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A still from Mira Nair’s ‘Namesake’, based on Jhumpa Lahiri’s 2003 novel. Librarian Ashima Ganguli, played by Tabu, holds a copy of Dylan Thomas’ poems.
A still from Mira Nair’s ‘Namesake’, based on Jhumpa Lahiri’s 2003 novel. Librarian Ashima Ganguli, played by Tabu, holds a copy of Dylan Thomas’ poems.

The Lounge guide to India in 50 books

The Lounge team celebrates this Independence Day with a curated list of 50 must-read books in English by Indian and Indian-origin writers—narratives that capture the diversity, dreams and dejections of the country since 1947

This is a list of books by Indian writers for Indian readers published in English post 1947.

This is almost entirely a note about the books we didn’t include. First, we had to let go of the works in translation. Including works in Indian languages—Bhisham Shahni’s Tamas, Mahasweta Devi’s Mother Of 1084, Perumal Murugan’s One-Part Woman, Vivek Shanbhag’s Ghachar Ghochar, Sankar’s Chowringhee, to name a few—made this list run beyond the scope of the real estate available to us in this special issue. With works in translation being in the publishing industry’s spotlight at the moment, there are several terrific contemporary additions to this list of classics, so we decided to make this a separate list entirely, one that will come to you soon.—Anindita Ghose, Editor, Mint Lounge (Read the rest of the introduction here.)

The guide to India in 50 books
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The guide to India in 50 books

THE GOD OF SMALL THINGS

BY ARUNDHATI ROY (1997)

Arundhati Roy’s debut novel had a dream run—a staggering international deal, the 1997 Booker Prize, and rave reviews worldwide. But even without these accolades, it remains one of the most original novels in English about India. Set in Ayemenem, a village in Kerala, the story moves between the 1960s and 1990s, tracing the lives of fraternal twins Rahel and Estha through multiple social and political upheavals. In her unique Indian English idiom, Roy transports the reader to the heart of a family saga, at once beautiful and terrifying, seething with dark secrets, caste violence and forbidden love.

A FINE BALANCE

BY ROHINTON MISTRY (1995)

Set in an unnamed Indian city during the Emergency imposed by prime minister Indira Gandhi in 1975, this is a novel of Dickensian amplitude. The lives of four characters, from different social strata, crisscross the narrative. Ishvar and Omprakash Darji, uncle and nephew, flee their village and caste violence to work as tailors in Mumbai. Employed by Dina Dalal, a widow fallen on hard times, they meet Maneck, a Kashmiri youth, boarding with her. Mistry’s sprawling plot weaves together their destinies while bringing alive, with brutal realism, the horrors of the labour camps, sterilization drive and other barbarities.

THE COUNTRY WITHOUT A POST OFFICE

BY AGHA SHAHID ALI (1997)

This iconic collection of poems by the Kashmiri-American writer has become synonymous with the rallying cry for azadi (freedom) for Kashmir. Influenced by diverse forms and styles, from European avant-garde to the ghazal, Ali’s poems mourn the loss of home, the devastations caused by decades of militancy, and the tragedy of exile. His anguish continues to resonate not only with Kashmiri Muslims but also with those living in the diaspora, across generations.

CLEAR LIGHT OF DAY

BY ANITA DESAI (1980)

One of India’s most accomplished but underrated writers, Anita Desai memorializes the legacy of Partition in this delicate portrait of a family living in Old Delhi. Through vivid flashbacks, she takes us in and out of her characters’ lives as they struggle to make reparations, come to terms with the past, and keep the fraying fabric of filial ties together. Women play a pivotal role in the plot as a traditional way of life gives way to new values inspired by a rapidly modernizing India.

THE IDEA OF INDIA

BY SUNIL KHILNANI (1997)

Published to mark the 50th anniversary of independence, this scholarly but accessible volume reminds us of the first principles on which the Indian republic was founded. Revisiting the Nehruvian ideal of a modern state, Khilnani examines how the dreams of our founding fathers have fared in the social, economic, political and intellectual spheres half a century on. His analysis remains urgent and relevant to this day, when the Indian state seems to be reneging on its values of plurality and secularism.

THE COLLECTED ESSAYS OF A.K. RAMANUJAN

EDITED BY VINAY DHARWADKER (2004)

The renowned poet, translator and scholar A.K. Ramanujan provides a vital link between our present and the past through his writings on Indian culture, history, folklore and philology. His essays, in particular, help us navigate the knottiest questions of identity and belonging. Pieces like Is There An Indian Way Of Thinking and Three Hundred Ramayanas have become classics in their own right, opening our eyes to the rich multiplicity of cultures and literatures that form the foundation of Indian civilization.

A CORNER OF A FOREIGN FIELD

BY RAMACHANDRA GUHA (2002)

Guha’s book answers the question posed in the preface: “How did this most British of games become so thoroughly domesticated in the subcontinent?" You could describe it as a social history of cricket in India, rich in anecdote and insight, making connections between the game and the wider politics of the time (Guha also wrote The States Of Indian Cricket, which focuses on the game). Its detailed portrait of Palwankar Baloo, India’s first Dalit cricketer, is especially stirring.

THE FAR FIELD

BY MADHURI VIJAY (2019)

In Madhuri Vijay’s award-winning novel, the narrator Shalini travels from Bengaluru to Kashmir in the aftermath of her mother’s death, to connect a thread that had snapped during her lifetime. But this personal journey also becomes a lens for her to reckon with the long-standing history of militancy and disaffection in the valley, brewing over the decades. The Far Field takes a fresh look at a humanitarian crisis without indulging in partisan blame games—an invaluable perspective on Kashmir for non-Kashmiri readers from a non-Kashmiri narrator and writer.

RAGA’N JOSH

BY SHEILA DHAR (2005)

Indian classical music is a thickly documented field when it comes to academic studies, but not enough exists by way of popular history. The late Sheila Dhar filled that gap with her beautiful memoir-based essays, shining with humour and her keen eye for the absurd. From the mercurial Kesarbai Kerkar to Bhimsen Joshi’s genius, she luminously profiles the greats of Indian classical music in her inimitable voice. Her personal acquaintance with these legends makes them all the more human and relatable.

ADI PARVA & SAUPTIK

BY AMRUTA PATIL (2012 & 2016)

Although existing as separate volumes, these graphic novels are meant to be read as part of a “duology". Crafted by one of India’s foremost graphic novelists, Amruta Patil, these books, with their exquisite artwork, draw inspiration from the Mahabharat. But instead of a conventional retelling of the story, Patil enters the world of the epic through the consciousness of some of its minor, or neglected, characters. This shift of narratorial perspective results in insights that are mesmerizing, thought-provoking, and absolutely eye-opening.

The guide to India in 50 books
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The guide to India in 50 books

SAME-SEX LOVE IN INDIA

BY RUTH VANITA AND SALEEM KIDWAI (2000)

A survey of close to 2,000 years of literary history, this pioneering anthology by two acclaimed scholars seeks to debunk a long-standing false perception. It shows that LGBTQ+ desires go back centuries in the subcontinent—and contrary to the orthodox belief, these feelings are decidedly not imported from the West. Even after the 2018 Supreme Court’s reading down of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, the book stands as a reminder of truths that still tend to get erased.

JEJURI

BY ARUN KOLATKAR (1976)

This sequence of poems by one of modern India’s greatest poets won the Commonwealth Prize in 1977. Equally adept in Marathi and English, Kolatkar wrote these 31 poems in English. Based on a day trip made by the poet to Jejuri, a temple town in Maharashtra, the poems cover vast and eclectic terrain—faith and reason, tradition and modernity, myth and memory intersect in these lines. These are themes that continue to resonate in contemporary India.

SELECTED POEMS

BY DOM MORAES (2012)

Dom Moraes was a versatile writer, as proficient in prose as in poetry, a sharp journalist, entertaining raconteur, and indisputably cosmopolitan. He shied away from labels and, tellingly, titled one of the several volumes of his autobiography, Never At Home. The rhythms of modern Indian life cannot be felt fully without a taste of his poetry. Among the finest poets of his generation, Moraes was often known as a writer of melancholic verse, but he could be just as funny and scathing when the fancy took him.

BUTTER CHICKEN IN LUDHIANA

BY PANKAJ MISHRA (1995)

Before the advent of the internet and social media, what form did the aspirations of India’s middle class take? Pankaj Mishra’s intimate and endearing travelogue through small-town India is a classic of its kind, painting unforgettable portraits of hope and resilience, soon after India’s economy was opened up. From beauty pageant aspirants to businessmen who dream of travelling abroad, the book is dotted with arresting characters. Despite the gulf of the intervening years, the book retains its freshness and sparkle.

THE SHADOW LINES

BY AMITAV GHOSH (1988)

The 1980s saw an explosion of generational Indian talents in the realm of the English novel, with epochal books published almost every year. The Shadow Lines, Amitav Ghosh’s second novel, can certainly make a case to be considered among the best of the lot. A story about the intertwined lives of two families, one Indian and one British, the novel is a meditation on memory, histories, violence and desire. Through vivid storytelling and impeccable research, traits that Ghosh would go on to refine in subsequent books, The Shadow Lines comes very close to being the perfect parable about India’s confused and violent adolescence.

THE WHITE TIGER

BY ARAVIND ADIGA (2008)

Balram Halwai, a poor, uneducated driver in the employ of a landlord family in Bihar, is an underdog in every sense. But Adiga doesn’t succumb to the easy pickings of making his protagonist a sympathetic character. Balram is as enterprising as he is devious. He might not have read books but he can read people and give them what they want, or deserve. Sometimes, it’s unquestioning loyalty. Sometimes, a bottle smashed on their head. Cynical and darkly funny, The White Tiger stands out for its unforgiving indictment of the various class, caste and social inequities in contemporary India.

AN UNCERTAIN GLORY: INDIA AND ITS CONTRADICTIONS

BY JEAN DRÈZE & AMARTYA SEN (2013)

Although both economists have written excellent analytical books on India’s economy, their joint effort is, inarguably, a classic. At the time it came out, India had seen an outstandingly successful decade of development, one that had lifted millions out of poverty. As primary architects of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government’s inclusive economic and social policies, Drèze and Sen could have recounted just the successes. But as perceptive economists, they investigate the inequality that’s inherent in economic growth centred on private profit and crony capitalism. Their critique feels more pertinent with each passing year.

ENGLISH, AUGUST

BY UPAMANYU CHATTERJEE (1988)

If there’s one mode that Indian novelists don’t try very often, it’s comedy. But even if they did, matching the high bar set by Chatterjee’s dark satire of pre-liberalization India would be a difficult task. English, August tells the story of the listless, navel-gazing and profoundly urban Agastya Sen, an English major who joins the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) because it’s the easiest thing he can do. His life in the small town of Madna, completely unmoored in the strangeness of “real India", and his hilarious attempts to derive meaning from his vacuous existence, make for a razor-sharp study of India’s urban-rural divide, as well as a fascinating Bildungsroman.

CURFEWED NIGHT

BY BASHARAT PEER (2008)

Curfewed Night is a mix of autobiography and reportage, set in Kashmir and written by a Kashmiri. Basharat Peer, born in south Kashmir’s Anantnag district, sets his book between the 1990s and 2005, painting the portrait of a generation that saw the valley turn into a war zone, starting with himself. In deft, lyrical prose, he chronicles the toll it took on the Kashmiris—both Hindus and Muslims—caught between geopolitical crossfire. More than a decade after its publication, it makes for just as pertinent a read for anyone seeking a nuanced view of the conflict.

THE GUIDE

BY R.K. NARAYAN (1958)

To pick one novel out of so many great ones by R.K. Narayan is near-impossible but The Guide, with a little help from cinema (though the author didn’t approve of the Dev Anand-Waheeda Rahman film), is arguably his most famous work. It tells the story of Raju, a tourist guide who falls for a married woman who yearns to be a dancer. The ensuing story, which ends up with him impersonating a holy man, is bracingly modern in its treatment of adultery, gender roles and religious charlatanism—though always with that wry Narayan touch.

The guide to India in 50 books
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The guide to India in 50 books

DREAMERS: HOW YOUNG INDIANS ARE CHANGING THEIR WORLD

BY SNIGDHA POONAM (2018)

Through seven layered, colourful profiles of six young men and one young woman realizing their ambitions in the country’s tier-2 cities, journalist Snigdha Poonam tells the story of a post-liberalization, post-internet India where, ostensibly, the old hierarchies are dying, creating a level playing field for young Indians to achieve whatever they dream of. The stories take on nuance and pathos in their telling—this is not a sentimental narrative about Indian jugaad and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. Rather, it is dense reportage and storytelling that provides a rich glimpse into the constituents of a socially fractured country.

THE FLAMING FEET AND OTHER ESSAYS: THE DALIT MOVEMENT IN INDIA

BY D.R. NAGARAJ (2010)

The late D.R. Nagaraj deserves to be read extensively. Writing in English as well as his native Kannada till his untimely death in 1998, he is widely considered one of the foremost non-Brahmin intellectuals since independence—a worthy successor to B.R. Ambedkar. This collection of his essays on Dalit thought, history and culture is an invaluable primer to understanding the Dalit movement and its origins. It also throws light on his masterly and original reading of the relationship between Mohandas Gandhi and Ambedkar, especially in the context of the Hindutva movement that seeks to create a binary of antagonism between the two.

A SUITABLE BOY

BY VIKRAM SETH (1993)

Like Leo Tolstoy’s War And Peace or George Eliot’s Middlemarch, A Suitable Boy is a sprawling doorstopper of a novel. And like the other two, it brings to life a complex society at a certain point in time and in its own history. Combining politics, culture, religion, social upheavals and the conflict between tradition and modernity with spirited storytelling, the novel remains a fascinating read, not least because of the latest screen adaptation by Mira Nair. That it pivots around courtship and marriage makes A Suitable Boy as much a novel of manners as any by Jane Austen. As a chronicle of a newly independent nation, too, it is as accurate as a political documentary—all of it coming together with wit and humour.

SO MANY CINEMAS: THE MOTION PICTURE IN INDIA

BY B.D. GARGA (1996)

Garga was India’s finest film critic writing in English. In this lavishly produced book, illustrated with iconic scenes, behind-the-scenes stills and lobby cards, he tracked the evolution of cinema in the country from the days of the silents to the 1990s, fusing anecdote, criticism and close readings of the films themselves. Garga is especially strong on the early days of Indian cinema, a period neglected by most writers on popular film.

MAXIMUM CITY: BOMBAY LOST & FOUND

BY SUKETU MEHTA (2004)

Suketu Mehta’s book is not only the ultimate portrait of Mumbai, it’s created in its image: a torrent of narrative non-fiction that’s busy, loud, memorable and unrelenting. Whether he’s meeting Bollywood stars or breaking bread with underworld sharpshooters, Mehta has an eye for piquant detail. Taking in the city’s storied history and tumultuous present, it’s a work as vast, unsentimental and uncompromising as its subject.

SACRED GAMES

BY VIKRAM CHANDRA (2006)

Recently turned into a television series, Vikram Chandra’s magnum opus may look intimidating for its girth, but it moves with the nimble pace of a racy thriller. Set in the Mumbai underworld, this cat-and-mouse chase between police officer Sartaj Singh and ganglord Ganesh Gaitonde cuts through the dark and dangerous heart of the bustling metropolis. Part Bollywood drama and part gripping ethnography, the novel is essential reading for anyone wishing to scratch the surface of Incredible India.

INDIA: A MILLION MUTINIES NOW

BY V.S. NAIPAUL (1990)

A travelogue unlike any other, this book is the last in a series that Naipaul wrote about his native country. Along with An Area Of Darkness and India: A Wounded Civilization, it paints a relentlessly bleak but bracingly accurate portrait of India post-independence. In Naipaul’s prose, there is no sentimental “romance of the east" or paeans to the nation’s glorious culture and heritage—only a clear-eyed view of the challenges democracy faces in India as it struggles to reconcile its diversities within one framework of governance.

MY STORY

BY KAMALA DAS (1976)

First serialized in Malayalam as Ente Katha in the journal Malayalanadu and published in book form in 1973, My Story was rewritten in English by Das a few years later. It wouldn’t be accurate to say she translated it because she made changes along the way. Part autobiography and part fiction, this controversial book remains an enduring feminist classic for its examination of a patriarchal Kerala society through the life of one woman (who may or may not be wholly Kamala Das). It created a sensation when it was published, and deserves to be widely read even today.

AMBIGUITY MACHINES AND OTHER STORIES

BY VANDANA SINGH (2018)

Indian science fiction might still be in its infancy but Vandana Singh’s writing carries with it all the weight and maturity of the science fiction legacy of Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov and Margaret Atwood, while seeing the genre through a feminist, post-colonial lens. In this collection of sharp, sublime short stories, nominated for the Philip K Dick Award in 2019, Singh subverts standard tropes of sci-fi—the space opera, the dystopia, climate fiction—to create original stories that talk of an India that might be, one that we are perhaps inexorably moving towards.

OUR TREES STILL GROW IN DEHRA

BY RUSKIN BOND (1991)

Nobody can make the mountains sing like Ruskin Bond. And he does so beautifully in Our Trees Still Grow In Dehra—a timeless classic which won the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1992. Fourteen stories, part autobiographical, take the reader back to a simpler time when the mountains had not degraded drastically. Bond introduces us to vibrant and lively characters from the Himalayan towns and villages that have inhabited his universe over the years—Bippin the ghost, Toto the mischievous monkey who nearly cooked himself alive, Bansi the tongawallah, and Ganpat the bent-double beggar.

The guide to India in 50 books
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The guide to India in 50 books

INDIAN FOOD: A HISTORICAL COMPANION

BY K.T. ACHAYA (1994)

No other book describes the vast landscape of food in the subcontinent as effectively as this acclaimed classic. Achaya, an oil chemist, food scientist and historian, has looked at the diverse food practices in the country through every possible lens, be it anthropological, literary, botanical or archaeological. The book starts with the food legacies of the early man, accompanied by illustrations of the tools and microliths developed at the time. The chapter on the Harappan spread is a must-read, complete with archaeological evidence and reconstructions of warehouses and storage areas. It is also delightful to come across references to food in literature, be it in the Vedas, Tamil classical poetry or royal chronicles. With chapters on regional cuisine, food in medicine and religion, and the influence of the Europeans on our diet, the book successfully creates a trajectory of Indian food through the centuries.

MIDNIGHT’S CHILDREN

BY SALMAN RUSHDIE (1981)

It’s hard to forget the breathless feeling on finishing this masterly novel the first time around. The Booker and Booker of Bookers winning book covers a vast expanse of modern Indian history, from events leading up to the country’s independence and Partition to the Emergency. Midnight’s Children is a stark example of magic realism in contemporary literature—stretching from Kashmir and Lahore to Dhaka, it presents the story of Saleem Sinai, one with a dripping and sensitive nose, who shares telepathic powers with several other children born between 12am and 1am on 15 August 1947. Rushdie’s style is influenced by India’s varied oral traditions, and the often dark and gloomy events in the book are peppered with delightful puns and humour.

THE PREGNANT KING

BY DEVDUTT PATTANAIK (2008)

“What sounds sweetest, being called Mother or being called Father?" asks king Yuvanashva in this intriguing book. The ruler of a small kingdom, Vallabhi, located between Panchala and Hastinapuri, is a childless king who accidentally drinks a magic potion meant to make his three queens pregnant. After he gives birth to a son, Yuvanashva is wracked by a dilemma—is he a man or a woman? Pattanaik’s first work of fiction, The Pregnant King draws on an ancient tale, which he places within the Mahabharat to look at ideas of gender fluidity in the epic. Stories of the half-man, half-woman Shikhandi, Arjun, who has to masquerade as a woman during exile, and Ileshwara, a god on full-moon days and a goddess on full-moon nights, weave in and out of Yuvanashva’s tale. Pattanaik also questions the gender roles assigned to individuals by society through Shilavati, the king’s mother, who has been the regent of Vallabhi for 30 years but can never be the ruler. This is a magnificent novel of ideas we are still grappling with.

THE GREAT INDIAN NOVEL

BY SHASHI THAROOR (1989)

Clever, witty and satirical, The Great Indian Novel is a feat of historical transposition, nearly as ambitious as the epic Mahabharat it is inspired by. The ancient characters take on the colour and form of their modern counterparts, along with their frailties and foibles. If some of the resemblances are obvious, Tharoor is adept at leaving the reader guessing, often by using a single character as a stand-in for multiple personalities. Mohandas Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Jayaprakash Narayan—no one is spared barbs.

CULTURAL PASTS: ESSAYS IN EARLY INDIAN HISTORY

BY ROMILA THAPAR (2000)

While historian Romila Thapar’s The Penguin History Of Early India is an acknowledged classic, the full majesty of her scholarship and the multilayered richness of South Asian history come alive in Cultural Pasts. The book is a collection of essays published across Thapar’s career, and grouped under nine themes, such as “Historiography", “Archaeology and History" and “The Present in the Past". The range of Thapar’s interests is vast, taking in Mauryan India, the Aryan Theory, the rise of Hindutva, heroic epics, the tradition of renouncing society, and much more. A must-read for all times.

INDICA: A DEEP NATURAL HISTORY OF THE INDIAN SUBCONTINENT

BY PRANAY LAL (2016)

Reading Pranay Lal’s fascinating study of South Asia’s natural history is akin to entering a portal into deep time. The earth we stand on is profoundly old and mysterious but it’s littered with signs that tell its story, if one has the eyes to see them. Lal does the looking and tells an entertaining tale, ranging from the beginning of the world to the creation of humans, and how the subcontinent figures in all this. Indica is simply unputdownable.

INDIA AFTER GANDHI: THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD’S LARGEST DEMOCRACY

BY RAMACHANDRA GUHA (2007)

India After Gandhi, Ramachandra Guha’s doorstopper of a book, is, quite simply, the best general history of India since independence. Published on the 60th anniversary of 1947, Guha’s account begins at the moment of India’s freedom from British rule. Essentially a study of modern Indian politics, the book takes us through the main points of reference, such as Nehruvian socialism, the Emergency, the Mandir and Mandal churn. But he also looks at other, equally important developments, like environmentalism, south Indian politics, Kashmir, riots and much else in granular detail. It’s a magisterial attempt to understand India.

SERIOUS MEN

BY MANU JOSEPH (2010)

Manu Joseph is a literary rabble-rouser, best known for his astute, often provocative deconstruction of all things Indian that seem to provoke ideologues of all stripes. In Serious Men, he turns his satirical gaze on two protagonists: a Brahmin astronomer looking for extra-terrestrial life and his Dalit assistant, who seeks social and professional validation and spins an outrageous lie to get there. Indian writers, Joseph said once, often take an overtly compassionate view of the poor that he finds “condescending". This one is an irreverent takedown of such proprieties, and of the insidious caste system that lurks behind closed doors.

THE NANDA DEVI AFFAIR

BY BILL AITKEN ( 1994)

That a dreamy young Scot would hitchhike to India in 1959 and fall in love with the Himalaya and become a naturalized Indian isn’t very surprising. What’s outstanding is the heartfelt and sparkling story he tells about this love, one that resonates with everyone who loves the mountains. The Nanda Devi Affair chronicles Aitken’s intrepid journeys through the Uttarakhand Himalaya over decades, following thesiren song of Nanda Devi, a mountain that is also a goddess. Aitken collects folklore about the mountain, travels to the perilous spots of its pilgrimage and serves up a paean to the Himalaya that steers clear of any “exotic India" tropes.

EVERYBODY LOVES A GOOD DROUGHT: STORIES FROM INDIA’S POOREST DISTRICTS

BY P. SAINATH (2000)

Journalist P. Sainath’s seminal classic of reportage came as a slap in the face of “India Shining" narratives when it was published in 2000. Twenty years later, it remains a pointed rebuke to any triumphalist notions of “New India". The book tells the poignant story of the institutional exploitation of rural India, a phenomenon that changed only cosmetically once India became a free, democratic country. Through a series of case studies, Sainath looks at the lengths people in rural India go to just to make ends meet, and how a deeply unfeeling state apparatus conspires to keep generations mired in poverty and indignity.

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The guide to India in 50 books

THE PALACE OF ILLUSIONS

BY CHITRA BANERJEE DIVAKARUNI (2008)

Retellings of mythology are in vogue but Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s book never feels like a retelling—it is so compelling and layered that it makes the original feel like a retelling. The Palace Of Illusions is Draupadi’s version of the Mahabharat: from her birth from fire to a lonely childhood and complicated friendship with Krishna, to her marriage with five brothers and her secret attraction to her husbands’ most dangerous enemy. This is a novel about a woman in a man’s world, and her deeply sensual and philosophical journey through it.

ANTS AMONG ELEPHANTS

BY SUJATHA GIDLA (2017)

K.G. Satyamurthy, or Satyam, and Manjula are the central characters of Sujatha Gidla’s book—her uncle and mother, respectively. Born into the Mala caste, she traces the different ways in which her family’s identity was subsumed by it—education, romantic equations, politics and employment. The book also exposes the fault lines within left politics as conflict gripped Andhra Pradesh between the 1970s-1980s. Inspired by the Naxalbari movement to join the Communist Party, Satyam eventually broke away from it, disillusioned by caste discrimination, and helped form the CPI(ML) People’s War group in the late 1960s. Narrated in Gidla’s detached yet deeply personal tone, Ants Among Elephants is an engaging and important read.

RAVAN & EDDIE

BY KIRAN NAGARKAR (1995)

The legacy of Nagarkar, a powerhouse in Indian literature, is tainted by the sexual misconduct allegations that emerged against him during the #MeToo movement in 2018. But Ravan & Eddie, the first in a trilogy, remains one of his most memorable works. Its protagonists are neighbours in a Mumbai chawl, forever linked by a freak accident that resulted in the death of Eddie’s father. Funny and fast-paced, it shows the life and politics of the working classes, and the love and ambitions that bloom within and go beyond confined spaces.

THE SPIRIT OF INDIAN PAINTING

BY B.N. GOSWAMY (2014)

The Padma Bhushan-winning art historian has authored over 20 books on Pahari and Indian miniature paintings. His book, The Spirit Of Indian Painting: Close Encounters With 101 Great Works, 1100-1900, is a lavishly illustrated treatise on artworks spanning a thousand years, ranging from Jain manuscripts and Rajasthani, Mughal, Pahari and Deccani miniatures to Company School paintings. Goswamy leavens his scholarship with storytelling to write in an accessible style that shows us how to “read" each painting. Art historians such as Naman Ahuja agree that while Goswamy’s monograph on the 18th century Indian painter Nainsukh is exemplary, this book is the best choice for this list because it covers the whole history of Indian painting.

INTIMATE RELATIONS

BY SUDHIR KAKAR (1990)

A psychoanalyst as well as a leading figure in the fields of cultural psychology and the psychology of religion, Sudhir Kakar gives us the first full-length study of Indian sexuality in this volume, exploring India’s sexual fantasies and ideals. His sources are textual—from pulp fiction to folktales and movies and proverbs to Mohandas Gandhi’s autobiography. There are interviews with women from the slums of Delhi and case studies from his own practice, all building up to paint a vivid portrait of the many sexual desires and realities in India.

INTERPRETER OF MALADIES

BY JHUMPA LAHIRI (1999)

This collection of nine short stories about Indian Americans caught between tradition and the New World marked the arrival of a literary phenomenon. It won Lahiri the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award. The hard-to-please book critic Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times praised Lahiri for her writing style, citing her “uncommon elegance and poise". In 2015, Lahiri declared that she would write only in Italian, which potentially limits her English writing career to only four books, and makes her debut even more precious.

EM AND THE BIG HOOM

BY JERRY PINTO (2012)

Part autobiography, part fiction, Jerry Pinto’s novel about growing up in a Goan Catholic family living in a one-bedroom Mumbai apartment while dealing with a mother’s mental illness is the untold story of many Indian families, where mental health is hushed up and never spoken about. Based on his own life, Pinto’s deft representation of his community and its members, who speak Portuguese formally but break into Konkani in moments of stress, is another high point of this novel, one of the most engaging works of Indian English fiction in recent years.

WHEN CRIME PAYS: MONEY AND MUSCLE IN INDIAN POLITICS

BY MILAN VAISHNAV (2017)

What makes a citizen vote for someone with criminal antecedents in every Indian election? To answer this question, political analyst Milan Vaishnav marries ground reportage with data journalism, crunching public disclosures of 60,000 political candidates spread across 35 state elections and two national elections (2009 and 2014). The result: a seminal work in Indian political science; an academic study that is also accessible to a lay reader. A sample: “The problem with Indian state isn’t that it is too big," he writes, “it is that it is big in all the wrong places."

TRAIN TO PAKISTAN

BY KHUSHWANT SINGH (1956)

If there were ever a contest to identify the definitive Partition novel, this 1956 work would be, without doubt, one of the contenders. Through the microcosmic world of one village on the border between a newly independent India and a newly created Pakistan, Singh illustrates all the tensions and conflicts of that turbulent time—the forces that made neighbours turn on each other after having lived peacefully in the same quiet village for years. Imbued with a deep humanity, this novel is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the physical and emotional upheaval of the partition of India.

AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF AN UNKNOWN INDIAN

BY NIRAD C. CHAUDHURI (1951)

An unabashed Anglophile, Chaudhuri’s politics, especially his denial of the evils of British colonialism in India, are immensely problematic but that doesn’t make his prose any less readable. For a first book, written at the age of 51 while Chaudhuri was working as a news writer for All India Radio, Autobiography is exceedingly well-written and lucid—even poetic when the author dwells on his childhood in a village in East Bengal. But ultimately, this complex and often bitter work distils all the angst of a frustrated Bengali intellectual who feels cheated by life and nationalist politics. You can hate him or deride him, but you can’t ignore the Babu.

(Compiled by Anindita Ghose, Asmita Bakshi, Avantika Bhuyan, Bibek Bhattacharya, Omkar Khandekar, Shrabonti Bagchi, Somak Ghoshal and Uday Bhatia.)

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