My year in books

January 1, 2017

Mohammed Hanif, Asif Farrukhi, Husain Haqqani, Masood Ashar, and Saba Imtiaz share what they enjoyed reading all of last year

My year in books

Mohammed Hanif 

Meerwah Ki Ratain by Rafaqat Hayat is a sizzling little novel that reads like an epic. Set in a small town in contemporary Sindh, this novel chalks the days and nights spent in the pursuit of love and commerce in the back lanes of a sleepy backwater. How do you love in a small city? How do you deal with your own obsessions? How do you keep it hidden in a place where everyone knows everyone? People with bizarre but authentic characters, Meerwah is a glimpse into the psyche of modern Pakistan.

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Jeevan Ek Kahani is Ali Ahmed Khan’s memoir of the dying days of East Pakistan. It is a simple yet terrific account of the fall of Dhaka. The book covers 50 years of Pakistan in a very intimate way. Ali Ahmed Khan is a child at the time of the partition. When the family splits over its decision about whether to move to Pakistan or not, he is packed off to Pakistan along with his younger brother. He draws vivid portraits of the initial days of Pakistan first in west and then in east Pakistan.

Growing up first in Karachi, and later in Dhaka, he becomes a political activist after dabbling into journalism and theatre. But the unravelling begins, when in the days leading up to the independence of Bangladesh, he finds himself caught in the centre of battle for East Pakistan. He is a Bihari with sympathies for Bangladeshi nationalists. In a very controlled and unsentimental voice, Ali Ahmed Khan gives a very intimate and clear-headed account of the bloody events leading up to the independence of Bengladesh. In the end he loses everything except his humanity. Those with even a remote interest in our recent history should read this if only to realise that there are no black and white wars of independence.

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In One Day in the Death of America, leading British journalist Gary Younge sets out to track down the lives and deaths of American citizens killed because of random shooting over a period of 24 hours across America. If you have ever wondered why American kids shoot each other every day, or why America has such bizarre gun control laws, or who are the victims and who the perpetrator, this book will give you a new insight into how America works and what it does to its own innocent citizens. It’s a riveting read. 

Mohammed Hanif is a journalist and author of A Case of Exploding Mangoes.

Asif Farrukhi

The year began with reading two books which had just been released, Khawabon Kay Musafir, the collection of plays by Intizar Husain and Sukhan Aur Ahl-e-Sukhan, the posthumous collection of essays in literary criticism by Muzaffar Ali Syed, one of the leading critics of the day. Unfortunately, the Grand Master of Fiction departed from this world and there seemed to be something ominous about the publication of these books.

While I enjoyed Hameed Shahid’s collection of short stories, I was taken by surprise with Khaak Ki Mehak, the debut fiction by Nasir Abbas Nayyar, a ground-breaking critic. A variety of themes, and voices, teeming with people of all sorts are to be found in Zakia Mashadi’s short stories and I appreciated the generous selection of her work in Intikhab, published by Educational Publishing House in Delhi, India.

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Before the end of the year, I was able to hold in my hand the first copies of Hassan Manzar’s remarkable novel Habs. I had read the manuscript earlier due to my involvement in its publication but seeing it in book form made me realise what a compelling work it is, very contemporary and relevant in its concerns about Palestine and the Arab World. Hospitalised in a state of coma but not clinically brain dead, the prime minister of Israel watches his entire life in retrospect as it passes before his eyes and he is helpless in his sick bed, literally unable to even lift a finger. The drama of the 20th century politics is also a searing comment on the illusory nature of totalitarian power. Powerful without doubt but I wonder if it has been fictionalised enough?

Limited access makes it difficult for me to catch up with the steady stream of new works reviewed and praised in London and New York and even New Delhi. However, one remarkable novel I came across before I had read any reviews was The Woman on the Stairs, a compelling read by Bernhard Schlink, the German novelist who had left an indelible impression with his earlier The Reader.

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The real surprise and delight was Chinese novelist Ge Fei’s The Invisibility Cloak published by the New York Review Books. A hard and humorous look at corruption in Beijing, its dark humour is perfectly matched with the sharp social satire and enters the realm of the fantastic with great gusto.

Even more promising is the pile of unread books at my bedside.

Asif Farrukhi is a writer and has translated many books from Urdu to English. 

Husain Haqqani 

Do Humankind’s Best Days Lie Ahead? by Stephen Pinker, Malcolm Gladwell, Matt Ridley and Alain de Bouton, published by House of Anasi Press (2016), is based on the 17th semi-annual Munk Debates held in Toronto. It is a debate between a psychologist, philosopher and two bestselling authors on whether our best days lie ahead or behind us. In many ways this is an age-old debate. Every generation believes that the golden age is behind them and that the future will only bring out the worst in us. At a time when many people only believe things that correspond to their respective ideological perspective, this book is a refreshing read as it makes us look at two sides of the argument.

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China’s Crony Capitalism: The Dynamics of Regime Decay byMinxin Pei, published by Harvard University Press (2016) recounts that even after three decades of consistent economic reforms, China is one of the top global economies. It has lifted a majority of its people out of poverty and is one of the top manufacturing hubs in the world. Pei’s book takes us inside the path China took to demonstrate how it has ended up with crony capitalism with corruption, income inequality, social tensions and kleptocracy. Pei disagrees with conventional wisdom and argues that beneath the façade of prosperity and stability is a regime that is facing decay. In a day and age when the consensus is that China is going to keep growing and will soon become the next superpower, Pei’s book is a much needed reality check.

Sleepwalking to Surrender: Dealing with Terrorism in Pakistan, by Khaled Ahmed, one of Pakistan’s leading thinkers and analysts, published by Penguin/Viking (2016), looks at the interlinkage between terrorism, ideology and the Pakistani state. The book’s 32 chapters look at diverse topics ranging from rising Islamisation within the country, local politics in Karachi’s Lyari neighbourhood and the Lal Masjid siege in Islamabad to the role of Pakistanis in wars in Afghanistan and Yemen. It also assesses jihadi groups such as the Afghan Taliban, Jaish-e-Mohammad and Lashkar-e-Taiba, and evaluates Pakistan’s relations with India and the US in the context of its tolerance for jihadism.

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Ahmed’s book demonstrates that policies adopted over the years have led Pakistan down its current path of a weak state, lack of governance, collapsing economy and the emergence of strong non-state actors and terror groups that have ties to the country’s security establishment.

Douglas MacArthur: American Warrior byArthur Herman is a historian’s take on MacArthur, a great American military figure with a controversial career. This 900-page magnum opus traces his life from childhood through the decades. Herman helps us look at what drove MacArthur to do what he did in life, his vision, his ideas and also his failings. The book is published by Random House (2016).

In his 300-page book, The Fix: How Nations Survive and Thrive in a World of Decline, Jonathan Tepperman, the Managing Editor of Foreign Affairs, looks at how some countries are often able to solve problems that seem irresolvable. Tepperman chooses nine countries from three continents (Botswana, Brazil, Canada, Indonesia, Mexico, Rwanda, Singapore, South Korea and the US) and examines how they tackled challenges as diverse as immigration reform, economic crises, corruption and rising Islamism. Based on in-depth interviews with policy makers, Tepperman’s book offers practical solutions to seemingly intractable problems. 

Husain Haqqani is a writer, an expert on South Asia and a former ambassador of Pakistan. 

Masood Ashar

I read a number of books in 2016. But the ones I found more interesting are two latest books on Intizar Husain. Both the books were published after Intizar Husain passed away in February 2016.

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Authored by Dr Asif Farrukhi, Chiragh-e-Shab-e-Afsana is an authoritative book on Husain. What lends credit to the book is also that before his demise, Husain had gone through the draft of the book prior to its publication. The book is not just a tribute to him but a critical analysis of Husain’s works. This aspect distinguishes the book from some others written on him.

I also went through Professor Fateh Muhammad Malik’s book on Intizar Husain, Intizar Husain ka Khwab Nama. We may call this work different from other books on the writer because it sees Husain’s works from a different angle, from an Islamic perspective, keeping in view what he calls "Islamic mythology". And he sees Husain as a great Muslim personality, something that has not been attempted before.

In fiction, I have read Nasir Abbas Nayyar’s collection of short stories, Khak ki Mahak. Nayyar is a literary critic who has worked a lot on post-colonial literature. His first collection of stories is a fresh approach to look at the philosophical and psychological aspect of human relations and the complexities involved. His Urdu narrative is engaging and effective.

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I also read another very appealing collection of short stories. Mobeen Mirza’s collection of long short stories, Zameen aur Zamanay is a very nostalgic reflection on South Punjab and the people who had migrated from other lands to this area. Mobeen Mirza is the editor of the monthly magazine Makalma. The short stories focus on how the people managed to settle down in a new area and their responses to their surroundings.

Masood Ashar is a short story writer and a columnist

Saba Imtiaz

Reading Jessica Valenti’s memoir Sex Object was an incredible experience -- like watching someone crawl inside your skin and write your thoughts out, finally putting a name to the way you feel but have struggled to explain your entire life. Valenti does just that -- and more. Valenti manages to articulate, down to the last, most painful detail, of what it is like to face a life of perpetual street harassment by men: "Living in a place that has given up on the expectation of your safety," she writes, "means walking around in a permanently dissociative state."

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Reading Sex Object feels like finally seeing someone understand -- and write -- about the private emotional pain that women feel every single day on the street and how it shapes and influences the way they act and react, and how they pass on these experiences to future generations.

I loved Rebecca Traister’s All the Single Ladies -- a fantastic non-fiction book on single women and the myths around the assumed stability of marriage. I also really enjoyed reading the late, legendary Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl, her 1962 treatise on how single women should live and love (and decorate).

Bee Wilson’s First Bite is a great book on dismantling the practices and myths that we build around food preferences and childhood experiences. His work is revelatory and engaging, and doesn’t have the tone of preachiness that accompanies so much of the conversation around food.

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Also recommended: Wilson’s book Swindled, which details cheating in the food industry through the ages. Dana Goodyear’s Anything That Moves is packed with fantastic accounts of dining and cooking experiences. It is something I’d hugely recommend to anyone interested in writing or learning about food subcultures. I’d just come off an intensive, immersive language course this summer when I read an excerpt in The New Yorker of Lauren Collins’ When in French, A memoir of Love and Linguistics. Collins puts the unsaid awkwardness of communication and relationships into a beautiful, emotional book.

One of the best books I read in 2016 was Sam Meekings’ 2009 novel Under Fishbone Clouds, and I could kick myself a million times over for having only gotten around to reading the book this year. The novel is based around a couple of characters and this is masterfully kept intact, even with the intricate way Meekings tells this story and its setting of pre- and post-Mao China and ancient history. 

Saba Imtiaz is a freelance journalist and novelist.

My year in books