Leave behind a week of horse-trading, power-jockeying and polarisation in the headlines: you can get all that and more in seventeen much-loved books from the states in the news.
Raag Darbari: Why is a UP village the way it is? Shrilal Shukla had a long and caustic answer in the story of a crocodile swamp called Shivpalganj, full of crooked landlords and wicked middlemen. You’ll think you’re a Ranganath, but are you really Vaidyaji? Translated by Gillian Wright.
Chander & Sudha: Poonam Saxena’s translation of Dharamvir Bharati’s Gunahon Ka Devta introduces us to 1940s Allahabad and its self-pitying Indian boys, as well as one of the most edge-of-the-seat romantic tragedies you’ll ever read.
A Village Divided: Bless Gillian Wright for translating another classic of rural UP, this time Rahi Masoom Reza’s majestic Aadha Gaon. The story of the Shia zamindars of a village much like Reza’s own, it’s about Muharram, Indian independence, and Muslims who’ve lived here for centuries wondering if they still belong. Touché.
Kashi Ka Assi: Sorry, we’re cheating. If you do read Hindi, you might discover why Kashinath Singh’s savage, bawdy novel about life in the time of the Babri Masjid demolition is considered a classic, and called untranslatable by its worshippers.
T’Ta Professor: If you met school clerk Pant, the figure of fun in his tiny Kumaoni village, you too might be tempted to write a “biting satire” about him. But what would that make you? Read Manohar Shyam Joshi’s suckerpunch novel, translated by the wonderful Ira Pande, to find out.
Krishnakali & Other Stories: Everyone who reads Hindi has a story about how they fell in love with Shivani’s “beautiful girl” Krishnakali, flawed but adorable. Just like democracy?
Zindaginama: A Hindi novel about undivided Punjab (just recently translated to English) Zindaginama is like life, as are all the best big books about village life. Welcome to Shahpur, with its military preoccupations, its obsessive patriarchy, festivals, romances, tragedies and all kinds of zindagi-changing stuff. PS. We love this long profile of Krishna Sobti, which provides a backstory for Zindaginama almost as exciting as the novel.
Falling Walls: Thanks to translator Daisy Rockwell, English readers may now delight in the pointed, Proustian vision of Upendranath Ashk, absent from our shelves for long years. This novel, his magnum opus, covers Punjab from Lahore to Jalandhar (and goes beyond) in the story of an aspiring young writer who seems doomed to fail.
Tamas: We tried not to put a Partition novel on this list, but the incident that kicks off the grotesque violence of Bhisham Sahni’s classic - a bloody pig’s carcass, thrown on the steps of the local mosque - made us remember that history’s lessons are repeated for a reason.
Tell The Tale Urvashi: Punjab’s idol Dalip Kaur Tiwana’s blockbuster Katha Kaho Urvashi got its first English translation just last year. Congratulations! There’s plenty of family drama to go around, but also a haunting and profound sense of the things we try desperately to move on from - and the things that never leave us. Translated by Bhupinder Singh.
We tried not to put a Partition novel on this list, but the incident that kicks off the grotesque violence of Bhisham Sahni’s classic - a bloody pig’s carcass, thrown on the steps of the local mosque - made us remember that history’s lessons are repeated for a reason.
Jacob & Dulce: A turn-of-the-century satire set in fictionalised Margao, this novel by “GIP” (real name: Francisco Joao da Costa) is the “towering classic” to read, according to our favourite Goa expert: it skewers Indian-Portuguese high society in a series of sketches about the lead-up to the marriage of Dulce Pereira, “a little foolish,” and Jacob Avelino Dantas, “vainglorious and a pedant.”
Karmelin: The award-winning Damodar Mauzo may not be the grandfather of Goan literature but he is sort of its kindly uncle, with a gentle finger on the pulse of what seems like every heartbeat in the state. Karmelin, his Thomas Hardy-esque novel of the tribulations of an orphaned young woman and the complexities of poverty, caste and religion in Goa, is the epic to start with.
Goa: A Daughter’s Story: The sweep of 450 years of history is contained in Maria Couto’s insider history and love letter to Goa - the romantic, windswept, syncretic, conflicted Goa you think you know, and know you love.
Creatures Great And Small, Morning Light & Living Room: “Here I am again with a fat / Cuban cigar, a cowpoke / In a sombrero, my teeth / The keys of a grand piano,” writes the very funny and very beautiful Manohar Shetty in his hit “Selfies From Calangute.” A New & Collected Poems is on its way; until then, start with these slim volumes.
Time’s Crossroads & The Desire Of Roots: While Indian publishers run valley-to-hills trying to make up for the shocking lack of literature from Manipur in translation, the bright, sensitive eye of Robin Ngangom and his poetry introduces us to a region of wintry hearths, bloody headlines, tenderness and disquiet.
Chakravyuha: Ratan Thiyam’s most famous play is a genuine ‘how can you not know this’ item, but also irritatingly hard to find. Based on an episode from the Mahabharata, it’s meant to be a marvel in performance, combining the practice of martial art Thang-Ta and Manipuri dance. It’s also seen by many Manipuris as bold commentary on Indian nationalist brutality and the AFSPA.
The Maharaja’s Household: Binodini Devi, we wish we’d known you. A member of Manipur’s erstwhile royal house and by all accounts a grande dame in the Indian tradition, Binodini wrote several beloved Meitei classics, including the award-winning Boro Saheb Ongbi Sanatombi (The Princess & The Political Agent) whose English translation can’t be found for love or money. Content yourself with this charming memoir of life in her father’s palace, full of intrigue and elephant polo.
Thanks to Trisha Gupta & Vivek Menezes for their contributions.
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