10 books by South Asian authors that should be on your reading list
From memoirs to mythological fiction
There’s no better time than the start of a new year to make a fresh reading list, especially if that list taps into unexplored genres, fantastic worlds and powerful emotions. Given the rich pool of literary talent in the sub-continent, we decided to focus this list on contemporary works by South Asian authors. From Gurmehar Kaur’s upcoming book to a feminist graphic novel, we’ve curated a list of 10 books that will add some diversity to your 2019 reading list.
Here are some expert recommendations to get you started.
By Meghna Pant, award-winning novelist and journalist:
In present-day Pakistan, in the far corners of Lyari in Karachi, or Hingol in Balochistan, or Thatta in Sindh, tightly knit groups of women keep alive the folklore, songs and legends of Sati—their name for Sita in the Ramayana. The way they sustain the attendant rituals and practices in a nation state with a fixed idea of what constitutes citizenship and who gets to be a primary citizen is at the heart of this book. Sita Under The Crescent Moon studies how worship has altered the mores of a land—and how the sacral site, made up of clay and thread and tumble weed, grants a woman the power to fight against her circumstances.
Image: Madiha Aijaz/anniealikhan.com
You'd think a Bombay teen's life in the early 90s would be the usual sunshine and rain. But when this regular teenager realises that he's gay, things suddenly get interesting. Pop culture and its massive influence on a young gay boy lie at the core of this memoir. Bear witness to Tejuja’s debut book that earmarks his transition to adulthood as he traverses a big, burgeoning city, and the gay scene that is slowly blooming at its fringes.
'Living Hell' is a crime thriller about a guy who has to investigate a murder that takes place in his own building; a Raymond Chandler meets Beavis and Butthead. If you’re a fan of the exquisitely talented Naseeruddin Shah and Ratna Pathak then note that their young son has set the family benchmark high with his impressive acting chops and now a fiction debut.
There is no stopping Gurmehar Kaur who is now coming out with her next book, The Young and The Restless: Youth And Politics In India. The book is what everyone thought Small Acts Of Freedom was going to be: young leaders changing electoral politics.
Hailed as one of the greatest Tamil novels written in the late 20th century, Heat tells the story of a Tamil teenager on the run for committing a murder. Effusively praised by Perumal Murugan, Poomani has drawn a universe evoking both the experience of a fugitive's life, and a world of nature, far away from humanity.
By Sharin Bhatti, co-founder of the podcast, Books on Toast:
Hangwoman is the English translation of KR Meera’s Malayalam novel, Aarachaar. It’s the story of 22-year-old Chetna who is a descendant of the first family of hangmen in Kolkata. She is, hence, the first woman executioner in India and must cement her place in society and also carry the family legacy forward. Feminist, ferocious and fascinating, join Chetna in banishing her own demons the same way she carries out the hangings: with unexpected humility.
I have a serious girl crush on Amruta Patil. I discovered this Indo-French author and artist’s seminal graphic novel work, Kari, when it first came out a decade ago, and it’s still relevant today. It’s the story of a young girl who makes a suicide pact with her lesbian lover, and survives to tell the tale. Grim, tragic and masterful, Patil uses dialogue and brushstrokes in the most provocative way to puncture a gaping hole in your heart. You may not recover. She’s also written the equally enchanting Adi Parva: Churning of the Ocean, that is a story of origin of the world of Mahabharata, years before the family feud. Again, a must-read.
An Indian LGBT YA (Young Adult) book, this was recommended by dear friend Vivek Tejuja on a Books on Toast episode. It’s a coming-of-age story of a 16-year-old Delhi girl who discovers her sexual orientation and identity, while living in a conservativ Brahmin household. The book is set in '80s India and came out in 2005.
Publishers will tell you that Indian mythology is one of the bestselling genres in the universe of Indian fiction. However, most of these retellings are from the male perspective. Award-winning author Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, however, chooses to narrate the epics from the female point of view. Palace of Illusions is the retelling of the Mahabharata, in Draupadi’s voice. Chitra makes you pause and appreciate the narrator's smart, courageous and resilient personality, as she navigates life married to five brothers, through war, hardships and politics. Follow her as she learns to love in secret and finds unlikely friendships in a conservative patriarchal society. Divakaruni is definitely something kids should read while they are reading the epics in prescribed school textbooks to understand the female perspective.
What’s new is that Divakaruni’s latest book, The Forest of Enchantment, is out in January 2019. This one is Ramayana from Sita’s perspective.
If there is one book that you must read to truly grasp the complexities and frailties of human relationships, then let it be Home Fire. Long-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2017, the award-winning novel is authored by Brit-Pakistani Kamila Shamsie. Home Fire is as much a searing portrait of our times as it is a classic. In this, Shamsie contemporises the Greek tragedy Antigone where a sister has to make the impossible choice of betraying either of her siblings as the ultimate sacrifice. Through her prose and plotting, she seeks to put faces to Islamaphobia in the western world, immigrant relationships across borders and the constant colonial hangover that most South Asians still carry. But she does it in the most heartbreaking way possible in the voice of young, strong Isma. Hot tip: read with tissues, this book will make you weep.
As told to Manali Shah