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Photo by Pratham Books.

The following is a list of beloved titles floating through India, from one traveler to the next: all are worth the schlep.

You know the drill. Roll into a new town and scour the local guesthouse, backpacker friendly restaurant, or used bookstore for a new read. If you’re lucky, they’ll trade you one of theirs for two of yours, and if you’re REALLY lucky, you might even get a one-for-one exchange rate.

Anyway you procure it, books about India are an integral part of the backpacker experience in India.

“Shantaram” by Gregory David Roberts, 2003

Based on the author’s real life and fatter than a copy of Moby Dick, Shantaram is the odyssey of an Australian bank robber and heroin addict who escapes maximum security prison to hide out and eventually open a free health clinic in Mumbai’s slums.

An unfaltering look amidst India’s expat, slum and criminal underbellies, Shantaram is a moving narrative of the search for redemption within the brutal margins of society.

A recommended read for both the patient enlightenment seeker, the skilled meat and potatoes skim reader, and anyone who has ever dreamed about disappearing into a strange new land.

“The White Tiger” by Aravind Adiga, 2008

A delirious ride through the maniacal, darkly comic and staggeringly insightful mind of its protagonist, The White Tiger is a rags-to-riches tale, India style.

Never, ever idyllic, Adiga tears open the grit, corruption and contradiction of modern India while developing an unforgettable protagonist worthy of Nabokovs.

This one will tickle anyone who picks it up, and is especially valuable for the romantics who just can’t shake the belief in India as a country solely populated by do-no-harm, spiritually glowing mystics.

“The God of Small Things” by Arundhati Roy, 1997

A rare glimpse into Christian life in South India’s Kerala, The God of Small Things offers a painful and stunning look into the unraveling of life. The story is revealed piecemeal, centering around two children, a pair of fraternal twins, and a series of events from which there is no turning back.

The quiet desperation of The God of Small Things is a literary victory, and its echoes of colonialism, political unrest and social dynamics make it distinctly South Indian. Especially recommended for readers with a love for lyrical writing inhabiting the space between novel and poetry.

“Midnight’s Children” by Salman Rushdie, 1981

One of the most successful novels by an Indian author of all time, Midnight’s Children is classic Rushdie: exuberant, magical, unabashedly mischievous and all encompassing.

The novel is a gallivanting journey of prose to India’s multifaceted heart through the story of a man born at the exact moment of India’s modern birth as a nation.

Essential for English majors, India lovers and anyone working their way down the top 100 Books of the Century list.

 

“A Passage to India” by E.M. Forester, 1924

A literary classic in its own right, A Passage to India wrestles the historic tensions of India under British colonial rule.

Ethnicity, culture, friendship and nationalism are examined through the trial and aftermath of an Indian physician accused of assault by a white British woman.

A Passage to India is a solid choice for folks hoping to impress fellow travelers with their discerning tastes, as well as for anyone hoping to understand India and its modern historical context.

 

“Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found” by Suketu Mehta, 2004

Part personal memoir, part journalistic exposé, Maximum City chronicles the return of its Indian-American author to his childhood home of Mumbai.

An examination of Mumbai from numerous angles, it is both daring and intimate. If nothing else, check out the disquieting last segment on a wealthy Jain family who renounces all worldly possessions to wander as ascetics.

Aspiring journalists, expats, and lovers of all things related to megalopolises will love this one.

Community Connection

Check out Matador Network’s Focus Page on India for more articles, book reviews, and tips about traveling around and experiencing the country.

Book Reviews


 

About The Author

Cindy Katz

Cindy is a New York City drop-out living the domestic dream in a suburb of Tel Aviv. She enjoys slow travel in exotic lands, traditional cooking and food and her husband.

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  • http://glimpse.org/accounts/18544/profile/ Janna White

    Hi Cindy,

    This is a great list. May I add a few?

    A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth: Seth’s best-known work is a marvel in scope. His vision of the Indian family is as expansive as it is detailed. The novel moves along without hurry, exploring politics, family, love, and religion with equal insight, humor, and joy. Along the way the readers are treated to pictures of the assembly line at a shoe-making factory, the tremors evoked by courtesan singers, and the unkept promises of photos sent to potential future brides. It’s a commitment to schlep 1,300 pages around, but A Suitable Boy is worth its every pound.

    Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh: A meditation on the struggles to understand, escape from, and live up to the inherited identities of class, caste, race, and gender, told through the opium trade under the British Raj. Simply put, a stunning read. (As is, for that matter, almost everything Ghosh has ever written.)

    Story of My Assassins by Tarun Tejpal: “Story” is told through the eyes of a journalist verging on apathy. He’s unmoved with his wife, at odds with his business partner, and seeks advice from a Guru of whom he is still skeptical. His world is cloistered behind new metropolitan gated communities and protected by police – things that could mark the arrival of the New India, but instead simply infuriate and bore him. It’s a relief to see India through the eyes of a different kind of narrator, who sees India for more of what she is.

    Enjoy!

    Janna

  • http://www.ertzgaard.net/geir Geir

    And I would add the series by V. S. Naipaul, although I know many Indians won’t agree. An Area of Darkness, India – A million mutinies now are both great reads and they both gave me a hunger for India.

  • Cindy

    Thanks both of you! I almost put an Area of Darkness, but decided not to b/c personally I had a rough time getting through it, although it certainly is a great and important one.

    The other ones I haven’t read yet, but they look great!

    Cindy

  • Kay* at From India. With Love.

    Awesome post! In a few months I’m moving to India for a year to volunteer – so this post couldn’t have come at a better time! I’ll be sure to check a few out!

  • http://www.dorothyconlon.com Dorothy

    “City of Joy” by Dominique Lapierre is one that I recommend to people who avoid going to India because the poverty will be too painful to behold. (Not the movie, by the way. Dreadful.) The book, while honest, is so upbeat.

  • http://www.sweeneysays.com Nicole

    The God of Small Things is one of my favorite books — India-themed list or not. I’ve heard good things about The White Tiger but I haven’t actually read it. I’ll look into it the next time I’m book shopping :-)

  • Billy

    I think “A Fine Balance” should be included.

  • Emily

    Great list! I would just like to add my two cents about “Passage to India.” Forester’s novel is much more than a “solid choice,” impressive to fellow travelers. The writing is stunning and poetic, and though based during British Colonial rule, the story speaks to complexities and power struggles that are still very relevant to travels in our post-colonial times. There is a lot of depth and wisdom here, as well as hard questions to be asked, if we are willing to go there.

  • darmabum

    Just finished “Nine Lives” by William Dalrymple; another great addition to his already stunning resume.

  • Rose

    The Life of Pi by Yann Martel. My favourite book ever.

  • katie

    I read Shantaram and it has now become my favorite book!  It was a fantastic journey, going through the author’s life, and I completely agree with it being an essential book about India.  Not only does the author give incredible insights about India and the Indian people, he gives insights as to the mistakes humans make, knowingly and otherwise, how each of us are drawn to certain people, how people strive for knowledge, and the difference between good and evil.  I would recommend it to anyone interested in India and human behavior.  It is an amazing read.

  • Asia

    Fantastic books of Vikram Chandra should have place on the list; check ”Sacred Games”, ”Love and Longing in Bombay” and ”Red Earth and Pouring Rain”. Loved them all…

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