In her new book Ancient India: Culture of Contradictions, historian Upinder Singh seeks to correct the way Indians project the concerns and aspirations of the present onto the past. Apart from making complex, highly contentious matters of histories of faith, caste, non-violence, desire and tolerance simple to engage with, Singh has a unique quality of engaging with the larger whys of the book.
Contrary to what may be implied by the term “contemporary Indian literature”, India is not a geographic or political monolith. Rather, India is a composite of very strong regional identities cultivated by and among its provinces. Indian fiction is only now increasingly exploring these regional stories that have somewhat been eclipsed by the larger grand narrative of the idea of India. Anirudh Kala’s Two and a Half Rivers is a debut novel about the region of Punjab in India that works brilliantly as a voice reflecting the diversity, and even conflict, within that idea of India.
The Indian epic Mahabharata is a complicated story of two sets of cousins, the Pandavas and the Kauravas, fighting over property. The five Pandavas, the sons of King Pandu, want their share of the kingdom but the Kauravas, the sons of Dhritarashtra, don’t want to share anything of the kingdom they see as entirely their own. The Kauravas are jealous that their cousins have turned a barren piece of land into a flourishing kingdom they parted with very reluctantly and want to have it all. They invite the Pandavas to a game of dice in which the Pandavas lose their kingdom, themselves, and their wife, Draupadi. They are also exiled for fourteen years—one of which they have to spend in disguise or they would need to spend another fourteen years in exile. When their exile ends, the Pandavas, urged by their wife Draupadi and supported by Krishna (a reincarnation of Lord Vishnu himself) challenge the Kauravas to war and win.
As the trash mountains tumble down all over the world—Delhi, Colombo, Addis Ababa, and Shenzhen—or float off the coast near New York, the trash mountains in Mumbai seem to be stable. But the world is watching these Mumbai mountains as a time bomb—NASA’s images of the fires burning at these landfills being among the latest bits to get international attention. Former journalist and founder of a microfinance venture, Saumya Roy writes about these trash mountains, the human habitation around them, their history, and the bureaucracy that is supposed to take care of them in her ethnographic account Mountain Tales: Love and Loss in the Municipality of Castaway Belongings.
Sikhs, at least Sikh men, are conspicuous among Indians by their ever-present turbans and their less noticeable but similarly ever-present daggers. Mistaken for, and sometimes attached as Aghani Muslims after 9/11, they can also be misunderstood in their native India, mocked as dim-wits in the Sardarji jokes and, followingt the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguard, targeted by state-sponsored propaganda and violence. Sikhism itself is, to non-adherents, obscure relative to Hinduism or Buddhism.
At a time when the Notre Dame and the Cathedral at Pisa were yet to be constructed, Southern India, ruled by the Chola dynasty, produced great works of sacred art. The bronzes from the era are now housed—as symbols of human creativity at its best—in the museums such as the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Asia Society Museum in New York.
In her debut novel The Illuminated, Anindita Ghose weaves together stories of personal grief and struggle with larger socio-political afflictions. The personal stories of the women in the book are timeless and universal; these are stories of self-effacement and self-discovery that feminist writing deals with anyway. But Ghose refreshingly sets the stories in contemporary India and connects them with the impact that the rise of fundamentalism is likely to have on women. Apart from this well-balanced personal-political equation, Ghose offers a hopeful vision that, fortunately, all is not bleak: the women in the novel strive to find a political space that protects their personal space.