India: an impossible choice

August 18, 2012

How do you choose one book from a nation of 1.2 billion people – a country that is one of the most culturally rich and diverse in the world and a country, that, as I discovered when I was lucky enough to visit West Bengal last year, is so varied in its constituent states, let alone across its 1,269,219 square miles, that it makes a nonsense of the term ‘nationality’ as it is commonly understood?

I’m afraid I still don’t have the answer to this question. I struggled with it long and hard. As the suggestions of Indian writers poured in from visitors to this blog I did my best to research and weigh up each one. All to no avail: the more I looked into the many excellent and intriguing Indian authors whose names I’ve heard this year, the more impossible it seemed to limit my selection to just one work. An Indian friend of mine kindly posted my dilemma on Facebook and yet more names flooded in. The truth was, I could have spent a decade reading Indian literature and still barely have scratched the surface of the literary delights this country has to offer.

One thing I did know: I wanted to read the work of an author who was prized and celebrated in India rather than one who had made his or her name outside the country. As Tim who recommended Kushwant Singh just this week put it, ‘rather a lot of the “Indian” writers beloved of the international literati seem to live in London or New York’. Talented though many of these authors are, they didn’t chime in with what I was looking for: I wanted to read the work of someone who wrote primarily for Indian readers.

With this in mind, one among the many comments I’ve had about Indian literature stood out. It was from Suneetha:

‘I am from India, and I note that both the suggestions in comments and your list for India reads are those written originally in English. I have to say these are just second best to what regional literature we have here in over 23 official languages and a couple of hundreds of other languages spoken across the country.’

This struck a chord with me. After all, if I was looking for an Indian writer who wrote to be read by his or her compatriots, surely I should choose something written in a regional language, rather than the international lingua franca of the country’s colonial past? And so it was that I plumped for a novel by one of Suneetha’s favourite authors: the much decorated Malayalam novelist and filmmaker M T Vasudevan Nair.

Kaalam (Time), which won Nair the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1970, follows Sethu Madhavan as he leaves home for college and tries to make his way in the world. The expectations of his rural village rest on his shoulders and his excellent academic record seems to promise him a bright future. Yet, as the years pass and Sethu staggers from one failure to another, consoling himself with a series of hopeless love affairs, his potential seems to tarnish and warp and he grows disgusted with his life. At last, obliged to return to the family home he has spurned for so long, he is forced to face up to himself.

MT (as he is known) excels at presenting experiences that are at once universal and very specific to his characters’ time and place. Readers everywhere will recognise the adolescent Sethu’s embarrassment at his relations’ eccentricities – his aunt who lies scantily clad on the verandah, for example, and his mother who grumbles whether anyone is listening or not – and his desire to hide his poverty from his friends, as well as the perennial graduate’s dilemma of needing experience to get a job and a job to get experience.

What makes MT’s portrayal of these relatively commonplace rites of passage is his insight into the inconsistencies and contradictions that wrestle beneath the surface of all of us as we seek to move through life. From Sethu’s exasperated interior monologue in the face of an interview panel, to his stilted encounter with a friend who left education long before him and is now married and running a company, the author is a master of the tricks we use to disguise our shortcomings and the way casual questions and pleasantries can strike a person to the bone. This is particularly evident in MT’s depiction of his protagonist’s dealings with women: Sethu’s delight in the ‘illusionary obstacles’ that mask the impossibility of his feelings for teenage Thangamani and his wild justifications of his cruelty to his first love Sumitra both point to the self-delusion that keeps him crashing blindly, wilfully on.

These insights are couched in scintillating descriptions, which make the novel a joy to read. There is the loveless married couple for whom ‘words had become brittle showpieces in a glass case, to be used only on special occasions’, the minutes that ‘swam before [Sethu's] eyes like bubbles distilled from the indistinct colours of sunset clouds’ and, perhaps my favourite of all, Sethu’s numbed reaction to his mother’s death: ‘The news stood just outside his mind like a traveller in search of shelter’.

The editorial decision not to explain culturally specific terms in the text but instead to confine their definitions to a rather incomplete glossary at the back means that readers from other parts of the world may find it hard to work out some of the roles of and connections between characters. There are also some gremlins in the e-edition, which mean that odd words have been misrepresented, making for some rather strange sentences that have to be read twice to tease the proper meaning out.

These glitches in no way hampered my enjoyment of the novel, though. If anything, the initial confusion I felt over the interrelationship of the characters is an added bonus: it means that I will have to read the novel again now that I’ve got them sussed. I’m already looking forward to it.

Kaalam by MT Vasudevan Nair, translated from the Malayalam by Gita Krishnankutty (Orient Blackswan, 2012)

116 Responses to “India: an impossible choice”

  1. What a wonderful journey to find a truly authentic Indian read! Well done on persevering until you found it, sounds like a terrific read.

  2. Alpa said

    If you liked West Bengal , you may also like Satyajit Ray’s Feluda series.

  3. Ah, excellent idea – to go for an Indian work in translation.

    It brought me to a sudden and sharp realisation: despite considering myself reasonably well-versed in Indian literature – beyond the typical London/New York-resident list of many readers – I have never, as far as I’m aware, read an Indian author who works in a language other than English…

    Now I’ve got at least one example on my TBR list – thanks!

    I’d still recommend Khushwant Singh, though – especially Train to Pakistan – for an Indian author writing in English but virtually unknown outside South Asia…

  4. I am so glad you pointed out the things you did in the blog. Most “Indian” writing originating outside India tend to explain very common ideas and objects for audiences not familiar with the context hence making many of the subtleties disappear. The jokes and the right to joke often disappear in such writing since somehow certain jokes start seeming politically incorrect. As someone who has lived outside India for a number of years, this is my biggest fear–losing the nuances in my writing with respect to India.

    • Maybe each thing serves for its own purpose: for those of us who will perhaps never get to go to India or revel in its culture first-hand, those books published more mass-markety may be at least an introduction to the simple things we need to understand first. I get a lot of this by reading Indian writers currently situated in the U. S., Canada, or Britain. Then maybe we can progress to the books more familiar to you, or the kind you prefer, which handle the culture in more depth. The easier books to understand from an outsider’s perspective are perhaps like primers, translators for the experience. Does that make sense?

      • It’s a good point and I certainly think there are a lot of good books by Indian writers living elsewhere. For the purposes of my project though, as I am trying to read a book ‘from’ every country in a year (whatever from means), I felt I wanted to get closer to the books being written and read in the country itself if I could.

  5. What a fascinating, enriching, BRAVE project — I don’t think I’d ever have the guts to commit myself to something so bold. Of course, it has been documented that I am a bit of a commitment-phobe…
    ;)

    Congrats — looks like your impossible choice turned out a good one!

  6. Though all links don’t work, this is a good resource for Bengali lit in English translation. http://www.parabaas.com/bookstore/english.html#ashapurna

  7. There is one more author worth reading. He who wrote primarily for an Indian audience but was internationally acclaimed too, especially in the States. R.K.Narayan. Absolute genius whose novels and short stories are set in the fictional village of Malgudi. I would call him the ‘father of modern Indian English literature’ if I may use the term. :D Never once did he pander to the stereotypes Indian literature written for an international audience usually falls into. Yes, you will find many of those weird sentence structures you mentioned about, purposefully so to bring it as close as possible to the regional language the characters would speak in their world. You will love his work and great blog btw. :) Congrats on being WPd.

    • Thanks very much. He sounds great. Wow, the father of modern Indian English literature, eh? I’ll add him to the list and look forward to reading him when I’ve got round the rest of the world. Thanks for stopping by.

  8. Congrats on being freshly pressed! What a great project (Yes, I’ve noticed everyone has said that) but what I really like is that rather than take a colonialist stance which might be easy to do being a Brit, you’ve chosen to really see, and feel and hear on this project, the voices of the places and ideas you’re exploring. I might use your blog as an example for my students in a writing course I teach here in the States about exploring literacy, if that’s OK with you!

  9. EROSE said

    Interesting project & great decision on India! You bring up an interesting conundrum when trying to find an Indian work originally written in a vernacular language. If you’re interested in the politics of translation, check out Tejaswini Niranjana. She’s an Indian scholar who researches this very issue, and one of my favorites.

  10. ranu802 said

    I second the choice of Satyjeet Roy.He was a great writer.I read all his novels.I am a Bengali.I am surprised no one mentioned Rabindranath Tagore.He was from West Bengal.He wrote novels,poetry,song lyrics.His work is extremely popular among all Bengalis.

  11. ChilliBox said

    That is a great idea. I am originally from India and as I was thinking about it I realised that I don’t even know any current Hindi authors or Gujarati(my mother tongue) authors.

    I assume that you have plenty of suggestions for reading. I might want to one of my favourites.
    1. Sarasvatichandra by Govardhanram Tripathi. Originally written in Gujarati. It is a long novel – A word of caution.

    Also Arvind Adiga might be living in London but while he was writting all his books he lived in India. Any translations of Mahabharata would be a classic read too.

  12. Please continue your blog of books which feature Indian writers not generally known outside India. Though it may be hard to get them from my local library or from Amazon, I’d rather make the effort than feel that I was missing some integral experience.

  13. I love this project. How incredible to see your list! I loved “Cracking India”, but your choice has me quite interested as well. :D

  14. vanbraman said

    There are definitely a lot of good Indian authors. I have enjoyed reading books by Mistry, Naipaul and Seth. I have many more on my list of books to read. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this one.

  15. Manisha said

    This is a very interesting read. I didn’t quite favour many Indian authors before, but my point of view changed when I read Arundhati Roy’s God of Small Things, though.

    Great post – inspires me to read more Indian literature. Thank you and congratulations on being Freshly Pressed.

    • Thanks Manisha. There are loads of great Indian writers out there to suit all tastes. Hope you find more you like.

    • Arundhati Roy’s God of Small Things, though it was preceded in my reading by writings (a few) of other Indian writers, was definitely the book that got me all involved in an enthusiasm for Indian authors as well. It is hard, though, to get a hold of Indian authors who have only been published in India and Southeast Asia.

  16. toliveinspired said

    Thanks for posting, I will have to check this out. I have never been to India, but I am obsessed with most all things related to it as it’s a huge dream for me.

  17. MT is also known for his unique interpretations of classics. He tells the story from the view point of a character who might be the villain in the original or of a character who is not given much importance in the original. But by the time we’re through with his story we wonder why the protagonist was not originally portrayed like this. He’s brilliant ! Really good choice on your part :)

    • Ooh, those sound fascinating. I’ll have to keep an eye out for more of MT’s work. I wonder if any of his interpretations of the classics are translated. Thanks very much for your comment.

  18. Manu Kurup said

    I was wondering if you considered O.V. Vijayan for the your list. He also is an acclaimed Malayalam writer, cartoonist and political commentator. So much is the appreciation to his work in Kerala and in Indian literature in general that Malayalm fiction is considered to be divided in to two – before O.V and after O.V.
    Nicely written post. :)

  19. I’ve only begun my study of this great subcontinent. Probably because It’s so tied to England, I have never thought about it much outside of it’s colonial context. Compared to China, it has preserved a lot more culture from the iconoclasts of modern politics.

    • Thanks for your comment. China’s an interesting comparison – I’ve yet to get to it on my literary adventures, so will be interested to see what the books in translation are like (no idea what to choose from there either). Good luck with your studies – what a great topic to focus on.

  20. If you really want to read the best of India or of West Bengal, ‘Rabindranath Tagore’ should top the list. He has written tons of work in Bengali (the language of West Bengal) and also his Bengali poem was converted into Hindi poem and is the National Anthem of India.

  21. hemadamani said

    I’m glad you went for the translated work of a regional writer and got lucky. there are so many such writers from all parts of the country that the list would be endless but they are good reads just because they are so rooted to our ways of life. Happy reading!!

  22. Hey londonchoirgirl !! I am glad I read this post. I am from West Bengal , India … you talked about this place in your blog !! Actually I am from Kolkata .. The City of Joy !!

  23. Penguin India Publishes a collection of Short Stories every year, and these are translations from various regional languages. It helps to take your pick of authors from these stories. the short stories themselves are a great insight into the cultural differences and the similarities. I think one author for India is just not possible, nor is it possible for any country for that matter to be summed up by one book. I do think this is a good idea to get a conversation going :D

    • Thanks very much – I completely agree that it’s impossible for any country to be summed up by one book. What I’m doing is trying to explore what’s out there rather than find the definitive work from each place. Thanks for stopping by.

  24. ghummakkad said

    No recommendations here…just wanted to let you know that it is a great idea and a well written post.

  25. Suneetha Balakrishnan said

    Hey :)

    Happy to see that you enjoyed my favourite writer’s (M.T.Vasudevan Nair) work, and that you plan to read more of him. I suggest MT’s masterpiece novel, Second Turn ( Randamoozham is the original title) which is a retelling of the epic Mahabharatha from the view of the second Pandava, Bhima.

  26. Dear I am glad you chose a local language translation book. I would suggest you read a Marathi novel named “Mrityunjay” which simply means victory over death. Its a mythological novel about a famous warrior from Mahabharata.

  27. Raunak said

    I feel a light way to get a sense of people’s beliefs in a country, is reading their pulp fiction :) India has some exciting pulp fiction in most of its regional languages. The ones I fell in love with are translations of Tamil Pulp Fiction. The series is called “The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction” and they recently came out with a superb second volume. You can find it here http://www.blaft.com/view_details.php?id=7

  28. I can see that have received many recommendations…So here’s an addition to the list: God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy.And of course,train to pakistan,as suggested by some one earlier. =)
    cheers to your efforts!

  29. waste bins said

    I am not fond of reading Indian books. But your blog is very inspiring that I am now interested of finding one and read.

  30. Reblogged this on dsstextbook and commented:
    A moral things

  31. Sampurna said

    If you’re going to read all that is recommended of Indian lit. what’s going to happen to the lit. of other countries? :) I read your What I’m Doing section and I think it’s a fantastic thing to do. I wish I had the time to read all that I want…
    Anyway, since I gather that you’re also interested in women-centric literature, I’d suggest the name of Mahashweta Devi. She’s a Bengali author, a woman, and one who went a long way in linking the position of Indian women with the budding Marxist-feminist movements around the world. A good title would be “Hajar churashir maa” (The mother of 1084).

    • Thanks. No, I’m only reading one book per country this year – 196 books is more than enough to keep me busy this year. I’m still adding all suggestions to the list though so visitors can check them out. And I’ll hope to get to many of them once the project is finished. I shall certainly add Mahashweta Devi to the list. Thanks very much.

  32. I’m really surprised that there are no mentions of R.K.Narayan! Malgudi Days is by far one of the most classic series written by an Indian author, and if you’re looking for someone without a pinch of pretense in word, manner or writing, he is it. Do try and get your hands on some of his work. :)

  33. i want to suggest my favorite of all time
    “zaverchand meghani”
    he is from gujarat(same state where gandhi born)
    a writer who takes you to the soul of my state..to every village
    his best work is outlaws of Gujarat…
    even Gandhi award him with “national poet”

  34. Wow! I’m really happy to read this post! I’d really recommend Malgudi Days by R.K. Narayan, or any book written by R.K. Narayan, for that matter, considering the type of works you intend reading! :) Kudos!

  35. jitu48 said

    I could not read article due eye problem. But the great Indian writers write from the heart. An example, there a poem I studied before 50 year, of National Poet Late Mr. Zaverchand Meghani, have theme like – A king was on general round of the fields, He saw farms were flourished, he though he should increase taxes on farmers’ income. At one farm he stopped and asked for drinking water to old woman. The women was not aware that he is king, but he treat him as honored guest and told ‘wait, I will bring sugarcane juice for you’
    She tried to extract from the raw sugarcane, but there was no juice. She simply uttered –
    Ras hin thai Dhara (The land become dried)
    Dayahin thayo Nrup (The King became pitiless)
    Thus poet established the relation between live and lifeless – (human and land)
    You can contact his son Mr. Mahendra MeghanI on link –

    http://www.bhavnagar.com/personality1.asp

    Pl. pardon me for ‘Bad English’

    • Thanks very much – Mr Meghanl’s work sounds very interesting. And I didn’t notice any ‘Bad English’…

      • jitu48 said

        Mr. Mahedra Meghani is also learned person, he can tell you more about the depth of writtings of his father. My blog is in Gujarati, may not useful to you, it is on ‘self exploring’
        Have a nice time.

  36. Really enjoyed this article :)

  37. that book sounds incredible! thanks for sharing :) x

  38. oh and also..wow. if i had to choose to sum up an entire country and culture in one book…crazy. i love this idea though! x

    • Thanks. I think summing up is impossible (thinking about British literature I’m sure there’s no way you could encapsulate it all in one book and it must be the same for other places) – it’s more just about seeing what I can find… Thanks very much for stopping by.

  39. Fabulous project! I could not help but grin when I read this post. My sympathies are with you :) I saw your list of Indian authors and noted several contemporary bestsellers. They are all superb writers and I will recommend them all.

    But not so fast.

    To find representative literature, one might still venture to ask who are the native residents of India and do they have stories to tell? The answer is, like all lands conquered in bygone days, the Indian subcontinent too had native dwellers. And they still live on – sixty million of them – across every state of the country.

    They are the Adivasis of India, indigenous tribes who’ve lived here for a few thousand years. They will tell you some of the most wonderful stories that could be told. And Mahasweta Devi is one of the most articulate voices of the indigenous (but now culturally invisible) people of India.

    I can recommend “Imaginary Maps” and “Bitter Soil”. But you will do just fine to read any of her books – all available at the amazon list below.

    http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=ntt_athr_dp_sr_1?_encoding=UTF8&field-author=Mahasweta%20Devi&ie=UTF8&search-alias=books&sort=relevancerank

    More about Mahasweta Devi: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mahasweta_Devi

  40. Congratulations on being Fresh Pressed! Your project sounds fabulous, so well it is well deserved. We’ve been living in Kerala for 2 years and are inspired daily by the lyrical “loopy” nature of Malayalam. (The name itself being a palindrome says it all!) Perhaps a visit is in order for you? Let us know!

  41. Hi. Wonderful blog. Being from India, totally associated with it. Would also suggest authors like Amitav Ghosh, Vikram Seth and RK Narayan, besides Khushwant Singh who you mention.
    Naren
    nkusnur@gmail.com

    http://narenmusicnotes.wordpress.com

  42. As a reader and a world traveller I find your blog fascinating. For someone who I think captures India very well I recommend “A Fine Balance” or “Family Matters” both by Rohinton Mistry. When you get a moment, please stop by my blog “The Eclectic Ear”. Thanks!

  43. I love this! Thanks for posting :)

  44. alua said

    I am going to try and find this book before I fly back to the UK next week (boohoo, much too soon of course!).

    I agree with you – absolutely impossible to easily select one book for India. I have only read bits – Tagore, Vikram Seth, Arundhati Roy, Aravind Adiga, plus some by foreigners like William Dalrymple’s lovely City of Djinns. Will look through the other commenters recommendations too!

  45. Reblogged this on Suneetha Speaks and commented:
    To read a book from each country in a year. Writer, Editor, Singer, Blogger, Ann Morgan, who has a master’s in Creative Writing from UEA and is these days a news editor and feature writer on contract magazines at the Guardian, went on to do just that.

    Considering that the world was coming to London for the 2012 Olympics, she decided to ‘meet it’ and work her way round as many of the globe’s 196 independent countries as she could, sampling one book from every nation. At the end of 2012, her blog is my favourite web page after the Paris Review Interviews page.

    And I am happy to see she took up my recommendation for her reading from India. Not a book written in English but one written in an Indian language and translated into English: incidentally it’s by my favourite Malayalam author, the Nobel laureate M T Vasudevan Nair.

    Her blog is a treasure, it will get you to many names across world literature. And while I am on the topic, she has had another book pilgrimage before this, her A year of reading women. So happy reading folks. I am honoured to reblog this excellent pilgrimage in books by Ann Morgan.

  46. I’m an avid reader and although I’m an Indian living in India, I must confess I have yet to read a book written by an Indian author in one of our languages. I’ve obviously been missing out on some excellent literature and I want to Thank You for introducing me to what seems like a wonderful book to start!

    Am enjoying your journey across the world and who knows perhaps one day will make my own!

  47. Avadhut said

    A truly wonderful idea and blog! One of the best that I have come across. I was delightfully surprised to see Shivaji Sawant’s Mrityunjay in your reading list. The original is in my mother tongue, Marathi and trust me, English translation can not match the lyrical prose of that book. I would suggest one more book to you on Mahabharata – Yugant by Irawati Karve. Its a collection of essays on Mahabharata and in my opinion the best on this topic. Try it. I am sure you will like it.

  48. I see you’ve got many recommendations, what can I say? India is like a gold mine of literature. But when you do have the time, you might like to check out The Ramayana, Mahabharata, bhagavad gita, and the Upanishads. All ancient sacred texts that will give you much more than just an insight to Indian culture

  49. ankspondiary said

    Chittagong: Summer of 1930 if you would like to read a book on the Empire that is crafted from translations of Bengali diaries and British homeletters and memoirs.

  50. I’m surprised no one has mentioned Kiran Nagarkar yet. He’s one of those rare Indian writers who writes with equal proficiency in English and the vernacular (considering how multilingual Indians are, you would think this would be a more common thing). His best (and best-known) novel is Cuckold, a work of historical fiction set in the Rajput kingdom of Mewar, and narrated by the husband of the devotional poet Meerabai. It won the Sahitya Akademi award in 1997.

    His debut novel, Seven Sixes Are Forty-Three, was written in Marathi, and is not as well-known, but is one of the most remarkable novels I’ve read. Definitely an author to go on your list.

  51. Chetana said

    Hey! Lovely project. I am, also, not fond of indian authors who write for a foreign audience. My favourite Indian authors, who write in English, include Sashi Deshpande and R.K.Narayan. If you can find a translation, do read Choker Bali by Tagore as well.

  52. Nishchal said

    Hi…… its really an Awsome job u have done thr….have not really gone thru all the suggestions that u have received here but would like to suggest the Untouchable by Mulk Raj Anand….its really a landmark in the Indian fiction.

  53. Arun said

    Read Ruskin Bond. He is an English man who went back to London after Independence but came back because he missed home (India) so much. He writes about the small towns of the Indian foothills of his youth. Truly quaint heartwarming stories of the Himalayan hills and valleys and the warm simple folk. I am Indian Bengali raised in Delhi. Have been in the UK and Australia for the past 15 years. I always read him when I am feeling lonely or missing home.

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