Kamalpreet Singh Gill explains why he enjoyed these 10 books in English that came out last year.
Which were the best books of 2018 across different genres? The contenders were many, but the most fascinating books touched on subjects as diverse as Tulsidas’ Ramcharitmanas, the space rivalry between Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, a little-known Sikh maharaja, who gave up his kingdom for the nation and faith, and a secret history of targeted assassinations carried out by Israel. Read on to find out more.
1. The Billionaire Raj: A Journey Through India’s New Gilded Age
James Crabtree begins this story of twenty-first century India with the December 2013 Mumbai car crash in which it was alleged, a young member of the Ambani family was involved. The crash involved an Aston Martin registered under the name of Reliance Ports, a Reliance Group company.
Crabtree, then a journalist with The Financial Times based in Mumbai began casually investigating the case and soon found himself arriving at a reckoning of the incredible wealth combined with political power that India’s super-rich wielded. The stark juxtaposition of this immense wealth with the crushing poverty that coexists with it in India’s sprawling megapolises is a story Crabtree tells with a flourish.
The book’s subtitle, India’s New Gilded Age is a reference to the period of American history from 1870-1900, when led by its new intrepid explorer-entrepreneurs such as the Rockefellers, the Vanderbilts and the Carnegies, who made their money in railroads, oil and steel, America rose to become the world’s biggest economy. At the same time, its cities were crammed with waves of immigrants, who lived in squalor and worked impossibly long hours in its factories at meagre pay.
For Crabtree, the present time is India’s own ‘gilded age’ with its own curious mix of powerful billionaires, indigent masses and growing international clout. He calls the newly-minted Indian billionaires ‘Bollygarchs’ — a spinoff of the term Oligarch, more commonly used for post-Soviet Russian oil billionaires, who own enough wealth to influence political outcomes, and often do.
Today, there are over a hundred dollar billionaires in India, who coexist with some of the highest levels of extreme poverty in the world. How this extreme wealth was tied to the ‘season of scams’ that included the Commonwealth Games scam, the spectrum scam, the coal scam among others, is the subject matter of Crabtree’s gripping story.
2. Half The Night Is Gone
Do religious texts have a life of their own, one that can be held up as a mirror to the lives of its readers for ages to come? What is the mysterious power that certain books wield over the lives of men and women, even centuries after they were first told?
These are some of the questions that Amitabha Bagchi sets out to answer in his brilliant novel about frayed relationships, young nations and ancient texts, spanning more than a century. Half the Night is Gone is, perhaps, the most engaging Indian fiction in English published in 2018. It’s protagonist is not a person, but a 500-year-old text — Tulsidas’ Ramcharitmanas which, according to Philip Lutgendorf has been referred to by scholars as not just “the greatest modern Indian epic but as something like a living sum of Indian cultures”.
Around the Ramcharitmanas, Bagchi weaves a captivating tale of the rise and fall of three generations of a family and its dependants, a microcosm for the story of the Indian nation itself in the twentieth century. It is no secret that contemporary Indian literary fiction in English is in a state of crisis, churning out endless stereotypes of the ‘spices and monsoon’ variety couched in pretty language that get feted in the same old literary circles.
Bagchi has been able to break through this mould of exoticising India, perhaps because he is an outsider of sorts to the traditional cliques of the Indian English literary establishment — he makes his living teaching computer science at IIT Delhi, where his research interests include data algorithms, networks and probability. This, perhaps, explains why Half the Night is Gone feels like a breath of fresh air even though it deals with a 500-year-old epic and a 100-year-old decaying family.
3. Rise And Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations
Ronen Bergman is one of Israel’s foremost investigative journalists and military analysts, who presently works for The New York Times. At the outset, Bergman makes it clear that his book is not an official history of the Mossad.
In fact, once the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) got wind of Bergman’s project, they went to great lengths to ensure that all channels of information available to Bergman were shut down. Yet, Bergman managed to put together this riveting account, thanks to what he calls a ‘national instinct’ in Israel — the tendency among those involved in acts of violence, to at once, be secretive, and yet be compelled to boast about an act performed in the defence of the Israeli nation.
Milking this instinct to the full with the help of his impressive journalistic resources, 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.
In the book, 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.
Despite the endlessly fascinating inside stories that make this book a page turner, 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.
4. The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life
David Quammen is an award-winning science writer with numerous books on natural history to his credit. In The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life, Quammen turns his attention to one of the most strongly held beliefs about our life on the planet — Darwin’s evolutionary tree. Charles Darwin in his theory of evolution surmised that life on Earth evolves in the form of a tree sprouting newer branches — genes are passed down vertically from one generation to the next just as a tree grows vertically up from the ground.
Quammen challenges this notion, and to back his claims, he draws on the path-breaking work of some of the most brilliant scientists working in the field of biology including Carl Woese, who discovered a whole new category of life called Archaea in 1977, Oswald Avery, Lynus Margulis among others. Quammen proposes that genes are passed down in all sorts of ways — horizontally, vertically, and even between different kingdoms of life, making the vertical Darwinian tree a redundant notion.
The implications of such a tangled tree are immense for our present and future — for instance horizontal gene transfers explain the growing crisis of antibiotic resistance bacteria, and more importantly, multiple drug resistant superbacteria — or superbugs — a crisis that has forced even the World Health Organization to sit up and advocate urgent action.
5. A Political Biography of Maharaja Ripudaman Singh Of Nabha: Paramountcy, Patriotism, and Panth
In most of our narratives of the Indian nationalist movement, the erstwhile princely states and their rulers are depicted as either the oppressors, or as the lackeys of the oppressive British colonial state. By digging deep into the life of a lesser-known Sikh prince, historians J S Grewal and Indu Banga have shown that within the space available to them, Indian princes were not always left untouched by the nationalist movement, and often made big sacrifices.
Nabha was a small Sikh princely state in Punjab, and like all other princely states was subject to accept the paramountcy of the British crown. Ripudaman Singh Nabha acceded to the throne of Nabha in 1911, and from the very beginning became a thorn in the side of the British crown, scrapping with the viceroy for every little vestige of sovereignty that he believed was his due as the leader of his people.
For instance, immediately after his accession, a minor crisis arose when he refused to have his coronation ceremony solemnised in the presence of the British political agent, as was the rule dictated by the crown.
As the First World War broke out, Ripudaman Singh dragged his feet over contributing Nabha state forces to the British war effort, much to the chagrin of the viceroy. As a member of the viceroy’s Imperial Legislative Council, Ripudaman Singh began to talk in increasingly strident terms about the Indian national interest. These minor acts of rebellion eventually became more than the British crown could take, and he was asked to step down from the throne, to avoid a full-on confrontation with the crown.
Ripudaman Singh acquiesced, and headed to Hazoor Sahib in Nanded, Maharashtra, where he took the Khalsa initiation rights and continued to be critical of the British. He was finally formally deposed by the crown and banished to the hill station of Kodaikanal in Tamil Nadu, where he breathed his last. This book is an academic study of this fascinating, but little-known figure in Indian history, a king who gave up his kingdom for his nation and his faith. Students of the political dynamics of colonial India would find this work a delight to read.
This extraordinary novel about lives caught in violent conflict, told with a dark, understated humour won the Man Booker Prize this year. The book had been reviewed by Swarajya and predicted as a favourite to win, prior to the announcement of the awards.
Set during the time of ‘The Troubles’ in an unnamed country, though we soon know that the country is Northern Ireland, and ‘The Troubles’ are the eponymous Irish troubles, Anna Burns shows how the greatest victims of a society torn asunder by political violence are those that suffer in silence — the women, the children, the working classes, and the countless without names. Burns’ genius lies in telling this tale of violence and bloodshed without resorting to the gloom and pathos that one would normally associate with the subject matter.
Instead, Burns tells her story with an absurdist humour that flows naturally from her ensemble of oddball characters, the chief among whom is the milkman, and the struggles of the protagonist, a young girl, to find her way through a society bent on controlling her life, her body, and her freedom.
7. Girls Are Coming Out Of The Woods
Like Anna Burns’ The Milkman, the female body and the myriad forms of violence it suffers provide the raw material out of which poet Tishani Doshi weaves her craft. Born in Chennai to a Welsh mother and Gujarati father, Doshi has published two collections of poems and novel, The Pleasure Seekers that was longlisted for the Orange Prize for fiction. In her latest collection of poems, the subjects Doshi touches upon are several, and instantly recognisable to any consumer of contemporary culture.
From the unreal standards of beauty women’s ageing bodies are forced to comply with, to the brutal Nirbhaya incident in Delhi, Doshi takes the reader through this journey in prose that is both raw and sublime at the same time. While comparisons with the #metoo movement become inevitable due to the subject matter, these poems were published before the popular online protests took the Internet by storm.
Doshi’s poems also take the reader across different geographies, places where the poet grew up, and places she travelled to — Calcutta, Madras, Gwangju — each one a meditation on things as diverse as the death of a friend, white hair, Patrick Swayze, and childhood.
8. The Square and the Tower: Networks, Hierarchies, and the Struggle for Global Power
Early on in his latest book, Niall Ferguson quotes Clint Eastwood’s character from film The Good, The Bad and The Ugly — “there are two kinds of people my friend. Those with loaded guns and those who dig. You dig.” Ferguson declared that for most of history life has been hierarchical like the situation described in this movie scene. A few have enjoyed the privileges that come from monopolising violence. The rest have dug.
However, wherever this hierarchy has been challenged by horizontally-placed networks, the result has been revolution, disruption and innovation. Thus begins Ferguson’s fascinating history of the world, spanning medieval Italy, the sixteenth century Vijayanagara Empire, the British East India Company and culminating in the dominance of Facebook and Amazon down to our day.
The title of the book comes from the architectural design of medieval Italian towns, where a vertical tower representing hierarchical secular power stood right next to, and, overshadowing the square where market transactions and other forms of network-like public exchange took place. Ferguson thus sets about reconceptualising world history as a struggle between hierarchies and networks.
Based on this history, Ferguson also makes some interesting predictions about what the world of the future would look like. For instance, now that it is clear, networks drive innovation, which in turn power economic growth, would hierarchies completely disappear? Not quite. As Ferguson, the die-hard conservative points out, the problem with networks is that they are not “easily directed towards a common objective that requires concentration of resources in space and time” within large organisations like armies, bureaucracies and factories. Networks may be innovative but they are not strategic.
The Second World War, for instance, could not have been won by a network. Giving the example of the rise of today’s corporate megafirms like Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google — for which he uses the acronym FANG, Ferguson argues that the networks spawned by these firms have created market monopolies, to which the only resistance has come from Chinese firms — Baidu, Alibaba and Tencents or BAT — that have been allowed the space to grow by a hierarchically-organised state by denying access to the FANG network to Chinese consumers.
This battle between FANG and BAT is, in Ferguson’s view, a continuation of the ancient struggle between network and hierarchy, between the square and the tower.
9. The Space Barons: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and the Quest to Colonize the Cosmos
When the Apollo 11 took the first two men on moon in 1969, its rocket powered the space shuttle into space, then fell away into the sea. On its way back to Earth, the astronauts again had to be dropped into the sea with parachutes, from where a waiting aircraft carrier picked them up.
The first Space Age was kicked off almost 50 years ago but a fundamental problem of space flights had remained beyond the reach of the mighty American and Soviet military industrial complexes — how to get a rocket in space, and land it back safely on terra firma.
To billionaires Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, the practice of discarding a rocket once it had launched a shuttle into space was a wasteful one, akin to destroying a plane once you had landed at the airport. It was to solving this old problem some of the most eccentric billionaires on the planet devoted their vast financial and intellectual resources.
Thus began the second space age, with the old Russo-American rivalry replaced by the rivalry between Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Elon Musk of Tesla, Richard Branson of Virgin Atlantic and Paul Allen of Microsoft. The first such ‘vertical’ landing of a space vehicle was accomplished in 2015 by Jeff Bezos. Twenty-eight days later, Elon Musk and his Space-X accomplished the second vertical landing.
The achievements were revolutionary — something the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), with all the resources of the most powerful nation on Earth could not achieve in 50 years had been accomplished twice within a month by private companies. This book by Christian Davenport is a fascinating account of this rivalry, and what it portends for the future.
10. 21 Lessons For The 21st Century
Ever since the publication of his 2014 bestseller Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, the Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari has become the prophet of modern human behaviour. His first two books collectively sold over 12 million copies and have been translated into 45 languages, making him one of the most remarkable publishing phenomena of our times.
It is no wonder that when Harari makes statements like “Homo Sapiens, as we know them, will disappear in a century or so”, the world sits up and listens. In his third book, Harari turns his attention to some of the most pressing issues of the twenty-first century — immigration, big data, terrorism, secularism, war, religion, fake news and machines taking up our jobs. Each issue is dealt with Harari’s trademark mixing of erudition with the knack of a storyteller.
The result is an unputdownable book that takes the reader on a broad tour of human history and often comes up with uncomfortable answers.
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