The intermingling of literary voices between South Asian countries and the rest of the world hasn’t always been as seamless as today.
While the subcontinent releases a fusillade of novels and their translations in English and several indigenous languages, only a tiny sliver of this makes it out into Europe or the US. However, with the featuring three writers of South Asian descent, there has been a seismic shift in the literary landscape. The groundwork has been laid by a heightened curiosity among readers, publishing houses and translators worldwide to include more writers of color and women in their curation.
The result of this is a breathtaking plethora of cross-continental books that have polished the silver, so to speak, allowing more nascent writing to shine. Here are some of the authors that have proven to be a stellar addition to the South Asian catalog.
Neema Shah’s grandparents left India in the 1940s. She spent her girlhood between school in London and holidays with family in East Africa. Her novel, Kololo Hill is inspired by all those immigrants who sailed for Uganda in the pre-Independence era, initially toiling in construction and railroads but going on to build their own businesses, thriving just enough to upset the local bureaucrats. In August 1972, then President Idi Amin ordered all Asians to leave Uganda within a period of 90 days on charges of having dominated the economy. Neema explores this real-life expulsion through the fictional plight of a newly married Gujarati couple in her debut novel published in February 2021 by Picador.
Kololo Hill incites discourse around the predicament of refugees in the 21st century and at a deeper level, how it feels to leave your country of birth and assimilate into a foreign culture.
Karunatilaka may have never written or won recognition for his novels, had it not been for the shoulders of preceding literary giants to stand upon, like Michael Ondaatje who used his Booker prize money to fund the Gratiaen prize that is awarded every year to Sri Lankan writers in the English language. Shehan Karunatilaka’s first novel, Chinaman is a rambunctious adventure about a retired sportswriter’s quest for a lost cricket player while he navigates alcoholism, an unhappy marriage and his own sour mortality. He won the 2008 Gratiaen prize for it but still struggled to find a publisher for two years until Penguin India and Vintage adopted it.
The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida was published almost 10 years later, but once again, the book was threatened by oblivion. This alcohol soaked account of a gay, atheistic photographer who covered the atrocities of Sri Lanka’s civil war that managed to bag the Booker Prize last year, remains his most exhilarating and incisive tour de force.
Another writer who has experienced the terror of lack of funding and the restrictions this lays on the subject matter one wishes to write about is Deepti Kapoor. An Indian novelist with two published works already under her belt, she’s a woman who is trying to make sense of how the system works, and her stories recount her experiences of rebelling against conventional family structures, middle class existence, capitalism and corruption in big metros of our country. Her first labour of love was a small, literary novella titled A Bad Character published in 2014 wherein she explored longing and trauma from the perspective of a young woman discovering drugs, dating and a liberated lifestyle in New Delhi.
However, as Deepti muses, novellas don’t help pay the bills. So, she followed it up with a more ambitious project, Age of Vice that captures the insidious power nexus of gangsters, cops and politicians within Uttar Pradesh. She hadn’t set out to write a crime thriller because as she sees it, UP is intrinsically violent and there are many petty crimes that are buried under the mound of larger transgressions.
Geetanjali Shree never dreamed she would be the first to win the Booker Prize last year for a Hindi novel, Ret Samadhi which was translated into English by Daisy Rockwell under the title of Tomb of Sand. A requiem to the cosmopolitan, multicultural country that India has become, this story follows an 80-year-old Ma re-emerging from the clutches of a prolonged depression and journeying across the border to Pakistan.
Shree’s books are informed by her theatre background, her childhood spent in airy colonial bungalows, and the literary intelligentsia that surrounded her family when she was growing up. Though she attended an English medium school, she had always spoken Hindi at home, which is the language she chose to pen down her her first short story. Initially, she ran up against the hurdle most polyglot writers face: the purity of language.
However, eventually her Hindi was enriched by confabulations and neologisms borrowed from English, Gujarati, Punjabi and even French. Her readiness to experiment with languages gives away her innate urge to transcend all borders and expectations.
Published in late February this year, Your Driver Is Waiting is an incandescent first novel by Priya Guns, a Sri Lankan actor and writer who should be commended for converging a sweltering queer romance with scathing social commentary. The story follows Damani Krishanthan, a 30-something bisexual Tamil-Sri Lankan immigrant who hustles as a driver for a taxi company in an American city that remains undisclosed. Just when the quiet despair of her life begins to consume her, she falls for a blond, white and rich daddy’s girl Jolene who’s a bit of a social justice fiend.
Promising a hearty laugh and several raised eyebrows, this deftly handled narrative undercuts the class system, moralistic exhibitionism, and the problematic distribution of wealth in a capitalist society. Priya is passionate about equal opportunity for everyone irrespective of race or social background and her dissatisfaction with the hustle culture and the gig economy of today is articulated clearly in her muscular prose, all the while maintaining relatability and light heartedness.
Owing to a renewed surge in funding, forward looking publishers and mentorship programs, it seems like our homegrown authors are finally prodding at the Jenga tower of literary culture, causing it to wobble and upend the warped power dynamics of how the world perceives South Asian writing.