In the early days of the covid-19 pandemic, as the world went into lockdown, forcing millions to remain homebound, a wave of nostalgia swept over the internet. Suddenly, people seemed to be taking a renewed interest in their bookshelves. They pulled out unread tomes of world literature that had been languishing for years, gathering dust and silverfish. Proust, Tolstoy, Dickens—the lists of the great un-reads grew longer as the days went on. Photographs of reading projects flooded social media.
When we think of doorstopper books—works that run into several hundreds of pages—it is the pantheon of European, British and American literature that comes to mind. Yet Indians have examples of such luminous excellence closer home too, especially in books written in languages other than English. Here are five works of fiction in Hindi, Urdu, Malayalam and other Indian languages that stand the test of time. Some of these books are of fairly recent provenance but deserve to be celebrated as contemporary classics, nonetheless.
The Mirror Of Beauty by Shamsur Rahman Farooqi (Penguin Random House): Originally written in Urdu under the title Ka’i Chand The Sar-e Asman, this audacious novel runs close to 1,000 pages in its English reincarnation. In the writer’s words, confronted with the “beast” he had created, he realized that a simple translation wouldn’t convey the essence of this historical saga. Set in 19th century India, around the life of Wazir Khanum, a lady of incomparable beauty and grace, the story is rooted to facts but also takes wild liberties. The real Wazir Khanum was the mother of poet Dagh Dehlavi, but in Farooqi’s imagination, she metamorphoses into a symbolic figure too, one who embodies the refinement of Islamic culture, even as it is under assault from the British invasion. Teeming with adventures, melodrama, and the circuitous turns of its sprawling plot, the story holds the reader in its thrall.
Children, Women, Men by Sundara Ramaswamy, translated by Lakshmi Holmström (Penguin Random House India): This Tamil classic, set in the turbulent decade of 1930, follows the life and fortunes of one family closely. Beset with the forces of modernization in a country that is rising against colonial rule, several characters are forced to make a move from their quiet rural life to the hullabaloo of urban centres. There are inevitable clashes of cultures, older ways of life colliding against newer values. Traditions that were once believed to be set in stone are rudely shaken, as are prejudices, such as the Brahminical objection to widow remarriage. Holmström’s seamless translation breathes life into ideas and lends a human face to history.
Hangwoman by K.R. Meera, translated by J. Devika (Penguin Random House India): A star in the firmament of contemporary Malayalam literature, Meera is known for her strong women protagonists. In the monumental Hangwoman, her feminist beliefs find their apotheosis in the character of Chetna, a 22-year-old woman descended from a line of executioners, who claim that their family line goes back to 400 years before Christ. Inspired by a real-life hanging that took place in Kolkata in 2004, Meera’s story casts Chetna in the role of the executioner, a first of her kind “hangwoman”, whose life is consumed by her sudden celebrity. From chilling descriptions of setting up a noose to sublime passages of poetic prose, Meera speaks in many voices to her reader.
Falling Walls by Upendranath Ashk, translated by Daisy Rockwell (Penguin Random House India): Often compared to Marcel Proust’s novel In Search Of Lost Time, Upendranath Ashk’s modern epic, projected as a seven-part novel, was never finished. In fact, he spent many years working on just the first volume, Girti Divarein, which was published in 1947. Translated by Daisy Rockwell as Falling Walls, after she laboured on it for nearly 20 years, it is a masterpiece in itself. The story unfolds around the coming-of-age of Chetan, the protagonist, in 1930s India. Created by a patchwork of episodes drawn from his ordinary life, the narrative resonates with big themes and universal concerns—history, politics, love, marriage, sexuality—and remains a classic of Hindi literature.
Srikanta by Saratchandra Chattopadhyay, translated by Aruna Chakravarti (Penguin Random House India): Among the legends of Bengali literature, the name of Saratchandra Chattopadhyay may not have aged well, but in his own time, he was one of the best-loved writers of popular fiction. A close observer of society, especially that of rural Bengal, Chattopadhyay is best remembered for his magnum opus Srikanta, which charts the life of its eponymous hero from childhood to youth. A habitual drifter, Srikanta is tossed around along tides of emotion, susceptible to the affection of women, and a witness to the many injustices around him. Chattopadyay shows the reader the turmoil sweeping through 19th century Bengal society through Srikanta’s all-seeing eyes, and the ripples of change that can come through conduits like him.