It’s biting cold in Delhi as I write this, so excuse me for not being very eloquent. As 2022 draws to a close (forgive the 5 days left), we put together a list of the best books our writers and editors read this year, covering a truly wide spectrum – in genre, in timelines, even page counts. There is a book published in the 1970s, there is one published a month before this article was written. There is an economic-feminist book about India’s biggest Bollywood superstar, there is a book about the very first lady doctors of the country. There is enough. There are many. Here goes.
Tulika (editor, Incurato) – This year, for the first time in long, long time, I had no reading goals. No number of books I planned to read, or what, from which genre. Zero plans for reading meant that I read at ease whenever I felt like and did not feel guilty about not reading (which was most of the year).
Even so, there were a few books that I will forever hold close, not because they are my favourites or the most well-written, but because they came to me at exactly the right time.
The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh
Set in the Sundarbans in West Bengal, The Hungry Tide is a moving anthropological piece about the landscape and its inhabitants. What I found most interesting about it was how the mangroves and the delta are the major characters in the novel, moving and changing throughout and telling their own story. It is also a highly political story of peoples’ sense of ownership, what can be claimed, where can you build your home, what can you call yours, when your surroundings are as volatile as your own emotions?
Desperately Seeking Shahrukh by Shrayana Bhattacharya
A highly readable political, feminist book about Shahrukh Khan’s fandom that focuses on the lives of young women in India and their lives. Moving away from the highly visible, masculine idea of fan culture, it was such a delight to read not only because I could relate to some of the experiences, but because Shrayana puts it in the larger contemporary context of systemic hierarchies, marketplace economy and popular culture in a way that leaves you crying and shocked at the way we have understood India so far. The women in the book do not just seek Shahrukh, they seek a different way to be.
Shekhar (writer, Incurato) – As the bell of 2022 tolls loudly and we rummage through our cupboards and drive away dusts from pages of the books, a certain sense of guilt and accomplishment overwhelm us. Guilt of not having finished the books we left off in the middle; accomplishment of having finished the books but still the learning and gathering wisdom from those remain elusive. I think the idea of ‘possession’ when in terms of having physical books brings out this feeling of shame and guilt. Throughout this year, of the fourteen books which I read – albeit the target was much higher – three books my top favourites.
In Search of Lost Time: Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust
I began the year with much more zest and zeal of wanting to finish Proust’s magnum opus, In Search of Lost Time. In reality, I could only finish Swann’s Way, and even that took me nearly two months. The Proustian world is full of memory, forgetting, hibernation, and again waking up from slumber – all happening by shutting down one eyelid. But as a reader, the slippery slope of the language almost put me on the verge of giving up. Proust has his own way of tempting readers though. Once he starts opening up the memory portions – he makes sure you are suddenly taken with the flow, and slowly creeps on your body of memories. And all of this happened with me. Proust helps us to open ourselves up. He takes the lid off of our chest and let the saplings grow.
Field Notes from a Waterborne Land by Parimal Bhattacharya
Parimal Bhattacharya’s travel journal uncovers the less talked areas of Bengal which generally get overlooked by the Kolkata-centric narrative. The subtitle of the book – Bengal Beyond Bhadralok – is justified. There have been few books written where the Bhadralok narrative has been challenged and Bhattacharya has tried to disrupt this tradition. He writes about people who are anonymous – who don’t have home. Bhattacharya’s journal book is a segmented one – there is no concrete narrative flowing within it. He merges all his journal entries. He writes about the people of the Sunderbans, people of lesser-known and lesser talked-about places like those along the Bengal-Orissa borders. He straddles the boundaries of memories, histories and geography.
Chaitanya (writer, Incurato) – On autopilot, I added my usual goal of reading 52 books this year on my Goodreads. I spent the year reading a mix of titles and genres on personal whims and external recommendations and adding more books to my 'All Time Favourites' shelf, rendering it a whole section in itself and quite pointless in terms of offering a singular option to anyone. I went back to some authors and books I loved and discovered new ones. I lost the desire to review them publicly but thought of them in the space I cherish, my inner world.
A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin
It is a shame that Lucia Berlin didn't live to see her mainstream success. This collection of stories is one of the finest I have read. Words picked so smartly. So much conveyed in so little. In reading these stories, these dark, gritty, vulnerable experiences of alcoholism, relationship failures, abuse, death, and disease, you don't take away the grimness of life. You take away hope. You take away the desire to live, to continue to love with a broken heart, to carry on moving to cities to start afresh, to look at skies and babies and friends and find as much love as you can.
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
Gilead is about embracing the magic of an ordinary life. It is looking at two friends laughing, lovers in the rain, a child running, a wife putting a blanket on you as sleep, and realizing with unmissable clarity - life is beautiful. The Reverend reflects upon many things, knowing he would not live to see his son into adulthood. In reading his thoughts, I felt the weight of his words; not as a burden on my heart, but as comfort. I felt time slow down, dust specks elongating their Brownian motion under streams of sunlight. I felt my mind wander, turning Marilynne's words over like water in a vortex. Which is to say, I was absorbed.
Less is Lost by Andrew Sean Greer
This is one of those sequels that outdoes the predecessor. What's interesting is that this book borrows ALL the elements from the first part: Less as the protagonist, Freddy as the narrator, a long road trip, and tidbits of humanity squeezed within the comic absurdity of life. I think the highlight of this book is no doubt the humour in the writing which not only humbles its protagonist often but also makes him out to be heroic in the face of ordinary life.
Utpal Datta (writer, Incurato)
Master at Work by Rahul Rawail (as told to Pranika Sarma)
Raj Kapoor's films have always appealed to us in a variety of ways. On one hand, the success of his movies and his own signature, and on the other hand, his determination to make films no matter what. This is the reason why the Showman continues to be so popular among film lovers. Rahul Rawail, a successful director of several movies after working as an assistant director to Kapoor, has written this book based on his own experiences. The book's simple narrative and attractive language provides a captivating picture of Kapoor's passion and creativity. A new director will be guided by his detailed description of how he experienced the process of making films. There is no doubt that new directors will appreciate how beautifully he conveys the technical and emotional elements of each moment in a film. A film truly is a creative and emotional work made with the support of technology, and this book is proof of that.
Aditi (editor, Incurato) – In a very conscious step, I began 2022 with resolutions more open to interpretation. Gone was the stipulation of reading a ‘new’ book each month. I allowed myself to reread old favourites, revisit texts from memories past, and explore genres I usually find myself shying away from. I share with you some old friends and some new, all of whom have irrevocably shifted my world a few inches to the left.
Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard by Kiran Desai
Words cannot describe the joy this novel brings me. Desai’s witty work breathes freshness into satire. Her prose is vivid and visual, and her rich imagery lingers behind your eyelids long after you close the book. As I reread it this year, I found myself expressing solidarity with Sampath’s existential crises, Ammaji’s endless patience, and Pinky’s flair for melodrama. None, however, come close to Kulfi and her fantastical imagination that leaves one hungering for more.
Lush, vibrant and whimsical, this whirlwind of a novel aptly depicts the hullabaloo of everyday life in India and leaves you clambering for more with its surprise end. If a novel was a person, I’d go on adventures with Hullabaloo every day.
Sultana’s Dream by Rokheya Sakhawat Hossain; illustrated by Durga Bai
In train rides, in buses, in moments of stasis, I have taken to exploring the various independent bookstores and publishing houses of India. An Instagram stumble led me down a rich rabbit hole of experimental and explorative publishing. It is through this endeavour I found Tara Books’ illustrated version of Begum Rokheya’s short story, Sultana’s Dream. Pardhan Gond artist Durgabai Vyam’s timeless illustrations of the famed feminist fable marks the modern reader’s soujourn in Sultana’s dreamscape of Ladyland. Her art depicts a world so close yet so far from our own. They bring a romantic edge to the sci-fi novella, extolling nature and housing humans within the external landscape.
With Durgabai’s illustrations marrying time across the space of the text, this edition presents a Ladyland that is a possibility, not merely a dream. The feminist future is reimagined.
Lady Doctors: The Untold Stories of India’s First Women in Medicine by Kavitha Rao
I am a person who usually stays the farthest away from nonfiction, only bearing with it if it is a graphic text. Lady Doctors drew me with its simple yet odd title – aren’t female doctors also just…doctors? In swift, dexterous prose, Rao unveils the mystery behind the seemingly simple title of her work. Simple yet heartfelt prose makes this a text accessible to those unfamiliar with academic writing – a feat that deserves due credit, given the amount of research the book holds within itself.
Rao investigates pertinent questions of gender that continue to plague modern medicine while presenting a grounded biography of six pioneering women, whom the annals of history have not been kind to. By the close of the book, your heart hurts yet swells in gratitude.
Debasmita (editor-in-chief, Incurato) – It was a pretty uninspiring year for reading, for me. I read three spy thriller books in a series, back-to-back, didn’t feel like picking up anything too laborious, and thus sadly, another year without finishing Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis Trilogy. I took my Goodreads Reading Challenge way too seriously, and the only thing year has taught me is to not do that. I however read even more South Asian work than before, and my three favourites are . . . * drum roll * . . .
Blood by Sunil Gangopadhyay
I have grown up hearing how good Sunil (known mononymously to his fans) is, mostly from my mother, who has grown up reading Sunil in the original language of Bengali. After lots of hunting around for a good translation, I chanced upon Blood, a seemingly dramatic but insouciant book about the pain of the aftershock of the British Raj in Bengal. I picked up the book mainly to get out of a reading rut. Translations can go so wrong if not done well, but this one preserved all the emotions. It's sort-of-heartbreaking, talking about the aftermath of Partition, which Sunil treats with his characteristic nonchalance, not wanting to reside in the trauma, but letting it show in the actions of the protagonist.
Manjhi’s Mayhem by Tanuj Solanki
No year goes by without me reading one of Tanuj’s books, and Manjhi's Mayhem has no flaw. That’s the first thing I will always say about it. It completely achieves what it wanted to do. There is nothing in this book I would have wanted differently. The pacing is perfect, the characters completely at ease, not sounding like someone else wrote them. While reading, I had even started imitating action moves Manjhi was doing on other people; I was fully sold into the setting.
I only have two complaints with the book - that it was not set in Delhi, a city I still feel is great for noir (I champion for it like countries bid for the FIFA World Cup), and that it ended too soon. I could have kept on reading another 100 pages about Sewaram Manjhi.
Tales of Hazaribagh by Mihir Vatsa
I picked up the book only out of a deep-rooted sense of homesickness I feel for Jharkhand, a place I only lived in for five years. I have never even been to Hazaribagh, but Mihir writes his hometown so beautifully, the emotional core ingrained to the town yanks you there too. Before you know it, you are also hopping along in the many journeys to discover rivers, forests, and waterfalls. I love the honesty and affection with which he describes the place.
There were flaws, yes, but once in, you are only concerned with the sal trees, rivers cutting through rocks, discovering waterfalls. The book might have been easier for me to read because of my familiarity with the names and even the language. They weren't alien to me though that might be the case for someone completely unfamiliar with the area.
Not that it should matter. This isn't a book to be memorised for exams, it's a book for feeling. It's a love letter to a town and like all love letters, it has its flaws in pacing and writing, but at the end of the day, it makes you feel warm and happy.
If you have also read any of these books and liked them (or not), let us know.
And send us your own recommendations for next year’s list! Happy reading and happy holidays!