As the pandemic pushed us indoors in 2020, it also sent some of us back to our bookshelves, to forage in our TBR piles or in search of new releases. In this year of anxiety, tragedy and volatile shifts, reading expanded our sense of the world and gave wing to our fancies, as we stayed home. Indian publishing reacted with alacrity to the unfolding crises, flooding the market with dozens of books on the coronavirus. But there was also a rich diversity of translations, new voices, a few unexpected surprises, and old favourites.
If this (intensely subjective) list of 10 favourites makes you want to pick up one of the books, it would have served our purpose.
Low by Jeet Thayil: A rare novel that truly deserves the epithet of a “page-turner”, Low is like a breath of fresh air in the usually risk-averse landscape of Indian fiction. Its protagonist, Dominic Ullis, embarks on “a degraded Homeric journey” after the sudden death of his much-younger wife Aki. Accompanied by her ashes, Dominic sets out on an adventure through Mumbai, fuelled by drugs, alcohol, and the company of the criminally rich and dangerous. It’s hard to think of another contemporary Indian novel with as much potential for grisly comedy and black laughter.
Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara: Setting a novel in an Indian slum is a risky venture. Many a writer has gone down that slippery slope, only to scramble up with pages filled with cliché. But Deepa Anappara’s debut novel, which drew rave notices from across the world and was translated into dozens of languages, proved to be a welcome exception. Told through the point of view of a nine-year-old boy living in an urban slum, the story stands firmly on its leg, without any padding of melodrama or excess, even as a bevy of social evils that plague contemporary India courses through it.
The Deoliwallahs by Joy Ma and Dilip D’Souza: The history of modern India seems to be a densely documented terrain, until you stumble upon the odd gem like The Deoliwallahs. A finely-honed account of the fate of the Chinese community living in India in the shadow of the 1962 Indo-China war, it mixes reportage, oral history and memoir with astute political commentary. As India smarted from its defeat in the hands of its rival, Chinese people from across the country were rounded up and sent off to an internment camp in Deoli, Rajasthan. Overnight, these hapless thousands, many of whom were born in India and had grown up speaking only the local languages, became pariahs in their homeland and lost their livelihoods.
Undertow by Jahnavi Baruah: In this delicate but devastating novel, Jahnavi Baruah achieves a haunting synthesis of personal and political tragedies, braiding the past and the present into a story that is tender as the morning light and sharp as a knife. Loya, a woman in her 20s, is the protagonist of this slim novella, who returns to Assam to meet her mother’s estranged family for the first time. The reunion is tough for both Loya and her grandfather, not least because of the volatile political context against which it plays out.
Hijab by Guruprasad Kaginele, translated by Pavan N. Rao: In this gripping Kannada novel by a US-based writer-physician, the reader is drawn into a moral vortex, at the centre of which lies the tussle over women’s bodies and agency. The key conflict in the story is between three doctors from the subcontinent working at a hospital in suburban America and the members of the fictitious Sanghaali community, who are Muslim immigrants from Africa. The latter are opposed to having caesarian sections done on pregnant women from their community—no matter the medical risks of a normal delivery. The situation escalates into a problem of race and ethnicity, bringing complicated dilemmas into its fold.
The Gods Came Afterwards by Sharmistha Mohanty: Inspired by the Rig Veda, this collection of lyrics resonates with the lofty cadences of philosophy but also unfolds like a series of whispered prayers. Through her luminous lines, Mohanty transports the reader to cosmic heights of the outer space, before she trains her keen gaze on the ravages of the suffering body, sutured by the expert hands of a doctor.
Getting There by Manjula Padmanabhan: In her 20s, Manjula Padmanabhan was trying to make a living as an illustrator and lose weight, while living in a crowded apartment in Bombay, long before the city became Mumbai. Then, a chance encounter with a tall Dutch man changed everything. For someone who was cocooned by her upper-middle class bourgeois upbringing, Padmanabhan left her boyfriend and freelance work to set out on an adventure through the US and Europe. Part-travelogue, part-memoir, this witty and wise book will lighten up your gloomiest days.
Hellfire by Leesa Gazi translated by Shabnam Nadiya: This short and sleek novel, written in Bangla, takes you deep into the sinister dynamics of a family based in Dhaka. Sisters Lovely and Beauty are closely guarded by their mother Farida Khanum, who refuses to let them out of her sight—until a series of grim events provokes her to give permission to Lovely to go out on her own for the first time on her 40th birthday. With its chilling twists and turns, the intense and disturbing tale keeps you hooked till the very end.
The Fury Of Covid-19 by Vinay Lal: Having lived in the shadow of the covid-19 pandemic for almost a year now, it’s hard for us, the common people, to see it from any other perspective than the one that comes to us daily via updates on social media and the news cycle. Historian Vinay Lal steps in with a fine book on the pandemic that takes us back to parallels from the past, examines the social and political malaise of the present, and predicts the shape of the future that is to come.
The Cock Is The Culprit by Unni R, translated by J Devika: Satire finds a subtle but scathing edge in this Malayalam novel in English translation, set in a small village in Kerala. The villain of this uproarious piece of storytelling is an enigmatic cockerel, who sneaks up on the unsuspecting villagers and crows at the oddest of hours. No one can see him, nor can he be caught. Unni holds up a mirror to our fractious times through the mayhem that is unleashed by the fake news and rumour-mongering around this supposedly anti-national bird.