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home  > books & movies > fiction book reviews

Books : fiction

Quick reviews of some of India's literature and novels we have come across, with Indian or South Asian themes or those by Indian authors. We have read the books listed; therefore these reviews are purely personal opinions and not sourced from elsewhere.
We also have reviews of non-fiction books.
Recently added entries will be marked with [NEW] for about a month.

 

The god of small things
by Arundhaty Roy
full review...

  A suitable boy
by Vikram Seth
full review...

After 50 years
by PV Dhamija
full review...

  Azadi
by Chaman Nahal
full review...

Train to Pakistan
by Khushwant Singh
full review...

  I shall not hear the nightingale
by Khushwant Singh
full review...

A married woman
by Manju Kapur
full review...

  A Himalayan Love Story
by Namita Gokhale
full review...

The Sari shop
by Rupa Bajwa
full review...

  Baumgartner's Bombay
by Anita Desai
full review...

Life of Pi
by Yann Martel
full review...

  Are you experienced?
by William Sutcliffe
full review...

The inscrutable Americans
by Mathur Anurag
full review...

  Just the facts, Madamji
by Sharmila Kantha
full review...

Coolie
by Mulk Raj Anand
full review...

  A handful of rice
by Kamala Markandaya
full review...

Swami and his friends
by R.K. Narayan
full review...

  A passage to India
by EM Forster
full review...

 

The god of small things

Author: Arundhaty Roy (1997)
ISBN: 0-00-655068-1

This winning title in the 1997 Booker Prize is a superb novel set in Kerala in the late 1960s. The story of the twins Rahel and Estha and their family is told from a child's perspective, flitting back and forth from past to present. A multitude of different plots, the restrictions of Indian family life, the breaking of social taboos and the local politics of the time are interwoven in a superb way, bringing tropical South India to life. A story told in a beautifully poetic style, melancholy and nostalgic, but equally with humour and magic intensity. An excellent read - highly recommended.

Kirsten, November 2005

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A suitable boy

Author: Vikram Seth
ISBN: 1857990889

This weighty 1300 tome by Vikram Seth is a well and truly pukka family saga. Set in the late 1950s this lavish novel follows the life of members of four inter-linked families. It tells the story of teenager Lata, who falls in love with an unsuitable boy, and her mother who tries to find a suitable husband for her daughter. Rich in detail and with brilliant characterisation of heroes and anti-heroes, the novel touches on social taboos and prejudices, all depicted against the background of political upheavals in India at the time. It's a book you want to read when you have lots of time to spare as it is difficult to put down. Gripping, absorbing, wonderful; a book you don't want to finish.

Kirsten, November 2005

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After 50 years

Author: PV Dhamija (2002)
ISBN: 81-7708-018-0

A political novel following India from Independence till today. Told from the perspective of a honest teacher who gets embroiled in politics, PV Dhamija highlights the machinations of corrupt and self-serving Indian politicians. Although classified as a novel, the authentic nature of the scams, descriptions of political leaders and scenarios of election fraud resemble very much the reality of modern Indian politics. Written in a dry and sober style, the main players lack the bite and depth of character to make this a "must read"; that said it's a good enough book with a great idea behind it.

Kirsten, September 2005

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Azadi

Author: Chaman Nahal (1975)
ISBN: 0865781117

Chaman Nahal's "Azadi" (meaning independence) starts out in the bazaar lanes of Sialkot, now in modern day Pakistan, with a vibrant community of Muslim and Hindu families. The narrative brings to light the enormity of political decisions at the time of independence and partition and the subsequent human tragedy of slaughter and destruction. With the main focus on one Hindu family, it describes the break up of communities, loss of life and material wealth and the despair suffered by so many people which eventually leads to the mass exodus from one new emerging country to the other, from Pakistan to India and vice versa, based on the religion of the refugee. Extremely moving and brilliantly written with a very human touch, this is the best novel I have read on the tragedy of Partition.

Kirsten, November 2005

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Train to Pakistan

Author: Khushwant Singh (1956)
ISBN: 0-86131-985-0

This classic novel about Partition by the famous Sikh writer, journalist, former MP and National Treasure Kushwant Singh is set in a small village near the Indo-Pak border, in which Sikhs and Muslims have lived together peacefully side by side for centuries. However, tragic events in the summer of 1947, like the arrival of a train filled with dead Muslims, get the better of the decency of the community. Singh's simple and concise style of narrative emphasise the starkness and futility of the bloodbaths and inhumanity. Only seen from the perspective of a tiny spot in the country this story exemplifies the tragedy and suffering of millions of people after Independence. A short but great book.

Kirsten, November 2005

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I shall not hear the nightingale

Author: Khushwant Singh
ISBN: 8175300167

Based in Amritsar in the last years before Independence, this novel depicts the schism of allegiances within a Sikh family. Buta Singh, the head of the family, is a loyal servant of the British Raj, while his idealist son Sher Singh opposes the colonial power as a student leader. A story of blackmail, love, family bonds and conflicting loyalties. Not as impressive as Singh's "Train to Pakistan", but still a good read.

Kirsten, September 2005

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A married woman

Author: Manju Kapur (2003)
ISBN: 0-571-21567-X

Set in Delhi against the political and social backlash from the Ayodhya Babri Masjid debacle, this novel tells the story of Astha, a married middle class woman, who becomes increasingly dissatisfied with the traditional role of the dutiful wife and mother. The start of a relationship with another woman results in lies and friction within the family. A well written novel with a compelling story line; an excellent read.

Kirsten, September 2005

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A Himalayan Love Story

Author: Namita Gokhale (1996)
ISBN: 0-14-302872-3

This novel trails the lives of Parvati and Mukul, both of whom grow up together in the Himalayan town of Nainital. One becomes trapped in an unhappy arranged marriage and finally ends up in a mental asylum, while the other flees the restrictive and conservative hill tribes to live in Hong Kong, returning in middle age to fulfil the last wishes of his former teacher, and to search for an unrequited teenage love. A wistful tale, beautifully written.

Kirsten, September 2005

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The Sari shop

Author: Rupa Bajwa (2004)
ISBN: 0-141-01561-6

Conjuring up the lively atmosphere of the bazaar lanes in Amritsar's old city, the story of Ramchand, an assistant in a Sari Shop, describes his attempts to escape everyday drudgery. Observing the rich and well educated who frequent the Sari Shop, Ramchand decides to better himself by learning English - an ultimately futile exercise that fails to fulfil his aspirations. A sharp-witted and hilarious story with a stark and depressing edge. Definitely recommended.

Kirsten, September 2005

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Baumgartner's Bombay

Author: Anita Desai (1988)
ISBN: 0140114742

Anita Desai's novel tells the story of a German Jew who flees the Holocaust to spend the rest of his life in India, mainly Bombay. He is moderately happy with tending to numerous stray cats - in a kind of fatalistic way - till he meets a drug-addicted, blond German hippie tourist, who brings up memories of the past. A sad novel, following the life of a man whose fate slips beyond his control; first losing his national identity, then his wealth and his freedom by being incarcerated as a POW - ironically for being a German - and finally, from the outsider's perspective, who loses his human dignity. A very human story and an okay read, although the author plays a bit too much on the stereotype that backpacking tourists are nasty drug addicted scum of the earth.

Kirsten, November 2005

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Life of Pi

Author: Yann Martel (2002)
ISBN: 184195392X

The Booker Prize winning "Life of Pi" is a highly imaginative tale about the boy Pi, a practising Hindu, Christian and Muslim, who was brought up in the lively surroundings of a zoo in Pondicherry. After the ship, which is supposed to bring him, his family and their zoo animals to Canada, sinks, he has to survive several months on a life boat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean - with various of the saved animals on board, including a Royal Bengal Tiger called Richard Parker. The story has a very surreal character, depicting the survival of the fittest in quite brutal detail. Besides the story line itself, the novel is supposed to be of a philosophical nature as well, pondering on the nature of truth and existence of God, although I thought it was a little shallow for such grandiose claims. Not great, but nonetheless an enjoyable read.

Kirsten, November 2005

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Are you experienced?

Author: William Sutcliffe (1997)
ISBN: 0-14-027265-8

This incredibly funny satire has become a cult-classic amongst backpackers in India. Sutcliffe leaves no stone unturned to make fun of the traveller scene in India; all the funnier as the protagonist's encounters with pretentious hippies, all-knowing gap year students and bindi-studded seekers of spiritual truth and enlightenment ring so true. There are multifarious reasons to come to - and for some, to endure - India; be it to "find your tantric centre" or, as in the case of Dave, the "hero", to get into the knickers of his best mate's girlfriend. This short book will have you in stitches, absolutely hilarious and brilliant entertainment.

Kirsten, November 2005

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The inscrutable Americans

Author: Mathur Anurag (1991)
ISBN: 8171670407

An extremely funny and readable novel about an Indian boy sent by his family to study chemical engineering in America, where he ends up staying with a truly dysfunctional American family. Inevitably, utter incomprehension and cultural clashes follow. Gopal, the naive and innocent main character, takes the US and its inhabitants at face value, brilliantly displayed in the letters he writes to his younger brother. Drawing heavily on stereotypes both of Indians and Americans, this book is an odyssey of gleefully described comical misunderstandings. A book which will you have you laughing out loud. Highly enjoyable.

Kirsten, November 2005

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Just the facts, Madamji

Author: Sharmila Kantha (2002)
ISBN: 8187981342

Ramji, bored with his stagnant accounting job at the dusty branch of a bank, pulls a sickie and takes on his first assignment as a freshly baked private detective. His client, the zealously middle class Mrs Kumar, is less interested in establishing the identity of her aunt-in-law's "murderer-shurderer" than in getting hold of the will of the deceased. Hysterically funny, great entertainment.

Kirsten, September 2005

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Coolie

Author: Mulk Raj Anand (1936)
ISBN: 0140186808

Mulk Raj Anand's novel, set and published in pre-independence India, tells the story of Munoo, an orphaned boy who has to leave his home village to fend for himself. In his struggle for survival as servant, factory worker, cotton-mill labourer and finally as rickshaw puller in Shimla he experiences exploitation, poverty and misery. The book in itself is a critique on the unfairness of the miserable destiny of the poor and the implicit participation of the British Raj in their suffering. Coolie is a novel about the fight for survival, told with sympathy but not with hypocritical pity. A moving story with a fittingly sad ending; well worth reading.

Kirsten, November 2005

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A handful of rice

Author: Kamala Markandaya (1966)
ISBN: 0450016625

Kamala Markandaya's novel tells the tale of Ravi, a peasant boy who flees the country for the big city hoping for a better life. It depicts the strains and psychological stresses of the Indian joint family as well as the temptation to sink into the life of the city's underworld and petty crimes. Through her fairly concise and prosaic style the author succeeds in portraying ordinary people in their average lives as very believable characters. A moving tale (which happens everyday to thousands of people) of morality, failed ambition, disappointment and suffering. Recommended.

Kirsten, November 2005

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Swami and his friends

Author: R.K. Narayan (1932)
ISBN: 0143335413

Written in 1932, but only published three years later, "Swami and his friends" is RK Narayan's first of his series of novels set in the small fictional town of Malgudi in South India. It tells about the small and ordinary boyhood adventures of the boy Swami. The author captures the ordinary lives and every day events of ordinary people in a typical Indian town in an amusing and enjoyable way. The Malgudi stories are written with humour and a very human touch. Just the type of book to curl up with on a rainy monsoon day.

Kirsten, November 2005

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A passage to India

Author: EM Forster (1924)
ISBN: 0140274235

EM Forster's final novel was written and set at the time of British colonialism. Adele, a young and naive English woman, arrives in India to visit her fiancé, who is based in the town of Chandrapore. The close-knit community of British colonialists is the epitome of Victorian values, prejudices and supremacist posturing. Cultural misunderstandings, bigotry and negative preconceptions towards Indians (to put it mildly) at the time of the Raj lead to dire consequences for the Indian doctor Dr Aziz. A classic, which portrays some of the nastier attitudes prevalent during the British Raj. An instructive and enjoyable read.

Kirsten, November 2005

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We have also movie and non-fiction book reviews with Indian themes or connections.
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