The rising tide of words

Harsh Desai marks the books on the top of his fiction shelf

My list of the most significant works of fiction this year is very personal. Like all book lovers, I frequent bookshops often and get all excited when I see a new Ghosh or Updike on the shelves. I pore over bestseller lists and am influenced by them as also by prizes and prize-winning authors. So with all those ifs and buts and caveats and reservations here’s my list of most significant books of the year.

The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh. It is the story of Piyali, a cytologist who has come from America to study dolphins; Kanai, an urbane translator – interpreter; and Fokir, a local fisherman who knows the Sunderbans like the back of his hand. They go looking for the illusive river dolphin. Ghosh explores their complex relationship in the backdrop of the beautiful and treacherous Sunderbans. Probably the most significant book by an Indian author this year, Ghosh is surefooted as he explores the Sunderbans and matters of the human heart. Ghosh drops you right in the middle of the Sunderbans on a rickety boat and pulls you out just before you get sucked in.

In The Curious Incident Of The Dog in the Night Time, Mark Haddon gets into the mind of young Christopher Francis Boone, a young boy suffering from a form of autism. 

Master of prose V.S. Naipaul’s latest book Magic Seeds is as grim as his other works
Master of prose V.S. Naipaul’s latest book Magic Seeds is as grim as his other works

The boy investigates how a dog came to be lying on a lawn in his neighbour’s garden with a pitch fork through its heart. The author’s portrayal of the young boy’s struggle to find answers is possibly the first fictional look into the autistic mind and certainly furthers one understanding of the same. Winner of the Whitbread Award, this is a must read.

Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America describes a historical twist of gigantic proportion. In this novel, Charles Lindbergh, the renowned Aviation Hero and isolationist, becomes President of America, unseating Franklin Roosevelt and quickly sues for peace with Germany and Japan. The course of history and the World War II changes and anti-Semitism is unleashed in America. This is viewed from the eyes of nine-year-old Philip Roth living in Newark, New Jersey. This racy novel tells you how easily the world as we know it could have been completely different. Secure in our knowledge that history did not turn out that way we are both amused and enthralled by the idea of Ribbentrop dancing at the White House and the possibility of Hitler coming to spend the weekend at the White House or the impending war with Canada.

In John Updike’s Villages it would seem that Updike has sex on his mind. Doesn’t he always? Shifting geography from suburbia which is his favourite playground, he moves to smaller towns or villages where he mines and explores relationships and the workings of a marriage. Some would say that Updike is becoming repetitious and in some respect he surely is but some times as in a chant repetition he is sweet to the ear and pleasing to the eye

Orhan Pamuk’s Snow traces the journey of a Turkish poet called Ka who ventures into the remote Turkish town Kars to investigate why girls who are being compelled to remove their headscarves are committing suicide. Throughout his stay in the town, it is snowing constantly and the constant snow clouds the reading of the book and is a metaphor both for blanketing reality as also beauty. The battle between secularists and Islamists in Turkey has a much wider resonance and relevance in today’s time.

Michael Crichton’s State of Fear is about eco-extremist Nick Drake trying to draw attention to global warming. People, however, are indifferent about burning fossil fuels and heated atmospheres and the cheques are drying up. To combat this apathy, Drake plans to wreck havoc by crumbling the Antarctica ice shelves. The book is also about thought control. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the politico-legal-media bloc running America has no enemy and has to invent various states of fear to control the masses. Global warming is one such fear. The book argues that nature is always in a state of imbalance and man is not a disrupter after all. A nice way to prick the global warming balloon. The book works at two levels. One as a thriller and other as a book of ideas.

The true test of a thriller is to read it in one sitting. And, Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code more than passes this test. In the book, Robert Langdon, art historian and symbologist, is summoned to Louvre to help investigate the murder of its curator. Soon a prime suspect, Langdon and cryptologist Sophie Neveu discover clues in Da Vinci’s ‘Vetruvian Man’, ‘Last Supper’ and, of course, the ‘Mona Lisa’. Langdon also learns that Da Vinci, Newton, Victor Hugo and Botticelli are members of a secret society. Out to stop him are the police, secret societies and a`85I will stop right here, lest I reveal too much of the book. Needless to say, Da Vinci Code is a must read for thriller addicts. It might also incense many a Christian.

V.S.Naipaul’s latest book Magic Seeds might well be called the nowhere man. As cheerless as his other books, it is a searing account of the cost of idealism. The book begins in Berlin where Willie Chandran, a character he first created in Half a Life, is staying with his sister Sarojini. He has escaped an uprising in the African country he has been living in for 18 years. Having left behind his wife, he is now wandering aimlessly. His sister convinces him to join a guerrilla movement in India that’s dedicated to the liberation of the lower castes. Here, he indulges in an act of aimless violence. Willie then surrenders to the authorities, giving up on the revolution just as effortlessly as he got into it. After a few years in prison, he goes to another exile, this time in England. Now, a friend Roger shapes Willie’s mind. Here, again he promptly starts an affair with Roger’s wife. The England of Willie’s youth turns out to be decadent and fake, very similar to the Magic Seeds sold in a fair to the gullible.

Non-fiction notables

Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found

Suketu Mehta’s book is a hardly celebration of Bombay and more an attempt to find out what makes Bombay draw people to it despite its squalor. Part autobiography and part biography of the city, the author describes both the sordid and sublime of Bombay but going by the author’s accounting, the sordid far outweighs the sublime. Slightly dated, the book gives one a feeling of deja vu at times but the detailing in the book of the incessant gang wars, contract killings, police brutality and the like carry it to a new level. Undoubtedly one of the better books written on Bombay.

Alchemy of Mind

Diane Ackerman’s Alchemy of Mind is a leading naturalist’s take on the human brain and the human mind describing the working and development of human brain, both from an evolutionary point of view as also from the cradle to the grave. She dwells into the facts of how the human brain evolved in this particular manner and how it is coping with the present environment. She deals with the brain as the cradle of both intelligence and of emotion and deals with the interplay of the two and how nature and nurture make each of us unique. A naturalists’ delight. —HD