What are my five favourite Asian books of the past decade? That’s what organizers are asking those taking part in this year’s Festival of Asian Literature. They are hoping to compile ‘The 50 Best Books of the Century of Asia’. Nothing, perhaps, reveals more the artificial nature of ‘Asian’ as a category than thinking about such a list. Any book that is ‘focused on Asia or Asians, written by an Asian, non-Asian, or from the Asian diaspora’ is eligible for the Festival list. But what is it that connects, say, Salman Rushdie’s The Enchantress of Florence, Khandahar Cockney by James Fergusson and John Keay’s History of India? Or Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower, Tahmima Anam’s The Golden Age and Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore? Should Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis find a place in such a list? Or Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red? What about VS Ramachandran’s The Tell-Tale Brain? It seems bizarre to describe it as an ‘Asian book’ but is it any less Asian than, say, Hari Kunzuru’s My Revolutions?
The idea of ‘Asian literature’ raises all the old questions about what constitutes the ‘East’ and how it is imagined. But I am speaking at the Festival (or, rather, I’m ‘in conversation’ with Hanif Kureishi on the last night of the Festival, something I’m very much looking forward to) and I never turn down an invitation to make a list. So, Asian literature may not exist but here is the best of it this century. It’s an initial, almost-off-the-top-of-my head list of five books. Interestingly it seems a lot easier to think of good fiction from the past decade than good non-fiction:
A salutary tale of how America made its own monsters, Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars is by far the best account of the role played by Washington in the rise of Afghani jihadism, and in the creation of the Taliban. A seminal work of investigative history, it’s an indispensable book for anyone who wants to understand the perverse logic that helped create today’s world, and continues to shape it.
A brilliantly argued, scrupulously researched and inevitably controversial revisionist history of Britain’s treatment of India in the 1940s and in particular of the role of Winston Churchill in the Bengal famine of 1943 and the horror that was Partition. It is a book to shock even those who know something of the real history of the period and of the callousness and cynicism that drove British imperial policy.
‘How did it come to this?’, asks an unnamed Guantanamo captive at the beginning. It is a question that is woven into the fabric of Kamila Shamsie’s extraordinary novel. Moving from Nagasaki to Delhi to New York to Guantanamo Bay, from the dropping of the first atomic bomb to the partition of India to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to 9/11, Burnt Shadows is the retelling of modern history as fable. At times clunky and over-written, it is nevertheless always provocative and enlightening, a work that is to the Noughties as The English Patient was to the Nineties.
A quietly told, cleverly constructed, beautifully delicate fable of infatuation and disenchantment with America, a subtle and elegant thriller that gets not just into the head of the protagonist Changez but also to the heart of the way we imagine the relationships between East and West, a tale that probes the treacherous faultlines across which the war on terror is being currently waged.
A luminous, mesmerizing first collection of stories, eight interlinked tales about a Punjabi feudal patriarch and the minions who work for him. Power, class and sex in the corrupt chaos that is Pakistan.
There are undoubtedly many books that I have forgotten. And many more that I have not read. And no doubt my list will change by the time I have to finalise it in a couple of weeks. So, any book I’ve missed out and any that should not be on the list, let me know.