Bound’s Ultimate Indian Fiction Appreciation Reading List
There is so much to explore and love in Indian literature. Reading like a writer is a skill that opens up so many possibilities. It allows you to understand the writer’s rhythm and helps you identify some of the choices the author made. Contemporary writers are broaching on unexplored histories and bringing rich cultural milieus to the forefront.
Indian authors writing in English bring sensibilities of various Indian languages to their writing, crafting fiction that is unique in its voice. Readers can explore multiple perspectives and interpretations through retellings of mythology like ‘The Forest Of Enchantments’ and ‘Sitayana’. Strong and credible translators have further richened our reading experience allowing us to access the writing of writers like Perumal Murugan and Vivek Shanbhag.
Michelle D’costa and Tara Khandelwal teach a class on Indian Fiction Appreciation that allows readers to read and analyse fiction in news ways. Here’s are a few books from the class reading list:
Indian Writing In English
‘The Forest Of Enchantments’ by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
This powerful retelling of the Ramayana from the point of view of Sita and other female characters like Kaikeyi, Surpanakha and Mandodari, brings the story to modern readers. Divakaruni moulds a living myth of Sita and tells the story of a woman who is relatable to ordinary women. It raises the question of female autonomy in a society that is shaped by patriarchal institutions. When dealing with retellings there are several choices an author must make. Divakaruni chooses not to alter the storyline of the Ramayana but rather brings in nuanced observations of the female characters.
‘Sitayana’ by Amit Majmudar
While the name implies that that book is the Ramayana told from Sita’s perspective, it is in fact told from multiple perspectives. This work of mytho-fiction does not follow the sequence of events of the Ramayana. Sita’s resistance comes through fiercely in this novel which has one of the most powerful depictions of the Agnipariksha. The novel is a must-read for Majumdar’s wordplay and the skill with which he rapidly shifts between perspectives.
‘The God Of Small Things’ by Arundhati Roy
Arundhati Roy’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel looks at the evils of caste and the patriarchal laws of the land through the eyes of the twin children, Esther and Rahel. The major themes are forbidden love that goes against the unsaid rules of communities, which sanction who we must love and how much. The novel is also eco-fiction as it looks at the damages that tourism and rapid development have made in Kerala. The book uses ‘Chutneyfied English’, wherein English is spelt and pronounced the way it is spoken regionally. The novel published in 1997 was representative of a new wave of Indian literature that was deeply critical of the Indian state and its promises of Independence.
‘Bombay Balchão’ by Jane Borges
Bombay Balchão weaves reportage with the history of Bombay and the Catholic community into the storyline of this novel. Each chapter reads like a short story, allowing the reader to dive in almost anywhere. The non-linear, tiny vignettes bring alive the everyday lives of the ordinary yet extraordinary residents of Cavel, Bombay. The book is also representative of a Bombay novel which is almost a genre in itself. It traces the influences the Portuguese, the British, the Mangloreans, Goans and the indigenous East Indians had on the island city. To know more listen to our podcast episode with the author here.
‘Rebirth’ by Jahnavi Barua
‘Rebirth’ explores the unique premise of a connection between a mother and her unborn child. The book employs the use of interior monologues to take the action forward and to highlight the utter solitude of the protagonist, Kaberi. The backdrop of Assam’s political turbulence is introduced through Kaberi’s loss of Joya, her closest friend. The themes of marriage and divorce are highlighted. The setting shifts between Bangalore and Assam and traces the trajectory of Kaberi finding her own identity and growing into an independent woman.
‘Chosen Spirits’ by Samit Basu
Samit Basu’s dystopian science fiction novel is set ten years into the future. It explores the themes of surveillance capitalism through a depiction of how the very future is commoditised. The novel satirizes our present turmoil where every wall has eyes, and conformity is the norm. Like any good dystopia, it channels and depicts our deepest fears and anxieties. To know more listen to our podcast episode with the author here.
India In Translation
‘Hangwoman’ by K. R. Meera, translated by J. Devika
This macabre novel, translated from Malayalam, traces the lives of the first family of hangmen in Kolkata. The protagonist Chetna succeeds her father to become the first female executioner in India. With the public eye cast on her, she soon becomes aware of the tough choices that lie ahead. The narrative employs the use of the stream of consciousness technique to show the inner turmoil of Chetna. The novel has the dark metaphor of the noose hanging over it throughout. Weaving the long history of the family, the myths and rituals, this novel plays out the dynamics of death by hanging.
‘One Part Woman’ by Perumal Murugan, translated by Aniruddhan Vasudevan
This skilfully translated Tamil novel explores the predicament of Poona and Kali, a farming couple who are unable to conceive a child. For twelve years Poona who is shunned by society by being barren, visits a myriad of temples to offer prayers. In a last hope the couple choose to participate in the local temple festival where for one night norms are relaxed and women who want children can sleep with other men. The novel highlights the powerful themes of desire, longing and loss. Murugan depicts the transgressions and power dynamics in a complex Tamil society.
‘Ghachar Ghochar’ by Vivek Shanbhag, translated by Srinath Perur
This psychological drama novella translated from Kannada is a must-read. The author explores the theme of middle- class morality through the lives of a family whose income status shifts radically. With new money also comes a shift in desires and familial relationships. The persistent imagery of ants works as a powerful metaphor in the novella. The narrator employs simple language to bring out subtle unstated nuances of the family dynamics.
Literature From Neighbouring Countries
‘How to Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia’ by Mohsin Hamid
This novel is set in Pakistan, Mohsin Hamid’s birth country. The plot parodies the self-help novel and tells a coming-of-age story of a young boy who is trying to climb his way out of poverty. Bottled Water is symbolic of the paradox of South Asian cities, where everything has a price. The novel uses the second-person perspective and refers to the protagonist only as “you.” The book blurs boundaries between genres such as fiction, non-fiction, self-help.
‘Shameless’ by Taslima Nasreen, translated by Arunava Sinha
‘Shameless’ is the sequel to ‘Lajja’, a book that was banned in Bangladesh. The sequel begins one day in Calcutta when Taslima meets Suranjan, the protagonist of Lajja. The novel explores the lives of ordinary people in troubled times. It is also an author’s search of the characters who like her were persecuted and forced to flee to Calcutta. Nasreen plays the role of both the author and a character. In the book, she is chastised by Suranjan for distorting their lives. The book works at multiple levels to show how communal violence and tension continues to shape the relationship between Hindus and Muslims.
‘Island Of A Thousand Mirrors’ by Nayomi Munaweera
In her debut novel, Sinhalese author Nayomi Munaweera dwells on the feud between Tamils and the Sinhalese in Sri Lanka. It tells the story of conflict from the perspective of two girls, one Sinhalese, one Tamil. The novel spans across four centuries of a Sinhalese family and draws from the history of the author’s family. The coming of age story of the girls interlaces the story of normal people in the course of warfare.
If you want to dive deeper into the books on this list and learn how to read like a writer, join our two-week Indian Fiction Appreciation Masterclass with Michelle D’costa and Tara Khandelwal. For more details on the click here.
About the author
Rhea Pereira was born and raised in Mumbai. She has completed her Masters in English at SNDT Women’s University. Her key research interests are postcolonial studies, mainly focussing on women’s narratives and their experience of citizenship. She loves to dance, eat cake and have long conversations.