Julia Roberts travels to India and basically does nothing. Boring.
When I arrived in the crazy country that is India in early March 2014, I quickly realised that I had really no idea what this country was about – at all. The only book I had read about India was Eat Pray Love – and seriously Eat Pray Love sucks.
I hated it so much I can’t believe I actually managed to finish it without flying all the way to New York to throw it at the author’s self involved head. Hollywood even turned this piece of indulgent crap into a film – WTF.
Anyways, as I now had no clue what to read to give me a greater insight into the vast and ancient land of India, I decided to ask my fellow travel bloggers for their recommendations. I wanted to hear what books about India inspired them, taught them, and moved them. Books that had changed their perceptions of India, and maybe in some way, their own lives. And let me tell you, the response was overwhelming!
So I’d like to send out a massive thank you to all of the bloggers who contributed, for taking the time to pass on a little bit of knowledge so we too can experience these amazing books. Some books have touched more than one person so you may find a few repeats – but that’s all the more reason to check it out right? If so many professional travellers love it, its gotta be good.
So here I have for you: Books about India – A Travel Bloggers Collaboration.
A Passage to India – E. M. Forster
One of the first books that I read about India was E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India. Published in the early 1920s, this book is set during the British Raj and the Indian independence movement, where it explores the question of whether an Indian man can be friends with an Englishman. What I liked about this book is that it pulled you back in time and tackled difficult subjects that dealt with prejudice and political tension.
While this book may not help prepare you for your big trip to India, it’s a good read and it’ll help you see that while some things have changed in India since Forster penned the novel, other things have not.
(To check out this book for yourself click on the book cover)
Submitted by Audrey – That Backpacker
Shantaram – Gregory David Roberts
I’m sure we won’t be the only people to say this, but Shantaram is by far the best book we’ve ever read about India. Written by Gregory David Roberts, the story follows his true life journey as an Australian fugitive who finds refuge in the slums of Mumbai. Gregory opens a clinic in the slums before slowly spiralling deep into the drug trade and behind bars in some of the world’s most inhumane prisons.
The book is inspirational, exciting and very well-written. At nearly 1,000 pages, you feel like your along for the entire journey with Gregory as he maneuvers through Mumbai’s dark and dangerous underworld. He describes the beauty and chaos that is India, and manages to accurately paint a vivid picture of both modern and traditional customs that still permeate through Indian culture today. Shantaram is a definite “must-read” for anyone heading to the sub-continent!
(To check out this book for yourself click on the book cover)
A second review for Shantaram:
“So it begins, this story, like everything else- with a woman, and a city, and a little bit of luck”
This is one of the first sentences of Shantaram, a book highly recommended for India-visitors and all other adventurers! It was written by the Australian Gregory David Roberts. Although the novel is not autobiographical, it was much influenced by the life-events of Roberts.
In 1980 Roberts escaped from an Australian prison, where he served a 19-year sentence. He fled to Mumbai in India and here the adventure began. He joined the Bombay Mafia, worked as a gunrunner, a smuggler and a counterfeiter, he landed in the notorious Arthur Road prison, he went to war, lived in the slums, started his own clinic and met the love of his life.
Shantaram is a sensational roller coaster ride passing through all aspects of life, love and India. It was truly special to read about the hectic, the beauty and the dark sides of India, while actually being there. In India, I also visited the Leopold cafe, a cafe that is extensively mentioned in the book and was bombed in the 2008 Mumbai attacks.
Shantaram is a true page-turner. It’s colorful, confronting and philosophical, with a hint of humor. It is beautifully written, teaches us some important lessons of life and even if you haven’t been to India, Robert’s novel will make you feel like you were there.
Submitted by Manouk – Bunch Of Backpackers
White Tiger – Aravind Adiga
When I met the love of my life while travelling in India and he starting calling me “white tiger” I thought it was cute. Then I realized he’d recently read the book “White Tiger” by youngster Aravind Adiga about a fairly psychotic Indian man… He assures me it’s because I have blonde hair & a feisty attitude, not that I’m willing to murder to get where I want in life.
This book is an inside look to the “real” India: the castes, the way the poor are treated, the way the poor look at the rich- and what people are willing to do to break the cycle of the “darkness” of forgotten rural India.
A tale of poverty and massive corruption around a young driver in India; this story will make you shudder and take a real look at the people who are waiting on you in India. I’m not going to lie, I had to look deep into my driver’s eyes and make sure he didn’t have any evil plans up his sleeve! Through it evil, the author makes you root for our victor even when he’s lost his morals. (To check out this book for yourself click on the book cover)
Submitted by Rachel – Hippie In Heels
Second Review for White Tiger:
This is a book that both Dave and I loved and we feel that everyone should read it before going to India. It tells unforgiving side of India. The dirty secrets that nobody wants to talk about. It doesn’t paint the pretty picture of the place but tells the truth of the struggle people face each day.
For the people who go to an Ashram with blinders on while being chauffeured around in air conditioned cars or the sanitized tour groups that are isolated from the real India, this is a book that should be read.
Everyone has this dream about India being utopia and often people don’t allow themselves to see the real India. Don’t get me wrong, India is an extraordinary country, but it has its problems and too many people go with the Eat Pray Love mentality that it will magically fix them and that everyone is going around the country in a state of eternal bliss. When the reality is that it is a growing country where the divide between the rich and poor is unforgivable.
Submitted by Deb & Dave – The Planet D
Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie
Follows the story of Saleem Sinai who is born at the stroke of midnight, the exact moment of India’s independence and has telepathic powers that connect him with 1,000 other ‘midnight’s children’ His story is inextricably linked to the nation of India – a whirlwind of triumphs and disasters as modern India grows. This book can be a little hard to get into but if you persevere it is both a history lesson about India and a beautiful, engaging, magical tale
Tell a Thousand Lies – Rasana Atreya
This is a beautifully told, but tragic story about love and life in a small Indian village that highlights the role of women, marriage, caste, colour, religion and superstition in this often patriarchal society. I learnt a lot about Indian culture and, at the same time, it opened my eyes to we take for granted how “free” Western culture is.
This is the greatest Indian epic of the Hindu religion telling the story of Lord Rama and his quest to rescue his wife Sita who is taken by the demon Ravana to Sri Lanka. The Ramayana is an idealized heroic tale that ends with the triumph of good over evil, and also covers themes of love and loss, family relationships, honour and duty all played out by gods, celestial beings, mythical creatures and demons.
The mythical language and names make it a little hard to read at first but it’s worthwhile trying to take in because it will increase your understanding of the Indian beliefs, behaviors and values of their culture a lot more. To them it means a lot more than a mere story but is a foundation of cultural influence. Even as far as Thailand and Cambodia, the creation myths and gods are still major part of the popular psyche today. (To check out this book for yourself click on the book cover)
Submitted by Anna – Global Gallivanting
Two States: The Story of My Marriage – Chetan Bhagat
Many people and publications will mention that a trip to India is likely to involve some degree of culture shock. Of course, it depends on where in the world you come from. But chances are that, even when you travel from and to a different region of India, you’ll encounter many unfamiliar things, different cultural and social norms.
That’s India in a nutshell: one of the biggest melting pots of cultures one may encounter on this planet!
No trip to India, no matter what length, will ever make you understand all the complex layers of Indian society, their rich traditions and beliefs. But for us foreigners, there is one topic that tends to awaken our curiosity and that is “marriage” in India.
I am married to an Indian, so yeah, tell me about it! In a land best known for arranged marriages, what happens when two people fall in love naturally? Bollywood often presents a romantic take on this type of relationship, but the book “Two States: the Story of my Marriage” by Chetan Bhagat does a better job at giving a realistic insight on love, tradition and family ties in India.
Based on the author’s real life (and love story) this novel follows a couple from two different states in India. They meet in college, fall in love, decide to spend the rest of their lives together… but have a tremendously hard time convincing their parents to allow them to do so.
One might think “why don’t they just get together no matter what everybody else is saying?” – and that is why you need to read this book! To exactly understand the complexity of family relations in India, particularly when people from different backgrounds are involved.
The book is a great eye opener, while a fun and easy read too. And because it became so popular in India, they have just released the movie version of it to. But skip Bollywood for now: read the book first, as it will take you on one of those voyages around India that are difficult to experience first hand even when you are physically there. (To check out this book for yourself click on the book cover)
Submitted by Zara – Backpack ME
Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, death, and hope in a Mumbai undercity – Katherine Boo
A great look at life in the slums of Mumbai in this time of incredible change and growth. Not always an easy read, but the author spent a lot of time researching and developing relationships to make it very realistic.
A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry
The God of Small Things – Arundhati Roy
(To check out this book for yourself click on the book cover)
Submitted by Audrey – Uncornered Market (Audrey emailed back even though she was in the middle of Uganda with limited internet access)
For all the non-lovers of Shantaram (discussed above) here’s a few suggestions:
Empire of the Soul – Paul William Roberts.
This is the book I hope Shantaram readers graduate to read. It is about two lengthy trips journalist Roberts took to India, separated by many years; and about how he reconciles some of the extraordinary experiences he had there. Roberts is known for hard-boiled books about war-torn countries like Iraq, so when he writes about his spiritual awakening, it rings true.
Kim – Rudyard Kipling.
This is my favourite book of all time. If you’ve never read it, throw out everything you think you know about Kipling, who was the most famous writer of his time. The book follows the story of teenage Kim, son of an Irish immigrant and ‘friend of all the world’, who travels the roads of India with his guru, an elderly Tibetan lama on a spiritual quest for a river of enlightenment. It is unique and uncanny in its ability to absolutely immerse you into the scene and the story. You can feel the oppressive heat of the plains and the crisp air of the mountains. You can imagine Kim’s excitement about rejoining his friend on the road after a stint locked-up at school. You can feel the old man’s pain as his quest seems to elude him, and the love he engenders in Kim, his disciple. And you will be carried away by the transcendent ending.
Freedom at Midnight – Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre.
On the stroke of midnight, August 15, 1947, India became free. This is the classic book about the biggest event in modern Indian history: the freedom struggle, partition and birth of a nation. You cannot begin to know or understand modern India if you don’t have a grip on its struggle for independence and the larger-than-life players who made it happen, especially Gandhi, Nehru, Mountbatten and Jinnah. The film Gandhi, directed by Richard Attenborough, gives you a lot of the same information, but this book fills in all the holes. (To check out this book for yourself click on the book cover)
Submitted by Mariellen – Breathe Dream Go
Unlike some, Mariellen is not a lover of “Shantaram” – in fact far from it. In her article 10 books that are better than Shantaram she referred to it as “a spew of virulent air, driven by the criminal mind and maniacal ego of its Australian pseudo-writer.”
Well there you have it folks – a list of some of the best books to read either before or while you are travelling through India. I personally can’t wait to download every single one onto my tablet and emerge myself in the amazing world of India’s past and present.
Is there a book about India that you love that wasn’t mentioned? Let us know in the comments.
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