South Asian Heritage Month is celebrated every year from 18 July to 17 August, and this year’s theme is ‘Stories to Tell’: what are the stories that have built who you are today? Have stories about other people and communities folded into the mosaic of your identity?
If you feel you need a little help understanding the diversity and richness of South Asian communities and their cultures, these books – from memoirs on identity and parenting, to fiction that candidly explores the conflict between duty and loyalty, and eye-opening non-fiction about the complications of caste systems and politics – are a great place to start.
The story follows Nik who, after his grandfather’s death, is handed a key – literally, a physical key – that provides access to past family secrets. Part mystery, part coming-of-age story, The Things That We Lost is told through a dual mother and son narrative: Nik’s story is set in post-Brexit Britain; his mother Avani’s is set in 1980s London during her adolescent years as a British Indian. Exploring grief and belonging and the delicate balance of his identity, Nik unravels family secrets his mother has been hiding whilst living through the same racial prejudice she did years ago.
There’s a reason this cookbook – from the Indian-born British chef behind Darjeeling Express, an all-female-run restaurant in London’s Covent Garden – was the Times’ Cookbook of the Year 2022: more than just a collection of recipes, it’s a joyous celebration of food’s incredible power to comfort, to show love and even to heal. Dedicated to Khan’s mother, the titular Ammu, and to the home cooking she was raised with, the book covers a banquet table’s span of delicious meals, while remaining focused on the place where love and food truly come together: the family dinner table.
Mohsin Zaidi’s memoir tells the story of his life growing up as a devout gay Muslim. Subtitled A memoir of secrets, lies and family love, this book tells a story of belonging, identity and family that tenderly conveys the nuances of the South Asian community that Zaidi grew up in while pushing at its limits to allow himself space to grow. Suffused with love, and told with dignified, distilled candour about parsing two clashing identities, this book is a testament to the importance of carving one’s own identity against social and familial expectations.
Subtitled Powerful Practices to Nourish Yourself from the Inside Out, this is more than just a self-help book. By first identifying the complex social and political systems that drain us of our energy and spirit, psychiatrist and women's mental health specialist Dr Pooja Lakshmin gives readers straightforward, pragmatic principles to help push against and free readers from these structures and redefine what “self-care” actually means.
Set in Pune in West India, Burnt Sugar is an unflinching look at a daughter’s fraught relationship with her toxic mother. When Antara’s mother, Tara, becomes infatuated with a guru at the local temple, she forgets her marriage – and the well-being of young Antara – in pursuit of her obsession. Decades later, Tara develops dementia and Antara, who takes her ailing mother in, must grapple with the memories of a childhood defined by abandonment and whether she can look after a mother who failed her. It’s a story of obsession and betrayal, duty and the will to individuate, set against a distinctly South Asian backdrop.
Set in Kerala, India in both the present and 1969, this Booker Prize-winning novel follows fraternal twins Rahel and Estha. Life separates the twins for 23 years, during which Estha stops speaking and Rahel marries and divorces an American in Boston, before circumstances bring them together once more. The story is told in a fractured narrative that jumps back and forth between scenes in 1969 and 1993 and demonstrates the small, seemingly insignificant moments and memories that can have a colossally significant impact on who we become; that Roy infuses these moments and memories from the Ayemenem family with the vicissitudes of caste, class and politics of those times makes The God of Small Things an essential read.
Sixteen-year-old Zeba Khan is an ordinary young girl who dreams of one day falling in love. But her dreams turn into a nightmare on a family trip to her parents’ homeland of Pakistan, where her engagement is announced to her cousin Asif – not a bad guy, per se, but eight years her senior. He too is being pressured by his parents. Zeba’s refusal falls on deaf ears, though; her father says the marriage is a matter of their family’s “honour”. With days left until the marriage, and with only her grandmother on her side, Zeba contacts the Forced Marriage Unit and battles against heartbreak, loyalty and duty as she navigates her options and next steps.
In this scathing, insightful book, Sathnam Sanghera reveals the seemingly endless ways contemporary British society has been shaped by – and remains a relic of – the British Empire. Britain’s imperial past is everywhere: from Brexit to the NHS, from the response to COVID-19 to the racism in today’s society, British drinking culture and British exceptionalism. Alternating seamlessly between the historical and personal – Sanghera frequently taps into his personal experience of growing up, and facing racism and violence, in 1970s and 1980s Wolverhampton – this book looks at how empire and white supremacy function on a macro level. This one’s a must-read.
The Khan by Saima Mir (2021)
British-Asian lawyer Jia Khan lives by one rule, and that is to be “twice as good as men and four times as good as white men.” But when her father – the leader of a violent crime syndicate – is brutally murdered, a power struggle breaks out and Jia must return to take up his mantle. To restore justice, Jia must navigate not just the expected violence and politics of the criminal underworld, but misogyny, racism, and the cultural expectations of how women should behave in her Pashtun community. Those who come up against her learn a valuable lesson: underestimating Jia Khan comes with a price.
Brown Baby by Nikesh Shukla (2021)
In this sometimes heartbreaking, often hilarious, always astute memoir, Nikesh Shukla reflects on the world his mixed-race daughters will inherit and the world his mother, who died of lung cancer when he was 30, has left. Written for his daughters, Shukla touches on food, race, family, sexism, feminism, parenting, looking after the planet and, finally, death, providing a through line of hope throughout. Their grandmother – Nikesh’s mother, who he mentions throughout – would be proud.
Nura and the Immortal Palace by M. T. Khan (2023)
Nura works in the mica mines in Pakistan to help support her family – the money isn’t great, but it helps them stay afloat. When the young girl’s best friend, Faisal, is buried in a mining accident, she vows to save him – but when she digs for her friend, she crosses over into the magical world of the jinn. Having been warned against the mercurial spirits all her life, Nura and Faisal’s experience is filled with lavish clothes and food, but they soon realise they have been tricked. They need to escape before Eid – in three days – or they will forget their loved ones and memories. This magical tale is informed by Muslim culture and tradition, and a wonderful starting point for younger readers.