Read Around the World: India
The next stop on our world tour of reading is India! This month, we have a special guest contributor: Aarti. Aarti is from Pune, India and will be sharing some fun facts about her country, Indian literature, and her personal recommendations for books to help immerse you in your “travels.” Book Worm and I will chime in with our pick of the month and our reviews for that book.
I’ll let Aarti start us off with a brief bio followed by some fun facts that she would like to share:
Aarti: I am of mixed parentage – my mother is English and my father Indian, from the Eastern part of India, Bengal. I have had the great good fortune to grow up in a joint family in Calcutta. We lived in a four-storied house. My grandmother was the head of the family (my grandfather died long before I was born) and we grew up with aunts, uncles and cousins eating, playing, and studying together. As a result, we are a very, very, close-knit family even today.
Reading was a family passion. I learnt to read Bengali long before English. In fact, I read most of the English classics in Bengali before I read them in English. My first was Far from the Madding Crowd (I have yet to read that in English) and Gone with the Wind.
There is a great deal of exquisite Bengali literature, some truly great writers. Many have heard of Rabindranath Tagore who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913. I love to read Bengali books. I also love books by Indian authors in English. My favourite Indian writers in English are Rohinton Mistry, Amitav Ghosh and Amit Chaudhuri.
Fun Facts about India:
- Indian civilization is more than 5,000 years old. When many cultures were only nomadic forest dwellers, Indians established Harappan culture in Sindhu Valley (Indus) Valley Civilization in the north western part of India.
- India is the largest democracy in the world with more than a billion people.
- The world’s first university was established in Takshila in 700 BC. More than 10,500 students from all over the world studied more than 60 subjects. The University of Nalanda built in the 4th century was one of the greatest achievements of ancient India in the field of education.
- The value of “pi” was first calculated by the Indian Mathematician Budhayana, and he explained the concept of what is known as the Pythagorean Theorem. He discovered this in the 6th century, long before the European mathematicians.
- The Kolkata Book Fair, held in February every year, is the most attended public book fair in the world. A total of about 2.5 million people attend the book fair every year. It’s my hometown!
- There are 29 states in India, each with distinct cultural identity, language, dress, belief systems.There are more than 30 official Indian languages, most with their own distinct script.
Information about Indian Literature (provided by Aarti):
According to me, there are two main types of Indian literature. One is where writers of Indian origin (or not!) write stories set in India. Examples would be Rohinton Mistry,Amitav Ghosh, Jeet Thayil, Arundhati Roy, Naipaul, Rushdie, and many others.
The second category would be Indian writers who have been translated into English. Major amongst them would be Rabindranath Tagore. Others like Sadat Hasan Manto, Ismat Chugtai (writing in Urdu), Munshi Premchand, and many others. For more on this I recommend The Picador book of Modern Indian Literature edited by Amit Chaudhuri.
Indian writing would not be complete without mentions of the Ramayana (4th to 5th century BC) and the Mahabharata – the two major Sanskrit Epics of ancient India. While the Rayamana is the older of the two epics, the Mahabharata is four times its length and roughly ten times the length of the Iliad and the Odyssey combined. Many English translations exist but my personal favourite is the re-telling by Ashok Banker – he tells the ancient tale in a modern way in a series of books. I highly recommend them.
And, now on to our pick of the month for India…
Book Selected: A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth
Published in: 1993
Find it here:A Suitable Boy
Reason Selected: Picking one book for this month was difficult because there are so many good options. Book Worm and I finally settled on A Suitable Boy because it provides a very comprehensive and multi-layered view of Indian society and culture. It doesn’t hurt that we were also reading this book for a seasonal reading challenge.
Synopsis (from GoodReads): Vikram Seth’s novel is, at its core, a love story: Lata and her mother, Mrs. Rupa Mehra, are both trying to find — through love or through exacting maternal appraisal — a suitable boy for Lata to marry. Set in the early 1950s, in a newly-independent and crisis-ridden India, A Suitable Boy takes us into the richly-imagined world of four large extended families and spins a compulsively readable tale of their lives and loves. A panoramic portrait of a multi-ethnic society in flux, A Suitable Boy remains the story of ordinary people caught up in a web of love and ambition, humor and sadness, prejudice and reconciliation, the most delicate social etiquette and the most appalling violence.
I’ve read and enjoyed quite a few books that were either written by Indian authors or take place in India, but none of them were anything like A Suitable Boy. This is one of those books that really transports you to another culture and another era. Set in the 1950s, the novel is a multi-generational family saga that reads like Bronfenbrenner’s ecological map, simultaneously serving as a sweeping description of Indian politics, religion and tradition, family and marital relationships, food and customs, and social structure.
At almost 1,500 pages, it can feel daunting. The mere size and weight of the book (I bought the paperback edition) almost gave me carpel tunnel. But, it doesn’t read like 1,500 pages. I “breezed” through this book because I found both the personal stories and the social and political details to be fascinating. Although some of the details about the court cases and some of the political back and forth can be confusing to a non-Indian reader, the depth of social exploration was wonderful.
I loved the descriptions of the various traditions, foods, and social structure to be wonderfully rich. Few books have made me feel so immersed in a particular culture and I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in Indian cultural and literature.
Warning: there is no glossary of terms and the author uses lots of local words. Part of the fun for me was looking up various terms and foods and drinks like nimbu pani.
Book Worm’s Review
Set in India in the early 1950’s and billed as the story of Mrs Rupa Mehra’s search for a suitable husband for her youngest daughter Lata, this book is an examination of every aspect of family life among higher caste Indians.
While Lata is essentially the main character in this story, there is a large cast of surrounding characters. The Suitable Boy is the story of several families with interlocking ties: The Mehras, of whom Lata is the youngest daughter; the Kapoors who are connected to the Mehra’s through marriage; the Chatterjis again connected through marriage; the Durranis connected through education and social encounters; and the family of the Nawab of Baitar connected through friendship, political alliance and tragedy. This is a great family saga with the addition of a colourful foreign background (well at least to a reader from the UK it’s a foreign background) complete with religious ceremonies, Shakespearean plays, and civil unrest.
Having read several novels from the perspective of the lower or Untouchable castes, I really enjoyed seeing a view of India from the eyes of a more privileged class. I think this allowed the author to explore the lighter more enjoyable side of Indian culture. I loved hearing about the different ceremonies and particularly enjoyed the imagery surrounding the festival of Holi and the idea of a ceremony for brothers and sisters to show they care for each other.
This was more than a novel about finding a suitable boy. It was a story of family, friendship, politics, religion, tragedy and the growth of a nation and I would highly recommend it.
Have you read this book or any other works by Seth? What are your thoughts?
We both highly recommend this book. Try it for yourself. Find it here: A Suitable Boy
Additional Recommendations for Indian Literature:
Aarti’s recommendations: A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo, The White Tiger by Aravinda Adiga, The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh, & The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy.
Book Worm’s Recommendations: God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
For more reading recommendations check out the Guardian’s article on the top 10 books about the British in India that was just published two weeks ago.
We want to hear from you. Have you read any literature from Indian authors or set in India? Do you have any recommendations? Share your thoughts with us!