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Flowers in the flood

SHREEKUMAR VARMA, December 27, 2015

Best of 2015

It’s extremely tempting to not limit our list to 2015 releases alone, but include other books as well that I read this year. I hereby succumb to temptation.

Mid-year I reviewed 2014 Nobel Prize winner Patrick Modiano’s books The Night Watch and Ring Roads in these pages. I wrote then: “He works like an illusionist only to bring you an abstract truth, to give you the essence of time, character.” He was essential reading this year, showing how a writer’s simplicity can later get complicated in your mind; the unravelling is your education.

Marlon James’s A Brief History Of Seven Killings, which won this year’s Booker, tells of the attempted assassination of singer Bob Marley two days before a concert. The dark, bloody world he writes about is Jamaica in the 70s, with CIA, guns, gang warfare and local politics. The novel is a step removed from history, with made-up names and real events. The Guardian, after praising the book, adds that it is “slightly more impressive for its ambition than its accomplishment”.

If Brief History wasn’t so brief, and was filled with a chaotic babel of voices, Jonathan Franzen’s new novel Purity is also a tableau of pieces and viewpoints. The eponymous heroine, unhappy with the name her mother wounded her with, calls herself Pip. And that isn’t its only Dickensian quality. Franzen is a brilliantly inventive writer who works out a thrilling ride through timescapes and relationships. Definitely worth a read, especially for its quirky insights and deeply felt structure.

Wait, it’s been a Salman Rushdie year too, with his latest Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights. And he’s as fabulous as ever — with his Peristan, separated and sealed from our world, and heroine Duniya whose many unique descendants are the fruits of her relationship with rationalist Rushd, who has this ideological run-in with, hold your breath, the Ghazali of Iran. It’s the thousand and one tales all over again, Rushdie’s own brush with death as a fearless storyteller looming large, his love for Bombay enmeshed in Geronimo the gardener. A profusion of characters and stories consume and display Rushdie’s dazzling procession of concepts, wit and conceits.

Every once in a while a legend resurrects to grant us a much-awaited boon, classic writer with a new book. In most cases, they disappoint; expectations are huge and varied, and certainly in the case of sequels, readers fiercely possess favourite characters and their prospects. This year, it’s Harper Lee with her Go Set A Watchman. Interesting thing is, though its events happen after the characters of her iconic To Kill a Mockingbird have grown up, it was written before that book, so it isn’t a sequel. It’s an odd situation that we should consider before reading the book. Those who grew up loving Atticus and Scott will be disappointed, to say the least. But then, this book was the real precursor.

For a different experience, there’s Elena Ferrante’s The Story Of The Lost Child, last of her Neapolitan quartet translated from the Italian. This reclusive, pseudonymous writer has a faithful fan following.

And Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies. This is a hide-and-seek marriage rather like Gone Girl with its contrasting voices, mysteries and bodies that turn up. You might well enjoy her “messier, sharper fiction” (in the words of a character).

Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar has short stories this time, after the Rupi Baskey success. In The Adivasi Will Not Dance, he’s able to say more about Jharkhand and Santhals than he did with the novel. Shekhar’s advantage is the ability to present the roughest emotion in graceful language, to show the slime beneath still, almost dead, waters. In the final story that gives the book its name, the land is stained black with coal, and the refusal to dance before the president becomes a definitive statement.

Another book I’ll definitely recommend is The Heat and Dust Project: The Broke Couple’s Guide to Bharat. Its easy, tongue-in-cheek style adds much to the descriptions of an amazing journey through the country on a budget of Rs 500 a day. Devapriya Roy and Saurav Jha take us to places we’d probably never go, concluding: “This is what the land teaches you, after all: you must let go, you must not let go.” Almost making us pack our bags to go.

With no power, phone signals or places to go during the recent Madras flood, reading was an option. When there was light, I read a book. When light failed, I lit a candle, and later, my Kindle. Anuradha Roy’s Sleeping On Jupiter kept me going through the night with its sharp prose and vivid descriptions. It began with brilliant promise, but left a rather chaotic final impression.

A voice I discovered seven years ago while shortlisting entries for a workshop with Paul Theroux came up again. The story I’d read then is one of several stories in the book, Sleeping With Movie Stars. At the workshop, I told the author Gitanjali Kolanad, a Bharatnatyam and Kalaripayattu exponent, how her story had impressed me. Her remaining stories (read by candle-light) retain that spirit with their stark style and sensuousness reminiscent of a Kamala Das. Though the book is four years old, it seems to belong to this year.

As you reach out in floodwaters for these swift-flowing flowers, you pick up but a few; the rest remain for whoever’s looking.

 

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