One of my friends asked me for reading recommendations on Indian literature and books written by Indian authors. I made a list for my friend. Then I thought it would be a good idea to post it here
Before getting to the list, I have to say a few things about it. The books which find a place on this list are based on my own knowledge and hence are in no way a comprehensive representation of Indian literature. For example, because my mother tongue is Tamil, I know more about Tamil novels and have included more Tamil books below. Also there are languages which I haven’t even mentioned below – like Telugu, Punjabi, Assamese – because my knowledge of writers in these languages is very low. Also Bengali literature is so rich, but I have mentioned only a few writers. I have also tried to include only one or two books by one writer. I have also tried to include a good number of writers writing in different languages and so some of the fine writers writing in English are missing. There were two other limitations to the list. They were that the books should be available in translation in English and they should be accessible through Amazon or a similar online e-bookstore. I have tried to provide Amazon / Wikipedia links wherever they are available.
One of the problems that I noticed in the list, was that men authors outnumbered women authors. I think part of the reason for this is my lack of awareness. Part of it is because English translations of some of the women authors’ works are not available. For example, I wanted to include Kamala Das, but translations of most of her works were not available, except for her memoir. But I also have a suspicion that men authors outnumber women authors in Indian languages. I don’t have the data to prove it though. I don’t know what this says about the Indian literary environment.
So, with all the caveats mentioned above, here is the list.
(1) The first three books by R.K.Narayan – Swami and Friends, The Bachelor of Arts and The English Teacher. They form a loose trilogy, though the names of the characters in the three books are different. They depict beautifully the life in smalltown India during old times.
(2) Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh – Beautiful story set during the time of the partition of India into two countries, India and Pakistan. Though the story is sad, it has a life affirming ending.
(3) Azadi by Chaman Nahal - Another story set during the partition. Mostly sad and makes the reader cry. But a beautiful and realistic story too. It was one of my favourite books when I first read it.
(4) The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy – Winner of the Booker Prize in 1997. It is a novel about growing up in the coastal state of Kerala. It is Roy’s only novel.
(5) White Tiger by Aravind Adiga – Winner of the Booker Prize. This is a novel about modern India, on how crime coexists with sophistication and economic growth. It is written as a letter to Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao.
(6) Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie - Winner of the Booker Prize and the Booker of Bookers. Salman Rushdie is not really Indian – he is British – but this book tracks the history of India since its independence in 1947 till the late 1970s, through the eyes of one man who was born on the same day that India got independent.
(7) A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth – A very thick novel and so very intimidating. It depicts Indian culture and history in the 1940s and 1950s. It is the story of a mother who tries to find a bridegroom for her daughter. I loved it when I read it.
(8) The Great Indian Novel by Shashi Tharoor – A novel which looks at Indian politics in the 1970s through the eyes of Indian mythology
(9) Nectar in a Sieve by Kamala Markandaya - It is a book very similar to Pearl Buck’s ‘The Good Earth’. It talks about a farmer’s life in India during old times.
(10) Ladies Coupe by Anita Nair - A woman takes a break from life and decides to go on a long train journey alone, as an adventure. In the train she meets four other women. She has conversations with them, gets to know the intimate details of their different lives and it makes her ask the question – can a woman be happy staying single, or should she necessarily get married?
(2) Two books by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay – Pather Panchali, Aparajito – This is an autobiographical series of novels by the author and two of the most famous Bengali novels. It was made into the Apu Trilogy of movies by Satyajit Ray.
(3) Days and Nights in the forest by Sunil Gangopadhyay – Four city boys decide to go into the forest and spend some time there in solitude, away from civilization and closer to nature. But things are not the way they expect and when they return their lives have been transformed.
(1) Yayati by V.S.Khandekar – Yayati is a king who becomes suddenly old because of a curse. He wants to become young again and enjoy the pleasures of youth. He asks his sons to exchange their youth with him. All his sons except one, refuse. One son exchanges his youth with his father. Yayati becomes a young man again. But then he discovers that youth is not what he imagines it to be. ‘Yayati’ was originally a mythological story from ‘The Mahabharata’. Khandekar has taken the original myth and created a beautiful, philosophical novel, which has inspired generations of readers.
(1) Sevasadhan by Premchand - Premchand is regarded as the father of modern Hindi literature. And for some interesting reasons, he is also regarded as one of the founders of modern Urdu literature. This book was his first novel and was first published in Urdu and then in Hindi. The Urdu title, Bazaar-e-Husn (Market of Beauty), is more colourful. It is about a housewife who gets frustrated with her life and becomes a courtesan and then later goes on to manage an orphanage. One of the great Hindi / Urdu classics.
(2) The Chess Players by Premchand - One of Premchand’s short stories called ‘Shatranj ki Khiladi’ (The Chess Players) was made into a movie by Satyajit Ray. It is about two aristocrats who are so immersed in playing chess that they forget to deal with the real enemy who is invading their land. I highly recommend the movie.
(3) Three Historical Plays by Jaishankar Prasad – Skandagupta, Chandragupta, Dhruvasvamini – Jaishankar Prasad is one of the pillars of modern Hindi literature. His historical plays set during the Gupta era are quite famous. Most of them are tragedies. Skandagupta, Chandragupta and Dhruvasvamini are wonderful. I don’t know whether English translations are available. I hope they are. If they are not, maybe I should translate them
(1) Umrao Jan Ada by Mirza Hadi Ruswa – It is regarded as the first Urdu novel ever written. It was written in the 19th century. It depicts the life and loves of a courtesan in Lucknow. Its portrayal of the 19th century world is intricate and beautiful. You can find the plot synopsis at the Wikipedia page here.
(2) River of Fire (Aag ka Darya) by Qurratulain Hyder – Hyder’s novel covers two and half millennia of Indian history in around 400 pages of the novel. One of the great Urdu novels of the 20th century – some regard it as the greatest.
(1) The Hour After Midnight by Salma – Salma is a famous Tamil poet who writes on unconventional and controversial topics. This is her first novel. It was longlisted for the MAN Asian Literary prize a few years back. It is about the life of a conservative south Indian muslim girl. It got a lot of critical acclaim both in India and internationally.
(2) Ponniyin Selvan by Kalki (Son of Ponni) – This is one of the historical classics in Tamil and comprises five volumes. It is a novel set during the Chola empire. It is a sprawling epic like ‘Three Kingdoms‘. Kalki’s prose is beautiful and he wonderfully depicts Tamil culture and history of the tenth century AD, in addition to telling a beautiful story populated by handsome heroes and beautiful heroines and nasty villains. You can find the story outline in the Wikipedia page here.
(3) Collected short stories of Pudumaipithan – Pudumaipithan was one of the great modern Tamil writers. He wrote mostly short stories and translated European literature into Tamil. His short stories are famous for the unconventional and unique points of view and for looking at the familiar world in new light. I don’t know whether his complete short stories have been translated into English. However, I found an audio book in Amazon here.
(4) Two novels by Jayakantan – Jayakantan is one of the most famous Tamil writers in the last few decades. His most famous books are probably ‘Sila Nerangalil sila manithargal’ (Sometimes some people) and ‘Oru Nadigai Naadagam Paarkiraal’ (An actress watches a play). The translation of the second one is available in English and it is called ‘Once an Actress’. It is about the relationship between an actress and a journalist and its ebbs and flows and about the complexity of the human mind. The first book, ‘Sometimes some people’, is about a young woman from an orthodox family who has a one-night stand with a stranger and the repercussions of that in her life.
(5) Tharayil Irangum Vimaanangal by Indhumathi (translated into English as ‘Surrendered Dreams’) - Indumathi is one of my favourite Tamil writers. This is also one of my favourite books. ‘Surrendered Dreams’ is the coming-of-age story of a young man. It is also about the beautiful friendship between this young man and his sister-in-law.
(6) Two novels by by Sivasankari – 47 Days and Bridges – Sivasankari is another of my favourite writers in Tamil. ’47 Days’ is about a smalltown woman who gets married to a guy who works abroad. She is very happy about it but the day she lands at her husband’s place in another country, the horrors start. Generations of Indian women have been influenced by this story since it was first published. 47 Days was made into a famous Tamil movie. I don’t know whether an English translation of this book is available. However, another of Sivasankari’s famous works ‘Paalangal’ (Bridges) is available. It is a saga of three generations of Tamil women from a particular family. The story starts from the beginning of the 20th century and ends sometime towards the end of the 20th century and charts the social and cultural transformations that happen during this period. It makes me think of Wild Swans : Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang.
(1) Chemmeen by Thakazhi Sivasankaran Pillai – This is the story of love between a Hindu woman who is a member of a fisherfolk community and a Muslim man who sells fishes. It is a Malayalam classic and was made into a movie too.
(2) The Second Turn by M.T.Vasudevan Nair – This is a retelling of ‘The Mahabharata’ from Bhima’s point of view. This is regarded as Vasudevan Nair’s masterpiece.
(3) Balyakalasakhi by Vaikkom Muhammad Basheer – Balyakalasakhi (Childhood friend) is a beautiful, poignant love story. Though it is only around 75 pages long, it is regarded as one of the greatest works of Malayalam literature. Vaikkom Muhammad Basheer is himself one of the greats of Malayalam literature and in addition to this book he wrote many other novels and short stories. His short stories are quite fascinating too.
(1) Parva by S.L.Bhyrappa – A retelling of ‘The Mahabharata’ without the mythological elements. The novel is structured as a series of reminiscences of the main Mahabharata characters. It is a modern Indian classic. Bhyrappa is one of the great writers in Kannada.
(2) Two Plays by Girish Karnad – Hayavadana, Nagamandala – Girish Karnad is one of India’s greatest modern playwrights. In Hayavadana, a woman’s husband dies and his best friend also dies. But they are brought to life by magic. Unfortunately, the head of the husband gets fixed to the body of the friend and vice versa. So, who is the woman’s real husband now? The play asks some interesting questions like this. Nagamandala is about how stories might have a life of their own and for them to be alive and thrive they have to be told orally and passed on from one person to another.
Both the above books are good anthologies of Indian writing. But they focus on works written in English and they also feature translations of a few pieces written in Bengali and Urdu. South Indian languages like Tamil, Kannada, Malayalam and Telugu are ignored. More surprisingly, the greatest works in Hindi literature are ignored. So, though these are good anthologies the selection is not representative and hence should be taken with a pinch of salt.
(3) Tamil novelist Sivasankari has researched and created a four-volume book called ‘Knit India Through Literature’. Each of the volumes covers one part of India – South, East, West, North. In each volume, there is an introduction to the important writers of the region, excerpts from their works and in some places, an interview with the writer. It is a beautiful book which deserves to be more widely known and read. In many ways it is better than the above two anthologies, because it covers regional literature in depth, rather than focusing only on works written in English. I highly recommend it. You can read some excerpts from the book at Sivasankari’s website here. You need to scroll down to the section ‘Literary Research Book’ to find the links.
Indian mythology is an interesting subject. The main Indian mythology epics are ‘The Ramayana’ and ‘The Mahabharata’. My favourite of the two is ‘The Mahabharata‘, because it is more complex. It is in some way similar to ‘The Iliad’ or the Chinese epic ‘Three Kingdoms’ with magical elements in it. The original edition of ‘The Mahabharata’ is huge and is written in the form of poetry. So, I wouldn’t recommend that. There are many retellings of it and shorter versions of it. The ones I would recommend are ‘The Mahabharata’ by R.K.Narayan (it is really slim), ‘The Mahabharata’ by C.Rajagopalachari (one of the best ones) and ‘The Mahabharata’ by Krishna Dharma (it takes some liberties with the original story – for example it gives more importance to the character of Krishna and it sometimes deifies the Pandavas and villifies the Kauravas, while the original Mahabharata is more subtle and sophisticated on this aspect – but it is still good). There is also a comic version of ‘The Mahabharata’ published by Amar Chitra Katha, which is excellent and sophisticated and which I highly recommend. There are also versions of ‘The Mahabharata’ written as novels with changes made – for example changing the point of view from which the story is told, giving importance to one character over another etc. Two of them are quite excellent – ‘Parva’ by S.L.Bhyrappa and ‘The Second Turn’ by M.T.Vasudevan Nair. There is a book called ‘Ka’ written by Roberto Calasso where takes the whole of Hindu mythology and puts it in the form of a novel. I would recommend this book too – it is excellent.
What do you think about the above list? Have you read any of the books from the list? Would you like to recommend more books which can be added to the list?