Comfortably Numb

Sheila Kumar's Storehouse

Published on: 12/26/21 2:38 PM

Feature: Best Fiction of 2021


The year had its fair share of good, even very good fiction, with historical fiction gaining a slight edge over the others. These are the books that made an impression on my twin avatars of reviewer and reader.

The Heart Asks Pleasure First. Karuna Ezara Parikh, in her remarkable debut work, lets readers watch a blossoming love story between an Indian Hindu and a Pakistani Muslim, holding in it all the kindling necessary for a conflagration.

China Room. Sunjeev Sahota`s edgy, moving  story tells of a moment of misidentification and its dreadful aftermath. China Room has three young Punjabi girls contracted in marriage to three brothers, all of them controlled by the mother Mai, a woman who does not bother to cloak her iron fist in any kind of velvet glove.

Rumours of Spring. Farah Bashir’s poignant memoir, set in the Kashmir of the Nineties, is a coming-of-age novel that  examines a combat zone, the survival skills and state of mind that needs necessarily to be cultivated, the chipping away of self-esteem and dignity. But there is also the remembrance of gentler and happier times.

Feral dreams, Mowgli and His Mothers. In Stephen Alter`s update on Kipling`s tale, we have Daniel, a 65-year-old facility supervisor at MIT, coming back to Shakkarganj to lay his adoptive mother`s ashes to rest. Elizabeth Cranston, the woman who adopted him, had nicknamed this feral foundling Mowgli. If this grown-up Daniel is understandably a flat character after the Mowgli who roamed the jungle atop his elephant mother`s back, that then is how real life must play out.

Jungle Nama: Amitav Ghosh takes the legend of Bon Bibi, the guardian spirit of the Sundarban forests, sets it in dwipodipoyar verse form, and gives readers an hour or two of much reading pleasure. Woven into the epic are topics like the eroding ecosystem of the Sunderban, how man wreaks havoc wherever he goes, as also the cruelties inflicted on man by the elements. The artwork by Salman Toor is more striking than pretty; there is also an audio version with musician Ali Sethi.

Roads to Happiness. Not all the short pieces featured here are new l but Ruskin  Bond brings to charmed life all that he touches upon, whether it is chairs that expand to suit an expanding posterior, simians who make away with bright coloured pajama bottoms and  shred a manuscript or two, good-natured tigers or an earth fast  tiring of sustaining billions of human beings.

A Red-necked Green Bird.  This new collection of short stories by the veteran writer Ambai, C S Lakshmi, and translated by G.J.V. Prasad, covers an interesting gamut of topics, all of them relevant, all of them topical. If there`s one leitmotif to the stories, it`s the presence of a working feminism that confers dignity and  agency upon women.

Song of Draupadi. Ira Mukhoty`s look at Draupadi as a complex, difficult woman, is a compelling read. Taking up the story of the character who is widely regarded as the conscience of the Mahabharata, the author, in her first attempt at fiction, gives us a Draupadi we may not sympathise with but whose motives we can certainly understand.

The Last Queen. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni`s work of historical fiction is a sympathetic account of Jindan`s journey from a hardscrabble life in a Gujranwala village to becoming Maharaja Ranjit Singh`s favourite and  last queen. The book  is an absolute page-turner, with snippets of history delivered in  engaging capsules that fluidly move the plot forwards.

In Asoca, Irwin Allan Sealy does a contemporary retelling of Emperor Ashoka`s story, and does a very good job of it. The warrior king who suddenly gives up a life of violence and turns his considerable intelligence to statecraft instead, continues to be an object of literary interest, and Sealy`s version gives us Ashoka`s timeline in the emperor`s own words.

Honourable mention must be made of Anees Salim`s The Odd Book of Baby Names,  which feature the melancholic, quirky accounts of a string of legit and illegit offspring of an erstwhile ruler; Lahore, the first of Manreet Sodhi Someshwar`s Partition trilogy,  and Simran Dhir`s Best Intentions, an Austenesque  tale transplanted into the tonier parts of Delhi.

Sheila Kumar  is a manuscript editor, author of four books,  and a .journalist who reviews a lot of books.






A Red-necked Green BirdAsocabest fiction of 2021Best IntentionsChina RoomDeccan HeraldFeral DreamsJungle namaLahoreRoads to HappinessRumours of SpringSong of DraupadiSunday Herald magazineThe Heart Asks Pleasure FirstThe Last QueenThe Odd Book of Baby Names

Sheila Kumar • December 26, 2021

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