3 South Asian protagonists with transformative journeys

January is a rejuvanating time where we create goals in hopes of getting closer to a better version of ourselves. I wanted to highlight 3 books with South-Asian protagonists who go through transformative changes as they learn about themselves and the world. Connecting with South-Asian books throughout my life has allowed me to explore the intersection of individuality and culture in important ways that I haven’t really reflected on lately. Coincidentally, the protagonists I chose are all young South Asian women written by South Asian women writers. I hope you enjoy these reads!

1. SHAMMAN | THE CROOKED LINE by Ismat Chughtai (1943)

GENRE: historical fiction | CW: child abuse | REP: Indian-Muslim

PREMISE: it is a “semi-autobiographical tale of a fiery-spirited, middle-class Muslim girl [Shamman] bent on exploring the shape and nature of consuming desire” (GoodReads). This text was originally published 4 years before the 1947 Partition and contains interesting depictions of gender, sexuality, and autonomy. 

CONNECTION: I first read The Crooked Line for a Women’s Studies course called “Gender, Diaspora and Social Issues in Indian Women’s Literature” at Mills College, in the fall of 2018. I was struck by the trajectory of Shamman’s life, starting out as the stubborn youngest child among many siblings, her challenges at an all-girls boarding school, and how she crafts her identity at an important time of nation-building for India. Shamman’s transformative journey is greatly influenced by external pressures presented by society and her family, and it’s interesting to see when she remains steadfast or wavers as a reaction. 


GENRE: literary fiction | CW: war | REP: Bangladeshi-Muslim / Indian-Hindu

PREMISE: “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine” is part of Jhumpa Lahiri’s short story collection, Interpreter of Maladies. The protagonist, Lilia, is a young girl who conceptualizes her place in the world as a South Asian-American person when her and her family provide support for a kind-hearted man named Mr. Pirzada, who’s family is impacted by a war in Dhaka, Bangladesh in 1971. 

CONNECTION: This has to be my favorite short story in the collection. I love how curious and attentive Lilia is; although her parents aren’t being completely transparent about what’s going on with Mr. Pirzada, she tries her best to learn more. Like, her teacher scolds her for looking at South Asian history instead of the U.S. Civil War, during a class trip to the library. I think that scene brilliantly captures the way that South Asian-American children grow away from and toward their culture as they grow up, having very little exposure to South Asian history in the American public education system. Lilia’s transformative journey both observes and interrogates the junction between cultures and religions. 


GENRE: young adult fiction | CW: gaslighting & violence against LGBTQ+ | REP: Bangladeshi-Muslim

PREMISE: Rukhsana Ali lives her life within the careful parameters of her parents in hopes of going to college soon in Seattle. But when her mother catches Ruhksana kissing her girlfriend, her parents quickly devise a trip to Bangladesh that becomes more than just visiting her sick grandmother.  

CONNECTION: I read this fairly recently, and I felt like Rukhsana’s story was engaging and heart-wrenching. I had mixed feelings about the book, as a whole. Even so, I appreciated that her identity grew stronger with a more holistic perspective on her culture and family, especially in relation to a generational perspective of what the women in her family have gone through. While there are many dark moments, there are also important scenes of hope that are especially great for LGBTQ+ South Asian teens to read. I love that Sabina Khan apparently wrote this novel after one of her daughters came out. 

DISCUSSION – What are some South-Asian protagonists you’ve encountered with transformative journeys? How have South-Asian protagonists influenced your view of yourself or the world?

Excited to produce more reflective content for South Asian Reading Challenge 2020! – S.A.

“Still, there are times I am bewildered by each mile I have traveled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept. As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination.”


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