Culture Writers and Editors come together to share their favourite books by South Asian authors for SAHM
Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
Salman Rushdie, one of the most important and acclaimed British South Asian authors, made his breakthrough with the publication of his novel Midnight’s Children in 1981. Told from the perspective of Saleem Sinai, a Muslim boy born at the exact moment of Indian independence, Rushdie’s novel is an unconventional and at times bizarre historical account of the various struggles and upheavals that ensued from partition. Incorporating elements of fantasy, irony, and the surreal, Midnight’s Children is regarded as one of the most seminal works to be written within the genres of both postmodernism and magical realism.
The novel’s events fixate on Saleem and other Indian children born at midnight on 15th August 1947, all of whom are able to communicate with one another telepathically. While this peculiar arc serves to facilitate some humorous plot points, its central purpose is to convey Rushdie’s idea of a collective, post-colonial consciousness in the immediate aftermath of the decline of the British Empire. Saleem’s experience of strife, discrimination, love, wealth, and poverty speaks to the wider experiences of South Asian people faced with a new identity and newfound autonomy in the wake of Indian and Pakistani independence.
Though at times complex, challenging, and even alienating, Rushdie’s novel is an incredible feat of postcolonial literature. It is unsurprising that Midnight’s Children won the Man Booker Prize and continues to rank highly on critics’ lists. It captures a personal and idiosyncratic perspective of a history often either ignored or unduly romanticised in the British cultural psyche.
An Equal Music by Vikram Seth
The title of this novel comes from a prayer written by John Donne, the metaphysical poet, and is wonderfully apt for this poetic masterpiece of a novel. From the very first line – ‘The branches are bare, the sky tonight a milky violet’ – Seth reveals himself as a master of atmosphere; throughout the novel, he easily conjures scenes from London parks to Italian churches to antique shops and quartet rehearsals in just a few lines.
What moved me most however was the love story at the heart of An Equal Music and the fantastic descriptions of and discussion around the production of music. Music plays a central role; it is music that first brings the novel’s two lovers, violinist Michael and pianist Julia, together and it is music that reunites them again after ten years apart. Vikram Seth masterfully weaves the lives of these two characters together, and the reader cannot help but be swept up in his beautiful writing and in the blossoming romance of Julia and Michael, set against an ever-pervasive backdrop of classical music.
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
When I sat and thought about South Asian literature, Kamila Shamsie’s 2017 novel Home Fire immediately came to mind. I read Home Fire in 2018 after it won the Women’s Prize for Fiction, and I still think about it regularly. Pakistan-born Shamsie retells the classic story of Antigone within the climate of radicalisation, family loyalty, and the struggle of security and identity for British Muslims. Yet, Shamsie does not rely on or feel the burden of her classic fore-bearer; she creates a story that is timeless within its own right.
Home Fire tells the story of the Pasha family, whose father’s dark jihadist history has loomed over their lives. The story of salvation, redemption, and loyalty brings into question political tensions and family loyalty in an emotional and eloquent way. Home Fire reflects on its political climate and forces the reader to ask and rethink moral questions. But at its core, Home Fire is a heartfelt and moving story of a family and the intertwining of their complex lives. Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire is a poignant and timely novel that has stuck with me for the last three years, and I know that it will continue to do so.
How To Wash A Heart by Bhanu Kapil
The majority of ‘How To’ guides are fairly straightforward. A series of numbered lists, labelled stages with subheadings, clear and concise instructions – all with the assured end result of being able to do something you could not before. Bhanu Kapil teaches us How To Wash a Heart in a single step: ‘Remove it.’ Yet this command is hidden in a sea of untitled verses, barely floating above the water of pages 5 and 34 like two dinghies of refugees that have somehow managed to survive a perilous journey across the Mediterranean.
Where do these traumatised survivors end up? ‘A guest / In somebody else’s house / Forever.’ Whether that ‘house’ is four walls or four borders, the ‘guest’ is continuously stabbed with a double-edged sword, eternally bound in gratitude to their hosts and simultaneously isolated as a trespassing stranger. Kapil captures the essence of this conflict in her T.S. Eliot prize-winning collection. Configured in five sections of eight poems, the narrative of the spiralling relationship between an immigrant guest and a citizen host is presented, which centres around the paradox of ‘host logic’: hostile hospitality.
Wracked with jarring syntax, laced with explicitly vulgar language, and painted with oddly specific yet ambivalent imagery, this collection is not beautiful in any way. Kapil does not aim to give any answers either; instead, three inches of blank space tail-end each poem, providing a moment for the reader to absorb and attempt distant comprehension at a mere snapshot of every first-generation British immigrant’s experience. There are many things I still do not understand about these poems and I never will. Neither will any reader who has not been in the speaker’s position, for How To Wash A Heart is a gift to those who have and will always be unwelcome.
More Than Just a Pretty Face by Syed M. Masood
More Than Just a Pretty Face is not the book to read when you are hungry, because Danyal Jilani is gorgeous, arrogant, and a great cook. Unfortunately, Danyal is not the most known for his brains – so when he gets chosen as Renaissance Man, their school’s academic championship, it is his chance to show he is smarter than everyone thinks. Enters Bisma, who is, of course, brilliant, semi-willing to help, and completely uninterested in him.
From the very beginning of the book, two things are clear: one, this book is extremely binge-able. Although I read this book almost a year ago now, I still remember reading it in one sitting – the fast pace starts off from the very first page and keeps going until the end. Two, a snack will be needed for this. Masood’s talents in description come through immediately when a few words on the page make you salivate.
But what truly makes this book stand out is the characters. Danyal, who is just the right amount of arrogant, and Bisma, who is slightly less remarkable, but lovely nonetheless. The side characters are equally as loveable; Intezar, who is an amazing friend, and Suraiya, the most relatable character of the book. Masood took care with his characters, writing them in such a way they come alive on the page.
I would recommend More Than Just a Pretty Face to anyone looking for a sweet, easy-to-read romance – a well-done friends to lovers – and a story that does not shy away from talking about important things.
Sofia Salazar Studer
It All Comes Back to You by Farah Naz Rishi (September 2021)
The Shaadi Set-Up by Lillie Vale (September 2021)
Castaway Mountain: Love and Loss Among the Wastepickers of Mumbai by Saumya Roy (September 2021)
Tahira in Bloom by Farah Heron (November 2021)
Blue Skinned Gods by S.J. Sindu (November 2021)
Learn more about South Asian Heritage Month (July 18th – August 17th) here.
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