8 Must-Read Novels Set In India

8 Must-Read Novels Set In India

Travel to the vast, diverse, and dazzling South Asian nation with these 8 must-read novels set in India.

1. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

“Compared favorably to the works of Faulkner and Dickens, Arundhati Roy’s modern classic is equal parts powerful family saga, forbidden love story, and piercing political drama. The seven-year-old twins Estha and Rahel see their world shaken irrevocably by the arrival of their beautiful young cousin, Sophie. It is an event that will lead to an illicit liaison and tragedies accidental and intentional, exposing “big things [that] lurk unsaid” in a country drifting dangerously toward unrest. Lush, lyrical, and unnerving, The God of Small Things is an award-winning landmark that started for its author an esteemed career of fiction and political commentary that continues unabated.”

2. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy

“We meet Anjum, who used to be Aftab, who runs a guesthouse in an Old Delhi graveyard and gathers around her the lost, the broken and the cast out. We meet Tilo, an architect, who, although she is loved by three men, lives in a ‘country of her own skin’. When Tilo claims an abandoned baby as her own, her destiny and that of Anjum become entangled as a tale that sweeps across the years and a teeming continent takes flight . . .”

3. The Last Devadasi: A Novel by Barbara L. Baer

“Kamala Kumari is more than a Gemini Studio starlet: she’s a classical dancer trained in the age-old line of Devadasis, a caste set in place a thousand years ago when girls were first dedicated in south Indian temples to serve the gods and men. From the promise of art and devotion, the sacred dancers fell into the hands of priests who both exalted and betrayed them. Beautiful, brilliant and proud, Kamala struggles to escape the old ways, entangling her Indian assistant, Dutch lover, and his young American wife. With its turbulent passions amid social upheavals, The Last Devadasi takes readers on a sensual feast in the 1970s palm-shaded trading city of Madras.”

4. Swami & Friends by R. K. Narayan

“His greatest passion is the M CC – the Malgudi Cricket Club – which he founds together with his friends: his greatest day is when the examinations are over and school breaks up – a time for revelry and cheerful ritousness. But the innocent and impulsive Swami lands in trouble when he is carried away by the more serious unrest of India in 1930. Somehow he gets himself expelled from two schools in succession, and when things have gone quite out of hand he is forced to run away from home …This is far more than a simple narrative of Swami’s adventures – charming and entertaining as they are. By the delicate sympathetically observed, the author establishes for us the child’s world as the child himself sees it: and beyond, the adult community he will one day belong to – in Swami’s case, the town of Malgudi, which provides the setting of almost all Narayan’s later novels.”

5. A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

“With a compassionate realism and narrative sweep that recall the work of Charles Dickens, this magnificent novel captures all the cruelty and corruption, dignity and heroism, of India. The time is 1975. The place is an unnamed city by the sea. The government has just declared a State of Emergency, in whose upheavals four strangers–a spirited widow, a young student uprooted from his idyllic hill station, and two tailors who have fled the caste violence of their native village–will be thrust together, forced to share one cramped apartment and an uncertain future.”

6. Heat and Dust by Ruth Prawar

“The beautiful, spoiled and bored Olivia, married to a civil servant, outrages society in the tiny, suffocating town of Satipur by eloping with an Indian prince. Fifty years later, her step-granddaughter goes back to the heat, the dust and the squalor of the bazaars to solve the enigma of Olivia’s scandal.”

7. A Passage to India by E. M. Forster

“Among the greatest novels of the twentieth century and the basis for director David Lean’s Academy Award-winning film, A Passage to India tells of the clash of cultures in British India after the turn of the century. In exquisite prose, Forster reveals the menace that lurks just beneath the surface of ordinary life, as a common misunderstanding erupts into a devastating affair.”

8. Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard: A Novel by Kiran Desai

“Winner of the 2006 Man Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction for her second novel The Inheritance of Loss, Kiran Desai is one of the most talented writers of her generation. Now available for the first time as a Grove Press paperback, Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard—Desai’s dazzling debut novel—is a wryly hilarious and poignant story that simultaneously captures the vivid culture of the Indian subcontinent and the universal intricacies of human experience. Sampath Chawla was born in a time of drought into a family not quite like other families, in a town not quite like other towns. After years of failure at school, failure at work, of spending his days dreaming in tea stalls, it does not seem as if Sampath is going to amount to much—until one day he climbs a guava tree in search of peaceful contemplation and becomes unexpectedly famous as a holy man, sending his tiny town into turmoil. A syndicate of larcenous, alcoholic monkeys terrorize the pilgrims who cluster around Sampath’s tree, spies and profiteers descend on the town, and none of Desai’s outrageous characters goes unaffected as events spin increasingly out of control.”

 

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  • Barbara Baer
    August 12, 2018, 10:20 pm

    Arundhati Roy’s "The Ministry of Utmost Happiness" wrenches you from any comfort zone you might have about ‘exotic’ India–the wake-up from Indo-nostalgia. Along with Rohinton Mistry’s "A Delicate Balance", Roy’s novel is both scathing about caste, militarism, jingoistic Hinduism and also deeply moving, with love stories and profound friendship and loyalty in the worst conditions. I know that my upcoming "The Last Devadasi" is mild and soft beside these two great novels, but I also tackle caste in one of its most egregious forms, dedication of girls of the lowest castes who are raped from ten years on.

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THE LAST DEVADASI: A NOVEL by Barbara L. Baer