In India, 2019 would perhaps be remembered for political, social, and corporate upheavals. Books about casteism in comedy, the Ayodhya temple court verdict, and the Ratan Tata-Cyrus Mistry controversy found their way into our stories this year. India also sent the Mangalyaan 2 to Mars, and we chronicled the historic photographs from India’s various space missions.
Quartz India editors and writers read more books than they possibly could write about. Some of us read about love, others read to our children, and others still found our love for animals recreated in books. Some were new releases, some old classics or books we revisited.
Here are the books that kept us hooked in 2019:
Becoming, by Michelle Obama
I have always found the former US first lady’s public appearances motivating and often fun. Whether it’s her speeches at universities and events to honour American war veterans or her push-up challenge with Ellen Degeneres, I have lapped up a lot of content featuring her on YouTube. But reading Becoming brought me closer to her in ways I never imagined.
On the face of it, Obama and I have nothing in common: She grew up as a black person in the US of the 1960s and 1970s, while I had a privileged childhood in the 1980s and 1990s in India, reading about racism only in textbooks. She is a two-time FLOTUS who lived in the White House for eight years, while I have only seen the official residence of the US president as a tourist from a distance.
Yet, we were both once young girls with big dreams. And now, we are both daughters, wives, and mothers. I found so much in Becoming that I could relate to and learn from. In fact, there are parts of the book that I have re-read, remember, and quote frequently. My favourite sentence being:
For every door that’s been opened to me, I’ve tried to open my door to others.
I hope to practice it each day as we enter the new year. (Side note: another thing common between Obama and I is our love for growing plants.)
—Itika Sharma Punit, co-editor
Oh, The Places You’ll Go by Dr Seuss
Dr Seuss has often been my go-to writer when it comes to books for my almost-three-year-old daughter. This particular story blows my mind each time I read it. In simple, sing-song lyrics, the book talks about the journey of life and its challenges. It talks about big successes and epic failures and how there’s life beyond everything. It’s great that my daughter’s generation has access to such texts, unlike me, who was brought up on sexist and racist fairy tales. In fact, in the context of the current social-economic turmoil in India, I feel these lines sum up my message to her:
You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself, any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.
—Itika Sharma Punit, co-editor
The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Way back in the day, I used to read Ruskin Bond’s short stories. 2019 was the year I rediscovered the genre with this book. The Nigerian author wrote this book a decade ago but I came across it only now. Truly, better late than never. Especially because the world doesn’t seem to have changed much since.
What a dazzling depiction of lives in Nigeria and the US, spanning stories of family, fidelity, faith, and more. Each separate story is tied with the invisible thread of Adichie’s powerful voice—the kind mainstream literature doesn’t always give breathing room to.
In my personal life, I knew nobody like the characters she has etched until I read her books. Now, it feels like all of them and their sorrows are mine to carry. The stories feel so real that next time you pass someone on the street, you will feel a deep sense of sonder you didn’t know you were capable of expressing. Although I’m usually not a fan of the format, The Thing Around Your Neck (along with Haruki Murakami’s Men Without Women—a collection of seven short stories about lovesick doctors, students, ex-boyfriends, actors, bartenders, and even Kafka’s Gregor Samsa—that I also read this year) has restored my faith in the genre.
—Ananya Bhattacharya, writer
The Patient Assassin by Anita Anand
Murder, revenge, aliases, and a death sentence. These are generally not tropes you expect from literature around the British Raj in India. Anita Anand’s The Patient Assassin, however, masterfully weaves the qualities of a potboiler into a meticulously researched tome on Udham Singh, the man who avenged the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1919 by killing General Michael O’Dwyer.
Anand’s prose about historical events is like that of an artful fiction writer. For most Indians, General Reginald Dyer is the culprit behind the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, where the British Indian Army opened fire on a peaceful crowd, locking them in by blocking the single narrow exit out of the park in Amritsar. O’Dwyer’s role is mostly unknown.
The author etches out the lives of Singh, a low-caste Punjabi man, and O’Dwyer, a Catholic Irishman, as happening simultaneously yet independently. The brutal destruction of Punjab’s economy, the crippling effects of World War I on the poor Indian foot soldiers, and the hubris of the empire are all told through the life of O’Dwyer.
For Indians who grew up on tales of Partition, this page-turner is also seminal reading.
—Manavi Kapur, writer
Kachru Rabbit by Sangeeta Gupta and Vinita Krishna
Picking up a book for a five-year-old can be tricky. The story that you read out to your child has to be one of a kind, fun, and mysterious—all at the same time.
The National Book Trust title Kachru Rabbit checks all these boxes. Kachru, the rabbit, loves eating carrots so much that he only grows carrots in his garden. One morning, he wakes up and sees there are no more carrots in the garden. Kachru has finished all of them. He rushes to the market to buy carrot seeds but returns home empty-handed. None of the shopkeepers had the seeds.
His neighbour Matru, a clever rabbit offers help. He gives sad Kachru some seeds. Kachru tends to his garden lovingly hoping to grow lots of carrots. After a few days, Kachru goes to the garden and sees it is covered with round balls layered with green leaves. A worried Kachru tears away the leaves quickly looking for carrots inside the balls. Frustrated, he asks Matru, “Where are my carrots?” His friend says the green vegetable is cabbage and it is as tasty as carrots. He asks Kachru to try them out. An angry Kachru refuses to eat them and accuses Matru of cheating him by giving him the wrong seeds. He goes back home and falls asleep.
A hungry Kachru in his sleep picks up a cabbage lying around his bed and eats it. As he wakes up, he looks at half-eaten leaves in his hands. Kachru is overjoyed as he realises that he relished the taste of this soft and juicy green vegetable. From that day, he started growing all kinds of vegetables in his garden.
Accompanying illustrations captivate the child’s imagination building on the surprise factor in the tale. Without sounding boring and preachy, the amusing story leaves the child with a good habit of trying new things (here food)—a boon for parents running behind their children with meals!
—Sangeeta Tanwar, writer
The Travelling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa
I picked this one thinking about cats and what magnificent creatures they are but never did I expect this book to make me feel so many things at once. I cried, laughed, thought about the extraordinary journey of an ordinary cat, and somewhere in the process, fell in love with this one.
The book is narrated by a cat named Nana, after the resemblance of the bend in his tail with the Japanese number seven. He is a former stray, rescued by a young man, Satoru. But his human soon realises that he won’t be able to take care of Nana, and decides to set off on a journey across Japan to find a loving family for his pet.
As you read on, you learn that even as Satoru is trying to give Nana away, he is developing a strong bond with his feline travel partner. His ardent love for cats has been so beautifully described that you just wonder how amazingly well Hiro Arikawa knows cats. My favourite part is Nana’s narration and the way it takes you through his journey. Even when he gets emotional, Nana does not forget to let go of his sassiness and wit. The book will leave you with a sentimental but warm feeling and is a must-read for these cold, dark winters.
—Niharika Sharma, writer
Someone Who Will Love You in All Your Damaged Glory by Raphael Bob-Waksberg
“Love is hard and love is challenging and love is scary,” said Raphael Bob-Waksberg when describing the thesis of his first published book. “The question of the book is, is it worth it?“
I devoured this book shortly after it was released in June 2019, when I was deep in the throes of unemployment, and I don’t think I’ve ever read a more thorough treatise on love and all its manifestations. Most of the stories in the anthology eschew the traditional short story format—the book begins with a two-page story told entirely through the words of a label on the can of a savoury snack—and hardly resemble a conventional love story. The book approaches the idea of love not through the union of two people or their falling apart, but from the perspective of the complex mental processes that inform our notions of love. Love is all the physical landmarks that we associate with important moments in our lives, love is the list of lies that two people tell each other to keep a relationship afloat, love is a burning desire to make a drastic life change after a romance gone awry. Love is complicated and love is hard.
Bob-Waksberg’s writing style makes it unlike any other love story you’ll ever read. His writing, both for his TV shows and now for this anthology, deals with the roots of mental illnesses and the human desire to form lasting relationships in spite of them.
As technology permeates deeper into our lives and the world hurtles towards impersonal modes of communication, life across the world’s major cities is a lot lonelier than it once was. How can we negotiate our internal struggles with an external desire for love and acceptance? That’s the question this book asked of me (while also making me laugh out loud, Bob-Waksberg is still a comedy writer!) and that’s why this is my book of 2019.
—Sanaya Chandar, intern
Milk Teeth by Amrita Mahale
I have a certain affinity for books where I can identify with a character, in whatever small way. Ira Kamat, one of the protagonists, gave me that connection in Milk Teeth. Kamat is a feisty journalist in the Mumbai of 1990s and is basically a vessel for the collective anger of the residents of a cooperative society building in Matunga, which has come under threat from the landlord and builders. The book often goes back in time, giving the reader the context of Kamat’s relationship with her neighbour and childhood friend Kartik Kini. Split into parts, the story and relationships—and by extension, Mumbai—are viewed through varied eyes. Mahale beautifully highlights just how difficult it gets at times to move on from the past, and analyses the emotional cost of events like the 1993 blasts in the city and the Babri Masjid demolition. “So for most practical purposes, the communal violence that started after the Babri Masjid fell came to an end after the blasts, but the spell of peace that followed felt like hate was only shedding its milk teeth,” Mahale writes.
—Amanat Khullar, news curator & writer