Show caption Marine Drive in Mumbai. Photograph: Indranil Aditya/NurPhoto/Rex/Shutterstock Top 10s Top 10 stories of modern India From hi-tech executives to Adivasis defending their tribal lands, the best Indian fiction portrays the extraordinary diversity of a changing country Aravind Jayan Wed 27 Jul 2022 12.00 BST Share on Facebook
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My parents sometimes call me modern. They do this when they want to make fun of me. Most recently they called me modern when I told them that my girlfriend, her ex and I are co-parenting the two cats they have together, so that the cats spend half the year at our place and half at the ex’s. “Modern relationships.” The fact that they can joke about this stuff makes them “modern parents”. There’s also “modern jobs”, “modern clothes”, “modern girls”, and “modern generation”.
Modern India is a combination of many such things and also things less wholesome than feline living arrangements – such as a failing democracy and growing social tensions. To be honest, the exact composition changes depending on the place, the people and the mood. The same goes for books about the country – which, at least to me, seem to have become more varied, though surely not enough.
A year ago I wrote my novel Teen Couple Have Fun Outdoors, in which a family struggles with the aftermath of a secretly filmed sex video featuring the eldest son and his girlfriend. Most of the characters are trying to figure out the boundaries in modern India – who thinks what, what’s acceptable, what’s a big deal and what’s not.
In this list, I’ve tried to talk about other books on modern India – though there’s plenty I must have overlooked because of gaps in my reading, the size of the country and my questionable taste.
1. A State of Freedom by Neel Mukherjee
Neel Mukherjee’s third novel is so rare and brilliant as it paints a big picture of the country without losing any of the bristling, painful detail. Five interconnected stories talk about – among other things – class, poverty, migration and ambition, through characters facing vastly different circumstances: from an NRI man and his son to a vagrant and his bear. I still remember reading this for the first time and being stunned by the breadth of empathy and beauty that Mukherjee uncovers even in the most brutal moments.
2. When I hit you by Meena Kandasamy
Our narrator is trapped in a terrifying marriage. To the outside world, her husband is a university professor and an intellectual communist. At home he’s a dictator – physically and mentally torturing his new wife in the name of re-education. But the narrator is determined not to break, even as she is battered. What we get is what the subtitle – Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife – promises: a fiercely gripping portrait of herself, marriage, abuse and male ego told in the most clinical, acerbic and relentless voice.
3. The Machine Is Learning by Tanuj Solanki
Solanki’s second novel is narrated by a sharp upper-management insurance employee named Saransh. Saransh hails from small-town Uttar Pradesh. Having had to work hard on his way to a top job, he’s very much a company man – that is, until he’s put in charge of an AI project which will make whole departments redundant and many unemployed. He suffers a crisis of conscience, aided at least in part by his well-off liberal girlfriend. This book is less about tech, though, and more about corporate life and the essence of being a cog in the machine. Even more brilliant is its examination of courage and indifference, and the way they intersect with class.
4. Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag
Originally written in Kannada and translated into English by Sreenath Perur, this novel follows the fracturing of a middle-class joint family after the business they start together becomes a quick success. In only 115 pages, Shanbhag and the book’s unnamed narrator show how family bonds can strangle you just as easily as they hold you up. The story is also an excellent demonstration of how it can sometimes be impossible to understand where self ends and family begins – a very common Indian phenomenon.
Neelay Mehendale in the Netflix adaptation of Cobalt Blue (2022).
5. Cobalt Blue by Sachin Kundalkar
A mysterious paying guest starts living with the Joshi family in their traditional Marathi household. Before long the Joshi siblings – brother and sister – fall for him. The stranger seems to have feelings for them, too. What pulls you into the book, more than the plot, is the unassuming and honest tone with which the story tackles family, sexuality, scandal and love in today’s India. Cobalt Blue (translated from Marathi by Jerry Pinto here) is now a cult classic, and understandably so.
6. Prelude to a Riot by Annie Zaidi
In this short novel Zaidi goes about assembling a bomb. The setting is a small south Indian town. Religious tension, caste differences, labour exploitation and the ill-treatment of migrants all provide excellent bomb-making material. As the novel progresses, a quiet bleakness settles over much of the town and keeps growing. No one seems to have the power to stop it. The bigots, on the other hand, are industrious. They form committees, organise marches, send letters to the local newspaper editor and buy guns. While the book has humour and beauty, the urgent narrative that Zaidi creates – by very careful crafting of each character’s soliloquy – is one that will make you feel terrified and outnumbered.
7. The Adivasi Will Not Dance: Stories by Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar
Set mostly in Jharkhand, the stories in this intense collection feature characters rarely seen in Indian fiction: Adivasis. That’s not the only reason you should read this book, though. Shekhar is a doctor based in Jharkhand’s Pakur district, and a member of the Santhal Adivasi community. His writing is charged with unusual rawness, and the stories here are as captivating as they are unapologetically political. The title story is about troupe-master Mangal Murmu who protests against the state-sponsored grabbing of tribal land by refusing to perform for the Indian president. In another story called They Eat Meat! – one of my favourites – a Santhal family moves to Gujarat and has to change their food habits to suit the caste sentiments of the neighbourhood.
8. One Part Woman by Perumal Murugan
This one, translated from Tamil by Aniruddhan Vasudevan, isn’t exactly modern – the book is in fact set during the colonial era in rural south India. The story is timeless, though, and its themes are still fresh in today’s India. The novel charts Kali and Ponna’s efforts to conceive a child, along with the stigma they face when they fail. Despite having an extremely loving relationship, they find themselves inching towards more and more precarious methods. A plan is hatched. Ponna is made to attend the last night of a chariot festival, during which the otherwise orthodox rules surrounding sex are relaxed. There, as she forces herself to meet another man for one night, you might hear your heart breaking.
9. A Burning by Megha Majumdar
Majumdar’s first novel is not a thriller but sometimes reads like one. It follows the intersecting lives of three characters – Jivan, a Muslim woman who is accused of terrorism in wake of a Facebook comment she leaves; Lovely, a young hijra who dreams of being an actor; and PT Sir, a sports teacher who wants to embed himself in a powerful political party. Lovely and PT Sir have the chance to help Jivan – though it’s not as straightforward as it seems. A Burning is short enough to read in a single sitting and yet captures so much of the current climate.
10. The Women Who Forgot to Invent Facebook and Other Stories by Nisha Susan
Susan’s debut collection features 12 stories that are very witty and very fluent in the here-and-now. Most of them revolve around young women as they navigate love, loss, intimacy and boredom. What makes the collection really stand out is its effortless voice. The stories are also surprisingly subtle. My favourite, Trinity, features three college girls who think they are going to set the world on fire, only to graduate and realise, much to the surprise of the narrator, that they are settling down as if that was the plan all along.
• Teen Couple Have Fun Outdoors by Aravind Jayan is published by Profile Books. To help the Guardian and Observer, order your copy from guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.