In 2023, I got lucky. I was invited to be on the jury for the JCB Prize for Literature. This meant that suddenly I had a chance to read a wide range of novels by Indian writers, published between 1 August 2022 and 31 July 2023, in English or in translations from Indian languages. I accepted the offer in a heartbeat.
Two years ago, when I said goodbye to full-time journalism, I had welcomed the opportunity to read eclectically, instead of following the cadences of publishing calendars. I wanted to let my whims and interests take me down whichever rabbit hole they wished. I decided to devote more time to reading fiction, a luxury I could not always afford as a professional book critic.
At last, the stars aligned this year. I had my fill of some of the finest fiction from India as well as a slew of books by talented non-fiction writers, notable for the singularity of the stories they pursued and the rigour of their reporting. I also revisited a bunch of iconic as well as obscure classics from the annals of history every month for my Lounge column, Rereadings. It’s been a rare opportunity to look back in a world that is always already racing towards the next new thing.
As I think back on this year of rich pickings, I see a patchwork of memories, some brighter than others. I have never been a fan of “best of” lists and after years of working as a critic, it’s impossible for me to recommend books through rose-tinted glasses. What follows, therefore, is a call out of the most interesting voices that moved, and stayed with, me through this year. As with any list, this one is subjective and suffers from the sins of omission. The books aren’t necessarily perfect, but they will make you reflect, pause, and look at the world with new eyes.
Sundar Sarukkai’s Following A Prayer (Tranquebar Press, ₹599) is the most peculiar work of fiction I read this year. Sarukkai, a philosopher by training, plays with the conventions of storytelling in this inspired, witty and dark, novel, set among a small community in the Western Ghats. Kalpana, a 12-year-old girl, goes missing for three days, and when she returns to her village, she drives her already frantic family over the edge by refusing to speak. Only her younger sister Deeksha is privy to her secret, but even she doesn’t fully understand it. In a world where adults remain untouched by the mysteries of speech and cognition, it is the young who ask intriguing, often exasperating, questions about language, faith, and the potency of words. The ending felt like a slight cop-out to me, but I still enjoyed every bit of this unique novel.
In the India of 2023, it’s hard to resist the temptation to write politically charged fiction. Novels like History’s Angel by Anjum Hasan and The Dream Builders by Oindrila Mukherjee took on the challenge, with varying degrees of success. For me, it was Quarterlife by Devika Rege (HarperCollins India, ₹599) that deserved full marks for ambition and intent, though it needed far more editorial heavy-lifting to fully come into its own. Novels of ideas often lean on cardboard characters, with barely any inner lives, whose function is to present opposing worldviews. In contrast, Rege has a fine ear for dialogue and a finger on the pulse of India’s changing middle class. At the centre of the novel is a motley crew of young men and women, each grappling with crises of identity, class, faith, and ideologies. It’s a powerful premise, but spoiled by the subplot featuring Amanda, an American woman on a mission to do good. I kept thinking of all the missed chances as I read this book with interest, but also irked by its urge to tick the boxes that make it more presentable to global audiences.
What are the chances that you’re a hardcore fantasy fiction reader who has heard of Wayel Kati (Niyogi Books, ₹495) by Linthoi Chanu? Safe to say, not high. Drawing on folklore and myths from the interiors of Manipur, Chanu’s novel is aimed at young readers. But, like good fantasy fiction, it transcends the age barrier effortlessly. The plot reads like a cross between the Harry Potter novels and The Lord Of The Rings trilogy, with a good measure of Russian fairy tales thrown in. The writing would have vastly improved with careful copy editing, but Chanu is a natural storyteller, who is likely to surprise us again.
Perumal Murugan’s Fire Bird (Penguin Random House India, ₹599), which won the JCB Prize for Literature 2023, is centred around themes typically associated with him—a deep understanding of the social and political economy of rural life, a visceral attachment to land, and a relentless battle against the elements to eke out a living. In Janani Kannan’s translation, the story comes beautifully alive, scene by scene, as the protagonist, Muthu, sets off on an arduous journey in search of a new home in India of the 1960s. The world around him is changing quietly but decisively, caste relations and patriarchal norms are being questioned, and human beings, like migratory birds, are being forced to fly the nest and seek fresh pastures. Murugan chronicles these shifts with delicate attention, taking us back in time to a world most of us have never known to exist.
Kunal Purohit has distinguished himself as a reporter of integrity, covering hate crimes across the notorious Hindi heartland in the last few years. H-Pop: The Secretive World Of Hindutva Pop Stars (HarperCollins India, ₹499) is an offshoot of his reporting trips to the northern states, opening doors to a world that’s strikingly different from what urban Indians know as garden-variety communalism. Following the careers of a singer who goes viral on YouTube, a rabble-rousing poet, and a mega influencer-writer-publisher, Purohit tells a fascinating and deeply disturbing story of how popular culture is being co-opted by the religious majority and weaponised to create divisions within society. Even as one admires the thoroughness of his reporting and the unique appeal of the subject, there are times when one wishes Purohit had probed deeper into the psychological makeup of his subjects.
All around India, strewn among its many archaeological wonders, is a ubiquitous architectural feature—the jali, or latticework. In temples, palaces, mosques and tombs, the jali is everywhere, graceful, elegant, and belying the labour of exquisite craftsmanship, mastered through generations, that is needed to create them. Navina Najat Haider, curator-in-charge of the Department of Islamic Art at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, presents an immersive history of the jali as an art form in her magisterial study, Jali: Lattice Of Divine Light In Mughal Architecture (Mapin Publishing, ₹2,950). With essays by experts from different fields, this book is a rich repository of images, facts and anecdotes, tracing the provenance, evolution, and storied history of jali work in contemporary art and architecture. Even if you do not any have scholarly interest in the subject, you will want to keep it handy to understand the effort that has gone into creating these familiar structures that we take for granted.
Brinda Charry, a scholar of Renaissance literature, wrote, by far, the most original historical novel in India this year. The East Indian (HarperCollins India, ₹499) tells the story of Tony, the first ever historically documented Indian man to travel to the New World and settle there in the 17th century. In Charry’s version, he is kidnapped from a town on the Coromandel Coast and trafficked to London. There, Tony suffers a series of humiliations before washing up on the shores of Virginia, US. As a labourer on a tobacco plantation in Jamestown, his indignities continue. Thanks to his indomitable grit, Tony keeps himself alive, and eventually embarks on an unlikely career as an apothecary. Charry weaves references from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which Tony has a chance to watch in London in with Indian myths and epics to celebrate true cultural osmosis and give a human face to the forgotten actors of history.
In her introduction to Usha Priyamvada’s brilliantly modernist novel, Won’t You Stay, Radhika? (Speaking Tiger, ₹350), translator Daisy Rockwell dwells on the inscrutable French word, “ennui”, usually rendered as “boredom” in English. But ennui has more layers and edges to it than simple listlessness. And the heroine, Radhika, who has just returned to India after studying in the US for three years, is the living embodiment of it. Unable to accept her widowed father’s marriage to a much younger woman, she runs away to the US with an elderly white man, who later abandons her. Back home, she is unable to fit into the fabric of Indian society, no man wants to marry her because she is “a damaged good”, and Radhika’s existence is in a limbo. A dark novel, told with a touch of lightness that will remind you of Francoise Sagan’s tour de force, Bonjour Tristesse.
Manoj Rupda’s Hindi novel, Kaale Adhyaye, translated by Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar into English as I Named My Sister Silence (Eka, ₹499), is an outlier in more senses than one. It’s the type of quiet, unassuming, book that would likely go unnoticed in chaotic bookshops. But its slender frame holds multitudes—whole worlds that stretch from the forests of Bastar to the vast expanse of the sea to a trip back in time to a barbaric past. These seemingly disparate strands are tied together by the narrator’s quest for his sister, who disappeared into the jungles of Chhattisgarh to join the Naxals, leaving no word for him, her beloved brother. Rupda is a master of conveying emotional turmoil through imagery, the most powerful being that of an elephant eaten alive by a pack of wild dogs. You will remember this novel, in patches and fragments, for a very long time after you finish reading it.
In the last few years, K.R. Meera has given her readers in English a clutch of powerful and disturbing novellas. This year, the Malayalam superstar writer published Assassin (Harper Perennial, ₹699), in J. Devika’s translation, one of her longest novels since Hangwoman (2016). At 664 pages, Assassin is a tome, but also an irresistible page-turner. The protagonist, Satyapriya, a middle-aged professional living in an unnamed city, is loosely modelled on the late journalist, Gauri Lankesh. One day in 2016, an assassin makes an attempt on Satyapriya’s life. She survives, but it sets her on a dangerous path as she decides to uncover the reason for the attack. True to her signature style, Meera is unflinching in her depiction of the injustices perpetuated by the poison of patriarchy. You will feel helpless rage as you follow Satyapriya on her quest for the bitter truth. And because of the sprawling expanse of the story, and innumerable twists and turns, you may also feel a bit lost in its labyrinths.
Over the last decade, Jhumpa Lahiri’s self-reinvention as a writer in Italian has pushed her career in a unique direction. For English readers, her turn to a new language has meant getting access to Italian masters like Dominico Starnone through her beautiful translations. But most of all, it has meant finding a brand-new voice in Lahiri herself. In 2021, she published Whereabouts, a novel unlike any she has written. This year, she followed it up with Roman Stories (Penguin Random House, ₹499), a collection set in Rome, a city she has made her home in the last few years. Though her love for Rome is immense, Lahiri is keenly aware of the city’s potential to accept or alienate those who are not from it. In these stories, we see Lahiri documenting the rhythms of immigrant life, their feeling of exclusion and craving for belonging. It will remind you of Lahiri’s early stories in The Interpreter Of Maladies, but also make you realise the distance she has travelled since, in terms of her craft as well as consciousness.
No book has moved me this year as much as Marginlands (Picador India, ₹699) by Arati Kumar-Rao. Subtitled Indian Landscapes On The Brink, it is a feat of slow journalism in action. Kumar-Rao spent years following the changing dynamics of the lay of the land and people living on the fringes of the country. Using images, drawings and visually alive prose, she documents the cost of the climate crisis, devastating loss of habitats and ecosystems, and increased incidents of human-animal conflict. A memoir, natural history, science writing and environmentalism rolled in one, this is a truly genre-defying book, an elegy to the rapidly vanishing present, and a call to shore up our compassion for the planet and its precarious future.
Among the books coming up next year, I’m most excited about three, in no order of preference. Table For Two (Penguin Random House) by Amor Towles (the much-loved author of best-sellers like A Gentleman In Moscow, Rules Of Civility, and The Lincoln Highway) is a collection of short stories and one novella, the first of its kind from the author and, naturally, fans like me can’t wait. Anthropologist Alpa Shah’s The Incarcerations (HarperCollins India) documents the Bhima Koregaon case and its impact on India’s democracy. And last but not least, there is poet and journalist Dom Moraes’ collection of essays and profiles (including those of Lalu Prasad, KPS Gill and Mother Teresa), titled Where Some Things Are Remembered (Speaking Tiger), which promises to be a treat, knowing his acerbic wit.
Somak Ghoshal is a writer and editor based in Delhi.