Beauty amid ashes
A novel and three nonfiction books about India
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Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India by Sujatha Gidla
Sujatha Gidla traces the story of her uncle, a Maoist rebel, as a way to explore her family history and show what it was like to be a Christian Untouchable in the poor villages of Andhra Pradesh in Central India. Although her mother was college educated, her caste status consigned the family to poverty, made them subject to the whims of higher-caste employers and less-educated neighbors, and shaped everything about their lives. Gidla depicts with realism and sometimes bad language her subjects, including graphic details of poverty and abuse. Her sympathy to her uncle’s politics does not blind her to his faults. The Wall Street Journal named Ants Among Elephants one of its 10 best books of 2017 for good reason.
A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth
An absorbing multifamily novel set in post-independence India, the book begins with Rupa Mehra’s desire to make a good match for her university-educated daughter. The novel’s focus expands to include three other families, both Hindu and Muslim, connected to the Mehra family by marriage and friendship. The families occupy different places in the social hierarchy and differ in their attitudes toward modern culture. Like George Eliot, Vikram Seth never loses sight of his novel’s human core as he weaves social, economic, and political history into the larger story. Hindu and Muslim divisions are only one of the many fractures the new nation had to heal. This sprawling tome—a print version is 4 inches thick—contains some sexual situations and bad language.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo
For four years reporter Katherine Boo immersed herself in the life of Annawadi, a slum built in the shadow of Mumbai International Airport. Here she tells the stories of several people who live there: Abdul, a teenage Muslim trash picker, and his family; Asha, a would-be community organizer willing to do almost anything to get ahead; and Fatima, a one-legged woman who sets herself ablaze. The Bible talks about human dignity and universal sinfulness: It’s all on display here. Boo notes global and suite-level actions that affect these slum residents, but her focus is on the granular detail of particular lives, on how petty corruption frustrates personal hopes and ambitions. Cautions for language, violence, and heartbreaking injustice.
Face to Face by Ved Mehta
Ved Mehta, who died earlier this year, was a New Yorker writer and blind from the age of 3. His father, a public health doctor whom Mehta memorializes in his book Daddyji, carried lifelong guilt for failing to diagnose correctly the meningitis that caused Mehta’s blindness. At age 5, Mehta’s parents put him on a train to Bombay, 1,000 miles from home, so he could learn braille at a school for blind veterans. Face to Face tells the story of Mehta’s childhood and the family’s struggle to get young Mehta an education, a journey that takes him to Arkansas, California, Harvard, and Oxford. Mehta is a fine writer who is able to describe vividly things he experienced yet did not see.
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