Greatest Indian Novels: Sunil Sethi's list:
For its dramatic sweep, vast array of characters and range of conflicts that cover love and war, bloodlust and retribution, magical realism and complex human emotion, The Mahabharata tops my list of the greatest of Indian fictions. There are innumerable versions of the epic but by far the most accessible is the abridged English prose translation by the statesman-scholar C Rajagoplachari. It was first published in 1958 and long ago crossed sales of a million copies.
Two landmark novels, both classics for their portrayal of the harsh edge of marginalized lives in colonial times, are Bankim Chandra Chatterji's Anandmath (published in 1882 and also a well-known movie with the anthem Vande Mataram that Bankim Chandra penned) and Munshi Premchand's Godan (1936). The first is a stirring account of a Bengal famine and sannyasi rebellion; the second the story of an impoverished peasant's debt trap in trying to purchase a cow. It is the prolific Hindi fiction writer's last novel and often considered his finest.
Political turmoil in Ahmed Ali's Twilight in Delhi is a distant drumbeat. But in the post-1857 delineation of a Muslim joint family in a congested quarter of the inner city the writer achieves a fine emotional balance between the everyday rhythms of life and the inner preoccupations of his characters, especially the slow disintegration of the family patriarch. First published in English in 1940 to enthusiastic acclaim (from EM Forster among others) it has never gone out of print. So much of the Urdu writer Saadat Hasan Manto's extraordinary output in fiction, memoir and journalism is worth reading, and so much of his tragic life demands understanding, that I can only recommend Bitter Fruit: The Very Best of Saadat Hasan Manto edited and translated by the passionate keeper of his flame, Srinagar-born journalist Khalid Hasan, and now available in a single volume.
Four years after Manto's death in 1955, the Urdu writer and journalist Qurratulain Hyder's published Aag ka Dariya (River of Fire), a novel encapsulating time and history, from the 4th century BC to the subcontinent's independence, and widely regarded as an ambitious feat of imaginative storytelling.
Fringe characters struggling against the backdrop of decaying cities are a recurring leitmotif of Anita Desai's fiction. Salman Rushdie once called Desai "that great student of solitude". Among the most acutely observed is Baumgartmer's Bombay (1988), the story of a Jewish émigré eking out his last years in the seething metropolis. Of it the author says, "It was view of history not being something you could participate in, but something that could overwhelm you and trample on you like a juggernaut."
Family plots are fiction writers' best known ploy of engaging us in an intensification of our own reality. Amitav Ghosh's second novel The Shadow Lines (1989) and republished this year to mark its 25th anniversary is a deft layering of history and memory through the interlinked lives of three generations of a Bengali and British family, their lives shadowed by the violence of the freedom movement, World War II, the Partition and communal riots of the 1960s. It marked a turning point in the writing of Indian historical fiction in English. In its way, it was our story, of an educated middle class grappling with cataclysmic change.
At their most reductive, Jane Austen's enduring novels are boy-meets-girl sagas, or sometimes an anxious mother's attempts to marry off daughters. Mrs Rupa Mehra's quest to find a bridegroom for Lata is the same but Vikram Seth's epic-length A Suitable Boy (1993) is anything but. It is also an enthralling portrait of India in the 1950s, to be dipped into again and again for pleasure; his accounts of small-time musicians at All India Radio, or of the richly eccentric Chatterjee family in Calcutta, are masterpieces of poignant and comic writing.
Two Indian-American writers stand out for their forays in fiction, given that writing remains their secondary vocation. Manil Suri, a maths professor, embarked on a trilogy in the 1990s, the first being The Death of Vishnu (2001) an unusually observant and controlled account of a man who lives and dies on the landing of an apartment building in Bombay, coloured by the lives of the building's inhabitants. And if the purpose of fiction is to take us deep into the lives of others, and to other places, then Cutting for Stone (2009) by the physician-author Abraham Verghese is a magic-tinted story of twin brothers set in Ethiopia and America---of estrangement, reconciliation and the redemptive power of love. In particular Verghese's narrative power derives from his description of medical practice. He achieves the astonishing feat of turning surgical operations into convincing and absorbing dramatic action.
Sunil Seth is a journalist, author and television presenter. He is a columnist for Business Standard.
From HT Brunch, June 22
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