Happy New Year!
Following up on my mid year list last year, here is my full list for the Top 10 Books for 2022. I made a conscious effort to read more books about India. To both get better educated and get a change of scenery in 2022, I sought out such books - both about contemporary events and about those from centuries ago - rather than rely on my usual sources of the NYT or Bill Gates or other best seller lists. As a result, all but one of the recommendations are from books that are related to India though I absolutely had to squeeze in one fantastic book that is not.
Ninety Days by Anirudhya Mitra
On a summer evening in 1991, in a small town in southern India, the former prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi was at a political rally for the upcoming national election. It was one of many stops in this campaign but this one in Sriperumbudur, Tamil Nadu, was to be the last one of his life. Late that night, a young woman in the crowd gathered to receive him bent down to pay her respects to the ex-PM as he walked towards the stage to give his stump speech. She was a suicide bomber from the separatist LTTE movement in Sri Lanka who detonated a bomb she had strapped onto her waist. The ensuing explosion blew herself and Rajiv Gandhi to pieces and killed both of them and over a dozen other bystanders. The assassination shocked the nation especially because Rajiv's mother Indira Gandhi had also been assassinated just 7 years ago. Press and other photos of the event gave the police early clues and pointed to suspects and a Special Investigation Team or SIT was formed to track down the mastermind of the operation - a one-eyed LTTE operative called Sivarasan. Over the next 90 days the SIT pulled out all stops and finally tracked Sivarasan down to a hideout in Bangalore. Similarly various newspapers and magazines in the media pulled out all the stops to be the ones to get the scoop - the author Anirudhya Mitra of India Today being one of those rushed down to Madras (since renamed Chennai). This book is a detailed account of the key people and decisions - and turf battles and politics and bureaucracy - that led to that final denoument. I was in college when the assassination took place and still have memories of following the newspapers for updates on the hunt and this book was a good way to gain a deeper understanding of all the dynamics at play during that manhunt. It's a first person account though for some reason the author refers to himself in the third person which was a bit confusing!
1991 by Sanjaya Baru
1991 will go down as one of the most consequential years of modern India. In 1989 the Soviet Union collapsed removing one long-term supporter of post-Independence India. Saddam Hussein's 1990 invasion of Kuwait resulted in the first Gulf War and led to oil prices skyrocketing. India's economy, which was already in some trouble, was very badly affected as it had to come up with increasing amounts of foreign reserves just to keep the country moving. Some months later, in May of 1991, former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was assasinated just as he was wrapping up a campaign and a month later his party, the Congress, was swept to power in a sympathy wave. The country was within weeks of defaulting on its sovereign debt. To many it looked like the experiment called Independent India had run its course. The Congress party then installed the recently retired P V Narasimha Rao as the Prime Minister in the midst of an economic crisis of historic proportions. Both the IMF and the World Bank suspended aid. Within days of taking office, in a last ditch effort to avoid defaulting on foreign loans, Narasimha Rao did not just pledge India's gold reserves as collateral to get a loan but followed up by ushering in economic changes that have resulted in India not just avoiding default on its foreign debt back then but also in revitalising the country's economy, increasing its GDP and becoming ever more integrated into the global economy. In fact a lot of the economic success story that is the India of today (not discounting the many real and continuing challenges) can be understood as having started in that seminal year. The book is a must read for anyone who wants to understand the huge inflection point that 1991 was for India.
The Siege by Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy
On Nov 26th 2008, just ten terrorists landed off the coast of Mumbai in rafts. They came from Pakistan where they were trained in terrorist camps. They were all young - most in their early 20s - and over the next 68 hours caused murder and mayhem on a scale that held the entire world's attention. Their targets were chosen ahead of time and meant to inflict the maximum number of deaths. Just 10 of these terrorists managed to attack 8 different places, most promimently the Taj Hotel which was almost completely burnt down by the time nine of the ten terrorists were killed. The news media broadcast the terrorist attack in real-time that then helped the handlers of the terrorists continue to direct the attack. In this book, the authors do a blow by blow, nearly hour by hour account of that attack and focus on the police, the government, the media and people - inside and outside the attack locations. They talk about both how many ordinary people acted selflessly as heroes risking their own lives to save others even as the machinery of government only slowly sputtered to life with red-tape getting in the way almost from the very start with the usual jurisdictional frictions leading to very delayed reactions. This incident also led to several resignations most notable among them being that of Union Home Minister, Shivraj Patil. Have the powers-that-be have learned their lessons across a variety of vectors so that in the future, when such attacks will unfortunately (even inevitably) happen, the country is better prepared to defend itself? Unfortunately, the authors don't sound very hopeful.
The Man Who Saved India by Hindol Sengupta
The best-known duo, especially outside of India, of the leading freedom fighters against the British are Mahatma Gandhi and his protege, the future first prime minister of the nation, Jawaharlal Nehru. A much-less known but equally influential and impactful leader of that era was Vallabhbhai Patel - better known as Sardar (or leader) Patel. This book is an attempt to be the authoritative biography of the man. Most of post-independence India in terms of national holidays or whose picture gets displayed in government buildings or whose face is on the country's currency has been dominated by Gandhi and Nehru. Most other heroes have had to take a bit of a back seat. Unfortunately this has also led to modern day narratives criticizing and almost villainizing these two if only to make room for other prominent heroes. India is a large enough country and a big enough stage for many to find space. With that mindset this book does a very thorough job of telling Sardar Patel's story from childhood through to the time he rose to be the quietest of the triumvarate who spearheaded the freedom struggle. Sengupta talks about how Gandhi repeatedly chose Nehru over Patel and how in every instance Patel stood down and put country above personal ambition. And in fact one of Sardar Patel's biggest contributions might have actually come after independence when he, with another mostly forgotten civil servant called V.P. Menon integrated the various princely states and territories that made up the country after the British left into what is today modern India. This is a well-researched book with a lot of reference material.
The Great Game by Peter Hopkirk
This is a book that I had long heard of and meant to read but finally got to only in 2022. The "Great Game" is a phrase derived from Rudyard Kipling's book Kim and is used to refer to the almost hundred-year long period of contest between the imperial powers of the age - Britan and Russia. Britian sought to restrict, limit, and contest Russian influence all over central Asia and most importantly further east into India. It's a long book and it suffers from the romanticization of imperialism. There is a lot of explanation of what the British or the Russians wanted out of each move - there is absolutely no acknowledgement for instance of what the central Asians or for that matter what the people of India wanted. It has the usual, unfortunate double standards of treating empires fighting wars in distant lands and killing countless people without comment. However the execution of British soliders gets a lot of ink. Having said that, the author does his best to contextualize the struggles of most of the 19th century in the area. Not as dozens of separate and disconnected conflicts but as moves on a giant chessboard as the two nations played this 'game' for global influence. Britian sought to use Afghanistan as a mere pawn, as a buffer state to protect India's western frontier from Russia. This story is useful background to understand the failed attempts of many empires to establish influence in Afghanistan - the British in the 1800s, the Russians in the late 1900s, and most recently the United States post 9/11. And it also offers up the historical reasons for the establishment of many different 'stans' of the former Soviet Union in Central Asia.
Nine Lives by William Dalrymple
William Dalrymple is a Scottish writer who currently lives in India. Many of his books are historical and frequently deal with the East India Company or the British of the era. He has established a reputation as an expert on the East India Company. His books feature stories that revolve around kings and queens, princes and princesses, nawabs and viceroys and governors general. In this book however, he writes about 9 contemporary and ordinary people. He follows people as varied as a buddhist monk, a temple devadasi, a prison warden who doubles up a folk dancer in one particular season, and an idol maker who is the latest in a long line of hereditary idol makers stretching back hundreds upon hundreds of years. The prose is top notch and he has a good travel writer's eye for the relevant highlights. Plus the 9 stories are entirely independent of one another and can be read in any order. This is also the chance for me to plug his podcast "Empire" which he co-hosts with another author, Anita Anand, and is one of the best podcasts I've listened to.
The Anarchy by William Dalrymple
In this 550 page tome, Dalrymple details how the East India Company spread colonialism to India and beyond from the shores of Britian. As with many things, the beginnings of the East India Company are modest but in relatively short order the company took over entire countries and subcontinents until a point where this private company with merely several dozen employees in a non-descript office in London controlled land masses that were orders of magnitudes larger than Britain itself. Not to speak of the hundreds of millions of people who were exploited to the hilt for the enrichment of Britian and its people. So many investors in the EIC became so rich that they essentially 'bought' their seats in the UK Parliament and then of course continued to vote and legislate in favor and protection of the EIC. When you read today about the enormous power that companies like Amazon or Google or Facebook exercise this book provides the perspective that the power of all of these companies combined is not in the same league when compared to the East India Company of 200 years ago. For perhaps the first time, I understood what the phrase 'rabid capitalism' meant.
Daughters of the Sun by Ira Mukhoty
The Mughal Empire featured prominently in my school history and emperors such as Akbar or Shahjahan or Aurangzeb were names my classmates and I became quite familiar with. Almost nothing was taught and far little is known of their mothers, wives, and sisters who often exercised enormous control and influence even if they never occupied the throne in the male dominated era. Mukhoty takes us behind the proverbial - and real - curtain into the their world, the zenana, the inner quarters where the royal women of the Mughal empire and their servants lived. Mukhoty pushes back against the narrative of zenanas as harems where women were sequestered, imprisoned even, entirely for the licentious activites of men. While there is likely a lot truth to the idea that these women weren't really free by any modern standards, she highlights the fact that some of the more powerful royal women were very rich, richer often than some of the smaller kingdoms that swore loyalty to the emperor. Some had thriving armies and managed trade with the middle east. Others sponsored art and civic projects. Some were the family historians and others wrote religious treatises. Jahanara, who was the oldest daughter of Shahjahan, sponsored the building of a shopping complex called Chandni Chowk which still bustles today in Delhi, some 4 centuries later. A fascinating book and a good read especially during Women's History Month.
The Courtesan, the Mahatma, and the Italian Brahmin by Manu S. Pillai
Manu Pillai is a young historian and wrote this book - his second - before he turned 30! This is a collection of short essays, each no more than 5 pages, that goes into amazing vignettes of Indian history. It's broken up into two halves - the first featuring essays from before the British colonial era in India and the other in the age of the British Raj. Pillai writes really well about fascinating people that I had either never heard of before or knew little about other than their names. For instance Dara Shukoh, the eldest son of Shahjahan and heir to the mughal empire who turns out to be more of a poet than a warrior who has the great misfortune of being Aurangazeb's brother. Or how the story of Shakuntala has evolved from the original mythological version in the Mahabharatha in which she is more brave and strong to the (relatively!) more modern 4th/5th century CE heroine of Kalidasa's epic poem by which time she is bashful and devoted to her husband. Or of Chidambaram Pillai who would have become a shipping tycoon were it not for the systematic destruction of Indian shipping by colonialism. Yes, there are in fact essays about a courtesan, Mahatma Gandhi and an Italian 'brahmin' too! There is a slight amount of editorializing in the essays but it doesn't get in the way of the stories themselves. This book certainly did not need the somewhat clickbait-y title - it is fantastic all by itself.
An Immense World by Ed Yong
My second Ed Yong book, this did not disappoint! Yong is a science journalist and in this book, looks at the natural world through the concept of Umwelt which translated from German means environment - and not just the physical environment but the entire sensory environment. Since each species has a completely different set of senses and very different ranges for what that sense might work within, each species' perception of the same physical space can be dramatically different! Each species lives within its own sensory bubble and has no idea whatsover what the experience of living in another sensory bubble might be. Yong coaxes and nudges the - human - reader to look past the extremely limited range of human senses and ranges and exposes an astounding world teeming and bursting with signals and stimuli that help each living thing - plant and animal - make sense of and thrive in its own umwelt. Turtles for example can sense earth's magnetic field and navigate with its aid. Some electric fish create a 3D model of their surroundings using electric fields. Dolphins can use echolocation to do the same thing and Yong tells of meeting a man who was blinded at a young age who learns to develop this entirely new sense that lets him figure out walls from fences, houses from cars and so on. This is an absolutely must-read if you're even mildly curious about the natural world and Yong does a exceedingly good job of exposing the multi-dimensional wonders of nature and of the lives that inhabit it.