Books for the coronavirus outbreak: Leading Indian writers share their reading lists for a lockdown

As a diverse array of virtual cultural and educational resources has been made available to a populace leading enforced indoor lives during the coronavirus outbreak, books offer an engaging and absorbing diversion.

Aarushi Agrawal March 28, 2020 09:20:36 IST
Books for the coronavirus outbreak: Leading Indian writers share their reading lists for a lockdown

There is a sense of uncertainty and discomfort as among the most important preventive measures for the coronavirus outbreak is a nationwide lockdown — one that was preceded by partial curfews and social distancing for many among us. As a diverse array of virtual cultural and educational resources has been made available to a populace leading enforced indoor lives, books offer an engaging and absorbing diversion. Juggernaut has offered free access to its entire catalogue and the Jaipur Literature Festival has started the BeginABookNow initiative. Earlier, Firstpost rounded up a list of books themed around outbreaks like the current pandemic. Now, we reached out to leading Indian authors for their recommendations on must-read books for these surreal and alarming times.

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Meena Kandasamy, Madhuri Vijay, Manu S Pillai, Anita Nair. All photos from facebook.

“Any books of Ambedkar,” suggests Meena Kandasamy, recalling the recent political unrest and divisiveness that one mustn't forget while socially distancing. “Because with what we’re facing, the political situation outside, people like Dr Ambedkar have some kind of answers about majoritarianism and what’s happening to the Constitution and what’s happening to the country. Even as we see the social fabric of the country being threatened, it’s very important to be diversive, it makes this country what it is,” she says.

In keeping with the theme of unrest are the books of Russian novelist and activist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, which are writer Anabel Loyd’s suggestion. “Solzhenitsyn’s characters, terrible gulag prisons and hospitals, the fearful existence he portrays, in a grey and freezing world are so real that they absorb the reader completely,” she says. The first she read of him was In the First Circle as a school girl. “I cannot have done very much school work in that time and I have not read the book since. Now might be the time to take it more slowly and think that things could be a lot worse,” she adds.

Author and JLF co-director Namita Gokhale also thinks this is a good time to analyse the human condition during political upheaval. She suggests visiting the Siege of Leningrad by German forces during World War II through Helen Dunmore’s historical novel The Siege. “It records the human instinct for survival and love even amidst horrific brutality and unbelievable deprivation,” says Gokhale. “It is a novel I read many, many years ago, but it has remained with me for the intensity with which it was written. It resonates with our strange and unsettling times and I plan to reread it in these days of self-exile,” she adds.

While literature emotively communicates the nature of war and unrest, Madhuri Vijay’s recommendation At Dusk by Korean writer Hwang Sok-yong offers a meditative narrative of another type of contemporary transformation we’re witnessing. “It’s a beautiful, melancholy novel about how nations transform as a result of modernisation, and all that is lost in the process,” she says. “Since we now find ourselves in an utterly changed world, with so much lost that we once took for granted, I find it a particularly apt, if somewhat sad, book for our times,” she adds.

Besides visiting significant events and phenomenon, and Vivek Shanbhag suggests visiting Kerala through the words of Paul Zacharia in Bhaskara Pattelar and other stories. “These Malayalam stories takes us into a world that is inhabited by unusual people. He effectively captures wit with its underlying sadness as it manifests in everyday life,” says Shanbhag about Zacharia’s writing. “The people of Kerala, their sensibility and political acumen, their love for art and literature is unique and admirable. It is reassuring to roam around in Zacharia's Kerala,” he adds.

Another avenue to understanding a time and place is through delving deep into the psyche of a single character or writer living there. Jerry Pinto recommends the literary classic The Pillow Book by Sei Shōnagon, a collection of the writer’s musings, observations, essays, anecdotes, and poems as a court lady in Empress Consort Teishi’s Japan, written across the 990s and early 1000s. “It is long, it is written in sections, it is about an enclosed life,” says Pinto.

Novoneel Chakraborty’s recommendation The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende also offers historical perspective. “I wanted to escape to a different time altogether, and the novel is a period love story against the backdrop of a war,” he says.

As a form of simply escaping the world as it is today, books also offer a variety of lighter, happier spaces to visit. “Since it is a rather gloomy time with the keyword being social distancing, I’d imagine a bit of laughter would brighten things up and cheer up moods,” says author and historian Manu S Pillai. For him personally, this comes through revisiting PG Wodehouse. Besides that, “I’d recommend any of the several satirical, witty novels by Aubrey Menen, who is little known now, but once enjoyed the notoriety of writing Ramayana Retold, which sits among the earliest books banned in independent India,” he adds.

Using laughter to deal with anxiety is also author Parvati Sharma’s suggestion, recommending PG Wodehouse. “He could make a brick laugh; and he’s such a smooth writer, he’ll pull you in no matter how distracted you are by coming apocalypses. Plus, he was remarkably prolific – almost a hundred novels and story collections – so he’ll keep you company a long while,” she says.

Another sure way of escaping into different worlds is through fantasy fiction, and Philip Pullman’s Le Belle Sauvage is Deepa Agarwal’s choice. “The action of the book develops around a sudden and unprecedented disaster – a mammoth flood which decimates a large part of the country – England – in an imaginary period of time,” she says. “There is thrilling adventure, suspense, political intrigue, and espionage, which keeps you turning pages. You escape to a richly imagined fantasy world and preoccupied with its problems, your forget your own” says Agarwal about the book. “I believe this beautifully written book will certainly help to keep your COVID-19 anxieties at bay!” she adds.

In as much as books offer escapism, they can also work as a nostalgic window to simpler days, through rereading the classics we read as children. “It is the storytelling in a children’s book that seduces, provides escape and is so well remembered into old age,” says writer Loyd. Among these are Roald Dahl, Noel Streatfield, Violet Needham, JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series, CS Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, Philip Pullman’s fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials, and The Secret Garden and other works by Frances Hodgson Burnett.

Besides satire and children’s literature, another engaging genre to escape into is mystery, and author Gitanjali Murari recommends the books of British crime writer Dick Francis. “Set in the fast-paced world of horseracing, each book uncovers the underhand dealings in the business, eventually leading to a nasty death. It falls to a weary, cynical jockey to solve the crime, negotiating the odds, and save the sport from disgrace. Written in a crisp, terse language, the author masterfully brings to life the world of jockeys, thoroughbred horses and high stakes,” says Murari. “Once you get started, you will want to read every Dick Francis mystery, swept as you will be on a whirlwind of intrigue within your sanitised homes,” she adds.

With plenty of time as we stay at home, delving into and learning all about a particular subject is another interesting way to go. Novelist Anita Nair suggests culinary literature, specifically Prosper Montagné’s Larousse Gastronomique. “It’s like reading an entire library dedicated to just food – customs, ingredients, cookware, anecdotes, travel, stoves, biographies, geography, science, cutlery – written in elegant prose,” she says about the compilation.

Another subject to explore is ancient Indian mythology and its relevance in modern times, as “any of my 50 books” is Devdutt Pattanaik’s response to being asked for a recommendation. He then picks his book Pilgrim Nation: The Making of Bharatvarsh, which takes readers through the history and imagination of 32 holy sites across the country.

For those working from home, Avik Chanda’s suggestion offers a way to stay motivated. He recommends Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being by psychologist Martin Seligman, about his theory of positive psychology or happiness psychology. “That’s the kind of book that one should read when you’re stuck at home with not too much else to do… obviously there’s going to be a natural tendency to feel anxious, frustrated, angry, or depressed. And Flourish talks about the ability of human beings, in this day and age, to be authentically happy, in a deep sense,” he says.

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