The best sensuous writing: literature of India

Who am I?

About thirty years ago, I spent three months on an Indo-American Fellowship in Varanasi taking notes on daily life in this holy city where my novel Sister India is set. That winter felt like a separate life within my life, a bonus. Because all there was so new to me, and it was unmediated by cars, television, or computers, I felt while I was there so much more in touch with the physical world, what in any given moment I could see, hear, smell…. It was the way I had felt as a child, knowing close-up particular trees and shrubs, the pattern of cracks in a sidewalk.


I wrote...

Sister India

By Peggy Payne,

Book cover of Sister India

What is my book about?

A troubled young woman runs away from her American life to start anew in a Hindu holy city on the Ganges. She becomes Madame Natraja, a strange and reclusive innkeeper of the Saraswati Guest House on the bank of the holy river. (The New York Times calls her “mesmerizing.”) A series of Hindu-Muslim murders leads to a citywide curfew, and the travelers in the inn unwittingly become her captives. So begins a period of days blending into nights as Natraja and the Indian cook become entangled in a web of religious violence, and their guests fall under the spell of this ancient kingdom and the strange chemistry that develops from unexpected intimacies on foreign ground. Sister India is a rare sort of love story.

The books I picked & why

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The Age of Shiva

By Manil Suri,

Book cover of The Age of Shiva

Why this book?

The sensory quality of stories of India is inevitable because the country itself is so vividly alive to all the senses. And Hinduism, the predominant religion, is, more than other religions, expressed in physical images and rituals. Suri’s novel treats motherhood in particular in finely observed physical detail, conveying the emotions so well through the senses. A reader irresistibly immerses in the story.


An Obedient Father

By Akhil Sharma,

Book cover of An Obedient Father

Why this book?

A dark story about a corrupt man, An Obedient Father unfolds in a closely observed world. From page one: “It was morning. The sky was blue from edge to edge. I had just bathed and was on my balcony hanging a towel over the ledge. The May heat was so intense that as soon as I stepped out of the flat, worms of sweat appeared on my bald scalp.” The close sensory detail makes a dark story shockingly intimate.


Days and Nights in Calcutta

By Clark Blaise, Bharati Mukherjee,

Book cover of Days and Nights in Calcutta

Why this book?

Days and Nights in Calcutta is a fascinating dual view of the same time and place by a husband and wife, both highly esteemed writers. The couple has returned to her family home in the famously complex and crowded Indian city and this is the account-in-two-voices of their year there. His feels full of wonder and surprise; it has a sunlit quality. Hers feels full of intensity and concern; it is tightly wrought. The book shows me not just India, a place I love to see and feel, but the importance of everyone’s story and view.


The White Tiger

By Aravind Adiga,

Book cover of The White Tiger

Why this book?

More satiric than lyrical, this novel is the life of a man who came from the sweetmaker caste in a village to become a driver for a wealthy family in Bangalore and finally, circuitously, an entrepreneur. Sardonic, unsentimental, edgy, and yet, like other stories of India, vividly sensual. A scene of foot-washing on a rooftop has always stuck in my mind.


Heat and Dust

By Ruth Prawer Jhabvala,

Book cover of Heat and Dust

Why this book?

Another dual view of India, but this one is fiction and written by one author, novelist Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. It’s the story of two women at widely different times: Olivia of the British colonial period in the 1920s who, feeling suppressed by conventions of the time, becomes involved with an Indian prince, causing a great scandal, and her step-granddaughter who fifty years later tries to dig up Olivia’s story. Keyline in the novel; “India always changes people and I have been no exception.”


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