Exploring love, war, and the human experience, these works of fiction from the Booker Library celebrate the South Asian diaspora through the region’s most influential voices and stories
Running from July 18 to August 17 every year, South Asian Heritage Month aims to honour, recognise and appreciate South Asian culture and history through education, arts and commemoration. And what better way to do that than to immerse yourself in literature both from and about the region?
Encompassing countries including India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan, the region is brimming with stories and storytellers. Many have found their way onto the Booker and International Booker Prize lists - with authors such as Shehan Karunatilaka, Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roy going on to win the prize too.
Grappling with everything from love to war via the streets of London, the villages of India and the shores of Sri Lanka, these ten books from the Booker Library, written by authors of South Asian heritage, celebrate the region and its rich culture.
Set in 1989, six years into the Sri Lankan Civil War, the book follows photographer Maali, who wakes in an afterlife of sorts, and must lead the man and woman he loves to a damning cache of photos that will rock Sri Lanka.
The Sri Lankan conflict ran from 1983 to 2009, and despite its length, has rarely been covered by fiction published in English. Speaking to the Booker Prizes website when longlisted in September 2022, Karunatilaka said he ‘wasn’t brave enough to write about the present’ so decided to venture into the past - the ‘dark days of 1989.’
‘I’ve no doubt many novels will be penned about Sri Lanka’s protests, petrol queues and fleeing Presidents,’ said Karunatilaka. ‘But even though there have been scattered incidents of violence, today’s economic hardship cannot be compared to the terror of 1989 or the horror of the 1983 anti-Tamil pogroms.’
Seven Moons gives readers an insight into this little-discussed conflict, through a book that is both poignant and funny. The 2022 Booker Prize judges said was a novel that ‘fizzes with energy, imagery and ideas against a broad, surreal vision of the Sri Lankan Civil Wars.’
Before it was even published, Monica Ali’s debut Brick Lane landed her on the Granta Best of Young British Novelists list, a once-in-a-decade list of the best and brightest British writing talent under the age of 40.
Brick Lane takes readers into the world of Nazneen, a young woman born in a village in Bangladesh. After an arranged marriage to the much older Chanu, she moves with him to London. There, in the midst of Tower Hamlets, she learns about her new community and her own desires.
Ali brings to life a community that many have seen from the outside – from visiting its famous restaurants or witnessing its gentrification – and offers an intimate glimpse of what it means to find and free yourself emotionally.
Brick Lane was shortlisted for the prize in 2003 and went on to be adapted for the big screen in 2007.
Like Shehan Karunatilaka’s The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, A Passage North by Anuk Arudpragasam tackles Sri Lanka’s Civil War. Given the length of the conflict and its violence, it is unsurprising that it so preoccupies writers in Sri Lanka. ‘I didn’t set out to write about war when I began writing fiction, but after witnessing the government’s systematic destruction of Tamil society during the final phase of fighting, I have been unable, like many Tamils outside the war zone, to stop thinking about it,’ Arudpragasam said previously in an interview with the Booker Prizes website.
Rather than focusing on the active days of the conflict, Arudpragasam’s 2021 shortlisted novel is set in the aftermath, as protagonist Krishan makes the journey by train from Colombo to the war-torn Northern Province to attend a family funeral.
Arudpragasam’s first novel The Story of a Brief Marriage was ‘an attempt, borne out of some desire to punish myself, to imagine and inhabit’ the violence of the war. With A Passage North, however, he wanted to write a book ‘more about witnessing violence from afar than it is about experiencing it up close.’
Partly, this comes from Arudpragasam’s own background; he grew up in Colombo, away from the main theatre of war in the north of Sri Lanka, where his family is originally from.
Reviewing the book in the Observer, Lucy Popescu said A Passage North was written ‘in dense, hypnotic prose’, adding that ‘Arudpragasam explores the desire for independence that enflamed the decades-long civil war, the violence that ensued and the emotional scars that refuse to heal.’
Mohsin Hamid’s story, shortlisted in 2007 for the Booker Prize, of a Pakistani immigrant called Changez is in many ways a post-9/11 story, grappling with the attacks and the long-term effects - how they changed relations between countries and individuals.
But Hamid actually wrote the first draft of The Reluctant Fundamentalist before the terrorist attacks in the US, completing it in the summer of 2001. At the time, it was ‘a wistful account of a young Pakistani working in corporate New York who, after a failed love affair, grows a beard and moves back to Lahore,’ wrote Hamid in the Guardian, when he spoke to them in 2011 about the novel.
Following the events of 9/11, Hamid rewrote the book multiple times, finally settling on its current form: a dramatic monologue where Changez sits in a cafe in Lahore and over the course of an evening tells an American stranger about his life. And that form brought readers what is one of the most iconic opening lines in modern literature: ‘Excuse me, sir, but may I be of assistance?’
Kamila Shamsie’s 2017 shortlisted Home Fire is a retelling of Sophocles’ ancient play Antigone. In the play, Antigone seeks to bury her brother Polynices, against the wishes of the new king of Thebes, Creon.
Shamsie takes the basic ideas of Antigone – sibling bonds, rebellion, and war – as well as the structures of a Greek play, and applies them to a modern story about family and love. In the novel, Isma is following her own path after years spent raising her twin siblings Aneeka and Parvaiz. But she still worries about the pair, and after Parvaiz disappears to prove himself to the jihadist father he never knew and the sisters encounter Eamonn, the son of a powerful politician, a new course is set for everyone.
Home Fire is a prescient novel in many ways, perhaps most obviously illustrated through the character of Home Secretary Karamat Lone, a man of Pakistani descent who chooses to embrace whiteness and whose treatment of his ancestral culture is more than a little disdainful. Shamsie’s character was completely fictional, but soon after the novel was published, Sajid Javid became Britain’s first Asian Home Secretary, an eerie reflection of Shamsie’s fictional Karamat Lone.
Salman Rushdie’s 1988 novel The Satanic Verses is often first thought of because of the controversy it caused after publication: it was considered blasphemous by a number of Muslims due to its references to the Quran and its depiction of the history of Islam. It was subsequently banned in Pakistan and a fatwa was issued by the Ayatollah of Iran, leading Rushdie to have to live under police protection.
But behind the controversy is a layered novel about two men who are transformed after surviving a fatal plane crash. Employing elements of magical realism, the book sees legendary movie star Gibreel Farishta and voiceover artist Saladin Chamcha chosen as opponents in the eternal battle between Good and Evil.
The Satanic Verses was acclaimed on publication. Kirkus Reviews called the book a ‘surreal hallucinatory feast’ and said it was ‘entertainment in the highest sense of that much-exploited word.’
The book, which was adapted into a film in 1998, follows bank clerk Gustad Noble and is set in 1971 in India. Beset with a series of problems, including an ill daughter and a son who refuses to accept a scholarship to college, Gustad finds himself caught up in a political scandal beyond his understanding.
Such a Long Journey is about ordinary people caught up in extraordinary, and mysterious, circumstances. Kirkus Reviews said the book was a ‘finely textured look at India in a time of upheaval.’
Sri Lankan writer Romesh Gunesekera’s debut novel Reef is about Triton, who is banished from his father’s home to take a job with Mister Salgado, a marine biologist who is obsessed with swamps and sea movements. Years later, in London, Triton is examining his childhood memories, bringing the reader an understanding of his life, showing how he navigated the world.
Published in 1994, Gunesekera’s novel still bears relevance today with its story of the effects of climate change against political and social upheaval. The author, who has written ten books, often explores political, ecological and economic themes through his work.
Reef was ahead of its times in some ways - a climate change novel before the recent trend for ‘cli-fi’ in publishing. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1994 and in 1997, it went on to win the Premio Mondello Five Continents Asia Prize.
Anita Desai’s 1999 shortlisted Fasting, Feasting – one of three novels by her that has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize – is about members of one family experiencing two very different cultures. Uma, the older daughter, tends to her parents’ needs in the home she grew up in, while her younger brother spends the summer in Massachusetts with the Patton family, who live a life full of abundance.
Fasting, Feasting is a novel about hunger in its many different forms: for food, for experiences, for secret desires.
In a critique of Desai’s work for the British Council of Literature, Luca Prono said that Desai often uses ‘the house as a place of confinement for women’, and that her work often examines generational confrontation. Fasting, Feasting, said Prono, ‘depicts the struggles of Uma, Aruna and Arun to strike a balance between their parents’ expectations and their own personal realisation.’
Winner of the Booker Prize in 1997, Arundhati Roy’s debut novel is about twins Estha and Rahel, and is set in the 1960s and the 1990s. A story seemingly about childhood, it examines how young people experience the complexity and hypocrisy of adult rules in their world and is also a look at India’s caste system.
The novel was a sensation, selling millions of copies worldwide and translated into dozens of languages. In Kerala, the book was popular, but Roy told The Progressive Magazine that ‘people don’t know how to deal with it.’
‘They want to embrace me and say that this is “our girl,” and yet they don’t want to address what the book is about, which is caste,’ she continued. ‘They have to find ways of filtering it out. They have to say it’s a book about children.’
Roy’s addressing of the caste system is not the novel’s only political legacy; the author donated her Booker Prize winnings to Narmada Bachao Andolan, a group set up to oppose the construction of dams that threatened the homes and livelihoods of people in the Indian states of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat.