A dip into the best of 2021 - Fiction

A dip into the best of 2021 - Fiction

These are the books (in no particular order) that made an impression on my twin avatars of reviewer and reader

The year had its fair share of good, even very good fiction, with historical fiction gaining a slight edge over the others. These are the books (in no particular order) that made an impression on my twin avatars of reviewer and reader.

The Heart Asks Pleasure First: Karuna Ezara Parikh, in her remarkable debut work, lets readers watch a blossoming love story between an Indian Hindu and a Pakistani Muslim, holding in it all the kindling necessary for a conflagration.

Also Read | A dip into the best of 2021 - Nonfiction

China Room: Sunjeev Sahota's edgy, moving story tells of a moment of misidentification and its dreadful aftermath. China Room has three young Punjabi girls contracted in marriage to three brothers, all of them controlled by the mother Mai, a woman who does not bother to cloak her iron fist in any kind of velvet glove.

Rumours of Spring: Farah Bashir’s poignant memoir, set in the Kashmir of the Nineties, is a coming-of-age novel that examines a combat zone, the survival skills, and state of mind that needs necessarily to be cultivated, the chipping away of self-esteem and dignity. But there is also the remembrance of gentler and happier times.

Feral dreams, Mowgli and His Mothers: In Stephen Alter's update on Kipling's tale, we have Daniel, a 65-year-old facility supervisor at MIT, coming back to Shakkarganj to lay his adoptive mother's ashes to rest. Elizabeth Cranston, the woman who adopted him, had nicknamed this feral foundling Mowgli. If this grown-up Daniel is understandably a flat character after the Mowgli who roamed the jungle atop his elephant mother's back, then this is how real life probably plays out.

Jungle Nama: Amitav Ghosh takes the legend of Bon Bibi, the guardian spirit of the Sundarban forests, sets it in dwipodipoyar verse form, and gives readers an hour or two of much reading pleasure. Woven into the epic are topics like the eroding ecosystem of the Sunderban, how man wreaks havoc wherever he goes, as also the cruelties inflicted on man by the elements. The artwork by Salman Toor is more striking than pretty; there is also an audio version with musician Ali Sethi.

Roads to Happiness: Not all the short pieces featured here are new but Ruskin Bond brings to charmed life all that he touches upon, whether it is chairs that expand to suit an expanding posterior, simians who make away with bright-coloured pajama bottoms, and shred a manuscript or two, good-natured tigers or dear old earth fast tiring of sustaining billions of human beings.

A Red-necked Green Bird:  This new collection of short stories by the veteran writer Ambai, C S Lakshmi, and translated by G J V Prasad, covers an interesting gamut of topics, all of them relevant, all of them topical. If there's one leitmotif to the stories, it's the presence of a 'working' feminism that confers dignity and agency upon women.

Song of Draupadi: Ira Mukhoty's look at Draupadi as a complex, difficult woman, is a compelling read. Taking up the story of the character who is widely regarded as the conscience of the Mahabharata, the author, in her first attempt at fiction, gives us a Draupadi we may not sympathise with but whose motives we can certainly understand.

The Last Queen: Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's work of historical fiction is a sympathetic account of Jindan's journey from a hardscrabble life in a Gujranwala village to becoming Maharaja Ranjit Singh's favourite and last queen. The book is an absolute pageturner, with snippets of history delivered in engaging capsules that fluidly move the plot forwards.

Asoca: Irwin Allan Sealy does a contemporary retelling of Emperor Ashoka's story, and does a very good job of it. The warrior king who suddenly gives up a life of violence and turns his considerable intelligence to statecraft instead, continues to be an object of literary interest, and Sealy's version gives us Ashoka's timeline in the emperor's own words.

Honourable mentions must be made of Anees Salim's The Odd Book of Baby Names, which feature the melancholic, quirky accounts of a string of legit and illegitimate offspring of an erstwhile ruler; Lahore, the first of Manreet Sodhi Someshwar's Partition trilogy, and Simran Dhir's Best Intentions, an Austenesque tale transplanted into the tonier parts of Delhi.

The curator is a manuscript editor, author of four books, and a journalist who reviews a lot of books.

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