As the year draws to a close it is again time to cud-chew on the year gone by in terms of books. The year started badly, laid low with back issues, health issues for the parent, and the passing of a dear uncle. There were days when I tried to eat breakfast and found it difficult to process any taste and only the lime pickle sent out its pulippu. But the books were there. I remember working through Merlin Sheldrake’s “Enchanted Life” about fungi and their beautiful world and not being able to make sense of it. The words were words, but they refused to coalesce into meaningful sentences. The worst days were spent reading Anuradha Roy’s “An atlas of impossible longings”. It took a long time to finish, and the book is now permanently associated with some of the hardest days I’ve endured in years.
As things slowly picked up, with lots of gratitude to friends and family, the reading picked up, but it stayed difficult. The days plodded along with work as a source of distraction. They were days lived one weekend at a time, slowly pulling my horizons closer again.
During this time Shubhangi Swarup’s “Latitudes of Longing” was a welcome reread. Higashino and McCall-Smith were the go-to authors to get through the days. It was only in April I ventured back to serious reading with M Rajshekar’s “Despite the State” which looks at the dysfunction across the country in the way administrations are run.
Neha Sinha’s “Wild and Wilful” followed despite my worries about another depressing read. I was surprised to find it very matter-of-fact about 12 different species, how they are faring and what can be done. If anything, it was a call for empathy, rather than trying to pull out the tears.
The year picked up slowly at the personal level, but April and May were also the worst months in terms of the pandemic second wave, and it brought along a lot of fear of how things were going. The only hope was that I had gotten both the parents vaccinated.
I was good enough to revisit Jerry Pinto’s “Em and the Big Hoom”, and Marie Elisabeth Herberstein’s “Spider Behavior” was an interesting intro to how spiders work. It was fascinating to go into detail about creatures that I’ve only been looking at from the taxonomic perspective – see spider, take pics, find out name, that was it.
I had put off reading Robin Wall Kimmerer’s “Braiding Sweetgrass” and finally got around it. The only thing I regretted was finishing it. It was a beautiful look into living a slow life, co-existing with plants and trees, and foraging. A life lived in gratitude with nature knowing what all it provides.
For the next re-read I picked up Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude”. I read this at a particularly stressful time at work and it helped a lot.
As I quit my job, I picked up Barry Lopez’s “Horizons”, a book with a large sweep, looking at his travels and his experiences from different parts of the world. Reading Barry is about slowing down, trying to process every sentence and letting it sink in. He doesn’t make it easy, raising important questions about life, how to live, what is important, where we are, and where do we go from here. The biggest challenge of our lives would be to find meaning, when it is easier and enticing to consume and fill our lives with stuff instead. I hope to read more of him, but given the small number of books he’s written, I might have to keep revisiting him often.
“Charlotte’s Web” by EB White was a favourite this year. So much of our reading as kids, at least us kids of the 80s, we owe to Enid Blyton and Amar Chitra Katha that I do envy the kids growing up later, who had more access to authors like White, Seuss or Dahl. It is such a travesty that many grow up with Chota Bheem instead.
I renewed my acquaintance with the IIWC(Indian Institute of Wold Culture) library now that I have more time in my hands. Probably the biggest draw would be the Dosés, vadés and kharabhaths of Basavanagudi. I started the library borrowings with K.R. Meera’s Hangwoman, one of the best books of the year. A woman in charge of hanging and the world going crazy about it around her. And then there’s the history of executioners, a family stretching back to the 3rd century BC as they claim. An execution is supposed to be about the executed and the one who orders it. Meera turns the eye towards the hangman/hangwoman and tells their story, and that of the world from their perspective.
Speaking of perspective, David Graeber and David Waingrow’s “The dawn of everything” turned out to be an excellent book on human history. It is largely a critique on existing study of pre-history, and takes a lot of fun lampooning the Hararis, the Diamonds and the Pinkers (I loved that part). Most of the history we study as students is a chronological parade of kings and their dynasties. We barely look below them to see the people who lived under their rules and how they lived, how they chose. Graeber/Waingrow turn our eyes towards the common folks and show how they had a conscious choice in who ruled them, and what kind of rule they wanted to live under. A lot of this freedom was to do with being able to turn their backs and move away if they didn’t like a particular rule/way of life. That freedom has been lost to us. Hate Modi? Where can you go unless you are privileged enough to get a one-way visa to, say, New Zealand?
John Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charley” is an excellent travelogue of Steinbeck doing a trip around the US with his dog. It was interesting to read about a country on the verge of polarisation with the stage set for the most acrimonious election of that time – Kennedy vs Nixon. So much of what we see now around the world can be traced back to those years.
As the year draws to a close, I hope to finish with Hilary Mantel’s “Bring up the bodies”. “Wolf Hall” left the Tudors and Cromwell at an interesting juncture. Can’t wait to plow ahead.
And that’s it. Another year gone, another set of books done. Unlike a binge-watch on Netflix, which leaves you with a void wondering what next, with books there is always an assembly line and more authors waiting to be read. Sachin has put Wendell Berry on my radar, and sounds like this might be my next big author discovery. A short story collection by Ambai has made me want to check out more of her work. Isabel Wilkerson’s “Caste” is sitting on my bookshelf staring down at me.
A new year, and a new set of books beckons!