South Asian Fiction

(CLICK HERE for our full Summer Borrowing list of reviews, videos, and more.)

The following post is by Catlin alumna Delia Garigan, our Summer Borrowing guest blogger and friend of the US Library:

The Namesake, by Jhumpa Lahiri

namesake

(image: GoodReads.com)

Jhumpa Lahiri’s bestseller is a sweet and often quirky follow-up to her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of short stories, The Interpreter of Maladies (the two books are bound together in one volume in the our library). I love this book because it neatly sidesteps the conflicts you might anticipate between hidebound Indian parents and their americanized offspring. Instead, you get a very relatable adventure as one oddly-named young man faces the challenge of defining himself as an individual in modern American society. The language is both accessible and poetic. And who isn’t interested in exploring the development of adult identity in the uniquely personal maze of tradition, popular culture, and assumptions that we each must navigate?

Because this subject matter feels so compelling and relevant, I found the plot as captivating as the language, and I was disappointed with Mira Nair’s 2006 film adaptation of The Namesake. It got great reviews, I was frustrated by the edits that were necessary.

inheritanceofloss

(image: GoodReads.com)

The Inheritance of Loss, by Kiran Desai

Both the story here and the words that tell it are unadorned: unromantic, insightful, crude, ironic–and often quite funny: “Saeed quickly found employment at a Banana Republic, where he would sell to urban sophisticates the black turtleneck of the season, in a shop whose name was synonymous with colonial exploitation and the rapacious ruin of the third world.”

The legacy of that colonial exploitation is the inherited loss of the book’s title, and the overall theme of the book. It’s a tale of regrets, and hope betrayed, but definitely so skilfully written as to be well worth the time.

In this video Kiran Desai describes how writing about her own experience morphed into something larger. I like her; she seems shy.

The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy

Arundhati Roy, on the other hand? Not shy. She cut off all her hair and led protests against the Bush administration’s invasion of Afghanistan. She’s a powerful orator and social critic who penned an essay collection rousingly entitled The Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire.

Roy is also an incredible writer who has been favorably compared to Faulkner and Dickens. God of Small Things won the Booker Prize and was a best-selling novel both in the US and in India. As you might expect, it’s an unrelenting treatment of race, class, and the impact of imperialism. There’s magical realism, too, and an non-sequential plot, as brother and sister twins negotiate the unexpected death of their English cousin–and the fallout from their mother’s passionate affair with an Untouchable man.

Newsweek said, “The brilliantly plotted story uncoils with an agonizing sense of foreboding and inevitability. Yet nothing prepares you for what lies at the heart of it.” You can start here, with an excerpt from the book.

The Glass Palace, by Amitav Ghosh

(image:  GoodReads.com)

(image: GoodReads.com)

This is one book I can’t wait to read. Goodreads readers call it “overwhelming”, “magnificent” and “ingenious”.  Reviewer Minna Proctor says,

“You feel as if you’ve travelled for 100 years on foot, through the most distant and lush lands on the globe. The Glass Palace is as close as a person tucked cozily into an armchair on a rainy day can get to the rubber plantations of Malaysia, the teak forests of Burma, and the bustling city streets of Rangoon and Singapore, bearing witness to the demise of the Burmese monarchy and the rise and fall of the British Empire. A stately and vibrantly detailed family saga set in south-central Asia against the tumultuous backdrop of the 20th century, The Glass Palace is the story of Rajkumar, an Indian shop boy orphaned in Mandalay, who, on the eve of the 1885 British invasion, falls in love with Dolly, a beautiful handmaiden to the Queen of Burma….”

Sounds good, right? You can check out an excerpt here:

Ghosh did extensive research on this book, and mined some of his own family history for it. No surprise, then, that Glass Palace has been lauded for its historical accuracy. Yet Ghosh wrote that there’s also a personal element at work any time history is recalled: “the ways in which we remember the past are not determined solely by the brute facts of time: they are also open to choice, reflection and judgment.” Perhaps that’s what makes the books in this list (so far) as compelling as they are: the authors undertake to shape their country’s history for themselves, rather than allowing it to be imposed on them.

Life of Pi, by Yann Martel

Life of Pi is compelling as well,  and like the other books on this list, it’s about the stories we choose to believe. But it’s far from political or historical–it’s more of a philosophical and theological allegory, set in India, and in the vast expanses of the Pacific. Teenage protagonist Pi has decided he’s an adherent of Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam. Then he ends up adrift on a lifeboat in the company of a large tiger.

I’ve resisted reading Life of Pi because it’s so popular. It sold seven million copies, and a few years ago it seemed everyone was in love with it. Then came the movie, with the digital-effects tiger getting as much attention as the script itself. Obviously the book is going to do the better job of exploring the deep questions that emerge any time a teenager ends up on a lifeboat with a 450-pound feline. The book is going to make a great summer read; check it out before the movie.

-Delia Garigan

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