For a very long time, the only English fiction I read was by Indian authors. It started with Midnight's Children and I ran through the entire range of the usual suspects like Rushdie, Anita Desai and Amitav Ghosh. Then I went into unknowns of varying degrees like Jayabrato Chatterjee, Rohit Manchanda, Shauna Singh Baldwin and what-not?
Given that every author at that point of time was launched in a blaze of publicity and fizzled out after their first novels, it was simply impossible to have a favourite author. Only favourite books.
One of the last novels of this genre I read was The House of Blue Mangoes by David Davidar. The erstwhile head of Penguin India had churned out yet another exotic dynastic saga set in rural Tamil Nadu and I called it quits. After all, how many times can you read about the semi-autobiographical sagas of growing up in small-town with all the staple ingredients of extra-marital affairs, child abuse and unrequited love - peppered with descriptions of intricate social customs ?
Today, I saw one of my favourites at the airport bookstall and thought of compiling a list of my ten favourite novels. These have stood the test of time (as far as I am concerned) for I have read each one of them several times already and would not mind reading again.
In alphabetical order, here goes...
Afternoon Raag - Amit Chaudhuri
Amit Chaudhuri wrote about a Calcutta boy's growing up in Bombay. His vacations in Calcutta, his life in Bombay. His novels in general (and this one in specific) is characterised by an absolute lack of plot.
What he lacked in story, he made up for in descriptions of the mundane. The sofa-set, the geometry box, the mound of rice on the lunch plate all achieved the importance of World War III. His eye for detail was fantastic and he composed the novel almost entirely out of an extended description of a music tutorial in the afternoon.
Sounds arbit? It is one of the most readable novels I have ever read!
Bunker 13 - Aniruddha Bahal
This one is - admittedly - one of the more controversial choices of the list and also the latest entrant.
Written in the second person, it is about a reporter who discovers an arms racket, while on an assignment in the Indian Army. The twists & turns, the breathtaking pace and the topicality of the prose (coming on the back of Bahal's expose of corruption in defence deals a.k.a Operation Westend) made the book sort of a pioneer in the genre of political thrillers in India. It ends with such a sting that it completely absolves the author of the absolute rubbish he churned out in the sex scenes!
In fact, he won the Bad Sex Award for the year 2003 thanks to his really far-fetched invocation of a Bugatti in an allegedly passionate paragraph!
The Calcutta Chromosome - Amitava Ghosh
One of my favourites! How did you ever guess?
Science fiction meets malaria meets Bengali matinee idol meets really gripping narrative.
Starting in the future, it oscillates between periods in history, connecting apparently disjointed bits of time in a seamless tale. Blending speculation and fictional recreation of history, Amitav Ghosh manages to trace the movements of two characters from different periods of time - Antar and Murugan - as the latter follows the discovery of a cure for malaria and the former tries to track the latter as he goes missing.
Cuckold - Kiran Nagarkar
What do you do if you are the king-in-waiting of a kingdom in Rajasthan? Thank your lucky stars, right?
What if your father is a nincompoop, your stepmother is out to kill you, your stepbrother is a philandering wimp and theMughal emperor is waiting to crush your kingdom? You find solace in the beautiful wife you have just married, right? What if she spends all her day singing songs dedicated to some dark-skinned jerk, whom she is claiming to have gotten married to?
Kiran Nagarkar does a lovely job of fictionalising history - in intricate details and a great sense of perspective. The Maharana of Mewar - also known as Meera's husband - became a hero like no other, despite his obvious shortcomings. A real page-turner.
English, August - Upamanyu Chatterjee
If not anything else, it added 'hazaar fucked' to our vocabulary! What I liked on first reading, I completely fell in love with when I was sent on a cross-country hike during my Trainee stint. I went to millions of places like Madna, explained to billions of people what my name meant and generally got hazaar fucked.
The city slicker's angst in small-town India - "unknown yet familiar" - and small-town's India's bemusement at the city slicker has never been so accurately described. This became one of the most well-known Indo-Anglian novels after Rahul Bose displayed his derriere in all its pristine glory and both the film and novel became a cult favourite. Post the success of the film, all the editions of the book got a new design with Rahul Bose's mug on it!
The God of Small Things - Arundhati Roy
At a point of time, when I was quite fed up with the same old semi-autobiographical exotica, came a marketing blitz. David Godwin swore on his mother's grave that this novel was the greatest thing to happen to Kerala since the backwaters. And the rest of the publishing world followed suit.
I received this book as a gift before I left for Jamshepdur to join XLRI. And I promised myself that if it turns out to have any of the following, I would stop and probably throw the book down the Shatabdi toilet. The checklist was - Exotic location. Growing up in small town India. Intricate details of insignificant things. Child abuse. Extra-marital affair from a child's POV. Peppering the text with local words. It had ALL of them - but Arundhati Roy gave these cliches such an uplifting form that I read it in one long stretch. No wonder I don't remember a thing from the induction! Pity she never wrote another one...
The Golden Gate - Vikram Seth
Is this a poem or a novel? Is Vikram Seth a genius or a genius?
Everything in this book - starting from the author's bio to the acknowledgments to the contents page - is in verse. And that too, sonnets in the iambic pentameter (whatever that means)! I guess half the world has read the book and the other half has read about the book, so no point going gaga over it.
Just a bit of Vikram Seth trivia - In this one, there was a 'joyless economist' called Kim Tarvesh. In A Suitable Boy, sweets are bought from a shop called Shiv Market. And in An Equal Music, we have a music critic by the name of Keith Varms. All are anagrams of the author's name!
The Last Jet Engine Laugh - Ruchir Joshi
Someone called this the best novel nobody has ever read. Even I would have given it a miss if it wasn't for a friend's stern advice. He usually gives me good advice (including the times he had asked me stop drinking and I ignored) - and this was one of his better ones.
A multi-generational saga ending in the future (or rather, starting in the future) where a female fighter pilot is flying for India in a war against Pakistan. The plot oscillates between her, her parents and grand-parents. A loose montage of events bind the plot together as we go back-and-forth from the freedom struggle to a futuristic war!
And the book's cover (I have a different edition from the one here) must rank as one of the most incomprehensible ones ever - with a banana, pressure-cooker, assorted tins and other such arbitrary esoterica gracing it. Weird!
The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes - Jamyang Norbu
For most Holmes-addicts, the pleasure of a Holmes story is not the process of detection. It is the character of Holmes and the build-up that happens prior to the actual case. It is the conversation in the Baker Street living room - where Holmes deduces that Watson's maid is very incompetent or that Mrs Watson is suffering from the cold - that holds great charm for the aficionado. Jamyang Norbu traces the journeys of Sherlock Holmes, when he was travelling through Tibet after the 'fatal' skirmish with Moriarty. He is accompanied by Hurree Chunder Mukherjee (a Rudyard Kipling character) who narrates the story. The plot and the detection is of no great consequence but the seamless bridge that the author builds over a missing part of the sleuth's life is quite a treat for fans. As a pastiche, it ranks as one of the best ever.
Swami and Friends - R K Narayan
Everybody from Graham Greene to Shankar Nag has paid homage to the Everykid from Malgudi. And I am only one of millions who owns a dog-eared copy of R K Narayan's best novel. I had once seen a handsome hardcover edition in a library - with illustrations by Narayan's younger brother. But I never found that edition. Such a brilliant novel deserves to be owned in a brilliant format!