A year in reading

December 26, 2021

As we approach the end of 2021, we ask some of our favourite writers to share what they enjoyed reading all of last year. Here, in alphabetical order, is what they say

A year in reading

Mahmood Awan

Poet and reviewer

My most fascinating read of the year was Saeed Bhutta’s Raj Dhaara tay Lok Takni (Official Narratives and People’s Views). The book enriched my reading of how locals compose and preserve their stories to resist official distortions. In a collection of eight wide-ranging critical essays, two essays standout: The Legends of the Punjab: Some New Thoughts and Kathaee, SuNwayya tay Waseb (Storyteller, Listener & Community) where he explores messaging and transmission patterns of orality based on his own field research. This book is published by Pakistan Punjabi Adabi Board, Lahore.

Punjabis like me have a love-hate relationship with Urdu. At one point, Urdu brings us closer to our region but sometimes we believe that Urdu occupied our Punjabi space and allured all our Punjabi talent. However, during Covid days, I returned to my vast Urdu collection and it was none other than Shaheen Abbas whose Urdu ghazals reignited my love for the language and the genre. Shaheen Abbas, an engineer by profession, is one of the most inspirational poets of our generation who keeps on producing creative pieces regularly. Khuda Kay Din (Days of the God) is his finest ghazal collection published by Kaghazi Parehan, a book in which he masterly fuses classical poetic skills to modern themes and expressions establishing his own diction. I can repeat this verse from the book all my life, not just the next year: Khaak par khaak URaai hay, muhabbat ki hay / Shehr ko shehr ki ta’meer say pehchaana hay.

A year in reading

Fatima Bhutto

Novelist and non-fiction writer

Earlier this year I read a lot of Barry Lopez. He’s one of the most beautiful writers I can think of and he wrote a lot about animals and the wild. Of Wolves and Men, his most famous book, is an incredible investigation into the lives and cultures of wolves as well as the cruelty of man. As man becomes more modern, his violence becomes more inventive. Lopez has written many books but that one is my favourite.

I have already posted the five books I enjoyed this year on my Instagram (Aftershocks by Nadia Owusu; Apeirogon by Colum McCan; The Erratics by Vicki Laveau-Harvie; Barcelona Dreaming by Rupert Thomson and The Night in Gethsemane: On Solitude and Betrayal by Massimo Recalcati). But perhaps I can tell you what I’m looking forward to reading next year. The first is Son of Sin by Omar Sakr. Sakr is a poet and this is his debut novel. The second is Killernova by Omar bin Musa who is a novelist, artist and poet. Zeina Hashem Beck, the poet, also has a book out next year called O which I’m keen to read.

A year in reading

Omar Shahid Hamid

Author and counterterrorism professional

As with everything else in 2021, my reading was largely coloured by the pandemic. I read several books that mapped the spread of Covid-19 and various governmental responses to it. Lawrence Wright’s The Plague Year, and Michael Wolf’s Landslide were the best of the lot. But in a year where I actually increased my reading, the most interesting book I read was called Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors by Lizzie Cunningham. A unique book that traces the history and global spread of various iconic desi dishes like biryani, Shami kebabs and chicken curry. A definite must read for foodies and history buffs.

A year in reading

Taha Kehar

Novelist and book reviewer

After a wearisome year of lockdowns, I found myself mired in urban nostalgia. As a result, cities inevitably became a dominant motif in the books that I read in 2021. I wanted to discover the facets of urban reality that are often concealed or misunderstood. Samira Shackle’s Karachi Vice was, therefore, a suitable choice as the author maintains a cold distance from elitist accounts that overlook the intricacies of the city’s ethnic fault lines. In sparse, immersive prose, Shackle’s debut book shows that it is futile to produce simplistic narratives about Karachi.

A stunning evocation of our complex relationship with cities can be found in Jhumpa Lahiri’s Whereabouts. Released in April, the novel stood out as a telling reminder of how detachment and belonging tend to shape and distort the rhythm of life in urban centres.

In July, I reread Anita Desai’s Baumgartner’s Bombay. Desai tackles the themes of oppression and alienation with a concrete richness of detail. Her novel bears a deep preoccupation with history and examines the unpredictable ways through which cities can become our homes.

For several months, I was consumed with the chaos that had plagued Kabul following the Taliban takeover. During those turbulent times, Zahid Hussain’s No-Win War provided an unnervingly blunt account of Pakistan’s uneasy partnership with the US vis-à-vis Afghanistan.

Ruskin Bond’s A Bouquet of Love served as a much-needed distraction from a somewhat structured reading spree. Namita Gokhale’s Paro proved to be a worthy companion in November. Even after the umpteenth reading, Gokhale’s debut novel never fails to entertain with its serpentine flow of events and chilling insights on class, politics and gender.

A year in reading

Saba Karim Khan


Rafia Zakaria’s Against White Feminism and Jhumpa Lahiri’s Whereabouts have re-established a meditative relationship with reading for me through the pandemic. Zakaria’s magnum opus reads like text with the power of becoming a classic; a fearless project, pushing against white supremacy in the corridors of non-Western feminism. What deeply resonated was her task of reclamation which weaves personal narrative critically, speaking to White feminists as an effortless equal rather than through a victimhood prism, disempowering the myth of brown women needing saving, of “rebellion” rather than “resilience” as the ultimate show of women’s strength, and rejecting only one kind of cookie-cutter feminism that the world must blindly follow. Her voice lends extraordinary mettle to us who think, read and write about the multiple worlds women outside the West also straddle.

I was exposed to Lahiri’s work with The Namesake and became an instant admirer of her quietly fierce prose. Whereabouts reads like a bunch of self-reflexive, vignette-like episodes, unfastening a window, sometimes a half-window, into life in an urban hometown in Italy, as it unfolds daily – at the office, at the sea, in bed and inside the head. Poignant, pathos-stricken portraits evoked numerous questions – our modern-day relationship with solitude, cramming our lives with ritual and mechanics, excavating the extraordinary in the banal. Reading Whereabouts was connective activity, its tone both elegiac and hopeful; with emptiness, movement, shadow and light at its centre, it brought me face to face with the timeless question of how we navigate the maps of our lives and dismantle barriers, in the quest to locate our place in the world.

A year in reading

Sanam Maher

Writer and journalist

Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty, by Patrick Radden Keefe, a meticulously researched history of how one of the world’s greatest fortunes was amassed with the invention of a painkiller, OxyContin. It’s a thrilling saga, the first shot fired at the Sackler family, whose name is now quickly being erased from the walls of institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Met) – beneficiaries of their riches – as we learn more about the impunity with which they built their fortune on the ruins of an opioid crisis.

How to End a Story: Diaries 1995-1998, the third volume of Australian writer Helen Garner’s diaries. A record of love, betrayal, the end of a marriage, and the solace found in work and oneself. If you haven’t read her work yet, try The First Stone: Some questions about Sex and Power (1995) on a sexual harassment case at the University of Melbourne. The book continues to be divisive and the diaries cover the period when Garner found herself at the centre of a raging debate on harassment and power dynamics between the sexes.

Taste Makers: Seven Immigrant Women Who Revolutionised Food in America, by Mayukh Sen. How did Americans come to love chop suey and learn how to stir-fry? This is a history of the American palate told through the lives of those who introduced it to the world’s flavours, and yet have been forgotten. Through its rich portraits, the book queries America’s complicated relationship with migrants, class, celebrity and success.

Other books I recommend: Leila Slimani’s Sex and Lies, on the intimate lives of young Moroccan women; Preti Taneja’s Aftermath, which intriguingly plays with genre and form to reckon with a tragic incident where one of Taneja’s writing students killed two people; The Decameron Project, a collection of short stories on the pandemic by writers including Margaret Atwood, Edwidge Danticat, Karen Russell, Victor LaValle, Kamila Shamsie and Téa Obreht. It might sound depressing to read about the pandemic while we’re still confronting it, but I found it comforting to see how these writers made meaning of the terror and loneliness of the past two years.

A year in reading

Aanchal Malhotra

Oral historian and author

Ghee Bowman’s The Indian Contingent: The Forgotten Muslim Soldiers of Dunkirk (Pan Macmillan) is probably the most exciting book I have read this year. Moving and illuminating, it reclaims the often-overlooked efforts of the group called Force K6, who served in the Battle of Dunkirk during World War II, through personal details and stories of soldiers who found themselves so far away from home. Another brilliant book that I could not put down is Shrayana Bhattacharya’s Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh: India’s Lonely Young Women and the Search for Intimacy and Independence (HarperCollins India). Belonging to a generation that is defined by SRK’s image as Bollywood’s king of romance, I found it fascinating to learn how he became the thread – the common denominator – that wove fifteen years of Bhattacharya’s research together in a unique patchwork of interviews with women across India, revealing as much about their economic or employment struggles, as their hopes, fantasies and heartbreaks. A book I often return to and did so this year as well, reading for research and pleasure, is Fikr Taunsvi’s The Sixth River translated from Urdu by Maaz Bin Bilal (Speaking Tiger, 2019). Deeply evocative and introspective, it is a journal kept by the satirist, Fikr Taunsvi (born Ram Lal Bhatia) from August to November 1947, as he refuses to migrate to India after Partition and leave behind his beloved Lahore. Finally, I am ending the year by sinking into Anuradha Roy’s newest novel, The Earthspinner (Hachette), the heart of which are the visceral, delicate, bodily art of pottery and the lengths of our desires.

A year in reading

Nasir Abbas Nayyar

Critic and short story writer

Elizabeth Outka’s Viral Modernism: The Influenza Pandemic and Interwar Literature turns up a new portal to our disparate attitudes towards mass deaths caused by wars and by pandemics. I often wonder why the current pandemic – and the past ones too, which were far more letha l– failed to stir the imagination of our writers. Most of the Urdu writings have been incidental and meant to just chronicle the pandemic, lacking lasting aesthetic value and insight into the human psyche, badly affected by virulent disease. Outka’s book seems to provide a reason for the sluggish attitude of writers towards pandemics. Recently a good number of Urdu translations of world fiction have been made available. Saeed Naqvi has done a tremendous job in this regard. Among other books that I happened to read and enjoy this year, Urdu versions of Milan Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being and Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Memory of Departure are especially mentionable. Inam Nadeem, a brilliant translator and poet, has rendered Rabisankar Bal’s novel A Mirrored Life titled Aina Si Zindagi. Narrated by Ibn Battuta, the novel revolves around the personal and creative life of Maulana Rumi. Besides some deep insights into Rumi’s notion of ’ishq, this novel keeps resonating with many, with its diverse meanings. It was an unforgettable experience to read the Urdu translation of Rifat Abbas’ Seraiki novel Namak ka Jeevan Ghar. It tells the tale of a city where there is no religion, no gods, nor wars and eventually no death.

Reading Siddique Alam’s Cheeni Kothi, Khalid Javed’s Aik Khanjar Pani Men, Ashar Najmi’s Us Nay Kaha – first Urdu novel about gay people’s perplexed lives, was really a treat. Asghar Nadeem Sayyad’s novel Dasht-i-Imkan has a lot to sway the reader. As for non-fiction, this year I read Asim Bakhski’s Dubdha and Irfan Javed’s Ajaib Khana with great interest. They possess the qualities of light and sweetness in the true sense of the words.

A year in reading

Anniqua Rana

Author and blogger

Travel in 2021 has been a breeze, metaphorically that is. I travelled with Olga Tokarzuk’s Janine to the Czech-Polish border in Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. I spent a week in Paris in Simone de Beauvoir’s Inseparable. I am ending 2021 between Cyprus and London with Elif Shafak in The Island of Missing Trees. All three authors, activists, intellectuals, and feminists, create complex worlds with subtlety. Masters of their craft, they breathe life into characters that I enjoyed meeting this year.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is an environmental thriller that uniquely braids a range of themes with sophistication. From Poland to Paris, I met Simone de Beauvoir who was familiar to me by name only. I knew nothing of her work, until, of course, I picked up her lost novella of friendship. As I read her experiences and how they shaped her perception of herself, I thought of myself in all of the contexts, how I saw myself in the past and how that informs my present. Why does this matter, one might ask. I would respond thus: we read to understand ourselves. That is why I seek out books by women and about women, particularly women who question the world as they see it.

Elif Shafak’s The Island of Missing Trees takes me back to two islands that I first visited in the early seventies, Cyprus, and England. No doubt this story will not only enhance my eco-awareness but also my political awareness of the history of Cyprus.

Where will I go in 2022? I have plans. But this time I plan to travel within myself. I will seek out books of poetry to travel with me and am open to suggestions.

A year in reading

Rana Safvi

Writer and historian

We spent most of 2021 in lockdown and books were a constant companion. I read voraciously and from different genres. The standout ones for me were Ghazala Wahab’s Born a Muslim: Some Truths about Islam in India , which is not only a history of Muslims in India described through personal memories, research and interviews, it engages with them in a way to go forward. The scope of the book, from the 7th Century to date, covers the various divisions within and without the community, social structures and the challenges facing Muslims today and their position in the hierarchy of the Indian political system. It’s a hard hitting, very well-researched book which provides much material to ponder about for both Muslims and non-Muslims.

From a very serious study to a scintillating fictional murder mystery, involving Urdu’s favourite poet Mirza Ghalib, one of my favourite reads of 2021 was Raza Mir’s Murder at the Mushaira. A poet is murdered in a mushaira in 19th Century Delhi and against the backdrop of the 1857 Uprising. Mirza Ghalib then sets off to find the murderer and his reasons. Let your senses soak in the ethos of those days as Mir recreates a Delhi soaked in the bard’s poetry.

A year in reading

Afshan Shafi

Poet and book reviewer

The Manningtree Witches by poet and writer AK Blakemore was one of my favourite reads published in 2021. It is set in Seventeenth Century England, around the time puritanical passion had driven the country to extreme ends, ending in civil war and the English witch trials. The novel is written around the ingress of the ‘witch finder’ into a community that has lost most of its men to war. Some of the women who remain in the village are rumoured to dally in ‘spells’, incantations and whatnot and are too learned for the comfort of the villagers. This book has been described as ‘Fleabag meets Hilary Mantel’ and is boldly and expertly hewn by Blakemore. Though published quite a few years back, Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson is a poetic work of gentle mastery. Carson has reimagined fragments from Greek poet Stesichoros’s writings, and written a text that is a medley of classical text and contemporary poetry. Her protagonist is a winged red creature named Geryon, whose life revolves around photography and is punctuated by an awkward and divided love. Carson’s work is consistently surprising and impossibly riveting. Her premises frequently enchant. I loved revisiting this book in 2021.

Another re-visitation this year was Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman. One of the great poetic texts, it is a wild and exquisite paean to the earth, the human soul and to life in all its ‘sound and fury’. Whitman self-published this collection and was branded a ‘poetic outlaw’ for the fierce content of the book. When reading Whitman, one can feel almost devotional, his work is so clearly a triumph, so clearly an undertaking of courage.

A year in reading

Saad Shafqat

Novelist and columnist

The two books that especially engaged me this year are There There (Pulitzer Prize finalist) by the American writer Tommy Orange, and Burnt Sugar (Booker Prize shortlist) by the Indian writer Avni Doshi. Both books excel in immersing you into a unique mind set with its own peculiar and particular flavours. Both are debut novels narrated in first-person, and have garnered significant recognition and praise.

I had picked up Orange’s book because of its subject, the Native American community – a part of society that hardly gets talked about, even within the United States. Orange weaves a complex cast of twelve sharply sketched characters as they head towards a major community gathering, the Big Oakland Powwow, where they will discover unexpected connections to one another. Their collective despair crystallises and coalesces as the story unfolds.

As for Doshi’s book, I had noticed it because it showed up in my Twitter feed as a contender for the Booker Prize. Its central thread is a testy bond between a serious yet sensitive daughter and her ageing mother whose personality is getting clouded by dementia. The magic of this book is that it takes a slice of ordinary life and spins it into a spellbinding story arc through some brilliantly crafted prose. It’s the kind of writing that you savour not just for its taste but also its aftertaste. Every page leaves you hungry for more, while the pleasure of what you just consumed keeps washing over you.

A year in reading

Moazzam Sheikh

Author and book critic

Around last August, my wife and I took up the diligent task of reading Heer by Waaris Shah (the Abdul Aziz version), which I believe should be mandatory throughout schools in the Punjab. It is not an easy work to read primarily because Punjabi is not taught to the Punjabi speakers on our side of the border and also because Punjabi speakers have lost much of their vocabulary due to the imposition of Urdu, not to mention the space English occupies in our collective self-devaluation process. We have read slightly over 200 stanzas by now and hope to finish the remaining 400 plus by the end of 2022. I am currently enjoying reading Mitti Bol Payee by Balbir Madhopuri, published in Shahmukhi by Maqsood Saqib in Pancham’s July 2020 issue.

Among noted books of fiction, Adania Shibli’s Minor Detail was most satisfying because it takes a real life event and shows how the difference between significant and otherwise depends not always on individual whim but also societal perception. Although I had seen The Woman in the Dunes, I hadn’t actually read Kobo Abe. I felt drawn to his The Box Man and it was indeed very rewarding since I’d found so much of the surrealist, absurdist, and experimental fiction I had read recently to be superfluous and a bit bourgeois, lacking intellectually and politically.

In Lara Stapleton’s The Ruin of Everything, stories dealt with issues of bifurcated identities and self-confidence or the lack thereof in the lives of Filipino Americans and how they negotiate their conflicting, slippery claims on the New York and/ or Manila states of mind.

Amelie Nothomb’s Thirst, recreating Jesus’s last days with acerbic humour and social critique, was a treat to read. So was Gilad Elbom’s Screaming Queens of the Dead Sea as he turns a mental institution into a metaphor for Israel. Another Israeli author Zeruya Shalev shows in her novel Love Life how love, betrayal and feminism can be expressed in a high powered, stuccato, quirky diction. Nona Fernandez’s brilliant The Twilight Zone about a secret police operative who walks into a newspaper office to give his testimony struck a chord with me because of Pakistan’s own brutal history of assassination, kidnapping and rape of its people during its several periods of dictatorship.

A year in reading

Mirza Waheed

Novelist and journalist

I adored Farah Bashir’s Rumours of Spring, (Harper Collins), a memoir of growing up in Kashmir. Stroke by beautiful stroke, Farah paints an intimate, beautiful, and haunting portrait of a young woman’s life as she witnesses her world collapse during the early years of Kashmir’s rebellion against Indian rule. Girlhood aspirations and dreams vanish overnight as she, like many of her compatriots, is forced to grow up under the gaze of armed alien men who’ve arrived from the plains. The narrative revolves around the death of the writer’s beloved grandmother Bobe who represents a time and place where Kashmiri matriarchs, even as surrounded by a patriarchal order, live by age-old certainties of family life. As preparations for the funeral are made and remade while curfews and sieges rule Kashmir, Bashir gives us both, an unforgettable story of the transformation of her life – she cannot sleep, she pulls her hair night after night – and a poignant, stunning account of the desolation of her homeland under military rule. “Neither mud nor bloodstains show on camouflage,” she writes. Everyone should read Rumours of Spring.

A year in reading