S“summer reading” has always seemed like a strange tradition to me. It was launched in places that craved the sun, which India has in abundance. Of course, one should always be wary of generalizations about India, but this image of a reader lying on green grass, in bright sunshine, engrossed in a paperback: it is simply not a Indian picture.
Until the proliferation of affordable smartphones, literate Indians were voracious consumers of printed matter: newspapers, magazines, brochures. The democratization of book reading happened relatively later in India. During the era of the Raj, wealthy Bengali gentlemen, the most vigorous imitators of the British, invested in Victorian novels. And Bengali high society was full of bluster and board games about English literature – who read what, who owned what.
The intellectual regeneration of this period, incubating new ideas, broadened the reading habits of relatively well-to-do Indians. From Punjab to Bengal and Delhi to Andhra, writers of pulpy, “serious” fiction in indigenous languages continued to acquire cult followings into the 20th century. Nothing approaching the literary effervescence in Russia – where Pushkin’s appearance precipitated the advent of a proudly national literature – could be replicated in polyglot India.
Writers in English, the language of the elite in colonial India, had only a small readership in republican India. Even after the economic liberalization of the 1990s, the value of Indian writing in English was measured here by its reception in the West. There was a talent drain: Some of India’s most successful English-language writers of the late 1980s and 1990s took up residence abroad.
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Salman Rushdie oddly declared their output to be “the most valuable contribution India has yet made to the world of books”. It fell to VS Naipaul, the keenest observer of India since Mahatma Gandhi, to note the fatal invalidity of Indo-Anglian literary culture: “books are published by people from outside, judged by people from the outside, and largely bought by people”. outside.”
Today, as all the political virtues prized by a generation of emigrant Indian writers in English are dying out, India can be said to have a genuinely local market for books by Indian authors writing in English. India still cannot sustain its writers, but it now contains a huge readership for hardcover products of all genres. For writers whose livelihood doesn’t depend solely on royalties, it’s hugely rewarding.
So maybe summer playlists aren’t so weird after all. But the following, based on books I’ve read recently, should perhaps be called an end-of-monsoon reading list. Some of the books about it were published this year. Others were published years ago. All have this in common: they deserve a wide readership.
Ambedkar in London (Hurst, 2022)
Edited by William Gould, Santosh Dass, Christophe Jaffrelot
BR Ambedkar spent two periods as a student in London (1916-1917 and 1920-1924). These were crucial years in the life of one of India’s most important founding figures. All the Indians were in the colonial gutter, but Bhimrao was looking at the stars. His brilliant mind and formidable intellect, overcoming racial and caste prejudices, had no equal in the freedom movement. Jawaharlal Nehru was an ordinary student in England. Gandhi immersed himself in Victorian fashions. Ambedkar was a special man.
Edited by India’s pre-eminent hands William Gould, Santosh Dass and Christophe Jaffrelot, this volume not only fills in the gaps in our knowledge of Ambedkar’s life in London – the period that shaped his political life in India – but also opens our eyes to the many movements for human dignity, autonomy and emancipation, from Europe to Africa, inspired by the life of Ambedkar.
Ambedkar in Londonto be published by Hurst in November, is made indispensable by the simple fact of its existence.
The Empire of Affirmative Action Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939 (Cornell University Press, 2001)
Kurapaty is the densely forested area outside of Minsk where Belarusian intellectuals – champions of a distinct Belarusian identity – were slaughtered on Stalin’s orders between 1937 and 1941. Until I read the remarkable work of learning from Martin, my mind would remind me of the haunting image of Kurapaty whenever I thought about consolidation of the USSR.
Martin disrupts our understanding of national identity in the early USSR. Rather than stifle non-Russian identities, Moscow’s new masters sought to foster them. Russia, the keystone of the multi-ethnic Soviet Union, was seen as the source of the reaction – and its influence and importance were balanced by the subsidizing, sponsorship and funding of languages, cultures and “territories” not Russians.
This policy ended in the late 1930s. But, from Ukraine to Georgia, its effects are still visible in the post-Soviet world. (Marshal Tito had similarly attempted to tame the Serbs by granting significant autonomy to Kosovo and Vojvodina. Whereas Mao, who mobilized people of all ethnicities for the cause of the proletariat, betrayed all who were sufficiently gullible to believe him in asserting Han Chinese supremacy immediately after taking power.)
empire of affirmative action seems oddly relevant as our own government seeks to establish the primacy of one language and one religion.
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From Heaven Lake: Journey Through Sinkiang and Tibet (Chatto & Windus, 1983)
This book, published before I was born, originated in a diary kept by a doctoral student hitchhiking through China in 1982. The published product is a book like no other. As Seth writes, India and China, “despite their contiguity, have had almost no contact throughout history.” From the lake of heaven is a rare record from China through Indian eyes.
There, Seth is chatting about “Laj Kapoor” with Chinese guards. Here he is, observing the cruelty of Han rule over Muslim Uyghurs who, having been forced to give up their own language, cannot communicate with their grandparents. The sharpness of Seth’s vision is matched only by the liveliness of his brilliant prose. Nothing is missing. I come back to this book once every few years. Nothing like this exists or can now exist.
The religious revolution: the birth of modern spirituality, 1848-1898 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux2022)
Dominic Green is one of the most despised figures in the British-American print media because he writes at the speed at which others speak. Would an obscure journal with a huge endowment love 1,500 words of medieval Norse poetry? He will deliver. An animated piece on Beau Brummell for the weekend section? With you at 6 p.m.
Green’s new book, religious revolution, demonstrates the depth of his learning and scholarship. It’s intellectual history with an impressive ensemble cast – Wagner, Emerson, Nietzsche, Madame Blavatsky, Gandhi, Vivekananda, Herzl. Green deftly weaves their lives into a gripping story of the rise of spirituality – which he argues convincingly has played as important a role as science in shaping the modern world. The religious revolution is unlikely to endear its author to those who envy him, but it is sure to enrich and enliven the minds of all who read it.
Kapil Komireddi is the author of Malevolent Republic: A Short History of the New India. Views are personal.