Reading list: Six Bengali novels in translation


The Bengal renaissance that began with Raja Ram Mohan Roy in the nineteenth century had a profound impact on modern Bengali literature. During this period of social reform and intellectual awakening, there was a push towards modernity through critical analysis of orthodox aspects of society and religion. The second half of the nineteenth century saw the rise of the Bengali novel, which drew upon both Western and local literary traditions. The Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore, a key literary figure in the renaissance movement, remains the most well-known Bengali writer in India. His most popular novels include The Home and the World and Chokher Bali.

Here is a list of Bengali novels that are easily available in English translation.

Pather Panchali by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay
Translated by T.W. Clark and Tarapada Mukherji

Published in 1929, the novel first appeared serialised in a Calcutta periodical a year earlier. It tells the story of the Roys who live in rural Bengal and later move to Varanasi in search of a better life. Bandyopadhyay’s evocative narrative paints a vivid picture of rural life and the scenic beauty of the Bengali countryside and captures the loses the family faces on their journey to the city.

Shesh Prashna by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay
Translated as The Final Question by the Department of English, Jadavpur University

Set in the expatriate Bengali community in Agra, the novel follows the life of Kamal, a young Anglo-Indian woman who challenges the traditional position of women in society. She is independent, lives and travels alone, and enters into relationships with different men. With its focus on female sexuality and its anti-patriarchal stance, The Final Question remains as relevant today as when it was published in 1931.

Hajar Churashir Maa by Mahasweta Devi
Translated as Mother of 1084 by Samik Bandyopadhyay

Written as a response to the Naxalite movement in West Bengal, the novel deals with the pain and frustrations of Sujata whose Naxalite revolutionary son has been killed by the police. With her son’s identity reduced to that of corpse no. 1084, Sujata struggles to make sense of her son’s choices and her position in society. Set across the course of a single day, the narrative interweaves the past and the present to explore Sujata’s complex relationship with her son and society and her journey towards acceptance.

Tithidore by Buddhadeva Bose
Translated as When the Time is Right by Arunava Sinha

Situated in Calcutta during the first half of the twentieth century against the backdrop of the Indian independence movement and the threat of war, the novel revolves around Swati, the youngest daughter in the Mitra family. Swati rejects her brother’s colleague offer to marry her and instead finds herself attracted to Satyen, a professor at her college. They share a love for literature and communicate mainly through letters. The lyrical, slow-paced narrative, with its focus on domestic life during a period of political upheaval, provides for an immersive reading experience.

Pratham Pratisruti by Ashnapurna Debi
Translated as The First Promise by Indira Chowdhury

Set across the late eighteenth and early twentieth century in Bengal, the novel follows the dreams and struggles of four generations of women. Through The First Promise, Debi explores the impact of colonialism on caste practices, the move from the village to the city and the subsequent change in family structure, women’s rights issues, and social and educational reforms.

Sei Samay by Sunil Gangopadhyay
Translated as Those Days by Aruna Chakravorty

The novel blends history and fiction to create a vivid picture of the elite in nineteenth-century Bengal. Set against the backdrop of the Bengal renaissance and the Revolt of 1857, it tells the story of the wealthy Mukherjee and Singha families in a rapidly changing society in Calcutta. Several historical figures, from Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, the reformer and writer to Michael Madhusudan Dutt, the poet populate the narrative, which adds to the social realist elements of the novel.

(I wrote this for the Indian Novels Collective.)


Reading list: Six Urdu novels in translation

Urdu example.svgWith over 50 million native speakers, Urdu is the seventh most spoken language in India. The Urdu language has a rich literary tradition in the Indian subcontinent, ranging from Mirza Ghalib’s poetry to Saadat Hasan Manto’s social realist short stories about partition.

The Urdu novel and short story was preceded by dastangoi or the oral storytelling tradition. The early Urdu novels that emerged in the nineteenth century were initially centered around urban social life and later expanded to include rural social narratives. In the twentieth century, under the influence of the Progressive Writers’ Movement, Urdu fiction, in particular, the short story form flourished and was concerned with social inequality and injustice. During the partition period, Urdu fiction primarily dealt with themes of migration, identity, and decolonization.

Here is a list of Urdu novels that are easily accessible in English translation.

Mirat-al-Urus by Nazir Ahmad
Translated as The Bride’s Mirror by G.E. Ward

Published in 1869, The Bride’s Mirror deals with the themes of female education in Muslim society and social and educational reforms in the second half of the nineteenth century in India. The plot revolves around the contrasting life paths of two sisters from Delhi who are married to two brothers. Akbari, the spoilt and poorly educated sister lives a troubled life after her marriage while Asghari who is hardworking and well educated is able to deal with the difficulties she faces and forms a good relationship with her husband’s family and the local community. Through the story of the two sisters, Ahmad creates a compelling portrait of a rapidly changing society in Delhi in the nineteenth century.

Aag Ka Darya by Qurratulain Hyder
Translated as River of Fire by the author

The novel unfolds over two and a half millennia of Indian history, covering the classical, medieval, colonial, and postcolonial periods. The narrative moves seamlessly from one epoch to another, interlinked by four characters: Gautam, Champa, Kamaal, and Cyril who represent the various ethnic and religious groups that have populated the region. In the final post-partition period, historical continuity is disrupted with the division of people and creation of nation states. With its magical elements interlaced with parables, legends, and personal notes, Hyder’s masterpiece provides a sweeping overview of the history of the Indian subcontinent and sends out a clear message of inclusivity.

Ek Chadar Maili Si by Rajinder Singh Bedi
Translated as I Take This Woman by Kushwant Singh

Set in a village in undivided Punjab, the novel revolves around the lives of Rano and her young brother-in-law Mangal, who are forced to marry each other after the death of Rano’s husband, even though Rano has raised Mangal like her own son. Eventually, both Rano and Mangal reach a level of understanding and are able to form a conjugal bond. Tackling themes of sexuality, society, patriarchy across religions, this novel remains a classic in the Urdu literary canon.

Bazaar-e-Husn by Premchand
Translated as Sevasadan by Snehal Shingavi

Originally written in Urdu, the novel was first published in Hindi in 1919 and in Urdu in 1924. Set at the turn of the twentieth century in the city of Benares, the novel tells the story of Suman, an unhappy housewife, who forced out of her home by her husband, ends up becoming a courtesan. During this period, as a result of social reforms, the local municipal corporation orders the relocation of kothas or brothels to the periphery of the city. Suman faces social ostracism as a courtesan and eventually discovers an existence that restores her agency.  Through Bazaar-e-Husn, Premchand exposes the hypocrisy of society and presents a critique of the demand for women to be the standard bearers of morality in colonial India.

Umrao Jan Ada by Mirza Hadi Ruswa
Translated by Kushwant Singh and M. A. Husaini

Published in 1899, Umrao Jan Ada is a fictional first-person account of an eponymous Lucknawi courtesan and poet, as narrated to the author. Set in the mid-nineteenth century, the novel recreates the decadence of Awadhi aristocracy and provides an insight into the social impact of the Revolt of 1857 in Lucknow. As a young girl, Umrao is kidnapped and sold to a tawaif or a high-class courtesan and trained in classical music and dance and literature. Through the use of psychological realism, Ruswa creates one of the most complex and memorable characters in Urdu literature.

Ajeeb Aadmi by Ismat Chughtai
Translated as A Very Strange Man by Tahira Naqvi

Situated in the Bombay film industry of the 1940s and 50s, the novel tells the story of Dharam Dev, a popular married actor and director and his infatuation with Zarina, a young dancer from Madras. With his help, Zarina becomes a famous actress and subsequently abandons him. The narrative follows the descent of Dharam Dev and his wife into depression and alcoholism. Chughtai, who was herself part of the film industry as a screenwriter and producer, explores the dark side of ambition, glamour, and infatuation in her characteristic irreverent prose.

(I wrote this for the Indian Novels Collective.)

Jan-April: 120 years of South Asian Literature


IMG_5035 (1).jpg
I read Basti on the Kindle

1. Basti – Intizar Hussain
I started the year with a classic written in Urdu by the Pakistani author Intizar Hussain. Written in the style of a dastangoi — the narrative switches from the past to the present — there is a lot to unpack in this short novel: the Partition of India, the creation of Bangladesh in 1971, loss of home and identity, and the persistence of memory. Hussain describes the postcolonial situation: the initial hope and excitement that fades away slowly when reality sets in through Zakir’s memories of his early days in Pakistan: “Those were good days, good and sincere. I ought to remember those days, or in fact I ought to write them down, for fear I should forget them again. And the days afterward? Them too, so I can know how the goodness and sincerity gradually died out from the days, how the days came to be filled with misfortune and nights with ill omen.”

Zakir and his family may be on the other side of the line, but home remains an elusive space beyond the line. His dying father hands him the house keys from their ancestral house in Rupnagar now in India: “A trust from my forefathers, he murmured. “Son, these are the keys of a house to which you no longer have any right.” The keys of that house, and of that land.”

2. Masterpieces of Urdu Nazm – KC Kanda
I got a copy of this from a family friend. Each poem is presented in the Urdu script, Roman transliteration, and English translation. Faiz and Ludhianvi were clear favourites:

Screen Shot 2019-04-11 at 17.40.25
Taj Mahal by Sahir Ludhianvi

The Taj, mayhap, to you may seem, a mark of love supreme
You may hold this beauteous vale in great esteem;
Yet, my love, meet me hence at some other place!
How odd for the poor folk to frequent royal resorts;
‘Tis strange that the amorous souls should tread the regal paths
Trodden once by mighty kings and their proud consorts.
Behind the facade of love my dear, you had better seen,
The marks of imperial might that herein lie screen’d
You who take delight in tombs of kings deceased,
Should have seen the hutments dark where you and I did wean.
Countless men in this world must have loved and gone,
Who would say their loves weren’t truthful or strong?
But in the name of their loves, no memorial is raised
For they too, like you and me, belonged to the common throng.

These structures and sepulchres, these ramparts and forts,
These relics of the mighty dead are, in fact, no more
Than the cancerous tumours on the face of earth,
Fattened on our ancestor’s very blood and bones.
They too must have loved, my love, whose hands had made,
This marble monument, nicely chiselled and shaped
But their dear ones lived and died, unhonoured, unknown,
None burnt even a taper on their lowly graves.

This bank of Jamuna, this edifice, these groves and lawns,
These carved walls and doors, arches and alcoves,
An emperor on the strength of wealth, Has played with us a cruel joke.
Meet me hence, my love, at some other place.

3. Celebrating the Best of Urdu Poetry – Khushwant Singh
I was drawn to Singh’s introduction. He writes about how one summer afternoon in Kasauli he looked for an Urdu anthology to read before his afternoon siesta (Kasauli is the sort of place you would want to spend your afternoons reading in the shade of a plum tree or on a charpoi in a verandah). Back in Delhi, Singh decided to put together an anthology for Hindi and English speakers. In this collection, each poem is presented in three ways: in the Devanagari script, with Roman transliteration, and finally, an English translation. There are the usual Ghalib, Meer Taqi Meer, Iqbal, and Faiz; other less-known poets, and two Pakistani women poets Kishwar Naheed and Zehra Nigaah. A personal favourite from this collection is a couplet by Akbar Hussain Akbar Allahabadi (1846-1921)

Deen ki baatein or Religious debates: Mazhabee bahas meiney kee hee naheen / Faaltoo aql mujh mein thee hee naheen (To involve myself in religious debates, I never did care / I never had, nor have any brains to spare)

4. Land of Five Rivers – edited by Khushwant Singh
While – as Singh notes in his Introduction – there may be nothing “exclusively Punjabi” about this collection, Partition is a recurrent theme. And how can it not be? It was an event that disrupted the lives of ordinary Punjabis and created lines of discord that have only festered over time. I’ve grown up hearing stories about an undivided Punjab: my great-grandmother from West Punjab, my great-grandfather from the tiny erstwhile Sirmoor state (also in Punjab) nestled in the Himalayan mountains who studied medicine in Lahore. Rajmohan Gandhi notes in his Punjab: A History from Aurangzeb to Mountbatten that modern India and Pakistan cannot be understood without an understanding of what Punjab was and the notion of Punjabiyat, or Punjabiness. An anthology like this fills a literary gap for people in South Asia and beyond.

More here.

5. Sunlight on a Broken Column – Attia Hosain
The novel tells the story of Laila, the orphaned daughter of a privileged yet conservative family and her fight for personal freedom against the backdrop of the struggle for Indian independence. Hosain‘s novel beautifully captures the multicultural and multilingual Lucknow society of the first half of the 20th-century, with the Persianate culture of its Urdu-speaking Muslims, the Hindi of the local population, and the English liberal education offered at local schools and universities. The novel provides a unique insight into the Muslim upper class in North India as seen from the perspective of a young woman.

Hosain migrated to England in 1947 because she did not want to choose between India and Pakistan (half her family moved to Pakistan), especially since she did not believe in the idea of a separate Muslim state.

6. A Gujarat Here, A Gujarat There – Krishna Sobti
Although Sobti’s novel was written decades after the classics of Partition literature, such as Yashpal’s This Is Not That Dawn and Bisham Sahni’s Tamas, the autobiographical nature of the novel preserves the immediacy of the event. The narrative echoes the fragmentary approach of Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines, blurring time and fiat boundaries.

Women’s voices in the Partition corpus project the scalar relationship of the dynamics of power between the nation-state and the individual. In Attia Hosain’s Sunlight on a Broken Column, Laila’s fight for her agency occurs alongside the struggle for Indian independence. Likewise, Krishna’s assimilation into India mirrors the gradual integration of princely states into the Republic of India.

This is a particularly pertinent read at a time of heightened tensions between India and Pakistan. Where did it all start? Sobti ventures a guess: “When you uproot a tribe, it scatters with the destructive power of an earthquake.”

More here.

7. Hazaron Khwahishein Aisi – Anisur Rahman
Rahman, who used to teach at the Department of English at Jamia in Delhi now works as a senior advisor at the Rekhta Foundation, described as the world’s largest online repository on Urdu literature and culture. For someone new to ghazals in the written form, I liked how Rahman divides the poets into various categories: metaphysical beginnings, towards enlightenment, romance of realism, advent of modernism, progressive poetics, new poetics, and beyond new poetics. A great collection, if slightly dense; it took me a while to get through this one.

8. The Taste of Words – An Introduction to Urdu Poetry: Raza Mir
Gulzar in his forward writes: “Urdu is a nation unto itself. Wherever it travels, it creates its own world. It was born in India but does not belong to India alone. It is the official language of Pakistan, but it does not belong to Pakistan alone….Wherever Urdu goes, it clasps people in a bear hug. It becomes a tradition unto itself. For Urdu is after all, the lingua franca of a culture.” I got to this one after reading a couple of volumes of Urdu poetry, so I was familiar with the majority of the poets included, but there were new poems that I had not read before.

I recommend this collection for the introduction alone; Raza writes engagingly and disagrees with the idea that Urdu is dying out in India: “I must say that the rumours of Urdu’s demise have been exaggerated for well over 150 years. Urdu was on the verge of death in 1857 (post ‘mutiny’), 1901 (post ‘Nagri resolution’), 1947 (post-Partition), 1951 (when the Uttar Pradesh Official Language Act derecognised Urdu), and 2001 (post 9/11, for reasons not very clear, beyond the fact that everyone wants to associate that date with everything). However, as long as a chill runs up your spine when you hear a verse by Ghalib, as long as marchers on the street shout ‘Inquilab Zindabad’ … we have no problem.”

Fahmida Riaz

A personal favourite or at least one I want to remember, written after the 1998 Indian nuclear blasts by the Pakistani poet Fahmida Riaz is Naya Bharat or New India: Tum bilkul hum jaise nikle / Woh moorkhta, woh ghamandpan / Aakhir pahunchi dwaar tumhaare (You turned out just like us / The same silliness, the same obstinacy / Has finally reached your doorstep as well.)

Jameela Nishat

And Burqa by the Indian poet Jameela Nishat, in reference to the moral policing of young practising women:

I stepped out in a burqa
And yet graduated from college
Learnt computer programming
And found myself
Head and shoulders ahead of my peers
My mother was thrilled
And my father, he was ecstatic
In my hands,
I held Mount Sinai
I could conquer this world
so my heart believe
I would be Alexander in a black veil
Every breath screamed

One day I stepped out to have fun
And I entered cinema hall
Was accosted by a stick
‘Girl, no burqas allowed here!”
From under the black veil arose the black smoke of
At that very moment
Threw away my burqa.

9. In The Times of Love and Longing: Amrita Pritam and Imroz

Letter writing is a lost art. I am old enough to remember writing inland letters to my grandparents, folding the paper to make an envelope, and going to the post office or a letterbox with my mother to post them. This collection made me nostalgic for the time when people wrote letters to one another.

Pritam was in a loveless marriage for twenty-five years before she finally left her husband. Pritam and Imroz were together for forty years but never married. Pritam writes of her frustration of filling out the spouse column on a passport form: “I just cannot fill the lines that hurt you, and make you unhappy.” Pritam asks: “Imma! If I get to live with you, one lifetime will not be enough?” Somewhere else Imroz writes “Maja! The wait for your letters makes me feel like a musical instrument. The day dawns and touches my strings and give way to the night. But at night—no song awakens, nothing comes alive.”

A Gujarat Here, A Gujarat There by Krishna Sobti


“Flowing breezes, remember: I once lived here”. These are the words Krishna Sobti wrote on the wall in her hostel room on her last day in Lahore.

In A Gujarat Here, A Gujarat There, an autobiographical novel by Sobti, translated from Hindi by Daisy Rockwell, the young Krishna now at her parents’ home in Delhi looks out of the window to see their Muslim neighbours leave for the railway station to catch the last Pakistan Special to Lahore. Krishna remembers her last day in Lahore, echoing the words she scratched into the wall.

Read more

Land of Five Rivers – Khushwant Singh


A decent anthology should provide a sweeping overview of literary output arranged around a theme or – as in this case – a region and serve as a starting point for further exploration. The Land of Five Rivers does exactly that.

The stories in this collection are translated from the three languages of Punjab – Hindi, Urdu, and Punjabi. There is also an incongruous addition in the form of Khushwant Singh’s English-language story, “A Punjab Pastoral”, which seems like a hastily written attempt to add to the linguistic diversity of this anthology – and does in no way reflect Singh’s abilities as a writer.

There are the usual heavyweights of twentieth-century literature from Punjab: Manto, Amrita Pritam, and Rajinder Singh Bedi. And wonderful discoveries such as Upendranath Ashk, Kartar Singh Duggal, Ajeet Cour, Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, and Gulzar Singh Sandhu.

Manto’s best-known story, “Toba Tek Singh”, is unnecessarily translated as “Exchange of Lunatics” by Khushwant Singh here. When I compared the translation with Khalid Hasan’s translation (from Kingdom’s End: Selected Short Stories by Saadat Hasan Manto), I was disappointed to see that Singh’s version is a shorter and looser translation. While I cannot read Urdu, I can understand it, and listening to an audio recording of the story confirmed that Singh’s version – although very readable – is not faithful to the original.

I enjoyed Amrita Pritam’s “A Stench of Kerosene”, an exploration of the dark side of female infertility and patriarchal norms in rural Punjab. Pritam led an extraordinary life: her autobiography, The Revenue Stamp (which I skimmed through recently) and various online articles tell of her unhappy marriage, her unspoken (?) passion for the poet Sahir Ludhianvi, their unrequited love story, and finding love with the painter Imroz. A quick scan of In Times of Love and Longing, a collection of Amrita and Imroz’s letters, reveals poetic lines like: “The wait for your letters makes me feel like a musical instrument”. I can only imagine how much more powerful her stories and their letters are in Punjabi.

I first chanced upon Abbas in Indian Nationalism: The Essential Writings edited by S. Irfan Habib but had no idea he wrote fiction as well. His articles on integrated nationalism may appear idealistic seventy years on but form an important part of secular thought and deserve to be better known in India. (Sample this from the “Nationality Test for Muslims”: “The Muslims have no future in this country – as Muslims. Likewise, I hope the Hindus have no future as Hindus, the Parsis no future as Parsis, and so on. Only by merging our respective communal, religious and caste identities in a common citizenship shall we be able ever to rid our country of the thrice-cursed communalism.”). His story, “The Death of Shaikh Burhanuddin”, also known as “Sardaji” in earlier translations, is a satire written in a first-person confessional narrative style and reveals the hollow prejudices of a clerk named Burhanuddin. Not everyone got Abbas’ sarcasm though and his story created controversy in both India and Pakistan.

Kartar Singh Duggal’s “The Night of the Full Moon” is a hauntingly beautiful tale of female desire. Malan is trapped in a loveless marriage and daydreams of her lover who finally visits on a cool moonlit night. The events that follow Malan’s decision to consummate their relationship have devastating consequences for her – and her daughter. In an article for The Telegraph, Khushwant Singh writes that at the height of Muslim-Sikh animosity in Punjab in the run-up to Partition, Duggal, himself a devout Sikh, fell in love with Ayesha Jaffri, the sister-in-law of the well-known Urdu poet Ali Sardar Jafri. They later got married in the Golden Temple in Amritsar and moved to Delhi after Partition.

Ashk’s “The Nupital Bed” brings the Oedipal complex to a Punjabi sitting. This sharply written narrative tells the story of Keshi and his inability to consummate his marriage. Keshi’s mother may not be physically present in the nuptial room that she has decorated with flowers, but Keshi cannot get her out of his head. Feeling suffocated in the floral mosquito net hung over the bed by his mother, he leans over to kiss his wife, but cannot once he sees the framed miniature of his mother in the headboard of the bed. I was happy to discover that Daisy Rockwell’s translations of Ashk’s short stories (Hats and Doctors) and the first two novels in the six-volume novel cycle, Girti Divarein, or Falling Walls (Falling Walls and In the City a Mirror Wandering) are easily available online.

In Ajeet Cour’s “Happy New Year”, the scene shifts to that of domestic discord against the backdrop of office politics. Kapoor, a recently-promoted clerk is pressured into inviting his colleagues home for dinner on New Year’s Eve much to his wife’s frustration. Cour known for her social-realist fiction centered around the position of women in society may have drawn inspiration for her fiction from her unhappy marriage. Having recently read Krishna Sobti’s (a Punjabi author whose omission from the anthology seems glaring) semi-autobiographical novel, A Gujarat Here, A Gujarat There, set during and after Partition, I’d be interested to read Cour’s autobiography, Weaving Water, in which she details her childhood in pre-Partition Lahore and her subsequent move eastwards to Jalandhar and later Delhi.

There is not a lot out there about Gulzar Singh Sandhu; what appears to be the only volume of his work translated to English, Gods On Trial and Other Stories, a collection of short stories is out of print and unavailable online. “Gods on Trial” is set in a Sikh-majority village in Punjab in India. The Muslim families who stayed behind are forced to convert to Sikhism (at least in name) and display their new faith through brightly covered yellow scarves drapped around their necks. The young Sikh narrator’s friend comes from one such Muslim family: covered in yellow scarves, their steel bangles glinting in the sunlight they perform namaaz in private. How long will this peace last for them? Sandhu’s evocative exploration of the trauma faced by people after the fracturing of Punjab during Partition makes me long for a reissue of Sandhu’s work.

While – as Singh notes in his Introduction – there may be nothing “exclusively Punjabi” about this collection, Partition is a recurrent theme. And how can it not be? It was an event that disrupted the lives of ordinary Punjabis and created lines of discord that have only festered over time. I’ve grown up hearing stories about an undivided Punjab: my great-grandmother from West Punjab, my great-grandfather from the tiny erstwhile Sirmoor state (also in Punjab) nestled in the Himalayan mountains who studied medicine in Lahore. Rajmohan Gandhi notes in his Punjab: A History from Aurangzeb to Mountbatten that modern India and Pakistan cannot be understood without an understanding of what Punjab was and the notion of Punjabiyat, or Punjabiness. An anthology like this fills a literary gap for people in South Asia and beyond.

A Raisin in the Sun – Lorraine Hansberry

505483There is so much going on in this play: the racial divide in neighbourhoods in American cities (Chicago in this one); the shaping of African-American political consciousness built on the legacies of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois; colonialism and the foreshadowing of the postcolonial situation in African states (Benethea to Assgai: “Yes – ‘Independence’! But then what? What about all the crooks and thieves and just plain idiots who will come into power and steal and plunder the same as before only now they will be black and do it in the name of the new Independence – what about them?”); Christianity and colonialism (Benethea to Mama: “Why do you give money at church for the missionary work? … You mean to save them from heathenism – … I’m afraid they need more salvation from the British and the French.”); and the notion of what Africa means when – and I quote from Countee Cullen’s poem Heritage written in 1924 – when one is “One three centuries removed”.

Ultimately, this is about the elusiveness of the American dream for African Americans. Langston Hughes in his poem Harlem questions whether a dream deferred dries up or festers or stinks or sags or explodes? Hansberry shows that it does all of the above.

Fences – August Wilson

539282I read this back in high school and did not quite enjoy it back then – does anyone love anything they studied in school?! Revisited this one recently and saw the movie starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis. I loved it this time round. Troy is frustrating but I didn’t see him as a one-dimensional character as I did back in school. He never had a father figure, he’s uneducated, and he has tried to do the best he can. He slips up horribly at times and hurts the people closest to him.

I did not read this as Troy’s play or as a conflict between a father and a son. I read this as Rose’s narrative. Watch the movie for Viola Davis. Everyone else is great, but she operates on a completely different level here.

Chemistry – Weike Wang

31684925I picked this up on a whim. I meant to read it last year but somehow the idea of reading about someone struggling through and eventually leaving graduate school didn’t quite appeal to me.

What an emotional rollercoaster of a novel. I relived my grad school days, memories of my advisor who tried to push me into a science-y sub-field I had no interest in, the anxiety I felt every time I thought about anything related to linguistics for ages after my programme ended. I wish this novel had been around back then.

The unnamed narrator goes on a personal journey that is expressed through short – often disconnected – vignettes: she works through her complex relationship with chemistry, her (almost)-perfect-but-perhaps-not-right-for-her-at-that-precise-moment boyfriend, her Chinese parents and their demands and life stories.

It’s a beautiful novel: it made me laugh, I highlighted so many grad school sections, I loved how Wang did not reduce the parents to a stereotype. So layered, so nuanced. And that dog. I demand a sequel just for that dog.

Woman at Point Zero – Nawal El-Saadawi

159604As expected, this was a difficult read. Firdaus’ life is composed of a series of events rooted in misogyny that reduce her to a sexual object, whether it is the sexual abuse she faces as a child and later on during her marriage to a much older man or at the hands of unknown men in Cairo. She is eventually “rescued” by a woman who pushes her into a life of prostitution. There are fleeting moments in Firdaus’ life where she exercises agency but they never last until the final and cataclysmic event that lands her in prison.

I think a couple of things may have been lost in translation though: I didn’t enjoy the repetitiveness and some sections seemed heavy-handed. This may have read better as just Firdaus’ story without the superfluous prologue and epilogue.

The Age of Innocence – Edith Wharton

1045327I didn’t mean to read this one. I’ve gone and hurt my shoulder again so was stuck at home bored when I chanced upon this book whilst looking for something completely different to what I usually read.

And what a pleasant surprise this book turned out to be! From the very first page with the Swedish Christine Nilsson singing “M’ama … non m’ama” in Faust because the “German text of French operas sung by Swedish artists should be translated into Italian for the clearer understanding of English-speaking audiences” (of course) followed by the first glimpse of Madame Olenska after her return to New York, I was swept away by the intricacies of New York high society.

I think I’m going to read Ethan Frome next.