Eight novels that tell us how Indian fiction looks at Indian politics
The boy on the runManoranjan Byapari, translated from Bengali by V Ramaswamy
The first part of Byapari’s trilogy of semi-autobiographical novels begins in former East Pakistan. We follow little Jibon who arrives at a refugee camp in West Bengal as a baby with his Dalit parents after escaping from the Muslim-majority nation. The life of the dispossessed is deplorable and Jibon remains perpetually hungry for rice.
Soon he flees to Calcutta – after all, money flies in the big city. Or so he heard. His wildly innocent imagination tricks him into believing that if he works hard, he can buy food for his starving family. Through the travels of this starving, bewildered but courageous boy, we witness a newly independent India as it struggles against communalism and grave injustices of all kinds.
In this deeply moving novel, we see a boy from Namasudra trying to survive despite the insurmountable odds thrown at him. Byapari’s own experiences as a Dalit immigrant in Calcutta remind us that caste hierarchies continue to be an affliction, even many years since India gained independence.
Prelude to a riotAnnie Zaidi
In a peaceful southern town, amidst lush spice plantations, there is a whiff of trouble. The city had been divided equally between three generations of two families, one Hindu and the other Muslim. Until now – before their lives were forever changed by the impending violence.
At risk are Dada, the aging grandfather whose friends are all the plants in his domain; his willful grandchildren, Abu and Fareeda; the newly married Devaki, who cannot believe that her husband and father tend to such bigotry; Mariam, the gifted masseuse; and Garuda, the school teacher who, in his desperate way, tries to teach his indifferent students the ways of truth and tolerance.
Quietly but surely, the specter of religious intolerance looms over the once peaceful community under the guise of the Self-Respect Forum whose mission is to divide the town and sow the seeds of hatred among its residents. Written with sensitivity and restraint, Prelude to a riot is a warning of how quickly the delicate balance of ordinary lives is upset.
In the near future, in a digitized city, an obsession with purity takes hold of its inhabitants. Walls are erected to divide and confine communities. Behind these walls reigns a high civic order. In the forgotten spaces between these walls, where rubbish accumulates and disease coexists, Shalini goes in search of Leila, the daughter she tragically lost sixteen years ago.
Bypassing surveillance systems and brutal gatekeepers, Shalini – once wealthy but now a misfit pushed to the fringes – must do whatever it takes to find her daughter. Leila is a story of longing, faith and loss. It is also a disturbing observation of class, privilege and the arrogant propaganda of eugenics.
The association of small bombsKaran Mahajan
The year is 1996. Two schoolboys, Tushar and Nakul Khurana, are sent to collect their family’s television from a repair shop with their friend Mansoor Ahmed. But not everyone will survive this ordinary journey. Disaster strikes without warning when a bomb – one of many “little” bombs exploding unexpectedly around the world – explodes in Delhi’s market. The Khurana boys are killed instantly. Mansoor survives, bearing the physical and psychological effects of the bomb.
After a brief stint at college in America, Mansoor returns to Delhi, where he becomes entangled with the mysterious and charismatic young activist Ayub. His allegiances and beliefs are more malleable than Mansoor could imagine. Woven with the history of the Khuranas and the Ahmeds is the story of Shockie, a Kashmiri bomb maker who gave up his own life for the independence of his homeland.
When the moon shines by dayNayantara Sahgal
India has changed. Rehana realizes that her father’s medieval history books have “disappeared” from bookstores and libraries. His young domestic helper, Abdul, finds it safer to be called Morari Lal on the street. But Abdul’s Dalit friend, Suraj, is not immune to the fury of the vigilantes. Kamlesh, a diplomat and writer, faces official anger for his anti-war stance. A bomb explodes in Cyrus Batliwala’s gallery on the opening day of an art exhibition. The one orchestrating this new world is the director of cultural transformation, whose smiling affability hides the relentless agenda to create a race of Hindu masters.
Under these circumstances, Rehana and her friends, Nandini, Aruna and Lily, meet each week to discuss a book that one of them has chosen – a recluse from harsh reality – even as the German friend of Rehana, haunted by her country’s Nazi past, warns her of what is to come. Can India, despite its rapid descent into fanaticism, avoid the fate of Nazi Germany?
Half the night is goneAmitabha Bagchi
Famous Hindi novelist Vishwanath is devastated by the death of his son in an accident. Tragedy prompts him to write a novel that takes place in Lala Motichand’s house. It follows the life of wealthy Lala and his three sons: self-confident Dinanath, true heir to Motichand’s mercantile temperament; Lonely Diwanchand, indifferent to business and steeped in poetry; and the illegitimate Makhan Lal, a Marx-loving schoolteacher who only occupies the periphery of his father’s life.
In an illuminating act of self-reflection, Vishwanath also tells the story of Lala’s personal servant, Mange Ram, and his son, Parsadi. Fatherhood, brotherhood, love and loyalty will be questioned as sons and servants await Lala’s death. By writing about mortality and family, Vishwanath confronts the wreckage of his own life and makes sense of the new India that has emerged after independence.
Half the night is gone probes questions of religion, literature and society that emerge from fractured times.
Sunlight on a broken columnAttia Hosain
Laila, an orphan girl from a distinguished Muslim family, is raised in her grandfather’s household by aunts who insist on purdah. At fifteen, she moved in with a “liberal” but autocratic uncle in Lucknow. In the 1930s, as India’s struggle for independence intensified, Laila was surrounded by relatives and university friends caught up in her delusions.
But she can’t commit to any cause – her own fight for independence is a struggle against the traditional way of life, from which she can only break when she falls in love with a man her family disapproves of. Sunlight on a broken column is a beautiful evocation of India and an unsentimental glimpse into the human heart.
Bloodstained pagesIndira Goswami, translated from Assamese by Pradip Acharya
Set against the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom that followed the assassination of Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, this is a bloody account of the events that followed. The novel traces the life of a young professor from the University of Delhi who witnessed the pogrom firsthand.
Bloodstained pages evokes one of the bloodiest years in Delhi’s history, in a way that is hard to forget but rarely seen in popular accounts. Amidst this chaos, there is a love story that reminds us that affections bloom even in the darkest of times.