Manjula Narayan, Editor-in-Chief, Books, picks her favorite 2021 reads

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Martyn Rix’s scholarly work which is also a visual treat takes you into the world of the East India Company surgeons, who were enthusiastic botanists, and Indian artists who painted the plants they collected.

In previous years, I always promised myself that I would keep copious notes of every book I read. It never happened. However, tracking my reading has gotten easier since I started hosting the weekly Books & Authors podcast at www.htsmartcast.com. The 49 episodes I did this year featured conversations with writers whose work revealed new perspectives on everything from life along the banks of the Brahmaputra to the lives of Zohra Sehgal and Guru Dutt.

But if I had to pick a favorite it would be Indian botanical art; An illustrated story by Martyn Rix. A work of great erudition but also a visual treat, it immerses you in the world of surgeons from the Compagnie des Indes, passionate botanists, and Indian artists who painted the plants they collected. I flip through this book often for inspiration – most of the exquisite paintings it contains are in the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens collection – and to be appeased by the work of 18th century artists like Bhawani Das and Ram Das. My favorite is Zain al Din’s painting of the cardinal vine on page 75. Indian botanical art Also introduced me to the work of contemporary Indian artists working in the genre like Nirupa Rao, Damodar Lal Gurjar and Jaggu Prasad, for whom I am grateful.

Manjula Narayan (courtesy of Manjula Narayan)

As always, my list of favorite reads is rich in non-fiction. I tend to read to improve my understanding of the world and history and sometimes I forget that fiction does that too. I loved The South Asian Science Fiction Gollancz Book edited by Tarun Saint and Amy Stanley’s Stranger in the city of the shogun, which is not a fiction but a reconstruction of the life of a woman in Japan during the Edo period. But it was Ruth Vanita’s translation of the marvelous by Mahadevi Varma My family who has my heart. Elon Musk can travel in space; Someone please invent a cross-species communication device, a Google Translate for animals. I wish I could read My family to my dogs. I’m sure they would love this book as much as I do. I should read it to them in the Hindi original though, as they are very pure northern desi dogs. It’s not just how beautiful these stories are and how invisible the translator is, the introduction and footnotes also delighted my Trivial Pursuit aficionado heart.

I could write a book about the books I read this year and the things I learned from them about the world, about myself. It may be a project for 2022.


  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Manula Narayan is editor-in-chief of national books at the Hindustan Times. She writes on literature and popular culture.
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