6 Stunning Indian Books That Will Take You Through the Sacred and Profane

Indian literature is positively buzzing with new vigors of life and brilliant strains of experimentalism, staging stories that explore both the ephemeralities of memory and fluidity of identity, as well as the grit of its everyday. With titles that include Jawed’s scintillating Neemat Khana, an exploration of the Muslim middle-class through the dynamism of its kitchens, to Misra’s Earth Quake and its anti-establishment rebellions, this list of stunning Indian titles is sure to introduce you to some of the country’s most evocative and bold contemporary authors. 

The Paradise of Food by Khalid Jawed

Published in 2022 and winner of the JCB Prize, this remarkably translated Urdu classic, marked by its keen experimentation and raw honesty, is a unique novel that truly transcends a typical plot. Neemat Khana follows Muslim boy Hafeezullah Babur, urf Guddu Miyaan, his life in a sprawling middle-class Muslim joint family, and his evolution from being a wide-eyed teenager to a senile cynic. Spanning over five decades, Jawed’s narrative is remarkable for its focus on food, specifically the employment of the kitchen in detailing the sordid, morbid and mundane every day of human existence. Through pieces of bread, guts, liver and onions, his kitchen is both a haven and a battleground, exploring themes of hunger, desire, and the complexities of life within a changing Muslim community in India. Praised for its unadulterated and unflinching look at human nature, The Paradise of Food offers a sensuous and stirring feast that’s more than just food for thought.

Lorenzo Searches for the Meaning of Life by Upamanyu Chatterjee

Chatterjee’s Lorenzo Searches for the Meaning of Life takes us on an exhilarating and enlightening spiritual odyssey across cultures and continents. Crafting a captivating blend of roman-a-clef and fictional biography, with the plot being loosely based on Chatterjee’s friend Fabrizio Senesi, the novel starts with a 19-year-old artist Lorenzo, injured in a road accident, and his tumultuous journey of physical (and spiritual) recovery. Forced into a sort of life v. man confrontation by the accident, our winning protagonist finds himself drawn to the purpose and peace allegedly offered by spiritualism. Starting with Monday prayer meetings and local catechisms, he quickly moves towards sanctuaries and monasteries, spending over a decade at a sanctuary in Italy and then in Bangladesh’s Benedictine Praglia Abbey. Much like a refined Indian Eat Pray Love, Lorenzo’s search takes him across vivid countrysides and motor rides, queer encounters involving locals and papaya milk, as well as rich vagaries of labour– from milking cows on your haunches to discovering the rigidities of Benedictine routine. Wrestling with faith, service, and the possibility of love, the novel employs its character’s arc to explore the complexities of spiritual yearning and the philosophical value of hermit-hood.

Rohzin by Rahman Abbas

Winner of 2018’s Sahitya Akademi Award, Abbas’ fourth-novel Rohzin, described as ‘a turning point in the Urdu novel’, must be taken seriously. With a taut and bodily plotline that makes Mumbai its protagonist, the novel takes the fluid character of the metropolis to vividly explore the subconscious desires and dreams of the souls that occupy it. Rohzin, which roughly translates to ‘the soul’s melancholy’, pushes the readers into the depths of existential maladies, sensual remedies and the fevered many-headed forms of sexual and spiritual yearning. Through the subcutaneous existence of Mumbai within each character, the plot, interspersed by surrealist visions of Mumbai Devi, employs the memories, interconnectivity and experiences of its characters to capture the ghostly, bloody and magical sinews that compose the palimpsest of this culturally and historically rich city.  An Urdu novel in translation, Abbas’ narrative evocatively delves into the liminalities between imagination and reality.

The Law of Desire: Rulings on Sex and Sexuality in India by Madhavi Menon

A slim book composed of five sections, Memon’s The Laws of Desire examines India’s judicial interventions into its citizen’s sexual rights via highly-loaded conceptions of the Preamble, the Criminal, the Immoral, the Obscene, and the Unnatural.  An interrogation of judicial morality, the scope and limitations of legalese as well as the varied bureaucratic inquiries launched in the course of such courtly hearings, Menon’s book asks essential questions regarding reproduction rights, homosexuality, the nature of sex work, the configuration of the third gender as well as the deep-rooted presence of cis-het authoritative judgements in public treatments of ‘deviant’ identities. An essential as well as a brilliantly concise read, queer activist and teacher Menon’s The Law of Desire: Rulings on Sex and Sexuality in India implores readers to critically examines the laws and language that hope to inspect, categories and linguistically define the fluidities of desire and identity.

The Earth Quakes: Late Anti-Stories by Subimal Misra

Anti-writer Misra’s subversive Anti-Stories is a final act of rebellion, a collection of his last twenty stories (1991-2010) tackling politics from the global to the local. The collection is a testament to Subimal’s anarchist activism, in his attempt to provoke, challenge and deftly defy all moral, political and literary readerly expectations. Weaving in the fall of the USSR, a unipolar post-Cold War world and the Gulf War alongside Indian social movements and the unseating of the CPI(M), Misra’s sprawling narrative terrain invokes a diverse set of characters, from wandering minstrels to protestors, that are pivotal to the narrative’s anti-authoritarian scheme. Earth Quake is an accomplishment in being a confrontational read that will shake your perspective and leave you questioning the status quo.

Body and Blood by Benyamin

Body and Blood by Benyamin is a suspenseful novel that explores faith, death, and the dark side of religion. The story begins with a seemingly ordinary accident, a minor hit-and-run, that surprisingly proves to be fatal. After Midhun’s unexpected and tragic death, his organs are quickly donated to save the lives of several others. This turn of events sparks suspicion in his friends Rithu, Ragesh, and Sandhya as they uncover a sinister plot involving staged accidents, medically induced comas, and a religious fellowship with a hidden agenda. As the friends chase the truth, they grapple with complex questions of faith and confront a powerfully corrupt religious organisation. Body and Blood promises a thrilling ride that will leave you questioning everything you thought you knew.

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