Five Books to Read Before Going to India

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Selecting only five books to read before heading to India is something of a daunting task.  With a history that stretches back millenniums and more than two thousand ethnic groups, one could spend a whole life reading about the subcontinent and only scratch the surface.  Nevertheless, the books below should prove handy for first-time travelers to India.

1)    India: A History – John Keay

India has one of the richest and oldest histories of any country in the world.  Naturally, this presents some difficulty to casual travelers looking to enhance their experience by learning a bit of the country’s past beforehand.  Generally, when confronted with such a situation, it’s never a bad idea to pick a time period and stick with it. But then the question is, which one?  Probably the best place to start is John Keay’s India: A History.  Even at more than six hundred pages, India: A History only just begins to delve into India’s complex historical tapestry.  However, this enjoyable read is a great way to figure out what aspects of India’s history should be explored more in-depth.

2)    The Ramayana – Various

If there is one story you should know before traveling to India, it is the Ramayana.  This Sanskrit epic details the life of legendary prince Rama cumulating in a war to free his wife from captivity.  The story is ubiquitous in Hindu society with scenes frequently adorning temples, performed as dance, or retold in opulently staged television and movie productions.  There are literally hundreds of versions of the Ramayana floating around (the oldest being ascribed to Valmiki), but I prefer the modern prose adaptation penned by celebrated Indian author R.K. Narayan. His version conveys the heart of the story without feeling like an academic exercise.  And if you have the time and inclination, check out the other major Sanskrit epic, The Mahabharata, an ancient story about a bitter dynastic struggle.

3)    India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy – Ramachandra Guha

Despite its long history, India as a political entity only came in to being in 1947.  The development of democracy and the unification of nearly 600 princely states at the end of the British Raj is one of the great stories of the last 100 years. Democracy was expected to fail in India, and yet, despite a few hiccups (looking at you Indira Gandhi), it has shown itself to be remarkably resilient. This tale is expertly told by Indian historian Ramachandra Guha despite being at times a bit overly sympathetic to the Indian National Congress. India After Gandhi is much more than just a history book, it’s a mirror into contemporary Indian society.

4)    Untouchable – Mulk Raj Anand

Although the caste system in India was theoretically abolished in 1950, it still remains an integral part of society in many parts of India.  Mulk Raj Anand explores the real consequences of the caste system by chronicling a day in the life of Bakha, a young boy who suffers prejudice and poverty as the untouchable son of a sweeper.  At the time of its publication in 1935, Untouchable was a protest against the cruelty of human subjugation, but the moral and ethical questions raised in the book as well as the descriptions of rural life are still very much relevant to India today.

5)    Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie’s 1981 tour de force is the story of India’s independence, partition, and the societal and political problems that subsequently came to the forefront.  Narrated by Saleem Sinai, born at the exact moment of India’s independence on August 15, 1947 (Rushdie was also born in 1947), Midnight’s Children is a historical allegory filtered through the lens of magical realism. The protagonist is endowed with the gift of telepathy and can communicate with other children born in the same moment. He thus embodies the ethnic, religious, class, and political diversity that comprises a united India. Midnight’s Children is still regarded as one of the most influential books penned by an Indian author in the last century, but its prose can be a bit dense.

Bonus: Eat, Pray, Love – Elizabeth Gilbert Shantaram – Gregory David Roberts

Ok, I get it.  You’re on holiday. You want something fun.  But please consider this: What is more interesting, reading about a woman sitting in an ashram with a few flies buzzing around her head? Or a mostly true story set in the 1980s about a slum-dwelling Australian who eventually becomes employed as a gunrunning enforcer for the Bombay mafia? 

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