Growing up, books happened to me with all the predictability of weather. And as with the weather, if there were seasons of drought, there was also fantastic weather for days on end. The summer I was nine, I read every English reader in the school's textbook room. These were made up mostly of excerpts or they were abridged classics - Shakespeare's plays rewritten. So, for years I did not know they were plays but thought of them as short stories.
Literature can of course be rendered into schema and libraries do this well. But I am glad enough that I was fully ten before I stepped foot in one. The haze in which I read books did wonders for the understanding I retain to this day of what literature cannot do - it cannot reliably contain the meaning it purports to. 2014 was a year slippery with meaning and books; the most notable of which do not fit the schema of books published in 2014.
#1. Infinite Jest: I tried to read Infinite Jest and Broom of the System and could complete neither. I was confused by the juvenile feel of Broom. Earlier I had read and loved Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and Pale King. I need to go back to Infinite Jest, which is eminently worth setting an entire year to understand. It is that large a puzzle belonging as it did to that large an imagination. But which year will I do this?
|Infinite Jest, Back Bay Books; Rs 2,489.|
#2. The Stranger: I re-read Camus' The Stranger with my son and found in it neither a road-back to the 17-year-old I was when I first read it, nor one to the 17-year-old; my son today. Literature as an empathy creating machine grinds to a halt here. Meursault's alienation from others can never be my alienation; if it were, then we might put an end to alienation, or failing that, identify with Holden Caulfield. Thank God, though, for this perfect antidote to the books of today with their Disneyfied call to one humanity for all.
|The Stranger, Vintage; Rs 265.|
#3. Mukand and Riaz: Around this time, I read Nina Sabnani's Mukand and Riaz to a roomful of four to 14-year-olds. The story of Mukand, who won't share his hat with his friend, Riaz, till the day he gives it to him in a last gesture of love and farewell is set in the partition period. The members of the Deepalaya Book Reading Club empathised with the boy's struggle to share and grieve over the irrevocability of their parting.
|Mukand and Riaz, Tulika; Rs 135.|
#4. Capital: In May, I purposefully sought out a 2014 release, Rana Dasgupta's Capital. Delhi is after all one of my subjects. I had the great pleasure over some late nights of losing my purposeful writer-self and became simply the reader of this compelling work. Yes, the walls around me melted away and from all around and far away I heard stories that made the strange into the familiar; and the familiar again into the strange.
|Capital: The Eruption of Delhi, Penguin Press HC; Rs 1,481.|
#5. The Scatter Here is Too Great: Toward the end of the year, I encountered that miracle of a title - The Scatter Here is Too Great - on the shortlist for the Shakti Bhatt First Book prize, which my fellow judges and I eventually conferred on its author, Bilal Tanweer. We agreed the hallucinatory shape given to Karachi by Tanweer's disavowal of a seamless narrative told us far more than a brick by brick work of realism would have.
|The Scatter Here is too Great, Random House India; Rs 259.|
#6. The Narrow Road to the Deep North: I ended the year with Richard Flanagan's tightly structured hyper-realistic, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, a book admirable at imagining the seemingly unimaginable. But what is left out of this story of suffering Australian prisoners of war and their Japanese captors is as large as what it contains: the suffering of Tamil and other prisoners of war. John Berger is right and never again can a single story be the only story, which is why 2015 with its new and old books holds the promise of yet more slippery meaning for this reader.
|The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Random House; Rs 449.|