10 Best Books About India Update 05/2022

Books About India

Tired of stories that talk a lot about spices, colors, and cows that are on the road? These books, all written by Indian authors, show how the country’s geography, culture, and politics are actually like.

While writing my book, Around India in 80 Trains, I had a lot of small pleasures during my four-month train journey. I spent a lot of time sitting on the platforms and looking for paperbacks to read. Sometimes I’d get scammed by pirated copies, and I’d flip eagerly to the last few pages only to find that they were missing, or that the last lines had slipped off the photocopied page. There were a few stories in my bag, but for the most part, it was full of stories that helped shape my journey.

As a result, I’ve only read books written by Indian authors. Who better to know a country than its own people, who live there, read about it every day? Where the authors have used the old names of cities, I’ve used them, too, to show how different they are: I lived in Madras for a few years as a child, and I know the feelings and memories that the name brings back, but Chennai is a completely different city to me.

Small Days and Nights by Tishani Doshi

Small Days and Nights by Tishani Doshi

When Grace, a young woman, comes back to Madras after her mother dies, she finds that she has inherited a pink beach house down the coast and a sister with Down’s syndrome. For a heartwarming story about family, Small Days and Nights is a must-read. Grace moves from Madras to Kodaikanal to Paramankeni as she tries to find the right balance between desire and duty. The female body is important to Doshi, who is a poet, dancer, and novelist. Through Grace’s weighty legs or light bones, we can feel the effects of the “womb noise” in Paramankeni, the whiplash of rain in Kodaikanal that “smells of sex,” and the dreamy city of Madras, where trees look weak and hungover.

Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil

This is typical of Thayil: He starts by paying tribute to the hepatitis C virus, or HCV. This is the virus that he got from sharing needles and injecting government morphine back in the 1980s. It’s followed by a long, smokey six-page sentence that spreads out like smoke from a pipe. This is a prelude to a powerful novel about Bombay’s old opium dens. Initially, Narcopolis is a tribute to a city that was a place of harmony and acceptance, but then it turns into a scathing look at a city that “obliterated its own history by changing its name and surgically altering its face,” which is why it’s called Narcopolis.

Thayil, who was nominated for the Booker prize in 2012, doesn’t use the name “Mumbai,” which was forced on its residents by the far-right Hindu Shiv Sena party. His love for his former home and its dead makes this a powerful love letter to the island city and its dead.

Boats on Land by Janice Pariat

When you read the first lines of each story in this first collection, you have to pay attention. Pariat flies the reader right into the story through low-hanging clouds. He drops us between the big tea bushes in and around the hill station of Shillong, where it’s cold and damp and the mists swirl with the supernatural. This is where we learn about Khasi politics and culture, but always with a sense of unease. The night is “slashed by lightning,” “knifed with light,” and “the sky is the color of razor blades.” Each of the 15 stories is written in smooth prose that doesn’t break up by using italics or apologizing for words like bilati, doh thli, and jadoh. The stories start with British rule and end with a modern-day marriage infidelity. If you don’t know what they mean, you have to look them up.

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

Many middle-class Indians were shocked when Adiga’s book The White Tiger hit their bookshelves like a sledgehammer and won him the Booker Prize, making him very angry. Balram, the son of a rickshaw driver, wrote a series of letters to the Chinese premier, but never sent them. They show how he went from working as a tea boy to becoming a wealthy businessman. As he writes, Adiga doesn’t just point out the brutal injustices and corruption in Indian society. He also slaps them across the paper in broad, bushy stroke. “One thing about India is that you can take almost anything you hear about the country from the prime minister and turn it upside down, and then you will have the truth about that thing.”

The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay

The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay

A lot of books don’t take place in Bangalore, which is the quieter brother of Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata. Shalini, a 24-year-old who lives in the Garden City, is numb to the monotony of her life. As a child, she saw a Kashmiri man twice at their garden gate. Since her mother died three years ago, she’s been unable to commit to anything and haunted by this memory. At some point, she decides to leave home and look for him. She’ll give up her weekend trips to Bali and beer-sticky house parties in favor of blue-grey mountains in Kashmir, where the air is “tinged with the medicinal sharpness of pine sap” and waterfalls churn to a “filigreed white froth.”

Vijay’s first book is a beautiful debut that jumps back and forth while shining a light on a politically tense region from the point of view of a civilian. That civilian is a single woman who is walking the length of India alone in search of the unknown.

Following Fish by Samanth Subramanian

This book is the only one on this list that isn’t fiction. It includes nine stories that were written by people who lived on the Indian coast, from Bangladesh to Gujarat. As he travels, Subramanian talks to everyone he meets about fish, from fishermen and priests in Goa to hotel chefs in Kolkata, and a faith-healing family in Hyderabad. He looks at fish’s role in food, medicine, culture, and religion by talking to everyone he meets. It’s hard not to want to follow in the author’s footsteps when he eats. He likes raw fish podi made from powdered mackerel that “runs to the back of your throat and sets your tonsils on fire,” or he likes toddy-shop food that is “kicked into a high orbit of spice.”

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

Roy, the first Indian woman to win the Booker Prize, caused a stir in the literary world when her lyrical debut came out in 1997. Many authors tried to copy her style, while others said her success was proof that her book was good.

The book is set in Kerala, which is known as “God’s Own Country” because of its huge backwaters, bent palms, and cool greenery. It starts in the brooding heat of May, when bananas are ripe, jackfruits burst, and crows eat mangoes. Before the monsoon breaks, tiny fish appear in puddles, and “bullfrogs cruise for mates.” After a long time, an estranged pair of twins are meeting back up where it all began.

As he scatters capital letters and plays with language, Roy paints a vivid picture of Indian politics, the cruelty that comes from being a member of a certain group, and the “small things” that keep us going.

Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra

One of the biggest books I’ve ever read, this delicious thriller takes you deep into Bombay’s criminal underworld. Sartaj Singh, a Sikh cop, is going after the notorious Ganesh Gaitonde. Sacred Games is a great look at politics, history, and corruption. It has policemen with handlebar moustaches, dogs being thrown from balconies, and villains with bloodshot eyes. For people who don’t know Bombay, the tour is also a quick introduction to the city’s different neighborhoods, like Bandra, Tardeo, and Dadar. It gives a glimpse into the homes of the city’s rich, who have “30,000 square feet of Italian marble floors tied together with intercoms,” and the poor, who “have no choice but to let their little daughters squat to make a mess exactly where their sons played.”

The book was written in 2006, and now it’s a huge hit on Netflix.

The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee

The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee

People don’t read books that start with horror like this one: a horror that comes from the belly, making you gasp and take a breath before you turn the page.

The wealthy son of a paper-mill owner has left the Ghosh family and joined a Maoist rebellion in Calcutta in the 1960s. He is helping farmers fight their landlords while his Tolstoyan family of relatives deal with their own problems. This is a book that was short-listed for the Booker prize in 2014. It’s written by an author who can imagine other people’s lives but also live them. He talks about how people who are hungry outside a luxury hotel will look for a “stub of banana” in a peel, while in the rich world, a whole family is “caught up in a song and dance” to get food down a fussy toddler.

The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai

As a technical matter, this 2006 Booker Prize winner moves between the Himalayan foothills of West Bengal and the basement kitchens of New York, following the lives of a judge, his granddaughter, her maths tutor, their cook, and his son. They all live together. There are also trees that are “moss-slung giants, bunioned, and misshapen,” and Mount Kanchenjunga has a “wizard phosphorescence.” But the Indian background could almost be another character. Desai takes on a huge project when he tries to connect these seemingly unrelated lives, but he does so with style and humor. When she talks about two generations, she shows one group that has lost their sense of who they are because of colonialism and another group that is still looking to the west for a better future… while sharing a bed in shifts.

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