With the experience of 2020, it’s prudent to enter 2021 with cautious optimism. There’s a vaccine, but it’s going to be a while before all of us get it. Then there are also new strains of the virus—which is fair warning for us to not slacken the safety measures that have become part of our lives. But at least there are new books that offer the promise of pleasure. Here are 21 titles that caught our eye in the 2021 catalogues, in no particular order of preference.
LOCKING DOWN THE POOR by Harsh Mander (Speaking Tiger)
It may not be misplaced to call Harsh Mander the conscience of middle-class India. He lives up to the epithet in this hard-hitting and necessary account of the fate of the poor in India during the sudden lockdown imposed by the government.
UNFINISHED by Priyanka Chopra Jonas (Penguin Random House)
Celebrity memoirs are usually far from candid, so how far will Priyanka Chopra Jonas go? Judging by the description, she covers a fair bit—her meteoric rise, her father’s death, marriage to pop star Nick Jonas. Hopefully, there are crackling revelations in store.
MY LIFE AND STRUGGLE: AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF ABDUL GHAFFAR KHAN (Roli Books)
Translated for the first time from the original Pashto into English by Imtiaz Ahmad Sahibzada, this is a rich account of a life devoted to the service of the people. Known as Frontier Gandhi, Khan was a key figure during the freedom movement and a proponent of non-violent politics.
ENTER STAGE RIGHT by Feisal Alkazi (Speaking Tiger)
Subtitled The Alkazi/Padamsee Family Memoir, this is the story of two of India’s most illustrious cultural families, several members of which became institutions in their respective fields. Apart from the insights and anecdotes, the 50-plus archival photographs are an added bonus.
WHEREABOUTS by Jhumpa Lahiri (Penguin Random House)
This is the first novel Lahiri has written in Italian, a language she has been in love with for decades, and also translated into English. At the heart of the story is a woman torn between a sense of belonging and her reluctance to form bonds.
WINGED STALLIONS AND WICKED MARES by Wendy Doniger (Speaking Tiger)
Who but Wendy Doniger can pull off a book on the horse in Indian history and myth? In this study, she traces an equestrian sociocultural history. From tensions between Hindu stallions and Arab mares to atrocities inflicted on Dalits for riding horses, the story covers a wide arc.
THE LOVES OF YURI by Jerry Pinto (Speaking Tiger)
Projected as the first of a trilogy, this coming-of-age novel about “friendship and first loves” is set in Bombay (now Mumbai) of the 1980s. Pinto, who has created memorable characters in his previous novels, is very much at home, both in terms of setting and themes.
THE ART OF BITFULNESS by Nandan Nilekani and Tanuj Bhojwani (Penguin Random House)
Co-written by one of the leading names in India’s IT industry, this book offers strategies to help us survive the digital world. If the premise sounds all too familiar, they also have advice on being mindful about sharing your data online. Ahem.
EDEN: AN INDIAN RETELLING OF JEWISH, CHRISTIAN AND ISLAMIC LORE by Devdutt Pattanaik (Penguin Random House)
Devdutt Pattanaik is taking a break from straight-laced Hinduism and the epics. Instead, he brings us an intriguing book on the common foundations of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, told in his inimitable style.
ACTUALLY…I MET THEM by Gulzar (Penguin Random House) In spite of the somewhat inelegant title, this memoir by one of India’s iconic cultural figures includes stories of his relationship with legends like Satyajit Ray, R.D. Burman, Kishore Kumar, Bimal Roy, Ritwik Ghatak, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Ravi Shankar and Bhimsen Joshi—a book that truly deserves to be called a treasure trove.
VIR SANGHVI by Vir Sanghvi (Penguin Random House India)
When one of India’s most successful journalists decides to write his memoirs, his admirers and detractors are bound to sit up—especially since the story of his life ranges from Bollywood intrigues and his role in the (Niira) Radia tapes (2008-09) to establishing himself as a connoisseur of food and luxury.
THE NUTMEG’S CURSE by Amitav Ghosh (Penguin Random House)
Subtitled Parables For A Planet In Crisis, this book, based on the Campbell Lectures Ghosh is scheduled to deliver at the School of Humanities at Rice University, US, in September 2021, tells the story of nutmeg. But woven into this historical narrative is a morality tale, involving climate change and Western colonialism.
SACH KAHUN TOH by Neena Gupta (Penguin Random House India)
Hilarious and heart-warming are the two words used by the publisher to describe this book, and we believe them. Neena Gupta is one of our most talented actors, a formidable stage presence and a Bollywood star, who became a single parent when it was far from usual, and is not known to mince her words. This is her story—up close and personal.
KLARA AND THE SUN by Kazuo Ishiguro (Faber & Faber)
In his first novel since winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017, Kazuo Ishiguro explores a theme that has intrigued him, and the rest of humanity, for ever: What does it mean to love? Winning the Nobel Prize is known to have blunted literary careers, so Ishiguro fans would be keenly watching out for it.
FIRST PERSON SINGULAR by Haruki Murakami (Penguin Random House)
A new Haruki Murakami book is an event, no matter how you feel about him. In this collection of eight stories, he explores his abiding themes—youth, music, baseball, crossing between fiction and life-writing.
THIS LIFE AT PLAY by Girish Karnad (HarperCollins India)
Translated from the Kannada by Srinath Perur and the late Girish Karnad, this is the great actor, thinker and public intellectual’s memoirs. All through his life, Karnad faced political questions squarely in his fiction and non-fiction. The hallmark of his intrepid clarity runs through this volume too.
CLUB YOU TO DEATH by Anuja Chauhan (HarperCollins India)
Anuja Chauhan has a surprise up her sleeve with each book. In this one, she turns to crime fiction, where a hot personal trainer is found dead under an overloaded barbell at the posh Delhi Turf Club, on the eve of the club election.
SPY STORIES: INSIDE THE SECRET WORLDS OF ISI AND RAW by Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark (Juggernaut Books)
The best-selling authors of The Siege: The Attack On The Taj turn their attention to the Research and Analysis Wing and Inter-Services Intelligence, the “spy agencies” of India and Pakistan respectively, to explore their internal and interpersonal dynamics.
ABHIJIT BANERJEE’S COOKBOOK (Juggernaut Books)
It may not be known to many but the celebrated economist is also reputed to be a mean cook. Finally, the rest of the world will get a measure of his culinary skills—certainly a first-of-its-kind book for a Nobel Prize winner of any kind.
BREAKFAST WITH EVIL AND OTHER RISKY VENTURES by Ashis Nandy (Oxford University Press)
This collection of scholarly essays, published over the years by one of our leading cultural psychologists, may not be easy reading but is worthy of your effort.
THE CAGE by Amrita Pritam (Hachette India)
Translated from the Punjabi by Rita Banerji, this is one of Pritam’s great novels, written in 1950. An account of Partition seen through the eyes of a woman, Pinjra established her as an early feminist voice in India’s literary landscape.