#DesiBooksReco August 2022

***UPDATED ON TUESDAYS***

These are just some of the new and notable books by writers of South Asian origin for the month of August 2022.

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 published within South Asia although several are included below. Note: The descriptions are mostly from publisher-provided text.

If you’ve got a new book coming out, please tag the Desi Books account on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook. You can also contact here.

[Ongoing 2022 #DesiBooksReco archive]


***NON-FICTION***
From stories of Indian soldiers who supported the British empire during the two great wars to desi immigrants making their homes and marks in Australia and the American South, there are both historical and contemporary accounts of desi lives across the world. Oh, and a beautiful new lexicon of emotion words from classical Indian languages.
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Narayani Basu’s Allegiance: Azaadi and the End of Empire is the story of Shah Nawaz Khan, Prem Kumar Sahgal and Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon: three among the 40,000 soldiers of the Indian National Army, led by Subhas Chandra Bose. On the morning of 5 November 1945, these three soldiers stood trial for treason on the ramparts of the Red Fort. The Second World War had been longer, more horrifying, and more hopeful for them than for many others. They’d been abandoned by the British in the sweating jungles of Southeast Asia. The Japanese had offered a dubious hand of friendship. They’d known gnawing hunger and terrible despair. Their fellow Indians in the armed forces of British India were aghast at the choice these men made: to fight for country, but not for Crown. Allegiance is the story of this momentous journey through the eyes of the three soldiers at the center of it all. It sweeps through one of the most tumultuous and most poignant conflicts in modern Indian history, from the swamps of British Malaya to encampments in Singapore, Thailand, and Burma, all the way to the Red Fort—where the public trial of a Hindu, a Muslim, and a Sikh drove a hard nail into the coffin of Empire. Dhillon, Sahgal, Shah Nawaz. This is the intimate story of their freedom struggle.

Ravindra Rathee’s True to Their Salt: Indian Soldiers and the British Empire is about the Indian soldiers who made a pivotal contribution to the British Empire and Great Britain’s development from a small, relatively poor island to a dominant military and industrial power. Under the British Crown, following the Mutiny of 1857, India’s military became a vital link to holding the Empire together. From the jungles of southeast Asia to the deserts of Africa, and the hills of northeast India to the forests of Burma, the Indian army would become the pride of the Raj. Upon India’s independence, the army continued to be one of the finest inheritances of the Empire. This book looks at the world of the Indian soldiers who enlisted in the armies of India under British rule, and how they served with such dedication and loyalty. The extent to which the soldiers acted as effective control over the coercive power of British rule in India is also examined, as well as the implications and logistics involved in running such a complex military machine. The first comprehensive single-volume history of India’s soldiers in the British Empire, written with flair and rich in detail, this book offers a vital new perspective to mark the 75th anniversary of Indian independence.

Sarah Malik’s Desi Girl: On feminism, race, faith and belonging is a new book from the “down-under” author. As a Pakistani-Australian teenager growing up in western Sydney, Sarah Malik came of age in the shadow of September 11. At the age of twenty, she moved out of the home to begin her life as a university student, Muslim feminist, and journalist. In this energetic and timely book, Walkley Award-winner Malik dissects the many layers of identity that have shaped her, from faith to feminism, race, and class. While navigating religion and family, forging a career in media, and looking for a home of her own, Sarah lays bare the complexities of living between different worlds. She shares stories of working in a newsroom in the age of Islamophobia, studying Arabic in Jordan, mastering the art of swimming, loving Jane Austen, and her experiments in the world of ‘ wellness’ and therapy. Desi Girl explores the power of writing from the margins and how to find and take your place in the world.

Vishwesh Bhatt’s I Am from Here: Stories and Recipes from a Southern Chef , like a Vishwesh Bhatt dish, conjures an evolving American South. Peanut masala-stuffed baby eggplant alongside fried okra tossed in tangy chaat masala, collard-wrapped catfish with a spicy peanut pesto. These much-loved dishes are stars on the menu at Snackbar in Oxford, Mississippi, where Bhatt has been the executive chef since 2009, earning him Best Chef: South (2019 James Beard Awards) and induction into the Fellowship of Southern Farmers, Artisans, and Chefs in 2022. His food draws from his Indian heritage and is unpretentious, inventive, and incredibly delicious. The book organizes 130 recipes by ingredient, emphasizing staples, spices, and vegetables that are as beloved on the Indian subcontinent as they are in the American South. Summer means okra, tomatoes, corn, and peas. Winter brings sweet potatoes and greens: mustards, collards, kale, and spinach. Rice is a constant throughout. Bhatt vividly recounts the special meals cooked by his mother and grandmothers—vegetarian comfort food such as khichadi, custardy rice pudding, and stewed Gujarati-style black-eyed peas—and presents them alongside dishes he’s shared with friends, colleagues, and family across the decades. Recipes run the gamut from uncomplicated roast chicken and citrus-herb rice salad to dinner party-worthy grilled pork tenderloin with tandoori spices. Writing for the home cook, Bhatt includes recipes for making your own spice mixes, including a versatile chaat masala. A mix-and-match meal-planning guide will help you pair dishes for different occasions. And every ingredient is within reach even if you’re cooking far away from the warmth of Mississippi. This cookbook thoughtfully, and persuasively, expands notions of what it means to be, and cook like, a Southerner today.

Maria Heim’s Words for the Heart: A Treasury of Emotions from Classical India is a richly diverse collection of classical Indian terms for expressing the many moods and subtleties of emotional experience. It is a captivating treasury of emotion terms drawn from some of India’s earliest classical languages. Inspired by the traditional Indian genre of a “treasury”—a wordbook or anthology of short texts or poems—this collection features 177 jewel-like entries evoking the kinds of phenomena English speakers have variously referred to as emotions, passions, sentiments, moods, affects, and dispositions. These entries serve as beautiful literary and philosophical vignettes that convey the delightful texture of Indian thought and the sheer multiplicity of conversations about emotions in Indian texts. An indispensable reference, Words for the Heart reveals how Indian ways of interpreting human experience can challenge our assumptions about emotions and enrich our lives.
-Brings to light a rich lexicon of emotion from ancient India
Uses the Indian genre of a “treasury,” or wordbook, to explore the contours of classical Indian thought in three of the subcontinent’s earliest languages–Sanskrit, Pali, and Prakrit
-Features 177 alphabetical entries, from abhaya (“fearlessness”) to yoga (“the discipline of calm”)
-Draws on a wealth of literary, religious, and philosophical writings from classical India
-Includes synonyms, antonyms, related words, and suggestions for further reading
-Invites readers to engage in the cross-cultural study of emotions
-Reveals the many different ways of naming and interpreting human experience

***FICTION***
From Sri Lanka to the US, Kerala to Tamil Nadu, feminist utopia to ancient Mahabharata—this month’s fiction ranges far and wide with some strong new debut voices and some classic translations. More to be added.
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Shehan Karunatilaka’s The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida is set in Colombo, 1990. Maali Almeida, war photographer, gambler, and closet queen, has woken up dead in what seems like a celestial visa office. His dismembered body is sinking in the serene Beira lake and he has no idea who killed him. At a time where scores are settled by death squads, suicide bombers, and hired goons, the list of suspects is depressingly long, as the ghouls and ghosts with grudges who cluster round can attest. But even in the afterlife, time is running out for Maali. He has seven moons to try and contact the man and woman he loves most and lead them to a hidden cache of photos that will rock Sri Lanka. Ten years after his prizewinning novel Chinaman established him as one of Sri Lanka’s foremost authors, Shehan Karunatilaka is back with a mordantly funny, searing satire. The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida is a state-of-the-nation epic that proves yet again that the best fiction offers the ultimate truth.

Akil Kumarasamy’s Meet Us by the Roaring Sea alternates between a young woman’s present life and passages from the translated manuscript and is a remarkable, genre-bending exploration of memory, technology, friendship, love, consciousness, and the costs of caring for others in an age when we are so often lost in the swamps of our own minds. In the near future, a young woman finds her mother’s body starfished on the kitchen floor in Queens and sets on a journey through language, archives, artificial intelligence, and TV for a way back into herself. She begins to translate an old manuscript about a group of female medical students—living through a drought and at the edge of the war—as they create a new way of existence to help the people around them. In the process, the translator’s life and the manuscript begin to become entangled. Along the way, the arrival of a childhood friend, a stranger, and an unusual AI project will force her to question her own moral compass and sense of goodness. How involved are we in the suffering of others? What does real compassion look like? How do you make a better world?

Mohsin Hamid’s The Last White Man is a story of love, loss, and rediscovery in a time of unsettling change. One morning, a man wakes up to find himself transformed. Overnight, Anders’s skin has turned dark, and the reflection in the mirror seems a stranger to him. At first, he shares his secret only with Oona, an old friend turned new lover. Soon, reports of similar events begin to surface. Across the land, people are awakening in new incarnations, uncertain how their neighbors, friends, and family will greet them. Some see the transformations as the long-dreaded overturning of the established order that must be resisted to a bitter end. In many, like Anders’s father and Oona’s mother, a sense of profound loss and unease wars with profound love. As the bond between Anders and Oona deepens, change takes on a different shading: a chance at a kind of rebirth–an opportunity to see ourselves, face to face, anew. In Mohsin Hamid’s “lyrical and urgent” prose (O Magazine), The Last White Man powerfully uplifts our capacity for empathy and the transcendence over bigotry, fear, and anger it can achieve.

Jerry Pinto’s The Education of Yuri is his latest novel focusing on urban adolescence. ‘We are born alone and we die alone. In between, we reach out to other people.’ At fifteen, Yuri Fonseca of downmarket Mahim—sometimes awkward, sometimes lonely—gets lucky. He finds a friend, Muzammil Merchant of upmarket Pedder Road. Then he loses him, and almost finds him again. In between, he learns something about jealousy, shame, desire, and guilt. He stumbles into his first sexual encounter, and he thinks he has fallen in love. He understands how one can hurt and be hurt, and how one can give and find unexplained happiness. He struggles to write poetry, worries if he will ever get and hold a job, and flirts briefly with Naxalism. Over five years in the strange crucible of Elphinstone College in 1980s Bombay—the vast and throbbing city that both claims and disowns him—Yuri tries to make sense of himself. And we are drawn, effortlessly and completely, into the spell of his story.

Sarah Thankam Mathews’ All This Could Be Different is her debut novel. Graduating into the long maw of an American recession, Sneha is one of the fortunate ones. She’s moved to Milwaukee for an entry-level corporate job that, grueling as it may be, is the key that unlocks every door: she can pick up the tab at dinner with her new friend Tig, get her college buddy Thom hired alongside her, and send money to her parents back in India. She begins dating women–soon developing a burning crush on Marina, a beguiling and beautiful dancer who always seems just out of reach. But before long, trouble arrives. Painful secrets rear their heads; jobs go off the rails; evictions loom. Sneha struggles to be truly close and open with anybody, even as her friendships deepen, even as she throws herself headlong into a dizzying romance with Marina. It’s then that Tig begins to draw up a radical solution to their problems, hoping to save them all. A beautiful and capacious novel rendered in singular, unforgettable prose, All This Could Be Different is a wise, tender, and riveting group portrait of young people forging love and community amidst struggle, and a moving story of one immigrant’s journey to make her home in the world.

Dur E. Aziz Amna’s American Fever is her debut novel. On a year-long exchange program in rural Oregon, a Pakistani student, sixteen-year-old Hira, must swap Kashmiri chai for volleyball practice and try to understand why everyone around her seems to dislike Obama. A skeptically witty narrator, Hira finds herself stuck between worlds. The experience is memorable for reasons both good and bad; a first kiss, new friends, racism, Islamophobia, and homesickness. Along the way Hira starts to feel increasingly unwell until she begins coughing up blood, and receives a diagnosis of tuberculosis, pushing her into quarantine and turning her newly established home away from home upside down. American Fever is a compelling and laugh-out-loud funny novel about adolescence, family, otherness, religion, the push-and-pull of home.

Melody Razak’s Moth is a saga of one Indian family’s trials through the tumultuous partition–the 1947 split of Pakistan from India—exploring its impact on women, what it means to be “othered” in one’s own society, and the redemptive power of family. Delhi, 1946. Fourteen-year-old Alma is soon to be married despite her parents’ fear that she is far too young. But times are perilous in India, where the country’s long-awaited independence from the British empire heralds a new era of hope—and danger. In its wake, political unrest ripples across the subcontinent, marked by violent confrontations between Hindus and Muslims. The conflict threatens to unravel the rich tapestry of Delhi—a city where different cultures, religions, and traditions have co-existed for centuries. The solution is partition, which will create a new, wholly Muslim, sovereign nation—Pakistan—carved from India’s northwestern shoulder. Given the uncertain times, Alma’s parents, intellectuals who teach at the local university, pray that marriage will provide Alma with stability and safety. Alma is precocious and headstrong, and her excitement over the wedding rivals only her joy in spinning wild stories about evil spirits for her younger sister, Roop. But when Alma’s grandmother—a woman determined to protect the family’s honor no matter the cost—interferes with the engagement, her meddling sets off a chain of events that will wrench the family apart, forcing its members to find new and increasingly desperate ways to survive in the wake of partition.

Amina Akhtar’s Kismet is a viciously funny thriller about wellness—the smoothies, the secrets, and the deliciously deadly impulses. Lifelong New Yorker Ronnie Khan never thought she’d leave Queens. She’s not an “aim high, dream big” person—until she meets socialite wellness guru Marley Dewhurst. Marley isn’t just a visionary; she’s a revelation. Seduced by the fever dream of finding her best self, Ronnie makes for the desert mountains of Sedona, Arizona. Healing yoga, transcendent hikes, epic juice cleanses . . . Ronnie consumes her new bougie existence like a fine wine. But is it, really? Or is this whole self-care business a little sour? When the glam gurus around town start turning up gruesomely murdered, Ronnie has her answer: all is not well in wellness town. As Marley’s blind ambition veers into madness, Ronnie fears for her life.

Amanda Jayatissa’s You’re Invited is a dangerously addictive new thriller about a lavish Sri Lankan wedding celebration that not everyone will survive. What could be worse than your ex-boyfriend marrying your childhood best friend? Getting accused of her murder . . . When Amaya is invited to Kaavi’s over-the-top wedding in Sri Lanka, she is surprised and a little hurt to hear from her former best friend after so many years of radio silence. But when Amaya learns that the groom is her very own ex-boyfriend, she is consumed by a single thought: She must stop the wedding from happening, no matter the cost. But as the week of wedding celebrations begin and rumors about Amaya’s past begin to swirl, she can’t help but feel like she also has a target on her back. When Kaavi goes missing and is presumed dead, all evidence points to Amaya. However, nothing is as it seems as Jayatissa expertly unravels that each wedding guest has their own dark secret and agenda, and Amaya may not be the only one with a plan to keep the bride from getting her happily ever after . . .

S. C. Lalli’s Are You Sara? is a novel about a law student, Saraswati “Sara” Bhaduri, who holds down two jobs to make her way through school, but it’s still a struggle. She’s had to do things to pay the bills that most people wouldn’t expect from “a nice Indian girl.” It seems like an ordinary busy Tuesday night at the local dive bar until her boss demands Sara deal with a drunk girl in the bathroom. The two become fast friends. Why? Because they both have the same name. And despite their different circumstances, the two connect. When they both order rideshares home, they tumble in the back of the cars and head out into the night. But when Sara awakes in her rideshare, she finds she’s on the wrong side of town—the rich side—and she realizes: she and Sarah took the wrong cars home. With no money, Sara walks back to her apartment on the shady side of town only to discover police lights flashing and a body crumpled on her doorstep: Sarah. Was Sarah Ellis or Sara Bhaduri the target? And why would anyone want either of them dead? In this smart, twisty novel about ambition, wealth, and dangerous longing, the layers are peeled back on two young women desperate to break out of the expectations placed on them, with devastating results.

Manu Bhattathiri’s The Greatest Enemy of Rain presents fourteen memorable short stories about the mundane and mysterious aspects of everyday life of the eccentric and oddball characters that occupy its pages. These unforgettable men and women grapple with questions of life and death, newfound freedoms, lifelong vendettas, love and longing, and memories of days gone by. In ‘The Greatest Enemy of Rain’, Gopi recounts the ups and downs of his lifelong quest to outsmart a formidable enemy—the persistent Kerala rain. In the ancient India of ‘These New Fangled Ways’, Mista decides to do what no one has done until then—cooking over fire—even as her parents swoon and faint in the background. In ‘Shabari and Anita’, a couple eschews the humdrum activity of daily life to pursue new trends in men’s fashion and beauty at their shiny new salon. ‘The Answer’ is a befitting response to the epic highs and lows of a supercomputer tasked with proving the existence of God. Written with Manu Bhattathiri’s characteristic wit and humor, The Greatest Enemy of Rain is a breezy exploration of the peculiarities of human nature.

Jeyamohan’s Stories of the True (tr. Priyamvada) contains iconic stories like ‘Elephant Doctor’ and ‘A Hundred Armchairs’. This collection by the great Tamil writer Jeyamohan brings together twelve inspiring and imaginative narratives, all based on the lives of real people. They explore the capacity of humans to hold on to their intrinsic goodness in the face of both the everyday and the extraordinary, and how their response in such moments of truth finds expression in multitudinous ways – as anger, compassion, fortitude, a capacity for suffering, self discovery, a life of silent protest or even eccentric activism. Gripping, often raw and deeply moving, this striking collection, the first major translation of Jeyamohan’s work in English, will renew your faith in humanity.

Shrinivas Vaidya’s A Handful of Sesame (tr. Maithreyi Karnoor) was shortlisted for the Lucien Stryk Asian Translation Prize, 2019. The original work Halla Bantu Halla won the Central Sahitya Akademi Award. It is the year 1857. A great uprising — what would come to be known as the first war of Indian independence — has broken out. Two brothers, emissaries of a northern king, on a mission to garner the support of the southern rulers, wander lost and hungry in a forest not far from their destination. They are captured and one of them is hung by the British. Caught in the rough and tumble of the mutiny, the other brother settles down in a place that was never meant to be more than a temporary refuge. He spends his life far away from home among people who do not speak his language. The novel spans the story of three generations of his family living under the burden of inherited nostalgia, a story that unfolds with all its flying fancies and stumbling follies on the threshold between tradition and modernity. Set against the backdrop of the freedom movement, the novel explores the lives of the people of the Dharwad region of Karnataka; their acts of faith, and the realpolitik of ritual. Masterfully and sensitively translated from the Kannada, A Handful of Sesame is funny, tragic, ironic, satirical, lyrical, and deeply allegorical of a young, modern nation.

R. Seshayee’s The Dance of Faith is a vibrant and brilliantly crafted tapestry of art, dance, cinema and religion of the Tamil region in which the sordid and spectacular shine through equally. Mesmerized by the vibrance of classical dance, young Zaheer yearns to be a Bharatanatyam dancer. Yet, in his small but multi-cultural village community, he finds encouragement only in his aunt, Anandhi, and faces ridicule from his immediate family and extended social circle. In the course of his struggle, as he transitions from being a member of a conservative Muslim family that is outraged by his unusual interest, into becoming a part of the charming world of a classical dance form that imposes its own religious typecasting, he encounters different facets of faith. The novel explores the legitimacy of the space that Zaheer wishes to carve out for himself beyond stereotypes of black and white, amidst gaping social disparities, and in between Hinduism and Islam. Interwoven with his narrative is one of Andal, the Vaishnavite savant poetess who rebels against the orthodoxy of her faith and creates her own idiom of devotion.

Rokeya Hossain’s Sultana’s Dream and Padmarag (tr. Barnita Bagchi) is one of the first science-fiction utopian stories and one of the first feminist utopias by India’s widely celebrated, pioneering feminist, educator, writer, and activist Rokeya Hossain. Sultana, a Muslim woman living in contemporary India, falls asleep and wakes up in a transformed future world: a utopia in which men rather than women are relegated to the domestic sphere. Women, now free to explore the outside world at will and pursue an education, run a peaceful and just society, using scientific principles to harvest energy from the sun and live in harmony with nature. Sultana’s Dream was published in 1905 in the Indian Ladies Magazine, the first English language periodical edited by, and targeted at, Indian women. Like the periodical, the story broke new ground. As a pioneering work of science fiction and feminist utopian literature at the turn of the century, Sultana’s Dream is strikingly advanced in its critique of patriarchy, war, industrialization, and the exploitation of the natural world, speaking to the concerns of our contemporary world as much as its own. At a time when British colonialism was using the treatment of women in India as justification for colonial intervention there, Hossain’s story, in imagining a world in which men rather than women are kept inside, positions her protest against Islamic patriarchy within a larger feminist vision that takes on Western as well as Islamic forms of gender hierarchy. Her novella Padmarag is similarly utopian in its depiction of a women-run school and welfare center and is both feminist and anti-colonial in its outlook. In both these works, Hossain seizes the critique of gender roles in India away from Western commentators and turns it against British interference, while also enlarging the critique to take on the problem of gender more broadly.

Wendy Doniger’s After the War: The Last Books of the Mahabharata is a new translation of the final part of the Mahabharata, the great Sanskrit epic poem about a devastating fraternal war. In the aftermath of the great war, the surviving heroes find various deaths, ranging from a drunken debacle in which they kill many of their own comrades to suicide through meditation and, finally, magical transportation to both heaven and hell. Bereaved mothers and widows on earth are comforted when their dead sons and husbands are magically conjured up from heaven and emerge from a river to spend one glorious night on earth with their loved ones. Ultimately, the bitterly opposed heroes of both sides are reconciled in heaven, but only when they finally let go of the vindictive masculine pride that has made each episode of violence give rise to another. Throughout the text, issues of truth and reconciliation, of the competing beliefs in various afterlives, and of the ultimate purpose of human life are debated. This last part of the Mahabharata has much to tell us both about the deep wisdom of Indian poets during the centuries from 300 BCE to 300 CE (the dates of the recension of this enormous text) and about the problems that we ourselves confront in the aftermath of our own genocidal and internecine wars. The author, a distinguished translator of Sanskrit texts (including the Rig Veda, the Laws of Manu, and the Kamasutra), puts the text into clear, flowing, contemporary prose, with a comprehensive but unintrusive critical apparatus. This book will delight general readers and enlighten students of Indian civilization and of great world literature.

***POETRY***
We need to scour the interwebs for more poetry. But even if you get just this singular entry, it will be enough to last a lifetime. Who, after all, can resist a bit of Ghalib?
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Mirza Ghalib’s Temple Lamp: Verses on Banaras by Mirza Asadullah Beg (tr. Bilal Maaz Bin Bilal) or ‘Chirag-e-Dair’ is an eloquent and vibrant Persian masnavi by Mirza Ghalib. While we quote liberally from his Urdu poetry, we know little of his writings in Persian, and while we read of his love for the city of Delhi, we discover, in Temple Lamp, his rapture over the spiritual and sensual city of Banaras. Chiragh-e-dair has been translated directly from Persian into English in its entirety for the first time, with a critical Introduction by Maaz Bin Bilal. It is Mirza Ghalib’s pean to Kashi, which he calls Kaaba-e-Hindostan or the Mecca of India.

Gita Ralleigh’s Siren smolders like smoke in a ruby, with a powerful sense of danger and compulsion in considering women’s lives, agency, and hybridity. Ralleigh’s survival poems are underpinned by a wild and menacing unpredictability, her language is hyper-sensitive, with sources as disparate as Adrienne Rich, Ovid, and Asian mythology. If you hear the siren’s call, beware, nobody leaves her unchanged.


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