The Return of Faraz Ali by Aamina Ahmed (2022, Riverhead Books)
Faraz Ali, a police officer, returns to the Mohalla in Lahore, Pakistan, to deal with the aftermath of the murder of a young girl in the red-light district. His efforts to solve the case take him back to his childhood in the Mohalla from where he was abducted by his powerful father. In describing what he uncovers, this haunting and beautiful novel depicts how powerful men can wield their power easily and viciously against women. Ahmed gives us the backstory, the horror of World War II, how war breaks people’s minds, how the harm and damage it causes ripple outward from the individual far into society, over the years.
Ahmed makes no excuses; there is never a moment of authorial self-indulgence in her unsentimental, precise descriptions. The story speaks for itself, not unlike Megha Majumdar’s novel A Burning. A stunning book, keenly observed, after reading which the images continue to linger in my mind.
Best of Friends by Kamila Shamsie (2022, Riverhead Books)
This engaging page-turner follows the lives of Zahra and Maryam, best friends since they were little girls in Karachi, through adulthood in London. Each is strong-willed and determined in her own way. Zahra craves a life of purpose. When Maryam declares that hers is to run her family business, Zahra responds, “That is ambition, not purpose.” A teen party gone awry alters the lives of both girls.
In London, Maryam becomes a highly successful entrepreneur and investor. Zahra becomes the head of a civil rights organization. They guard their personal time together in the midst of their busy lives. The conflicts between technology and civil rights test their friendship, which reaches breaking point when unsavory characters from their Karachi life show up and some choices have to be made. Will the friendship endure? The final chapter ends with a question, at once a mystery and a revelation.
The Pathless Sky by Chaitali Sen (2015, Europa Editions)
A tender, poignant love story, with the undercurrent of political tension, uncertainty, menace. It is not immediately clear where the story takes place, and the truth is, it could be anywhere. Having told us the crux of the story in the first 20 pages, the author lyrically and methodically fleshes it through the rest of the book.
John and Mariam get acquainted in college, and their meetings are flush with all the drama of first love, missing classes, not sleeping, forgetting about an exam. Their lives separate when Mariam leaves to take care of her ailing father, and John pursues higher studies.
When their lives converge again, war lends an urgency to their relationship, as any plan for the future could vaporize in an instant. Sen describes the horrors and lingering effect of war, writing of young men “who wandered like bands of marauders, and when they were older, if they survived, they had to face the monsters they once were.”
Hero and Other Stories by Nadir Ali, translated by Amna Ali and Moazzam Sheikh (2022, Weavers Press)
This slim collection of stories by Nadir Ali is translated with great love from Punjabi to English by his daughter Amna Ali and her husband, writer and translator Moazzam Sheikh. The introduction is insightful and provides an excellent context for the stories. At heart, Sheikh writes, Nadir Ali was a poet, and the trauma he experienced as a leader in the West Pakistan Army during the slaughter of Bengalis in East Pakistan scarred him for life. Seen through this essential lens, the stories gain a deep poignancy.
Set in rural Pakistan, the short stories succeed in transporting the reader to quieter, simpler times. The specter of Partition, while never overt, is always in the background, in dreams, visions, and memories of inexplicable violence.
Sisters of Mokama by Jyothi Thottam (2022, Viking)
In 1947, the year India got its hard-won independence from British rule, six nuns from Kentucky voyaged to India to set up a hospital in Mokama, Bihar. They named it Nazareth Hospital. In the 1960s, the author’s mother went from Kerala to Nazareth Hospital at the age of 15, to be trained as a nurse, like many other girls and young women who sought a better life.
Ostensibly, the story of the six nuns and the young women they trained, Sisters of Mokama is more sweeping in scope. In precise, beautiful writing, Jyoti Thottam records what a group of committed, determined women accomplished together, and also presents an important addition to the body of work on India’s independence and partition, on empire and its unsavory aftermath. In telling the story of her mother in the context of the social and political events in India at the time, Jyoti Thottam elevates a moving personal story into something more remarkable—the story of India herself.
Read my detailed review in India Currents magazine here.
Border Less by Namrata Poddar (2022, 7.13 Books)
Border Less, a debut novel by Namrata Poddar, isa collection of stories or vignettes, tied together by the main character Dia Mittal. We follow Dia’s life as the book progresses, the stories placing Dia in a new place, career, location, time, state of mind, and state of heart. In the early pages, the stories seem disjointed, but as the thread winding through the narrative becomes more apparent, they coalesce. The characters spend part of their lives in different countries: India, the United States, the U.K, Mauritius. Story by story, Poddar links the characters together, widening the circle until it encompasses the entire world, and much of womanhood.
The stories lash out at the patriarchy, yet, in this expanse of alienation and frustration, there are moments of tenderness and grace. These are impressionistic stories, the characters sketched with quick, sparse strokes, in smart, sharp prose, and are poignant, rather than amusing or entertaining. Poddar demands your attention: the stories insist that the reader examine his or her response to each of them.
Read my detailed review in India Currents magazine here.
Boomer. Misfit. Same Difference by Lolita Chattoraj Sengupta (2022, Minduread Media Private Limited)
Humor is a gift. And it is a gift that Lolita Chattoraj Sengupta has in droves. If there is anything we could use today, it is laughter. And this book will make you laugh out loud, while engaging you with the travails of life in England and Kolkata. This wonderful memoir is a collection of essays starting from the time Sengupta went to the UK where her husband was doing a fellowship in medicine. She writes of looking for a job, having a child, the joys and travails of motherhood, returning to Kolkata, the safety net of friendship, the imbalance of household responsibilities,
Some stories are acerbic, some nostalgic, some wistful, all told in a unique, inimitable style. There are hilarious accounts of her absentmindedly cutting nails with a stapler, swallowing some pills with a swig from a bottle of oil instead of water. Be prepared for aching sides when you read this frank, witty, perceptive book.
The Bridge Home by Padma Venkatraman (2019, Nancy Paulson Books)
In this middle-grade novel, 11-year-old Viji runs away from home with her sister Rukku, escaping a home where their father abuses their mother. On the streets of Chennai, they find dangers and friendship, hunger and hope, and find work as ragpickers, sifting through mounds of garbage for anything salvageable, so they can survive.
In a moving Author’s Note, Venkatraman notes that in India, millions of children are homeless. But hunger and poverty are global problems affecting children in many parts of the world. This book spotlights this problem and the responsibility we all have as adults, while honoring the resilience of the numerous children who endure such conditions and struggle to make lives for themselves.
How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid (2013, Riverhead Books)
Mohsin Hamid’s intelligence, compassion and creativity brought us this novel where no one has a name, written in the style of a self-help book. The narrator, writing in the second person, tells the tale of how he first met the pretty girl when they were children, how their lives converged, then diverged. He becomes a successful businessman, she a fashion icon. They move through their lives encountering, overcoming, or succumbing to greed and corruption, leaving one to wonder if love will find a way.
Offence: The Hindu Case (Manifestos for the 21st Century) by Salil Tripathi (2009, Seagull Books)
Journalist and writer Salil Tripathi wrote this several years ago, tackling the suppression of art, culture, voices, and even the taking of lives for political goals. The scourge of religious fundamentalism that plagues India and other parts of the world has not diminished. Free speech is at risk, attacks on journalists have increased. The book is as relevant today as it was then.
Other Notable books of 2022
- The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shehan Karunatilaka. Winner of the 2022 Booker Prize.
- Tomb of Sand by Geetanjali Shree. Translated by Daisy Rockwell. Winner of the 2022 International Booker prize.
- Beloved Rongomolla by Shaheen Akhtar. Translated by Shabnam Nadiya.
- The Last White Man by Mohsin Hamid.
- The Shehnai Virtuoso and Other Stories by Dhumketu. Translated by Jenny Bhatt. Read India Currents’ review here.