Short story writer and novelist
The book most worth-mentioning is Gopi Chand Narang’s Ghalib -- Maani Afrini, Jadliati Waza, Shoneeta aur Sheriaat. This book is special because so far Ghalib’s sources of inspiration were traced to the Persian tradition. It is the first time that his real sources of inspiration are traced to the Vedantic and the Buddhist philosophic traditions.
There is a researcher of Hindi who worked on Persian poet Bedil and determined that the source of inspiration for this troubled poet is not Persian but Vedantic philosophy. It was Bedil who then inspired Ghalib. In Sanskrit, a lot of work has been done on Vedant and Buddha. These two are said to have inspired both Bedil and Ghalib and their poetry is said to have been directly adapted from these sources.
It’s a voluminous book and Narang has tried to address the question as to whether Ghalib subscribes to the Persian or the Sanskrit tradition. This is absolutely new work, different from all the earlier works done on Ghalib.
The other important book that I read in this year is called Miraji Aur Un Ka Nigarkhana. Written by noted critic Shamim Hanafi, the book has been published in India. He’s written it in the context of the fact that, in recent years, three major poets Ghalib, Faiz and Rashed have been celebrated while Miraji has been ignored. He says that the kind of work that Miraji, who died in his 40s, has done is exemplary. He translated poetry from the East and West, wrote essays and wrote his own poetry too. And he was no small poet. He was a great poet who has been ignored by our literary world. It was the first time that a French intellectual Julien Columeau who saw similarities between Miraji and Baudelaire wrote a novel Miraji Ke Liye. Hanafi has emphasised on the fact that he was different from the poets who became more popular but was as great as them.
Apart from the staple of American foreign policy page-turners such as Confront and Conceal by David Sanger, Little America by Rajiv Chandrasakeran, and Vali Nasr’s incisive Dispensable Nation, for me 2013 was intellectually dominated by two big-span-history books. The Measure of Civilisation by Ian Morris, and Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson; Morris’s book is a successor to Why the West Rules-For Now, and is important for all those seeking to grapple with the grand narratives of received history, and its revisions, in order to understand what path societies take, and why some succeed in overcoming challenges through mastering their ability to literally "get things done" over space and time, divided into East and West.
His now famous index of social development is a tool buttressed with extensive data and nine core concepts, which arguably operate as the metrics for measuring the success of a civilisation as diverse and fascinating as the Chinese Imperial war-machines in the gunpowder era and their decline, or the effectiveness of Egyptian agriculture, to wage inflation in mediaeval Britain.
Acemoglu and Robinson, meanwhile, argue that state-failure, or chronic economic crisis, is not rooted in culture, destiny or geography.
The origins of power, prosperity and poverty, they say, lie in choices societies make. Breathtaking in its magisterial span, this book leaves one with hope for the future: economic success is an outcome of inclusive institutions built over time, as they were in many Western societies, not the other way round. The bottom line is that the slow march of democracy should not be belittled, but neither should redistributive justice and the fundamental commitment to free, open societies.
Another must-read from 2013 is Labyrinth of Reflections, a Rashid Rana retrospective by Hameed Haroon and Nazish Ataullah; this is actually a catalogue and anthology of essays on Rana’s eclectic new language of post-modern Pakistani art. But it is breathtaking in its scale as a stand-alone commentary and corpus of Rana’s oeuvre. Truly a magnum opus if ever there was one, on one of Pakistan’s most celebrated artists.
Who could ignore I am Malala by the iconic young Malala Yousafzai, with Christina Lamb. Although it could have been a richer narrative, it is an account of life in the raw, in the trenches and crosshairs of many frontline conflicts that epitomise our lives and times in Pakistan. Have to confess I liked the part where she prods at her generally supportive father for "not helping in the kitchen", because it is asides like this that bring refreshing tonalities into what may have been a one-dimensional picture of a life much-discussed, and not enough deconstructed for the searing bravery of its choices.
Currently, I am reading a gripping new account on the creation of Bangladesh, called The Blood Telegram: India’s Secret War in East Pakistan by Gary J Bass. It is a chilling and bare-knuckle account of American policy in East Pakistan when it was all breaking down, but provides a scalding view of Dhaka and its environs as they fell in 1971, through the eyes of diplomat Archer Blood, the American Consul General to Dhaka. The title professes a focus on Indian double-speak in Bangladesh, but the book spares no players, including Islamabad in its General Yahya-led delusions, Washington in its usual myopia in South Asia, tilting one way or another, and of course the local Bengali resistance.
On my nightstand I have India at Risk: Mistakes, Misconceptions and Misadventures of Security Policy by Jaswant Singh.
The Israeli novelist Eshkol Nevo’s Homesick is a brilliant exploration of the word home and the murkiness around it. Written from several points of view, the main characters are two lovers (one a photography student and the other a student of psychology) who decide to move in together. The points of view are of the landlords, neighbours who have lost a son in Lebanon, and their younger son, and a labourer Palestinian whom the house once belonged to.
Also, Ranbir Sidhu’s stories in Good Indian Girls were brilliant. Sidh’s main concern is disintegration of humanity. He can take a story where many won’t go. The title story is a remarkable example of his control over the pace of the narrative, how he brings the reader to witness an evil spot in human soul.
A young woman realises the person she has allowed in her house as a love interest is actually the killer on the loose that people have been talking about. Her time has come. She can either fight back with no chance of winning. Or accept fate (and death) and show that her parents’ work to create an obedient girl out of her has not been in vain.
The third book that I remember is by Zubair Ahmed. His latest Kabutar, Banere te Galiyan shows his rare ability to mix fear, dreams, sexual longing, nostalgia for his old neighbourhood, in his hallmark Punjabi. What sets this story apart is that he anchors his main concerns in the protagonist’s present. Though the story’s DNA may have bits found in Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Paramo, Naiyer Masud’s Ojhal and a few stories by Intizar Husain than the stories by Virk and other Punjabi fiction I have read, it is Zubair’s own distinctive voice that haunts the reader afterwards.
One of the most enjoyable books I read last year is This Town by American political commentator and journalist Mark Leibovich. I happen to be what the Americans call a ‘political junkie’, which denotes a state of mind more or less obsessed with media coverage of US politics. It’s a habit acquired over a decade of living in the United States, during which I closely followed Bill Clinton’s two-term presidency and all its relentless drama. In Pakistan, understandably, we take an interest in American politics only to the extent that it relates to our country -- their military and foreign policy towards Pakistan and our geopolitical neighbourhood. But American politics is also an unmatched entertainment spectacle.
Leibovich’s book captures the essential interpersonal mechanics of US politics by sketching an intimate and deeply social portrait of the American capital, Washington DC. The book opens with a funeral that sets the perfect stage for the narrative to follow. Tim Russert (America’s equivalent of Geo News anchor Hamid Mir, you might say) has died, and the memorial service to commemorate his legacy becomes a socio-political circus. Russert used to anchor Meet The Press, an iconic political talk-show airing on NBC on Sunday mornings. He was brilliant at his job and over the years amassed tremendous political influence, becoming a key figure in what Leibovich describes as America’s "media industrial complex." Leibovich uses Russert’s funeral and memorial service to strip Washington of its governmental finery and expose the social innards. It proves a riveting sight.
Inevitably, This Town is an intentionally funny book and, because its core subject matter of government and politics is otherwise intrinsically somber and serious, the humour offered is of a particularly dark and twisted brand. If you are looking to read some pithy social satire depicting America’s pungent political absurdities, this is the definitive book for you.
As each year passes, the choice of favourite books also changes; it is often difficult to choose from the vast treasure of literature. Amongst the new breed of poets I have been impressed by Naveed Haider Hashmi and his latest book of poetry Ishq Syed Hai that offers freshness and versatility. Unlike many other poets, he has refrained from self-praise in his poetry, which is his distinct quality. The poetry in Ishq Syed Hai has a particular cultural background and is a valuable resource of words. The strongest metaphor of ishq which is rarely skilfully used and reminds me of Mir Taqi Mir.
The second book that touched me this year was Intizar Husain’s Justuju Kya Hai, a travelogue/autobiography that focuses on the nostalgia of shared civilisation with India. In the first half of the book Intizar Sahab writes about his early life; in his typical style, he affectionately recalls his childhood memories in Meerut. He also shares his journalistic experiences in Pakistan where he found work soon after migration. Later in the book, he recounts his life’s quest and his experience of travelling through India later in life. As always, his prose is a pleasure to read and is an emotional catharsis.
Art critic and artist
A book which survives various periods is as new as a recently published piece of literature. Hence, it is not essential that all books printed in 2013 were new in the actual sense of the word. So every book which has managed to astonish a reader through its content and craft is new, regardless of when it was written or published.
For me, the most memorable titles are two novels that came out in 2013 and two old books that I discovered recently. Reading The Infatuations by Javier Marias was a unique experience, because the theme of a simple thriller was converted into an elaboration on human psyche, planning, motives and means of executing them. A murder story unfolded through the thoughts of various characters rather than the chain of events.
A similar sort of mindscape was encountered on reading The Retrospective by A.B. Yehoshua, in which the narrative is constructed on the slow movements, reluctances and reflections of a film director attending the film festival along with his companion. The creative complexes in the form of praise, indifference, and comparison, fabricates an atmosphere that entraps the reader, who identifies the story of a film director with the fate of every creative individual.
The other two books, which I vividly recall and immensely enjoyed, published a few years ago, include Operation Shylock by Philip Roth and Saturday by Ian McEwan. Roth creates a familiar motif of the writer’s double, having a person with his name, physique, age and past, and operating in Israel; while McEwan confines his canvas to the events in the life of a doctor in one day only. Both novels, with their power of imagination and technique, were able to grip me in an exceptional way.
I read several books in 2013, and the ones that left a deep imprint on my mind are as different from each other as they can be. Here are just a few of them: I bought The Blind man’s Garden by Nadeem Aslam at the Karachi Literature Festival held in February, for which the author was the keynote speaker. A voluminous work of fiction about the horrors of the Taliban and America’s blundering war on terror, the book is a chronicle of two Pakistani foster brothers and their family drawn into war in Afghanistan. It is a brutal account of kidnappings, captures, interrogations, tortures and deaths but it is also a beautifully written tale that makes it so compelling to read.
The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference is a book by Malcolm Gladwell, which was recommended to me by my son. I started reading it on the airplane and couldn’t put it down. Gladwell begins the book by giving an example of how Hush Puppies went from being a waning brand to a hugely successful national brand. That happened due to a handful of downtown New York trendsetters, then due to a few fashion designers who used the shoes on catwalks, and so the visibility and popularity of the brand reached the "tipping point". Numerous other models were used by the author to demonstrate this premise. It seemed to me that anything could be successful if one could only find that evasive point that tips in one’s favour!
Delhi by heart by Raza Rumi is a Pakistani traveller’s take on India’s capital city but it is not a linear account of Delhi. During his roving, Rumi moves back and forth in time and reconnects with his Muslim identity as well as Hindu ancestry. It is inevitable that he also draws comparisons with his own city of Lahore. Raza Rumi’s choice of masnavis by Amir Khusrau and his lucid descriptions do justice to present to his readers the grandeur of Delhi -- a city of over twenty Sufi saints. The book is a must-read for anyone who is interested in their Southasian heritage.
My other favourite books are The beautiful and the Damned by Siddhartha Deb, Clifton Bridge: stories of Innocence and Experience from Pakistan by Irshad Abdul Kadir, IQ84 by Haruki Murakami and Pittho’s World by Murtaza Razvi.