(This appeared as my column in BLInk in September)
September as I write this: Booker month and hurricanes. It's always
feels a bit like a month of farewells, and poets felt the same way as
I do (read, for instance, Wilfrid Owen's Elegy In April And
September), there's a whole rash of poetry about the end of
summer and the beginning of fall for the Western world, and for us,
the upcoming festive season, just around the corner. But I feel time
marching on just about now, the Great Hot is nearly over and party
season is starting in Delhi, but, as always, I'd rather be home with
a good book. This column's inadvertent theme is history—what has
happened and what might have happened --- which I suppose is only
appropriate for such a ruminating sort of month.
cooler: Though it is, as I've mentioned, Booker month, when
longlists are analysed, people place bets and novels are celebrated,
there was another book that created a more underground buzz this
month. A hardback children's book called Excavating History: India
Through Archaeology by Devika
Cariapa. It's not often that a children's book gets taken seriously,
but this one deserves all the attention it has been getting.
Excavating History is
a history of India, but a scientific and comprehensive volume, using
archaeological finds to do a quick run down of what's been going on
the subcontinent from the Stone Age downwards. I don't mind admitting
that I learned a lot of things, and added several new sites to my
future travel list. With fun illustrations to appeal to kids and
dense enough for the amateur historian adult, I'm recommending it to
everyone with even a slight interest in what happened before the
stories began. Excavating History: India Through
Archaeology by Devika Cariapa, Tulika Publishers, Rs 625.
Every day on my news
feed there's more about the Rohingya refugees. It's all terrible news
and very sad to watch, and it does make one curious about Myanmar.
Look no further than Amy Tan's Saving Fish From Drowning,
an excellent immersive novel that works both as a fable as well as a
critique of Myanmar's political situation. You may know Tan from her
books about Chinese American mothers and daughters (The Joy
Luck Club, The Kitchen God's Wife)
and this book has nothing in common with those, but shows off Tan's
chops in writing about a politically fraught situation with gentle
humour as well as insight. In the book, twelve American tourists are
travelling to Myanmar, on a trip organised by their friend Bibi Chen,
who has since died. Bibi is the omniscient narrator, haunting the
whole trip with her beyond-the-grave observations and watching as the
travellers get themselves into predicaments she could have saved them
from. There's also a kidnapping staged by a tribe who feel like they
have been forgotten and sidelined by the current political regime,
but frankly, I felt that plotline stood second to the glorious
travelogues and descriptions of this country that litter the book.
Read it, if only to understand what Burma has been up to all these
years. Saving Fish From Drowning by Amy Tan, Harper
Perennial, Rs 187.
recent than Excavating India
and also much less scientific is Raj
by Gita Mehta. The book is an elegy to the lost royal kingdoms of
India, the struggles those landed people had with their subjects
asking for their own rights and so on, how terrible the British were,
and how they were stuck between a rock and a hard place with the
nationalists on one side and the Brits on the other. Despite the
eye-rolling at all the privileged royalty of India crying about no
longer being royal, this book was the first time I ever felt a slight
twinge of sympathy for them. The heroine is a passive woman tossed
about by fate, forever needing a man to sort things out for her, and
yet, and yet, I think you should read it. Raj
is meticulously researched, a thrilling fly on the wall view into the
zenanas and India's erstwhile royal families, and how they had to
interact with Queen Victoria and how the more Indian ones resisted
adopting English ways, it's all very well told, even if you do feel
like giving the protagonist a good hard shake every now and then.
Raj by Gita Mehta, Penguin Random House, Rs 499.
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