Friday, 9 September 2016

A few eminent Indian writers in English

Whenever someone asks me to recommend good fiction or nonfiction in English, I invariably draw their attention to books written by Western authors. And that’s because my reading of Indian literary works is abysmal. I have read very few writers from my own country known for its rich and diverse literary heritage, including many spellbinding works translated from a dozen languages. There are novels by globally acclaimed writers I should have read long ago. That I haven’t all these years is my loss. Every year I resolve to read Indian writers in English and every year I break that resolution.

Maybe, this chronological list of books by some of the most celebrated desi authors will motivate me to finally give Indian fiction its due. So far I have only read Khushwant Singh, R.K. Narayan, Salman Rushdie, and Rohinton Mistry, though just not these titles. They are all good books and worth reading.


Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh, 1956

Khushwant Singh was one of India’s most widely readand also one of its most provocativenovelists, satirists, and journalists.

“In the summer of 1947, when the creation of the state of Pakistan was formally announced, ten million people—Muslims and Hindus and Sikhs—were in flight. By the time the monsoon broke, almost a million of them were dead, and all of northern India was in arms, in terror, or in hiding. The only remaining oases of peace were a scatter of little villages lost in the remote reaches of the frontier.

© India Opines
One of these villages was Mano Majra. It is a place, Khushwant Singh goes on to tell us at the beginning of this classic novel, where Sikhs and Muslims have lived together in peace for hundreds of years. Then one day, at the end of the summer, the “ghost train” arrives, a silent, incredible funeral train loaded with the bodies of thousands of refugees, bringing the village its first taste of the horrors of the civil war.”

Train to Pakistan is the story of this isolated village that is plunged into the abyss of religious hate. It is also the story of a Sikh boy and a Muslim girl whose love endured and transcends the ravages of war.”


The Guide by R.K. Narayan, 1958

One of India’s most celebrated authors, R.K. Narayan’s best-known stories are set in the fictional town of Malgudi in South India. The Guide won Narayan the National Prize of the Indian Literary Academy, the country's highest literary honour.

The Guide describes the transformation of the protagonist, Raju, from a tour guide to a spiritual guide and then one of the greatest holy men of India.

“Formerly India's most corrupt tourist guide, Raju—just released from prison—seeks refuge in an abandoned temple. Mistaken for a holy man, he plays the part and succeeds so well that God himself intervenes to put Raju's newfound sanctity to the test.”












Grimus by Salman Rushdie, 1975

Salman Rushdie, whose Midnight’s Children won the Booker Prize and whose The Satanic Verses put a bounty on his head, made his literary debut with Grimus—a fantasy and science fiction novel.

“After drinking an elixir that bestows immortality upon him, a young Indian named Flapping Eagle spends the next seven hundred years sailing the seas with the blessing—and ultimately the burden—of living forever. Eventually, weary of the sameness of life, he journeys to the mountainous Calf Island to regain his mortality. There he meets other immortals obsessed with their own stasis and sets out to scale the island’s peak, from which the mysterious and corrosive Grimus Effect emits.


© Emory College of Arts and Sciences
“Through a series of thrilling quests and encounters, Flapping Eagle comes face-to-face with the island’s creator and unwinds the mysteries of his own humanity. 

“Salman Rushdie’s celebrated debut novel remains as powerful and as haunting as when it was first published more than thirty years ago.”


The Golden Gate by Vikram Seth, 1986

The Golden Gate is the debut novel of novelist and poet Vikram Seth (below). Its uniqueness lies in its narrative form—it is composed in verse, 590 Onegin stanzas. The book was apparently inspired by Charles Johnston's translation of Alexander Pushkin's Eugene Onegin.

“Set in the 1980s in the affluence and sunshine of California's Silicon Valley, The Golden Gate is an exuberant and witty story of twenty-somethings looking for love, pleasure and the meaning of life. It was awarded the 1986 British Airways Commonwealth Poetry Prize.”

© Penguin Books India



















The Shadow Lines by Amitav Ghosh, 1988

Amitav Ghosh (below), who is best-known for historical fiction, has written both fiction and nonfiction of international acclaim. Many of his novels are set around “the Bay of Bengal, the Arabian Sea, the Indian Ocean, and the connections and the cross-connections between these regions.”

“Opening in Calcutta in the 1960s, Amitav Ghosh's radiant second novel, The Shadow Lines, follows two families—one English, one Bengali—as their lives intertwine in tragic and comic ways. The narrator, Indian born and English educated, traces events back and forth in time, from the outbreak of World War II to the late twentieth century, through years of Bengali partition and violence, observing the ways in which political events invade private lives.

© Amitav Ghosh










  





English, August by Upamanyu Chatterjee, 1988

Upamanyu Chatterjee is an IAS officer whose debut novel English, August: An Indian Story was adapted to film. Its success inspired many low budget independent movies in Indian cinema. Punch described English, August as “a marvelously intelligent and entertaining novel, and especially for anyone curious about modern India.”

“Agastya Sen, known to friends by the English name August, is a child of the Indian elite. His friends go to Yale and Harvard. August himself has just landed a prize government job. The job takes him to Madna, “the hottest town in India,” deep in the sticks. There he finds himself surrounded by incompetents and cranks, time wasters, bureaucrats, and crazies. What to do? Get stoned, shirk work, collapse in the heat, stare at the ceiling. Dealing with the locals turns out to be a lot easier for August than living with himself.

English, August is a comic masterpiece from contemporary India. Like A Confederacy of Dunces and The Catcher in the Rye, it is both an inspired and hilarious satire and a timeless story of self-discovery.”

Such A Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry, 1991

Indian-born Canadian author Rohinton Mistry’s second novel, Such A Long Journey, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and the Trillium Award. It has won several awards including the Governor General's Award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book, the W.H. Smith/Books in Canada First Novel Award, and the Neustadt International Prize for Literature.

“It is Bombay in 1971, the year India went to war over what was to become Bangladesh. A hard-working bank clerk, Gustad Noble is a devoted family man who gradually sees his modest life unravelling. His young daughter falls ill; his promising son defies his father’s ambitions for him. He is the one reasonable voice amidst the ongoing dramas of his neighbours.

“One day, he receives a letter from an old friend, asking him to help in what at first seems like an heroic mission. But he soon finds himself unwittingly drawn into a dangerous network of deception. Compassionate, and rich in details of character and place, this unforgettable novel charts the journey of a moral heart in a turbulent world of change.

A River Sutra by Gita Mehta, 1993

Gita Mehta, who comes from a political family, is a well-known writer, journalist, and documentary filmmaker. She was a television war correspondent for NBC. Her first book, Karma Cola, 1979, is about thousands of Westerners who came to India in the 1960s and 1970s to rediscover “the magic and mystery missing from their lives.”

A River Sutra is an enchanting collection of vignettes tells the story of a retired bureaucrat who has escaped the world to spend his twilight years running a guest house on the banks of the country’s holiest river, the Narmada. But he has chosen the wrong place for peace and quiet: too many lives converge here and he meets a series of unusual characters including a privileged young executive bewitched by a mysterious lover; a novice Jain monk moving from opulence to poverty; and a woman with a golden voice and a broken heart. As the bureaucrat moves from story to story, he ponders the meaning of each tale and the dark secrets which the river hides within its waters.

© Penguin Books India

17 comments:

  1. What a fine list of authors to try, Prashant! Thank you. I'm always looking to broaden my perspective, and this looks like a great place to start.

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    1. Margot, thank you. It's a great place for me to start, too! It's a shame I haven't read any of these books. I think Indian fiction really came into its own during the 1960-1990 period. Of course, we have seen some excellent award-winning novels since.

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  2. Thank you SO much for this list. I've saved it. I am very interested in almost every one. I recently bought a collection by Narayan on the kindle which has four books. I own a print copy of a Ghosh book. I have an affinity to India which I cannot explain.

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    1. You're most welcome, Nan. India is a beautiful country in so many ways—the sheer diversity of it is mind-boggling. I have only scratched the surface of Indian fiction, particularly since each of these authors has written several other good books. In terms of style R.K. Narayan reminds me of Hemingway. Amitav Ghosh is known for his deep and engaging study of historical people and places.

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  3. Three of these books caught my interest: English August, Such a Long Journey and a River Sutra. Back in the '60's I read a novel by an author I can't recall from India, and enjoyed it immensely. I think these will do the same. Thanks for posting this, Prashant.

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    1. You're welcome, Oscar. The influence of Western fiction on Indian readers is immense, which explains why homegrown authors are not read as often as they should be. The 21st century has seen a wave of new young writers none of whom I have read.

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  4. I will follow up on some of these, Prashant. The only author here I have read is Narayan and I have been planning to read more of his books. The Guide sounds like a good one too.

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    1. Tracy, in terms of style and simplicity, Narayan is in many ways India's Hemingway. His Malgudi series, both book and TV show, are wonderful. "The Guide" was also made into a Hindi movie.

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  5. I've heard of a few of these but not read them. Any dark and hard-hitting Indian crime fiction authors on your radar?

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    1. Good question, Col. I believe there has been a spurt in Indian crime fiction writing in recent years. I will have to do some research on that subject, and I think it's worth finding out. I will let you know as soon as I do.

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    2. The best Indian detective fiction are actually in Indian languages rather than English. Thus we have the authors Saradindu Bandyopadyyay (detective Byomkesh Bakshi) and Satyajit Ray (detective Feluda) in Bengali, Sujatha aka S. Ranganathan (detective duo Ganesh and Vasanth) in Tamil and Om Prakash Sharma (various detectives) in Hindi. I have highly enjoyed their stories.
      From above, only the Bengali authors have been translated into English.

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    3. Thank you - I'll look up the Bengali authors mentioned.

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    4. Santosh, thanks very much for writing. I'm only familiar with Satyajit Ray's Feluda who I still have to read. The others are new to me.

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  6. Thanks for this list. I need to delve into some of these writers.

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    1. Charles, these are some of the best-known Indian authors and they write across genres and in distinctive styles. I strongly recommend Salman Rushdie's MIDNIGHT'S CHILDREN.

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  7. What a great reading list! I have read some of these authors and some of these books,but will make notes to read more. Thanks Prashant.

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    1. You're welcome, Moira. They certainly rank among some of our great authors, each having a unique narrative style and story to tell.

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