The Mystical India - Books and Movies
A Free Man by Aman Sethi. Also published in 2012, Sethi’s book focuses on the life of India’s great modern metropolis: Delhi. Sethi’s book is fiercely personal: an author’s journey with a single man, a house painter living on the fringes, as they explore the contours of poverty in one of the world’s most rapidly changing cities.
A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth. A Suitable Boy is a novel that depicts the lives and preoccupations of middle-class India as a young woman chooses a husband from three very different suitors. Set against the political maneuvering of the post-independence era, it unfolds like a soap opera—but with finer sensibilities—and creates a world of involving characters. At almost 1,500 pages long, this enjoyable novel is set in several cities. If you drive from Varanasi to Agra, you will pass by the scene, described by Seth, of a disaster that befell pilgrims there in the 1980s.
The Hindus: An Alternative History by Wendy Doniger. The most recent book by one of the world’s foremost scholars of Hinduism generated sufficient controversy for its subaltern approach to the faith, specifically looking at Hinduism through the lens of women and dalits (the parts on animals in Hindu mythology are especially charming). Its Indian publisher succumbed to the threats of Hindu right-wing activists and had all copies pulped. Sales, of course, then sky-rocketed—as they should. Doniger’s book is rich with humor and insight into one of the world’s most complex religious and philosophical traditions.
A Strange Kind of Paradise by Sam Miller. This book is about you—and Alexander the Great, and Steve Jobs, and every other foreigner who has ever been enchanted or repulsed or enraptured by his or her experience on the Subcontinent. India is nothing if not polarizing, and Miller—a journalist with more than two decades spent in India, and an Indian spouse to boot—captures those poles of experience with precision, exuberance, and love.
India After Gandhi. The History of the World’s Largest Democracy by Ramachandra Guha. This seminal text offers the closest thing to a complete overview of modern India as you could ask for, from Independence up to the liberalization period of the 1990s that has shaped the nation into the 21st century. If this doesn’t prepare you for your trip, nothing will. An insightful look at modern day India, this historical book gives a lucid account of how the largest democracy in the world continues to thrive. Guha’s take on Indian politics post-independence was named book of the year by The Economist and The Wall Street Journal in 2007.
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy: This Man Booker prize-winner is set in India’s southern state Kerala, away from the glamour of Delhi and Mumbai. The densely descriptive novel follows the the childhood experiences of fraternal twins, commenting as much on human nature as it does on Indian politics, religion and the caste system.
A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. Set during “The Emergency”, a period of civil unrest when Indira Gandi was Prime Minister, A Fine Balance is written with beautifully controlled prose. The novel interweaves India’s political turmoil into the lives of its four central characters - to devastating effect. A Fine Balance a richly textured, bighearted novel by Rohinton Mistry that follows two village tailors who search for work in the city during the “Emergency“ from 1975 to 1977 when the government of Indira Gandhi suspended individual rights and democratic elections, resulting in widespread abuses. “You have to maintain a fine balance between hope and despair,” a fellow train passenger tells them—sound advice, it turns out, as the tailors are beset by more woes than Job. Together with his more recent novel Family Matters (2002), A Fine Balance establishes Mistry as one of the best, most vivid and moving chroniclers of contemporary India.
- Nine Lives by William Dalrymple: This fascinating non-fiction book tells the stories of nine Indians following different religions. Acclaimed historian Dalrymple met them all to write this absorbing account, which begins with a Jain nun who decides to fast to death after her friend and fellow nun passes away.
- The Last Mughal by William Dalrymple. ’s detailed look at the 1857 Indian Mutiny, the chaos it wrecked on New Delhi, the brutality of British retribution and the pathetic end of the great Mughul dynasty under its last unfortunate emperor, Zafar.
- City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi by William Dalrymple. When it comes to Indian travelogues, Dalrymple is king. City of Djinns is the first account of the British writer’s love affair with Delhi, where he has lived on and off for 25 years. Written more like a novel, the book follows various figures including his Sikh landlady, British survivors of the Raj and eunuch dancers. Dalrymple’s Mughal series also come recommended.
- Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. Rushdie’s Man Booker prize-winning novel is set against the backdrop of Indian partition, using a dose of magical realism to tell the story of a boy born at the exact moment when India became independent of British rule in 1947. This sprawling, kaleidoscopic account of India is a true post-modern classic. Midnight's Children, which tells of two babies swapped at birth, one Hindu and one Muslim, one rich and one poor, both born on the stroke of midnight at India's independence.
- Those Pricey Thakur Girls by Anuja Chuhan: If you’re looking for something a bit lighter than a Man Booker winner, try this fun piece of Indian popular fiction. Set in a posh neighbourhood in Delhi, the story follows the eccentricities of a retired Supreme Court judge and his five daughters.
- The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga. This darkly humorous Man Booker prize-winning novel tells the story of corruption and class struggle in India, seen through the eyes of village boy Balram Halwai. On his way to the top, he transcends his caste to become a successful entrepreneur but has to take part in some questionable deeds to do so. The White Tiger channels the hilarious voice of a devious Delhi chauffeur to serve up a scathing picture of democracy in India—vote-buying, bribes, kickbacks and all.
- Q&A by Vikas Swarup. The novel that spawned the Oscar-winning film Slumdog Millionaire tells the story of a young waiter who becomes the biggest quiz show winner in history, only to be sent to prison after being accused of cheating. Written by an Indian diplomat, the novel was nominated for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize.
- What The Body Remembers by Shauna Singh Baldwin: Set in the run-up to Indian partition, Singh Baldwin’s debut novel follows the fate of two women married to the same man. Impoverished girl Roop is pleased to learn she is to become the second wife of a wealthy Sikh landowner and hopes she can become friends with his older wife, Satya. Their relationship turns out to be far more complex than she had thought.
- A Passage to India by E.M. Forster. When Adela Quested and her elderly companion Mrs Moore arrive in the Indian town of Chandrapore, they quickly feel trapped by its insular and prejudiced 'Anglo-Indian' community. Determined to escape the parochial English enclave and explore the 'real India', they seek the guidance of the charming and mercurial Dr Aziz, a cultivated Indian Muslim. But a mysterious incident occurs while they are exploring the Marabar caves with Aziz, and the well-respected doctor soon finds himself at the centre of a scandal that rouses violent passions among both the British and their Indian subjects. A masterly portrait of a society in the grip of imperialism, A Passage to India compellingly depicts the fate of individuals caught between the great political and cultural conflicts of the modern world. In his introduction, Pankaj Mishra outlines Forster's complex engagement with Indian society and culture. This edition reproduces the Abinger text and notes, and also includes four of Forster's essays on India, a chronology and further reading.
- The Jewel in the Crown by Paul Scott that begins his Raj Quartet. The four-volume novel sequence of the Quartet are set during the final days of the British Raj in India during World War II. The novel is written in the form of interviews and reports of conversations or research and other portions are in the form of letters (epistolary form) or diary entries.
- English, August by Upamanyu Chatterjee, follows a confused, morose, insidiously funny young man to an Indian Civil Service posting in the provincial backwater of Madna where, almost in spite of himself, he sees deeper into the nature of India with both its glories and absurdities. Agastya Sen, known to friends by the English name August, is a child of the Indian elite. His friends go to Yale and Harvard. August himself has just landed a prize government job. The job takes him to Madna, “the hottest town in India,” deep in the sticks. There he finds himself surrounded by incompetents and cranks, time wasters, bureaucrats, and crazies. What to do? Get stoned, shirk work, collapse in the heat, stare at the ceiling. Dealing with the locals turns out to be a lot easier for August than living with himself. English, August is a comic masterpiece from contemporary India. Like A Confederacy of Dunces and The Catcher in the Rye, it is both an inspired and hilarious satire and a timeless story of self-discovery.
- A Passage to India (1984). Cultural mistrust and false accusations doom a friendship in British colonial India between an Indian doctor, an Englishwoman engaged to marry a city magistrate, and an English educator.
- The Jewel in the Crown (1984 ). British television serial about the final days of the British Raj in India during and after World War II, based upon the Raj Quartet novels (1965–75) by British author Paul Scott. Granada Television produced the series for the ITV network.
- Salaam Bombay! artfully directed by Mira Nair, tells the story of a boy on the mean streets of Mumbai, the drug addicts, pimps, prostitutes and thugs he befriends and his hopeless struggle to make enough money to return home to the mother who all but sold him to the circus. If Slumdog Millionaire is glass half full, Salaam Bombay! is a more realistic glass half empty. The boy Krishna is abandoned by his mother at the Apollo Circus and she tells him that he can only return home when he can afford 500 rupees to pay for the bicycle of his brother that he had trashed. Krishna is left behind by the circus and he takes a train to Bombay. Krishna is called Chaipau by the street children of Bombay and he works delivering and selling tea for Chacha, who owns a street bar. Krishna befriends the heroin addicted Chillum that sells drugs for the drug dealer and caftan Baba Golub, and the girl Manju Golub, who is the daughter of Baba with the prostitute Rekha Golub. Krishna dreams on saving 500 rupees to return home, but the life on the streets of Bombay is not easy.
- Slumdog Millionaire, director Danny Boyle’s first hit film, uses flashbacks during a young man’s appearance as a contestant on the Indian TV version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” to tell the story of three orphaned children growing up in the shantytowns of Mumbai. It’s pure wish fulfillment with a full-throttle happy ending, but segments were filmed in desperately poor neighborhoods of the city most visitors never see, like the unforgettably funny scene set in a slum toilet
- Viceroy's House (2017) by Gurinder Chadha. The final Viceroy of India, Lord Mountbatten, is tasked with overseeing the transition of British India to independence, but meets with conflict as different sides clash in the face of monumental change. New nations are rarely born in peace... India, 1947: Lord Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville) is dispatched, along with his wife Edwina (Gillian Anderson), to New Delhi to oversee the country's transition from British rule to independence. Taking his place in the resplendent mansion known as the Viceroy's House, Mountbatten arrives hopeful for a peaceful transference of power. But ending centuries of colonial rule in a country divided by deep religious and cultural differences proves no easy undertaking, setting off a seismic struggle that threatens to tear India apart. With sumptuous period detail, director Gurinder Chadha brings to life a pivotal historical moment that re-shaped the world. Directed and Produced by Gurinder Chadha. Written by Paul Mayeda Berges and Moira Buffini (Screenplay). Also produced by Paul Mayeda Berges and Deepak Nayar. Executive produced by Cameron McCracken, Shibasish Sarkar, Christine Langan, Natascha Wharton and Tim O'Shea.