4 Great Books About India

By Tom Cole April 10, 2015

The first quartet of a very personal, not to say idiosyncratic, list.

Some of these books I read a while back. But they pop up for me, in different times and places. And now, just back from a heart-sparking trip to Micato’s India, I present four of the books that seemed to be at my side, glowing in memory, during that journey. I guarantee you that you’ll find at least one of them safely and enjoyably incendiary.

(I’ve stockpiled a bunch of others, including what may be my all-time favourite, and will blog about them as time goes on.)

* If you love India, or are interested in it, or just enjoy wandering in new worlds, you’ll savour just about anything by R. K. Narayan. One of 20th century India’s most beloved writers, Narayan created a fictional town in the south called Malgudi, a kind of less melancholic Lake Woebegone. Narayan’s prose is simple and unwriterly (that’s a compliment from a too-often writerly writer), but you feel the air and smell the tea and he brought his cast of local characters to vivid and sympathetic life. I love Malgudi because it showed me an India in which people love to sit around and chat without being compelled to grind away at self-branding and getting ahead in the world (which, in Narayan’s India, didn’t really need much getting ahead of). I talked about Narayan with Micato Tour Director Puneet Dan and was thrilled when he launched into a little Narayan set piece, “Oh, yes, we were visiting just now with Ramaji, and Ramaji said….”

William Dalrymple

He’s a smart and talented writer who combines a love of India (see his The Age of Kali) with a scholar’s temperament and a big heart…not a very common combination. Any of his many books are worthy of your consideration. My favourite is The Last Mughal, perhaps because of my fascination with the Mughals, the weird improbability of the British Raj itself, and with imperial end-times (check out Ryszard Kapuscinski, the master of this genre). The last Mughal, Bahadur Shah II, called Zafar, was a poet and shy aesthete, guy who would probably have fared well in Narayan’s Malgudi, sitting around the tea shop under the banyan tree discussing metaphysics. Instead the British cooped him up in a tottery palace in Shahjahanabad, in Old Delhi, the last few square hectares of the once-vast Mughal Empire. Dalrymple tells his poignant tale expertly and kindly and along the way you learn a lot about the Mughals and about British India. (Dalrymple is one of the directors of the Jaipur Literary Festival, which has established itself as India’s dazzlingest gathering of literati and, these days, Bollywood luminaries. We were in the Taj Rambagh Palace during our Micato India trip, and the exquisite old place was buzzing with festival-goers and celebrities, including a sadly diminished but game V.S. Naipaul.)

Mary Poxon and Puneet Dan
Micato India Tour Director Puneet Dan and a happy Micato traveller, Mary Marenka Poxon, wife of this blog’s writer.

The Hill of Devi by E.M. Forester

Most lists like this would include A Passage to India, a wonderful book made into a disappointing film by David Lean (tarnishing, unfairly, my memory of the book). The Hill of Devi is a non-fiction account of Forester’s stint as a private secretary to Tukojirao III, maharajah of the small, rather listless Maratha state of Dewas Senior (Tukaji Rao, as opposed to Dewas Junior, or Jivaji Rao). I have an almost guilty fascination for the British Raj and all the maharajahs, rajahs, nawabs, wadiyars, badshahs, and walis of the princely states the British allowed–with supervision–to bump along in their eccentric ways. Forester is an acute observer and reporter of his “bewilderment and pleasure at plunging into an unknown world and at meeting an unknown and possibly unknowable character,” the ultimately tragic maharajah, “certainly a genius, possibly a saint.”

Freedom at Midnight by Larry Collins and Dominque Lapierre

When we were in Mumbai (which a surprisingly lot of Indians still call Bombay) we visited Mani Bhavan, where Gandhi spent much of the 1920s and 30s, writing and planning his non-violent–satyagraha–campaign against British rule. His bedroom in the house, borrowed from a well-to-do supporter, was simple: a mattress, some books, a spinning wheel (the joke among Gandhi’s supporters was that “it costs us lots of money to keep Gandhiji poor”). Not far from Mani Bhavan is Antilia, the science-fictiony, near-insane skyscraper home of India’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani.

I’m not sure what this vertiginous contrast means, except that India has changed hugely since Gandhi’s day (though perhaps no other nation is so in touch with its civilizational wellsprings). Of course, there’s much more to the story of India’s hard-won independence from the British than the enlightened efforts of a man universally referred to as a Great Soul (or Mahatma; he was also popularly known as Bapu, father). In fact, the wider story of that independence is crucial to any understanding of modern India (and Pakistan, and–not so indirectly–the Taliban, for that matter). Luckily, Collins and Lapierre tell the story marvelously; in many ways Freedom at Midnight is the one indispensable book for anyone interested in India.

(This is a Micato blog, and I’m a Micato guy, so excuse me for name dropping, but: during our trip we had lunch in Delhi with Micato India Director Lisa Alam Shah at the historic Imperial Hotel. We sat at a table on the verandah of the Imperial’s wonderful 1911 Restaurant. Lisa told us that our table (the one with the heavy white cast iron chairs, in case you’re wondering) was favoured by Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister. I wondered if he shared lunches there with Edwina, Countess of Mountbatten, wife of India’s last viceroy, Louis Mountbatten. Nehru, the elegant freedom fighter, is known to have had a deep and occasionally physical relationship with the Countess. That’s an irrelevant but tasty bit of what an old history teacher of mine used to call, harrumphingly, “cake history.”)

Upcoming: Rudyard Kipling’s Kim (which could well be my number one, all-time India tome); The Pax Britannica Trilogy by Jan Morris; Salmon Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children; V.S. Naipaul’s India: A Million Mutinies Now; and Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo.

We get a good immersion in the glorious monuments and spectacularly colourful histories of the Mughals and the Rajput maharajahs who were their vassals and rivals on all our private India trips, Splendours of North India and The Soul of India.

Similarly, any trip to India is—if you care to track it—permeated with the still-tangible history of the British Raj and Indian independence. India South to North takes us to Mumbai and Mani Bhavan, where Gandhi lived at the height of the independence struggle; it is a profoundly moving place for those of us who believe the Mahatma was one of the most splendid and unusual human beings of all time. And as for R.K. Narayan’s India, the India “in which people love to sit around and chat without being compelled to grind away at self-branding and getting ahead in the world,” well, that India is still just about everywhere, despite the country’s amazing rush to get ahead in today’s world.

Experience the beauty of India!

Up Next: What to Wear Out There: Safari Packing Tips from the Expert