From the cultural splendour of Delhi, Agra and Jaipur to the glamour of Bollywood, India is a fascinating place.
It’s the second most populous country in the world and there’s no better way to learn about its diverse culture and complex history than to read about it.
India has a long and distinguished literary record. The country’s first written works date as far back as 1500BC and its oral tradition is even older than that.
Centuries on, India’s literary culture is flourishing – as shown by the impressive number of Indian novelists who have won the Booker Prize over the past 50 years.
These include Arundhati Roy, the author of The God of Small Things, Aravind Adiga, who wrote The White Tiger, and Kiran Desai, the author of The Inheritance of Loss. Salman Rushdie, who was born in India but is a British citizen, won the 1981 Booker Prize for Midnight’s Children.
We’ve chosen a mix of classics from years gone by and contemporary novels that portray modern-day life in India. Our main criteria was that the novels should be original, compelling and superbly written – the kind of books that convey the country’s distinctive culture in literary form.
Some of our choices, such as Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, shine a light on times of political upheaval, while books like The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota, relay the struggles of migrant workers who leave India and cross the world to look for work. In other words, there’s something to suit all literary tastes.
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‘A Fine Balance’ by Rohinton Mistry, published by Faber & Faber: £9.99, Waterstones
Set in 1975, when prime minister Indira Gandhi declared a state of emergency due to civil unrest, this fine novel is the story of four strangers – a widow, a young student who has been uprooted from his idyllic hill station home and two tailors who have fled the caste violence of their native village. The quartet are thrust together, sharing a cramped apartment and facing an uncertain future in the middle of India’s political turmoil. Shortlisted for the 1996 Booker Prize, Mistry’s beautifully written novel is a literary tour de force.
‘A Suitable Boy’ by Vikram Seth, published by Orion: £9.99, Amazon
Published in 1993, this huge tome – one of the longest novels published in a single volume in the English language – is a much-loved classic. Set in newly independent, post-partition India, it follows the stories of four families, focusing on Rupa Mehra’s efforts to arrange the marriage of her spirited student daughter Lata to “a suitable boy”. The first screen version of this epic story is currently being filmed in India and will be shown on BBC1 in late 2020. “It’s a charming, almost Austenesque story, with a delightfully relatable heroine, set against the turbulent background of India in the years following partition,” says TV screenwriter Andrew Davies.
‘The God of Small Things’ by Arundhati Roy, published by Harper Perennial: £8.99, Foyles
This ambitious debut novel took the literary world by storm when it was published in 1997. Roy had previously been working as a screenwriter, actor and aerobics instructor but within months her book had sold all round the world and scooped the Booker Prize. Set in the southern state of Kerala, it relates the childhood experiences of twins Estha and Rahel, who see their world shaken irrevocably by the accidental death by drowning of their visiting English cousin. Lyrical, magical and beautifully written, it’s the compelling story of intertwining family lives, birth and death and love and loss.
‘Midnight’s Children’ by Salman Rushdie, published by Vintage: £9.99, Waterstones
Salman Rushdie’s classic novel has been feted by Booker judges an astonishing three times. It won the Booker in 1981, was judged to be the Booker of Bookers for the award’s 25th anniversary in 1993 and in 2008 was voted the greatest Booker Prize winner of all time. Born at the stroke of midnight, at the precise moment of India’s independence, Saleem Sinai, the novel’s protagonist, is one of 1,001 “midnight’s children” – all of whom have special gifts and are telepathically linked. Rushdie says in the introduction to the novel that in the west people tend to read the novel “as a fantasy” while in India readers think of it as “pretty realistic, almost a history book”.
‘The Inheritance of Loss’ by Kiran Desai, published by Penguin: £6.99 Amazon
When Kiran Desai’s second novel won the Booker Prize in 2006 head judge Hermione Lee described it as “a magnificent novel of humane breadth and wisdom, comic tenderness and powerful political acuteness”. Set in 1986, it’s the powerful and very accessible story of a bitter old judge who lives in a dilapidated mansion high in the Himalayas, his orphaned granddaughter Sai, who has fallen in love with her tutor, and his cook, whose son Biju is working in New York and trying to stay one step ahead of the US immigration services.
‘Shantaram’ by Gregory David Roberts, published by Abacus: £10.99, Foyles
Gregory David Roberts’s rollercoaster life reads like a thriller. An ex-armed robber and reformed heroin addict, he escaped from an Australian prison to India, where he lived in a Mumbai slum, launched a free health clinic, joined the mafia and worked in the Bollywood movie industry. This page-turning debut novel is based on his own experiences in the Mumbai underworld and runs to a hefty 900 pages.
‘The White Tiger’ by Aravind Adiga, published by Atlantic: £8.99, Waterstones
The enthralling story of Balram Halwai’s journey from “sweet, innocent village fool” to ruthless entrepreneur scooped the Booker Prize in 2008. This brilliant debut novel tells the searing tale of two Indias – one of them Balram’s home village, where sewage seeps down the road and children are “too lean and short for their age,” the other the city of Delhi, with its noisy shopping malls, traffic jams and slums. Look out for the film too – a Netflix adaptation is underway, with Rajkummar Rao and Priyanka Chopra in the lead roles.
‘The Year of the Runaways’ by Sunjeev Sahota, published by Picador: £8.57, Amazon
Sunjeev Sahota’s second novel follows the lives of three migrant workers, Tochi, Avtar and Randeep, who flee India to look for work in England. The first half of the book features sections about their lives in India, relating their disparate reasons for moving to the other side of the world. Randeep marries to secure a visa, Avtar poses as a student and Tochi arrives in the UK on a fake passport in the back of a lorry. The book was shortlisted for the 2015 Booker Prize.
‘The Lives of Others’ by Neel Mukherjee, published by Vintage: £9.99, Blackwell’s
Shortlisted for the Booker Prize and the Costa Novel Award in 2014, Neel Mukherjee’s second novel is set in 1960s Kolkata and opens with the shocking account of a desperate man, who is unable to feed his starving wife and children and murders them before killing himself. This shocking scene is juxtaposed with the story of the wealthy Ghosh family, one of whom has become involved in extremist political activism. A powerful generational story of the chasm between the haves and have-nots.
‘The Great Indian Novel’ by Shashi Tharoor, published by Penguin: £6.91, Abe Books
First published in 1989, this book has a big title but Shashi Tharoor makes it clear from the start that it’s in deference to “its primary source of inspiration” – The Mahabharata, one of the two major Sanskrit epics of ancient India. In Sanskrit Maha means great and Bharata means India. Tharoor uses The Mahabharata as a framework for this satirical novel about the major Indian political events of the 20th century, from British colonial rule through to “the struggle for freedom and the triumphs and disappointments of Independence”.
‘Witness the Night’ by Kishwar Desai, published by Simon & Schuster: £7.99, Amazon
When a traumatised young girl is found barely alive in a house where 13 people have been murdered, the local police assume she is the killer. But a feisty gin-swilling social worker brought in to review the case is convinced the girl has been framed and sets out to prove her innocence. Kishwar Desai wrote her stunning debut novel in just four weeks, driven by anger at the hidden scandal of killing baby girls that still exists in parts of India. It went on to win the Costa first novel award in 2010.
‘Polite Society’ by Mahesh Rao, published by Tinder Press: £14.99, Foyles
If you’re looking for a lighter read, try Mahesh Rao’s beautifully observed and witty second novel, a contemporary version of Jane Austen’s Emma. Ania Khurana is a spoilt, rich 25-year-old living in a luxurious Delhi mansion. She knows everyone who is anyone in the city but she’s bored and in need of entertainment. Following in Emma Woodhouse’s matchmaking steps, Ania first finds a husband for her spinster aunt, then sets her sights on doing the same for her friend Dimple, only to find that the path of true love doesn’t always run smooth.
The verdict: Indian novels
Choosing a favourite out of these 12 extraordinary novels is a tough task but for beautiful writing and characters you really care about Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance is in a league of its own. If books with present-day themes are more to your taste don’t miss Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways. Set in both India and Sheffield, the city where three Indian migrants travel to seek work, it’s an insightful, timely read.