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India Of The Towns & Villages: A Bhasha Reading List

The joys of rediscovering India through vernacular writing

Some of our favourite books and poems from the world of Hindi, Punjabi & Urdu literature

It takes a special talent to reduce a country as vibrantly diverse as ours to a few undemanding strands of black, brown and grey – yet that appears to be the fate of English writing in India at the moment. Whether it is the middle class fables by Chetan Bhagat or the “India Shining” narratives by the countless MBAs and international journalists who’ve endured a couple of Indian summers in Delhi, there is only one kind of Indian in English literature these days – young, assured, ambitious and individualistic. Whatever happened to the confused infatuation of Mann, the doomed passion of Ammu & Velutha or the fantastical voyage of Saleem, Shiva & Parvati?

But all it takes is a short journey beyond the metros to realize that the real India is (mercifully) far from being as homogeneous as these hallowed writers would like us to believe. Undoubtedly there has been development (we await the verdict on whether it can be called progress), but many of the problems that have wrecked India for the last century are far from being eradicated – from inequality in many shapes and sizes to brutal poverty.

But the myopia in Indian-English writing is a boon for vernacular languages. In the words of Krishna Sobti, one of the doyens of Hindi writing:

The reality of Bhasha writers comes from small towns and villages. Bhasha writers are connected with the collective consciousness of the country.

For the last couple of years, the Editors at MBRB have been rediscovering India through the earthy reality of Hindi, Punjabi & Urdu writing. Call it mid life crisis, but this shift is also a belated effort to relearn our mother tongue – a language that we can no longer write, and can barely string a complete sentence in. Ironically, the ignominy of being so far removed from our roots is amplified during our fancy holidays, when we are mute spectators to a few good Chinese or Brazilians happily chatting in their mother tongue upon bumping into each other, while we Indians insist on conversing in our well polished British accents.

Here then, in two parts and in no particular order, is a list of 15 iconic works in Hindi, Urdu & Punjabi that we strongly recommend for your #2014ReadingList and #ReadWomen2014This list is by no means exhaustive, and many of these works have been translated into English – but there’s nothing quite like reading the original. We would love to add works from other Indian languages to this list, but sadly, we are no polyglots.

1. Tamas by Bhisham Sahni  (Hindi) 

If you haven’t seen the TV adaptation of this iconic novel (really?), we suggest you order the DVD along with the book. A searing tale of the aftermath of Partition in a small town in India, this is a must read for every Indian.


Image courtesy: Flipkart

2. Mitro Marjani by Krishna Sobti  (Hindi) 

Mitro Marjani (To Hell With You, Mitro!) explores the sexuality of an Indian housewife by means of Sumitravanti a.k.a. Mitro and her extended family. There are few books that can match Sobti’s understanding of family politics, female desire and morality in rural India.

Mitro Marjani Krishna Sobti

Image courtesy: Amazon

3. Raag Darbari by Sri Lal Sukla  (Hindi) 

A cautionary tale about the unholy nexus between politics, crime and business, sadly Raag Darbari rings as true today as it did 45 years ago.

Raag Darbari

Image courtesy: Pustak

4. Nirmala by Munshi Premchand  (Hindi) 

If you’ve heard of just one Hindi writer, it is likely to be Premchand – after all, not many Bhasha writers can lay claim to their works being translated into English & Russian. While Godaan and Gaban are his most iconic works, we also like Nirmala, a telling commentary on dowry in India.


Image courtesy: Wikipedia

5. Pinjar by Amrita Pritam (Punjabi):

You may have seen the movie starring Manoj Bajpai & Urmila Matgaonkar; now we suggest you read the book (there is an excellent English translation by Khushwant Singh). The horror wreaked by the partition of India formed the backdrop of many Bhasha works in the 1950s, but few explored the emotional aftermath of conflict from the perspective of a young woman. In telling the tale of Puro, a Hindi girl who is betrothed to Ramchand but is abducted by Rashid, a Muslim boy, just before the riots, Pritam delves into a world of shattered dreams and stark choices.


Image courtesy: Pagdandi

6. Madhushala by Harivansh Rai Bachchan  (Hindi):

Harivansh Rai Bachchan’s ode to the Rubaiyat by Omar Khayyam is considered one of the most significant works of Hindi literature, and for good reason. Just like the Rubaiyat, the wine tavern is the central character of Madhushala, with the 135 verses reflecting upon everything under the sun – life, death, joy, sorrow, love, loss and alcohol. If reading poetry is not quite your thing, we suggest you buy Amitabh Bachchan’s audio rendition, which serves as an excellent companion on a rainy day.


Image courtesy: Mydala

7. Volga Se Ganga by Rahul Sankrityayan  (Hindi):

Decades before Maureen & Tony Wheeler started on their road trip to Australia, Rahul Sankrityayan had travelled the length and breath of South Asia, Iran and the Soviet Union. Volga Se Ganga is a fictional imagining of the migration of the Aryans, spanning nearly 8000 years of world history, by one of the foremost scholars of the 20th century.

Volga Se Ganga

Image courtesy: Homeshop18

8. Gillu & Mere Bachpan Ke Din by Mahadevi Verma (Hindi):

The essence of Mahadevi Verma can be distilled in the statement that  “…being close to Mahadevi, I have also seen the images of Lakshmibai and Meerabai together in one form.” Verma is not just one of the influential Hindi writers of the last century, she is also a renowned feminist and freedom fighter. While her poems are essential reading for anyone keen on Hindi literature, we also enjoy her short stories, especially Gillu &  Mere Bachpan Ke Din (My Childhood Days), which are now part of the CBSE syllabus.

Mahadevi Verma

Image courtesy: Raj Kamal Prakashan


We’ll continue our selection of Bhasha writing in Part 2 next week, so do share your suggestions on FB or Twitter! For a nostalgia laden trip, do check out our Gupshup about the dizzying canvas of Hindi & Urdu poetry, a world of old world romance and all-consuming passion.

 Cover image courtesy: Flickr 


2 Comments on India Of The Towns & Villages: A Bhasha Reading List

  1. Excellent selection. However I think Shivani is sorely missing from this list. She was – still is – one of the most popular Hindi writers who wrote on social and women centric themes. Her language was more of the sanskritized Hindi, therefore a little difficult to understand but beautiful and lyrical. I highly recommend her novel ’14 phere’

    • Vivek, there’s a part 2 next week :) and Shivani is a personal favourite here also! We remember reading her stories in magazines as children, without understanding them completely. Wish someone would translate some of this literature to make it reach a wider audience!

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