Ravi Singh says, "I'd thought picking the top 10 books would be fun. It wasn't. Books aren't racehorses, and I can only read English and Hindi, and I haven't read nearly enough in either language. Besides, lists of this kind can be very predictable.
I finally decided to exclude novels that are universally acknowledged by English-language readers as classics of Indian writing-Godan, Tamas, Samskara, The Legends of Khasak, The God of Small Things, Midnight's Children, The Shadow Lines, A Suitable Boy, A Fine Balance and English, August, among others."
Instead, here's a list of path-breaking Indian novels that I keep going back to:
Greatest Indian Novels: Ravi Singh's list:
1. Delhi by Khushwant Singh
A monumental, Rabelaisian tribute to the capital city spanning over 1000 years. Only a writer with Khushwant Singh's daring, scholarship and genius for entertainment could have written a novel as rich and uninhibited as this one.
2. Kanthapura by Raja Rao
A lot of people think Raja Rao is overrated. But Kanthapura to me is a genuine classic, and perhaps the first book that made English an Indian language. Compared to it, most other English-language novels about rural India appear unreal.
3. Raag Durbari by Shrilal Shukla (translated into English by Gillian Wright)
I doubt there's a more scathing, insightful and hilarious satire on Indian politics than this iconic Hindi novel. Set in a UP village, it remains just as relevant today as it would have been back in the 1960s. Gillian Wright's translation is a triumph.
4. The Room on the Roof by Ruskin Bond
An unforgettable coming-of-age novel that is about friendship, loneliness and finding a home. It is also a nostalgic yet clear-eyed love letter to India. Ruskin wrote the novel when he was 17, but it has the restraint, wisdom and compassion that few people earn at 80.
5. River of Fire (Aag ka Darya) by Qurratulain Hyder (translated by the author)
Hugely ambitious, Aag ka Darya has been celebrated as one of the greatest works of fiction in Urdu, but in English it hasn't had the wide readership it deserves. It draws upon 2000 years of history to give us a gloriously inclusive idea of India. A new translation would do it greater justice.
6. Em and the Big Hoom by Jerry Pinto
It takes near magical skill to write about mental illness without sparing readers the savage sadness of it and yet leaving them with hope, even making them laugh. Fifty years from now, when many contemporary novels will be forgotten, people will be reading this one.
7. Ravan and Eddie by Kiran Nagarkar
The lives of two boys-Ravan, a Hindu, and Eddie, a Roman Catholic-intersect in a Bombay chawl and we follow their astonishing progress in this exuberant, ribald comic masterpiece.
8. Paro: Dreams of Passion by Namita Gokhale
Some thirty years ago this slim novel caused a sensation. No one had written of physical passion, sexual jealousy, the cynical, comical lives of India's rich and rapacious with such cool candour and acid wit. No one has done that since.
9. Weight Loss by Upamanyu Chatterjee
James Baldwin wrote somewhere about 'the fearful splendour of desolation'. Reading this novel, I understood. It's bleak without mercy, yet strangely tender, and totally compelling. Not for the faint-hearted.
10. Trying to Grow by Firdaus Kanga
A boy with brittle bones, confined to a wheelchair, tries to defy his handicap and grow loving and lusting into manhood like every other adolescent. That this profoundly moving novel-which sparkles with wit and pitch-perfect dialogue-is now almost forgotten is the only tragic thing about it.
Ravi Singh was till recently co-publisher at Aleph Book Company. Before that, he was publisher and editor-in-chief at Penguin India.
From HT Brunch, June 22
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