I believe in gut-wrenching books. Books that make you shudder and take a break, because you can’t possibly take them in anymore. 2021 has started well, I’m already 15 books down.
However, I find myself reverting to an old pattern. Sometimes I’m rereading books I’ve already read, in the hopes of swaddling myself in the warm, comforting pages of simpler times. Instead of taking the plunge, to explore the new, unfamiliar, and potentially hard-hitting, I choose to bury myself in gentler worlds, where it was easier to dream.
All is not lost though. Earlier, I had started on a fairly controversial book, “Growing up Bin Laden”, written by the extraordinary Jean Sasson, and Osama Bin Laden’s first wife, Najwa Bin Laden, and fourth son, Omar Bin Laden. I literally could not finish the book in one sitting. I had to take so many breaks just to process all the pain, grief, and sheer madness that I was reading.
In this process, I started thinking about what the books we read say about us. For instance, I am morbidly interested in books dealing with crime, terrorism and masterplans. One of my favourite Indian crime authors is S. Hussain Zaidi, who writes about true crimes and some of the most gripping police cases and terrorist plots in the past few years.
I also did both my Bachelor’s and first Master’s degree theses on terrorism. The rise and fall of Al Qaeda, and its influence across the near and middle east. My Master’s thesis delved into a murkier subtopic, the recruitment and role of youth terrorist leaders in Kashmiri terror outfits such as Jaish-e-Mohammed and Hizbul Mujahideen.
This was around the time Burhan Wani had been killed by the Indian army in a shootout, and his death had been mourned and protested by thousands of rioters in the Kashmir. What would have made an entire valley, a contested state of huge proportions mourn his death as that of a fallen hero?
Where did India itself stand in this controversy, since till date, an astonishing number of Kashmiris refuse to call themselves Indians? Both the terrorist and hero coexist on a fine line of perception and politics.
I had to read a number of books such as “I am Malala” by Malala Yousafzai, Nobel Peace Prize winner. Others included “Hacking ISIS: How To Destroy the Cyber Jihad”, by Malcom Nance, and “Dangerous Minds”, by S. Hussain Zaidi amongst others.
This got me thinking about where we as a people, as a nation and as a species fall on the terrorism spectrum. Are terrorists born or made? Is terrorism only considered so when committed against mankind? I think we do much worse to animals, to plants, to the environment and to the very essence of being human everyday.
When it comes to terrorism and crimes against humanity, I have a burning urge to know why, to understand how these people, labelled inhuman, monsters, and what not, function. To understand the functions of society, government, laws, religion, and their own psyches, in propelling them towards their path. Are we all to blame, in some way or the other, either for perpetuating, or tolerating?
I’ve also been reading a lot of North Korean defection stories, the most recent, “In Order to Live”, by Yeonmi Park. They have rattled and shaken me to my very core, as I never thought systematic abuse and oppression of human rights was possible on such a mass scale.
But as I was reading, I learnt to tune out the pain and suffering, to compartmentalize it neatly into a mental box, to be never revisited. I tried to excuse my indifference with the usual thoughts. I could not do anything about it, because I was only one person. It was not my job, it was the UN’s and other global organizations. But somehow, I could not quite convince myself entirely.
I was also reading the last book, “The Tower of Nero”, in one of my favourite series, “The Trials of Apollo”, by Rick Riordan. This is a series supposedly aimed towards 9 to 12 years old, however, I’m much older than that, and still feel like I haven’t gleaned everything I could from it yet.
There’s amputation, torture, emotional and mental abuse, death and carnage. Yet, the overwhelming question of sacrifice, divinity and the purpose of existence shines through so effortlessly, I am drawn in again and again. Is this also a gritty book? I would say so, but it’s just a children’s book.
What then, do I really mean by gritty books? I guess, anything that challenges my deepest, most intimate beliefs and values. Anything that forces me to confront parts of myself that I would rather keep hidden and smothered. Maybe anything that allows me to ask and ponder uncomfortable questions, not least, my own role in this world, and the unconscious parts I may be playing.
I will take anything that challenges the given narrative, and world order as gritty, no matter how taboo, dystopian or twisted it is. Unfortunately, sometimes reality is worse.