Masala and tea. Gaudy weddings, loud politicians, psychedelic rickshaws and cricket. What defines South Asian culture? Or more fundamentally, what is South Asia? Seeing as the entire region floats smugly above the equator, something must have really gone south for it to earn that name. Here are four underrated novels that can help you uncover facets of this enigmatic, multifarious culture that you might not have had the chance to explore through more mainstream works.

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid

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This is a work of fiction dressed up as a self-help book. Written in the second person, it puts you – the reader – in the protagonist’s shoes. Born into poverty-stricken family in a remote village in Pakistan, you must make your way up the social ladder and become “filthy rich” against all odds. Your painstaking journey towards that goal – fraught with lessons learned the hard way – will lead you (the reader) to better appreciate the wide array of challenges facing the average impoverished individual trying to make ends meet in South Asia and the many sacrifices one needs to make in order to reach the top.

Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil

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The setting of this novel contrasts Mohsin Hamid’s work, in that here you have a wealthy protagonist who finds himself spending considerable time among what the society would call the degenerates, the outcast. In the seedy opium dens of Mumbai, the narrator meets an assortment of colorful characters: the transsexual Dimple, whose life experiences revolve around prostitution and opium; the painter Newton Pinter Xavier whose creativity takes flight when he dabbles with the grotesque; and the ominous murderer Pathar Maar, whose role unfolds later on in the plot. In a novel that begins with a sentence that’s seven pages long, you can expect literary gymnastics. As one review puts it, it “isn’t so much a story as a non-linear network of little stories and vignettes”. These little narrative snippets, stemming from the pipes of intoxication, cast light upon characters and experiences from a frequently-shunned segment of society which urges you to stop and reflect upon the everyday struggles they face.

The Good Muslim by Tahmima Anam

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Set in post-liberation Bangladesh, The Good Muslim unearths the two major sentiments running through present day Bangladeshi society: the spirit of liberation and the fervor of faith. One would imagine that the two could co-exist, but as the plot depicts – they are often seen to be at odds. Maya and her brother Sohail, inseparable during the war, seem to grow increasingly distant as their life choices are driven by two distinct sentiments. She takes up medical practice out of a deep sense of patriotism, while he – disturbed by macabre experiences of the war – recedes from worldly concerns completely, and finds solace in the message of faith. As the two callings tug at each other, a whirlpool of chaos unfurls, unveiling some of the dark underlying dynamics of the newborn country that can be traced in its society to this day.

Song of Kali by Dan Simmons

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The only work in this list by an author not from South Asian origins, Song of Kali was included in the Fantasy Masterworks series – although one could argue it would perhaps be more accurate to categorize it as horror. Set in Calcutta, the plot unravels through the morbid travelogue of a detective discovering the city’s dark secrets, engulfing him into the world of a sinister cult, deception and murder, all crafted with a dash of the surreal. Despite dabbling with the supernatural, the plot is not escapist reading. One could draw parallels between the terrifying experiences of the detective with a newcomer visiting the region, full of expectations of color and festivities, and falling into one of the many ill-intending quarters that exist in society. It also raises important points of contemplation about manipulation, poverty and family.

If you’ve read something insightful that we’ve missed out, why not share a brief taster below?

by Chowderchai