Saturday 16 January 2021

Best Reads of 2020 Part One - Indian Contemporary Fiction

I had planned to spend all of last September in India. For obvious reasons I couldn't go and so instead I  visited vicariously by immersing myself in contemporary Indian fiction. I have previously enjoyed the works of Kushwant Singh, Hassan Sadat Manto, Anita Desai, Rohinton Mistry, Bapsi Sidhwa and others but thanks to The Scroll I have discovered several new authors from different communities and from different parts of India. The books I enjoyed most share a number of themes - the vulnerability of outsiders of various kinds, friendship, betrayal and relationships between the classes, sexes, rich and poor. These are universal themes and can be found in the literature of most countries, but the five books included in this post explore them in a specifically Indian context.

Megha Majumdar's debut novel, A Burning, was one of my most engaging reads of the year. Set in the author's home city of Kolkata, the story begins just after an horrific terror attack has taken place. It revolves around three main characters, Jivan who lives in the slum but has dreams of a good job and a better life; her friend and neighbour, Lovely, who also has an ambition to leave the slum and to be a success in Bollywood and PT Sir, Jivan's former sports teacher. Jivan helps Lovely to improve her chances by teaching her English and whilst at school was well liked by PT Sir due to her sporting abilities. Although she has ambition she is young and naive and becomes implicated in the attack when the police examine the contents of her beloved mobile telephone. As the story unfolds, the moral character of both Lovely and PT Sir are tested as they are forced to compromise between helping Jivan or pursuing their own desires. All three are outsiders in their own way. Jivan is a Muslim, Lovely is a Hijra and PT Sir is not well regarded at his school. Lovely and PT Sir have both been fond of Jivan but when choices arise between opportunities to improve their lives or to forgo them and instead help her, their loyalty is put to the test.

Majumdar builds the tension as the story progresses, raising and then dashing hopes at various times,  as the story moves to its shocking denouement. Throughout, she exposes the hierarchies that govern every day life, at work, at home, even in prison. She studied in the United States and now lives in New York where she works as an editor at Catapult. Her book has received substantial praise from some very big names. Amitav Ghosh describes it as "...the best debut novel I have come across in a long time..." and Yaa Gyasi called it "An excellently crafted, utterly thrilling novel full of characters I won't soon forget". A Burning was long listed for the 2020 JCB Prize and shortlisted for the 2021 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. It might just be my book of 2020.

Hansda Sowendra Shekhar, author of My Father's Garden also writes about outsiders. He is a doctor as well as being an accomplished writer who has published three novels and a book of short stories. Born in Ranchi, the capital city of Jharkand in north-east India, he is a member of the Santhal ethnic group  who are one of the Adivasi or tribal communities. He is also gay. His writing explores the lives of the Santhal and neighbouring communities, the various social problems they face and their suffering at the hands of multi-nationals who wish to use the mineral-rich Adivasi lands for profit, forcing out the Santhal and other groups. Some of his short stories have provoked controversy amongst his own community due to the candid depiction of sex, prostitution and other issues. This led to calls for his brilliant collection of short stories - The Adivasi Will Not Dance - to be banned. 

My Father's Garden has also encountered controversy as it tells the story of a young gay Santhal doctor, his search for love and companionship and the difficulties of managing the expectations of his family and community. The first half of the book details the highs and lows of an affair with a fellow medical student and the different understanding, needs and wants that the two of them have from their relationship. The second half tells the story of a platonic friendship with the head clerk of the hospital where our hero is posted and how this changes over time to leave him disillusioned when his corrupt nature is exposed. The story explores several themes including the search for love, rejection, disappointment and the condition of being a permanent outsider even in one's home or family.

India's small but accomplished Parsi community has provided several writers who have achieved international recognition. Canada based Rohinton Mistry has scooped numerous awards for his epic novels of Parsi family life whilst Bapsi Sidhwa, born in Karachi when it was still part of an undivided India, has also achieved international recognition with two of her books being the basis for successful films. Last year I discovered another Parsi writer - Thrity Umrigar. Born in Mumbai she moved to the United States at the age of 21 and her stories are set in both India and her adopted country. 

I enjoyed two of her novels in 2020 - The Space Between Us and The Secrets Between Us. Set in Mumbai, they chart the relationships between Sera Dubash, a wealthy Parsi widow who survived an unhappy and sometimes violent marriage and her illiterate maid, Bhima who has her own sad story and who works to enable her orphaned grand daughter, Maya, to attend college. Umrigar cleverly contrasts the lives of the two women - Sera living in comfort in a beautiful apartment in a wealthy part of the city, Bhima scraping by in a small house in one of Mumbai's slums. Over many years they have shared an unspoken understanding of the other's secrets, yet still Bhima is not permitted to sit on the furniture she polishes every day and although she cooks Sera's meals she may not eat from the same plates or drink from the same cups. Umrigar contrast the lives of the two women which although very different materially are similar in many ways. Both had unsuccessful marriages and both choose to live their lives for their children or grandchildren. Both keep up pretences, Sera that her marriage was happy and Bhima that although she may live in a slum, she is not of it. Despite this, when a crisis arrives in the shape of a new and dreadful secret, this "nearly" friendship is placed under unbearable pressure in which themes of loyalty, truth, betrayal and redemption are examined. The books also capture something of the spirit of Mumbai. I especially enjoyed the scenes on Juhu beach, where Bhima and Maya go for fresh air and to temporarily escape their poverty and where both Bhima and Sera revisit memories of happier times.

Annie Zaidi is a journalist, novelist and playwright. Originally from Allahabad, she is not the first acclaimed writer in the family. Her maternal grandfather was Urdu Laureate, Ali Jawad Zaidi. Her most recent work, Prelude To A Riot uses a series of soliloquies, interspersed with clever use of poems, news reports and advertisements to tell the story of a South Indian village where religious intolerance threatens to destroy long established friendships between Hindus and Muslims. The soliloquies give voice to a range of opinions across age, class, sex and religious boundaries, giving depth to each character and background to the relationships and connections between them. 

Developing her theme of growing intolerance, Zaidi seems to make reference to what has become known as cancel culture. When the local newspaper publishes an anonymous poem, the recently formed Self Respect Forum, writes to the editor, objecting to its inclusion, claiming it makes disrespectful reference to a deity and also because too much space has been devoted to it "...the forum feels strongly that this much space need not be devoted to cultural inputs, especially on weekdays". The female editor writes a robust response "We must not forget that anybody who seeks to block the flow of ideas or people, creates artificial hurricanes" and suggests they visit the much neglected local museum where ancient statues depict the said deity in the same way as the poet. The Forum fail in their attempt to prevent further poems being published but are nonetheless outraged.

This relatively short but extremely powerful novel also exposes the discrimination faced by migrant workers who are paid less than the locals, not allowed to live in certain neighbourhoods and vulnerable to violent attacks. In Devaki's soliloquy she hears her father angrily describing his workers as "bloody illegals" before acknowledging that they are "cheap hands". Devaki asks "Does Appa (father) ask which side of the border they come from when he's bargaining like the devil himself to pay just half the government rate?". Resentment, jealousy, fear and denial fill the pages of this book which as the title indicates, does not end in a riot, but it is clear that something dark is likely to happen. Prelude To A Riot was shortlisted for the 2020 JCB Prize.  

My final choice in this, the first of two posts on my best reads of 2020 is the superb Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara. The Kerala born author is also a journalist has won numerous awards for her reports on the impact of poverty and religious violence on the education of children. This is her first novel. 

Djinn Patrol is the story of a series of child disappearances as seen through the eyes of three young friends - Jai aged nine and addicted to reality police shows, his studious friend Pari who is the only girl of the trio,  and Faiz who although still of school age has to work to help his family. The friends attempt to solve the mystery of the missing children taken from their slum in one of India's cities. The Purple Line of the title refers to the city's metro system and the Djinn comes from Faiz' idea that the children have been spirited away by one of these creatures. Pari is dismissive of his idea and Jai decides to undertake an investigation into what is really happening.

The parents and relatives of the missing children are treated with thinly disguised contempt by the authorities and the police show no interest in finding missing slum children. Local politicians attempt to make political capital from the misfortune of those gone missing and this has some impact within the community with neighbours becoming suspicious and threatening to turn on each other.

The writer sets the context by detailing the realities of slum life where many residents struggle to feed themselves and their families. Then there are the daily indignities of  having to use overflowing communal toilets, queuing for water early in the morning and the total absence of privacy. As if to emphasise the poverty, the slum is adjacent to a series of high rise luxury apartment blocks where the city's wealthy live behind high walls protected by security guards. Many of the women who live in the slum work in the homes of the wealthy madams, cooking and cleaning for them and looking after their children. The apartment dwellers and their less fortunate neighbours are linked in an economic relationship but as the story unfolds there may be other links too.

In the afterward of the book, Anappara writes that every day in India 180 children go missing. A disappearance will only make the news if the perpetrator is caught or if there are what she describes as "graphic details" surrounding the crime. She reports being struck by the total absence of the childrens' voices in these cases, which is why the format of her book is unusual. It places the children at the front of the story, not only the young detectives who search in the dangerous bazar and foggy narrow neighbourhood lanes, but also the missing. We meet them before they disappear. We know who they are and we care about them. 

Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line has been recognised with a string of awards including the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize, the Bridport/ Peggy Chapman-Andrews Award and the Deborah Rodgers Foundation Award. it has also been shortlisted for  the JCB Prize and the Women's Prize For Fiction. I must also mention the very striking design of the UK edition's cover, the work of Suzanne Dean, and although I know the old adage about books and covers, this one certainly catches the eye. 

Regular followers of this blog will know that reading is one of my passions. Although it is hard to feel positive about 2020, having to stay at home for much of the time meant I was able to indulge that passion even more than usual. Another post featuring five (or maybe a few more) titles is coming soon!

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