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South Asian Literature

recommended by Ahmede Hussain

The acclaimed author recommends the most exciting new writing out of India and South Asia, including accounts of 9/11 from a Pakistani perspective and an emigré's return to an unfamiliar Bangladesh.

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Has there been a blossoming of new writing in South Asia recently?

I think it would be wrong to say that – there has always been a strong tradition of writing in South Asia, and its literature is perhaps better described as coming in wave after wave. Then again, South Asians began writing in English as recently as 200 years ago, as a result of British colonisation, so it is something relatively new.

Let’s begin with the collection of short stories you edited, The New Anthem: The Subcontinent In Its Own Words.

These stories are written by 22 authors of South Asian origin. The New Anthem is an attempt to reinterpret the turbulent history of the region at both an individual and a national level. I selected the works of contemporary authors, most of whom are under the age of 40, who have changed the landscape of South Asian writing. There were many to choose from. We are coming out of the closet, so to speak, by writing about the conflict between our religious and cultural identity, and the social taboos that are being broken – or those taboos that remain standing like tall buildings.

The region has an abundance of brave writers, some of whom, such as VS Naipul or Salman Rushdie, have become a part of the centre. By the “centre” I don’t necessarily mean that they’ve become part of the establishment, but that they have been recognised for what was essentially the voice of the unknown. I selected established writers such as Qaisra Shahraz from Pakistan, whose earlier novel A Pair of Jeans focused on female modesty and cultural clashes, as well as the Indian-Bengali writer Sumana Roy, author of Love in the Chicken’s Neck, which was longlisted for the Man Asian Prize in 2008. I’ve also selected emerging talents whom I regard as having the potential to have a profound effect on the literary scene in their country, such as the Bangladeshi writer Abeer Hoque.

Why do you recommend The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid?

This is an amazing book, and it’s a shame that it didn’t win the Man Booker Prize [in 2007] – in my opinion it was the best of the bunch. I think it’s going to become a modern classic in five or 10 years’ time, if it’s not already regarded as one. This novel speaks for so many peoples’ experiences in the aftermath of 9/11. The prose is very tight and the title is also very clever.

The main character is a Pakistani man who had been living in the United States before 9/11. He sits with a stranger – who happens to be an American – in a café in Pakistan, and he describes how he felt harassed in the aftermath of the attack on the twin towers, to the point where he felt he had to leave. The entire book is narrated in the second person, and the listener is never heard from directly – it’s an approach that really draws the reader in. The ending is shrouded in mystery, as is the identity of the listener.

During interviews, Hamid has refused to expand on his novel any further. In a way, I think that’s good. He leaves the issues surrounding the concept of “reluctant fundamentalism” as an open-ended debate, and it’s a debate that demands a certain type of polemic.

Next let’s turn to The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh.

What I really liked about this novel is the way it describes an individual’s place in history. It’s not so much that Ghosh makes a judgement on whether we are agents or victims of history, but he explores the different ways in which individuals react to particular incidents, and how some manage to overcome adversity. The Glass Palace follows the life of the last Burmese king and his family. It begins shortly before the king was deposed and sent into exile by the British army.

As well as narrating the events that changed the lives of the royal family, it depicts the changing tide of history through the eyes of several characters, including one of the king’s consorts and a poor boy called Rajkumar. Rajkumar was born in Chittagong, Bangladesh, which is also where my own family is from. He leaves his home at a young age to find work, and when he reaches Burm, he falls in love with one of the princess’s servants. It’s an enduring love story, and very beautifully told. The novel takes the reader all the way up to modern times.

English, August by Upamanyu Chatterjee

This is one of the first books I read in English that was written by an Indian. What amazed me at the time was the sarcasm within it, which is very strong. The novel is about a young trainee civil servant called Agastya Sen who is posted to Madna, in India’s hinterland. Agastya had grown up in the cosmopolitan city of Delhi and he finds it very difficult to cope with his new environment. He lacks enthusiasm for a life in administration, and he is more interested in smoking marijuana and having fun. The young man faces an existential crisis, which is the focus of the book. It’s very funny, and very convincing too – the author was himself a member of the Indian Administrative Service for many years.

Your final choice is Seasonal Adjustments by Adib Khan.

This was the first time that a book written by a Bangladeshi in English won the Commonwealth Writers Prize. It takes up an interesting theme – what if, when returning to your homeland, you find it changed and unfamiliar? The main character has spent almost 20 years in Australia, and when he returns to Bangladesh to visit his family he discovers that there are certain things in Bangladeshi society which bother him. The poverty that he sees really hurts him, and he finds it difficult to make his daughter understand certain norms and values. On top of all that, his marriage to a Catholic Australian woman has broken down, and his family in Bangladesh are unsupportive. He tries to cope with all these changes going on around him. It’s sometimes very funny, but also frequently sad.

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How is Khan regarded in Bangladesh?

Seasonal Adjustments was well received among literary circles, and although it’s quite critical of Bangladesh in many ways, there wasn’t a public backlash. I must say, though, that I was less of a fan of two his later novels, Spiral Road and Magic Seeds, which deal with the threat of terrorism in Bangladesh. I simply didn’t find either realistic, and I thought that he overplayed that threat.

May 2, 2012

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Ahmede Hussain

Ahmede Hussain

Ahmede Hussain is a Bangladeshi author. His books include the acclaimed Notes on Islam, and the story anthology The New Anthem. Hussain is a senior editor at The Star Weekend Magazine in Bangladesh, and he is currently writing a novel called Blues for Allah which focuses on the relationship between sex and violence in the Muslim world

Ahmede Hussain

Ahmede Hussain

Ahmede Hussain is a Bangladeshi author. His books include the acclaimed Notes on Islam, and the story anthology The New Anthem. Hussain is a senior editor at The Star Weekend Magazine in Bangladesh, and he is currently writing a novel called Blues for Allah which focuses on the relationship between sex and violence in the Muslim world