Reading around the world: India

This time on my reading journey I jumped 7607 kilometeres from Nigeria to India. I have travelled around the North of India and New Dehli before and it was a unique and eye opening experience. I found it to be such a richly layered and complex country and I would love to go back one day and see more across all the different parts of the North, south, East and West in all their diversity. Who knows when that might be possible so I immersed myself in literature written by talented Indian authors instead. I discovered two very different but equally intriguing novels who write with clarity and insight and provided me with richly detailed worlds that let me travel by book instead of plane. Both novels were short but full of thought-provoking and evocative ideas so that I found myself stopping to ruminate and take it all in.

Night Theatre
Vikram Paralkar

I grabbed this off the library shelf randomly, after deciding that I wanted to take a trip to India this month and was pleasantly surprised by this otherworldly and fable-like novel. Set in rural India, a surgeon’s otherwise sad and frustrating life is turned upside down by the appearance of a family of dead people – a father, son and pregnant mother who had been stabbed in the street on their way home one evening. The family arrive requesting surgery be performed on their wounds before sunrise because an angel has promised that if this can be done they will be restored to life. From here the story take on a slightly thrilling edge as one-by-one the surgeries take place and more of each character’s stories are revealed and you wonder if the family will in fact come to life. It’s a strangely paced book, slow and thoughtful but with an edge to it as it plays with ideas around our perceptions of life, death and the in-between. There are some great nuanced moments and the author, a surgeon himself, creates some interesting descriptions that draw on medical analogies and surprised me in their beauty. Paralkar packs a lot in to this shortish novel and I found myself racing to finish the story, devouring it in just one weekend. Over all it is a strange and hopeful book told uniquely. Within the greater story thread, Paralkar describes small moments, conversations and personalities in the rural village that provide insights into life in India and this is well worth a read.

Borrow Night Theatre

Leila
Prayaag Akbar

This dystopian fiction has been hailed as Urban India’s version of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Written by journalist, Prayaag Akbar, this chilling tale seems plausible and real and India’s complex societal structures offer rich material for the structure of this short novel. In this Indian future, the rise of segregation sees an extreme society where purity is the driving force. Comunities are walled off from each other in protected enclosures to maintain purity of religion, wealth or ethnicity and no mixing of these pure lines is tolerated. We discover all this through the protagonist Shalini, a Hindu woman who was been forcibly separated from her Muslim husband and daughter Leila for the crime of being a liberal, mixed religion family. Through Shalini we travel across the sixteen years between her present situation and the past, where she lived a life of privilege and extravagance and we start to see how this drive for purity grew. It is a topical and gripping story and Akbar deftly describes the world outside the enclosures – the filth, the forgotten and the lost that are very much a part of Indian society and deeply entrenched class systems. It is easy to see how this insidious shift can take hold in such an environment.

The themes in this are not wholly unique or ground-breaking but it is refreshing and chilling to see them placed some where like India, especially in this political climate. Rather than feeling unoriginal, this novel feels close – although dystopian, it may not be so far off from being non-fiction.

Leila is now a Netflix original series and I am working my way through it at the moment. As is most often the case for me, it is better to read the book before watching the screen adaptation but so far, it seems to be well executed.

Borrow Leila