More favourite books about India or travel

Spiritual seekers, heroes and India lovers

I am way behind in writing reviews about the books I am reading – which is usually travel literature. Ever since I got rid of my TV, I’ve been reading like a fiend — and I am expanding my lists to include books about transformational travel. For my previous lists, please read Another 10 books on India or 10 (more) books I love about India or Top 10 books on India thus far.

(NOTE: Do not look for Shantaram, The White Tiger or Eat, Pray, Love. You will not find them; I don’t think they rate. But you will see a comparison to Shantaram, number 9 below.)

The mass popularity of Eat, Pray, Love seems to suggest that author Elizabeth Gilbert was the first seeker ever to brave the rigours of travel in India in order to discover inner bliss at a spiritual retreat. To set the record straight, spiritual seekers have been going to India for many generations, perhaps many centuries. The Beatles went to India in 1968.  A Search in Secret India (on the list below) by Dr. Paul Brunton was published in 1935. Somerset Maugham’s masterpiece A Razor’s Edge is about a man who goes to India just after WW1. Mark Twain went to India in the 19th century. There is even speculation that Jesus trained as a yogi in India – and that’s where he learned to perform “miracles.”

Sri Ramana Maharishi, Indian yogi and teacher

Sri Ramana Maharishi

1. A Search in Secret India by Dr. Paul Brunton

This is a fascinating book that starts slowly and becomes very compelling. Brunton was way ahead of his time — this book was published in 1935 and it’s about his search for a spiritual master in India. He admits to being skeptical; admits to getting duped by fakes; and almost dies in a Bombay hotel room. But something pushes him forward and after about a year of searching, traveling and living in very (and I mean very) rough conditons, he meets Sri Ramana Maharishi. That is when the book becomes transcendent, and impossible to put down. The last part of the book, about Sri Ramana Maharishi, is just about the best writing I have ever read by a spiritual seeker. It’s truly riveting.

2. Nine Lives by William Dalrymple

A masterpiece. I was already a big Dalrymple fan — his wonderful book City of Djinns, about Delhi, is on one of my previous lists — but this book escalates him to a new level as far as I am concerned. The book profiles nine different people Dalrymple has met on his extensive travels in India. All of the unique characters in the book are involved in some arcane spiritual practise and the enormous research Dalrymple did to flesh out the stories and give the reader background and context makes for fascinating and informative reading.

3. All Roads Lead to Ganga by Ruskin Bond

This is a lovely piece of writing, an elegiac about Ruskin’s home in the Himalayan foothills of Uttrakhand. It reads like a love letter to the countryside and especially the nature of Dehra Dun, Mussoorie and the Char Dham pilgrimage routes to the source of the Ganges River which naturalist Ruskin has hiked many times. I read it on a long train ride to Dehra Dun, in fact, and it was the perfect accompaniment.

Author Bruce Chatwin

4. The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin

I love this book. I just finished reading it again after many years. It is unusual, audacious, inspired, brilliant, poetic and magical. Wish I had met Chatwin — I think he must have been all of these things, too. If you haven’t read it, just a get a copy and read it. Ostensibly it’s about the songlines of the Aboriginal people in Australia; but then it descends into a much deeper, broader subject — man’s inherent need to roam.

In fact, I like this book so much that I added Rohetgarh — the Rajasthani haveli-hotel that he stayed in while he wrote it — to my Dream in India tour.  This tour will take you to inspirational and literary places in India including the Jaipur Literarature Festival.

4. Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin

This book was a huge best-seller and it is one of those rare books that actually deserves to be. It is an extremely inspiring story about a man who stumbles into a village in the remotest corner of Pakistan and promises to build them a school. He ends up building hundreds of schools in Pakistan. The other reason it’s such a great book is because of the writing by David Oliver Relin — who traveled with Mortensen in Pakistan for a year.

6. Carpet Sahib by Martin Booth

Carpet Sahib was the mispronunciation of Jim Corbett’s name by the local people of Nainital, in the Kumaon region of India, where he was born and lived most of his life. Jim Corbett was completely at home in the jungles of India and became famous — legendary, actually — for tracking and killing several man-eating tigers and leopards. He later became a very successful writer and one of the first modern conservationists. He hung up his gun and picked up a camera and shot some of the first moving pictures of tigers in the wild. Corbett Tiger Reserve is of course named after him.

7. The Man-Eating Leopard of Rudraprayag by Jim Corbett

Not as well known as The Man-Eaters of Kumaon, this book is nevertheless a good read. It made me feel like a boy scout at camp, reading by flashlight — it’s that kind of book. Corbett won’t win any awards for poetic writing, but he sure can tell a good story. The descriptions of the killings can be gruesome. I read it in bed with my tabby cat stretched out across my legs and there were a few times I found myself looking at her a little more intently than usual.

8. Baumgartner’s Bombay by Anita Desai

This is a deceptively hardcore piece of writing from a masterful writer and storyteller. It’s about the last, pathos-filled days of a “man without family or home,” a lonely, aging foreigner in Bombay who has no where else to go. The final scenes, after he meets an unwashed hippie in a local cafe, are searingly hard to read. This book is to Shantaram what Masterpiece Theatre is to an Adam Sandler film.

Canadian writer from Bombay / Mumbai, India, Jasmine D'Costa

Jasmine D’Costa and her Mother in Mumbai

9. Curry is Thick than Water by Jasmine D’Costa

Jasmine D’Costa is an Indo-Canadian writer, originally from Mumbai. The stories in this collection are extremely well told, very entertaining and very well-written. I will never get the image of the elephant lying down on the highway in Bombay out of my head, and nor would I want to.

10. An Indian Summer by Jamers Cameron

No, not THAT James Cameron. (Although, oddly, the film director will be at an ideas conference in India in December 2010, the INK Conference.) This James Cameron was a newspaper man in India during the twilight of the British Raj. In 1972, he returned to India, newly married to an Indian woman. The book is about his return journey. It’s thoughtful, really well written and underneath his vigorous journalistic style lurks a palpable love of India. In the book, he wrote that he produced a television program with an English director with the goal of scrupulously avoiding “the picturesque… and out worn visual beauties … that had suffocated every film about India since the medium was invented.” But the plan fell through “as soon as the camera turned; it was difficult indeed to film anything in India without some element of the strange and beautiful intruding.”

I really like this book for many reasons, not the least of which is this sentence — about the rotting piles of papers piled high in the offices of Calcutta’s bureaucrats: “Their protruding edges stirred under the fans with a gentle bony crepitation.”

Jaisalmer Fort, Rajasthan, India

Jaisalmer Fort, Rajasthan, India

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6 Responses to More favourite books about India or travel

  1. Andi August 26, 2010 at 9:17 am #

    I want to read them all!

  2. Yogesh August 26, 2010 at 12:22 pm #

    Out of all these books, I have read “All Roads Lead to Ganga by Ruskin Bond” , probably I grew up hearing lot of stories about Ruskin Bond from my father. Thanks for the great list, Mariellen.

  3. Krista August 26, 2010 at 9:48 pm #

    What a great list! May I add A PLACE WITHIN by M.G. Vassanji and IN RAJASTHAN by Royina Grewal?!

  4. Arwa August 29, 2010 at 9:18 am #

    Interesting choices..Thanks for sharing this list. I enjoyed reading The Man-Eating Leopard and The nine lives.

    There are also books written by Premchand, a famous Indian author – the books offer an insight on rural India.

  5. Arun August 29, 2010 at 9:56 am #

    Thanks for the list. I am ordering some of them right away!

  6. tildajane September 7, 2010 at 9:36 pm #

    oh I also really enjoyed Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy – even though it is pretty long and sometimes seems to lose a little pace. It is a great read about several families during the fascinating time of partition (I cannot tell you how much i loved Midnight’s Children and I think I picked this one up b/c it was written in the same era. Different but a very easy, interesting read). I also loved James Cameron’s Indian Summer even though it took a little while to get going!
    All you lists have been great- thanks!

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