On our second birthday, our team looks back at the last two unpredictable, whirlwind years in the best way we know how: through the books we discovered along the way. Here, we collect our favourite discoveries we’ve made through Champaca – from colleagues and community interactions.
Read on to discover the books that we love, and get your copies from Champaca.
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
Nirica’s enthusiasm for books is infectious, and one of her favourites is Shirley Jackson! So I picked up The Haunting of Hill House, and avoided reading it – I have sufficient psychological terror in real life. I got to it early this year when our team decided to read outside comfort zones. I read it alongside Rebecca, mesmerised. I was swept up by the sheer chilling terror of the experience, so inward, so much like swimming underwater, totally private. The book takes us to those places where something lurks underneath our conscious minds, and how this can unravel. The eerie thin line between reality and unreality written with spare and affecting prose. PS: Netflix does a good job interpreting this book, but nothing compares to the reading experience, so read it before you press play!
Cleanness by Garth Greenwell
One day, Thejaswi read to me his favourite passage from What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell. It was incredibly moving and when I finally read the book, I felt like I had changed irrevocably. As a queer person, it was always the inbetweens and not-easily-articulables that haunted me growing up, the less than perfect ways we see ourselves and our desires. Reading Garth Greenwell is like being validated in those interstices, with exquisite, introspective, absorbing prose. It was only natural that I read Cleanness as soon as it hit our shelves!
The Wall by Gautam Bhatia
It’s always wonderful fun to plan events for Champaca – to pick books and structure conversations, knowing at the end that we will have the thrill of speaking to the author about it. I am notoriously nervous before events, but our conversation with Gautam Bhatia, author of The Wall, was one of my favourites.
We had invited Gautam Bhatia to our store in early 2020, to talk about his book The Transformative Constitution. It was such a large audience that it spilled out onto Champaca’s staircase – there was barely space for me to stand. When we heard about his upcoming speculative fiction novel, we immediately knew we had to have a Champaca event around it. Months later, and I can hardly believe in the same year, we did – this time, online.
This book is about a world contained within a mysterious Wall, and a group of people that will stop at nothing to find out what’s beyond it. It was so exciting to hear the work that went into writing it, the level of detail and research that goes into the effort of worldbuilding, and to dive deeper into my favourite genre. What I found most interesting was the way I found myself reading the book differently in preparation for the event. It was such a fun experience for me, armed with Post-it notes, noticing minute details, noting down questions, and all with the knowledge that I could get them all answered by the author himself. Watch the event here :)
Cantoras by Carolina De Robertis
Stocking our shelves is very much a community effort. Our small team works hard, looking through publisher lists and researching books in areas we think deserve emphasis. And our readers are constantly introducing us to new books – whether they’re requesting us to stock something new, or just sharing a favourite read. This was one of those books that came to us via a customer.
When copies reached the store, I picked one up, because I am always drawn to a book with the ocean on its cover. And sometimes judging a book by its cover works, because in it I discovered a moving, unforgettable story about love, sisterhood, and revolution, and a beautiful exploration of the link between queerness and the sea. I loved it immediately, and it’s quickly become one of my favourite books, and a completely unexpected discovery. I wrote a review for it, which you can find over here.
Season of the Shadow by Léonora Milano, translated by Gila Walker
Like Radhika, I have been struggling to pick up books that I fear will make my already fragile emotional state worse. But when Thejaswi asked for a volunteer to read Season of the Shadow, the centrepiece for our Book Subscription’s April edition, I jumped at the chance. I didn’t look the title up, deciding simply to read it, all in the hope that it would help me work through my anxiety about reading.
Léonora Milano’s writing was a revelation. The prose, first unfamiliar, and then like a cocoon that wrapped around me, transported me to the heart of a small community confronted with a foreign enemy relentless in its destruction of their way of life. For one as irreverent as me, the deep-seated spirituality that anchored the characters was surprisingly moving. And in the end, while Season of the Shadow may not have cured my trepidation, it was a reminder of the strength of dogged resilience.
The 1982-83 Bombay Textile Strike and the Unmaking of a Labourer's City by Hub Van Wersch
Before I became part of the staff at Champaca, I was yet another bibliophile excited to make their way to the newest independent bookstore on the block. On my very first visit, I picked up Hub Van Wersch’s The 1982-83 Bombay Textile Strike and the Unmaking of a Labourer’s City. I was keen to learn about this moment in history, which prior to reading this book I had only seen glimpses of in cinema, notably in Saeed Akhtar Mirza’s Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyoon Aata Hai.
Thorough but very approachable, the book sets the stage for how quarter million mill workers went on strike for a year and a half in Mumbai. It documents the rise of feared union leader Datta Samant, and the eventual exodus of textile mills from the city. But more importantly, it shows how workers endured the strike and its aftermath. The book is a must-read, I believe, for anyone spell-bound by Mumbai, or eager to understand how its present contours came to be.
In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado
Through the pandemic, books have constantly been by my side, but I have been shying away from books that deal with real lives or any pain. Sometimes it becomes a fear that stays with me for a long time, so I was grateful to my colleague Nirica for recommending In the Dream House and also lending me her personal copy, to get out of this rut.
In the Dream House is a memoir by Carmen Maria Machado about her experiences in an abusive queer relationship. Everything from her writing style to the range of emotions I experienced while reading this book kept me on edge. It is a powerful and horrifying story that needs to be told. It is also a difficult book to write about, the form is unlike anything I've read before, and I have an especially fraught relationship with memoirs – it is very difficult to put your inner life in a book – and this one is done with so much honesty, and vulnerability, anger and regret that it deeply moved me.
Motherwit by Urmila Pawar, translated by Veena Deo
Champaca launched a Subscription Box in June 2020, and from July 2020 to June 2021, we focused on translations from all over India and the world. As a team, we shortlist the books we think fit the theme we’ve chosen and read several before choosing the final one. Then one of us writes a curation note explaining our choice and why we think it is a splendid book in general. This process of choosing the books has been one of our favourite activities because it involves ‘reading’ as part of our job, which doesn’t happen as often as we’d like or expect.
As part of this process, Thejaswi recommended Motherwit by Urmila Pawar, translated by Veena Deo who has written an excellent introduction. This is a collection of fourteen gentle short stories where we are given an intimate view into the landscapes of Dalit lives. I like how she writes gently about a difficult subject, and still creates an impact strong enough to make her readers question themselves. We also had a wonderful conversation with the author and the translator around the books that you can watch here.
I was always a picky reader of anything dubbed SciFi or SpecFic, and here I was at Champaca, among avid readers of Cixin Liu, N. K. Jemisin and Ursula Le Guin. Nirica one day breathlessly introduced me to Ted Chiang’s Exhalation, but at the end of a rushed evening, I couldn’t remember the title and Radhika handed me Stories of Your Life and Others instead. I eventually read both books. Ted Chiang’s writing is some of the best fiction I have read in a long time. Each story was credible and incredible, and I had rarely encountered stories plotted such that each detail is deliberately intended, nuanced, thoughtful, essential and fresh at the same time. I find myself returning to his stories today, something that rarely happens to me while reading fiction.