India: A Reading List

A lot of the time, I prefer the company of books to that of real people. I’m not ashamed to admit it because I know I’m not the only one.

I especially like reading books about the places that I am in – its fun to see stuff that you read about in the book, or to have things that you did not understand explained to you by your friendly, non judgemental author.

Here are my favourite books about India:

1. Midnight’s Children (Salman Rushdie)

I ‘discovered’  this guy by accident last year (in the way you discover someone who has a Fatwa on him, has won the Booker Prize at least once, been knighted by the Queen and generally stays in the limelight by trying to go visit Pakistan and India every couple of years.)

Salman is not the easiest author to read, and he has a tendency to  go off on a tangent that shows his absolute mastery of the English language but also leaves the reader hopelessly confused. But Midnight’s Children, I think, is one of his easiest books to read. (It’s also the one that won him the Booker Prize.)

It tells the story of India from Independence, covering India’s most important events after the British left.(But with a LOT of poetic licence.) Apart from vivid descriptions of Mumbai and Amritsar, the book gives a general understanding of India’s thorny issues (Looking at you, Pakistan…) This is how I learnt that Indira Ghandi is not related to Mahatma Ghandi decades after the rest of the world. And also why she was assassinated by her body guards.

He kept me laughing out loud through out the book by mercilessly poking fun at Indian cultural quirks and oddities.

Oh, and I’m pretty sure that ‘Heroes’ ripped off on his plot and characters.

2. Shantaram (Gregory David Roberts)

Lots of Westerners go to India to ‘find‘ themselves. Some of them end up writing nauseating, self indulgent books that are then adapted into embarrassingly clichéd movies.

Not Greg. He lands in Mumbai on a fake passport after breaking out of an Australian jail. When his money runs out and his visa expires, he moves into the slum with his Indian friends. Life happens to him and he finds himself working for the Mumbai Mafia, after almost dying in an Indian jail.

As a wanted man, Greg doesn’t have the time or the luxury to be condescending towards India.  You don’t get that weird attitude that spoils many books about the developing world by Westerners who have decided to settle there.

(Binyavanga explains this kind of rubbish very well here and  an Indian guy vents here.  Also this insane woman’s story.)

He is busy navigating the Indian underworld, and his book is full of interesting characters that smash the stereotype of Indians as peace loving zen masters who wouldn’t hurt a fly.

Despite too many annoying bits of wisdom and pseudo-philosophy to justify his bad life decisions, I thought this book was a really clear view of Indian culture, language and society.

3. The God of Small Things (Arundhati Roy)

This one also won a Booker Prize. It’s based in Kerela, a state in the South of India.  It follows two kids growing up in the 1960s, their terrifyingly dysfunctional family and how rapidly their lives completely go to shit.

This book is pretty heavy – its set in the 1960s, and she really goes into how messed up and nasty the caste system was. It also deals with ‘inappropriate’ love. I was pretty depressed by the end of the book.

Apart from that, it was the first, and only book I have read that describes south Indian history, culture and politics. (Kerela has a communist government.)

4. The Liquid Refuses to Ignite (Dave Besseling)

Dave thought he wrote a book about spiritual enlightenment, but it’s really just a log of his life as a long-term traveller. (Yes, that’s a thing and I met one in real life too!)

He writes about sniffing coke in Japan, getting trashed in Budapest, bar hopping in Thailand (complete with a ladyboy story) and supposedly finding spiritual enlightenment and food poisoning in Varanasi, before supposedly having a life shattering epiphany in Kathmandu/Nepal.

It’s a terrible book, full of fake philosophy and a disappointing ‘climax’. But I included it in my list because his booze soaked journey appeals to the drunk in me, and it has one chapter about Indian ball scratching styles that had me weeping with laughter.

So there you have it. Nothing too strenuous on the mind. Any suggestions?

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