Whenever I consider the sheer amount of great books about India, by Indians, or by Indians about India, my head spins as I fight the urge to become a sour-smelling literary hermit, move into a book-filled cave, work my way through the entire list alphabetically and spend my spare time throwing rotten eggs at anyone proclaiming Shantaram to be their favourite book about India.
Ok, maybe that’s taking it a bit far. But from the mind-bending exploits of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata to the paan shop owner regaling you with his life story as you try to buy a pack of gum, India has a long and rich tradition of storytelling and one could easily spend the entire six months granted by the visa authorities living in a hut in the Himalayas reading novels by Indian authors, chasing yaks and eating momos.
Should you reach the end of that long and venerable list you still have a library’s worth of travelogues, novels and non-fiction books written by foreign authors who found themselves captivated by the Indian subcontinent. With many Indian authors choosing to write in English, cheap paperbacks available in bookshops and pavement stalls on practically every corner and plenty of long train journeys to read them on, India truly is a great destination for book lovers.
*Edit 21.1.2017: Almost two years after this post was originally written I have just moved to Delhi to study at the Jawarhalal Nehru University in Delhi for a semester, a decision more than a little inspired by my love of certain Indian authors. I have updated the list to kick off the semester and, judging by my book-buying pace here, will be adding a lot of new titles by the summer. And no, Shantaram is still not on the list 😉
FICTION – Novels
The God Of Small Things (Arundhati Roy) ♥
“It was a time when the unthinkable became the thinkable and the impossible really happened.”
A lyrical family saga brimming with beautifully inventive language and a morbid aesthetics that transports the reader into the lush Keralan backwaters where one rebellious step against tradition and caste sets in motion an avalanche of tragedies large and small.
The narrative jumps back and forth between the childhood of Rahel and Estappen, fraternal twins whose lives are collateral damage of their mother’s choices, and their reunion almost thirty years later. It is one of those books that takes you in and holds you tight until the very end, spitting you out on the other side dazed, unsettled and just a little bit in love. (Amazon)
The Shadow Lines (Amitav Gosh) ♥
“They had drawn their borders, believing in that pattern, in the enchantment of lines, hoping perhaps that once they had etched their borders upon the map, the two bits of land would sail away from each other like the shifting tectonic plates of the prehistoric Gondwanaland.”
Gosh foregoes the linguistic gymnastics of contemporary literature and weaves a beautifully complex tale in a strong and straight-forward language. Past and present collide as the nameless narrator takes us through the crumbling memories of his childhood in Calcutta and lovingly revives his cousin Tridib, whom he worshipped as a boy. A grownup now, living in London, the narrator recollects a web of disconnected memories and perspectives converging around one violent moment. Who is “us” and who is “them”? Who gets to decide? How does a new border drawn at Partition suddenly transform “home” into “abroad” and realign the old ties of loyalty and community?
The book tackles some big universal questions and is solemn, witty and funny in equal measure, enlivened by a cast of beautifully rounded characters that, after having finished the book, one might as well have known for a whole lifetime. (Amazon)
Midnight’s Children (Salman Rushdie) ♥
“India, the new myth–a collective fiction in which anything was possible, a fable rivalled only by the two other mighty fantasies: money and God.”
This book by Salman Rushdie (of the fatwa notoriety) has been one of my favourite novels for a long time now.
It tells the story of Saleem Sinai, born at the stroke of midnight on august 15, 1947 – the moment India gained independence. He finds his fate inextricably bound to that of his homeland and, with a generous sprinkling of magical realism, is telepathically linked to the other “midnight’s children” who were born within the first hour of India’s independence. It is a book that defies the “what is it about” question – It has the wide scope and cheerful fatalism of Garcia Marquez, and anyone who has tried to explain what A Hundred Years of Solitude is “about” will understand my predicament.
I guess it’s about India’s transition to independence. About the Partition and about India Ghandi’s hairdo. It is also about home, fate and memory. It is about everything, because “to understand just one life you have to swallow the world”.
The book has a well-deserved spot on pretty much every “ 100 best novels of the 20th century” list and managed to irk Indira Ghandi so much that she ended up suing Rushdie for defamation – when a head of state makes time in her busy schedule to drag you to court, you know your book must have been worthwhile. (Amazon)
FICTION – Short Stories
The Hidden Treasure & Other Stories (Rabindranath Tagore)
“To a Western observer our civilization appears as all metaphysics, as to a deaf man piano playing appears to be mere movements of fingers and no music.”
We can’t talk about Indian literature without mentioning Rabindranath Tagore, the Nobel laureate Bengali poet and novelist.
Hidden Treasures & Other Stories is a collection of eight stories that were originally written in Bengali and translated into English by various people, including Tagore himself. While the other books I read were originally written in English here one can really appreciate the difference that a good (or bad) translator can make. Luckily Tagore translated a lot of his work himself, and those stories seem to be the best way to get an authentic feel for the literary giant’s style. His work is in the public domain and freely available from Project Gutenberg.
Under The Banyan Tree & Other Stories (R.K. Narayan)
Narayan is among the best-known and most widely read Indian novelists and is the Leonardo DiCaprio of the Nobel Prize for Literature, having collected a number of nominations without ever taking home the prize. I chose this collection of short stories at random, and there are many more titles to choose from.
His lovingly written and meticulously observed short stories serve as quick sketches of everyday life in south Indian villages and towns, spiced by love and lust, devotion and betrayal, cunning and naiveté and recounted in a humorous and unpretentious style.
While his novels are set in the fictional south Indian town of Malgudi, his short stories are more geographically dispersed, springing up in god-forsaken villages, busy market towns, en route to an obscure temple or at the foot of a horse statue. (Amazon)
Insects Are Just Like You And Me Except Some Of Them Have Wings (Kuzhali Manickavel)
“She cracks her knuckles and creates a new day that consists of Sunday morning, Saturday afternoon and Thursday night. There will be no more Mondays. The universe applauds her decision.”
I bought this strange little collection of contemporary short stories based solely on the title and was not disappointed – it is quite a mind-bender. Restless Kerouacian characters floating about in a trippy Palahniuk-on-mescaline universe, resulting in a bizarre literary treat that is impossible to understand but somehow makes a whole lot of sense regardless. For maximum impact read it right after Narayan, that most revered of south Indian storytellers. (Amazon)
Plain Tales From The Hills (Rudyard Kipling)
“Now India is a place beyond all others where one must not take things too seriously – the midday sun always excepted.”
This book is Kipling’s first collection of short stories and whatever you might think of Kipling the Man, Kipling the Writer reveals himself as a witty and keen observer. His literary talent is of course impressive, especially when considering that he wrote these stories in his late teens and early twenties, but whether you will enjoy the book or not depends largely on your tolerance for colonial nostalgia.
There are some wonderful recurring characters, like the unforgettable Mrs. Hauksbee, the mastermind behind many a scheme, and provides an entertaining, if completely one-sided, look at life in British India.
The book is in the public domain and available in electronic format from Project Gutenberg.
India Shining, India Changing (Edited by G. Guerzoni)
This volume of short stories is split into two sections, covering both fiction and non-fiction. The collection is a bit slapdash but is well worth a read on the whole, featuring an eclectic mix of contemporary young Indian voices and offering a unique glimpse into different aspects of modern India. I especially loved following a minimum-wage domestic worker through her day in Nice Water (fiction) and stealing a glimpse into the secret world of Hijras in Beautiful Things (non-fiction).
Amar Chitra Katha
Is one of India’s best-selling comic book series that tell stories of Hindu mythology, Indian epics and folklore, with more than 400 titles to choose from. They’re a fun read, can be bought in practically every kiosk and make for a user-friendly way of tackling the Ramayana and Mahabharata. And if you read them in plain view on a train you’re bound to make friends! (Amazon)
City of Djinns (William Dalrymple) ♥
It is rare to find a work of historical non-fiction that can honestly be called a page-turner, but City of Djinns is precisely that. Part travelogue, part historical overview, it’s a thoroughly researched and beautifully written book that peels away layer after layer of history all the way back to the times of the Mahabharata, illuminating the seemingly impenetrable complexities of contemporary Delhi. More than the scholarly work of a historian it is an epic, heart-felt, and often hilarious love-letter to Delhi, where Dalrymple lived for six years with his wife Olivia who contributed beautiful sketches for the paperback.
The book is peppered with a great cast of characters – the wonderfully overbearing landlady Mrs Puri, who shuts off the Dalrymples’ water when she deems their toilet-flushing habits too extravagant, Dalrymple’s taxi driver Balvinder Singh (“In my life six times have I crashed. And on not one occasion have I ever been killed.”) and the dignified Islamic historian Dr Jaffery.
This review can’t possibly do this book justice. Suffice it to say that it was the book that first made me think of Delhi as more than just a necessary evil on my travels – and that’s coming from someone that has always barely tolerated the city and that regrettably has very little patience for anything older than modern history.
(Edit January 2017: I have now moved to Delhi to study at JNU for a semester and have brought the book along as a guide to the city. On third reading it remains as insightful and funny as ever.)
Broken Republic and other collections (Arundhati Roy) ♥
If you were to ask me what I wanted to be when I grow up, and I were tipsy enough to answer honestly, I just might say “Arundhati Roy”.
While The God Of Small Things, published in 1997, is the work that catapulted Roy to worldwide acclaim, she has since turned her remarkable literary skill and razor-sharp intellect to the myriad issues of contemporary Indian society, becoming one of the country’s foremost political thinkers and activists. Her writing is beautiful in its lyrical eloquence, uncompromising in its views and painstakingly thorough in the breadth of her research, making it a truly magnificent read and some of the best non-fiction writing I have ever come across. Her essays, a powerful combination of reportage and analysis, have been collected in several volumes, of which Broken Republic is the latest one (2010-2012). (Edit: she has since published The End of Imagination, which I will be reviewing in the next update.)
If you would like a taste of her writing before taking the plunge many of the essays were originally published by Outlook Magazine and are still available in her author archive. For some classics try Walking with the Comrades and Listening to Grasshoppers.
The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity (Amartya Sen) ♥
“The European exoticists’ interpretation and praise found in India an army of appreciative listeners, who were particularly welcoming given their badly damaged self-confidence resulting from colonial domination.”
Bengalis have given India two Nobel Laureates – Rabindranath Tagore and Amartya Sen. While Sen earned his Nobel Prize with his work in welfare economics he’s no slouch at the keyboard either, having penned accessible academic books on topics ranging from economics to philosophy and everything in between.
In the Argumentative Indian Sen examines the country’s long tradition of heterodoxy and public discourse in a series of essays, giving the proverbial (and oh so eloquent) finger to both the reductionist perceptions of India by the West and the violent sectarianism plaguing India today.
It’s a demanding book that would certainly not fit everyone’s idea of a fun holiday read, but if you’ve made it this far in this article your attention span is probably up for it! (And thanks for that, by the way.) (Amazon)
Non-Stop India (Mark Tully)
Mark Tully (that’s Sir Mark to you) was born in Calcutta, reported on India for the BBC for over three decades and wrote several books on the subject. He’s a reporter of the old school: he narrates his stories in a simple and clear literary style, recounting what he saw and heard in a straightforward manner and prefers to step back and let the people speak for themselves. He mostly keeps his opinions to himself and trusts the reader is capable of making up his or her own mind.
For this book he travelled far and wide, interviewing peasants, scholars, activists and everyone in between. He addresses the growing divide between the “New India” of development and progress and the rural India which is being left behind. He covers ten contemporary issues: the Naxalite movement, caste conflict, vote banks, religious fundamentalism, communities, agricultural development, the relationship between English, Hindi and the regional languages, entrepreneurship, the Northeastern states, and wildlife conservation. (Amazon)
In Spite Of The Gods: The Rise of Modern India (Edward Luce)
“India is not on an autopilot to greatness, but it would take an incompetent pilot to crash the plane.”
This is another book on “New India”, covering roughly the same ground as Non-Stop India but approaching the topic from a different angle. While Tully sticks to his guns as a veteran of on-site reporting Luce takes a more academic approach, embedding the fist-hand accounts into extensive research and analysis.
Luce reported from New Delhi for The Financial Times from 2001 to 2005 and has a fine grasp on all the intricacies of India’s new economy and its pitfalls. While he is not afraid to reel off half a page of statistics to support his claims, his focus lies with the wide range of people he has interviewed in the course of writing this book, giving the daunting topic a human face. India’s economic development forms the backbone of the book and serves as the starting point for the exploration of many social issues that tie into it, from corruption of the judicial system to the Kashmir conflict, the booming trend of larger-than-life wedding ceremonies in Delhi, the changing caste system and the rise of Hindu nationalism.
As is probably inevitable for a book of such scope In Spite of The Gods does veer all over the shop at times, but Luce always reigns it in in time, producing a wide-ranging and fascinating survey of modern India. (Amazon)
India: a Portrait (Patrick French)
Yet another book covering “New India”, the buzz-word of the past couple of years.
The book is split into three sections: Nation (Rashtra), Wealth (Lakshmi) and Society (Samaj) to look in turn at the politics, economy and society of the country. This decision, while providing a semblance of clarity and a nice structure to the Table of Contents means that the book loses a lot of its interpretative power in trying to cleanly categorize the intricate mess that is India into distinct topics and disciplines.
Even so, the book is well worth a read for those looking for a first introduction to the subject. There is a lot of thematic overlap with Tully and Luce and people more familiar with India will find some parts, like the omnipresent Nehru-Ghandi family saga, repetitive, but the book provides enough new material to make it worthwhile – I especially enjoyed the chapter on hereditary MPs in contemporary Indian politics.
India: A Wounded Civilization (V.S. Naipaul)
Hm… Naipaul is a difficult one. While I still want to read his seminal book A Million Mutinies Now, this small taste of his writing left me less than thrilled.
Naipaul often gets lumped together with Indian authors, despite having been born in Trinidad and educated in Britain – while his family claimed descent from Hindu Brahmins, Naipaul had no contact with India before his first visit to the country in ’62. Despite that he seems quite comfortable making sweeping proclamations about India and its inhabitants in this book, which precedes A Million Mutinies Now, lamenting “India’s intellectual second-rateness, which is generally taken for granted but may be the most startling and depressing fact about the world’s second most populous country”. He has no time for the “sentimental wallow of the hippies and others who ‘love’ India” and seems to have no qualms about proclaiming himself the indisputable expert on all things Indian. On the bright side, he is equally scathing with regard to the Western hippies he encounters in India: “Out of security and mental lassitude, an intellectual anorexia, they simply cultivate squalor. And their calm can easily turn to panic. When the price of oil rises and economies tremble at home, they clean up and bolt. Theirs is a shallow narcissism; they break just at that point when the Hindu begins: the knowledge of the abyss, the acceptance of distress as the condition of men.” He does muster some reluctant admiration for Narayan and his novels, which he analyses at length, extrapolating from them sweeping proclamations about the whole of India, but still comes across as a deeply unlikeable writer.
Having said that, he is a Nobel laureate whose prose is beautifully crafted and I suppose he does provide a different perspective on India, though I would love to see him go head-to-head with that “intellectually second-rate” Indian Amartya Sen. (Amazon)
Ladakh: Crossroads of High Asia (Janet Rizvi)
If you are travelling to Ladakh and only have the time and/or will to read one book on the region I would recommend this one.
It’s a very comprehensive overview of the land and its people, covering geology, flora and fauna, history, Ladakhi culture and tradition, and Buddhism (with a very good overview of Vajrayana Buddhism and detailed descriptions of the more famous gompas surrounding Leh). It also includes a fascinating discussion of the changes that have taken place since the region was opened to tourists in 1974 and Mother India started making its presence felt in the name of “progress” and military security.
While not exactly a page-turner it is very readable and packed with interesting information and insight.
Bonus: The first chapter, “Approaches”, includes a detailed description of the drive to Leh from both Manali and Srinagar, which can make the tedious 12-hour journey a bit more interesting. (goodreads)
Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh (Helena Norberg Hodge)
First published in 1991, the book profiles the traditional lifestyle of Ladakhis and documents the effects of so-called development in the region, raising important questions about the dangers of applying Western notions of progress on traditional communities.
The book is considered a classic among the environmental/sustainable development crowd, and unfortunately has the undertone of activism that undermines so many of the works in this field. It has a very clear agenda and I really struggled with the book at the beginning, annoyed with its overly sentimental prose which makes it tempting to dismiss it as yet another exoticizing work of a Western baby-boomer.
That being said, Norberg Hodge is undoubtedly an authority on the subject – a linguist who worked on the first Ladakhi dictionary, she was one of the first Westerners to visit the area when it opened to foreigners in 1975 and has been spending half of the year there ever since. The cloying writing style aside, the book’s detailed ethnographic descriptions make for interesting reading while raising important issues about what constitutes development and progress. (goodreads)
… yes yes, and then there’s Shantaram. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an interesting book and a compelling story, but by now I have hopefully convinced you that it is not the be-all and end-all of books on India.
That’s it for now – I’m hoping to find enough free time during my JNU semester to indulge in some serious book-bingeing, the results of which I’ll write up some time this summer.
If you know of any other great books on India that you want to recommend please let me know and comment below!