While Indian writers did not win any coveted literary awards in 2011, several award-winning and best-selling authors did come out with new books, such as Aravind Adiga’s Last Man in Tower and Chetan Bhagat’s Revolution 2020. What is remarkable, though, is the many works that referenced either the Indian or the Indian American experience, highlighting the emergence of India as an important player in the global literary landscape. American writer Jonathan Franzen, best known for his 2001 epic The Corrections, introduced Lalitha, an Indian American character in his 2011 work, Freedom. Another award-winning American author, Ann Patchett, decided to make the central character of her most recent novel, State of Wonder, an Indian American doctor. For desis and those intrigued by desi culture, 2011 has been a deliciously gourmand experience.
So how does a bibliophile pick from the many offerings of this productive year? India Currents’ intrepid book reviewers are here to help! Here they each pick their favorite book. Whether literary or plain entertaining, each book struck a chord with our reviewers, and we hope these little samplings will encourage you to dive into the marvelously diverse world of desi literature. Happy reading!
What Price Genius?
SERIOUS MEN by Manu Joseph. W. W. Norton & Company: New York. Paperback. 310 pages. $14.95. www.norton.com.
Looking for something thoughtful and funny for your reading pleasure? I prescribe Manu Joseph’s Serious Men. This novel by “India’s most stylish writer” is both a laugh-out-loud and an I-know-something-you-don’t tale. The seriousness with which the novel’s characters take their lives and petty personal crusades is what ultimately makes this novel so comical.
Serious Men is peopled with scientists whose heads are in the clouds more literally than figuratively, but the principal character is a revenge-hungry Dalit who stands up to his superiors at an agency where space is contemplated like babies contemplating their new-found belly buttons.
Boldly pitting the Dalit assistant against the entire Brahmin scientific community results in a well-rounded satire on Indian social conventions, and how both ends of the collective spectrum pull and tug at each other. Tackling the caste-class-religion issues of the day in a novel that pokes fun, examines, and questions them all is serious stuff and seriously funny.
Serious Men points out that it is our ability to think, plot, connive, plan, demand, coerce, blackmail, and have epiphanies that make humans so tolerably absurd and absurdly tolerable. Joseph proves that it is only in this world that there can be debates over the speed and velocity at which news travels in the same environment where people argue whether a once-Hindu-now-Buddhist is a good Christian. Seriously.
—Jeanne E. Fredriksen
A Treat for Lovers of Historical Fiction
TIGER HILLS by Sarita Mandanna. Grand Central Publishing. Paperback. 468 pages. $24.99.
An undercurrent of melancholy threads through this superbly written tale. Tragedy is never very far, and when it strikes, poignant, heart-rending sadness spreads like a slow pain. Pick up this book only if you are prepared for the intensity of doomed love that is too painful, of feelings that are too tender, of hurt that is too deep.
This lyrical, historical romance is set in the hills of Coorg in the age of Empire. The heroic Kambeymada Machaiah, the strong-willed Devi, and the sensitive Devanna represent the archetypal tragic love triangle. Deeply touching and achingly well written, this book will take you back to every doomed romance, every lost love, every aching loss in your life.
The writing of the tiger-killer’s hunt scene is poetic, as is the depiction of his heroism on the barren mountains of Afghanistan.
Subaltern viewpoints are refreshingly represented—that Europeans never washed their bottoms, for instance is an inversion of scorn that provides a new perspective of the relationship between rulers and subjects.
Rich historical detail, the period atmosphere of the British Raj, and Mandanna’s breathtakingly beautiful writing make this a memorable read.
—Geetika Pathania Jain
A Scholarly Approach
THE HINDUS, AN ALTERNATIVE HISTORY by Wendy Doniger, Penguin USA. Paperback. 770 pages. $25.
The Hindus, An Alternative History is the latest offering from Wendy Doniger, a world-renowned Sanskritist. As the title suggests, the book is but one interpretation of the evolution of Hindu thought. This is an interpretation that seeks to read between the lines of ancient Hindu texts and tease out the voice of the subaltern. With the texts as a foundation, Doniger interprets recurring themes including the symbolism of animals such as the horse and the dog (representing power and impurity, respectively), the notion of ahimsa, the voice of women, and lower castes.
Doniger’s thorough scholarship is evidenced throughout, whether in the systematic treatment of the history of the subcontinent or in the sheer depth of the comparative analysis, from the Upanishads to the Vedas to the seemingly arcane Periya Puranas. The Hindus, much like more recent and popular nonfictional works about 21st century India, also touches upon the idea of multiplicity and diversity. How else can one explain opposing concepts such as extreme asceticism, renunciation, and monism in the Upanishads on the one hand and opulence and the Kama Sutra on the other.
The Hindus is no light summer-time beach read. At 770 pages it demands serious reading. But the crisp language, tongue-in-cheek witticisms, and an engaging writing style compensate for the length and, at times, heavy prose. A must-read for any student of Indian philosophy and thought.
A Rain Forest Mystery
STATE OF WONDER by Ann Patchett. Harper Perennial. Paperback. 368 pages. $15.99.
Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder is a literary mystery that will take you deep into the heart of the Amazon, where her Indian American protagonist Marina Singh goes to find out how her colleague, Anders, died and to track down Dr. Swenson, the only person who knows what happened. At the core of the plot is an Amazon tribe where the women conceive well past their child-bearing years. A shroud of mystery envelops the whereabouts of Dr. Swenson, who has been charged by the company to research the tribe’s unusual fertility, and whose only communication over two years has been the aerogramme bearing the news of Anders’ death. Along with tracking down Swenson, Marina also has to deal with personal issues surfacing from the past that led her to give up a career in medicine.
Patchett’s descriptions of the flora and fauna of the Amazon and tribal culture are stunning and make for an tense, atmospheric reading experience. “A ululation of voices exploded the night, the ringing sound of countless tongues hitting the roofs of countless mouths. It filled the entire jungle and poured up the river in a wave.” The end of the novel is wonderfully unpredictable.
Still Crazy After All These Years
STEVE JOBS by Walter Isaacson. Simon and Schuster. Hardcover. 627 pages. $35.
1968. A 13-year-old boldly asks HP co-founder Bill Hewlett for spare parts, receives the parts, and in the bargain gets an internship for the summer. Crazy.
1972. The bold kid enrolls in a college, only to drop out after a semester. Sitting in on courses he cares about, he learns that hard-earned and deeply felt knowledge lasts a lifetime. Crazy.
1974. Now 19, he leaves his job as a technician at a video game company to find a guru in India. Never finds the guru, but as the hippies used to say, he “finds himself.” Crazy.
1976-2011. The teenager grows up, starts a Silicon Valley company with a buddy, leads its mercurial growth, and is ousted by the clown he brought in as CEO. Only 30, his entrepreneurial spirit burns bright. He invests his money, his passion, his life into two new ventures. One is a financial failure, the other a success. Both become the basis for a phenomenal return to the company he founded. Crazy.
Beyond fleshing out this bare-bones biography, Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs reminds readers of Apple’s commercial mantra: “The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.” And while it might be a bit crazy to include a bio of a Syrian American tech entrepreneur in India Currents, please consider the following on “experiential wisdom” from Steve Jobs: “The people in the Indian countryside don’t use their intellect like we do, they use their intuition instead…. Coming back after seven months in Indian villages, I saw the craziness of the Western world as well as its capacity for rational thought.”
—Rajesh C. Oza
More Fodder For the Bibliophile
CAMUS DOES A DOUBLE TAKE by M.R. Pamidi, K.B. Anand, Meera Pamidi. Kindle e-book. $9.99.
Is the United States going to concede and play second fiddle to China? Will this superpower imitate ancient Rome and other empires and face an irreversible decline?
The authors beg to disagree and believe while America will certainly have short-term hiccups, in the long run the United States will return to its heydays. The book is a refreshing take on mainstream U.S. politics, economy, and entrepreneurship in the age of social networking.
TEN AVATARS by Shahana Dattagupta. Flying Chickadee. 150 pages. $12.99
Ten avatars of women are explored through the telling of little incidents and big turning points in the lives of 10 female protagonists: a little child amidst parental dissonance, a girl at puberty becoming vulnerable to predators, a cynical teenager struggling with her national identity, a young graduate student returning to travel in her native land, and others. This collection of stories weaves together intimate cross-cultural experiences, with variegated vignettes unique to the Indian American expatriate experience in contemporary times, yet reveals the universal essence o f being female.
LOVE IN A HEADSCARF by Shelina Zahra Janmohamed. Beacon Press. Paperback. 272 pages. $15.
In this memoir, Janmohamed, one of Britain’s leading female Muslim writers, takes readers on her journey to find “the one.” Navigating through the always complicated world of dating, Janmohamed’s search to find true love takes her from social mixers at her North London mosque to speed-dating sessions in the city and even to snow-capped Mount Kilimanjaro.
PERFECTLY UNTRADITIONAL by Sweta Srivastava Vikram. Niyogi Books. Hardcover. 222 pages.
New York City-based writer, Shaili Kapoor, is shocked to find out about her mother’s untimely death in India. By the time she reaches India for the last rites, she discovers a deep secret about the mother she worshipped and the father she grew up to loathe. Perfectly Untraditional unravels unconventional and untold tales of families, friendships, love, loyalty, relationships, and tradition.
FROM SLAVE TO UNTOUCHABLE by Paul Kalra. Antenna Publishing. Paperback. 302 pages. $23.95.
Class-system scholar Paul Kalra challenges the assumption that the Civil War was fought to end black slavery. He asserts that civil war could have been avoided had early Americans adopted the Catholic slave code, which recognized slaves’ humanity. He traces slavery in the United States to the Protestant slave code, which created distinct classes of slaveholders and non-slaveholders, and denied black slaves citizenship. Kalra weaves an impressive array of perspectives into his well-crafted story, and concludes by demonstrating that the legacy of the slaveholders’ self-serving Constitution persists today, rendering blacks in America an essentially “untouchable” class.
FOR SEVEN LIFETIMES by Vatsala and Ehud Sperling. Inner Tradtitions. Kindle e-book. $9.99.
For Seven Lifetimes chronicles the year-long written courtship of a cross-cultural couple as they share their beliefs on sexuality, gender roles, careers, parenthood, and religion, and reveals the secret of a fulfilling relationship based on shared values and spiritual growth.
TO A MOUNTAIN IN TIBET by Colin Thubron. Harper Collins. Paperback. 240 pages. $24.99.
This is the account of a journey to the holiest mountain on earth, the solitary peak of Kailas in Tibet, sacred to one-fifth of humankind. To both Buddhists and Hindus it is the mystic heart of the world and an ancient site of pilgrimage. It has never been climbed. Even today, under Chinese domination, the people of many religions circle the mountain in devotion to different gods.
Colin Thubron reached it by foot along the Karnali River, the highest source of the Ganges. His journey is an entry into the culture of today’s Tibet, and a pilgrimage in the wake his mother’s death and the loss of his family.
QUARANTINE: STORIES by Rahul Mehta. Harper Perennial. Paperback. 224 pages. $14.99
With incisive, cunning prose, Rahul Mehta sets off into uncharted literary territory. The characters in Quarantine, openly gay Indian American men, struggle to maintain relationships with their families and cultural traditions. Estranged from their cultural in-group and still set apart from larger society, the young men in these lyrical, provocative, emotionally wrenching stories find themselves quarantined.