A Passion for India Reading List
I love reading about India for that classic armchair traveler reason – I get to learn a lot about a place without making the journey. But India is such a complicated place, with its rich, if often tragic history, its confounding extremes of wealth and poverty and its enormous 21st century vitality – well, every time I finish a book about India I say to myself, I REALLY have to go there.
Here are some books, all novels, about India that have stayed with me, some for years.
But first, take a look at one of Anuradha Roy’s previous books, An Atlas of Impossible Longing. Like other books about India, this novel is about people trying to connect across India’s bewildering divisions of wealth, caste and religion.
In Roy’s novel Amulya, a married man, runs an herbal-products factory. He and his family lead a comfortable life. Then a young woman he is attracted to becomes pregnant by another man, and Amulya helps her place the baby in an orphanage, and eventually pays for his upbringing.
When the boy reaches adolescence and leaves the orphanage, Amulya’s family takes him in. But he’s an orphan, with no social standing of family and class. When the boy, Mukunda, becomes attracted to Amulya’s granddaughter, the older man feels compelled to send the boy away.
The title comes from something a palm reader tells Mukunda, years later. .” ‘(Y)our palm is nothing but an atlas of impossible longings,’ the fortune teller says. Mukunda will take it upon himself to resolve those longings – to find out how, you will have to read the book.
Next up is one of the best and saddest books I have ever read – A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. This long but completely absorbing novel is set in Mumbai between 1975 and 1984 during The Emergency, a period of expanded government power and crackdowns on civil liberties.
There are four main characters, from widely different social castes. Two of them, tailors, are Untouchables, at the bottom of the ladder. Their lives converge at an apartment building – besides the tailor, there’s a wealthy college student, and a woman, daughter of a wealthy doctor, who has fallen on hard times.
This novel broke my heart. The lives of the two tailors seem at times unbearable, and the ending – I’m not going to lie – is devastating. But it’s a brilliant book. Mistry has been compared to Dickens in his ability to make you care – deeply – about the poorest and most unfortunate among us.
Next up are a couple of immensely satisfying novels by a writer I admire so much – Amitav Ghosh, a journalist, novelist and travel writer, with a doctorate in social anthropology from Oxford.
Ghosh has written a number of books. The first I want to mention is 2000’s The Glass Palace.
The Glass Palace is the kind of book you can get lost in. It’s a multigenerational epic about Indians living in Burma and the struggle to shake off England’s rule after more than a century of colonialism.
The story begins in 1885. Raj, an 11-year-old Indian orphan, tells a disbelieving crowd among the food stalls in Mandalay that the far-away booming they hear is British cannon. Within a few days, the British have come up the river and have sent the king and queen of Burma into exile. Raj helps Dolly, a helpmeet of the queen, escape, the beginning of a lifelong romantic obsession.
Rajas orphaned state has helped him learn to survive in a chaotic world, and he eventually makes a fortune in the teak forests of Burma. Of course, history is never done with this part of the world – the story follows the eventual disintegration of the British empire and the horrifying years of the Japanese during World War II. It ends as Burma has become Myanmar, ruled by a repressive regime.
Ghosh followed up The Glass Palace with another immensely satisfying novel – The Hungry Tide. It’s set in the Sundarbans, a group of thousands of tiny islands at the mouth of the Ganges. The home of the Royal Bengal tiger and the Irawaddy dolphin, it’s a wild place ruled by tides and storms, and where settlers must contend with forces both natural and man-made.
There are great characters in this rich novel – one is Piya, an American researcher of Indian origin who comes to the region to study the dolphin. As she ventures ever deeper into the mangrove swamps, the reader experiences the vividness of the natural world through her eyes, but also a mounting sense of danger. Ghosh is an elegant explainer, an acute chronicler of people and a writer with an exquisite sense of place.
Finally, I want to briefly mention a stemwinder of a novel, Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games.
The hero of Sacred Games is a Mumbai police inspector who is also a Sikh. His nemesis is the head of a powerful underworld organization.
At first the book, though beautifully written, seems more like a traditional cops v.s. underworld story. But then Hindu-Muslim violence, which constantly simmers underneath the surface of the city, breaks out, and the whole city is threatened with a much broader and deadlier ethnic conflict.
This book is a long read but the descriptions of the city are lavish. The suspenseful plot will keep you turning the pages. Cops, criminals, religious strife, plots and double crosses, sex with movie stars, and a large dose of Bollywood. One reviewer said Vikram Chandra is the kind of writer who likes to toss his readers into the deep end of the pool, but if you like to immerse yourself in a novel, it’s a grand book.