In a recent forum discussion, I asked people to name their favourite Asian (or Asian inspired) novels. I added that the label 'NRI' needn't be a determining factor as I wouldn't want to rule out works from Salman Rushdie, Rudyard Kipling, E.M Forster or Gregory David Roberts for example. At the same time, I encouraged people to list lesser known authors from the sub-continent. Part of this discussion was inspired by DSC Literature Festival, currently taking place in London. I knew that as the festival was the first of its kind, there was evidently a back catalogue of titles that may have missed their moment. Therefore, I thought this would be an opportunity to look back and discuss some of the key works of Asian/Asian inspired literary fiction.
The suggested titles are listed in alphabetical order below; they represent some unique and popular works of fiction emerging in the Indian literary scene in recent times. But more than the works themselves, I wanted to look at our relationship with these novels. How have they influenced us and what impact have they made? One impression that can be gleaned from looking at some of the titles is that they document the personal stories behind great political upheavals in the twentieth century. Midnight’s Children, for example, employs magical realism to observe the events surrounding partition, whereas A Suitable Boy looks at the complexities of family life in its aftermath. Other themes in the list go further back; Saratchandra Chattopadhyay’s novels document the country in the very early part of the twentieth century. Equally impressive, is that the historical novels in this list demonstrate a movement of writers that were embracing the English language for the first time. They’ve shown to the readers that they can adopt the language of the west to depict the nuances of the east. In addition to these works of fiction, Kushwant Singh’s body of work has also been noted for its historical accounts. Of course, for most writers, history is simply a back-drop to the drama that actually unfolds. Other novelists deal with the social, cultural and political predicaments of modern India; quite often this is contemplative, sometimes it’s metaphysical, and occasionally even action-packed.
My initial impressions from embarking with this project was that India, does indeed have a rich literary tradition, perhaps inspired by the Oral tradition of ancient times. The Ramayan and Mahabharat are major examples. However, it’s not these epic tales themselves that are of interest, but more so the manner of their telling. For instance, The Ramayan is not just a story about a rescue; it’s a look into the lives, fears and hopes of many characters. A good story teller doesn’t just have us think about a damsel in distress, instead he or she asks us to consider the psychology and desire behind Laxman’s anger, the close proximity of Bharat and Kaikeyi, the turmoil of Mandodari and the frustration of Sita; the better the story teller, the more empathetic the audience. For centuries story-tellers carved out their own voices, which eventually translated into the tapestry of voices we see in India today, present in over-produced-pulp television, to Technicolor cinema and of course the novel itself. Distinctions between what voices are highbrow and lowbrow are made by readers themselves.
Of course not all readers will identify with every voice in all of these novels. From the list below, some titles have proved more popular than others; some titles have endured criticism whilst others have been considered populist. However, unlike the expectations of the nineteenth-century novel, these writers have been able to take on smaller and abstract complexities of modernism and make them appealing. Rabindranath Tagore’s Choker Bali, for example, explores themes of adultery where Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance uses history and politics as a framework for its characters. But modernist or not, all of these novels, in some capacity, do introduce a microcosm of a changing Asian society. Of course, not all readers will be after this, each reader will approach a title for different reasons. When asking people to give their thoughts on various titles, some did mention that the usual examples weren’t always what they took to be the best. The God of Small Things by Arundathi Roy is sometimes cited as ‘a nothing book’, though still well observed. At the same time, Midnight’s Children’s by Rushdie is usually considered to be a novel that requires several re-reads.
I often watch travel programmes where tourists marvel at the joys of India. They typically call it a land of contrasts – sometimes citing the Karma Sutra as a point of reference, indicating that where we’re culturally rich in one respect, we are equally inhibited in another. I, however, think that with the development of an Indian literary canon, a lot of this inhibition has been broken down through the written word. Feeling and expression which is often difficult to articulate in real life, is expressed through literature, so it is no surprise that the novel has been put on a pedestal. We can therefore look at these books as a means of providing a voice for more than just their characters and authors, but a favourite selection of voices representing the interest of the readers themselves.
· A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry
· A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth
· Blood Brothers: A Family Saga – M.J Akbar
· Calcutta Chromosome – Amitav Ghosh
· Choker Bali – Rabindranath Tagore
· Dead Camel – Parvati Sharma
· Devdas – Saratchandra Chattopadhyay
· East, West – Salman Rushdie
· English August – Upamanyu Chatterjee
· Eunuch Park – Palash Krishna Mehrota
· Fury – Salman Rushdie
· Ghalib At Dusk – Nighat Gandhi
· Glass Palace – Amitav Ghosh
· God of Small Things – Arundhati Roy
· Hungry Tide – Amitav Ghosh
· In Which Annie Gives It Those Ones – Arundhati Roy
· Inheritance of Loss – Kiran Desai
· Life of Pi – Yann Martel
· Middleman (Jana Aranya translated from Bengali) – Shankar Chowringhee
· Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie
· Namesake – Jhumpa Lahiri
· One Life to Ride – Ajit Harisinghani
· Parineeta – Saratchandra Chattopadhyay
· Reef – Romesh Guneskera
· Room on the Roof – Ruskin Bond
· Sea of Poppies – Amitavh Ghosh
· Shantaram – Gregory David Roberts
· Shesher Kobita – Rabindranath Tagore
· Srikanta – Saratchandra Chattopadhyay
· Staying On – Paul Scott
· Unaccustomed Earth – Jhumpa Lahiri
· White Tiger – Aravind Adiga