A ‘novel’ approach to a less hate-filled 2020

Spiritual books have a habit of mysteriously popping up around me, and today I find another one on my office desk. The peon, taking a break from his real job that seems to involve making Tik-Tok videos in the pantry, says, ‘Your Mummy asked me to give you.’
I call her, ‘Mom, thank you, but you know I will just end up returning it. Though I suppose I should be grateful that you sent me Sadhguru’s Inner Engineering and not Nithyananda’s Inner Awakening.’

‘Oh, is that one good, should I order it?

‘No,’ I yelp, ‘don’t get his books. That’s the same chap who fled India and has now set up his own Hindu country ‘Kailaasa’, somewhere near Ecuador. Don’t you remember we once saw this clip of him saying things like, ‘What is freedom? It means free from dumb.’ For once, he turned out to be right. By fleeing the country, he got his freedom and we were freed from his dumbness.’

‘But seriously Mom, I know you hope that by reading all these spiritual tomes I will evolve into a prettier version of Dalai Lama, but I think reading fiction is probably as good for evolving spiritually. Studies show that it helps us develop empathy, and that is also some sort of spiritual growth, right? Let me send you some of the best books I read this year and we can start a book discussion when you finish each one, a book club of sorts. Would be nice bonding, na?’
She retorts, ‘Wah! Now that you have become some big author, you will tell me what books to read! But all right, I will be part of this club of yours.’

Ignoring the sarcastic ‘big author’ dig which she often throws at me, I put together a list for our book discussion. For those of you who don’t have a daughter willing to bury her nose between pages the entire year, you are welcome to it as well…

French Exit By Patrick DeWitt

A dysfunctional mother and son, Frances and Malcolm Price, get on a cruise ship heading to Paris. Frances, infamous for once leaving her husband dead in their bedroom so she didn’t have to cancel her ski trip, is now almost broke except for a wad of cash and a drugged cat in her purse. The Prices’ borrowed Paris apartment soon fills with an assortment of idiosyncratic characters, including a private investigator and a psychic. The characters in this tragedy of manners reveal themselves through caustic yet droll dialogue.
“Do you and Don still make love?” Frances asks her best friend, Joan.
“Every year on his birthday.”
“But not on your birthday?”
“Just a nice dinner for me, thank you. Sometimes we go again around Easter.” It is impossible to pin down this book. And you just have to go along on this hilarious trip with Frances and Malcolm and find your sea legs with them.

Normal people By Sally Rooney

Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Normal People’s Marianne and Connell are teenagers who don’t acknowledge each other in school, but establish a relationship when Connell comes over to pick his mother up from Marianne’s house, where she works as a cleaning lady. The book follows Marianne and Connell through their time at Trinity College in Dublin where Marianne, a social pariah in school, blossoms and Connell finds himself on the outskirts of social circles. They hover around each other, a connection that they are unable to break off and one that is repeatedly ruined by misinterpretations and apprehensions. A powerful, compulsive read.

Newcomer By Keigo Higashino

The dog didn’t eat homework, but he did actually eat this book when I was halfway through it. I then began carrying this tattered copy around because I was unable to disengage with Higashino’s world of spinning wooden tops, wasabi-flavoured cakes and Kyoichiro Kaga, the detective who finds tiny clues in innocuous details while investigating the inexplicable murder of a middle-aged translator. My dog may have merely chewed upon this book but I have to admit, I devoured it, torn pages, saliva and all.

My Sister, the Serial Killer By Oyinkan Braithwaite

The book begins with Ayoola calling up her sister to say, “Korede, I killed him.” Ayoola, a gorgeous foil to her sister’s plain looks and straight-forward manner, is nonchalant, breezy and oblivious to the moral consequences of stabbing people to death. This wry reflection on the bond of love and rivalry between siblings comes to a head when Ayoola is pursued by the gentle Tade Otumu, the man her sister secretly loves. A hilarious exploration into the power of beauty, patriarchy and the complexity of sisterhood, this book made me wonder how far we would go to protect our own. What would I do if I ever get a call, ‘Didi, I killed him.’ Go to the police or like Korede, would I find myself on my knees, with my rubber gloves on, scrubbing away at blood stains?

Milk Teeth By Amrita Mahale

I found a Bombay hiding within these pages that I clearly remember, a city before Instagram, Uber and, yes, Starbucks-swigging millennials. Childhood neighbours Ira Kamat and Kartik meet after many years when their building Asha Nivas is in danger of being pulled down for redevelopment. There are subversive layers in the book that transform a candy-floss romance into a tale that reflects the zeitgeist of that period and, ironically, of the present with lines like, “So for most practical purposes, the communal violence that started after the Babri Masjid fell came to an end after the blasts, but the spell of peace that followed felt like hate was only shedding its milk teeth.”

At a time when fangs have replaced milk teeth, what we need to combat all the hate and indifference is empathy. A simple approach to gain this elusive quality is by reading. Put your feet in someone’s chappals or mojaris for a while, slip into their skin, their heart, their faith, and your perspective changes forever. The lines between us and them blur with each sentence you read, each page you turn.
For my sake more than hers, I do hope Mom uses this reading list rather than her spiritual one. Once when she had her head buried in Many Lives Many Masters, I called out, ‘Hi Mom,’ and she replied, ‘Hi Endometrioses!’

Used to her calling me all sorts of names like Diamond, Lady Diana and even Alfred, I was still taken aback at being named after a disorder of the menstrual cycle but she cheerfully explained, ‘What’s wrong with it? In this birth you are my child, in another you can be a cyst and in a third, you could just have been endometrioses.’ And she went back to her book, leaving the twin pillars of Hinduism and karma shaking at their knees along with me.

Illustration credit: Chad Crowe

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

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