I recently returned from a two-week trip to India. Hopefully I’ll have a chance to write a few articles about my time there, but suffice to say it is a rich, complex, and utterly beautiful country.
I’m nearly done with Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo, a truly incredible work of nonfiction, but I’m already jonesing for more. Here are the top ten books–fiction and nonfiction–that I’d like to read about India.
10. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
Saleem Sinai is born at the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947, the very moment of India’s independence. Greeted by fireworks displays, cheering crowds, and Prime Minister Nehru himself, Saleem grows up to learn the ominous consequences of this coincidence. This novel is at once a fascinating family saga and an astonishing evocation of a vast land and its people–a brilliant incarnation of the universal human comedy. Twenty-five years after its publication, Midnight’s Children stands apart as both an epochal work of fiction and a brilliant performance by one of the great literary voices of our time.
9. The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai
In a crumbling, isolated house at the foot of Mount Kanchenjunga in the Himalayas lives an embittered judge who wants only to retire in peace, when his orphaned granddaughter, Sai, arrives on his doorstep. The judge’s cook watches over her distractedly, for his thoughts are often on his son, Biju, who is hopscotching from one gritty New York restaurant to another. Kiran Desai’s brilliant novel, published to huge acclaim, is a story of joy and despair. Her characters face numerous choices that majestically illuminate the consequences of colonialism as it collides with the modern world.
8. The Illicit Happiness of Other People by Manu Joseph
Ousep Chacko, journalist and failed novelist, prides himself on being “the last of the real men.” This includes waking neighbors upon returning late from the pub. His wife Mariamma stretches their money, raises their two boys, and, in her spare time, gleefully fantasizes about Ousep dying. One day, their seemingly happy seventeen-year-old son Unni—an obsessed comic-book artist—falls from the balcony, leaving them to wonder whether it was an accident. The Illicit Happiness of Other People—a smart, wry, and poignant novel—teases you with its mystery, philosophy, and unlikely love story.
7. Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found by Suketu Mehta
A native of Bombay, Suketu Mehta gives us an insider’s view of this stunning metropolis. He approaches the city from unexpected angles, taking us into the criminal underworld of rival Muslim and Hindu gangs; following the life of a bar dancer raised amid poverty and abuse; opening the door into the inner sanctums of Bollywood; and delving into the stories of the countless villagers who come in search of a better life and end up living on the sidewalks.
6. A Passage to India by E. M. Forster
Britain’s three-hundred-year relationship with the Indian subcontinent produced much fiction of interest but only one indisputable masterpiece: E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India, published in 1924, at the height of the Indian independence movement. Centering on an ambiguous incident between a young Englishwoman of uncertain stability and an Indian doctor eager to know his conquerors better, Forster’s book explores, with unexampled profundity, both the historical chasm between races and the eternal one between individuals struggling to ease their isolation and make sense of their humanity.
5. The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
The white tiger of this novel is Balram Halwai, a poor Indian villager whose great ambition leads him to the zenith of Indian business culture, the world of the Bangalore entrepreneur. On the occasion of the president of China’s impending trip to Bangalore, Balram writes a letter to him describing his transformation and his experience as driver and servant to a wealthy Indian family, which he thinks exemplifies the contradictions and complications of Indian society. Amoral, irreverent, deeply endearing, and utterly contemporary, this novel is an international publishing sensation—and a startling, provocative debut.
4. A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth
Vikram Seth’s novel is, at its core, a love story: Lata and her mother, Mrs. Rupa Mehra, are both trying to find — through love or through exacting maternal appraisal — a suitable boy for Lata to marry. Set in the early 1950s, in an India newly independent and struggling through a time of crisis, A Suitable Boy takes us into the richly imagined world of four large extended families and spins a compulsively readable tale of their lives and loves. A sweeping panoramic portrait of a complex, multiethnic society in flux, A Suitable Boy remains the story of ordinary people caught up in a web of love and ambition, humor and sadness, prejudice and reconciliation, the most delicate social etiquette and the most appalling violence.
3. The World We Found by Thrity Umrigar
As university students in late 1970s Bombay, Armaiti, Laleh, Kavita, and Nishta were inseparable. Spirited and unconventional, they challenged authority and fought for a better world. But over the past thirty years, the quartet has drifted apart. Then comes devastating news: Armaiti, who moved to America, is gravely ill and wants to see the old friends she left behind. The World We Found is a dazzling masterwork from the remarkable Thrity Umrigar, offering an unforgettable portrait of modern India while it explores the enduring bonds of friendship and the power of love to change lives.
2. Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri
These eight stories by beloved and bestselling author Jhumpa Lahiri take us from Cambridge and Seattle to India and Thailand, as they explore the secrets at the heart of family life. Here they enter the worlds of sisters and brothers, fathers and mothers, daughters and sons, friends and lovers. Rich with the signature gifts that have established Jhumpa Lahiri as one of our most essential writers, Unaccustomed Earth exquisitely renders the most intricate workings of the heart and mind.
1. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
Compared favorably to the works of Faulkner and Dickens, Arundhati Roy’s debut novel is a modern classic that has been read and loved worldwide. Equal parts powerful family saga, forbidden love story, and piercing political drama, it is the story of an affluent Indian family forever changed by one fateful day in 1969. The seven-year-old twins Estha and Rahel see their world shaken irrevokably by the arrival of their beautiful young cousin, Sophie. It is an event that will lead to an illicit liaison and tragedies accidental and intentional, exposing “big things [that] lurk unsaid” in a country drifting dangerously toward unrest. Lush, lyrical, and unnerving, The God of Small Things is an award-winning landmark that started for its author an esteemed career of fiction and political commentary that continues unabated.
Other titles I’d like to read (if I magically find myself with more time):
- A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
- Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts
- Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh
- Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra
- A Free Man by Aman Sethi
Have you read any of these? Are there any good books about India I’m missing?
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