What Southasia read in 2023

What Southasia read in 2023

Book recommendations from a year of reading by Southasian writers, poets, translators and journalists

In a region that is often divisive and isolating, books can connect and create communities beyond borders. Per Himal Southasian tradition, we asked some of Southasia's most astute writers, thinkers and intellectuals for their most notable, talked-about and thought-provoking reads on the region from the past year.

Here's what they had to say:

Taran N Khan (Journalist and the author of  Shadow City: A Woman Walks Kabul)

Raw Umber: A Memoir by Sara Rai. Context, Westland Books (January 2023)

This deceptively slim book by Sara Rai is remarkable for the literary heft it carries. Rai's lineage is the strand that binds her musings – she is the granddaughter of legendary Indian author Premchand, who wrote in both Hindi and Urdu. And while she is undoubtedly shaped by her heritage, she is also able to interrogate it. Rai's essays beautifully reference the writings of her mother Zohra Rai and her aunt Moghal Mahmood, which are included in translation in the book. She also offers a wry portrait of her grandmother, Shivrani Devi, whom Premchand called the "Warrior Woman", and of her maternal uncle, who wrote letters from Beirut pining for the raucous morning music of birds in his home in Benaras. Such moments are the backbone of Raw Umber, spanning the emotional register of Rai's bilingual body of work, her eclectic upbringing and her own engagement with language and belonging. Each chapter invites the reader in much as one calls a relative or friend into a room: without ceremony, with an assumption of understanding. This is the kind of book that takes a lifetime to write, and can never be quite forgotten.

History's Angel by Anjum Hasan, Bloomsbury India (July 2023)

The past is never past, and it reverberates through the streets of Delhi in Hasan's masterful novel. Her protagonist Alif is a middle-aged history teacher in a mediocre private school, with a passion for his subject that he can never quite communicate to his students or his family. On a class expedition to Humayun's Tomb, he briefly loses his temper with a child, setting in motion a series of calamitous consequences that now seem familiar from the news cycle. Hasan takes on the daunting task of writing about contemporary India, and captures the nuances of modern Delhi's upheaval with insight and intuition. Moving from Alif's home in Old Delhi, to his parent's home in Okhla, to his wife's determined pursuit of middle-class utopias on the edges of the city, the novel is both an elegy to the ancient megalopolis, and an inventory of the cost extracted by history from our amnesiac lives.

The Last Days of the Afghan Republic: A Doomed Evacuation Twenty Years in the Making by Arsalan Noori and Noah Coburn. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers (July 2023)

In the rash of writing that emerged to explain the Taliban's takeover of Kabul in August 2021, it is rare to find efforts that foreground Afghan voices and perspectives. The Last Days of the Afghan Republic is one such attempt, weaving the account of author Arsalan Noori, a pseudonym for an Afghan social researcher, along with the voices of a doctor, a student and a translator, who had worked with international organisations. The book's co-author is Noah Coburn, a US-based anthropologist with a wide body of work from Afghanistan. Written as testimonies rather than as literary work, the book captures some of the emotional impact of the botched-up evacuation, and investigates the long-standing reasons that led to the fall of the republic. In the often impossible situations and choices faced by its protagonists, the volume drives home the reality that the heaviest price for the "forever war" has been paid by Afghans.

***

Pranaya Rana (Pranaya writes Off the Record, a weekly newsletter from Kathmandu)

The Woman Who Climbed Trees: A Novel by Smriti Ravindra. HarperCollins India (May 2023)

Smriti Ravindra's debut novel is a dizzying foray into the fractured psyche of a Nepali woman from the Madhes. The book is at once personal and political, seamlessly exploring the quiet desperation of married life as a woman in a highly stratified patriarchal society while also reflecting upon the everyday prejudices that Madhesis encounter in contemporary Nepal. Driven by Ravindra's immaculate prose, The Woman Who Climbed Trees is a unique novel in the Nepali literary canon, one that centres the experience of the female Madhesi identity.

Hospital by Han Song, translated by Michael Berry. Amazon Crossing (March 2023)

Han Song's Hospital begins with a prologue set far into the future where world wars have devastated the "old world order" and allowed nations like India and Nepal to exercise "control over the world". A spaceship, the SS Mahamayuri, is on a quest to find Buddhas on Mars but ends up encountering the old ruins of a hospital guarded by terrible beasts. It is only after this seemingly unrelated fantasy prologue that we get into the story of Wang Yei, a Chinese government worker who falls ill after drinking a complimentary bottle of water and get thrust into a Kafkaesque world where doctors administer endless tests, patients await diagnoses that never come and Wang Yei finds himself increasingly at odds with not just the medical staff but also his own unnamed illness. Hospital is one more entry into the bold new world of Chinese science fiction chartered by writers like Liu Cixin. It is at once an allegorical indictment of communist Chinese and the evangelising Western world.

Things You May Find Hidden in My Ear: Poems from Gaza by Mosab Abu Toha. City Lights Publishers (April 2022)

On 7 December, the Palestinian poet and writer Refaat Alareer was killed by an Israeli air strike. Weeks previous, the poet Mosab Abu Toha was arbitrarily arrested by the Israel Defence Forces and only released after an international outcry. The essence of war is to degrade symbols, wrote the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, which is why it becomes all the more essential to read Palestinian poetry even as unimaginable destruction is being rained upon Gaza. Toha's book of poems, Things You May Find Hidden in My Ear, is lyrical in the face of a life lived almost entirely under siege. It is a complex exploration of the absurdity of Palestinian life under occupation evoking small, personal markers of love and loss against the sweeping erasure of bombs, guns and missiles.

Radha: Wrath of the Maeju by Rishi Amatya. Safu Publications (December 2023)

Southasia is replete with fantasy, science fiction and all manner of genre fiction. Unfortunately, Nepali fiction has largely avoided that foray into the speculative, content with the banality of social realism. Rishi Amatya's recently published novel, Radha, breaks with that tradition and leaps headlong into the fantastic, blending myth and culture with religion and the supernatural. The book is an adventurous romp through the city of Patan, its centuries-old heritage, and the folklore that gives the Newa tradition so much vibrancy. At times, Radha feels more like a cultural document than a novel for young adults but that is not to its detriment. This novel teaches as much as it entertains.

***

Thawda Aye Lei (Burmese author of four recently published novels and three short story collections. Aye Lei is also a PhD candidate in the Political Science Department at McMaster University in Canada.)

An Unlikely Prisoner: How an eternal optimist found hope in Myanmar's most notorious jail by Sean Turnell. Penguin (November 2023)

Sean Turnell, an Australian economist and economic consultant to the state counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar, recounts his 650-day experience in Insein Prison following the military coup in 2021. This book evoked contradictory emotions in me – despair and hope, fear and courage, inhumanity and humanity. It offers insights into the absurdity of the military regime juxtaposed with the sharpness and creativity of Myanmar's younger generation.

The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shehan Karunatilaka. Sort of Books (August 2022) / W. W W Norton & Company (November 2022)

This satirical work portrays the long-standing conflicts in Sri Lanka and the sufferings of its population amidst power struggles between different groups. The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida prompts reflection on what it means to be human and why, despite being the source of the most cruel acts, humans are compelled to return to the world as human beings. The book provides perspectives from the East and amplifies the voices of a nation where a prolonged civil war unfolded, shedding light on how its people value their lives despite hardships and uncertainties.

Picking off new shoots will not stop the spring: Witness poems and essays from Burma/Myanmar (1988-2021) edited by Ko Ko Thett and Brian Haman. Balestier Press (January 2022)

This anthology allows readers to delve into the experiences of poets, novelists, and political activists in Myanmar across different generations living under various military regimes since 1988. It serves as a shortcut for those unfamiliar with Myanmar's context to gain a quick understanding of its people and the prevailing conditions.

***

Ather Zia (Poet, political anthropologist, short fiction writer and an Associate Professor at the University of Northern Colorado. Author of Resisting Disappearances: Military Occupation and Women's Activism in Kashmir and founder editor of Kashmir Lit)

Colonizing Kashmir: State-building under Indian Occupation by Hafsa Kanjwal. Stanford University Press (July 2023)

Hafsa Kanjwal's book Colonizing Kashmir: State-building under Indian Occupation, investigates the Indian state's hegemonic renditions of Kashmir's political history that often fits its own nationalistic agenda. It is a corrective history that illustrates how India weaponised acts of state-building including governance, autonomy, elections, development, culture, religion, media, and even feminism to prop its rule and criminalise the Kashmiri demand for self-determination. It reveals the early blueprint of India's national policy of usurping Kashmir through client regimes and dismantles fallacies that the Indian government has peddled to normalise its sly colonisation of Kashmir.

Routledge Handbook of Critical Kashmir Studies Edited by Mona Bhan, Haley Duschinski and Deepti Misri. Taylor & Francis (September 2022)

The book is an ambitious and majestic collection of critical scholarship on Kashmir that investigates situated histories and resistance practices that challenge India's colonial and postcolonial hegemonic policies of governance to complete its occupation of Kashmir. More importantly, the handbook contextualises the discipline of Critical Kashmir Studies and the scholarship it has fostered in the last two decades on Kashmir. The breadth of discussion and conversations in the book investigates and challenges dominant institutionalised power, nationalism, and ideals of democracy that do not serve the politically marginalised and have continued to foster the resistance for self-determination in Kashmir.

Things You May Find Hidden in My Ear: Poems from Gaza by Mosab Abu Toha. City Lights Publishers (April 2022)

Things You May Find Hidden in My Ear has won an American Book Award but Toha was detained during the ongoing war on Gaza and was in incommunicado detention till he was released. Toha is a founder of the Edward Said Library in Palestine as well. This collection is a hard read. It articulates a deep witnessing of a life lived, felt, and recorded under a brutal occupying power. The poems are an education in brutality inflicted by the Israeli settler nation-state on Palestine, its land and people. Suffused with blood and violence that is imminent even in the sweetest of moments of love and gratitude. The book is poetically masterful and reflects the resilience of the poet and his people; their hearts, words, and deeds refusing capitulation to settler colonial powers.

***

Tsering Wangmo Dhompa (Dhompa is the author of four poetry books. Dhompa's non-fiction book, Coming Home to Tibet was published in the US by Shambhala Publications in 2016 and by Penguin, India in 2014. Dhompa teaches in the English Department at Villanova University)

We Measure the Earth With Our Bodies: A Novel by Tsering Yangzom Lama. Bloomsbury Publishing (May 2022)

This spectacular novel begins in 1959 when the three main protagonists, a mother and her two young daughters, are thrust into a life in exile following China's invasion of Tibet. Lama captures so powerfully the triumphs of ordinary individuals and through the movements of her characters through continuous displacements – Nepal, India, and Canada – she conveys the temporariness and the pain that follows war and occupation.

The Penguin Book of Modern Tibetan Essays edited by Tenzin Dickie. Penguin India (May 2023)

In the introduction to the collection, Tenzin Dickie reflects that the DNA of contemporary Tibetan literature is formed by the "twin strands of occupation and exile." Stories about a young student in Dharamsala negotiating writing a love letter in English, a filmmaker's visit to his ancestral village in Kumbum in Tibet, a family's journey from Patlikuhl in India to Boston in the United States after winning a visa lottery, and a young child's escape on foot from Tibet into the borders of Nepal allow a glimpse into the diversity of experiences by Tibetan authors writing in multiple languages and from multiple locations.

Echoes from Forgotten Mountains: Tibet in War and Peace by Jamyang Norbu. Penguin India (November 2023)

Echoes from Forgotten Mountains is a history from below of Tibet and the Tibetan resistance movement against Chinese occupation beginning inside Tibet in the 1950s and continuing in exile. Norbu tells the story of Tibet through the lens of individuals who were farmers, nomads, soldiers, traders, monks, and aristocrats. Their memories and stories as well as their role in the Chushi Gangdruk, the grassroots resistance army, keep Tibet present and close.

***

Riddhi Dastidar (Award-winning writer and reporter in Delhi. Their work focuses on disability justice, public health, gender, rights and development, climate and culture)

The Birth Lottery and Other Surprises by Shehan Karunatilaka Hachette India (September 2022)

I picked up this book of short fiction because of its fantastic cover of a bird-man playing a lute, done by Sharanya Kunnath – I'm obsessed with hybrids. Karunatilaka's writing is moving, wickedly funny, and dagger-like – a reminder that the short story form is thriving in Southasia if publishers will let it. Two stories that stayed with me: one that begins with a car-bomb and schoolgirls, and one about Sri Lankan nannies in the Gulf. The titular story is a delicious and dizzying experiment in form, one the author encourages you to sample if "you love stories everyone hates". I say do it.

How I Became a Tree by Sumana Roy. Yale University Press (September 2022)

Sumana Roy's peculiar and gentle book is composed of essayistic meditations on trees and the nature of living. In a voice entirely her own, she writes of wanting to live in "tree-time", and grapples with the difficulty of doing so in a "deadlined world". It's something I've been thinking about a lot, disenchanted by the industrial rhythms of time as inextricably bound to productivity, and our bodies as grist for profit. I am invested instead in disability scholarship that presents disability as the radical proposition that bodies are perfectly fine even if they are not optimally productive, as rest and leisure as something that is our birthright for being born; in moving towards a mode of nonlinear, crip time. This book goes well with Jenny Odell's latest Saving Time in which she describes the concept of trees and rocks as embodying time in space. This mode of thinking about time and trees feels especially urgent in our present where Israel and the United States commit genocide in service of empire and whiteness, and mark their violence by desecrating the earth and killing sacred Palestinian olive trees.

***

Romesh Gunesekera (Internationally acclaimed for fiction that explores the key themes of our times – political, ecological, economic – through novels and stories. Gunesekera's fiction over the last thirty years includes Reef, shortlisted for the Booker prize in 1994, his latest novel Suncatcher (2019), a story of divided loyalties and endangered friendship in the turbulent 1960s)

Out of Sri Lanka: Tamil, Sinhala and English Poetry from Sri Lanka and Its Diasporas edited by Vidyan Ravinthiran, Seni Seneviratne and Shash Trevett. Bloodaxe Books (August 2023)

This seems a good moment for Sri Lankan poetry with a landmark anthology of poetry, Out of Sri Lanka, being published by Bloodaxe in the UK and Penguin India featuring over a hundred poets writing in English, Tamil and Sinhala. So, I have selected two Sri Lankan collections of poems that made the shortlist of the Gratiaen Prize for which I was a chair of the judge last year. This was a prize for writing in English and although the books may not yet be widely available, they show the remarkable range of poetry written in English in Sri Lanka and deserve to be noticed in the larger world.

Flowers Teach Me to Let Go by Isurinie Anuradha Mallawaarachchi. The Jam Fruit Tree (January 2023)

Flowers Teach Me to Let Go by Isurinie Anuradha Mallawaarachchi is a debut book of poems that combined the personal with larger issues in a fresh, distinctive voice that surprised me, poem by poem: brave, honest and appealing.

Samsara by Shirani Rajapakse (November 2022)

Samsara by Shirani Rajapakse is a collection by a more established poet who is deeply involved in her art and is able to engage the reader with it. These are poems in which we can get a sense of the times that the poet has lived through, and the engagement she has with her creative impulses, constantly going to that place where a poem lives, and grows, to nurture it.

***

Sanam Maher (Journalist and the author of A Woman Like Her: The Short Life of Qandeel Baloch)

The Newlyweds by Mansi Choksi. Penguin India (September 2022) / Atria Books (August 2022)

The story of three young couples who buck against traditions of caste, religion, culture and society in their pursuit of love. I only want more of this kind of storytelling from Southasia: keenly observed (to the point where I engineered a friendship with Mansi via Instagram because I needed to know how she managed to get such excellent details), well-written and nuanced. The book asks the crucial question of what happens after we fall in love, after the initial bloom of romance, when the dust has settled and we ask if our rebellions, our bargains, were worth it after all.

Shadows at Noon: The South Asian Twentieth Century by Joya Chatterji. Yale University Press (November 2023) / Penguin Viking (July 2023)

A thematic history of the Subcontinent that focuses on the ties that bind us, this is a refreshing new take on a subject that has no dearth of material. Chatterji is a professor of Southasian history and she maintains a conversational tone throughout, whether reflecting on leisure, food histories through the lens of caste, social life or oppression, that impressively bears the weight of her substantial knowledge and research.

Quarterlife: A Novel by Devika Rege. Fourth Estate India, HarperCollins (June 2023)

Most of my reading every year focuses on non-fiction, and it is a pleasure when I can lose myself in fiction. I found it difficult to pace myself with this novel. I wanted to savour Rege's attentiveness to language, her descriptions both of a changing India and her characters' interiorities, but I couldn't help racing through the book because I wanted to fully immerse myself in its world. This is ambitious storytelling: while Quarterlife is about three people in India over the course of a year, Rege spent close to a decade working on it, and that sense of a wide historical arc is evident.

***

​​Rifat Munim (Writer, editor and translator; editor of Bangladesh: A Literary Journey through 50 Short Stories)

Beloved Rongomala by Shaheen Akhtar, translated by Shabnam Nadiya. Eka; Westland Books (September 2022)

In Beloved Rongomala, acclaimed Bangladeshi writer Shaheen Akhtar weaves a tale of a Bengal on the cusp of colonisation by the East India Company. Like her other novels, this one, too, is informed by thorough research fitted into an exquisite fictional narrative. It probes the characters of Rongomala and Phuleswari – the former the low-caste mistress of decadent Zamindar Raj Chandra Chowdhury and the latter his young wife – as well as the bond they develop despite being pitted against each other. But the male characters, including Raj Chandra, and the other female characters are constructed with equal care. In Akhtar's layered narrative, this novel explores how women with agency traversed a male-dominated world when the Company is tightening its grip on the dwindling resources of the Bengal nawabs and zamindars.

Every act of translation entails many challenges, especially when translating a book that builds the fictional world through frequent allusions to local myths and folktales. Shabnam Nadiya has done a brilliant job of tackling all those challenges.

The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shehan Karunatilaka. Sort of Books (August 2022) / W. W W Norton & Company (November 2022)

After reading Shehan Karunatilaka's debut novel, Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew, which, in 2012, had won the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, I had been on the lookout for his second book. The wait ended when nearly a decade later The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida shook the literary world. I was already familiar with his witty streaks zinged with social-political truths about Sri Lanka. In, Seven Moons, the scope of wit and humour has evolved into an incomparable satiric take on the many social-political dimensions of a country that was riven by nearly three decades of civil war. The satiric tone, often verging on the absurd, is enhanced by the clever, nonconformist responses of the dead protagonist who happens to be a non-binary heretic. The biggest pull for me was the unique premise of the story that the dead protagonist, surrounded by ghouls and apparitions, embarks on a journey to solve the mystery of his own murder. This Booker-winning book is a testament to the fact that Southasian writing defies all categorisations.

Shurjo's Clan by Iffat Nawaz. Penguin Vintage Books (November 2022)

Iffat Nawaz's Shurjo's Clan is a remarkable debut from a Bangladeshi writer. It unravels Surjo and her entire family's story by travelling back and forth between several violence-ridden moments of history – from Partition to the 1971 liberation war of Bangladesh to post-independence autocracy to an exodus of hundreds of families to the west. Since the 1950s, many writers from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have used this narrative technique. But the way Iffat traces the journey that Surjo and her family have embarked on brings to mind the work of Isabel Allende, most notably her The House of the Spirits. In Surjo's Clan, the spirits of those lost due to the partition and the Liberation War do not haunt the family house; rather, they emerge as darkness descends and join the entire family at the dinner table and chat away either till midnight or throughout the night. Nobody outside this family knows that everybody in this family lives in two different worlds that join forces quite often. But the question always lurks: Can the two worlds also collide at times?

***

Related Stories

No stories found.
Himal Southasian
www.himalmag.com