#DesiBooksReco January 2022

These are just some of the new and notable books by writers of South Asian origin for the month of January 2022. The list is updated throughout the month.

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. [Until July 2021, these books were listed within monthly podcast episodes.]

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.

Note: The descriptions are mostly from publisher-provided text.


NON-FICTION:

Wajahat Ali’s Go Back to Where You Came From takes its title from just one of the many warm, lovely, and helpful tips that Ali and other children of immigrants receive on a daily basis. Go back where, exactly? Fremont, California, where he grew up, but is now an unaffordable place to live? Or Pakistan, the country his parents left behind a half-century ago? Growing up living the suburban American dream, young Wajahat devoured comic books (devoid of brown superheroes) and fielded well-intentioned advice from uncles and aunties. (“Become a doctor!”) He had turmeric stains under his fingernails, was accident-prone, suffered from OCD, and wore Husky pants, but he was as American as his neighbors, with roots all over the world. Then, while Ali was studying at University of California, Berkeley, 9/11 happened. Muslims replaced communists as America’s enemy #1, and he became an accidental spokesman and ambassador of all ordinary, unthreatening things Muslim-y. Now a middle-aged dad, Ali has become one of the foremost and funniest public intellectuals in America. In Go Back to Where You Came From, he tackles the dangers of Islamophobia, white supremacy, and chocolate hummus, peppering personal stories with astute insights into national security, immigration, and pop culture. In this refreshingly bold, hopeful, and uproarious memoir, Ali offers indispensable lessons for cultivating a more compassionate, inclusive, and delicious America.

Amartya Sen’s Home In the World is his new memoir and about the many places he has called “home,” including Dhaka, in modern Bangladesh; Kolkata, where he first studied economics; and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he engaged with the greatest minds of his generation. Here, Sen interweaves scenes from his remarkable life with candid philosophical reflections on economics, welfare, and social justice, demonstrating how his experiences—in Asia, Europe, and later America—vitally informed his work. In exquisite prose, Sen evokes his childhood travels on the rivers of Bengal, as well as the “quiet beauty” of Dhaka. The Mandalay of Orwell and Kipling is recast as a flourishing cultural center with pagodas, palaces, and bazaars, “always humming with intriguing activities.” With characteristic moral clarity and compassion, Sen reflects on the cataclysmic events that soon tore his world asunder, from the Bengal famine of 1943 to the struggle for Indian independence against colonial tyranny—and the outbreak of political violence that accompanied the end of British rule. Witnessing these lacerating tragedies only amplified Sen’s sense of social purpose. He went on to study famine and inequality, wholly reconstructing theories of social choice and development. In 1998, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for his contributions to welfare economics, which included a fuller understanding of poverty as the deprivation of human capability. Still Sen, a tireless champion of the dispossessed, remains an activist, working now as ever to empower vulnerable minorities and break down walls among warring ethnic groups.

Roopa Farooki’s Everything Is True: A junior doctor’s story of life, death and grief in a time of pandemic is a memoir by a doctor about working through the pandemic. In early 2020, junior doctor Roopa Farooki lost her sister to cancer. But just weeks later, she found herself plunged into another kind of crisis, fighting on the frontline of the battle taking place in her hospital, and in hospitals across the country. Everything is True is the story of Roopa’s first forty days of the Covid-19 crisis from the frontlines of A&E and the acute medical wards, as struggling through her grief, she battles for her patients’ and colleagues’ survival. Working thirteen-hour shifts, she returns home each evening to write through her exhaustion, chronicling the devastating losses and slowly eroding dehumanization happening in real time on the ward.

Adhir Biswas’ Memories of Arrival: A Voice from the Margins (tr. by V. Ramaswamy) is a memoir that brings together four books of a migrant’s story of displacement and exile in one volume. Adhir Biswas, a Dalit, makes the subalterns gain some visibility. The author, though half-starved, gets an education. He finds possibilities, delighting in the city of Calcutta, making the most of what he can. He finds a place in the book world, finally emerging as the distinguished editor and publisher of Gangchil and Doel. Adhir Biswas writes quietly and tersely, with much unsaid, to depict a life where the past and the present keep coalescing with dreams of the old place and the dreaminess of the new land. His story has much in common with that of migrants who leave a village or a small town to come to a big city and live in its shadows.

Yigal Bronner (Editor),  Charles Hallisey (Editor), and David Shulman (Translator) co-created Sensitive Reading: The Pleasures of South Asian Literature in Translation. What are the pleasures of reading translations of South Asian literature, and what does it take to enjoy a translated text? This volume provides opportunities to explore such questions by bringing together a whole set of new translations by David Shulman, noted scholar of South Asia. The translated selections come from a variety of Indian languages, genres, and periods, from the classical to the contemporary. The translations are accompanied by short essays written to help readers engage and enjoy them. Some of these essays provide background to enhance reading of the translation, whereas others model how to expand appreciation in comparative and broader ways. Together, the translations and the accompanying essays form an essential guide for people interested in literature and art from South Asia. A free downloadable version is available here.

Vivek Shraya’s People Change is a guide to celebrating our many selves and the inspiration to discover who we’ll become next. Vivek Shraya knows this to be true: people change. We change our haircuts and our outfits and our minds. We change names, titles, labels. We attempt to blend in or to stand out. We outgrow relationships, we abandon dreams for new ones, we start fresh. We seize control of our stories. We make resolutions. In fact, nobody knows this better than Vivek, who’s made a career of embracing many roles: artist, performer, musician, writer, model, teacher. In People Change, she reflects on the origins of this impulse, tracing it to childhood influences from Hinduism to Madonna. What emerges is a meditation on change itself: why we fear it, why we’re drawn to it, what motivates us to change, and what traps us in place.

Hemali Sodhi’s (Editor) The Book of Dog has forty-five original pieces by some of India’s leading writers, outstanding new voices and individuals who have dedicated their lives to animal welfare. It is a testament to how deeply dogs touch us, to the special bond we have with them, and the unique place they hold in our hearts and our lives. Through a series of unforgettable real-life stories-funny, poignant, warm and joyous—the authors celebrate the remarkable dogs they have known and loved. The editor and all the authors have contributed for free. All royalties will go to registered animal welfare charities.

Chidanand Rajghatta’s Kamala Harris: Phenomenal Woman is the story of Harris’ rise to vice-president of the US. “We not only dream, we do. We not only see what has been, we see what can be. We shoot for the moon . . . We are bold, fearless, and ambitious. We are undaunted in our belief that we shall overcome; that we will rise up.” ~Kamala Harris; Inauguration night address. On 20 January 2021, Kamala Harris was sworn in as the Vice President of the United States of America, making her the first person of Indian descent, and the first woman to reach this position. This was hardly surprising, for Kamala – the daughter of a breast-cancer scientist Indian mother and a Stanford University emeritus professor of economics Jamaican father – has been known to blaze a trail for herself in her chosen fields. Fun ‘momala’ and aunt at home but hard-nosed, unsparing prosecutor and senator elsewhere, Kamala dons many hats. This biography focuses on the micro-histories that shaped Kamala Harris and celebrates her Asian and Jamaican heritage—with special attention to her India connect—and her barrier-shattering ascent as a woman of color coming to occupy one of the highest offices in the USA.

FICTION:

Thrity Umrigar’s Honor is the story of two couples and the sometimes dangerous and heartbreaking challenges of love across a cultural divide. Indian American journalist Smita has returned to India to cover a story, but reluctantly: long ago she and her family left the country with no intention of ever coming back. As she follows the case of Meena—a Hindu woman attacked by members of her own village and her own family for marrying a Muslim man—Smita comes face to face with a society where tradition carries more weight than one’s own heart, and a story that threatens to unearth the painful secrets of Smita’s own past. While Meena’s fate hangs in the balance, Smita tries in every way she can to right the scales. She also finds herself increasingly drawn to Mohan, an Indian man she meets while on assignment. But the dual love stories of Honor are as different as the cultures of Meena and Smita themselves: Smita realizes she has the freedom to enter into a casual affair, knowing she can decide later how much it means to her. In this tender and evocative novel about love, hope, familial devotion, betrayal, and sacrifice, Thrity Umrigar shows us two courageous women trying to navigate how to be true to their homelands and themselves at the same time.

Naben Ruthnum’s A Hero of Our Time is a wry comic novel with an acerbic wit, a vicious takedown of superficial diversity initiatives and tech culture, with a beating heart of broken sincerity. Osman Shah is a pitstop on his white colleague Olivia Robinson’s quest for corporate domination at AAP, an edutech startup determined to automate higher education. Osman, obsessed by Olivia’s ability to successfully disguise ambition and self-interest as collectivist diversity politics, is bent on exposing her. Aided by his colleague turned comrade-in-arms Nena, who loathes and tolerates him in equal measure, Osman delves into Olivia’s twisted past. But at every turn, he’s stymied by his unfailing gift for cruel observation, which he turns with most ferocity on himself, without ever noticing what it is that stops him from connecting to anyone in his past or present. As Osman loses his grip on his family, Nena, and everything he thought was essential to his identity, he confronts an enemy who may simply be too good at her job to be defeated. A Hero of Our Time cracks the veneer of well-intentioned race conversations in the West, dismantles cheery narratives of progress through tech and “streamlined” education, and exposes the venomous self-congratulation and devouring lust for wealth, power, and property that lurks beneath.

Temsula Ao’s The Tombstone in My Garden is a collection of five spare and poignant stories from Nagaland, Temsula Ao holds up a mirror to the lives of everyday people beyond the headlines. A ‘Bihari’ coolie at the Dimapur railway station has been hiding a dark secret about his adopted son; a grave threat to both their lives. As her grandson is exiled from the village, a grandmother finally breaks the silence over her mutilated funeral supeti. A rare lily refuses to bloom year after year because she was moved from her usual position in the flowerbed into an ornate pot. Big Father, a uniquely misshapen grandfather tree, becomes the guardian and protector of an entire village. The matriarch Lily Anne, subjected to racial slurs by her own mother on account of her mixed parentage, resumes her position on the ancient reclining chair in her verandah to stare at the eyesore in her overgrown garden.

Saikat Majumdar’s The Middle Finger tells the story of a poet grappling with questions about mentorship and belonging, disrupting boundaries set by society and the hierarchies hidden in the world of education. What are the ethical boundaries of friendship and intimacy between a student and a teacher? Megha, a young writing lecturer in New Jersey, struggles to finish her thesis and find full-time employment even as she begins to find underground fame as a poet. Restless and disenchanted, she lets her professor and friends persuade her to take up a position at a new university in Delhi. Moving continents, resettling in the city she knew as a teenager, she discovers that the university is an island of wealth and privilege, and that her mandate is to teach and train some of the key members of India’s ruling class. But her life as a teacher is disrupted as she makes a new friend who unsettles her and asks for unexpected support.

Rita Kothari’s (Editor and Translator) The Greatest Gujarati Short Stories Ever Told includes twenty-three short stories that represent some of the finest short fiction in Gujarati literature. Selected and edited by translator and writer Rita Kothari, this collection features established literary masters such as K. M. Munshi, Dhumketu, Himanshi Shelat, Dalpat Chauhan, Nazir Mansuri, and Mona Patrawalla, as well as accomplished new voices such as Panna Trivedi, Abhimanyu Acharya, Raam Mori, and others.

K R Meera’s Qabar (tr. by Nisha Susan) is a novella that reveals how verdicts are not solutions. As the foundations are laid for a temple to rise on the site of Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, voices rise from the ground in a small town in central Kerala. She is a judge in a district court, and he a petitioner in a seemingly banal property dispute. But the very first hearing tosses the judge’s life into disarray. The scent of pink Edward roses, the iridescent scales of snakes, the specter—and science—of vanishing twins. Girls whose feet do not touch the ground. Irascible and comically powerful ancestors. In this illusory landscape, there are hard truths about the intertwined histories of Hindus and Muslims in India, as well as the chasms between men and women.

Shahidul Zahir’s Life and Political Reality (tr. by V. Ramaswamy and Shahroza Nahrin) is the work that established his reputation and granted him cult status in Bangladesh. It examines the 1971 war and its aftermath—a treatise on liberation and the destruction of the idealism and spirit of post-war Bangladesh, told in a single corrosive, stream-of-consciousness paragraph. Abu Ibrahim’s Death is a quieter companion novella included here and one that is equally concerned with idealism and compromise, as it studies with deep empathy and nuance the fall of its titular protagonist. Born in 1953 in Old Dhaka, Shahidul Zahir died young and published only six works in his lifetime but these are some of the most unique and powerful works of fiction to have come out of the subcontinent. With his own particular blend of surrealism, folklore, oral storytelling traditions, magic realism, a searing understanding of social and political reality, and rare clarity of vision, he forged a truly extraordinary voice.

Patrick Lyons’ Masala and Murder is a new crime thriller that revolves around the uncanny and suspicious death of a Bollywood starlet on the set in Australia. Times are tough for Samson Ryder, a Melbourne-based, Anglo-Indian private investigator who likes his facts cold and his curries hot. A secret guilt over the death of his sister has left him guarded and closed, costing him his relationship with his girlfriend, his parents and his faith. When a wealthy Indian industrialist engages him to investigate how his daughter, a rising Bollywood starlet, died on a location shooting in Australia, Samson treats it as easy money. After all, the police had ruled out foul play. He soon comes to realize that this is also his opportunity for redemption, to help a family find the answers to their grief, the answers he couldn’t give to his own parents. To uncover the truth, Samson goes back to the city of his birth, Mumbai and teams up with Mabel, his interpreter, Godmother and second-best cook in the world. Together, they prise off the glittering mask of Bollywood and unveil an industry where friendships are fickle, affairs are currency, black magic and curses are rampant and hidden dangers lurk all around. Will Sam uncover the truth or will he be the next victim?

Sally J Sutherland Goldman (Editor) and Robert P Goldman (Translator) bring us a new translation: The Rāmāyaṇa of Vālmīki: The Complete English Translation. The Rāmāyaṇa of Vālmīki, the monumental Sanskrit epic of the life of Rama, ideal man and incarnation of the great god Visnu, has profoundly affected the literature, art, religions, and cultures of South and Southeast Asia from antiquity to the present. Filled with thrilling battles, flying monkeys, and ten-headed demons, the work, composed almost 3,000 years ago, recounts Prince Rama’s exile and his odyssey to recover his abducted wife, Sita, and establish a utopian kingdom. Now, the definitive English translation of the critical edition of this classic is available in a single volume. Based on the authoritative seven-volume translation edited by Robert Goldman and Sally Sutherland Goldman, this volume presents the unabridged translated text in contemporary English, revised and reformatted into paragraph form. The book includes a new introduction providing important historical and literary contexts, as well as a glossary, pronunciation guide, and index. Ideal for students and general readers, this edition of the Rāmāyaṇa of Vālmīki introduces an extraordinary work of world literature to a new generation of readers.

Khalid Jawed’s The Paradise of Food (tr. by Baran Farooqi) is a landmark Urdu classic known for its radical, experimental form and savage and dark honesty. It tells the story of a middle-class Muslim joint family over a span of fifty years. As India and Islamic culture hardens, the narrator, whose life we follow from boyhood to old age, struggles to find a place for himself, at odds in his home and in the world outside. But to describe the novel in its plot is to do its originality no justice. In this profoundly daring work—tense, mysterious, even unfathomable on occasion—Jawed builds an atmosphere of gloom and grotesqueness to draw out his themes. And in doing so he penetrates deep into the dark heart of middle-class Muslims today. 

Saeed Naqvi’s The Muslim Vanishes is a play about an alternate reality. The great poet Ghalib, part of a long tradition of eclectic liberalism, found Benaras so compelling that he wrote his longest poem on the holy city. If we take Ghalib and his myriads of followers out of the equation, will Hindustan be left with a gaping hole or become something quite new? The Muslim Vanishes, a play by Saeed Naqvi, attempts to answer that question. A Muslim-free India, as a character speculates naively in the play, would be good for socialism, since what the 200 million Muslims leave behind would be equitably shared by the general population. Meanwhile, another character, a political leader, is traumatized by the sudden disappearance of the Muslim voter base and the prospect of a direct electoral confrontation with the numerically stronger Dalits and other backward classes. Caste, the Hindu-Muslim divide, Pakistan and Kashmir—the decibel levels on these subjects are too high for a conversation to take place, with each side fiercely defending their own narrative. What is the way out of this trap? How to douse the social and political flames? In this razor-sharp, gentle and funny play, Saeed Naqvi draws on a mix of influences—from grandma’s bedtime stories to Aesop’s fables and Mullah Nasruddin’s satirical tales—to spring an inspired surprise on us, taking us on a journey into the realms of both history and fantasy.

Radhika Sanghani’s 30 Things I Love About Myself is a hilarious, heartfelt story about Nina Mistry who, when her life hits rock bottom, decides to change her stars by falling in love . . . with herself. Nina didn’t plan to spend her thirtieth birthday in jail, yet here she is in her pajamas, locked in a holding cell. There’s no Wi-Fi, no wine, no carbs—and no one to celebrate with. Unfortunately, it gives Nina plenty of time to reflect on how screwed up her life is. She’s just broken up with her fiancé, and now has to move back into her childhood home to live with her depressed older brother and their uptight, traditional Indian mother. Her career as a freelance journalist isn’t going in the direction she wants, and all her friends are too busy being successful to hang out with her. Just as Nina falls into despair, a book lands in her cell: How to Fix Your Shitty Life by Loving Yourself. It must be destiny. With literally nothing left to lose, Nina makes a life-changing decision to embark on a self-love journey. By her next birthday, she’s going to find thirty things she loves about herself.

POETRY:

Tiruvalluvar’s The Kural (Tirukkural; tr. by Thomas Hitoshi Pruiksma) is a new translation of the classical Tamil masterpiece on ethics, power, and friendship, bringing Tiruvalluvar’s poetry and philosophy to a new generation seeking practical wisdom and spiritual sustenance. Drawing on the poetic tradition of W. S. Merwin, Wendell Berry, and William Carlos Williams, and nurtured by two decades of study under the Tamil scholar Dr. K. V. Ramakoti, this new translation of the Kural by Thomas Hitoshi Pruiksma brings English readers closer than ever to the brilliant inner and outer music of Tiruvalluvar’s work and ideas. Tiruvalluvar’s Tirukkural is a masterwork of poetry and practical philosophy. On par with other world classics such as the Tao Te Ching, the Kural is a compendium of 1,330 short philosophical verses, or kurals, that together cover a wide range of personal and cosmic experience. Accompanying the translation is a foreword by the founder of the Institute for Sacred Activism, Andrew Harvey; an introduction by the translator and scholar Archana Venkatesan; and a “Commentary of Notes,” in which Pruiksma elucidates key words and shares insights from important Tamil commentaries. Rich with indelible wordplay, learning, and heart, Pruiksma’s translation transforms the barrier of language into a bridge, bringing the fullness of Tiruvalluvar’s poetic intensity to a new generation. [#DesiCraftChat with Thomas Hitoshi Pruiksma]

Rhea Dhanbhoora’s Sandalwood Scented Skeletons is a collection of twenty poems “of longing and questioning, of identity, biology, home, charged as the ring around a flame,” says Ashley Mayne. “Thoughtful, soulful, beautiful, and thorough, Sandalwood-Scented Skeletons voices the diasporic existence of an ethnoreligious minoritized speaker. Rhea Dhanbhoora exhibits mastery of imagery with her rich references to the smells and textiles associated with Parsi Zoroastrian culture. From the funereal to the whimsical, Sandalwood-Scented Skeletons is a savory collection of poetry.” ~DeMisty D. Bellinger


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