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Ten of the Best from South Asia, Bilal Tanweer

A reading list featuring the best books from South Asia, by Bilal Tanweer, author of The Scatter Here is Too Great


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It has been said in lists before this one, but let me add this disclaimer regardless: any list is as much an act of omission as it is of inclusion. Consider this a list of ten titles and writers that have been important to me as a writer. (I am not including poetry.)

     1.  A Case of Exploding Mangoes by Mohammed Hanif

It’s well-nigh impossible to describe the pleasure of reading this book for Pakistanis who are aware of the disaster that was General Zia-ul Haq’s dictatorship. He probably did more damage to the country than all the rest of the ruling Generals put together. This book exacts a menacing and hilarious revenge.

     2.  The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

At the college where I teach, I have met more young people who were inspired and encouraged to write after reading this book than I can count. It has been established during the decade and a half since its publication that the book is an achievement on all fronts: from the difficulty of its subject to the marvels of its language to its utterly enchanting world.

     3. Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew by Shehan Karunatilaka

Karunatilaka’s book came out of nowhere really and bowled everyone over. It won nearly every award and each one of them was completely deserved. There has never been a cricket novel so exciting for as vast a reading public as this one. It’s consistently entertaining and deeply moving at the same time. As one of the reviewers said: ‘This is novel-writing (and novel-reading) as it was advertised in the original catalogue by the likes of Rabelais and Cervantes: filching all the weapons in the armoury of writing to create strange mutants that are part-storytelling, part-cataloguing, part-philosophising and part-playing with your head.’

     4. Curfewed Night by Basharat Peer

When I put this book down I felt wounded all over. There were moments in the book where I simply broke down. It describes what it means for an entire people to be on the wrong side of history and what a disaster the states of India and Pakistan have cynically wreaked upon Kashmiris who deserve none of it. An essential account of an ongoing human tragedy.

     5. Maps for Lost Lovers by Nadeem Aslam

A book that has meant a lot to me as a writer. I used to carry around the large hardback with me when it came out. There are characters and images in the book that have never left me. I have copied out large passages and emailed them to my friends. A book I recommend to people who want to understand how fiction can enlarge and deepen our sense of the world.

     6. The Occult by Naiyer Masud

It’s a scandal that Naiyer Masud isn’t celebrated through the world as one of the most original writers of our time. His work fulfils that thorniest of literary criteria: to be entirely new while appearing ordinary and familiar at the same time. Almost all his stories are domestic and set in bleached landscapes shorn of cultural markers. Yet there is an invisible omnipresent intimacy about them that feels like déjà vu. My favourite contemporary Urdu fiction writer.

7.  The Adventures of Amir Hamza (translated by Musharraf Ali Farooqi)

One of the events in the world of literature was the publication of a great Indo-Persian epic, Dastan-e Amir Hamza, by novelist and translator Musharraf Ali Farooqi in 2007. There have been other translations but Farooqi went to extensive lengths in making this not-just-another-translation. This work is both scholarly and great fun to read. The lucid prose retains the quickness of the original narrative while the endnotes reward serious readers.

     8. The Weary Generations by Abdullah Hussein

One of the great Urdu epics that sweeps into its fold almost an entire century: 1857­1947. It is one of Urdu’s most admired novels that celebrated its sixtieth anniversary last year. (Translated by the writer himself.)

     9. Basti by Intizar Husain

Intizar Husain was one of the writers who refused to get swept into the discourse on Progress and new dawn of modernity at the time of the Partition of India in 1947. Instead, he continued to write about the past and the irretrievable spiritual losses that the Partition inflicted upon the displaced millions of the area. His work is a wrenching critique of modernity, the idea of Progress, and the disaster that was the Partition. Not surprisingly, his writings have grown in relevance over the years and now they resonate more than ever. He was shortlisted for the International Man Booker last year.

10. Lifting the Veil by Ismat Chughtai
Ismat Chughtai, along with the great Saadat Hasan Manto, was the enfant terrible of Urdu literature. But for some bizarre reason, she’s not as widely known and translated as her male counterpart. Her stories are carefully calibrated firecrackers that she hurled at polite society. They made a loud bang and brought everybody’s attention to her marginal voices and difficult subjects. 

Bilal Tanweer's novel The Scatter Here Is Too Great is told in a rich variety of voices that converge at a single horrific event: a bomb blast at a station in the heart of Karachi.