Important Books in My Life


Recently, I got tagged for the book bucket challenge. Listing ten books on any basis is quite difficult, especially if they must be listed based on their importance in my life.

Did a book make me grow up, or was I finally grown up enough to appreciate that book? What about a book that sounded wise at fifteen, but feels pedestrian at thirty, or a book that was boring at fifteen and enchanting at thirty? What about the books whose content I have mostly forgotten, or those I remember incorrectly- are they really about what I now remember them to be about?

Despite all this confusion, I tried to respond to the tag. This isn’t a “recommended reads” list, but a list of books that left something with me.

  1. I don’t remember the name of the first book on my list. It was a children’s book about Swami Vivekananda.My parents probably got it from Kanyakumari when I was two-and-a-half years old. There are two things I remember about this book:When young Narendra (Swami Vivekananda’s birth name) was searching for a Guru, he had stumped many potential candidates by asking if they had seen God, because if they had not seen God, how could they guide him to God? Only someone who has seen Varanasi can guide you through the city; shouldn’t the same be true of God?I also remember a description of Swami Vivekananda before he died. Apparently he was mumbling to himself that only another Vivekananda could understand the worth of what he had done.
  2. How to think like a boss and get ahead at work: I don’t think I would like this book if I reread it now as I no longer care much for almost all the business and self-help books I had read during my student life. I can no longer find it in print or as an e-book. What has stayed with me is an idea that an employee who goes to the boss with only the problems is not a valuable one. One who goes with a problem and a plan for tackling it (even if it is not the solution) is valuable. The boss should be partial to such employees when considering rewards and promotions and employees should strive to become like that. I don’t remember much else from the book but I would like to get my hands on a copy of this one if only to see if the rest of the book was worth remembering. Or was this idea the only gem?
  3. Mein Kamph: No. I am not anti-Semitic. In the current geopolitical environment, it is important to clarify this. My main takeaway from the book is that it teaches you to guide masses. It’s not possible to find such an explicit and bold acceptance of the power and stupidity of the masses, and an account of how that stupidity can be used to gain power.

    Cover of

    Cover of The Discovery of India

  4. The Discovery of India, Glimpses of World History, and Letters from a Father to His Daughter by Jawaharlal Nehru: These books made me doubt history as a single narrative and nation as an unquestionable concept.
  5. Saint Joan by G. B. Shaw: The sad and funny reality of greatness struck me when I read this book. None of the people who sung praises of Joan of Arc wanted her to come back to life! Really great people can be too much of inconvenience by demanding better things from us that we feel uncomfortable doing.
  6. Surangama (Hindi) by Shivani: This is one of the first books I read by this author, and hence I was not bored by the “sameness” of her heroines. It was also probably one of the first romance novels I had ever read. It might not have made it to the list if I didn’t read it when I did. But I did read it when I did!
  7. Anna Karenina and War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy: Re-reading these stories made me realize that certain things can be enjoyed better later in life. I hadn’t appreciated the characters, the descriptions of country life, the dilemmas, the politics, the society and its shallowness, the undue importance we give to “great” people in historical narratives as much when I was young as I did when I re-read the books recently.
  8. The Invisible Man by H. G. Wells: H. G. Wells is the only science fiction writer I can read. His science fiction is so grounded in contemporary reality. Don’t all of us want to go invisible and be able to do whatever we want? But what about the clothes we need to shelter ourselves from cold and rain and heat? How would an invisible man look beneath his clothes?
  9. Ghumakkad Shastra and Volga se Ganga (both Hindi) by Rahul Sankrityayan: I love this author because he is one intellectual rebel I identify with. He boldly challenges our notions of culture, history and people; his extensive travels and knowledge of languages and cultures inspire me.
  10. The Strange Case of Billy Biswas by Arun Joshi: This one was an accidental discovery. I didn’t identify with the protagonist but I did identify with his restlessness to discover that primitive joy. A man who had everything in life- a well-off family, great education, good career prospects, a wife of his choice, a child- is still restless. He renounces it all, not to become a philosopher or a saint, but to live a tribal life- a life where you survive, and then sing and dance to enjoy. Death and losses among the tribals he knew were not human-rights issues; these things just happened and were accepted as fate. He didn’t leave the shallowness of society for greater intellectual joys but for a more primitive life that didn’t rely much on intellect. Does it make sense? Is that something I also long for once in a while? Can I really give up the lust of intellectual pursuits?

Oops! We already have ten books. (Even after I cheated by clustering the books from the same author tog
ether). Can I add five more?

  1. Mahasamar (Hindi) in eight volumes by Narendra Kohli: After reading this I could not make myself read any of the other Indian mythology based books. He is biased. Unlike some of the other modern works that raise questions about the rightness of Pandavas, Kohli goes on to defend them out and out. Despite the bias, his interpretations of mythological stories and his skill in making them believable are unparalleled. Later volumes falter a bit, but this set of books was totally worth my time.
  2. Cuckold and God’s Little Soldier by Kiran Nagarkar: I have literally pestered people on facebook and Quora to read these books. With these two books, Kiran Nagarkar undoubtedly became my favorite contemporary fiction writer. Cuckold is a historical fiction whose protagonist is the little remembered husband of the famous singer-saint Meera Bai. The realistic construction of history and myths had me in awe. For God’s Little Soldier, words fail me. Although written like a novel, in which a modern editor will find many faults (not just the length), the book appeals more to the questions about life I have. It doesn’t have answers necessarily, but it makes me feel that I am not alone.
  3. The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank: The frankness and the realization of how life goes on in the most unthinkable conditions, and how suddenly this life can be put to an end, still gives me goose bumps.
  4. Animal Farm by George Orwell: If I no longer believe in revolutions, this book is the first culprit.
  5. The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant: No other book could have gotten me started on Philosophy and I cannot thank the writer for writing this book for a lay person the way he did. It isn’t the last word on “story of Philosophy”. It omits a lot and might give too rosy a picture of philosophy and philosophers, but that doesn’t diminish its value as an easy and informative read of something as difficult as Philosophy.

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