My five favourite Indian novels


Sacred Games

I first encountered Sacred Games's main character, Inspector Sartaj Singh, in a short story included in Vikram Chandra's collection, Love and Longing in Bombay.

It was an intriguing tale - about a policeman and a gangster who is holed up in an impregnable bunker. It ended quite abruptly and I felt cheated.

Seven years later, Vikram Chandra served up a big fat novel starring Inspector Sartaj, the gangster and dozens of other compelling characters.

The book is so garish, so over the top and so deliciously readable that all that wait seemed worthwhile. (I know nobody had asked me to wait.)

The themes are familiar: the Bombay underworld, Bollywood actors, slums, spiritual gurus, male potency, plastic surgery, bad marriages.

There isn't even a half-hearted attempt at political correctness, everybody is just nasty. And most of them die in horrible ways. It's like a soap opera for people who don't watch soap operas, a thriller for readers with literary pretensions, and a literary novel for those addicted to cheap thrills.

Waiting for a sequel.


The Grip of Change cover

Translated from Tamil by activist and author P Sivakami, The Grip of Change is that rare thing - a fast-paced rural novel.

Some might think that The Grip of Change is more of a Dalit manifesto than a work of literature. They would be wrong.

It might be brutally realistic, chest thumping-ly political, but at its heart Grip is a fascinating story about growing up poor in rural India.

Sivakami portrays her characters with genuine empathy but doesn't shy away from pointing out the futility of their struggles as they try to ape the lives of their own oppressors. I have never seen the machinations of grassroot politics dramatised with such verve.

What makes The Grip of Change even more special is a short sequel titled Author's Note, in which Sivakami takes a knife to her own work and dissects it with the hands of her own protagonist. Why did she choose to edit out certain bits of the story, how did she arrive at those decisions, were those decisions merely artistic or steeped in her own prejudices?

A brilliant novel about family, class and the process of writing novels.


The Harappa Files

I was never a big graphic novel fan but I realised what I had been missing when I read Sarnath Banerjee's Corridor.

The Harappa Files is his third graphic novel although he insists on calling it "loosely connected commentaries".

Aphrodisiacs, eccentrics, bookworms, psychic plumbers all feature heavily in Sarnath's book. He can draw precise, beautiful images, but sometimes he just takes images from adverts and newspapers and incorporates them into his story.

His sense of humour, which has been described as "post-humour" (by a fictional magazine of his own invention), is at odds with mainstream sensibilities and sometimes readers are not sure if they should laugh.

Sarnath does urban landscape like nobody else; he takes us into back alleys, barges into tiny apartments in high rises or, page after page, stays stuck in a traffic jam.

His novels are profound hoaxes, sometimes pretending to be manifestos drawn up by bureaucratic committees, sometimes reports compiled by archaeologists.

But it doesn't take him long to return to the very familiar motif of a proud mother marching her two sons to a karate class. Sarnath is considered a leading conceptual artist as well but that, as one of his characters might say, is outside of the scope of this inquiry.


Kai Chand Thay Sare Aasman

When Urdu's most well known and vocal literary critic Shams ur Rehman Faruqi turned to fiction, the sound of knives being sharpened in Urdu literary circles was audible across the border.

But after a collection of short stories, Sawar (The Rider), which comprised brilliant tales woven around the private lives of classical Urdu poets, his first novel Kai Chand Thay Sar-e-Aasman has established him as the finest Urdu novelist of his generation.

Mostly set in the 19th century, Kai Chand tells the story of Wazir Khanum, the mother of famous Urdu poet Dagh Dehlvi. But it's not just one life that this novel sets out to capture, it paints an entire civilisation.

I didn't read it out of nostalgia for Muslim India or for the love of classical Urdu but for the fact that it's a true page turner.

It draws you in with its hypnotic language, and then takes you on to an epic journey and soon you are inhabiting a world that you don't want to leave. This one definitely belongs with the classics of Urdu fiction; and there aren't many of those.



In the past few years, fiction and nonfiction books about the "new India" seem to have become a mini industry.

What distinguishes Namita Devidyal's fictional debut Aftertaste is that it's an old fashioned rip-roaring yarn, a family saga with money, lust and entrepreneurship at its heart.

As the matriarch of a Marwari family goes into a coma, her sons and daughters-in-law come out to play and fight over the mithai (sweets) empire she has built. Namita made her name with her seminal The Music Room, a lyrical music memoir which became one of the most popular books about classical music in India.

In Aftertaste she creates a fast-paced narrative that's as addictive as that mithai from your hometown. New India can learn a lot from an old=fashioned tale about making mithai and money.

Mohammed Hanif's second novel Our Lady Of Alice Bhatti was published earlier this year.

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