Cover Story | Best of 2022: Books: Foreword
A Mind of Their Own
Life Ceremony | The Years | The Trees | The Birth Lottery and Other Surprises | The Last White Man
16 Dec, 2022
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
THIS HAS BEEN A significant year for literature in the subcontinent with two big wins. Tomb of Sand by Geetanjali Shree, translated by Daisy Rockwell, is the first translation from India to win the International Booker Prize. And Sri Lankan author Shehan Karunatilaka won the Booker Prize for The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida. The 47-year-old author is only the second Sri Lankan writer to get the Booker.
With every compilation of favourite books, one is always surprised at the scarcity of overlaps. Which shows the sheer variety of choices at hand. And which also raises the question of what is the book of the year? Is it the book that wins awards? Or is it simply a book that resonates at a personal level? It is the rare book that occurs in more than one personal list. Tomb of Sand features more than once in the coming pages, as do Hindutva and Violence by Vinayak Chaturvedi, BN Goswamy’s Conversations, and Land, Guns, Caste, Woman by Gita Ramaswamy.
While the overlaps are interesting, the standout feature is the sheer diversity in individual tastes and choices. Different books move readers in different ways. At the end of the year, as we look back at what we’ve gained and what we’ve lost, we can mark time with the books that we have read. The books that I hold dear at the end of 2022 are not only those which made me laugh or sigh, but also those which provided relief and escape from the here and now.
I’m seldom drawn to the grotesque, but I found Life Ceremony by the Japanese author Sayaka Murata (Granta Books) both unnerving and riveting. She writes of the extremes in the most deadpan manner. Given how outlandish each story is, one falls into a Murataesque world where the deceased are eaten to honour them, and the veil of a bride is fashioned from a dead father-in-law’s skin. All of it is beyond the pale, but the cool tone makes it sound ‘real’. It is difficult to read more than a story a day, but these slim helpings burn themselves into one’s memory.
In France, Annie Ernaux has been a celebrity for many years. Her 2022 Nobel Prize win has now (rightly) brought her greater prominence. I am guilty of reading her only after she’d been awarded, and what a pleasure it has been. I started with The Years, (Seven Stories Press) published in 2008. A chronicle of the years from 1941 to 2006, it is rightly classified under both the categories of memoir/ biography and European World History. The book is more than a memoir as she speaks in the voice of her generation.
Percival Everett’s The Trees (Influx Press), which was on the Booker shortlist, combines the extremes of Murata and the historical scope of Ernaux. It is a novel that is hilarious and horrifying as it documents the history of lynchings in the US. It reads like a murder mystery, where the brutalised bodies of white males are found in the rural town of Money, Mississippi. But at each site of murder, there is a second body; that of a man who resembles Emmett Till, a young Black boy lynched in the same town 65 years before. Novels should never be placards, and The Trees is a masterful satire that reveals the horrors of racism in the US.
It is the big books and big idea novels that most often win attention and acclaim. But at times the ‘smaller’ books can be the scene stealers. The Birth Lottery and Other Surprises by Shehan Karunatilaka (Hachette) is a real gem. Karunatilaka’s Seven Moons… has catapulted him into a new level of stardom, and, hopefully, curious readers will now pick up his short stories too. The stories have been written over decades and have no unifying theme, other than the fact that they’re all set in Sri Lanka. The stories are both immensely fun and truly modern. The variety is sumptuous. It’s not a buffet, more like a bento box—neat and tightly packed. A few stories are just a page long, one is written entirely as text messages. There is a story on what the lack of a hug can do, another on penis politics in an office and a third about how domestic help are treated by their employers.
At less than 200 pages, Mohsin Hamid’s The Last White Man (Hamish Hamilton) is a strangely affecting book. One morning, young Anders wakes up to find that his skin has turned dark. The premise of waking up as a new being is not novel. But The Last White Man is both a smart and complex rumination about how the colour of one’s skin influences how we see ourselves, our loved ones and those around us.
The books mentioned above and those that you will read about in the following pages are born from personal choices and proclivities. But they’ve one thing in common—which Pakistani author Hamid identified as true to fiction—“they have a strange power…that enables [them] to destabilise the collective imaginings we inherit and reproduce.”
Here, we celebrate the books that destabilise the norm.
Artificial Intelligence Is Like Allopathy Rajeev Srinivasan
The City of Loss Somak Ghoshal
What A Song and Dance Kaveree Bamzai