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. Continue reading

Vinayak Gorur’s passion for cooking

Every now and then, you come across someone who’s really good atGorur.jpg what he does at a young age – and all you can do is shake your head and be depressed. I mean, impressed. Vinayak Gorur of Ahwatukee Foothills, Ariz., is only 21, but already making people shake their heads.

Starting your own catering company, landing a job as a sous-chef at a respected restaurant and winning a prestigious cooking competition are three feats most people might aspire to accomplish over the course of their lifetime, but Vinayak Gorur, an Ahwatukee Foothills resident and Desert Vista graduate, has accomplished all three tasks by the age of 21. …

In May of last year, Gorur won a scholarship to the Scottsdale Culinary Institute, which led him to pursue a career as a chef. Gorur, who is of Indian descent, acknowledges that this is not a typical career path chosen by Indians.

“Most Indians pursue science, but I love cooking,” he said. “I really have a passion for this.” [Link]

Gorur is definitely passionate about cooking. Just read the article in the Ahwatukee Foothills News and you may get a clue how good he is at brewing something or spreading it on thick.

Continue reading

Sea of Poppies: A Review

Sea-of-Poppies-BOOKS__.jpg Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies is a remarkable novel, complex and challenging enough to test even the most experienced reader and historian, but relatable and powerful enough to touch someone who solely appreciates a great story. Dickensian in its scope and power, the story follows riveting characters from all origins as they navigate the complex contours of 1830’s opium-ridden India, a land where the weight of history lies heavily, yet identities are transformed overnight.

Warning: Some plot details are included! If you are going to read the book (which you should), read the rest of the review afterwards Continue reading

Twisters on Twitter

Author Arjun Basu of Montreal got on Twitter last fall and published a handful of “typically banal” tweets. Then inspiration hit and he created his first Twister. That’s what he calls his short short stories of 140 characters. Since then he’s written over a thousand Twisters and become a popular source for readers seeking a regular fix of micro-fiction.

Arjun_01_normal.jpgAs a child he delivered newspapers. As an adult he delivered bad news daily. Because he was a negative person. And the world’s worst surgeon 5:34 AM Apr 29th

Micro-fiction is not new to the web, as those of you who contributed to Sepia Mutiny’s flash fiction Fridays know. The shortest of the form might be six-word memoirs like the ones found at Smith Magazine. Links to more micro-fiction on the web are welcome in the comments. Continue reading

Review: Amit Varma’s “My Friend Sancho”

The mighty Bombay blogger Amit Varma’s first novel, My Friend Sancho, is a quick and entertaining summer read, which also manages to make some serious points along the way. It does not aspire to be “serious” literature, but it is certainly several significant notches above One Night @ the Call Center. Indeed, I would not even put the two books in the same blog post, except Manish planted the damn meme in my head before I got around to reading Amit’s novel.

(Before I get much further, I should mention that, while My Friend Sancho has not been published in the U.S. yet, you can still get it in the U.S. from here.)

I gather that Manish’s comparison, in the post I linked to above, had more to do with the new market for books like these — books that are primarily directed at a growing popular market for English language books within India, rather than the western “literary fiction” market to which most diasporic writers really aspire (even those who say they are writing with Indian readers in mind).

But still, do we really have to go there? Bhagat’s Call Center was a mind-numbing collection of topical cliches, juvenile crushes, and predictable silliness. I gather that Amit would not be averse to selling a few copies of his book, but My Friend Sancho is a much smarter and more provocative book, which gets into the ethics of journalism, police encounters, and even, to some extent, cross-religious romance. Admittedly, Amit’s book does have some blemishes, such as the bits where his fictional character references Varma’s real-life blog (I gather it was meant as an in-joke, but there is a danger of turning off readers who might perceive it as narcissism). Also, the romance between Abir and Muneeza has a kind of innocence to it that doesn’t fit Abir’s otherwise jaded persona that well. But neither of these are fatal, and perhaps Varma will iron out some of the kinks in his next one.

You don’t have to take my word for it; below are a few paragraphs I liked in particular in My Friend Sancho. If you like them, you’ll probably like the novel. If not, you might not. Continue reading

Review & Interview: “Family Planning,” by Karan Mahajan

When you’re visibly pregnant and riding the NYC subway with a book titled “Family Planning” in hand, you’re bound to draw stares and curious gazes. Such was my experience earlier this month as I traveled on the downtown 1 with 25 year old Karan Mahajan’s laughter-inducing yet tender first novel in hand. In this Brooklyn-based, New Delhi-born author’s debut work (HarperPerennial, 2008) set in contemporary New Delhi, family life, politics, adolescent love, and prime time soap operas intertwine in entertaining and unexpectedly moving ways. mahajancover.jpg

At the heart of this story is the chaotic household of Rakesh Ahuja, a hard of hearing, America returned engineer who holds a prestigious position as New Delhi’s Minister of Urban Development. Apart from the bureaucratic and political challenges that face him at work (he’s in charge of a laborious flyover construction project and part of a political party that sponsors intolerable bills such as the Diversity of the Motherland Act which calls for the compulsory registration of all Muslims “for reasons of diversity and national security”), Rakesh is beset by his own personal dramas at home.

The father of 13 children (and one more en route), he must deal with the trauma of having had his teenage son Arjun walk in on him having sex with his wife in the baby nursery. Understandably, Arjun asks, “Papa, I don’t understand–why do you and Mama keep having babies?”

While he has to figure out a way to explain himself to his son (“Obviously, Mr. Ahuja couldn’t tell his son that he was only attracted to Mrs. Ahuja when she was pregnant” reads the first line of the novel), this is not the only secret Mr. Ahuja has been keeping from his son, master babysitter and eldest of 12 younger siblings and darling of his mother, Mrs. Ahuja, an unattractive woman whose days are spent changing diapers, managing her vast household, knitting, and recovering from the loss of her favorite TV character Mohan Bedi from Zee-TV soap opera, “The Vengeful Daughter-in-Law.” There’s also the bit of information about Rakesh’s first wife, Arjun’s mother, who suffered a tragic death and who continues to haunt his unhappy existence. Meanwhile there’s Arjun, an awkward teen so madly in love with Aarti, a Catholic school beauty who rides the morning bus with him that he’ll do anything to get her attention–even start a rock band with a bunch of classmates.

Yes, there’s a great deal happening in Mahajan’s novel; many competing heartbreaks and dramas. And yet, as a reader, I was pulled in just as much by Mahajan’s observant and sensitive eye as I was by his ability to create satirical scenarios that reflect some of the complexities and paradoxes of social and political life in today’s India.

Read the rest of this review and a Q&A with Mahajan, whose sense of humor is as refreshing in the interview format as it is in his prose, below the fold. Continue reading

Orange You Glad?

Love Marriage Cover.jpgThis just in…

The Orange Prize for Fiction, the UK’s only annual book award for fiction written by a woman, today announces the 2009 longlist. Now in its fourteenth year, the Prize celebrates excellence, originality and accessibility in women’s writing from throughout the world.[Orange Prize]

On the long list are a few South Asian authors, including our very own own Mutineer V.V. Ganeshananthan for her book Love Marriage. Congratulations!

Yalini (the narrator and the end product of many marriages) and her generation are the children of their parents. But they live in other countries where the old rules of marriage – Love Marriage, Arranged Marriage and everything in between – do not apply. And parents who left Sri Lanka to escape the ethnic violence and to give their children opportunity, look on helplessly as those children embrace the one opportunity they didn’t intend them to take: Western Marriage.[OrangePrize]

Intrigued? Read her Sepia Mutiny interview with Sandhya here.

Other South Asian notable mentions include Preeta Samarasan and Kamila Shamsie. More after the jump… Continue reading

Shine, Coconut Moon Shines Light on Post 9/11 Sikh Experience

Soon after 9/11, a friend of mine told me that her college roommate’s home had been visited by the local police in their town in upstate New York. The police wanted to search the home of this family because they’d heard they had a picture of Osama Bin Laden hanging in their living room. The cops were mistaken. This was the home of a pious Sikh family and the picture was of Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion.

I’ve often thought about this story. There are so many more like it — incidents of mistaken identities, faulty detentions, stereotyping, and violent acts in the wake of September 11th. We’ve read about them in the press and slowly, literature is beginning to tackle this dark period of recent American history as well; a time that unfolded in what Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic artist, Art Spiegelman, described so aptly as “in the shadow of no towers.”shinecoconut.jpg

A few years ago, Ask Me No Questions by Marina Budhos was one of the first young adult offerings to address the challenge of growing up South Asian and Muslim in an America altered by 9/11. First time novelist Nisha Meminger takes on a similar theme in her new YA novel Shine, Coconut Moon, just published by Simon & Schuster.

When her turbaned uncle appears at the doorstep of her suburban NJ home just four days after the 9/11 attacks, 16 year old Samar is caught off guard. Raised in a single-parent household by an Indian-American mother who cut off ties with her Sikh family many years before, Samar has no connection to her cultural roots and traditions. She is skeptical of this man, Uncle Sandeep, who claims to want to reconnect with his estranged sister because “we’re living in different times now … and I want to be close to the ones I love. The world is in turmoil–we’re at war. Anything could happen at any moment.”

As Samar gets to know her uncle, she begins to learn about Sikhism and gets to know her grandparents. She even visits a gurdwara for the first time in her life. This prompts her to start questioning her mother’s decision to raise her to think of herself “like everyone else.” She begins to question her identity; wondering whether she is a coconut — someone who is brown on the outside and white on the inside–someone who may physically appear to be Indian but doesn’t know who she really is. At the same time, she is shocked and saddened by a series of troubling events in her community that affect her personally: her uncle is attacked by a bunch of teenage boys who goad him to “Go back home, Osama!” and the local gurdwara is set on fire.

In his compelling Guardian article “The End of Innocence” Pankaj Mishra writes, “‘Post-9/11′ fiction often seems to use the attacks and their aftermath too cheaply, as background for books that would have been written anyway.” Shine, Coconut Moon does not fall into this category. Most definitively shaped by the effect of 9/11 on minority immigrant communities, this is an ambitious coming of age novel for young adults that seeks to demonstrate the effects of fear mongering on the lives of ordinary minority teens who saw themselves as American before 9/11.

Below the fold is an excerpt from the novel, as well as a Q&A with, Neesha Meminger where she talks about her novel writing process and the real-life incidents that inspired it. And, for those in the NYC area, there is a book launch party and reading this Saturday, March 14th at 7 pm at Bluestockings Bookstore. Continue reading

Review: “The Toss of a Lemon” by Padma Viswanathan

Read my Q&A with Padma Viswanathan here.

No, it’s not a book of recipes and she’s not the sister of the much-maligned Kaavya. “The Toss of a Lemon” (Harcourt, Sept. 2008) is Arkansas-based and Canada-born writer’s first novel. And what a beautifully-wrought, political, social, and at times heart-wrenching work it is—ten years in the making. toss-cover-us.jpg

The Toss of a Lemon begins in 1896 in the caste-organized village of Cholapatti in Tamil Nadu and carries us to 1958 where the strictures of caste have broken apart amidst the new economic and political framework of post-colonial India, specifically South India.

In the opening scene, ten year old Sivakami (a character based on Viswanathan’s great-great grandmother)and her parents are on a pilgrimage to “her mother’s place” and decide to pay a visit to a young healer and astrologer Hanumarathnam. While making Sivakami’s astrological chart, the healer announces that their stars happen to be in alignment – “He blinks rapidly, the lamplight making him look younger than his twenty-one years. He takes a breath and looks at Sivakami’s father. ‘I have never looked at, nor ever proposed to any girl before now. Please … consider me.’” There’s only one small glitch. Hanumarathnam’s horoscope predicts that he will die in the ninth year of marriage–unless his first-born son’s horoscope matches his.

Sivakami’s parents are optimists and the two are subsequently married “like everyone else, at an auspicious time on an auspicious day in an auspicious month.”

At the heart of The Toss of a Lemon is a horoscope. It dictates the destiny of Sivakami, who is widowed at age 19, the mother of one girl and one boy and the inheritor of her husband’s family home and properties. It also dictates the destinies of Sivakami’s children: Thangam, a quiet beauty whose skin gives off gold vibuthi, or dust, with healing properties—a result of her father’s alchemist experiments—and Vairum, a math genius with “irises nearly black yet strangely brilliant, diamond sharp” and a skin condition (vitiligo) which makes him an anomaly in the Brahmin quarter early on in his life.

There’s a memorable description of Sivakami early in this book: she “carries herself with an attractive stiffness: her shoulders straight and always aligned. She looks capable of bearing great burdens, not as though born to a yoke but perhaps as though born with a yoke within her.” Indeed, though strict Brahmannical traditions call for Sivakami to shave her head, wear white, and to not contaminate herself with human touch between dawn and dusk, she is also a rebel who chooses to raise her children in her husband’s ancestral home (instead of returning to her natal village and living with her brothers). Helping her in this herculean task is Machumi, a non-Brahmin villager and closeted gay man, who manages Hanumaranthnam’s land properties and business. Continue reading

Questions for Padma Viswanathan

Read a review of Arkansas-based, Canada-born Padma Viswanathan’s debut novel “The Toss of a Lemon” here.

Q. When and how did you first start collecting these stories?
A. I interviewed my grandmother over the course of a year or so, in the mid-nineties. She would talk for a few hours, either in English or in Tamil (with my mother translating, to ensure I got the padma200.jpgnuances), and then I would transcribe the tape. She told me a story that fascinated and bewildered me: of her grandmother, who was married as a child and widowed at eighteen with two small children. It then took me over ten years of writing to imagine myself into this world and to transform the story I had been given into a novel of my own making. The book that resulted has many emotional and narrative ties to the story my grandma told, but also departs from it in numerous significant ways.

Q. How did you research the historical and social context of this book?
A. I went to India after interviewing my grandmother. I had been many times before, but now saw the old places in a new way, populated by the ghosts of these stories she had told me. I interviewed other relatives and did a lot of reading on the particular social and political upheavals that were happening in this corner of India at that time, in contrast to the larger narrative of Independence. Six years later, with much of a draft written, I made a return trip, visiting some incredible resource centers in south India, where I did more detailed research on themes and characters that had emerged in the writing. This involved a lot of reading, as well as interviews with scholars and historians. I also revisited the places where the novel takes place, to refresh my sense memories and ask more specific questions of my relatives. Although the world I have described exists now only in a fragmentary and vestigial way, I actually saw it crumble in my lifetime. So some of the research was reconstruction of my own memories.

Q. It’s not easy to take one’s family history and put it out there, whether it’s in fiction or non-fiction form. What did you turn to for inspiration and motivation during your writing process?
A.The story exerted a strong hold on me for the ten years it took me to write this book. In the early stages, I consulted the interview transcripts frequently, looking for stories that intrigued me and writing them into chapters. As the novel began to take shape, though, I looked less and less to our family history: the book I was writing had its own logic and momentum, and that became paramount. When I had a full draft, I asked my mother to read it for me as a fact-checker, and we had wonderful discussions about it, but I was pretty clear with my family that this was, ultimately, an artistic product of which I was the author and that I would take full responsibility—including blame!—for its contents. Still, I was very relieved, when various family members—including my grandma—finally read it, that they gave it their stamp of approval, saying that in spite or because of all the liberties I had taken, I had created an authentic portrait of that time and place. Continue reading