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

Which of Obama’s old roommates posted this?

Over the weekend Gawker drew attention to this Craigslist posting:

I’m working on a memoir, set in 1983, when I lived with Obama for a year.

The memoir is about my life and about what New York was like in 1983, and how we lived then, but Barack is obviously a player in the story. This is not a tell-all, it’s a friendly, gentle and literate book.

I work full time in a highly visible career and would like to work with a research assistant to help me stay focused.

This is you:

You live in Manhattan and can visit the Village frequently.
Your living situation is stable, as is your personal life.
Your income is stable.
You can work with a six month window. (ok, maybe a year. it depends.)
You are a fantastic and empathetic listener.
You’re creative and imaginative and a fine writer. You can shape material.
You don’t drink or use drugs. No psychological disorders I have to deal with.
You are in a graduate writing program at NYU or Columbia.
You want an opportunity to work on a visible book.
You are dependable, timely, punctual and highly motivated to succeed.

This is an internship, not a paid position.

I have already begun, finally, this week, after thinking about it for a the last year. Now is the time. My agent is waiting on the first 100 pages. Let’s go. [Link]

When I saw this post my first thought was, “is it Sohale Siddiqi?” How interesting would that book be? More importantly, would it be a better seller than “Going Rogue?” Anyone else have any guesses based on the time-frame in the ad and what you’ve read in Obama’s autobiographies? Even if this turns out not to be Siddiqi, I think at least one of his former desi roommates should write a book!

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Guernica Fiction Continued, With Preeta Samarasan

As promised, here’s the second half of our Guernica/fiction discussion! You can read the first post, about Hasanthika Sirisena, as well as a little background about the Guernica issue here.

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Our second interviewee is Preeta Samarasan, writer (and sometime SM commenter). Her story, “A Rightful Share,” was also in the Guernica issue. It begins,

“I want to tell you about my friend Kandan. Full name Kandan A/L Palanivel. Twenty years old. Handsome bastard. Of course we men don’t stare at each other and think who’s handsome, who’s ugly, of course not. I’m just saying only. If you had seen him, you also would have said the same thing. We all–me and Kandan and one whole group of fellers–used to lepak at one bhaiyyi coffee shop near KL Sentral there, and even the stylish college girls, the ones from rich-rich families, talking with hell of an American slang and all, used to come and sit with us on Saturday afternoons. Giggling, blinking their big eyes at him like he was God. Even if I strip naked also nobody will look at me like that, I tell you. Fooyoh, terror lah that feller, six feet tall, big shoulders, hair like a TV model, and dunno from where he got brown eyes, almost like mat salleh like that. Next to him Hrithik Roshan also will lose. But he was just a simple boy from Rawang, laborer’s son, never gone anywhere. Cannot even speak English properly.” [keep reading A Rightful Share]

I liked the distinctive voice and unreliable narrator of this story, and how deftly Preeta showed me ways around him; I also appreciated the complicated detail of political setting. I joined Sepia Mutiny as a regular contributor after guest blogging during a trip to Malaysia (with Preston Merchant; Malaysia- and Preeta-related links at the bottom of this post), and reading Preeta’s writing after seeing some of the places she has written about also brings me back to my own affection for them. Continue reading

New South Asian Fiction Writers in Guernica / Asian-American Literary Festival

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I know the Mutiny community has lots of literature lovers, so I wanted to let you know about some sharp new writers, and where you can find them–Amitava Kumar and I have edited the fiction section of Guernica this month, and it features South Asian writers. Tomorrow, two of them (Tania James and Hasanthika Sirisena) will be joining us for a reading in Brooklyn as part of Page Turner – The Asian American Literary Festival. (There’s a day of great programming–we’re on at 3. Disclosure: Amitava and I are both on the board of AAWW, the sponsoring org.)

I thought it would be interesting to talk to some of the writers a little bit more about the stories they submitted, and writing in general. Sirisena, who won a prestigious Rona Jaffe Award last year, gave us a story called Murder The Queen. You can read it here. She agreed to chat with the Mutiny–Preeta Samarasan will follow next week.

Sirisena’s work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Glimmer Train, Narrative Magazine, Epoch, StoryQuarterly, Witness, Best New American Voices, and other publications.

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Eteraz’s Children of Dust: Review [Part 1]

Ali Eteraz is a name well known to the blogosphere, and of course, Sepia Mutiny. A Pakistani-born Muslim American, lawyer, writer, and activist, Ali’s writing has often been quoted here at Sepia Mutiny, and this Oct 13th Ali’s highly anticipated memoir Children of Dusthits a bookstore near you.

Children of Dust: A Memoir of Pakistan is a about a Pakistani male’s journey of autonomy set against the backdrop of global Islam and located deep inside Pakistan’s colorful but thus far neglected international diaspora. The timely piece of literature provides an engaged look at the pain, pathos, and laughter among Muslim-American lives otherwise obscured by abstract ideas such as “the clash of civilizations” and “the war of ideas.” … With gentle self deprecation Eteraz tells the story of every young person trying to figure out what they believe about religion, people, and life.[harper]

I’ll admit it, I opened the pages to Children of Dust with reluctant apprehension. But from the first page, Ali reels you in to a tale, beautifully prosaic, human, and intelligent. Intertwined with Islamic scholarship, youthful eagerness, self-effacing arrogance, defeated hopefulness, and sardonic humor, Children of Dust presents the struggles of a youth being raised Muslim and American and all the issues that come with it. The words are brilliantly laced, and easy to read. I found the book difficult to put down, staying up all night with a cup of chai engrossed in the adventure of Ali’s life. There was more than a few times where I verbally exclaimed or laughed at what I was reading. Continue reading

“I Wanna Be Like You”: The Jungle Book, Revisited

Being a parent gives you a chance to go back over the children’s stories you grew up with and even, in some cases, learn about new ones. The following post consists of somewhat scattered thoughts on “The Jungle Book,” including a 1967 Disney animated film version, as well as Kipling’s original book.

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I did not grow up with Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book” — either adaptations or the original story — but my son has really gotten attached to the 1967 Disney animated film version of the story, and it’s gotten me interested in both it and Kipling himself.

The biggest attraction for us initially were the great jazz/swing songs that were made for this particular version: Bare Necessities, Colonel Hathi, and I Wanna Be Like You (with the great Louis Prima on vocals).

My wife grew up in India, watching Indian television, and she says she has fond memories of the Hindi animated version of “The Jungle Book,” which you can also see on YouTube here. It’s a cartoon serial meant for kids, which means the story kind of branches off on its own. Still, it made me curious: do readers know whether Kipling’s “The Jungle Book” is popular in South Asian languages? Are there readers who grew up in South Asia hearing the Kipling stories about Mowgli, Bagheera, Bhalu, Shere Khan, etc.? (Or, growing up abroad, did your parents tell you these stories in a “desi” context?) Continue reading

Dispatches from Kriti: What to Read

Here I am in the desilicious town of Chicago, which today is so rainy it’s practically imitating Seattle. I’m here to attend the third Kriti festival… a celebration of South Asian authors and writing organized by Mary Anne Mohanraj and Desilit.

This morning’s keynote panel, “What’s Not to Like?” featured Romesh Gunesekera, Amitava Kumar, and Bapsi Sidhwa. The three of them read from the work of writers they particularly admire. Continue reading

Muslim Voices in the Metropolis

While the spotlight shines on Barack Obama’s long-awaited speech to the Muslim World, closer to home, I’ve been seeing lots of posters and advertising for the upcoming Muslim Voices Festival in New York City which begins this Friday, June 5 and runs through the 14th of this month. Featuring concerts, lectures, film screenings on PBS, and even, a souk, the ten-day festival is designed to celebrate the arts and culture of Muslim societies. It is the culmination of three years of organizing by the Asia Society, Brooklyn Academy of Music, and NYU”s Center for Dialogues.

Below the fold is a listing of a few of the South Asia-related events coming up over the next fortnight. Don’t let your exploration stop there. There’s tons more on the calendar worth checking out. metropolis

But first, I want to tell you about a book that I’ve been reading which ties in well to the theme of this festival: Kavitha Rajagopalan’s Muslims of Metropolis which was published by Rutgers University Press late last year.

Muslims of Metropolis is a sensitive and thoughtful examination of international migration and the social construct of identity. Rajagopalan spent nearly 7 years researching and writing her first book which tells the stories of the journeys of three families from majority-Muslim countries to three major Western metropolises. In London, she follows a Palestinian man from Jerusalem and his Syrian wife. In Berlin, a Turkish Kurdish community. And, in post 9/11 New York, and a Bangladeshi man and his daughter who married an undocumented Pakistani man.

As Rajagopalan puts it in her introduction:

These families come from different socioeconomic, political, and ethnic backgrounds, but they are all Muslim. It should be noted, however, that this is not a book on theology or Islamic history. Although the stories in this book will refer to the ways in which characters relate to Islam as they construct their identities, cope with adversity, or understand their roles in the world, this is not ultimately a book about Muslims but about immigrants … I have chosen to write about Muslim immigrants because I believe that the social identity of Muslim immigrants stands under the greatest pressure of misunderstanding and mistrust throughout the world.

Over the past several months, Rajagopalan has been touring the country doing multimedia presentations and readings from her book. I attended one reading right here in NYC and was struck by her ability to weave together multiple human narratives with solid research in a manner that was penetrating and insightful, at once literary, journalistic, and accessibly academic. Continue reading

Life on $2 a Day

Slate’s Explainer series had an article last week that attempted to get to the bottom of the following question (a version of which some of you may have also wondered about in the past):

Recent news reports about the Congress Party’s election victory note that two-thirds of Indians live on less than $2 per day. How far does two bucks take you in India? [Link]

The answer cites the “basket of goods” concept::

Not far in Mumbai, but it’s a living in the villages. The people who get by on less than $2 don’t even qualify as being in poverty, according to the Indian government’s own definition…

India, like the United States, uses a “basket of goods” approach to define its poverty threshold. The cost of a minimally adequate diet is multiplied by a set amount to account for the cost of food and other essentials. (The United States multiplies by three, because the average American family spends one-third of its post-tax income on food.) The European Union uses a different method, based on relative income: The poverty line is set at a certain percentage of median income.

Neither of these methods works on a global scale, though, which explains why the World Bank has its own system. The “basket of goods” approach can be confusing, since every country uses different goods in their equations, based on local dietary habits. [Link]

In a new book titled Portfolios of The Poor – How the World’s Poor Live on $2 a Day, authors Daryl Collins et al. explored the daily economics of the poorest of the poor with some insightful results. EconLog reviewed the book:

I really liked Portfolios of the Poor: How the World’s Poor Live on $2 A Day. Westerners tend to think of the world’s bottom billion as charity cases. The harsh and amazing reality, though, is that they largely stand on their own two feet. The ultra-poor not only feed, house, and clothe themselves; they raise children and work hard to give them a better life. Portfolios shows us how they do it, relying heavily on financial diaries kept by villagers and slum dwellers in South Africa, India, and Bangladesh. [Link]

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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