In a year with full of surprises where a deadly is impacting the way we live and the way we think about self, society, friends and family. Everything seems to have changed. This virus has impacted and grabbed all the needed headlines for the economy, politics, life, death and history dominated. Here’s our top 10 non-fiction books of the year, in no particular order.
The Commonwealth of Cricket by Ramachandra Guha
His maternal uncle was his first cricketing hero, and he heard the first stories of the game from his father. Fan (unabashed supporter of Karnataka and Friends Union Cricket Club), player (spinner), writer (of many books on various subjects from cricket to anthropology), and historian, Ramachandra Guha has spent a life with cricket.
In The Commonwealth of Cricket, Guha pens a personal memoir mixed with the varying threads of the game in India. He traces the sport across all levels: school, college, club, state and country.
Guha writes lively portraits of local heroes, provincial icons and international stars. Filled with references,short anecdotes , memories and history, Guha says he loves Test cricket, and hasn’t taken to the shorter formats. He shook hands with a Test cricketer — G.R. Viswanath — for the first time in 1970, thanks to his uncle N. Duraiswami.
Sebastian & Sons: A Brief History of Mrdangam Makers by T.M. Krishna
In Karnatik music, writes singer and activist T.M. Krishna in Sebastian & Sons, the mrdangam is not just another percussion instrument but a king among them. His curiosity about the mrdangam started when he realised that “we rarely, almost never, speak about these master makers.” In his first book, A Southern Music, A Karnatik Story, which tells observes and assesses the caste discrimination, he had not delved into the world of the makers, who are mostly Dalit Christians, and he felt he had failed them.
The mrdangam is a two-faced drum and its body is a hollow, resonating chamber made from the wood of jackfruit trees. Its two tapering ends are covered with layers of cow, buffalo and goat hide, and thereby hangs a dark tale of caste discrimination and other slights, which Krishna explores in his second book.
A Promised Land by Barack Obama (PRH)
The first volume of Barack Obama’s presidential memoirs, A Promised Land, tells the story of his journey from a young man searching for his identity to being the first African-American President of the oldest democracy in the world. It is an intimate, reflective account, full of glorious prose. When he was sworn in as the 44th President in January, 2009, the U.S. was in the grip of a massive economic crisis and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were taking a huge toll.
With the Republicans being difficult, Obama overcame seemingly very difficult odds to first steady the ship, and then secure passage of the Recovery Act and the Affordable Care Act. He approved Operation Neptune’s Spear, which would lead to the death of Osama bin Laden in 2011. Obama looks back at his time at the White House more as an observer, analyst and judge, less as a protagonist.
The Battle of Belonging by Shashi Tharoor (Aleph)
In The Battle of Belonging, Shashi Tharoor explains ideas of nationalism, patriotism, citizenship, and belonging. In the course of his study, he explains what nationalism is, what patriotism means, and the nature and future of Indian nationhood. Taking up a phrase coined by Rabindranath Tagore — ‘idea of India’ — Tharoor writes about the forces working to undermine it.
This book is Divided into six sections, he starts by commentig on historical and contemporary ideas of nationalism, patriotism, liberalism, democracy, and humanism, many of which emerged in the West in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and quickly spread throughout the world.
Today, the battle is between two opposing ideas of India, says Tharoor, or what might be described as ethno-religious nationalism versus civic nationalism. With the Constitution under siege, institutions undermined, mythical pasts propagated, minorities demonised, and worse, Tharoor counts and explains on what needs to be done to win the battle of belonging.
The Loss of Hindustan by Manan Ahmed Asif (Harper)
Hindustan, Hindusthan, Bharat or India, the title we choose to ascribe to this land, and how that shapes it is the subject of Manan Ahmed’s examination in The Loss of Hindustan, a masterful foray into many histories of the sub-continent. It is about a history written by powerful colonisers which went onto define it to the outsider, and later became the worldview of the inhabitants themselves.
It is about reading history to see the present clearly and then examine the future. Ahmed’s work is of traversing the history of histories in India over the ages and explain how it served as a precursor to people’s evaluation of themselves. He boldly tackles the question of present-day prejudices and majoritarian sentiment in the sub-continent, whether Hindutva or Sunni Muslim, and what it might owe to how history has been crafted in the past two centuries.
Caste by Isabel Wilkerson (PRH)
A caste system is an artificial construction, a fixed and embedded ranking of human value that sets the presumed supremacy of one group against the presumed inferiority of other groups on the basis of ancestry and often immutable traits, says Isabel Wilkerson in her blistering new book, Caste.
Throughout human history, she mentions out that three caste systems have stood out. “The tragically accelerated, chilling, and officially vanquished caste system of Nazi Germany. The lingering, millennia-long caste system of India. And the shape-shifting, unspoken, race-based caste pyramid in the United States.”
Each version relied on stigmatising those deemed inferior to justify the dehumanisation necessary to keep the lowest-ranked people at the bottom, she writes. “A caste system endures because it is often justified as divine will, originating from sacred text or the presumed laws of nature, and passed down through the generations.”
No Filter: The Inside Story of Instagram by Sarah Frier (Simon & Schuster)
Journalist Sarah Frier profiles Instagram, the social media platform founded in 2010 and how it powers the attention economy in No Filter: The Inside Story of Instagram. Frier describes Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom’s struggles and success meticulously. In the process, she explains up-close portrait of America’s modern nerd culture — its so obvious surroundings, fantasies, psychologies, ambitions of the key actors and their mad obsession for success and scale. Instagram was acquired by Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook in 2012 and is among its most important assets with more than a billion subscribers, and growing.
From Zuckerberg, to Twitter’s Jack Dorsey to Instagram’s Systrom and Mike Krieger, the commonalities are obvious and striking. They were groomed by the reigning philosophies of the Silicon Valley where most start-ups — more than 90% — die but those that survive rewrite history and human life in unforeseen and often alarming ways.
The credit market in India is prone to perilous setbacks, with the extant prolonged non-performing asset shock being the latest, writes Urjit Patel, former Reserve Bank of India Governor, in Overdraft.
As the fiscal space got exhausted, governments deployed banks to stimulate the economy. From 2014 onwards the regulator and the government “have sought to work towards addressing the scourge of large NPAs – the thrust on transparency meant that the unveiled figure tripled to ₹10.4 trillion by 2018.”
The Narendra Modi government passed the Insolvency & Bankruptcy Code (IBC), 2016, its most significant reform initiative. But the IBC regime was rolled back, and Patel tells a story of the early gains clocked against cronyism at risk of being “a false dawn”. He argues that diluting the IBC has robbed it of credibility and reaffirmed the defaulters’ grip over the system.
If Then by Jill Lepore (Hachette India)
The Simulmatics Corporation, founded in 1959 during the Cold War, mined data, targeted voters and destabilised politics — decades before critics accused Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Cambridge Analytica of doing the same. Scientists at Simulmatics used computers to first predict and then channel human behaviour, deploying a ‘People Machine’ for clients which included John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign, the New York Times, and the Department of Defence.
In If Then, historian Jill Lepore unravels the story of this corporation from the archives. In the 1950s and 1960s, Lepore argues, Simulmatics invented the future by building the machine in which the world finds itself trapped now. Simulmatics became bankrupt in the 1970s but not before it had written a pattern to follow, says Lepore: “Collect data. Write code. Detect patterns. Target ads. Predict behaviour. Direct action. Encourage consumption. Influence elections.”
The Next Great Migration by Sonia Shah (Bloomsbury)
Migrations are as old as history, and “a growing body of evidence suggests they may be our best shot at preserving biodiversity and resilient human societies,” writes science journalist Sonia Shah in The Next Great Migration. She travelled far and wide to understand why a wild exodus has begun. She quotes scientists who studied everything from plankton to frogs and found that of the 4,000 species they had tracked, between 40% and 70% had altered their distribution over the past few decades, around 90% into cooler lands and waters in sync with the changing climate.
At McLeodganj with the looming Dhauladhar mountain range, she discovered that young saplings in the forests established themselves a little bit higher up the slopes every year. Shah points out that like “our wild cousins, people are on the move too,” and reveals why it is necessary for the planet.