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.
At the beginning of the 20th century, nice Indian girls did not sing in public. Female musical performances were restricted to tawaifs, of a slightly sulfurous reputation, during soirées frequented by cultivated male patrons. If the tawaif wound up getting married, the husband almost invariably required his bride to abandon her art. Men, on the other hand, had for centuries been honored as musicians, patronized by padishahs and maharajas. Their craft was handed down from father to son, and still is today.
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.
From news about World War II to the broadcasting of music from popular movies, radio played a crucial role in an increasingly divided South Asia for more than half a century. Radio for the Millions examines the history of Hindi-Urdu radio during the height of its popularity from the 1930s to the 1980s, showing how it created transnational communities of listeners.
Ashoka the Great (3rd century BCE) of the ancient Indian Mauryan dynasty (4th to 2nd century BCE) remains something of a mystery. He was emperor of one of the largest and richest kingdoms of the ancient times that covered Afghanistan, Pakistan, and northern parts of India. However, he was forgotten in India (while continuing to be revered in China and Southeast Asia, thanks to his appearance in Buddhist narratives) until the 19th century British scholars researching Indian antiquity discovered him as texts and inscriptions in the previously unreadable Brahmi script came to be newly deciphered.
It can be easy to think of colonies as having two populations: colonial subjects, and colonial overlords from Europe. It’s an easy narrative: one has power, status and privilege, the other does not. But in practice, European colonies created many populations in-between: groups who benefited from imperial power, yet not one of the elite.