10

Best Indian Fiction Books

One of my favourite places to read about is India.  I find that literature set within the vast and wondrous expanse of the country appeals to all of my senses, and instills in me a lot of wanderlust.  I have yet to visit India, but I feel as though I continue to learn a lot about it through reading novels set there.  Here are ten books set in India which I have not yet read, and which really appeal to me.

 

52111. A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
‘With a compassionate realism and narrative sweep that recall the work of Charles Dickens, this magnificent novel captures all the cruelty and corruption, dignity and heroism, of India.  The time is 1975. The place is an unnamed city by the sea. The government has just declared a State of Emergency, in whose upheavals four strangers–a spirited widow, a young student uprooted from his idyllic hill station, and two tailors who have fled the caste violence of their native village–will be thrust together, forced to share one cramped apartment and an uncertain future. As the characters move from distrust to friendship and from friendship to love, A Fine Balance creates an enduring panorama of the human spirit in an inhuman state.’

 

2. A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth 50365
‘Vikram Seth’s novel is, at its core, a love story: Lata and her mother, Mrs. Rupa Mehra, are both trying to find—through love or through exacting maternal appraisal—a suitable boy for Lata to marry. Set in the early 1950s, in an India newly independent and struggling through a time of crisis, A Suitable Boy takes us into the richly imagined world of four large extended families and spins a compulsively readable tale of their lives and loves. A sweeping panoramic portrait of a complex, multiethnic society in flux, A Suitable Boy remains the story of ordinary people caught up in a web of love and ambition, humor and sadness, prejudice and reconciliation, the most delicate social etiquette and the most appalling violence.’

 

140823. Malgudi Days by R.K. Narayan
‘Introducing this collection of stories, R. K. Narayan describes how in India “the writer has only to look out of the window to pick up a character and thereby a story.” Composed of powerful, magical portraits of all kinds of people, and comprising stories written over almost forty years, Malgudi Days presents Narayan’s imaginary city in full color, revealing the essence of India and of human experience. This edition includes an introduction by Pulitzer Prize- winning author Jhumpa Lahiri.’

 

4. Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verges 3591262
‘A sweeping, emotionally riveting first novel—an enthralling family saga of Africa and America, doctors and patients, exile and home.  Marion and Shiva Stone are twin brothers born of a secret union between a beautiful Indian nun and a brash British surgeon at a mission hospital in Addis Ababa. Orphaned by their mother’s death in childbirth and their father’s disappearance, bound together by a preternatural connection and a shared fascination with medicine, the twins come of age as Ethiopia hovers on the brink of revolution. Yet it will be love, not politics—their passion for the same woman—that will tear them apart and force Marion, fresh out of medical school, to flee his homeland. He makes his way to America, finding refuge in his work as an intern at an underfunded, overcrowded New York City hospital. When the past catches up to him—nearly destroying him—Marion must entrust his life to the two men he thought he trusted least in the world: the surgeon father who abandoned him and the brother who betrayed him.  An unforgettable journey into one man’s remarkable life, and an epic story about the power, intimacy, and curious beauty of the work of healing others.’

 

2183575. The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar
Set in modern-day India, it is the story of two compelling and achingly real women: Sera Dubash, an upper-middle-class Parsi housewife whose opulent surroundings hide the shame and disappointment of her abusive marriage, and Bhima, a stoic illiterate hardened by a life of despair and loss, who has worked in the Dubash household for more than twenty years.’

 

6. Sister of My Heart by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni 16235
‘Anju is the daughter of an upper-caste Calcutta family; her cousin Sudha is the daughter of the black sheep of the family. Sudha is as beautiful, tenderhearted, and serious as Anju is plain, whip-smart, and defiant. yet since the day they were born, Sudha and Anju have been bonded in ways even their mothers cannot comprehend.  The cousins’ bond is shattered, however, when Sudha learns a dark family secret. Urged into arranged marriages, their lives take sudden, opposite turns: Sudha becomes the dutiful daughter-in-law of a rigid small-town household, while Anju goes to America with her new husband and learns to live her own life of secrets. Then tragedy strikes them both, and the women discover that, despite the distance that has grown between them, they have only each other to turn to. Set in the two worlds of India and America, this is an exceptionally moving novel of love, friendship, and compelling courage.’

 

58497. A House for Mr Biswas by V.S. Naipaul
‘Mohun Biswas has spent his 46 years of life striving for independence. Shuttled from one residence to another after the drowning of his father, he yearns for a place he can call home. He marries into the Tulsi family, on whom he becomes dependent, but rebels and takes on a succession of occupations in a struggle to weaken their hold over him.’

 

8. The Siege of Krishnapur by J.G. Farrell 256280
‘India, 1857–the year of the Great Mutiny, when Muslim soldiers turned in bloody rebellion on their British overlords. This time of convulsion is the subject of J. G. Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapur, widely considered one of the finest British novels of the last fifty years.  Farrell’s story is set in an isolated Victorian outpost on the subcontinent. Rumors of strife filter in from afar, and yet the members of the colonial community remain confident of their military and, above all, moral superiority. But when they find themselves under actual siege, the true character of their dominion–at once brutal, blundering, and wistful–is soon revealed.  The Siege of Krishnapur is a companion to Troubles, about the Easter 1916 rebellion in Ireland, and The Singapore Grip, which takes place just before World War II, as the sun begins to set upon the British Empire. Together these three novels offer an unequaled picture of the follies of empire.’

 

2717349. Fasting, Feasting by Anita Desai
‘A wonderful novel in two parts, moving from the heart of a close-knit Indian household, with its restrictions and prejuices, its noisy warmth and sensual appreciation of food, to the cool centre of an American family, with its freedom and strangely self-denying attitudes to eating. In both it is ultimately the women who suffer, whether, paradoxically, from a surfeit of feasting and family life in India, or from self-denial and starvation in the US. or both. Uma, the plain, older daughter still lives at home, frustrated in her attempts to escape and make a life for herself. Her Indian family is difficult , demanding but mostly, good hearted. Despite her disappointments, Uma comes through as the survivor, avoiding an unfulfilling marriage, liek her sister’s or a suicidal one, like that arranged for her pretty cousin. And in America, where young Arun goes as a student, men in the suburbs char hunks of bleeding meat while the women don’t appear to cook or eat at all – seems bewildering and terriying to the young Indian adolescent far from home.’

 

10. Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard by Kiran Desai 109335
‘Sampath Chawla was born in a time of drought that ended with a vengeance the night of his birth. All signs being auspicious, the villagers triumphantly assured Sampath’s proud parents that their son was destined for greatness.  Twenty years of failure later, that unfortunately does not appear to be the case. A sullen government worker, Sampath is inspired only when in search of a quiet place to take his nap. “But the world is round,” his grandmother says. “Wait and see Even if it appears he is going downhill, he will come up the other side. Yes, on top of the world. He is just taking a longer route.” No one believes her until, one day, Sampath climbs into a guava tree and becomes unintentionally famous as a holy man, setting off a series of events that spin increasingly out of control. A delightfully sweet comic novel that ends in a raucous bang, Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard is as surprising and entertaining as it is beautifully wrought.’

 

Have you read any of these books?  Which are your favourite novels set in India?

3

Books About the British Empire

Ever since I first learnt about it in junior school, I have been fascinated by the British Empire, and the effects of colonialism on different populations around the world.  Whilst reading as an adult, I have always been drawn to books which explore these themes, but in order to try and expand my reading on the topic, I thought it might be a nice idea to make a list of ten books about the British Empire which I’d like to read.  (For an explanation of the British Empire, and a list of further reading, this Goodreads list is wonderful.)

 

1. The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham 99664
‘Set in England and Hong Kong in the 1920s, The Painted Veil is the story of the beautiful, but love-starved Kitty Fane.  When her husband discovers her adulterous affair, he forces her to accompany him to the heart of a cholera epidemic. Stripped of the British society of her youth and the small but effective society she fought so hard to attain in Hong Kong, she is compelled by her awakening conscience to reassess her life and learn how to love.  The Painted Veil is a beautifully written affirmation of the human capacity to grow, to change, and to forgive.

 

2. A House for Mr Biswas by V.S. Naipaul
‘Mohun Biswas has spent his 46 years of life striving for independence. Shuttled from one residence to another after the drowning of his father, he yearns for a place he can call home. He marries into the Tulsi family, on whom he becomes dependent, but rebels and takes on a succession of occupations in a struggle to weaken their hold over him.’

 

305573. Shooting an Elephant by George Orwell
Shooting an Elephant is Orwell’s searing and painfully honest account of his experience as a police officer in imperial Burma; killing an escaped elephant in front of a crowd ‘solely to avoid looking a fool’. The other masterly essays in this collection include classics such as “My Country Right or Left”, “How the Poor Die” and “Such, Such were the Joys”, his memoir of the horrors of public school, as well as discussions of Shakespeare, sleeping rough, boys’ weeklies and a spirited defence of English cooking. Opinionated, uncompromising, provocative and hugely entertaining, all show Orwell’s unique ability to get to the heart of any subject.’

 

4. Old Filth by Jane Gardam
‘Long ago, Old Filth was a Raj orphan – one of the many young children sent ‘Home’ from the East to be fostered and educated in England. Jane Gardam’s novel tells his story, from his birth in what was then Malaya to the extremities of his old age. In so doing, she not only encapsulates a whole period from the glory days of British Empire, through the Second World War, to the present and beyond, but also illuminates the complexities of the character known variously as Eddie, the Judge, Fevvers, Filth, Master of the Inner Temple, Teddy and Sir Edward Feathers.’

 

5. A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes 188458
‘A classic adventure novel and one of the most startling, highly praised stories in English literature – a brilliant chronicle of two sensitive children’s violent voyage from innocence to experience.  After a terrible hurricane levels their Jamaican estate, the Bas-Thorntons decide to send their children back to the safety and comfort of England. On the way their ship is set upon by pirates, and the children are accidentally transferred to the pirate vessel. Jonsen, the well-meaning pirate captain, doesn’t know how to dispose of his new cargo, while the children adjust with surprising ease to their new life. As this strange company drifts around the Caribbean, events turn more frightening and the pirates find themselves increasingly incriminated by the children’s fates. The most shocking betrayal, however, will take place only after the return to civilisation.  The swift, almost hallucinatory action of Hughes’s novel, together with its provocative insight into the psychology of children, made it a best seller when it was first published in 1929 and has since established it as a classic of twentieth-century literature – an unequaled exploration of the nature, and limits, of innocence.’

 

6. Master Georgie by Beryl Bainbridge
‘A misadventure in a brothel links the destiny of the enigmatic George Hardy, a surgeon and amateur photographer, to a foundling who becomes his obsessively devoted maid, a wily street boy who takes advantage of his sexual ambiguity, and his alternately philosophical and libidinous brother-in-law in this terse, searing novel that takes them from the comfortable parlors of Victorian Liverpool to the horrific battlefields of the Crimean War.’

 

47025657. The King’s Rifle by Biyi Bandele-Thomas
‘It’s winter 1944 and the Second World War is entering its most crucial state. A few months ago fourteen-year-old Ali Banana was a blacksmith’s apprentice in his rural hometown in West Africa; now he’s trekking through the Burmese jungle. Led by the unforgettably charismatic Sergeant Damisa, the unit has been given orders to go behind enemy lines and wreak havoc. But Japanese snipers lurk behind every tree—and even if the unit manages to escape, infection and disease lie in wait. Homesick and weary, the men of D-Section Thunder Brigade refuse to give up.  Taut and immediate, The King’s Rifle is the first novel to depict the experiences of black African soldiers in the Second World War. This is a story of real life battles, of the men who made the legend of the Chindits, the unconventional, quick-strike division of the British Army in India. Brilliantly executed, this vividly realized account details the madness, sacrifice, and dark humor of that war’s most vicious battleground. It is also the moving story of a boy trying to live long enough to become a man.’

 

8. The Piano Teacher by Janice Y.K. Lee
‘Exotic Hong Kong takes center stage in this sumptuous novel, set in the 1940s and ’50s. It’s a city teeming with people, sights, sounds, and smells, and it’s home to a group of foreign nationals who enjoy the good life among the local moneyed set, in a tight-knit social enclave distanced from the culture at large. Comfortable, clever, and even a bit dazzling, they revel in their fancy dinners and fun parties. But their sheltered lives take an abrupt turn after the Japanese occupation, and though their reactions are varied — denial, resistance, submission — the toll it takes on all is soon laid bare.   Enter Claire Pendleton from London. Months after her husband is transferred to Hong Kong in 1951, she accepts a position as a piano teacher to the daughter of a wealthy couple, the Chens. Claire begins to see the appeal of the sweltering city and is soon taken in by the Chen’s driver, the curiously underutilized Will Truesdale. A handsome charmer with a mysterious limp, Will appears to be the perfect companion for Claire, who’s often left to her own devices. But a further examination leaves her with more questions than answers.  An intricately woven tale of lives changed by historical events, Lee’s debut brings this hothouse flower of a city alive with passion, and imagines characters both unforgettable and tragic.’

 

9. There Is Room for You by Charlotte Bacon 358848
‘Anna Singer, a charmingly independent young New Yorker, feels derailed after losing her father to a car accident and her husband to a younger woman. She books a trip to India, hoping that there she will be able to put her grief into perspective. Though this is her first visit, India has always tantalized her: her English mother, Rose, was raised in Calcutta during the twilight of the British Raj, but seldom spoke of her childhood. Then, as Anna departs, Rose gives her a manuscript in which she has recorded her Indian memories, torn between two cultures and belonging completely to neither.’

 

10. Staying On by Paul Scott
‘Tusker and Lily Smalley stayed on in India. Given the chance to return ‘home’ when Tusker, once a Colonel in the British Army, retired, they chose instead to remain in the small hill town of Pangkot, with its eccentric inhabitants and archaic rituals left over from the days of the Empire. Only the tyranny of their landlady, the imposing Mrs Bhoolabhoy, threatens to upset the quiet rhythm of their days.  Both funny and deeply moving, Staying On is a unique, engrossing portrait of the end of an empire and of a forty-year love affair.’

 

Have you read any of these?  Which are your favourite books which deal with the British Empire and colonialism?

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1

‘Reading and Writing: A Personal Account’ by V.S. Naipaul ***

I have wanted to read Naipaul’s work for far too long, and came across Reading & Writing: A Personal Account when wandering around my University library.  I wasn’t aware that he had actually written any non-fiction (apparently he’s written lots.  My mistake).  This short work of autobiography, which consists of two essays entitled ‘Reading and Writing’, and ‘The Writer in India’, has been beautifully printed by NYRB, although unfortunately my University’s copy was sans its dust jacket.

5856-_uy450_ss450_Published in 2000, Reading & Writing takes one on a foray into Naipaul’s literary history.  He is a prolific author with many works of fiction and non-fiction under his belt.  Perhaps his most famous work is A House for Mr Biswas, and his choice of subjects for his non-fiction works range from mutinies in India to a book about Eva Peron, the second wife of an Argentinian President.

‘Reading and Writing’ begins: ‘I was eleven, no more, when the wish came to me to be a writer; and then very soon it was a settled ambition’.  His child self, which he goes on to evoke, is rather charming: ‘With me, though, the ambition to be a writer was for many years a kind of sham.  I liked to be given a fountain pen and a bottle of Waterman ink and new ruled exercise books (with margins), but I had no wish or need to write anything; and didn’t write anything, not even letters; there was no one to write them to.’  This inherent need to become a writer was fuelled not at his competitive school, but by his father, and the books which he would choose to read to his son: ‘Sometimes he would call me to listen to two or three or four pages, seldom more, of writing he particularly enjoyed.  He read and explained with zest and it was easy for me to like what he liked.  In this unlikely way – considering the background: the racially mixed colonial school, the Asian inwardness at home – I had begun to put together an English literary anthology of my own.’

One gets the sense that Naipaul is rather an honest author, from passages like the following: ‘I didn’t feel competent as a reader until I was twenty-five.  I had by that time spent seven years in England, four of them at Oxford, and I had a little of the social knowledge that was necessary for an understanding of English and European fiction.  I had also made myself a writer, and was able, therefore, to see writing from the other side.  Until then I had read blindly, without judgment, not really knowing how made-up stories were to be assessed.’  He speaks rather candidly at times of problems encountered in the face of writing, and also discusses his inspiration for making himself a more well-rounded author.

‘The Writer in India’ is composed largely of Indian historical moments, but the scope is too wide for the shortness of the essay.  Many fascinating occurrences are mentioned, but are then either moved on from or glossed over, which was a real shame.  Had this essay been lengthened, or fewer things mentioned in more depth, it would provide a far more comprehensive look into the society in which Naipaul grew up, and explain to the reader more of his influences.

This particular tome runs to just 64 pages of rather large print; whilst it does offer Naipaul’s experiences with schooling, childhood reading, writing, and education, it feels perhaps a little too slight to have a great deal of substance.  He does, however, talk about a great deal of subjects: theatre, cinema, Indian ‘epics’, fables and fairytales, schooling, moving to England in order to study at Oxford University, and the effects of colonial rule, amongst others.   Some of the paragraphs are insightful; others not so much.  Regardless, throughout, Naipaul’s writing is fluid and intelligent.