Book Jacket On My Sleeve
Krishna Prasad, Editor-in-Chief, Outlook: We live in interesting times, when the reading habit is growing, when aspirations associated with it are rising. Yet, the bestseller lists are revealing of the abyss that exists between what we ought to read and what we actually do. When you see a well-known German author selling his signature tome by the kilo at railway stations, you wonder if train travellers know something we don’t about the future of our Republic.
Welcome, then, to what is a somewhat unique but decidedly serious exercise: the quest to pick 100 books that can change your life, our lives, in 2015. This list is not about the greatest books or the most popular ones. This is an eclectic list of books, viewed through the Indian prism, that will enrich our lives in some rather dreary times when the sound of the doors of Liberty being shut reverberate in our ears every morning.
Our panelists are politician, author and commentator Mani Shankar Aiyar, publisher and author David Davidar, academic and historian Mukul Kesavan, author and critic Nilanjana Roy and journalist and television presenter Sunil Sethi.
Satish Padmanabhan, Moderator: Mukul, there are some common books among all your lists. It comes to about 15 or so. Shall we put them first? After that we can go round after round with each jury about the books that changed their lives.
Mukul Kesavan: Ok, so these are the overlaps in the lists. The rule is two or more jury members saying yay to them. The Mahabharat, War and Peace, Midnight’s Children, A Suitable Boy, In Patagonia, One Hundred Years of Solitude, To Kill a Mocking Bird, The God of Small Things, Beloved, The Left Hand of Darkness, The Alexandria Quartet, Train to Pakistan, The Story of My Experiments With Truth and Psmith in the City which stands in for Wodehouse, we can talk about it subsequently. And The Shadow Lines.
Sunil Sethi: But you can’t say this Wodehouse is my favourite. I mean, do you remember every single Jeeves books? I always remember them together.
Mukul Kesavan: The reason I will make a case for Smith in the City is because it represents that perfect moment where Wodehouse is transitioning from his juvenilia into these strange loopy, upper class characters. It’s just beautifully observed and incredibly funny. Have you read it? Where he and Mike are roaming around in London? Psmith goes off to heckle his boss in a bank, a man called Mr Bickersdyke who is standing as a Tory candidate, and his boss gets up to make a speech and says we must have an aggressive naval policy, we must burn our boats. So, on cue, Smith gets up from the back and says, “How do you propose to have an aggressive naval policy by burning boats?”, which is madness of such a magnificent order.
The only other author we have two votes for is, Sunil and I have two different books by Amitav, one is Shadow Lines and the other is In An Antique Land. I am happy to go with Shadow Lines, though in some ways In An Antique Land is a more original work.
David Davidar: I think Shadow Lines was a turning point.
Sunil Sethi: Did you include Jawaharlal Nehru’s Discovery of India? It’s on Mani’s and my list.
Mukul Kesavan: So that’s another one. Discovery of India. Maybe what we can do is we can go around and tick ones in other’s list that we readily endorse without reservations, which will create more overlaps.
David Davidar: Or would you want us to pick two or three in our lists which others can weigh in on because I don’t know what’s on the other lists. So in the first part we can pick two and people can say yay and then we can do the other one where we go through books.
Sunil Sethi: Let’s do more.
Satish Padmanabhan: We can do five or even 10. Let’s do five. Are we okay with the 15 that have gone?
Mukul Kesavan: I don’t know others’ lists as well as mine. First task, everyone picks two from their list and people say yay or nay. And then we do the other one but then I will have to go through the other lists
Satish Padmanabhan: So we could do it in slots of five then. Does anybody have any suggestions about the list?
Sunil Sethi: The whole idea that can books transform you…
Satish Padmanabhan: That is the question, can books change lives. The whole idea of do they really change lives? You had a doubt?
Mukul Kesavan: My view is that the distinction between 100 books you feel most warmly about, most enthusiastic about and 100 books that in a way are transformative is a difficult distinction to make. Because it’s in their nature, especially fiction, that in the time that you read it, it does impact you or transfix you and some novels induce a sense of recognition or sense of wonder which are truly life changing. But I am not sure that you can actually get to a list of 100 of them. I am thinking of reading The Fire Next Time (James Baldwin), which is this great short polemic.
Mani Shankar Aiyar: On the other hand, he keeps saying Negro, and today we can’t use the word
Mukul Keshavan: Yes, that’s true. I am just concerned that, though I am sure it won’t happen, we shouldn’t actually be stretching a point for a book that we know is less good than something that the same person has written and I am not saying this in the context of Discovery of India and his autobiography because there can be differences of opinion about which is a better book. But I don’t think we should in a sense…it will be odd to choose a book by someone that you think is more significant but not necessarily the best thing that person has written.
Sunil Sethi: Why don’t we do it this way? What did these transformative books do for us? And why are they defined as our great all time favourites? Otherwise we would be just going round and round the mulberry bush. What did it do for us?
Mani Shankar Aiyar: Or more specifically, what did it do for me? It may not be us. The fact that out of my list of 30, perhaps only one or two have so far figured, shows that what influences me, need not necessarily influence someone else, so it becomes very difficult to be prescriptive about books that will change your life, but I can be prescriptive about books that changed my life. And I could induce reasons for that.
David Davidar: So we are side stepping things like the Western Canon, the Eastern Canon.
Nilanjana Roy: But I had a slightly different take on this, which is, I was looking at books that were personally transformative for me when I read them, they had some kind of shock or some kind of shift in world view. But I was also looking at one of the reasons why my list is so heavy on science writings and science fictions—which I hadn’t expected when I sat down to do this, and why I have some of the oldest myths in the world—is because I was looking at books which redefine what it means to me to be human at this point of time. So, a lot of them are things that you don’t expect to be moved by. When I read the Epic of Gilgamesh, a few years ago, I thought I was going to read it as a dry text, I did not expect to be so moved by the idea of somebody sitting down to write the first written story in human history and the fact is that the stories still appeal. So, I was looking for surprise, I was also looking for long lasting change, that comes out a lot of in the science sections and the science fiction writers like, William Gibson or Neil Gaimon, are I think people who have changed your imagination. Morality comes into the discourse. People who have written uncomfortable books, underlying that is the idea of good books, that for me is the foundational criteria but it’s not the only one. My definition of books on any of these lists I think has to be good literature, but having said that, you can take that as a given and move on to what moves you.
Sunil Sethi: Why don’t you give your reasons for books that have been very influential in your life or what you look for in a book?
Mani Shankar Aiyar: I am a child of partition and therefore I have been very concerned with matters of war and peace almost all my life. And I have always wondered why they went so wrong in the past and therefore to try and have an understanding of the philosophy of history and to be able to put the facts into some kind of a larger perspective. Also, as a child of independence, I have been the midnight’s child, therefore the freedom movement and what it meant is something that has obsessed me for quite a long time. And moral questions of what is right and what is wrong which I find most influential in my life is in the writings of T. S. Eliot. One line in particular from his Murder in the Cathedral, ‘doing the right thing for the wrong reason’, and all of us I feel have frequently faced in life, the need to do not only the right thing for the wrong reasons but also the wrong thing for the right reasons. So it’s as a result of these two or three factors that I have shortlisted the 30 books that I have given, few of which that have fallen into the common list. Out of the 30, the 10 that have made the biggest impact on me and just as a starter I could mention five books on war that I think have huge relevance today, especially for India and Pakistan. But more specifically for how does a country that has not been at war for really the better part of several hundreds of years and yet lives in a world where there is a lot of conflict around us. What are the lessons that we can learn from other countries that have stopped going over the brink? And for me the best example is that Austria-Hungary saying that Serbia was behind the terrorists who killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand, when in fact they weren’t.
Now I think the worst, the most proximate cause of war between India and Pakistan would be a Pakistani terrorist coming in here and we believe they he is backed by the Pakistani government. And then if we do what Austria and Hungary did to Serbia, Austria-Hungary disappeared and Serbia survived. And so we might find ourselves disappearing, especially in this nuclear age, if we don’t learn the lessons of history. And so I would begin by saying that the first set of books which I would commend are firstly, The Sleep Walkers, how Europe went to war in 1914 by Christopher Clark and secondly, the story of the opening month of the war, of the first world war, which I think is the only thing that is really of interest in the first world war till we get to the Treaty of Versailles, which signals the beginning of the second world war. In that I would recommend the Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman. My third book from not that period because we have covered two of them is the in-between time, what happened in the 20s and worst of all in the 30s that led to the biggest disasters that humanity has ever known which was Hitler on the one hand and Toto on the other and what happened is in a book by Pierce Brendon, the Cambridge historian, called The Dark Valley, a panorama of the 1930s where he takes the history of the entire world and brings it in to perspective. From there I think one moves smoothly into A.J.P. Taylor’s utterly outstanding work, the Origins of the Second World War. It's a work of history. And once you have read all this you start asking yourself why is there such argument, and when you come across so much argument, I think the book by, rather it was a set of lectures by E.H. Carr called What is History is indispensable for understanding how and why it is that history turns out the way it does and then gets interpreted the way it does. I’ll stop there. I think I have done five books and I’ll do the other five later.
David Davidar: When I started doing this, I must admit that I had a bias. Increasingly I find myself resentful of a canon that we have willy-nilly accepted because that is what we had started with, which is the Western canon. So I looked at the whole bunch, this exercise is being done by several publications and colleges and think tanks and so on and all of them have a very similar kind of list with a nod to the East with one or two books, so my first list was hugely weighted towards India, in that sense it doesn’t completely reflect the books that have changed my life. So I made a second list which had on it a book like say The Leopard which I think is one of the greatest novels that I have ever read. When I started writing my first novel, subconsciously I sort of kept looking at how you treat your family in the context of history and I noticed that Mukul has it on his list. But it was not on my first list. So long story short, my first list had the point of departure as somewhat political. This may not be the forum to apply the corrective to popular perceptions but I certainly think that one should know about the Arthashastra, if I mention The Prince, just being one example of statecraft. So, here are my first five. I would say certainly say The Leopard and I would say The Remains of the Day, which for my money is a quiet novel which I think is more powerful than pretty much every other novel that I have read in a long time. It again deals with history, deals with politics but deals with it in such a subtle way that I have not read its like, the Ishiguro novel. The Great Gatsby is another favourite of mine. And for my money the greatest study of violence in contemporary literature is probably Blood Meredian by Cormac McCarthy. It's among my top three contemporary novels. And the last one I would pick is Borges, the Stories by him.
Sunil Sethi: Well when we talk about a book that changes you or transforms you or stays with you for a long time, even though when you may have read it at a particular moment in your life is that when I think of my favourite books, I think of books I keep returning to. I don’t look for replication of reality any more. I find in my all-time favourites whether fictions or non-fictions what I really want is the intensification of reality. Mani, for example, said that he relates his favourite books to history, particularly to personal history because he says he is a child of partition and that of Independence but he actually didn’t mention any work of fiction. And I was immediately thinking and its top of my list actually, what greater exponent of fiction in partition stories than the great Urdu writer Saadat Hasan Manto. People read him in bits, his short stories or his journalism or his memoirs but one of the most brilliant all-time translations is called the Bitter Fruit: The Very Best of Saadat Hasan Manto, translated by the keeper of his flame for many, many years, the journalist and translator Khalid Hasan, I think that is extraordinary. Similarly, from the same genre, again by an Urdu scholar, but in English, Twilight in Delhi by Ahmed Ali. It’s extraordinary, what it tells you about the inner life of the city and yet the drumbeat of war is distantly heard but always in the background. So fiction, placed in history, can in my opinion be as transformative and life changing. I also find that in all the lists given, there is actually no excellent biography. Or indeed travel book.
Mukul Kesavan: We do have a travel book
David Deodar: In Patagonia
Sunil Sethi: In Patagonia, my favourite, it’s on my list. But for example as regards biography, I would really say the one I enjoy again and again is from Ramchandra Guha’s, the historian’s, canon: his first book, Savaging the Civilised: Verrier Elwin, his tribals and India, because it is a difficult book to define. Is it a conventional biography? Is it a slice of history? This multi-faceted character starts out as a Christian missionary, a Gandhian, rejects it all to become probably modern India’s greatest living anthropologists, it’s an extraordinary exploration. That’s definitely a book I go back to again and again. It has just come out in a new edition.
Mani Shankar Aiyar: I had one biography on my list, but for the opposite reasons because it shook me up with sheer horror. It is Stalin by Edvard Radzinsky. You discover what are the depths of human depravity reading that book.
Sunil Sethi: Anyway, just one last point. I have also put in a remarkable Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of the ancient world, characters from the ancient world are very difficult to write about. People have Robin Lane Fox on Alexander the Great but no great biography of the Emperor Ashoka, because the argument among scholars is that primary evidence is extremely difficult to find. But a Pulitzer-prize winning example is Cleopatra, written by Stacy Schiff. I found it riveting, what she does from a great mythical character of history, well, almost mythical character, is to dig up substance and later records and therefore explore not just Egyptian but also Roman and Greek history. Last of all, no one has really talked about subaltern history or even subaltern life, life from the margins. And this is so important in fiction and non fiction, I am thinking of Munshi Prem Chand’s Godan, which is a great classic or in contemporary terms in English take something like Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo, the American journalist, just two or three years ago it came out. But in the middle of this gung-ho sense of free market, liberal, modern India, she tells you about this island slum crowded between Bombay’s great sky scrapers and the international airport, I just found it a startling portrait in terms of documentary reality.
David Davidar: How does that stack up against Sainath’s work?
Sunil Sethi: I think that’s a great work too.
Mukul Kesavan: In terms of writing, in terms of the ideas, in terms of the density of investigation, it's extraordinary.
Sunil Sethi: It is much more than documented journalism. It is again intensification of reality.
Mukul Kesavan: It’s like the thing with great fiction, it commands your attention through narrative
Sunil Sethi: It's outstanding. As investigation, as journalism, as a portrait of changing India.
Mukul Kesavan: My first five, I don’t know if there is anything unifying about them but I think they are broadly to do with the transitions we have seen over the past 150 years. On top of my list is the greatest novel of the last 50 years of the 20th century, which is Mario Vargas Llosa's The War of the End of the World. It is a truly extraordinary novel about the chiliastic insurrection based on a real life historical event in the late 19th century Brazil. It should actually be required reading for any state which is attempting to deal with any kind of millenarian or cargo cult type of insurrection. Vargas Llosa is such a great novelist, I thought of putting in Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, which is the other end of an extraordinary comic, experimental novel.
The other two have to do with mid-20th century European transition. One is The Tin Drum by Grass without which the Midnight's Children wouldn't even begin to be a gleam in Rushdie's eye because I feel it’s constitutive of Rushdie's novel, which is also a wonderful novel. It’s the great angsty German novel of that transition from fascism to republic. The second of the kind again, a novel of the Cold War is, and I think it’s here for its subject as much as for its formal invention—The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. It's innovative as a novel in a way that it is difficult to imagine. He has a section called 'A Brief Introduction to Litoste' and he tells you what Litoste actually means. It's comic, cynical, wry but it still has these great base notes.
David Davidar: You would pick that over The Unbearable Lightnesss of Being?
Mukul Kesavan: Yes, I think so. It has a great opening where there is a group photograph of a party political bureau and the deputy leader has given the leader his hat because it’s cold and then the deputy leader falls afoul of the politburo and he is air-brushed out of the picture. So the only thing that remains of him in the picture is the hat. It a work of complete, comic cynical genius.
Satish Padmanabhan: Isn't his 'litoste' a bit reminiscent of the 'Huzun' that Pamuk describes in Istanbul? It is an indescribable melancholy of...
Mukul Kesavan: It is an attempt to provide a word an emotion that is otherwise un-nameable. The fourth for me would be Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. We have, in these lists many books that are in a broad way coming of age novels. And I think some of our most intense experiences as readers is to read a coming of age novel. Sunil has Catcher in the Rye, I have Black Swan Green by David Mithcell. I think in an odd way, it is not a coming of age novel but Peter Pan is the great fictional inventions of the last 150 years. It induces in you a kind of wondering melancholy which I've never felt while reading any other novel.
Sunil Sethi: All it induced in me is an urge to escape which I think is a key qualification to enjoyment in reading. Which is why we adore Wodehouse.
Mukul Kesavan: Isn’t it oppressive? It’s a deeply oppressive novel but it’s also just wonderful. The last one is a book of essays. The only book of essays that I could think of which ranks with great fiction, that is not Borges' Fictions but a volume called Other Inquisitions, which contains some of the most imaginative leads you've ever encountered in non-fiction. So he has this great essay which has this arresting first sentence in which he says "Great writers don't just invent their descendants, they reinvent their ancestors as well". What he is saying is when you have a writer like Kafka, he defines a quality like Kafkaesque which is imitated by people who come after him, but he also makes it possible for you to understand someone like Edgar Allan Poe in a way that you wouldn't have because you suddenly realise that Poe has qualities that are Kafkaesque and he is full of these extraordinary insights. It is this riveting book of essays and it is not fictional. I think he has something in it called Brief History of Time. It's a great book. Finally, I'll say, either Raag Darbari or Aadha Gaon. Aadha Gaon is a great partition novel and Raag Darbari is an extraordinary satirical novel about republican politics. I'd like both. These are great landmark novels in Hindi.
David Davidar: I'd go for Raag Darbari because of its capriciousness.
Nilanjana Roy: I'd go for Raag Darbari over Aadha Gaon but I'd also make a plea for Aadha Gaon.
Nilanjana Roy: My first would be the Epic of Gilgamesh. I think I want it on the list because it's a book that everyone knows about but does not read. And I was reading it at a time when a close friend of my husband had just received notice that he was going to die of cancer and we could do nothing about it. It was in the middle of that I came across this remarkable speech of anguish between Enkidu and Gilgamesh. Enkidu who is Gilgamesh's closest friend is facing his own death and that death is inevitable because he is wounded and he has to go. And Gilgamesh is facing the fact that he is happy that it’s not him who has to die, but at the same time he has the sorrow for his friend. It happened to strike me that I would reach into the oldest epics, the oldest story in the world and find such an incredible human moment in it.
David Davidar: Was it a new translation?
Nilanjana Roy: I don't think it was a new translation. I've forgotten who it was. It was an old and classic translation. I found that many of the things I write about these days are contained in that book. Whether it is the embracing of life in a way that you push away death, the divisions between the men and the animals, friendship, betrayal, war, love is contained in it. I didn’t expect it to be such a good read.
The second is Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor E Frankl. I was thinking of this and Anne Frank's Diary when Mani was going through his list, these are allied. Viktor's is an extraordinary book, he wrote parts of it when he was in was in the camp in Auschwitz and he was watching his family die, he knew he was on the list, he didn’t know from day to day if he was going to survive or not. And the question he asks at that time was not how do we endure suffering? It was how do we make up happiness in these circumstances? He looks at himself and the people around him and says what makes us happy is what we choose to focus on everyday and it's how we treat each other, with dignity and respect. It’s a passionately argued book and I think he wrote it sometime after he came back from the camp in the middle of mourning for people who he'd lost. And it is such a powerful statement of belief in the human condition.
I don't know what to do with Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl, because she is not on anyone else's list but I know that it is something we should read as a coming of age book. I know it has changed the lives of many children. The Left Hand of Darkness is already on the list? Then I'm going to make a pitch for The Sandman Series by Neil Gaiman. It's between this and Harry Potter. I think Sandman is magnificent storytelling, I understand the resistance to the form of a graphic novel, but what matters to me is what world you're creating and how well knit these are and Neil Gaiman's universe is vast. Sandman is eight or nine volumes of storytelling which has shaped the imagination of every single story teller who came after him. There’s nobody better than Neil when it comes to imagination, no one more powerful and poignant.
Mukul Kesavan: I've read Gaiman in his prose fiction. I have to say there was a wonderful short story which I read of him which sort of takes off on the Sherlock Holmes theme and he marries it with science fictional grotesque which is a complete tour de force. My concern is, I do enjoy his prose fiction and I am not familiar with the Sandman series, but certainly on basis of his prose fiction I am not persuaded that his imagination is…why would he be in purely in speculative science fictional terms, why would he be ahead of, say, Margaret Atwood, who is a great novelist, who has written great speculative fiction?
Nilanajana Roy: There is no comparison between the Sandman series and anything that Atwood has written. His prose fiction is really not the best example. I think Sandman cast a wider shadow on the writers of this generation.
Mukul Kesavan: Who are these writers?
Nilanjana Roy: I think everyone from George R.R. Martin, I don’t think Atwood would have been influenced by Gaiman, to China Mieville…
Mukul Kesavan: I think Martin is not a writer of any consequence. He is a dreadful novelist. He is enormously influential and the television series has done wonders for his book but he wrote a first-rate first beginning. The first novel is very good but after that he seemed to abandon any attempt at addressing any question of narrative or method.
Nilanjana Roy: I think there is a whole world of speculative fiction and fantasy writers out there. That is a genre into itself and pretty much every writer who's won the Nebula Prize in the last ten years is influenced by him, he is everybody’s hero. I think we will be ignoring a whole generation of readers.
Sunil Sethi: He is your hero, but is he everybody’s hero?
Nilanjana Roy: I think he is very much this generation’s hero.
Sunil Sethi: Well, the rest of the panel is not convinced, so we are clearly not this generation.
Nilanjana Roy: I didn’t mean to put it that way…
Nilanjana Roy: It is a series and has to be taken in that flow.
Mani Shankar Aiyar: The fact that many of us haven't read this, it’s a genre that’s different, I think I would like to vote along with Nilanjana.
Nilanjana Roy: Alright. My next is a science book: The Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin. Another book that surprised me when I read it and more interestingly when I re-read it because it’s about such an important moment in human history.
Sunil Sethi: I think one way of taking this debate forward is to ask the first elemental question, what do we look for in a book? What is this first impulse that draws us to reading? Is it entertainment, is it a desire to be informed, what is it?
Mani Shankar Aiyar: Surely, on our bedside table you have a dozen books. I mean, I always have a Wodehouse. At the same time I also have The Rise and Fall of Third Reich. One reads for a variety of reasons, some of which is entertainment, some of it is enlightenment, some of it is reflection, some of it is because someone has recommended it to you. And the desire to know what happened and why did happen and how did it turn out. So there is no singular answer to the question why we read.
Sunil Sethi: Some authors generically that we are crazy about is, say, P.G. Wodehouse, is a must. Shall we put down P.G. Wodehouse as author or a particular book?
Mani Shankar Iyer: I think it is impossible to pick a book.
Mukul Kesavan: I am happy to pick one, as I have already said, Psmith In The City. There is a sense in which Blanding Castle and Jeeves are iconic but…
Mani Shankar Aiyar: I think that the thing he wrote most magnificently was a piece of non-fiction. It was his story of how he was captured by the Germans, and he was regarded as a traitor for writing that book which is brilliantly done.
Mukul Kesavan: But this is not the reason why we remember him. We remember him for the pleasure he gave us in his fiction.
Mani Shankar Aiyar: I remember him for teaching me the English language. I certainly learned more English from P.G. Wodehouse than from William Shakespeare
Mukul Kesavan:. In fact we learned Shakespeare from P.G. Wodehouse. I used to read The Merchant of Venice and say where have I read these lines before? In a second-hand book from Wodehouse.
Sunil Sethi: Has anybody read the biography of Wodehouse? What is startling of a man who is so brilliant, what a dark life it was. It was a deeply unhappy life of constant migration, a kind of emotional emasculation, a longing for children that he never had. Is that the truth behind great comedy writers? Jane Austen—a very unfulfilled life yet she is the finest writer in the comedy of manners. Who is to beat Pride and Prejudice? I am an ardent Janeite.
Mukul Kesavan: I am deeply hostile to Janeites. One of my favourite books is Amis’s book called What Became of Jane Austen where the title essay is an exercise in baiting people like Sunil for their love. But Pride and Prejudice gets my vote.
Sunil Sethi: It’s just the acme of classic boy meets girl story. I think it was P.D. James, the British thriller writer who died a few days ago who said, ‘What Jane Austen is classically is Mills & Boons married to genius’.
Mukul Kesavan: She was utterly surpassed later by a kind of prodigy of hers, Georgette Heyer, who wrote a much better novel which is there on my list, These Old Shades. I have read it a 100 times but she is not respectable.
Sunil Sethi: May I add, Sonny Mehta, who published Georgette Heyer and I asked him why she is your favourite? He said apart from anything else, she is best flu-writer. If you were down with flu then just pick up an Heyer, it’s an instant cure.
Ok, my next book, I am going to make a big pitch for The Argumentative Indian by Amartya Sen, the way he puts together the essays for a new India in a way, extrapolating from history, polemics, strains of historical thought whether it is Buddhism, going back into history and coming forward, a whole canon of Bengali literature. It's a wonderful reflection of fractured politics of India.
Mukul Kesavan: I got the impression that these were chips from a great economist’s work bench. If you read his The Idea of Justice, the scope of it, the extraordinary resonance and focus of it. There are wonderful things in the Argumentative Indian but it’s repetitive, it’s unfair to expect it to be otherwise because it’s a compilation…
Mani Shankar Aiyar: You said Amartya Sen’s The Argumentative Indian, he has said the The Idea of Justice, if you were to ask me, I would pick the The Choice of Techniques. It completely altered everything one thought of Gandhian economics.
Sunil Sethi: I want to look at the biography of a great city, Istanbul by Orhan Pamuk. I am going to make a pitch for an art history book which was recently launched. This is Professor B.N. Goswamy's masterpiece called The Spirit of Indian Painting, a choice of his 101 best miniatures spread over 700 years. It is partly modelled on the bestseller of art history namely Neil MacGregor's The History of the World in 100 objects. He is the director of British Museum. What he did was he picked up 100 objects from the museum for a radio series which later became a bestseller.
History. There are certain moments in history that have been written about so often—The French Revolution, for example. To me the classic account is Simon Schama's Citizens. It is to me the most fluid and fluent account.
David Davidar: It’s curious that you should mention him because I was thinking of his other book, Landscape and Memory
Mukul Kesavan: But the gloss was taken off a little when I saw him perform at the Jaipur Literature Festival, I mean to watch this man is like watching a black hole of vanity. But I agree with Sunil that Citizens is a wonderfully written historical book, it has the return of the narrative…but how I hate him!
David Davidar: I am going to come up with a couple of books of poetry. A book that I return to time and again is Stephen Mitchell's translation of The Sonnets of Orpheus and the Duino Elegies by Rainer Maria Rilke. There are certain things that I read because of the grandeur of the prose. The second thing is Book of Ecclesiastes, which is a foundational text for everyone. Third one is Thirukural by Thiruvalluvar. I am reading a translation now that Gopal Gandhi is doing. I keep going back to it. It's got to do with kingship, it’s got to do with what you do in times of war, what you do in times of love. It’s rhymed couplets.
Mani Shankar Aiyar: It has also got to do with Chidambaram's budgets, he always quotes the Thirukural.
David Davidar: Then, did someone mention Lewis Carroll?
Nilanjana Roy: Oh! He was on my list.
David Davidar: Now I am torn between Things Fall Apart and The Old Man and The Sea…
Sunil Sethi: I think The Old Man and The Sea is a most over-rated book, what’s in it, it’s just about a man and a fish.
David Davidar: I once caught a Marlin off the coast of Cuba, so I love that book.
Mukul Kesavan: No, really, the only error of judgement he made was that he did not put the shotgun into his mouth earlier. I would like to pose a question. Why do certain writers, absolutely top of the class 50 years ago, fall off the map and go out of fashion? George Bernard Shaw, completely gone.
Mani Shankar Aiyar: Because their time falls off the map. Oscar Wilde…
Mukul Kesavan: Wilde still survives…
Mani Shankar Aiyar: Only because of The Importance of Being Earnest which is the appropriate play to put up in schools. I could add two names to those who are no longer mentioned. One is Philip Roth and his Portnoy’s Complaint…
Mukul Kesavan: Roth made a big come back, he wrote a book called The War Against America, a huge bestseller, very well regarded. The Human Stain, which was a book about this professor who is concealing the fact that he is part black, which was hugely successful
Mani Shankar Aiyar: But I don’t think he ever matched Portnoy’s Complaint, in terms of what we are talking about, books that influenced your lives. Of course, it so happens that Portnoy is just two years elder to me. So everything in Portnoy’s Complaint is actually Mani Shankar Aiyar’s complaints.
Nilanjana Roy: I thought Goodbye Columbus was a classic.
Sunil Sethi: I found that utterly mawkish.
Mani Shankar Aiyar: The other name that we left out was John Steinbeck. Grapes of Wrath, without that you don’t understand the Depression. But how does one bring it on within a 100 books?
Sunil Sethi: Talking of American fiction, I see a gap here. And I think the gap was actually filled in by David mentioning The Great Gatsby on his list. It’s not just a whole chunk of literary history of the jazz age, but really a genre itself. I am thinking of Dorothy Parker, Raymond Chandler…
Mani Shankar Aiyar: Ok I will get on with my list. I have to go back to what I said in the start, that I have been mostly concerned with our history. My first few books were about European history, now I will come to Indian history. There is a book by John Keay, India Discovered: The Achievement of the British Raj, in which he brings out the stories of the scholars who followed the flag and discovered for the 19th century Indian intellectuals, everything that was great about our civilization. It includes, James Prinsep who deciphered the Brahmi script and therefore being able to discover that there were two Chandraguptas, one Chandragupta Maurya and the other of the Gupta empire and thereby providing a chronology for Indian history which we did not have until Prinsep understood. So I would say that it’s an unusual take on the beginnings of British rule in India.
Mani Shankar Aiyar: There are two editions of it, one is illustrated with lots of photographs when I mentioned it to John, he said you are the only one who actually read the text because everyone else just looks at the pictures. But then he produced a paperback which is only text, it’s a superb book.
The second I would say is another very unusual take on the freedom movement it’s by Arthur Herman called Gandhi and Churchill. He inter-weaves the lives of these people who met only once, when Churchill was under-secretary of the state for the colonies and Gandhi had gone to meet him in 1909. That is the only time they ever met, yet their lives were inter woven and while Churchill won all his wars, the one war he lost was Gandhi.
The third I would mention is a brilliant book by Bipan Chandra called Communalism in Modern India. And it’s the rise of communalism as a political phenomenon which doesn’t go back to the 19th century. It is a uniquely 20th century phenomenon which alas is still with us.
The fourth is a novel, the novel that most capture the atmosphere particularly of the Quit India movement and it’s a novel which I find remarkable because nothing happens. It is just atmosphere. It just tells the story, without trying to twist it into a tale, it’s called A Time to be Happy by Nayantara Sahgal.
My fifth book is, because at the end of the day independence also meant partition, while I have a library full of books on Pakistan, if I were to pick just one, it is a very small book but I think it is the most telling story of not only how Pakistan came into being but also more importantly what it happened to become is Farzana Sheikh’s Making Sense of Pakistan.
Those are the five I put on my second list. I will quickly run through them again. India Discovered by John Keay. Gandhi and Churchill by Arthur Herman, Communalism in Modern India by Bipan Chandra, A Time to Be Happy by Nayantara Sahgal and Making Sense of Pakistan by Farzana Sheikh.
Mukul Kesavan: Can I just say that I think the intellectual influence of Bipan has been just enormous but my only reservation is that—he was a great teacher, he wrote a lot—but I don’t think that any of his books are great. This is just my view. I think Bipan often uses the rhetoric, for example, communalism is continuously personified, communalism is a force that grows. It is a kind of idealist vocabulary that he uses so consistently despite the fact is that he was a Marxist. And very often it’s based upon the idea that communalism is a false consciousness, using the classical Marxist notions, as opposed to doing something that is consonant with your broad social interest. So I think we all owe Bipan a great debt but I think his great book was The Rise and Growth of Economic Nationalism, which is his first big book which actually shows you how the Congress created a secular nationalism on the basis of economics. With no disrespect, he is a person I enormously admire but I don’t think Communalism in India is a remarkable book or historically outstanding.
Mani Shankar Aiyar: Why I found it to be amazingly impactful upon my mind was that he traces the beginnings of communalism in modern India, which is the name of this book, to the decision in 1916 to have separate electorates and to introduce democracy to India along with separate electorate was designed to create all this. Now, given that most Congress inclined historians like him think that it was a great achievement, the Lucknow Pact, his being able to point out that that was the source of the disaster and take the story through, to the Delhi pact of 1927 where Jinnah repudiates his own greatest achievements and agrees that we should have joint electorates in order to stop this menace of communalism from gobbling us up and then this stupid Congress’ rejection of the Delhi pact.
Mukul Kesavan: I am just trying to say that you know the history of communalism since Bipan wrote this book, it’s a very large and very diverse history. Precisely Bipan’s point about communalism being a 20th century phenomenon. I don’t think there is a single historian in India today who may actually believe this. If you look at the work of Gyanendra Pandey, at the very latest, it is the beginning of the second half of the 19th century. I think his book is historiographically dated.
Mani Shankar Aiyar: On the other hand, this is the one that brought centre-stage to one’s thinking, what was centre-stage to the historical process, that you couldn’t get Independence without partition. Having placed the issue centre-stage, the book deserves a certain place in the books that [influence] one’s life.
Nilanjana Roy: This was supposed to be there alongside the Epic of Gilgamesh but it fell off the list—Arabian Nights. This was a surprise for me. I actually thought about this whether it was a book that changed me and I realized that for a long period of time it had. It went someway towards shifting this West-East imbalance but I think it also changed my attitude to reading political history of Islamic states in general. Very powerful, a lot of those stories live in my imagination.
The second one is a completely different genre—Philip K. Dick: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? I picked this because it was the first book that made me realize that intelligence goes beyond humans and maybe you might want to speculate about them.
Third book— The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer. I was looking for something that was a feminist classic and there were so any of them but this one was the most powerful
David Davidar: You would pick it over The Second Sex?
Nilanjana Roy: You know, The Second Sex isn’t read that much these days so that’s the only problem.
Sunil Sethi: I will endorse Germaine’s book as I really think it marked a watershed moment in what we call feminist theory or feminist thinking.
Mukul Kesavan: And nobody reads The Golden Notebook anymore.
Nilanjana Roy: Unfortunately that’s true. Fourth book, In Cold Blood.
Sunil Sethi: I endorse it. Truman Capote’s crime classic.
Nilanjana Roy: Fifth book comes out of nowhere but Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. I went back to it and read it again to be sure. It was an environmental classic and very beautifully written.
Sunil Sethi: It sort of started the environment movement. A year or two ago I read a magnificent obituary
Nilanjana Roy: She writes so movingly about the environment that it becomes a character and it was the first book that set off the alarm bells that the climate changes discussions that we have today. So incredibly powerful.
Mukul Kesavan: I would like to nominate Larkin’s Collected Poems because I think Philip Larkin is the outstanding English poet of the second half of the 2oth century.
David Davidar: Over Auden?
Mukul Kesavan: Auden is essentially a poet we remember for what? A period between the 20s and the 30s…I am happy for someone to nominate Auden, it’s just that personally…
Sunil Sethi: What about John Betjeman?
Mukul Kesavan: Betjeman is wonderful. Summoned by Bells is great.
Mani Shankar Aiyar:
I walked into the night club in the morning,
There was kummel on the hand of the door.
The ashtrays were unemptied,
The cleaning unattempted.
And a squashed tomato sandwich on the floor.
Sunil Sethi: Well done Mani, well done. Bravo.
Mukul Kesavan: Yes, Betjeman was great for the sheer profundity, the sheer intensity…
Sunil Sethi: Crabby old man in real life…
Mukul Kesavan: Dreadful man.
Sunil Sethi:I’ll go with Philip Larkin, nasty figure though he was, many writers are in real life.
Mukul Kesavan: Elliot was not a nice man
Nilanjana Roy: I want to raise a question out here generally about poetry because I think we are walking into a major problem here. I would have nominated Adrienne Rich or any poet…I’ve forgotten the name of it but there is an excellent contemporary anthology of world poetry that includes Elliot, Larkin and many other poets. We could perhaps nominate an anthology, otherwise if you’re nominating one or two poets you have to make the case…
Mukul Kesavan: No, no, we go back to our default position, that we are talking about works that matter the most to us. I mean the same way we are talking about books.
Nilanjana Roy: But that means fiction will end up being more representative, I just want to look at how many books of poetry we have at the end of this selection.
Mukul Kesavan: It probably reflects the fact that people read much less verse than they do prose. So I’d like to say Larkin. Then, I’d like to say anything by Hillary Mantel, I think one of the greatest novelist working in the world today. Wolf Hall would be one that I would be happy to nominate. She had an extraordinary novel before that which is called Beyond Black which is dark, wonderful and comic novel about this woman who is a medium in contemporary England. The next, I want to nominate the Baburnama. It is in terms of memoirs the great book, it’s completely transformative, it’s magnificent.
Mukul Kesavan: I would also want to make a case for a great English novel which maps a transmission from a kind of pre-war war world into the contemporary west and I think the The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley has one, great claims of having one of the greatest first lines in the history of literature—‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there’. And I think when I look at the fuss over what is in the end a bit second rate novel by—
Sunil Sethi: Are you talking about Ian McEwan’s Atonement?
Mukul Kesavan: Exactly.
Sunil Sethi: A strict descendent from L.P. Hartley, The Go Between.
Mukul Kesavan: And not a shadow of The Go Between. It’s very close to my heart. It’s like an Englishman trying to do The Leopard but doing it the only way an Englishman can. Not making it a melodramatic novel but doing it as a novel of manners.
Sunil Sethi: I know comparisons are odious but the nearest Indian equivalent to Hartley is actually Anita Desai. I am thinking of Baumgartner’s Bombay, and I’m thinking of In Custody. Life among the marginalised Indians again, the poet Noor in Chandni Chowk, a dormant or dying language of Urdu rediscovered in this, and this Jewish émigré called Baumgartner in Bombay against this crumbing, decaying landscape of Indian cities. I find the irony resonant of a kind of a Hartley like exploration.
Mukul Kesavan: The difficulty with In Custody is that she is trying to write a novel about Urdu in English. And it runs straight into the problem that Indian realist writers face which is it is almost impossible to do magmatic realism if you are writing a novel about India in English. You have to find a literary resolution to that. It’s a fine novel but I think it is limited by that.
David Davidar: I think she should be on the list but what book would you pick?
Mukul Kesavan: I don’t think she should be on the list. I mean she has consistently been a good novelist but it’s very hard to think of a transformative novel.
David Davidar: I think that’s a fair point, if you consider her body of work then yes, but a single book…
Sunil Sethi: You would put Nayantara Sehgal there. I have another Nayantara Sehgal preference but I also think Anita Desai...
Mukul Kesavan: I would argue that both Nayantara Sehgal and Anita Desai are novelists who have a fine oeuvre but I don’t think they have, in my opinion, one great standout novel.
Mukul Kesavan: The last one for me is Huckleberry Finn. I think for me as a coming of age novel it was a grand-daddy, it is hugely enjoyable and a great novel as well.
Mani Shankar Aiyar: Alright my next six then, so six will take me to up to F, so I have to drop G.
A would be the The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, that really transformed my life.
B. One of the big incidents of me growing up was Nixon being forced out of office after having won one of the greatest election victories any President has, and the story of that is All The President’s Men by Carl Bernstien and Bob Woodward.
My third one has been mentioned already in the discussion—Lords of Finance by Liaquat Ahmed which is the story of the collapse of the global economy in the 1920s and 30s.
My fourth would be The Valley of Death by Ted Morgan which was one of the defining moments of my growing up and the introduction to the Vietnam War. It goes on to say in the title The Valley of Death that led America into the Vietnam War.
Then E, that is my fifth, is a story about the ghastly genocide in Rwanda in 1994, an outstanding book called Shake Hands With The Devil by Roméo Dallaire. I’d linked it on my list with the Shadow Graves of Rwanda by Shaharyar M. Khan but if any one of them had to be chosen I would pick Shake Hands With The Devil.
The sixth, now I have to make a choice here. I think I will drop my earlier choice and just come to one more. A story of how you grew up. The Diaries of Adrian Mole by Sue Townsend. It’s a series of books.
Sunil Sethi: I’m sure you have acquired it through your grand children if not your children.
Mani Shankar Aiyar: I don’t have any sons, and it was basically a story of a boy growing up and how a woman writer like Sue Townsend could enter the mind of a fourteen year old boy.
Sunil Sethi: My question is how did you ever enter a bookshop and fish out Diaries of Adrian Mole. Did you pick it up or was it given to you?
Mani Shankar Aiyar: I’m sure I bought it, I bought one and went through. I think it became less and less impressive as it went through and it became very sad and unhappy right at the end but through the period between the ages of 14 and 18, I just saw myself as Adrian Mole. I would add along with that is Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint.
Mukul Kesavan: Let’s go for Portnoy’s Complaint.
David Davidar: Mani talked about Vietnam and one of the greatest books written on Vietnam and one of the great examples of new journalism is Dispatches by Michael Herr.
Sunil Sethi: I love it. Brilliant journalism
Mani Shankar Aiyar: Yes, it’s a remarkable book.
David Davidar: I would say 1984. It is not a great novel but is it a signal achievement.
Sunil Sethi: My favourite Orwell would be Down and Out in Paris and London.
Mani Shankar Aiyar: Might I point out, though it’s not relevant but the fact is Animal Farm was completed in 1943 but because the Soviet Union was so important to the war against Hitler, no British or American publisher would publish Animal Farm until the Iron Curtain fell and then in 1947 it came out.
David Davidar: Also, it has one of the greatest first lines: 'To begin with, he did not know with any certainty that this was 1984'.
Then, Russian novels, one of my favorite Russian novels is The Master and Margarita.
Sunil Sethi: Yes. It features in Mukul’s list as well and I love it.
David Davidar: The fourth. I am keen on to have a Calvino in there but I don’t know which one.
Nilanjana Roy: Invisible Cities? That was on my list.
David Davidar: I have If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller.
Mukul Kesavan: Could we have Invisible Cities? Because I tried really hard to read If On a Night..., but…
David Davidar: Ok, Invisible Cities. Then, The Stranger, Albert Camus, because at the time I read it was a huge influence on my life.
Sunil Sethi: It was kind of classic undergrad pulp novel, isn’t it? When we undergrad everybody read The Stranger by Camus. I don’t know, do people still read Ayn Rand? It was on par.
Mukul Kesavan: When I was in college there were people with jholas who would only read two books. Well, they didn’t quite actually read them. One was Camus The Stranger or The Outsider and the other was The Heights of Macchu Picchu (Pablo Neruda), this yellow Penguin which they all carted around.
David Davidar: The sixth is one of the greatest realist novels of all times called Independent People by Halldor Laxness.
Mani Shankar Aiyar: It is the one that won the Nobel.
Mukul Kesavan: Why not? It could be something for people to discover.
Sunil Sethi: I was just making the point that very often the reading habits in today’s world when everyone is hooked on to YouTube and their laptops, and films which are so easily downloadable, a lot of contemporary reading now comes through films. A lot of young people I think come to classics or even contemporary works through cinema. So when you think of say the The Great Gatsby, or Raymond Chandlers novels or Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad, you are really coming to them through we made and remade.
I know we shouldn’t mention literature by countries or regions or genres but I would like to mention Crime and Punishment. I think Dostoevsky was in someone list, I think someone had The Idiot…
Mukul Kesavan: Yes, The Idiot was in my list…It’s just that I got through The Idiot and I didn’t get through Crime and Punishment.
Sunil Sethi: Oh, I was riveted…
David Davidar: I am very proud of myself for having completed it.
Sunil Sethi: I guess, it’s like choosing between Anna Karenina and War and Peace.
Mukul Kesavan: That’s no choice really. You wanted Anna Karenina to die within five pages of the book, I mean anybody who loved Vronsky deserved to die quickly...that’s no tragedy.
Sunil Sethi: But did you know it was going to be on the rail tracks?
Mukul Kesavan: Oh, that’s a bonus, yes. She was perishable from the start.
Sunil Sethi: Next I would say, it’s actually Madame Bovary. To me, that whole 19th century theme of the corruption of a female who goes through a complicated history, and particularly Flaubert’s is often said, you know in today’s arguments that there is something called the male gaze and the female gaze. But for me what is extraordinary is Flaubert getting inside a woman’s mind with such conviction. Are we okay with Madame Bovary?
Mukul Kesavan: Well, it’s not one of my favourite novels but I can see that the French need to be represented…
Nilanjana Roy: It’s about a woman’s independent mind, what she wants and coming up against the fences around her, I would go with that.
Sunil Sethi: And don’t forget, it’s coming from a male writer…
Nilanjana Roy: Yes, I think he was one of us.
Sunil Sethi: Well, he certainly wasn’t a misogynist. Mani brought up the Lords of Finance, the Pulitzer Prize winning book by Liaquat Ahamed on the great crash of 2008 and it’s contemporary relevance. As a companion, I would bring up Globalisation and its Discontents by the great economist Joseph Stiglitz, which simply tells you how these international lending agencies exclude and even run down economies round the world. I think it’s an extraordinary counter-view to this gung-ho materialism.
Mukul Kesavan: May I just suggest Piketty’s great book, Capital in the 21st Century. It’s a novel intended at the informed lay reader but even I got through the introduction and first chapter…
Mani Shankar Aiyar: You don’t need to read beyond the introduction. It’s remarkable how he has put everything that needed to be said in that introduction.
Sunil Sethi: I want to bring up a book which has been a bestseller by a British MP of Ghanian origin, a man called Kwasi Kwarten and the Book is called Ghosts of Empire. This book by a scholar and politician is about the ad-hocism with which the British ran parts of this world. I think he takes six or eight examples of specific places that the British conquered and the great mess they left behind.
David Davidar: Does India figure in it?
Sunil Sethi: It has Kashmir, Iraq, the Sudan, Nigeria, Hong Kong…absolutely brilliant work. Then, I want to endorse Ishiguro. I think David has put Remains of the Day…
Mukul Kesavan: My favourite is Never Let Me Go.
Satish Padmanabhan: But would you have two of Ishuguro in the list?
Mukul Kesavan: The argument against Remains of the Day is that we already have Wodehouse. (Laughter). Remains of the Day would have inconceivable without Jeeves. He creates this stereotype and he runs with it.
Sunil Sethi: Are you really saying that Remains of the Day is a kind of pre-curser to Downton Abbey? That too is about a butler and a housekeeper.
Mukul Kesavan: There is great archetype of butlering in Wodehouse…
Sunil Sethi: Mukul, you are just being a contrarian.
Mukul Kesavan: No, no, I am just making strong a case for Never Let Me Go…Actually, I think his best novel is his first one, Artist of the Floating World which is just shimmeringly beautiful.
David Davidar: To me The Remains of the Day is such a great achievement because the themes it addresses, in such a quiet and yet a telling way is unparalleled,
Sunil Sethi: My last choice. You know we haven’t talked about terrorism at all, global terrorism that casts a long shadow on India, I think The Siege: The Attack on the Taj by Cathy Scott-Clarke and Adrian Levy is an astonishing piece of journalistic investigation and documentation.
David Davidar: I agree, but would you say it’s a classic?
Sunil Sethi: To me it’s a riveting account of something that brought the country to a halt.
Satish Padmanabhan: Not The Meadow by them?
Sunil Sethi: Yes, but not the way the attack on the Taj.
Mukul Kesavan: I am not enthusiastic about it, I have to say. Yes, I think it’s reportage but I don’t think it tells you much you already didn’t know…
Sunil Sethi: It has a lot of original material.
David Davidar: But it won’t stand the test of time.
Mani Shankar Aiyar: The event changed everyone’s life, it really did. And therefore if it’s the best book on that event I think it deserves to go into the list.
Sunil Sethi: For instance, it tells you who were these terrorists? It goes deep into the villages, to the very impoverished villages of Punjab and Sind, and how these young Jihadi boys actually because many of them are pre-teens or teens, who are turned into professional Jihadis in school. That chapter alone I found absolutely unsurpassed…
Mukul Kesavan: Let me say this, as a thought experiment. One of the books of reportage which I think is one of the most powerful things I have read, is a book by Dionne Bunsha called the Scarred: Experiments With Violence in Gujarat, which actually is an account of the Gujarat riots in 2002. And is there any event that has transformed our world more completely than that? What happened in Gujarat in 2002 is considerably more important than what happened in Bombay on 26/11.
Mani Shankar Aiyar: Is there a contradiction? If we bring his suggestion into the list now…
Mukul Kesavan: I would go on to say that Dionne’s book is a really brave, first rate example of reportage and an attempt to establish and document facts of the case. The reason it’s not on my list is that I feel that books that are witness to great events are not necessarily great books, or are transformative books. I think the jury is out…
Sunil Sethi: But The Siege is investigative journalism at its best and surely when a generation or two generations down when somebody is looking for an absolute documented record of that flashpoint then both Dionne’s book and Adrian Levy’s book…
Mani Shankar Aiyar: Let’s go with The Siege as we still haven’t reached a hundred, and if there is space, we can see.
Nilanjana Roy: I want the jury to make a choice between two science classics, one was The Selfish Gene and the other was the The Emperor’s New Mind: Concerning Computers, Minds and The Laws of Physics.
David Davidar: I would go with the Selfish Gene
Nilanjana Roy: Ok, my next is a one I personally love, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou. The other book was The Bloody Chambers as I wanted to think of a book that was not only about fairy tales but brought them up to date and changed them. This book has been massively influential and beautifully written. What she did was, she took Grimm’s fairy tales and then turned them over.
David Davidar: You would prefer this over Carter’s Night at the Circus?
Nilanjana Roy: Yes, though it’s open to question. Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman, I collect books I am reading and for me that little set of essays gave a lot us permission to say that yes, yes, we do love books and we love them in all these very strange ways.
Sunil Sethi: Well, books about books is like films about films. It’s about very specialized taste. I am not sure about books like these…
Nilanjana Roy: But this went a little further as it became one of the most unexpected bestsellers in the world. And for a lot of people it changed their relationship to reading.
Sunil Sethi: It’s like Eats, Shoots and Leaves…
Nilanjana Roy: I won’t put it in the same category.
Mani Shankar Aiyar: On the other hand, it fits beautifully into the system we are working on
Nilanjana Roy: Fadiman also had great personal essays
David Davidar: It wouldn’t fit into my classification of the 100 greatest books, it’s a kind of a quirky choice but that’s fine.
Nilanjana Roy: My next: Walden by Thoreau, particularly important at this time I think when so many people are thinking of dropping out and going back. The other one was a minority taste perhaps but it’s perhaps one of the most powerful books about evil I have ever read, Gitta Sereny’s Into The Darkness. It was terrifying.
Sunil Sethi: Yes, she talked to the Nazis survivors and it’s an astonishing documentation of the atrocities committed.
Mukul Kesavan: Okay, I would say that if we are going to do transformative books, the one I have read is Interpretation of Dreams. I think you have to have Frued. I would say that a personal favourite of mine as a comic novel which is individually transformative is Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis which is one of the funniest novels. I was wondering which one of Tagore to chose but I think Gora is the one I would go with. It’s a great novel. I would say The Great Expectations has a claim on our attention. I think it is Dickens’ greatest novel and he achieved something truly extraordinary. I am going to push for The Silent Shades by Georgette Heyer, just in terms of pure pleasure.
Sunil Sethi: Well, Powder and Patch, The Grand Sophy, Georgette Heyer is a genre by herself. By the way, in real life she preferred to be called George.
Mukul Kesavan: She also preferred her dreadful historical novels to her 18th century romances. The sixth, I think it’s a really great but difficult novel which is an American novel which is rare for me as I tend not to enjoy American novels, which is White Noise by Don DeLillo.
David Davidar: Speaking of Don DeLillo, I don’t like any of his books.
Mukul Kesavan: I like White Noise. But if you don’t like it, I would like to propose another which is completely different, which is actually children’s book, it’s a lovely novel called Tom’s Midnight Garden, by Philippa Pearce which is one of the loveliest…
Sunil Sethi: But is it better than Winnie the Pooh, A. A. Milne? I mean what territory are we getting into?
Mukul Kesavan: I think there are severe intense novels about childhood you could choose from and Tom’s Midnight Garden is one of them….
Sunil Sethi: Uncle’s Tom’s Cabin, The God of Small Things, all childhood novels…
Mukul Kesavan: The next is Peter Pan.
David Davidar: Talking about British novels, what about Lord of the Flies?
Mani Shankar Aiyar: My last suggestion, One Thousand Years of Annoying the French by Stephen Clarke. It’s the most comprehensive history of Europe of the last one thousand years, it brings it right up to De Gaulle and Mitterand.
Mukul Kesavan: Sounds wonderful, what a discovery, I am dying to read it.
David Davidar: For my money, one of the most brilliant non-fiction authors I have read who attempts to figure out why we are the way we are and he uses evolutionary psychology and the book is The Moral Animal by Robert Wright.
Sunil Sethi: I want to go with Heart of Darkeness. To me it works on so many levels, it’s one of the greatest studies of loneliness, of the dark continent of the other, and I always think in movie terms Coppola’s greatest film, Apocalypse Now, where he transported it to the Vietnam war.
Nilanjana Roy: I want Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain.
Mukul Kesavan: Not The Shipping News?
Nilanjana Roy: No, I want to go for Brokeback Mountain.
Sunil Sethi: As we are running out of time, we can quickly go through the remaining books in our lists.
Mani Shankar Aiyar: What a wonderful discussion this turned out to be…
David Davidar: Yes, I was just telling Sunil, there’s no grandstanding, this is so different from those TV discussions.
Mani Shankar Aiyar: Yes particularly pleasing as there is no Meenakshi Lekhi sitting on my right…
A shorter, edited version of this appeared in print.