When I travelled to India for the first time in 2010 I became obsessed with reading Indian novels and memoirs of writers who traversed the country. I discovered many Indian writers, whom I continue to adore today, and hold on dearly to the memory of my most moving reading experience thanks to an Indian train and Rohinton Mistry.
Now, as I am about to embark on my second visit, I thought I would update my list of best books to read before going to India.
If you’re planning to visit India soon or just want to moved by sublime writing, I suggest you tuck into these novels!
10 Books To Read Before Going To India
A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
I remember the specific moment I finished this book on an overnight train from Kerala, tears streaming down my face and the old lady in the next berth looking at me curiously.
Still one of my all time favourite Indian novels, A Fine Balance follows the lives of 2 poor tailors and a proud widow whose lives become as intricately woven as the tapestries they work on. Exploring the concept of familial love in extreme hardship, A Fine Balance is a heartbreaking book that lingers with you long after you close the pages.
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
The note I scribbled in my journal about this book just reads: INTENSE!!
The novel centres around a mysterious event in the past, which the reader knows was horrific, fatal and potentially sexual but nothing else. The story unfolds through the eyes of those most affected by it, a pair of twins who were young and innocent at the time but we find are ruined in adulthood. It’s a gripping tale, at times sombre, set against the hypnotizing backdrop of southern India.
Roy has just released her second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, after a 20 year hiatus and it’s been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2017. I downloaded it last night so shall update this post once I’m finished.
Around India in 80 Trains by Monisha Rajesh
This book initially appealed to me as I’m about to explore India by train but I’ve enjoyed it much more than I expected.
Monisha is a Brit journalist with Indian heritage who doesn’t gloss over some of the more gnarly aspects of her journey across Indian on 80 trains. The people she meets along the way are the stars of this story. It will have you craving train chai and conversations with strangers by the end of it.
Lion: A Long Way Home by Saroo Brierley
Despite already seeing film (you’ve seen it too right?) I decided to read this recently to hear Saroo’s incredible story in his own words.
Saroo wound up lost and homeless on the terrifying streets of Kolkata as a 5-year-old boy and was adopted by a family in Tasmania. Lion is the true story of how he eventually found his birth mother using distant memories of the train he bordered from his home village and Google Earth images.
Even if you’ve seen the film it’s worth reading the book as it describes in more detail Saroo’s life after retracing his family. Also it’s just an incredible story.
Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard by Kiran Desai
This book is as crazy as the title suggests. It’s an imaginative, comedy caper about a disillusioned, potentially mad, post office worker who quits his job to live in a tree in the guava orchard.
Using the information he has gleaned from hacking people’s letters for years he beguiles people into worshipping him as a guru.
All the characters in the novel paint a pretty parody of Indian life – the entrepreneurial father, the lovesick sister and the insane mother who cooks up a disastrous storm – and the story is incredibly witty and superbly paced.
I raced through this novel and laughed all the way to the very odd end.
The book that inspired Danny Boyle’s blockbuster movie is imaginatively written with cracking pace and superb structure.
Fans of ‘Slumdog’ will be pleasantly surprised by some differences in the book but may be sadly disappointed by others. Read it and see for yourself!
Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts
I didn’t want to be such a cliché but is a list about Indian novels complete without this in it? Not if the fully thumbed copies in every Indian hostel are anything to go by!
Robert’s embellished (but apparently true) tale of his escape from Aussie prison and consequent hiding in the Mumbai slums has sold 4 million copies worldwide.
This bulky book is an absolutely riveting read; sadly I’ve read the same can’t be said for the long-awaited sequel, The Mountain Shadow, which came out in 2016.
Midnight’s Children by Salmon Rushdie
A bit like Shantaram, this is another hefty tome with a big reputation.
Midnight’s Children chronicles the birth of modern India through the life of Saleem Sinai, born on the day of her independence. Unusual gifts connect all of ‘Midnight’s children’ to telepathic Saleem, and the ups and downs of these special children’s lives are reflected in the political turmoil of India.
I found it a powerful novel that sucks you in despite its heaviness in weight and prose.
For a bit of a chuckle, check out this witty account of an Aussie expat experience in India.
Originally from Sydney, Sarah McDonald vowed never to visit India again after her first visit but her boyfriend’s employers had other ideas. The book focuses on Sarah’s attempted to settle into life in New Delhi – coming up against both servants and Indian glitterati.
It’s a lighter look at life for a Westerner in modern India, which may or may not make you consider moving there.
The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
This well-known novel is about Balram Halwai – a servant, philosopher, entrepreneur and murderer.
Balram takes career progression to a whole new level – and makes you think twice about Indian call centres!
Overall, it’s sharp and witty look at Indian culture that is laugh out loud funny in places and disturbingly scary in others.
Do you have any suggestions I can add to my reading list?
Read also: Top travel literature: Best books for armchair travel
Feature photo by Rathish Gandhi
18 thoughts on “10 Books To Read Before Going To India: Best Indian Novels & Travelogues”
I red both 'Shantaram' and 'The White Tiger' while I was in India a few months ago. In fact, I started each book in the cities/regions they are set (Mumbai and Bohd Goya, respectively), which added to the fun. One other I would recommend is 'The God of Small Things' by Arundhati Roy. Her writing is beautiful and her style unlike any I've ever experienced before.
Hey Brad, I love that you read them in the regions they were set, must have made them even more powerful! And thanks for the tip – I have The God of Small Things on my 'to read' list but I will order it tomorrow now you have mentioned it again 🙂
I'm reading Shantaram as I write and just found your blog through your guest post on YTravel. Great selection of books.I've only just got to your blog so i'll have a look around
Thanks Colin and welcome :)Hope you enjoy Shantaram – let me know what you think when you finish it!
Bookmarking for a future trip to the library 🙂
I loved Holy Cow and The White Tiger! Great suggestions.
Thanks ladies, makes me want to reread them all 🙂
I love this book review. I too love to travel through books in between real travel adventures and/or during them! I know this is an older post but I just finished a book about India that’s worth noting for anyone who comes back to visit this page. “India Becoming” by Akash Kapur tells a tale of the struggle between old and new India. As a reader, I was constantly pulled into the story lines of the characters who Kapur interviews. The book educates us about both the good and the bad sides of India’s growing economy while opening a door to insights we would likely have never known about India unless we had grown up there. LOVED IT! Give it a go if you get the chance 🙂
Samantha thanks so much – sounds like another great read to add to my list 🙂
I read ‘A Fine Balance’ when I was in India. It broke my heart. Nothing else he’s written has had quiet such an impact on me – perhaps because of where I was and what I had seen when I was reading it.
I also read ‘Holy Cow’ at a different point in the trip. I’d been in Tamilnadu for four months as was a little starved of information about the outside world. It is a funny book, but it contains some observations that were very relevant to my situation and I loved it!
Another book I read while in India was ‘A Million Mutinies Now’ by VS Naipaul. It has the most amazing detail of the realities of life in India from a number of different perspectives.
Thanks for the tip Teresa – I’m adding ‘A Milliion Mutinies’ to my reading list now 🙂
Though book reading is entirely a personal choice, but I am afraid the list only contains much hyped books. There are plenty of books like he Songlines by Bruce Chatwin,All Roads Lead to Ganga by Ruskin Bond, Footfalls Of Indian History by Sister Nivedita and many other brilliant books..
I love Songlines and reviewed it in a later post (not sure how it fits here with the India theme?). I shall definitely look into the other books you mention though as I am always keen to expand my reading list. But, as you say, book reading is entirely personal – I noticed you rated Nine Lives as one of your books to read before India but I thought getting through this was akin to pulling teeth 🙂
Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity By Katherine Boo – unforgettable.
Do you know I read this but wasn’t so taken by it. I’m not sure why. I guess sometimes a writing style doesn’t quite gel. That’s just me though, I agree it’s well worth a read 😀
I’m surprised at the exclusion of ‘City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi’ by William Dalrymple. A classic! I read this during my Indian travels last year and thoroughly enjoyed it. Packed with history (skim where necessary!)
I did try to read some Dalrymple once and just couldn’t get on with it. Maybe I’ll try A Year in Delhi now I’ve spent some time there!