There is such a wealth of information available for travellers heading to India, it is often hard to know where to start. While travel guides offer useful travellers’ tips, nothing can get under the skin of the country quite like these books.
From classic novels that have been reprinted several times to Man Booker prize-winners and contemporary accounts of modern-day India, fiction offers a rich insight into India’s diverse culture and complex history. While novels can often seem more realistic than non-fiction, travelogues from Western writers also give a humorous, insightful take on the mind-boggling country.
1. Shantaram/The Mountain Shadow by Gregory David Roberts: £20, littlebrown.co.uk
The Mountain Shadow, the hotly anticipated follow-up to Roberts’s publishing sensation Shantaram is due out in October, so if you’ve not read the 2003 novel, now is your chance. The page-turning thriller, inspired by the writer’s own experiences living in the Mumbai slums, is one of the few books that manages to capture the overwhelmingly multi-sensory experience of living in India.
2. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy: £8.99, harpercollins.co.uk
This Man Booker prize-winner is set in India’s southern state Kerala, away from the glamour of Deli and Mumbai. The densely descriptive novel follows the the childhood experiences of fraternal twins, commenting as much on human nature as it does on Indian politics, religion and the caste system.
3. A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry: £8.99, faber.co.uk
Set during “The Emergency”, a period of civil unrest when Indira Gandi was Prime Minister, A Fine Balance is written with beautifully controlled prose. The novel interweaves India’s political turmoil into the lives of its four central characters - to devastating effect.
4. Nine Lives by William Dalrymple: £7.99, bloomsbury.com
This fascinating non-fiction book tells the stories of nine Indians following different religions. Acclaimed historian Dalrymple met them all to write this absorbing account, which begins with a Jain nun who decides to fast to death after her friend and fellow nun passes away.
5. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie: £9.99, randomhouse.co.uk
Rushdie’s Man Booker prize-winning novel is set against the backdrop of Indian partition, using a dose of magical realism to tell the story of a boy born at the exact moment when India became independent of British rule in 1947. This sprawling, kaleidoscopic account of India is a true post-modern classic.
6. Around India in 80 Trains by Monisha Rajesh: £10.99, nicholasbrealey.com
Monisha Rajesh takes a leaf out of Jules Verne’s classic tale in this travelogue about India’s famous railways. The Norfolk-born author, who lived in India for two years as a child, covered 40,000km on a quest to rediscover the country that had become a stranger to her.
7. 2 States: The Story of My Marriage by Chetan Bhagat: £6.99, rupapublications.co.in
This best-selling novel in India follows two MBA students from opposing cultural background who decide to get married against their parents’ wishes. 2 States is an enjoyable read, offering a perceptive account of generational clashes in contemporary India.
8. Saraswati Park by Anjali Joseph: £7.99, harpercollins.co.uk
British author Anjali Joseph’s debut novel explores what it is like to be homosexual in India, which is still a largely taboo subject in many parts of the country. The story follows a sexually uncertain 19-year-old student growing up in Mumbai, who has a relationship with a boy at college.
9. Those Pricey Thakur Girls by Anuja Chuhan: £13.99, harpercollins.co.in
If you’re looking for something a bit lighter than a Man Booker winner, try this fun piece of Indian popular fiction. Set in a posh neighbourhood in Delhi, the story follows the eccentricities of a retired Supreme Court judge and his five daughters
10. A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth: £10.99, orionbooks.co.uk
Another epic, this 1,349 page novel probably isn’t for your suitcase - but it is one of the most acclaimed pieces of fiction about India. At its core the novel is a love story about Lata and her mother’s attempts to find her a husband, set against the backdrop of a newly independent post-partition India.
11. The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga: £8.99, atlantic-books.co.uk
This darkly humorous Man Booker prize-winning novel tells the story of corruption and class struggle in India, seen through the eyes of village boy Balram Halwai. On his way to the top, he transcends his caste to become a successful entrepreneur but has to take part in some questionable deeds to do so.
12. City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi by William Dalrymple: £9.98, harpercollins.co.uk
When it comes to Indian travelogues, Dalrymple is king. City of Djinns is the first account of the British writer’s love affair with Delhi, where he has lived on and off for 25 years. Written more like a novel, the book follows various figures including his Sikh landlady, British survivors of the Raj and eunuch dancers. Dalrymple’s Mughal series also come recommended.
13. Q&A by Vikas Swarup: £7.99, randomhouse.co.uk
The novel that spawned the Oscar-winning film Slumdog Millionaire tells the story of a young waiter who becomes the biggest quiz show winner in history, only to be sent to prison after being accused of cheating. Written by an Indian diplomat, the novel was nominated for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize.
14. Behind The Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo: £7.49, randomhouse.co.uk
Written by a white American during her time living in Mumbai, this non-fiction book centres on one of the city’s biggest slums, following everyone from a young litter picker to a female “slumlord” and a university student. The book was adapted into a play by David Hare in 2014.
15. Twilight in Delhi by Ahmed Ali: £8.54, ndbooks.com
Written in 1940, this novel looks back to Delhi in the 1910s, drawing a vivid picture of Muslims living in old Delhi during that era. The novel charts the downfalls of Mughal emperors and the colonial effects on Indian Muslims living in the country’s capital.
16. What The Body Remembers by Shauna Singh Baldwin: £15.99, randomhouse.co.uk
Set in the run-up to Indian partition, Singh Baldwin’s debut novel follows the fate of two women married to the same man. Impoverished girl Roop is pleased to learn she is to become the second wife of a wealthy Sikh landowner and hopes she can become friends with his older wife, Satya. Their relationship turns out to be far more complex than she had thought.
17. India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy by Ramachandra Guha: £13.48, panmacmillan.com
An insightful look at modern day India, this historical book gives a lucid account of how the largest democracy in the world continues to thrive. Guha’s take on Indian politics post-independence was named book of the year by The Economist and The Wall Street Journal in 2007.
For a page-turning thriller you’ll want to stay up all night reading, Gregory David Roberts’s Shantaram is a vivid introduction to India.
However, A Fine Balance, the acclaimed novel by Rohinton Mistry, will stay with you for years. Of all the Indian-born writers whose command of the English language puts ours to shame, Mistry’s stunningly crisp prose is as enviable as it is admirable.
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