As we bid adieu to 2022, TNS turns to South Asian writers and authors to ask them about the titles they read this year that have stayed with them. Here, in alphabetical order, is what they say
One of the best books I read this year – gripping, historically authentic, with a lot of drama and adventure, was The Swaraj Spy by Vijay Balan. Set in the Indian freedom movement, it opens with a chilling scene of resistance and its brutal crushing. The hero of the book is based on a real person, Vijay Balan’s grand uncle and the quality and depth of research is impressive indeed, taking us to different parts of South India to Singapore, Burma and Malaya, every scene lit up with vivid detail.
Vijay Balan grew up in the Nilgiris – as I did, and that formed an additional bond. Jerry Pinto is also connected to the Nilgiris – as the director of the Ooty Literature Festival where I was privileged to be a local author this year; where Jerry (a Mahim Mumbai boy, mahimkajerry on Instagram) was launching his new book, The Education of Yuri. Yuri, just a few years younger than me, took me straight back to my days in college in Bombay, with its bus journeys, second-hand bookstalls and other features of those dusty days. I loved this book so much that I ordered and read a few more of Jerry’s novels which had been on my ‘must’ list for years. The one that stole my heart was Em and the Big Hoom, in which Jerry writes with outstanding skill about growing up with a mother who has severe mental health issues.
The best non-fiction book I read this year was The Maverick Effect by Harish Mehta. It’s the story of how the Indian IT industry – of which the author is an early member – came up and how the business environment in India swiftly evolved from greedy, self-serving family corporations to a more professional digital landscape that created opportunities that transformed India’s economy.
The writer is a Pune-based author and artist whose new book, Losing Home, is out now
I have to say that, ironically, my reading in the traditional sense of the word has been a bit curtailed by my profession. As editor-in-chief of a literary and art journal that publishes a yearly anthology and maintains a running website where four new pieces are published every month, I swim in a glorious current of writing sent from far and wide. The only difference is that it is unpublished work, mostly by young writers, although we often get new pieces from published authors. The time to read books summarily gets cut.
However, I did manage a few. The first, by Raja Shahzad, Log Sargoshion mein Goya Hain, is a collection of fabulous short stories in Urdu and was suggested to me by Moshin Saeed, the journalist. I was so taken up by the author’s incisive and beautiful observations that I decided to have one of the stories translated by Shuyeb Gandapur, a travelling writer, who sent me his piece from Chile for The Aleph Review. I also read Snuffing Out the Moon by Osama Siddique. I was quite blown away by this novel, as it deftly and eruditely patchworks stories from various eras, mostly set in present-day Pakistan: from Moenjodaro in 2084 BCE to – this delighted me no end as I love Sci-Fi – The Land of Tomorrow in 2084 CE. Great work.
The third, in London, was The Last White Man by Mohsin Hamed. It was an easy read, undertaken in parks and cafés, about the much-explored subject of metamorphosis, not least Kafka’s, well, The Metamorphosis. My new year’s resolution is to read some novels by the famously difficult-to-read but brilliant Zulfikar Ghose, who passed away this year.
The writer is editor-in-chief of The Aleph Review, a literary and art journal
If there is one poet I always turn to whenever I feel haunted by the cliched epitaph, “Poetry is Dead” it is Punjabi poet Najm Hosain Syed (b. 1936) and his first four poetry collections. Najm’s poetry took quite a compound and cold path over the years, but his first book Kaafian remains one of my favourites. It became one of my repeated reads of the year. Kaafian was first published in May 1965. The print I have is its second edition, published by Majlis Shah Hussain in July 1976. Simplicity, freshness, modern sensibility and an unorthodox play with the established genres are the key features of the book. The verses of the book that became part of the pro-people street demonstrations included: JhaiRa mukkya karniaa(n) Bharniaa(n) da/ Aokhi raat hissab di ho guzri. Raat (night) remains one of the key metaphors in the book and Najm’s poetry. Ajj di raat, bass ajj di raat, mainu hor jeeoN day/ Aj di raat, bass raat raat lai, roh tay buutt ik thaa(n) ni, tu picchlay laikhay mairay naal mukaa lay. This legendary line, I kept singing: Jiss vailay Raat aaway gi asseen ghar nahi hona.
Lal Singh Dil, Selected Poems: Exclusion, Deprivation and Nothingness was another fascinating read of the year. Poet Lal Sing Dil (1943-2007) was born near Samrala (Ludhiana) in the Ramdasia Chamar family, who were tanners, also referred to as dalits. Dil, as part of the East Punjab’s Naxalite movement of the late 1960s, was captured, imprisoned and tortured for several years, abandoned by all, including the Communist Party and his high-caste Naxalite comrades. Translator TC Ghai taught English language and literature at the University of Delhi. The most striking feature of these translations is the manner in which Ghai was able to capture the soft and delicate voice of a revolutionary poet who always remained a lover at heart; who, till his death and even while working as a tea vendor during his last days, proudly referred to himself as a Naxalvadi poet. Here is a three-line poem from the book that created a hole in my soul, translated as A Thought: Those moments were dry/ When I mistook your rich moist hair / for salvation.
The writer is a Dublin-based Punjabi poet
The chief reading delight came at the end of the year when I alighted upon Andrea Wulf’s Magnificent Rebel in London Review Bookshop. The book focuses on the lives of great German thinkers, writers, playwrights and philosophers who came together in the German town of Jena in 1790. The group, which included who is who in German literature – Goethe, Schiller, Fichte, Schelling, Novalis, Hegel and Schlegel and Humboldt, brothers – founded what came to be called the romantic movement. Andrea carries heavy and complex ideas in simple, graceful and supple prose. A pure delight and highly recommended.
History-Making: The Storytellers Who Shaped the Past by Richard Cohen is a massive and erudite work that traces the history of history writing and the storytellers who wrote the world for us. Starting from Thucydides down to the present, Richard casts an expansive look at the historical epochs and their chroniclers and takes us through the gallery of politicians, novelists, biographers and professional historians who have handed down to us history and the art and craft of narrative history in various forms. The cast of characters spans centuries, regions and genres. You can pick up the book and find writers of your choice in there: from Gibbon to Hobsbawm, from Chinese women historian Ban Zhao to Mary Beard and black writers from Frederick Douglass to Manning Marable. There is a chapter on Muslim historians and Muslim views of history as well. Isaac Deutscher’s long out-of-print classic Stalin: A Political Biography not onlyhelped me understand what Stalinism is but also figure out the roots of the current Russian incursion in Ukraine.
JM Coetzee’s Inner Workings: Literary Essays 2000-2005 showcases his wide-ranging interest in literature from all parts of the world. The book is a compilation of his essays published in various literary magazines over the years. A fund of knowledge about important writers such as Joseph Roth, Robert Walser, Italo Svevo, not familiar names in our part of the world. Prof Priyamvada Gopal’s Insurgent Empire is an erudite tome on how anticolonial movements in Africa and Asia shaped similar initiatives in Britain in a process that Priya calls ‘reverse tutelage’. Her book is a work of great depth and scholarship. Other than these, I reread collected editorials of IH Burney and Mazhar Ali Khan – two top journalists and editors – for a fresh view on Pakistan’s mournful state of affairs and to trace trajectories to our current maladies.
The writer is a medical doctor and consultant in public health and public policy. His collection of essays Thinkers, Dreamers and Doers came out in 2021
This year my reading was interrupted by my duties as chair of the Forward Prizes for poetry. I didn’t read as much as I normally do, but I did read a lot of poetry. Rifqa by Mohammed el Kurd was one of my favourites, as was Pilgrim Bell by Kaveh Akbar. O by Zeina Hashem Beck wasn’t part of my judge duties, but I really liked that collection too. The truth is, I didn’t love a lot of books this year. I know everyone read Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason and loved it, I will add my name to the list. It made me laugh and in a year when I struggled to read, I didn’t struggle with this one.
The writer is a novelist whose published works include New Kings of the World: Dispatches from Bollywood, Dizi, and K-Pop (2019) and The Runaways (2018)
My 2022 in books was a delicious mix of fiction, non-fiction and poetry.
I began the year with the fine debut poetry collection by Sayan Aich Bhowmik, I Will Come With A Lighthouse (Hawakal Publishers). The verses in this collection carry many kinds of weights – personal, political and generational. The political poems are derived from the severe traumas and fissures the Indian subcontinent has experienced in its relatively young postcolonial life. Bhowmik’s poetic landscape traverses through Dhaka, Kashmir and Lahore with a keen pathos even as it evokes the legacy of its iconic poets like Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Agha Shahid Ali.
I learned about Of Dry Tongues and Brave Hearts, edited by Semeen Ali & Reema Ahmad (Red River) – an anthology of women’s writing through social media posts – by some of the writers whose work it features. Intrigued, I wanted to read more, and this substantial volume didn’t disappoint me. Packed with poetry, short stories, creative non-fiction, artwork and photographs by women of different ages and from diverse backgrounds, Of Dry Tongues and Brave Hearts is a truly bold testament to the different ways in which women negotiate the world around and about how they learn to not merely survive in difficult environments but to ultimately transform and transcend them.
As someone born and raised in Delhi, I was naturally drawn to Delhi in Thy Name by Adrija Roy-Chowdhury (Rupa Publications), which seeks to investigate the legends and histories behind the names of some of the city’s streets and localities. Roy-Chowdhury blends history, architecture, fables, literature and oral accounts to create engaging narrative braids as she takes readers through places and their etymologies. As Roy-Chowdhury shows us, in its name, a place can contain centuries’ worth of history, unshakable nostalgia, the pain of displacement and its concomitant remedy of clinging to memory, religious identity and social stratification.
In this evocatively titled poetry collection, Evening with a Sufi, Afsar Mohammed (Red River) weaves together nostalgia, resistance and the liberating force of Sufi philosophy to create finely-chiselled poetry. His economy of expression, questing spirit and open-ended expressions are a treat for poetry lovers. Using a delicious mix of flavours – from the local, the religious to the Diasporic, Mohammad’s writing reflects his dual identities – as a Telugu poet and a world observer.
The last one is Delhi: A Soliloquy, M Mukundan; translated by Fathima EV and Nandakumar K (Eka). I’ll admit, I’m only about halfway through this bulky tome (it’s 537 pages) that won the JCB Prize for Literature in 2021. Another Delhi book, this time a fictional account written in the bildungsroman style by M Mukundan, this novel spans several decades of the Indian capital’s post-independent history. What is unique, however, is the perspective – that of a Malayalee, part of the city’s minority South Indian community – living in Delhi. Mukundan’s prose is lucid yet deeply sensitive. Reading this book is like travelling back in time to the city of my birth, a city as mired in political upheavals as it is soaked in history and culture.
The writer’s published works include Victory Colony, 1950, and My Days with Ramkinkar Baij – her first translation from the Bengali into English. Visit her at https://bhaswatighosh.com/
This was the year that I discovered translations. Not popular ones, but little heard voices from lands far away. I discovered Olga Tokarczuk and her novel House of Day, House of Night, took me through post-war Poland, where I learned about communism and its aftermath. Books of Jacob was another of her novels that made me realise how similar totalitarian societies are, whether under dictatorship or communism and how we are all searching for a universal truth - a truth that doesn’t really exist except inside us.
Another book that made an impact on me was Chimamanda Adichie’s Notes on Grief. In the last two years, I dealt with unexpected loss, death and decay. Adichie’s writings about the demise of her father during lockdown helped me come to terms with my own loss. Adichie is at her vulnerable best in this slim volume as she taps into those very basic emotions that make us all human.
Lastly, this year, after two years of lockdown, I felt a need to reconnect with nature. And Sumana Roy’s How I became a Tree was a beautiful read that made me reflect on the beauty of our environment and how urgent it is that we pay attention to our dying planet.
The writer is the author of Hijabistan (Harper Collins: 2019), Nobody Killed Her (Harper Collins: 2017) and the upcoming Ways of Being - an anthology of Pakistani Women's Creative Non-Fiction (Women Unlimited: 2023)
I begin every year with the solemn pledge that I will read solely for pleasure. As in previous years, I didn’t keep this promise in 2022 and mostly read books with the hawk-eyed sensibilities of a critic. Even so, some of the books I wrote about over the course of the year led me to understand the complexities of grief.
I revisited Sara Suleri Goodyear’s Boys Will Be Boys after many years to explore the motif of loss that runs deep within the author’s memoir. My quest for narratives that tackled the ambiguities of the grieving process steered me towards Japanese novelist Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen. Translated into English by Megan Backus, the novel features Mikage Sakurai, who discovers culinary talent and the vague possibility of love as successive tragedies threaten to decimate her inner peace.
Akwaeke Emezi’s You Made a Fool of Death with Your Beauty used the refreshing fluidity of the romance novel to explore the importance of moving on from a painful past. A powerful meditation on mortality, love and the pursuit of happiness, Emezi’s novel stood out even though it recycled several tropes used by romance writers. It was equally intriguing to see how Katie Gutierrez’s More Than You’ll Ever Know used grief as the starting point for a tale about bigamy, murder and the intricate process of documenting the past.
My preoccupation with novels that explored loss also influenced the non-fiction I was drawn towards. For instance, Vazira Zamindar and Asad Ali’s Love, War and Other Longings: Essays on Cinema in Pakistan caught my attention as it examined another kind of death that is believed to have fractured the country’s cinema industry. The essays in Love, War and Other Longings move beyond the narrow assumptions of Pakistani cinema’s ‘death’ and ‘revival’ to assess its socio-cultural relevance.
Apart from that, Hima Raza’s Left-Hand-Speak and Rakhshanda Jalil’s Release and Other Stories remained constant literary companions. In May, I had the pleasure of reading Aamer Hussein’s House of Treasures: Perspectives on Urdu Literature in manuscript form, a compilation of essays that reflect his abiding love for his mother tongue.
The writer is the author of Typically Tanya (2018) and No Funeral for Nazia (2023, forthcoming)
Above us the Milky Way: An Illuminated Alphabet by Fowzia Karimi (published by Deep Vellum). Memory that haunts, returning again and again. Each time a little differently, piercing the dark, sometimes illuminating it, other times seeking refuge. Almost like a piece of music seeking the next note without missing a beat, always terrified of losing its way. The thought of the ‘wrong’ note is unbearable. In the absence of light how may a shadow speak? Above us the Milky Way is most of all a journey. As the author herself begins, “Where memory is housed and where it is experienced are two distinct paces in the mind”. Digging. Reconstructing images from the past. Not just any past. Hers. Probing. Cautiously. Layer after layer. Fragile with the dust of memories.
Threadless spiders, shadows of their weaving selves, crawl out of their crannies, hoping for a sign of recognition. Ever hear the crunch of a spider carcass beneath the feet of groping thoughts? Out of chronology, out of time, sometimes dramatised – as in approaching an unscripted improvisation from the viewpoint of memory; exaggerated at times and at others, heightened by rapidly ageing shadows. In awe, in wonder, even in delight. And most of all, the palpable vulnerability of an opening night. The author again: “Onto the softly lit stage they step… a set of letters that combine endlessly to form words on the page . . .” A novel structured like an alphabet beautifully, even poignantly, illustrated about war-torn Afghanistan. A work of resilience.
Neha Sinha’s Wild and the Wilful. A book about wild animals? Yes. About the blindfolds that make us forget that we rent our time on earth, not own it. About loss. About nature and love and that which is vulnerable. About the lack of compassion. A set of parables disguised as essays that combine grief and irony and the wilful single-minded longing to destroy an entire ecosystem that nurtures, sustains, and rejuvenates mankind. If only. A book that celebrates life alongside the love of nature, animals, birds environment without once stepping into a didactic or hectoring mode. Direct intuitive, and full of affection for birds and snakes and elephants and leopards – an entire species that reminds us time and time again to learn in harmony. One more thing: Sinha also questions and takes on policies that aid and abet this path to a terrifying future.
The writer is a poet, photographer and publisher (Seagull Books). His book of poems, Knotted Grief, will soon be available in Pakistan (published by Zuka Books)
I’ve been on a noir and espionage binge lately. Working my way through Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, John Le Carre and others, I stumbled upon Dorothy B Hughes’s excellent In a Lonely Place – a feminist subversion of hardboiled noir with a clever, precocious take on toxic masculinity set in 1940s LA. The hardboiled genre, with its machismo rough-men and cynical detectives and the binary of helpless female and femme fatale is subverted in Hughes’s hands into the enthralling tale of a serial killer’s mind as it falls apart at the seams. Without giving essentials away, I will call it one of the best portraits of psychopathy and toxic masculinity I’ve read in a long time.
The second book is Yasmine Seale’s The Annotated Arabian Nights. Since working on an Arabian Nights retelling a couple of years ago, I’ve been obsessed with Nights scholarship and literature. I possess various editions and translations of the Nights and this rendition with Yasmine Seale’s poetic, feminist essays and translation of tales from The Thousand and One Nights was just the right one for me to breeze through earlier this year. To my delight, the book is illustrated with paintings by various Victorian and modern artists and includes commentaries on the history and scholarship of the Nights. I highly recommend this to any lover of critical literature, poetry, or folklore.
The writer is the author of Midnight Doorways: Fables from Pakistan (2021, Kitab) and the first Pakistani to win the Bram Stoker Award for Short Fiction.
Midnight’s Borders: A People’s History of Modern India by Suchitra Vijayan (Melville House, London, 2021). When Suchitra Vijayan embarked on a nine thousand mile journey along India’s borders, traversing six countries made, unmade and erased by the coloniser’s maps, she uncovered the world’s biggest crisis of statelessness. From Myanmar to Bangladesh, from Pakistan to Nepal, from Kashmir to Nagaland, she met people “so used to fear, we think it is normal,” map makers like Ishmael who would die with notebooks full of news clippings, boys playing cricket in no-man’s land and villages that “violence had rendered incomprehensible.” The brutal legacy of colonisation, Vijayan proposes, has, among other things, also led to the phenomenon of Modi, India’s “own democratically elected dictator.” I was gutted, enlightened and devastated by this meticulous and passionate work of history and recommend it to all those who still struggle to make sense of borders, migration and nation-making.
The Woman Who Read Too Much by Bahiyyih Nakhjavani (Redwood Press, California, 2015). I came late to this work of historical fiction, covering the Qajar dynasty in Iran in the mid-1800s, and spotlighting the real-life poetess of Qazvin, Tahirih Qurratul Ayn, who paid with her life for the sin of removing her hijab. It felt cruelly pertinent to read this in the same year as the murder of Mahsa Amini in Iran and reflect on what, if anything, has changed in more than 150 years. Nakhjavani resurrects the lives of daughters, sisters and mothers in a violently quasi-religious and patriarchal world. She asks us to consider Tahirih as a paradox whose struggles would be familiar to modern readers. Tahirih’s attempts to push back against religious absolutism and prejudice may be interpreted as both heroic and foolhardy. In Nakhjavani’s retelling, Tahirih’s perceived heresy has echoes in today’s Iran where women, scholars, Bahais, dissidents, writers and poets are routinely harassed, locked up and killed. A beautiful, poetic, unconventional novel that I loved.
The writer is an Indian-born writer living in Boorloo/Perth in Western Australia. She writes both fiction and non-fiction, as well as essays, book reviews and poetry.
Besides getting us light, books are the most authentic source of courage to bear and do away with the darkness our psychic and social worlds are overwhelmed with. Among scores of books I read in 2022, Shaikh Ayaz’s autobiography Kahin bhi rah men manzil na ho gi (A path without destination) merits particular mention. It narrates candidly the convoluted intellectual journey of a distinguished modern Sindhi poet whose books were banned and who had to suffer imprisonment. His ‘crime’ was opting for his mother tongue for his literary expression and subverting the language and logic of the ‘centre’.
Another book I liked was Phirta hae falak barson (The sky goes round for years), pen portraits by Asghar Nadeem Sayyed. Written boldly, these sketches reveal many untold segments of the personal, social and literary life of Niaz Ahmad (founder of Sang-e-meel), Gopi Chand Narang, Kishwar Naheed, Masood Ashar, Shamim Hanfi, Zahid Dar and others.
Though Muhammad Hameed Shahid’s Matti Adam Khati Hae (The clay eats men away) was first published in 2004, its new edition was released a few weeks ago. Written in the backdrop of the fall of Dhaka, it seeks to interrogate and contest the dominant state narrative about this tragedy by employing an ironical style, and an allegorical technique of compiling and deciphering a manuscript found incidentally from debris.
Aurangzeb Niazi’s Urdu Adab: Maholiyati Tanzur (Eco critical perspective of Urdu literature) deserves special mention for the author’s critical acumen to analyse chequered tradition of classical and modern Urdu literature in the context of eco-criticism. This book makes the reader realise that our survival on this planet has become subject to getting rid of the hubris that stems from anthropocentrism and adopting a humble, empathetic attitude towards the Earth and all its creatures. Arts and literature can play a significant role in this regard.
Khurram Shehzad’s first book of criticism Yak Darida ka Tehrir Asas Falsafa (Logo centric philosophy of Jacques Derrida), is worth mentioning. It is the first-ever full-fledged book in Urdu on the most challenging philosopher–critic.
Azar Nafeesi’s Read Dangerously kept resonating for a long time. It consists of seven letters about writers addressed to the author’s father. It proposes that reading a literary text is not an innocent activity. Best literary pieces question the legitimacy of the power that seeks to delimit humans’ thinking and imagining. By highlighting and underscoring these questions and their power of subversion, our readings become ‘dangerous’, stirring distress among the powers that be.
Zoltan Kovecses’ Metaphor and Emotion enlightened me about how we have produced multiple words, phrases, styles and metaphors to convey our complex, multi-layered emotions. Studying centuries-old efforts to create linguistic equivalents of emotions was interesting and inspiring.
Reading the new edition of the first volume of Dastan-e-Tilism-e-Hoshruba, a great book of fantasy created by Indo-Islamic imagination, was sheer joy and a journey into an inimitable imaginary world full of suspense, drama and stunning magic. Annotated by a glossary and translation of Persian poetry, it is now more accessible to a broader audience.
As for books of poetry, reading Ahmad Jahangir’s debut Shah Darya and Zahid Imroz’s Jalay Howay Asman kay Parinday was a real treat.
The writer is a Lahore-based critic whose new book, Naiy Naqqad Kay Naam Khatoot, is coming soon
My reading this year falls into three broad categories, indeed, it has always since I joined the academia in 1985. First, the books, articles, reports and archival material I read for my ongoing research project; second, books read in order to write reviews about them; and third, books read for fun and intellectual curiosity. So, since this was the year in which I was writing a commentary on the Diwan-i-Ghalib, I read many commentaries and other critical matter relating to it. I also read the poetic works of the classical ghazal poets of Urdu. I mention only two of about fifty books on the subjects, not to mention research articles. First, Shamsur Rahman Faruqi’s Urdu commentary on some selected couplets of Ghalib entitled Tafhim-i-Ghalib (2005) and his daughter Mehr Afshan Farooqi’s book Ghalib: a Wilderness at My Door (2021).
Among the books I reviewed, the first is Muhammad Waseem’s magisterial study of Pakistan’s political system called Political Conflict in Pakistan. The second is Akbar Zaidi’s important study called Making a Muslim. It is based on unexplored archival sources in Urdu and sheds new light on the Muslim identity in India during colonial rule. The third is Ali Khan’s Cricket in Pakistan, which is the only social history of cricket and other games in Pakistan.
Books in the third category are too many to mention. Among the biographies and travelogues are the bureaucrat Jiwan Khan’s Jiwan Dhara, Shaukat Thanwi’s Kachcha Chattha (2 volumes) in Urdu and Sheela Reddy’s Mr and Mrs Jinnah in English. I was much impressed by the humility and the candour of both Jiwan Khan and Thanwi, as they are not afraid of writing negative things about themselves. As for Sheela Reddy, she sheds new light on Ruttie and Jinnah’s marriage. I read Sibtain Naqvi’s biography of Ishrat Husain, a study of a man who, rising out of the middle class, attains the highest honours in Pakistan and abroad because of his intelligence and hard work. I also read a travelogue titled The Silk Road and Beyond by Iftikhar Malik. The book, about the author's travels to the great Muslim cultural centres of the past, is an authorial device for narrating the histories of these centres.
To these, one may add the audiobooks I have heard at Librivox and other sources, but apart from the Bible and the Bhagwad Gita, I do not have space to mention them.
The writer is the author of several books, including Pakistan’s Wars: An Alternative History
2022 saw me read more poetry than usual. The three worth mentioning: Sohpia Naz’s hauntingly personal book Open Zero, reflecting on ambers and ashes, came to her after the fire in Northern California burnt down her home. Kazim Ali’s Secret Room is unlike anything I’ve read so far, a long poem mapping a musical piece, a quartet. Four narratives in the form of a score; four instruments representing four American characters, two men, two women, different ethnic and racial backgrounds. The experiment throws up a challenge with regards to reading strategy. It’s impossible to read four voices at the same time. Should one finish the four voices one by one on page 21 before moving on to the next or should one stay with one sound, then go back to restart with the second voice? Either way, it’s an uphill task receiving multiple interiorities as if listening to a quartet. Vivek Narayanan’s masterstroke After offers itself as a retelling, not strictly, of the poet Valmiki’s Ramayan. It’s post-modern, post-colonial and experimental; it writes back to the empire; it spits in the face of religious narrow-mindedness that sells single narrative doctrine; it’s irreverent, humorous and sarcastic, playful and angry at times. You cannot force your way through it.
In non-fiction, San Quinones’ The Least of Us adroitly fleshes out how Fentanyl and Meth bruised America. Lenin’s Introduction to Marx, Engels, Marxism should be read widely. Hannah Sward’s memoir Strip touched me with its rawness as she shares personal wounds caused by a fractured society. Sorayya Khan’s memoir We Take Our Cities With Us, in contrast, shows in its reserved tone that lives can be disrupted even when one is surrounded by family love.
Fiction-wise, I loved four novels in translation. The Hindi writer Geetanjali Shree’s Tomb of Sand, which I read in Hindi as well, mesmerised me with its style and scope. Two Japanese novels Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi and Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, and one Korean novel translated into English The Old Woman With the Knife by Pyŏng-mo Ku impressed me with their inventiveness. I found it hard to enjoy fiction written in English until I lay my hand on Uzma Aslam Khan’s The Miraculous True History of Nomi Ali, set in the infamous Kala Pani, a work of high-quality fiction, without pandering, nostalgia or neo-orientalism. I also enjoyed reading The Hottest Summer in Years and A Sense of Time and Other Stories by the prolific Anu Kumar. Bhaswati Ghosh’s Victory Colony 1950 is a good debut novel. Dawn Raffel’s Boundless as the Sky challenged me with its experimental quality as it probes its central character, Chicago, through known, unknown, real and fictional characters via a strategy of decentralisation. In Punjabi, Nain Sukh’s latest novel, Waba te Wasaib, wonderfully satirises Lahore’s various classes under Covid.
The writer’s most recent work is Cafe Le Whore and Other Stories. He blogs at moazzamsheikh.blogspot.com
In 2022, there were several fiction and non-fiction titles that have stayed with me. In particular, as I think more about how to write about violence in my own work, I have spent a lot of time engaging with and learning from Life and Words: Violence and Descent into the Ordinary by Veena Das. An exceptional ethnography, it explores the ways in which the violence of the partition of British India in 1947, as well as the massacre of Sikhs in 1984, seeps into and affects everyday life. A must-read for anyone interested in the language of violence and the relationship between violent “events” and the everyday. Another significant non-fiction title includes Dr Tariq Rahman’s Pakistan’s Wars: An Alternate History, which maps war patterns in Pakistan and convincingly shows us the cost and human dimension of conflict.
For fiction, I returned to Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart, which won the 2020 Booker Prize. A stunning novel, the book vividly depicts the impact of addiction on family, relationships, intimacy, parenthood and love. It is one of the most powerful novels I have read on how living with a loved one with mental health struggles shapes us. It is one of my favourite reads of all time. Another novel I have loved is Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet, a fresh and innovative take on Shakespeare’s Hamlet. What is perhaps most fascinating about this book is that the overarching presence of Shakespeare takes a backseat while those whose stories and characters have been absent or overlooked in history come to the fore. This a highly recommended historical fiction for readers and writers interested in innovative storytelling.
The writer is the author of 1971: A People’s History from Bangladesh, Pakistan and India (2019)