Phoolan Devi was an Indian parliamentarian in the 1990s, but only after she achieved fame for becoming a modern day Robin Hood, taking from the rich to give to the poor. She also, perhaps more importantly, sought revenge on the many men who sexually assaulted her, before and after she was married off at the age of eleven. She became known as the Bandit Queen and was assassinated at the young age of thirty-seven. Devi serves as a source of strength for the main character in Parini Shroff’s debut novel, The Bandit Queens, a dark yet uplifting story of village women who fight domestic violence and caste discrimination.
When Vijay Balan was a young boy, his father would regale him with stories inspired by family history. One of these centered around Balan’s grand-uncle, a police officer in 1920s and early 1930s India who later went on to Singapore and became a spy for the Japanese military during World War II. Balan has turned this tale into his first novel, The Swaraj Spy. The title refers to the Hindustani word for self-rule, and it’s this wish that drives the main character, Kumaran “Kumar” Nair. The book is less a mass market spy thriller and more of a character-driven story of a man who hopes to do right by his family and country.
While the foreigner in colonial India has become, at least since EM Forster, something of a genre unto itself, the foreigners are almost invariably British and the novels mostly in English. Museum of the World by Christopher Kloeble is something of a novelty not just because it is based on the true story of the three Bavarian Schlagintweit brothers who explored India for the East India Company in the mid-19th century, but also because it was written in German; this new member of the canon appears via translation.
The tradition of great oral epics survived on the Inner Asian steppe perhaps as long as any other place on earth. At the dawn of the 20th century scholars managed to record bards singing stories that might have been five centuries or more in the retelling, embellishment and polishing. Jangar is one such epic, belonging to the Kalmyk people, once the left wing of Genghis Khan’s armies, now a minority people in the Russian Federation. Russian-educated Kalmyks collected these tales, and their work somehow survived the Russian Civil War and Stalin’s ferocious persecution of the Kalmyks and their literature. Translated into English for the first time by Saglar Bougdaeva, non-Russian, non-Kalmyk readers can now appreciate these tales.
In Kathryn Ma’s new novel, a young man from Yunnan who has given himself the name of Shelley—as in the poet—has developed a term to describe a “belief in the unspoken bonds between countrymen that transcend time and borders”. It gives its name to the book, The Chinese Groove, which starts out in a small city called Gejiu in Yunnan, but soon transits along with its protagonist to California. Despite its upbeat title, the novel centers around the ways in which people deal with grief.
Three years ago, Deepti Kapoor’s Indian crime trilogy went through a bidding war, not just for the books—including translations in fifteen languages—but also for Hollywood film rights. As unusual as crime blockbusters set in India may be, Age of Vice, the first book in the trilogy, has catapulted Kapoor into the running for the hottest new crime writer of the moment.
Author Kyla Zhao got her start in publishing at the age of sixteen writing for the Singapore editions of prominent glossy magazines penning wedding articles for Harper’s Bazaar, then went on to Tatler and Vogue. She centers her debut novel, The Fraud Squad, in the world of Singapore glossies with a Pygmalion twist. The story is fun and while it could be tempting to compare it to Crazy Rich Asians or The Devil Wears Prada, Zhao’s novel distinctively stands on its own with its exploration of the role society magazines play in cities like Singapore and Hong Kong.