The Idea of India (1997)
About two decades ago, a young Cambridge historian embarked upon an ambitious project—to tell the world what India means. For all that, Khilnani’s The Idea of India was a slim volume. But the ideas discussed—why India didn’t balkanise after Independence, Nehru’s vision of a secular and diverse democracy and the deep-rooted cultural integrity of Indians—were so distilled and lucid that the book was a runaway success. An essential book to understand modern India.
The God of Small Things (1997)
It’s not just the small things, wrapped in sumptuous—some say, overwrought—prose that mark out the ’97 Booker Prize winner, but also the relentless intrusions of the big things into life in sleepy Aymenem: caste, class, religion, gender, high politics. Arundhati Roy’s debut novel follows, anachronically, the childhood experiences and traumas of twins Rahel and Estha, who chafe under the tyranny of the ‘Love Laws’.
The Inheritance of Loss (2006)
A poignant indictment of the globalised world and facile, middle-class multiculturalism. Set in the ’80s but painfully relevant today, Kiran Desai’s second novel explores the parallel lives of the latter-day brown sahib in India—exemplified by the character of the retired judge—and the Indian migrant in the West, exploring the alienation and even the loathing such people feel for, and inspire in, those around them.
The White Tiger (2008)
The new, bold, nasty, entrepreneurial India comes roaring to the fore in Aravind Adiga’s Booker Prize-winning debut—but set against the backdrop of a feudal hell whose chains our protagonist, Balram, can only escape by turning to crime through an act he justifies as class warfare; he then rises to become a self-made Bangalore tycoon with disturbing parallels to the very overlords he rebelled against.
The Sea of Poppies (2008)
It is 1838; a socio-political landscape scarred by ruinous poppy cultivation in Bengal and Bihar aimed for the Chinese opium market and the dispatch of indentured labour for sugar plantations to the far corners of the world. Through this march Ghosh’s cast of eccentrics, rascals, misfits and innocents, in an entire cosmopolitan world of custom and culture enlivened in a unique lingo—Bengali, Hindi, English and their various pidgins and argot put under the inspired pestle of the novelist. Before them, on the dark waters of the Bay of Bengal, lies the Ibis.
The Evererst Hotel: A Calendar (1998)
I. Allan Sealy
After his spectacular debut with The Trotter-Nama, Irwin Allan Sealy meandered through the Indians writing in the English landscape for the next decade. His really is a unique voice—languorous prose, quirky characters, surprising twists—desi and yet a universal sensibility. Then came Everest Hotel, the unsettling story about the goings-on at The Everest, a hotel of past glory in the foothills of the Himalayas. It had Sealy’s signature unpredictable characters, quiet characters, elegant prose and an undercurrent of extreme unease.
Unaccustomed Earth (2008)
More of us are immigrants now, and the inevitable manicure of our core identities—the careful measuring, opening up, holding back…these stratagems are Lahiri’s domain. Lahiri’s second book of stories explores her world of immigrants in the US—a widower father’s new, secret life; a stranger’s arrival and his impact on an immigrant family; the baleful influence of a difficult brother…. In prose burnished to a shine, Lahiri whispers about the lives, loves and hidden sorrows of this Indian tribe transplanted to a foreign land.
Susanna’s Seven Husbands (2011)
Ever since Rusty made his untrammelled appearance in The Room on The Roof (1956), Bond’s fiction—as limpidly clear as the cold mountain air, as pellucid as a tarn—has been wildly popular Indian classics. We’ve all shared in Rusty’s wanderings, amused by a gallery of eccentrics and spooked by hauntings. Evil intrudes, but is blown away by a gust of good-natured humour. A perfect example is Susanna, a femme fatale, seen through the lovelorn eyes of an admirer.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity (2012)
A true story with the qualities of a great work of fiction, Katherine Boo’s narrative of the underside of ‘Shining India’ was gestated over the course of her three-year stay in the very Mumbai slum she writes of. Drawing penetrating pen-portraits of real acquaintances, she dives into their dreams and the injustices they face in an arbitrary system; the result is a work of deep pathos.
Five Point Someone (2004)
Dialogue rattles as if spoken by marionettes, motives are as fleshed out as in the funnies and narrative structure is a rickety frame barely supporting the plot. But hark! Bhagat takes credit for seducing lakhs by his insight into the realities of urban India, readers who otherwise wouldn’t have picked up a book. This, Bhagat’s breakthrough, million-seller book, is about the experience of three disgruntled IIT students out to tame the system.
White Mughals (2002)
Much before fishing fleets of ‘memsahibs’ descended on India and made racist snoots of ‘sahibs’, before the 1857 uprising burnt some bridges, Britishers mingled freely with ‘natives’, glorying in the older civilisation, adopting its garbs and customs, taking Indian wives and mistresses and siring the first generation of Anglo-Indians. Men like Capt James Kirkpatrick, Charles Stuart Thomas Metcalfe and their world is the one that Dalrymple describes in his astutely researched history.
The Emperor of All Maladies (2010)
Speak the word, and a chill goes down the spine. For most of us, cancer denotes a veritable death warrant—a descent into suffering. In this celebrated ‘biography’, Mukherjee, an oncologist, records mankind’s undying struggle against this implacably cunning, formidable foe. In hair-raisingly beautiful prose, he records our deathly contact with cancer—in myth and folklore, in medical science and in common lives. This is a thrilling tale of the strife to survive, of ingenuity, resilience and a hopeful future.
Beyond Belief (1998)
In Among the Believers (1981), Naipaul dove into the Mohameddan traditions of Indonesia, Iran, Pakistan and Malaysia. He again turned his gimlet eye and piercing intellect to these nations, for “Islamic excursions among the converted peoples”. In masterful, measured, contemplative prose, Naipaul seeks to uncover in these “stories” the “neurosis and nihilism” seething beneath the surface, and Muslim customs chafing against ancient ones. This is late, great Naipaul, one who exhorts us not to look for conclusions, only complex patterns, not the xenophobic caricature he became later.
The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere (2014)
Iyer’s quiet, meditative presence in the art of travel-writing, and his quietly serene prose has for long marked him out amongst a herd of hustle bustle. It comes as no surprise that he should write a paean to the wise pleasures of solitude and its exemplary practitioners—Thoreau, Dickinson, Gandhi, Proust, as also Leonard Cohen. Part memoir, part biography, this long essay points to inner, contemplative quest as a refuge from the unceasing rush of our lives.
The Lives of Others (2014)
No Indian novel in English has depicted a revolution in all its searing political and personal dimensions than this. The Naxalite revolt in the late ‘60s in Bengal widened a politically fractious landscape and cauterised an entire generation of idealistic youth. Supratik, scion of the prosperous, sprawling Ghosh family, “exhausted with consuming, with taking and grabbing and using”, joins the revolt. “I left the city to work with landless peasants,” he says early on. “My job was to go to villages and organise them into armed struggle.” With him, we descend into the inner workings of idealism, conflict and the revolt’s inevitable devouring of its children.
India’s War: The Making of Modern South Asia (2016)
Indian military histories are uninspiring thickets of strategy and troop deployments. Raghavan’s immaculately researched, swooping account of India and Indian soldiers during WWII is perhaps the sole exception. Not only does he train his sights on campaigns in N. Africa, Italy and Burma, but also on dimly-remembered action in East Africa, Iraq, Iran and Syria. But this book is valuable because it restores the war in the centre of competing nationalisms, British attitudes and freedom and Partition in 1947—all in the light of colonial India’s status as a regional power in its own right. A tribute to the 2.5 million Indians who fought in the war, “the largest volunteer army in history”.
The Moor’s Last Sigh (1995)
Sultan Boabdil bade farewell to his city, once a byword for the cultural pluralism of Moorish Andalusia, with a sigh as the Reconquista completed its lethargic progress in 1492. The protagonist of Rushdie’s novel, a Bombay-based ‘Moor’, traces his heritage from those times to the present, with a great arc of India’s history, from Vasco da Gama to Independence, seen through the eyes of an extraordinary family.
A Fine Balance (1995)
‘Dickensian’ is a word not to be lightly used, except for novels like A Fine Balance, Mistry’s masterpiece about our own ‘Troubles’. For the time is 1975, Emergency is declared; the poor and the humiliated groan under the unfeeling heels of the powerful; India is torn by unrest and injustice. Dina, a widow, Maneck, a student and peasant tailors Ishvar and Om are thrown together in companionship and dependence through this period of turmoil. This capacious novel weaves their dashed dreams and ardent longings with those of a nation limping along towards its post-independent tryst with destiny.
The Argumentative Indian (2005)
From Buddha to Tagore to the nuclear bomb, Amartya Sen’s work is a tour de force through Indian history that aims to illuminate and uphold a great tradition of reason, public debate and scepticism in the face of a rise of chauvinistic sentiment, while at the same time rebutting old orientalist ideas of Indian tradition as exclusively religious, hierarchical and anti-scientific.
India After Gandhi (2007)
Histories of modern India are usually UNInspired aggregates of facts barely melded with cogent analysis. That was amended by Guha’s tome. In spare, elegant style, he endeavours to tell the complex, inter-connected episodes in the lives of many millions, across the immense faultlines of caste, language, class, gender and topography. Events of minor significance get their due; through it all is told the over-arching story of how Indian democracy—free speech and press, regular polls—and its integrity survived gross poverty and corruption, defying the oracles who, from that very stroke of midnight, predicted its demise.
An Equal Music (1999)
Beethoven provides the background score in a novel that will seem especially moving to lovers of classical music. An illicit affair between violinist Michael and pianist Julia, and the looming spectre of the onset of deafness for the latter, provides the core of the plot, while Seth’s novel has won praise for accuracy of its descriptions of music and the psychology of musicians.
Sacred Games (2006)
The book of the (highly successful) show. A modern-day crime thriller that harks back to the ’80s and even to 1947 when exploring the larger forces shaped a gangster, Vikram Chandra’s second novel is an immense, densely-plotted work. Mumbai’s only Sikh police officer explores the last words of a fabled crime lord, while higher authorities play their own games.
In Other Rooms, Other Wonders (2010)
The American-Pakistani is the only author in this list who isn’t Indian or of Indian-origin, but allowance had to be made for these staggeringly impressive stories. Mueenuddin combines a Chekhovian lightness of touch with a Balzacian eye for detail, and a rich cast of characters so vivid that they breathe down your neck—rich landlords, bureaucrats, judges, powerful politicians, but, most of all, poor souls like the homeless and domestic servants. Through them the innards of Pakistan’s feudal system is ripped open. His simply elegant sentences ring in the mind: “And then, soon enough, she died, and the boy begged in the streets, one of the sparrows of Lahore.”