My favourite place to read is the Mumbai local train. It makes the journey or the daily commute a breeze. You just bury your nose in a book and before you know it, you have reached your destination. I do look up once in a while too, mostly to see what others are reading, but that’s another story.
The lockdown put an end to that reading habit. I was forced to read at home and I don’t enjoy that as much. Maybe I was a little too restless with the struggles of working from home and the distractions of social media. I however managed to read a few books and discover new writers (new for me)
Short notes on the books I enjoyed reading in 2020.
I started the new year with two books about Bangalore. Harini Nagendra’s Cities and Canopies and Nature in the City. If you are from Bangalore or love city stories in general, then it’s a book you should read. Afterall Bangalore was once called the Garden City of India. The city and the people there continue to retain a green thumb. The books trace that strand of the DNA of the city.
These two books were followed by a deep and slow deep dive into nature and its ways. Underland – A Deep Time Journey. It explores the inside of the Earth, which in reality are just the surface of the skin. It’s a hauntingly good book and the writer transports you to another world with his narrative. The second book is Philip Hoare’s The Sea Inside. It’s more than a travel book, the writer loves the sea and its depths. I was going through a phase of love for the sea and tides at that moment and this made me love the sea, even more (without getting my feet wet).
Soon after I finished these two books, the lockdown started and the PLA of the Chinese Comminist Party did to Modi what they are best at – bullying. After several meetings between Xi and Modi, Modi’s retreat from the invitation to join RCEP without consulting the parliament because he and his organisation seemed to unsure about what path the Indian economy should take (after 6 years in power), the Chinese dictatorship’s top leader seemed to have gauged what Modi is made of and encroached into Indian territory. India’s reaction to China over the last decade has been strange to say the least. India talked about looking east but was more comfortable with not engaging. As a nation or culture, we are unable to understand or even try to understand the CCP, PRC and the people of China. We look west. This is unlike the Chinese people who seem to have a deep understanding of India. Look at how their apps made for India took India by storm. The big tech companies of the USA or even India have not been able to use our interests and habits with such ease.
Why am I talking about this? It’s because my next choice for reading was based on this ostrich habit of our culture. I asked people to suggest writers from PRC I should read to understand the place and one of the writers suggested was Ma Jian. I read three of his books – China Dream, Red Dust and Beijing Coma.
I loved China Dream the best because it is almost contemporary. The writing is like a machine gun. It’s funny, it’s sad, it’s amazing. Wish it was a movie.
Red Dust was an account of the author’s travels across China in the 80s. When India and China were more alike. The accounts of lesser known parts of China and the people are riveting.
Beijing Coma is set around and after the Tiananmen Massacre and is a sad story that chronicles that period of transition in China.
In addition I would also recommend two movies that will add to your visual imagery as you read Ma Jian’s books – they are Xiaoshuai Wang’s So Long, My Son about China’s One-Child policy and Red Amnesia. Both these movies are available in India on Mubi.com
After these three books, I dived into something closer to home. Nisha Susan’s The Women Who Forgot to Invent Facebook and Other Stories. A collection of her short stories that to me felt like an amazing account of living in India cities from a women’s point of view in the last two decades. It’s fun, the author is amazing with weaving words and stories and conveying deeper meanings and understandings through every day thoughts, actions and interactions – online and offline.
In between, I read this book, I read Mythmaking by Lakshmi Bharadwaj, the actor, writer, poet who is originally from Mysore and someone I follow on Instagram. She is another amazing South Indian woman of words like Nisha. Someone should compile an anthology of the current crop of South Indian english writers.
One of the books I enjoyed reading the most this year was a science related book, about a subject or chapter I avoided in school – heredity. Carl Zimmer’s She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity is filled with stories, each one better than the other that will arrest your attention. Please read it.
I followed this up with another popular book – The Book of Eels by Patrick Svensson. It’s the story of his personal and our obsession with the eel and how it took very long to figure out the secrets of their life and migrations.
And finally I ended the year with the award winning Moustache or Meesha by S Hareesh (translated by Jayasree Kalathil), also the writer of the Malayalam movie called Jallikattu. Set in early 20th Century Kuttanad, the rice bowl of Kerala that was created by emptying lakes and taming rivers. Every region in India deserves a people’s book about itself and for different times in its history. It brings alive the systems that made the region what it is – the oppressive caste system to how people controlled or tried to control water in the case of that region.
Now that the year has come to an end, I realise that I read less than what I usually read in a normal year in 2020. I am hoping that I can get back to reading in my favourite place – the local train, soon.