Summer reading special: take the Booker Prize… to the seaside
From solitary escapes to idyllic resorts, join us on a trip through literature’s most compelling coastal tales with these Booker Prize-nominated novels
From family dramas to iconic works of magical realism, these Booker and International Booker Prize-nominated novels explore India’s vibrant culture
Whether you are posing for a picture in front of the Taj Mahal, exploring the lush green countryside of Kerala or taking a romantic stroll on a beach in Goa, no trip to India would be complete without a novel to take you deeper into the country’s history and culture. The seventh largest nation in the world and the most populous (as of June 2023) has as many stories as it does people and the best way to discover them is through the brilliant writers whose voices speak to the variety of experience and context that India has to offer.
Some of the novels listed here take us back into the colonial past, while others transport readers into India’s complex present. Regardless of when and where they are situated, these books, all of which have been nominated for the Booker or International Booker Prizes, are a feast for the senses. If you’d like to savour the best of Indian writing, look no further.
Geetanjali Shree’s Tomb of Sand, winner of the 2022 International Booker Prize, introduces us to a truly unforgettable central character. Ma has spent most of her life in calm obedience to the demands of her station as mother and wife, but upon the death of her husband, at 80 years old, Ma’s stable vision of life is shattered and she sinks into a deep depression, refusing to get out of bed. Ma is no ordinary octogenarian, however, and the loss of her husband provides her with a new perspective on life, manifested through her friendship with a hijra (trans woman), an affront to her daughter who had thought of herself as the more modern of the two.
Emboldened by Ma’s new lease on life, they journey back to Pakistan as a means of engaging with the trauma of Ma’s teenage experiences of Partition. The traumatic memories of this time are mixed in with a humour and liveliness that is wonderfully rendered by Daisy Rockwell’s translation, which retains the wordplay of the original Hindi to dazzling effect. This book will have you thinking about what it means to travel, through its moving appraisal of the concept of borders of all kinds:
‘Border, Ma says. Border? Do you know what a border is? What is a border? It’s something that surrounds an existence, it is a person’s perimeter. No matter how large, no matter how small. The edge of a handkerchief, the border of a tablecloth, the embroidery around my shawl. The edges of the sky. The beds of flowers in this yard. The borders of fields. The parapet around this roof. A picture frame. Everything has a border. However, a border is not created to be removed. It is meant to illuminate both sides. You removed me. Should I leave? No. A border does not enclose, it opens out. It creates a shape – it adorns an edge.’
Words to remember when you’re standing in the queue at Passport Control…
‘Reality is a question of perspective; the further you get from the past, the more concrete and plausible it seems – but as you approach the present, it inevitably seems more and more incredible.’
A visit to a new country also necessitates an encounter or reckoning with its history, in order to understand its present. We would argue that there’s no better way of doing this than to pick up a copy of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, winner of the 1981 Booker Prize and the first of Rushdie’s seven Booker nominations. The novel charts the life story of Saleem Sinai, who is born just as the clock strikes midnight on August 15, 1947, the moment at which India gained its independence from Britain. Upon his birth, he is welcomed by jubilant crowds, a grand display of fireworks and even the prime minister Minister Nehru himself. Rushdie takes the life of this young man as a mirror of the history of the newly birthed nation – the two are united, as are the fates of many other ‘midnight’s children’ born in the hour of independence and who all possess magical gifts.
Rushdie’s epic of Indian nationhood manages to take in political repression, the tragedy of Partition, as well as linguistic and religious feuding, while rampaging through a range of eclectic delights offered by the presence of hilarious aunts, gilded palaces and snake charmers. An unforgettable read.
‘The room rang with her voice, then with silence. In the shaded darkness, silence had the quality of a looming dragon. It seemed to roar and the roar to reverberate, to dominate. To escape from it would require a burst of recklessness, even cruelty.’
Simmering domestic drama. Complicated family dynamics. Thwarted hopes and dreams. What more could you want in a summer read? Anita Desai’s Clear Light of Day, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1980, is a novel about the slow disintegration of a family during the partition of India. We meet Tara on her way to visit her family home in Old Delhi, alongside her reluctant husband. Tension runs high between their eldest daughter Bim, the youngest Baba and Tara. Desai moves fluidly between the past and present, evoking fraught childhood memories while illustrating the sibling’s alienation from each other. Her prose sings subtly of the bittersweet disappointments of both loving and being loved by your family.
Desai was born in Mussoorie, India in 1937, and was a young girl when Partition took place. In a 2022 interview with the Booker Prizes, she said that although Clear Light of Day is fiction, it is ‘in a way the most autobiographical [novel] I wrote’.
‘The times were so different then when I was a child, so that’s what I was trying to recapture in the novel, although I created the characters. They’re not based on real people; they’re based on the relationships that one has – sisters and brothers, sisters and sisters… The kind of relationships one has with those who are close to one, [in which] getting on with them is all tension and friction, and yet there has to be some kind of resolution as well. That was what I was trying to pack into the novel.’
‘Talking has never been easy. Neither has listening. There was a breakdown somewhere about what we were to one another, as though one of us were not holding up her part of the bargain, her side of the bridge. Maybe the problem is that we are standing on the same side, looking out into the emptiness.
‘Maybe we were hungry for the same things, the sum of us only doubled that feeling. And maybe this is it, the hole in the heart of it, a deformity from which we can never recover.’
The delicate unravelling of a mother-daughter relationship is handled with utmost precision and care by Avni Doshi in her 2020 Booker-shortlisted Burnt Sugar. Originally titled Girl in White Cotton when it was first published in India, the novel tells the story of Tara and Antara. As a young mother, Tara was wild; she absconded from a disappointing marriage to find herself in an ashram, living as a penniless artist with her daughter beside her. As old age creeps in, she is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and it is left to Antara to take care of her. But as she does so, the novel seems to ask: how do you take on maternal responsibility for someone who failed in their motherly duties towards you?
This book follows the co-dependent but often ambivalent and negative relationship between a mother and daughter. It charts the gravitational pull, both circumstantial and emotional, that tethers them, despite their best efforts to be separated. It questions the reliability of memory in the construction or maintenance of personal relationships and looks at how care exists at the fault line of obligation and willingness. As Antara says early on, ‘I would be lying if I said my mother’s misery has never given me pleasure.’
‘I am a self-taught entrepreneur. That’s the best kind there is, trust me. When you hear the story of how I got to Bangalore and became one of its most successful (though probably least known) businessmen, you will know everything there is to know about how entrepreneurship is born, nurtured, and developed in this, the glorious twenty-first century of man.’
If you want your summer reading to pack a hefty political punch, why not try Aravind Adiga’s Booker-winning debut novel The White Tiger? This witty, suspenseful tale follows Balram Halwai, a truly seductive, charismatic and well-crafted character, who shapeshifts and occupies many roles: servant, philosopher, entrepreneur… killer. Over the course of seven nights, Balram recounts his journey to the top in a series of letters to a Chinese government official, explaining how he went from being a penniless driver for his rural village to a successful if morally dubious businessman. Adiga casts a stringent eye over the whole of Indian society, taking an unflinching look behind the sheen of a rapidly advancing nation – at its aspirations and its deeply entrenched inequality – asking what is the cost of getting ahead to the people who toil at the bottom of the pile.
‘…Because when I look back on it, when I sit back and concentrate on it, I feel that India brought out all my worst qualities. I don’t mean this India, though Heaven help me I sometimes don’t see a great deal of difference between theirs and the one in which I was memsahib, but our India, British India, which kept me in my place, bottled up and bottled in, and brainwashed me into believing that nothing was more important than to do everything my place required me to do to be a perfectly complementary image of Tusker and his position.’
Paul Scott’s 1977 Booker winner took its name from an expression used by British expats in India during the twilight years of the Raj – the minority of whom (officials, military officers and commercial traders) chose to remain in India after spending their working lives there, rather than returning to Britain on a comfortable pension.
In Scott’s erudite and insightful novel, married couple Colonel Tusker and Lucy Smalley choose to remain in India, where they now find themselves very visible as outsiders in the absence of other expats, and with their routines and daily rhythms running counter to those of the other inhabitants. Theirs is a life in decline and loneliness, cut off from their English peers and out of step with a country in transition. Meanwhile, their landlady Mrs Bhoolabhoy, presents herself as an obstacle to their peaceful retirement.
A novel about the trials and tribulations of a 40-year marriage, as well as the decline of Empire, Staying On is Paul Scott’s assured follow-up to his Raj Quartet that remains essential reading for a modern understanding of the British Raj and its demise. As Philip Larkin, chair of the Booker judging panel in 1977 said, the book ‘covers only a few months, but it carries the emotional impact of a lifetime, even a civilisation’.
‘I try to find an explanation for him. I tell him that many of us are tired of the materialism of the West, and even if we have no particular attraction towards the spiritual message of the East, we come here in the hope of finding a simpler and more natural way of life. This explanation hurts him. He feels it to be a mockery. He says why should people who have everything – motor cars, refrigerators – come here to such a place where there is nothing? He says he often feels ashamed before me because of the way he is living. When I try to protest, he works himself up more.’
If you are looking for a novel that will match the intensity of the blisteringly hot Indian sun, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s Heat and Dust, which won the Booker Prize in 1975, should do the trick. Taking the reader back to colonial India in the 1920s, the novel tells the story of Olivia, the beautiful, spoiled wife of an English civil servant, who begins a clandestine affair with Nawab, a minor Indian prince involved in criminal activity. Their affair causes a major scandal in the British community that leaves the lives of all involved irrevocably altered.
A novel of two parts, it also follows Olivia’s step-granddaughter who, half a century on, is drawn to India by her fascination with the letters left behind by her disgraced elderly relative.