These are just some of the new and notable books by writers of South Asian origin for the month of August 2021. For a more complete list in the US, go to the Desi Books Bookshop (US.) For a UK list, go to the Desi Books Bookshop (UK.) Currently, there isn’t a single location to list books recently published within South Asia although several such books do get included in the lists below.
Please note that, until July 2021, these books were listed in the podcast episodes. From August 2021-onwards, they are being listed separately as below. Also, the descriptions are mostly from publisher-provided text.
Rafia Zakaria’s Against White Feminism: Notes on Disruption is a sharply incisive critique of white feminism as an entrenched set of behaviors and ideologies that has dominated the feminist movement from the beginning. In this book, she calls on us to dismantle this kind of feminism which has colonial, patriarchal, and white supremacist ideals. And she exhorts us to actively support an inclusive feminism that values different kinds of knowledge, expertise, and lived experiences. [Note: Jenny Bhatt’s NPR review here.]
Sumana Roy’s How I Became a Tree was first out in India and is now out in the US. It blends literary history, theology, philosophy, botany, and more to remind us to slow down and imagine a reenchanted world in which humans live more like trees. A meditation and a memoir about our place in the natural world.
Sarfraz Manzoor’s They: What Muslims and Non-Muslims Get Wrong About Each Other is out in the UK now. Weaving together history, reportage and memoir, Manzoor journeys around Britain in search of the roots of the division that sets Muslims apart: from the fear that Islam promotes violence, to the suspicion that Muslims wish to live segregated lives, to the belief that Islam is fundamentally misogynistic. The book is also Manzoor’s search for a more positive future. We hear stories from Islamic history of a faith more tolerant and progressive than commonly assumed, and stories of hope from across the country which show how we might bridge the chasm of mutual mistrust.
Amia Srinivasan’s The Right to Sex is out in the UK now and will be available in the US in September. The book examines the politics and ethics of sex, interrogating “the fraught relationships between discrimination and preference, pornography and freedom, rape and racial injustice, punishment and accountability, pleasure and power, capitalism and liberation.”
Pallavi Aiyar’s Orienting: An Indian in Japan is her in-depth look at the island country including its culinary, sanitary, and floral idiosyncrasies. Aiyar explores why Japan and India find it hard to work together despite sharing a long civilizational history. Part travelogue, part reportage, the book includes the many (mis)adventures that come from learning a new language, imbibing new cultural etiquette, and asking difficult questions about race.
Anand Sheela’s By My Own Rules: My Story in My Own Words is a memoir by the infamous Ma Anand Sheela who was seen in the Netflix series Wild, Wild Country. She was the personal secretary of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and managed the Rajneesh commune in Wasco County, Oregon. The book is about her life, lessons, beliefs, inspiration, and what makes her live life on her own terms.
Malini Sur’s Jungle Passports: Fences, Mobility, and Citizenship at the Northeast India-Bangladesh Border is about the inhabitants of what are now the borderlands of Northeast India and Bangladesh. These Muslim frontier peasants, savage mountaineers, and Christian ethnic minorities have been labeled disloyal subjects, spies, and traitors. The book follows their struggles to secure shifting land, gain access to rice harvests, and smuggle the cattle and garments upon which their livelihoods depend against a background of violence, scarcity, and India’s construction of one of the world’s longest and most highly militarized border fences.
Peggy Mohan’s Wanderers, Kings, Merchants dives into early South Asian history to reveal how migration, both external and internal, has shaped all Indians from ancient times. Through a first-of-its-kind and incisive study of languages, such as the story of early Sanskrit, the rise of Urdu, language formation in the North-east, it presents the argument that all Indians are of mixed origins. It explores the rise of English after Independence and how it may be endangering India’s native languages.
Inflamed: Deep Medicine and the Anatomy of Injustice by Rupa Marya and Rajeev Charles Patel is about the link between health and structural injustices. The book takes us on a medical tour through the human body–our digestive, endocrine, circulatory, respiratory, reproductive, immune, and nervous systems. Unlike a traditional anatomy book, this groundbreaking work illuminates the hidden relationships between our biological systems and the profound injustices of our political and economic systems. Inflammation is connected to the food we eat, the air we breathe, and the diversity of the microbes living inside us, which regulate everything from our brain’s development to our immune system’s functioning. It’s connected to the number of traumatic events we experienced as children and to the traumas endured by our ancestors. It’s connected not only to access to health care but to the very models of health that physicians practice.
Nirupama Subramanian’s Murder on the Menu is the true, sordid story of P. Rajagopal, founder of the famous Saravana Bhavan restaurant chain. A true-crime thriller, this is the first full story of the meteoric rise and dramatic fall of the brilliant entrepreneur, already married to two women, whose lust for a third woman led him to plan a cold-blooded killing. The book follows the trail of the murder plot over eight districts of Tamil Nadu. It describes the courtroom dramas that took place as the case dragged on for eighteen long years even as Rajagopal’s empire continued to grow and prosper, and tracks his life from his humble beginnings in a sleepy village to his shocking end just days after the Supreme Court upheld his life sentence for murder.
Dr. Gayatri Sethi’s Unbelonging is a hybrid memoir. It interweaves verse, memoir, and a call to action as she recounts her experience searching for home in the diaspora. Drawing on her life story as a Tanzanian-born Punjabi and an American educator and mother of biracial children, Sethi tells an intimate tale of stepping into her power while confronting misogyny, racism, and empire. Listen to her on episode 31 of the podcast.
Our Stories: An Introduction to South Asian America is an anthology by the South Asian American Digital Archive (SAADA.) With stories spanning from the 1780s to the present day and bringing together the voices of sixty-four authors, this collection demonstrates the diversity, vibrancy, and power of the South Asian American community. And these are histories that aren’t paid much attention to in classrooms and textbooks.
Vinod Busjeet’s Silent Winds, Dry Seas is a debut novel set mostly in Mauritius and about Indo-Mauritian history and culture shown through a coming-of-age story. The protagonist, Vishnu Bhushan, is a descendant of Indian indentured laborers in Mauritius. The rich, multiracial culture of this jewel-like island in the Indian Ocean and its Indo-Mauritian society, particular, are both drawn with rich colors and textures. [Note: Jenny Bhatt’s NPR Review here.]
Attia Hosain’s Sunlight on a Broken Column, has a new edition with an introduction by Kamila Shamsie. It is widely considered to be the first novel about the India-Pakistan Partition from the point of view of a Muslim woman (and written by one.) It’s also a coming-of-age story where Laila, the protagonist, comes to her own political awakening as she looks for her own personal independence.
Attia Hosain’s only other book, Phoenix Fled, is also out in a new edition introduced by Kamila Shamsie. It’s a story collection about the lives of servants and children, of conflict between the old traditions and new ways, and exploring the human repercussions of the Muslim/Hindu divide. Together, these twelve stories present a moving and vivid picture of life in India in the mid-twentieth century.
Veena Muthuraman’s The Grand Anicut is a historical novel set in the first century C.E. and focuses on the Tamilakam kingdom in Southern India during the rule of the Chola dynasty. King Karikalan’s most ambitious infrastructure project is finally becoming a reality: a dam, the Grand Anicut, is being constructed to divert the waters of the Kaveri, to the elation of farmers across the land and the discontent of the trader class. Amidst all this, the arrival of a Roman ship carrying the merchant prince Marcellus sets off a series of events that will alter the fate of Tamilakam.
Vaseem Khan’s Midnight at Malabar House is the first novel in a new historical crime series featuring India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, in a newly-independent India. Navigating the country’s political upheaval and her own work, she must solve the the sensational murder case of prominent English diplomat Sir James Herriot with some help from a Scotland Yard criminalist, Archie Blackfinch.
Sara Nisha Adams’ The Reading List is a debut novel about how library books bring two different people together in the London suburbs. Grandfather and widower, Mukesh, meets a teenage librarian, Aleisha. They connect over a reading list of books that helps them escape their grief and everyday troubles and find joy again.
Tessa McWatt’s The Snow Line is a new novel from this multi-racial Guyanese-born Canadian writer. Set in 2009 and northern India, it’s about four travelers from different parts of the world gathering for a traditional Indian wedding. As they travel together, secrets are revealed, and each of them is opened up to more questions than answers. These intergenerational and intercultural relationships are a meeting of the past and the future, a reconciliation of past wrongs and a possibility that the future might be less violent, less selfish, less segregated.
Geetanjali Sree’s Tomb of Sand (tr. from the Hindi by Daisy Rockwell) is about an eighty-year-old woman in northern India, who slips into a deep depression at the death of her husband, then resurfaces to gain a new lease on life. Her determination to fly in the face of convention—including striking up a friendship with a hijra person—confuses her bohemian daughter, who is used to thinking of herself as the more ‘modern’ of the two. And I love this from the publisher’s description: “Rather than respond to tragedy with seriousness, Geetanjali Shree’s playful tone and exuberant wordplay results in a book that is engaging, funny, and utterly original, at the same time as being an urgent and timely protest against the destructive impact of borders and boundaries, whether between religions, countries, or genders.”
Gyan Chaturvedi’s Alipura (tr. from the Hindi by Salim Yusufji) is set in the late-1960s. The story is about the Dube family: a widowed mother, four sons, and a daughter. Their aim is to get the daughter married. But the sons also have their ambitions of wealth, political power, education, dacoity, romance, and more. It’s been a bestseller since its first publication as Baramasi in Hindi in 1999.
Ari Gautier’s The Thinnai (tr. from the French by Blake Smith) is set in Pondicherry’s working-class district of Kurusukuppam. Through the eyes of the curious tramp, Gilbert Thaata, a wizened Frenchman who has clearly seen hard times, the narrative offers a panoramic view of Pondicherry’s past, the whimsical eccentricities of its present and shines a light on the quirks of history that come to define us.
Gopinath Mohanty’s Harijan: A Novel (tr. from the Odia by Bikram Das) was first published in 1948. It brings to vivid life the story of a group of Mehentars living in a slum. Cleaning latrines with their bare hands is the only work that they can hope to find as their caste excludes them from every other occupation. The leader of this group is the middle-aged and foul-mouthed Jema who starts her day by gulping down a potful of liquor and smoking pinkas in order to deal with the stench of the excreta. When Jema comes down with a fever, her fourteen-year-old daughter, Puni offers to go in her place and finds the work awful and repulsive. Avinash Babu lives in a palatial house next to the slum. He is planning to evict the Mehentars in order to develop the slum into a residential colony. One night, a fire breaks out and the entire slum is burned to the ground. The Mehentars leave the slum carrying their remaining possessions on their backs. They have nowhere to go but they are past all worries—they know that, no matter where they go, they will still be cleaning excrement, for they are Harijans.
The Owl Delivered the Good News All Night Long: Folktales, Legends, and Modern Lore of India, edited by Lopamudra Maitra Bajpai is a selection of 108 fabulous folk tales, legends, and stories from more than fifty-seven languages and dialects. From Jammu and Kashmir in the north to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the south, from Dadra and Nagar Haveli and Daman and Diu in the west to Arunachal Pradesh in the east, and all the other states and union territories of India in between, these include tales of heroes and heroines, of ordinary men and women, of wicked mothers-in-law and foolish sons-in-law, of love lost and won, of a tree who loved a girl, of seers and wise men, of chudails, werewolves, and wizards, of a potter girl and the divine cow, of demoiselle cranes and humans transforming into elephants, of how the woodpecker got its crest, and much, much more. Startlingly original, brilliant, wise, and often funny, these stories will delight readers of all ages.
Harekrishna Deka’s Guilt and Other Stories (tr. from the Asomiya by Mitra Phukan) is a selection of his finest short fiction. Deka is a winner of the Sahitya Akademi Award and one of Assam’s foremost writers. In this selection of his finest short fiction, Deka gives us a searing vision of the human condition, even as he brings alive the unique landscape of Assam in unforgettable images. Startling, insightful, and original in tone and form, Guilt and Other Stories presents a world that is both tender and painful. Through the collection runs a vein of rich, dark humor along with a deep, inimitable understanding of Assamese society, culture and history. Brilliantly translated by Mitra Phukan, a celebrated writer herself, these stories will live in the reader’s mind long after the last page has been turned.
Aravind Malagatti’s Karya (tr. from the Kannada by Susheela Punitha) is a poetic work calling for change in our casteist society and unfurls a kaleidoscope of perspectives. Studded with symbols drawn from nature and myth, this small but significant novel reveals the politics and power embedded within a Dalit community. On the third day after the death of Bangaravva, a solemn procession making its way toward the graveyard encounters a strange obstacle. A blast of wind rises up in revolt, the embers flare, and the sacred ritual fire falls to the ground. The ceremony is ruined because custom demands that the ritual fire never touch the ground. What follows is chaos and confusion. Who will bear the blame for things going awry, and how might they be set right? The division between castes and communities comes to the fore as the panchayat struggles to pronounce justice.
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