It’s a vast country teeming with stories, how can you possibly hear them all? This much is for sure, what you see in certain Oscar winning movies and music videos is not the real deal. To get a deeper hold on the slippery psyche of the India, here’s a couple of books you might want to pick up to sink in to its complexity. Be warned though, nearly all of them are the size of a well -fed child, sometimes two. I’ll list them in order of page count so you can choose wisely.
356 pages: The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
Slip through the pepper cloaked coconut trees of Kerala, dip into it’s rushing streams, feel the spice dust tickle its way up your nostrils through the evocative descriptions of Roy’s only novel. This book will make you sob in pain and giggle at the antics of twins joint at the hip as their idyllic world is torn apart by a sudden death. A must-read before visiting Kerala, it brings the mannerisms and predicament of its people to life.
360 pages: City of Djinns by William Dalrymple
Indraprastha, Lal Kot, Tughlakabad, Red Fort, East India Company’s Delhi and Lutyens’ Delhi. They all stood where the Indian capital now stands, living on in pigeon holes and strains of sufiana drifting across the terraces in the evening. Watch as the gifted Dalrymple unravels the city, sifting through its architecture, its people and its lore asking if we can ever truly put the past behind us. An added bonus is a thorough breakdown of Delhi’s treacherous weather that’ll give you some great packing tips.
423 pages: Great Indian Novel by Shashi Tharoor
A plotline lifted straight from the Indian epic Mahabharatha and recast with the most prominent political figures from the country’s Independence struggle. Knock off mythology and history in one fell swoop carried on the wings of the Tharoor’s singing prose. The MP returned to Indian politics after nearly three decades in the UN and is no stranger to open criticism of the status quo. You’ll find beneath the puns and poetry startling opinions and though-provoking questions that expose the layers of the Great Indian Denial that is our political situation
544 pages: The City of Joy by Dominique Lapierre
A foray into the gritty underbelly of Kolkata and the saints that call its run-down hospitals home. Rumoured to be the source of the city’s now popular nickname, this book puts joyous leper weddings, kite flying marathons and unadulterated goodness in the spotlight, without hesitating to discuss the dilapidated surroundings in which these joys are borne.
600 pages: Maximum City by Suketu Mehta
The city of dreams delivers it’s harsh reality. Almost overpowering in the intensity of each story, it transcribes one man’s struggle to reconcile with the city he once called his own and delves into its darkest drug dens and deepest political infestations to make sense of a city of wanton chaos. Power hungry fundamentalist rub shoulders with glamour-struck film stars in a city famously said to be built on dichotomies.
672 pages: Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
Voted the best among 25 years worth of Booker Prize winners, this is a bitingly humourous epic tracing the lives of those bone on and around the fortuitous stroke of midnight on the 14th August 1947 each gifted with shades of magic that carry them through the treacherous shifting ground of a massive nation in unrest. Read it for the beauty of the words, and the magic of the characters, and sink into the history of a country too large to hold laced with a sugary sprinkle of absurdism.
1552 pages: A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth
I’d say that a volume of this size can only be for the serious readers out there, but the delicacy of Seth’s words is for everyone. Simple, straightforward and gut-wrenchingly lyrical, he moves at the same placid pace as the small town of his creation. Gently, he ekes out star crossed lovers, religious tensions, filial frustration and the shifting paradigms of a country newly reborn, drawing you deeper and deeper into his characters minds and hearts. This book is immersive and comprehensive and would probably be my first recommendation for anyone who really wants to understand the continuously contradicting loyalties that fuel each new generation of Indians.