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If you’ve been here for a while, you’ll know one of my favorite places to read about is India. I love it. Shantaram is one of my favorite books that I’ve been thinking about re-reading and made me finally sit down and write this list where you’ll find some of the best books set in India.
Whether you’re getting ready to visit or just want to escape through a book, there is plenty here for you to choose from. You’ll find books about life in India, non-fiction books about India, fiction books about India, India travel books, Indian memoirs, and everything in between. The only thing you probably won’t find on this list is older books that would probably fall more into the category of a classic.
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Devika A. Rosamund wrote this memoir when she traveled to India alone in 1976 when she was just 22. She recorded and reflected on her experiences, emotions, and relationships formed along the way. She started her six-week journey starts in Amsterdam where she takes a bus to Iran. From there she takes local transportation through Afghanistan and Pakistan to get to India.
Piscine Molitor, Pi, is from Pondicherry and has always explored issues of spirituality and practicality from a young age. After being on a ship that wrecks in the Pacific Ocean, he survives for 227 days with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. This seems to be one of those “classic” books set in India you just have to read eventually.
Narrated by a precocious child, Cracking India is about the Partition of India in 1947. Lenny Sethi is kept out of school because she suffers from Polio and spends her days with her nanny Ayah, who happens to be beautiful and always draws a big group of admirers. During her time spent with this odd group of characters, she learns about religious differences, religious intolerance, and the blossoming genocidal strife on the eve of Partition.
Soon she begins to learn and spot the differences between Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs while engaging in political arguments around her. While she has enjoyed a privileged life in Lahore, her world is turned upside down when Ayah is kidnapped. Soon she’s experiencing a world of religious, ethnic, and racial violence.
Rashid’s opium room on Shuklaji Street in Old Bombay is full of this and potent air as a beautiful young woman leans across to hold a long-stemmed pipe over a flame. Men around her mutter in their own gloom and drift with their own tides.
Narcopolis captures the rich, chaotic, hallucinatory dream that is Bombay in the 1970’s when there are whispers of Pathar Maar, the Stone Killer, collecting nameless, invisible, poor victims. It’s said here that you should only introduce your worst enemy to opium. The streets are full of stray dogs in packs, hustling street vendors, hookers calling from cages, and pimps watching on from their doorways.
This is the tale of three Westerners transformed by their travels in India, woven together by the master of the travel narrative, Paul Theroux. This book captures the tumult, ambition, hardship, and serenity marking today’s India with the travelers venturing far off the beaten path to discover woe, truth, and peace.
A middle-aged couple on vacation quickly goes from idyll to chaos, a Boston lawyer ends up in the slums of Mumbai, and a young woman befriends an elephant in Bangalore. Along the way, we meet a cast of Indian characters reflective of the country’s wonderful ironies: an executive that wishes he were a spiritual beggar, a young striver with a personality rewired by acquiring an American accent, and a miracle-working guru.
Eric Newby, a self-confessed river lover, sets out on a 1200-mile journey down the Ganges from Hardware to the Bay of Bengal on his 44th birthday with his wife Wanda. Things start off rough, with them running aground 63 times in the first six days, but soon things start to look up on India’s Holiest River and it begins to live up to its reputation. They travel in a variety of unsuitable boats, by bus, and by bullock cart as they become acquainted with the colorful history and shifting moods of the river. I love reading books about traveling long distances in unusual ways and this is one book about India I am very excited to read.
Suketu Meehta gives us and insider’s view of the stunning Bombay metropolis. We get to see the city from new and interesting angles, like the criminal underworld of rivaling Muslim and Hindu gangs, the life of a bar dancers raised in poverty and abuse, and the inner sanctum of Bollywood. We hear the stories of countless villagers who seek out better lives and end up on the sidewalks instead.
This is a reimagining of the famous Indian epic, the Mahabharat, told from the perspective of an amazing woman, taking us to a place of half history, half myth. Panchaali, the narrator, is the wife of the legendary Pandavas brothers from the Mahabharat.
The story follows the princess Panchaali, beginning with her birth in fire and following her life with five husbands that were cheated out of their father’s kingdom. She stays by their side through the years of civil war and exile. We, however, never lose sight of her strategic duels with her mother-in-law, her friendship with Krishna, or her secret attraction to the mysterious man who is her husbands’ most dangerous enemy.
In Nine Lives wee get to explore the way traditional religions are viewed in modern India, showing ways of life we may never have otherwise known. We follow a middle-class woman from Calcutta living as a Tantric in a skull-filled cremation ground, a prison warden that is worshipped as an incarnate deity for two months of every year, a Jain nun that watches her closest friend ritually starve herself to death as she tests her powers of detachment, an illiterate gatherer that keeps a centuries-old 200,000-word epic alive in his head, a temple prostitute that reluctantly joined the trade, yet forces her daughters to join a trade she regards as a sacred calling, and more through this spellbinding story.
After living in India for ten years, William Dalrymple, we are treated to The Age of Kali as he senses the region is slipping into the most fearsome of all epochs in ancient Hindu cosmology: the Age of Kali, a time of strife, corruption, darkness, and disintegration.
Nirad Chaudhuri tells the story of his childhood in the Bengali countryside, youth in Calcutta, and life in modern India through his own self-discovery and fiercely independent viewpoint. It’s a story of deep conviction, charm, and intimacy.
Maya and Zara are going to visit their grandmothers childhood home in search of a chest of family treasures left behind when her family fled for Pakistan during the Great Partition. On their way to Aminpur in Northern India, they become separated and Maya is alone. She is determined to find the chest and continues her journey with the help of an orphan named Jai. This is a fun YA book set in India if you want something a little lighter.
This is Paul Brunton’s story of traveling around India living with, some convincing and some not so much, yogis, mystics, and gurus. Once he meets Sri Ramana Maharishi, he finally finds the peace and tranquility that comes with self-knowledge.
Lin escapes prison in Australia and flees to India on a fake passport and begins to get to know the underworld of Bombay with his new guide and friend Prabaker. They meet beggars, gangsters, prostitutes, holy men, soldiers, actors, and exiles from other countries. Lin spends his time looking for love, running a clinic in one of the city’s poorest slums, and apprenticing with the Bombay mafia.
Two people that help unlock these mysteries are Khader Khan and Karla. A mafia godfather, criminal, philosopher, mentor, and an elusive, dangerous, beautiful woman driven by her passions and secrets. This is personally one of my favorite books ever. It’s really long but SO WORTH IT.
William Dalrymple explores the seven “dead” cities of Dehli as well as the eight – today’s Dehli. He peels back the layers of Dehli’s centuries past revealing a unique cast of characters including a eunuch and descendants of great moguls. At the heart of his explorations is the legend of the djinns, fire formed spirits that ensure the city’s phoenix-like regeneration no matter how many times it is destroyed.
Jenny Feldon is an Upper West Side housewife who finds herself being relocated to Hyderabad, India with her husband. Instead of the glamorous yoga-filled life she imagined, she’s faced with buffalo-induced traffic jams. She struggles with depression, bitterness, and anger as her sense of self and marriage begin to unravel.
Balram Halwai: Servant, philosopher, entrepreneur, murderer. Over the course of seven nights we are told the story of how Balram became who he is. He was born in the dark heart of India but gets a break when he’s hired as the driver of the richest man in the village, his two Pomeranians, and his very unlucky son.
While his peers flip through Murder Weekly, barter for girls, drink liquor, and perpetuate the Great Rooster Coop of Society, he sees his employers bribe for tax breaks, barter for girls, drink liquor, and play their own role in the coop. While all this is happening, Blaram learns how to siphon gas, deal with corrupt mechanics, and refill and resell Johnnie Walker Black Label Bottles. And he finds a way out of the coop that no one else inside it sees.
Miranda Kennedy left her reporting job in New York City to travel India with no employment prospects. She longed to immerse herself in turmoil and excitement of a rapidly developing country. Soon she learns life in Dehli is less westernized than she expected. It’s next to impossible to rent an apartment as a single woman and she has to perch sideways on scooters.
Spending five years in the city, she experiences friendships, love affairs, and losses opening up the world of Indian politics and culture along with her own opinions of food, clothes, marriage, and family. We get to meet several Indian women whose lives she is drawn into along the way. While she sees India as the land of call-centers and fast food chains, she soon learns it’s an ancient place where women’s lives have scarcely changed for centuries.
This is the sequel to Shantaram (but works as a standalone novel) following Lin on a new adventure through more shadowy worlds and cultures. At the beginning of the story, Lin has happiness and love, but soon he gets a call from a friend in need and he has to go help, even if it jeopardizes his love and happiness.
When he arrives, he enters a room of eight men that all play a significant role in the sotry: one becomes a friend, another an enemy. One will try to kill him and one will be killed by another. We met some of the characters in Shantaram but are introduced to new ones as well, like Navida Der, a half-Irish, half-Indian detective and Edras, a philosopher with fundamental beliefs.
Sarah McDonald visited India in her twenties and left with memories of heat, pollution, and poverty. When an airport beggar read her palm and said she would one day return to India – and for love, of all things – she said Never! and gave him, and the country, the finger.
Well, eleven years later she finds herself being relocated to the most polluted city on Earth, New Dehli, when her husband is posted there for work. For her, it seems like the ultimate sacrifice for love and almost kills her, literally, with a double case of pneumonia soon after their arrival. After that harrowing experience, she begins her journey of discovery through India in search of the meaning of life and death.
Isha loves animals but struggles in school. She is sent to the Indian countryside to live with her grandparents where she discovers a Bengal tiger taking refuge in a sacred grove. She knows the shrinking forests mean shrinking tiger habitats and when local villagers discover the tiger, she finds herself in a life or death cultural controversy. Her encounters with tribal people, elephants, and her search for the wild jungle are the sources of her revelations about the human relationship with the natural world.
This is by Paul Rosalie who wrote Mother of God, one of my favorite books. I can’t wait to read this one, too!
If you don’t like big-game hunting/hunting/animal violence, skip right on to the next book.
Jim Corbett is a world-renowned big-game hunter. He killed his first leopard before ehe turned nine and this is a collection of ten stories of him pursuing and shooting tigers in the Indian Himalayas in the early years of the century. Along with the tales of hunting, we learn about the exotic flora, fauna, and village life in this treacherous region of India.
In Nepal in 1900 the single deadliest animal in recorded history began stalking humans in the lush foothills of the Himalayas. A young local hunter was dispatched to stop the now legendary man-eater before it added to it’s 436-life death toll. At the turn of the century and British rule of India tightened, bounties were put on tigers heads.
A tigress was shot in the mouth by a poacher but survived and began her reign of terror. Instead of her normal prey, she moved to something easier: humans. Over the next seven years, she terrified locals and became bolder with every kill. Finally, desperate for help, colonial authorities called on Jim Corbett for help.
Sharell Cook is 30, living in Melbourne with her childhood-sweetheart husband with a high-powered job and plenty of extra cash. But soon it all falls apart and she finds herself traveling to India to do volunteer work. While reinventing herself sounded easy, it’s not, especially in the chaos that is India. Just as she’s wondering if things will ever work out, she meets a man and her transformation begins.
Elisabeth Bumiller spent three and a half years as a reporter for The Washington Post in India. This is the fascinating and tragic stories of the women she met while she was there including wealthy sophisticates in New Dehli, villagers in the northern plains, movie starts in Bombay, intellectuals in Calcutta, and health workers in the south.
India is one of the most difficult places to travel and finds a lot of people saying they’ll never return, while just as many are drawn back time and time again. It is the best show on Earth. It dissolves ideas of what it means to be alive and it’s people give new meaning to compassion, perseverance, ingenuity, and friendship. Experience the monsoon where the Indian and Pacific Oceans meet, track the endangered One-Horned Rhinoceros through the jungles of Assam, encounter the anguish of the caste system, and much more.
Shashi Tharoor shows how the challenges facing the world’s largest and most diverse democracy will affect America in the 21st century. This is perfect if you’re looking for a book on the history of India.
We get to see a series of stories from India’s Westernized elite who are cut off from local traditions, exploring Calcutta, the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad (the biggest religious festival in the world), and the televising of a Hindu epic. Throughout, Mark Tully analyze major issues while sharing the realities of Indian life.
This is the tale of Alexander Frater following the Indian summer monsoon. On May 20th the monsoon begins coming in from the east and the west, meeting in central India within seven or eight days of July 10th. Frater follows the monsoon, sometimes in it, sometimes before it, and sometimes after it, to see the impact of the phenomenon.
At seven years old, Rachel Manija Brown’s parents, post-60s hippies, moved them from California to an ashram in a cobra-ridden, drought-stricken spot in India. We meet a wonderful cast of characters including the colorful ashram leader, the grunting and howling librarian, a holy madman, and a delusional Russian claiming to be Meher Baba reincarnated.
In the late 60s, hundreds of thousands of Westerners descended upon India searching for the magic and mystery missing in the lives. Gita Mehta, an Indian writer, was placed ideally to observe the European and American “pilgrims” interacting with their hosts. Here, we get to see her sharp observations of what happens when traditions of an ancient, long-lived society are turned into commodities and sold to those who don’t understand them.
The spiritual tourist can be found on a pilgrimage to see the Dalai Lama in the Himalayas, blissed out in Germany with a beautiful Indian girl thought to be “the Divine Mother”, witnessing miracles in the ashram of Sai Baba, and searching for the Messiah in the London back streets. No matter what, they’re all looking for inner illumination and awakening. The holy, the lost, the wise, and the foolish are brought together on the highways and backroads of spiritual tourism.
Even though it is slated to become the third largest economy within a generation, it remains a mystery to many Americans. In this book, Edward Luce, a journalist that covered India for years, makes sense of India and it’s rise to global power. In the book, he sheds light on many of India’s contradictions like it’s booming tech sector, which only employs one million of it’s 1.1 billion people. Only 35 million people have formal enough jobs to pay taxes while three-quarters of the population live in extreme depravation in it’s 600,000 villages. This is informed by scholarship and history, but equalized with humor and rich in anecdotes.
Have you read any of these books? What is your favorite book set in India?