A Dive into South Asian Literature

By Rafay Siddiqui

Charlotte Bronte. Mark Twain. Charles Dickens. Ernest Hemingway. F. Scott Fitzgerald — need I go on? In the grand scheme of literature, a considerable amount of novels anointed as “classics” by modern standards are usually penned by European and/or American authors. South Asians are already underrepresented as it is in countless social and political institutions in the United States. With regards to literature, however, South Asian society has especially received the short end of the stick. As it stands today, only one percent of children’s books featured protagonists of Black, Asian, or Minority Ethnic backgrounds, and a mere four percent of books featured at least one character of color.

As a result, this unfortunate dismissal yields significant implications. Despite continuous economic and political growth, mainstream media and pop culture has not held South Asian society with high esteem, subjecting its vibrant history and heritage to a post-colonial inferiority complex. Deemed to this day as “third-world countries,” a distinction that is obsolete and dehumanizing, nations such as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and several others are needlessly cast aside in the global cultural anthology, preventing our perspectives, rituals, and customs from shining through.

Given this critical, overarching issue, it has become evermore important to showcase South Asian works in the United States and around the world. In the spirit of this cause, we will showcase several fantastic novels that have transcended literary archetypes and navigated the complexities of modern South Asian society. 

  1. The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai

Situated within a remote region of Mount Kanchenjunga in the Himalayas, Desai’s story revolves around a retired judge whose orphaned granddaughter Sai asks for hospitality. Left in the care of the judge’s chef, who is fixated on his son Biju’s unstable culinary career in New York, Sai and her experiences with the judge shed tremendous light on the dichotomy of joy and despair — all while illuminating the implications of British colonialism within the modern world.

2. Exit West by Mohsid Hamid

Set within a nameless country besieged by civil war, Hamid’s Exit West tracks the romantic developments of Saeed and Nadia amid their attempts to immigrate. However, Hamid cranks the narrative’s complexity up another notch. Amid the political violence transpiring in the city, Saeed and Nadia begin to hear chatter about doors that behave as “portals” to other nations. Although reluctant to pass this threshold, the escalating conflict prompts the couple to leave their homeland behind, resulting in newfound changes in their relationship. Inspired by his home city of Lahore, Pakistan, Hamid navigates the characters’ feelings of loyalty, courage, and alienation through a metaphysical abstraction of their emotional and physical journey.

3. Suncatcher by Romesh Gunesekera

A coming-of-age novel based in 1960s Ceylon (modern-day Sri Lanka), Gunesekera situates Kairo within a dynamic yet unstable society. Schools are closed, governmental institutions are dysfunctional, and the news press is under dire threat. Meanwhile, as Kairo tinkers with western superhero comics, bikes, or daydreams, he meets Jay, a meandering teenager who collects fish and birds for his home’s grand garden. Over time, as Jay guides Kairo from fictitious worlds to resourceful ambitions, Kairo begins to realize the “price of privilege” and “embarks on a journey of devastating consequence.” 

Within a collegiate setting, bringing artistic expression to light yields significant implications for the South Asian community. Despite comprising the third largest Asian demographic in the United States, the community can feel outright ignored at times due to social and political distinctions entrenched for decades. In other words, “some important cultural and historical facts get lost in the search for a common story” (Patel, 2010). Coupled with archaic stereotypes, most infamously the “Model Minority Myth,” South Asian students may accordingly feel disconnected with their academic institutions and society at large, as their heritage is perceived as primitive and robotic. In the grand scheme, such labels imply that South Asian stories are not worth sharing — for the rest of the world to hear. 

Most importantly, showcasing South Asian literature with the world imparts valuable cultural experiences that resonate with global audiences — especially with immigrants. One study, in particular, affirms that feelings of solitude and loneliness are shared more commonly among first-generation migrants and native inhabitants. Given the imminent culture shock that migrants face, it becomes evermore important to bring South Asian literature into the limelight. In doing so, these books can serve as “portals into other worlds,” wherein children, adolescents, and adults alike can “see themselves” as protagonists navigating through common struggles and overcoming adversity.

For a larger, more comprehensive list of South Asian novels, check out the following link.

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