Very early on, my eight-year-old self understood that spoken words were not the same as those written. Spoken words hurt, made noise, sounded ugly, were sometimes false. Written words, when spoken aloud, sounded beautiful; even when improbable, like the antics of the ‘vanar sena’ from Ramcharitmanas recited aloud by my nani, they rang true. What makes words on paper different? Perhaps their ability to be of life, from life, while simultaneously being away from it. Maybe the reflection and thought that goes into it. I can articulate this at forty-seven. But I always knew it.

As I saw it, words, stories, poetry, writing, made up one big stew pot. You chose beautiful, sparkling words. You stirred the pot. You strung them together. They made beauty, made sense, made happiness. All the things that I thought my life lacked: grace and culture, glamour, laughter, excitement, fun, could be picked and savoured from assorted jars of words: books. Reading and writing were ideal pastimes for a lonely small-town girl like me. It let me be at once docile and dutiful; rebellious and willful. My mother and father would peep in to see me furiously scribbling or poring over a book, and feel comforted that I was a good, studious child, even if I was penning mean tirades about them or hiding yet another Agatha Christie inside my physics textbook.

Writing words cleansed me. After I wrote about what people did or said in my diary, it ceased to matter. I could smile serenely and move on.

As 2018 waits tantalizingly at the threshold, we look back on a year in which dissent and speaking up became necessary to survive, when books alone stepped up to the challenge, helped keep our sanity or question it. As we look ahead, there is a kind of willfulness in taking stock, a ritual with solemnity inherent to the idea. In a year when so much has been written, published and read, it is difficult to gather only a few names. Here is a list of 10 books (fiction) that we have read and loved and a quiet acknowledgment of those that space omits.

The Chocolate Saints – Jeet Thayil
Jeet Thayil’s book is rich in characters and stories. Homage to the world of art and literature, it is a startling book of incandescent prose, a masterpiece in the Roberto Bolaño mould. Narrated in a variety of voices and styles, The Chocolate Saints promises to become part of literature’s most memorable.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness – Arundhati Roy
Roy’s second novel in two decades was a much anticipated book – the anticipation started, perhaps, from the day she won the Booker in 1997. It brings together many of the ideas that inform her non-fiction, speaking up with passion and compassion for ‘minorities’ across the socio-political-economic spectrum, making it a book of the times, for the times.

Leila – Prayag Akbar
Described as ‘dystopic’ by some reviewers, Leila is about a mother’s search for her daughter. Whether dystopic or not – the author certainly rejects categorizing – the novel uses the fantastical to probe urgent issues related to the urban spaces and the society we create and which we inhabit.

The Small Town Sea – Anees Salim
Small towns come to life in Anees Salim’s books; sorrow is a lasting trace and satire a way to deal with the sorrow. The Small Town Sea is about a son’s bereavement, the challenge he faces in being uprooted from the big city to a nondescript town and the unsettling aftermath of his father’s death.

Mrs C Remembers – Himanjali Sankar
The family is often a place of dys-function, of intense politics couched in familial love. Himanjali Sankar’s book relates the family with subtle story-telling, incisive observation and compassion. The first-person narration of Mrs C and her daughter Sohini heightens the sense of unease regarding credibility and layers the narrative of this Bengali family within which the mother’s mind slowly disintegrates and the daughter’s comes into its own.

Kitaab’s The Best Asian Short Stories (ed., Monideepa Sahu; series editor, Zafar Anjum)
Kitaab’s The Best Asian Short Stories explores the idea of what it is to be an Asian. The anthology combines fresh voices, emerging writers and established names from Asia – Jordan and Syria to Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Singapore, Malaysia, The Philippines, Thailand, Japan and Korea. The stories transcend social and political divisions within which they arise, drawing readers into the lives and places they explore while simultaneously raising uneasy questions and probing ambiguities. Crafted with love, they continue to resonate after the last page.

By Mitali Chakravarty

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Title: The Best Asian Short Stories
Editor: Monideepa Sahu
Series Editor: Zafar Anjum
Publisher: Kitaab

The Best Asian Short Stories is one of the finest compilations of short stories I have read in a long time. The short stories cover a diaspora of Asian cultures, histories, societies in transit, shifting borders and values. They embrace an array of emotions that are universal and touch the heart of the reader. Established authors (Shashi Deshpande, Poile Sengupta, Farah Ghuznavi, Park Chan Soon, to name a few) and newcomers (N.Thierry, Wah Phing Lim, etc.) rub shoulders with stories that nudge one another, creating a wide range of reading experiences.

In this one book, I have travelled from the backstairs of Singapore’s government subsidized flats to Malaysian ports, to Phillipino slums, to Mao’s China, to Korea’s madly competitive society, to the lonely world of an Old Japanese, to a Syrian refugee’s boat, to the shifting borders of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, to the rebellion against restrictions in the conservative Middle East, to Canada, America and England. These stories have grasped values that leave the reader absolutely spellbound.

Universal truths are stated by the characters that come to life with a few strokes of the creator’s skilled pen. When a dying man discovers, ‘I’m neither Indian nor Bangladeshi. I’m human’, the character reaches out beyond the pages of the book and brings home that politics and nationalism draw borders where none exist for the poor man. In another story, around the eve of Indian independence, a little girl is ‘bewildered’ when she fails to find her homeland, Sindh, on the map of the new country and says, ‘It’s gone’. One is startled by the pathos that these two words can create and compelled to question why Indians mutely accepted the line drawn by Cyril Radcliffe. When in Canada, a middle aged Sindhi befriends a Hindi speaking Chinese, he contends, ‘I knew that we immigrants, Sindhi, Indian or Chinese, needed to look after each other’. This is an eternal truth faced by universal globetrotters traipsing through countries. The whole world becomes their home.

By Sucharita Dutta-Asane

Aamer Hussein

Aamer Hussein was born in Karachi in 1955 and moved to London in 1970. He has been writing short stories since the mid-80’s and has been anthologized across multiple languages. He has written six short story collections, a novella Another Gulmohar Tree and a novel The Cloud Messenger. A master of lyrical writing, his knowledge of languages and cultures informs his story telling. His most recent book Love and its Seasons has been published by Mulfran Press, UK.

Sucharita Dutta-Asane (SDA): Aamer Hussein ji, welcome to Kitaab, and thank you for agreeing to this interview.

Your writing is an inspiration in its lyrical intensity, its telling use of fables and folktales and in the knowledge of cultures and languages that layer your stories and their vast range of characters. They explore rich inner worlds with compassion and empathy that require intense involvement with the characters. This cannot come easily to any writer. How do you approach your writing? Do you usually know what you will write and how you will write it, or do you follow a process that is organic, the story and its characters leading you by the hand?

Aamer Hussein: I’d say that in most cases it does lead me by the hand. I sit down with an image, a line or an impulse, then the story takes un-imagined pathways and the characters do things I had no idea they were planning to do. Often the end is in sight when I begin and I do often know what I want to write, for example when I use a traditional story as a template, or when, as in my new collection, I was inspired by my mother’s diary about her singing; but there is always an element of surprise even in the process of retelling. And in what we now call life writing, there is the crucial question of arranging memories in a pattern and seeing what they reveal, which often is surprising.

SDA: The search for ‘home’ and the inevitable running away from it, the rootless-ness and at times the aimless wandering – this theme and its traces can be found across most of your short fiction as well as in Another Gulmohar Tree and The Cloud Messenger. What does ‘home’ mean to you as a writer and as somebody witnessing the evolving concept of exile and refuge in the world today? Does language, rather than any kind of physical manifestation, contain the sense of ‘home’ / homecoming?

AH: I’m wary of talking about multiple homes but in this case I must. There’s Karachi, the city I was born in and to which I often return (I’m going back in a fortnight), which remains home in some visceral sense – that location between desert and Arabian Sea is where my clay belongs. It’s at the seaside there, near where my father and grandfather lived, that I feel that sense of homecoming. I ran away from it for many years and now I keep running back. There’s London where I’ve worked and lived all my adult life, but I only feel at ‘home’ in my neighbourhood by a canal and in a small, central part of the city where I once studied and taught.  I also have a lost maternal ‘home’ where my grandparents lived in Indore. So yes: I wander among my homes and my notions of home. I’m not in any way an exile or a refugee; today I feel like a fairly privileged expat.  Yes, language as well – or rather the page on which I write, where I look for a landing place. That place too is ambivalent, as I read Urdu when I feel homesick, but rarely write in my mother tongue from any sense of nostalgia; English seems to be my memory-language, so yes, that’s a home too.  Urdu is a retreat.

SDA:   In The Cloud Messenger language seems to be a character with multiple layers waiting to be discovered. In Another Gulmohar Tree, Usman says, ‘You don’t choose the language you write in, it chooses you.’ With your polyglot sensibility and sensitivities, how important has this knowledge of languages been for your writing? Has it created creative dilemmas for you or given a sense of freedom that has helped your storytelling?