Another year of books and borders

January 5, 2020

A quick glance at books to look forward to from Pakistani and Indian authors in 2020

(Clockwise) Osman Haneef, Savi Sharma Bagrecha, Aamer Hussein and Anam Zakaria.

The year 2019 was a time of uncertain optimism for the publishing and bookselling sectors in Pakistan and India. A series of political events disturbed the precarious equilibrium in Pakistan-India relations. Trade screeched to a grinding halt as both countries engaged in brinkmanship after the unilateral annexation of Indian Occupied Kashmir.

The resulting ban on book imports in Pakistan came as a source of discouragement for Pakistani authors who had recently been published across the border. Conversely, Indian publishers hobbled under the combined impact of an economic slowdown, import duties, taxes and demonetisation policies. Though Indian publishers have remained optimistic about this year’s innings, few can deny that the previous year brought its fair share of challenges.

Despite all the doom and gloom brought on by the import ban, new and original literary voices have emerged in Pakistan. In a similar vein, non-fiction books, translations and a cluster of successful debuts have gained currency in the Indian market.

Can we expect a similar trend in 2020? A quick glance at the catalogues of some Indian and Pakistani publishers reveals that a diverse menu of fiction and non-fiction books is expected from Indian and Pakistan authors.

Over the years, sociopolitical realities appear to be the driving force behind a vast corpus of Pakistan fiction. In early 2020, a debut novel is expected from Osman Haneef. It explores the futile search for social justice in a country where innocent people face the guillotine. The novel revolves around a Pakistani lawyer’s quest to defend a Christian boy who has been falsely accused of blasphemy. With a topical premise and a synopsis that instantly reminds readers of Harper Lee’s unforgettable novel To Kill a Mockingbird, Haneef’s debut may be a book to watch for in 2020.

The new year also heralds the promise of another literary offering from Pakistani short story writer Aamer Hussein. The acclaimed author is widely known for his short story collections, a novella that was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize and a novel titled The Cloud Messenger. In January 2020, Hussein will release a collection of his Urdu stories titled Zindagi se Pehle. Printed by the independent publishing house Ushba, this collection includes Hussein’s original Urdu stories as well as some of his English stories that have been translated by Shahbano Alvi, Fahmida Riaz and Asif Farrukhi. For readers who have been enthralled by the author’s previous work, Zindagi se Pehle will come across as welcome proof of Hussein’s mastery over the short story form.

It remains to be seen if the ban on book imports in Pakistan will be lifted and we’ll get to read books published in India – including those by our own authors – in the not-so-distant future.

Though it was published in December 2019, Anam Zakaria’s third book titled 1971: A People’s History from Bangladesh, Pakistan and India is likely to make ripples in 2020. In her new book, Zakaria examines how memory and the art of forgetting have determined the ways in which various communities and generations have interpreted the civil war that led to the creation of Bangladesh. 1971 promises to critically examine state narratives through personal accounts, interviews and analyses. 13-year-old Mahnaz Mir’s mystery thriller will be published by Rupa Publications in India this spring. It will hopefully add a fresh dimension to Pakistan’s young-adult genre.

Sara Naveed – the author of Undying Affinity, Our Story Ends Here and All of My Heart – is slated to release a new novel on Valentine’s Day. The World Between Us, Naveed’s fourth novel, has been touted as an “office romance” that will intrigue readers.

In India, Nitasha Kaul’s novel Future Tense will be published in January 2020. The novel paints an intimate portrait of Kashmir and “traces… the possibility of bridging the stories of different kinds of Kashmiris”.

Like Narcopolis, Jeet Thayil’s new novel Low is also set in Bombay. The novel promises “joyrides, misadventures and epiphanies” and will surely put the DSC Prize-winning author’s many talents on display. Slated for a January release, Aruni Kashyap’s How to Tell the Story of an Insurgency uses the separatist movements in Assam as its backdrop. Through a string of 15 stories, the author depicts the lives of characters who are embroiled in a war that is being fought on the margins in India. Each story seeks to add a human dimension to a conflict that is frequently reported in the media but is seldom witnessed at close quarters. With its unique premise, the novel is bound to draw critical attention.

Namita Gokhale’s Jaipur Journals has been billed as a “light-footed romp” that is set against the backdrop of the Jaipur Literature Festival. With its satirical musings on the pretences and insecurities of writers, Gokhale’s new novel offers an intimate glimpse into one of India’s most prestigious literary extravaganzas. We can only hope that this novel is fuelled by the same verve and wit that inspired Gokhale’s previous novels, especially Paro: Dreams of Passion.

Screenwriter S Hareesh’s contemporary classic Moustache was originally published in Malayalam as Meesha and has been translated into English by Jayasree Kalathil – who previously translated N Prabhakaran’s short fiction into English. The novel will be released on January 31 in India and merges “magic, myth and metaphor” into a story of epic proportions.

Savi Sharma Bagrecha’s new novel Stories We Never Tell is likely to generate considerable interest among readers who are drawn towards commercial fiction. Bagrecha’s previous novels Everyone Has a Story-2 and This Is Not Your Story were bestsellers. Her work is avowedly based on real-life incidents and explores the complex themes of love, hope and friendship. In the past, readers have been drawn towards the author’s work because it is imbued with optimism and inspires joy. If Stories We Never Tell contains the same ingredients that made its predecessors a roaring success, it might win her the hearts of even more Indian readers. Columnist and prolific writer Shobhaa De’s Srilaaji: Diary of a Marwari Dowager is also expected this year. The novel will bring to life the story of a Marwari woman.

As we embrace the challenges that await us in 2020, we can safely assume that there will be a whole spectrum of books from Indian and Pakistani authors to entertain us and pull us out of the occasional reading slumps. However, it remains to be seen if the ban on book imports in Pakistan will be lifted and we’ll get to read books published in India – including those by our own authors – in the not-so-distant future. At this critical juncture, we can only be guided by a vague optimism that carried us during the political upheavals we saw last year.

The writer is freelance journalist and author of Typically Tanya

Highly-anticipated books by Pakistani, Indian authors in 2020