Early September as I write this: Booker month and hurricanes. It always feels a bit like a month of farewells, and poets felt the same way as I do (read, for instance, Wilfrid Owen’s Elegy In April And September), there’s a whole rash of poetry about the end of summer and the beginning of fall for the Western world, and for us, the upcoming festive season, just around the corner.
But I feel time marching on just about now, the Great Hot is nearly over and party season is starting in Delhi, but, as always, I’d rather be home with a good book. This column’s inadvertent theme is history — what has happened and what might have happened — which, I suppose, is only appropriate for such a ruminating sort of month.
Though it is, as I’ve mentioned, Booker month, when longlists are analysed, people place bets and novels are celebrated, there was another book that created a more underground buzz this month. A hardback children’s book called Excavating History: India Through Archaeology by Devika Cariapa. It’s not often that a children’s book gets taken seriously, but this one deserves all the attention it has been getting. Excavating History is a history of India, but a scientific and comprehensive volume, using archaeological finds to do a quick rundown of what’s been going on in the subcontinent from the Stone Age downwards.
I don’t mind admitting that I learned a lot of things, and added several new sites to my future travel list. With fun illustrations to appeal to kids and dense enough for the amateur historian adult, I’m recommending it to everyone with even a slight interest in what happened before the stories began.
Every day on my newsfeed there’s more about the Rohingya refugees. It’s all terrible news and very sad to watch, and it does make one curious about Myanmar. Look no further than Amy Tan’s Saving Fish From Drowning, an excellent, immersive novel that works both as a fable as well as a critique of Myanmar’s political situation.
You may know Tan from her books about Chinese-American mothers and daughters (The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God’s Wife, among others) and this book has nothing in common with those, but shows off Tan’s chops in writing about a politically fraught situation with gentle humour as well as insight. In the book, 12 American tourists are travelling to Myanmar, on a trip organised by their friend Bibi Chen, who has since died. Bibi is the omniscient narrator of the book, haunting the whole trip with her beyond-the-grave observations — and then watching as the travellers get themselves into predicaments she could have saved them from.
There’s also a kidnapping staged by a tribe who feel like they have been forgotten and sidelined by the current political regime, but, frankly, I felt that plotline stood second to the glorious travelogues and descriptions of this country that litter the book. Read it, if only to understand what Myanmar has been up to all these years.
More recent than Excavating History and also much less scientific is Raj by Gita Mehta. The book is an elegy to the lost royal kingdoms of India, the struggles those landed people had with their subjects asking for their own rights and so on, how terrible the British were, and how they were stuck between a rock and a hard place with the nationalists on one side and the Brits on the other.
This book was the first time I ever felt a slight twinge of sympathy for India’s privileged royals. The heroine is a passive woman tossed about by fate, forever needing a man to sort things out for her, and yet, and yet, I think you should read it.
Raj is meticulously researched, a thrilling fly-on-the-wall view into the zenana and India’s erstwhile royal families, and how they had to interact with Queen Victoria and how the more Indian ones resisted adopting English ways.
It’s all very well told, even if you do feel like giving the protagonist a good hard shake now and then.
Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan is the author of five books with a sixth, The One Who Swam With The Fishes; out soon @reddymadhavan