Some have cooked, others have done yoga, many have grieved, and most have been forced into a frenzy of gloom, doom and Zoom. A few, a lucky few, during long quiet afternoons and over morning cups of mint and lemongrass tea and stolen evenings, have read.
Last March, I embarked on the most gut-wrenching, exquisite, minutely detailed odyssey I’ve ever taken. No, not the pandemic, but A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, about the lingering scars of trauma. In some sense, it was a literary foreshadowing of the heart-breaking year ahead for many. The finest reader I know suggested I read this. I remain obliged. And altered.
By April, pandemic fever truly hit. Glued to the TV, affixed to my phone, I caught up on vital non-fiction (A Planet of Viruses by Carl Zimmer and Spillover by David Quammen) in my bid to join the growing ranks of armchair pandemic experts and understand the evolutionary raison d'être of the coronavirus.
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The lockdown stretched on, interspersed by the relentless koel’s coo-coos, and so did The Anarchy, a gargantuan revisitation of colonial history by William Dalrymple. This should be required reading for any lover of Indian history and should perhaps replace Class 10 textbooks. The introduction alone serves as a lesson on the unseating of an empire and the capture of foreign policy by a corporation’s staggering profit.
The monsoon arrived and I chugged along with American Dirt, about a migrant fleeing political violence and cartels on La Bestia, the infamous freight train that grinds northward from Mexico to the US. Not without controversy, the author, Jeanine Cummins, has been criticized for being inauthentic and opportunistic, but discovering that Fermina Daza still lives on more than made up for all the foibles.
August was a standout month, thanks to the climactic finale of the Wolf Hall series, The Mirror and the Light. Hilary Mantel should have got the Booker, again, for this historical novel on the political fortunes of Thomas Cromwell, erstwhile advisor to Charles VI. The words seemed bathed in light, and the parallels between 16th century England and the modern-day era be it tax collection, home science and court intrigue, surreal. Despite my best efforts to stretch it out and savour it, the book had to come to an end, but not without bringing me moments of great joy contemplating fiscal policy, history and the exquisiteness of the human soul.
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In September, I read Breaking Through, Dr. Isher Judge Ahluwalia's touching memoir, published shortly before her death. Born into a simple family as one of 11 siblings, the brilliance of her mind propelled her into the top echelons of academia and policy-making. Dr. Ahluwalia’s elegance in every aspect of living, her embracing of the duties and joys of familial life while garnering accolades in her career will inspire generations to come. But above all, she moved me as an exquisite soul that had found her calling and succeeded in making immortal her voice.
One of the treats of autumn is the Booker shortlist, which has been getting weirder and weirder, and The New Wilderness by Diane Cook, based on an experiment on living in the wild conducted in Oregon, is no exception. A truly dystopian read, it probably holds more lessons for our collective survival than any of the other books I read this past year.
Building up to the American elections in November, I picked up Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar. Anecdotal, scathing and deeply reflective on American society, Akhtar is scarred by his father’s relationship with former US President Donald Trump and frustrated by their political differences. His contemplations on belonging would apply anywhere as do his observations on being cast as the other in a changing, fractured country.
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At the height of the pandemic, I couldn’t resist revisiting that most clichéd of all pandemic novels, Love in the Time of Cholera. “The scent of bitter almonds” transported me into Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s somnolent and romantic Latin America, with its caricatures, its wickedly twisted, magically realistic humour, and its soothing ghosts of a time when even a pandemic couldn’t stop the course of true love.
A literary odyssey reveals the exquisiteness of the human soul and the fragility of its existence. In books, characters usually receive some sort of redemption after their travails, or an enquiry yields greater understanding. But in life, events and emotions don’t often fit into neat plots nor can losses be assuaged so easily. And so, we draw inspiration from the next book while we wait for a collective reckoning of our pandemic choices and demons. That plot is still unfinished and that ending is still to be written.
Shonar Lala Chinoy is a Mumbai-based development economist, a writer and a bibliophile.