21 Books That Made A Mark In The 21st Century So Far
Kamalpreet Singh Gill lists down the 21 books from the twenty-first century so far that have stayed with him the most.
The twenty-first century will soon be two decades old. The first 19 years of this century have produced some remarkable literature that has warmed our hearts, broadened our minds, and enriched our souls.
Here is a list of 21 best books ranging across the fields of fiction, poetry, philosophy, science, technology, and history that have stood out, and are likely to stand the test of time for decades to come.
1. The Testament (2019) — Margaret Atwood
If you’re at a dinner party with people who read a lot and you want to impress everyone with the breadth of your own reading, but could only name-drop one author to grab attention, who would it be?
Margaret Atwood, of course.
The 79-year old Canadian author has been around for a long time; her phenomenal The Handmaid’s Tale was published in 1985. But it was only in the last two decades that her fame began to ascend dramatically.
In 2000, she won the first of her two Booker prizes for The Blind Assassin. Along with Iris Murdoch, she holds the distinction of being short-listed for the Booker Prize maximum number of times — six in all.
Margaret Atwood is to the 2010s what Ursula K Le Guin was to the 2000s and Toni Morrison was to the 1990s — the grand old dame of English letters whose every utterance is profound wisdom on life, letters, love and literature.
The Testament won the 2019 Booker Prize jointly with Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other and is Atwood’s much anticipated sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale.
2. Hanuman’s Tale: The Messages of a Divine Monkey (2007) — Philip Lutgendorf
Philip Lutgendorf was a professor of Hindi and modern Indian studies at the University of Iowa — a position he held for 33 years until his retirement in June 2018. He is best known for his seminal work, The Life of a Text: Performing the Ramcharitmanas of Tulsidas (1991) that mapped in rich ethnographic detail the various performances of the Ramcharitmanas through northern India that have kept alive this vital medieval text.
It was while researching the Ramcharitmanas in Banaras in the early 1980s that Lutgendorf came to a surprising realisation — that for most people, the most endearing character of the Ramchartimanas wasn’t Ram himself, but Hanuman. Thus was born the idea for Hanuman’s Tale. As the preface to the book announces:
मोरे मन प्रभु अस बिसवासा
राम ते अधिक राम कर दासा
My heart lord is convinced
That greater than Rama is Rama’s servant
— Tulsidas, (Ramcharitmanas 7.120.16)
Thus begins a fascinating academic study of the various manifestations of Hanuman in the cultural and religious life of India that traverses history, geography, and the landscapes of India’s numerous cultural traditions.
Professor Lutgendorf has recently finished a seven volume English translation of the Ramcharitmanas for the Murty Classical Library of India.
3. Fasting, Feasting (1999) — Anita Desai
Anita Desai has the unique distinction among Indian novelists of being awarded the Sahitya Akademi award as well as being shortlisted for the Booker Prize on three occasions — for Clear Light of the Day (1980), In Custody (1984), and Fasting, Feasting (1999).
It was however her daughter, Kiran Desai who would win the coveted prize for her 2006 novel, The Inheritance of Loss.
The distinction is well earned, for Desai is arguably, the finest Indian writer of fiction in English today. Her prose, unassuming but succinct, stands in stark contrast to the hollow pyrotechnics of the generation of writers that were to follow her in the 1990s and 2000s.
Her novels, deceptively slim, carry within them worlds far more expansive than the 700-page door stoppers spanning centuries and generations, that pass for literary fiction today, can ever convey.
Fasting, Feasting like several other Desai novels, tells the story of quiet decay, of a world, and of a family, told through the perspective of its female protagonist, Uma. Like all her novels, it is profound, deeply moving, and above all, timeless.
Anita Desai is a writer more people should be reading, in order to see through the clutter and noise that Indian literary fiction in English has become.
4. Kashi ka Assi (2004) — Kashinath Singh
Varanasi is the beating heart of India, and the beating heart of Varanasi is the Assi Ghati. Unsurprisingly, it has always attracted the attention of poets, painters, photographers, film-makers and writers.
To pick one among the various Assis that each chronicler has captured as the quintessential Kashi would be a herculean task. But if one were forced, then by settling for Kashinath Singh’s Kashi ka Assi one would not be very far off the mark.
When first published as a series of stories in 2004 in local Hindi presses in north India, it created a huge stir, and a little controversy. Its accurate depiction of everyday life in the ghats of Benares and the razor sharp wit and banter of the characters that inhabit the ghats, captured in the quintessential Benaresi dialect of Hindi made the literary world sit up and take notice.
Kashinath Singh perhaps did too good a job of capturing in prose the lilting colourful dialect of the ghats, for it is unfortunately one of those books that would most certainly be lost in translation. Kashinath Singh would later receive the Sahitya Akademi award for his 2011 novel Rehan par Ragghu.
5. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2014) — Yuval Noah Harari
Arguably, the most talked about book of the twenty-first century, Sapiens, along with its 2016 follow up, Homo Deus : A Brief History of Tomorrow has sold over 12 million copies worldwide and continues to sell.
Israeli historian Yuva Noah Harari’s tale of mankind’s evolutionary history told in a simple, yet highly engaging style struck a chord among readers worldwide, especially at a time when the rise of Netflix was raising concerns about falling book sales.
Despite criticism from some observers that it was just old ideas packaged in a new style, being seen with your own dog-eared copy of Sapiens was the in-thing during the middle years of the second decade of the twenty-first century.
6. Girti Deewarein/Falling Walls — Upendranath Ashk First published in 1947. Translated from Hindi by Daisy Rockwell (2015)
Born in Jalandhar, Punjab in 1910, Upendranath Ashk is one of the finest writers in Hindi that the past century has seen. Ashk began writing first in Punjabi, then in Urdu, and finally at the insistence of Munshi Premchand, switched to Hindi for good.
It was in Hindi that his seven-volume Magnum Opus, Giriti Deewarein (Falling Walls) was written. Following the life of an aspiring writer Chetan as he wanders between Jalandhar, Lahore and Shimla in the 1930s, Girti Deewarein has been compared to Marcel Proust’s classic In Search of Lost Time.
It is, however, a tragedy of Hindi literature that only after being translated into English by the American translator Daisy Rockwell that Upendranath Ashk was rescued from the depths of obscurity where most literary geniuses writing in Indian languages go to die, until rescued by English translations.
7. Chemmeen — Thakazhi Sivasankaran Pillai. First published in 1956. Translated into English by Anitha Nair (2011)
Chemmeen is not only the best-known Malayalam novel outside Kerala, it is one of the few works of Indian literature of the post-colonial era not written in English to have acquired a global audience.
Written by the prodigious Thakazhi Sivasankaran Pillai, Chemmeen (prawns) is a retelling of an ancient fishermen’s myth of chastity and fidelity, woven into the struggles and harsh lives of those who make their living from the sea on Kerala’s Malabar coast.
First published in 1956, Chemmeen was instantly recognised as a classic, winning the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1957. It was among the first post-colonial Indian novels to be translated into English, with the English translation getting accepted into the Indian series of UNESCO Collection of Representative Works — a UNESCO project that aimed to translate masterpieces of world literature that was active from 1947-2005.
Thakazhi Sivasankaran Pillai would later write another enduring classic documenting the struggles and aspirations of Kerala’s fishing communities — the epic Kayar (coir) that would win him India’s highest literary award, the Jnanpith.
8. Kadambari — Bana First Published, seventh Century CE, translated into English by Padmini Rajappa (2010)
Kadambari is a timeless tale of love between a king named Chandrapida and a princess, Kadambari, first composed in the seventh century CE by Bana Bhatt, the court poet of King Harsha Vardhana of Kannauj, and his son Bhushan Bhatt.
Considered a classic of Sanskrit literature, what makes Kadambari stand out is the fact that it is one of the earliest novels ever written, almost a millennium before the novel, as a literary form, would attain widespread popularity.
9. Chauthi Koot (2000) — Waryam Singh Sandhu . Translated into English as the Fourth Direction by Akshaya Kumar
Chauthi Koot (Fourth Direction) is a collection of stories by the renowned Punjabi writer, Waryam Singh Sandhu that won him the Sahitya Akademi award in 2000. The stories capture in masterful detail the lives of Punjabi peasantry caught between militancy, state violence, and the harsh realities of eking out a living from an unforgiving land.
Chauthi Koot was adapted into an acclaimed film of the same name by director Gurvinder Singh in 2015 that was screened at the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival.
Waryam Singh Sandhu is a towering figure of contemporary Punjabi literature, though it is unfortunate that unlike other Indian languages such as Bengali, Kannada, Malayalam or Tamil, few gems of Punjabi literature find their way to English translations and a wider audience.
10. Ghachar Ghochar (2015) — Vivek Shanbhag
Vivek Shanbhag’s Ghachar Ghochar, was perhaps the most talked about work of fiction to have come out of India in the second decade of the twenty-first century. It was the toast of London and New York where it made it to the Guardian and New York Times end-of-year best books lists.
“A Great Indian Novel Reaches American Shores” the New York Times emphatically proclaimed in 2017, underlining both the significance of Shanbhag’s achievement and the tragic state of Indian literature not written in English.
For what made its success so remarkable was that Ghachar Ghochar was not the work of any of the Indian authors writing in English who are usually the stars of lit-fest circuits, but a work first written in Kannada, and translated into English by Srinath Perur.
It was after a long time that a work from a regional Indian language was to break the language barrier and find such wide acclaim on the international stage, opening the floodgates for more translated works like those of Perumal Murugan and others to follow.
11. In a Forest, A Deer (2006) — Ambai. Translated by Lakshmi Holstrom
Ambai is the pseudonym of Tamil writer C S Lakshmi. Born in Coimbatore in 1944, Ambai has been a prolific writer and a renowned scholar in the field of women’s studies.
As a writer of fiction, Ambai writes stories of love, longing, and long journeys blended with Tamil folkore. As a historian, she is the founder of Sound and Pictures Archives for Research on Women (SPARROW) — India’s first dedicated archive for women that collects print, visual, and audio material related to women’s histories.
In a Forest, A Deer won the 2006 Vodafone Crossword Book Award in the translated Indian language fiction section.
12. Shahdaba (2012) — Munawwar Rana
The ability to recite a prompt Urdu/Hindi couplet to match any given situation is a much prized literary skill in the heartland of north India. It is, however, a difficult task for many a young man and woman, for littered with difficult Persian and Arabic vocabulary, classical Urdu poetry remains inaccessible to the average lover of poetry.
This perhaps is what has made Munawwar Rana the most widely recognised Urdu poet in India today. His ability to capture the subtlest of emotions in the simple Hindi of the average north Indian makes him accessible to the multitudes who long for poetry in their everyday spoken tongue, but are let down by purists who would rather compose in what are perceived to be more prestigious variants of Urdu and Hindi.
Shahdaba, Rana’s latest collection of poetry, was awarded the 2014 Sahitya Akademi award in Urdu.
13. Em and the Big Hoom (2012) — Jerry Pinto
When it was first published in 2012, Jerry Pinto’s debut novel about living with mental illness drew instant praise from figures no less than Salman Rushdie and Amitav Ghosh. Pinto’s delicate portrayal of family life in late twentieth century India is suffused with humour, heartbreak and compassion in equal measure.
The novel has quickly become a yardstick to measure twenty-first century Indian writing in English. Book blurbs on new fiction about family life or mental illness now carry emphatic claims about how favourably they compare to Em and the Big Hoom.
Jerry Pinto, catapulted to instant literary stardom, would go on to win the Sahitya Akademi Award, the Crossword Book Award, and the Windham-Campbell Literature Prize for this masterful work.
14. The Emperor of all Maladies: A Biography of Cancer (2010) — Siddhartha Mukherjee
Siddhartha Mukherjee had an outstanding career as an oncologist before he decided to pen down his experience of a lifetime studying cancer. The result was a book that quickly became a literary phenomenon. It won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Literary non-fiction and was picked by TIME magazine as one of the 100 best non-fiction books of all time.
Mukherjee’s genius lay in presenting a subject considered too morbid by all but those in the medical profession, in a humane, and highly readable manner. The result was an international best-seller that also met with literary acclaim.
15. Rise And Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations (2018) — Ronen Bergman
Ronen Bergman is one of Israel’s foremost investigative journalists and military analysts, who presently works for The New York Times.
Bergman collected interviews and stories from countless agents, double agents, spies and assassins, then rigorously cross-checked them to ensure he wasn’t being used as a conduit by the IDF to further their own version of events. Then he put them all together in this unputdownable book about international deceit and targeted assassinations.
We learn about the ‘bureau for arranging meetings with god’ — a euphemism for an Israeli explosives unit tasked with combating the problem of fidayeen attacks, or the ‘death by toothpaste’ of Palestinian hijacker Wadie Haddad, carried out by an agent identified in the book as Agent Sadness, who broke into Haddad’s bathroom and poisoned his toothpaste, and other stories, fascinating and tragic in equal measure.
Bergman is clear that he does not intend it to be a celebration of the killings orchestrated by Mossad. Many of these secret operations proved counterproductive in the long run and he forces the reader to confront the moral issues arising out of such a free use of targeted, lethal violence as has been the preferred modus operandi of the Mossad to deal with its adversaries.
16. Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011) — Daniel Kahneman
Daniel Kahneman is a psychologist and economist widely regarded as one of the most influential thinkers of our times.
In 2002, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics, along with Vernon L Smith, for his research on the psychology of judgement and decision-making.
In Thinking, Fast and Slow Kahneman summarised his most important findings, that challenge one of the most basic assumptions on which modern economic and social theory rests, ie humans, in the long run, tend to act as rational actors.
Drawing on his rich academic experience in psychology, mathematics and economics, as well as his experience in working with the Israeli Defence Forces, Kahneman presents a gripping account of the way in which our brain works, operating through two different systems, one fast and instinctive, and one slow and rational.
However, our mind, habituated to being lazy, inclines towards the first in most situations, often leading to instinctive rather than rational decisions. Kahneman’s masterful study of the human mind is one of those books that can change the way we perceive the world around us.
17. Tales from Earthsea (2001) — Ursula K le Guin
Ursula K le Guin was a writer who, during her long writing career of over 60 years wrote mostly speculative fiction — a choice that led to her being bracketed within a small niche, away from the prestige and limelight of literary fiction.
Quietly, however, she laboured on, creating universes of fantasy best known through her Earthsea series that spanned many novels, and firing the imaginations of an entire generation of writers who today claim her as their inspiration.
Without le Guin there is no Harry Potter and there is no Neil Gaiman.
It was Le Guin who first introduced the boy wizard and a school for wizards, themes which were later developed more fully by J K Rowling. Both Rowling and Neil Gaiman acknowledge le Guin as a prominent influence on their writing.
Her impact was not limited to fantasy fiction alone — doyens of contemporary literature from Salman Rushdie to Maragaret Atwood to David Mitchell have all cited Ursula K le Guin as having influenced their writing.
18. Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, and Strategies (2014) — Nick Bostrom
Nick Bostrom is a Swedish philosopher at Oxford who works at the intersection of technology and philosophy. Besides his impressive academic CV in the field of philosophy, Bostrom also holds an MSc in computational neuroscience from King’s College, London.
Superintelligence is not an easy book to read, but it is certainly one where the reader is rewarded for their efforts with startlingly original insights.
The book addresses one of the most important questions facing mankind in the age of self-driving cars — will machines evolve with time to supersede human intelligence, and eventually replace humans as the dominant life form on the earth?
The answers Bostrom gives are not very pleasant, with both Elon Musk and Bill Gates lending their support to Bostrom’s thesis and declaring that superintelligence is a greater threat to mankind than nuclear weapons.
19. Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity (2014) — Katherine Boo
The grisly spectacle of India’s crushing poverty has held a morbid fascination for the Western mind ever since the colonial encounter. One would imagine that the fount of morbidity would have run dry by now, having reached its pinnacle with Slumdog Millionaire. And yet, Pulitzer Prize-winning American journalist Katherine Boo managed to produce an account of life in the Mumbai slums that stands out on its own, opening up a world that feels familiar, yet strange, even to an Indian reader.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers follows the lives of several characters who live in Annawadi, a slum created on land belonging to Mumbai international airport.
It is easy to dismiss the book as yet another product of the oriental gaze and White Saviour Complex, but it is at the same time a deeply moving look at a side of India the Anglophone Indian is increasingly getting alienated from.
Katherine Boo spent four years from 2007 to 2011 in Annawadi documenting the lives of its slums. Behind the Beautiful Forevers won America’s National Book Award 2012 in the non-fiction category.
20. No Presents Please: Mumbai Stories (2017) — Jayanth Kaikini
Jayanth Kaikini is a Kannada poet, short story writer, and lyricist in Kannada cinema. Having won four Karnataka Sahitya Akademi awards, Kaikini is an established presence in the Kannada literary world.
With No Presents Please, translated into English by Tejaswini Niranjana, Kaikini broke through the language barrier that has been the bane of Indian literature in regional languages.
The book went on to win the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature in 2018, beating competition from established writers in English such as Mohsin Hamid, Manu Joseph and Kamila Shamsie.
A collection of 16 stories set in Mumbai, No Presents Please is like a tender gaze at a city of chaos and violence where life sprouts from cracks in concrete pavements despite the millions of feet that step over it everyday.
21 Human Chain (2010) — Seamus Heaney
Seamus Heaney was the last of the great poets of the twentieth century, in the line of T S Eliot, W B Yeats, Pablo Neruda and Sylvia Plath. Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995, Heaney, who passed away in 2013, was widely recognised as among the greatest poets in the world during his lifetime.
Human Chain is his twelfth and final collection of poetry. Published three years before his death, the poems in the collection grapple with issues of death, loss of memory and the struggle against forgetting, and the consolation that poetry provides against the tragedy of it all.
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