At the mention of South Asia, the stock images that pop into most Americans’ minds are those of elephants, snake charmers, and the squalid poverty of Slumdog Millionaire. South Asian novels are, for the most part, pigeonholed as “serious fiction” featuring heavy social or political commentary or the puny side kick to Southeast Asian literature. (This is ironic because most contemporary South Asian writers are more accessible in a way—they originally write in English—unlike most Southeast Asian literature, which is translated.) But these books, by writers living in South Asia and those part of South Asian diaspora, do away with the cliches.
How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid
Written in the format of a pseudo self-help book, this satirical novel charts the course of a rags-to-riches life story of a self-made entrepreneur in an unnamed country, closely resembling Pakistan. With chapters titled “Get an Education,” “Don’t Fall in Love,” “Avoid Idealists,” “Work for Yourself,” “Befriend a Bureaucrat,” this book takes clever jabs at the genre. It tells the story how this ambitious individual (“you”) maneuvers his way to the top as he leaves both village and family behind, and the shoddy politics, bureaucracy, and personal obstacles he faces on his journey. Like Jay McInerney and Junot Diaz, Hamid is one of the few distinguished writers who gets the second-person form right. Read this for the wry humor and shrewd observations.
Meatspace by Nikesh Shukla
Kitab and his brother Aziz are so addicted to their cyber life that every like and comment on their many social media accounts makes them feel more validated than any IRL achievement ever would. Sound familiar? I thought so. Accustomed only to the company of constant buzz of notifications on his phone, Kitab’s world is thrown into disarray when his online doppelganger from India shows up in London, with the hopes of becoming part of his real life, or what geeks call “meatspace.” Shukla delivers a biting critique of an internet-obsessed society more concerned with curating its online persona than with real-life interactions.
Broken Verses by Kamila Shamsie
If you are a fan of beautiful, well-crafted sentences and eloquent writing, order Shamsie’s entire bibliography right away. Her books feature South Asian characters, and their themes address existential angst and the intricacies of the human condition. In her 2005 novel, Broken Verses, the protagonist is a 30-plus-year-old woman called Aasmaani Inqalab, which literally means “Celestial Revolution,” who is battling her inner demons and trying to come to terms with her mother’s mysterious disappearance. She lives in the seaside city of Karachi in Pakistan, which, by the way, is Shamsie’s hometown too, and is itself a prominent character throughout the story. Lyrical prose and beautifully rendered emotions makes this novel a must-read for fans of literary fiction.
Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew by Shehan Karunatilaka
If you need to know one thing about South Asia, it should be the region’s all-encompassing love for cricket, which is so well articulated in Shehan Karunatilaka’s Chinaman. However, you don’t need to be an obsessive cricket fan to enjoy this novel. The plot is centered on a certain W.G. Karunasena’s quest to find out what has become of Pradeep Mathew, an enigmatic spinner who played for Sri Lanka in the late eighties. A boozy journalist in the twilight of his life, Karunasena is propelled into the world of gamblers and gangsters while trying to get to the bottom of the disappearance of the mysterious cricketer. Shehan deftly interlaces this mystery with oblique references to the turbulent history of Sri Lanka. Brash humor propels the narrative forward, culminating in an enormously entertaining read.
An American Brat by Bapsi Sidhwa
A seminal work of literary fiction from Pakistan, An American Brat’s elegant prose and perceptive characterization presents a pitch-perfect rendition of cultural shock. The novel follows a young, sheltered Pakistani girl Feroza on her journey from Pakistan to the United States. Equal parts funny and poignant, it’s a brilliant novel about the immigrant experience. Much like Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, it captures the transition from disorientation to assimilation in a new society, with a touch of pathos and humor.
How It Happened by Shazaf Fatima Haider
This comedy of manners sheds light on South Asia’s preoccupation with marriage. Reading like a South Asian Pride and Prejudice, How It Happened is full of larger than life characters, quirky dialogue, a dysfunctional extended family, and the perpetual struggle between old values and contemporary ideals. This is a book to be devoured in one sitting.
Last Man in Tower by Aravind Adiga
The rapidly changing face of India is at once an indicator of economic prosperity and a mark of its the striking economic and social disparity. Adiga weaves these two elements into his plot, centered on the real estate business in Mumbai. A tragicomic tale about a man who refuses to leave the housing society he lives in in the face of property development, Adiga shows the profound ripple effect of this single act of resistance. Elaborate portraits of the constellation of characters and their intimate connections as a community are perfectly rendered.
The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing by Mira Jacob
If you enjoy panoramic family sagas, this book is right up your alley. A sprawling, ironic novel spanning decades (between the 1970s and the late 1990s), The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing follows generations of an immigrant Indian family. Multi-layered and luminous, it tenderly chronicles the joys and tragedies of a family in the diaspora, contemplating the nature of love, familial ties, and resilience. Highly recommended for fans of Jhumpa Lahiri and Meg Wolitzer.
Something to Tell You by Hanif Kureishi
Hanif Kureishi is one of the better known South Asian writers in the West, largely owing to his credentials as the screenwriter for My Beautiful Laundrette, a movie starring Daniel Day-Lewis. Something to Tell You is the story of a psychoanalyst,Jamal, in his fifties whose past catches up with him—a clever spin on Freudian repression theory. Kureishi’s discursive style—veering off mid-exposition from one subject to another—and dense prose might need some getting used to, but his writing is as profound and witty as any you can find. Kureishi reminisces about the hedonism and activism of his youth while tracing the whereabouts of his former companions in present day London. Jamal’s kaleidoscopic musings on life and death from his middle-aged vantage point are an ironic and tender meditation on the reverberations of past.
The Diary of a Social Butterfly by Moni Mohsin
This hilarious satire is comprised of the peppy journal entries of a vivacious, self-involved socialite from Lahore between 2001 to 2008. Though the world in upheaval in the aftermath of September 11, she is oblivious to the conundrum as her world continues to revolve around monthly international vacations, shopping trips to London, and keeping track of which designer handbags and shoes her neighbor is sporting. Like the “Confessions of a Shopaholic” series, this book appears shallow on the surface until you reach into its smart depths. Protagonist Butterfly Khan’s OTT lifestyle spotlights how the modern elite enjoy a crass, flashy life in a financially struggling country. Executed with verve, this is a perfect fit for fans of Helen Fielding, Sophie Kinsella, and Maria Semple.
Family Life by Akhil Sharma
A tragicomic tale of a family’s struggle to maintain stability after a personal adversity irrevocably changes their interpersonal dynamics, Akhil Sharma’s second novel starts off narrating the experience of a family that moves from India to the United States. Following a devastating accident that leaves their eldest son, Birju, permanently brain damaged, the writer portrays how family members, specially Birju’s younger brother, Ajay, grapples with the tragedy. A compassionate story about family ties that fluidly evokes the experience of estrangement and sorrow.