What should I read before travelling to India?
November 7, 2014 9:43 AM   Subscribe

Can you recommend a historical book to give me some background and context before I visit India? I'd like to learn more about the region's history to understand what I'm seeing.

I'm doing a wealthy American's tour of cities with some sites enroute: Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Varanasi. Part of the excitement of India is there's just so much history! And religion, and culture, and I'm ignorant of most of it.

I like intelligent books but I'm kind of a lazy reader, so something that's enjoyable is preferred to something dry and academic. I'd prefer non-fiction, but well-grounded historical fiction is welcome too. I'm more curious about pre-colonial India than I am the British Raj and events after.

I've asked this kind of question before on AskMe for other places with success. Some books I've liked include The Fatal Shore (Australia), The Perfect Heresy and Seven Ages of Paris (France), and The Long Ships (Norway).
posted by Nelson to Writing & Language (16 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
If you read only one, I strongly recommend Ramachandra Guha's India After Gandhi. Obviously only focused on the modern era, but it's super informative and a great read.
posted by AwkwardPause at 9:53 AM on November 7, 2014

For the "golden triangle"/Delhi: Anything by William Dalrymple. Take your pick, really.

A Suitable Boy, which is a novel (and a very long one!) but is also a sweeping commentary on post-Independence India. Takes place partially in Kolkata and in various other Indian cities. It's long, but it's not dry. And you can skip the long chapters about the Indian legislative system if you find them dull.

Also, frankly, I wouldn't ignore modern India in your reading. A lot of people make the mistake of assuming that India = ancient, when really a lot of what you're actually going to experience while you're there is as modern as anything you'll find in the West. And not just because India has become "Westernized", but simply because, yeah, time exists in Asia. It's very tempting to see women in saris making offerings to Hindu gods and filter that through a lens of timelessness that isn't relevant.
posted by Sara C. at 10:06 AM on November 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'm going to Mumbai in a few weeks and found the book Culture Shock: India to be a great resource on the culture I'm likely to encounter (or miss, by virtue of being in tourist areas) and the historical/religious context for that culture.
posted by melissasaurus at 10:37 AM on November 7, 2014

Katherine Boo's Behind the Beautiful Forevers is an exquisite book.
posted by Corvid at 10:54 AM on November 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm Indian myself, and I've read few books that explain my sometimes batshit country as well as Peter Luce's In Spite of the Gods. Between that and the Guha book you should be set.
posted by Tamanna at 11:02 AM on November 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Damn it, I don't have time to do this question justice. But you have to read Salman Rushdie before you start: Midnight's Children.

Saleem Sinai is born at the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947, the very moment of India’s independence. Greeted by fireworks displays, cheering crowds, and Prime Minister Nehru himself, Saleem grows up to learn the ominous consequences of this coincidence. His every act is mirrored and magnified in events that sway the course of national affairs; his health and well-being are inextricably bound to those of his nation; his life is inseparable, at times indistinguishable, from the history of his country. Perhaps most remarkable are the telepathic powers linking him with India’s 1,000 other “midnight’s children,” all born in that initial hour and endowed with magical gifts.

This novel is at once a fascinating family saga and an astonishing evocation of a vast land and its people–a brilliant incarnation of the universal human comedy. Twenty-five years after its publication, Midnight’s Children stands apart as both an epochal work of fiction and a brilliant performance by one of the great literary voices of our time.

Too many awards to count. Read it.
posted by RedOrGreen at 11:16 AM on November 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for the suggestions so far! At the risk of threadsitting, I want to re-emphasize my interest in pre-colonial history. It's not that I'm not interested in modern India or the colonial history, not at all! But I already know some about it and it's relatively easy to find more to read. (Guha's book looks great, thank you.)

I know nothing at all about the Mughal Empire, or how Hinduism ended up in Indonesia, or the Indian trade networks running over half the pre-industrial world, or the relationship between Hinduism and Buddhism. Hoping to fill in those gaps before visiting, both for the historical view and so that when I'm visiting a temple I have a more interesting experience than "ooh pretty statues".
posted by Nelson at 11:18 AM on November 7, 2014

Ah. You'd benefit from an intro history text, but I'm not sure what to recommend on that front. If only there was a James A. Michener book like Hawaii about India... maybe there is an equivalent?

But consider this: Letters from a Father to his Daughter. Immense historical significance, since these are the letters from Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister, to Indira Gandhi, his daughter and India's third prime minister. At least a couple of the 30 letters look back on India's history and culture.
posted by RedOrGreen at 11:31 AM on November 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

Seconding William Dalrymple, whose books on India mostly focus on the intersection of late Mughal and Company history. His articles cover broader ground, and the bibliographies in his books and reviews point to his sources. However, those primary texts are often academic texts and/or by Indian historians and hard to obtain.

The history that predates colonialisation often fragments into regions, except "fragment" is perhaps the wrong word, because it locks in "India" as an entity, as a concept, as something that extends past a relatively modern creation at the hands of others. The extent to which that's true in earlier history is subject to plenty of historiographical debate; it's also politically controversial. Romila Thapar's work covers some of this ground. To put it another way, Indians are still trying to work which bits of their pre-colonial history ought to be called "Indian" as opposed to something else, and they can't help but do so in the context of the modern Indian state.
posted by holgate at 12:13 PM on November 7, 2014 [3 favorites]

I can't recommend "Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found" by Suketu Mehta enough. I read it several years ago and couldn't put it down. It is non fiction and isn't historical. Mehta is a journalist who returns to India with his young family after living most of his life in the states. He writes about all aspects of life and politics and culture in Bombay. The authors website.
posted by jazh at 12:45 PM on November 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

The Discovery of India by Jawaharlal Nehru.
posted by thack3r at 5:47 PM on November 7, 2014

It's not the right era, but an easy interesting read is A Princess Remembers by Gayatri Devi. She was the third wife of the Maharajah of Jaipur. It's the history of india from the early 20th century to the 1970's, and is a fascinating read, especially about the ruling classes of India pre-democracy, how their power was dismantled, and the changing role of women in India.
posted by kjs4 at 1:55 AM on November 8, 2014

For Northern India try this webpage History of the Moghul Empire
posted by adamvasco at 2:40 AM on November 8, 2014

posted by DelusionsofGrandeur at 4:04 AM on November 8, 2014

Not a book... but this has a good overview of pre-colonial 'India' and how that past continues to shape life in modern India... The History of Hindu India (YT)
posted by Mister Bijou at 4:50 AM on November 8, 2014

Response by poster: Thanks again for all the answers. Adding some suggestions for other books I've gotten.

Suggestions from non-MeFi friends Selected suggestions from my tourist guidebooks
posted by Nelson at 1:23 PM on November 10, 2014

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