(Published in the Business Standard, December 25, 2012. I had limited space, so this is a very truncated list–fiction-heavy, with a strong bias towards Indian writing.)
On the power of words: Indian poetry seldom wins prizes or lands on bestseller lists, and yet the strongest, most radical and most powerful of contemporary Indian writing has come from its poets.
Eunice de Souza and Melanie Silgardo’s anthology ‘These My Words’ heads my personal list of the best of Indian writing in 2012 . Coming after two big anthologies of Indian poetry in English, These My Words takes a broader approach. De Souza and Silgardo, trenchant poets, mistresses of the biting, precise line themselves, have put together the definitive collection of Indian poetry, across the ages, across Indian languages. They arrange poems by theme—love and desire, bhakti and devotion, political poetry—which makes These My Words both a pleasure and an education to read. Don’t miss this.
On the family: From Tolstoy’s unhappy families to Tagore’s broken nests, the domestic sphere has held a special attraction for male writers. Jerry Pinto’s sensitive and honest account of dysfunction and love in Em and The Big Hoom was one of the most moving novels of 2012. Pinto honed his language through the practice of poetry. Manu Joseph honed his spare and never self-indulgent prose through journalism. In his second novel, The Illicit Happiness Of Other People, he writes with cruel and compelling clarity about the high cost of living with the silences and omissions of the average Indian family. Both novels, aside from the writers’ gifts of craft and technique, address potentially brutal subjects with a rare empathy.
On morality: All of Katherine Boo’s work on poverty, in the US and more recently in the slums of Bombay, rests on a belief that clearly struck some readers in India as radical: the poor are not unlike you and me. “Nobody is representative,” she said in an interview to Guernica, “you try to let the reader have a sense of this person and soul, as a recognizable human.” Boo continues to spend time with the residents of Annawadi. Beyond The Beautiful Forevers, the result of her years of work, has the potential to change the way poverty is understood and thought about in India.
On being human: One of the most striking passages in Benyamin’s Goat Days (translated from Malayalam) is a section where the protagonist, a migrant to the Gulf in search of work and better opportunities, finds himself identifying with the goats he’s supposed to herd more than with the humans who own both the goats’ lives and his own. If there is such a thing as a great Gulf novel, Goat Days, with its compassionate understanding of the dark side of the economic migration story, is a contender; but it goes beyond, to ask what separates the animal life from the human one. The barrier, it turns out, is dangerously thin.
On another India: The myth of “village India” as a simple, sweet place has long since been exploded by writers from Rahi Masoom Raza to OV Vijayan. Gogu Shyamala, writing from rural Andhra Pradesh with sly wit and incredibly powerful lyricism, creates unique and unforgettable stories in Father May Be An Elephant, And Mother Only A Small Basket, But… She recreates the caste tensions and the deep political fissures in people’s everyday lives, with humour and dark irony.
On memories and absences: All of MG Vassanji’s work should be required reading for those interested in the gap between official histories and unreported histories. The Magic of Saida, his most recent novel, explores migration—contemporary, to Canada, ancient and forgotten, as in the history of east African migrants—and memory. “The past is a dangerous business… it is best to keep it buried,” says one of his characters. With tremendous control and fluent storytelling, Vassanji brings up the bodies.
On invisible cities: Behind the big, popular city narratives, there are less well-known, often more disquieting stories. Janice Pariat’s Boats On Land is not a fiction writer’s travelogue into Shillong, but like any good story-teller, she brings her city alive along with her characters. Uday Prakash’s The Walls of Delhi (translated from Hindi) tells three subversive stories about the underbelly of the city, focusing on Jamunapaar, far away from the protected cocoon of South Delhi.
On the past: In Clay and Dust, a wrestler whose powers are in decline meets a courtesan whose days of glory are in the past. Musharraf Ali Farooqui never over-embroiders his tales, letting his characters breathe and tell quiet, unforgettable stories. William Dalrymple’s Return of a King is in a completely different vein, but his history of Afghanistan, drawing on the account of a key battle and on Shah Shuja’s memoirs, makes the complex geopolitics of the country far more understandable.
On ideas of India: For two sharp, well-considered and divergent takes on India, pick up Ramachandra Guha’s Patriots and Partisans, and Diana Eck’s India: A Sacred Geography. Guha’s latest collection of essays looks at the threats to the idea of India, from a rise in religious rightwing fervour to a somewhat shaky liberal intellectualism. Eck’s beautifully considered map of a pilgrim’s India gently but persuasively argues that faith as it is practised goes far beyond the aggressive simplicities of the politically religious.