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Passage to India
by E.M. Forster

The movie, "Passage to India", with Victor Banerjee and Peggy Ashcroft is extremely well done, but I recommend reading the book first. Passage to India is considered E. M. Forster's masterpiece and was chosen as one of the 100 great works of literature by the Modern Library. The characters are intimately drawn, yet they become almost archetypal. The desire of the westerner to understand the mysterious East proves in this story to have tragic and unintended consequences. There are moments in this book when one can barely breathe. Visiting India for the westerner is almost always a journey to the Unknown. No book captures this better than Passage to India.

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"To speak of his characters as being 'well drawn,' would be crude; they draw themselves, and mainly in their conversation. More remarkable even than his vision is Mr. Forster's power of inner hearing; he seems incapable of allowing a person to speak out of character, and Dr. Aziz strikes one as less invented than overheard. Equally pure is Mr. Forster's humor. His people, British or native, are not satirized or caricatured or made the targets of wit; they are simply enjoyed." – Edward Arnold, The Guardian

"Except for the Marabar Caves – and they are twenty miles off – the city of Chandrapore presents nothing extraordinary. Edged rather than washed by the river Ganges, it trails for a couple of miles along the bank, scarcely distinguishable from the rubbish it deposits so freely. There are no bathing-steps on the river front, as the Ganges happens not to be holy here; indeed there is no river front, and bazaars shut out the wide and shifting panorama of the stream. The streets are mean, the temples ineffective, and though a few fine houses exist they are hidden away in gardens or down alleys whose filth deters all but the invited guest. Chandrapore was never large or beautiful, but two hundred years ago it lay on the road between Upper India, then imperial, and the sea, and the fine houses date from that period." – Passage to India, Harcourt, Brace & World, 1952 edition.

The Raj Quartet
by Paul Scott

These four novels, the first being The Jewel in the Crown, are the perfect background for a trip to India. The colonial period in India sets the stage for the clash of cultures and the many misunderstandings that happen when two such different peoples live in close proximity. British rule had a profound impact on the Indian mind and culture; these books help us understand the remnants of the Raj that still remain and those that were discarded. Wonderful characters. These books are hard to put down.

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"An artful triumph ... (The Jewel in the Crown) goes forward with considerable power and urgency. ...xBesides storytelling, Mr. Scott uses his remarkable techniques to portray a place and a time, a society and its social arrangements, that are now history." – Naomi Bliven, The New Yorker

"Imagine then a flat landscape, dark for the moment, but even so conveying to a girl running in the still deeper shadow cast by the wall of the Bibighar gardens an idea of immensity, of distance, such as years before Miss Crane had been conscious of standing where a land ended and cultivation began: a different landscape but also in the alluvial plain between the mountains of the north and the plateau of the south. ...xThis is the story of a rape, of the events that led up to it and followed it and of the place in which it happened." – The Jewel in the Crown, University of Chicago Press, 1998 edition.

A Fine Balance
by Rohinton Mistry

A Fine Balance takes place in an unnamed city in India in the year 1975 during the State of Emergency. Four characters thrust together are in the foreground, while the great tide of humanity of India surges behind them. A Fine Balance, a powerful and unforgettable novel, reminds one of Dickens or Balzac. This book was a Booker Prize finalist in 1996 and won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in Fiction. It was also an Oprah Book Club pick.

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"A serous and important work ... the product of high intelligence and passionate conviction." – New York Review of Books

"Moumental. ... Few have caught the real sorrow and inexplicable strength of India, the unaccountable crookedness and sweetness, as well as Mistry." – Pico Iyer, Time

"Dina Dalal seldom indulged in looking back at her life with regret or bitterness, or questioning why things had turned out the way they had, cheating her of the bright future everyone had predicted for her when she was in school, when her name was still Dina Shroff. And if she did sink into one of these rare moods, she quickly swam out of it. What was the point of repeating the story over and over and over, she asked herself – it always ended the same way; whichever corridor she took, she wound up in the same room." – A Fine Balance, Vintage, 1997 edition.

Heat and Dust
by Ruth Prawer

Jhabvala Ruth Jhabvala has written several books about India as well as the screenplay for the movie "Room with a View", among others. Her delicate and light touch immediately draws the reader into the smells and flavors of India. This is a short novel, yet very seductive and definitely a "good read." A love story that drops the reader into the heat and dust of India. Heat and Dust won the Booker Prize for Fiction in 1975.

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"Crafted with technical skill as assured as it is unobtrusive, this delicately written novel is, because of its setting and its theme of Anglo-Indian relationships, reminiscent of E.M. Forster's great novel A Passage to India. It does not suffer by comparison." – The Washington Post

"It is a jewel to be treasured." – Los Angeles Times

"Its' amazing how still everything is. When Indians sleep, they really do sleep. Neither adults nor children have a regular bed-time – when they're tired they just drop, fully clothed, onto their beds, or the ground if they have no beds, and don't stir again till the next day begins. ...xI lie awake for hours; with happiness, actually. I have never known such a sense of communion. Lying like this under the open sky there is a feeling of being immersed in space – though not in empty space, for there are all these people sleeping all around me, the whole town and I am part of itx...x." – Heat and Dust, Touchstone, 1991 edition.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers
by Katherine Boo

Behind the Beautiful Forevers won the National Book Award in 2012 for Non-fiction. The award is well deserved. The sights, sounds and hard-working people of a Mumbai ghetto come alive in Boo's narrative. Boo spent three years studying the ghetto near the Mumbai airport. She captures the sad and sometimes comic irony of living in a vast slum amid a bustling modern city. The children, in particular, are unforgettable. The ability to build a life in such devastating surroundings takes such courage and hope. And these people have it. Boo has written a brilliant book that reads like a novel, and for anyone visiting India, and especially Mumbai, it is a must-read.

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"Her research is meticulous and worthy of the most demanding sociologist; her understanding of 'India, a land of few safe assumptions,' is impossible to quarrel with, since the book is devoid of the commonplace errors about the country that litter most Western attempts to understand the complexities." – Shashi Tharoor, The Washington Post

"A modest, missable presence was a useful thing in Annawadi, the sumpy plug of slum in which he lived. Here, in the thriving western suburbs of the Indian financial capital, three thousand people had packed into, or on top of, 335 huts. It was a continual coming-and-going of migrants from all over India – Hindus mainly, from all manner of castes and subcastes. His neighbors represented beliefs and cultures so various that Abdul, one of the slum's three dozen Muslims, could not begin to understand them." – Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Random House, 2012, Kindle edition.

White Mughals:  Love and Betrayal in Eighteenth-Century India
by William Dalrymple

One would do well reading any of William Dalrymple’s masterly books. Either this book or the more recent, The Last Mughal, would be a good non-fiction choice for India.  In White Mughals Dalrymple takes us to the turn of the 19th century.  Although there is a novelistic romantic plot that follows the representative of the British government in Hyderabad and his semi-secret marriage to a teen-aged Indian, the book is also a marvelous study of politics, culture and the historical pushes and pulls of the times.  A delicious way to immerse yourself in the early history of the British Raj.

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"Dalrymple has emerged not only with a gripping tale of politics and power but also with evidence of the surprising extent of cultural exchange in pre-Victorian India, before the arrogance of empire set in ... ambitious in scope and rich in detail.”  – The New Yorker 

“A gorgeous, spellbinding and important book. ...xA tapestry of magnificent set pieces and a moving romance.”  – Sunday Times (London)

"Outside, amid clouds of dust, squadrons of red-coated sepoys tramped along the hot, broad military road which led from the coast towards the cantonments at St. Thomas’s Mount.  Waiting in the shade of the gates, shoals of hawkers circled around the crowds of petitioners and groups of onlookers who always collect in such places in India, besieging them with trays full of rice cakes and bananas, sweetmeats, oranges and paan. ...xInside the gates, beyond the sentries, lay another world:  seventy-five acres of green tropical parkland shaded by banana palms and tall tamarind trees, flamboya, gulmohar and scented Raat-ki-Rani, the Queen of the Night.” – White Mughals, Penguin Books, 2004 edition.

India:  A Wounded Civilization
by V.S. Naipaul 

Naipaul traveled to India in 1975 and this book is a result of that journey.  As usual, Naipaul writes with his own special verve and intriguing style.  He talks to people at all levels of society; he reads the local papers as well as the novels written about the times.  He is truly a genius at discovering the warp and weft of the contemporary and its intersection with history.  Marvelous visual descriptions of people and places.  Once you have read one of Naipaul’s books (even when he is terribly curmudgeonly) you will be hooked. 

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"Typically Naipaul – brilliantly lucid, terse, with something hardbitten yet resigned in the emotional background.”  – The New York Times Book Review

 

“A deep pleasure to read. ...xAdventurous, inquiring, observant, penetrating, intelligent.”  – The Washington Post Book World

“Indian history telescopes easily; and in India this time, in a northern city, I was to meet a young man, a civil servant, who said his Arab ancestors had come to India eight centuries before, during the great Islamic push of the twelfth century.  When I asked where he lived, he said, ‘My family has been living in Delhi for five hundred years.’  And what in Europe would have sounded like boasting wasn’t boasting in India.” – India: A Wounded Civilization, Vintage Books, 2003 edition. 

City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi
by William Dalrymple 

William Dalrymple is becoming my favorite writer on India. City of Djinns is a marvelous tour through the color, people, and history of Delhi. The author has a way of bringing you up close to the unique characters he meets while trying to understand this complex and chaotic city. His landlady, Mrs. Puri, is a truly funny and memorable soul. This book is just plain fun to read. Read it before you to go Delhi. Many places he mentions sound intriguing to visit.

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“Delightful … Surely one of the funniest books about India.” – Times Literary Supplement

“Delhi has a richly layered past, and Dalrymple deftly peels away each layer to reveal how the city came to be what it is today. “ – Library Journal

 

“The flat perched at the top of the house, little more than a lean-to riveted to Mrs. Puri’s ceiling. The stairwell exuded sticky, airless September heat; the roof as thin as corrugated iron. Inside we were greeted by a scene from Great Expectations: a thick pall of dust on every surface, a family of sparrows nesting in the blinds and a fleece of old cobwebs – great arbours of spider silk arching the corner walls. Mrs. Puri stood at the doorway, a small bent figure in a salwar kameez. ‘The last tenant did not go out much,’ she said.xxOur landlady, although a grandmother, soon proved herself to be a formidable woman.” – City of Djinns, Penguin, 2003 edition.

The Hindus: An Alternative History
by Wendy Doniger

Wendy Doniger is a true scholar. A professor of religious studies at the University of Chicago, Doniger has written several books on Hinduism. This book was recently banned in India, the publisher, Penguin India, withdrawing it from publication. I had recently returned from India, heard about the book, and downloaded it onto my e-reader. It is hard for me to understand why this book upsets conservative Hindus. It introduced me to the complexity and multiplicity of the myth and stories of the gods throughout India’s history. Doniger begins with the Vedas (passed orally) and continues on through the later great works of Indian literature and mythology. There is no doubt this is an overwhelming book, not a light quick read. But if you take it a little bite at a time you will be rewarded. If you become interested in her work I also read On Hinduism. Here she covers some of the same ground in a series of short essays.  

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“Wendy Doniger’s erudite ‘alternative history’ shouldn’t be anyone’s introduction to Hinduism. But once you’ve learned the basics about this most spiritual of cultures, don’t miss this equivalent of a brilliant graduate course from a feisty and exhilarating teacher.” – Michael Direda, The Washington Post

“With a readability that does not undermine its scholarliness, The Hindus marshalls significant historical and textual detail to establish the undeniable multiplicity not only of Hindu beliefs, but also of religious texts.” – Priyamvada Gopal, The Guardian

“The so-called central ideas of Hinduism – such as karma, dharma, samsara – arise at particular moments in Indian history, for particular reasons, and then continue to be alive, which is to say, to change. They remain central, but what precisely they are and, more important, what the people who believe in them are supposed to do about them differ in each era and, within each era, from gender to gender, caste to caste. And many new ideas arise either to replace or, more often, in Hinduism, to supplement or qualify earlier ideas.xxThe Hindu sense of time is intense; the importance of time as an agency of change, the sense that things that happen in the past come to fruition at a particular moment – now – pervades the great history called the Mahabharata.” – The Hindus, Penguin Books, 2009 edition.  

Twilight in Delhi
by Ahmed Ali

Ahmed Ali writes in the introduction to Twilight in Delhi: “ … my purpose in writing the novel was to depict a phase of our national life and the decay of a whole culture, a particular mode of thought and living, values now dead and gone before our eyes.” And so he does. The life of the average Muslim in Delhi during the time of the British Raj is delicately and poetically portrayed. This atmospheric novel is filled with domestic strife, fascinating characters, and snippets of Muslim poetry the characters seem to always have at the tip of their tongues. Although at times a bit awkwardly written, you can’t get a better take on old Delhi than this book. If you travel to Delhi you will be walking (or being chaotically driven) through many of the streets in Old Delhi that are mentioned in the book.  

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“It is beautifully written and very moving … At the end one has a poignant feeling that poetry and daily life have got parted, and will never come together again.” – E.M. Forster

“The writing produces a curiously pictorial effect, yet is itself as clear as water. The end, where innocence is drowned by experience, is intensely moving.” – Edwin Muir, The Listener

“Night envelops the city, covering it like a blanket. In the dim starlight roofs and houses and by-lanes lie asleep, wrapped in a restless slumber, breathing heavily as the heat becomes oppressive or shoots through the body like pain. In the courtyards, on the roofs, in the by-lanes, on the roads, men sleep on bare beds, half naked, tired after the sore day’s labor. A few still walk on the otherwise deserted roads, hand in hand, talking; and some have jasmine garlands in their hands. The smell from the flowers escapes, scents a few yards of air around them and dies smothered by the heat.” – Twilight in Delhi, New Directions, 1994 edition.  
 

Midnight’s Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India’s Partition
by Nisid Hajari

Having traveled to both India and Pakistan, I have always wondered at the diversity and multiplicity of peoples and religions. This book is a history of the horrors and violence that fell upon the land during and after Partition. Hajari describes how Pakistan was founded, how the country of India was divided between the two countries, and the unique personalities of the two leaders, Jinnah and Nehru. He also is very clear about the implications of this continuing tragedy with these two nuclear-armed countries facing each other across disputed borders. I could not put this book down. It reads well and the author has not overloaded us with detail, but given the reader just enough to understand the issues and the times.  

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“Hajari’s book is a superb and highly readable account of not just the mayhem, but the political machinations that preceded Partition … .“ – Ahmed Rashid, The New York Review of Books

 “ … a fast-moving and highly readable account of the violence that accompanied the partition …x.” – Aatish Taseer, The New York Times Sunday Book Review

“The letter had to chase Jawaharlal Nehru across northern India. On 6 August 1946, a clerk in Delhi had typed out the message on thick sheets of cream-colored stationery, the words ‘Viceroy’s House’ embossed on each page in a crisp sans-serif font. That ‘house’ – a modern palace, really, with its 340 rooms and nearly 5,000 staff (including families) – had been designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens to stand atop Delhi’s Raisina Hill as the fulcrum of power in British India. Its delicate sandstone screens and helmet-like Mughal chhatris, or elevated pavilions, recalled long centuries of rule by one set of foreign conquerors; its Greek columns and classical dome those of another. The letter had been dictated by the home’s current occupant, the Briton who stood in for the king-emperor as near-absolute ruler over the subcontinent’s 400 million souls. It was addressed to a man, the Indian, who would soon replace him.” – Midnight’s Furies, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2015 edition.
 

Mahabharata: The Greatest Spiritual Epic of All Time
by Krishna Dharma

I am recommending this version of the Mahabharata because the “editor” has done an amazing thing. He has condensed and translated thousands of Sanskrit verses of the ancient Indian saga into not only an English readable version, but also one the captures the excitement and imagination of the epic. A great spiritual epic, the Mahabharata at the most basic level is the story of the battle between good and evil. The marvelous scenes both in the jungles, palaces, temples and great open battlefields left me speechless with wonder. I am so sorry I had not read this before I went to India as I do believe I would have understood the culture with a great deal more empathy and enjoyment. The author has also written/edited a version of the Ramayana in the same spirit of allowing us to get inside another great Indian classic.  

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“Dharma successfully captures the mood and majesty of a rich and ancient epic and, in the process, does full justice to the critical elements of the complex story.” – The Midwest Book Review

“Rarely, if ever, has an ancient epic received such modern blockbuster treatment. The narrative moves effortlessly …” – Mahesh Nair, India Today

“Ambika peered curiously into the mirror as her maidservants finished adorning her in preparation for the nuptial bed. She had lost none of her beauty, despite months of mourning. Her skin was flawless and as white as milk. Curling jet-black hair framed her oval face and bow-like eyebrows arched over her black eyes, which resembled two lotus petals. No wonder Vichitravirya had been so enamored of her, rarely leaving her side. While he was alive, her maidservants had adorned her each evening, in case her lord had desired to approach her. As Ambika again put on her ornaments and fine dress, her mind drifted sadly back to the days with her husband. After having lain in that great hero’s powerful arms, how strange to now be preparing to meet another man.” – Mahabharata, Krishna Dharma, 2008 edition.