Many years ago, after a steady diet of novels describing American life (like those of) the Johns, Cheever and Updike, et al.), I was thrilled to discover novels about India. EM Forster’s “A Passage to India” and Paul Scott’s “The Raj Quartet” were among my favorites.
I came to realize, of course, that both novels were about the British raj in India – Forster and Scott were both English – and written from a decidedly non-Indian point of view.
Happily, I found books about India written by Indians: Amitav Ghosh’s “The Circle of Reason,” published in 1986; Vikram Seth’s “Suitable Boy,” 1993, and most revealing for me, “The God of Small Things” (1995) by Arundhati Roy.
More recently, I loved Aravind Adiga’s 2008 novel “The White Tiger.” The book stars a lower-caste young man from a small village determined to fight his way out of poverty. He moves to Delhi for a job as a chauffeur with a wealthy man and is irreversibly and negatively changed by the experience.
In an interview, Adiga told the Guardian that the greatest literary influences on the book were three great 20th century African American novelists: Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin and Richard Wright. “They all wrote about race and class,” he said.
Unexpectedly, “The White Tiger” is often very funny, a fact that does not detract from its serious depiction of India as a country replete with corruption and its corresponding ills.
There have been many significant female writers from India in the past, Anita Desai, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni and Jhumpa Lahiri among them. Now there’s a new young crop on the literary scene.
Deepa Anappara, author of “Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line,” began her writing career as a journalist in India, focusing on children growing up in poverty.
Her book’s protagonist is 9-year-old Jai, who lives with his family in a slum on the outskirts of an unnamed Indian city. When one of his classmates disappears, Jai vows to uncover the mystery and becomes an amateur detective. With the help of his two best friends, he sets off on the city metro’s purple line to investigate.
Like Adiga’s novel, the book is a powerful commentary on India’s economic and social inequities. The juxtaposition of the lives of the haves and have-nots is chilling.
Then there’s Avni Doshi, born in the US to Indian parents. Her novel “Burnt Sugar” is arresting from its opening lines. “I would be lying if I said my mother’s misery has never given me pleasure,” Antara, the narrator, begins. “The sympathy she elicits in others gives rise to something acrid in me.”
Refreshingly, this is not a political novel, rather a novel about relationships, reminiscent of how we’ve seen so-called LGBTQ novels evolve to where they’re no longer largely about sexual orientation.
Antara’s mother becomes enthralled with the guru of a local ashram, causing her to leave her husband and seriously neglect her baby.
Years later, when her mother shows symptoms of Alzheimer’s, Antara cares for her with no small amount of resentment. The novel is piercing in examining the topic of how you care for a mother who hasn’t taken care of you.
And finally, San Francisco writer Shruti Swamy’s “The Archer,” a coming-of-age novel set in 1970s Bombay, tells the story of Vidya, who is left to care for her father and younger brother after her mother dies by suicide. Her turning point comes when she finds a class where the students are learning kathak, a classical dance form that requires great discipline.
Swamy describes in great detail the artistry of kathak dance, which is based on recounting epic tales from Hindu scriptures. Ultimately, it transforms Vidya, freeing her from many of the conventions that previously bound her. Swamy’s lyrical language is lush and almost musical in its expression, exploring what it means to be a woman and an artist.