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NON-FICTION

BEHIND THE BEAUTIFUL FOREVERS: LIFE, DEATH AND HOPE IN A MUMBAI UNDERCITY (Hamish Hamilton) By Katherine Boo

A profoundly moving and insightful reportage on how people live in a slum near Mumbai’s airport. It is about a tiny patch of the too much reality that humankind cannot bear.

PATRIOTS AND PARTISANS (Allen Lane) By Ramachandra Guha

Brings together some of the essays of one of India’s foremost independent thinkers. Different facets of India’s society and politics come alive through the analysis that Guha makes with passion and commitment.

in my book

M. Krishnan (1912-1996) was India’s greatest all-round naturalist, and also a master stylist in the English language. He was also a fabulous photographer. After his death, his admirers and acolytes (a group to which I am proud to belong) have put together several volumes of his essays and photos. My best book of 2012 is the most recent of these posthumous tributes, the superbly designed and produced Of Birds and Birdsong, lovingly edited by Shanthi and Ashish Chandola. The words are sparkling, the illustrations (also by Krishnan) charming, the allusions dazzlingly varied, from medieval and modern English literature to our own epic and folk traditions. Literature is embedded in nature: the behaviour of bird species, common and obscure, is recorded with precision and conveyed with elegance. Krishnan was a true national treasure, largely unacknowledged in his lifetime — but with devotees like the Chandolas, his work will endure down the ages.
Ramachandra Guha

THE BLACK HOLE OF EMPIRE: HISTORY OF A GLOBAL PRACTICE OF POWER (Permanent Black) By Partha Chatterjee

A fresh look at the early days of British rule in Bengal. The layered narrative moves effortlessly into aspects of the 19th and the 20th centuries. A tour de force of historical analysis.

INDIA: A SACRED GEOGRAPHY (Harmony) By Diana L. Eck

Follows pilgrims to recreate a sacred landscape which is the product of myth, memory, history and footprints left behind by millions of devotees. A richly evocative book that appeals to believer and non- believer alike.

THE MAN WITHOUT A FACE: THE UNLIKELY RISE OF VLADIMIR PUTIN (Granta) By Masha Gessen

A truly frightening book about the man who runs, with thinly-veiled terror, the political system in Russia. This is a brave book which brings out little-known aspects of post-communist Russia. In terms of the terror deployed, very little has changed.

A VERY ENGLISH HERO: THE MAKING OF FRANK THOMPSON (Bloomsbury) By Peter J. Conradi

The biography of a remarkable young man, the flower of his generation, who was killed when he was 22, fighting side by side with the partisans in Yugoslavia at the fag end of World War II. A tragic and heroic life beautifully told.

in my book

Since the few new books I read are for review purposes (making my reading hostage to literary editors!), fashionable discussions on authors and publishers pass over my head. But I read voraciously. Two of the year’s most enjoyable books combined incisive social description with a near-revolutionary theme. My old friend and colleague, Peter Crookston, writes with eloquent insight about the hardships miners faced in north-east
England in The Pitmen’s Requiem. Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel, Mary Barton (published 1848), did the same for 19th-century Manchester mill workers, belying her muslin bonnet and lace mitten image. To my shame, I didn’t know of the Cranford author’s radical commitment. I had also forgotten the poetry of Peter’s prose. Neither The Pitmen’s Requiem nor Mary Barton bears directly on India. But they remind us, like the Maoist rebellion, that the struggle against injustice is universal.
Sunanda K. Datta-Ray

RIGHTEOUS REPUBLIC: THE POLITICAL FOUNDATIONS OF MODERN INDIA (Harvard) By Ananya Vajpeyi

An analysis of some key figures and concepts in the making of modern India. Gandhi, Ambedkar, Nehru, Rabindranath and Abanindranath are the figures studied to analyze the making of Indian selfhood. Occasionally original, always lucid.

SHAKESPEARE’S RESTLESS WORLD (Allen Lane) By Neil MacGregor

Uncovers some of the fascinating stories that lie behind 20 objects and thus recreates the world of the bard and the minds of his audience. The words of the plays are woven into the telling of the stories. A splendid achievement.

in my book

The best books are the ones we re-read. I have been re-reading Sanjay Subrahmanyam, especially the marvellous two volumes of Explorations in Connected History, and, as a follow-up, Three Ways to be Alien: Travails and Encounters in the Early Modern World. This book presents three contrasted studies: of a figure called Meale or Mealecão, a Muslim prince in 16th-century Goa; of the English adventurer, Sir Anthony Sherley; and of the Italian, Nicolò Manuzzi, historian of the Mughal Empire. Subrahmanyam’s exemplary scholarship illuminates, for me, figures he does not touch upon, such as the Venetian merchant, Niccolò de’ Conti. The second work I re-read with pleasure is Ranajit Guha’s The Small Voice of History. Most of the essays collected here are classics of historical scholarship. There are several in the volume that I did not know and that moved me deeply, such as the last four in this book, “The Tartar’s Cry”, “The Migrant’s Time”, “The Turn”, and “Translating Between Cultures”. Here again were ideas and insights that could illuminate wholly different contexts of reading and of cultural experience. Surely this is why we read, or should read, history.
Supriya Chaudhuri

RETURN OF A KING: THE BATTLE FOR AFGHANISTAN, 1839-1842 (Bloomsbury) By William Dalrymple

A poignant retelling of the first Anglo-Afghan war. Dalrymple delves into sources and sifts through layers of perceived notions and received history. Is history repeating itself as imperialists fight Afghans in impregnable mountain passes?

GIELGOODIES! THE WIT AND WISDOM & GAFFES OF JOHN GIELGUD (Oberon) Compiled by Jonathan Croall

A rollicking romp through the verbal indiscretions and puns of one of the greatest actors of the 20th century. A perfect companion for the festive season.