Do you read books just to get a glimpse into life in a particular place?
Books can tell you all about the life, culture, activities and people of a particular place. A good writer can transport you in time and space and take you on as poignant and soulful a journey as any.
Have you seen this poster available at the most amazing Literary Gift Company? (Seriously! You gotta shop here if you love books!)
It is a literary map of the U.S!
And this got me thinking my own country, India.
To say that India is a melting pot of cultures and traditions is an understatement; India is a veritable stew of all that is good, bad, kitschy, and cheeky, split up into 28 states and 7 union territories, all different from each other as chalk and cheese. The languages spoken in each state are different, the clothes are different, the traditional music and dances are different, the skin color is different, and the temperament of the people is different. India is a manifestation of joy, anguish, and frenzy, amalgamated!
But what amazes me is the power that art, particularly books, has to capture this multifariousness… this mélange.
So until I make a literary map of India for you, here are a few books that embody and reflect the lives and times of the people living in this country. Read these books if you can get your hands on them, and if ever India beckons, come to Bombay and call me! I’ll buy you gulab jamuns till your heart’s blissed out.
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy: This dazzling and devastating book offers a peek into Christian life into Kerala in South India. This is one of the first “grown up” books that I fell in love with, and Roy’s lush, lyrical, almost poetic prose made it really easy to do that. In this book, themes of social unrest, colonialism, communism, and casteism are dexterously woven into a story about the pains and pleasures of a pair of fraternal twins.
“…the secret of the Great Stories is that they have no secrets. The Great Stories are the ones you have heard and want to hear again. The ones you can enter anywhere and inhabit comfortably. They don’t deceive you with thrills and trick endings. They don’t surprise you with the unforeseen. They are as familiar as the house you live in. Or the smell of your lover’s skin. You know how they end, yet you listen as though you don’t. In the way that although you know that one day you will die, you live as though you won’t. In the Great Stories you know who lives, who dies, who finds love, who doesn’t. And yet you want to know again. That is their mystery and their magic.”
Need I say more?
Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie: Undoubtedly, this book would be on any list on the prominent literary works on India; it is on most “best books of all time” lists in any case. This is a story of a man born at the exact moment that India became independent, and it is vintage Rushdie: spirited, magical, and full of awesome.
A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry: Fatter than most of the fattest books that you would own (I’ll bet you my bottom dollar though, that you’ll finish it in three days if you start.), this book is a magnificent and unabashed reflection of all that is joyous, distressing, laudable, lamentable, heroic, and heartbreaking about life in an India that is recovering from a colonial past and trying to grapple with forming a vision of itself for the future. It is a moving tale of four strangers who are catapulted into a common future and are forced to deal with the vagaries of life in the form of death, betrayal, corruption, and caste violence, when a State of Emergency is declared by the government. Though the time we live in now is far removed from the period described in this book, I could not help feeling that every single thing that Mistry was talking about, happened, and probably to him or his loved ones—his prose is that empathetic. And that is a truly worthy literary victory.
“But nobody ever forgot anything, not really, though sometimes they pretended, when it suited them. Memories were permanent. Sorrowful ones remained sad even with the passing of time, yet happy ones could never be recreated – not with the same joy. Remembering bred its own peculiar sorrow. It seemed so unfair: that time should render both sadness and happiness into a source of pain.”
The Discovery of India by Jawaharlal Nehru: I studied this book in school and in retrospect (you are allowed to hate your textbooks), I would like to appreciate what a glorious work of art this book is. Read it, and you will probably fall in love with India. Nehru writes as if he has been allowed glimpses into the soul of his nation and is reveling in it; it is a veritable treatise of his raving love affair with his country. He covers the history of Indian civilization starting from what happened at Indus Valley to the political,economic, and social milieu of his time, and though the text is heavy at times, the lyrical prose makes it altogether worth it.
The Great Indian Novel: Now Shashi Tharoor, the author of this blinding demonstration of his sheer wit and cheek, is possibly my number one literary crush. He is suave and he is fancy and his writing reflects that. A marvelous retelling of the Mahabharata (the greatest epic on Hindu mythology; a tale of ) recast and reset in the context of the Indian Independence movement, this satire is mischievous, piquant, and gloriously irreverent. The story also includes, gloriously intertwined into it, puns and allusions to famous works about India, such as those by Rudyard Kipling, Paul Scott, and E. M. Forster. Just thinking about the book makes me smile! Elephant shoes, Shashi! Elephant shoes!
Now go on, get yourself a Lonely Planet India, and come on over!
Waiting for you with bated breath,
The Indian girl Elizabeth