Any list is woefully partial. After all, India is an ancient (and spectacularly multi-layered) civilization, and it’s a particularly creative one. But here are just a very few gems from a overflowing treasure chest.
Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie is a great, roller coaster novel, with much important background on the end of the British Raj and the beginning of the modern Indian state. (Freedom at Midnight by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre is a solid and highly readable non-fiction account of that mega-historic event in India’s ever-eventful history.)
Beneath a Marble Sky by John Shors, is a high-spirited, semi-historical novel told from the richly imagined point of view of Jahanara, daughter of Shah Jahan, builder of the Taj Mahal, and Mumtaz Mahal, in whose memory he built it. Rich with period detail and dramatic palace intrigue, Beneath a Marble Sky is both intimate and historically epic—and a great favourite of Micato staff and guests.
Speaking of the Taj, The Complete Taj Mahal, by Ebba Koch is hands-down the best book about “the most perfect structure in the world,” as the astute Lord Curzon, who did much to insure its preservation, called it. Many myths surround the Taj, but Professor Koch cuts through them to the glorious facts.
Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri is a collection of short stories by a contemporary master of Indian fiction. Great insights into the collision and melding of tradition and modernity.
Kim by Rudyard Kipling, who was born in India, spent an enchanted childhood there, and wrote about the country with tremendous verve and affection. For many years Kipling was considered somewhat passé, and his imperial mindset can sometimes be jarring, but few writers have so beautifully captured India’s swirling life-force and variety.
Nine Lives by William Dalrymple tells personal stories that illuminate the deep preoccupation with religion and spirituality that make India nearly unique among nations. All of Dalrymple’s books are solidly trustworthy and imminently readable. Another favourite: The Last Mughal, his poignant, expertly presented tale of the sputtering end of the Mughal Dynasty.
India: A History by John Keay. Thick and detailed, but deeply researched (and not dauntingly scholarly). He is especially good on the Mughals, who figure prominently in most Micato journeys to India.
A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry, a Dickensian tale of India in the mid-‘70s, when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared a draconian state of emergency. Pico Iyer, a reliable guide to things Indian, said that “Few have caught the real sorrow and inexplicable strength of India, the unaccountable crookedness and sweetness, as well as Mistry.”
A Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar, set in Mumbai, sensitively and compassionately examines the intertwined lives of two women, Sara, and her servant, Bhima, who unexpectedly find common ground and solace despite the social gulf that separates them. A brilliant look at the intricacies of Indian society, and of the human condition.
So many more wonderful books about India! But here’s a last, beloved favourite: Malgudi Days by R.K. Narayan, a collection of whimsical, deeply observed stories centered around the marvelously individualized people of the fictional little town of Malgudi (readers will find similarities with Alexander McCall’s wonderful African stories, such as The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency). Deeply revered in India, Narayan give us outsiders an enchanting look into the rural, day-to-day Indian life.
The Apu Trilogy, directed by India’s greatest filmmaker, Satyajit Ray. The three films trace the childhood and early adulthood of Apu, pronounced Opu, as we learn in the first words of the first film, our favourite, Pather Panchali. Deeply affecting and masterfully filmed, the trilogy is a masterpiece of world cinema. Another of Ray’s many films, Distant Thunder, provides deep insight into mid-century Indian life, particularly into the intricacies of the caste system.
Monsoon Wedding, directed by Mira Nair. A confession: there are more than a couple of us at Micato who shed a tear every time we see this amazing movie, which is often. Yet, it’s anything but mawkish. Centered around a well-to-do family and its servants, it gives us rare insight into modern India, including a pivotal moral dilemma and a thrillingly colourful and heartlifting couple of weddings.
Lion, starring Sunny Pawar, Dev Patel, Rooney Mara, and Nicole Kidman, was nominated for six academy awards in 2016, for good reason. Deeply affecting, Lion is based on the almost unbelievably true story of a lost Indian boy who, after being adopted by an Australian family, returns to his homeland—with the loving support of his Aussie family—on an astronomically long-odds search for his birth parents.
Gandhi, directed by Richard Attenborough. A classic bio-pic depicting the life of one of humankind’s most intriguing and unusual members: Mohandas Gandhi, called the Mahatma, or Great Soul. To begin to understand Gandhi is to begin to understand India, and Gandhi is a fine place to start. It not only portrays the man himself, but the great cause of Indian independence he fought so long, well, and hard for.
The Lunchbox, directed by Ritesh Batra. You may have seen Slumdog Millionaire, which won eight Oscars, including Best Picture. Like Slumdog, The Lunchbox is set in Mumbai, with the famous dabbawallah industry as a major character. As Micato visitors to Mumbai know, every day the dabbawallahs deliver upwards of 200,000 lunches all over the city, with stunning accuracy. The Lunchbox, in addition to being hugely entertaining, gives us a fine look at the stupendous city and one of its unique occupations.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, directed by John Madden. Breezy, a little sentimental, yet quite well-regarded (the late great Roger Ebert gave it three and-a-half stars, and called it “charming, funny, and heartwarming”). It’s notable for its stellar veteran cast, its Jaipur and Udaipur locations, and how well it captures the Indian charm. And if you’re hooked by the Marigold Hotel, its sequel, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (featuring Richard Gere) will be a bright addition to your list.