Books from South Asian authors are fascinating reading

'AUTHORS from the Indian subcontinent write lots of books. Some are fantastic. Vikram Seth\'s meganovel "A Suitable Boy" entranced me with its epic scope, its closely observed characters and its implicit history lessons. '

And then there are the droning cookie-cutter novels that substitute magical realism for plot and pile on the descriptions of smells and tastes as though that makes for sensuous prose.

Just as smothering raw potatoes with rosemary does not make them homefries, a hundred food analogies will not make your book the next "The Mistress of Spices."

Here's a sampling of the good and the mediocre in current Indian and South Asian diaspora lit:

"Standing Alone In Mecca: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam" (HarperSanFrancisco, $24.95) was written by Asra Q. Nomani, an Indian-born American who went on the hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. While there, she saw that Islam does not have to treat women as second-class Muslims and returned home to West Virginia to fight sexism in her hometown mosque.

The Saudi government does not allow non-Muslims inside Mecca (aka Makkah), so I was especially thrilled at Nomani's description of the hajj. I'm also a sucker for theology talk, especially arguments that a religion's scriptures support a more egalitarian and inclusive ethic than the one propounded by the religion's fundamentalist wing. I also enjoyed her contrasting portrayals of Islam in India, Saudi Arabia and the United States.


Nomani, a Wall Street Journal reporter, explains facts more clearly than she explains her feelings. This is a memoir better at argument than at art, especially since her story and struggle have not ended and so provide no natural closure for the book.

My pettiest peeve: Nomani's religious journey inspires many "I realized" observations that seemed obvious to me. Had she never thought about theology before? But, as stipulated, this is a tiny detraction, and overall I recommend "Standing Alone in Mecca."

I'm more hesitant recommending the Ramayana series by Ashok K. Banker. This Indian author is retelling the Indian Ramayana myth in a seven-book paperback series of fantasy novels, of which I've read the first two, "Prince of Ayodhya" (Aspect, $6.99) and "Siege of Mithila" (Time Warner BooksUK, $14 if ordered now. Price will be $6.99 when it's published in United States.)

The Ramayana is a fairly simple fairy tale, lending itself to the best archetypes and the worst clichs in fantasy. It holds together as a grand, epic story of good against evil, taking place in a feudal India full of magic and grandeur. Banker takes full advantage of these elements, using Indian names and phrases to great effect in creating this imaginary world.

But Banker's version, like the original, fails in making one care about the characters. Dasaratha, the king torn between duty and lust, is the only character who isn't a one-dimensional villain or hero. Everyone and everything is the superlative best or the most evil imaginable, and Banker's purple, bombastic prose made me guffaw.

Some people will try to tell you that the Ramayana and the Mahabharata (another ancient Indian tale) are India's two great epic stories. I disagree.

The Mahabharata has more moral complexity, more rounded and conflicted characters and more edifying and entertaining anecdotes. I look forward to reading retellings of the Mahabharata, but would not suggest Banker's Ramayana series unless you are a glutton for myth, like me.

But even non-myth-gluttons will appreciate "Tales From Indian Epics" (South Asia Books, $28) by Holalkere R. Chandrasekhar. Chandrasekhar revisits many Indian folktales and legends, explaining just enough for the lay reader to understand the customs and rules of the culture. Each tale is suitable for standalone reading, but they also fit into a comprehensible timeline with recurring alliances and rivalries.

Chandrasekhar reinterprets the tales with a benevolent eye. Even the villains have motives worthy of sympathy. I found it pleasing to compare "Tales from Indian Epics" to the source that taught me the legends years ago: Amar Chitra Katha, the Indian comic book series. You can find ACK in many Indian clothing/spice/video shops throughout the Bay Area, as well as online at

Another online destination for Indian mythology: Nina Paley's online Sitayana animations, which reinterpret the Ramayana in a wholly female-centered fashion, at

As for "Tales From Indian Epics," I strongly recommend it, but you may have to order it online at a site such as, as it's published by a small press in India. The book identification number for ordering is 0-9711223-0-X. The author is a friend of my father's, I must disclaim. Does it count if I can't remember ever meeting him? The author, not my father.

Sumana Harihareswara's column appears in Bay Area Living on Thursdays. You can e-mail her at