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My 9 Best Books by South Asian Authors

Hello and welcome back to The Brown Brontë! In my last post I shared some of my recommended titles of black African, African American and Caribbean interest. Today, I’m looking at fiction rooted in South Asian or Indian backgrounds. The list below is made up of some of my favourite books by South Asian writers; they all deal with similar themes, such as identity and belonging, generational divides and family relationships - but in vastly differing genres and narrative styles. If you have read any of these then let me know what you thought of them, either in the comments or over on Facebook at The Brown Brontë’s Book Club! 

1. Vikram Seth – A Suitable Boy
I know, I know, it’s not a book, it’s a breezeblock! If the length doesn’t put you off, however, this is an immensely rewarding read, populated with characters that are witty, entertaining and engaging. While on the surface, it’s a tale about a Mrs Bennet-like mother trying to marry off her daughter (the Austen references abound), in reality that’s only one strand in this multi-layered saga. Other stories intertwine and overlap with this, like the vines for which Lata, the daughter in the central plot, is aptly named. 

Seth is a master of perspective, giving both a panoramic vista of the socio-political landscape of 1950s India, and an intimate insight into the individuals and families living in this context. In an India that’s growing into her newfound independence, the people in it are portrayed neither as immigrants nor subjects, but as well-rounded personalities on their own terms. Funny, poignant and strewn with literary in-jokes and cultural references, it’s one of my favourite books of all time.

2. Mahsuda Snaith – The Things We Thought We Knew
This coming-of-age YA novel about a teenage girl living in a tower block on a Leciester council estate is humorous and touching in all the right places. Ravine and Marianne are childhood best friends who are practically inseparable. Until one day when Marianne disappears. In the years that follow, Ravine becomes bedbound with chronic pain syndrome, until she realises that she must face the past in order to overcome her pain. 

Mahsuda Snaith is a talented story-teller with an eye for the comic and tragic elements in the mundane details of someone’s life. Her exploration of the dynamics of childhood friendships – the petty doubts and jealousies, the vendettas and guilt, as well as the affection and camaraderie between pre-teen best friends - are perfectly captured. You’ll enjoy this if you liked Meera Syal’s Anita and Me, Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye and Zadie Smith’s Swing Time. I’m looking forward to more by this author. 

3. Mohsin Hamid – The Reluctant Fundamentalist
Changez is an ambitious young Princeton graduate of Pakistani origin, who lands a job at a prestigious finance firm in New York. He tells his story in the first person to an unknown interlocutor, in a Lahore street café, and relates his ambivalent experiences in the US: his attempts to fit in with his fellow students and colleagues; the change in attitudes towards him post-9/11; and his complicated relationship with an American woman named Erica. But where is he going with this story, and who is he actually talking to? It’s a cleverly-written and tightly-constructed novella about betrayed ideals and alienation, which will keep you hooked until the end. I didn’t realise I was holding my breath until the very last page.

4. Jhumpa Lahiri –Interpreter of Maladies
Jhumpa Lahiri’s 1999 debut collection is definitely my favourite of all her work. It is a series of vignettes of different characters, loosely bound together by a common background: their Bengali heritage. I’m a big fan of Lahiri’s clear, understated prose, but what I loved even more about this collection were her authenticity of voice and detail. There’s a scene where a character expresses disgust at the idea of oxtail soup, which made me chuckle as it could have been something a relative of my own had said. The characters’ culture, their values, their little habits, opinions and prejudices were all familiar to me, as were the conflicts they experienced while reconciling two cultural identities. However, knowledge of the culture isn’t a prerequisite to reading the stories: when Lahiri explores what has gone wrong in the protagonists’ relationships, the ailments she reveals are recognisable and familiar to readers of any culture. She is the eponymous Interpreter – not of physical, but of emotional maladies.

5. Meera Syal – Anita and Me 
Anita & Me is another coming-of-age story about two young girls who are best friends, growing up in the Midlands in the 1970s. The book is narrated by the lively Meena and details her turbulent friendship with the girl next-door, Anita. Meena’s parents are first generation Indian immigrants and lots of the book is spent describing Meena’s embarrassment at her parents’ cultural eccentricities: the clothes they wear, the food they eat, even their accents. Meena prides herself on her ability to code-switch, and deplores her parents’ seeming lack of ability to do the same. But despite Meena’s attempts to fit in with Anita, the two eventually grow apart. Although the tone is light and humorous, there are darker parts to the book, when it recounts the violent racism of Britain in the 1970s. It touches on race, class and social deprivation, but also the power of early friendships, the love of family, and pride in all the places you come from.

6. Zia Haider Rahman – In The Light Of What We Know
Zafar, an Oxford-educated ex-banker and human rights lawyer, turns up one day on the doorstep of an old university friend, looking unkempt and unwell. The unnamed friend gives him a room to stay in, and what follows is a transcription of Zafar’s extraordinary story, recorded by the friend. The narrative takes us to London, Kabul, New York, Islamabad and even Sylhet – a “corner of a corner” of Bangladesh (and not one I’ve ever seen represented in English novels) – as Zafar tries to overcome the various obstacles lying in his way due to race and class. Rahman’s novel has been likened to WG Sebald, from his use of the erudite narrative style to the emotionally tortured narrator. What stuck in my mind were the magnificent setpieces, such as a description of a midnight train crash in rural Bangladesh. Ultimately it’s a novel about displacement and alienation, and the psychological toll it can take when one feels perpetually an outsider.

7. Chitra Bannerjee Divakaruni – Before We Visit The Goddess 
Sabitri lives in the Indian city of Kolkata, overcoming personal tragedies to eventually become an independent woman running her own business. She doesn’t want her daughter Bela to make the same mistakes as she did, but Bela’s strong will won’t be guided, leading to a serious rift between them. A generation later, in the United States, Bela’s own daughter Tara is just as headstrong - to the detriment of their relationship. When Tara finds some letters written by her grandmother Sabitri, she begins to re-evaluate her relationship with Bela. Can they mend it, or is there too much to forgive? Spanning three generations of women, this book is about the search for roots, the intergenerational struggle for independence, and family love and duty. I found this absorbing once I got used to the fragmented chronology, and although some of the minor characters feel as if they are simply there as a plot device, the three women are distinctly drawn; Divakaruni convincingly captures the exasperation, frustration and affection between a mother and daughter, in the interactions between Tara and Bela.

Bonus: If you enjoy reading about food, like moi, you’ll be pleased to know that it plays an important role in this book, with Sabitri’s sweetshop and Bela’s Kitchen providing plenty of Bengali flavour ;)

8. Renita D’Silva – The Forgotten Daughter 
Rational, scientific Nisha writes lists to make sense of her feelings. When she finds out in her late parents’ will that she was adopted, Nisha begins a journey from her home in England to rural India, armed only with the address of a convent, to uncover long-buried memories of her early life, and to find out the truth about her birth and biological family. In India, Devi’s mother Shilpa is in a coma. Devi sits by her hospital bed, writing letters to her saying all the things she could never tell her, and also reading Shilpa’s diary, which Shilpa has been keeping since she was a young girl. Shilpa’s diary contains recipes passed down by her own mother, and all the thoughts and dreams she had for her future – as well as a secret that will change everything.

Renita D’Silva’s writing adeptly portrays three women’s distinct voices and personalities. Her prose is sensuous, full of smells and tastes, and vividly evoking either the lushness of Shilpa and Devi’s Indian village, or the empirical, ordered life that Nisha lives in England. An enjoyable read with writing that delivers imagery and emotion in abundance. And the recipes sound so mouthwatering you may well find yourself wanting to try out a couple of them!

9. The Boy With The Top-Knot – Satnam Sanghera
This memoir of growing up in the ‘80s in Wolverhampton as the youngest of four siblings in a Punjabi Sikh family, is relatable to any 2nd or 3rd generation British Asians growing up in the same era. Bickering with siblings and being obsessed with Wham! are probably actually fairly familiar to most British people of Sanghera’s age. However, when the adult Sanghera is railing at his parents’ exasperating habits, and trying to break away from his mother’s cultural expectations of him in order to have the lifestyle and relationships he wants for himself, Sanghera often cuts a rather spoilt and self-centred figure. But the heart of the book, and the part that I found the most moving, was his account of how he pieced together the facts of his father and sister’s mental illness: they both suffer from paranoid schizophrenia but it was never acknowledged or mentioned within the family. The discovery causes him to reassess all of his childhood memories in the light of this knowledge, and come to a new appreciation of his parents’ struggles and sacrifices. Filled with moments that are funny, warm and painful by turns, the book asks questions about how mental illness in Asian communities is perceived both by those communities and by wider society.

Hope you enjoyed my round-up of books by South Asian authors! Comment and let me know what you think, and stay tuned for more posts on books I love and titles I recommend. Happy reading!

Shabnam (The Brown Brontë) 


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