Early this fall, left with no memory of what I had read during this year of disproportionate panic and disillusionment, I returned to Nadezhda Mandelstam’s 20th century masterpiece — Hope Against Hope (translated by Max Hayward). Under the Soviet regime in the 1930s, with Stalin’s persecution of the literary intelligentsia underway, Nadezhda and her husband, Osip Mandelstam, one of Russia’s greatest poets at the time, were amongst those who chose not to leave.
Soon enough their fates were brought under what she describes as “the same category marked down for absolute destruction” — where many “went to concentration camps or died, but some survived. Caution did not help. Only chance could save you.” Osip, arrested by the secret police, exiled, and later arrested again, eventually dies during the Great Purge of 1938. Nadezhda, who ensures his initial release and joins him exile, survives to preserve his manuscripts and legacy, to uncover the truth about his death, and to tell the story of it all.
Her memoir is written not so much in the key of despair as it is written like the passage towards that despair — an account of arriving at a place where there is no room left for anything other than the absence of hope. How does one get there? When, exactly, does one get there? What is declared beyond one’s reach and depth along the way? Art seems to be amongst one of the first things to go. Describing the end of the long May 1934 night on which the secret police had knocked on their door, “burst into [their] poor, hushed apartment as though raiding bandits’ lairs or secret laboratories”, and taken her husband and his papers, she writes: “God knows, at that moment nothing was further from our minds than literature.”
And so, what happens to those who stay back — to the writer, the artist, the person — in a place bereft of all meaning and filled with state terror? Out here, in Kashmir, the question is no longer distant or merely symbolic. It seems to become increasingly personal and urgent with the passing of each year. And although we haven’t arrived at our own answers so far, the book reads like an astonishing testament to how much there is yet to be lost.
Associate Professor of Anthropology
Ford Maxwell Professor of South Asian Studies
Decolonizing Extinction: The Work of Care in Orangutan Rehabilitation (2018) by Juno Salazar Parreñas
Decolonizing Extinction: The Work of Care in Orangutan Rehabilitation (2018) by Juno Salazar Parreñas is an excellent and provocative engagement with the idea of species extinction. The author claims that the idea of rehabilitation which is invested in prolonging life can end up reproducing gendered forms of bodily harm and violence. In particular, the book focuses on Orangutan rehabilitation in Malaysia to document the ways in which a colonial state violently undermines the autonomy of indigenous human populations in Sarawak as well as the region’s Orangutan populations.
Waste Siege: The Life of Infrastructure in Palestine (2019) by Sophia Stamatopoulou-Robbins is a rich and beautifully-written ethnography on how waste and its ubiquity shapes Palestinian subjectivities, everyday modes of governance and anticipatory state making under conditions of siege and non-sovereignty.
Ather Zia’s Resisting Disappearance in Kashmir (2019) uses powerful prose and poetry to weave the tale of Kashmiri men and women’s remarkable courage, resilience, struggle and agency in the face of extreme and prolonged terror inflicted by the Indian state. Enforced disappearances is India’s collective punishment for dissident Kashmiris who are denied their rights, lives, and existence. Indeed, by subverting justice, and erasing legal and juridical trails that could lead to the whereabouts of the disappeared, the Indian state snatches away people’s abilities to mourn or commemorate those who, she argues, continue to linger as sayas – a haunting presence in the lives of their loved ones, neither wholly alive nor fully dead.
I adored Azadi, Arundhati Roy’s collection of essays. The opening essay on language and thought is a masterclass; I’ve read it many times since the book arrived.
Lockdown slowed down everything, including reading and writing. I found a Seamus Heaney collection (New Selected Poems 1966 – 1987) hidden among books on a top shelf. It has some of the finest, breath-taking poems that Heaney wrote in those two decades. It felt like a gift from providence, a reminder that poetry can save minds and lives.
I recently bought the Holocaust graphic novel, Art Spiegelman’s Maus, for my eleven-year-old son. After he finished, I started browsing through it just to see how Spiegelman’s comic book dealt with one of the greatest atrocities in history and was immediately hooked.
I’ve just gone back to an unusual but completely engrossing book, The Good Story by JM Coetzee. It’s an exchange between a writer, Coetzee, and a psychotherapist, Arabella Kurtz, that examines in relentless detail the nature of story-telling and truth.
Alana Hunt’s Cups of nun chai is a special text, illuminating and disturbing in equal measure. It’s also a beautifully made book. Everybody should get a copy!
Scholar, Central Eurasian and Tibetan history
Founding VC, Islamic University of Science & Technology
My choice of two books was influenced by this thought. The first is a hundred and thirty-year-old book about the much coveted, thus troubled, territory of the Dogra State of J&K. It is a story of fluid frontier peoples becoming sealed state territories between Central and South Asia, tightly stitched to become artificial seam rather than synthesized identities and ideas. The second book is the more recent work of a sociologist who digs deep to lay bare the dangers of concupiscence in the marriage between technology and corporate lust to breed their offspring – the unadulterated consumer. It is a work that explained much to me about matters both global and local.
Where Three Empires Meet by E.F. Knight, 1895: Longmans, Green, and Company, London & New York. (528 pages)
<p”>My introduction to this oldie-but-goodie about “Kashmir, Western Tibet, Gilgit and adjoining countries” was from the 1895 edition of it in my late father’s small but eclectic and profound library. It holds the mirror to 19th century colonialism, an age when prejudices were seeded in travelogues and inherited in policy by select natives of newly independent mid-20th century South Asia.
My first reading of Three Empires was in the late 1970s.The government of India’s August 5, 2019 reminded me of the book and compelled me to re-read it this past July, soon after the PLA incursions in Ladakh. The book alerted me to the three constants of our political reality in Kashmir. How bigotry takes root deep enough to allow its use by very victims of bigotry; how strategy driven by naked power is the same in any age and how contemporary accounts best demonstrate history’s penchant for repeating itself.
Almost three decades ago, during a seminar at JNU, I remember a then-young nationalist Ladakhi quoting extensively from Three Empires to malign Kashmiris in the pattern of bigoted British travelers in the western Himalaya. It was my first exposure to native ‘demonizing’ native. Ironically, the turn-of-the-century modern Ladakhi seemed oblivious to the fact that the same book refers to the sacred, somber and sacred ballets of Ladakh’s monasteries as “devil dances”. E.F. Knight surmises that they catered to “an orgie (sic) of indecency and blasphemous caricature of all that these people are supposed to hold sacred”. The book, particularly in its first 250 pages, is filled with such “observations”. It provides much evidence of how chauvinism was seeded in natives to grow, flower and transmitted from the 19th century to the present. [A thought: there is enough food for reflection here to support a contributory MPhil study]
The second arena in which the book continues to be relevant is by offering insights on geopolitics. Why have the August 5, 2019 actions of the Government of India in the former state of J&K heralded the return of the importance of Gilgit, the very reason for which Three Empires was written; a travelogue in imperial interest, offering strategic analyses for the British empire at its peak in Central and South Asia. The “three empires” in the late 19th century were, of course, British India, Qing China and Tsarist Russia. Today, British India has been replaced by the United States; Qing China has been replaced by the People’s Republic of China with a resurgent modernist ambition; and Russia has emerged as a wannabe power with a Eurasian sensibility, after a Soviet phase with world power status. Meanwhile, South Asia interests and its population of two billion are represented today by a territorially acquisitive squabble between India, Pakistan, and, now, China also for a real estate brand created by the former Dogra State of J&K.
There is also much to be learned in this book about how history repeats itself. If you chew on this classic, you will find many anecdotes that have a modern relevance. To wit: a railway line into Kashmir was mooted, we learn, as early as in 1891; rumors of a politically powerful Hemis monastery betraying the Raja of Ladakh to help the Dogra invasion shows that collaboration in the interests of power is not a new phenomenon; and the Mir of Hunza’s threat to activate its thousand-year-old alliance with Beijing to counter the first British raids into Gilgit in the early 1890s offers a geopolitical reality that stares us in the face even today.
Three Empires provides us with front-row seat evidence to confirm the maxim that no matter how much things change, the more they are likely to remain the same. Savor it!
The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power by Shoshana Zuboff, 2019. Profile Books Ltd., London, U.K. (691 pages)
The breadth of inter-disciplinary labor, acuity of analysis and concision of expression make it impossible to do justice to Shoshana Zuboff’s extraordinary book in a short review. The work represents a description of the results of the dangerous dovetailing between political rhetoric, capitalist efficiency and compulsions of livelihood for the 99 percent. The exploitation of the interdependence between the first two, and the dependence of the latter on them, makes Surveillance Capitalism a message that we ignore at our own peril. It is not exactly bedtime reading, its far-reaching implications are guaranteed to keep you awake at night. It is a hefty tome, more than six hundred and fifty pages long, excluding the index and title folios. So this review is best served by some suggestions on how one ought to read the book.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that to capture the theoretical nub of Zuboff’s argument, a close and careful reading of her Introduction, which is all of twenty-two pages long, will be enough. But be forewarned, even this is dense (I had to read it three times to “get it”) and you will want to return to it even as you read the remaining seventeen chapters. Then, to understand the history of the growth of Surveillance Capitalism, read the next five hundred pages slowly, deliberately and with marginalia to help you remember key points. Once again, it is dense reading but if it is read closely it will provide you with a good understanding of the history of the phenomenon. However, steel yourself for the third part of the book; a hundred and sixty pages of Zuboff’s Conclusion, notes and references which reveal the depth of research and interdisciplinary connections the work deploys. Its implications are not for the faint-hearted, detailing as it does how technology can dominate us (remember the Science Fiction movies on artificial intelligence?) and command us into action without our even knowing it.
At the risk of oversimplification, the summations of Surveillance Capital’s benefits are as follows: (a) As a work of philosophy, it takes our analysis of technology to the next level by arguing that neither capital nor technological surveillance should make us skeptical. What we should fear, argues Zuboff, is the logic that suffuses technology and “inevitabilism”. It is as if B. F. Skinner, the radical behaviorist of Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971) fame, has collaborated with Jeff Bezos of Amazon (1994) to determine the future of the consumer by harvesting data, information and analyses, to create a commodity that is chillingly called “prediction products”. (b) In the language of commerce, the phenomenon seeks not just from information about us to determine our needs, but can automate us into wanting any product. To quote Zuboff, it is “a panvasive means of behavioral modification whose economies of action are designed to maximize surveillance revenues”. And(c) as a work of political science, Surveillance Capital is best summarized by Zuboff’s distinction between “totalitarian” power (á la Orwell, Hannah Arendt, et. al) and “instrumentarian” power which she defines “as the instrumentation and “instrumentalization” of behavior for the purposes of modification, prediction, monetization and control.”
Zuboff’s concluding argument is that we can overcome the trap described if we wake up to it in time. But undoing the complex intertwining of technology, capital and politics is a daunting prospect and one wonders if we can do it – even if it is to, above all, save our humanity.
Despite its grim message, Surveillance Capital must be read. It will keep you awake at night, although not because it is an un-put-downable thriller as because it brings you to the edge of a new, axial, precipice of epistemology; nothing less.
Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari:
Intersecting Lives (2010) by Francois Dosse; Translated by Deborah Glassman
Raymond Carver: Collected Short Stories (2009), Edited by William L. Stull and Maureen P. Carroll
Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari: Intersecting Lives by Françoise Dosse. When the pandemic started and ‘work from home’ was announced, I grabbed my copy of Intersecting lives by Françoise Dosse which is a brilliant intellectual biography of the bicephalic Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, their ‘arrangement’ and how they became ‘Guattareuze’. The book acts as a wonderful introduction into the genesis of their individual as well as their collective philosophies.
Raymond Carver: Collected Stories. I also read Raymond Carver or I should say, reading Carver was an experience. It is only when you leave behind Gordon Lish’s edited stories, especially in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, and come to Craver’s original manuscript version in the Beginners that you experience how ‘a small, good thing’ can be at once spiritual and mystical. Even when a story like Cathedral is read in the context of D. H. Lawrence’s “The Blind Man”, one understands why Carver is America’s greatest writer.
Clarice Lispector: Complete Stories. Many years ago, I read a Clarice Lispector story ‘Love’ in one of the Latin American Short story anthologies and was amazed by it. I promised myself to read her properly, in detail, whenever I had the time. This year, I got myself The Complete Stories by Clarice Lispector with a beautiful introduction by Benjamin Moser, who is also her biographer.
One has to read her to understand why Elizabeth Bishop said that she is better than Borges. The masterpiece like “The Fifth Story” deals with a woman trying to address the cockroach infestation within her apartment, narrated from five perspectives within two pages and ends as a philosophical meditation on life, death and art. With the bizarre contemplation in “The Egg and the Chicken” to the feminine biography of a hen in “A Chicken”, Lispector is a different artistic world in herself with a singular language of her own.
Muzaffar Karim is also a contributor at Inverse Journal. Read his writing here.
This year, from January to October, I worked with my publisher Yoda Press, polishing my new collection of poems, “My Mother’s Scribe,” and to help myself along, I re-read a handful of books, except one which I read for the first time and let’s start with Concerto al-Quds, by Adonis, Translated from the Arabic by Khaled Mattawa. As many know, al-Quds is the Arabic name for Jerusalem which is the capital of Falasteen.
“Poems of Akhmatova,” translated from the Russian by Stanley Kunitz w/ Max Hayward. I yearned for a female voice to infuse “My Mothers Scribe,” and Akhmatova’s poignant poems helped me lyricize my mother’s battles with Kashmiri patriarchy, the Partition and her hallucinations. And for the same reason, “I, Lalla: The Poems of Lal Ded,” translated by Ranjit Hoskote.
I also reread the honorary Kashmiri writer, the historian Mridu Rai’s Hindu Rulers Muslim Subjects to better understand why in Kashmir today history is repeating itself as a farce.
Now, most nights I have been going to bed re-reading the other honorary Kashmir author, the Voice of Kashmir herself, the brilliant, fearless and beautiful, dearly beloved Arundhati Roy: “My Seditious Heart, Collected Non-Fiction.” Looking forward to reading her latest, “Azadi.”
V.K Krishna Menon is perhaps the most controversial public figure in India since its independence. Jairam Ramesh in his book V.K Krishna Menon – Chequered Brilliance, attempts to clear some of the murk that has since tarnished this brilliant diplomat from Kozhikode Kerala. With rising tension on Chinese border this year, it was interesting to go back to the origin of the conflict – the 1962 Indo-China war – through this book, whose debacle was blamed on VK Krishna Menon, India’s defence minister then. This brilliant, well researched book clearly ensures that it isn’t another hagiography. Based on letters, official records, transcripts, the biography largely avoids taking any stand, but making it quite clear that blaming 1962 war on VK Krishna Menon is a mistake. In fact, he was instrumental in almost finalizing a deal with China in 1957 that could have avoided the insulting war on India.
The other book that I loved this year was Rory Stewart’s, who’s now a British parliamentarian, Places in Between. It’s a travelogue based on Stewart’s journey on foot from Herat to Kabul in the winter of 2002, right after September 11 attack. The book is written in euphonious prose, replete with Dari and Persian couplets that the author picks up on the dusty bazaars of Herat, Chist and Bamiyan. The author marks Afghanistan with the strike of his each heel, breaking bread with his poor hosts, who go often beyond their means in welcoming a stranger. In the one month journey, Rory Stewart visits Chist – a shanty Ghorid village, the ancient base of Chistiyah dervish order. The Chist domes, in ruins now, were built by Agha Ghorid in the twelfth century to honor local sect of dervishes. This books biggest legacy is demystifying Afghanistan – the manner in which only a traveler can. There is no utopian lamasery of Shangri-la which west seems to have been stuck with. Here are the stories of poor, battle bruised Afghans strewn in between a faith of mystics and hardened radicals.
The highlight of my quarantine reading was to finally get a chance to read Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s prison memoir Wrestling with the Devil and the novel that emerged from this incarceration Devil on the Cross. Being called a “favorite” is a weak expression for the kind of preference, regard, and love I have for Ngũgĩ as a stalwart African writer, philosopher, and sage of the decolonial school of thought.
He is a many time Nobel nominee. I cannot emphasize enough how urgent and required Ngugi’s entire oeuvre is for us, Kashmiris, and for people in dire need of understanding their own positionality and political history in a world riven with classic Western colonialism and neocolonialism.
I read the 2018 edition of the book that was originally published in 1982 in Kenya. In the foreword, Ngugi says that this book is a testimony to the magic of imagination in a maximum-security prison. Ngũgĩ’s account keeps you glued as he painstakingly recounts recording words on a toilet paper which was the only tool available to him. These words would later become the novel, a classic by now. The Devil of the Cross was first published after his release from prison.
The novel was first written in Gikuyu, Ngũgĩ ‘s mother tongue. Ngũgĩ has made a conscious return to writing in his native tongue to ensure that decolonization is not just taught but actively practiced. The English translation of Devil on the Cross was featured in Penguin African Writers Series with Chinua Achebe as the series editor. The story is a critique of Western capitalism and neocolonialism told through the story of a young Kenyan woman. The woman’s life becomes symbolic of the havoc that Western neocolonial policies have played with African peoples, countries, and the continent in general.
Earlier this year I read The Ungrateful Refugee: What Immigrants Never Tell You by Dina Nayeri (2019). This book is a brilliant piece of nonfiction where stories of refugees and asylum seekers are intricately woven together to give readers a clear understanding, raising interesting questions and defying stereotypes.
With more than 25 million refugees, in contemporary times, refugee crises, wars, and conflicts have become a norm, yet most of us refuse to know these people and their stories of fleeing and leaving their lives and identities behind forever. Dina’s book is a profound reflection of her past, her life as a refugee and an asylum seeker.
She writes about the struggles she went through in Iran with her mother who had converted to Christianity, which eventually became their reason to flee. For years she kept changing places from one refugee camp to another before eventually they were accepted to the United States. She writes about the racist experiences in her school and how the kids in her class didn’t know a world beyond America. This book gives an intimate sneak peek into the actual lives of refugees, telling us that they aren’t just mere bodies, but a universe in themselves, a home to millions of stories.
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. This was on my list since my M.Phil days but somehow I couldn’t get time to read it. Reading it this year made me realize what a gem had been eluding me. Structured as stories and told from different point of views, this experimental novel comments on what it is to be a human. It also traces the change in people in relation to the technological advancements.
On Earth We are Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong. This is one of my best reads of the year. Written in the form of a letter from a son to his mother, the novel has a certain poeticity to it. One wants to underline all the lines and memorise them. Living as Vietnamese refugees in America without a father figure, it poignantly evokes the story of a homosexual son and his mother who works in a nail salon. The breath-taking language in the novel takes precedence over the plot.
“You once told me that the human eye is god’s loneliest creation. How so much of the world passes through the pupil and still it holds nothing. The eye, alone in its socket, doesn’t even know there’s another one, just like it, an inch away, just as hungry, as empty.”
On Grief and Reason: Essays by Joseph Brodsky. I knew he was good but I didn’t know how great he was until I read him. I started reading the essays collected in this book in March and didn’t want the book to end. It rarely happens that you don’t want a non-fiction book to end. I devoured this one slowly. Full of insight and wisdom about life in exile, life in war, literature, grief, happiness, boredom, books and life in general, this collection has it all. It seems one is ardently listening to a sage whose even prepositions and articles appear as secrets for future use. Recommend this to everyone.
This year I read Secondhand Time by Svetlana Alexievich. But, didn’t I read it the year before? Or was it this year? What year is this, anyway? After collating evidence, I became certain that I did indeed read Secondhand Time amidst the siege of August 5. Calendrical time is a difficult negotiation and who knows this better than us?
The siege of the ‘previous’ year slipped seamlessly into the pandemic – concentric circles of a siege within a siege within a siege… Breathing within these circles, I read Jean Genet’s posthumous Prisoner of Love which leaves you longing impossibly. Kamila Shamsie’s searing Home Fire which compels one to see, almost touch the bare bones of grief. I also read works by Kashmir-writers that I have been postponing for an ‘appropriate moment’. That moment arrived in winters: grandmother miraculously breathing and dreaming by my side as mournful worlds of The Collaborator, The Night of Broken Glass and Scattered Souls – came to life under the emergency light, amplifying the chiaroscuro of winter homes in Kashmir. However, to pay homage to my memory, relive the ‘previous’ year in my own way and to say it is not over, the book I want to address here is Secondhand Time. In my refusal to live time ‘second-hand’.
Written originally in Russian and based on interviews of over two decades, Secondhand Time brings together voices from the streets, kitchens, basements, train journeys, prison cells, official reports, newspaper excerpts – all woven into an intimate requiem. Seven hundred pages, voice by voice, silence by silence, it records “the myriad sundry details of a vanished way of life”– testimonies of ordinary people who, amidst the debris of the fallen Soviet Union and the fierce rise of the market, are searching for the traces of their lives. A listening witness, with the burden of a (people’s) historian, a poet’s urgency and a novelist’s perseverance, Svetlana Alexievich recovers the history of feelings and moments, from the rubble of official history.
As we remained confined in our prison-homes with dead landlines and phones, no internet and newspapers, the book resonated amidst sound of the helicopters and silence of the indefinite military curfew:
They’d given us a little air, now everything was going to go on lockdown again. They’d chase us back into the cage, rub us into the asphalt…
We’d be butterflies crushed against the pavement.
A mother’s elegiac recollection of her son, Igor, who she lost to suicide when he was 14, is particularly haunting. It moved me to tears as I spoke to my own figure of loss and imagined so many others speaking to their own.
…one day, my mother took me by surprise: “Vera, quit reading him those war poems. The only game he ever plays is war.” “But all little boys like to play war.” “Yes, but what Igor likes is when people shoot at him and he falls down. He likes to die! He “is so eager to fall over dead, he seems to enjoy it so much it scares me. I hear him shouting to the other boys, ‘Shoot me and I’ll fall.’ Never the other way around.
The ordinariness of life recorded in utmost profundity, offers deep reflections on love, death, grief, hope, longing, anger, freedom; in the way questioning the acts of telling, retelling and writing itself: What do you need a stranger’s grief for?
Secondhand Time is history’s homecoming: to the people, and in the barricaded confines of my home, I bore witness to its power and urgency.
Assistant Professor, Jindal Global Law School
I Could Not Be Hindu: The Story of a Dalit in the RSS (2019) by Bhanwar Meghwanshi, Translated by Nivedita Menon
Of the books I’ve read this past year, I would like to share one that I enjoyed immensely, and I think is of wide interest: Bhanwar Meghwanshi’s memoir I Could Not Be Hindu: The Story of a Dalit in the RSS published by Navayana. Swept up in the Ram janmabhoomi movement at the age of thirteen, Meghwanshi gradually comes face to face with the Sangh Parivar’s commitment to maintaining caste domination, even as it claims Dalits as its own. When he finds Ambedkar’s radical legacy, Meghwanshi turns into an uncompromising opponent of the Sangh’s reactionary politics and it’s hypocrisy with respect to Dalits. Insider accounts of the RSS are quite rare, and to find one that is so rich in detail and searing in its honesty is thoroughly illuminating.
For me, one of the books that reflected the sense of foolish hope among the despair of what this year disrupted and what it did not was Emile Habiby’s The Secret Life of Saeed: The Pessoptimist (1974). The book opens with the return of the titular protagonist, Saeed, to Haifa following the Nakba, where he hopes to make a life for himself serving new dominant power in the area – a family tradition – at the expense of the struggle of his fellow Palestinians. The tragicomedy that follows involves visits by extra-terrestrial beings, fatal errors, and incident after incident of injustice (not necessarily in that order), all of which Saeed accepts due to his defining characteristic: pessoptimism. Although disturbing and infuriating in moments, this is an ideal read in this long moment so intensely contoured by the absurd and the unjust.
On a more positive note, the year also brought with it the release of My Life in Red and White (2020) by Arsène Wenger, a book the sorts of which I had been anticipating since the days of my football-obsessed childhood. For me, Arsène Wenger was more than a football manager. Rather, he was an ideologue of sport and leadership, and a philosopher of human relations. At this point in my life, I read the book less for the footballing anecdotes and more for his philosophical insights that manifest themselves within the beautiful game, from passing as an analogue for empathy, trust and generosity to the importance of ethics above personal gain, for example. Le Professeur’s autobiography departs from the standard, boring formula of footballing autobiographies towards something far more enlightening and enjoyable.
Finally, I feel it essential to recommend a book of poetry, given poetry’s role as a refuge from injustice and a release for intense emotions, whether they be frustration, rage, sorrow, or others. Revolt Against the Sun: The Selected Poetry of Nazik al-Mala’ika (2020). Nazik al-Mala’ika is one of my favourite poets to read and translate, largely due to her powerful and rhythmic writing as well as her innovative way of engaging with the themes, ideas, and moments that she chose to engage with. This includes, for example elegising subjects otherwise deemed “unimportant” and challenging the hegemony of men within various fields of poetry. Emily Drumsta’s editing and translation in this volume are excellent throughout, but her deft and attentive translation of Cholera, one of my favourites among al-Malai’ka’s poems, stands out as particularly relevant in 2020.
Revolt Against the Sun
The Selected Poetry of Nazik al-Mala’ika: A Bilingual Reader (2020)
Edited and Translated by Emily Drumsta
It’s a mark of how disorienting 2020 has been that nothing has articulated my experience of it quite so perfectly as Alan Bilton’s The End of the Yellow House (Watermark, 2020). Set in and around a snowbound Russian sanatorium in 1919, the novel is a darkly witty, hallucinatory exploration of madness, morality, and mortality, in a world in which no definitions are fixed. Part detective story, part surrealist fable, The End of the Yellow House riffs on Bulgakov, Gogol, Bruno Schulz and Boney M, but is ultimately a strikingly original and intriguing work in its own right.
I finally got around to reading Matthew Haigh’s Death Magazine (Salt, 2019) about six months after everyone else, and it has been the ideal poetic companion for a world in pieces. What I particularly love about this collection is the most invigorating use of the Dada practice of cut-ups I’ve seen in decades. Poems sourced from the unlikeliest of places – Men’s Health and Goop stand out – are shaped into sharp-edged commentaries on contemporary life, glinting with black humour. Uncomfortably incisive, it nonetheless had me laughing through my mask on my daily commute.
Away from the everyday madness, Joe Banks’ Hawkwind: Days of the Underground (Strange Attractor, 2020) appealed to both the fan-boy and the academic in me. Detailing the first decade of the band who have provided the main soundtrack to my life since the early 70s, Banks not only discusses the music and the cast of larger-than-life characters who made it, but offers an impressively thorough and insightful assessment of Hawkwind’s place within the counterculture(s) which gave birth to them, and which they, in turn, nurtured. And there are some great pictures.
The Invitation-Only Zone: The True Story of North Korea’s Abduction Project (2009) by Robert S. Boynton
Finding Them Gone: Visiting China’s Poets of the Past by Bill Porter / Red Pine
Bill Porter travels around China like a geologist, scratching at its surface modernity to reveal the deep time of its civilization, the continuities of its arts, and the personalities that are still vivid hundreds (thousands?) of years after their life on Earth, all this while negotiating taxi rides, grumping at bad motels, and getting lost in rural villages.
The Invitation-Only Zone: The True Story of North Korea’s Abduction Project by Robert S. Boynton
One of the strangest stories ever. For decades the North Korean government kidnapped foreigners and set them up in North Korea as involuntary guests. Why? No one really seems to know. Robert Boynton profiles some Japanese abductees, and puts together evidence that might lead to an explanation, but never quite does.
The Pink Line: Journeys Across the World’s Queer Frontiers by Mark Gevisser
Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Queer … South African Mark Gevisser interviews people all over the world to trace the progress (and regression) of rights and liberties among the non-het. The global LGBT rights movement has influenced the way everyone thinks of themselves, it seems, even in societies where there were traditional roles for third gender people. The book’s strength is in the individual stories, whether in Africa, India, or Mexico. These are day to day struggles in contexts that a decade or two ago did not exist.
A few others:
Art Matters: Because Your Imagination Can Change The World (2018) by Neil Gaiman, Illustrated by Chris Riddell
I doubt anyone would argue that 2020 feels reminiscent of Kerouac’s On the Road in that we didn’t and still don’t really know what to expect. I enjoy his work so much and read a few of his books that I’d never had. Satori in Paris was a unique way of him researching his roots. Heart Talk is full of quotes, self-help passages, and poems in a new and different design like a pep talk in pages. Art Matters is an inspiration to artists of any kind encouraging you not to give up, to write from the heart, and be original. The Ocean at the End of the Lane kept me up late as I sat with my Mom at night in the hospital unable to sleep – it’s one of those books you want to read straight through to the end and just the surreal distraction I needed from the very real world at hand. I’ve read more books that ever this year – books have helped lift me up and carry me through this unbelievable year of 2020.
Silencing the Past 20th Anniversary Edition: Power and the Production of History (2015) by Michel-Rolph Trouillot
As history would remember this year mostly for various disastrous reasons, I will remember this year for Trouillot’s book, which opens up our ways of writing and reading history like never before. Trouillot lays bare the interplay of power in the production of history by putting the context of Haitian revolution in the middle. This book also made one sit up and take notice of our contemporary time as well, where every day some events are slipped under the carpet by the power-friendly media.
The book that I picked up next was Politics of Time: “primitives” and History-writing in a Colonial Society by Prathama Banerjee. This again being a book that discusses history writing, puts forward what aspiring researchers should take note of while drawing any inferences from any experience. It forced me to rethink the way I thought about my homeland (Bengal) and sitting idle for a long hours I remembered my days growing up in a left-ruled Bengal and could not agree more with the author articulations.
Given that this year pressed and pressured me so much, it made me doubt so much about my life, essence and existence.
A friend suggested this book—Destined to Reign by Joseph Prince—and truly the book changed so much about how I conceive myself. It further strengthened my conviction that I will tread through the path of greatness because every one of us is created to be great.
CEO, iQuasar, a technology services company based out of Sterling, Virginia
Candide, or Optimism (2006) by Voltaire, Introduction by Michael Wood, Translated by Theo Cuffe
With a raging pandemic as context, I enjoyed reading two books this year: Voltaire’s Candide, written about three centuries ago and Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, that he wrote in 1951.
It is fascinating to know that Voltaire wrote a masterpiece like Candide in just three days. The satire is a scathing critique of Leibnitz’s philosophy of the principle of sufficient reason, which states that for something to exist, there is a sufficient reason for it to be so. This results in unbridled optimism and a belief that we live in the best of the worlds humanly possible. To Voltaire, such a belief that all suffering and disaster is cosmic benevolence is sufficiently questionable.
During his travels and travails, the protagonist, Candide, looks at suffering and destruction through the lens of optimism but finally understands from a simple Turkish Muslim that one must contribute in and not philosophize about life. The lesson is to hold the belief that one must act to cultivate one’s own garden, Il faut cultiver notre jardin, in order to be saved from the evils of weariness, vice, and want. Apparently, Voltaire had
The Old Man and the Sea is a riveting tale of a brave Cuban fisherman, Santiago. I’d read the book when I was very young but I read it again this year, as I remember the old man whenever I feel down in life. The fisherman is old but heroic. He goes out to the sea after months of no luck to catch fish yet again. After many days at the sea, he catches a big marlin in an epic struggle. On his way back to the village, sharks attack the caught fish tied to the boat and devour it. Santiago fights back valiantly and honorably, using whatever little resources he has. Whenever he feels down, he draws on his identity and internal resources to fight back. He teaches us that a person’s internal dialog is the most critical conversation for standing up or sitting down in the face of adversity. Though he brings just the skeleton of the fish back to the village, people quickly recognize him as a hero.
Books like these help clear the cobwebs and spring us into doing things instead of feeling paralyzed by the chaos, confusion, and adversity around us. In a way, the Turkish gardener and the Cuban fisherman are one and the same in their approach to do, and to act. An hour of doing simple things, with a purpose, and a desire to contribute, is better than a lifetime of philosophizing and empty talk.
At a moment when the term “decolonisation” trends, this book implicates us, and grounds us, in the lived realities of the colonial project through a form of language that is at once precise and poetic, scathing and hopeful. I read this in one sitting. And I’ll keep returning to it.
Time Will Write A Song For You:
Contemporary Tamil Writing From Sri Lanka (2014) Edited by Kannan M, Rebecca Whittington, D. Senthil Babu, David C. Buck
Azadi: Freedom. Fascism. Fiction by Arundhati Roy. Roy is always a favourite of mine with her clear, insightful and fearless prose. This collection of essays traverses a wide range of topics from the Covid-19 crisis to the role of graveyards in popular memory. The collection asserts her clear headedness in producing thought provoking ruminations on meditations on language, public as well as private, and on the role of fiction and alternative imaginations in times of crisis as has gripped the current times.
PhD, Political Science, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi
Is Critique Secular? Blasphemy, Injury and Free Speech (2013) with essays by Talal Asad, Wendy Brown, Judith Butler, Saba Mahmood
Reading in a pandemic is like going to your in-laws. Even if you do not want to, the circumstances leave you with little option. Perhaps, academia prepares one to endure the emptiness of a pandemic. They are similar in so many ways. Going against the grain, I have to say that reading was not a particularly enjoyable exercise this year especially considering the suffocating situation that we are enduring. But, lately, I did enjoy Salman Rushdie’s short story “The old man in the Piazza” published in The New Yorker. A wonderful exploration of the silent battles that language fights. Merve Emre’s essay “The Lying Life of Adults“, in The Atlantic, introduced me to Elena Ferrante’s works—something that I am keen to read in the following months.
I revisited Is Critique Secular? Blasphemy, Injury and Free Speech, which features essays by Talal Asad, Saba Mahmood and Judith Butler with an introduction by Wendy Brown. Last year, when Imran Khan talked about what Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) means to an ordinary Muslim, he was reiterating many of the arguments made in this book. Recent situation in France makes it a necessary reading for anyone interested to scrutinize some of the claims of secularism and freedom of thought.
This year also saw the publication of Darryl Li’s important book The Universal Enemy: Jihad, Empire, and the Challenge of Solidarity. The book explores the category of ‘universal’ and ‘enemy’ where the latter is a figure of a Jihad fighter who travels across national boundaries and the former denotes that the notion that some things are valid in all cases. For Li, universalism is a question of aspiration and his intention is to inspect it, to show its condescending approach. He does this remarkably by studying the war in Bosnia in the last decade of the previous millennium and the solidarities it generated in the Muslim world in the name of Jihad. I liked the book because of not only its sensitivity to its subject matter but also how it challenges a lot that is said in media and academia about Muslims and their practices.
Prof. Hafsa Kanjwal
Assistant Professor, South Asian History at Lafayette College
The Universal Enemy: Jihad, Empire and the Challenge of Solidarity by Darryl Li. In the early 1990s, thousands of Muslim men from around the world went to Bosnia to defend their fellow Muslim brethren during the genocide there. In this compelling ethnographic and theoretical book, Darryl Li, an anthropologist at the University of Chicago, examines these often misunderstood foreign fighters, many of whom would later be demonized in the Global War on Terror.
As Li argues, “the jihad fighter—especially the one who travels across national boundaries—is a universal enemy. This is not due to an implacable hostility to humanity on his part, but because he has been declared as such by those whose right to speak in the name of the universal is often taken for granted. This book argues that such jihads are more usefully thought of as universalist projects in their own right; as we will see, to do so is neither to pay them a compliment nor to put them in the dock.”
This is one of the few rare books that takes the figure of the “jihadist” on its own terms, and situates it in a broader framework of universalisms that are not unlike other universalisms—that of humanitarian aid workers, or international peacekeeping forces. Importantly, it examines the concept of ‘transnational solidarity’, as well as a struggles therein, through a lens that has received very little analysis thus far—that of the armed fighter who crosses national borders.
One of the fascinating chapters in the book examines how tensions emerged between the local Bosniak nationalist fighters and the foreign fighters, many of whom were influenced by Salafism. Li argues that “those arriving in Bosnia to help in the name of a global umma experienced this dilemma on inverted terms. For them, nationalism was often something counterposed against Islamism and against transnational Muslim solidarity. And yet nationalism was also the primary formation by which the Muslims they wanted to help were expressing their identity as Muslims.”
Therefore, many of the foreign fighters—under the belief that they were ansar, or helpers of the Bosnian people—subsumed themselves as best as they could “into the formal structures of resistance, albeit with their respective flavour of Islamic practice.” Many of the fighters married local women and settled in Bosnia, and Li also examines the racialization of these relationships as well as the treatment of these former fighters by subsequent governments.
This is an extremely rich and provocative text, one that has some strong resonances to other contexts, including that of Kashmir.
India Correspondent, The Associate Press
What is grief? “Grief is wearing a dead person’s dress forever,” writes Victoria Chang in Obit, a collection of poems she wrote after her mother’s death. She writes: “Sadness is plural, but grief is singular.”
Chang’s poems speak of heartbreak. Of the shrinking lives of people that matter to us. Of death and physical diminishment. Of existential helplessness that looms large — sad predictability we all hope remains discounted.
Obit is a collection of poems that for me, as a Kashmiri, speaks of unimaginable sorrow, so deep in our bones, that giving that feeling a broad stroked description would be a tragedy. Her poems are intimate and underscore the process of grief and feverish bouts of empty hollowness we all feel. For us, and in our land, we need a language of grief. Her poems feel personal. We can own them, at least for a while, until we write ours — and write lots of them.
War and conflicts bring numerous casualties: people, cultures, homes, language, and land. But can wars kill a story of a story.
Wayétu Moore’s The Dragons, the Giant, the Women: A Memoir is a tale about survival, a multigenerational story of resilience in the face of brute terror, but most importantly, it is a story of how a story about a treacherous war, and the lives it impacts, unfolds.
Moore’s memoir is of the times when Liberia was in throes of a brutal war, her family’s rescue, and the journey she embarks in America, a Black woman in a predominantly white country. Struggles lay ahead. But there is courage.
The book is a heartrending memoir of love and war and peace, a narrative about survival. It hits close to home.
In the early seventies, an armed peasant revolt is gathering steam in India’s Bengal state. Young men and women — most of them landless farmers — are leaving homes and picking up arms to free the land. Some are jailed, and in one such prison, five Naxals plan a jailbreak. The revolution must continue. But there’s a mole. A daring escape plan ensues. Will the mole do what he is supposed to do? Or will he go along to help win the five revolutionaries their freedom?
There’s Gunpowder in the Air by Manoranjan Byapari is a terse, searing novel that on the face is about a daring jailbreak. But when you scrape the surface, it unravels itself into the story of India’s unforgiving caste system, of oppression and of revolution, and of some dreams that are worth dying for.
Byapari, the author, was a rickshaw puller, and that’s even more special. After all, you don’t need to be a writer to write. It’s just a story in the end. And anyone can tell a story. Better, if it is of your people.
Author, journalist, political commentator
During prolonged curfews, digital apartheid in terms of communication blackouts and internet shutdowns, and protest strikes, we get a lot of time to read. Our adversity and questions of existence and identity often makes us draw parallels with the situation of Jews in Nazi Germany. That is one reason why besides everything else I also read a lot of Holocaust literature, pre-colonial and post-colonial literature.
During the last 15 months, besides other books, I read Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man, Night by Elie Wiesel; No Room for Small Dreams by Shimon Peres; The Indian Ideology by Perry Anderson; Memory for Forgetfulness by Mahmoud Darwish, and, of course, several books on Kashmir.
Why I named a selected list is because the books on Holocaust that I read, including The Tattooist of Auschwitz, Man’s Search for Meaning, and Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl, had one important lesson: one must never abandon or surrender hope, and that one can find meaning in life and cling on to hope despite extreme conditions. These books taught me that survival is possible and we can survive to tell the tale. Memory, narratives, words and hope are weapons of the dispossessed. And we, as Kashmiris, are dispossessed, disadvantaged and disempowered on every front. That is why I find solace in books.
Another book that I loved was As Long as Sarajevo Exists by Kemal Kurspahic. Kemal, a celebrated Bosnian journalist, was serving as Sarajevo newspaper Oslobodjene’s Editor-in-Chief in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Oslobodjene survived the brutal years of the ethnic war and successfully battled to keep its autonomy during Sarajevo’s encirclement by Serbian nationalist forces bent on the city’s total destruction.
Dr. M Ashraf Bhat
Academic, PhD IIT Kanpur and Post-doctorate, IIT Delhi
Those who have been reading Orhan Pamuk’s bestsellers like Istanbul: Memories and the City, My Name is Red, or Snow, would find the style and narratives techniques of Burhan Sönmez more interesting and enthralling. Sönmez, one of the most important writers in Turkey today, whose books have been translated into more than 20 languages, is a law graduate active in human rights issues. In the novel Istanbul Istanbul (translated into English by Ümit Hussein) Sönmez describes the fate of four political prisoners, for whom telling stories in their shared cell becomes a passion. It enables them to retain a scrap of dignity in the face of torture and inhumanity. It mainly focuses on claustrophobia, terror and pain the four people go through in a jail cell.
In a subterranean prison complex in Istanbul, four men are locked up in a tiny, windowless cell where all that awaits them is torture and death. The detainees have lost all perception of time and live in perpetual fear of the interrogations. This is a uniquely intense and shocking novel of a kind seldom found on the contemporary publishing landscape. Scintillating, relentless and with a humanity that will resonate for a long time to come.
The novel is divided into ten chapters – each representing a day in the cell, each narrated by one of the inmates and each chapter beginning with that inmate’s story for the day. This might be a fairy tale – featuring wolves, or a princess escaped from a harem; or it could be a bawdy tale about nuns. Or it could be something contemporary, discussing the comings and goings of the world in the Istanbul above the prisoners’ heads.
Istanbul, as depicted in the novel, resembles the present day Kashmir. In the words of Burhan Sönmez: “a heavy atmosphere was hanging over the city. Curfews, prohibitions, tortures, and book burnings were part of daily life. But despite all this, we had dreams in our hearts. We had an imagination of another way of life. We knew Istanbul was not a calm city to live in. The cost of living was high, and there were unemployment, traffic, crime, and intolerance. But it has always left room for the imagination as Herman Melville wrote: “The fog lifted… leaving room for the imagination.””
Resisting Disappearance: Military Occupation and Women’s Activism in Kashmir (2019) by Ather Zia
The first book which I read this year was Neve Gordon’s Israel’s Occupation. Gordon meticulously employs Agamben and Foucault to show how Israel’s methods of control (sovereign, disciplinary, and bio modes of power) are escalating and ever-changing in the occupied territories. While sublimely documenting the history of the Palestinian occupation, he also reveals how the occupation always seeks ‘normalcy’ and how it will go to any extremes – from the politics of life to the politics of death – to achieve it.
The second book was Ather Zia’s Resisting Disappearance: Military Occupation and Women’s Activism in Kashmir. It was made available in South Asia last month. The book is an archival and anthropological understanding of Kashmiris, especially Kashmiri women. Zia has spent more than a decade working with the Association of Parents of Disappeared People (APDP) studying the struggle of its members, who are still fighting for the whereabouts of their loved ones disappeared by the state. The book is an important read to understand how Kashmiri women reclaim their agency and confront the various mechanisms of control.
The third book was Jonathan A.C. Brown’s Slavery and Islam. It is an analysis of Muslim intellectual, political, and social entanglements with slavery. Brown, known for his rigorous research, divulges a lot of complexities for the readers, some of which may end up leaving you uncomfortable if viewed through the lens of presentism. As per Brown, it was impossible for a society to survive without a slave workforce and that is why every major religion and philosophy condoned or approved it. Brown also adds that it was not the morality of the west but the rising costs of maintenance of slaves, as well as the invention of complex machines (Industrial Age) that led to the abolition of slavery. He doesn’t buy the argument that the idea of abolition came to Muslim lands from the west through colonization and informs the readers that an emancipatory framework, which aimed to maximize emancipation over time and space, already existed in the Shariah.
Jannat Ke Pattay by Pakistan’s celebrated author Nimra Ahmad was a pleasant surprise this year. Major part of this 860-page book is replete with Turkey, and that familiarity felt like home.
At its core, this book brings forth the undying resilience inherently present in humankind. The plot carries every element of the finest novel writing – growing suspense, gradual depth, strong characterisation, gripping storyline, and mellifluous language.
This book resonated with my personal values and beliefs about this world – that the world thrives on universal values of courage, resilience, steadfastness, faith, compassion and the determination to never give up. The book embodies this fundamental belief that whosoever faces trials, afflictions, hardships, difficulties with courage and steadfastness, without losing sight of the light at the end of the dark tunnel, without compromising on principles, and without giving up on deep seated faith in higher power, the final victory is theirs.
I was awestruck by the manner in which this author tried to dissect and demonstrate human psyche and established firmly that there is much more to human blood and flesh, and that is this non-diminishing, undying spark of the spirit. Highly recommended to everyone looking for a meaningful, thought provoking, soul enriching reading experience.
Think Like a Monk by Jay Shetty. I have been very skeptical about self-help books in the past. I would find them too mechanical and artificial as I thought that human beings cannot operate on manuals.
I liked an excerpt of this book that was shared online. I later got the book and discovered that the author actually made some sense. The book discusses many patterns, behaviours, mental shackles, emotional responses, stubborn habits that we all accumulate over time and think of them as unchangeable components of our being.
The best part of the book for me was that it breaks down all perceivably complex things, emotions, thoughts, behaviours in our life to basic, simple entities, endorsing and insisting on the maxim of “going back to the basics”. It effectively explains how we must have a healthy perspective of conflict, why clarity is to be arrived at rather than presumed to be present, how nontoxic communication disempowers monsters of seasoned resentments, and why success is the destination reached through the pathways of kindness and compassion
After reading this book, I’ve realised we suffer more in imagination than in reality, and this in itself was such a liberating take away from the book. It’s a must read for everyone.
Postdoctoral fellow, the University of California, Irvine
This year I read The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy. Lush yet simple prose about writing, loving, and losing.
I also listened to an audiobook, There, There by Tommy Orange, on a long drive.
I recommend one of the finest new ethnographies of Kashmir, Saiba Varma’s The Occupied Clinic: Militarism and Care in Kashmir.
And this piece, against mastery: https://blog.lareviewofbooks.org/essays/speed-reading-sucks/
Resisting Disappearance: Military Occupation and Women’s Activism in Kashmir (2019) by Ather Zia
This year three books that I read and stayed with me are:
1. Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akbar. A potpourri of fiction, memoir and history, this presumptive novel is as invigorating as it is provocative. The novel is best summed up by Hari Kunzru: ““Homeland Elegies” is presented as a novel, Akhtar’s second, but often reads like a series of personal essays, each one illustrating yet another intriguing facet of the narrator’s prismatic identity. Like all autofiction, it induces the slightly prurient frisson of “truthiness”.
2. Resisting Disappearance: Military Occupation and Women’s Activism in Kashmir by Ather Zia. Ather Zia delves into the years she spent with APDP and comes up with a very engaging and unsettling work. She follows half-mothers and half-widows and half-orphans from one public mourning to another and in the process unravels some heart-wrenching tragedies. So much that at times it becomes very diffcult to even read it. Ather Zia invests herself in this book not only as an ethnographer but also as a poet as well as fellow kashmiri. And she is aware that such an investment may not go well with the traditional ‘objective’ anthropology but what she loses in objectivity she gains in terms of what she calls as ‘Ethnographic surfeit’ making her work richer, engaging and impactful. Resisting Disappearance is Antropoesia at its best.
3. The Diary of a Madman and Other Stories by Nikolai Gogol. Covid lockdown ensured that I could revisit some old favourites. Reading Gogol for a second time didn’t feel like reading him for the second time. It felt as if I was discovering him for the first time.
To his dark surrealism and subversive fantasy, Gogol adds dollops of quirky, black humour and concocts a brilliant potrayal of human psyche in all its weakness, insecurity and idiosyncrasy. Gogol is the Shakespeare of absurd.