Updated: Jan 23, 2021
From the adventures of The Faraway Tree to the world of Harry Potter - I spent my childhood walking around with my nose in a book. As I grew older and went off to university, I dove more into reading but this time it came from a carefully dictated list of books and academic writing or what we students called a 'pale, male, and stale' curriculum. I dedicated my final year to studying migration, borders and postcolonialism, desperate for some colour in my books because lack of representation makes you feel like a side character in your own story.
The time right now seems apt to delve into the richness of South Asian literature. Do you have a book recommendation that is not on our list? Comment below your favourites books by South Asian writers and we’ll add it to our second list of South Asian must-reads.
1. The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
“See, the poor dream all their lives of getting enough to eat and looking like the rich. And what do the rich dream of?? Losing weight and looking like the poor.”
From a poor villager to a chauffeur to a cunning, murderous entrepreneur – the novel follows the life of Balram Halwai as he tells us his story over the course of seven nights. The White Tiger paints an unflattering picture of 21st century India, with its injustice, corruption and class divide. In an interview with Guardian, Adiga doesn’t hesitate to expose India’s dark side claiming the ‘politics is so corrupt it makes a mockery of democracy’. Halwai questions his lowly place in the order of society and climbs the rungs of the class ladder, from the dark rural centre of India to the wealthy ‘light’.
2. Too Much and Not the Mood by Durga Chew-Bose
“A nook person finds the dog at the party; drinks wine from a mug; sits on the floor and braids carpet tassels only to become self-conscious and unbraid them.”
Too Much and Not the Mood is an insightful collection of personal essays - an intimate read, where you find yourself savouring every word. Through a letter to her grandmother, to Michael Jordan and to Death, she explores her identity, culture, home and family. Be prepared to experience mental tangents and nostalgic trips of your own as she digresses in and out of her thoughts.
3. Half Gods by Akil Kumarasamy
“He stared at the clock, which he had set nine and a half hours ahead so he would be on schedule with Sri Lanka.”
A debut novel, with ten loosely interlinked stories with characters with haunting backstories. Exploring the themes of displacement, the refugee and immigrant experience, grieving and loss, the collection follows the story of two brothers, Arjun and Karna, named after the demi-gods from the Hindu epic Mahabharata. It’s a melancholic conflict where the characters yearn for the bloodshed home they left behind and try to preserve a culture ripped apart by war.
4. Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
“If you have ever, sir, been through a breakup of a romantic relationship that involved great love, you will perhaps understand what I experienced."
The story of Nadia and Saeed is so much more than a boy-girl love story. The novel commences in a nameless country at the brink of war, and documents the realities of war, from checkpoints to bomb blasts. Unlike other migration stories, Hamid emits the torturous journey of hiding in trucks, jumping on trains and the rubber rafts; instead, their journey is compressed into an instant. Exit West heightens the alien and uncertain future of migrants - it's not merely a choice but a necessity.
5. The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
"He hates that his name is both absurd and obscure, that it has nothing to do with who he is, that it is neither Indian nor American but of all things Russian.”
The immigrant experience, the clash of cultures and the rampant gap between generations. The Ganguli family uproot their life in Calcutta to the promised land of America, where they find themselves struggling to adjust to their new life. The story revolves around their son, Gogol Ganguli, whose Indian American life turns to an American Indian one. Lahiri paints the struggles of the Indian immigrant experience in the United States and the reality of assimilating into a new culture.
6. A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
“...you have to use your failures as stepping stones to success. You have to maintain a fine balance between hope and despair. In the end, it’s all a question of balance.”
From distrust to friendship, to humanity in an inhumane state. Life throws four unlikely individuals into one apartment in the ‘City by the Sea’: a widow, a college student, two tailors, from the ‘untouchable’ occupation. Mistry is unsparing when sharing the details of the life these characters lead, as they tackle the obstacles of caste, gender, greed and government corruption. A story at the height of Indira Gandhi’s emergency, where power breeds evil.
7. Postcolonial Banter by Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan
"you do not care about Muslim girls when we are drowning
when we are neglected when we are at your borders when we are starving when we are in detention centres waiting for deportation."
Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan speaks so many unsaid truths in her collection of poems, addressing Islamophobia, identity, gender, racism and state violence. Beyond the art of her words, her poetry is education. Her words embody the voices of millions of British Muslims and British South Asians and forces you to confront your own thoughts on the world you live in.
8. A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth
“Quietly they moved down the calm and sacred river that had come down to earth so that its waters might flow over the ashes of those long dead, and that would continue to flow long after the human race had, through hatred and knowledge, burned itself out.”
Set in an uncertain time and a newly independent India, it follows the lives of four extended families, the Mehras, the Kappoors, the Khans and the Chatterjis. The novel is full of rich characterisations and covers everything: love, hatred, prejudice, caste and violence. Warning: it’s a long one, so anyone intimidated by a 1400-page book, BBC recently created a drama miniseries directed by Mira Nair.
9. A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam
“This war that has taken so many sons has spared mine. This
age that has burned so many daughters has not burned mine.
I have not let it.”
Set in East Pakistan in 1971, the young widow Rehanna Haque awakes with little to no idea that the country will soon be in turmoil. Set in the backdrop of the Bangladesh War of Independence, Rehana is caught amid a violent conflict whilst trying to navigate her revolutionary children and their activism. A historical fiction, with a bit of culture, politics, war, and a heart-warming amount of family loyalty.
10 . One Part Woman by Perumal Murugan
“There is no female without the male, and no male without the female. The world goes on only when they come together.”
A controversial book that earned its author death threats and was burned by mobs. One Part Woman deals with the despair of a childless couple. However, it is less their desire for a child that worries them, but more society's view of a childless marriage. Ridiculed and ostracized by their community, and the psychological burden placed on Ponna and Kali leads them to take part in the unconventional rituals of a local temple which becomes the ultimate test of marriage.
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