A travel guide is good place to know a country but it provides basic information. A book, on the contrary, can take you to the depths where even natives have never been. For someone, who grew up in Mumbai, Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found is still revealing. William Dalrymple’s City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi is yet another informative book the country’s capital that blends history and modern events articulately.
If you want a taste of India through literature, here are few books that can give you a perspective that is as good as a first-hand experience of the country. Some of them takes the readers through the history and provides reasons for the current culture and attitudes. The books also take the readers on the cultural exploration, spiritual journeys, through the cast system and politics.
VS Naipaul’s Trilogy
When Naipaul first visited India, he was 17 years old and was not happy with the painfully poor country. But India was in transition then, after regaining freedom over a decade back. This made his initial book quite pessimistic.
As he kept coming back to India, his view changed; probably because the country had changed and he looked at it differently each time. But you will see him blunt and strongly opinionated all through the three books.
An Area of Darkness (1964-65): To give you an idea of his pessimism expressed in the book, Naipaul reportedly called third world as “turd world”. In the book, the author has penned down his observation on poverty, caste, defecation and the country’s failure to come out of colonial past. While he does talk about its many problems with people, culture and places, he point out one thing consistently – it’s a country where anything goes. He feels Indians are way too tolerant and bear with the sorry state of their country without complain. Many observations penned in this book still holds true, even men defecating in public (along railway tracks), in city like Mumbai.
India: A wounded Civilization (1977-78): Naipaul visited India during emergency in 1975 and the result was this book. He analyzes the present state of India by taking the reader through its history but is not a book on Indian history. Rather, it is loaded with anecdotes that Naipaul experiences during his visit. For example, he goes to visit his ancestral village and calls the trip entirely futile. He interviews journalist, engineers and other locals. He only uses history to make sense of the affairs and conclude why the country is the way it is. He points that India has not yet found an ideology of regeneration after being wounded by many centuries of foreign rule (first Mughals and then British). Needless to say that the book’s content is still relevant and the reader can relate to the observations made over 30 years back.
India: A million mutinies now (1988-89): The last book he wrote on the country; is done in a very journalistic style of writing and with an optimistic conclusion. It contains interviews with a wide array of population including a Brahmin, a woman who has thrown off the chains of tradition, a professor, a Muslim, a politician, prince, holy men, gangster, and a women’s magazine publisher. Some of these are people he met earlier on his trip to India, and he studies the change in their attitude and lifestyle.
Together through these subjects, he establishes that Indians are now self-aware and have developed sense of individuality. He details how the population triumphs over life despite the poverty, bureaucracy, and chaos. He says that “India is no longer a stable country… In seeking to rise, India has undone itself. No one can be sure of anything now; all was fluid”. India still seems to be fluid since Naipaul first observed it.
The White Tiger by Arvind Adiga (2008)
The story is told through a villager, who tries to make it big in life. On his journey, he is made to quit school to work; his father dies at government health center because the doctor is unavailable; becomes a chauffeur and reaches Delhi; kills his employer for money despite being aware that the employer’s politician brothers will kill every member of his own family; and finally successfully establishes his own business. The story is a letter that the protagonist writes to the China’s premiere telling him his life story and what it takes to be an entrepreneur in India.
The only fiction in the list, it gives you a sense of poor versus urban India and life in village versus life in a metro. It portrays the class struggle in the globalized world. Highlights the corruption in India and how everyone gets by. It gives a complete picture of the present India. Adiga says his novel “attempts to catch the voice of the men you meet as you travel through India — the voice of the colossal underclass.” He does the job perfectly.
Karma Cola: Marketing the Mystic East by Gita Mehta (1979)
A non-fiction, the book does an admirable job of capturing the western spiritual seeker’s naivety and the half knowledge of self-proclaimed gurus. Spiritual tourism in India is not new. Many foreigners come to the country on a Dharma trail for its unmatched traditions.
The westerners seeking inner peace in India through gurus often end up in ghastly experience. There have been numerous cases of rapes, abuse and even swindling of money by these wise men.
She reminds readers that over 5,000 years of knowledge cannot be learned or imparted in few weeks of spiritual seeking and sitting on squatted toilets.
Everybody Loves a Good Drought by P Sainath
The book is collection of reports that show how bureaucracy affects lives of millions in India; population living below-poverty-line is often overlooked by the government and reduced to statistics. It contains stories of mismanagement of government funds, mistakes in names of notified tribes that restricts the tribal to apply for government schemes and other ones that shows high-headedness of government officials. The book also contains hopeful stories of women’s collectives.
If you have read some of these books already, there are a lot more that takes the reader deeper. Rohinton Mistry’s two novels – Such a Long Journey and A Fine Balance – use political events to tell a typical Indian story.
One of the longest novels ever published, A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth, covers post-Independence India, the country feudal system and religious conflicts.
Mark Tully also has many books on India that can help you make sense of the world’s biggest democracy. Some of these include No Full Stops in India, India in Slow Motion and India’s Unending Journey.
If you are a history buff, you should get your hands on A Passage to India by EM Forster, Freedom at Midnight by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, The Discovery of India by Jawaharlal Nehru, and The Argumentative Indian by Amartya Sen.
Based on the comments, feedback and requests, I am adding some more books that would help visitors to know more about India.
Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie: This fiction uses independence and partition as the backdrop, to tell story of the protagonist Saleem Sinai. The book not only won Man Booker prize but also won ‘Booker of Bookers’ prize awarded to celebrate 25th anniversary.
The Guide by RK Narayan: Another fiction, it reveals the orthodox beliefs of many Indians. Superstition is still quite prevalent in rural part of the country. The book covers journey of protagonist from a travel guide to spiritual guide.
India after Gandhi: the history of the World’s Largest Democracy by Ramachandra Guha: Most of the books on Indian history end with the country’s independence. This book bridges the gap. It talks about the nation post independence.
Ramayana by RK Narayan and also Mahabharata by the same author: These are condensed versions of two epics told in a novelistic way. This is just the story of the books. Many Indians look at the original epics for wisdom and to get answers for questions pertaining to life. This, you will definitely not get from the condensed versions.
Plain Tales from the Raj by Charles Allen: This book interviews people, who played significant role in British India. Some of the people featured in the book include Deborah Dring, Reginald Savory and Philip Mason. The book is an insight to the Indian history during British rule. Lack of political correctness makes this book a wonderful read.