Six Books to Read Before You Visit India
This piece originally appeared on Travel+Leisure.
Before travel became a widely accessible pastime, visiting the far corners of the world was the purview of a privileged few—traders and soldiers first, then adventurers and explorers, and later still the occasional aristocrat stepping off the genteelly trammeled path of the Grand Tour. Everyone else had books.
Even in our hyper-connected, tech-driven age, books remain an invaluable repository of information and experience. Few places on earth inspire such frenzied flights of fantasy as India, and many books have been written about it over the years. We’ve chosen six great tomes from the last decade that offer readers several places and experiences guaranteed to inspire a trip. So ready your favorite reading chair, but keep the computer handy—you may be booking tickets sooner than you think.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Katherine Boo
The National Book Award winner for 2012 did the unthinkable when it effectively supplanted Sukhetu Mehta’s Maximum City as The Bombay Book. Impeccably reported and superbly written, Katherine Boo’s book about a single Mumbai slum (or, to use her far superior term, ‘undercity’) explors the ethos and spirit of one of the world’s great cities with diligence and compassion, exposing its wonders and horrors for what they really are: deeply, profoundly human.
A Free Man, Aman Sethi
Also published in 2012, Sethi’s book focuses on the life of India’s other great modern metropolis: Delhi. If Boo’s book reads, at times, as an elaborate disappearing act, with the author invisible behind her polyphonic cast of characters, 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.
The Hindus: An Alternative History, 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.
Following Fish, Samanth Subramanian
An elegant, charming, slender volume on coastal India’s relationship with fish, Subramanian’s first book was not as momentous as Doniger’s nor as monumental as Boo’s, but it captures with delicacy and warmth the slower rhythms of the seaside, and India’s love affair with its regional delicacies. If you’re heading south, and plan on gorging yourself on fish curries, this is the book for you.
A Strange Kind of Paradise, 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, 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. Buy the paperback, break it into sections, and dog-ear the hell out if it. If this doesn’t prepare you for your trip, nothing will.
Michael Snyder is based in Mumbai, and covers the India beat for Travel + Leisure.