Madhavi S Mahadevan
Top 10 fiction (in the order of their release dates)
1. Low by Jeet Thayil: Arriving in Mumbai, clutching a box containing his wife’s ashes for immersion in the sea, Dominic Ullis, in search of oblivion, embarks on a weekend spree involving cocaine, meow meow and a colourful cast of characters. Though essentially a grief narrative, this is an extraordinarily alive, dynamic and a delightfully absurd read.
2. Undertow by Jahnavi Barua: Written in the author’s trademark understated style, this is a lyrical, haunting story. Set mostly in Assam, a land that lives in the shadow of conflict, it tells of estrangement within a family, the sadness of banishment and the emotional baggage that subsequent generations, too, must carry, when breaches remain unhealed.
3. Moustache by S Hareesh (Translated from Malayalam by Jayasree Kalathil): Winner of the JCB Prize for Literature 2020, this fluently translated story is about a Dalit youth whose king-sized moustache, the star performer in a musical drama, assumes a life of its own and sets off on a marvellous, mythical journey through the watery world of Kuttanad.
4. Chorashastra, The Subtle Science of Thievery by V J James (Translated from Malayalam by Morley J Nair): ‘A clear conscience is the most essential quality a thief ought to have.’ A wicked, laugh-a-minute adventure about a small-time thief who breaks into the house of an eccentric professor who has discovered an ancient treatise on the art of thievery and decides to test its theories on the intruder.
5. The Burning by Megha Majumdar: The most-talked-about debut novel is a mirror of the times and the rising tides of nationalism in India. Told through different voices, it is about three people — a Muslim girl who posts about a terrorist attack on Facebook, a gym teacher with right wing political leanings and a hijra — whose lives get entangled.
6. Kintsugi by Anukriti Upadhyay: Spanning several countries — India, Japan, Singapore, Indonesia — and knitting the interconnected stories of six very different characters, this novella tells us, in quiet, jewel-like prose, that nothing need remain broken forever. Not dreams, not hearts. From the careful piecing of fragments can arise a new and different life.
7. The Heart Asks Pleasure First by Karuna Ezara Parikh: A nuanced, elegantly written first novel on a theme that will probably remain of reader interest forever — forbidden love. In this case, it is taboo, among other reasons, because an uneasy international border runs through its landscape. Divided faiths and loyalties add the requisite twists and turns to the plot.
8. Uttara Kaanda by S L Bhyrappa (Translated from Kannada by Rashmi Terdal): A modern retelling of the Ramayana, this novel gives us Sita’s perspective — refreshing because it’s shorn of magic and myth. All characters are entirely human and thus fallible; we can, by and large, understand their motivations. However, a surprise for even hardcore Ramayana enthusiasts is the endearing portrayal of Lakshmana.
9. The Curse by Salma (Translated from Tamil by N Kalyan Raman): Eight skilfully translated stories set in the domestic world of Muslim communities in rural Tamil Nadu. Besides the masterly craftsmanship, they are remarkable for the razor-sharp, uncompromising yet sympathetic exploration of women’s issues generally regarded as ‘messy’ — not merely emotions, but also bodies and bodily functions.
10. Essential Items by Udayan Mukherjee: The pandemic will, no doubt, generate a rash of its own brand of literature. However, these 10 stories, of life under lockdown in India, are
noteworthy, not just for capturing the heat of the moment, but also for the diversity of concerns and the struggles of characters living in different circumstances.
The reviewer is the author of The Kaunteyas and Bride of The Forest: The Untold Story of Yayati's Daughter.
Best fiction and non-fiction of the year (in no particular order)
Hellfire by Leesa Gazi (Translated by Shabnam Nadiya): Lovely is allowed to go out by herself for the first time… on her 40th birthday. The day sets in motion a chilling sequence of events. Slow-burning, intense, superbly translated from the Bangla — this is a novel that’s hard to slot into a category and equally hard to put down.
Delhi: A Soliloquy by M Mukundan (Translated by Fathima E V and Nandakumar K): Delhi has many worlds within. This epic novel captures the lives of Malayali immigrants who have built their lives in the capital and their story from the 60s to the present. From the heart-wrenching story of the roadside barber to the jagged trajectory of the small businessman — Mukundan brings the city alive.
Analog/Virtual and Other Simulations of Our Future by Lavanya Laxminarayan: The future Bengaluru city has been taken over by a corporation and the citizens subject to periodic
performance reviews. In a dismaying parallel to today’s offices, their score determines the facilities they have access to. Laxminarayan, a former game scriptwriter, captures both the
trajectories of mass revolution and the side-effects of social media with equal ease.
Ratno Dholi by Dhumketu (Translated by Jenny Bhatt): Dhumketu was a master of the Gujarati short story. This selection of tales, selected from his decades of writing, reveals his acute human eye and his wide range of topics. Jenny Bhatt makes it a point to retain the flavour of the original language in her excellent translation.
The Machine is Learning by Tanuj Solanki: An employee of an insurance company is tasked with gathering domain expertise from front-desk agents, in order to replace them with software. Solanki is inspired by the rhythms and style of the modern Hindi novel and he uses them to great effect in this study of the deadening effects of today’s office career.
A Burning by Megha Majumdar: An off-the-cuff social media post points the finger of blame at Jivan, a Muslim girl, during a bomb blast investigation. Two other characters are enmeshed in the story, but how will they tilt the scales? Majumdar reminds us of the incendiary times we live in, where prejudice and judgement wins over humanity and logic.
Let Me Say It Now by Rakesh Maria: The decorated police officer Rakesh Maria has been in the middle of any number of high-profile cases through his career, from the 93' blasts down to the Sheena Bora case. In this autobiography, he presents his point of view from this ringside seat. Occasionally rambling, the story is nonetheless riveting.
Sebastian and Sons by T M Krishna: T M Krishna shines a spotlight on a breed of artistes who are unfairly marginalised in the Indian classical music space: the mridangam makers, who devote their lives to their art. This is an eye-opening chronicle and Krishna’s research and passion for the topic shine through.
The Age of Pandemics by Chinmay Tumbe: What’s a 2020 list without a Covid item? Thankfully, Tumbe’s book has a much broader focus and talks of the various pandemics that have shaped India and particularly the 1918 influenza epidemic that was one of the world’s great demographic disasters. There are more lessons to be learned from history, it seems.
The Book of Indian Essays by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra: A panoramic collection of essays focused around India, spanning two centuries. Mehrotra, a respected poet and anthologist, reaches across boundaries and philosophies to give a taste of a rarely collected prose format. In the process, he reveals the depth of Indian critical thought, from satire to nationalism, from gossip to reflection.
The reviewer is a writer and literary critic. He hosts the popular podcast Bookasur. His novella, Selfie, will be released shortly.