These are just some of the new and notable books by writers of South Asian origin for the month of October 2021. 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 in the podcast episodes. From August 2021-onwards, they are being listed separately as below. Also, the descriptions are mostly from publisher-provided text.
Amitav Ghosh’s The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis is a work of history, essay, testimony, and polemic. It traces our contemporary planetary crisis back to the discovery of the New World and the sea route to the Indian Ocean. The Nutmeg’s Curse argues that the dynamics of climate change today are rooted in a centuries-old geopolitical order constructed by Western colonialism. At the center of Ghosh’s narrative is the now-ubiquitous spice nutmeg. The history of the nutmeg is one of conquest and exploitation—of both human life and the natural environment. In Ghosh’s hands, the story of the nutmeg becomes a parable for our environmental crisis, revealing the ways human history has always been entangled with earthly materials such as spices, tea, sugarcane, opium, and fossil fuels. Our crisis, he shows, is ultimately the result of a mechanistic view of the earth, where nature exists only as a resource for humans to use for our own ends, rather than a force of its own, full of agency and meaning. Writing against the backdrop of the global pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests, Ghosh frames these historical stories in a way that connects our shared colonial histories with the deep inequality we see around us today. By interweaving discussions on everything from the global history of the oil trade to the migrant crisis and the animist spirituality of Indigenous communities around the world, The Nutmeg’s Curse offers a sharp critique of Western society and speaks to the profoundly remarkable ways in which human history is shaped by non-human forces.
Shilpi Malinowski’s Shaw, Ledroit Park and Bloomingdale in Washington, DC: An Oral History, a journalist and Shaw resident, explores the complexities of the many stories of belonging in the District’s most dynamic neighborhood. Let residents tell you what it’s been like to live in D.C.’s most gentrified neighborhood. When Gretchen Wharton came to Shaw in 1946, the houses were full of families that looked like hers: lower-income, African American, two parents with kids. The sidewalks were full of children playing. When Leroy Thorpe moved in in the 1980s, the same streets were dense with drug markets. When John Lucier found a deal on a house in Shaw in 2002, he found himself moving into one of four occupied homes on his block. Every morning, he waited by himself on the empty platform of the newly opened metro station. When Preetha Iyengar became pregnant with her first child in 2016, she jumped into a seller’s market to buy a rowhouse in the area. Shilpi Malinowski read an excerpt from the book on #DesiReads.
Sumaiya Matin’s The Shaytan Bride: A Bangladeshi Canadian Memoir of Desire and Faith is the story of how one Muslim woman shaped her own fate and escaped her forced wedding. Sumaiya Matin was never sure if the story of the Shaytan Bride was truth or myth. When she moved at age six from Dhaka, Bangladesh, to Thunder Bay, Ontario, recollections of this devilish bride followed her. At first, the Shaytan Bride seemed to be the monster of fairy tales, a woman possessed or seduced by a jinni. But everything changes during a family trip to Bangladesh, and in the weeks leading to Sumaiya’s own forced wedding, she discovers that the story—and the bride herself—are much closer than they seem. The Shaytan Bride is the true coming-of-age story of a girl navigating desire and faith. Through her journey into adulthood, she battles herself and her circumstances to differentiate between destiny and free will. Sumaiya Matin’s life in love and violence is a testament to one woman’s strength as she faces the complicated fallout of her decisions.
Venkataraghavan Srinivasan’s The Origin Story of India’s States is not just the story of the birth of India’s states but also the story of the birth and continuing rebirth of India, the nation. It is a story that everyone in India and across the Indian diaspora should know. This rigorously researched book lays out the fascinating political and historical circumstances of the birth of India’s states and union territories. As the author writes in his introduction and says in this #DesiCraftChat interview, we often think of August 15th, 1947 as the date when India was formed. That was when India got its independence from the British and the partition of India and Pakistan happened. But that was only the date when the first process of India’s formation began. As the book describes, there have been several other formation processes and India is still very much in a formation process even now.
Amitava Kumar’s A Time Outside This Time captures a feverish political moment in the US, interrogates life in a post-truth era, and attempts to imagine a time outside this one. When Satya, a professor and author, attends a prestigious artists’ retreat to write, he finds the pressures of the outside world won’t let up: the president rages online; a dangerous virus envelops the globe; and the twenty-four-hour news cycle throws fuel on every fire. For most of the retreat fellows, such stories are unbearable distractions, but for Satya, who sees them play out in both America and his native India, these Orwellian interruptions begin to crystallize into an idea for his new novel, Enemies of the People, about the lies we tell ourselves and one another. Satya scours his life for instances in which truth bends toward the imagined and misinformation is mistaken as fact. Kumar mixes Satya’s experiences—as a father, husband, and American immigrant—with newspaper clippings, the president’s tweets, and observations on famous works of art.
Farah Ali’s People Want to Live is set primarily in Pakistan. These award-winning stories follow people living on the brink of abandonment in their personal relationships and their place in the world. A mother, coping with the sudden death of her son, uncovers long buried secrets in his absence. An anguished girl grabs a chance for a life beyond the orphanage walls where she lives and discovers the price of freedom. A young couple tries to keep their fraught relationship steady as a heat wave engulfs their city. A son returns to visit his ageing parents while beset with memories of a troubled childhood. And two thieves find themselves in a situation more precarious by the minute, and more dangerous than their original mission. Farah Ali’s debut collection of thirteen stories, People Want to Live features stories of togetherness and reckless faith in the face of a world that’s built to break us.
Reshma Ruia’s Mrs. Pinto Drives to Happiness is her latest short story collection. A lonely woman develops an unhealthy obsession with a celebrity writer. A young man attends the funeral of his gay lover. A feisty woman escapes a life of domestic drudgery. Reshma Ruia’s stories feature characters who confront ageing, love and loss with anger, passion, and quiet defiance. They are in search of new beginnings and old certainties; everyday people whose lives oscillate between worlds–geographical, cultural, and emotional–in a constant flux, shaped and reshaped by an imperative to anchor to a map or a feeling.
Sarayu Srivatsa’s That Was is a new novel out in the UK. Orphaned at six with no memory of what happened to her family, Kavya was raised in the bustling city of Bombay by her uncle and aunt. In fleeting moments, like her time in Bangalore with spirited teenager Malli, or her summers in Kyoto with the budding architect Yasunari and his ageing grandparents, the truth of her traumatic past is revealed. With an eclectic cast of characters — including timid photographer Ryu, rebellious artist Akiko, and the mysterious S-san — she searches for clarity on the streets of Tokyo and truth in the mountain villages of the Himalayas. In this coming-of-age story, what Kavya discovers within turbulent dreams and vibrant memories will shape and nurture the woman she will become.
Hananah Zaheer’s Lovebirds is a story collection. A grieving mother clutching a dead bird, a jealous lover watching his house burn to the ground, a vision of God in a chicken coop. Through twelve short stories that span the private loneliness of Pakistani bedrooms to the banality of the modern American kitchen, Lovebirds shows love cracking and shattering and exploding. Capturing families on the precipice of unraveling as they reckon with the unspeakable realities of any given Wednesday, Hananah Zaheer surveys the complex fringes of desire, asking What are we willing to lose for one another?
The Himalayan Sunrise: Exploring Nepal’s Literary Horizon, compiled and written by Dr. Sangita Swechcha and edited by Dr. Sangita Swechcha and Karen Van Drie, is a unique collection of interviews, book reviews, features on literary books, poetries, and artworks that will take you on a virtual trip to Nepal’s literary landscape in a typical Nepali flavor. The Global Literature in Libraries Initiative hosted a virtual Nepali literature month in November 2019. This book is a compilation of all the works coordinated by Dr. Swechcha and featured on the GLLI website.
Where We Find Ourselves (edited by Sandra A Agard and Laila Sumpton) is an anthology of stories and poems from forty-five UK writers from African, African American, Arab, Asian, Bangladeshi, Black, Black British, Black British Caribbean, Black African, British Asian, British African Caribbean, British Indian, British Lebanese, British Sri Lankan, British Pakistani, Caribbean, Chinese, Chinese-Filipino, Chinese-Malaysian, Indian, Indigenous Mexican Latinx, Human, Middle Eastern, Mixed Race, South Asian, and Tamil communities. Their contributions are responses to the themes of maps and mapping. The authors investigated where we find home, identities lost and found, colonial history, diaspora, exile, finding oneself, getting lost, childhood exploration and adult homecoming, family, and much more. Anita Goveas, one of the contributors, discussed the anthology and her own favorite desi books in this #DesiBooks10QA.
Anvita Abbi’s Voices from the Lost Horizon is a collection of folk tales and songs of the Great Andamanese. The Andaman Islands—Great Andaman, Little Andaman, and North Sentinel Islands—have been home for millenia to four tribes: the Great Andamanese, Onge, Jarawa, and Sentinelese. Their languages are known by the same names as those of the tribes. ‘Great Andamanese’ is a generic term representing ten languages among a family of languages that were once spoken by ten different tribes living in the north, south, and the middle of the Great Andaman Islands. These languages were mutually intelligible like links in a chain. However, today, Great Andamanese is a moribund language of the only-surviving pre-Neolithic tribe, breathing its last breath. When a language is on the verge of extinction, its history, culture, ecological base, knowledge of the biodiversity, ethno-linguistic practices, and the identity of its community—everything is endangered. This is what prompted Professor Anvita Abbi to conduct a study to give life to the lost oral heritage of the vanishing world of the Great Andamanese. These stories and songs represent the first-ever collection rendered to Professor Abbi and her team by the Great Andamanese people in local settings. The compilation comes with audio and video recordings of the stories and songs to retain the originality and orality of the narratives.
Kalidasa’s The Six Seasons Ritusamhara (tr. by Abhay K.) brings together the ecological with the sensual by making reference to the changing seasons and how passionate love is rekindled with the arrival of each new season.
Chuden Kabimo’s Song of the Soil (tr. from the Nepali by Ajit Baral) is set in the foothill town of Kalimpong in the Himalayas and brings alive the story of the revolution for a separate state of Gorkhaland in the late 1980s and lays bare the many faces of violence. In doing so, it asks the vital question: Who ultimately wins in a revolution—and who loses? On a day of earthquake and rain, a young man receives bad news. Ripden, his childhood friend, has been swept away by a landslide. He makes his way back to Malbung, the village of his birth. The memories come rushing back—memories of growing up together, of harsh teachers at school and playing truant, bullies and backyard fights. He remembers the day they ran away from home to Lolay to find out about Ripden’s father, who vanished years earlier in the revolution. There the pair met Nasim, a man who spends his days breaking rocks by the riverside. Nasim narrates an extraordinary tale from his younger days. He speaks of himself and other child soldiers of the revolution, building pipe guns and homemade bombs, fighting pitched battles with the police, training in jungle camps, and enduring drink-fueled nighttime raids. They witnessed a massacre in the town square and suffered a final, unforgivable betrayal.
Rohan Chhetri’s Lost, Hurt, or in Transit Beautiful has won the Kundiman Prize. It “juxtaposes inherited literary forms—the ode, the lyric, and pristine tercets—with gorgeously fractured and stylistically daring hybrid pieces. The end result is a work in which poetic technique is brought to bear on lingering questions of identity, artistic tradition, and the cruelty implicit in language itself. Here, form, grammar, and syntax function as a kind of containment, but also, a ‘ruined field’ that is rife with possibility. Chhetri dramatizes and resists the ways language, and its implicit logic, limit what is possible within our most solitary reflections, defining even those ‘vague dreams’ that in the end we greet alone. ‘This is how violence enters / a poem,’ he explains, ‘through a screen / door crawling out & Mother asleep on the couch.’ These pieces are as lyrical as they are grounded, and as understated as they are ambitious. ‘In my language, there is a name for this music,’ he tells us. As his stunning collection unfolds, Chhetri reminds us, with subtlety and grace, that the smallest stylistic decisions in poetry are politically charged. This is a haunting book.” —from the Judge’s Citation by Kristina Marie Darling.
Avni Vyas’ Little God explores family, diaspora, grief, loss, and landscape. In the wake of a miscarriage, a speaker looks outside of herself for a sign. In looking through her past, the figure of Little God arrives to shape-shift grief into self-knowledge. Unlike benevolent deities who receive prayers and bestow blessings, Little God offers faulty insight and callous love. Set in southwest Florida, the Gulf of Mexico, ibises, and manatees echo possible lives that never arrive in the form one expects. These poems negotiate finding one’s place in the world, and the courage to leave that place. With original illustrations by Mimi Cirbusova.
Vidhu Aggarwal’s Daughter Isotope is a book of hybrid poems that speak to multiple iterations of “daughter” tropes across generations, national borders, and timescales. A central question of the book is “What is a collective archive?” within a global, disparate, migrant cultural space. Daughter Isotope is organized in a series of four “clouds,” calling up the vague, penetrable borders of our digital lives, both searching and searchable. Throughout the manuscript, the poems operate as types of search engines that test the boundaries of often overlapping archives or “clouds” that make up diasporic experience. Starting with a series of poems based on the Mahabharata, an “encyclopedic” Sanskrit epic-cloud about an apocalyptic war composed over centuries, the organization of the manuscript is based off of South Asian polyvocal storytelling traditions. Like Donna Haraway’s cyborg, a “daughter” gender could be seen as any “child” or subject under a rigid paternal order—whether Hindu nationalism or U.S. exceptionalism—whose filiation is in question. Dispersed through the manuscript are multiple versions/clouds of Draupadi, Emily Dickinson, Judy Garland, Krishna, Michael Jackson, and the aspirational figure of @agirl, among other uncertain “daughters.” The poems interrogate the stability of various “daughter” genders through myth, online personas, computer gaming, nuclear physics, and artificial intelligence.
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