From the history of money to Gandhi: Best non fiction books of 2013

From books on the digital revolution and the current financial crisis to Mahatma Gandhi in South Africa and Bollywood - here's a list of non-fiction must-reads from 2013.

Vivek Kaul December 27, 2013 14:56:46 IST
From the history of money to Gandhi: Best non fiction books of 2013

It is that time of the year when we all go on an overdrive making top 10 lists on various things that happened in the year that was. So here is my list for the top 10 non fiction books that were published this year. Also, let me confess at the very beginning that this list is biased towards books on economics and finance, which is what I love reading the most.

From the history of money to Gandhi Best non fiction books of 2013

Gandhi Before India by Ramachandra Guha

The Undercover Economist Strikes Back - How to Run - or Ruin - an Economy by Tim Harford (Little, Brown Rs 599)
Tim Harford is my favourite writer when it comes to non fiction. His focused approach to his subjects ensures the reader understands what he is trying to say and that possibly explains why his books, like The Undercover Economist, The Logic of Life and Adapt, have been bestsellers. In this new book, Harford tries to explain macroeconomics and the current financial crisis to the lay reader in simple English. In fact, Henry Hazzlit's Economics in One Lesson (first published in 1946) remains my favourite book, when it comes to books that explain the dismal science in a language that everybody can understand. Harford's The Undercover Economist Strikes Back now comes a close second.

Calcutta: Two Years in the City by Amit Chaudhuri (Hamish Hamilton, Rs 599)
My favourite Bengali author is Mani Shankar Mukherjee who wrote using the pseudonym Sankar. I discovered Sankar's writing a few years back when someone recommended his book Chowringhee to me. Since then I have read Sankar translations in both English and Hindi. Nobody writes about life and its frailties like Sankar does, but Amit Chaudhuri comes very close when he writes about Calcutta (or Kolkata as it's known now). Chaudhuri's new book Calcutta: Two Years in a City is about a city that was, the city that is and the one that it perhaps will be in the future. Chaudhuri spent much of his childhood in Bombay and later lived in England, returning to stay in Kolkata only recently. Still, the book doesn't get overtly nostalgic (like a lot of Bengali authors tend to) about the city. You will find very little of Satyajit Ray and Mother Teresa in the book, but there is a lot about Bihari labourers who come to the city with hopes of making a successful living.

Chaudhuri's book is also a chronicle of the change being wrought in Kolkata. Older British buildings are making way for newer apartments. Oxford Book Store, the city's most famous book store, now stores fewer books and more CDs and stationery. The famous city eatery lury's also makes an appearance.

If there was a book that I would want to read on a relaxed rainy afternoon (or a chilly foggy morning) with a cup of tea and a couple of samosas by my side, this would be it.

(Another city biography I would like to mention here is Amitava Kumar's A Matter of Rats - A Short Biography of Patna. Having grown up in erstwhile Bihar I loved the book.)

Who Owns the Future? by Jaron Lanier (Allen Lane - Rs 850)
This is a fascinating book that raises many questions about the digital revolution that is underway. One of the questions that Lanier asks is what makes websites like Facebook, Instagram, Google and Twitter, so valuable? "Its value comes from the millions of users who contribute to their network without being paid for it," writes Lanier. "Networks need a great number of people to participate in them to generate significant value. But when they do, only a small number of people get paid. That has the net effect of centralising wealth and limiting overall economic growth."

Lanier also asks whether we are becoming too dependent upon the digital products offered by a few companies. As he writes, "Suppose Facebook never gets good enough at snatching the 'advertising' business from Google. That's still a possibility as I write this. In that event, Facebook could go into decline, which would present a global emergency...If Facebook starts to fail commercially, suddenly people all over the world would be at the risk of losing old friends and family ties, or perhaps critical medical histories."

The same argument is true for Gmail as well. For most of us it is a repository of a large amount of information, communication and documentation, that we need to keep going back to time and again. In that sense, these websites are becoming more like electric utilities as every day goes by. Who Owns the Future raises some fundamental questions that do not have easy answers.

Gandhi Before India by Ramachandra Guha (Allen Lane, Rs 899)
Mahatma Gandhi's autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth, was one of the first non fictions books that I read. As a young adult, I found it very boring. I'm told the Gujarati original is more interesting and the translation in English doesn't work quite as well (Gandhi translated the book himself). Aside from being boring, my other complaint with Gandhi's autobiography was that it didn't talk enough about his years in South Africa.

Ramachandra Guha's Gandhi Before India addresses both these issues. Guha's research is top notch and he establishes in great detail that the years Gandhi spent in South Africa were what made him Mahatma Gandhi. Interestingly, Guha also tells us that Rabindranath Tagore was not the first man to call Gandhi a Mahatma. It was his doctor-turned-jeweller friend, Pranjivan Mehta. The book also talks about the sacrifices made by Gandhi's immediate family to help his struggle in South Africa. His eldest son Harilal and wife Kasturba went to jail and his nephews were also a part of Gandhi's struggle.

This book is a must-read for every Indian in order to realise how great Gandhi really was.

Battles Half Won - India's Improbable Democracy by Ashutosh Varshney (Penguin Viking, Rs 599)
Democracy came to West after the industrial revolution, when incomes had reached a substantially higher level than in the feudal era. In India's case, democracy as a form of government was adopted when only around 15-17% of the population was literate and the per capita income was very low. In fact, many countries emerged from colonization and adopted democracy as a form of government. But democracy survived only in India, Mauritius, Belize, Jamaica, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. Barring India, these countries are all very small and have a higher income than that of India.

Also, research suggests democracies that have an economic growth rate of lesser than 5% per year collapse at a higher rate than democracies that have an economic growth rate of higher than 5%. As Varshney puts it, "India's economic growth rate has been higher than 5% per annum since 1980, but in the period 1950-1980, Indian economy grew at only 3.5% per annum." Given these reasons, it is very surprising that democracy in India has not only survived, but is thriving.

To know the reasons why democracy has survived in India, Varsheny's book is an excellent read.

Emergency Retold by Kuldip Nayar (Konark Rs 295)
The only period since independence when India has not been a democracy was the period between June 26, 1975 and March 21, 1977, when prime minister Indira Gandhi got president Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed to declare a state of emergency.

Veteran journalist Nayar writes about this period in Emergency Retold. The book was first published in 1977 as The Judgement. The paperback edition was released this year. Nayar's book reads like a political thriller. It starts on June 12, 1975, when Justice Jagan Mohan Lal Sinha found Indira Gandhi guilty on the charge of misuse of government machinery for her election campaign in the 1971 Lok Sabha election. Two weeks later, Indira Gandhi got the President Ahmed to declare a state of emergency.

Nayar goes into great detail about how this was done. One of the interesting things he points out was that a copy of the censorship rules and details of the machinery required to implement censorship in Philippines was provided to Sanjay Gandhi by a businessman fried of his Kuldip Narang. The book is full of interesting trivia from those times, but it's also a grim reminder of the cost that India has had to pay for keeping the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty in power. My one complaint: there are just way too many typos.

40 Retakes - Bollywood Classics You May Have Missed by Avijit Ghosh (Tranqubear, Rs 395)
This book is really the joker in the pack. I read it early October, simply because I was very bored and in less than four hours, I was done. Forty Retakes talks about 40 brilliant movies that either flopped or did not pass the critics' test over the years. Given the number of Hindi movies that get made every year, it must have been very difficult to arrive at the list.

I am no expert on the Hindi cinema of the 50s, 60s and 70s, but have watched a fair bit since the 1980s. Some of my favourite movies like Prakash Jha's Hip, Hip, Hurray set in Ranchi and Vidhu Vinod Chopra's Khamosh set in Pahalgam are a part of the list. Kabir Kaushik's Sehar and Tigmanshu Dhulia's Haasil, probably two of the finest movies set in the badlands of Uttar Pradesh, also make the cut. Ketan Mehta's terribly underrated Aar ya Paar (a movie I've loved since the first time saw it even though it was a rip off of a James Hadley Chase novel) is also on Ghosh's list. Anurag Kashyap's Gulal, Shimit Amin's Rocket Singh and Sudhir Mishra's Is Raat Ki Subah Nahi are among the other entrants.

The movies that I think should have been on the list are Kundan Shah's Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa and Navdeep Singh's Manorama Six Feet Under. At the risk of getting booed, I would say that Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa is Shah's finest film. Manorama Six Feet Under was a terrific re-working of Roman Polanski's China Town.

When the Money Runs Out - The End of Western Affluence by Stephen D King (Yale University Press)
Economists who work for financial institutions are expected to be optimistic, but doesn't seem to be the case Stephen D King, the Group Chief Economist at HSBC. In When the Money Runs Out, King points out that there is a lot wrong with the way the financial systems all over the Western world have evolved. The fundamental point that he makes in the book is that the ability of the developed countries to keep generating a reasonable economic growth has gone down. There are economic and political implications to this. When the West was growing, governments promised many benefits to citizens. They are no longer in a situation where they can afford to pay these benefits.

Most developing countries instead of getting used to the new low growth scenario have responded to it by printing huge amounts of money, in the hope of creating more economic growth. King calls them stimulus junkies. He discusses in great detail why its not so easy to suddenly stop or go slow on money printing, something which the Federal Reserve of United States has been trying to do for a while.

Anyone looking to understand how the current financial crisis will evolve in the years to come, should read this book.

Money - The Unauthorised Biography by Felix Martin (The Bodley Head, Rs 599)
Over the last few years, the history of money has fascinated me a lot and I have read scores of books trying to understand how money actually evolved. But my journey on the history of money ended with this book. It's a must read for anyone wanting to understand on what money really is.

Mofussil Junction - Indian Encounters 1977-2012 by Ian Jack (Penguin Viking, Rs 599)
If there was only one book that I could recommend this year, it would have to be Ian Jack's Mofussil Junction. The book is a fantastic collection of short write-ups and essays on India. Jack's prose makes you feel that you are reading some classic fiction at times.

My favourite essay in the collection is 'Somewhere to Call Their Own'. The essay deals with Anglo Indians who decided to make a settlement around 1500 feet up in the Chota Nagpur hills in a town called McCluskiegunje, near Ranchi. The most interesting of them is an Anglo Indian girl called Kitty Memsahab, who actually sells fruits at the McCluskiegunje railway station to make a living. I also loved the book's epilogue tremendously. In it, Jack talks about a person called Major whom he knew in Calcutta. "I got divorced soon after and with no in-laws to visit I didn't see Kolkata again for nearly twenty years. The Major died - I'm not sure how. Smoking while walking could have been a contributory cause, it being a rule he often ignored. I miss his uncomplicated, upcountry curiosity: why, how, where, when? I miss his mischief. I mourn those figures slithering in the Hooghly's mud, happy to make fools of themselves, once upon a time." As I said, fantastic prose.

Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek

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