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These are just some of the new and notable books by writers of South Asian origin for the month of September 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.
Books about literary translation, a diasporic memoir, and lesser-known British colonial histories make up some of this month’s nonfiction picks.
Rita Kothari’s Uneasy Translations: Self, Experience and Indian Literature interweaves the personal journey of an academic into reflections around self, language, and translation with an eye on the intangibly available category of experience. It dwells on quieter modes of being political, making knowledge democratic, and seeing gendered language in the everyday. In an unusual combination of real-life incidents and textual examples, it provides a palimpsest of what it is to be in a classroom; in the domestic sphere, straddling the ‘manyness’ of language and, of course, in a constant mode of translation that remains incomplete and unconcluded. Through both a poignant voice and rigorous questions, Kothari asks what it is to live and teach in India as a woman, a multilingual researcher, and as both a subject and a rebel of the discipline of English. She draws from multiple bhasha texts with an uncompromising eye on their autonomy and intellectual tradition. The essays range from questions of knowledge, affect, caste, shame, and humiliation to other cultural memories. Translation avoids the arrogance of the original; it has the freedom to say it and not be held accountable, which can make it both risky and exciting. More importantly, it also speaks after (anuvaad) rather than only for or instead, and this ethic informs the way Kothari writes this book, breaking new ground with gentle provocations.
Gayatri Spivak’s Living Translation offers a powerful perspective on the work of distinguished thinker and writer Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, revealing how, throughout her long career, she has made translation a central concern of the comparative humanities. Starting with her landmark “Translator’s Preface” to Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology in 1976, and continuing with her foreword to Mahasweta Devi’s Draupadi and afterword to Devi’s Chotti Munda and His Arrow, Spivak has tackled questions of translatability. She has been interested in interrogating the act of translation from the ground up and at the political limit. She sees at play at border checkpoints, at sites of colonial pedagogy, in acts of resistance to monolingual regimes of national language, at the borders of minor literature and schizo-analysis, in the deficits of cultural debt and linguistic expropriation, and, more generally, at theory’s edge, which is to say, where practical criticism yields to theorizing in untranslatables. This volume also addresses how Spivak’s institution-building as director of comparative literature at the University of Iowa–and in her subsequent places of employment–began at the same time. From this perspective, Spivak takes her place within a distinguished line-up of translator-theorists who have been particularly attuned to the processes of cognizing in languages, all of them alive to the coproductivity of thinking, translating, and writing.
Vineet Gill’s Here And Hereafter: Nirmal Verma’s Life in Literature questions how a writer formed. Yes, through labor, commitment, perseverance, grit, and various other things that we keep hearing about. But equally, a writer is formed through the workings of a particular kind of sensibility. As Vineet Gill attempts to understand this writerly sensibility in Nirmal Verma’s life and work, he finds that the personal and the literary are, on some level, inseparable. In this masterly deep dive into the world of one of Hindi literature’s pioneers, Gill looks at the scattered elements of Verma’s life as ingredients that went into the making of the writer. The places he lived in, the people he knew, and the books he read are all reflected, in Gill’s view, in Verma’s stories and novels. This is a work of intense readerly analysis and considered excavation, a contemplation on Verma’s oeuvre and its place in world literature.
Ira Mathur’s Love the Dark Days is set in India, England, Trinidad, and St Lucia. It follows the story of a girl, Dolly, born of mixed Hindu-Muslim parentage in post-independence India. When she lives with her grandmother, a member of an elite Muslim family, whose history is one of having colluded with the brutality of the British rule in India, Dolly unconsciously imbibes her grandmother’s prejudices of class and race. As the dark child in her family, this makes her feel that she does not belong, leading to an over-anxiety to please the adults around her. That feeling of unbelonging is repeated when her family migrates to multicultural Trinidad, made up of people from many continents, where she encounters Indian people, several generations away from India, who have a very different sense of themselves, who appear contemptuous of what they see as her airs and graces. She begins writing about her experiences as a way of trying to make sense of them. In her darkest hour, she meets Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott, who encourages her, when she visits him in St Lucia over a weekend, to leave the past behind and reinvent herself.
Ipshita Nath’s Memsahibs: British Women in Colonial India is about young Englishwomen in colonial India. Stepping off the steamer, the sights and sounds of humid, colonial India were like nothing they’d ever experienced. For many, this was the ultimate destination to find a perfect civil servant husband. For still more, however, India offered a chance to fling off the shackles of Victorian social mores. The word ‘memsahib’ conjures up visions of silly aristocrats, well-staffed bungalows, and languorous days at the club. Yet these women had sought out the uncertainties of life in Britain’s largest, busiest colony. Memsahibs introduces readers to the likes of Flora Annie Steel, Fanny Parks, and Emily Eden, accompanying their husbands on expeditions, traveling solo across dangerous terrain, engaging in political questions, and recording their experiences. Yet the Raj was not all adventure. There was disease and great risk to young women traveling alone. For colonial wives in far-flung outposts, there was little access to ‘society’. Cut off from modernity and the western world, many women suffered terrible trauma and depression. From the hill stations to the capital, this is a sweeping, vividly written anthology of colonial women’s lives across British India. Their honesty and bravery, in their actions and their writings, shine fresh light on this historical world.
More Partition novels for this 75th anniversary, more translated fiction, and (surprisingly but in a good way, of course) a good number of story collections.
Manohar Malgonkar’s A Bend in the Ganges (intr. Nilanjana Roy) is a new edition of a classic Partition novel. India, 1939. Gian, a Gandhian pacifist, commits a murder; Debidayal, an ardent revolutionary, is caught while setting fire to a British plane. Both men are sent to the Andamans penal colony. In the beehive life of the prison, they work in opposite camps: pro-British and anti-British. During World War II, when the Japanese take over the islands, all the convicts suddenly find themselves free. Gian and Debi manage to return to India only to get sucked into the violence of Partition. An epic saga of a nation in transition, A Bend in the Ganges, now available in a stunning new edition, depicts the cataclysmic events leading up to Partition and the conflict that arises between ideologies of violence and non-violence.
Hajra Masroor’s The Monkey’s Wound and Other Stories (tr. Tahira Naqvi) is a collection of sixteen short stories that illustrate her uncompromising tone, her piercing portrayals of the bitter realities of life, and the wounds and traumas of the inner lives of women. The stories, translated from the original Urdu, are sourced from her well-known collection of stories, Sab Afsanay Meray, and bring out Masroor at her best.
Kamila Shamsie’s Best of Friends is a moving and surprising story of a lifelong friendship and the forces that bring it to the breaking point. Zahra and Maryam have been best friends since childhood in Karachi, even though—or maybe because—they are unlike in nearly every way. Yet they never speak of the differences in their backgrounds or their values, not even after the fateful night when a moment of adolescent impulse upends their plans for the future. Three decades later, Zahra and Maryam have grown into powerful women who have each cut a distinctive path through London. But when two troubling figures from their past resurface, they must finally confront their bedrock differences—and find out whether their friendship can survive. Thought-provoking, compassionate, and full of unexpected turns, Best of Friends offers a riveting take on an age-old question: Does principle or loyalty make for a better friend?
Amit Chaudhuri’s Sojourn is a haunting and noirish novel about an Indian writer who travels to Berlin and soon finds himself slipping into a fragmented, fuguelike state. This is his second sojourn in the city, which seems strange, and also strangely familiar, to him. He is disoriented by its names, its immensity, and its history; he is worried that something may happen to him there. Faqrul, a friendly Bangladeshi poet living in exile, takes him up—then disappears. The visiting writer is increasingly adrift in a city that not long ago was two cities, each cut off from the other, much as the newly unified city is cut off from the divided one of the past. It is the fall of 2005; every day it grows colder. The visitor is beginning to feel his middle age. To him, the new world of the twenty-first century, with its endless commodities from all over the place and no prospect of any sort of historical transformation, appears to exist in a state of amnesiac suspense. He gets involved with a woman, Birgit. He begins to miss his classes. He blacks out in the street. People are worried. “I’ve lost my bearings—not in the city; in its history,” he thinks. “The less sure I become of it, the more I know my way.” But does he? Amit Chaudhuri’s Sojourn is a dramatic and disconcerting work of fiction, a book about the present as it slips into the past, a picture of a city and of a troubled mind, a historical novel about an ostensibly post-historical time, a story of haunting.
Moni Mohsin’s Between, You, Me and the Four Walls: The Social Butterfly Bulletin brings The Social Butterfly back with her signature wingbeat. The world may have moved at a rattling pace since her last outing but the lifestyles of Lahore’s literati, Dubai’s glitterati, and London’s desi flutterati have more than kept pace. Earth-shattering events like wars, climate change, and the pandemic have nothing on the treachery of the maalish waali, Meghan Markle’s tiara, and the mechanics of ‘sad make-up’. Spanning eight rollicking years from 2014 to 2021, Butterfly’s frank, funny diaries tell us how it is in the private lives of the haves and the have-mores. Scandalously colorful and uniquely desi, the latest installment of the Butterfly series is delish.
Talia Kolluri’s What We Fed to the Manticore is a debut collection of nine emotionally vivid stories, all narrated from animal perspectives. It explores themes of environmentalism, conservation, identity, belonging, loss, and family with resounding heart and deep tenderness. In Kolluri’s pages, a faithful hound mourns the loss of the endangered rhino he swore to protect. Vultures seek meaning as they attend to the antelope that perished in Central Asia. A beloved donkey’s loyalty to a zookeeper in Gaza is put to the ultimate test. And a wounded pigeon in Delhi finds an unlikely friend. In striking, immersive detail against the backdrop of an ever-changing international landscape, What We Fed to the Manticore speaks to the fears and joys of the creatures we share our world with, and ultimately places the reader under the rich canopy of the tree of life.
Tejaswini Apte-Rahm’s The Secret of More takes us into the beating heart of Bombay, a city that spins cotton into gold. A young man, Tatya, arrives to make a living. Ambitious and hardworking, he begins to make a name for himself in the city’s famed textile market. Meanwhile, his new bride, Radha, navigates the joys and the challenges of raising a family in a city that is a curious and often bewildering mix of the traditional and the rapidly modernizing. Having tasted success in the world of textiles, Tatya chances upon an opportunity in an emerging industry—motion pictures—and is swept up in it despite his initial hesitation about this strange world of make-believe. His success seems unstoppable—the silent films he produces draw in the crowds and his new theatre is a marvel, but his friendship with and attraction to an actress, Kamal, threatens to shake his world and causes him to question his integrity. Set against the backdrop of bustling colonial Bombay, The Secret of More is a journey of relentless ambition, steadfast love, and grim betrayal, as Tatya strives to unlock the secret of more—of having more and being more. In a story that travels from the clatter of textile mills to the glamour of the silent film industry, from the crowded chawls of Girgaon to the luxury of sea-facing mansions, one man and his family learn that in the city of Bombay you can fly—but if you fall, it is a long way down.
Shehan Karunatilaka’s The Birth Lottery and Other Surprises is a story collection. Unpleasant truths await a Sri Lankan president in the back of a London cab. An advertising agency has to come to terms with a blown-up collection of pictures of its employees’ penises. A man presumed missing quietly journals by the sea. A being dispassionately recalls the numerous births it had taken and the absurd fates it had to endure. An Englishman, a Dutchman, and a Portuguese man walk into a Ceylon bar with grand narcotic designs. A masterful blend of dry wit, morbid charm, and earnest observations, Booker-shortlisted author Shehan Karunatilaka’s The Birth Lottery and Other Surprises is a collection of fantastic short stories that serve up fantasies for both doomsday and every day, marking the return of one of South Asia’s most compelling storytellers.
Manreet Sodhi Someshwar’s Hyderabad is the second in her novel trilogy. Mir Osman Ali Khan, Asaf Jah VII, is the Nizam of Hyderabad, the largest princely State of the Crown. It sits in the belly of newly independent India to which Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel want Hyderabad to accede. The communists have concurrently mounted a state-wide rebellion. But the Nizam’s family has ruled Hyderabad for 200 years. As the wealthiest man in the world, whom the British consider numero uno amongst India’s princes, he will not deal with two-penny Indian politicians. An ancient prophecy, however, hangs over the Nizam: the Asaf Jahi dynasty will last only seven generations. So he keeps his jewel-laden trucks ready for flight even as he schemes with his army of militant Razakars. Meanwhile, in the palace thick with intrigue, the maid Uzma must decide where her loyalties lie: with the peasantry or the Nizam. Among the Communist recruits, Jaabili finds love in unexpected quarters. Violence escalates and lawlessness mounts. Caught between a volatile Nizam and a resolute India, what price will Hyderabad pay?
Shahidul Zahir’s Why There Are No Noyontara Flowers in Agargaon Colony: Stories (tr. V. Ramaswamy) has his particular blend of surrealism, folklore, oral storytelling traditions, magic realism, a searing understanding of social and political reality, and rare clarity of vision. A mohalla caught in a time warp. A down-on-their-luck husband and wife who are stalked by ravens. A magician who sells addictive figs. A pair of thieving monkeys. In these pages is the world of the mohalla, where rumors and gossip abound and where everyone knows everyone, where seemingly bizarre yet intriguing creations deliver profound commentary on post-independence Bangladesh. Superbly translated by V. Ramaswamy, each of these ten stories takes you beyond the rules of language and storytelling, into a place that is at once achingly familiar and terrifying.
Amar Mitra’s Dhanapatir Char: Whatever Happened to Pedru’s Island? (tr. Jhimli Mukherjee Pandey) is a story about an island that came out of the golden pot of Ma Kamala, which she gave to the pirate Pedru to rule. However, there are mythical and mystical elements to the story about how Dhanapati is not only the village headman but also the giant tortoise of lore who swam in from the depths of the oceans and fell asleep here to be seen when the waters recede in the winter months. Dhanapati was the last Pedru, but he was now old and blind, unable to rule his island for long. He then gifted it to his seventeen-year-old wife, Kunti. Will Dhaneshwari, the new ruler, be able to save the island and its women from the lustful eyes of the administration? Or will the government acquire the island? Or will Kunti be able to cast her spell and get the old tortoise to float away with the island on his back? The Island of Dhanapatir combines the elements of myth, allegory, and magic realism with folklore of rare beauty.
Hajra Masroor’s The Monkey’s Wound and Other Stories (tr. Tahira Naqvi) is a collection of sixteen short stories that are illustrative of her uncompromising tone, her piercing portrayals of the bitter realities of life, and the wounds and traumas of the inner lives of women. The stories, translated from the original Urdu, are sourced from her well-known collection of stories, Sab Afsanay Meray, and bring out Masroor at her best.
Rajinder Singh Bedi’s Selected Short Stories (tr. Gopi Chand Narang, Surinder Deol) curates some of the best work by the Urdu writer, whose contribution to Urdu fiction makes him a pivotal force within modern Indian literature. Born in Sialkot, Punjab, Rajinder Singh Bedi (1915-1984) lived many lives: as a student and postmaster in Lahore, a venerated screenwriter for popular Hindi films, and a winner of both the Sahitya Akademi as well as the Filmfare awards. Considered one of the prominent progressive writers of modern Urdu fiction, Bedi was an architect of contemporary Urdu writing along with leading lights such as Munshi Premchand and Saadat Hasan Manto. Written between 1940 and 1975, the fifteen short stories included in this collection comprise favorites like ‘Garam Coat’ (Woollen Coat), ‘Lajwanti’, ‘Apne Dukh Mujhe De Do’ (Give Me Your Sorrows), ‘Rahman ke Joote’ (Rahman’s Shoes) and others. Bedi’s stories dissect human emotions with grim precision as he navigates the everyday lives of men and women, exposing social inequities and economic problems.
Pashupati Chatterji’s Death on Diagonal Lane is about a place that’s more than a neighborhood. The fittingly titled Diagonal Lane is a circus of characters with the most comically absurdist approaches to life. But even for a locality that has come to expect the unexpected, the death of the local gossip, Mr. Reddy, comes as a complete shock. A friendly neighbor, Mr Murthy, attempts to keep the police out of it. But another friendly neighbor, Mr. Shetty, bungles it up. Not only do the police get involved, but they also declare Mr. Reddy’s death a homicide. To top it all, the police officer in charge of the investigation turns out to be Mr. Murthy’s old school chum: Sub-Inspector Rathindranath ‘Ratty’ Gowda. A stroke of good luck? Not really. Eager to earn a promotion by any means possible, Ratty proceeds to put the denizens of Diagonal Lane through the wringer. It takes all of Mr. Murthy’s tact and diplomacy to prevent his childhood buddy from putting all the leading lights of the lane behind bars. But meddling in murky police affairs can sometimes backfire, and it does not take Mr. Murthy long to recognize the veracity of the old adage: policemen have no friends. In this dark comedy about contemporary middle-class India, Pashupati Chatterji delivers a charming whodunnit guaranteed to have you laughing all the way to the end.
Anurag Andra’s Submarine tells the coming-of-age story of Subramaniam, a second-generation immigrant of Indian descent, exploring what it means to make a life in a country both insular and boundless, where dreams of home and worlds beyond and all that lies between are conceived, morphed, killed, and reborn, and where the word “family” comes to mean nothing, then everything. Through a series of vignettes, Anurag Andra’s debut novella digs into and excavates the heart of how a boy becomes a man—how he learns to love, to fear, to hold, to leave, and to come back.
David Davidar’s (editor) A Case of Indian Marvels: Dazzling Stories from the Country’s Finest New Writers is the first major anthology of short stories by India’s most exciting new writers. The book pulls together the very best work of authors belonging to the millennial generation (born between 1981 and 1996) and Generation Z (born between the late 1990s and early 2010s). The forty stories in the volume explore every aspect of the Indian ethos in original and electrifying ways. Some stories deal with the dark times India is passing through, others are about life in the country’s villages, small towns, and big cities; there are tales about various aspects of contemporary Indian society, and others are set in the future or the ancient past. Some of the writers, including Kanishk Tharoor, Madhuri Vijay, Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar, Meena Kandasamy, Prayaag Akbar, Samhita Arni, Neel Patel, and Avinuo Kire, have already received considerable acclaim for books they have published, others are working on debut collections of stories and novels that are expected to be published soon. These writers will dominate the literary scene in the twenty-first century, and on the evidence of the work represented in this volume, the future of Indian literature is in very good hands.
Contemporary and classic, myths and memories, the physical and the spiritual, this month’s poetry collections have it all.
Anindita Sengupta’s Only the Forests Know (US readers can purchase here) is out now. From Sampurna Chatterjee: “Wings sense what they must.” And poets too. In her third poetry collection, Anindita Sengupta receives and transmits the hues of a planet mad with want, fear, and breakdown. At the heart of a maelstrom of (in)humanity and conflagration, dispossession and disease, her poems bite and rage and mourn. From forage fish to polar bears, she is enmeshed and implicated. With her, we sense the natural world’s mysteries as apprehensible, but “not teachable”. In these poems, breath is the seam that will rip and tear; pain the only climate we can count on. As we embrace deception and vulnerability, we coil in and out of the quieter spaces we contain and are contained by. Hers is our hunger to understand, even hope, so that we might begin again to believe in “small miracles”, to persist, like the algae, “in a world without light.”
Gaia Rajan’s Killing It won the Spring 2021 Black River Chapbook Competition. Her second short collection, it’s a razor-sharp interrogation of queer Asian American identity, intergenerational trauma, and the detritus of American achievement. Here, lineage is at once redemptive and violent: “Sometimes / when people say I’m killing it I remember everything / exemplary I know or ever will traces back to a small girl / on the floor praying please, please, make them see me.” In this steely gut-punch of a collection, Rajan’s speakers don’t flinch, even when confronted with their own dissolution. They haunt ghost towns and cheer on bank robbers; they wake in the middle of the night with visceral dreams of a centuries-old genocide, trying to remember “how to coax a howl to eat;” they grasp for myths sturdy enough to hold, emerging empty-handed and furious. Killing It is a vibrant, disquieting, collection that demands to be read with reverence and abandon.
Alycia Pirmohamed’s Another Way to Split Water is her debut collection. A woman’s body expands and contracts across the page, fog uncoils at the fringes of a forest, and water in all its forms cascades into metaphors of longing and separation just as often as it signals inheritance, revival, and recuperation. Language unfolds into unforgettable and arresting imagery, offering a map toward self-understanding that is deeply rooted in place. These poems are a lyrical exploration of how ancestral memory reforms and transforms throughout generations, through stories told and retold, imagined and reimagined. It is a meditation on womanhood, belonging, faith, intimacy, and the natural world.
Adi Sankaracarya’s Saundarya Lahari: Wave of Beauty (tr. Mani Rao) is a popular Sanskrit hymn celebrating the power and beauty of Sakti, the primordial goddess. In one hundred verses, it underlines the centrality of the feminine principle in Indian thought. Attributed to Adi Sankaracarya, Saundarya Lahari is a valuable source for understanding tantric ideas. Every verse is associated with yantras and encoded mantras for tantric rituals, and specific verses in the hymn are considered potent for acquiring good health, lovers, and even poetic skills. Mani Rao’s Saundarya Lahari is an inspired, lyrical translation that renders the esoteric immediate and the distant near.
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