Love makes for a great story, yet love stories are so much hogwash, especially those emerging from India via Bollywood. In Indian reality, love is all too often a scandal with grave consequences for lovers, consequences that arise out of a perception of love as “affairs” that bring dishonor to families’ prestige. Sunjeev Sahota goes deeper into this experience of love as a scandal in his new novel China Room, a story set in a remote village in Punjab of 1929 about a child bride who merely wants to know whom she is married for her mother-in-law, Mai, sends her sons to the wives only in the dark. But Mehar is audacious and she pays for it: her love is crushed by those who see the unfolding events—a case of mistaken identity, love and adultery—as an act of transgression.

Sapphire Promise: Based on a true story of loyalty, trust, and unfailing love, Sally Brandle (May 2021)
Sapphire Promise: Based on a true story of loyalty, trust, and unfailing love, Sally Brandle (May 2021)

Loyalty to family. Trusting instincts. The will to survive. These virtues are deeply embedded in a mature Dutch teenager, Annika Wolter. Her attributes prove useful as she navigates typical coming-of-age insecurities and a blossoming romance with a handsome lieutenant in 1939 Batavia, Java.

For the last few decades, China has been in the midst of a building boom. Since the socio-political changes brought about by Chinese economic reforms since 1978, urbanization and, hence, architecture have  accelerated. The country’s rapid growth has been accompanied by unprecedented change in the built landscape. At the same time, the possibility of building at unprecedented scales has been accompanied by a freedom to experience with architectural forms.

Lafcadio Hearn, born of an Irish surgeon and a Greek mother, became known later in life as Koizumi Yakumo after marrying in Japan and taking Japanese citizenship to preserve his wife’s inheritance. Hearn or Koizumi was a journalist and an author, and one of the early English writers to introduce Japan to the outside world during the Meiji era. Two recent novels—The Sweetest Fruits by Monique Truong and Black Dragonfly by Jean Pasley—have centered around his life, but in two very different ways.

Whether or not an explicit counter to current attempts to define a Hindu nationalist version of Indian identity, recent books for the general reader that present a nuanced multi-millennium, multi-everything story of Indian history are a welcome trend. While Tony Joseph deployed recent genetics research in Early Indians: The Story Of Our Ancestors And Where We Came From and Namit Arora visited a carefully-curated selection of ancient sites in Indians: A Brief History of A Civilization, Peggy Mohan’s vehicle is linguistics, which she uses to tell—as goes the subtitle of her recent book Wanderers, Kings, Merchants—“the story of India through its languages”.

In the 11th century Persian classic Book of Alexander, the great world conqueror goes to the farthest reaches of the world, only to have a wiseman show him what he was looking for, in a mirror—self-awareness. But as Edmund Richardson shows here in his powerful retelling of the life of Charles Masson, we do not live only to know ourselves. We are social animals and we care very much what others think about us. Alexander’s quest led, if not to gnostic knowledge, then to undying fame. Masson’s quest for Alexander’s lost city in the Hindu Kush ended in poverty and obscurity. What did Masson lack that other great explorers and archaeologists had?

A young man who turns his desire to join the army into a long stint as a volunteer ambulance driver. A teacher living in an old slum who is the only one brave—or foolish—enough to confront the gangs. A refugee who becomes a community organizer. A woman in a traditional village looking at the new development quickly encroaching on their land. A bored engineer who finds his calling as a crime reporter.