In a sea of summer book releases, a wave of literary nonfiction authored by women has brought closer an eclectic variety of true to life stories. Pick your flavour: there are in depth reportage driven narratives, insightful and colourful biographies and deeply felt memoirs. Here is a selection of five nonfiction titles that speak to the times that I enjoyed dipping into.
Good Talk by Mira Jacob
My summer break began with an unputdownable read of American author of Indian origin Mira Jacob’s gold-standard memoir ‘Good Talk’. A graphic memoir that feels urgent, topical and addresses the immediate climate of fear and doubt isn’t quite like anything you would have read before. ‘Good Talk’ sparkles with illustrations by the author (who taught herself to sketch for the purpose of this book) and photographs stitched together as an inventive narrative form, interspersed with Jacob’s witty and sensitive observations and musings on race and identity in America. Jacob, author of the marvellous debut book ‘The Sleepwalker’s Guide To Dancing', set out to write ‘Good Talk’ to find answers to her young son Z’s difficult questions about growing up in a mixed race family (her husband Jed Rothstein is white and Jewish) in contemporary America.
Good Talk is a graphic memoir that feels urgent, topical and addresses the immediate climate of fear and doubt isn’t quite like anything you would have read before.
Among other things, Z wanted to know, ‘Are white people afraid of brown people?’ and ‘Is Daddy afraid of us?’ To make sense of her son’s crushing questions and to look for the most appropriate answers, “the kind that would make you feel good, welcome, and loved”, she writes to her son – Jacob goes back and forth between America now and America then, to several decades ago when her parents moved to the US from India. With humour and candour, she tells us about her childhood growing up as a brown kid in New Mexico and how that shaped her. Personal, intimate and bold, Jacob crafts a hopeful, moving memoir about universal themes and surviving in times where family and friendships suffer the brunt of divisive politics, but somehow we must stay afloat.
Rivers Remember by Krupa Ge
When her parents lost everything to Chennai’s 2015 floods, journalist and writer Krupa Ge, also a resident of the city had too many questions she couldn’t find answers to. Once the water receded: “…. we open my childhood home. And it looks like a war was fought in there. A battle with the Adyar river,” writes Ge. How did this happen? Over the next three years, Ge dug deep and came up with book-length revelations in ‘Rivers Remember: #ChennaiRains and the Shocking Truth of a Manmade Flood'. Poring over the responses to the RTIs she filed, government documents and archival material related to the city’s water system, and dozens of interviews with the people of Chennai, Ge stitches together a horrific tale. There are first person accounts of those who survived, including her own, stories of those who didn’t make it, how the relief work was carried out, the significance of #ChennaiRains on the ground, the rumours that floated on social media and caused more panic in the days following the floods.
In vivid prose and telling detail, Ge connects the dots to tell us how it all happened, how a city with a distinct history of floods was caught unaware once again, with administrative failure, mismanagement, negligence and thoughtlessness all at play. Even so, it was, as the book says, “an unequal flood”. Where there were heroes, there were cruelties, where there was a deep sense of humanity and community, there was also a terrible lack of it, such as in the role caste played during relief work, in the way calls went unanswered by those who could have helped. The book will make you cry. It will make you angry. It will make you despair. It will also make you wonder: can we ever do better than this?
Those Magnificent Women and their Flying Machines by Minnie Vaid
Now is a good time to read this book, with Chandrayaan 2 well on its way to the moon and an infectious curiosity about the women involved in India’s space missions. On August 15, the story of ISRO’s women scientists who worked on the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) will be splashed across the big screen in the film ‘Mission Mangal’. Vaid, in accessible prose, gets us the real stories of the women scientists who helmed these projects through detailed interviews. The book explores what brought them to where they stand today and what went on behind the scenes. ‘Those Magnificent Women and Their Flying Machines: ISRO’s Mission To Mars’ focuses on the women who spearheaded the historic MOM: Nandini Harinath, Ritu Karidhal, Moumita Dutta and Minal Sampath, who contributed in different ways to the launch of Indian’s first inter planetary mission Mangalyaan. We glimpse their home life as well as work life.
In ‘Those Magnificent Women and Their Flying Machines: ISRO’s Mission To Mars', Vaid, in accessible prose, gets us the real stories of the women scientists who helmed these projects through detailed interviews.
The book also looks at motivations and challenges of several other women scientists in the organisation working on other important space missions. ‘How hard was it for these women scientists to follow their dream of a career in science, which has been considered a strictly male bastion? How many were hampered by family pressures and social conditioning positing marriage and family as their primary goals?’ are some of the questions Vaid poses to the women she interviewed for the book. The answers are telling, but unexpected.
Reel India by Namrata Joshi
Social media, and the world of web streaming, in many ways, have modified how we view and consume cinema and engage with film stars. But beyond our private screens, beyond Mumbai, the film city, lies a long and colourful trail of film stories, about the movies and our national obsession with them. Long time film critic and journalist Namrata Joshi mines this rich, fascinating theme and sets off on “multiple journeys over the years to explore places and meet people with quaint, filmi associations” in India, in cities and towns that tend not be in the spotlight. We glimpse the life of Bombay girl Nandini Sehgal in Saharanpur, who ran a popular Bollywood dance school for women, we journey to the rocky hills of Ramanagaram near Bengaluru that became the fictional Ramgarh where Sholay was shot, we trace Hindi cinema’s long standing relationship with Lucknow and its aging ambiance of royalty, we travel to the heart of the passionately run homegrown movie industry in Malegaon, and meet former journalist turned farmer Girindranath Jha, who set up a travelling film festival for rural children in Bihar.
In Jodhpur, where Salman Khan came under fire for the infamous Blackbuck hunting case, the author finds a town divided in loyalties to the superstar. In Lucknow, she meets an overwhelmingly devoted Shah Rukh Khan fan Vishal Singh, who calls himself “Vishahrukh” and has set up a home that can be mistaken for a temple dedicated to the actor. While exploring the popularity of film festivals in small towns such as Sonapani and Dharamshala, the legacy of single screens (as also the death of cinema halls and movie going culture in Kashmir – we get a tour of the oldest functioning one in South India –Delite in Coimbatore. Reel India is teeming with many such little-known strands of cinema and its impact on those who engage with films and film stars in a variety of ways, far from the glamour and glitz of larger than life movie sets.
Long time film critic and journalist Namrata Joshi mines this rich, fascinating theme and sets off on “multiple journeys over the years to explore places and meet people with quaint, filmi associations” in India, in cities and towns that tend not be in the spotlight.
Close to the Bone by Lisa Ray
Model and actor Lisa Ray’s lucid memoir is both absorbing and surprising. This is not a Ray we have known. She takes us through a stimulating childhood spent between Kolkata and Toronto, her relationship with her parents – a Bengali father and a Polish mother– and both sides of the family. Ray’s old habit of jotting down her thoughts and experiences comes in handy here — as she takes us through her life, her telling feels fresh and remarkably detailed, like it all just happened yesterday.
We read about her rebellious adolescent years in Canada, interspersed by long trips to Bombay where she was discovered, on a morning jog, by director Shekhar Kapoor, who told her she should be in the movies. She writes passionately about the challenges and riches of belonging to a mixed race family, her brush with death as a teenager, becoming a model by accident and later, a reluctant actor. She writes deeply about what changed the course of her life, not once but several times — her mother’s chronic medical condition, and then Ray being diagnosed with cancer herself. She also writes about her chronic eating disorder since adolescence and later, her deep dive into spirituality.
The book feels a bit repetitive with her descriptions of all the back breaking, breathless travels that took her around the world — but no page is devoid of drama. She draws out the intricacies of professional success, romantic disasters, stardom and its trappings, the high life in Bombay – all toppings on a whirlwind, unpredictable life lived on the edge. Ray took her time to write the memoir, withdrawing one version from a publisher to rework it to a version she liked better. Perhaps all the waiting has paid off – the writing feels reflective, contemplative, even meditative in parts, with plenty of humorous bits. A chapter written by her husband is a little bonus. Ray seems to have found herself as a writer. It would be interesting to see what she writes next.
Also Read: 15 books to read before you are 15!
The views expressed are the author's own.