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Reading Across the Curriculum: Using the Fiction of the Indian Subcontinent in Social Science Classes

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There is a publishing boom in fiction by authors from the Indian subcontinent. Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, and Bangladeshi authors are being discovered almost daily. The literature from India is several thousand years old. However, following the notoriety of Salman Rushdie, the meteoric success of Arundhati Roy’s novel The God of Small Things, and the Oscar-winning screen adaptation of Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, it is almost impossible to open the New York Times Book Review without reading of another new highly-praised novelist from the region. Most of these authors write in English. Many are expatriates, living in Canada, England or the United States. These novels, with the variety of experiences described, in settings that are exotic and often unknown to the average high school or college student, are ideal for a Reading Across the Curriculum assignment in the social sciences. In the assignments, each student reads a work of fiction from an approved bibliography and writes a book review that applies the sociological, political, historical, and/or economic concepts that have been covered in class to the contents of the novel. Often the student is also required to research the cultural, ethnic, or national milieu in which the novel is written.

Instructors who have used fiction to teach social science classes report that their students seem more engaged in the content area because of their fictional explorations. The novels tend to make real the theoretical issues discussed in the classroom.

The Reading Across the Curriculum assignment has been developed to meet many educational objectives. First, because students are reading less, it is important to encourage them to read. Any librarian can cite statistics to document the problem. In my own library, periodical usage is down almost 80 percent from pre-Internet days. Book circulation has taken a 30 percent dive. In addition, textbooks that prepackage excerpts from larger works are the sine qua non of most courses. The days when a student was required to read several complete works in the course of a semester largely exist in the memories of aging baby boomers. It is easy to blame the Internet or television, either of which, with quick hits and sound bites, encourages the short attention span of high school and young undergraduate students. It is also possible to craft reading assignments to counter this trend.

Second, many educational institutions are including international education and diversity initiatives in their mission state- ments. At my own college, the Liberal Arts Division mission statement says, “Johnson County Community College will actively promote the understanding and appreciation of diversity . . . through the implementation of curriculum initiatives and activities as a natural part of the educational process in order to create an environment that values all people.” Using an international or multicultural reading assignment allows an instructor to incor­porate an international or diversity compo­nent into a course without substantially altering the teaching syllabus.

Third, the assignment of a novel not only encourages reading, but also encour­ages use of the library’s resources. It is unfortunately naive to assume that college students will go to the library to check out good literature for recreational pleasure. In my library, the novels with the highest cir­culation statistics are those on Reading Across the Curriculum bibliographies and the old-standbys by authors like Hemingway, Poe, and Fitzgerald, which are assigned routinely in high school, col­lege, and even graduate school.

Fourth, it is difficult, perhaps impos­sible, to cut and paste together a paper that meets the goals of the Reading Across the Curriculum assignment. Thus, students are forced to think about the material and write a paper based on their own ideas. Given the nature of the writing required, an instructor can recognize plagiarism almost instantly. And since each student reviews a different book, each paper is somewhat unique.

While there are no statistical studies about the success of this type of assign­ment, there are anecdotal reports. Instruc­tors who have used fiction to teach social science classes report that their students seem more engaged in the content area because of their fictional explorations. The novels tend to make real the theoretical issues discussed in the classroom.

I know of social science classes in which a bibliography of African or Latin American novels is used. I have also seen classes where a bibliography of interna­tional novels from a number of countries is used. I have not yet encountered a class that uses novels from the Indian subconti­nent exclusively. Yet the region is larger than Europe, encompassing four countries, each with a variety of religious and ethnic groups. India alone recognizes fourteen official languages. Now, with so many authors being published, it is possible to compile an impressive bibliography of contemporary Indian fiction, which includes that of her close neighbors.

Virtually every novel on the bibliog­raphy addresses a number of significant issues. Here are three examples. Moth Smoke by Mohsin Hamid looks at the ram­pant political and economic corruption in Pakistan where the rich and powerful get away with virtually all the crimes they commit, while talented but poorly con­nected individuals like the protagonist Daru and his drug-dealing friend Murad must pander to the wealthy or turn to crime for economic success. Women in Moth Smoke, like Daru’s lover Mumtaz, are forced into subterfuge in order to pur­sue a career. Her work as an investigative journalist is published under a masculine pseudonym. A sociology student could use the novel as the focal point for a discus­sion of women’s issues or of crime in a society where most of the wealth is con­centrated in a small percentage of families.

Nectar in a Sieve by Kamala Markan­daya, tells the story of the arrival of a tan­nery in a traditional village. It shows how fragile a traditional agrarian society can be, and how little it takes to turn a prosper­ous small farmer into a beggar. Issues of class and caste, of the woman’s role in tra­ditional society, of the exploitation of peasants by factory owners, and of family organization are all present in the novel.

Now, with so many authors being published, it is possible to compile an impressive bibliography of contemporary Indian fiction, which includes that of her close neighbors.

Finally, The God of Small Things, ostensibly the story of a tragic love affair between an upper-class woman and an untouchable man, delineates the persistence of caste in India. It is a marvelous example of politics gone mad when the Communist demonstrations, just to prove a point, force the closing of the pickle factory that has been the community’s economic mainstay. Again, it shows how little women are valued, even educated women. Just incidentally, it also is concerned with child sexual abuse and the resultant trauma. These three novels are only examples of the richness of the fiction for use in research papers focusing on issues discussed in the classroom.

Below is a selective, annotated bibli­ography of Indian, Pakistani, and Sri Lankan fiction. Following each citation, if it can be determined, I have noted the region or city and sometimes the religious group about which the author is writing. I have only included books that I have per­sonally read, or at least examined. I have made no attempt to be comprehensive. I have included works by expatriate authors that examine the lives of immigrants, e.g., Jhumpa Lahiri and V. S. Naipaul, because of my belief that immigrants bring their cultures with them. The lives of Gujuratis in Trinidad or Bengalis in New England relate more to their experiences as Ben­galis or Gujuratis than to life in their new homes. Many of the authors, like R. K. Narayan, Salman Rushdie, V. S. Naipaul and Anita Desai, are prolific writers, only a few of whose works I have cited. In the case of Vikram Seth, I have read and enjoyed but did not cite The Golden Gate, or An Equal Music because neither book introduces a student to the subcontinent or to the experiences of its immigrants abroad. The same rationale applies to the omission of Ondaatje’s English Patient, despite its one Sikh character. I have not yet read some authors, for example, Romesh Guneskera, Raj Kamal Jha, Amit Chaudhuri, Bapsi Sidhwa, and Kushwant Singh, and have perhaps inadvertently omitted other authors’ finest works. Like all bibliographies, it is a work in progress and will continue to grow.

An Annotated Bibliography of Fiction in English from the Indian Subcontinent

Ali, Ahmed. Twilight in Delhi (New York: New
Directions, 1994).
This novel, which was originally published by the
Hogarth Press in 1940 after Virginia Woolf and E. M.
Forster fought the printers who viewed the text as subversive,
chronicles the life of a Moslem family, living
in Delhi at the beginning of the twentieth century,
who see their fortunes fading as the British work to
eradicate Islamic culture. (Delhi, Moslem)

Baldwin, Shauna Singh. What the Body Remembers
(New York: N. A. Talese, 1999).
The brutal story of the partition of India and Pakistan
is told through the eyes of two unusual Sikh women
who are the co-wives of an engineer. He is also a
prominent landowner in the Moslem part of the Punjab.
(Kashmir, Sikh)

Desai, Anita. Baumgartner’s Bombay (London: Penguin,
A German-Jewish refugee from the Holocaust ends up
in India where he is no more accepted as a European
in India than he was as a Jew in Germany. (Calcutta,

Desai, Anita. The Clear Light of Day (London: Penguin,
Members of an old Delhi family come to terms with
their past and reconcile the differences that parted
them during the summer of Indian independence in
1947. (Delhi)

Desai, Anita. In Custody (New York: New Harper &
Row, 1984).
After a poor and unsuccessful college lecturer is
manipulated into interviewing an old man known as
the greatest living Urdu poet, he learns that he has
taken on much more than he bargained for. (Delhi)

Desai, Kiran. Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard (New
York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1998).
A misunderstood young man escapes his family and
community by climbing a tree in a guava orchard and
refusing to come down. This action causes the villagers
to venerate him like a saint.

Deshpande, Shashi. The Dark Holds No Terrors
(India: Penguin, 1990).
A successful woman doctor flees her abusive husband.
In the solitude of her father’s home, she is
forced to face the various problems in her life with
which she had never dealt. (Karnakata)

Deshpande, Sashi. A Matter of Time (New
York: Feminist Press, 1999).
A woman and her daughters must cope
with their unexpected abandonment by her
husband, an act that mirrors her father’s
behavior many years earlier. (Karnakata)

Deshpande, Shashi. That Long Silence
(India: Penguin, 1989).
After her husband, a government official,
is faced with possible disgrace and dismissal,
the unhappy author of an advice
column reassesses her career, her marriage,
and her life. (Mumbai)

Divakaruni, Chitra Bannerjee. An
Arranged Marriage (New York: Anchor
Books, 1995).
These short stories examine the difference
between the lives of women in India and
the United States.

Divakaruni, Chitra Bannerjee. The Mistress
of Spices (New York: Anchor Books,
A wonder-working Indian woman, who
runs a spice shop in Oakland, discovers
that in order to keep her vows, she must
give up love. However, love matters more.

Ghosh, Amitav. The Calcutta Chromosome
(New York: Avon, 1996).
This is a futuristic novel about the transmigration
of souls through the bites of certain
mosquitoes, bites that may provide eternal
life. (Calcutta)

Hamid, Moshin. Moth Smoke (New York:
Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2000).
This Pakistani version of The Great Gatsby
follows the downfall of a former bank
employee whose descent into drug abuse
and crime takes place during the explosive
summer when India and Pakistan both test
their atomic weapons. (Lahore)

Kamani, Ginu. Junglee Girl
(San Francisco: Aunt Lute, 1995).
These short stories are about the difficult
role of women and about very difficult
women, most of whom live in the state of
Gujurat. (Gujurat)

Lahiri, Jhumpa. The Interpreter of Maladies
(New York: Houghton Mifflin,
This collection of short stories, which won
the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, describes the
cultural dislocation of Indian immigrants
to the United States, no longer at home in
India, but not quite a part of their new
home. (Bengal)

Markandaya, Kamala. Nectar in a Sieve
(New York: John Day, 1955).
The lives of a tenant farmer and his family
are irrevocably altered by the arrival of a
tannery in their village.

Mehta, Gita. A River Sutra (New York: N.
A. Talese, 1993).
A bureaucrat flees from life by taking a
position as the manager of a guesthouse on
the banks of the Narmada River. There he
discovers the meaning of life through the
tales of the travelers he meets. (Narmada

Mishra, Pankaj. The Romantics (New
York: Random House, 2000).
A young man, who is preparing for the civil
service examination, becomes friends with
members of the expatriate community, all
of whom are searching for a deeper meaning
to life and hope to find it in India.

Mistry, Rohinton. A Fine Balance
(New York: Vintage, 1997).
A group of refugees, fleeing religious and
ethnic violence, forge an unlikely community
in the apartment of an independent
widow. (Mumbai, Parsi)

Mistry, Rohinton. Such a Long Journey
(New York: Vintage Books, 1992).
The fortunes of a Parsi family in Mumbai
diminish as Hindu supremacy, economic
change and entanglement in a secret service
plot during a war with Pakistan effect
their lives. (Mumbai, Parsi)

Mistry, Rohinton. Tales from Firozsha
Baag (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989).
These interlocking short stories describe
the life of the Parsi residents of an apartment
house in Mumbai. (Mumbai, Parsi)

Mukherjee, Bharati. Jasmine (New York:
Grove Press, 1989).
A young woman from India makes her
way in the United States, despite the fact
that she is an illegal immigrant.

Naipaul, V. S. A Bend in the River (New
York: Knopf, 1979).
An Indian merchant, living in an unnamed
country in Africa, attempts to survive as
his country goes from one revolution to

Naipaul, V. S. A House for Mr. Biswas
(New York: Knopf, 1983).
An Indian living in Trinidad seeks to
achieve the true happiness of owning a
house of his own. Many critics view this
novel, originally published in 1961, as
Naipaul’s finest work and the outstanding
fictional account about the life of Indian
expatriates in the Caribbean.

Narayan, R. K. The Guide (New York:
Viking, 1958).
A tourist guide who lives by his wits
meets his downfall through his adulterous
love of a dancer, yet inadvertently ends up
venerated as a holy man. The plot of Kiran
Desai’s Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard
bears an uncanny resemblance to The
Guide. (Tamil Nadu)

Narayan, R. K. A Horse and Two Goats
(New York: Viking, 1970).
This is a collection of stories about village
life in the Tamil-speaking region of southern
India. (Tamil Nadu)

Narayan, R. K. The Painter of Signs (New
York: Viking, 1976).
An educated young man, who prides himself
on his logic, falls in love with a militant
family planner. (Tamil Nadu)

Nigam, Sanjay. The Snake Charmer (New
York: Morrow, 1998).
When his beloved snake bites him, a snake
charmer, in a fit of rage, bites back, killing
the snake and achieving his fifteen minutes
of fame in the Indian media. (Delhi)

Ondaatje, Michael. Anil’s Ghost (New
York: Knopf, 2000).
A forensic pathologist returns to her home
in Sri Lanka to examine the corpses of presumed torture victims during the civil
war. (Sri Lanka)

Roy, Arundhati. The God of Small Things
(New York: Random House, 1997).
A twin brother and sister watch their world
fall apart when their mother dares to love
outside her caste. This novel won the
Booker Prize. (Kerala)

Rushdie, Salman. Midnight’s Children
(New York: Knopf, 1981).
This satiric novel about the creation of the
modern Indian state is narrated in magic
realism style. It follows the fortunes of
those children who were born at midnight
of the day independence was declared.
This novel won the Booker Prize.

Rushdie, Salman. Shame (New York:
Knopf, 1983).
This is the author’s fanciful retelling of the
history of modern Pakistan.

Seth, Vikram. A Suitable Boy (New York:
HarperCollins, 1993).
This more than 1,300-page-long novel
relates the interconnected stories of four
Indian families during the 1950s. The central
theme is the attempt to find a suitable
husband for a young woman with several
suitors. (Calcutta)

Tharoor, Shashi. The Great Indian Novel
(New York: Little Brown, 1989).
The epic story of the Mahabharata is
updated to tell the story of twentiethcentury
Indian history and politics.

Tharoor, Shashi. Show Business (New
York: Arcade, 1992).
The novel follows the rise and fall of an
ambitious actor/politician in “Bollywood,”
Mumbai’s film industry. The author
intends the novel to be a metaphor for
what is wrong in Indian society. (Mumbai)