Top 10 books on India (thus far)

Maharaja: The Splendour of India's Royal Courts, Art Gallery of Ontario

Maharaja: The Splendour of India’s Royal Courts, Art Gallery of Ontario

Classics, prize winners, histories about India

Just before the news broke about the terror attacks in Mumbai, I was going to write about my favourite Indian books and books about India. Ironically, one of my top picks is Maximum City by Suketu Mehta, an incredibly well-researched and well-written book about Bombay. Having recently read that book, I felt much more in-the-know about the city, and especially the local politics. Which are very tricky.

So, here are some of my favourite books on India, about India, by Indians …

1. Maximum City by Suketu Mehta. He’s like a cross between Charles Dickens and The New York Times. He’s a great investigative reporter, but his real strength is in telling a story and making the characters come alive. If you have any interest at all in Bombay / Mumbai, read this book.

2. Freedom at Midnight by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre. This was the book that got me started, way back when. It is essential reading for understanding the current conflicts between India and Pakistan, and it will give you a lot of background and insight behind the independence movement in India, partition, colonialism, the creation of the world’s largest democracy and Mahatma Gandhi’s role in the whole thing.

3. City of Djinns by William Dalrymple. He does for Delhi what Mehta does for Bombay. And while Delhi and Bombay are very different cities, so are these books. Dalrymple’s emphasis is the history of Delhi — which must be one of the wrold’s most historical cities. But he weaves in scenes from his own year in Delhi, which are often hilarious. I am determined to find out if the International Backside taxi stand really exists. I’m going to look for it (behind the International Centre, naturally) next time I’m in Delhi.

4. Out of India by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. You may know her name as the screenwriting partner behind many wonderful Merchant-Ivory films. She was a European who married an Indian architect and lived the rest of her life in Delhi. The introduction to these short stories — in which she presents herself as a foreigner living indolently in India — is one of the most well-written pieces I have ever read. She nails the cultural divide, which I experience on a daily basis. She’s one of my favourite writers, anytime, anywhere.

5. My Experiments with Truth by M.K. Gandhi. For my money, this ranks with Memories, Dreams and Reflections by Carl Jung as a truly honest and interesting autobiography. The title says it all, and says so much about a man who just seems to be made of different stuff than you or me.

6. The Ramayana by R.K. Narayan. If you want to understand the heart and soul of Hindu India, you have to read the Ramayana and the Mahabharat. R.K. Narayan wrote abridged versions of both of these epics (the Mahabharat is, I believe, the longest book ever written).

7. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. It was years ago when I read it, and I don’t even own a copy, but it really left an impression on me. It is the fictional version of Freedom at Midnight. If you don’t know, India was granted independence from British colonial rule at the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947. Nehru gave his famous “tryst with destiny” speech from the Red Fort in Delhi and the rest is history. This book is about a man born in India at the exact moment of independence.

8. Empire of the Soul by Paul William Roberts. PWR was just another youthful seeker backpacking around the subcontinent in the 1970s. The difference is a) India really got under his skin and he had some amazing spiritual experiences and b) he can write. He has his own style, which I know for a fact has made a tremendous impression on at least one blogger.

9. Chasing the Monsoon by Alexander Frater. Like Dalrymple, Frater is an English journalist with a passion for India. (Actually, neither Dalrymple nor Frater was born in England … I just mean they are of English or British heritage …) The documentary based on this book, same title, stands as my all-time favourite documentary. Frater goes on a sometimes profound and sometimes whimsical journey to follow India’s monsoon to the wettest place on earth, Cherrapungi in the Indian state of Meghalaya.

10. What the Body Remembers by Shauna Singh. The partition of India in 1947 led to the greatest mass movement of people in history as millions of Muslims left India to move to newly created Pakistan; and millions of Hindus and Sikhs left the part of Punjab that suddenly fell on the Pakistani side of the border. The violence that was unleashed was massive and devastating. This book is a novel about a Sikh woman who is a young bride at the time of partition — living on the wrong side of the border. The personal narrative makes the history very real.

Oh, boy, I like lots more books so I guess there will be a few more Top 10 lists … Maybe in one I will highlight Indian writers; maybe another will be about travel books. Then there’s cookbooks. Yoga books. Yikes, the list goes on and on …

In the meantime, I would love to hear from others about book you have discovered and recommend.

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4 Responses to Top 10 books on India (thus far)

  1. mumbaikar December 24, 2008 at 6:56 am #

    I find it fascinating how America Civil War was connected with Mumbai’s Backbay Reclamation and how it also provided wealth to Premchand Roychand to fund Rajabai Tower as a tower to allow his blind mother keep time. Here’s a picture of Rajabai Tower during construction. There is no Azad Maidan because the reclamation project was still a few years away.

    This cotton bubble is quite similar to the real estate bubble today. Who knew the world economy was so global even then.

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