Picking books, a summer dilemma

Soon the summer will be upon us in earnest. People will start to make travel plans. They will look for destinations and cheap tickets well in advance. But there is one thing they will not plan for: what books to take with them. Believe me this can be as disastrous as what happened to me once 40 years ago. I ran out of cigarettes in Odisha which was quite ill-supplied in those days. What followed was misery of monumental proportions. The same thing can happen if you get short on books. It becomes worse when you grumble and your wife tells you to be quiet and watch TV instead. TV? I’d much rather go to a dentist unless there is cricket to be watched.

That said, what book to take, is one of the hardest choices in life. If you take the wrong books, not only are you stuck with nothing to read, there is the extra weight as well that has to be lugged around. After all, who likes to throw a book into a dustbin? So, once bitten, twice shy. Ever since that cigarette experience, I have started stocking up on my favourite genres well in advance. Which are political and/or spy thrillers. I even read a few pages to make sure I am not taking duds.

But you will be surprised to learn that even though India has a rich tradition of political intrigue — like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata — very few Indians write political or spy thrillers. Some have started now but they aren’t really very good. Instead, what we have is books by former heads of India’s intelligence services and autobiographies of politicians.

In 1977, the IB got the General Elections wrong and on 26/11, RAW failed the country.

Neither group of writers is very good — certainly not thrilling — but they can be quite informative, if not very entertaining. I have read around 30 such books. They all think the Army and the IAS are not as sharp as they need to be. Naturally, the opposite view is held by the Army, politicians and the civil servants who see both RAW and IB as bumblers, if not worse. The truth, as is its wont, lies somewhere in the middle. You should read these books to get a flavour of national security issues.

Everyone gets it right sometimes and everyone goofs up. Once in a while the goof-up is monumental. In 1977, the IB got the General Elections wrong and on 26/11, RAW failed the country. But you have to feel sorry for these guys. As is generally conceded everywhere in the world, information gathering agencies are known only for their failures, not their successes.

One big failure can wipe out 99 smaller successes. 9/11, 7/7, 26/11 all stand testimony to this. But then that’s the price these agencies pay for not being accountable in the way others are. This is especially so when they fail to tell the difference between serving the country and serving the regime currently in place. Sadly, this also seems to happen.

However, if you don’t like this type of books and prefer simple mysteries, let me suggest a writer called Lillian Jackson Braun. All her books, 29 in all, are mystery stories in which two cats — Koko and Yum-Yum — are the key, if not central figures.

All of her books have titles that start “The Cat Who…” She has dedicated her books to “the husband who…” The first book was called The Cat Who Could Read Backwards. Another was called The Cat Who Ate Danish Modern. Before she died in 2011, aged 97, her books had sold a few million copies. Of course, it is not the cats who solve the murders but their owner, a slightly goofy but detached journalist with long hair. But these books are written so well that you actually end up thinking that it was the cats who solved the mystery.

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