books about india?
July 28, 2005 9:04 PM   Subscribe

Can anyone recommend some good books on Indian (particularly South Indian) culture/history/politics/etc?

I'll be travelling all around the region next year (itinerary is still a little fuzzy, but will definitely include Tamil Nadu and Kerala) and would like to learn more about it before I go.

I'm leaving the question intentionally vague because I don't have a specific topic in mind, and I'm comfortable reading academic treatises, first-personal accounts, novels...basically anything that could enrich my perspective in some worthwhile way!
posted by introcosm to Society & Culture (8 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I really enjoyed Nehru's Discovery of India . It's a little all over the place, but written in his very typical idealistic and erudite style.

For South India I cannot recommend R.K Narayan's Malgudi Days more than enough.

You can always start by checking out some of the popular choices like Rushdie or the much lauded God of Small Things (Kerela) and Life of Pi (Pondicherry). Also, V.S Naipaul's Area of Darkness. But in my experience people either end up really hating these books or really loving them.
posted by wannabehippie at 10:05 PM on July 28, 2005

The books of William Dalrymple sound exactly what you're looking for - they're travel journals which also explain the vast and complex political situations in India.
posted by forallmankind at 11:48 PM on July 28, 2005

nehru's glimpses of world history is an interesting read and illustrates the author and his times as much as the world he's describing. it's not south-india specific (the history is of the world, but there's an indian emphasis, and nehru himself was one of the terrists responsible for independence - much of the book is letters written from jail).

(that link is hardback - it certainly used to exist in paperback from oxford, as i still have a beat-up, much-travelled copy)
posted by andrew cooke at 3:48 AM on July 29, 2005

midnight's children is an excellent novel, which happens to be set in india (the midnight in question being that eve of independence).
posted by andrew cooke at 3:50 AM on July 29, 2005

I would second R.K Narayan.
posted by chunking express at 5:34 AM on July 29, 2005

Mark Tully (old-school, mission-to-explain BBC reporter) has written several books on India, the best probably being No Full Stops in India -- not enormously profound, but very humane, readable and informative, and would be a good first book to read before you get deeper into the subject.

I second the recommendation of William Dalrymple -- City of Djinns (on Delhi), The Age of Kali (on India more generally).

V.S. Naipaul is a must-read, despite all his maddening flaws and idiosyncrasies. I have enthused about Naipaul before, so I won't repeat myself here, except to say that, love him or hate him, you simply have to read him.

John Keay's India: a History is probably the best one-volume history for the general reader. I also have a great fondness (which you may or may not share) for nineteenth-century travel diaries and letters from India. If you are lucky enough to get hold of a copy of Emily Eden's Up the Country (now sadly out of print), don't miss it -- and there is also Fanny Parkes's Begums, Thugs and White Mughals with an introduction by the ubiquitous William Dalrymple.

Under the Fire Star is well worth a visit, and will give you links to other Indian weblogs.
posted by verstegan at 6:21 AM on July 29, 2005

Gita Mehta's Snakes and Ladders is a (IMO) well written, interesting look at modern India. The essay topics are all over the place, but they certainly cover "culture/history/politics/etc".

Karma Cola (same author) is also very good, although it's more about India in the 60's and 70's, while Snakes and Ladders is more recent.
posted by darsh at 11:29 AM on July 29, 2005

Any of Rohinton Mistry's books, in particular A Fine Balance, a panoramic novel about 1970s India, with some remarkable flashbacks to the 1940s around the time of the Partition, and eventually ending in the early 1980s at the time of the assassination of Indira Gandhi and the subsequent religious riots.

Mistry has a knack at developing both the foreground and the backdrop. It's not just fascinating history -- it's all told on a small scale involving a few human beings, and you experience their limited perspective and contrast it with your own bird's-eye view of history. Because it follows a few characters across their entire livespans, this sense of being lost in history, pawns in politics and elements in a ruthless game of survival becomes increasingly poignant.

The novel is mostly set during the Emergency, Indira Gandhi's famous (and successful, at least for a time) fabricated crisis designed to dodge allegations of corruption, a time in which she threw India into a state of totalitarian control, disposed of political enemies and restricted the civil liberties of Indian citizens, all ostensibly in the name of progress. Every part of society is involved -- universities being purged of "radicals", people "disappearing" or being forcibly relocated, forced sterilization -- but the lower strata of society, in particular, find themselves at the other end of the stick.

I've addressed the historic aspect of the book, since this is what you are after; but it's foremost a novel, a Dickensian story about society's less fortunate, brimming with vivid character portraits, from a middle-aged Parsi widow to a couple of cheerful and wonderfully colourful village tailors who arrive in the sprawling urban monstrosity that is modern Bombay and gradually deal, often humorously, but increasingly grimly, with the ensuing culture shock.
posted by gentle at 8:14 PM on July 30, 2005

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