Books & Reading

Existential Essentials: A Halloween Reading List

True terror is not otherworldly. In fact, it is a thing far more terrifying (and far more real) than ghouls and spooky spirits. You find it in the most innocuous of places: in history textbooks, small newspaper articles, unreported events. Most of the time, you find it in other people, and, sometimes, even within yourself. This is a place of madness, hysteria, suffering, narcissism and confusion.

In the spirit of Halloween, I’ve put together a list of novels that offer a sample of what real-world terror can look like: abject poverty, plotting paedophiles, book-burning, totalitarian states. Though works of fiction, they are inspired by the monsters of this world, and more frightening because of it.

WARNING: This list contains truly depressing novels.

1. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

It is 1951, a winter day in a Siberian labour camp. A prisoner goes about his day, bending rules, avoiding punishments and making life a little easier where he can. Based on Solzhenitsyn’s own experience as a labour camp prisoner under Stalin’s reign, this is a grim but powerful account of life in the Soviet Gulags.

2. A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

a fine balance

The unfair prejudices of the Hindu caste system are revealed as we follow the lives of 4 characters from different castes in Bombay, India, in the 1970s. The poor survive by living on a razor’s edge. For them, everything goes badly; there’s no happy ending in this overwhelmingly sad novel that’s the unfortunate reality of millions of impoverished Indians.

3. Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales by Yoko Ogawa


Yoko Ogawa is a master of modern Gothic. Beautiful and deadly, each short story is like an exquisite delicacy that’s rotten to its core. In the first story, for example, a woman spends an “Afternoon at the Bakery” where she goes to buy strawberry shortcake for her son’s birthday, twelve years after he died while trapped inside an abandoned refrigerator.

4. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell


Nineteen Eighty-Four and Farenheit 451 (#5, below) are equally frightening dystopian novels with similar themes. Orwell’s version depicts a totalitarian state where truth doesn’t exist, independent thought is banned, and love is an alien concept (unless it’s love for the Party). It is visionary because some countries today function exactly like the nightmarish world depicted in this 1961 novel.

5. Farenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

farenheit 451

I reviewed Ray Bradbury’s frightening vision of future a few years ago. In this dystopian classic, owning, publishing and reading books is a criminal activity. Distracted by technology, citizens allow, in fact prefer, to let books burn. (Sounds familiar?) In the midst of this extreme government-imposed censorship, one book-burning fireman has a moral awakening.

6. Black Hole by Charles Burns

black hole cover

I’ve written about Burns’ macabre graphic novel before. In a gruesome twist of fate, all goes awry when a mysterious sexually transmitted plague starts infecting teenagers in a quiet suburban American town. What unfolds is a testimony to the savage cruelty of puberty and high school politics.

7. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov


Humbert Humbert, a middle-aged European intellectual, meets his ideal nymphet in the shape of 12-year-old Dolores Haze, and constructs an elaborate plot to seduce her. The prose is as hauntingly beautiful as the story is sad, sick and tragic.

8. The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

the metamorphosis

Gregor Samsa wakes up one morning and finds himself transformed into some sort of vile insect though his intellect remains intact. But the longer he’s trapped in his new form, the more bug-like his mind becomes. Truly kafkaesque. 

9. Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews

Flowers in the attic

The four Dollanganger children are locked up in the attic of their beautiful mother’s childhood home, a sprawling Victorian mansion. Here, the children grow up, enter puberty and discover sexuality with some disastrous consequences. It’s not highbrow literature but that doesn’t stop it from being a dark, twisted fairytale.

Books & Reading

What’s going on at Penguin India?

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed…

– William Butler Yeats, The Second Coming (1921)

Thus begins my copy of Hindu Myths, published by Penguin with introduction and notes by Wendy Doniger. I had bought Wendy Doniger’s book while at university, inspired by a module on South Asian religions and my lecturer’s effusive praise for Doniger’s research and textual scholarship. I remember looking specifically for the Penguin edition because I held them to the highest standards. Now? Not so much.

Wendy Doniger (November 20, 1940), a prolific translator of Sanskrit texts, has published Vātsyāyana Kāmasūtra, The Laws of Manu, and Hindu Myths: A Sourcebook among others,

Wendy Doniger (November 20, 1940), a prolific writer on the Hindu religion and translator of Sanskrit texts, has published Vātsyāyana Kāmasūtra, The Laws of Manu, and Hindu Myths: A Sourcebook, among others.

In an out-of-court settlement with a Hindu nationalist group, Penguin India has agreed to recall and destroy all copies of Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History within India. The lawsuit in which her book is implicated claims that Doniger is accused of hurting “the religious feelings of millions of Hindus by declaring that Ramayana is a fiction”. provides a succinct summary of events thus far:

In 2011, the Hindu nationalist group Shiksha Bachao Andolan filed a civil case against Penguin India over The Hindus: An Alternative History, by Wendy Doniger, a professor of religion at the University of Chicago. The group claims the book offends Hindus by, among other things, inaccurately representing the religion and offering an overly sexual interpretation of Hindu texts. This, it contends, violates a section of the Indian penal code that prohibits “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings or any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.”

However Penguin India chooses to justify its decision, the fact remains that there was no court order and that the great publishing house could definitely have fought its case further and harder. Naturally, we’re all furious with Penguin’s chickening out. But despite our alarm, fury, outcry and protestations, I wonder if Penguin India is the real villain here.

William Dalrymple pointed out that “real villains are the laws in this country, which were old colonial laws drawn up in the 1890s, and which make insulting religion a criminal offence… The reality is that it is very difficult to defend yourself because the law is stacked very heavily on the side of any lunatic.”

Adding to Dalrymple’s voice of reason, Doniger herself defended her publishing house. Despite her anger and disappointment, she believes Penguin India was “finally defeated by the true villain of this piece – the Indian law that makes it a criminal rather than civil offence to publish a book that offends any Hindu, a law that jeopardises the physical safety of any publisher, no matter how ludicrous the accusation brought against a book”.

A copies of The Hindus: An Alternative History within India will be recalled and pulped.

All copies of The Hindus: An Alternative History within India will be recalled and pulped.

However, Arundhati Roy appears has a different opinion on the matter. In an open letter to Penguin India, she has demanded an explanation of their decision. And to be perfectly honest, as someone who’s seen Penguin as a hallmark of great literature, I cannot help but agree with her. Who else is going to fight for free speech when senseless, arbitrary laws threaten writers and readers with censorship? What a heart wrenching, agonizing irony it is that the purveyors of speech are the ones undermining free speech. If Salman Rushdie’s fatwa issued by the Ayatollah had sent a tsunami wave of shock and disbelief through the literary world, I can’t imagine that the pulping of Wendy Doniger’s books in the Indian subcontinent won’t do any less. The only point this proves is that fascists have no creed or nationality, and that sometimes, they do win.

As a citizen of the world and a woman of Indian origin, I am deeply concerned and a little frightened about the future of the freedom of speech in India as long as saffron-robed fascists are in power.


A novel by an Iranian writer about an Iranian writer who wants to write a love story and see it published in Iran. But he finds himself in a metaphorical burqa. Almost everything he writes is in danger of being censored, or political, or blasphemous, or offensive to some unknown party. Circumstances threaten to kill characters; other characters go out of control and rebel against the story and narrator.

Read this novel if you want to know how Shariar Mandanipour manages to treat censorship like a new literary form, much like a sonnet or a graphic novel. So. Fucking. Smart.

Book Review

Book Review: Censoring an Iranian Love Story by Shariar Mandanipour


What more can be said of “Fahrenheit 451” that hasn’t been said already? This prophetic tale about book burning and socially enforced censorship is a remarkable aphorism. Like many excellent science-fiction/social criticism stories, it was written for a fictional future that has become our alarming reality. Ray Bradbury sums it up aptly when he says, “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.”

Book Review

Book Review: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury