims of the Holocaust are usually voiceless. This diary (of a period covering 1942-44) of a German Jewish girl hiding with her family in Amsterdam stands for the faceless dead. Written to a series of imaginary friends, Anne pours her heart out over everyday situations of domestic want, conversation and personal equations in their stifling hideout. She conveys the first stirrings of adolescence too. Signifi­cantly, Anne drafted and rewrote sections of her initial diary in order to preserve it for posterity, as if egged on by a dire presentiment. For the reader, living vicariously, yet authentically, in hiding in Nazi-occupied Holland, the rude shock comes with the sudden cessation of the entries.


The End Of Nature
Bill McKibben
1989; Pages: 224

McKibben’s ominous title points to man’s tinkering with the earth’s natural processes that evolved over hundreds of thousands of years, and nature’s revenge through the vagaries of global warming—unpredictable weather patterns and natural disasters of increasing ferocity and frequency. McKibben shows the tight links our speedily multiplying species has with processes harmful to nature—everything from cars, houses, pesticides (thus, through food), infrastructure. In his plea that we take a less dominant relation to nature and make a ‘humbler world’, McKibben eschews easy solutions for more practical ones—an internationa­lly-agreed and ‘managed world’ with cautious control of climate, genetics and ecology.


The Female Eunuch
Germaine Greer
1970; Pages: 432

Greer’s 1970 work is one of the seminal texts of feminism and is read, discussed, criticised and enjoys fervent partisanship to this day. Through a furious fusillade of logic, polemic, scholarship and a willingness to speak of the dirty and embarrassing, Greer talks of the sexual submission of women through history, and agrees that modern, consumerist society, through its patriarchal politics, mores and cultural products, tries to perpetuate it. Written at a time when relatively fewer professions were open to women, Greer’s book is a howl of protest as well as an appeal to women to do their part in being truly liberated—economically as well as sexually.  For this, she says, accepted norms would have to be ruthlessly challenged—marriage, the nuclear family, the obligation to breed.


The Fire Next Time
James Baldwin
1963; Pages: 128
Racial discrimination (or the ‘Negro problem’ as Baldwin bruisingly calls it) has often been approached through memoir and fiction (including by Baldwin in his famous first novel). In The Fire Next Time, Baldwin tackles it head-on. Drawing from his experiences of growing up Black in Harlem, he delivers an angry indictment on America: “The brutality with which Negroes are treated in this country simply cannot be overstated, however unwilling white men may be to hear it.” Yet, in spite of the bitter despair he feels, Baldwin is hopeful for the future: “to end the racial nightmare”. In his second essay, Baldwin deems the Church to have failed Blacks miserably, to have been another instrument of white supremacy, and to have acted with “unmitigated arrogance and cruelty”. Finally, however angry he may be, Baldwin tempers his anger with a genuine hope of reconciliation and rejects violence in favour of a moral regeneration.


The Go-Between
L.P. Hartley
1953; Pages: 336

The Go-Between derives its wistful charm from its presentation of an adolescent’s view of being an unwitting “postman” for an upper-class friend’s sister, Marian, and her lover, a farmer, during a visit to the countryside Brandham Hall in turn-of-the-century England. Everything is imbued with a magical, translucent stillness that draws the narrator, Leo Colston, now well past middle age, back to the pain of being used and being linked, though at some remove, to the suicide of the lover, Ted Burghess. It opens with the indelible ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there’, and ends with an aged Marian asking Leo to again take a message—to the son of her child with Ted.


The God Of Small Things
Arundhati Roy
1997; Pages: 321

“Christianity arrived in a boat and seeped into Kerala like tea from a tea bag”, wrote Arundhati Roy and set a new tone, rhythm and cadence in Indian writing in English. The Booker winner follows the lives of twins Rahel and Esthappen in Ayamanam, with its Love Laws, pickle factories and Capital Letters. Roy went on to become a social activist and is a powerful voice against big dams, nuclear power stations and big money. She has written extensively and movingly about the exploitation of the marginalised, taken on Gandhi on his attitude towards the caste system, saving the environment and has been a refreshing anti-establishment voice. But when do we see the next novel, Ms Roy?


The Great Gatsby
F. Scott Fitzgerald
1925; Pages: 180

The drama that engulfs the lives of Nick Carraway, Tom and Daisy Buchanan and Jay Gatsby not just only captures the Jazz Age in all its tinny glitter, this transcendentally great modern novel deals with the universal—the naive-cynical onlooker, the unhappy rich, the ferocious climber and, most of all, the persistence of desire. The expensive new toys and posh accents, the giant advertising hoarding on the freeway, the Saturday night high jinks and that green light winking at the end of Daisy’s pier stand forever for a certain innocent immersion into an age of excess.


The Guns Of August
Barbara W. Tuchman
1962; Pages: 511

Tuchman’s 1962 history of the first month of the First World War doesn’t just recount the pulsating month of August 1914 when the lamps were put out and Europe went to war. She describes on the one hand the inexorable progress of the German Schlieffen Plan till it was stopped at the gates of Paris at Marne, and on the other the decimation of an entire Russian army in Tannenberg in East Prussia by the Germans under the redoubtable Hindenburg-Ludendorff duo. Tuchman’s adroit weaving of the tactical with the personal makes this a model of narrative military history.


The Idea Of Justice
Amartya Sen
2009; Pages: 304

There was some argument among the jury whether to have this or Sen’s later book in the list and Idea of Justice won for being more original and thought-provoking. It’s largely a critique of American economist and philosopher John Rawls’s The Theory of Justice, upholding some of his ruminations and debunking others. The Economist said The Idea of Justice is “a feast, though perhaps not one to be consumed at a single sitting”.


The Left Hand Of Darkness
Ursula K. Le Guin
1969; Pages: 286

Lists such as this scarcely consider the special pleasures of science fiction, unless convincingly set in a future world of dystopia. It is set in the fictional Hainish universe and interplanetary collaboration and expansion, and among the inhabitants of the planet Winter who are physically and emotionally ‘ambisexual’. Le Guin’s achievement is to present a fully realised world in great vividness and imaginary possibility. This is one of the classics of the genre.


The Leopard
Giuseppe Tomasi
Di Lampedusa
1958; Pages: 330

The Leopard is one of literature’s great novels of decline and decay and as such—like Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard and Roth’s Radetzky March—is infused with a charming melancholy. Set in mid-19th century Sicily, its tale is that of an aristocratic, pastoral society torn apart by revolution, death and decay. Its main characters—Don Fabrizio, prince of Salina— struggle against the drastic changes that the Risorgimento heralded, and which would be the death of a patrician way of life. In its recreation—in all its warts and absurdities—of an old existence, The Leopard remains unsurpassed. Guiseppe, the impoverished and despondent last prince of Lampedusa, dreamt of this novel, based on one of his ancestors, all his life. He died within a few months of its being published.


The Mahabharata
Veda Vyasa

India’s greatest epic is not just the story of the Pandavas and the Kauravas that culminates in devastating warfare and blood feud. It hosts a bewilderingly rich store of stories and characters in its capacious body—some its own, many woven in from the myths that predated it. Philosophically and psychologically acute, there runs a vein of the moral, amoral and the morally complex through it.


The Master And Margarita
Mikhail Bulgakov
1967; Pages: 360

On a hot spring day, the Devil, aka Woland, app­ears in the godless Moscow of the 1930s. His retinue includes a grotesque valet and an enormous, vodka- swilling cat. Their primary target is the Soviet writers’ community which, through the ensuing bedlam brought on by witchcraft and black magic, is shown up at its soulless, shifty, hypocritical self. But the visitors from the netherworld also bring relief to an author in despair (like Bulgakov himself)—the Master and his devoted mistress Margarita. Woland’s depiction and discussion about Jerusalem in the time of Pontius Pilate ties up with the subject of the Master’s novel. Bulgakov serves up an intricate, exuberant extravaganza, richly parodic and profound in its light-hearted philosophic erudition. An attack on stony bureaucracy at many levels, this is a modernist masterpiece.


The Moral Animal
Robert Wright
1994; Pages: 496

Natural selection does explain much of our species’ physical habits; the forces of evolution impel us to behave as social animals. But are our moral choices—loyalty, love, commitment to principles, resistance to evil—also an evolutionary impulse? In this popular and path-breaking book, Wright explains the riddles of moral psychology in the light of Darwinism. The practices of love (parental, filial, erotic), courtship, care-giving—each is discussed threadbare, and Wright argues that morality is designed to maximise genetic self-interest. This witty book offers one more delight—it examines the life of Darwin, and examines it vis-a-vis the topic under discussion, in the light of Darwinian psychology.


The Remains Of The Day
Kazuo Ishiguro
1989; Pages: 245

Ishiguro’s Booker-winner is a quintessential English book—set primarily in the 1930s in a stately English home, once the seat of Lord Darlington, and told entirely from the point of view of the ageing butler Stevens, who recounts the great days of the house from the vantage point of 1956. Ishiguro’s great merit is to impart the stiffly formal style of the gentleman’s gentleman—bereft of wit or flourish—a curiously moving tone. Its significance also lies in the inadequacy in conveying what it describes—especially momentous negotiations revolving around the political crisis—through the hedgings and omissions of its singularly unreliable narrator. Ishiguro the novelist has chosen a handicap and made a triumph of it.


The Sandman Series
Neil Gaiman
1996- Present

Neil Gaiman already had a wunderkind reputation after Black Orchid when DC Comics gave him the all-clear to develop the Sandman series. The result was the Endless family, a dream cast (sic!) with Dream aka Morpheus the hero and his siblings Death, Destiny, Despair, Delirium (who was once Delight) etc who are each lord of their realm. And as big bang ideas go, the first story starts with a ‘coven of wizards’ plotting to end Death, but who end up capturing Dream instead.  Storylines in later books bring in little sister Delirium, missing brother Destruction and did we mention Lucifer locking the gates of hell and handing the keys to Dream? The Sandman series wasn’t just a breath of fresh oxygen that revived DC but also was the start of the great reawakening of the graphic novel.  The series ran for 75 issues from 1989-96, after which Gaiman and Sandman called it quits. The spinoffs continue.


The Selfish Gene
Richard Dawkins
1976; Pages: 224

Dawkins, a diehard rationalist-atheist, mustn’t be too happy that most of the attention this path-breaking book has attracted comes from the pathetic fallacy in its title. The big idea, simplistically stated, no doubt to the author’s annoyance, is that every gene pushes in a direction that ensures its own survival through maximal replication, damn the organism (species or individual) it’s part of. This is Darwinian evolution at the genetic-molecular level. Despite the easy writing style, understanding the book and Dawkins’s extrapolation of the idea to the propagation of useful ‘memes’ could take more than a couple of readings.


The Shadow Lines
Amitav Ghosh
1988; Pages: 246

Ghosh’s Sahitya Akademi-winning novel speaks of the blurring of boundaries—between memory and forgetting, togetherness and separation, and love and loss. Like Rushdie and Seth, the setting is the momentous years before and after Partition, following the fortunes of the Datta Chaudhuris, specifically the narrator Tridib and the family’s grandmother. The lines of the plot move from Dhaka, Calcutta and London, in a progression of quietude, unrest, tragedy and reconciliation. Bengal’s Partition, and its cost, has rarely been told better in English fiction.


The Siege: The Attack On The Taj
Cathy Scott-Clarke and Adrian Levy
2013; Pages: 344

It’s that rare non-fiction page-turner. It’s about an event that’s etched in our minds very clearly, it would seem the TV coverage and news stories of those four days didn’t leave anything more to be said about the 26/11 attack but British journalists Cathy and Adrian dig up such detail and nuance that the reader is left in a daze. Open the book and you can’t put it down before you’ve read the last page.


The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went To War In 1914
Christopher Clark
2012; Pages: 736

It’s rare in the constantly ploughed field of ww-i scholarship that a new book immediately acquires classic status. That seems to be the case with Sleepwalkers. Clarke’s magisterial account of the pre-war years’ continental politics expertly explodes myths that have endured for a century. For example, he debunks the theory of the inevitability of war between two armed camps of European nations, and reveals levels of mistrust between allies on both sides, so much so that, in the summer of 1914, Britain had contemplated dropping Russia and seeking an understanding with Germany.


The Sonnets Of Orpheus And The Duino Elegies
Rainer Maria Rilke
1996; Pages: 224

Rilke spent much of his life as an unattached wanderer and traveller—in Russia, Italy, Germany and Paris. While the poems of Heine, steeped in folklorish wit, were an early influence, he developed a highly personal style soon after. His use of nouns as verbs and verbs as nouns, of everyday words in highly lyrical context, of abstraction in concrete senses, provides a vantage point suited to the probings of his existence. In Duino Elegies and The Sonnets of Orpheus (1923), his late, great works, he aspires to “find, in art, a way to transform the emptiness, the radical deficiency of human longing into something else”. Authentic experiences are exasperating: “Who has not sat, afraid, before his heart’s/curtain?” The mercantile world is often repellent: “For adults only/there is something special to see: how money multiplies, naked,/right there on stage, monkey’s genitals, nothing concealed...” Yet he is also witty: “Squares, oh square in Paris, infinite showplace/ where the milliner Madame Lamort/ twists and winds the restless paths of the earth...”; and tender and loving: “Call me to the one among your moments/that stands aginst you, ineluctably: / intimate as a dog’s imploring glance/ but, again, forever, turned away....”


The Story Of My Experiments With Truth
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi
1927; Pages: 528

Mahatma Gandhi’s celebrated autobiography covers his remarkable life till 1921. In it Gandhi recounts incidents from his childhood, early influences, his marriage at 13, death of his father, his years as a lawyer in South Africa, his struggle against discriminatory practices against Indians, his return and the start of the great phase of political agitation using the method of non-violence and Satyagraha. The ‘experiments’ in the title referred to the moral and the spiritual, as well as the political. One might agree or not with Gandhi’s political methods, but has to marvel at his introspective nature and fidelity to truth.


The Stranger
Albert Camus
1942; Pages: 123

The Outsider has for long borne the burden of a great existential novel. Does not Meurseult’s terrifying indifference to guilt and mortality stand for the absurdity, the emptiness of high-minded lip-service in a morally corrupt mid-20th century? But Camus’s novel is also a plea for total honesty and self-absorption in a world of half-tones and adulterated feelings. Meurseult is misunderstood and mistaken for a monster because he stands close to “the tender indifference of the world”, because this immensely perceptive person (how acutely he understands other’ motives!) wouldn’t play the game of self-preservation.


The Tin Drum
Gunter Grass
1959; Pages: 576

Like his compatriot Heinrich Boll, much of Grass’s work is an examination of his country’s darkest episode and a quest for an answer to the question: How was it that an entire generation of 30 million people was seduced by the evil of Nazism? In the Tin Drum, he takes recourse to the fantastic and the inexplicable. Memoir, allegory and Bildungsroman rolled in one, it tells the story of the ugly, dwarfish Oskar Matzerath in Danzig, and that of greater Germany. In Oskar’s personal choice not to grow, in the dissonant banging of the titular drum is a raucous cry of protest against the crazed 20th century, its concern with only the profit motive and its deadly political pustules.


The Valley Of Death: The Tragedy At Dien Bien Phu That Led America Into The Vietnam War
Ted Morgan
2010; Pages: 752

Sixty years ago, the French empire in Southeast Asia was reduced to a pulp in the floodplain of Dien Bien Phu—where a 10,000-strong French garrison was ground to dust in siege warfare of horrific proportions. Morgan depicts the war in blood-and-guts luridness—the astonishing bravery of the garrison in the face of doom; the amazing resilience of the Vietminh, and Gen Vo Nguyen Giap’s willingness to take great casualties. He intersperses this with the great powers’ conference at Geneva to resolve the issue and answers the riddle of what led the US, a ringside viewer of the French debacle and delusion, to wade into the quagmire presided over by Ho Chi Minh’s men of wire. Morgan, a Frenchman who fought in Algeria, knew a colonial war first-hand; his tale of American hubris remains a classic.


The Voyage Of The Beagle
Charles Darwin
1839; Pages: 448

Charles Darwin shocked Victorian society by suggesting that humans and apes shared common ancestry and triggered a seismic shift not only in politics, art, literature and society but in the very mental make-up of modern man. The voyage of the HMS Beagle (1831-36) half-way across the globe to the South Americas and the Pacific gave him an unprecedented opportunity to examine unspoilt tropical forests, grasslands, exotic animals and birds and scores of fossils. In 1835, on the voyage back home, he visited the Galapagos islands and noted the mockingbirds that were to play a crucial role in his theory of evolution through natural selection. The book he wrote on his return is a classic; a happy marriage of natural science and adventure hasn’t been made.


The War Of The End Of The World
Mario Vargas Llosa
1981; Pages: 568

Some nations and certain times  are more ‘epic’ than others—the ancient world, for example, or 19th century Russia with its vast interiors. The Peruvian Llosa’s millenarian tale is set in the backlands of Brazil’s Bahia state in 1897—a time of optimism for the new republic and for millions of its Blacks just freed from slavery. The story is about the mysterious spiritual leader Antonio Conselheiro, or the Counsellor, and his complete sway over the masses, whom he ignites with his anti-republic, ultra-orthodox-Catholic rants. The stage is set for a showdown between mystical orthodoxy and the combined power of the Church and the state. Llosa’s vast novel points at the truth behind revolutionary zeal at all ages, and recapitulates its eternal and elemental struggle with the establishment.


These Old Shades
Georgette Heyer
1926; Pages: 352

Georgette Heyer is a genre in herself. This Janeite sometimes surpassed her mentor, some readers feel: her historical romances are so well-res­earched that they serve as definitive documentary of the period she sets her stories in. She was highly prolific, writing a thriller and a romance each year, finishing with 48 books in all. These Old Shades, an early work which became an instant hit, follows the fortunes of Justin Alistair, the Duke of Avon and Leon Bonnard, a Paris urchin who becomes his page. But Heyer never gained the adoration Austen did. 


Things Fall Apart
Chinua Achebe
1958; Pages: 148

One of the foundational texts of post-colonial literature, Achebe’s novel is set amongst Nigeria’s Igbo people—inheritors of a proud and ancient culture, and describes, in dry, deceptively simple language, the tale of the strong, wilful head of the clan Okonkwo’s rise, overweening pride and fall. The prime agent in his misfortune: ruthless western missionaries. Achebe’s cycle of class warfare and tournaments, premium on honour, sacrificial killing, exile and disillusionment and the importance of pre-ordained fate is all rooted in Igbo culture. But there are parallels to the Greek tragedies. What sets Achebe’s tale apart is his dispassionate portrayal of the destruction of an ancient way of life by European civilisation. In that, Things Fall Apart is a refutation of the white man’s burden, while using his own cultural tools.


Thirukkural
Thiruvalluvar

Akara Mudhala Ezhuththellaam Aadhi Pakavan Mudhatre Ulaku, the first of 1,330 couplets in Tamil, written about 2,300 years ago by the poet-philosopher Thiruvalluvar, roughly translates to: As Aa is the first of letter of all languages, eternal God is the first of all living beings. These timeless couplets give insights into the human condition with wit and rhyme.  


To Kill A Mockingbird
Harper Lee
1960; Pages: 324

Race, a horrible miscarriage of justice and the warmth of childhood in the American Deep South of the 1930s—alive in memory with romance as well as horror—is the subject of Lee. Jem, Scout and Atticus Finch, ‘Boo’ Radley, Dill, Tom Robinson and others are players in a drama, ultimately, about friendship, integrity and dignity in the face of disappointment. A classic forever, Mocking­bird is also a stepping stone to the more complex handling of ‘race’ in the works of Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor.


Train To Pakistan
Khushwant Singh
1956; Pages: 181

Partition is seared in the nation’s consciousness, especially in Punjab and Bengal. Singh places his story in the Sikh-Muslim village of Mano Majra, on the border with Pakistan, and describes in prose of simple beauty the descent of a peaceful community into hatred, brutality and chaos. Singh particularly spends energy on recreating the ecosystem of half-truths, rumours and the new ideology of nationalism that fed and fanned communal terror. Partition has been well-served by Bhasha literature. In English, its depiction in Train to Pakistan is unsurpassed.


Twilight In Delhi
Ahmed Ali
1940; Pages: 304

E.M. Forster described this 1940 novel calling for a free India “new and fascinating­—poetic and brutal, delightful and callous”. Ahmed Ali and his friends wrote the collection of short stories Angaarey in Urdu, which was banned by the British for being inflammatory. There were two translations of this collection in English this year, incredibly, for the first time since its publication in 1932.  Twilight in Delhi is one of the first books of that time to be written in English and published in London. Ali, one of the founders of the All-India Progressive Writers’ Movement, moved to Pakistan in 1948 and was its first envoy to China.


War And Peace
Leo Tolstoy
1869; Pages: 1296

Tolstoy’s amphitheat­rical sweep of impe­r­ial Russia during the Napoleanic invasion intertwines the lives of the Bolkonskys, the Rostovs and countless other characters, memorably limned only as the great master could. Plodding through it all, and participating in it, is the corpulent, bumbling Pierre Bezhukov, reminiscent of the author, now dissolute, now saintly, always human. Tolstoy’s clear and passionate vision captures inscapes and landscapes, joy, tragedy, humour, guilt, indeed every facet of life, using, as he once boasted, every rhetorical device of the Latin grammarians.


Wolf Hall
Hilary Mantel
2009; Pages: 672

The epitaph ‘the greatest living novelis’ is often used to describe many writers but perhaps the superlative suits Mantel the most in the present crop practicing the art of the novel in the English language—she is a consummate wordsmith who takes the reader along with her in her adventures and it feels as if both are meeting the characters and exploring the places together. Wolf Hall, a historical novel on the fictional Thomas Cromwell family, a politician in Henry VII’s court, is part of a trilogy, the second of which is Bring Up The Bodies. Both the books have won the Booker Prize.


Book synopses by Saikat Niyogi, Satish Padmanabhan, S.B. Easwaran, Sasi Nair
Research support: Nandita Menon

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