In 2011, I made a New Year resolution. I resolved to only read books written by women for the whole year. I managed to read 85 books that year, all written by women. I read fiction, non-fiction, memoirs, poetry. I read across genres, across continents, acting on every good and nasty book recommendation that came my way.
To be clear, I didn’t have a lofty aim or moral end goal in mind when I decided to make this resolution. In fact, my idea was pretty simple. I was just thinking to myself, “As a woman who loves to write, I’d like to read and know more about the work of other women writers.” But, I ended up learning a lot that year, not only about previously unread writers, but about women’s place in India’s literary scene.
I realized that at times the literary world tends to get so heavily dominated by male voices that it is easy to neglect female voices that inhabit it. And while this felt true for the entire world over, the reality cut a little too close for comfort when I thought about female Indian authors.
This neglect still exists today and is worrying, not only because it distorts our sense of India’s critical literary landscape, but also because it deprives us of the rich range of work by women authors that exists out there, impoverishing our literary appetites. It has a real impact on women’s lives too – in the way women’s stories are silenced by a popular culture that prioritizes male narratives. This silencing obviously sends out a message, a message that says women’s stories aren’t as worthwhile. Male stories are the norm. Women’s stories are the other.
This list is an attempt to disrupt this status quo. Here’s an exhaustive list of Indian women writers, in no particular order of preference or genre who have contributed immensely to the country’s literary scene, and who deserve to be recognized for their vision, their fearlessness, their originality, and the barriers they broke in the literary world and beyond.
Ilavenil Meena Kandasamy is a poet, fiction writer, activist and currently one of India’s boldest and most badass young voices. Most of her works are centered on feminism and the Caste Annihilation Movement of the contemporary Indian milieu. She holds a PhD in sociolinguistics and has published two anthology of poems, “Touch” and “Ms Militancy”, and a novel “The Gypsy Goddess”. Her most recent work -“When I Hit You Or A Portrait Of The Writer As A Young Wife” is a dazzling and provocative novel of an abusive marriage.
Sahgal is the niece of Jawaharlal Nehru, and a noted novelist and political columnist. Her close association with India’s power center reflects in her work, a lot of which deals with India’s elite and how they responded to political changes around them. Sahgal won the Sahitya Akademi award for “Rich Like Us”, set between 1932 to the mid 1970’s, a time of great political unrest in India.
One of India’s finest confession poets, Kamala Das wrote beautiful prose in Malayalam and English. Her writing reflected her strong feminist ideology, portraying female sensibility with a rare honesty and sensitivity. Her poems, have for long served as an inspiration to women looking to break the shackles of sexual and domestic oppression, and therefore find relevance with women even today.
Anita Nair is a prolific writer in English, who has written everything from crime fiction to short stories, poems, and even children’s stories. She is best known for her novels “The Ladies Coupe” and “The Better Man”. Through works like “Mistress: A Novel”, that highlighted the changing relationship between a woman and her husband, Nair also brought to life the experiences of the everyday Indian woman in fiction.
A Pulitzer prize winning novelist, Lahiri is one of the most widely recognized contemporary writers of world literature. An Indian- American by birth, her stories usually discuss sensitive dilemmas faced by Indians, particularly touching upon the diasporic reality of migrant Indians. Sometimes, also hidden in the plot are also stories of women confronting difficult choices in life. Her work in Italian called “In Other Words”, for example, gives a platform to a female voice that has been crushed by the burden of obligations to others.
One of India’s most noted authors and human rights activist, Roy was awarded the Man Booker Prize for “The God Of Small Things”, her debut fiction novel. Since she won the Booker, Roy has published a wide range of non-fiction, covering topics from the US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan to a condemnation of India’s nuclear tests. “The Ministry Of Utmost Happiness” released in June 2017 marked her return to fiction after a 20-year-long hiatus.
Winner of the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Fiction Award, Desai’s marries magic realism with socio-political realism beautifully in her work. What makes her work so fascinating is the way she presents the vast canvas of our contemporary society in the broad perspective of globalization, through themes like alienation, cultural clashes, displacement and exile. Her award-winning book “The Inheritance Of Loss” is a testament to this enduring quality of her work.
A novelist and professor, Kapur’s first novel “Difficult Daughters” won the 1999 Commonwealth Prize for First Novels (Eurasia Section). In 2011, her name was shortlisted for DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, and many television sitcoms have been inspired by her writing. She currently teaches at Delhi University.
A blogger and a writer, Madhavan writes under the pseudonym eM on her blog which is called the The Compulsive Confessor. Her first book was a semi-autobiographical piece of work titled “You Are Here”. She is the daughter of N S Madhavan, the famous Malayalam writer. Madhavan is also a regular columnist at Youth Ki Awaaz as Aunty Feminist.
Kamla Bhasin is a well known developmental feminist activist, poet, author and social scientist. Bhasin’s work spans 35 years and focuses on issues like gender, education, human development and the media.She is best known for her work on the NGO Sangat, a South Asian network of feminists, and for her poem Kyunki main ladki hoon, mujhe padhna hai.
Novelist, short-story writer and children’s writer Anita Desai has many awards to her credit including the Padma Bhushan and The Guardian Children’s Fiction prize. Her novels usually revolve around working out the mystery of the inner life of her characters. They use stunning visual imagery to show this inner working, and many have compared her modernist sensibilities to writers like T. S. Eliot, William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf.
Sunetra Gupta is not only an acclaimed novelist, but also a scientist and professor at the University of Oxford where she teaches Theoretical Epidemiology. In October 2012 her fifth novel, “So Good In Black”, was longlisted for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. “The Glassblower’s Breath”, where she takes the takes the reader on a journey of the emotional, intellectual and sexual experiences of a woman, is perhaps her most defining work. The story of a single day in the life of a woman mixed with fantasies, memories, dreams and ambition of a woman who married a rich man encapsulating her struggle to conform to society’s standards.
With a fiercely powerful voice and strong female protagonists, Divakurni’s writing seeks at its core to capture the soul of a woman’s being. She has written 15 books so far, all of whom blend prose and poetry, magic and realism beautifully to get at the heart of her character’s stories.
An Indian-born American writer, Mukherjee beautifully explored the internal cultural clashes of characters most of whom were immigrants through books like the “The Middleman And Other Stories” and “Jasmine”. The stories of self-discovery of her female protagonists always lead to interesting places, and in the existing crisis that ensues, a new self emerges, offering multiple answers to one question: Who am I?
The eminent Indian Urdu author was known as much for her fierce feminist writing as for her indomitable spirit. One of Urdu’s most accomplished fiction writers, Chughtai epitomised the best qualities of the 20th-century women writers of Urdu: enlightened, bold, iconoclastic, progressive and feminist. Her most popular and controversial work “Lihaaf” focussed on the theme of female sexuality, at a time when themes related to sensuality were a rarity in Urdu literature.
One of India’s most prominent writer and social activist, Devi’s writing focussed on telling tales of injustices meted out to marginalized communities in the country in fiction. She was the bold voice behind the sensational short story “Rudali”, that delved into the lives of women belonging to the lower caste in Rajasthan who were hired as professional mourners during the death of upper caste men.
Renowned as the Jackie Collins of India, De is best known for her depiction of India’s socialites and sex in her work. She has written more than a dozen novels so far, the most successful them among them being “Spouse – The Truth About Marriage”, that has sold a million copies.
A post-independence female novelist, Markandaya’s work dealt with a whole host of themes related to the rural and urban divide, spiritual quest, modernism, attitude toward feminine superiority and conflict between tradition and modernism. Focussing heavily on the plight of women in rural India, Markandaya’s first published novel, “Nectar In A Sieve”, was a bestseller and cited as an American Library Association Notable Book in 1955.
Sarojini Naidu, also known by the sobriquet The Nightingale of India, was a child prodigy, freedom fighter, and poet. The three volumes of her poems, “The Golden Threshold” (1905), “The Bird Of Time” (1912) and “The Broken Wing” (1917), occupy a place of eminence in the history of Indo-Anglian poetry, known for their lyricism, symbolism, imagery and mysticism. Themes related to nature, love, life, death and patriotism are explored widely in Naidu’s poetry.
Githa Hariharan’s work belongs to the era of renaissance of Indo-English literature that started with the appearance of Salman Rushdie’s novel “Midnight Children” in the early 80s. Her first novel, “The Thousand Faces Of Night”, that won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 1993, was written by Hariharan while she was on maternity leave. Encapsulating lives of three generation of women, in Chennai, the novel focusses on the how they are torn between tradition and modernity in trying to shape their lives in their own ways, and in turn connects their stories to the ancient myths of the Ramayana and Mahabharata.
Namita Gokhale has authored 14 books, most of them about women. Her protagonists, like Paro and Priya of “Paro: Dreams Of Passion”, or Grandmother’s Gudiya in “Gods, Graves And Grandmother”, or Shakuntala in the novel “Shakuntala”, all follow the course and concerns of their own life: whether as a child or a woman, either career oriented or as a married woman. Her most recent anthology “Himalaya: Adventures, Meditations” was co-edited with Ruskin Bond.
Meena Alexander is an acclaimed Indian-born American poet, scholar and writer. The subjects explored in her writing include language, memory, and the significance of place. Her poetry collections include “The Bird’s Bright Ring” (1976), “I Root My Name” (1977), “Without Place” (1978), “Stone Roots” (1980), “House Of A Thousand Doors” (1988), and “The Storm: A Poem In Five Parts” (1989). She also wrote a one-act play, “In The Middle Earth”.
Urvashi Butalia is an Indian feminist, author and historian. She set up India’s first feminist publishing house, called Kali for Women, that now runs as Zubaan Books, an imprint. Butalia has also written her own books, the most notable of which is “The Other Side Of Silence: Voices From The Partition Of India”, that deals with stories of thousands of women and children who were killed during and after during the 1947 India-Pakistan partition.
Toru Dutt was an Indian poet who wrote in English and French in the mid 1800s. She remains a respected name amongst Indian poets in English, despite passing away early, particularly for themes explored in her poetical collection “A Sheaf Gleaned In French Fields” published 1876.
Before turning into a writer, Koshy pursued many things, working as a cashier, a sales clerk, a waitress and an advocate. She is the author of “If It Is Sweet”, a collection of short stories, and a novel titled “Not Only The Things That Have Happened”. The book won the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize (2009) and was shortlisted for the Vodafone Crossword Book Prize (2009).
Often described as “one of the first-generation modern Indian feminists,” Savitribai Phule was a poet and a social reformer who along with her husband spiritedly fought against the dominant caste system. Phule wrote many poems against discrimination during her time. Two books of her poems published posthumously, Kavya Phule (1934) and Bavan Kashi Subodh Ratnakar (1982) are a must read for anyone looking to get a sneak peek into the lives of one of India’s first lady teacher.
Also an entrepreneur and youth expert, Bansal is a non-fiction writer whose books usually deal with the theme of entrepreneurship.Two of her most bestselling works – “Stay Hungry Stay Foolish” and “Connect The Dots” – deal with stories of entrepreneurs and have sold 400,000 copies between them.
Amrita Pritam was a novelist and, poet who wrote in both Hindi and Punjabi. Considered the first prominent Punjabi women poet, her poem “Ajj aakhaan Waris Shah nu” is a heart-rending piece detailing the hopelessness, terror and sadness experienced by those who witnessed the 1947 Indo-Pak partition. Her experiences of the partition also inspired her to write “Pinjar” in which she addressed the helplessness faced by the women during the time of the Partition.
Born in 1941, Namjoshi is one of India’s leading feminist writers and one of the wittiest fabulists of our times. She came into prominence with her book “Feminist Fables” (1981), that retold folktales like The Panchatantra, Ovid’s Metamorphoses and European fairy tales from a distinctly queer perspective. She has written many collections of fables and poetry, novels and children’s books, and many of them have been translated into several languages.
An advertising professional turned writer, Chauhan has been described by many as one of the best writers of Indian commercial fictional genre. Her novels have it all – romance, humor and intelligence told with a friendly candour and witty spin. Her first book “The Zoya Factor”, is about a young girl employed by an ad agency who finds her fate intertwined with that of the Indian cricket team.
Sushmita Banerjee was a writer and activist from India. She wrote the famous memoir “Kabuliwalar Bangali Bou” (A Kabuliwala’s Bengali Wife) based on her experiences of marrying an Afghan and her time in Afghanistan during Taliban rule. The subject of the 2003 Bollywood film, “Escape From Taliban”, she was murdered by suspected Taliban militants in 2013.
A historical fiction writer, Sundaresan writes fictional books on consorts and princesses of Mughal dynasty. For those fascinated by India’s majestic past, Sundaresan’s books provide a peek into romantic era of the past, mixed with a generous overdose of intrigue and power struggles. Her book “The Twentieth Wife” (2002) is based on the life of Mehrunnisa, Empress Nur Jahan, one of India’s most powerful women.
Deshpande began her career writing short stories writing nine collections, 12 novels and four children’s books. Three of her novels have received awards, including the Sahitya Akademi award for “That Long Silence”, which delves into the suffering faced by a woman of a woman whose controlling husband doesn’t understand why a woman needs her own identity and an equal place at home and in society.
A writer and a translator, Arshia Sattar has a PhD in Classical Indian Literature from the University of Chicago. She has two amazing books to her credit – her beautifully illustrated book “The Ramayana for Children”, and “Uttara: The Book of Answers”, a translation of Valmiki’s the Uttara Kanda, the most problematic part of the Ramayana: when Rama banishes Sita into the forest.
Starting out as an actress, Twinkle Khanna moved on to writing and since then has charted a successful career for herself as Mrs Funnybones. Her debut book of the same name sold over one hundred thousand copies making her India’s highest-selling female writer of 2015.
The BBC journalist has made quite a name for herself in the literary circles after the release of “Kohinoor: The Story Of The World’s Most Infamous Diamond” that she wrote with author William Dalrymple. The book traces the untold history of the Kohinoor diamond that goes back centuries.
Winner of the Sahitya Akademi award as well as the Jnanpith award. She primarily wrote books in the Assamese language, which were translated into English. Through her writing, she tried to unify different Assamese communities and bring about social change. One of her best books “Pages Stained With Blood”, deals with the Sikh pogrom Operation Blue Star and the assassination of Indira Gandhi.
Lavanya Sankaran’s books deal with simple storylines written in a manner that the reader instantly falls in love with the characters. A case in point being her book “The Hope Factory”, where even though the characters seem like people from one’s everyday life, the storyline is so compelling that it grips the reader instantly.
An eminent writer, Murthy writes in Kannada and English, drawing on experiences from her rather eventful life. Told simply, her stories revolve around the everyday and are easy to relate to. For example, her book “How I Taught My Grandmother To Read And Other Stories”, details her childhood experiences of being raised by her grandparents.
Deepa Agarwal is a versatile children’s author, who has also written some books for adults. Her books inform young readers about eminent historical figures and events in an engaging manner. One of her must-read books is “If The Earth Should Move”, a collection of 14 short stories, of which the Cradle Song, won the first prize in The Asian Age short story competition in 1995.
Judy Balan, is a comedy writer and author who debuted with the best-selling novel “Two Fates: The Story of My Divorce”, a parody of Chetan Bhagat’s “Two States: The Story of My Marriage”.Undoubtedly one of India’s funniest writers in the country today, Balan started out as a blogger before writing her first book.
Krishna Udayasankar is a Singapore-based Indian author who writes extensively on the historical fiction genre. She, known for her modern retelling of Mahabharata through the novels “Govinda”, “Kaurava” and “Kurukshetra”. The three books collectively comprise The Aryavarta Chronicles.
A literary fiction author and journalist, Meghna Pant has written one novel – “One And A Half Wife”, and a collection of short stories called “Happy Birthday”. One of the defining features, especially in her short stories, are the surprise endings the stories have, that leaves the reader hooked till the last word.
Kundu has written such books as “Faraway Music” and “You’ve Got The Wrong Girl”. Her writing heavily focuses on exploring women’s sexuality , especially in books like Sita’s Curse, where she explores the sexual exploits of a woman who gives in to her desires.
Arni started writing and illustrating her first book when she was eight. Her first book “The Mahabharata: A Child’s View” became an instant success and has been translated into various languages since then. Started out in mythology, her books take a direction of their own before ultimately connecting with the real world. One of her best books is “The Missing Queen”, a part political thriller and part reimagining of the Ramayana, that offers a brilliant critique of the political and media landscapes in modern India
Best known for her detective Muzaffar Jang series, Liddle has also written many short stories and humorous articles. “The Englishman’s Cameo”, which is the first in the Muzaffar Jang series, is a must-read for those who love the mystery and history genre.
Consistently ranked amongst the top 5 highest selling Indian authors (according to the AC Nielsen survey), she is the highest selling woman writer in India. She has written eight books including “Life Is What You Make It”, “It Happens For A Reason” and “The Secret Wishlist” and all of them turned out to be huge bestsellers.
All of 25, Nikita Singh has already written 10 novels. Singh’s books sell, on average, over 20,000 copies making them all bestsellers. She draws a lot of inspiration from art, music, movies and her surroundings, and a lot of what she observes makes way into her books as well.
An eminent historian, Thapar is the author of several books, including the popular volume History Of India.Her historical work portrays the origins of Hinduism as an evolving interplay between social forces. Her recent work on Somnath examines the evolution of the historiographies about the legendary Gujarat temple.
The first female Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi was known for her political ruthlessness and controversial decision during her time at the helm of affairs. Based on interviews and other source material, her book “My Truth” is a rare and vitally important book offering us a peek into the life of Gandhi in her own words.
Ira Trivedi is an Indian-born author, columnist, and yoga acharya. Her works include India in Love: Marriage and Sexuality in the 21st century, “What Would You Do to Save the World?”, “The Great Indian Love Story” and “There’s No Love on Wall Street”. With her first non-fiction book – “India in Love: Marriage And Sexuality In The 21st Century”, Trivedi tries to capture the changes in marriage and sexuality in 21st century India.
Samina Ali is an Indian-American author and activist, known best for her debut award-winning novel “Madras On Rainy Days”. The book that details a young woman’s arranged marriage and political awakening was inspired by Ali’s experiences of growing up in India and the USA. A big thrust behind Ali’s work is her belief that personal narrative can play a big role in helping women achieve individual and political freedoms, and this belief comes across in that she writes.
An Indian writer based out of New York city, Dawesar is author of books like “Miniplanner”, “Family Values”, and “Madison Square Park”. She also won the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian fiction and the Stonewall Book Award for fiction for “Babyji”, a novel that recounted the coming of age stories as well as sexual adventures and fantasies of a 16-year-old school girl.