Thursday, August 23

The Taco Bell canon

A young dad whom I met at the last meetup asked me for a top 10 list of diasporic desi books, movies and music for his older kids. So here’s my incomplete, hastily-thought-out, Philistine, North Indian-biased list: classics to go. They’re weighted toward those which focus on the immigrant experience and which I’ve actually read, seen or heard (e.g. I haven’t yet read Sir Vidia’s nonfiction screeds).

Please edumacate away in the comments.


  1. The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahiri
  2. Life Isn’t All Ha Ha Hee Hee, Meera Syal
  3. Love, Stars and All That, Kirin Narayan
  4. White Teeth, Zadie Smith
  5. The Buddha of Suburbia, Hanif Kureishi
  6. The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie
  7. The Moor’s Last Sigh, Salman Rushdie
  8. Red Earth and Pouring Rain, Vikram Chandra
  9. The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy
  10. The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje


  1. Passage from India, Priya Agarwal
  2. The Indians of New York City, Maxine Fisher
  3. An Immigrant Success Story, Arthur and Usha Helweg
  4. Maximum City, Suketu Mehta
  5. Karma Cola, Geeta Mehta


  1. Masala, Srinivas Krishna
  2. Mississippi Masala, Mira Nair & Sooni Taraporevala
  3. The Namesake, Mira Nair, Sooni Taraporevala & Jhumpa Lahiri
  4. East is East, Damien O’Donnell & Ayub Khan-Din
  5. My Son the Fanatic, Udayan Prasad & Hanif Kureishi
  6. My Beautiful Laundrette, Stephen Frears & Hanif Kureishi
  7. Loins of Punjab Presents, Manish Acharya & Anuvab Pal
  8. Bhaji on the Beach, Gurinder Chadha & Meera Syal
  9. Bend it Like Beckham, Gurinder Chadha & Guljit Bindra
  10. Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, Danny Leiner, Jon Hurwitz & Hayden Schlossberg


  1. The Kumars at No. 42
  2. The Buddha of Suburbia
  3. Roots in the Sand


  1. Karmacy
  2. Talvin Singh
  3. M.I.A.
  4. Asian Dub Foundation
  5. Karsh Kale
  6. Bally Sagoo
  7. Apache Indian
  8. Josh
  9. Punjabi MC
  10. B21


  1. Chaos Theory, Anuvab Pal
  2. Indian Ink, Tom Stoppard (thanks, Anita)
  3. Seven.11 (1995)


 Comment feed
  1. 1Nina P

    He’s a new dad? How about Pooja’s children’s books?

  2. 2trollerboi

    I few that I have enjoyed
    1. Gunny Sack, No New Land - MG Vassanji — perhaps the most Torontonian of expat desi writers.
    2. Cereus blooms at night - by Shani Motoo — very lush and passionate but unfortunately doesnt make popular desilit
    3. Baby khakis wings - by anar ali — two pakoras and a chai
    4. East West - short stories - S. Rushdie — You hear me. I refuse to choose.
    5. Jade Peony - Wayson Choy — Them Chinese. They’re just like us, except more cultured and cook better.
    6. Tales from Ferozesha Bag - R. Mistry - Yes! Toronto
    7. Family matters - R. Mistry — Two boxful of tissues
    8. Beautiful boy - S. Selvadurai — Gay desi lit. Yes this is a different voice.
    9. Golden Gate - V. Seth — He, more than anyone, opened the floodgates. Inspired us all.
    10. Suitable Boi - V. Seth — Any novel that opens with laddoos and havelis in pop lit deserves a toast of chai.
    Non fiction
    1. A million mutinies - Vidiadhar Naipaul — I cant but help feel maximum city would not be around if Sir Viddi hadnt penned this first.
    2. Jaguar smile - Salman Rushdie — Worth reading if only for the moment of truth when he is called ‘escritor Hindu’.
    3. Step across this line - Salman Rushdie — it hurts like a motherfucker to be and yet to not be. He speaks for me.

    These are the ones that I liked. I took your cue UB around Roy and Smith in including some titles that arent exactly diasporic desi - but I felt they spoke to me and spoke for me.

    Other voices around - some will lst longer than others. We’ll keep track, no?

  3. 3trollerboi

    Oh!! UB my man… surely we must mention Brownsound and Lal and Dya Singh and Autorickshaw.

  4. 4indianoguy

    Damn! I got to catch up with my reading. Life of Pi is good too and quite popular among Non-desis.

  5. 5Neale

    Nitin Sawhney
    Midival Punditz

    Sammy and Rosie

    For canon’s sake:
    ruth prawer jhabvala-merchant-ivory

  6. 6Taz

    If the “father” was looking for a book for someone teen-ish, I would also suggest Born Confused- I thought this was excellent for a young teenage girl just discovering her desi identity. Also, well done short story compilation of the diaspora - Storywallah.

    Karma of Brown Folks - Vijay Prashad

    The Kominas!


    What- no category for comedians? There’s been a huge outpouring of them…

  7. 7crickinmyneck

    Hanif Kureishi’s Intimacy and The Body should be read before Buddha of Suburbia. Yowh! It will rack your brain.

  8. 8Pooja

    Thanks, Nina :).

    I was going to say something similar… if he’s a new dad, what about age-appropriate books?

    My pics:

    Uma Krishnaswami, Illustrated by Jamel Akib

    The Road to Mumbai
    Ruth Jeyaveeran

    Tiger on a Tree
    Anushka Ravishankar, Illustrated by Pulak Biswas

    Gay-Neck: The Story of a Pigeon
    Dhan Gopal Mukerji, illustrated by Boris Artzybasheff

    Rickshaw Girl
    by Mitali Perkins, Illustrated by Jamie Hogan

    Young Uncle Comes to Town
    Vandana Singh, Illustrated by B.M. Kamath

    Broken Tusk: Stories of the Hindu God Ganesha
    Uma Krishnaswami, Illustrated by Maniam Selven

    Rama and the Demon King
    Jessica Souhami

    Will compile a similar list for age-appropriate music and movies and post here soon.

  9. 9manish

    I see that I was unclear, sorry. I got the feeling he was asking about mainstream lit for his older kids, and that he’d dip into the list himself when no one was looking :) But kids’ books are highly welcome as I’m sure many of us have got nephews, nieces and/or babies on the way.

    tb, you have a separate market all to your own up there. Good stuff, thanks.

    Crickbaby, Intimacy was just as depressing as One Day (Ardashir Vakil). If you liked one, you might like the other.

    Taz, I haven’t seen a lot of good desi comedians yet.

  10. 10Buster

    First, a big +1 to Salman Rushdie (all, but especially, I would add *Imaginary Homelands*), Vijay Prashad, DG Mukerji, Sammy and Rosie, and My Son the Fanatic.

    On the fiction front, I’ll add Ramabai Espinet’s *The Swinging Bridge* for some Indo-Caribbean feminist flavor. It’s really an amazing novel. Maybe also add R.K. Narayan’s *Vendor of Sweets* for the diasporic topicality and great writing and sense of time.

    On the non-fiction, I’ve got disagreements with Amartya Sen’s *The Argumentative Indian*, but I can imagine having an interesting talk with an older nephew or niece about it. (Like late teenage years, 15+.) There’s also DG Mukerji’s autobiography, Caste and Outcast, though again that’s for the older set, I imagine, with some sense of history. Finally I would force any relative at 16 to read A. Sivanandan’s *A Different Hunger*. Maybe just after *Karma of Brown Folks*. Someone has to raise these kids right, no?

  11. 11Vikram

    My faux canonical faves:

    Mimic Men - Sir Vidia
    A House for Mr. Biswas - Sir Vidia
    A Bend in the River - Sir Vidia
    The In Between World of Vikram Lall -MC Vassanji
    White Teeth - Zadie Smith
    Grimus - Salman Rushdie
    Cinnamon Gardens - Shyam Selvadurai
    The House of Blue Mangoes - David Davidar

    Movie: The Mystic Masseur - Merchant and Ivory

  12. 12Filmiholic


    Bombay - London - New York by Amitava Kumar


    Moor’s Last Sigh BUT abridged, read on tape by Art Malik [excellent, esp. the many voices he does]


    Nitin Sawney
    Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan & Eddie Vedder Dead Man Walking

  13. 13tamasha

    Manish - what’s an “older” kid? 12? 17? 25? There are many books on your list that I would not recommend for the younger ages - for the mere fact that they are would be best experienced, developmentally, at an older age. I didn’t read Maximum City until this year, at 26, and I don’t think I could have appreciated it before now.

    I would say Monsoon Wedding (don’t hate) should be on that list, as well as Chak De India (no, seriously). Mississippi Masala is my favorite movie of ALL TIME. :)

    Pooja’s recs are great, and I HIGHLY recommend Rickshaw Girl for the junior high set. Also, for high schoolers I love Born Confused by Tanuja Desai.

    For a younger set, picture books by Demi are great. She has beautifully illustrated biographies of the Buddha, Gandhi, etc.

    I think a lot of it depends on where said children are in their development with their desidentity. Yes, I just made up a word. But what I mean is that I didn’t start exploring my desi-ness until post-college, so perhaps my growth is mildly stunted. Where you are emotionally and intellectually makes a HUGE difference.

  14. 14Pooja

    I echo what Tamasha said.

    For young teens (12+), I also recommend:

    Ask Me No Questions
    Marina Tamar Budhos

    Looking for Bapu
    Anjali Banerjee

    For older teens (15+), I highly recommend:

    Swimming in the Monsoon Sea
    Shyam Selvadurai

  15. 15Pooja

    And… I forgot:

    Haroun and the Sea of Stories
    Salman Rushdie

  16. 16LookOfDisapproval


  17. 17ak

    in the city by the sea - kamila shamsie. it’s highly political in content, but it takes place from the PoV of a 11-year old pakistani boy. it’s not diaspora, but i think knowing about what is going/went on in south asia is a key part of understanding the diaspora, which is why i think a suitable boy is also a great suggestion. two lives by vikram seth is a good nonfiction choice.

    for movies - blue umbrella just came out - i heard that is very good for the younger (and older) audiences.

    manish @ 9 - was one day really depressing? i started it twice on two separate trips, only to have it stolen/lost on both occasions when i was about mid-way through. it’s also very hard to get a hold of (in the states, at least), but i am really keen to finish it. does the depressing part kick in towards the end?

  18. 18EnnaHesaruAni

    I’ve liked most of Amitav Ghosh’s books that I’ve read. His novels are usually very well researched and often based on historical events.

  19. 19Nina P

    As long as the list isn’t specifically for young children, I’d add Deepa Mehta’s Fire to the movies.

    For anyone interested in the Ramayana I recommend the Penguin India edition translated by Arshia Sattar; Questioning Ramayanas and Many Ramayanas (both are academic essay collections edited by Paula Richman.) Teenagers especially might enjoy Ashok Banker’s fantasy novels based on the Ramayana. (Nothing particularly diasporic here, except perhaps audience interest.)

  20. 20GheeHappyFan

    I’d add Sanjay Patel’s “The Little book of Hindu Deities”, an illustrated book of Hindu Gods and Goddesses. Short, funny and readable blurbs about the deities and adorably cute illustrations.

    Check out

  21. 21Nina P

    d’Oh! Good call, GheeHappyFan.

  22. 22ronak

    thanks Manish and everyone who is commenting here, this is very useful stuff for an abd like me :-)

  23. 23rasudha

    Please include Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance. How bout Death of Vishnu.

  24. 24trollerboi

    Ayeee!! AFB! nahin nahin!!… Pi Patel’s from Pondicherry is a better diasporic tale than that ghoulish story of castrati, dwarfs, beggars from aapchi mumbai. I have at 3 personal refs who came up and in big cow eyes shared their relief at being born in canada, ‘until I read that I didnt know how Lucky they are’. Sure yaar, just dont expect me to stroke your salami.

  25. 25trollerboi

    hey! rasudha. Sorry if I sounded vindictive and cranky earlier. The crab’s been in lately. Sorry for being rude. AFB is a very well written book indeed and it rouses strong emotion - it should be on everyone’s reading list.

  26. 26runa

    For kids/teens:
    Malgudi days - short stories - by RK Narayanan
    Feluda stories ( translated into English) by Satyajit Ray ( yes, the film director) : desi detective fiction !

    Ramayana - I prefer C Rajagopalachari’s editions of both the Ramayan and the Mahabharata

  27. 27sui_generis

    Movie to add to the list:

    Salaam Bombay
    Monsoon Wedding (on big the screen orange overwhelms you)

    Harold & Kumar is a teen flick on the level of Porky’s or Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Shouldn’t get added to the cannon.

    A few historical books:

    A New History of India by Stanley Wolpert “Easily the best survey of India” William Worger Stanford
    India: A Million Mutinies Now by VS Naipaul
    The Discovery of India by Jawaharalal Nehru (yes, that one)

    Ultrabrown should have a “best of tab” for all topics the mighty editors deem worthy. The site should have some fixed content, because these discussions disappear into the ether too quickly. Fixed content makes it accessible to newbies, and gives the site personality — topical commentary is not enough IMHO. Have a yearly best of for the site at least.

    How about some travel experiences/tips? Check out the hilarious journey to India article by Seth Stevenson of Slate:

  28. 28manish

    tamasha, ‘older kids’ includes the man asking the question :) But good point. I couldn’t get through Satanic Verses as a teen but loved it as an adult.

    Vikram, Grimus? Ok, I’m awake, you’ve had your fun now :)

    ak, One Day and Intimacy should scare anyone off from a British Asian relationship ;) One Day turns nasty. They’re both painful and incisive.

    sui, Harold and Kumar was a milestone: first desi American lead in a mainstream film and first mainstream film about the desi American experience. Also check out the Greatest Hits section in the sidebar just below the comments.

    I just added a heading for plays- which have you guys absolutely loved? I never got to see Sakina’s Restaurant, for example.

  29. 29Dari

    Not fair, Manish. You already saw the Loins of Punjab? I read about it in Anokhi Mag (for ABDs like myself). just for that, I share that I saw Darjeeling Limited (screening in LA).

    The tips are awesome for ABDs like me. No Anoushka for music? The latest album with sitar and Karsh’s tabla really do feel home, but tech

  30. 30trollerboi

    Hmmm… theatre is an interesting category.

    My definition of the diasporic experience spans other new Canadian communities. I will point you folks to cahoots theatre whose productions, though not exclusively desicentric are nonetheless representative. Generally, my recommendation is to support the theater company as opposed to a specific play - but the one production that went to my heart was Mother Tongue.

  31. 31sui_generis

    Manish, can’t agree with you on Harold & Kumar. I enjoyed Stripes and all the other teen-flicks as much as any red-blooded Desi-American male. H&K penetrated the American Psyche… with what? It’s an amusing predictable flick. The one-redeeming value of H&K is that as Bruce Lee gave the machismo swagger back to Asians (a genuine kick-ass Asian dude), H&K added a bit of personality to the over-achieving ABCD drone. John Cho plays a great straight man.

    Another movie:
    The Lover (I know it’s set in Indo-Chine, but Janet French — what a sylph.)

    A few more books:

    both by Rudyard Kipling

    Passage to India by EM Forster (any others during the Raj period?)

    Salman Rushdie

    I can’t understand why on Earth people think this guy is a great writer. I find him a pretentious long-winded insufferable bag whose books would cause Strunk & White to abandon the pen and reach for the sword. He thinks he’s too clever and it shows.

    Grimus … interesting concept so badly written.
    Midnight’s Children… Interesting idea, starts well and gets interminable quickly
    Satanic Verses… Awful from start to finish. The Mullahs were idiots to bring attention to this book… it would sunk under it’s own weight.

    After sampling these three, I’ve never read anything else by him. I’m tempted by the Moor’s Last Sigh, but given my experience, I’ll probably pass.

    A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth There’s an author. After a 1000+ pages, I wanted it to go on and on. The characters and couplets still ring in my ears after 10 years. It reminded me of Vanity Fair (if you haven’t read Thackery get to it).

  32. 32Taz

    One more for the pre-teen to teen ABD (Brit born desi, technically) genre: Anita and Me by Meera Syal.

    Also the ABD led but not “desi music” of:
    Lovely (w/ lead singer Aditya)
    Slant (w/ band members Fahim and Muneer)

  33. 33S

    A mix - some easy reads, some not so:

    A Fine Balance - Rohinton Mistry
    An Obedient Father - Akhil Sharma
    Home - Manju Kapoor
    Gypsy Masala - Preethi Nair
    A 100 Shades of White - Preethi Nair
    Salt and Saffron - Kamila Shamsie
    Kartography - Kamila Shamsie
    Midnight’s Children - Salman Rushdie

    To name but a few …

  34. 34UberMetroMallu

    Hi Manish,

    A lot of stuff that I need to check out; nice. Just wondering, did Midnight’s Children miss out due to the diasporic clause, or do you actually like The Satanic Verses and The Moor’s Last Sigh more?

  35. 35crickinmyneck

    Amitav Ghosh? He cured my insomnia during grad school. A good read is the The English Teacher, by R.K. Narayan, and Modern Indian Poetry by Vinay Dharwadker & A.K. Ramanujan. The Jaico Publishing House (Bombay) created a Jaico Classics Series for children. One book is the Great Throne of King Vikramaditya. I’m not sure if these publishers are still around. The last book I have from them is approx 20 years old.

    I agree with Runa, Ramayana is great. As a kid, I read Ramayana, Krishna, and Panchatantra comic books. I think they were published by Anada Prakashan. I’m sure they could be found on Amazon. Dearest Manish, I will def get One Day. Thanks for the recommendation.

  36. 36manish

    You already saw the Loins of Punjab?

    Dari: Yup- several times :) How was Darjeeling?

    I can’t understand why on Earth people think this guy is a great writer.

    SG: Concepts and wordplay, not Dickensian plot alone. When I skim a book and all I get is simpleminded sentences reciting a list of events with no wit, symbolism or anything else to chew on, I tune out.

    do you actually like The Satanic Verses and The Moor’s Last Sigh more?

    UMM: I liked The Moor’s Last Sigh the best of Rushdie’s novels, and a lot of it is about cultural mashup. But I included Satanic Verses above Midnight’s Children because it has significant passages about the British Asian community.

  37. 37Ultrafan

    Wow…this is why I am so addicted to this blog! Excellent list, thank you all. *Sigh* so much to read/watch/listen to and so little time. I second an earlier suggestion to have this post easily accessible through a “best of UB” tab or something like that.

    My personal favorites are:

    1.Ananda Coomaraswamy. No modern Indian scholar has delved as deep into Indian art history as much as he has. A must read to really get deep into the fascinating artistic heritage of India. His books on metaphysics etc are also good, but a little heavy.

    2.Gandhi’s autobiography and the many collected works of his thought recorded by Mahadev Desai.

    3.The Man Who Knew Infinity, biography of Srinivasa Ramanujan

    4.Sri Aurobindo’s political and philosophical works

    5.Swami Vivekananda’s collected works

  38. 38Dari

    DL is darling in every which way. Exemplary comic timings and undeniable on screen chemistry make it worth the watch. No cliched jokes here. And how can I not swoon over Adrien in a gurudawara? Script is flawless, but there are some Hollywood yawn-moments when the brothers come to their own realizations about knowing each other, including one typical, “let’s fight and make up” scene. The new Indian gal from UK is like a young Sarita Choudary…full of energy and spunk.

  39. 39ak

    amar chitra katha is always a fun way to learn about hindu/indian mythology. they kept me great company on trips.

    manish - nasty. painful, and incisive? i’m definitely going to seek out one day again :)

  40. 40tamasha

    P.S. I saw Sakina’s Restaurant when I was 17. It was amazing, and eye opening, and 17 was the perfect age for it.

  41. 41manish

    can’t agree with you on Harold & Kumar.

    The Fast Times at Ridgemont High of this generation has Asian-American leads. That’s a milestone.

  42. 42UberMetroMallu

    UMM: I liked The Moor’s Last Sigh the best of Rushdie’s novels

    Ah, we all have our imperfections, I guess. :)

    Concepts and wordplay, not Dickensian plot alone. When I skim a book and all I get is simpleminded sentences reciting a list of events with no wit, symbolism or anything else to chew on, I tune out.

    I hear you; well said.

  43. 43Anita


    “Dance Like a Man and other plays” - Mahesh Dattani

    “The Party” and “Class of ‘84″ - Rahul Da Cunha

    “American Brat” - Bapsi Sidhwa

    “Indian Ink” - Stoppard

    I’d also add “The Quilt” by Ismat Chugtai to that reading list (short story). Thought provoking for any teen to read, especially when they consider/ learn what Chugtai went through after the story was published.

    No poetry on this list? I’d add Kaifi Azmi is possible.

  44. 44prakruti

    I always wanted to ask you about this list Manish..Manish, other than Indian who are your top ten fav. writers of all times, writers from all over the ten books, top ten writers, top ten movies, music albums irrespective of the country they belong to…
    we like the same authors though I like other books of the same authors..
    I didnot like namesake, I liked Jhumpa’s first book of short stories better.
    I did not like Zadie smiths white teeth that much, I liked her On beauty better.
    I didnot like moor last sigh that much, I liked Rushdies “ground beneath her feet “and Rushdie new novel ” shalimar the clown” better.
    I liked Gita mehtas “river sutra” a lot. I like most Naipauls novels and vikram seths “equal music and golden gate”.
    I am reading suketu mehta’s “Maximum city” now and felt that it is a great non fiction but having a hard time accepting the book, mumbai now scares me..same with vikram chandra’s “sacred games”..these too books are a lil scarily truthful and a lil bit macho for me though both are good writers.
    I liked Hari kunzrus novels too and I like Pico Iyers fiction and non fiction. I liked Hanif kureshi’s Intimacy…I also liked chik flick kinda books like Hindi bindi club by kabita daswani..
    I like RKNarayans novels too..
    salaam bombay, merchant ivory films, bend it like beckham, water, are some of my fav. movies..mira nair, chadda,deepa mehta are some of my fav. indian american/canadian directors.

  45. 45madhavi

    prakruti, i too enjoyed the hindi bindi club. the author is monica pradhan. kavita daswani wrote village bride of beverly hills. did u read it?

  46. 46prakruti

    thanks Madhavi, you are right, I read so much get confused with writers names sometimes specially the new women writers…..hindi bindi club was by Monica pradhan.. I liked it a lot…specially writing in first person and all the characters written in first person through out the novel conveying their story in first person without confusing the reader with too many “I” s was amazing..characters and story line was interesting too..
    I read kabita daswani’s for matrimonial purposes and got confused between the two..hindi bindi club was way better than matrimonial purposes..matrimonial purposes was a average read though Iam sure a lot of single indian girls like me could relate to the novels story line..I think I skipped pages of village bride of beverly hills, I just could not read book of this writer was enough for me like chitra divakarunis novel..after mistress of spices I just lost interest in reading book is enough..

  47. 47VV Varaiya

    If Harold & Kumar is regarded a milestone for commercial reasons,
    how can we omit Manoj?

    Manoj Night Shyamalan

    He’s had a major impact on Hollywood.

  48. 48manish

    Aside from Praying With Anger, he hasn’t done anything about desi Americans. Unless you count Sarita Choudhury in Lady in the Water.

  49. 49Pete

    As far as books on desis, Midnight’s Childen by Rushdie is good. Brick Lane is interesting, but it’s gotten mixed reviews from des(h)i friends. Also, Russel Peters is a funny desi comedien from Canada.

  50. 50dips

    For books on desis - Farrukh Dhondy’s books - probably among the earliest in that genre come to mind.
    excellent list and a big thankyou to all for creating one of the finest contemporary Literature and Arts list ever!