Best Books on India that will help you understand the country better
Today on our India series we are going to discuss Books! India is a fascinating place that inspired many artists and poets over ages. There are many stories based in India, where the country transcends from being a mere backdrop of events to being a character in the foreground. Here are the best books about India you ought to read during the lockdown. They will open your eyes to a whole new world and inspire you to explore the length and breadth of the country.
Before listing the books, let me put out a disclaimer. The list is based on the quality of literature and the depth to which it goes to explore the varied facets of this diverse old country. The depiction however, may or may not be reverent. “Reverence” was not a criteria for selecting these books. I have not read all the books selected by fellow bloggers, but I’ve done my research before putting them here. The list includes gory underworld web of Mumbai, delightful crime series based in pre-independence Kolkata, depiction of real hardships of women in British India, as well as books that can clearly be described as heartfelt love-letters to the country.
Top Fictions selected by fellow travel writers and Book Bloggers
The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
Written by Manpreet of Hellomanpreet.com
On your visit to India, one thing that will stand out as you make your way through the streets is the rife evident poverty that shows a different side to India. The reality is a world away from the amazing picturesque images shown in our favorite Bollywood movies. This image has become the new face of India, moving away from it’s previous image of a country about religion and yoga. Aravind Adiga takes the opportunity in this novel to reveal the huge economic inequality that has become part of the nation’s fabric.
Narrator, Balram Halwai, reveals his story of living in poverty under a corrupt landlord. One who commits many criminal acts and is gets away with it due to his social class. Balram, learns how to drive and lands a job. This helps him progress in life and make his way to Bangalore which is the technology hub of India. Without revealing too much, he goes on to become a very successful entrepreneur after a life changing week.
For me, my trips to India made me reflect on myself and inspired my to read a number of great self development books.
Get the book here. There’s an audiobook version also, which you can get with a 1-month free subscription.
Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts
Reviewed by Odo of Miglio Romanzi Storici
When they first advised me to read Shantaram, I was a bit skeptical. I knew it was about crime and mafia in India, but I was not attracted by it. I love India of course, but organized crime is usually not my favorite topic. Eventually I surrendered and decided to read it. Well, those thousand pages went through unexpectedly quick. Indeed it is a very well written book. It has a very good use of words and probably a good editor behind the author.
But it is not only the style that captures you, there are some entire paragraphs that are so meaningful that you want to read them twice and transcript them for the future.
Finally, the story. Yes, it is about organized crime. Yes, on some pages it gets very violent. But it is so incredible, that you will often question whether it is a true story. and it is! The author will take you on an adventure where you will discover all the little secrets of Bombay, from the slums to the high-end hotels. All accompanied by a plethora of weird but well-described characters that you will immediately love. If you are skeptical as I was, change your mind and start this great trip into India and its culture.
Get the book here.
Midnight’s Children – written by Salman Rushdie
Chosen by Deb from The Visa Project
Of all the novels written with a multi-cultural India as a backdrop, there are probably very few that are as enigmatic as “Midnight’s Children”. It’s based on the story of children that are born at the stroke of midnight when India got its independence.
Born into a new country that is yet to define itself in the wake of colonialism, the children are all fractured and unconnected. In their world, there is no universal language or religion. They are all hybrids with powers and the magical ability to connect telepathically to our protagonist Saleem. They are all full of great optimism and hope to shape this new country.
As the story progresses, so progresses their stories, reflecting the struggles, successes, fractures, developments of the new India. And then little by little, things fall apart. Hopes are shattered. Wars happen.
Be it magical realism or the technique of digressions or its dense prose, it’s the kind of storytelling that has the capability to change the way you read. Definitely worth several reads.
You can get the book here, or buy the audiobook on Audible.
God of Small Things – by Arundhati Ray
Chosen by Nishu of Tanned travel girl
Kerala, the tropical paradise of India, is famous for its beautiful backwaters and endless beaches. In the book, the author has woven the story around a former wealthy family from Kerala and evoked the post-colonial life in Kerala. The author has written about the conflict between Christianity and native beliefs, the life of an Indian woman who has left her husband and returns to her father’s home, caste system, communism and faith of traditional art forms in the modern and fast-changing world.
The novel is beautifully written. It gives a good understanding of local lives of the post-colonial era in Kerala which may otherwise be missed while exploring Kerala as a traveler.
Get this amazing book on Kindle here.
Lifting the Veil by Ismat Chugtai
Shalini of the Shazmojo reviews..
It is a book that will take you exploring female sexuality in a way that was unimaginable in the early 1900 when the author began writing these stories. In fact she created quite a scandal with her writings and courted legal troubles over it. The reader is given quite a prolific peek into the local customs and traditions of the Indian society, centering over women and their social status. There is quite a frank exploration of the female sexuality while at the same time sneering at the tyrannical fascists of the middle class section of the society.
One gets to travel to the opulent lifestyle as practiced in the rich households of Lucknow to the antics of street urchins in the filth packed by-lanes, common to any Indian city. Delving into the mindset of young women – rich or poor; one sees the similar threads of wistful yearning for holy matrimony. A tongue in cheek humor is liberally sprinkled throughout every story, making them a very enjoyable read. You can catch the complete review on Shalini’s blog here.
Click here to read this unconventional book that shatters a lot of stereotypes.
City of Djins – Based in Delhi
Wendy Werneth of The Nomadic Vegan Says..
Scottish historian William Dalrymple has written a number of books and essays about India, but the one I’d say is a must-read for anyone traveling to Delhi is City of Djinns. It’s part history book, part travelogue based on the author’s experiences living in Delhi. While he has been based in India for several decades now, this was Dalrymple’s second book and was published back in 1994. Though even then, he had spent much more time in the city than the subtitle “A Year in Delhi” would suggest.
A talented writer, Dalrymple expertly interweaves stories and anecdotes about the Delhi-ites he meets with broader stories about Indian history and culture. This style of writing is sometimes called “new journalism” and offers a very engaging way of learning about history. The author’s descriptions of the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of India will evoke vivid memories for anyone who has traveled in the country.
You can buy the book here.
Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh
Another pick by Shalini
The Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh will take you deep into the rural countryside of pre-independence era Bengal where opium farming was encouraged by the British and Indian farmers were exploited over it. I was quite intrigued by the lifestyle and customs as observed by the British women which was copied by the Indian society to appease the colonial rulers.
The caste system and a marked hierarchy observed through the society is very relative to the Indian subcontinent.
Amitav Ghosh possesses quite a mastery over the politics of this region and period which he enmeshes with the tale with quite a flair. The languages spoken at that time are brilliantly portrayed in this book though it does make reading a little tough. You must read this book to travel through the colonial era of the Indian pre- independence and delve into the culture, norms and language practiced then. You can catch the complete review on Shalini’s blog here.
Buy Sea of Poppies on Amazon.
My Favorite Books about India
Rabindranath Tagore – Short Stories (Master’s Collections)
It’s criminal to talk about Indian literature, or India without mentioning Rabindranath Tagore. Rabindranath Tagore is the first non-European Nobel laureate who won the award for “Gitanjali” – a collection of poetry that is deeply based on Indian spirituality and ancient roots. That’s a great read if you love and appreciate poetry. However, I personally recommend the short stories of Rabindranath Tagore, if you want to know about India. Tagore was not just a poet, but the pioneer of short stories in Bengali literature, among many other things. Tagore digressed from the traditional literature which was written in highly sophisticated Bengali, almost close to Sanskrit and wrote these short stories for the masses. These are stories of common people, relationships, social issues, as well as mysticism.
Having read his works in Bengali, I can assure you that it’s impossible for essence to remain undiluted in the translated version. Even his world-famous verses in Gitanjali which he translated himself, sounds pale compared to the original language. However, this collection of select short stories have been translated by multiple authors, and has a good rating on Amazon. It has some of his best short stories like Kabuliwala.
A Village by the Sea by Anita Desai
This was our textbook in 10th standard but every time I read it, I’d be transported to a remote coastal village in Maharashtra. The story is based out of a fishing village called Thul. It takes you through the life, the trials and tribulations of two teenage children who are left to fend for themselves and their family as their father is an alcoholic and their mother is seriously ill. But this book is not about the ugliness , nor is it the typical “poverty porn”. It’s in fact a refreshing and inspirational story of sibling-love, kindness of strangers and of overcoming all odds. Quite similar to the iconic “Panther Panchali” by Bibhutibhushan Bandhopadhyay, which Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy is based on.
Unlike Panther Panchali (loosely translated to “Song of the Road”), this book is originally written in English and you’ll love the flow of language here. Panther Panchali was a top recommendation from my side, but it’s written in Bengali. I haven’t read the translated version and didn’t find enough reviews on Amazon about it.
Stories of Byomkesh Bakshi by Saradindu Bandhyopadhyay
If you haven’t read or seen the series on Byomkesh Bakshi, but the name sounds familiar it might be because of Big Bang Theory, Season 7 episode 18. Raj praises Bernadette as the “Byomkesh Bakshi” for her ability to solve puzzles. When his American friends enquire “Is he the Indian Sherlock?”, Raj says, “or is Sherlock the British Byomkesh?”. Amy quickly Googles and says Sherlock Holmes series came first.
Byomkesh Bakshi is a Bengali gentleman with an exceptional IQ which he uses to help the Kolkata Police solve crimes. But he refuses to call himself a “detective” and insists on the title “satyanweshi” – the seeker of truth. Like Sherlock, he is accompanied by his friend Ajit who is the narrator of all his stories.
But unlike Sherlock, Byomkesh falls in love , marries and is a loyal, though unconventional middle-class family man. This crime thriller series gives you an insight into the transformational age of India. It begins in 1932, the pre-independence era when the battle for Swaraj was at its peak, so was the opium smuggling from China and and several other socio-political issues. There are stories based on the backdrop of the armed rebellion, the swadeshi movement, the Bengal famine, partition, independence, Naxalite movement etc. And that’s what makes it a great book to read, to understand India, especially Kolkata, which has always been a nucleus of socio-political revolution.
You can also get the audiobook on Amazon.
Some Significant non-fiction books about India
I love reading non-fiction. Books on real events, or history, or memoirs of great people intrigue me. Be it the candid confessions of Anne Frank or the inspiring biography of the Spy Princess, reality is often stranger than fiction. And also more interesting. Here’s some books in the non-fiction category I will recommend anyone who wants to know India.
Discovery of India – by Jawaharlal Nehru
Jawaharlal Nehru, a freedom fighter and India’s first prime minister, wrote this book in his 4 years of imprisonment. The book is a tribute to the greatness of India, and a slap on the disdain with which the British looked down upon the country as “primitive”. It is widely regarded as one of the best books about India. At a time when the British often projected India as a beneficiary of colonialism, the book talks about India’s contribution to the world. The ancient Indus valley civilization, the Vedas , the Upanishads, the medieval India and much more. The book is intensely nationalistic without ever bordering on xenophobia. It was adopted in a famous Indian TV series “Bharat ek Khoj”.
You can get the book here.
All Roads lead to Ganga by Ruskin Bond
Ruskin Bond is an Indian author of British descent. He was born and brought up in the beautiful Himalayan states of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. No school-life is complete without reading the short stories of Ruskin Bond based on the picturesque Himalayan villages. Although he is more famous as a children’s writer, there are some outstanding books which adults will enjoy. One of them is “All roads lead to Ganga”. Like a true artist Ruskin Bond paints his travel memoirs through words. He is truly an inspiration for travel writers, a benchmark that all travel writers should aspire for.
In this honest memoir, not only does he describe the breathtaking landscape and the lively culture, but also talks about how it has changed over the years. “God may be forgiving, but nature is not, and we upset the ecological balance at our own peril”, he warns. A must-read for every travel lover, or mountain lover, or anyone who wants to know about India.
Nationalism – By Rabindranath Tagore
Moving on from a light read to a somber, serious and extremely relevant work. Nationalism is a compilation of Tagore’s lectures during the World War I. Tagore describes “Nationalism” as a result of excesses of greed of the West and takes inspiration from the ancient Eastern philosophies of universal acceptance and altruism. Tagore was not a critique of West in general, but he was a true modern man who transcended beyond the borders. The lectures were based on the European backdrop in the context of the world war and colonialism, but it is relevant even today. “I will never let nationalism triumph humanism till I’m alive” he says. It’s not just a commentary on the past but a guidance for the future. Unfortunately, the people who govern, no matter where they come from, how hard they have struggled, ultimately succumb to greed even today. And the greed lead to excesses – be it disrupting the nature in favor of “development” or compartmentalization as a mechanism to exert individual control.
Buy this short book here.
A Shameless Self-promotion!
Yours truly has written a book about India too, which is her humble tribute to the outstanding diversity of this country. I’m a chimp in this list of great authors, but I have travelled extensively in this country. My book “Postcards from India: India’s Hidden Gems tell their stories” is an unconventional anthology of stories from obscure destinations of India. Each chapter is a letter from these places, some offbeat places that’s unknown to many. I just released the Kindle original book and it’s on free promotion for Independence Day. So I took this opportunity to sneak in my offering here. Do check it out!
At the time of writing this post my book was trending at no.1 spot in the Free books list of both the categories I listed it in- Travel and Tourism, and Literary Essays. While that’s just a temporary, I do hope my book finds a permanent spot in your bookshelf.
If you found this article interesting share it with your friends. Did I miss anything that you’d like to add to the recommendations. Please tell me in the comments section. I’ll be glad to add your piece with due credits. Don’t forget to save the post for future reference.
Wonderful! Congrats on your book! I have read many of these and will add more to my list. A Fine Balance is another excellent one I have loved for years.
This looks like a beautiful round up and a great way to explore India while we eagerly await world travel.
Thanks a lot Heather!
Great list! Midnight’s Children is without a doubt my top 3 favorite books I’ve ever read. I’ve read several others on this list, but I have yet to read the one by William Dalrymple – City of Djinns. Hopefully, I’ll get to it soon.
Thanks Julie. Salman Rushdie is a genius!
Reading a good book set somewhere I want to travel is the second next best thing after traveling there physically! Congrats on your book 🙂
Thank you so much!
India is really incredible, and all the books and more is required to describe it. I found some of my favourite books about India on your list. In terms of the sheer canvas that ic covers, Discovery Of India”, is a must-read for people who want to understand the heart of India and its genesis. Congratulations on your book and all the best for your future endeavours.
Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment. Yes, Discovery of India is the one book I’d recommend to anyone who doesn’t know much about the great country.
What a great theme for a post, to share so many books that give an insight into India! Have added some to my reading list including The White Tiger, God of Small Things, and also lovely to read about you ow book as well!
Thank you so much Kavita! I hope you like my book.
Wow your books sounds like an interesting read, I like the title and concept you have briefly mentioned here. I loved Shantaram for the intricate writing and the elaborate description of Bombay along with its characters. City of Djinns was a good read too, giving a glimpse into Delhi as we know today. Couple of them on this list I’m yet to get hold of! Thanks for sharing your suggestions.
What a wonderful collection of books in and about India. I love to explore and learn about destinations through reading–it’s an escape in itself…particularly needed at this point in time. I have added several of your recommendations to my “Want to Read” shelf, including Post Cards from India. (Congratulations on your success!) I’m glad you shared them, otherwise they might not have crossed my path.
Thank you so much!
I feel you have compiled everything very well in the post. What got my attention on your website is your PANDEMIC ALERT on travel. Praying every thing goes back to normal soon. #lifemarbles
This is an amazing list .. I have only read three of them – Much to add up to my TBR
Thanks a lot Pratikshya.
Great list and glad to see you added your book too. India has an air of exoticism about it and what a great way to learn more about a country before you travel to it.
Thank you so much Alma. Please visit again.
I loved the list. That is such an amazing introduction that one can have about India. A village by the sea is definitely next on my list.
I really want to read A Village By The Sea. It sounds amazing.
This is such a great post because I think it’s very necessary, and it’s precisely what I did. While I had read a number of classics before my trip, I bought The Ministry of Happiness (which I absolutely loved) to read during my trip. Busy reading Midnight’s Children with my book club now.