I’ve been quiet on the blogging front lately, too busy eating, holidaying and writing other less pleasurable pieces! I’ve also been reading plenty and its time to share some of that with you. For my trip to India, I researched and read as much literature as I could. Here are my recommendations:
A Passage to India by E M Forster. The quintessential colonial classic was my kindle companion during my own passage through India. Despite making me feel embarrassed to be British at times, it is cleverly derisive of the upper classes romping their way through foreign lands whilst keeping their minds firmly shut to alternative cultures. Witty and perfectly composed, this was more enjoyable than Forster’s other works for me.
Life of Pi by Yann Martel. I didn’t realise this popular novel, another Booker winner, was about India until I started reading it. Whilst technically located all-adrift on the ocean waves, it is a very Indian novel in style and in its sense of drama. The main character is raised at the Pondicherry Zoo on the south-east coast of India. The plot centres on his shipwrecked adventure aboard a lifeboat he shares with Mr Richard Parker, the Bengal Tiger. Surreal, symbolic and summing up with a twist, it is justifiably popular.
Heat and Dust by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. This is a 1970s tale of a curious female embarking on a journey to India in search of the truth behind the scandal of her Great Aunt. The latter lady lived on the subcontinent during the age of British Raj in the 1920s and was so affected by it that she never returned to England. Through seeking her family history, the traveller’s physical voyage also becomes a discovery of her true self and, like many travellers, she too falls in love with India. This won the Booker Prize in 1975; an accolade bestowed on most of the novels on my list. It is unique in its portrayal of two eras in recent Indian history through the eyes of British women. Both periods are neatly tied together with the use of foreign escapism to provide a critical look at the restrictions of our own culture. The message I took away from this book is this: travel provides you with a chance to step back and reflect on your own version of normality. I agree, although it sounds like such a pretentious excuse for a holiday!
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. If this list was in order of preference, this Booker winner would be firmly at the top. The narrative is absolutely captivating , making it easily one of my favourite books of all time. It tells of the reunion of fraternal twins in deepest Kerala, with the narrative leaping through time to carefully and unchronologically unfold their history. It is poignant, poetic and perfect. This is the only book on the list that I desperately wish I could have written. How she managed to so delicately pull off such a complexly structured plot I’ll never know. Genius.
White Tiger by Aravind Adiga. This savage rags-to-riches portrayal is told as a first person memoir from rural boyhood through the subservient life of an urban driver and on to his final escape. It is a must read for visitors to India because it surreptitiously teaches you a great deal about the caste system and provides snippets of the culture that you simply don’t see in the tourist guides. The overwhelming message for me is the gaping lacuna between rich and poor in this country. It portrays India’s firmly capitalist culture as making a mockery of the struggle most Indians face day-to-day. Whilst I suppose the White Tiger himself is an anti-hero and not a character composed to garner our affections, the novel has the remarkable ability to make you sympathise with a greedy murderer! That’s not a plot spoiler by the way, the beauty of this book is that it starts with its biggest revelation, then tells you the back story.
In Custody by Anita Desai. This 89p charity shop bargain opened my bookshelves to a wealth of work from this talented writer, who seems to be a mainstay on the Indian literary scene, and has a veritable library of works for future discovery. This novel uses perfect prose to transport you to Delhi and rural northern India with the added mysticism of a Sufi Poet and his devoted harem. She portrays the dichotomy of the artist trying to make ends meet – in this case, the main character is torn between a devotion to Urdu Poetry versus his life as a husband and poorly paid teacher. Perhaps a little bit niche to attract much general interest, I’d probably look to some of her other works if you want to really discover this author.
The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai. This Booker winning novelist is Anita Desai’s daughter and has obviously inherited a legacy of talent. I had this on audio-book and enjoyed the lightness with which it conveyed the Nepali / Darjeeling civil wars, as well as its portrayal of a post-colonial era and the idea of modern natives becoming too anglicised. I’d listened to this before I’d visited the country and couldn’t help feeling that some of the brutality of the central characters didn’t sit right at all, because it often seemed to come out of individual human greed and violence, rather than as a product of India’s plight. There was a lack of sympathy with the characters’ struggles which made it a difficult reality to swallow. My uneasiness with this book was perhaps borne out of my own naivety about Indians whom I had wanted to keep on an exotic pedestal and whose faults I imagined were only those inflicted on them. It is undoubtedly well crafted and thought-provoking but without a character to adore or a plot to savour, my high hopes were unfortunately not met.
Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. The Booker of Bookers; I left this for my return from India to see whether it fitted the hype of one of the best books ever written. I’ve been gradually tackling this tome ever since. This is no easy read and one I wouldn’t recommend unless you have a penchant for ‘Hinglish’ (Asian English) and are willing to dedicate some time to its completion for the love of literature! At the time of writing, I’m half way through and we’ve only just arrived at the main character’s birth! The concept is an intricately woven and meanderingly ponderous tale concerning the babies born on the stroke of India’s independence and the magical lives they then lead. The unstructured, winding narrative is hard to follow and some of the dialogue is not for those uninitiated with India, but there are some real gems of literary genius within it that pull a smile across your face and make you want to read the next chapter…albeit after a bit of a break.
And there’s more…
Like a cross-country Indian train ride, the wealth of the available literature is endless. I’ve barely scratched the surface and the longer I held on to this blog, the more new books have been vying for my attention. I’ve set out the current “to read” list below. If anyone has any other suggestions, I’d love to hear them and will attempt to read them, despite the knowledge that in a country as vast and diverse as this, there will always be more books than I could read in a lifetime.
- Narcopolis – Jeet Thayil
- A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth
- Shantaram – Gregory David Roberts
- A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry