Introducing #DesiBooksReview Issue 1
Editor: JENNY BHATT
In January this year, I had tweeted to ask whether there was interest in regular reviews of books by writers of South Asian origin, where the reviews are more than a thousand words, reviewers are paid on time, and there are no conflicts of interest. The huge wave of response surprised me even though I’ve been bringing this up infrequently for a few years now.
Mostly, my concern is that review spaces keep shrinking, especially within desi-centric publications. Often, conflicts of interest abound. Literary criticism, when done well, can expand conversations versus summarize a book’s contents. I take it seriously enough that I wrote my personal manifesto at Poets & Writers in 2020. None of this is to take away from the few decent venues already doing good work. We simply need more such venues for an ongoing vibrant literary culture and ecosystem. And we need reviews that place our books within our particular literary traditions—Anglophone and regional language ones, local and diasporic ones, contemporary and classic—and explore related sociocultural, historical, and political interpretations in an accessible manner for a general audience.
With all of the above in mind, I approached or responded to the reviewers you will read in this issue. I provided some guidelines but, more than anything, I asked them to ensure that each review had a main thesis—not the “what” of the book but the “so what.”
The book selections themselves may not necessarily define 2021 in desi literature or encapsulate any particular literary movement but there are connecting themes and threads running throughout. The writers didn’t know their books would be put into conversation like this. Neither did most of the reviewers, actually. Once you’ve had time to read them, I’d love to know what you think about these connections too.
Meenal Shrivastava’s opening essay is not a review but an essay in homage to the literary lineage that helped her write her fictional memoir, Amma’s Daughters. Through the study and research of various personal and archival sources, she wrote a book that not only reconnected her with her mother and grandmother in deeper ways, but also bonded her across time and place with tens of thousands of other fearless, forgotten women who fought for India’s freedom like her grandmother had done.
Bonds, however, can be forged in various ways. Shrayana Bhattacharya’s Desperately Seeking Shahrukh examines the symbiotic bond between a movie star and his fans by focusing, for a change, on the latter. SRK, as the star is known, has been mythologized like no other Bollywood star of our time. But this contemporary myth-making, as reviewer Niyati Bhat points out, is really about the fans remaking themselves while navigating through the country’s evolving politics and socioeconomics.
Just as Shrivastava discovered aspects of her own self while searching for her foremothers, Shruti Swamy’s novel, The Archer, is also about reconnecting with mothers. In interviews, she has said that the novel is a tribute to her own mother and her mother’s life in India before moving to the US. And, just as SRK-mythmaking helps his fans remake themselves, ancient Hindu mythology helps Swamy’s protagonist remake herself. Shalvi Shah explores all of this with thoughtfulness and perceptivity.
In her review of Carl de Souza’s Kaya Days (translated by Jeffrey Zuckerman), Rashi Rohatgi also makes reference to Swamy’s novel because both books use stories from ancient Indian epics as plot devices. De Souza goes in a different direction with his allegorical framing as his novel is set during a particularly violent time in Mauritius’ recent history. Myth and history both give this story the weight of centuries of baggage, subtext, implied meanings, and the possibility of new interpretations.
Going from communal violence to a more intimate and personal kind, Mona Arshi’s Somebody Loves You is a coming-of-age story about a teenage girl and her sister. An often-absent, often-disconnected mother is the underlying cause for the daily horrors faced by these young girls. As Pardeep Toor describes in his review, Arshi understands just how violence can be turned to poetry on the page to captivate the reader’s imagination.
Indu Menon is another writer who plays with depicting violence and transgression in fiction. Her goal, though, is to upend our expectations and shock us to the point where our foundational beliefs and desires are shaken. Suhasini Patni reviews Menon’s collection, The Lesbian Cow and Other Stories (translated by Nandakumar K.), and makes the case for how, by lifting the metaphorical veils that many writers do not, Menon makes us question violence, cruelty, even shock itself.
Shyamchi Aai by Sane Guruji, translated by Shanta Gokhale, circles us back to the theme of motherhood. A freedom fighter and a much-loved figure, this writer’s cult classic is still in print, still well-known, and still much-read despite showcasing, well, some old-fashioned values. As Sukhada Tatke reminds us in her review, books like these are really sociocultural, literary, and historical artifacts because they allow us to travel back in time to understand our past and see our present more clearly.
Yes, well-written books are time machines themselves. We don’t really need devices like the one in V. J. James’ Anti-Clock (translated by Ministhy K.) to travel back to the past, as Veena Muthuraman says at the end of her review. The rich, well-populated, magically real fictional world James has created is capacious enough to allow us room to wander and imagine our own place within it. Or, at least, convince us to revisit the places of our past with new perspectives.
So there you have it: our first set of reviews about eight desi books from different geographies, languages, genres, and time periods, yet connected by these particular strands of motherhood and mythologies, violence and desire, and time travel through books.
A note of gratitude and thanks to all these review and essay writers who put such care and thought into their work for this inaugural issue and trusted me with the edits. Note that they are also from all over the world—the UK, Norway, Canada, the US, and India—and bring their wonderfully diverse sensibilities to bear on their explorations and interrogations here.
Do let us know your thoughts about this first issue. If this kind of review aesthetic is your thing, you can pitch for 2022 books here. And, finally, if you’d like to get regular updates about more such reviews and other literary matters, sign up here.
Stay healthy, keep reading, and write well.
Editor-in-Chief, Desi Books
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Jenny Bhatt is a writer, literary translator, book critic, and creative writing instructor. Her latest book is a literary translation, The Shehnai Virtuoso and Other Stories by Dhumketu. More here: https://jennybhattwriter.com/bio.