As India opens up from one of the strictest lockdowns in the world, domestic travel has resumed, malls and restaurants have started reopening, and the streets are full again. The signal to the country seems to be that things are slowly going back to normal. But few really believe that.
Months into the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, as the number of cases rise at alarming rates, normalcy is hard to find, and so is comfort, even for those who usually looked for it in the pages of a book. Oscillating between anxiety and listless stupor, many readers are finding themselves unable to finish a book, or feel invested in a story while stuck in limbo, riding out this pandemic.
So we asked ten authors to recommend one book that readers could turn to that might make them feel something and evoke that particular fullness of emotion that is unique to reading.
A caveat: books are far from a guarantee of joy. For many, the time or capacity to focus on reading is a luxury they do not enjoy. For others, reading right now feels hollow, like a false comfort. There are enough prescriptive imperatives in this time of uncertainty and loss, so this is not a list of books that anybody should be reading. But for those who have been disappointed about the barrier they face each time they pick up a book, it might hopefully offer a small window back in.
Fiction is what I turn to for comfort. But when I am struggling to read, as has happened often in the last year, I sit by my picture books shelves, re-reading these wonderfully distilled stories of love, growing up, and wonder. The last few months though, I keep returning to The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris. The spell book, as the conjurers call it, summons lost nature words through the most magical of acrostic poems and art. Each spell draws out stories—of the high-flyer ivy, the river’s quiver kingfisher, the heartwood of the willow, the shape-shifter otter. Macfarlane’s writing is luminous, and this book is best read aloud. Then, pause, to linger over Morris’s glorious and splendid illustrations. Best of all? This gorgeous book is of a size that you can hug it right after reading. You will want to hug it.
Bijal Vachharajani is a children’s book writer, editor, and journalist. Her most recent novel is A Cloud Called Bhura.
There’s something magical about rereading Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate at this bewildering, colourless time. I was first enthralled by it about a decade ago, but I’m especially enjoying its exuberance this time around. It’s woven around a set of San Francisco yuppies in the ’80s—which itself brings a welcome distance—and its themes and treatment are providing such solace and pleasure. Seth can, of course, distress and delight at will; but in this text, his skill and effort combine to create a rare experience for the reader. You know what to expect of the traditional metre—so self-assured—even as the plot meanders through modern-day life, stressful and confusing. The novel is filled with unfamiliar, teasing words but it’s all in the service of engaging and delighting, never impressing. I’d recommend a few stanzas first thing in the morning, as the sun spills out of the sky. Truly golden.
Rehana Munir is a culture writer and novelist. She is the author of Paper Moon.
I’d recommend Room by Emma Donoghue. When one lockdown leads to another and we are dying to step out and breathe the air of freedom, it probably makes sense to read the story of five-year-old Jack, who was born and raised in a square little room. Jack’s world is populated by only two people: his mother, who was kidnapped when she was nineteen, and ‘Old Nick’, the kidnapper, who visits the secured room at night to assault his mother. For the mother, who led a normal life until seven years ago, the room is nothing but a prison. For the child, who has never had a glimpse of the outside world, the room is home. My description of the book may sound a bit depressing for a time like this. But let me assure you Room is not just about suffering, it is also about resilience and redemption.
Anees Salim is a novelist and advertising professional. His most recent book is The Small-Town Sea.
The Gospel of the Red Man by Ernest Thompson Seton is a book on Native American thought and culture written with the approval of the Sioux, Ojibway, Osage, and Iroquois elders. It’s a beautiful and deeply moving book, of which certain chapters like ‘The Indian Silence’, ‘The Omaha Tribal Prayer,’ ‘Burial and Hope for the dead’ and ‘The teachings of Wabasha’ and more, stand out. Poetic, and profound thoughts touching deep springs of life and bringing forth life lessons for a modern or postmodern world that can lead to salvation and deliverance from the present existence of disconnectedness. For example, the measure of success of a man’s life is not gauged by this question, ‘How much property have I gained for myself?’ but this question, ‘How much service have I rendered to my people?’ Here is a book that speaks to my spirit.
Easterine Kire is a poet, short story writer and novelist. Her most recent book is Walking the Roadless Road: Exploring the Tribes of Nagaland.
A genre that I often turn to is Young Adult fiction, typically fantasy. I enjoy reading the entire range of stories there are out there—these are the books that excite me, make me momentarily forget the chaos around us, and make me wish I could write as well. I’ve been revisiting Harry Potter with my 13 year old and now, during the lockdown, he discovered the entire Fablehaven series by Brandon Mull and I re-read it too. Anything by Rick Riordan is amazing because the amount of research he packs into his books without making it one bit boring always stumps me. I also love Leigh Bardugo who is a fantastic writer and I’m in awe of her Shadow and Bone series as well as the Crows books. Another writer who also writes jaw-dropping YA fantasy is Sarah J Maas. I’m yet to read her Throne of Glass but I’ve read her A Court of Thorns and Roses series (which I don’t think is YA strictly). I think YA Fantasy is the perfect sort of genre to lose oneself in at the moment. It’s rich, layered, has some excellent thrills and twists and the characterization is brilliant. And there’s tender romance as well, the kind that you forget exists as you grow older.
Andaleeb Wajid is the author of 25 romance, Young Adult, and horror novels. Her most recent book is Smitten By You.
“A genre that I often turn to is Young Adult fiction, typically fantasy. I enjoy reading the entire range of stories there are out there—these are the books that excite me, make me momentarily forget the chaos around us, and make me wish I could write as well.”
It’s been many years since I last thought about My Family And Other Animals by the late, well-beloved naturalist, Gerald Durrell. It’s a frank, funny and somewhat fictionalised memoir set on the Greek island of Corfu in 1935-39. Though it’s been made into a successful PBS TV series, the book is (of course!) much better.
It’s a warm, honest and extremely cheerful account of struggling against great odds. Durrell was ten years old and the youngest of four unruly children when Louisa, his recently widowed mother, moved the family to Greece. It was a desperate move, made in the spur of the moment. She had no money, no friends and spoke no Greek. The tale is filled with animal life and hilarious anecdotes about the family’s many missteps.
It’s an excellent reminder that hardship can be a wonderful teacher. And that a sense of humour is perhaps humanity’s most endearing and valuable quality.
Manjula Padmanabhan is an author, playwright and cartoonist. Her most recent book is Blood and Laughter.
As far back as I remember, whenever I’ve been low and feeling that what’s-the-point-of-it-all feeling, I’ve always turned to Jane Austen for succour. Reading Pride and Prejudice for the 77th time is like cuddling under an old blanket that is familiar and warm. I know exactly what it feels like.
The joy of reading for me lies not just in finding exciting books that evoke fresh thoughts and emotions, but in knowing that a particular book will give me just what I need at a particular time. So when listless stupor strikes, I go back to Jane Austen, or to Georgette Heyer, her literary relative—Heyer’s Frederica is of those books that makes you snort with laughter, so that people look at you oddly and follow strict social distancing norms.
But as the pandemic shows no sign of abating I might switch to Dickens’ The Tale of Two Cities. Darker, and sadder, but so beautifully imagined and written that even the gloom brings joy.
Anushka Ravishankar is a children’s book author and co-founder of Duckbill Books. Her most recent book is Hey Diddle Diddle.
If I had to recommend just one book, it would be Dr Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste. It’s something that should be read by all South Asians, because it’s a brilliant exposition of the caste question, and caste is the defining problem of this region, which affects all of us irrespective of nation or religion or gender. Especially good for savarnas, because we often ‘don’t notice’ caste, even though our knee happens to be on someone’s neck even today. And insightful for outsiders to the region too, to understand what India is all about. It also happens to be powerfully written, a treat for the discerning reader. It’s difficult to put down!
Amita Kanekar is a writer and architectural historian. Her most recent novel is Fear of Lions.
During the early days of the lockdown I decided to read Middlemarch by George Elliot, considered to be one of the greatest novels in English literature. This highly unusual novel about life in a small town in England is set in the 1830s but could easily be describing the facets of modern life in India. It is a complex study of provincial life as it faces fast-changing events that will challenge their established pattern of life. Middlemarch, though a very English novel, reminded me of a small town in Madhya Pradesh where I spent my childhood. With its keen psychological insights, the novel introduces us to a range of amazing characters—from the arrogant landed gentry and professional men to the suspicious farm labourers—and I felt I had met many of them in that dusty town of my childhood.
Bulbul Sharma is an artist, writer and author of several books. Her most recent novel is Murder in Shimla.
I self-soothe by reading picture books whenever I need to, in English and in Tamil (Tulika Books’ catalogue is my go-to for the latter), as well as wordless ones. Books have been a cocoon for me my whole life, and there’s something about books made with children in mind that make me feel particularly seen and safe—and always, entertained. Two forever-standouts for me are Karthika Nair’s The Honey Hunter, for the fearless way it tells a complicated and somewhat dark tale for a young audience, and Priya Kuriyan’s astonishing Ammachi’s Glasses, which weaves a delightful story using the power of images alone.
Sharanya Manivannan is a poet, children’s book writer, columnist and novelist. Her most recent book is The Queen of Jasmine Country.