These are just some of the new and notable books by writers of South Asian origin for the month of September 2021. For a more complete list in the US, go to the Desi Books Bookshop (US.) For a UK list, go to the Desi Books Bookshop (UK.) Currently, there isn’t a single location to list books recently published within South Asia although several such books do get included in the lists below.
Please note that, until July 2021, these books were listed in the podcast episodes. From August 2021-onwards, they are being listed separately as below. Also, the descriptions are mostly from publisher-provided text.
Julietta Singh’s The Breaks: An Essay is a profound meditation on race, inheritance, and queer mothering at the end of the world. In a letter to her six-year-old daughter, Julietta Singh writes toward a tender vision of the world, offering children’s radical embrace of possibility as a model for how we might live. In order to survive looming political and ecological disasters, Singh urges, we must break from the conventions we have inherited and begin to orient ourselves toward more equitable and revolutionary paths. The Breaks celebrates queer family-making, communal living, and Brown girlhood, complicating the stark binaries that shape contemporary U.S. discourse. With nuance and generosity, Singh reveals the connections among the crises humanity faces—climate catastrophe, extractive capitalism, and the violent legacies of racism, patriarchy, and colonialism—inviting us to move through the breaks toward a tenable future.
Saumya Roy’s Castaway Mountain: Love and Loss Among the Wastepickers of Mumbai is a modern parable exploring the consequences of urban overconsumption. Towering at the outskirts of Mumbai, the Deonar garbage mountains are covered in a faint smog from trash fires. Over time, as wealth brought Bollywood knock-offs, fast food, and plastics to Mumbaikars, a small, forgotten community of migrants and rag-pickers came to live at the mountains’ edge, making a living by reusing, recycling, and reselling. Among them is Farzana Ali Shaikh, a tall, adventurous girl who soon becomes one of the best pickers in her community. Like so many in her community, Farzana becomes increasingly sick from the the trash mountains and is caught up in the thrill of discovery because, among the broken glass, crushed cans, or even the occasional dead baby, there’s a lingering chance that she will find a treasure to lift her family’s fortunes. As Farzana enters adulthood, her way of life becomes more precarious. In a narrative instilled with superstition and magical realism, Castaway Mountain reveals that when you own nothing, you know where true value lies: in family, community, and love.
Anil Seth’s Being You: A New Science of Consciousness is a radical new theory of consciousness challenging our understanding of perception and reality. Being You is not as simple as it sounds. Somehow, within each of our brains, billions of neurons work to create our conscious experience. How does this happen? Why do we experience life in the first person? After over twenty years researching the brain, world-renowned neuroscientist Anil Seth puts forward a radical new theory of consciousness and self. His unique theory of what it means to ‘be you’ challenges our understanding of perception and reality and it turns what you thought you knew about yourself on its head.
Amia Srinivasan’s The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-First Century upends the way we discuss—or avoid discussing—the problems and politics of sex. She traces the meaning of sex in our world, animated by the hope of a different world. Srinivasan reaches back into an older feminist tradition that was unafraid to think of sex as a political phenomenon. She discusses a range of fraught relationships—between discrimination and preference, pornography and freedom, rape and racial injustice, punishment and accountability, students and teachers, pleasure and power, capitalism and liberation. The book is both a provocation and a promise to change how we think and talk about sex, its deep ambivalences, and its relationship to gender, class, race and power.
Manu Pillai’s False Allies: India’s Maharajahs in the Age of Ravi Varma tracks the travels of the iconic painter Ravi Varma through five princely states—from the 1860s to the early 1900s—and uncovers a picture far removed from the clichés in which India’s princes and maharajahs are trapped. The world is not of dancing girls but of sedition, legal battles, the defiance of imperial dictates, and resistance. We meet maharajahs obsessed with industrialization and rulers who funded nationalists. These men were anything but pushovers for the Raj to manipulate. Outward deference aside, the princes, Pillai shows, forever tested the Raj—from denying white officials the right to wear shoes in durbars to trying to surpass British administrative standards. Good governance became a spectacularly subversive act, by which maharajahs and the ‘native statesmen’ assisting them refuted claims that Indians could not rule themselves. For decades, this made the princes heroes in the eyes of nationalists and anti-colonial thinkers—a facet of history we have forgotten and ignored. By refocusing attention on princely India, False Allies takes us on an unforgettable journey and reminds us that the maharajahs were serious political actors.
Indra Nooyi’s My Life in Full: Work, Family, and Our Future is an intimate and powerful memoir by the trailblazing former CEO of PepsiCo. For a dozen years as one of the world’s most admired CEOs, Indra Nooyi redefined what it means to be an exceptional leader. The first woman of color and immigrant to run a Fortune 50 company and one of the foremost strategic thinkers of our time, she transformed PepsiCo with a unique vision, a vigorous pursuit of excellence, and a deep sense of purpose. Now, in a rich memoir brimming with grace, grit, and good humor, My Life in Full offers a firsthand view of Nooyi’s legendary career and the sacrifices it so often demanded. Nooyi takes us through the events that shaped her, from her childhood and early education in 1960s India, to the Yale School of Management, to her rise as a corporate consultant and strategist who soon ascended into the most senior executive ranks. The book offers an inside look at PepsiCo, and Nooyi’s thinking as she steered the iconic American company toward healthier products and reinvented its environmental profile, despite resistance at every turn.
Sunil Shinde’s From Cairo to Beirut: In the Footsteps of an 1839 Expedition Through the Holy Land is an illustrated travel memoir of the author’s journey to retrace a 200-year-old route of Scottish artist, David Roberts. Shinde traveled a route through Cairo, Sinai, Petra, Palestine, Israel, and Lebanon— ancient lands steeped in natural beauty, culture, architecture, and history—to sketch and discover a region far removed from newspaper headlines. Many times, Shinde stood within a 10-foot radius of where Roberts stood, and sketched what he sketched. The book includes 250 original sketches by the author and 25 lithographs from David Roberts.
Shubnum Khan’s How I Accidentally Became a Global Stock Photo: And Other Strange and Wonderful Stories is part-memoir, part-travelogue. When Shubnum Khan signed up for a photoshoot as part of an art project in college, she hadn’t imagined that the photographs would be plastered on billboards and advertisements all over the world. Two years on, her smiling face had sold condos in Mumbai and Florida, drawn subscribers to dating websites, and convinced desperate customers of the supposed wonders of skin-lightening creams. This is but one of the many astounding misadventures she chronicles in How I Accidentally Became a Global Stock Photo and Other Strange and Wonderful Stories. Khan takes the reader on unpredictable journeys far from her family home in South Africa. Whether it’s going off the grid in the Himalayas, getting pulled out of the ocean in Turkey or becoming a bride on a rooftop in Shanghai, she is quirky, moving and vulnerable in what she shares. All the while, she reflects on what it means to be a woman, especially a single Muslim woman, in the modern world.
Rajika Bhandari’s America Calling: A Foreign Student in a Country of Possibility is an immigrant memoir with a difference. As an international higher education expert, Bhandari explores the global appeal of a Made in America education that is a bridge to America’s successful past and to its future, America Calling is both a deeply personal story of Bhandari’s search for her place and voice, and an incisive analysis of America’s relationship with the rest of the world through the most powerful tool of diplomacy: education. At a time of growing nationalism, a turning inward, and fear of the “other,” America Calling is ultimately a call to action to keep America’s borders-and minds-open.
Sultana’s Sisters: Genre, Gender, and Genealogy in South Asian Muslim Women’s Fiction edited by Haris Qadeer and P. K. Yasser Arafath traces the genealogy of ‘women’s fiction’ in South Asia and looks at the interesting and fascinating world of fiction by Muslim women. It explores how Muslim women have contributed to the growth and development of genre fiction in South Asia and brings into focus diverse genres, including speculative, horror, campus fiction, romance, graphic, dystopian amongst others, from the early 20th century to the present. The book debunks myths about stereotypical representations of South Asian Muslim women and critically explores how they have located their sensibilities, body, religious/secular identities, emotions, and history, and have created a space of their own. It discusses works by authors such as Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, Hijab Imtiaz Ali, Mrs. Abdul Qadir, Muhammadi Begum, Abbasi Begum, Khadija Mastur, Qurratulain Hyder, Wajida Tabbasum, Attia Hosain, Mumtaz Shah Nawaz, Selina Hossain, Shaheen Akhtar, Bilquis Sheikh, Gulshan Esther, Maha Khan Phillips, Zahida Zaidi, Bina Shah, Andaleeb Wajid, and Ayesha Tariq.
Jai Chakrabarti’s A Play for the End of the World is a debut novel set in early 1970s New York and rural India. It’s the story of a turbulent, unlikely romance, a harrowing account of the lasting horrors of the Second World War, and a searing examination of one man’s search for forgiveness and acceptance. New York City, 1972. Jaryk Smith, a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto, and Lucy Gardner, a southerner, newly arrived in the city, are in the first bloom of love when they receive word that Jaryk’s oldest friend has died under mysterious circumstances in a rural village in eastern India. Traveling there alone to collect his friend’s ashes, Jaryk soon finds himself enmeshed in the chaos of local politics and efforts to stage a play in protest against the government—the same play that he performed as a child in Warsaw as an act of resistance against the Nazis. Torn between the survivor’s guilt he has carried for decades and his feelings for Lucy (who, unbeknownst to him, is pregnant with his child), Jaryk must decide how to honor both the past and the present, and how to accept a happiness he is not sure he deserves.
Shruti Swamy’s The Archer is about a woman coming of age as an artist in 1960s- and 1970s-era Bombay and navigating desire, duty, and the limits of the body. Vidya’s childhood is marked by the shattering absence and then the bewildering reappearance of her mother and baby brother at the family home. Restless, observant, and longing for connection with her brilliant and increasingly troubled mother, Vidya navigates the stifling expectations of her life with a vivid imagination until one day she peeks into a classroom where girls are learning kathak, a dazzling, centuries-old dance form that requires the utmost discipline and focus. Her pursuit of artistic transcendence through kathak soon becomes the organizing principle of her life, even as she leaves home for college and falls in complicated love with her best friend. As the uncertain future looms, she must ultimately confront the tensions between romantic love, her art, and the legacy of her own imperfect mother.
Anuradha Roy’s The Earthspinner moves between India and England and reflects the many ways in which the East encounters the West. Elango, a potter, must navigate complicated and impossible love for Zohra, the dedication of a beloved dog Tashi, and his own struggles with his creativity in a world turned upside down. Weaving together mythology and allegory to tell a story about religious intolerance, violence, and the constraints around art, Roy’s latest also looks at other themes like: our relationships with animals; how a young person deals with a great loss like that of a parent; how malice and hatred can destroy communities.
Amanda Jayatissa’s My Sweet Girl is a debut novel in which a Sri Lankan and an Indian meet in San Francisco and mysteries and thrills ensue. Ever since she was adopted from a Sri Lankan orphanage, Paloma has had the best of everything—schools, money, and parents so perfect that she fears she’ll never live up to them. Now at thirty years old and recently cut off from her parents’ funds, she decides to sublet the second bedroom of her overpriced San Francisco apartment to Arun, who recently moved from India. Paloma has to admit, it feels good helping someone find their way in America—that is, until Arun discovers Paloma’s darkest secret, one that could jeopardize her own fragile place in this country. Before Paloma can pay Arun off, she finds him face down in a pool of blood. She flees the apartment but by the time the police arrive, there’s no body and no evidence that Arun ever even existed in the first place. Paloma is terrified this is all somehow tangled up in the desperate actions she took to escape Sri Lanka so many years ago. Did Paloma’s secret die with Arun or is she now in greater danger than ever before?
Numair Atif Choudhury’s Taxi Wallah and Other Stories is a posthumous story collection that illustrates his limitless imagination and deep empathy as he captures the many Bangladeshes that make up the nation. The stories in this collection are bound by their protagonists—outsiders looking in—whether it is the taxi wallah of the title story who ferries tourists to upmarket hotels in Gulshan, the chokra for whom the streets of Dhaka are both sustenance and threat, Rabia the maid who feels compelled to call even the youngest of her employer’s children ‘Apa’, or the brick breaker who finds his life draining away as he hammers rubble at construction sites. Fueled by Choudhury’s trademark linguistic verve and energy, Taxi Wallah and Other Stories is a searing yet tender portrait of a country that is fractured but lets in light through the cracks.
Manreet Sodhi Someshwar’s Lahore: Book I of The Partition Trilogy is out in India this month. In the months leading up to independence, in Delhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel are engaged in deliberations with the British Viceroy, Dickie Mountbatten, over the fate of the country. In Lahore, as rumors of the Partition make the rounds, divide-and-rule has come to hold sway, with the populace at each others’ necks. Set in parallel threads in Lahore and Delhi, Lahore is a behind-the-scenes look into the negotiations and the political skullduggery that gave India its freedom, paying the price with batwara. As the men make the decisions and wield the swords, the women bear the brunt of the carnage that tests kinship and loyalty in the sticky hot months of India’s cruelest summer ever.
The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction Volume 2 edited by Tarun Saint is out in India at the end of this month. From sinister plans of xenocide to speciesists who have taken it upon themselves to Off-World those unlike them; from simulations that memorialize stories obliterated by a book-burning world to the Master Pain Merchant who is always at hand to administer a dose of long-forgotten sensations; from genetically modified Glow Girls who can kill with a touch to a droid detective actively seeking out justice, this stellar volume of cutting-edge science fiction showcases, in prose and verse, 32 of the most powerful voices in the genre from the Indian subcontinent. Taking forward the formidable task achieved to critical acclaim by the first volume of The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction, the present collection masterfully transports readers to worlds strangely familiar, raises crucial questions about the place of humans in the universe, and testifies to the astonishing range and power of the imaginative mind.
Selma Carvalho’s Sisterhood of Swans is a novel about a second-generation British Indian, Anna-Marie Souza. She lives in Horton, a suburb on the hem of London, a far cry from the city of Bombay from which her parents had arrived one cold December day in 1989, two Goans in search of a new life. Born in this land of their dreams, raised in a broken home, Anna-Marie has grown up into a state of constant and indefinable yearning. She belongs to the sisterhood of swans seeking to pair for life, curving their necks to entwine with the perfect mate. Only, she has realized, her species is fated to disappointment. Her disastrous choice in men is fueled not just by a chaotic childhood but by a loss of sexual agency as she embarks on a series of doomed relationships. Set against a cast of intriguing female characters—Anna-Marie’s Indian-hating Indian mother; her best mate, Sujata, haunted by thoughts of suicide; and Jassie, the sharp-tongued beautician at Bollywood Style Salon—is an ensemble of men who are serial philanderers or, worse still, token brown Conservative party members. In this shaky world, Anna-Marie navigates through the pain of a troubled coming of age, while trying to find her place as a second-generation Indian immigrant.
Write in Power: An Anthology of the Personal and the Political (edited by Vijayalakshmi Harish, Anushree K S, Rohini Malur, Vijayashanthi Murthy and Meenal Shrivastava) is an anthology of fictional and non-fictional prose, poems, and art by twenty-four writers and artists from an inclusive spectrum of human experience. These perspectives speak to the intersections of the personal and the political creating a space for discussion and change. Rohini Malur, one of the editors, says in this #DesiLitBiz interview: “We find our power in our traditions or by breaking those traditions. We look outwards for love and acceptance, or to our own selves because we are all we have. Our stories—rebellious, accommodating, loving, suffering, defeated and in victory—declare our essential power.” [All proceeds from the sales of Write in Power go directly to the Haadibadi Community Library.]
Saadat Hasan Manto’s The Dog of Tithwal: Stories (tr. from the Hindi by Khalid Hasan and Mohammed Umar Memon with a foreword by Vijay Seshadri) is a collection encircling the marginalized, forgotten lives of Bombay, set against the backdrop of the India-Pakistan Partition. Saadat Hasan Manto conjures the vitality on the streets of Bombay–its prostitutes, pimps, gangsters, artists, writers, and strays. Also, the pain and bewilderment of the Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs pitted against each other by the India-Pakistan partition. Deeply opposed to partition, Manto is best known for his dry-eyed portrayals of its violence, horrors, and absurdities. From a stray dog (with Hindu or Muslim leanings?) caught in the crossfire at the border of India and Pakistan, to friendly neighbors turned enemy soldiers pausing for tea together in a short cease fire–Manto blurs the edges of geographic, cultural, and social boundaries with an unflinching and satirical gaze, and a powerful humanism.
Manoranjan Byapari’s Imaan (tr. by Arunava Sinha) is written in his inimitable style, where irony and wry humor are never too far from bitter truths. This new novel is a searing exploration of the lives of the faceless millions who get by in our towns and cities, making it through one day at a time. Imaan entered Central Jail as an infant—in the arms of Zahura Bibi, his mother, who was charged with the murder of his father and who died when he was six. He left twenty years later, having spent his time thus far shuttling between a juvenile home and prison. With no home to return to, Imaan ends up at the Jadavpur railway station, becoming a ragpicker on the advice of a consummate pickpocket. The folk of the railside—rickshaw-pullers, scrap dealers, tea-stall owners, those who sell corpses for a little bit of money—welcome him into their fold, but the world of the free still baffles him. Life on the platform is disillusioning, and far more frightening than the jail he knew so well. This free world too is a prison, like the one he came from, only disconcertingly large. But no one went hungry in jail. And everyone had a roof over their heads. Unable to cope in this odd world, Imaan wishes to return to the security of a prison cell. He is told that, while there is only one door out of prison, there are a thousand through which to return. Imaan—whose name means honesty, conscience—is he up to the task?
Subimal Misra’s Wild Animals Prohibited, translated by Venkateswar Ramaswamy, is a collection of twenty-five stories that record the dark history of violence and degeneration in the Bengal of the seventies and eighties. The mirror that Misra holds up to society breaks every canon of rectitude with unfailing precision. The stories also plot the continuous evolution of Misra’s writing as he searches for a form to do justice to the reality that confronts us. Deeply influenced by Godard, Misra uses montage and other cinematic techniques in his stories, which he himself calls anti-stories, challenging our notions of reading and of literature itself. Brilliantly translated by V. Ramaswamy, Wild Animals Prohibited: Stories/Anti-stories startles with its blasphemy, its provocative ideas, and its sheer formal daring. Audacious experimentalist and self-declared anti-writer, Subimal Misra is the master of contemporary alternative Bengali literature and anti-establishment writing.
Carl de Souza’s Kaya Days (tr. from the French by Jeffrey Zuckerman) distills the spirit of Mauritius and its many people—Hindu, Muslim, Chinese, Franco-Mauritian, and Creole—into a young woman’s daylong search for her missing brother during the 1999 violence and uproar. This was when the Mauritian musician Joseph Réginald Topize, better known as Kaya, was arrested for smoking weed while performing at a concert. Following his death in police custody just days later, the island nation surged with violence in a long-overdue demand for justice from the marginalized populations of the African island off the coast of Madagascar. Amid burning cars and buildings, opportunists and revolutionaries, Santee rises into another world, a furious, brilliant one. An exhilarating journey into night from a small Hindu village to the big city, and from innocence into womanhood, Carl de Souza’s surreal English-language debut, artfully translated from French by Jeffrey Zuckerman, is an explosion of politics and poetry, a humid dream-world of revolutionary fervor where seemingly anything—everything—is possible.
Khan Mahboob Tarzi’s The Break of Dawn (tr. from the Urdu by Ali Khan Mahmudabad) was originally published in Urdu under the title Aghaaz-e-Sahr. It is a work of historical fiction and a reminder of a time when Indians of all classes and creeds came together to fight for the honor and freedom of their homeland. It is the searing month of June. The rebellion against the British has just begun and Awadh is up in flames. Hindus and Muslims have joined hands to overthrow the foreign rulers and set India free. Some Indian rulers have started to enter into alliances to fight the firangis, while others have thrown in their lot with the foreigners. Amid all this, Riyaz Khan, a young solider from the army of the Raja of Mahmudabad, saves a group of Britishers from fellow ‘mutineers’ and escorts them to the safety of Lucknow. In this group is Alice, who falls in love with Riyaz and eventually becomes an informer for the rebels.
Ashapurna Devi’s The Mystery That Is Woman: Ashapurna Devi Through Her Stories (tr. from the Bengali by Ruma Chakravarti) is a short story collection that deals largely with women in different settings both urban and rural. While deeply sympathetic towards the dreams and heartache of a woman’s life, Ashapurna never does this at a cost to her male characters. Her feminism is neither strident nor vitriolic but her characters are treated with respect and compassion. These stories have been selected to provide a look at human issues such as rural migration, feminism and the refugee experience. The characters, whether they are mothers and daughters or husbands and sons, always seem to be people we have seen and possibly even know in our daily lives.
Rajiv Mohabir’s Cutlish is his latest book (his second this year.) In Cutlish, a title referencing the rural recasting of the cutlass or machete, Rajiv Mohabir creates a form migrated from Caribbean chutney music in order to verse the precarity of a queer Indo-Caribbean speaker in the newest context of the United States. By joining the disparate threads of his fading, often derided, multilingual Guyanese Creole and Guyanese Bhojpuri linguistic inheritances, Mohabir mingles the ghosts that haunt from the cane fields his ancestors worked with the canonical colonial education of his elders, creating a new syncretic American poetry—pushing through the “post” of postcolonial, the “poet” in the poetic.
Natasha Rao’s Latitude was chosen as the winner of the 2021APR/Honickman First Book Prize by Guggenheim Fellow Ada Limón. This is Rao’s debut collection and it abounds with sensory delights rich in colors, flavors, and sounds. These poems explore the complexities of family, cultural identity, and coming of age. By turns vulnerable and bold, Latitude indulges in desire: “In my next life let me be a tomato/lusting and unafraid,” Rao writes, “…knowing I’ll end up in an eager mouth.”
Sheniz Janmohamed’s Reminders on the Path is infused with the language of place. The poems in this collection are stepping stones from the author’s past to her present, from forgetfulness to remembrance, from unknowing to a deep knowing found only through direct experience. Here, the poet is wayfarer: at each step she sees reminders of the ephemeral and the indelible. All serve as guideposts to cross the threshold of the self.
Ashwini Bhasi’s Musth won the 2020 Cutbank chapbook contest. The judges said: “Starkly yet vividly conceived. All the grotesqueness (sewer sludge, rats in mouths, etc.) is met with a real capacity for language and metaphor. The control over language, diction and sometimes experimental form provides a confident and clear entry point into the difficulty of some of the subject matter.”
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