I don’t think there’s any other country that has inspired as much literature than India.
From travel guides to award-winning novels to investigations into the country’s heart, mind and politics, ‘books about India’ could be a standalone genre.
I didn’t start really enjoying reading about India until after my first visit to the country back in 2008.
Then, I found myself nodding in agreement at many passages in many books, even going so far as to dog-ear pages or write down the quotes I liked the most.
India can be a confounding place to visit (but in my experience, ultimately rewarding) and many of the books I’ve listed below try to make sense, in some small way, of the confusion.
So if you’re travelling to India (or even if you’re not), here are some of my reading recommendations.
The Namesake by Jhumpa Lhairi
Brought up as an Indian in suburban America, Gogol Ganguli soon finds himself itching to cast off his awkward name, just as he longs to leave behind the inherited values of his Bengali parents. And so he sets off on his own path through life, a path strewn with conflicting loyalties, love and loss.
Quite possibly one of my favourite novels of all time, The Namesake is about two generations of a Bengali family transplanted from Kolkata to wintry Boston. The book follows the life of American-born Gogol Ganguli and his struggle to reconcile his Indian identity (and his name, given to him by his father Ashoke) with his American one.
The characters are clearly taken from Lahiri’s own life and are incredibly well-drawn. Beautifully yet simply written, The Namesake is, quite literally, a page-turner.
Holy Cow by Sarah McDonald
A popular Australian radio correspondent humorously recounts her reluctant relocation to New Delhi, India, where a dangerous illness propelled her to explore the region’s culture and spirituality in order to discover its virtues as well as a greater understanding about life and death.
The very first book I ever read about India, Holy Cow is written by an Australian radio journalist and the first few chapters, where McDonald flees India as a 21-year-old backpacker and returns reluctantly again for love some years later, reinforced my belief that I would never have any interest in going to India.
Clearly I missed the entire second half of the book.
McDonald investigates the various aspects of spirituality in the country. It’s a hugely funny book and one of those ones that most people you meet travelling in India have already read. When it was first released I was working in a bookstore in Sydney and we couldn’t keep copies in stock – they were flying off the shelves.
The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
Meet Balram Halwai, the ‘White Tiger’: servant, philosopher, entrepreneur and murderer.
Balram, the White Tiger, was born in a backwater village on the River Ganges, the son of a rickshaw-puller. He works in a teashop, crushing coal and wiping tables, but nurses a dream of escape. When he learns that a rich village landlord needs a chauffeur, he is soon on his way to Delhi behind the wheel of a Honda.
Amid the cockroaches and call-centres, the 36,000,004 gods, the slums, the shopping malls, and the crippling traffic jams, Balram learns of a new morality at the heart of a new India. Driven by desire to better himself, he comes to see how the Tiger might escape his cage…
Reading The White Tiger while travelling in India changed my perspective of the country. It’s ultimately a shocking book, and I started to see Balrams everywhere and I became very curious about the country’s complicated class structure and social hierarchy and was more conscious of my own interactions with locals.
With plenty of paragraphs that I found myself nodding furiously at or reading aloud to my travelling companions, this book is a must for anyone travelling to India.
A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
Set in mid-1970s India, “A Fine Balance” is a subtle and compelling narrative about four unlikely characters who come together in circumstances no one could have foreseen soon after the government declares a ‘State of Internal Emergency’. It is a breathtaking achievement: panoramic yet humane, intensely political yet rich with local delight; and, above all, compulsively readable.
I’ve just realised this post is going to end up full of superlatives, but that’s ok. A Fine Balance is a stunning book. It’s also epic – it’s the longest book on this list after Shantaram. It details the intricacies of life in India during the 70s and the characters draw you in in such a way that I guarantee you will be in tears several times before you reach the unsettling end.
Video Night in Kathmandu by Pico Iyer
Only in India would the American film Rambo be remade with the title role played by a woman–in a sari, no less! Only in Hong Kong would a man at a cocktail party pick up a woman with the line “What do you think of the dollar?” And only in Video Night in Kathmandu will you find detailed, unsettling portraits of a Far East in flux as experienced by Pico Iyer.
Subtitled “And other reports from the not-so-far-east” give you some indication of the ground Iyer covers in this, his debut travel book.
The essay on India, called Hollywood in the Fifties, isn’t just about Bollywood. It’s also somewhate about what it is that makes India so appealing to foreigners and contains quite possibly my favourite piece of travel writing ever:
“Every trip through India was to some extent a magical mystery tour into chaos and colour and commotion. India might not be the easiest or loveliest place in the world, most travelers agreed, but it was surely the most shocking, and the mot amusing, the most overwhelming, the happiest, and the saddest, the most human.“
I bought this book in Kathmandu on my first trip to Nepal and found myself reading the paragraph above for the first time while sitting in Delhi airport, waiting for my flight home. As frustrating as I had found India, that paragraph clinched things for me. I would be back. And I was. And I will be.
Inhaling the Mahatma by Christopher Kremmer
In the searing summer of 2004 Christopher Kremmer returns to India, a country in the grip of enormous and sometimes violent change. As a young reporter in the 1990s he first encountered this ancient and complex civilisation. Now embarking on a yatra or pilgrimage he travels the dangerous frontier where religion and politics face off.
In Inhaling the Mahatma, Australian journalist Kremmer explores India’s myths of the divine, juxtaposed with the complicated world of Indian politics.
Spanning just over ten years, Kremmer’s complex relationship with the country allows him special access to its people and modes of thought. He follows the Gandhi dynasty and a multitude of other politicians, shows us the secular and the divine, and goes in search of Rama.
In the early 90s, Kremmer marries into a modern Hindu family of Old Delhi, and this forever changes the way he sees the country, becoming an insider – to the point that his mother in-law accuses him of becoming desi, and culminating in a moving denouement, with Kremmer’s ultimate pilgrimage to the holy city of Varanasi, where he struggles to reconcile the holy with the filth and disrespect for the environment that plagues the city. (Something I have also had a little experience with!)
“The iconic final journey for a Hindu is a pilgrimage to Varanasi, to die upon the banks of the Ganga…I’d lived in India for more than two years before I made the pilgrimage to one of the oldest continuously inhabited human settlements on earth, older than Babylon and Athens, or as Mark Twain put it, older than history, tradition and legend, and looking ‘twice as old as all of them put together’. The spell of this truly eternal city, once cast, never leaves you, and after that first visit I returned repeatedly.”
William Dalrymple is a British travel writer living with his wife and children on a farm outside Delhi. Over the last twenty years he has written extensively about India – his first book, City of Djinns was about his year living in Delhi. Since then he has published The Age of Kali, a collection of his essays about the country, a historical tome The White Mughals and his most recent book, Nine Lives follows the search of nine individuals for “the sacred in modern India”.
Always readable, well-researched and insightful, I’m slowly working my way through Dalrymple’s back catalogue!
Geography by Sophie Cunningham
Catherine, Geography’s narrator, is in her mid-thirties and travelling with a much younger woman through India and Sri Lanka. Catherine compartmentalises her past loves and tragedies by news events that were occurring at the time – riots in Los Angeles, Australian bushfires, a New York snowstorm.
Her travelling companion, Ruby, urges Catherine to tell her a story. To tell her why she’s in Sri Lanka, at this time. What brought her this far from home? And so Catherine tells a story of an obsession that spanned years and countries, and her descent into a kind of madness.
It’s apparently a highly autobiographical novel, and while Cunningham says she spent four years fictionalising the story, a quick Google suggests to me that it’s still very much true. However, the book stands on its own – it’s beautiful and intelligent. The quality of the writing and the way Cunningham writes about geography is what makes me love this book.
Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts
‘It took me a long time and most of the world to learn what I know about love and fate and the choices we make, but the heart of it came to me in an instant, while I was chained to a wall and being tortured.’ So begins this epic, mesmerizing first novel set in the underworld of contemporary Bombay. Shantaram is narrated by Lin, an escaped convict with a false passport who flees maximum security prison in Australia for the teeming streets of a city where he can disappear.
I am going to be perfectly honest with you. I never finished Shantaram. I didn’t even like it that much. I don’t quite get what all the fuss was about. But I’ve included it on this list because it’s not often that a book about as big and heavy as a telephone directory can compel a traveller to cart it with them on buses and trains and planes and rickshaws – and that’s what this book does.
All over the world I’ve seen people travelling with this book – because they haven’t finished it yet and can’t bear not to. So it’s obviously doing something right.
Where to buy the books?
If you’re travelling in India, you can find many of these at bookstalls on the street in most cities, both new and secondhand.
You can also buy them online at bookdepository.co.uk, a website that offers free shipping almost anywhere in the world. It’s where I buy my books.
(Disclaimer: the links in this post are affliate links, which means if you decide you want to buy one of the books I’ve mentioned, I’ll receive a very small portion of the sale).
What books about India (or books about travel!) do you love and recommend?
Of course, there are many more than this, and I’d love to hear any recommendations you might have in the comments below. And in fact, I’ve read many more than this – there may even need to be a part 2!
Is your interest in India piqued? Read more about my travels through the country in the India archives.