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So many books, so little time.
DOG-EARED

The best books Quartz India read in 2017

By Quartz Staff

In a year of covering everything from the aftermath of the goods and services tax to the rise and fall of startups to the blossoming of artisanal food movements across the country, reporters at Quartz India did manage to squeeze in some time to read a few books.

2017 marked the year we discovered more about Indian history, design, and culture, as well as politics and business. One of us also became a new parent, and discovered a whole world of excellent reads for raising well-adjusted kids. So here’s our list of the best books we read in 2017:

Pukka Indian by Jahnvi Lakhóta Nandan

Published by Roli Books this year, Pukka Indian collects the stories of 100 quintessentially Indian objects, from Mysore sandal soap to the Godrej almirah to the Hindustan Ambassador, tracing the evolution of local design  through the years. With its vibrant photographs by Shivani Gupta, the book made me take a second look at the objects I take for granted at home or on the street. Who knew, for instance, that the Godrej typewriter now relegated to a few notaries in certain Indian neighbourhoods was once a revolutionary product, designed with keyboards in multiple languages so users could type in Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati, Tamil, Telugu, and Kannada, besides English.

Maria Thomas, lifestyle and culture writer. 

City of Djinns A Year in Delhi by William Dalrymple

The historian’s second book first came out in 1993 but it was re-issued this year with a new introduction. In it, Dalrymple reflects upon the transformation of the national capital from an “almost rural” town to a massive metropolis, mostly in the news for its toxic air. The rich history of Delhi, from ancient civilisations to the Mughal era, the British Raj, and beyond, seems further away than ever in the hi-tech, glass-and-steel world of 2017. It’s also interesting that this disconnect between the past and present was evident back when Dalrymple began writing the book, too. In nine chapters, he writes of his own experience as an expat and his search for the surviving legacies of each period of the city’s history, creating a portrait of another time that is fascinating to read today.—Maria Thomas, lifestyle and culture writer. 

Political Violence in Ancient India by Upinder Singh

Simply put, this scholarly work places violence (and non-violence) in the Indian historical context. The author’s assertion comes pat in the beginning: the myth of a non-violent ancient India and how it was a product of the India freedom movement. Singh then dives deep into Indian texts and scriptures to revive the questions, doubts, and debates around the idea of political violence. And what she reveals is a sobering account that makes us sit up and confront our past and mull over the present. For, like always, what we have are shades of grey, not black and white.

Harish C Menon, desk editor.

How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish

Gentle parenting is a relatively new concept for Indians as it is common here for parents, teachers, and even elder siblings to whip children to “set them right.” But this book offers practical ideas for effectively communicating with a kid without making her feel inferior. There are brilliant insights into how a child perceives what she hears, which helped me empathise with my baby. The illustrations (reader-friendly comic format) cover almost all the tough situations a parent can be in. And why just kids? I feel this book has helped me communicate better in general because I have inculcated several of its learnings into daily life.

Itika Sharma Punit, technology editor.  

The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut Jr

I don’t consider myself a true science-fiction fan but Vonnegut’s cynical narrative of a journey through space that questions the purpose of life has turned me into one. The book is centred on a character named Malachi Constant, who is offered a journey into the far reaches of space by Winston Niles Rumfoord, a space explorer. Through a phenomenon called “chrono-synclastic infundibulum,” Rumfoord has the ability to travel through space and time and predict events of the future. Armed with this knowledge, Rumfoord sets out on an ambitious mission to wage a war between Earth and Mars, for a well-planned defeat of the latter in order to bring earthlings closer to each other and to bring in a new religion across the Earth.

Vonnegut’s wit and black humour make this fast-paced travel through space engaging and entertaining. But what is most gripping about Vonnegut’s account are the existential questions about life and free-will that the author’s narrative raises.

Suneera Tandon, consumer writer.  

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

Warning: If you’re looking for a book that will cheer you up, this one is probably not for you. Set in the mid 1970s, in an undisclosed Indian town by the sea, this book captures the lives of four individuals who are continuously struggling to strike a far-from-perfect balance in their lives. In the critical Emergency era that’s marred by political unrest, the book chronicles the protagonists’ lives as they are tragically upturned. What is particularly striking is that, four decades later, the issues raised in the book about caste, gender-power struggles, and the futility of several economic policies that aren’t inclusive, still remain painfully true. Reading this book this year was a bitter reminder that though a lot has changed in India since then, many things haven’t.

Nupur Anand, policy and finance writer. 

Arun Kolatkar and Literary Modernism in India by Laetitia Zecchini

There are countless books about the writers of London, Paris, and New York City, but until recently there were hardly any about the writers of Bombay (now Mumbai). And yet, India’s financial capital was once home to a thriving literary subculture, characterised by anti-establishment “little magazines” and presses set up by poets to publish their own work. In 2014, the French scholar Laetitia Zecchini released a comprehensive study of one of the central figures of this community, the billingual poet Arun Kolatkar, whose pioneering works focused on the mundane, everyday details of Indian life would have made him a household name in any other country. It might seem weird to read an academic study, but Zecchini’s book is really more of a literary travelogue, one that takes you back to a bohemian time when writers flocked to Kala Ghoda, wiling away the hours talking about books and literary life.

Maria Thomas, lifestyle and culture writer. 

Army and the Nation by Steve I Wilkinson

Most Indians are brought up on a staple diet of legends, myths, and misconceptions about their country’s army. For most civilians, it is a monolithic beast that somehow miraculously absorbs the best from the nation to protect it. Wilkinson’s book puts in plain sight a far more nuanced understanding of one of the country’s most respected institutions. The book explores its constituents, recruitment patterns, colonial history, its mirror image in Pakistan, and other such aspects with some meticulous research. It also gives us a real understanding of what and how modern India’s founding fathers did to ensure that this powerful element of the newborn nation remains firmly under civilian supremacy—unlike in the neighbouring country.

Harish C Menon, desk editor.

Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls: 100 Tales of Extraordinary Women by Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo

Bedtime stories are the first piece of literature a human is exposed to and I believe these go a long way in shaping a person’s idea of the world. Sadly, most of the bedtime stories that my generation read as kids were about girls being rescued by knights in shining armour—and then they lived happily ever after.

Well, that’s not what I want my daughter to believe. I’d rather have her aspire to be her own knight, and this book just fits the bill. It tells stories of real women—mathematicians, painters, writers, astronauts, rulers, and warriors—who became high achievers through hard work and determination. A great thing about the book is that while it tells real stories, the narrative and the illustrations have an element of fantasy, and so it’s not boring like a history book. It has become my go-to gift for all the kids in my circle (I’ve bought eight copies in the last nine months!)

Itika Sharma Punit, technology editor.  

The Konyaks Last of the Tattooed Headhunters by Phejin Konyak

Written by the great-grand-daughter of a Konyak headhunter, this book is a comprehensive account of the history and traditions of what was once one of the most feared tribes living in the hills of Nagaland. For the Konyaks, headhunting was a way of life, but the arrival of Christian missionaries changed that. Today, most of the surviving members of the tribe are Baptist Christians, and their ancient customs and traditions, which include detailed facial tattoos, are gradually fading away. Besides being an essential record of a disappearing culture, the book also showcases just how diverse India really is.

Maria Thomas, lifestyle and culture writer. 

Incarnations by Sunil Khilnani

One of the most intriguing pictures I have come across in recent times is that of a young MS Subbulakshmi in pyjama-shirt, holding a cigarette in her lips with charming irreverence. For an India that is used to seeing the late doyen of Indian classical music in her strikingly traditional south Indian saris and nose-rings, enchanting the world with her voice, this photo was a revelation. So was her brief history, along with those of 49 key Indians, told by Khilnani. As the author mentions in the introduction, “Incarnations is an experiment in dispelling some of the fog by telling India’s story through 50 remarkable lives.”

Harish C Menon, desk editor.

We welcome your comments and book recommendations at ideas.india@qz.com