Picks of December

Last Updated: Fri, Nov 30, 2012 20:50 hrs

Author: William Dalrymple
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Dalrymple’s unabashedly popular history of Afghanistan has a memorable cast of characters, offers a shrewd and swift summary of the blood feuds that marked its history, and draws on the autobiography of Shah Shuja to retell the stark story of the First Afghan War. Along with the political gossip, Dalrymple’s narrative is peppered with a running commentary on ways to despatch your enemies — invite them to a meal and blow them up with gunpowder, cut off a ear, a hand, the nose and assorted bits and bobs, throw them in dungeons and forget about them. Kipling had it quite right: “When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,/ And the women come out to cut up what remains,/ Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains/ An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.”

Saba Naqvi
Publisher: Rainlight/Rupa
In Good Faith begins with an examination of a village of patuas, painters of scrolls, who identify as both Hindu and Muslim. Their story will come together with many other stories of faith — from Sufi shrines becoming temples, to the televangelists who have taken over from Brahmin priests — that make a far more complex portrait of India’s often-invoked syncretic traditions of faith. Naqvi, an accomplished journalist, chooses broad strokes to make her point. Though a more detailed and deeply considered analysis would have been welcome, Naqvi’s openness to experience and her curiosity are infectious. This book is an illuminating reminder that the Indian view of faith is a broad river.

Author: Alice Munro
Publisher: Knopf
“When you live in a small town you hear more things, about all sorts of people,” Alice Munro said in an interview to Paris Review once. “In a city you mainly hear stories about your own sort of people.” Almost all of Munro’s short story collections contain many worlds; and reading Munro’s stories is often like catching up with people you imagine you have always known, except for the small inconvenience that they are fictional. Dear Life, which includes 14 stories, some of them close to auto-biographical, is a reminder that she may be the greatest living writer of our time.

Author: Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Publisher: Random House
Taleb’s black swan theory — major events that come as a surprise will be rationalised, often inaccurately, in hindsight — is perhaps one of the most influential ideas of the last decade. Antifragile has an interesting premise: fragile people avoid disorder and disruption, robust people handle both with elan, the antifragile thrive on disorder and unsettling change. This is a difficult read — following Taleb’s ideas spark from one synapse to another as he rockets back and forth in time — but worth it if you can keep up. If there was such a category as self-help for really intelligent people with very short attention spans, this would be its Ur-text. Get used to the unpredictability and shifting nature of the world, says Buddhism; embrace the volatility of the world and find a way to use unpredictability, says Taleb.

Author: Rupa Subramanya, Vivek Dehejia
Publisher: Random House

Unlike most of the Big Indian Books, which should all be subtitled “In Which The Author Explains India To You Very Carefully And Slowly”, Indianomix scores by taking a completely different approach — using the authors’ curiosity and their interest in economic behaviour to examine Indian life. They start with Indian Standard Time, move on to altruism and auto-rickshaws, and ask serious questions about whether eclipses actually affect the markets. There’s plenty of desi-style Freakonomics here, and this book promises to be as entertaining as their journalism and other writings.

Author: Vaibhav Purandare
Publisher: Roli
Vaibhav Purandare, a Bombay-based journalist, didn’t time his biography of Bal Thackeray to coincide with the death of the man who used fear to rule Bombay, but he and Roli will probably have a bestseller on their hands. Purandare wrote a history of the Shiv Sena, The Sena Story, that came out four years after the terrible Bombay riots of 1993, and observed that the party’s attacks on non-Maharashtrians were born out of the belief that the inclusive approach was not working, and that more drastic measures were needed. Expect competent reporting and some Thackeray Lite gossip, such as his fondness for the number 13.

Author: Kevin Powers
Publisher: Little, Brown
From the first sentence onwards, Powers establishes that The Yellow Birds will be stacked alongside The Thin Red Line, The Things They Carried and other war classics. Powers did a stint as a machine-gunner in Iraq, and The Yellow Birds follows Pvt John Bartle’s stumbling progress through the seven circles of hell known as a tour of duty. “The war tried to kill us in the spring,” The Yellow Birds begins, an iconic first line from an iconic first novel.

Author: Amruta Patil
Publisher: HarperCollins
The epic chose her, not the other way around, graphic artist Amruta Patil said in an interview. Adi Parva is one of the most intelligent retellings of the Mahabharata, undertaken by an artist and writer who has spent almost a decade with that great myth. The graphic form allows Patil to go with some depth into the many layers behind the Mahabharata, and to offer her own interpretation.

Author: Sandipan Deb
Publisher: Pan Macmillan
Many of the recent, bestselling riffs on Indian mythologicals have been disappointingly shallow, reducing them to little more than action sequences with improbably costumed actors. Deb’s The Last War, in complete contrast, fuses the Bombay underworld with the epic. If Francis Ford Coppola had directed The Mahabharata, this is what you’d get.

Author: Naman Ramachandran
Publisher: Viking
For a brief while, Rajinikanth’s face graced Tohato garam masala chips in Japan, and it is said that he also had many fans in Germany, where one of his Malayalam films was released as Der Geisterjager. My only encounter with the superstar was at a safe distance: I passed through his legs on a trip to Chennai, and the driver stopped to take a picture of our cars travelling through that giant Rajinikanth cutout. Naman Ramachandran’s biography promises to unveil the softer side of the icon: Rajinikanth uses his farmhouse as a spiritual retreat and tips cabbies generously, for instance. Along with the rags to riches story, we hope he’ll include a few Rajinikanth jokes. Which other superstar has counted to infinity, twice?

(“Picks of...” provides a selection of books to look out for in the coming month and appears on the last week of each month)

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