Last year, when I wrote a story about Indian English non-fiction coming into its own (“The new true stories”, 20 August 2011), I was secretly thankful, because a couple of years of serious, eloquent books of reportage gave us something to read in a more or less dull period for Indian English fiction. The dramatic expansion of publishers’ lists, to say nothing of literary prizes and festivals, had, I thought, increased the overall number of good novels coming out of India, but done nothing to increase its percentage, or its market share.
Either the tide has turned in 2012, or I’m just in a better mood this year, but I will say, and many readers will agree, that fiction has come roaring back. To be honest, I would say that even if we had nothing but Jerry Pinto’s outstanding fiction debut, Em and the Big Hoom , the story of how a family loves and lives with a mother with a serious mental illness. Most reporters think they have a book in them—worse luck—and for the last couple of years I have been under the impression that our culture’s untold stories are best served by the hard work of factual investigation and reportorial honesty. Em and the Big Hoom made me realize that the truthfulness of a book has nothing to do with its category, and that pursuing the difficult logic of fiction takes an artistic courage that has nothing to do with journalism.
Some of the best-reviewed books in Lounge this year have been serious literary fiction, both in translation and otherwise. I was very moved by Benyamin’s Goat Days , translated from Malayalam; a little bit because I am an illiterate Malayali, but mostly because the earnestness and transparency of Goat Days’ protagonist, Najeeb, and his tale of slavery and freedom in Saudi Arabia, was sordid and mythic at once.
I found a new hero in Ambai, whose Tamil short stories I read in the English translation, Fish in a Dwindling Lake , for the first time. Ambai’s stories of migrant women in Indian cities (mostly Mumbai) were so quietly uncompromising, and so hopeful in how richly she realized ordinary lives.
Sridala Swami found Telugu writer Gogu Shyamala’s stories, translated to English in the collection Father May Be An Elephant and Mother Only A Small Basket, But… fluid, complex and beautiful. Arunava Sinha had great praise for Amitabha Bagchi’s deceptively gentle novel about a mid-level Delhi bureaucrat, The Householder ; and (also) wrote an ode to The Man Who Tried To Remember , Shanta Gokhale’s translation of Makarand Sathe’s brave, zany Marathi novel Achyut Athavale Ani Athavan. Gayatri Jayaraman called Anjali Joseph’s sophomore novel, Another Country , a book “waiting to rain”, and Sumana Mukherjee, on reading Manu Joseph’s The Illicit Happiness of Other People , wrote that the author is destined to be remembered as a novelist, rather than a journalist, which is good news for literature.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of smaller presses, and smaller divisions in big publishing houses, in putting out books like these. But the early releases of Aleph Book Company, David Davidar’s non-small publishing house begun in partnership with Rupa & Co., had a lot to do with boosting the number of good novels this year. Em and the Big Hoom was one of theirs, as was Pakistani author Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s haunting Between Clay and Dust , a vast historical novel contained in a slim, quiet story about an ageing courtesan and a wrestler. I was sucked into Nilanjana Roy’s delightful story about cats living in Nizamuddin, The Wildings , within its first 40 pages, and stayed up all night to finish it, and cried at the end. Aleph also set a high bar for book design this year; The Wildings’ illustrations by Prabha Mallya were every bit as enjoyable as Roy’s text.
I also find that, over 2012, we were especially welcoming of memoirs and biographies. Zareer Masani’s book about his parents’ difficult marriage, Veena Venugopal’s essays on a life in reading, and Pico Iyer’s very personal book about the work of Graham Greene were all cherished by readers and reviewers at Lounge; so were the stunning memoirs of Ismat Chughtai, which came out in a first comprehensive English translation this year, and Andre Beteille’s reminiscences of his early life.
Regrets: a few. I wish I had read more genre fiction this year. On looking back, though, I realize that I had something nasty to say (or think) about almost all the stuff I did read in one particular genre, erotica. Sex writing doesn’t need an establishment to legitimize or upgrade it, although, as the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon demonstrates, that can sometimes pay off quite well. While no author has produced something quite so dull in India yet, we’ve had erotica collections organized around everything from country of origin to sexual identity in India this year, but I can scarcely think of a story in many of these books that wasn’t awkward and self-conscious.
The breadth of at least two new collections of poetry this year were seriously impressive. The HarperCollins Book of English Poetry by Sudeep Sen, and These My Words , Penguin’s anthology edited by Eunice De Souza and Melanie Silgardo, both approach Indian poetry quite differently. Sen’s anthology collects the work of poets born after 1950; De Souza and Silgardo covered everything from Valmiki to Vikram Seth. As an English undergraduate, I learned adult emotions by reading Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s Twelve Modern Indian Poets (The Oxford India Anthology), and it delights me to think that this year we got two major books that could constitute a poetry masterclass in themselves. Translations as varied as Mustansir Dalvi’s Iqbal: Taking Issue and Allah’s Answer , Usha Rajagopalan’s Selected Poems: Subramania Bharati and Nirupama Dutt’s Poet of the Revolution: The Memoirs of Lal Singh Dil, have helped English-language readers keep up with a history we are immersed in, but are still learning to read.
On an even more personal note, two books that will stay with me for a long time after 2012 ends are, in fact, works of popular non-fiction on a subject of considerable interest to me. The Hindu journalist Meena Menon’s Riots and After in Mumbai: Chronicles of Truth and Reconciliation did little by way of storytelling or narrative, but there are so few serious studies of the 1992-1993 riots, that Menon’s comprehensive, documentary style was sharp enough. And Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, set in the precarious present-day of a Mumbai slum, created a language for Boo’s sources that held all the authenticity of fact, and all the resonance of literature. So much for false dichotomies.
Books you must read next year.
u Calcutta: Two Years in the City by Amit Chaudhuri
The novelist and editor of the terrific anthology of Calcutta literature, Memory’s Gold, writes about his home city.
u Stringer by Anjan Sundaram
A young Indian journalist travels through the Democratic Republic of Congo.
u Those Pricey Thakur Girls by Anuja Chauhan
India’s finest author of comic romance comes out with a new book about Delhi girls and Bangalore boys.
u The Madness of Waiting by Muhammad Hadi Ruswa
A translation of the super-clever Junun-e-Intezaar, in which Ruswa’s most famous creation, the courtesan Umrao Jaan, narrates the life of—wait for it—Ruswa.
u Carnal City by Isha Manchanda
A reporter travels through Delhi’s underbelly exploring its sexual subculture, from within bastis to local S&M clubs.
u The City Series by Various
Aleph Book Company publishes books on India’s cities by some of their best writers, including Nirmala Lakshman (Chennai), Malvika Singh (Delhi), Amitava Kumar (Patna), Indrajit Hazra (Kolkata), and Naresh Fernandes (Mumbai).