A Suitable Novel

August is a great month to read contemporary novels from the Indian sub-continent.

August 15 marks the 70th anniversary of India’s independence from Great Britain. Indian partition happened at the same time, creating an independent India and an independent Pakistan. Pakistan celebrates its independence one day before, August 14. Modern India, modern Pakistan, and the diaspora from the sub-continent has enriched the literature of the English language immeasurably.

This August we’re going to immerse ourselves in that literature. Where to begin? Here’s a short list to get you reading.

You can start with Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. Though better known for other books, like the still-controversial Satanic Verses, Midnight’s Children is a masterpiece of magical realism. Its narrator, Saleem Sinai, was born at the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947. Saleem, along with the 1,001 other Indian babies born in the first hour of Indian independence, has a special power. Saleem is a telepath. He’s also got a perpetually dripping nose. This highly lauded book won the 1981 Booker prize and has been named Best of the Bookers twice, in 1993 and 2008. It’s often listed among the best books of the 20th century.


A Case of Exploding Mangoes. This 2008 comic novel by Pakistani author Mohammad Hanif fictionalizes the real-life plane crash that killed Pakistani strongman Mohammed Zia ul-Haq. Doesn’t sound like it ought to be funny, but it is.

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga. This debut novel won the Man Booker prize in 2008. The novel’s narrator, Balram Halwai, relates his story in the form of a long letter to the Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, explaining how he went from the son of a poor rickshaw puller to the owner of his own taxi service. The story delves into questions of individualism and caste, globalization, and individual freedom.

The Indian-Canadian author Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance is set in an unnamed coastal city during 1975’s State of Emergency where four strangers are thrown together in a small apartment.

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Shashi Tharoor’s The Great Indian Novel. The author, himself an Indian politician, has taken the Hindu epic poem, Mahabarata, and turned it into a satire of the Indian Independence Movement and modern Indian history up to the 1980s.

Amitav Ghosh's, The Sea of Poppies, first in his Ibis Trilogy, is set in colonial India during the Opium Wars of the 1830s. A motley group of people are gathered up together when a former slave ship, the Ibis, prepares to carry coolies to work on Mauritius.

Vikas Swarup’s Six Suspects brings us a mystery: who killed playboy Vivek Rai? Six people have guns and motives. Who’s the real killer? Swarup’s first novel, Q&A, became the film phenomenon Slumdog Millionaire.


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Kamila Shamsie's, Home Fire. Shamsie’s latest is a reworking of Sophocles’s Antigone, set in contemporary London amid the Pakistani community there. A powerful story about siblings, faith, and betrayal.

Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy is a door-stopper at 1,349 pages and nearly 600,000 words. Set in India after independence and partition, this novel tells the stories of four families in the fictional town of Brahmpur. Mrs. Mehra struggles to arrange a marriage to a "suitable boy" for her headstrong younger daughter, Lata, a young woman who would rather choose for herself.

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