Monday 14 February 2022

Best Reads of 2021 Part 2 Contemporary Indian Fiction

This is the second of two posts on my favourite reads of 2021. This time I focus on contemporary fiction by writers of Indian heritage. My selections include four first novels, all of them by women writers and a third novel by a prominent British-based writer. The stories are set in Kolkata, Kashmir, Uganda, Punjab and London, but their themes are universal.  They address some common issues - loss, expulsion, rejection and displacement, but also hope and strength in the face of adversity. I am grateful to the reviewers of  The Scroll for drawing my attention to these and several other memorable books during 2021.

Much has been written about the partition of India, particularly about events in the Punjab. Less well known, is the equally violent and devastating partition of Bengal. Victory Colony 1950, Bhaswati Ghosh's first novel, is set in the aftermath of those events, when continuing inter-communal violence caused many Hindus to leave what was then East Pakistan, and is today, Bangladesh.

Amala, and her younger brother, Kartik, arrive in Kolkata's Sealdah Station having fled their home in the hope of a safer future. Within moments of their arrival, they lose each other.  Kartik disappears and Amala reluctantly accepts help from Manas Dutta, a young volunteer, who takes her, together with several other new arrivals to a government refugee camp. This is Bijoy Nagar, the Victory Colony of the title. The refugees receive little official help and some feel no more welcome in India than they were in Pakistan. Manas and his friends help them find work, supplement their meagre rations and try to provide medical assistance. Some of the women take on low-paid piece work and others become the prey of would-be abusers.

Manas comes to admire Amala for her tenacity in trying to make the best of her situation, and over time he begins to feel affection for her. But his mother cannot accept her son's relationship with a woman from a different social class, or caste and Amala becomes the focus of her prejudice. Can the young couple's relationship survive the many pressures placed upon it?

References to Bengali culture add context to the story. These include descriptions of typical Bengali dishes made in the camp and in the Dutta family home, and the regular "adda" sessions in which groups of friends (and sometimes strangers) debate and argue about ethics, politics and culture.  The author has a background in journalism and has written for The Wire and Times of India. She lives in Canada and is currently writing a book on Delhi.


A Death in Shonagachhi is also set in Kolkata. The story takes place in the city's red light district and opens with the murder of a young woman employed at Shefali Madam's Blue Lotus brothel. The killing sends fear through Shonagachhi but does not deter Lalee, a friend of the murdered woman from wanting to become an "escort". This would be more financially lucrative, but no safer, than being a brothel girl. 

There are several strands within the book. Lalee's regular client, Tilu Shau, a poverty stricken writer of erotic fiction, falls in love with her, and wants to help her escape from prostitution, but she seems disinterested. Lalee gets her wished for "promotion" but becomes ensnared in a bizarre, abusive religious sect where her life is placed in danger. Throughout all this, the largely disinterested police carry out a half-hearted investigation into the murder, prompting the women of the neighbourhood to carry out mass protests. This strands come together in the  final scenes which whilst tense also have moments of humour.

The author describes the realities of life for women in Shonagachhi, through the character of Lalee. She became a prostitute after being sold by her drunkard father. Despite this the family still look to her for financial help. At one point, her brother arrives from his village, asking for money to pay for repairs to his house and for medicines for their mother. He eats and drinks in Lalee's room - without putting his lips to the utensils - and when he leaves he walks "...with his head bowed, determined not to see any more than the track of dirt that led to the main door". He is ashamed of his sister, but happy to take the money she earns from prostitution and to eat the food paid for by it. Money and power is a recurring theme in the book, with the women of Shonagachhi producing vast amounts of wealth, but for those controlling and exploiting them, rather than for themselves. 

Rijula Das is from West Bengal and now lives in Auckland, New Zealand. A Death in Shonagachhi is her first novel. It won the 2021 Tata Litrature Live First Book Award and was also long listed for the prestigious JCB Prize.

Shalini is 30, unmarried and drifting in a job that does not interest her. She is convinced her mother's death is somehow linked to the sudden disappearance of a Kashmiri salesman, whose visits to the house ceased a decade earlier. She is also the central character of Madhuri Vijay's first novel, The Far Field, winner of the 2019 JCB Prize, Times of India Fiction Award and the Tata Literature Live First Book Award.

The novel switches between scenes from the earlier life of Shalini's affluent but dysfunctional Bangalore family, and her impulsive search for the salesman - Bashir Ahmed - in Kashmir. Her mother rejects her middle-class friends and contemporaries in exchange for an unlikely friendship with Ahmed. As their friendship develops, the author explores several themes including class, belonging, loneliness and mental health. Over the years of their friendship, the political conflict in Kashmir heats up and eventually erupts in violence.

Shalini takes off for Kashmir, knowing only the name of the village that the salesman may have come from, and not even knowing if he is still alive. She receives help from a Kashmiri Muslim family who open their home to her and help her to reach the village. She again receives help and hospitality, but despite being 30 and from the big city, she is naive. She can only see what seems to be a simple, idyllic, rural life. She takes too long to recognise the tensions, secrets and lies that surround her there, as much as in Bangalore. Her naivety also extends to the risks of the military presence in Kashmir and eventually brings danger to those who have helped her. 


China Room is Sanjeev Sahota's third novelThe main story revolves around Mehar, a fifteen year old girl married to one of three brothers, all married on the same day in Punjab in 1929. Together with the other brides - Harbans and Guleen, her days are filled with chores and at night they share the "China Room", so named because of the plates stored there. Each night they wait to be summoned by Mai, their harsh mother-in-law, to go and sleep with their husbands in the hope of becoming pregnant with a son. The girls don't know which brother is their husband as they see them only after dark and are veiled in public. Mai refuses to tell them who's bride they are, but defiant Mehar thinks she knows.  But does she really and if she has made a mistake what will the consequences be?

The late 1920's saw a period of significant unrest in India and a sub-plot of the story  revolves around the Independence Movement and it's different and rival factions during this time. Issues of caste-discrimination are also examined within this context. 

The other part of the novel is set in 1999, and is the story of an unnamed 18 year old male heroin addict, sent from the UK to spend time in Punjab with his uncle's family. His aunt, who is worried about his influence on her children does not want him in the house, and he moves instead to the now abandoned farm where Mehar lived seventy years previously. He forms a friendship with Radhika, a young and independent woman doctor and they become the subject of local gossip.

China Room was long listed for the 2021 Booker Prize. His second book, The Year of the Runaways was shortlisted for the 2015 prize. Not bad for someone who did not read a novel - Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children - until he was 18 years old. He lives in Sheffield and since 2019 has taught creative writing at Durham University.

Neema Shah's first novel, Kololo Hill, is based on real life events from the early 1970's when dictator Idi Amin gave Uganda's long-established Asian community just 90 days to leave the country. They were allowed to take only what they could carry and those who resisted were subjected to theft, physical and even sexual violence by Amin's soldiers. Amin accused them of sabotaging the economy, and claimed to be implanting a policy of "Africanisation" that would give Uganada back to its African citizens. 

Kololo Hill is the story of one Asian family impacted by the expulsion and its aftermath. The characters respond to the situation in different ways. Motichand, the head of the family, is in denial and retreats to his whisky bottle and vintage Hindi film songs. His sons Pran and Vijay make plans to secure the family's future abroad in ways that may or may not be legal. Asha, Pran's wife of just a few months worries about her elderly in-laws, her family and their future. As the deadline for departure approaches, the situation deteriorates and they become subject to curfew. More and more of their neighbours leave, sometimes without saying goodbye. When night-time attacks on the remaining Asian residents come close to home, they realise it is time to leave. The tension builds as they leave the house to travel to the airport, risking robbery and worse en route. 

The relief at escaping Uganda soon dissipates as the family face new problems in London.  They find it hard to adjust to reduced circumstances and also encounter various levels of racism. This ranges from it being suggested that better paid jobs are not really suitable for them despite their language skills and qualifications, to more overt behaviour. Asha trips and bumps into a man in the street and is told to " Just go back to your own country".  Despite this, she finds work, makes friends and does well, but Pran seems resentful of her success and pines for Uganda. Asha begins to question her marriage. 

Neema Shah was born in London. Writing is her second career, having previously worked in marketing and brand strategy. Her grand-parents moved to East Africa from India in the 1940's and she spent several school summer holidays there with them. 

Kololo Hill was my favourite fiction read of 2021.

You might also like Best Reads of 2021 Part One which features a re-discovered novel set in  Berlin, a tragedy based on a true story from Cardiff, crime and political intrigue in London and a homeless detective in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

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