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Frontline’s 50

India at 75 - Fiction

Print edition : Sep 30, 2022 T+T-

India at 75 - Fiction

Beacons that light up the path to understanding post-Independence Indian literature.

The Private Life of an Indian Prince (1953)

Mulk Raj Anand

Anand’s 1935 novel  Untouchable established him as a pioneer of the Indian English novel alongside R.K. Narayan and Raja Rao. He set most of his novels among the poor but  The Private Life, counted among his best, changed tack with a flawed prince as protagonist.

The Room on the Roof (1956)

Ruskin Bond

The journey of one of India’s favourite storytellers started with Rusty, the orphaned Anglo-Indian boy, Bond’s alter-ego. Rusty, his  home in the Himalayas, Raj nostalgia, and love for animals would recur in Bond’s books.

The Guide (1958)

R.K. Narayan

The creator of the fictional town of Malgudi set the early parameters of the Indian English novel—unhurried pace, lucid prose, sense of community, and the quotidian celebrated.  The Guide, also set in Malgudi, follows tour guide turned “holy man” Raju, who both hates and loves his “saint” status. Written 10 years after Gandhi’s assassination, the novel’s philosophical charge remains undiminished.

The Cat and Shakespeare (1965)

Raja Rao

With his first novel,  Kanthapura (1938), Rao started the project of “convey[ing] in a language that is not one’s own the spirit that is one’s own”. The effort continued in  The Cat and Shakespeare, whose language is as Indian as it gets, with its English “Sanskritised” by being mixed with chants.

The Dark Holds No Terrors (1980)

Shashi Deshpande

One of the early novels to be written from the female point of view,  The Dark Holds No Terrors’ indictment of patriarchy is brutal. The quest for a feminine identity continued to animate Shashi Deshpande’s powerful fiction in the years to come.

Midnight’s Children (1981)

Salman Rushdie

This was the novel that gave Indian English literature a much-needed shot in the arm and created the post-Rushdie Indian novel with its post-colonial confidence.  Midnight’s Children traces a set of characters, and thus a nation, all born on the midnight of August 15, 1947, imbuing their histories with the magic-realism and lyricism that set Rushdie apart.

English, August (1988)

Upamanyu Chatterjee

Written in an India taking its first tentative steps towards liberalisation,  English, August captured the corruption of the system and the effete bureaucrat as no other novel had done before.

Folktales from India (1991)

A.K. Ramanujan

A gem of a collection where Ramanujan weaves together oral tales from 22 Indian languages, stories centred on ordinary people, which celebrated their courage, wit and tenacity.

The Thousand Faces of Night (1992)

Githa Hariharan

Winning the 1993 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for best first book, this novel presaged Githa Hariharan’s lifelong commitment to feminism and literature. In 1999, she won a landmark case that agreed that women can be sole guardians of minor children.

A Suitable Boy (1993)

Vikram Seth

Seth’s first novel,  The Golden Gate (1986), made ripples as a story told entirely in verse.  A Suitable Boy is as famous for its lyrical prose as for its setting among the conflicted upper middle class of post-Partition India.

River of Stories (1994)

Orijit Sen

Widely regarded as India’s first graphic novel,  River of Stories was based on the Narmada Dam controversy. Its success left a rich shoal in its wake, from Sarnath Banerjee’s  Corridor in 2004 to Amruta Patil’s  Kari, Appupen’s  Legends of Halahala and many more.

A Fine Balance (1995)

Rohinton Mistry

One of the most important books to be fictionalised around the Emergency,  A Fine Balance is a moving and evocative account of those dark days. The story of a state oppressively bearing down on its citizens has a timeless feel.

Cuckold (1997)

Kiran Nagarkar

Nagarkar is one of those Indian authors who has written critically-acclaimed novels in both English and his mother tongue, Marathi. His blunt, forthright style lends authenticity to his voice.  Cuckold is a historical novel that reads like a contemporary tale and upends conventional notions of love, family and war.

Also read: India at 75 - Non-fiction

The God of Small Things (1997)

Arundhati Roy

In its 25th year,  The God of Small Things remains as fresh, its finesse never to be replicated, not even by Arundhati Roy. Her subsequent writing has been criticised for making protest too poetic, but in this novel, anger—at patriarchy, class and caste barbarisms, intellectual pretensions—burns incandescent. The Booker winner’s brilliant prose would go on to service Roy’s later political writings.

The Interpreter of Maladies (1999)

Jhumpa Lahiri

This Pulitzer-winning collection made the neglected genre of short stories fashionable again. More important, it marked the beginning of Indian diaspora fiction.

Fasting, Feasting (1999)

Anita Desai

Anita Desai’s novels are like Jane Austen’s—their calm surface concealing a volcano of emotions. The sharp reserve of her style stands out in Indian writing in English, and in this Booker-shortlisted novel, she slowly builds up a contrast between two Indian and American middle-class families only to suggest that they are more similar than imagined.

The Hungry Tide (2004)

Amitav Ghosh

This almost poetic book was an early harbinger of Ghosh’s later eco-fiction. Set in the mangroves of the Sunderbans, ecological concerns are married here to the finest prose and storytelling.

The Simoqin Prophecies (2005)

Samit Basu

The Simoqin Prophecies marked the arrival of speculative fiction in India. There are allusions galore, creating echoes within echoes in a dizzying ride through time and space.

Five Point Someone (2004)

Chetan Bhagat

With a million copies sold worldwide, this IIT caper marked not just the arrival of Chetan Bhagat in the Indian-English literary scene, but also spawned a whole new generation of readers of English fiction who found his language easy and plots relatable. As he said in an interview: “I am plugged into India more than other writers.”

Sacred Games (2006)

Vikram Chandra

Indian thrillers have never been this literary. A world-weary cop and a larger-than-life criminal play cat-and-mouse in a Mumbai rife with corruption. Its  Godfather vibes led to many copy-cat thrillers while its reasonably well-made Netflix adaptation started the ball rolling for many more text-to-screen projects.

Legends of Pensam (2006)

Mamang Dai

This collection of tales combining history with orally transmitted folklore brought Arunachali literature to the mainstream.

The Zoya Factor (2008)

Anuja Chauhan

Among the earliest writers who got the tone and language of “chick lit” just right, Anuja Chauhan started a trend that others soon made very mediocre. Like  The Zoya Factor, her novels are Hinglish, fun and self-aware.

The Collaborator (2011)

Mirza Waheed

In this masterly first novel, the London-based Kashmiri novelist produced what Kamila Shamsie called “a portrait of Kashmir itself”. Written with trademark sensitivity and restraint, it examines what it is like to live in a place where the citizen is always considered the enemy.

The Adivasi will not Dance (2015)

Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar

One of the first books of Indian writing in English where tribal people and their lives take centre stage, the book’s Santhal protagonists live, love and celebrate in the face of dispossession, exploitation, and oppression.

Sky is My Father: A Naga Village Remembered (2018)

Easterine Kire

In this first Naga novel in English, Easterine Kire captures a Nagaland on the cusp of change, as spirits, shamans and mythical serpents give way to modernity.