India was high on my travel list for as long as I can remember and this was mostly fuelled by what I read in novels about India. The colours, history and people of India come alive in so many great Indian novels and it’s hard not to be intrigued by this vast and diverse country.
While we were travelling India I vowed to only read books by Indian writers and I was spoilt for choice! With most Indian literature published in English there are no shortage of great novels by and about Indians and you can read about every region and every period in history.
Here is a reading list of some great Indian novels, some world-famous and others lesser known but all give an interesting, real, sometimes funny, sometimes scary insight into life on the sub-continent.
A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mystery
Follows the lives of two tailors from a village, a young man from a mountain town and a young widowed woman as they live and work together in the city. Epic storytelling about their lives through some real-life events in India.
More by Rohinton Mystery
Rohinton Mystery is an iconic Indian writer and all of his novels are worth a read. Try Family Matters or Such a Long Journey if you’re looking for more.
White Tiger – Aravind Adiga
This book was awarded the Man Booker Prize and you’ll find it in bookshops all over India (and the world). Told through a letter addressed to the Prime Minister of China the story follows a week in the life of ‘the White Tiger’ a man from a small village who rises to success. The narration of this book is really unique and if you read it while or after you’re in India you’ll see so much of every day India reflected in the novel.
More by Aravind Adiga
Adiga’s books are characterised by brightly coloured cover art with bold titles so they are easy to spot on any bookshelf. I also really enjoyed:
Selection Day – A father pressures his two sons to be the best at cricket. Selection day for the regional team looms and only one son will get chosen. This book is about love, family, sexuality and of course, India’s favourite sport
Between the Assassinations – This takes place in a fictional city in India and weaves short stories of different characters throughout a week in the town. As with all his books, the characters are incredibly real and engaging.
My Experiments With Truth – Mahatma Gandhi
I, of course, knew a little about Gandhi before I travelled in India but besides some of the famous political stuff I didn’t know an awful lot about his background or career. We picked up a young adults version of his autobiography as a quick introduction to Gandhi’s life. His writing is very formal but it’s definitely interesting to read about a figure so iconic to this country. The full version is 600 pages so if you’re short on time or just want an overview have a look in the kids section!
Behind the Beautiful Forevers – Katherine Boo
Katherine Boo is a journalist who spent some time in a slum in Mumbai. This beautifully written novel tells the true story of some of slum residents. Incredibly interesting, sad and thought-provoking, you'll find yourself completely involved with the characters in the book.
Shantaram – Gregory David Roberts
Although not by an Indian author this book has probably been read by more travellers to India than any other. It’s a bit of mystery how true this story actually is but it is supposed to be the semi-autobiographical account of an Australian man who escapes from prison and finds himself in the slums of Mumbai.
It’s a long read but very gripping and the images it creates of India will definitely have you on the next flight! There is also now a sequel – In the Mountain Shadow – which is good but maybe not as powerful or interesting and the first.
A Walk Across the Sun - Corban Addison
Two sisters who are orphaned by a tsunami get caught up in trafficking, a lawyer on sabbatical from the states get caught up in their case. A quick, intense read highlighting some of the issues with human trafficking in India. The book contains some graphic and disturbing scenes but it will tug at your heart strings and leave you wanting to be a human rights lawyer!
The God of Small Things – Arundhati Roy
Another great Indian novel with international acclaim, The God of Small Things won the Booker Prize in 1997. Set in Kerala in 1969 but also told partially in the present tense as the two main characters, twins, return to their hometown. This book is very poetic and can be quite confusing to read. But it deals with issues such as the caste system in India. I didn’t love this book but it was an interesting read and one you should try if you plan to spend time in India, especially to Kerala.
Lion (A Long Way Home) – Saroo Brierley
This novel about India has recently been turned into a feature film. A fascinating true story about a boy who gets lost on a train and ends up in an orphanage in Kolkata. He is adopted by an Australian family but many years later uses the internet to find his way back to his home village. It is a short read but a very intriguing story. I haven’t seen the film but it stars Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman and was nominated for numerous awards.
East of the Sun - Siddhartha Sarma
This is the perfect Indian travel inspiration for anyone interested in visiting the mostly unexplored North East of India or the seven sister states. This is a non-fiction story of an Assamesse journalist who travels through the seven states of the North East. He documents not only his journey but also talks about the histories and traditions of the various areas and tribes. A great introduction to one of the lesser know parts of the world. I found this book in a hostel while I was in India and saw it in several bookshops but can't find any information about it online. Keep and eye out while you're there!
Backpacking North East India: A Curious Journey
I found this one while we were at a homestay in the jungle of Meghalaya and quickly read several chapters. It’s not gripping literature but for anyone wanting to travel these parts it proves a great resource for ideas, transport options and accommodation. We stayed at some of the places in the book and went along the same routes so it was interesting to read. If you aren’t visiting this area it probably won’t interest you much.
Superstar India - Shobhaa Dé
This is totally different book to anything I’d ever read about India. As a proud Indian, Dé writes about the incredible advances India has made over the last few decades and that for it’s population it has achieved some incredible things that perhaps no other country would manage with a population of over 1 billion. But this was written in 2009 and it was make or break time for India, it would be interesting to read her perspectives on where she thinks India is now and if it achieved the goals it so boldly set out for itself.
Mirror City - Chitrita Banerji
This novel isn’t actually set in India but the author and main character are Indian and it takes place in neighbouring Bangladesh. The story follows Uma, an Indian who met her Muslim Bangladeshi husband while studying in the States and moved back to his country. The story takes place during real life events following Bangladesh’s independence but also follows the personal life of Uma and her friends drawing you into the plot on multiple levels. Again, I found this book while I was in India and can't find it online for purchase.