***UPDATED ON TUESDAYS***
These are just some of the new and notable books by writers of South Asian origin for the month of November 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.
This month’s notable new nonfiction centers on two main topics: deep-rooted identity concerns and great historical dynasties. Spanning times ancient and contemporary with voices both political and personal, each of these books offers new insights that also serve as urgent calls to action.
Thenmozhi Soundararajan’s The Trauma of Caste: A Dalit Feminist Meditation on Survivorship, Healing, and Abolition is an urgent call to action to end caste apartheid, grounded in Dalit feminist abolition and engaged Buddhism. “Dalit” is the name that we chose for ourselves when Brahminism declared us “untouchable.” Dalit means broken. Broken by suffering. Broken by caste: the world’s oldest, longest-running dominator system . . . yet although “Dalit” means broken, it also means resilient. Caste, one of the oldest systems of exclusion in the world, is thriving. Despite the ban on untouchability seventy years ago, caste impacts 1.9 billion people in the world. Every fifteen minutes, a crime is perpetrated against a Dalit person. The average age of death for Dalit women is just thirty-nine. And the wreckages of caste are replicated here in the U.S. too, erupting online with rape and death threats, showing up at work, and forcing countless Dalits to live in fear of being outed. Dalit American activist Thenmozhi Soundararajan puts forth a call to awaken and act, not just for readers in South Asia, but all around the world. She ties Dalit oppression to fights for liberation among Black, Indigenous, Latinx, femme, and Queer communities, examining caste from a feminist, abolitionist, and Dalit Buddhist perspective and laying bare the grief, trauma, rage, and stolen futures enacted by Brahminical social structures on the caste-oppressed. Soundararajan’s work includes embodiment exercises, reflections, and meditations to help readers explore their own relationship to caste and marginalization and to step into their power as healing activists and changemakers. She offers skills for cultivating wellness within dynamics of false separation, sharing how both oppressor and oppressed can heal the wounds of caste and transform collective suffering. Incisive and urgent, The Trauma of Caste is an activating beacon of healing and liberation, written by one of the world’s most needed voices in the fight to end caste apartheid.
Raja Rao’s The Sacred Wordsmith: Writing and the Word compiles the best of Raja Rao’s writings, including his autobiographical Prefaces and Introductions. The volume puts together several of his noted acceptance speeches, including those for the Sahitya Akademi Award and Neustadt International Prize, and other famous pieces, such as ‘The World is Sound’, ‘The Word’, ‘Why Do You Write?’, ‘The West Discovers Sanskrit’, ‘The English Language and Us’, and ‘The Story Round, Around Kanthapura’, a fascinating, unpublished account of the makings of his famous first novel.
Sorayya Khan’s We Take Our Cities with Us is a memoir about grief, race, family, love, and more. Even when we leave them, our cities never leave us. After her Dutch mother’s death, Sorayya Khan confronts her grief by revisiting their relationship, her parents’ lives, and her own Pakistani-Dutch heritage in a multicultural memoir that unfolds over seven cities and three continents. We Take Our Cities with Us ushers us from Khan’s childhood independence forged at her grandparents’ home in Lahore; to her adolescence in Pakistan’s new capital, Islamabad; to Syracuse and Ithaca, New York, where Khan finds her footing as the mother of young, brown sons in post-9/11 America; to her birthplace, Vienna, where her parents die; and finally to Amsterdam and Maastricht, the cities of her mother’s conflicted youth. In Khan’s gripping telling of her immigrant experience, she shows us what it is to raise children and lose parents in worlds other than your own. Drawing on family history, geopolitics, and art in this stunning story of loss, identity, and rediscovery, Khan beautifully illuminates the complexities of our evolving global world and its most important constant: love.
Rabia Chaudry’s Fatty Fatty Boom Boom: A Memoir of Food, Fat, and Family is a warm, intimate memoir about food, body image, and growing up in a loving but sometimes oppressively concerned Pakistani immigrant family. “My entire life I have been less fat and more fat, but never not fat.” According to family lore, when Rabia Chaudry’s family returned to Pakistan for their first visit since moving to the United States, two-year-old Rabia was more than just a pudgy toddler. Dada Abu, her fit and sprightly grandfather, attempted to pick her up but had to put her straight back down, demanding of Chaudry’s mother: “What have you done to her?” The answer was two full bottles of half-and-half per day, frozen butter sticks to gnaw on, and lots and lots of American processed foods. And yet, despite her parents plying her with all the wrong foods as they discovered Burger King and Dairy Queen, they were highly concerned for the future of their large-sized daughter. How would she ever find a suitable husband? There was merciless teasing by uncles, cousins, and kids at school, but Chaudry always loved food too much to hold a grudge against it. Soon she would leave behind fast food and come to love the Pakistani foods of her heritage, learning to cook them with wholesome ingredients and eat them in moderation. At once a love letter (with recipes) to fresh roti, chaat, chicken biryani, ghee, pakoras, shorba, parathay, and an often hilarious dissection of life in a Muslim immigrant family, Fatty Fatty Boom Boom is also a searingly honest portrait of a woman grappling with a body that gets the job done but that refuses to meet the expectations of others. Chaudry’s memoir offers readers a relatable and powerful voice on the controversial topic of body image, one that dispenses with the politics and gets to what every woman who has ever struggled with weight will relate to.
Colleen Taylor Sen’s Ashoka and the Maurya Dynasty: The History and Legacy of Ancient India’s Greatest Empire is an illuminating history of the ancient Maurya Empire and its great leader Ashoka, offering insight into the lasting political and cultural legacies of both. At its peak in 250 BCE, the Maurya Empire was the wealthiest and largest empire in the world, extending across much of modern India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. In this book, Colleen Taylor Sen explores the life, achievements, and legacy of the Maurya emperor Ashoka, one of the greatest leaders in Indian history. Sen relates how, after a bloody war in 261 BCE, Ashoka renounced violence and spent the rest of his life promoting religious tolerance, animal rights, environmental protection, peace, and multiculturalism—a policy he called Dhamma. This well-illustrated book explores the legacy and influence of the Mauryas in politics throughout Southeast Asia, China, and India, as well as contemporary popular culture.
Kamini Dandapani’s Rajaraja Chola: King of Kings was one of the greatest rulers of medieval India. During his reign, the Chola empire expanded through virtually all of the southern reaches of the peninsula and beyond, from the Krishna-Godavari delta in northern Andhra Pradesh to large parts of northern Sri Lanka. Born Arulmozhi Varman in 947 C.E., he trained under his father and uncle for over a quarter of a century and then ruled for twenty-nine years. King of Kings is a fitting title for this multifaceted man who was brilliant, ambitious, ruthless, and a visionary. He fortified the foundations of what was till then a ragtag kingdom, put into place a meticulously organized system of administration, and led the kingdom to reign supreme in military might, as an economic powerhouse, and in art, architecture, literature, music, and dance. Kamini Dandapani explores the man behind the larger-than-life image of Rajaraja and the milieu in which he reigned. Rajaraja became king in 985 C.E. and, during his reign, the Chola empire reached its zenith. All his major achievements are described in detail—victories on the battlefield, the expansion of territory, the building of the monumental Brihadeeshwara Temple, the gargantuan land survey, and much else besides. The book goes into every aspect of Chola society—the place of women, the flowering of culture, including the making of exquisite Chola bronzes, the spread of religion, and the lives of ordinary people.
Classics in translation, a historical multigenerational saga, historical and contemporary crime thrillers, and a timeless anthology of Bihari literature—these are just some of the new and notable novels on offer this month.
Vishwas Patil’s Shivaji Volume 1: The Whirlwind (tr. Nadeem Khan) is the first volume in the Shivaji Mahasamrat Series. Even as Shahaji Bhosale and his clan served in the Mughal armies, under the Nizams of the Ahmednagar Sultanate and later the Adilshahs of Bijapur, they carried deep in their hearts the dream of ‘Swarajya’, an autonomous dominion for the Marathas. That aspiration begins to take shape as Shahaji’s son Shivaji unites the youth of the Maaval region under the banner of Hindvi Swarajya. The Shivaji Mahasamrat Series of novels is Vishwas Patil’s most ambitious work thus far. Few books on the establishment of the Maratha Empire have recreated so deftly the many durbars of seventeenth-century India, their political intrigues and war tactics, or revealed so much about the lives of Shivaji’s forebears—especially, Shahaji Bhosale, an extraordinary warrior in his own right, and Jijabai, who came from a family of dauntless fighters and was an astute stateswoman. This first volume, a magnificent preamble to the rise of the formidable Maratha Empire, culminates in the bloody battle fought in the densely forested and uninhabitable mountains of Jawali in 1659, where Shivaji grinds the powerful Adilshahi general Afzal Khan and his massive Bijapur army into the dirt. The result of over a decade’s research and keen craftsmanship, The Whirlwind is a sweeping saga of a young warrior king’s glorious journey toward independence.
Baba Padmanji’s Yamuna’s Journey (tr. Deepra Dandekar) is an 1857 classic Marathi novel that highlights the suffering of Hindu widows, forced into a life of loneliness and torture by their cruel Brahminical families. The heroine of the novel, Yamuna, starts off as a happily married woman, sharing a bond of mutual trust and respect with her husband. She travels with him across various regions of the Bombay Presidency and western India and her interactions with widows on the way reveal the extent of their suffering within Hindu patriarchal and Brahminical society. Yamuna sympathizes with them and calls for urgent reform while advocating for widow remarriage. When tragedy strikes and Yamuna is widowed, she too is tortured and stigmatized. But the feisty young woman manages to start a new chapter in life by converting to Christianity and remarrying a Christian man. Yamuna’s Journey is the first English translation of Padmanji’s pathbreaking novel. and offers contemporary readers a timely, necessary glimpse of history.
Vikramjit Ram’s Mansur is a historical novel. Saturday, the 27th of February, 1627. The master artist Mansur, who works under the patronage of Mughal emperor Jahangir, must finish his painting of a dodo and prepare for an imminent journey to Kashmir when he is interrupted by a younger colleague, Bichitr. An innocuous remark from this visitor – first to Mansur and a little later to the portraitist Abu’l Hasan – has dire consequences as more characters at the imperial atelier, the library and the Women’s Quarter are drawn into a web of secrets, half-truths, and petty rivalries. At the heart of the story is a jewel-like verse book whose pages Mansur has illuminated and filled with lifelike butterflies. On reaching Verinag, the royal summer retreat in Kashmir, the painter must present the book to its author, the empress Nur Jahan, who had commissioned it as a keepsake for her husband, the emperor Jahangir. A delay in the book reaching Mansur from the bindery adds to his apprehensions that its very existence is no longer a secret, coupled with dread that so precious an artefact might fall into the wrong hands. What must the painter confront before his masterwork is conveyed safely to Verinag?
Sundara Ramaswamy’s The Tamarind Tree (tr. Aniruddha Vasudevan), a modern classic translated from Tamil, is a stunning reflection about shared histories, loss, an affinity for nature, and a near-mythic center of life in a village in India. While it lived, the tamarind tree stood at the crossroads of a small village in Southern India. For more than fifty years, it was a benevolent observer, offering shade without discrimination. It bore witness to laughter and tears, to tragedy and simple pleasures, and to the history of the village itself as it transformed from the old ways of bullock-led carts to a bustling community of social, political, economic, and ecological change. And for Damodara Asan, an enigmatic philosopher, memory keeper, and master storyteller, the tamarind tree and everything it inspired was an endless source of tales that enthralled generations. Unfolding through the bittersweet remembrances of an unnamed narrator who was once beguiled by Asan, The Tamarind Tree is a beautiful and universal story about transition, the compromises of progress, and a long-gone though the undying symbol of indestructible dignity, culture, and life.
Christopher Kloeble’s The Museum of the World (tr. Rekha Kamath Rajan) is based on the true story of a huge scientific undertaking by three Bavarian brothers. Bartholomew is an orphan from Bombay. He’s twelve years old and speaks almost as many languages. That is why, in the year 1854, he is hired as a translator by the brothers Schlagintweit from Germany who, with the support of Alexander von Humboldt and the East India Company, embark upon the greatest expedition of their time, which takes them across India and the Himalayas. But Bartholomew is also pursuing his own agenda: he wants to establish the first museum of his remarkable, complex native land. And for this, he is willing to risk everything, even his life. Christopher Kloeble’s The Museum of the World is a fantastic adventure that will change the way we see the history of colonialism.
Iffat Nawaz’ Shurjo’s Clan is a debut novel that merges magical realism with vivid historicity to paint an entirely contemporary portrait of how grief is inherited, and how the traumas and memories of our ancestors continue to shape those who come long after. During the hours of daylight, young Shurjomukhi’s family is like any other in Dhaka, going through the motions of school, work, and domesticity in a nation still in the flush of youth. But every night, once darkness falls over their asymmetrical house, they switch over to the Unknown world. Death does not exist in the Unknown side and the family is joined for dinner by Shurjo’s freedom fighter uncles, who were martyred in the tea gardens of Sylhet at the start of the 1971 Bangladesh liberation war, and her grandmother who killed herself by jumping into a well in the aftermath of 1947. These dinners are festive affairs, replete with the joy of reunion, music, and stories, but underneath the celebration, Shurjo’s family is riddled with the traumas of their past: death, war, migration, separation, the inability to belong to a land, dwelling in an in-between space, an eternal limbo. And when the miasmic shadow of the past inevitably falls on young Shurjo, the pitfalls of their dual reality are laid bare. The only way forward is an upheaval that splits the family apart, flinging Shurjo and her parents to the other end of the world. Spanning decades, from the forced migration of Bengalis to East Pakistan in 1947, through the 1971 liberation war, the wave of immigrants to the West in the 1980s, and a final return, Iffat Nawaz’s lyrical and evocative prose marks the arrival of a distinctive voice, one that unravels questions of grief, belonging, identity, and family with delightful imaginativeness and devastating insight.
Nilanjana S. Roy’s Black River is a novel framed as a police procedural and is fast-paced and relentless, yet tender and reflective, in its exploration of friendship, love, and grief. ‘Munia in the sunlight, smiling up at the man.’ In the village of Teetarpur, a few hours from the capital city of Delhi, Chand’s peaceful life is shattered as he is forced into a dangerous quest for justice. At the station house, the jurisdiction of which extends to Teetarpur and the neighboring villages, Sub-inspector Ombir Singh, who has known Chand’s daughter Munia since she was born, wrestles with his conscience and the vagaries of his personal life as the increasingly murky case unfolds under the watchful eyes of the ‘Delhi boy’, SSP Pilania. Meanwhile, in the rough bylanes of Bright Dairy Colony, Chand’s old companions Rabia and Badshah Miyan fight for their right to home and country as the politics of religion threaten to overwhelm their lives.
Tanuj Solanki’s Manjhi’s Mayhem is an explosive novel that combines a tight mystery and an anti-hero who refuses to back down. Sewaram Manjhi works as a security guard outside a posh Bombay café. On the surface, he’s not unlike millions of invisible Indians who make the city tick, but there is a difference: he holds rage in his heart, and he will go to any length to snatch a chunk of the good life. Enter Santosh, a hostess at the restaurant across the street. A damsel in distress, Santosh has a strange request for Manjhi, and far be it from him to say no. What follows is tabaahi – mayhem – as Manjhi finds himself caught in a web of lies and deceit and on the trail of a bag full of money that will lead to broken noses, bloody heads, sex, seduction, and murder. If he succeeds, Manjhi might finally discover what it means to be in control of one’s destiny in a land where birth determines fate.
Moitrayee Bhaduri’s Trinoyoni: The Slaughterer of Songachi is the story of Trinoyoni Debi: a sensuous seductress with a silver tongue and a love for all things shiny. But behind those eager eyes lurks a savagery that has made Trinoyoni the stuff of legends. How could such a breathtaking beauty be so terrifying? How many more will she kill before she is satiated? And is there anyone who can stop her? Follow her life as she transforms from a child widow to a famed courtesan and merciless murderer, becoming India’s first-ever serial killer. It’s the 1870s, and Calcutta is bustling with commerce and colonialism. A sea of changes has been ushered in by the relatively new British Raj, which has led to migrants from all over India filling up the city with their hopes and dreams. Amongst these struggling masses is a serial killer on the prowl. Corpses of sex workers start turning up at ponds and in the by-lanes of Sonagachi, Calcutta’s famed pleasure district choked to death and stripped of all their ornaments. Fear has gripped the city and the nascent police department seems to be chasing shadows.
The Book of Bihari Literature (ed. Abhay K.) is a vibrant collection of writings-poems, essays, and stories that have flowed from the pens of the great poets, thinkers, and writers across millennia, who were born or lived in what is modern-day Bihar. This book makes accessible to English-speaking readers the bounty of Bihari literature, and brings to the fore works in neglected languages by ancient philosophers and celebrated contemporary authors alike. A family is unable to decide whether a parrot who has landed in its garden is a Hindu or a Muslim. A courtesan loses her ancestral mirror to rioters. The family that now possesses it finds itself transformed. Mutta celebrates her freedom from domestic drudgery. Vatsyayana hands you the keys to sexual bliss. Hira Dom berates the caste system. Over the centuries, many great empires and kingdoms took root in Bihar and, along with advancements in mathematics, astronomy, philosophy, science, and statecraft, they produced exemplary works of literature.
Exploring the power of words and language, this month’s new and notable poetry collections span both traditional and experimental forms, blend the academic and the artistic, and range across immigrant landscapes far and wide.
Rhiya Pau’s Routes is an award-winning poetry collection exploring the routes taken by Rhiya Pau’s parents and grandparents across multiple countries to arrive in the UK. At the core of this debut collection is a question: what is worth holding onto? Through poetic experiments that blend the academic and the artistic, Rhiya Pau queries complex characters and tender landscapes. Routes journeys from Ba’s kitchen in Sonia Gardens to Independence hour in Delhi, across the pink shores of Nakuru, to meet a painter on Lee High Road. Celebrating fifty years since her community arrived in the UK, Pau chronicles the migratory histories of her ancestors and simultaneously lays bare the conflicts of identity that arise from being a member of the East African-Indian diaspora. In this multilingual discourse exhibiting vast formal range, Pau wrestles with language, narrative, and memory, daring to navigate their collective fallibilities to create her own identity.
Kaifi Azmi’s and Jan Nisar Akhtar’s Daaera and Dhanak Box Set (tr. Mir Ali Husain and Sumantra Ghosal) is a collector’s edition of companion volumes and a treat for poetry lovers everywhere. Selected and edited by Shabana Azmi and Javed Akhtar, they showcase twenty-five nazms each from two of India’s most iconic Urdu poets, Jan Nisar Akhtar and Kaifi Azmi, in the Nastaliq and Devanagari scripts, as also in English translation by Sumantra Ghosal and Mir Ali Husain.
Editors Shilpa Gupta’s and Salil Tripathi’s For In Your Tongue, I Cannot Fit was conceived in dialogue with artist Shilpa Gupta’s multimedia installation. The book brings together many of the poets featured in the installation—every one of them persecuted for their words. It is an immersive experience, featuring illustrations and images alongside the written pieces. It is also the culmination of an effort of collaboration and support, often under extremely difficult conditions, forming a network that spans countries. The result is an anthology that speaks truth to power and is a testament to the community of words.