In Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India, the author tells the story of her family, focusing on her parents and especially her mother and her siblings, who were born untouchables, very poor, but luckily educated by Canadian missionaries. They also came of age during the early days of an independent India and her older uncle was a member of the Communist Party and student activist.
I found the lengthy recounting of historical movement rather tedious but the family history fascinating, especially how the caste system condemned all its members to being exploited, homeless, and generally kept down. (And women had it even worse, educated or not!)
The Windfall is the hilarious story of an Indian middle-aged couple who, after selling a successful website, move from a crowded apartment building into a luxuiours house, discovering a very different lifestyle. It could be a simple nouveau-riche satire, but it’s a lot more than that since the heroes are not blindly trying to imitate their rich neighbors and have a very balanced approach to wealth and the ridiculousness of spending extravagantly. There is a funny subplot of their son, who is consuming more drugs than studying at a second-rate American business school. Won’t change the literary world but the story is entertaining, and deeper than it seems at first.
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness opens with a transgender woman living in a cemetery — and renting out “rooms” there, which is to say that the cast of characters is unusually diverse and offbeat. It is, however, centered on the Kashmir conflict and the shadowy role of a few militants and their families — and guerrilla war can make for pretty tedious storytelling. Fortunately the characters are, indeed, idiosyncratic and complicated and the strands of the story are artfully woven so I enjoyed the book, mostly, but don’t do looking for a fast-paced plot.
This time, still in Mumbai, Aravind Adiga tackles the great Indian passion that is cricket. Selection Day focuses on two talented brothers and their rival and friend who, unlike them, comes from a privileged background. The story also stars their obsessed father, who has trouble relinquishing his overbearing iron grip on his sons to their coach, a love interest, and multiple intermediaries in the cricket world, all expecting a little black money from the deals.
There are some wonderful observations of sibling rivalry, the seven kinds of Jain truths, and how decisions that are good for the family may not be so good for the individual — but too many pages describing the second day of cricket matches with 256 runs did me in.
The Other One Percent: Indians in America presents a detailed analysis of people of Indian origin who either immigrated to the US or who are the descendants of immigrants — and who constitute just 1% of the population, doubling its percentage in the past 20 years thanks to a massive influx linked to hiring of skilled engineers in the high-tech industry. The authors highlight the striking differences in education, origin, and socio-economic level between the older and newer immigrants and especially investigates the remarkable number of entrepreneurs among the more recent immigrants. Fascinating, whether you live in one of the clusters of Indian immigration (like Silicon Valley) or not.
Sleeping on Jupiter stars a young woman whose family was killed in an unnamed civil war and who was rescued in an ashram where the guru systematically abused her and other girls. Adopted overseas, she returns to the city where she was raised to confront the past. Traveling on the same train are three elderly friends who are going there to worship. The descriptions of the friends, their concerns about each other (one is clearly going senile) and their children, and their fractured adventures are well-rendered, if banal. The travails of the young woman are heart-rending but somehow distant, and sadly familiar as well. Save your reading time for something else.
Don’t Let Him Know is the melancholic story of an Indian-American family that started with a bad match between a gay man and his unsuspecting bride, who herself has a secret. So they shuffle along, making the best of their lives together without ever revealing the secrets. The story is told by their son and bounces between India, Illinois, and Northern California, with tender moments and funny ones, too. It’s not as depressing as the premise may indicate.