My Year In Books: A Lockdown Reading List
2020 seemed like a never-ending year. It was a year of learning and unlearning. It forced many of us to slow down and evaluate what really mattered. As a reader, I mainly read Indian fiction and women writers. I have a soft spot for translations and Dalit literature. These are choices I make consciously in my search to understand gendered and subaltern experiences. I believe that reading can shift the status quo by bringing about a change in our perception of reality and history.
This list is a compilation of the small things that I have learnt from the books I read, the conversations they started for me and the changes they brought in my thinking. Reading opens up new worlds, it tells me about other people’s lives, their experiences, how they see the world and I, in turn, learn to be more empathetic by understanding their realities. I am pushed to see beyond my small world, clouded with privileges, biases and prejudices – conscious or subconscious. The list is in the order of when I read the books in 2020.
‘Bombay Balchão’ by Jane Borges
This has got to be my book of the year! ‘Bombay Balchão’ was a book that I related to on so many levels. Growing up in Bandra, I have been surrounded by Catholics most of my life and have often taken for granted the rich histories built by the merging influences of the British, Portuguese and the Mangloreans, Goans and the local East Indians. Jane Borges beautifully explores these nuances in the locale of Cavel, Bombay which was shaped by these migrant histories. The book is a light read that weaves in historical reportage and local stories together seamlessly. It also made me curious about my Goan heritage. You can read more about it in my review of the book here.
‘The Glass Palace’ by Amitav Ghosh
When we think of colonisation and its far-reaching tentacles, we rarely talk about the huge number of Indians that were taken as indentured labourers to work in British colonies. There were also the more elite sections of Indian society who settled in countries like Burma and South Africa. ‘The Glass Palace’ by Amitav Ghosh documents in fiction, a history of over a hundred years from the British Invasion of Burma to the fall of the empire and World War II. For me, the highlight of the book was the alternate personal histories that were intertwined with larger global events.
‘When I Hit You: Or A Portrait Of The Writer As A Young Wife’ by Meena Kandasamy
‘When I Hit You’ was my first introduction to the strong and powerful political fiction of Meena Kandasamy. In the novel, the protagonist narrates her ordeal of being married to a Marxist lecturer. Through the marriage, her voice was silenced as her husband tried to beat her identity as a woman, an individual and writer out of her. The novel also shows you how devastating not just physical abuse can be, but also how mental abuse works towards debilitating one’s identity. Kandasamy through her exploration of the interiors of marriage also answers an important question that most domestic violence survivors are asked which is ‘why didn’t you just leave?’ The story is one of perseverance and survival and shows that ultimately the writer has the final word.
‘Flaneuse: Women Walk The City In Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London’ by Lauren Elkin
During my Masters, it was brought to my attention that the way our bodies move in the city is different according to our gender and social location. Lauren Elkin through well researched and interesting anecdotes traces how women move through cities. Starting from writers like George Sand And Jean Rhys, she observes women’s creative process in relation to their encounters with the cities. I started reading this book when India went into lockdown due to Covid-19. With the streets bare even during the day and most individuals masked, the once safe streets where I could casually roam wearing clothing of my choice suddenly seemed less accessible to me. Flanueuse is stunning non-fiction for its style and depth of research. It’s Indian counterpart ‘Why Loiter: Women And Risk On Mumbai Streets’ by Sameera Khan, Shilpa Phadke and Shilpa Ranade is next on my reading list.
‘We Should All Be Feminists’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
After her powerful TEDx talk on ‘The Danger Of A Single Story,’ Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has converted her second talk into the essay ‘We Should All Be Feminists’. This is a must-read for every young girl and woman as it defines feminism for today’s generation. A short read, Adichie’s simple language and style is relatable and sets a marker for inclusion, awareness and diversity in her exploration of what it means to be a woman in the 21st century.
‘A Gujarat Here, A Gujarat There’ by Krishna Sobti Translated by Daisy Rockwell
Krishna Sobit’s part autobiography, part feminist novel traces the journey of a young independent working woman at the time of the Partition. The novel beautifully aligns the coming into being of the nation with Krishna’s coming of age. The novel marks a departure from the stories of violence of women as narrated by men and reveals a personal history at a unique time in history. The shifting narration, the multiple self-identities shows a woman finding herself and defining a new age Indian woman.
‘Rising Heat by Perumal Murugan’ Translated by Janani Kannan
Perumal Murugan’s stunning debut novel explores the costs of urban development. The stunning translation captures the hurdles of the family who shift away from their land and the ensuing costs to the family. The story is told from the careful observations of the young boy Selvan whose attachment to the land and his growing loneliness shape the novel. The book warns us against the development that comes at the cost of destroying the social fabric of the community. With the new money also comes the surrounding greed and jealousy, The familial dynamics change with the splitting of families and communities and even fighting over the right to bury one’s dead.
‘Ants Among Elephants’ by Sujatha Gidla
Sujatha Gidla in her memoir traces three generations of her family’s history which is also deeply intertwined with the history of the communist movement of India. I was reading this book at the time when the New Education Policy 2020 was announced. The book thus raised very pertinent questions for me as to what is the role of education in today’s social mobility and how does our education system take into account our histories of caste and multiple languages. Gidla’s mother who was a teacher faced severe hardships and the memoir stands as a testimony to the contributions of Dalits in the making of modern India.
‘Azadi: Freedom. Fascism. Fiction.‘ By Arundhati Roy
Arundhati Roy’s essays are thoroughly scathing and hold back no bars when it comes to breaking down how fascism and growing intolerance grips the country today. As a country, we have faced several challenges this year besides COVID- 19. We have seen some of the largest protests starting the year with the Anti-CAA protests which were stalled when we went into lockdown and the year ending with the farmer protests. The large migrant labour exodus due to a badly planned lockdown also made visible the inequality of our social structures. Roy’s essays are a must-read as they highlight the importance of dissent and resistance.
‘Temporary People’ By Deepak Unnikrishnan
Deepak Unnikrishnan’s brilliant use of magical realism in many of the stories in this collection is unlike anything I have read before in Indian literature. His playful use of language and meanings captures the unique gulf experience. Growing up, my father was often away for long periods as he worked in the oil rigs in the Gulf. He would often talk about the tough life and the paradoxes of the Gulf where Coca-Cola was cheaper than water. The stories in some ways helped me relate to his experiences and the sense of disconnect that gulf families go through.
About the author
Rhea was born and raised in Mumbai. She has completed her Masters in English at SNDT Women’s University. Her key research interests are postcolonial studies, mainly focussing on women’s narratives and their experience of citizenship. She loves to dance, eat cake and have long conversations.