‘South Asian literature’ populated my early teenage years very sparsely; the only names I can recall being the standard R.K. Narayan fare like the English Teacher and Malgudi Days or E. M. Forster’s Passage to India (which I happen to detest) and Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book made tolerable by song and dance Disney renditions (I really brought down the post’s tone, now didn’t I?). These weren’t quite my cup of tea- vaguely interesting enough but never books I sought after.
However, truth was that South Asian fiction barely existed as a genre as it does now.
In an age marked by the diaspora experience, where lives exist, as my friend Bronte (quoting a line from a talk by the fabulous Pico Iyer at the’09 Galle Literary Festival) often fondly describes as ‘the corridors between cultures’. We’re intrigued and curious, much like the colonials were of exotic travelogues, about what binds us and separates us across cultures. The thread of shared human emotion and conflict being a trendy spin on reconciling worlds of difference. (Is diaspora fiction the new para-ethnography?)
The late 1990s however, saw a shift from ‘world literature’ as one penned by a handful of genteel colonised elites who’d mastered the colonisers’ tongues to a genre of its own right as concepts of home, culture and identity became significant markers of self within the flux of globalisation. My own obsession with diaspora fiction and South Asian literature did not begin until I too had packed up and left Sri Lanka, on my rite of passage pilgrimage to the hallowed halls of university. Home became something I would become interested in, beyond a roof over my head- because, I suppose if university teaches you anything it’s the ability to separate house from home.
It was a veritable magic lantern as it were, of thoughts, images and even geopolitical ideologies. To me, South Asian literature came to represent home, and given the explosion of the genre, I guess it did the same for many others to.
Thus, a series featuring of my favourite South Asian reads seemed necessary.
1) The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
I find Arundhati Roy’s political opinions rather distasteful at times, however, there is no denying that Roy possesses a skill with the pen (or typewriter, or keyboard) that few writers do. Her work was arguably among the pioneers of the South-Asian literary surge. The writing is stunning and Roy’s ability to create profound meanings out of casual repetitions spins literary magic that leaps off her pages with a Kathakali primo uomo‘s liquid, eloquent grace.
I first picked up my mother’s copy of the book sometime in the late 90s, when I was well, not even a teenager and needless to say, read a few pages and got very bored and forgot all about it until sometime in the late 2000s. Although, I am still conflicted about how the book ended, the writing was without exaggeration beautiful and emotive.
Tracing the tragic events that unfold in a Keralan Syrian-Christian household in 1969, a forbidden love and two untimely deaths shape the paths of fraternal twins Esthappen and Rahel. Roy’s characters are beautifully formed through their relationships to other characters, speaking with meditations and actions in a novel that depends very little on dialogue. Roy conveys the misery and human consequences of India’s caste-riddled social injustices, navigating the predicaments of gender, class, communist politics, divorce and single motherhood as endured by Rahel and Estha’s Ammu.
The book is a must-read for anyone with an interest in discovering a fantastic piece of literature.
2) The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
I LOVE this book. One of my all-time favourites, both as a film and book, Jhumpa Lahiri skillfully captures with unadorned yet lovely prose, the multi-faceted nature of the immigrant experience.
Somewhat of a wunderkind in the South Asian literary circles, Lahiri secured the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2000 with her debut collection of short stories ‘The Interpreter of Maladies’ (also an excellent read drawing major influence from another must-read Romesh Gunasekera’s Monkfish Moon). Her works focus largely on the complexities of migration, third culture and the entanglement of identity, family and human emotion.
The Namesake chronicles a tale that lies at the nexus of home, dislocation, identity and the significance of names in such uncertainty, following the journey of the Ganguly family from Calcutta to Masachusetts. Ashok, Ashima, Gogol (or Nikhil as we come to know him) and Sonia face their own conflicts entrapped in these culture corridors, always in the peripheries of being at home, but never quite achieving its comfort. Ashima is a beautifully written character, who carries with her a perpetual sad nostalgia for her desh left behind. Ashok attempts to come to terms with the accident that defined his life and journey away from India, while their son Gogol struggles against his parents’ Indian beliefs, the dilemma of his Russian name and its painful link to his father’s past, and carving out his own American identity as Nikhil.
So, if you’re looking for something to read this weekend… Or are faraway and looking to find home.