Going to India for the first time can be magical, challenging, overwhelming all at once. Even though there is not greater insight than meeting new people and experiencing the country itself, reading a book or two prior to the trip can prove a valuable asset in understanding the culture. While out there, reading about the places you visit can also make them all-the-more fascinating. For the seasoned travel reader or the débutants, here is a non-definitive list of the books you might want to throw in your suitcase.
- Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Katherine Boo
Ask anyone familiar to India what is the one book you should read, and most will tell you about Katherine Boo’s journalistic account of Mumbai’s underbelly. Set in one of the city’s biggest slums, right by Mumbai’s airport, it follows its inhabitants and the interconnectedness of their lives. From a young trash picker to a college students, its character are full of colour and provide a deep, emotional look into India’s poorest.
- Shantaram, Gregory David Roberts
A popular backpacker’s novel, Shantaram’s 900 pages will transport you from the vibrant streets and touristic sights of Mumbai to its darkest alleyways, then onto Afghanistan and a thousand more adventures. Inspired from real-life events, the Australian convict on the run paints India in such a deep, precise and lyrical way that you will not be able to refrain from turning the pages. To add to the fun, Roberts published last year the sequel to the novel, The Mountain Shadow, set two years later in Sri Lanka.
- Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India, William Dalrymple
For a more historical reading of the country, anything by historian William Dalrymple is to go by. From the 19th century to today, Dalrymple chronicles the lives of very different communities, adding life and human interest to broader events. In Nine Lives particularly, he follows nine Indians from very different backgrounds, from a Buddhist monk to an illiterate goat herd in Rajasthan, as he met them during his time in India.
- A Free Man, Aman Sethi
Aman Sethi, a multiple award-winning Indian journalist for The Hindu newspaper now working from Addis Abeba, came to the spotlight in 2012 for his debut non-fiction work about manual labourers in News Delhi. In the way Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers provides a valuable insight into the underclass of Mumbai, New Delhi is Sethi’s playground, and the account he gives of it is refreshing, honest and insightful.
- Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie
Maybe better-known today for the controversial Satanic Verses that caused a fatwa to be issued against him by the Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran, Salman Rushdie is nonetheless the author of a dozen works of fiction and non-fiction alike, over a span of over fourty years. His 1981 novel Midnight’s Children is a perfect example of how novels can sometimes provide more insight into a culture than factual pieces. A mix of historical insights and what has now been branded “magical realism,” flows smoothly between fact and fiction – which led to its award as the Booker of Bookers and two nomination as the all-time prize winner for the Booker’s anniversary.