Top 10 in fiction

In a year overshadowed by loss, stories helped us cope by highlighting life’s silver linings. Here we list, in no particular order, the 10 best fiction books of 2021

Updated - December 26, 2021 03:55 pm IST

Published - December 24, 2021 01:09 pm IST

Books on shelf with white cat. Different color books with ornament on shelf on teal background. Cute cat sleeping on bookshelf. Vector illustration. LR and SM

Books on shelf with white cat. Different color books with ornament on shelf on teal background. Cute cat sleeping on bookshelf. Vector illustration. LR and SM

The Odd Book of Baby Names

by Anees Salim

(Penguin Hamish Hamilton)

LR and SM

LR and SM

A former king is dying. He leaves behind a legacy of loss — of his kingdom, of impossible dreams, of love, even hope. The only area in which he was successful was the bed and he has a bevy of offspring, of whom all but two are legitimate. Like the king, most of his children lead ennui-ridden lives till they are jolted awake by the news of his impending death. If this sounds grim, the novel is anything but. The king, with his decadent whims, is himself a comic figure. Melancholy lurks in every corner but life is not grand enough to allow tragedies. The Odd Book of Baby Names is a glorious celebration of absurdity where the author disappears and unruly, irrepressible life takes over.

The Earthspinner

by Anuradha Roy

(Hachette)

LR and SM

LR and SM

Anuradha Roy’s fifth novel has themes her readers will be familiar with: memory, history, migration, home, and the figure of the artist in whom all these preoccupations converge to become something rich and strange. Elango is a potter: each time he creates, dead clay turns into a living sculpture. As against the beauty of the creative process are ugly human emotions like hatred and prejudice, which take shape in bursts of fanatic violence. The Earthspinner is narrated in a soft, gentle tone, which doesn’t waver even in scenes of destruction. It reminds us of a possibility, of another mode of being, which is also personified in the village dog, Chinna, who teaches the characters what it means to be human.

Names of the Women

by Jeet Thayil

(Jonathan Cape)

LR and SM

LR and SM

The Bible mentions several women but they are all lifeless figures — adored, abhorred or simply passed over. Jeet Thayil reclaims the stories of Mary Magdalene and 14 other women who birthed, cooked, washed, ministered and witnessed the prophet, but were easily forgotten by the men who wrote the gospels. They are attracted to Jesus because he promises to bring the margins to the centre: they intuitively sense his radicalism, which ruffles the feathers of the comfortable.

Budhini

by Sarah Joseph, trs Sangeetha Sreenivasan

(Penguin Hamish Hamilton)

LR and SM

LR and SM

.

It was 1959. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had gone to inaugurate the Panchet dam in Dhanbad. Budhini Mejhan, a 15-year-old Santhali girl who worked with the Damodar Valley Corporation, had welcomed him with a garland. So, while she became the poster girl of modern India, she was also ostracised for ‘marrying’ outside her community. In Malayalam writer Sarah Joseph’s novel, Budhini is a symbol of the millions who have been collateral damage in the process of nation-building.The deft translation by Sangeetha Sreenivasan, a bilingual writer and Joseph’s daughter, is a novel in its own right.

Whereabouts

by Jhumpa Lahiri

(Penguin Hamish Hamilton)

Jhumpa Lahiri excels at dissecting the ‘homeless’ mind. In Whereabouts, the scalpel is turned towards the first-person narrator, who

LR and SM

LR and SM

analyses each turn of her thoughts, her habits, her responses, ruthlessly. This unnamed woman is comfortable in her monastic life with books and yet yearns for a sudden affair or two, is a tired teacher, a “terrible” daughter, a solicitous friend and a “survivor”. If her neurotic self-examination is exasperating at times, she preempts the reader’s response by condemning herself for it. All this makes Whereabouts a mature, unapologetic novel, which makes no attempt to please.

The House Next to the Factory

by Sonal Kohli

(Fourth Estate)

LR and SM

LR and SM

The nine interlinked stories in this collection are set in Delhi and zoom in on a typical Punjabi family. The great events of history — Indira Gandhi’s assassination, the subsequent riots — happen out there, barely touching the characters’ lives, which ebb and flow according to their own particular rhythms. A sentence from an Anita Desai novel forms the epigraph, and, like Desai, Sonal Kohli is a custodian of the quotidian. This is fiction with the flavour of R.K. Narayan, Amrita Pritam or Anton Chekhov.

Murder at the Mushaira

by Raza Mir

(Aleph Book Company)

LR and SM

LR and SM

Historical fiction — the kind which combines meticulous historical research with fictional elements — is a rarity in Indian English writing. Murder at the Mushaira fills the gap and how. It is as much a trustworthy account of Delhi in the days leading to the uprising of 1857 as an entertaining work of fiction. Historical figures — Bahadur Shah Zafar, the junior magistrate Theophilus Metcalfe, the poet Daagh, the Delhi College professor Master Ramachandra — are infused with life. At the centre is Mirza Ghalib in the role of detective. The author of Ghalib’s 2019 biography ( Ghalib: A Thousand Desires ), Raza Mir makes Ghalib into a sumptuously rounded character whose poetic sensibilities give him an unparalleled insight into human nature.

Gods and Ends

by Lindsay Pereira

(Vintage Books)

Mumbai’s Catholic community often gets stereotyped as boisterous, sexually liberated and happily drunk. In Gods and Ends , set

LR and SM

LR and SM

in a chawl named Obrigado Mansion in the Catholic locality of Orlem in suburban Bombay of the 70s, characters drink not out of happiness but out of boredom, to relieve life’s crushing drudgery. Life has failed them, as has religion. One of the tenants of Obrigado is Jesus Christ. He stays in Room 106 — “a place where even dreams went to die.” The floating specks of light in this existential darkness are sudden moments of empathy or the more mundane liberation of gossip and banter.

Alipura

Gyan Chaturvedi, trs Salim Yusufji

(Juggernaut )

LR and SM

LR and SM

Readers of Hindi literature will be familiar with Bundelkhand — the area of steep hills and deep ravines whose inhabitants speak a unique dialect of Hindi that seems to gush out of the land itself. Hindi writers like Govind Mishra and Maitreyi Pushpa have captured Bundelkhand in all its savage beauty in their fiction; satirist Gyan Chaturvedi’s Baramasi (1999) is a more recent addition to the genre. This fascinating novel about the true-blue sons and daughters of the soil is now available to English readers as Alipura , translated seamlessly by Salim Yusufji. Bhopal-based Chaturvedi, who had a nomadic childhood in the villages bordering Bundelkhand, depicts the locals with a delightful mix of mockery and indulgence.

Principles of Prediction

by Anushka Jasraj

(Context)

LR and SM

LR and SM

One of the most unconventional and bold works of fiction written in recent years, Anushka Jasraj’s debut collection of 13 short stories pushes at the limits of the credible and emerges with things piquantly true. The bizarre is the ordinary here: an unhappily married woman wants to run away and join the circus; a kleptomaniac child steals things like homoeopathic medicine, baby strollers, perhaps even an elephant. Jasraj doesn’t hold the reader’s hand through this topsy-turvydom. The only way to enjoy these stories is to fall headlong into the rabbit hole, which may or may not lead to a wonderland.

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in

Comments

Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.