Discovering South Asia Through Literature

by Priyanka Mogul


Literature has long since been recognised as having the power to transport us to worlds and cultures beyond our own. In an increasingly globalising world, it often strikes me that fiction isn’t appreciated more widely for what it can teach us.


Readers are increasingly beginning to appreciate literature from countries beyond their own and understand the importance of diversifying their bookshelves. My Indian heritage means that my bookshelves are dominated by Indian authors, but I, too, have some diversifying to do -- particularly when it comes to literature from my country’s South Asian neighbours.


South Asian Heritage Month (18 July - 17 August) gave me the push I needed to do just this. Over the course of this month, I aimed to read one book from each of the South Asian countries -- Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.


I spent ages trolling through GoodReads, Bookstagram and various reading lists before landing on my final choices. But despite my eagerness, I couldn’t get through eight books in one month (at least not without ruining the experience). So, unfortunately, I wasn’t able to read books from Bhutan or the Maldives as part of this series.


But it doesn’t mean I can’t ever read a book from those countries. Even though South Asian Heritage Month is over, it’s important not to use occasions such as these as a trend to participate in and then forget about. Rather, I like to see this month as a springboard into something more permanent.


Discovering literature from other regions of the world is one of the best things you can do as a bookworm. Whether you follow some of my suggestions or do your own research to identify books from the region that suit your taste (this is almost as fun as the reading part), the most important thing you can do for yourselves and the industry is continue discovering South Asian literature long after this month is over.



Afghanistan

The Pearl That Broke Its Shell by Nadia Hashimi is probably my favourite read of this month. Hashimi writes beautifully, but it’s the story and the characters that make this impossible to put down.

The plot revolves around the ancient Afghani custom of bacha posh, which allows young girls to dress and be treated as boys until they are of marriageable age. It’s this practice that allows our protagonist Rahima to enjoy the freedoms that come with being a boy -- just as her great-great grandmother Shekiba did a century before her.

The novel jumps back and forth between these two women, who are separated by a century but share similar destinies. As the chapters alternate between their stories, I always found myself momentarily dismayed at being transported away from one woman’s journey. But Hashimi quickly makes up for this, drawing the reader back into a plot that never stops giving.


Other discoveries from the region: When the Moon is Low by Nadia Hashimi, Earth and Ashes by Atiq Rahimi, A House Without Windows by Nadia Hashimi


Bangladesh

I was so excited by the blurb of The Good Muslim by Tahmima Anam that I read it without realising it’s a sequel. Nevertheless, I’m so glad to have discovered this author.


Set in the aftermath of the Liberation War, the novel is centred around the conflict between religion and secularism, which is played out through two siblings. Anam writes beautifully, and I loved the way the narrative seamlessly flashes back and forth between nine years -- leaving the reader to slowly uncover how this brother and sister duo ended up taking such different paths.


It’s a really engaging read, but I would recommend you read the first book A Golden Age before jumping into this one.


Other discoveries from the region: Brick Lane by Monica Ali, Lajja by Nasrin Taslima, The Black Coat by Neamat Imam



India I had heard so much about The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters by Balli Kaur Jaswal, and this was a really fun read to get stuck into after some of the more intense themes I had been reading so far.

It follows three Punjabi sisters as they embark on a pilgrimage to their homeland to scatter their mother’s ashes. I found myself smiling and also giggling to myself constantly as Jaswal brings to life all the eccentricities of India. If you’re looking for something lighthearted that also sheds a light on some of Punjab’s culture, Jaswal does it really well.


Other discoveries from the region: Latitudes of Longing by Shubhangi Swarup, Small Days and Nights by Tishani Doshi, The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay


Nepal

I’m not usually a fan of short stories, but Arresting God In Kathmandu is a lovely collection. Samrat Upadhyay’s stories explore the nature of desire and spirituality in a changing Kathmandu society, with themes ranging from marriage and sexual tensions to family rifts and identity. I particularly enjoyed the ones told through a diaspora lens (just because of how much I relate to that point of view).

I never would have picked this up had it not been for this challenge I set myself. The fact that I enjoyed it so much has further pushed me to keep exploring works outside my literary comfort zone.


Other discoveries from the region: The Lives We Have Lost by Manjushree Thapa, Mountains Painted with Turmeric by Lil Bahadur Chettri, Muna Madan by Laxmi Prasad Devkot



Pakistan

This probably wasn’t an ideal read for South Asian Heritage Month because it isn’t really an insight into Pakistani culture or heritage. Regardless, The Runaways by Fatima Bhutto is an exhilarating novel centred on the lives of young people who turn to religious extremism. Looking back, I probably would have chosen one of Bhutto’s other novels -- of which there are many to choose from -- to get a better sense of the country.


Other discoveries from the region: Five Queens Road by Sorayya Khan, Our Lady of Alice Bhatti by Mohammed Hanif, Duty Free by Moni Mohsin






Sri Lanka

Shortlisted for 1994 Booker Prize, Reef by Romesh Gunesekera is a charming tale about a talented young chef who is so committed to pleasing his master that he remains oblivious to the political unrest threatening his Sri Lankan paradise. Beautifully written and easy to read, the novel takes place over the course of nine years -- subtly guiding us through Sri Lanka’s 1962 unsuccessful coup to the bloody uprising of 1971. In fact, it’s so subtle that you could almost miss it if you’re not paying attention.


Personally, I would have liked more of a blatant insight into that part of Sri Lanka’s history but I do appreciate the author’s telling of this story through these two very charming characters. It’s a novel I fell in love with almost instantly, and if you like descriptions (especially descriptions of food), few do it better than Gunesekera.

Other discoveries I hope to read soon: Beautiful Place by Amanthi Harris, On Sal Mal Lane by Ru Freeman, Island of a Thousand Mirrors by Nayomi Munaweera



Bhutan

I really struggled to find something written in (or translated into) English from Bhutan. I eventually got in touch with a bookstagrammer from the region (@readinginbhutan) who recommended the author Kunzang Choden, who is said to be the first Bhutanese woman to write a novel in English. She also told me that Bhutan’s Queen Mother, Dorji Wangmo, has written travel books that are really good.


Choden has got a whole range of lovely books -- many of them short stories -- that look fabulous, all of which you can browse through on her GoodReads profile. Her debut, The Circle of Karma, looks incredible.







The Maldives

It was so difficult to find something to read from The Maldives, but I eventually came across this blog (A Year Of Reading The World) by UK-based author Ann Morgan, who had been on the same search back in 2011 and did find something. Dhon Hiyala and Ali Fulhu is described as the Maldivian Romeo and Juliet, and there’s a free English translation of the work available as a PDF here.


I would really love to discover more literary works from the Maldives, so if anyone has any leads, please send them my way!





You can send Priyanka your South Asian literary recommendations via our Contact form our through her Bookstagram page @prisreads.

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Quarterly literary review magazine by Black, Asian, and marginalised community writers.