Nilanjana S Roy picks the writers whose forthcoming books are worth looking forward to.
Vilayanur S Ramachandran
Along with Oliver Sacks, V S Ramachandran can take the credit for changing our perception of the human mind — and the human self. In Phantoms in the Brain, the neuroscientist explored the ways in which the brain creates a sense of self, and the remapping of neurological pathways. Start the year with The Tell-tale Brain: A Quest for What Makes Us Human (Random House), in which Ramachandran looks at the conundrum of self-awareness via autism, mirror neurons and synaesthesia.
With his first two novels, Point of Return and Surface, Siddhartha Deb established himself as a writer who was interested in the untold stories, the margins, the forgotten histories of India. The terrain with which he’s most comfortable concerns areas that are “on the physical map, but not on the mental map” of most Indians. The Beautiful and the Damned: A Portrait of the New India (Random Canada, Picador India) promises to move beyond the easy snapshots of the country, as Deb brings his scepticism and openness to a series of travels across the country. It’s set, he said in an interview, in Delhi, Bangalore, Hyderabad, but also in “slums, godforsaken villages, post-apocalyptic factory towns”.
A former pilot, and current head of the BBC Urdu service in Pakistan, Hanif made his mark with the blackly funny A Case of Exploding Mangoes, where tapeworms and General Zia’s assassination came together in one of the more assured debuts from any of the subcontinent’s writers. His style is raw, shot through with sarcasm and dark humour; his eye for detail journalistic and trenchant. His as-yet-untitled novel is due out from Jonathan Cape in autumn 2011, and going by the excerpt in Granta’s Pakistan issue, this will be as good, and as unsettling, as Exploding Mangoes.
V S Naipaul
In his decades as a writer, Naipaul has been celebrated for his prose, respected for his travels — the most recent undertaken, to Africa, in his late 70s — and often criticised for his unrepentantly savage insights into the worlds he inhabits or explores as an outsider. At a time when Naipaul’s public pronouncements often take up more space than his work as a writer, and after the last two, relatively weak novels of his late years, a collection of his short fiction is both timely and overdue. His Collected Short Fiction (Everyman, May 2011) will remind some Naipaul fans of the warmth and eloquence of his prose in the years of Miguel Street and In A Free State. This is Naipaul at his best, with humour adding to his supple prose and acute understanding of the human condition.
India’s fourth Booker Prize winner began his writing career as a journalist, and some of that discipline and relentless curiosity found its way into his controversial bestseller, The White Tiger. The critics found much to praise and attack — some Indian critics were unconvinced by the form, in which his protagonist Balram Halwai set down his life as an underprivileged, oppressed chauffeur-turned-millionaire in a series of letters to the Chinese premier. Others attacked the book, unfairly, for going against the grain of the India Shining narrative. But Balram Halwai’s voice — mesmerising and powerful — and the description of the Indian pecking order, with invisible masses fighting for space like chickens in a coop, were enough for many readers. His second novel, Last Man in Tower (HarperCollins) is set in contemporary India and should confirm this erstwhile journalist’s credentials as a novelist.
Jeet Thayil began writing poetry in the Bombay of Adil Jussawalla, Nissim Ezekiel and Arun Kolatkar, and made his mark as a poet to watch in his early twenties. His thirties were a decade of drift, where he “talked about writing” more than he wrote; in his forties, he came back with two stellar collections and a definitive anthology of Indian poets in English. He also reinvented himself as a blues spoken word artist, and Sridhar/Thayil became something of a fixture on the Bombay club scene. Narcopolis, his first novel, is due out from Faber & Faber in end-2011, and is set in the Bombay of the 1970s.
The founder of Penguin India seemed set to replicate his Indian success as head of Penguin Canada, with the USA in his sights, when an inappropriate relationship with a colleague brought his career to a sharp halt. Davidar used his time well, though, finishing work on a novel, Ithaka, set in the cut-throat world of publishing.
His third book follows The House of Blue Mangoes and The Solitude of Emperors — novels that set out his ambition, but that have been criticised for a tendency to didacticism.
Ithaka, out from HarperCollins in mid-2011, will be read with interest by those who’ve followed David’s career, but don’t expect much by way of personal revelation.
Patrick French made a reputation for himself as an energetic young historian by tackling the big themes — the Indian national movement, Tibet, and a gripping, devastatingly open biography of V S Naipaul. The big India book, always a milestone in the career of the truly ambitious writer, is up next, to be published by Allen Lane in early 2011. From Sonia Gandhi to Mafia dons and Maoist revolutionaries, he hits all the expected landmarks, and a few unexpected ones.
Among the flood of debut novelists, many already familiar names in Indian literary circles, keep an eye out for Mirza Waheed. This young journalist is another product of the BBC Urdu Service, and his novel, set in Kashmir, is being spoken of as one of the more interesting and unusual debuts of the year. The Collaborator follows four boys in the Kashmir of the 1990s. Three melt away, going across the border into Pakistan; the headman’s son is left behind to become an unwitting collaborator, helping the army to count the corpses of those felled in the conflict. Waheed, who grew up in Srinagar, has an insider’s understanding of war, idealism and disillusionment.