Facebook reminds me that last year, about this time, I was complaining about how there were several writers of Indian origin winning literary awards, being reviewed favorably, etc., but all were men. This year, the tide has turned just a bit. Here are some terrific recent releases on my radar by women writers — Indian or of Indian origin. And they have all tackled weighty, important themes beyond immigration/assimilation.
Note: I tend to favor the literary adult genre, as you may know if you follow my writing here. Though mostly fiction, the list also has a couple of essay collections and a historical non-fiction book. No short story collections, interestingly, though.
These are not in any particular order of preference or ranking. And, sadly, I have not read any of them cover to cover yet — only the excerpts, reviews, and interviews. Suffice to say, they have whetted my appetite enough to make me add them to my TBR list.
1/ Arundhati Roy’s ‘The Ministry of Utmost Happiness’ —It has been 20 years since her first Booker-winning novel, though she has been writing a lot of non-fiction during that time. This is a sprawling two-in-one story about civil war, communal conflict, gender identity, and a whole lot more. The best review I have read so far is Parul Sehgal’s in The Atlantic.
2/ Meena Kandasamy’s ‘When I Hit You’ — A wrenching and beautifully written fictional account of the author’s own domestic abuse, this is one of those books I want to read but I’m uncertain I can take an entire novel about domestic abuse. The best review is by Deepa D. in The Wire.
3/ S J Sindu’s ‘Marriage of a Thousand Lies’ — OK, the writer is of Sri Lankan origin but so much of the culture is similar, so allow me to include here. This is about sexual identity (LGBTQ) in a patriarchal culture, family, friendship, love, and more. I’ve also been enjoying her recent interviews and essays as part of her book promo cycle. This is one of the best by Sindu herself at Lit Hub.
4/ Thrity Umrigar’s ‘Everybody’s Son’ — Though this is about race, class, power, and privilege in America, as far as I can tell, it isn’t even India-related. Which is fine, really. And it’s blurbed by, among others, Celeste Ng, so I’m paying attention. Ausma Zehanat Khan writes a thoughtful review in The Houston Chronicle.
5/ Scacchi Koul’s ‘One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter: Essays’ — These are funny, insightful essays about growing up as the daughter of Indian immigrants, dealing with patriarchal and sexist norms and stereotypes, and more. Koul is Canadian, writes for Buzzfeed, and is unashamedly controversial. Listen to this about how/why she got into a tweetstorm.
7/ Balli Kaur Jaswal’s ‘Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows‘ — No, it’s not erotica. It’s about a bunch of Sikh widows in Southall, London, who are taking evening writing classes from a British-Indian who soon finds out that, while their English is poor, their imagination is rich and fertile. This one has already sold film rights too. Scroll.in has this thoughtful review by Shireen Quadri.
8/ Ratika Kapur’s ‘The Private Life of Mrs Sharma’ — A story about the “New Indian Dream?” Yes, the Indian equivalent of the American Dream is here to stay, folks. And it involves air-conditioned malls, high paid jobs at multinational companies, and even extra-marital affairs. I enjoyed this interview over at The Rumpus with Kapur.
9/ Durga Chew-Bose’s ‘Too Much and Not the Mood: Essays’ — The title is from Virginia Woolf, so that got my attention. These lyrical/poetic essays are about what it is to be a first-generation creative woman today and cover a wide range of topics: identity, art, literature, movies, friendship, family, and more. Hazlitt has this terrific interview with her.
10/ Anita Anand and William Dalrymple’s ‘Kohinoor: The Story Of The World’s Most Infamous Diamond‘ — I’ve enjoyed Anand’s TV shows and her first book about Princess Sophia Duleep Singh. This is a fascinating and well-written historical account of how this diamond made its way through various Indian rulers’ hands to the East India Company and then to England. William Dalrymple is also a terrific writer, of course. This is very newly out, so the reviews are still coming. David Crane at The Spectator has this to say about “the blend of blood and bling.” I just like that phrase.
EDITED TO ADD 11/ Diksha Basu’s ‘The Windfall’ — I’m not a fan of the Austen-style ‘comedy of manners’, which is how this novel has been labeled. At the same time, it does sound like an interesting and different take on New Delhi’s nouveau riche in contemporary India (mid-90s onwards.) I have been reading excerpts, reviews, interviews, etc., and find it a bit weird that everyone is referred to as Mrs or Miss or Mr. They even refer to each other as such. Now I know Delhi-ites. And this feels like some weird anachronism intended to hit a satirical note. But it comes off a bit false for me. Still, there’s a meaty story here and, for those who are not going to be put off by writerly tics as I am, it may well be a good summer read. I believe there’s some movie/TV optioning underway also.
EDITED TO ADD 12/ Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire — Again, not exactly Indian but, as with #3, Pakistan has a lot of cultural similarities with India. This one is also probably one of my favorites from this lot and I will be reading it soon. It’s a retelling of Antigone, the ancient Greek drama by Sophocles, but set across present-day Pakistan, England, US, and incorporating radical Islamic terrorism as part of the plot. It was nominated for the Booker and has a lot of strong reviews at all the usual venues. But what got my attention was that some of my favorite writers were also gushing about it: Peter Carey, Laila Lalami, Rabih Alameddine, and Aminatta Forna. Read an excerpt here.
EDITED TO ADD 13/ Preti Taneja’s ‘We That Are Young’ — This is Taneja’s first novel and it is ambitious in its retelling of Shakespeare’s King Lear but set in contemporary India. If you have read and enjoyed Jane Smiley’s ‘A Thousand Acres’, yeah, well, this is different. I would venture to say it is also different from another Lear retelling that came out this year: Edward St Aubyn’s Hogarth-approved ‘Dunbar’ (which, I must confess sounds a lot more interesting to me, plot-wise.) The story of an autocratic, didactic male head of the family getting his just desserts seems to be quite popular, I suppose. Taneja gives us a multi-generational, multi-cultural story with all the problems of caste, class, and morality that India grapples with daily. Taneja has won rave reviews and, I believe, a couple of award nominations. I found this interview rather interesting, particularly how she wrote about a country she does not live in.
EDITED TO ADD: 14/ Jahnvi Lakhota Nandan’s ‘Pukka Indian: 100 Objects that Define India’ — This is another one of those books I am going to have to get for myself. So many of the items described here are from my own childhood and I have often wondered about the stories behind them or, indeed, have my own stories about them. As the Amazon book description says, Indian design of everyday objects is, often, less about aesthetic value and more about utilitarian value, with a fair bit of religious superstition thrown in for good measure. Nandan has a PhD in architecture and her research sounds thorough, going as far back as the Indus Valley civilization to trace the origins of some of these objects. Fascinating stuff. Read an excerpt here.
EDITED TO ADD: 15/ Victoria Lautmann’s ‘The Vanishing Stepwells of India’ — I first discovered Lautmann’s work through some news articles and that took me to her website. I’m fascinated with the ancient stepwells of Gujarat and even wrote a short story (in my upcoming collection) about one. Anyway, Lautmann spent four years going around India and photographing as many stepwells as she could find. This book details about 75 of them. I cannot wait to get my hands on this book either. And I sincerely hope the Indian government will do something about the many engineering wonders that are lying in ruins. See some of Lautmann’s amazing pictures here.
These are just the ones that have interested me in the literary adult genre. Any others that you think should be added?