THIS HAS BEEN an eventful year in Indian and global politics. As a historian, I have been repeatedly struck by the salience of the past in our turbulent present. Sophia Rosenfeld’s Democracy and Truth: A Short History is an acute analysis of modern democracy’s relationship to truth. By excavating contests over epistemic authority since the advent of modernity, the book illuminates current discussions about populism and disinformation. Adom Getachew’s Worldmaking after Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination is a remarkable history of anticolonial internationalism. Focusing on an extraordinary group of black anglophone thinkers and leaders, Getachew convincingly argues that anticolonial nationalism wasn’t as narrow and pinched-up as its critics hold, but rather aspired to an egalitarian post-imperial world system. The book resonates with our debates on global justice.
Two books stood out on the relationship between economics and democracy. Tobias Straumann’s 1931: Debt, Crisis, and the Rise of Hitler is a superbly researched and highly readable account of financial panic and democratic collapse in Weimar Germany. Katharina Pistor’s The Code of Capital: How the Law Creates Wealth and Inequality is a powerful analysis of the legal structuring of global financial capitalism and its deleterious consequences.
At a time when historical myths and half-truths are brandished to legitimise current politics and policies, we have had some outstanding and timely books on Indian history. Richard M Eaton’s India in the Persianate Age 1000-1765 is a deeply learned and lucid work of historical synthesis and argument by a scholar at the height of his powers. Julia Stephen’s Governing Islam: Law, Empire and Secularism in South Asia is an incisive account of the transformation of Muslim law under the impact of colonialism. Its treatment of ideas about religion and gender, custom and economy provide essential historical context to discussions of personal law and civil codes. Read it alongside Joan Wallach Scott’s brilliantly provocative Sex & Secularism. The Oxford India Short Introductions series has two excellent titles: Jawaharlal Nehru by Rudrangshu Mukherjee and Kashmir by Chitralekha Zutshi. Everyone should read them.
I haven’t read much fiction this year, but I was thoroughly charmed by Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s Severina. Khaled Khalifa’s Death Is Hard Work was a memorable account of death and life in war-torn Syria. Eric Vuillard’s The Order of the Day is a genre-defying narrative of the run-up to World War II. Edouard Louis’ Who Killed My Father? is another such attempt at diagnosing the present moment of ‘populist’ disaffection.