Tuesday, January 02, 2007

2006 in South Asia-oriented Books

Red Snapper wrote me and suggested a post reviewing the books of 2006. This is of course somewhat difficult to do, because unlike some readers I tend to spend most of my time reading books written years and years and years ago -- and I often let new works of fiction simmer into paperback before venturing to sit down with them. In this case, I haven't actually read several of the books on the list below, and the list is as much a "to read" as it is a "best of."

Secondly, the ordering isn't especially significant. The list is more about the group as a whole than it is about putting X above Y or Y above Z. As I mentioned, I haven't read some of the titles, and anyway ranking books isn't usually a very intelligent exercise, especially when you're talking about different genres of writing.

Third, I'm curious to know what was on your list in 2006. What am I leaving out?

* * *

1. Kaavya. It was undoubtedly a lively year for South Asian literature of the diasporic variety, though not always for the right reasons. "Kaavya Viswanathan" quickly became the name on everyone's lips (including Sepia Mutiny's bloggers and commenters) for about three weeks in April and May, but in contrast to other desi writers it wasn't for her exotic choice of subject matter. Kaavya's plagiarism scandal was the biggest of the year (and 2006 was also the year James Frey caused Oprah to go ballistic, and Dan Brown got dubiously acquitted, so this isn't a small accomplishment).

2. Kiran Desai also won the Booker Prize for The Inheritance of Loss. (Manish's review; Siddhartha's post). This is great news for the general reputation of South Asian writers, though it isn't clear to me that the book has had very much buzz in its commercial life. Still, I'm long overdue to pick it up.

3. Sudhir Venkatesh, Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor has made a big impact, all the more so because Venkatesh doesn't come from a background remotely similar to the people he studies. Interestingly, though this book has little to do with South Asia, Venkatesh's Indian background probably did help him get his research done, because it marked him as belonging to a group in between the African-Americans he was studying and the wealthier white America beyond the south side of Chicago.

4. Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Imperial Life in the Emerald City. It's too bad this book didn't come out even earlier, but it's apparently one of the most scathing accounts of the botched American reconstruction effort in Iraq to have yet appeared. As with Sudhir Venkatesh in a poor black neighborhood, journalists like Chandrasekaran and, to an even greater extent, Time Magazine's Bobby Ghosh, benefit from being South Asian. Since they register to others as belonging an indeterminate racial background, desi journalists can pass for Iraqis and go where their white or black peers can't.

5. Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games. This book isn't even out in the U.S. yet, but it's already getting some U.S. reviews, the most widely circulated of which was Sven Birkerts' review-that-isn't-one.

6. Lads. Earlier in the year there was a fair bit of hype about books like Nirpal Singh Dhaliwal's Tourism and Gautam Malkani's Londonstani (see Manish's post). Now, not so much. It probably didn't help that Dhaliwal's book was nominated for a Bad Sex Award. But Gautam Malkani wrote an important column on the real vibrancy of Asian life in Britain this past August. I haven't read either of these, though of the two I'm more likely to pick up Londonstani.

7. Lads who Like Lads Should Be Allowed To Like Them, Legally. In 2006, Vikram Seth made headlines by prominently participating in the movement to repeal India's Section 377. Seth's magnificent memoir of his uncle and aunt's relationship, Two Lives, doesn't foreground homosexuality, but it is a loving consideration of another kind of coupling often considered taboo. Two Lives actually came out in November 2005, but the paperback was released in June 2006.

8-11. The heavy duty. Amartya Sen's Identity and Violence, Amitav Ghosh's Incendiary Circumstances, and Pankaj Mishra's Temptations of the West. Serious books of essays meditating on very serious issues. All three of these books struck me as important. Of the three, Mishra's book reflects the greatest effort in terms of actual footwork. And even if you're unhappy about Mishra's reporting on the massacre at Chittisinghpura, (Kashmir), you should still read this for the excellent chapters on Pakistan (which, Mishra shows, is a mess), Tibet, and Afghanistan.

12. Upamanyu finally makes it. Upamanyu Chatterjee's English, August was finally released in the U.S. in 2006, almost 18 years after it originally appeared in India. In one sense it doesn't matter that much, since most people who are interested in Indian literature had already found a copy somewhere. But in another sense it absolutely does matter: if it's in print in the U.S., it's a lot easier for people like me to assign it in our classes (which I did for the first time, this fall)

13. Marina Budhos, Ask Me No Questions. Marina Budhos's book is a sophisticated dystopian vision that belongs somewhere between the juvenile fiction shelves and the adult shelves. I was impressed by Budhos's writing when I saw her read at the SAWCC conference, and I enjoyed the book itself.

14. Eqbal Ahmad's collected writings. Eqbal Ahmad was a legendary leftist radical from the 1960s whose political beliefs were not at all doctrinaire. Amitava Kumar published a very smart review of the new collection of his essays in the Nation back in November.


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