Indian writers who defined the decade, from Siddhartha Mukherjee to Sujatha Gidla, Perumal Murugan

  • Be it in the histories of Travancore or the fictional account of one woman witnessing the Jasmine revolution, Indian writing in the 2010s brought to the fore stories stemming from real-life accounts, rooted in real-life experiences.

  • In documenting the story of Indian writing of the past decade, there are some authors who particularly stand out for the impact they have had on readers, young and old.

  • Through conversations with columnists, critics and authors, collated here is a list of Indian writers across several languages who created insightful literature, and delightful reading through the 2010s.

"If the last decade has been one of hardening identity politics, our books have served both to define us as well as to flexibly explain us," says writer Neelum Saran Gour, of Indian literature produced in the 2010s. The decade witnessed crucial moments in the country's history, which were reflected in (and in some cases, were a reflection of) the Indian writing that emerged in the last 10 years.

Writers, poets, critics and authors have collectively paid attention to the questions around identities, people and communities that were otherwise sidelined from mainstream narratives. Be it in the histories of Travancore or the fictional account of one woman witnessing the Jasmine revolution, Indian writing in the 2010s brought to the fore stories stemming from real-life accounts, rooted in real-life experiences. As readers, it has been a decade of perceiving history and mythology as lessons for an increasingly polarising people.

It has also been a time of understanding the value of translation which can bring important works produced in regional languages to a larger audience. Gour, for instance, points to the brilliant translations executed by writers such as Rana Safvi and Rakhshanda Jalil, which "mine the rich seams of Urdu and Persian poetry, history and memoir, bringing into the popular domain of the English reading public a parallel stream of (the) Islamicate tradition".

In documenting the story of Indian writing of the past decade, there are some authors who particularly stand out for the impact they have had on Indian readers, young and old. Through conversations with columnists, critics and authors, collated here is a list of Indian writers across several languages who created insightful literature, and delightful reading.

A compilation of Indian writers who defined the decade:

Devdutt Pattanaik and other writers in the mythology genre

"One of the dominant trends perceptible among the sort of books published in English and avidly read and discussed by a broad spectrum of readers is what I would roughly term books of cultural revival and reinterpretation," says Gour. Part of her list therefore is Pattanaik whose works such as Jaya: An Illustrated Retelling of the Mahabharata and Shyam: An Illustrated Retelling of the Bhagavata have sought to explain mythological tales by doing away with misrepresentations around the essence of ancient scriptures.

Bombay Balchão author Jane Borges says of Pattanaik's works, "He made me appreciate and savour our mythology. Some of his retellings offer lessons for life. He is a sheer joy to read, and he tells you the stories just the way Indian stories should be narrated."

In keeping with her idea of works that addressed reinterpretation of mythological tales, Gour also draws attention to books recasting the narratives of mythological women like Shakuntala, Sita, Radha and even Kaikeyi. She calls these novels "works of Indic self-definition". Inevitably, her list includes names such as Namita Gokhale, author and co-director of the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. The latter, who had crafted Draupadi's story with sheer brilliance in the Palace of Illusions also wrote of Sita's courage and resilience in her 2019 work, Forest of Enchantments.

Along these lines, writer and journalist Jai Arjun Singh speaks of author Karthika Naïr, whose "tour de force, a literary highlight of the last decade, is the award-winning Until the Lions, a book that uses a dazzling range of poetic forms to give voice to the Mahabharata’s marginalised characters."

Also read: A decade of Indian writing in English: Jerry Pinto's fiction to Sampurna Chattarji’s poetry, notes on 10 years of reading

Shashi Tharoor

The MP from Thiruvananthapuram is an insightful speaker and writer, as also a very prolific one. The author was recently conferred the Sahitya Akademi Award for his work, An Era of Darkness which chronicles the impact of the colonial regime on India. Tharoor's 2018 work, Why I Am A Hindu, is his insight into the tenets of Hinduism as a rebuttal to the rise of Hindu nationalism in the country.

Author and columnist Avik Chanda says of Tharoor's work, "Insightful and incisive, witty, flamboyant and indefatigable, Tharoor has published six books in this decade, with no hint of letting up on his prodigious output in the years to come."

 Indian writers who defined the decade, from Siddhartha Mukherjee to Sujatha Gidla, Perumal Murugan

Indian writing of the past decade has sparked conversations around a wide array of issues from caste-based oppression to mental health

Perumal Murugan and Vivek Shanbag

Tamil author Perumal Murugan's Madhorubagan received an English translation this decade entitled, One Part Woman, which was soon followed by his 2017 novel, Poonachi, or the Story of a Black Goat, bringing his thoughts of freedom, violence, tenderness and love to a large Indian audience.

Gokhale notes, "Perumal Murugan writes with the sure and tender precision of a true master."

Of the authors that writer and literary agent Kanishka Gupta believes to have had significant reach among readers are Murugan, and Kannada novelist and playwright Vivek Shanbag. He says of the translated works, One Part Desire and Shanbag's Ghachar Ghochar, "While these two translated novels tell very different stories and have had a dramatically different passage to literary glory, they seem to have achieved a common goal that had been eluding works of translations from regional Indian languages for the longest time: placing them on the global map. Both novels have been exquisitely translated — in particular, Ghachar Ghochar."

Deepak Unnikrishnan

Drawing attention his personal favourite, the 2017 collection of 28 interconnected stories featured in Unnikrishnan's Temporary People, Gupta says, "Hugely experimental and highly underrated (despite the Hindu Literary Prize), this book uses magic realism, fantasy and satire to tell the story of the Malayalis living in Gulf. It’s a demanding (and sometimes disorienting) read but nevertheless a feat of imagination and writing craft. It’s my favourite English novel from India in the last decade."

Jerry Pinto

Borges says of Pinto, "If there is a writer who really stood out for me in the last decade, it would have to be Pinto, not just because he consistently brought out great books, but also because of his body of work."

"From poetry to stories from grandparents (for children) to an achingly realistic novel, Pinto's oeuvre has expanded across genres," remarks Chanda "at the same time, matured to the point of vintage."

Pinto's debut, Em and the big Hoom, published in 2012, was filled with "effortless humour," Borges says and sparked a conversation around mental health that is still ongoing.

Of the multiple award-winning novel, Gupta says that it changed the way many people look at mental illness. "I know so many reader and writer friends who go back to this book whenever they’re dealing with major personal issues. The characters and the setting are so real and authentic that it shakes one up but what makes the novel soar is its humour and beating heart."

Borges concludes: "He (Pinto) truly represents the most important voice in Indian literature today."

Uday Prakash

Also a part of Namita Gokhale's list of significant contributors to Indian writing is the Hindi author and poet Uday Prakash. His 2012 novel, The Walls of Delhi, translated into English by Jason Grunebaum, narrates three distinct stories through comic descriptions of living in urbanised India.

Remarks Gokhale, "The ever provocative Uday Prakash's novella Mohan Das is emblematic at so many levels."

Anees Salim

Jai Arjun Singh notes, "Salim had been writing for decades — putting manuscripts together — before he became a published author in 2012, and his first four novels then came out in a 24-month rush, winning a heap of literary prizes. His parade of unforgettable characters include Hasina, the spunky young protagonist of Tales from a Vending Machine, and the melancholy Amar, telling the story of his luckless family in The Blind Lady’s Descendants."

"Salim himself stays away from the public gaze," he continues, "declining to attend literary festivals or award ceremonies; the archetype of the author who lets his work do the talking."

Akhila Naik

A landmark work in Odia literature, Akhila Naik's Dalit novel Bheda, translated into English by professor Raj Kumar, stands out as a disturbing narrative of the caste system, which continues to be intrinsic to most community structures across the country.

Shaswat Panda, a professor of English literature at North Orissa University says of this work, "In my view, among the works produced in Odia in the last decade, Akhila Naik's novel Bheda stands out distinctly. It is the first Odia Dalit novel. The plot revolves around the life of a young rebellious Dalit student. The novel is remarkably brilliant for its incisive irony-laden wit, its powerful imagination of Dalit resistance, and its generous use of colloquial idiom."

Authors such as Devdutt Pattanaik, Sujatha Gidla and Jerry Pinto among others have emerged as defining authors of the decade.

Authors such as Devdutt Pattanaik, Sujatha Gidla and Jerry Pinto among others have emerged as defining Indian writers of the decade.

Siddhartha Mukherjee

Mukherjee's The Emperor of All Maladies also figures in Kanishka Gupta's list of excellent Indian writing that has been produced in this decade. He says, "Siddhartha Mukherjee’s path-breaking, Pulitzer prize winning ‘biography’ of cancer not only raised the bar for science writing but is also responsible for popularising the genre in India. The book marries history, science, investigation, personal memoir and anecdote to tell the story of a disease that has affected each one of us in some way or the other."

Sujatha Gidla

Gilda's debut, Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India finds itself in Gupta's rundown of defining Indian writing. The author, a conductor on the New York City Subway writes of caste, the Maoist movement and her accounts from her mother's life against the backdrop of the peasant revolts in a newly independent India.

Gupta notes, "Sujatha Gidla’s brave memoirs of an untouchable family works on all levels: personal history, social history and a passionate polemic. The book will go down as a landmark work in this space and will be used as reference material for decades to come."

Benyamin

The author, who won the JCB Prize for his novel, Jasmine Days has quickly emerged as a voice that addresses the immigrant communities in the Middle East and the impact of the revolution on their lives.

Jane Borges says of Benyamin, "When we speak about diaspora literature, stories of Indians in the Middle East has conveniently been ignored for the longest time. Considering the massive Indian work force that lives and survives there, it deserved an experience in literature. I am a Middle East product, so Benyamin's novels have resonated with me, like no other. His novels reveal the grim reality of life lived in wealth and abundance. He does justice to the politics of Arab life, and what it means to an expat."

Manu S Pillai

The Yuva Sahitya Akademi Award-winning author has in the past decade made historical non-fiction accessible, interesting, and engrossing to readers across the country. While he chronicles the monarchy of Travancore in the Ivory Throne, his 2018 work Rebel Sultans: The Deccan from Khilji to Shivaji traces the story of the warriors in Deccan.

"What I like about Manu is how he makes history accessible, readable and pure pleasure," Borges remarks, "He is not sharing anything that hasn't been documented before but what he has done through his books and columns, is remind us why our histories are not redundant. I am really looking forward to see him grow from here. He is someone to watch out."

Anjum Hasan

"Most writers would be content with being acclaimed in just one of these fields: novel-writing, short fiction, essays, poetry, criticism," remarks Jai Arun Singh. "Hasan has maintained consistently high standards in all of them – high points include her novel The Cosmopolitans, the short-story collection Difficult Pleasures and her essays for Caravan magazine – in addition to working diligently as a books-page editor for years."

Annie Zaidi

"Much like Hasan," Singh says, "Annie Zaidi has worked across a number of forms – essays and long-form journalism (collected in Known Turf), scripts, plays (the prize-winning Untitled-1), short stories (Love Stories #1 to 14), an allegorical novel (Prelude to a Riot) – bringing her gentle yet sharply observant sensibility to them all."

Amit Chaudhuri

"Erudite, ironic and lyrical", Chaudhuri's four books in this decade have traversed a large space, from the "seemingly banal to the sublime", says Avik Chanda.

Jeet Thayil

With the publication of Narcopolis in 2012, "a new side to the author's persona came to light this decade, presenting us with the unknown, insidious side of the metropolis, while not abandoning his poetic sensibilities" says Chanda.

Amitav Ghosh

Two of the three books that make up the Ibis trilogy were written in the 2010s. But for critic and columnist Aditya Mani Jha, Amitav Ghosh's finest work of the decade was The Great Derangement, a "book-length call for literary fiction to engage with climate change in new and exciting ways — and in Gun Island, a novel that answered that call". "Gun Island, in particular, has become my second-favourite Ghosh book of all time (behind The Calcutta Chromosome, which still rules)," says Jha. "At any given time in this novel, there'll be a number of Big Ideas being discussed on the page in a calm, serene way. And yet somehow, the narrative has the hurtling, slightly reckless pace of a disaster movie. One for the ages, this novel."

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Updated Date: Jan 15, 2020 09:25:37 IST