Like the year that went before, 2015 too was a good one for serious non-fiction: Akshaya Mukul’s well researched Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India brought scholarship to a neglected area; Anirudha Bhattacharjee and Balaji Vittal’s Gaata Rahe Mera Dil was among the many excellent volumes on the Hindi film industry; Amartya Sen’s The Country of First Boys clarified readers’ thinking on matters as diverse as Indian calendars and the nation’s “many-sided deprivations”; Romila Thapar examined the role of The Public Intellectual in India at a particularly fraught time; and Barkha Dutt’s journalistic memoir attempted to look unflinchingly at the “faultlines” of This Unquiet Land.
2015 was also the year Bollywood discovered the book-as-a-brand-building-exercise. So Twinkle Khanna parlayed her rather funny columns into a successful book, Shilpa Shetty, who looks like she lives on bottled air, wrote about The Great Indian Diet, Zarine Khan’s (Sanjay Khan’s wife and Hrithik Roshan’s former mother-in-law) Family Secrets presented her favourite recipes, and Ram Gopal Varma, whose place in Bollywood history was assured with films like Satya and Rangeela, succeeded fabulously in making new enemies with his memoir Guns & Thighs.
Yes, it’s that time of year when every literary critic draws up a list of the best books. Considering how many Indian English books are published every year, this is an arduous task that fills the list maker with equal portions of dread and ennui. This time, we’ve generously left the list making to others and have concentrated instead on presenting the three works of literary fiction that have illuminated December: One Point Two Billion, Mahesh Rao’s book of short stories; Ratika Kapur’s The Private Life of Mrs Sharma; and Ancestral Affairs by Keki N Daruwalla.
One Point Two Billion by Mahesh Rao
Set in 13 different states in this nation of, yes 1.2 billion often demented souls, Rao’s stories get into the minds of characters, even those he could never have
known closely. Like the bitter discarded older wife at a Salwa Judum camp in ‘Drums’ — the most unsettling story in the collection, or the Guwahati school boy contemplating his mother’s obsession with an Assamese freedom fighter in Minu Goyari Day, or the young Kashmiri, Farooq, whose brothers “were seized by persons unknown” in The Word Thieves. Indeed, at the book’s launch in Delhi, the author mentioned that the initial inspiration for Drums came from a clip on YouTube.
The humour in some of these stories recalls RK Narayan and the early Naipaul of the Mystic Masseur era, others — particularly one fantastic scene in The Philanderer, a story that pivots on the sexual encounters of a self-assured advocate — draw an involuntary gasp immediately followed by uncontrolled laughter from the reader with their ability to capture whole ways of thinking and seeing with a single quip. Rao confounds the readers expectations of how each story will end: Will Upkaar’s wife who has become a Christian evangelist preacher return to him? In Golden Ladder, will Falguni’s life change after her family’s feudal ways are exposed to the wider world? Will Roma suddenly jump up yelling and run away from the restaurant in The Trouble with Dining Out?
Mahesh Rao’s characters grapple with loneliness, infidelity, boredom, powerlessness — in ways that are both real and surprising and compel you to view them with empathy. A superb book.
Ancestral Affairs by Keki N Daruwalla
From the accomplished Brothers Mistry (Rohinton and Cyrus) to Bapsi Sidhwa (yes, she is Pakistani but she’s included here nevertheless), the Parsi novel has miraculously managed to present a rich picture of the subcontinent even though, or perhaps because (we’ll never know which one it is), most of the characters are Parsis, who belong to a community so in danger of extinction that every young person is being exhorted to go forth and multiply — in the orthodox Indian way, with suitable others from within the fold, of course.
Keki N Daruwalla’s last book of poems, Fire Altar, celebrated the legends of the Persian empire in true Parsi fashion while also making the reader ruminate about the meaning of and yearning for rootedness in a world in flux. The preoccupation with Parsi-ness permeates Ancestral Affairs too but here, the central character Saam Bharucha, legal advisor to the nawab of Junagadh during the Partition, manages to bring a perspective that’s neither Hindu nor Muslim but still thoroughly Indian to a momentous period in the nation’s history.
Alongside, there are digressions into family stories and into tales about opium and Parsi trade fortunes during the Raj, and examinations of those perennially interesting subjects — love and marriage.
Ancestral Affairs is a novel that’s both historical and Parsi, and to borrow an image from the author, as crunchy as a good boomla (Bombay Duck) fry. My only quibble is with the strenuous striving to present the meaning of Parsi and Gujrati terms in the running text. It’s probably old fashioned to provide lengthy footnotes but this book would have benefited from them.
The Private Life of Mrs Sharma by Ratika Kapur
This book makes the reader titter nervously as she follows self righteous Mrs Sharma and her everyday Indian obsessions with purity and getting ahead, with family and keeping up appearances. Everyone knows a Mrs Sharma. You’ve seen her on the street, at the supermarket, at work; she’s so close, she could even be you. Which is what is scarily good about this novel. Written in the judgemental voice of a 37-year-old married woman, who seeks at all times to establish her own superiority in matters moral and social, Mrs Sharma should be an unattractive protagonist. Here she is on a younger woman: “So, I remained quiet and he also did, until Neha entered, floating into the restaurant like a heroine from a hit film. She came up to us hugged me like I was her sister and sat down at our table. A crow trying to walk like a swan, that is what I think when I see her. Everything about her is imitation. The way those lipsticky lips move, the way those hands move when she is saying something, when she is saying anything at all. And those imitation diamond studs in her ears. All of it is fake, and I suspect that all of it is for Vineet.”
The reader should be repelled by Mrs Sharma, instead she finds herself sympathising with her, grudgingly admiring her, being slowly drawn into the narrow bylanes of her world with its impossible balancing acts, its suffocating responsibilities, its great craving to be part of the modern India of flashy malls that hide cesspools, boutique hotels that front slums, and the unswerving belief that a job in a Gurgaon glass tower is the acme of ‘success’, whatever that is. Author Ratika Kapur expertly blends irony and pathos and reveals a great skill for ventriloquism. A slim 185-page novel, The Private Life of Mrs Sharma is not an easy read. It prods you to think deeply about all those perennial subjects of the novel — the nature of love, marriage, family, money, while also pondering about this moment in Indian Time, about the nature of new India’s chimeras and chasms. Mrs Sharma is not immediately likable but she is unforgettable and quite unlike any other woman in Indian English fiction. An achievement.
Rao, Kapur and Daruwalla belong to different generational cohorts and have differing literary styles but each has turned a keen eye to the worlds we carry within us and the one that surrounds us, to the undying ghosts of the past and the peculiar madnesses of contemporary India. Read them all.