10 South Asian Books That Every Bookworm Should Read

In recent years, South Asia has pushed out some of the most talented writers who have delivered some spectacular work. Their award-winning books revolve around realistic, hard-hitting topics that deal with human conditions and address the plight of people living ordinary lives.

The landscapes are often exotic, but the plot is always ordinary with extraordinary characters woven into each story. Immerse yourself in ten of the best South Asian books to have come out of the continent in the recent years.

10. Malgudi Days, by R.K. Narayan

First Published: 1943

What It’s About:

A collection of 32 short stories, the story is set in the fictional town of Malgudi in Southern India. Each short story talks about a different aspect of Malgudi. Stories range from tales of the local postman with a heart of gold to an astrologer who doesn’t know about the stars at all.

Why You Should Read It:

The book is a great read because despite being set in a fictitious town, each of the stories is powerful and revealing. The collection of tales represent the eclectic mix of people in India and convey to readers the magic of human experience in this country. 

The author, R.K. Narayan once said that in India, ‘the writer has only to look out of the window to pick up a character and thereby a story’. This book represents these sentiments and is great to read if you want to get a realistic feel of the subcontinent.

Best Quote:

“This is my child. I planted it. I saw it grow. I loved it. Don’t cut it down…”

9. A Suitable Boy, by Vikram Seth

First Published: 1993

What It’s About:

The novel is set in 1950s India, a recently independent country still finding its feet. Lata and her mother Mrs. Rupa Mehra are searching for a suitable boy for Lata for an arranged marriage. The story deals with four large extended families, each as unique as the other, through their life over an 18-month period. Lata must choose from among 3 suitors: Karbir, Haresh and Amit. It is one of the longest novels in the English language.

Why You Should Read It:

The novel focuses on several important issues including the Hindu-Muslim strife that was and still is a part of the Indian subcontinent, the caste system and how certain lower castes face discrimination, and the abolition of the feudal system. The novel stands out not only for its length, but for its structure as well. It is divided into 19 parts, with each focusing on a different subtopic described in rhyming couplet form on the contents page. The novel won the Commonwealth writers prize.

Best Quote:

“God save us from people who mean well.”

8. Godan, by Munshi Premchand

First Published: 1936

What It’s About:

This novel is considered one of the greatest pieces of Hindustani literature in India. The story focuses on a poor peasant in rural India, Hori, who wishes to purchase a cow, something that millions of other peasants in the country want. How the peasant tries to pay for the cow while dealing with multiple problems that living in poverty brings is what makes this timeless story memorable.

Why You Should Read It:

Considered by many to be Premchand’s most accomplished work, Godan is an astonishingly realistic portrayal of life in rural India. Premchand was ahead of his time and wrote about life around him, especially focusing on the plight of the poorest strata of society. These people remain hopeful in the face of poverty, hunger and despair. Premchand’s work focuses on how religion, the feudal system and other factors affect people all over India. His themes are as relevant today as they were in 1936.

Best Quote:

“What the world calls sorrow is really joy to the poet.”

7. The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga

First Published: 2008

What It’s About:

A poor Indian villager, Balram Halwai, moves to the metropolis of Bangalore to make a better life for himself. He finds himself a job as a driver to a local wealthy family. The novel is the story of his experiences as a driver.

Why You Should Read It:

This was Aravind Adigas’s debut novel and won him the Man Booker prize, making him the second youngest winner of the award. It deals with themes related to globalization and its effect on people from various socioeconomic strata of the country. The White Tiger in the title refers to the East Asian symbol of power and also represents freedom and individualism. Because the protagonist managed to leave his poorer relatives and moved to the modern city, he is perceived as different from those he grew up with, someone who managed to escape poverty. Read this book to get an insight into a rapidly-changing country and the impact, both positive and negative, it’s having on people.

Best Quote:

“See, the poor dream all their lives of getting enough to eat and looking like the rich. And what do the rich dream of?? Losing weight and looking like the poor.”

6. The God Of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy

First Published: 1997

What It’s About:

The story focuses on fraternal twins, Esthappen and Rahel, who live in the Southern Indian state of Kerala. Their mother fled an abusive marriage and now they live with their blind grandmother and uncle. The novel follows the twins throughout their childhood experiences and focuses on how their lives are eventually destroyed by the rules laid down by society, which determines how people should behave and what happens when you don’t follow these rules.

Why You Should Read It:

This is Arundhati Roy’s debut novel and won her global accolades. It is a must-read for the themes it touches upon. The topics of social discrimination and segregation by class are highly relevant in India. The novel also deals with themes of post-colonialism and its effects on the various sects of the Indian population due to the role played by the British.

Best Quote:

“That’s what careless words do. They make people love you a little less.”

5. Chronicles Of A Corpse Bearer, by Cyrus Mistry

First Published: 2012

What It’s About:

The novel deals with the social segregation that Parsi corpse bearers face today in India. The story is set in Mumbai and revolves around the community of people who carry dead bodies to the Towers of Silence. They are shunned by society due to the nature of their job and due to the rampant social segregation that occurs in India because of the caste system.The son of a Parsi priest falls in love with the daughter of an aging corpse bearer, and what ensues forms the plot of this novel.

Why You Should Read It:

Based on a true story, the book highlights the plight of Parsi corpse bearers which is tragic. Even more fascinating is what happens when people don’t follow the rules that are predetermined for them by society from the day they are born. The novel is a must-read as it sheds light on a very small subsect of the Parsi community. The novel won Cyrus Mistry the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature.

Best Quote:

“Not a single concession was granted to us, even just to mollify or appease – except to proclaim that our grievances would definitely be looked into in greater detail.”

4. Anitya: Halfway to Nowhere, by Mridula Garg and Seema Segal

First Published: 2010

What It’s About:

One of the only books that focus on post-Independence India that has been written by women, Anitya focuses on two generations of a family living in India during and immediately after the Indian independence movement. The story deals with the psychological trauma faced by the individuals who were involved in the freedom struggle. It also focuses on the journey of the protagonist, portrayed as a weak man, as he descends into his own personal inferno caused by the scars left by the past.

Why You Should Read It:

An in-depth look at how India changed during the partition period and the Independence movement, Anitya is a must-read for anyone looking to get an insight into the South Asian culture. Anitya was translated into English by the granddaughter of Premchand, India’s foremost writer.

Best Quote:

“Ten steps forward…ten steps back. Forward…back again.”

3. The Space Between, Us by Thrity Umrigar

First Published: 2006

What It’s About:

The novel is set in modern-day India and deals with two main characters. One is Sera Dubash, an upper-middle-class wealthy Parsi housewife stuck in an abusive marriage, and the other is Bhima, a lower class illiterate worker who works for the Dubash family and leads a life of despair and loss. She has worked with the family for over twenty years.

Why You Should Read It:

The novel explores the role of the caste system and more specifically the role of women in each of the castes. Despite coming from different castes and economic conditions, both the main characters have much in common. The story deals with poverty, gender roles, education, and family in Indian society. Even though they’re living parallel lives, both women are intrinsically connected through their circumstances and the fact that they witness each other’s plight.

Best Quote:

“And so I have to live. Because we live for more than just ourselves, Most of the time we live for others, keep putting one foot before the other, left and right, left and right, so that walking becomes a habit, just like breathing. In and out, left and right.”

2. The Glass Palace, by Amitav Ghosh

First Published: 2000

What It’s About:

The novel is set in Burma during the British invasion of 1885 and the protagonist is Rajkumar, a poor boy who fights all odds to create an empire in the forests of Burma. During the invasion, the royal family of Burma is forced out of their glass palace. Rajkumar befriends a young woman, Dolly, who is from the court of the Burmese queen. Rajkumar falls in love with Dolly and is unable to forget her for years. When he is a rich man several years later, he goes in search of Dolly.

Why You Should Read It:

Amitav Ghosh is considered one of South Asia’s best writers. His novel is great to read because through its plot, it discusses the struggles that have shaped India, Burma and Malaya into the way they are today. Read it for the in-depth research that Ghosh undertook over a five-year period to get a deep understanding of the local cultures.The novel explores themes related to war, colonialism, race relations, and exploitation of the subjugated.

Best Quote:

“To use the past to justify the present is bad enough—but it’s just as bad to use the present to justify the past.”

1. The Namesake, by Jhumpa Lahiri

First Published: 2003

What It’s About:

The novel follows the Ganguli family from Calcutta, where they live a traditional Bengali middle class life and follows them as they move to America after an arranged marriage. The couple has to adjust to life in a foreign country as they settle in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The husband is able to adapt more easily to American life than his wife. After they have a son, the story follows him as a first-generation immigrant and captures his experiences as he learns more about his past and how it blends with his present.

Why You Should Read It:

Jhumpa Lahiri’s debut novel is one of the select few to have won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. The Namesake explores themes of immigrants, clashing cultures in a foreign land, tradition, and our relationship with our parents and ourselves. This is a must-read novel for anyone trying to cover the most accomplished contemporary South Asian authors.

Best Quote:

“You are still young, free.. Do yourself a favor. Before it’s too late, without thinking too much about it first, pack a pillow and a blanket and see as much of the world as you can. You will not regret it. One day it will be too late.”

Conclusion

These 10 novels are written by some of South Asia’s most prominent writers who deal with themes that are relevant in everyday life.

Whether you want to learn more about the people and life of South Asia or simply want to read something with an South Asian background, each of these ten books is indispensable for a fan of South Asian literature.

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