Here is a list of award-winning books by Indian female authors which celebrate common stories retold in their literary voices.
A girl with a book scares some people in India who want to see her only in the kitchen.
Books are a great leveller. That’s why they scare the daylights out of exploiters of women who mock at women, for whiling away their precious time on books that stealthily promote brain-washing propaganda and fancy idealistic notions. Women are often told not to probe, ask questions and to always ‘know and be in their limits’.
Thankfully, the canvas image of the Indian woman has drastically changed from that of a silent being to a bright and bold soul. She has proclaimed proudly that only the sky is now her true limit. And she belongs rightfully in that limitless space.
Books are HER voice. There are many Indian women rucking up a quite a stir in the literary circles. Their award-winning books by Indian women are lush in expression and poignant while exploring varied genres. Here is the list of the best books by Indian female authors which have won awards.
Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
“Everything is there.” (in India)
An Indian American by birth, Jhumpa Lahiri is the most famous voice and spokesperson for NRI women. She tells their story like no other – their identity crisis, quirks, angst, melancholy, ambitions and flickering spirit of hope through charming characters and familiar common experiences.
Her debut book, Interpreter of Maladies, snagged the Pulitzer Prize, The New Yorker’s Award in 2000 and the PEN/Hemingway Award in 1999. An anthology of nine short stories, it touches upon a variety of issues including the importance of communication in marriage, Indo-Pak friendships across the borders, casteism, stigma of a disabled Indian woman, unhappy marriages, oblivious spouses, disengaged parents, unsuspecting victims in the children, immigrants who stubbornly refuse to assimilate in a foreign country while pining for India and those who happily blend into their new home country.
Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai
“You are like slaves running after the West, embarrassing yourself. It’s because of people like you we never get anywhere.”
Awarded the Man Booker Prize and National Book Critics Circle Awards for fiction (2006), this no-nonsense novel stays far away from fluffing up the reality with fantastical hope. Desai portrays the struggles of the poor and middle-class Indian immigrants, who learn the hard truth that there is no perfect place in this world. Kiran is skeptical about the aggressively marketed globalisation and consumer-driven multiculturalism and is cautious about the lethal global sharks as opposed to the big fish in a small town.
The Twentieth Wife by Indu Sundaresan
“He had been her choice when she was eight, was still her choice when she was thirty-four, and would be equally important to her for the rest of her life.”
This quote sums up the love of Meherrunnisa and Prince Salim that defied all logic and tradition. Winner of the Washington State Book Award in 2003, this book is a must-read for its enchanting real-life story mixed with liberal doses of history, fairytale-like fantasy, traditional grandeur and unbridled passion. It is a ‘rags to riches’ story of a bewitchingly beautiful woman who rose in stature, to become the undisputed Queen of the Mughal Empire, Nur Jahan.
Heat & Dust by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
“I think perhaps God never meant that human beings should live in such a place.”
Winner of the Booker Prize (1975), Jhablava takes a nonchalant approach and employs metaphors to convey the feelings experienced by foreigners when they visit India. ‘Heat’ symbolises the tension that exists among relationships owing to its rigid traditional societal framework while ‘Dust’ evokes the irritable discomfort experienced by Indians due to the daily pressures of a hard life and felt by foreigners, more so, who are accustomed to a clean, systematic and free lifestyle.
If It Is Sweet by Mridula Koshy
“It’s a long wait for Charu. When she comes, she is trailing a string of buoyant hearts.”
Winner of the 2009 Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize, this stylish find of a book is a collection of 19 short stories. It leaves its readers bowled over by its spontaneity and freakishness, e.g. a talking monkey. Her protagonists hail from the society’s underbelly – garbage collectors, maids, labourers. Yet, Koshy stays clear from gimmicks of any sort – no charity promotions or grandeur social messages. She conveys their story through wondrous childlike eyes and pure humanity.
Arranged Marriage by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
“Now his fingers were stroking my cheeks, my throat, moving downward. I closed my eyes and tried not to jerk away because after all it was my wifely duty.”
Winner of the American Book Award, the Bay Area Book Reviewers Award and the PEN Josephine Miles Award for fiction, Arranged Marriage fuses poetry with prose in this stellar collection of short stories. Even though arranged marriage is the common theme, each story gives a unique, fresh perspective on this ancient institution and its clash with the modern ethos.
Fire on the Mountain by Anita Desai
“Look, Nani, I have set the forest on fire. Look, Nani – look – the forest is on fire.”
Awarded the Sahitya Academy Award in 1978, the book’s female protagonist, Nanda Kaul, seemingly has it all in life. Except she never found any meaning in forced relationships and mechanical roles! In her old age, she escapes to the solitude mountains of Kasauli where she finally finds joy and companionship. The fire is symbolic of the inner turmoil that is set ablaze in the mountains, which destroys the bitter past and illuminates her inner feminine Shakti.
Rich Like Us by Nayantara Sahgal
“I had grown to adulthood nourished on monumental lies.”
Winner of the the Sinclair Prize for fiction (1985) and the Sahitya Akademi Award (1986), this multidimensional novel is about the different ways women use power to wield influence on those around them. Sahgal effortlessly blends in themes of politics, history, fiction and feminism and discusses various issues such as corruption, nepotism, religion, partition etc.
That Long Silence by Shashi Deshpande
“On the contrary, not to change is unnatural, against nature.”
In this Sahitya Akademi Award (1990) winning book, Jaya, the lead character, suffers at the hands of her controlling husband who doesn’t understand a woman’s need for her own identity and an equal place at home and in society. When Jaya’s powers of tolerance come to an end, she is forced to act.
In this award winning book, Deshpande highlights how the patriarchal society is not only responsible for silencing women in the society, but a woman’s refusal to break her long silence is also to be faulted.
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
“And the air was full of thoughts and things to say. But at times like these, only the small things are ever said.”
The first Indian citizen to win the Booker Prize (1997), Roy dares to go where no one has ever gone before. She contrasts the ‘big things’ such as society, marriage with the ‘small things’ such as incest, pedophilia, unmet sexual desires, grotesque thoughts that are hidden and unspoken with acute sensitivity. In Roy’s novel, there are lies and shame in the ‘big things’ and truth and comfort in the ‘small things’. The story is beautifully told in a poetic language and flows in a random, non-linear fashion, which aligns in seamlessly to an exhilarating climax.
The Ladies Coupe by Anita Nair
“Every night there is something to ruminate on. The vagrant mind knows no boundaries. It leaps.”
This work was voted one of the top five Indian books in 200 and was translated into more than 25 languages. The award winning book by an Indian author follows the protagonist Akhila on her journey to Kanyakumari.
She discovers the stories of five of her co-passengers who represent womanhood in all walks of life. The story is a heart-warming and thought-provoking journey that Akhila goes through told with bold tones and humour.
Moreover, it is a beautiful illustration of the lives of women in a patriarchal society and the evolution of independent thought and bonding in an oppressive environment.
The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India by Urvashi Butalia
“A half century later, there is still no memorial, no memory, no recall, except what is guarded, and now rapidly dying, in families and collective memory.”
Yet another award winning book by an Indian woman, this book won the Oral History Book Association Award in 2001. It is a collection of seventy interviews that Butalia conducted, of survivors from the Partition. Her narrative style took a different turn from the highly politicised version of the event. She portrayed the Partition as a collective, especially female experience of trauma which is an angle that is often ignored in the study of such events.
This book is one of those award winning books by Indian women that is an unforgettable contribution to South Asian non-fiction literature that focuses on the living history and memory of large-scale displacement experienced by people in India.
Zohra by Zeenuth Futehally
“How fearfully dull life would be if daughters did exactly what their mothers had done before them, just like the recurring decimal forever and ever without change.”
Within this or any given list of female writers, Zeenuth Futehally would be the least known. Nevertheless, it is important to include her name in discussions of women’s writing in English because her work, Zohra (1951) holds credit for being the first novel in English written by a Muslim woman from India.
This is a major achievement considering the fact that in the space of Indian women’s literature in English, most spots are taken up by Hindu upper-class women.
It tells the story of Zohra, a woman born into an elite Nawabi family in Hyderabad who has an untapped passion for writing. The work weaves personal conflicts within Zohra’s mind as she falls in love with her brother-in-law and early twentieth century communal politics in Hyderabad, which was torn up by constant struggle between the aristocracy and the public. It is a great book to pick up to be transported to a forgotten time.
How many of the books from this list have you read? Have you read any other Indian books with strong female characters which you have particularly liked? Let me know in the comments below.
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*Orginally published on Women’s Web.