Independence Day is a good time to imagine a country transformed. I will review a few books that I wish someone would write.
Marching through Forests
Westminster’s eye opened to stare at North-East India during the Second World War, when the Free Indian Army advanced through the disputed frontier between two empires. That forgotten war is brought to life by a naturalist who spent a year in these forests, listening to the stories of the last old men and women who remember that war passing through their villages. Interspersed with this oral history are stories of the wildflowers, insects, and birds of this region.
Sailing between the Andaman and Nicobar islands is something that many of us may have dreamed of. Very few would think of doing this alone on a Lightning class sailboat. That could be something like crossing the Thar desert on a bicycle. The author sails between islands during the day, and mostly spends nights on land, except in two memorable long sails on open seas. The description of the all-important weather, the birds of the deep sea, and the nights when she doesn’t get to port are fascinating. But even more amazing are her descriptions of diving in the shallow waters of the reefs.
Ghaur Mota to Kibithu
The story of two teenagers who took a break year in high school to travel through India, from west to east, makes for a fascinating reading. Even the varied modes of transport are interesting: lugging bicycles on to bullock carts and backs of trucks, the occasional train ride, and the inevitable slog of pedaling through mountain roads. They write extensively about the “tribals” they meet, detailing their ways of life. The fascinating book results from their collaboration with a historian, who traces what is known of the history of these “tribes” from the middle ages to today. Each of these threads is a book. The two together is a gem.
Water and empire
That a hydraulic engineer would write about water and its distribution is understandable. When such a person turns her professional lens to understanding medieval and early modern India history, she can throw new light on the rise and (mainly) fall of empires. The climate of India has not been stable over nine hundred years. These instabilities in the monsoon have forced kingdoms to adapt their water use. The impact on history has never been written about so well.
Slugs and Snails, and Tigers’ Tails: Nature writers of India
This slim volume is almost a bibliography of lost books. In classical Sanskrit poetry and in Mughal miniature paintings, we see passing glimpses of nature. The genre of nature writing is very modern; even Jim Corbett describes nature in passing. The author sifts through four centuries of history, tracing nature writing in India from the early modern era to its burgeoning today. The wealth of information recorded incidentally can only be rivaled by the amount of information about the present day that you get by examining the backgrounds of selfies posted on Instagram.