Since my long years of liberal arts education prevents me from keeping my questions short, I added this long, somewhat unnecessary, caveat to my queries to eight of India’s bestselling fiction writers (seven of whom responded):
“I know the whole ‘literary’ angle is pretty subjective – so you can interpret it exactly as you want. (You can wonder aloud about the question too, and disagree altogether with the literary/popular distinction.) And I know that picking one book is often impossible for voracious readers. So it could well be the most recent favourite or one somebody recommended or one you accidentally picked up and could not put down. Feel free to suggest several if a rush of books suddenly comes to mind.”
Here’s your reading list if you want to read like a bestselling author:
It’s a little difficult for me to give an all-time favourite list since that would be too long. Frankly, I read very little fiction these days. Most of what I read is non-fiction. Of the books I have read in the recent past, I liked Sanjeev Sanyal’s Ocean of Churn. It is serious non-fiction, a book of history, which explores the centrality of the Indian Ocean in global trade, commerce and the flow of culture as well. It’s quite a brilliant book, lucidly written, and accessible to those who may only have a passing interest in the subject.
At the moment I am reading Sati by Meenakshi Jain. She is one of our finest historians. This is a scholarly book, so it may be heavy reading for those not inclined towards the subject. Sati is enlightening and reconfirms much of what I had read earlier in other texts. And, of course, it gives new insights into the colonial approach to the subject.
Sati is rarely mentioned in our ancient texts; almost none of the widows in our ancient stories (like the Ramayana or the Mahabharata) commit Sati, and there is very little evidence that it was a mass practice in historical times. Of course, the practice must be condemned even in the exceptional cases when it happened, but it is clear that there is almost no sanction for Sati in our ancient culture. And from Jain’s book, it becomes clear that the British had their own motives in talking about, and publicising, the practice of Sati.
Like you say, “literary” is hugely subjective and labels are so tacky! For me, writing that is rich and layered and somehow eternal and makes me laugh and keeps me re-reading is special, and I have three favourite books that deliver just that.
Joseph Heller’s Catch 22. It’s dark but funny and searingly honest – also thick and viscous and multi-layered and packed with eccentric characters. You open it on any page and get hooked immediately. It’s my go-to book for all time.
Different, but equally compelling for me is Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy – it has that same multi-layered, multi-textured feel. A buffet-banquet of a book, which you can go back to, again and again.
Then there’s My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell, with eccentric characters on every page, all so lovingly described. Also, I love large cranky families and magical childhoods, and Gerry’s is the magical-est of them all!
My favourite literary books are, probably, The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, The Illicit Happiness of Other People by Manu Joseph, and The Ground Beneath Her Feet by Salman Rushdie. These are the names that came to my head right away. The Namesake is a constant, though. The other two might change if you ask me tomorrow!
One of my favourite works of literary fiction – hate labels! – is Disgrace by JM Coetzee. It’s a very difficult book to read and even talk about (so this will be brief): a slim book, political and emotional in turns, not to mention scarred by the devastation of sexual assault. Written in post-Apartheid South Africa, it tackles the reversal of fortunes with acuity and is unmindful of political correctness.
The Dog-Man grows in stature over the narrative. It’s a book that has been criticised and even called racist by some, but it’s that kind of honest, unflinching and all-too-real narrative that can lead one to question the writer’s motives. In its very obvious ugliness lies the beauty in its story-telling – dragging one into the lives of people one will never meet and moral turmoil that leaves one with no sense of who falls on the right side of the divide and who on the wrong, so that one must ask again and again who is truly oppressed.
I find, sometimes, I forget not just a few but entire narratives of beloved books that I then have to read all over again, and I often console myself with the fact that at least it’s all swirling within my sub-conscious. It would be very difficult to narrow down to one particular book, so I have thrown in a few, rather grudgingly, I must add.
Also, I don’t see the distinction between popular and literary. In my opinion all a book must accomplish is to stand the test of time, to be relevant long after the time it was written in has ceased to be relevant itself. So, here goes:
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Though Tender is the Night has a starring spot on a shelf lined with my prized possessions, I never quite got around to reading Fitzgerald’s acknowledged masterpiece, The Great Gatsby, till just a few months ago. Stunning prose, so evocative of an era of bootleggers, cocktails and flighty decadence, all revolving around Jay Gatsby, a man trying to rise above his circumstances, hoping his redemption lies with Daisy Buchanan and her voice that “sounds of money”.
A brilliant commentary on the shallow pursuit of shiny facades and still relevant today. I also happened to accidentally stumble upon a letter that Fitzgerald wrote to Blanche, the wife of the publisher of The Great Gatsby, Alfred Knopf. In this scribbled document, he decided to conjugate the verb “cocktail”. I promptly printed it out and it has now found a prominent place on the pin board above my writing desk. Both as a homage to Fitzgerald and because if one must conjugate then “cocktail” is a better verb than, say, “diet”.
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. I did not read The Little Prince as a child but I bought it for my son when he was around three, thinking that the illustrations and the story of an asteroid-hopping prince would hold his interest, and mine as well, since I would be the one reading it aloud to him time and again. The book worked at dual levels: a simple narrative that my son could follow about a prince from another planet stranded in the desert, and, as far as I was concerned, an allegory about life, loneliness and love, all elucidated through simple conversations that the little prince has with various creatures that he encounters along the way.
And the most recent, Hot Milk by Deborah Levy. I decided to read Hot Milk as a part of an experiment to broaden my horizons and bury myself in some of the books shortlisted for The Man Booker list. So I ploughed through Paul Beatty’s The Sellout that emerged as the winner, and Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing, and then left Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh halfway through, only to pick it up again last week, but I found Hot Milk very compelling.
“My love for my mother is like an axe. It cuts very deep,” says the protagonist in this enigmatic portrayal of a mother–daughter relationship, fraught with complexities that arise out of the inevitable foibles and frailties of being part of a family. It transported me to a whimsical landscape, with its deceptively simple story that deals with guilt, love and obligation – layers that go deeper and deeper till you are submerged in Deborah Levy’s surreal world and stung by its myriad jellyfish.
Here’s my list – books that I loved, which I read recently.
The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron: It’s a course in discovering oneself, whether or not one is an artist. It can be used by everybody, in all walks of life, especially if you think you have a creative block. The morning pages are a superb idea, if followed consistently.
The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto by Mitch Albom: I love Mitch Albom’s writing. It is poetry. His prose sings. He is a master of the craft. Here, he narrates this poignant tale through the voice of music. I loved the concept, the execution, the story, the writing – sheer brilliance.
A Japanese Manga novel named DeathNote. I discovered this book when my fifteen-year-old daughter bought it. It tells us the story of Light Yagami, a high school student, who discovers a notebook, dropped on Earth by Ryuk, the God of death. Written by Tsugumi Ohba and with fabulous illustrations by Takeshi Obata, this graphic novel made me lose myself in it. The book must be read from right to left, following the Japanese tradition.
The Tamil Story, translated by Subhashree Krishnaswany and edited by Dilip Kumar, is a collection of Tamil short stories, from 1913 to 2000. We get a glimpse into society, its evolution, the richness of Tamil literature and of life itself, through these lovely stories, which had me happily reading for many hours.
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi: The writer was a brilliant neurosurgeon who attended Stanford University and Yale, and, before becoming a doctor, majored in English literature. Cancer struck him at 36 and swiftly progressed, claiming his life at 37.
This book, deeply moving and powerful, is almost poetic too. It is the work of a man whose days are numbered, and yet not once is there a lament or an overly cheery tone. There isn’t a doubt that Paul is a gifted writer, but more than the prose what makes this one a must-read is the questions he asks and the answers he finds.
Throughout his life, Paul had sought to find the answer to the question “What makes life worth living?” In the face of death, he finds it. In many places, the book is heart-breaking, as it takes us on a journey through Paul’s life, his obsession about his work, the way he empathises with patients, and how he finally ends up as one in the very hospital where he used to perform complicated surgeries, sometimes working non-stop for up to 36 hours, before taking a break.
Having finished When Breath Becomes Air, I am now in that strange state of calm, having been made acutely aware that there exists a place where life meets death, and despite death having the final say, life wins.
And one final, last-second addition. It is on rare occasions that one comes across a book which is so riveting that one is unable to do anything other than curl up and read and read, till one finishes it in a single sitting. Goat Days by Benyamin is one such book. Not only is it extremely engrossing, it is also deeply moving.
It is the story of an immigrant worker from Kerala who lands up in Saudi Arabia. Powerful, compelling and profound, this book is sure to leave an impact on anyone who reads it. Days after reading the book, I am still haunted by the vivid images that Benyamin draws up, and I wince each time I think of the protagonist and his travails.
A story of hope, faith and a fight against destiny, it also showcases the human as an animal, with all the frailty, ugliness and cruelty of the human psyche. By juxtaposing this with the ingrained will in all of us to simply survive, Benyamin tells an impactful story, based on the real life of one such worker. A must-read!
At the moment I am reading Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, which a friend had recommended. Two books that have just been delivered to my home, which I haven’t unwrapped as yet, are Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore and The Book Thief by Markus Zusak.
You know, I had the chance to hear Zusak at the Hindu Literature Festival and I was totally bowled over by the passage he shared at the reading. Durjoy (Dutta) was sitting next to me and when he told me that the narrator was none other than Death, I decided I must absolutely read the book.
I know he’s not quite literary but I also love Khaled Hossaini’s books. They are extremely moving. You see, I don’t really discriminate between books, between the popular and the literary. Sometimes I feel I am “a bad reader” – you know? – when I find myself returning to contemporary fiction. But I try to be honest. If I love rajma-chawal why should I say otherwise? I shall choose rajma-chawal even when the alternative is chicken cooked by a Michelin-starred chef.
Devapriya Roy is the author of two novels, The Vague Woman’s Handbook and The Weight Loss Club, a book of narrative non-fiction co-authored with Saurav Jha called The Heat and Dust Project: the Broke Couple’s Guide to Bharat and a so-long-stretched-out-that-it-was-nearly-abandoned PhD thesis on Bharata’s Natyashastra from Jawaharlal Nehru University.