Though I grew up in the UAE and India, I’m embarrassed to share that when I was younger, I didn’t try hard enough to read stories by Indian authors outside of my school curriculum. Over the years, I have changed this by being more intentional about what I put on my TBR list. In the process, I have discovered the most beautiful, thought-provoking, and often relatable stories. For Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month and beyond, I wrote about my two most recent favorite reads by authors with Indian roots. Enjoy and let me know what you think!
Hana Khan Carries On by Uzma Jalaluddin
Hana Khan is an Indian Canadian woman who lives in the Greater Toronto Area. Her family owns a restaurant that is on its last legs, but Hana is not ready to give up on it. She is also not interested in a culinary career, but instead dreams of making it in the radio world while also juggling the demands of her social life and getting to know her values. She is a thoughtful and talented storyteller with her own podcast, whose most avid listener becomes a supportive online friend.
I can see why readers have said that Uzma Jalaluddin is exceptional at developing relationships that draw us in! I had so much fun reading about Hana’s ties with her family, friends, and Aydin, the owner of a new rival restaurant, who is infuriating(ly appealing). My favorite character interactions to read were with two new arrivals to Canada and Hana’s adult life–her cousin Rashid and Kawkab Khala, her badass and mysterious aunt.
Hana’s story captures the complex experiences of being a 20-something-year old trying to figure out life and being a Muslim woman of colour in North America. Though a couple of moments featuring Rashid made me roll my eyes a little, they were brief because the book challenges stereotypes in a way that is sure to leave you introspecting. It takes on not only fun banter and love but also Hana’s exploration of personal identity and family history, all while facing changes in her community. I love how the story upturns the prejudices in the West, especially those of white folks, both within and outside the book universe.
If you’re looking for a book that is equal parts witty, insightful, and heartfelt (AND inspired by the classic You’ve Got Mail)–look no further than this one!
Kaikeyi by Vaishnavi Patel
I grew up watching the 1992 animated adaptation of Valmiki’s Ramayana, a great epic that is renowned in South and Southeast Asia. I didn’t give much thought to the minor character of Kaikeyi, wife to King Dasharatha of the Kosala kingdom, mother to Bharata, and stepmother to Rama and Lakshmana. But my fuzzy memory retained only a one-dimensional view of Kaikeyi: an insecure, jealous stepmother who wants power for her son. Back then, this was in line with the “good vs. bad” narratives that I was used to (thanks to Disney and Hindi-language films and soap operas) that didn’t leave much room for sympathizing with antagonists. It took years to learn how to question and understand who the “bad guys” are and why. As an aspiring editor who is now intrigued by morally grey characters, I like thinking about what makes “villains” tick.
In an effort to feed this interest and to reconnect with Hindu mythology, I picked up Kaikeyi by Vaishnavi Patel, whose feminist and nuanced retelling I thoroughly enjoyed. I absolutely loved the deeper glimpse into Kaikeyi’s background, her feelings, and motivations. This was also the first story I read by an Indian author that depicted an asexual and aromantic main character, a perspective I really appreciated reading.
It was thrilling and empowering to see Kaikeyi challenge the patriarchy, specifically how it showed up in religion and society at the time. One of my favourite aspects is how she supports and empowers the women around her—Kaushalya and Sumitra (Dasharatha’s first and second wives respectively) as well as community members. The character growth was like nothing I’ve ever read!
This immersive book weaves such a descriptive picture, and honestly, I found myself forgetting it is the author’s debut. I could not recommend it more! (Actually, I probably could.)