By Farouk Gulsara

Malaysia National Day Special

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Like the Sword of Damocles, his domestic troubles hung over his head. There was nothing much he could do about it. It had gone on too long, too deep. He just had to live with it and move around it. He could not give up everything. There was a nagging heaviness in his temples. He knew things were going to take a nasty turn and it might get worse. He had created some arbitrary goals to improve his life, but this one had crashed it all. But still, life had to continue. As they say in showbiz, the show must go on.

He knew it was a bad idea. With all these problems plaguing him, he thought it was inappropriate for him to participate in this event. But then, it was also a lifetime achievement — a success hailed by his kinsmen as the epitome of his checkered life. Akin to a water lily, growing wild amongst the filth of marsh, stench and reptiles infested wetland to glorify the lotus feet of Buddha, it was an achievement enviable to some but yearned by all and privileged to only a few!

The problem, as he understood, was not something that developed overnight. Like a crystal, the lattice had developed over the years slowly but surely to its full wrathful glory. How could he be so dumb? Or was it beyond his control and was decided by the constellations and the genetic predisposition?

As 2018 waits tantalizingly at the threshold, we look back on a year in which dissent and speaking up became necessary to survive, when books alone stepped up to the challenge, helped keep our sanity or question it. As we look ahead, there is a kind of willfulness in taking stock, a ritual with solemnity inherent to the idea. In a year when so much has been written, published and read, it is difficult to gather only a few names. Here is a list of 10 books (fiction) that we have read and loved and a quiet acknowledgment of those that space omits.

The Chocolate Saints – Jeet Thayil
Jeet Thayil’s book is rich in characters and stories. Homage to the world of art and literature, it is a startling book of incandescent prose, a masterpiece in the Roberto Bolaño mould. Narrated in a variety of voices and styles, The Chocolate Saints promises to become part of literature’s most memorable.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness – Arundhati Roy
Roy’s second novel in two decades was a much anticipated book – the anticipation started, perhaps, from the day she won the Booker in 1997. It brings together many of the ideas that inform her non-fiction, speaking up with passion and compassion for ‘minorities’ across the socio-political-economic spectrum, making it a book of the times, for the times.

Leila – Prayag Akbar
Described as ‘dystopic’ by some reviewers, Leila is about a mother’s search for her daughter. Whether dystopic or not – the author certainly rejects categorizing – the novel uses the fantastical to probe urgent issues related to the urban spaces and the society we create and which we inhabit.

The Small Town Sea – Anees Salim
Small towns come to life in Anees Salim’s books; sorrow is a lasting trace and satire a way to deal with the sorrow. The Small Town Sea is about a son’s bereavement, the challenge he faces in being uprooted from the big city to a nondescript town and the unsettling aftermath of his father’s death.

Mrs C Remembers – Himanjali Sankar
The family is often a place of dys-function, of intense politics couched in familial love. Himanjali Sankar’s book relates the family with subtle story-telling, incisive observation and compassion. The first-person narration of Mrs C and her daughter Sohini heightens the sense of unease regarding credibility and layers the narrative of this Bengali family within which the mother’s mind slowly disintegrates and the daughter’s comes into its own.

Kitaab’s The Best Asian Short Stories (ed., Monideepa Sahu; series editor, Zafar Anjum)
Kitaab’s The Best Asian Short Stories explores the idea of what it is to be an Asian. The anthology combines fresh voices, emerging writers and established names from Asia – Jordan and Syria to Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Singapore, Malaysia, The Philippines, Thailand, Japan and Korea. The stories transcend social and political divisions within which they arise, drawing readers into the lives and places they explore while simultaneously raising uneasy questions and probing ambiguities. Crafted with love, they continue to resonate after the last page.