Best South Asia Books of the 2000s

The 2000s were a great decade for books related to South Asia in western publishing. Earlier it seemed that there was a very limited quota for South Asia related material in American publishing — but that’s ended.

I took some heat from readers for the narrowness of some of my earlier polls, so for these polls I decided to open up the voting with longer lists. I think a non-South Asian writer could potentially write as well about South Asian life as a desi, so I decided to open the lists up to non-desi writers who have made a mark, especially folks like William Dalrymple.

I also felt that it would be unfair to put new novelists, whose names might not yet be familiar to a lot of people, in contest with established Big Name authors. So I divided the fiction list into two — one for established writers (who were either not writing their first books in the 2000s, or whose first books were runaway successes), and one for “up and comers,” who did publish first novels in the 2000s. Doing it this way also allows me to point to a number of Sepia Mutiny reviews and Q&As that my co-bloggers and I have have done over the past few years.

Below I’ve put some comments, where I have something to say about a particular book. There are a few books on the polls I haven’t actually read — so I refrained from making any comments. There are also a few books I have read where I decided not to comment. However, even if there’s no comment below, the books might still be on the poll; my silence should not be taken as an attempt to influence the vote.

Finally, I’m sure I still missed many names that readers might find important, especially on the “up and comers” poll. Unfortunately the way this free poll service works, it’s not possible for me to go back and change a poll. However, I can always amend the text of the post itself if need be. Please mention other titles or authors in the comments.Kiran Desai Booker Prize Winner, 2006

As a look at the gap between high and low in Indian society today, this book hit a lot of really important notes — the alienation of the elites, the rise of local/regional militancies. It was also well-thought out and put together. Was it also rather derivative of Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things (1998)? In my view, yes.

Aravind Adiga, The White Tiger Booker Prize, 2008

Readers may remember that I dissed this book, as not really presenting a believable protagonist. I still have to give it props, however: it has caused a lot of interesting debate about important subjects. And it’s led some of my American students at the university where I teach — often with little background on India — to write really insightful papers about the divide between the haves & have nots in the globalization/outsourcing/multinational capital era.

Jhumpa Lahiri, “Unaccustomed Earth” (2008) Sandhya’s review

Lahiri’s third book was more sober and grown-up than her first two books, but the writing was very fine. Since several of the stories involve mature married couples with kids, it resonated with me as a new parent myself. However, I wonder whether younger readers will find much to grab onto here.

Jhumpa Lahiri, “The Namesake” (2003)

This has become for me the ‘classic’ middle class second-generation (ABD) novel. Lahiri’s uses Gogol’s relationship to his names as a metaphor for the identity crises many second-generation South Asian American youth go through. The book seemed to get a little lost once Gogol got out of college, but as I read the first half I saw something that resonated with my own experience on practically every page.

Amitav Ghosh, Sea of Poppies Shortlisted for Booker Prize, 2008

There’s no doubt that Amitav Ghosh is one of the great novelists of our era, and the 2000s was a great decade for him, with three impressive new novels published. Sea of Poppies is set in the 1830s, mainly in eastern India — Bihar and Calcutta. Ghosh’s ability to capture and recreate the maritime sailors’ pidgin, Anglo-Indian pidgin (spoken by settled whites in India), and ‘Babu’ English (spoken by Indians learning English) is often astonishing. It can also be hard to follow, which is why the American edition of the book has an extensive (and somewhat cryptic) glossary.

Amitav Ghosh, The Hungry Tide, 2004

Though I greatly respect the historical research that went into both The Glass Palace and Sea of Poppies, The Hungry Tidei is probably my favorite book by Ghosh from the 2000s. Ghosh gets at the tension between environmentalism and conservationism in the Sunderbans — especially as it impacts tigers and aquatic life — and the need to protect the rights of human beings who are settled in the area. In contrast to the longer books Ghosh writes before and after this one, here the story is tightly constructed and limited in scope, making it an easier and simpler read.

Salman Rushdie, Enchantress of Florence

Rushdie published multiple novels in the 2000s, but The Enchantress of Florence was the only one I found I could really get into. While the historical research and cross-cultural juxtapositions Rushdie finds here are certainly intriguing, at some point the plot fell flat for me.

Indra Sinha, “Animal’s People” (2007)

SM Q&A with Sandhya SM Review by Sandhya

Mohsin Hamid, “The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” 2007 Shortlisted for the Booker Prize

Mohsin Hamid is one of the most impressive writers in the new wave of Pakistani writing in English. This book, modeled on Albert Camus’ existentialist classic, The Fall (La Chute in French) is written entirely in the second-person voice, as a monologue by an alienated Pakistani American banker, who left the U.S. after 9/11 to return to Pakistan. He is speaking to an American in a cafe in Lahore, who may or may not be there to assassinate the protagonist. Though some readers found the unusual approach of this novel gimmicky, I liked it. I also like the way Hamid maintains a sense of suspense all the way to the end of the story. Admittedly, it’s not really about “fundamentalism,” so much as it is about “anti-Americanism,” but didn’t bother me so much.

Mohsin Hamid, “Moth Smoke” (2000)

Hamid’s first novel, about an overly-indulged, drug-using slacker in globalization-era Lahore, is highly entertaining and irreverent. When I’ve taught it my students have all generally latched onto it, as it gives a very different picture of life in contemporary Pakistan than what they’ve come to expect.

Vikram Chandra, “Sacred Games” (2006)

Siddhartha’s preview

This was one of the most hyped Indian-English novels of the decade, and it certainly delivered — for those few readers who were actually willing to go along for the 900 page ride. Chandra’s novel was probably the peak of a broader, decade-long obsession, on the part of writers and filmmakers, with Bombay gangsters. Though nominally a story about a cop’s obsessive pursuit of a gangster, Sacred Games incorporated broad swathes of Indian history and religious themes as well. Did I enjoy the 500 or so pages of the novel I actually read? Yes, very much. Will I ever finish it? Hm, dunno.

Uday Prakash, “The Girl With the Golden Parachute” (Hindi)

It seemed important to include at least some South Asian writing in languages other than English. Unfortunately, most of the non-English language writing I know was written in earlier decades. However, one novel that was published in Hindi and translated into English in the 2000s was Uday Prakash’s “The Girl With the Golden Parasol” (HIndi: Chhatri Wali Larki). You can buy it in the U.S. from here.

NON-FICTION

Salman Rushdie, “Step Across This Line”, 2002

Though Rushdie hasn’t written a good novel in a little while, he is still a great essayist. This collection of essays has some memorable critiques of all forms of fundamentalist or backwards thinking, whether in South Asian religions (Hinduism, Islam), or in the west (the creationist movement in the U.S.).

Arundhati Roy, “Power Politics” (2002), “War Talk” (2003), “Listening to Grasshoppers” (2009)

I often differed with Arundhati Roy in the 2000s over specific policy issues, and it has seemed that she has grown more shrill over the course of the decade. But she remains the most recognizable voice on the Indian, anti-globalization left.

Ramachandra Guha, “India After Gandhi” (2007)

This book, a centrist account of India’s post-independence history focusing on a series of controversial & contested incidents, is clearly a major accomplishment, though certainly it has its critics. Some on the right felt that Guha was too sympathetic to Nehru. Critics of Indian nationalism, whether domestic or from Pakistan, felt that his pro-Nehru bias also led to a mis-characterization of Jinnah’s role.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Imperial Life in the Emerald City

One of the most damning accounts of post-invasion Iraq. A catalogue of mis-management, waste, and political group-think, which unfortunately led to human suffering on a massive scale. Look for this book to be talked about again once the Paul Greengrass/Matt Damon film based on it comes out.

Fareed Zakaria The Future of Freedom (2003), The Post-American World, 2008

Fareed Zakaria was everywhere this past decade — a major presence in television news and in print journalism. From a cautious support for the Iraq war, to full-throated support for Barack Obama in the 2008 elections, he clearly started to shift to the left once the after-effects of the Iraq war became clear. Obama was once photographed carrying a copy of “The Post-American World” on a plane flight.

“The Future of Freedom” is a very provocative collection of essays about the distinction between formal and substantive democracy. Formal democracies hold elections — but substantive democracies have checks and balances on power, and working civic, judicial, and economic institutions that protect the rights of citizens. A country like Iran might be called a “formal” democracy because of its parliamentary system, but not a substantive democracy. Zakaria is also critical of the idea that merely giving power to the people is productive — governments have to have the authority to actually make things happen, or you end up with a situation like California’s.

Suketu Mehta, “Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found”

Anna’s post on Maximum City My post on Maximum City

This is a book that got a lot of attention when it came out, for just reason. I also think it inspired the script-writers of “Slumdog Millionaire” more than has been publicly acknowledged. The most revolutionary aspect of Mehta’s book is his ability to convince Bombay’s police, gangsters, politicians, filmmakers, and dance bar women to be extremely open with him. Exactly how he managed to do this is something I still find amazing; the main thing seems to be his willingness to simply refuse to intervene in the life he was attempting to document in this book. If the police were brutally torturing a suspect, he watched it but did not complain. Later, Mehta got into a spat with Vidhu Vinod Chopra over his portrayal of the director in the book; in fact, Mehta seemed to paint a relatively sympathetic portrait of VVC. Mehta is currently working on an equivalent book on New York City; I look forward to it.

Vikram Seth, “Two Lives” (2006)

My post on this book

Sudhir Venkatesh, Off the Books: The Underground Economy and the Urban Poor (2006), Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets (2008)

Abhi’s post on Sudhir Venkatesh

Anita Jain, Marrying Anita (2008)

Sepia Mutiny Q&A with Sandhya

Dinesh D’Souza, “The Enemy at Home: The Cultural Left and its Responsibility for 9/11″ (2006)

Siddhartha’s skewering here

Biju Matthew, “Taxi! Cabs and Capitalism in New York City”

Abhi’s post

Amitava Kumar, “Bombay-London-New York” (2002), “Passport Photos” (2000), “Husband of a Fanatic” (2005)

Amitava Kumar has pioneered an intriguing style of creative non-fiction, often employing elements of memoir, journalism, and literary analysis together. I thought all three of the non-fiction books he published in the 2000s were wonderful.

Ali Eteraz, “Children of Dust” (2009)

Taz’s review here

BEST FIRST BOOK (Up and Comers!)

This gives us a chance to take a look at some of the many books that have been reviewed by SM bloggers over the past few years. It also seems like the right place to put one of our own, V.V. Ganeshananthan.

Incidentally, the list of books included on the poll could have easily been twice as long, with a wide range of new authors coming up. I tried to select books that I thought represented a range of tastes. I also wanted to include a few of the books recently published in India itself.

Preeta Samarasan, “Evening is the Whole Day”

My review of this book

Padma Viswanathan, “Toss of a Lemon”

Q&A with Sandhya Review by Sandhya

Tahmima Anam, “A Golden Age”

My review of this book

V.V. Ganeshananthan, “Love Marriage”

Sandhya’s Q&A

Karan Mahajan, “Family Planning” (2009)

Sandhya’s review here

Marina Budhos, “Ask Me No Questions”

Manish’s post

Nikita Lalwani, “Gifted” (2007)

My review here

Gautam Malkani, “Londonstani” (2006)

Sajit’s review

75 thoughts on “Best South Asia Books of the 2000s

  1. I’d like to draw your attention to British Asian author Raman Mundair who definitely deserves to be in your up and coming writer’s list. She is the author of ‘Lovers, Liars, Conjurors and Thieves,’ ‘A Choreographer’s Cartography’ and ‘The Algebra of Freedom.’ A Check her out – she’s brilliant and unafraid – a strong, new voice in the growing canon of the contemporary South Asian experience. I think she’s working on some fiction at the moment so I guess that will be out soon. More info. about her/her work can be found at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raman_Mundair http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_ss?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=raman+mundair&x=0&y=0 http://www.word-express.org/travel-blog/ramanmundair/

  2. My View

    Hindi Kohre Mein Kaid Rang (Novel) 2008, Govind Mishra[2] Kyap (Novel) 2005, Manohar Shyam Joshi Kitne Pakistan (Novel) 2003, Kamleshwar

    Punjabi Jugtu (Novel) 2002, Sadhu Binning Purja purja katt marey( Novel) 2006, Shivcharan Jaggi Kussa Neela Noor ( Novella) 2007, Roop Dhillon

  3. I like Salmon Rsushdie, but prefer Anita Desai..Toss oof a lemon looks interesting..as does the namesake..re Indian language books, I think:-

    Urdu Novel, Pyar Ka Pehla Shehar-Mustansar Hussain Tarar Nepali Novel, Palpasa Café-Narayan Wagle Malayalam Novels, Pathummayude aadu-Vaikom Mohammed Basheer

  4. Has anyone read “The Prayer Room,” the first novel by Shanti Sekaran? I’d be curious to know what you think.

  5. Maybe, but what gets my goat is that Indians in India set themselves up as a sort of ‘authenticity police…

    They are called critics and it is their job to take things apart

  6. They are called critics and it is their job to take things apart

    those who can’t …. and do so with chips on their shoulders, like you have.

    also, authenticity police critics deserve to live in the garbage their work is consigned to.

  7. People who can’t write themselves should never be allowed to be critics…that said in Indians you often get jealous writers, or those who don’t understand others work, picking on good work ( I guess one could call it negative unconstructive critisism)..but as jyotsana says..it’s their job

  8. Rant alert…

    Why do ‘South Asian’ (English) writers pick excruciatingly boring subjects and are poor story tellers? Too influenced by Victorian literature? Even the good ones like Salman are excessively self-indulgent. Are they really interested in what they write about or is it all just pointless intellectual masturbation? (Perhaps Amitava Ghosh is an exception). On the fiction list, though I haven’t read all of them, only Shantaram and Life of Pi (despite plagiarism or the accusations of it) are ones I remember enjoying reading, as you would enjoy The Count of Montecristo (ironic that Aadiga mentioned that was one of fav books). Thanks to all the awards hoopla and unabashed jingoism (ostenibly you would be able to ‘relate’ to the stories), you can get endless copies of The Namesake in India but never be able to lay your hands on a Philip K Dick.

  9. The subject matters don’t annoy me so much, but i wish for once a desi writer from the West had the guts to write a character which DIDN’T cite ‘family traditions/Indian culture’ as a reason to remain completely passive and let life just happen to them (see: Jhumpa Lahiri).

  10. Can somebody creata a public list of all these books in amazon and post a link please. I am too lazy.

  11. Dinesh D’Souza’s What’s so great about Christianity? belongs in the list. The work has been compared to CS Lewis’s books and was even praised by athiests like Michael Shermer.

  12. I loved Life of Pi..but Yann Martel strictly is not asian..should a book be about Indians to be on the list?? Or just written by Indians?

    That’s another interesting thing..in UK Asian means Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi et cetra…Oriental or Simply Chinese means Chinese..but at Sepiamutiny we are called South East Asian, which means oriental people in UK..

    Any more suggestions on non english books?

  13. Many thanks for this list. It isn’t complete in my view without Atlas of Unknowns by Tania James, whose characters have been in my mind and heart since I read the book several months ago. San Francisco Chronicle called it one of the best debuts since Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. Pullitzer winner Junot Diaz said: “Wise and hilarious [James'] Atlas is an astonishment of a debut, so radiant with life, with love, with good old human struggle that I had trouble detaching myself from its pages.”

    Happy reading to all in 2010.

  14. http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/home/sunday-toi/book-mark/What-we-were-reading-in-the-noughties/articleshow/5383165.cms Go to this website for whole article or read below

    The decade began with a bang for India when Indian-American Jhumpa Lahiri won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000 for her book Interpreter of Maladies.

    V S Naipaul, who is of Indo-Trinidadian descent, was awarded the 2001 Nobel Prize for Literature. Even so, Indian writing or ‘India’ was not the focus of publishing in the last decade, though another Booker came in 2008 for an Indian author — Arvind Adiga for The White Tiger. We take a look at the some of the major trends in international and national publishing since the turn of the millennium.

    The Fantasy Genre

    When the first book in the boy-magician series, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, hit the book stands in 1997, it was a quiet affair. But, by the time the fourth book, The Goblet of Fire, was published in 2005, the publishing blitzkrieg was in full force. By then, author J K Rowling’s books had been on the bestseller list for 79 weeks. Bookshops opened at midnight to serpentine queues on the day of publication.

    The latest book, Harry Potter and Deathly Hallows, broke records with 11 million copies sold in the first 24 hours. The Potter phenomenon gave a boost to the dormant fantasy genre. Not only did J R Tolkien and C S Lewis’ books get a fresh lease of life — with loads of help from Hollywood — new authors cashed in on the growing thirst for books on fantasy and science fiction.

    Irish writer Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl series, first published in 2001, became an instant bestseller. Even India had its own version of modern-day fantasy novels in Samit Basu’s The Simoqin Prophecies.

    9/11 and terrorism

    Never before had so many books on terror or Islam been written as after the 9/11 attacks. Within a year of the event, bookstores were flooded with titles offering various theories and probabilities behind the terror strike. Gore Vidal’s Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace, Noam Chomsky’s 9-11, Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 were among the many books that adorned the shelves in bookstores.

    Similarly, terrorism and Islam became hot topics for publishers. Inside Terrorism by Bruce Hoffman, Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia by Ahmed Rashid, Holy War, Inc: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden by Peter L Bergen became some of the runaway bestsellers. Thomas Abraham, managing director, Hachette India, however, doesn’t think this was a dominant trend. He calls them “just topical non-fiction” and believes that had something else been the focus of political life, that would have become the trend.

    Pakistani Literature What the late 80s and 90s were for Anglo-Indian fiction, the last decade has been for Pakistani writing in English. Younger writers such as Mohsin Hamid, Kamila Shamsie, Nadeem Aslam, Daniyal Mueenuddin, Mohammad Hanif are some of the writers whose books present a portrayal of the Pakistani way of life, that few outsiders know about. Diya Kar Hazra, editorial and rights director, Penguin India, says that “there is a lot of interest in writing from Pakistan, and media attention is on Pakistani writers too.”

    Indian chick-lit

    Blame it on Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’ Diary or even the television show Sex and the City. The urban, single, independent, fun-loving females caught the fancy of the younger generation, who could identify with the characters. Advaita Kala’s Almost Single, Anuja Chauhan’s The Zoya Factor and Swati Kaushal’s A Piece of Cake have been some notable titles in this sub-genre. Hazra, however, maintains that “the term ‘chick-lit’ is sort of passé now. Writers are doing so much within the genre, that there is great variety in ‘chick-lit’ today”.

    Yet, never before have so many books — written by young women about their peers — been published. Many, however, would like to argue that the biggest trend in Indian publishing has been the rise of commercial fiction. Abraham explains, “A fully mature market should be measured by the evolution of its commercial fiction. We’re just seeing the beginnings of this and have some way to go. There are many factors — first and the most important being the emergence of writers willing to write for these genres and for local audiences. Then there’s the blurring of lines between good and bad books (like cinema today) — rather than the traditional viewpoints of ‘literary’ and ‘non-literary’, with the accompanying snootiness about the latter. There’s also the growth of a middle class and the modernizing of publishing and bookselling.”

    Smart picks

    What you might have read this decade about India — but probably didn’t.

    In Spite of the Gods: The Rise of Modern India –by Edward Luce A sympathetic narrative about a rising economic and geopolitical giant

    The Elephant and the Dragon: The Rise of India and China and What It Means for All of Us –by Robyn Meredith Why the US should not fear the two rising Asian economic powers

    India’s Global Wealth Club: The Stunning Rise of its Billionaires and their Secrets of Success –by Geoff Hiscock How a few Indian entrepreneurs transformed their businesses into global companies

    Speaking of India: Bridging the Communication Gap When Working With Indians –by Craig Storti Self-explanatory guide to a better working relationship between Westerners and Indians in a flat world

    Democratic Politics and Economic Reform in India –by Rob Jenkins A critical analysis of the relationship between democracy and economic liberalization and how democracy survives through political manoeuvring

    Not Dog-eared

    Decade of harry potter? | Author of the Harry Potter series, J K Rowling leads the ‘best-selling author of the decade’ list of online retailer Amazon.com. Dan Brown, author of the Da Vinci Code, is at the sixth position and William Shakespeare at the 10th position. Rowling’s books also rank high on the best-selling books list. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince are placed first and second respectively.

    The ‘O’ factor fades | Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club turned 34 titles into best-sellers during the decade. But the phenomenon has waned, with the club making only one selection this year. Her show ends in 2011.

    Free books online | The biggest development in the book world this decade was undoubtedly the development of ebooks. Long before e-readers arrived, websites brought thousands of books to people for free. Suddenly, classics and modern literature were available, at no cost.

    The ones that didn’t make it | A report in the Guardian newspaper says that some of the best books of the decade that never made the best-seller list were — The Spare Room by Helen Garner, The Secrets of the Chess Machine by Robert Lohr, Barefoot Soldier by Johnson Beharry VC, War Reporting for Cowards by Chris Ayres, Black Juice by Margo Lanagan, Journal by Hélène Berr, Boy A by Jonathan Trigell, The Three of Us by Julia Blackburn and The Girl Who Stopped Swimming by Joshilyn Jackson.

  15. Mistry blows the rest of that fiction list out of the water. That’s serious fuckin lit. No one’s mentioned Home Boy by H M Naqvi, which is better than at least a few of the alternatives (Moth Smoke?? That might be up your alley if Sidney Sheldon was your favorite author.)

  16. Mistry is not have as good as ( no modern English language writer is as good as the old ones) some of the books written in local Indian Languages Builder Ji

    I guess that makes all the rest of the above English language list crap

  17. I like the following writers..they are must reads

    1. Ajmer Rode
    2. Nadir Ali
    3. Mansha Yaad
    4. Amrita Pritam
    5. Roop Dhillon
    6. Najm Hosain Syed
    7. Surjeet Kalsey
    8. Mazhar Tirmazi
    9. Shivcharan Jaggi Kussa
    10. Vaikom Mohammed Basheer
    11. Govind Mishra
    12. Kiran Desai
    13. Vikram Seth
    14. Sadhu Binning
    15. Mohammed Hanif
    16. Amarjit Chandan