When I was a young girl, back in school with mom deciding what hairstyle was in (you know that time?), I’d stay up late and find corners in the house with adequate lighting so that I could read my latest book. I’d keep my ears alert to the sound of movement and run back to my room and pretend-sleep to escape my mother’s wrath. The laziness in the morning for school would be worth it. At that time, I used to use the school library to borrow books and return them on time. I would be stuck to one book a week, no more no less.
Over the years, I’ve started building my own collection of books. The dog-ears and notes and messages and dates are moments I want to look back upon fondly when I’m 60 and telling my grandchildren about my younger days. But that’s for later. Let me tell you about some of my favorites from this year!
- The Rabbit & The Squirrel – A Love Story about Friendship by Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi & Illustrated by Stina Wirsen – As a young girl growing up in a sheltered, privileged world, I expected my world to be quite different from what it is now. I wasn’t looking for hearts and flowers (although they’d be very nice), but I was looking for a certain sense of ease and belongingness. College was a different experience, but it still fit into the whole growing-up phase. Once college ended and I moved back to Delhi this year, life has been (to put it mildly) shocking. Siddharth’s short story speaks to that 17-year-old in me – it talks of my aspirations and expectations from life, and gently guides the 23-year-old to knowing better. I’ve heard it wasn’t even meant to be published – but thank God it was! This quick, half-an-hour read is hands down my most favorite book of the year, one that I’m sure I’d keep rereading whenever life gets a little difficult for me. I’ve already gifted it to a few near and dear ones, and if I was to recommend one book to anyone to read, it would be this. I’ve read one other book of his, which was a long-form novel (The Lost Flamingoes of Bombay), written for grown-ups, but I find that there are two completely different sides of Siddharth that I observe as I read these. I definitely like the illustrated version of him better.
- Henry and June by Anais Nin – I know it’s a little off to place an Anais Nin right after a book meant for children, especially one that is deep dive into one of her most passionate love affairs. The book is an anthology of entries in her diaries of her relationship with Henry Miller and his wife June Mansfield. It’s an exploration of sexuality, relationships, awakening, attraction, and love, but more than that, it’s also a take on how honest we can be to ourselves. I’ve been a huge fan of Nin, and this book is just another of hers in my collection. I’ve admired Nin – not because she was revolutionary for her time, I think she is still revolutionary in a world where a woman’s agency of how she dresses, who she is with, what she does with her life, etc. are constantly being scrutinized and balanced against ‘societal’ interests, but for what I feel like a woman to be in a position where expressing my ‘choice’ is a choice I have to constantly make. It takes me the longest time to read a Nin – her writing is dense and layered, and I find it difficult to grasp the expanse of her brilliance in one go. As a writer and as a woman, Nin continues to be one of my favorites.
- Remnants of a Separation by Aanchal Malhotra – It overwhelms me to see women so close to me in age and circle doing so well for themselves, and doing such fabulous work. I want to do that too! I learned about Aanchal’s work through the Museum of Material Memory, a digital repository of the history of Partition of 1947. She’s the scion of Bahrisons Booksellers of Khan Market, one store that I can never leave empty-handed. I’m a child of the partition as well, but the reality hit me in very subtle, mundane ways. I’ve grown up listening to my parents tell me about what they would hear from their grandparents – the beauty of Peshawar, our practices, the food, the communal family gatherings, and events, etc. – but I didn’t pay much heed to it. After all, my grandparents were too young to register the impact of the partition. They grew up in India struggling for survival – identity came much later. My parents grew up better – they were modestly well-off but had no history passed onto them except the ‘new’ history that my grandparents created growing up. I joined Law School in 2013. Every September, an event called ‘Bhasha Utsav’ (Festival of Languages) is organized by the Department of Languages. It’s a feast day – Christites are welcomed in their ethnic outfits. It’s a day of regular college – lots of dancing, (secret) drinking, fun with friends – but in your ethnic clothes. Most of my South Indian friends would proudly come to college in their half-sarees, dhotis, Mundus, Kerala sarees, etc. I went with the flow every single time and wore whatever I felt was a stylish ‘Indian’ outfit. My mother tongue is Pashto – which even my grandparents don’t know. We don’t have an ethnic dress anymore. Our food choices are supposedly inspired from our past – but I’m not sure how much is fact and how much is personal preference. In the wake of this, I started following Aanchal’s project sometime in 2017. It filled me with a strange loneliness – if I didn’t know where I come from, can I really know where to go? I haven’t yet been able to answer this. I guess some of us don’t have the luxury of personal history – we tend to make our own history and own rituals as we go along. This collection of interviews brought that sense back to me. If not through my own, at least I could try and feel what our elders must have had to go through when they suddenly lost homes and had to start afresh. Aanchal is a story-teller through and through, but at no point does she lose her expertise as an academic. Even in Law School, one thing that would always trouble me was how inaccessible academics has been for non-academicians, as if making it less difficult to grasp would make theory lose its seriousness. Remnants is one example of how the newer generation is treating academic knowledge – like we treat anything else. It’s a great insight into history, if you’re wired that way, and it’s also a great just because.
- Wine. all the time.: The Casual Guide to Confident Thinking by Marissa A. Ross – Almost as if by fluke, I chanced upon a course on Italian wines in 2017 in Bangalore. After having attended it, I realized I really do enjoy my reds and also being able to sound smart about it. But, I hated being a snob. My attempt at writing the Court of Master Sommelier’s exam (which I didn’t clear, by the way) in 2018 didn’t help much in wringing out the elitism from wines. Wines (and all alcohol) are supposed to be fun and not classist. Thanks to the internet, her comfort with digital media, and my research skills, I found Marissa’s blog and Instagram and started following her. She is H-I-L-A-R-I-O-U-S, which you will find throughout her writing (Instagram, blog, writings at other places, her books). She also means business – this one book has taught me more about wine than I managed to memorize during my preparation for the exam. Her writing is thorough and at the same time, you never feel like you’re dipping toes into a world that isn’t your own. I have never managed to find any wine that she reviews because I’m in India and we don’t get those wines here, but if there was one book I would recommend to anyone who wanted to learn about wine, it would be this one.
- Cyber Sexy: Rethinking Pornography by Richa Kaul Padte – The first time I read Richa was during a research project on digital violence I was doing back in (early?) 2016. Having known of her unique voice, and then eventually fell out of touch with it, I was pleasantly surprised to bump into her latest book, most probably on Penguin India’s Instagram. Being new to adulting, and having recently finished law school, it is inspiring for me to see people like Richa (and Aanchal) pave way for someone like me. It’s a scary world that they’re making sense of, one book at a time. The one thing I greatly admire about her writing is that although academic, it’s never stuffy. The ease of communication makes it conversational and includes the non-academics too, and that I find as an important thing that academicians should be focusing on. As a lawyer, I constantly work to make sure the contracts I draft are in simple language and my clients can understand them. The workshops I conduct on Art and Fashion Laws use daily examples instead of textbook heavy slides or conversation starters to make sure of this inclusive type and accessibility. From an academic perspective, Richa’s research is thorough and empathetic – a key feature that I often find missing in ‘aged’ research and writing. I also think the book is personally helpful for me. I’m now slightly better able to ‘name my desire’. I haven’t been shy or afraid of sex – I’ve just not known enough, and even from a personal growth perspective, the book, I can see, is quite helpful in broadening horizons. Her thoughts on power and it’s influence on art have also greatly added to my thoughts and the work I do in the areas of right to freedom of artistic expression.
- The Twits by Roald Dahl – One of the books I don’t remember reading but remember being influenced by, has been this beautiful book. To be fair, it is only one page of this book that always reminds me of what kind of person I have always wanted to be. I re-read this one page whenever I need a reminder.
- Ramayana versus Mahabharata: My Playful Comparison by Devdutt Pattanaik– I’ve always admired Pattanaik’s scientific and logical approach to the study of mythology and religion. It also helps that as a practicing Hindu, being able to answer the ‘why’ of my faith and practice cements my belief further – and when/if I can’t, it urges me to dig deeper and find more about it. This spirit of not taking things at face value has greatly helped me in being the person I am today. I devoutly believe in my faith, but I also make conscious efforts in making sure it isn’t blind. I find this exercise of logically comparing and analyzing our past to be beneficial for multiple reasons. For starters, the prevalence of the knowledge of our past (acknowledging that there isn’t a single past) is receding and we don’t have a lot of places to go to that can answer our questions. My grandparents moved to India during the partition when they were little babies. In the struggle for survival, key aspects of identity (incl. religious practices) were lost or not passed on to the next generation (my parents). Especially given this, my knowledge of my faith is greatly dependent on writings such as those of Pattanaik, which I also find extremely accessible and non-threatening, as compared to various other authors, publishers, or religious organizations I have tried to contact or access. What also follows and greatly appeals to me about this book is the academic robustness of the research that has been scrutinized. The presentation in a concise (per topic) but thorough (as a whole) endeavor is fantastic. The language is story-like, in that it is not very academic (which is something I struggle with despite being a lawyer!). I especially liked the last two sections of the book – Wisdom and Dharma in Progress. I find Pattanaik’s thoughts and ideas insightful but also presented in an easy to grasp the language. I do however feel that the book is better understood if one does have a background understanding of the storylines of the two epics, else it can become difficult to relate to. I found it easier because of my past interactions with both, but I’m not sure how effective the book would be for someone whose first foray into the world of the epics is this book.
- Women Who Run With The Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes – One of the most difficult books I’ve been reading since 2014 is this. Written by a Jungian psychoanalyst, Women is a staunchly feminist book urging women to look within – themselves, their traditions, their cultures, their families – to recognize where we come from and where we are to go. Combining academic research with cultural and traditional knowledge, the book is replete with folktales from across the world to explain ‘that which comes from within’. It is a book that takes me into deep thought and meditation, and I make it a point to keep going back to it. There is never enough that we can learn about ourselves. This is one book I know for sure I would want to give it to my daughter(s) when they’re mature enough to understand.
Not quite surprisingly, the books I’ve liked this year expand my knowledge and retain their humanity. For 2019, some pointers I want to actively imbibe in my reading habits are:
- More Indian/Indian-origin writing.
- Writing more and sharing it with the world.
- Curating my reading list by taking help from others – and not Instagram alone.