Books on India
January 13, 2008 8:32 PM   Subscribe

If you please—I urgently require a few good recommendations of novels that have India as a backdrop.

It should be set up in India, so that a foreigner can understand a bit about Indian Society, their traditions, and customs. I’m asking this so that I can gift the book to a friend of mine, who is a foreigner, and will be leaving shortly. So I would appreciate it if you could reply as soon as possible. Thanking you very much in advance!
posted by hadjiboy to Writing & Language (55 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
There's a ton by Indian writers.

How about Midnight's children?
posted by idb at 8:38 PM on January 13, 2008

What the Body Remembers, by Shauna Singh Baldwin. Set in India in the 1940s, around the time of partition.

A Suitable Boy, by Vikram Seth. Set in 1950s India.

A Fine Balance, by Rohinton Mistry. Set in 1970s India.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 8:43 PM on January 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

The Inheritance of Loss.
posted by amro at 8:46 PM on January 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy. It's an incredible book. It won the Booker Prize.
posted by twirlypen at 8:46 PM on January 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

Maximum City - Bombay Lost and Found by Suketu Mehta is an amazing book, written by a Bombay native who returns to the city for a year after living in NYC. It's not a novel, but it's a great glimpse into India for foreigners.
posted by rajbot at 8:46 PM on January 13, 2008 [2 favorites]

Shantaram by Gregory Roberts. Easily one of the best books about/in India that I have ever read.
posted by dhruva at 8:50 PM on January 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

Shantaram and seconding Maximum City.
posted by tellurian at 8:52 PM on January 13, 2008

Jinx dhruva
posted by tellurian at 8:53 PM on January 13, 2008

Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri. However, it's a collection of short stories.
posted by Xere at 9:18 PM on January 13, 2008

Seconding A Fine Balance, mentioned above by hurdy gurdy girl. Along with a moving story you get a bit of historical caste relations and a few spots of key national history up into the 1970s. I couldn't say how relevant it is in the modern era over there, but it feels like a useful collection of snapshots that could provide some perspective. Nonfiction would of course be better for this, but as fiction goes this still helps paint a historical picture.
posted by kookoobirdz at 9:25 PM on January 13, 2008

Well, somebody needs to say :

Especially Kim
posted by Acari at 9:26 PM on January 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

Haven't read it yet, but just watched a movie of it: The River by Rumer Godden.
posted by bonobo at 9:47 PM on January 13, 2008

Vickram Chandra's Sacred Games
posted by Large Marge at 9:49 PM on January 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

R. K. Narayan's novels and those by Anita Mazumdar Desai.
posted by ericb at 9:53 PM on January 13, 2008

Also -- Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children.
posted by ericb at 9:56 PM on January 13, 2008 [2 favorites]

Yeah -- what idb said in the first comment!!!
posted by ericb at 9:57 PM on January 13, 2008

definitely seconding "A Suitable Boy".

try Rohinton Mistry's collection of short stories, "Tales from Firozsha Baag". delightful.
posted by gursky at 10:02 PM on January 13, 2008

I second Acari, Kim is a favorite from childhood.

Passage to India is a great book.
posted by Foam Pants at 10:05 PM on January 13, 2008

Um, ones that haven't been mentioned yet:

Show Business, by Shashi Tharoor - hilarious take on Bollywood & Indian politics

Tales from Firozsha Baag, by Rohinton Mistry - great short stories, set in a Mumbai apartment block

The Great Indian Novel, by Shashi Tharoor (again) - the lovechild of the Mahabharata & Indian post-independence political history

Looking through Glass, by Mukul Kesavan - vivid storytelling, historical & kinda magic-real

Red Earth & Pouring Rain, by Vikram Chandra - a bit like Looking through Glass, from memory

English, August, by Upumanyu Chatterjee - wonderfully comically bleak novel about a young IAS officer posted to a shitty mofussil town

And heavily seconding Shantaram (in particular; should be first choice), God of Small Things, Midnight's Children, Narayan's Malgudi novels, and even though it's part travelogue, part philosophical speculation & part retelling of the Ramayana, Arrow of the Blue-Skinned God is a pretty good & informative read about Indian culture - glad to finally stumble upon somebody else who's read it, because it seems to be almost completely unknown.
posted by UbuRoivas at 10:11 PM on January 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

(stupid tendency to post without previewing!)
posted by UbuRoivas at 10:11 PM on January 13, 2008

Uhm...Life of Pi? Excellent book if you can make it past the first 50 pages or so.
posted by TomMelee at 10:16 PM on January 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

Is Firdaus Kanga's Trying to Grow still in print in India? I saw the movie based on it about ten years ago....and found the Indian edition in a (now-defunct) lefty bookstore in LA.
posted by brujita at 11:34 PM on January 13, 2008

Jaspreet Singh, 17 Tomatoes, coming of age stories set in Kashmir.
posted by Rumple at 11:36 PM on January 13, 2008

Anita Rau Badami has written about the relationship between a Canadian daughter and her mother still in India (Tamarind Mem) and the 1947 partition / the Air India Flight 182 tragedy (Can You Hear the Nightbird Call?).

Was there a particular area of India your friend was in? A novel set in Tamil Nadu would seem to been about a different country if your friend had only been in Bihar, for example. And with the dispora there are many novels that relate India with another culture (such as Rohinton Mistry and Anita Rau Badami do with the strong Canada-India connection). Also, is your friend a man or woman? Many women I know like to read about the experience of other women since so much of our culture already informs us of the male perspective. Did your friend pick up any languages? They would probalby enjoy a book that has a little of the basic language they picked up. There are some awesome books others have choosen upthread, have fun choosing one!
posted by saucysault at 11:38 PM on January 13, 2008

A Fine Balance, by Rohinton Mistry

Very good, but the most depressing book, bar none, that I have ever read.

Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children.

Especially if your friend likes superhero comics. :)
posted by aeschenkarnos at 11:47 PM on January 13, 2008

I'd recommend the Raj Quartet by Paul Scott, which is set between the years 1942 and 1947 and gives a lot of the historical background to India's break from the British Empire and the establishment of Pakistan.
posted by essexjan at 12:16 AM on January 14, 2008

essexjan is very right about Paul Scott's quartet - fantastic books.
posted by Abiezer at 12:36 AM on January 14, 2008

Are You Experienced? by William Sutcliffe. Which is, according to his Wikipedia page, "a pre-university year-out novel, in which a group of young Brits travel to India without really knowing what to expect or what to do there."

Describes it perfectly.
posted by tapeguy at 12:56 AM on January 14, 2008

Response by poster: Oh man, you guys are making this really hard. The no. 1 book on my list right now is Shantaram (just read the link that dhruva posted to), and it sounds like something that he would really, really enjoy. I’m also making note of the others in case they don’t have that one available, and will be keeping them for myself as well. Thank you so much for the quick responses and please, please tell me more about stuff I have obviously not heard of (especially if it’s anything like Shantaram)!
posted by hadjiboy at 1:14 AM on January 14, 2008

Response by poster: saucysault, he’s male, so I think he’ll really get into Shantaram (hopefully!) and he’s been to Mumbai and Southern India, and although he doesn’t know the language, he’s very interested in the culture, and would really identify with a foreigner’s experience of coming here and having to deal with some of the differences.:)

posted by hadjiboy at 1:22 AM on January 14, 2008

Midnights Children by Salman Rushdie.

Interpreter of Maladies is also excellent.
posted by Neonshock at 1:24 AM on January 14, 2008

Response by poster: tapeguy, Are You Experienced?--muchos gracias!
posted by hadjiboy at 1:27 AM on January 14, 2008

Highly recommend 'The Bloodstone Papers' by Glen Duncan ( link) - set half in India, half in London but a nice view on the manners of post raj india.
posted by mattr at 1:27 AM on January 14, 2008

Shantaram is great, but be warned that it is a massive and heavy book if space and/or weight are travelling issues for your friend.
posted by goo at 2:08 AM on January 14, 2008

Red Earth and Pouring Rain by Vikram Chandra, I thought, was absolutely wonderful and extremely memorable.
posted by randomination at 2:13 AM on January 14, 2008

Rusdie's "Shame" is also good, though largely set in Pakistan
posted by mattoxic at 2:49 AM on January 14, 2008

Definitely RK Narayan. That chap is a fantastic writer.
And since you said 'on India' instead of 'by Indians', I also recommend Jim Corbett's excellent tales. His books are as much about the simple Indians he met as much as it is about the tigers he hunted.
And I'll squeeze in a recommend for some Tagore as well. I've only read some of his poems, and one book (Gora), but he's one of our most important literary figures (he wrote our national anthem).
posted by arungoodboy at 3:06 AM on January 14, 2008

Bombay Ice by Leslie Forbes (also enriched with hijra and Bollywood goodness).
posted by biscotti at 3:58 AM on January 14, 2008

Nthing most of the above and adding the absolutely wonderful Eclipse of the Sun by Phil Whitaker.
posted by ceri richard at 4:20 AM on January 14, 2008

I'm currently reading Q & A by Vikas Swarup. It rattles along at a fast pace and has a lot about the lives of India's underclass.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 4:35 AM on January 14, 2008

John Irving's "Son of the Circus".
posted by willmize at 4:55 AM on January 14, 2008

Ladies Coupe by Anita Nair, about a woman's train journey through India and her inner journey along the way, I liked it a lot.
posted by meijusa at 5:17 AM on January 14, 2008

Another vote for RK Narayan.
posted by chunking express at 6:51 AM on January 14, 2008

Another vote for the Raj Quartet (and a superb TV series was made from it as well).
posted by languagehat at 6:54 AM on January 14, 2008

Seconding Midnight's Children and Maximum City. Any of Amitav Ghosh's books would be really ideal for this purpose though my favorite would be "The Hungry Tide." This is an absolutely lyrical book about the experiences of a foreigner who comes to India to study the river dolphins of Bengal. The conflict that occurs in such regions between humans and animals, as well as the government on behalf on the animals they are trying to conserve, is portrayed very realistically and sympathetically. This sounds a little dire and depressing, but I assure you the book is anything but.
I would also recommend "The Impressionist" by Hari Kunzru about a young boy born illegitimately to a Kashmiri woman and a British man and his adventures as he passes first for the son of the Kashmiri woman and a Kashmiri man, and later as white in England. I would also recommend "Transmission" by the same author.
posted by peacheater at 6:55 AM on January 14, 2008

Another one of Amitav Ghosh's books that's absolutely wonderful is Shadow Lines, which broadly speaking, covers Bengal's Partition between India and Pakistan at the time of Independence and the subsequent experience of the East Pakistan Civil War of 1971.
posted by buddha9090 at 7:43 AM on January 14, 2008

A Fine Balance, by Rohinton Mistry contains all of the beauty and all of the evil of life. It's a masterpiece, but it will break your heart.

A Passage to India, by E.M. Forster. Gives a good historical/British colonist perspective.
posted by emd3737 at 8:03 AM on January 14, 2008

A Far Horizon
posted by nax at 8:43 AM on January 14, 2008

I really enjoyed The Namesake, by Jhumpa Lahiri. Most of the novel is actually set in America, but it is focused on a family of immigrants and it does a lot of comparing and contrasting between American and Indian culture, which might be helpful.
posted by designmartini at 9:51 AM on January 14, 2008

River of Gods, by Ian McDonald, if you're into sci-fi.
posted by ekstasis23 at 10:24 AM on January 14, 2008

Seconding Midnights Children and Sacred games.
posted by lalochezia at 12:40 PM on January 14, 2008

I loved "Are You Experienced?" but it is not what you are looking for, it is more about the kinds of people you meet traveling and India is really just the backdrop from what I remember, well written but more about the main character's experiences than about the country....would recommend "the interpreter of maladies" much more.
posted by terrortubby at 3:32 PM on January 15, 2008

How about that? I've done a lot of travelling in India, and hated Are You Experienced? because all it did was swipe away satirically at the softest target possible: the very lamest of naive young backpackers straight off the plane from Lameville, Lameland.

Karma Kola, by Gita Mehta, did a far better job of describing the Indian-Tourist interactions & ironies, IMHO.
posted by UbuRoivas at 4:02 PM on January 15, 2008

Oh, and I realise it's too late for the gift, but if this thread makes it into the mefi literature wiki, I'll throw in one more:

Kanthapura, by Raja Rao - Gandhism & the independence movement, as seen through the filter of the caste politics & traditions of a small farming village in the middle of nowhere.
posted by UbuRoivas at 4:12 PM on January 15, 2008

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