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.
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)
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)
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.
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.
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.
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 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”
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)
Anita Jain, Marrying Anita (2008)
Dinesh D’Souza, “The Enemy at Home: The Cultural Left and its Responsibility for 9/11” (2006)
Biju Matthew, “Taxi! Cabs and Capitalism in New York City”
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)
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”
Padma Viswanathan, “Toss of a Lemon”
Tahmima Anam, “A Golden Age”
V.V. Ganeshananthan, “Love Marriage”
Karan Mahajan, “Family Planning” (2009)
Marina Budhos, “Ask Me No Questions”
Nikita Lalwani, “Gifted” (2007)
Gautam Malkani, “Londonstani” (2006)