Selections from 2001

Published : Jan 19, 2002 00:00 IST

I ONCE asked Indira Gandhi which book (not books) would she want to have with her if she were stranded on a desert island. Her answer is clearly etched in my memory - "The Oxford Dictionary," she replied. Touche. You cannot improve on this.

My reading during the disquieting and menacing year 2001 was unorganised if not altogether desultory. I read over 35 books during the past 12 months. No fiction. Lot of international affairs, biography, history and a little poetry. Since I am unlikely to be asked the desert island question, I have chosen five as my books of 2001.

Ho Chi Minh: A Life by William J. Duiker (Hyperion).

The Vietnamese leader was one of the great men of the 20th century. A nationalist, he was also an ardent Marxist, who cast his spell on the likes of the legendary General Nguyen Giap and Pham Van Dong. Inspired by uncle Ho, the Vietnamese people took on the United States and prevailed. Duiker's book gives a gripping account of the life of Ho and Vietnam's freedom struggle, and his interaction with Stalin, Mao and Khrushchev. This is an engrossing and assiduously researched book.

Badshah Khan by Eknath Easwaran (Penguin Books).

Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan was one of Gandhiji's great apostles. His long life embodies the essence of Gandhian non-violence of the brave. To have converted the fiery and gun-toting Pathans into non-violent Khudai Khidmatgars required genius and charisma. It is a story of epic proportions. No one suffered imprisonment during the freedom movement longer than the Frontier Gandhi. After 1947, successive Pakistani governments put him behind bars. But his stout-hearted spirit and non-violent defiance stood out. One quote from him shows the spiritual quality of the man: "There is nothing surprising in a Muslim, a Pathan like me subscribing to the creed of non-violence. It is not a new creed. It was followed fourteen hundred years ago by the Prophet all the time he was in Mecca."

India: A Mosaic. Edited by Robert B. Silvers and Barbara Epstein. (New York Review of Books).

This is a collection of essays by six well-known writers. All the essays appeared in the New York Review of Books. Arundhati Roy's introduction is brilliant, inspired but its ill-temper dampened my enthusiasm. Passionate indignation is one thing, ill-temper quite another. N. Ram's preface is sober and sensible. There is, however, one minor error - A.L. Basham was an Australian, and not a British historian; and the correct title of his book is The Wonder That was India. The outstanding essay of the book is Amartya Sen's "On Rabindranath Tagore". Of Pankaj Mishra's two essays, I opt for "Edmund Wilson in Benaras". The acerbic American was arguably one of the most important literary critics of the 20th century. The other contributors are Ian Buruma, Christopher Bellaigue, Anita Desai, Hilary Mantel and Roderick MacFarquhar.

Twenty-one Poems by Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Translated by Pavan K. Verma (Viking).

At least half a dozen of these poems are of outstanding quality. Whether Atalji is a poet among politicians or a politician among poets is a tantalising question. Reading this 65-page booklet, the thought struck me that it is possible to be a politician without being coarsened by the much-maligned profession. It is not easy, but Atal Behari Vajpayee is as good an example as one can get. Poetry is in Atalji's blood. His father, Pandit Krishna Behari Vajpayee, was a well-known poet. His grandfather was a Sanskrit scholar. His elder brother too is a poet.

Pavan Verma is an exceptional individual. He combines diplomacy with literature and excels in both. His translation of the Prime Minister's poems is superb. "A New Knot is Tied" is a shining example of his skill as a translator.

Atalji's modest confession that "I am not a man of letters, nor do I claim to be an intellectual" could be the subject of a healthy debate. To my mind he is a man of letters, also an intellectual and hell of a smart politician too.

Churchill by Roy Jenkins (Macmillan).

Why another book on Churchill and that too by a man who is now in his early eighties? You will find the answer in this totally absorbing 900-page book. I am both an admirer and a severe critic of Winston S. Churchill. His India record does him no credit. Jenkins glosses over it. His outburst against Gandhiji was in poor taste and totally off the mark. Churchill was also a mini-racist. Surprisingly, Churchill got on well with Nehru, who has written warmly about him. As a war leader and as author Churchill has few equals. Till he came to write this book, Lord Jenkins thought Gladstone was the greatest ever Prime Minister of Britain. Here he bestows that honour on Churchill.

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