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The Year Gone By in Book Land

A round up of the good, the great and the downright ugly in book world

Books, authors, censorship, adaptations and more…a mid term round up of the world of literature.

Good friends, good books, and a sleepy conscience: this is the ideal life.

Almost all that we know of living has been distilled into words by Mark Twain – and while we’re still labouring to attain  a sleepy conscience, we can gleefully declare that we have accomplished two thirds of an ideal life.  We’ve certainly read a few good books this year, but we’ve also had to deal with the mortality of beloved authors and the loss of  the written word to petty politics. So here is a round up of the good, the great and the downright ugly from the world of literature.

2014 Good Reads 

The MBRB girls read a lot of books (of course it’s never enough), but it’s not every year that you find a book that you can’t stop thinking, or talking about. We’re talking Atlas Shrugged, or One Hundred Years of Solitude, or The Road – books that changed our lives, tinged our days with tiny slivers of fantasy and filled our hearts with such profound sorrow that we wanted to howl till the skies burst forth. We didn’t stumble upon such a book in 2014, but we did find some jolly good reads.

Noteworthy amongst these are: Joyland, which provided yet another confirmation that four decades of writing hasn’t dulled Stephen King’s ability to spin a fantastic yarn; We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, a book about families and nature and nurture and a lot more that we can’t say at the risk of spoiling it; Breathless in Bombay, Murzban F Shroff’s excellent collection of short stories that achingly capture the everyday struggles, joys and sorrows of the common Mumbaikar; and Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette, the zesty tale of a 15 year old girl trying to figure out the disappearance of her precocious and unconventional mother. 

Thank You For the Magic

It wasn’t a good year for those of us who believe in the immortality of men and women who weave magic through their words. Khushwant Singh, the grand old man of Indian literature who wrote his own obituary many years ago, fell just short of a century. His prolific body of work includes one of the best books on partition (Train to Pakistan) and a “malicious” column that he continued to write till two years ago (when he was a youthful 97).

What would our lives have been without Macondo and would we have understood the textures of love without Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza? The death of Gabriel Garcia Marquez reminded us that the joys of Latin American literature would have been lost to us, had we not stumbled upon One Hundred Years of Solitude many years ago. They say a good book takes us to places we never knew existed, and nowhere is this more evident than in Gabo’s writing.

And finally the remarkable Maya Angelou, one of the finest writers of the century who reminded the world that an indomitable will and a gentle smile can beat even the crappiest of cards in the game of life. Her words – both in verse and prose – are a fount of emotions, but it was her incredible life –  as a writer, dancer, singer, prostitute, polyglot, activist and so much more – that provided inspiration to millions all over the world. If you haven’t read I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, you must add it to #ReadWomen2014.

Publishing in India

The world of books in India continues to confound us. One the one hand, the same set of 10 self help books and 5 “pop fiction” tales (of mythology, love stories and 2 states) make it to the bestseller list, year after tiresome year. On the other, Indians seem to be embracing alternative genres – most particularly comics and graphic novels – as evidenced in the enormous turnout at the 2014 Comic Con held in Delhi earlier this year (the festival will be visiting Bangalore and Hyderabad in September/October).

The most exciting news of the year was our very own Tara Books winning in the Children’s & Young Adult category at the prestiguous London Book Festival. Regular readers will know that we at MBRB are huge fans of Tara and their authors so we are justifiably proud of the honour.

The low point of the year was Penguin India’s decision to pulp Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History in order to placate fundamentalists who could not stomach a deviation from their idea of Hinduism. This was followed by an attack on Kerala’s largest publishing house for releasing a book critical of a Hindu spiritual leader.

Since the banning of The Satanic Verses in 1988, India has been treading a dangerous course of censorship and protests by myriad sections of society – who profess “hurt religious sentiments” at anything that does not conform to their narrow beliefs, often times without even bothering to read the “controversial” work. As writer and commentator Nilanjana Roy reminds us in her history of banned books in India:

The practice of banning books was once an expression of British paternalism towards their Indian subjects: erotica was supposed to be harmful for the natives, as were books that discussed the possibility of independent rule for Indians. Perhaps we have reached a point of maturity where we can debate, not ban, books we disagree with.


Earlier this year #ReadWomen2014 took over twitterati and the literati,  with many vowing to read only women authors for the entire year. To some extent this movement arose as a reaction to how male and female writers are treated by the established publishing industry. In 2012, only 22% of the books reviewed by the New York Review Of Books were written by womenwhile the corresponding number for the Times Literary Supplement was an equally abysmal 25%.

In our opinion, the entire shindig will only be considered a true success if it inspires you to pick up a book by a woman that you wouldn’t read otherwise. Chances are that you would read Americanah or the Goldfinch irrespective of the gender of the writer given how many awards they’ve won, but why not read one of these three books this year that may otherwise have escaped your attention?

  • Penelope Fitzgerald – The Blue Flower: A thin volume about the idealism and philosophy, Fitzgerald- when writing about the philosopher Novalis- accomplishes the rare feat of convincingly voicing another gender. While the book was released in 1991, it has become fashionable among the literary circles only in the last couple of years.
  • -Camilla Lackberg – The Ice PrincessA lot of the praise for Scandinavian meat-and-potato murder mysteries has gone to male writers such as Stieg Larsson, Jo Nesbo or Henning Mankell. While Camilla doesn’t write as beautifully as Mankell, she also doesn’t make you as uncomfortable with her gender politics as Larsson, and more than makes up in a propulsive plot and a sweet central relationship between writer Erika and detective Patrick Hedstrom
  • Abha Dawesar- Babyji: A frank and unflinching look at the Capital’s misogyny told from the point of view of a precocious sixteen year old book exploring her sexuality. Not always a comfortable read, but essential nonetheless
We Need Diverse Books

Again, this is a lesson that we wish didn’t need to be imposed on the populace by a Twitter meme. So many of the lists of the ‘classics’ are over stuffed with typically white, male, middle-aged writers- with a token Ivy/Oxbridge educated Asian/African added for variety. While the meme itself talked about children’s literature (just ask any three year old girl around you, chances are she will associate “white” with “pretty”), as adults we are guilty of the same myopic reading habits. It is our uncomfortable understanding of race that forces studios to “whitewash” Katniss, depriving millions of young children of a heroine they could have looked like!

And while it is easy to feel sanctimonious with our deep shelves of Indian reading (clearly more ‘diverse’ than the Chicago school!) one laments the absence of a significant voice from the North East, or even from outside theDelhi/Mumbai literary circles where everyone knows everyone and writes 140 word reviews for the other with a smile.

So a  good place to start “diversifying” your reading list would be to start with voices from outside the metros, with books about places that don’t always get talked about. That would be writers ranging from Basharat Peer to Aruni Kashyap, Meena Kandasamy & Sudeep Chakravarti, as also vernacular writers now available in translation, ranging from the sublime Nirmal Verma to the incendiary Perumal Murugan.

I Hear The Movie’s Pretty Great!

With Two States, Chetan Bhagat is now three for three in successful movie to book adaptations (well, three for four if you remember THIS ‘directed’ by Atul Agnihotri mess). And while one may argue that of the three movies one was a terrible Dharma Production, and the other two significantly altered the written word to make them more palatable, the man clearly has the Midas Touch when it comes to Bollywoodisations!

Looking for fresh inspiration, an entire breed of young Indian directors are wearing their literary references and bookish inspirations on their sleeves. Abhishek Kapoor is now directing Fitoor- an adaptation of Great Expectations with exactly the Havisham we’d want, Dibakar Banerjee is busy putting finishing touches to his reading of Byomkesh Bakshi, and Vishal Bharadwaj is dipping his pen in the great Shakespearean Inkwell yet again with his Hamlet-inspired Haider. There are also talks of a “trilogy” based on the “Immortals of Meluah” (we confess to giving up after about fifteen pages or so)

Speaking of Shakespeare, just the last year saw three different versions of Romeo and Juliet of varying quality (only one of which had Ranveer Singh), taking the total count up to bazillion.

Here are a couple of other Book to Bollywood adaptations we cannot wait for!

  • A Suitable Boy: Make it happen someone! Two parts, three hours each should do it. And while we live in fear of Sonam Kapoor playing Lata,  even that won’t keep us away from an adaptation of the most cinematic of all Indian novels.
  • The Time Traveller’s Wife: The Hollywood version of this romantic weepie didn’t work because the team couldn’t embrace the inherent melodrama in the story of a man who travels back and forth in time while his “love” grows old conventionally. They really struggled with the scenes in which the grown up hero travelled back to the 12 year old heroine to convince her that they would one day be married and in love. But that shouldn’t be a problem for any of our Bollywood superstars who are in the habit of romancing women twenty years younger than them anyway!

My Big Red Bag brings original content inspired by life’s joys and passions. Check out other articles from our Midsummer Madness Issue, and stay tuned to our latest content by following us on Twitter and FB. See you on the other side!

Image courtesy: tea-daze via Compfight cc 

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