A (personal) South Asian reading list beyond India and Pakistan
With thousands of years of shared histories and 70 years of a cantankerous border between them, India and Pakistan dominate the South Asian subcontinent in all matters, including in literature. ‘South Asian’ fiction prizes such as the following long-list are inevitably dominated by English writing from these two countries, and that too from the ‘mainstream’ publishing industry of these countries (i.e. from the big MNC publishers; only 3 of the books in this list are by indie and/or locally owned publishers, including one American indie; only one writer is non-Indian or non-Pakistani in origin).
So here’s a highly subjective list of literature from the rest of the subcontinent. One big caveat: every country has a vibrant local language publishing scene, but this list focuses on writing in English. More caveats: Although translations from local languages to English (and vice-versa) are slowly gaining ground, there is yet lots more to be done. Local publishers from the respective countries also publish several novels every year, but they are rarely available outside the home countries. And because I’m Nepali, there’s an obvious bias towards writing from the country. I’m quite certain there are other books out there I haven’t read, so please add to this list in the comments.
The Tutor of History by Manjushree Thapa
Manjushree’s first book perhaps introduced Nepali writing in English to an entire generation post the 1990 revolution in Nepal. The story of a small town in Nepal bracing for its first elections, The Tutor of History fascinated us with its intricate portrayal of local politics and the people whose lives intersect. Although there had been a few Nepali writers who wrote in English, this book marked the arrival of a new voice — diverse, dissenting, and breaking away from tradition — in the literary scene.
The Country is Yours (translated by Manjushree Thapa)
The political instability in Nepal has its underpinnings in the dominance of the Hindu upper-castes in governance, administration, and also language. In this diverse translation of 49 writers from across the country, Manjushree introduces us to the richness of Nepali writing.
Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilaka
Cricket. The Sri Lankan Civil War. And the search for a long-lost spinner who may just be the best ever to play the game. Shehan’s debut novel is an extraordinary piece of literature that tells us the story of the island-nation through the lens of cricket. An outstanding achievement, and a fitting tribute to a country of beauty and grace wracked by a three-decade war.
Babu Bangladesh by Numair Choudhury
When I read the first draft of this book, I was blown away. There hasn’t been a South Asian novel like this: it reminded me of the South American tradition of writing exemplified by Bolaño and Borges. It is the story of a man and a nation, and how the two are intertwined. Mixing fact, folklore and magic realism, this is a magnum opus. What makes the novel more poignant is that Numair worked at it for 15 years, and did not live to see its publication — a terrible loss for us all. (Represented by Writer’s Side Literary Agency, where I am consulting editor)
In the Light of What We Know by Zia Haider Rehman
A fabulous Bangladeshi novel, this is the story of a friendship that stretches across nations, time and histories. Politics, mathematics, personalities all make an appearance in this fantastic work that requires you to sit down and give it the time it deserves.
Long Night of Storm by Indra Bahadur Rai (translated by Prawin Adhikari)
I came late to the works of Indra Bahadur Rai (1927–2018), one of the most influential post-modern Nepali writers who wrote from Darjeeling. His works captured the Nepali diaspora’s anxieties, and this translation of his stories by Prawin Adhikari (whose own short story collection The Vanishing Act is another must-read) goes to the heart of what Rai had stood for. Rai’s other influential work, Aaja Ramita Chha, was translated by Manjushree as There’s a Carnival Today.
The Amazing Racist by Chhimi Tenduf-La
I was commissioning editor at Hachette India when the draft of this book arrived in my inbox, and I was hooked. A mixed marriage, a devil of a father-in-law (the titular racist), and a story about cultures coming together, this novel is a rollercoaster of emotions: tender and brash, comic yet tragic, and full of joy.
Island of a Thousand Mirrors by Nayomi Munaweera
South Asian literature is shaped by the many conflicts our nations have had to face, and Sri Lankan writing is no different. Nayomi’s tender and evocative novel is the story of two women who are affected by the war. This is lyrical prose at its best.
Son of the Thundercloud by Easterine Kire
A bit of a cheat, since Easterine is Naga, but since the Northeast is rarely represented in mainstream publishing, this is on my list. Easterine’s short novel borrows from Naga folklore to deliver the story of a boy prophesized to slay a tiger-spirit, and a traveller who falls in love with his mother. Every word of this novella takes you closer to the rains.
Old Demons New Deities (ed. Tenzin Dickie)
Again, another cheat: this is a short story collection by contemporary Tibetan writers, both in exile and who live in Tibet. This is an important work not just for how it epitomises the Tibetan struggle, but also because it tells us about Tibetan expressions in the modern day. This is not the Tibet you’ve imagined — it steers clear of the political and religious (although they are never too far away), and attempts to give voice to a generation of new writers and experiences.
What’s your favourite South Asian novel beyond India and Pakistan?