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Another 10 books on India or by Indian or South Asian writers

wedding elephants

Some favourite books about India… but not Shantaram!

I am continuing to read lots of books on India or by Indian or South Asian writers. It helps that I only get a limited number of channels on my TV — a TV that is so old I can’t even attach a DVD player to it. So, most nights I am “forced” to read. Lucky me. But before I start, I want to mention two books that you will not find on any of my lists, so stop looking:  Shantaram and The White Tiger. I just don’t think they deserve to be recommended. PS You can buy books directly from the image.

Check out my first list of books on India and my second list of books on India after you read my third list of books on India:

1. A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. This book is a masterwork. Dickensian in scope, descriptive detail and character development, it stays with you for a very long time … maybe for life …  The characters and scenes Mistry depicts are truly indelible. If you want to gain insight into the poverty and corruption of India, read this book. You will be forever changed. I especially recommend it for those who wear rose-coloured glasses about India.

2. Cracking India by Bapsi Sidwha. This is the book Deepa Mehta based her riveting film Earth on. It’s about the diabolical partition of India, as seen through the eyes of a Parsee child in Lahore, crippled with polio. I met Ms. Sidwha at a South Asian literature festival recently and found her to be very charming and feminine. After meeting her, I didn’t expect this ballsy, bawdy and pungently written book. I love the way she uses language, like she is throwing handfuls of spice in the air. I also agree with what Deepa Mehta did with the story to tighten and focus it, and heighten the tension.

3. An Area of Darkness by V.S. Naipaul. Although of Indian ancestry, Naipaul was born and brought up in Trinidad. In this book, subtitled A Discovery of India, he chronicles his first encounter with his ancestral homeland. Naipaul is a masterful writer and he creates scenes that are alive with detail, feeling and atmosphere. A true classic of travel writing, I felt I was with him in Kashmir and as he makes a pilgrimage to an ice cave high up in the Himalayas to see a naturally formed Shiva lingam made of ice; and as he negotiated the Kafka-esque bureaucracy of Mumbai to retrieve two bottles of liquor that were taken from him when he arrived. A great read.

4. Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda. The book that launched a thousand flights to India. Probably a lot more. You would be heard-pressed to find a yoga student in India who has not read it. Compelling, fanciful, sometimes rambling, always intriguing, this is a book that deserves not only its own category, but its own genre. It truly is one of a kind. By the end (what am I talking about? I have started it twice and never made it to the end), you just want to hang out with Yogananda more than anything else in the world. But you can’t because he no longer inhabits this earthly realm ( as far as we know), so you will have to make do with going to India, walking in his footsteps and hoping for the best. I’m not even going to try to describe this cult classic. Just read it and love it unabashedly like the rest of us. Resistance is futile.

5. Climbing the Mango Tree by Madhur Jaffrey. Jaffrey is probably India’s leading food writer. I have her Simple Indian Cookery and it is my favourite cookbook. This book is an autobiography about her childhood in Delhi. Her sensuous descriptions make it the literary equivalent of eating a delightful, aromatic dish spiked with tangy citrus bursts and an undercurrent of warming, exotic spices. Her sharp observations give the story depth, and make the book worth reading. Overall it’s a wonderful experience — as if she cooked you a gorgeous full-course dinner and spun the air with tales as you ate.

6. Black Narcissus by Rumer Godden. I have seen the movie based on this book several times over the years, but finally just read the book. It was a particular favourite of my Mother’s and I can see why: A small group of Catholic nuns ride out into the Himalayas beyond Darjeeling to take over a mysterious, exotic and windy palace and attempt to turn it into a nunnery, school and clinic. The movie, as it turns out, was very faithful to the book — except perhaps to turn up the volume on the melodrama. The scene when the young “rat-faced” nun freaks out on Deborah Kerr and tries to push her over the precipice was a 40s-style chick flick classic. Love it!

7. The River by Rumer Godden. Yes, I am a Rumer Godden fan, and I am making my way through her published novels. She grew up in India and consequently sets many of her books there. This one is about a bright, literary-minded girl of British origin who lives with her family in a big house on “the river” (never named) in pre-independent India. Her father manages a jute mill. The story takes place over the course of the year in which she begins the metamorphosis from girlhood to womanhood. She writes poetry, develops a “crush” on a visiting wounded ex-soldier and has to deal with death when her little brother is fatally bitten by a king cobra. It’s a lovely, lyrical book that moves to the rhythm of the ancient, mighty river that flows past their house and through their lives. This book was also made into a movie — but it is a bit odd and uneven.

8. From Here to Nirvana: The Yoga Journal Guide to Spiritual India. Authors Anne Cushman and Jerry Jones visited 70 ashrams in India and wrote detailed descriptions about the teachers, teachings, facilities, etc. It also features an introduction to the religious landscape of India, the author’s stories and some practical advice about traveling in India. The book is a bit out of date now (my copy was published in 1998), but things don’t change that much in spiritual India. I found it to be a fair, well-written book and I don’t have any real quibbles with it — except you will never know from a book or from reading about someone else’s experiences whether a teacher, ashram or spiritual path is for you. You have to go and find out for yourself. This might help narrow your choices, but that’s about it.

India Gate, New Delhi

India Gate, New Delhi

9. Life is Perfect by Himani Dahlmi. I was shopping for a book in Tekson’s bookstore (South Extension market, Delhi) when I spied a young man buying up copies of Life is Perfect. Turns out, he knew the author and was supporting her by giving out copies of the book to friends. He recommended it to me, of course, and I decided to bite. It is about a young woman growing in Delhi, though this is a modern story and the family is rich. It is quite accomplished for a first-time novel, and I liked the emphasis on the interior life of the main character as she deals with dating and her parent’s separation. But I didn’t care enough….

10. Clear Light of Day by Anita Desai. Another book about growing up in Delhi in pre-independence India. This one, though, is written by the gifted South Asian writer Anita Desai. She draws a rich portrait of family life in Old Delhi. Very satisfying.

Please leave comments and let us know what you are reading, what you recommend — and what you don’t!

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18 Responses to Another 10 books on India or by Indian or South Asian writers

  1. Jennifer November 30, 2009 at 12:11 pm #

    Nice blog. I somehow never got into ‘Holy Cow’… I have yet to read most of the books you note, but have started few of them over the years. A nice history book is a History of India by Stanley Wolpert http://tinyurl.com/yzs4bwu. Another good one some people scoff at, but I particularly like for a Western audience after reading plenty of books in India on the topic- Idiot’s guide to Hinduism- http://tinyurl.com/ykrrlws
    About Eat, Pray, Love. I read that- am I banned? ;) The one thing I don’t like about books like that- is it doesn’t offer insight into daily life in India. No book like that- a book where people go to stay anywhere and seclude themselves has its own charm- but it doesn’t shed light on daily life of an average person of that area. Many people in India would not live like that- in ashrams or meditating all the time. One needs a lot of time and resources to leave daily life like that in any society.

  2. Chetana Panwar December 2, 2009 at 3:07 am #

    Namaste!!

    Interesting choices. I too loved Autobiography of a Yogi, God of Small Things, and have just started reading Anita Desai. However, I loathed A Fine Balance; I found it unbearably graphic in the torture scenes. It disappoints me also that so few Westerners seem to have any sort of textured view of India’s journey from the Emergency period to today.

    Books I’ve been reading by Indian writers or about India:
    Namesake by Jumpha Lahira,
    The Romantics by Pankaj Mishra, and
    Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi by Geoff Dyer (am trying to get a hold of his other book ‘Yoga for People who can’t be bothered to do it’).

    Happy Reading! Chetana

  3. PaulineF December 2, 2009 at 3:47 pm #

    So glad you started with Midnight’s Children. A STUNNING book. Am looking forward to trying a number of others from your list that I hadn’t heard of. Thanks!

  4. Lisa December 2, 2009 at 4:01 pm #

    Thanks for this great list – am planning a trip to India in the next couple of years and am slowly starting to aggregate at much info as I can. Have you read Indian Summer by Alex Von Tunzelmann? I just started it, about the end of the British rule there…so far so good. Thanks again for listing these out.

  5. Yogesh Mali December 2, 2009 at 4:44 pm #

    India Unbound by Gurucharan Das is excellent book from economy point of view.

  6. Isabella Formiga December 3, 2009 at 5:42 pm #

    Hi Mariellen!
    I twitted you about “A Fine Balance”, but then I read what you said about “Autobiography of a Yogi” and I totally agree. That’s exactly how I felt – I felt like hanging out with Yogananda! Even though I haven’t been able to finish it, I love the way he writes and how dedicated and passionate he was. There’s something about him, definitely.

    Great blog!

    Cheers,
    Isabella

  7. niranjana December 15, 2009 at 7:36 pm #

    Love all your recs, but I *totally* loath Holy Cow! I found it unbearably self-centered. The protagonist is so obsessed with what India can do for her, and never seems to think of giving anything back. Quite the antithesis of your blog actually.

    My review is here: http://niranjana.wordpress.com/2008/02/14/holy-cow-or-a-lot-of-bull/

  8. Rob December 29, 2009 at 2:29 pm #

    A lovely list, and most I have not read yet. Although I must say that I’ve also read two of the books on your nono list (Shantaram & The White Tiger) and liked them both.

    Besides Midnight Children, another book by Rushdie I really love is Shalimar the Clown.

  9. tildajane January 5, 2010 at 4:06 am #

    wow – i totally agree with you re; Midnight’s Children, what an amazing book, I am contantly in awe of his writing.
    Loved God of Small things, and Roy has also written some pretty fascinating essays about the politics of India; Sarah McDonald’s Holy Cow – I’m a little ambivalent about it to be honest, I thought she was quite hard to read to be honest.
    Others are good food for thought.
    Though I must say – White Tiger was a good book – and well written.

  10. Emma Astrid January 5, 2010 at 11:23 pm #

    Hi guy’s. I’ve not read any of these books but I wondered, would you recommend reading Midnight’s Children before going or whilst there?!

  11. Mariellen January 6, 2010 at 12:42 am #

    Hi Emma,

    India is two very very long plane rides from Canada … I read Midnight’s Children(for the second time) on my way to India last January. It’s so entertaining that the plane ride just flew by (pardon the pun!).

    Mariellen

  12. Emma Astrid January 6, 2010 at 9:05 pm #

    Hey, thanks I guess i’ll buy it and read it out there,. add to the experience :) I’ve just read your explanation and the beginning’s of Breathe Dream Go; such a great site, warm, genuine & passionate.

    Welldone and thankyou! x x

  13. Shantanu Rajadhyaksha January 18, 2010 at 1:43 am #

    Have you read Five point someone by Chetan Bhagat yet? Its a fantastic look into the daily lives of the indian student at our premier educational institution, IIT.

  14. Isabel January 19, 2010 at 3:59 am #

    Books about India! One of my favourite topics… I have read most of these and some are some of my all time favourites – like A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. Of the three you didn’t want to mention, E-P-V is the one I could have done without and I would say Shantaram is the best of the three. Each time I come across Holy Cow, I pick it up, browse through it and put it down again because I don’t like its mocking tone. But maybe one day I’ll just go ahead and read it to see what it’s all about. I have also read Chetan Bhagat just to see what he’s ‘all about’ but I wouldn’t put his stuff on a must-read list!

  15. Tracy August 21, 2010 at 11:43 am #

    I’ll have to pick up a couple of these! Loved Holy Cow, have you read White Tiger?

  16. Mariellen August 21, 2010 at 12:07 pm #

    Hi Tracy, You must have missed my note, in the post itself: I didn’t like Shantaram or The White Tiger AT ALL, so they won’t be on any of my lists.

  17. Caldwell September 14, 2011 at 5:15 am #

    I will be actually fascinated together with your writing skills as well as with the layout on your blog post. Is it a paid out design or did you colorize it for you by yourself? Either way continue great high quality writing, that it is uncommon to determine a great weblog just like this nowadays..

  18. Sapna December 8, 2012 at 12:11 pm #

    Hi,

    I have enjoyed your website thoroughly and also many of the books recommended. I think Maximum city is my favorite yet, and has really helped me to understand that city after two trips to India. I do not understand why you endorse The White Tiger in your own comments from the original top 10 list, and then proceed to disparage it. For what it’s worth, I thought it was a great read that had me laughing out loud at times.

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