Indian Literature and Historical Fiction 

Indian literature is as diverse and beautiful as this colourful and fascinating country. Learn about India's history by reading Amitav Ghosh's 'The Glass Palace' and 'The Ibis Trilogy' or travel to remote places in 'The Folded Earth' from Anuradha Roy.

A important theme in Indian literature is the tension between life in the modern impersonal city and village life with all its customs and religions. 'The White Tiger', bestselling novel of Aravind Adiga is about leaving the rural hometown behind to look for a better future in the city. Pulitzer Prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri is praised for her stories about immigrants and their search for identity, the 'Year of the Runaways' is an impressive account about Indian immigrants in England. Indian authors are praised for their ability to describe lifelike and wonderful sketches of the surrounding landscapes, from the Kumaon hills in the lower Himalayas, the mangrove forests of the Sunderbans (The Hungry Tide) to spiritual and religious settings (Sleeping on Jupiter).

The Inheritance of Loss, Kiran Desai - 2007

Sai, a seventeen year old Indian girl, lives with her grandfather Jemubhai, a retired judge, in the mountains of Kalimpong. Sai has started a relationship with her Nepalese tutor, Gyan, who joined a group of ethnic Nepalese insurgents. When a gang of Nepalese boys ransack the house and threaten with violence, the lives of Sai, her grandfather and their cook descend into chaos. Interwoven with the story set in India is the story of the cook’s son Biju as he struggles to survive as an illegal immigrant in the United States.

The Year of the Runaways, Sunjeev Sahota, 2014

Set in 2003 in England’s Sheffield and with flashbacks to India, Tochi, Avtar and Randeep have fled India for a better future in England. Tochi is a low-caste man who travels to the U.K. illegally. Avtar arrives on a student visa but his intention is to work and not to study. Randeep, Avtar's friend and neighbor from India, has a visa because he married Narinder, who was born in England. Narinder has her own reasons for marrying Randeep and as such provide him with a visa. 

The four characters in this impressive novel tell us about their traumatic past in India, the reasons to leave and show us their perseverance to make something of life, despite all the misfortunes they have endured.

More info about this book and Sunjeev Sahota from the Publisher

The Year of the Runaways was shortlisted for the 2015 Man Booker prize.

 

“Even as waves of refugees fleeing the war in Syria have created an urgent world crisis, many immigrants who have already made it to Europe have been grappling with prejudice, poverty and unemployment. No recent novel does a more powerful job of capturing the day-to-day lives of such immigrants than Sunjeev Sahota’s second book”.- New York Times

Maya’s husband dies in a mountaineering accident and to leave her sorrow behind, the 25 year old Maya seeks refuge in Ranikhet, a village at the foothills of the Himalaya. The village is so self-contained and its visitors so few that their connection lies in the natural world around them “Our town has a private ­history…revealed only to those who live here by others who have lived here longer”. Whilst Maya adapts to the peaceful village life she  befriends Charu and her landlord Diwan Sahib, who holds secrets from India’s past.

Man Asian Literary Prize Nominee (2011), The Hindu Literary Prize Nominee (2011), Crossword Book Award for Non Fiction (2011), DSC Prize Nominee for South Asian Literature for Longlist (2013)

An Atlas of Impossible Longing, Anuradha Roy, 2008

Set in mid twentieth century India in a small town in Bengal, this book follows the story of an orphan, Mukunda, and his childhood girlfriend Bakul. They grow up together and Mukunda and Bakul become inseparable companions. But when they reach adolescence Bakul’s family consider their relation as inappropriate, due to the unknown caste of Mukunda, and they ensure that the two are separated, and eventually Mukunda is banished to Calcutta. And although Mukunda sets up a good life for himself he cannot forget Bakul.

Read Anuradha Roy's Blog here

 

"She defines her characters quickly and skillfully, she has a keen eye for landscape, and she knows how private lives can suggest the larger shape of the public world...Some longings really do remain impossible, and on its best pages this book knows it"  New York Times

Sleeping on Jupiter, Anuradha Roy, 2015

On a train bound for the seaside town of Jarmuli, three elderly women go on their long planned dream of a holiday together. They meet a young woman, a documentary filmmaker named Nomi, whose braided hair and tattoos set her apart from Indian people. Nomi was born in India, but grew up as an adopted child in Norway. Now, she is returning to Jarmuli to face her traumatic past. At a brief stop of the train, the women witness a sudden assault on Nomi that leaves her stranded as the train pulls away.

Later in Jarmuli, among pilgrims, priests, and ashrams, the three women meet Nomi again. By the stories of the women’s lives and the people they meet, Nomi’s past of violence and abuse comes into focus and with it the true character of the serene surface of the worshippers town.

"The novel lays bare the many forms of violence against women in India. Yet Roy’s women seem to be unbeaten: they are hardy, spirited and eager for life. Each violent moment is acutely imagined and presented with precision in Roy’s chiselled prose." The Telegraph, Kolkata

 

Sleeping on Jupiter, Roy's third novel, won the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature and was nominated for the Man Booker Prize.

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The Hungry Tide - Amitav Ghosh, 2004

Between the sea and the plains of Bengal, on the north eastern coast of India, lies an immense archipelago of islands. Without warning tidal floods rise and surge over the land, leaving devastation in their wake. These are the Sundarbans, home of the man eating Bengal tiger, huge crocodiles, sharks, snakes, impenetrable forests, and a few people trying to scratch out a living. The settlers of the Sundarbans believe that anyone who dares venture into the vast watery labyrinth without a pure heart, will never return. 

It is the arrival of Piya, an American woman but of Indian parentage that disturbs the delicate balance of settlement life and sets in motion fateful events. Piya has come to the Sundarbans in search of a rare species of river dolphin. 

Her journey begins with a disaster, when she is thrown from a boat into the crocodile-infested waters, but she is rescued by a young, illiterate fisherman, Fokir. Although they share no language between them, Piya and Fokir are powerfully drawn to each other and from this moment the tide begins to turn.

The Glass Palace - Amitav Ghosh, 2000

 Genre: historical fiction

This epic saga spans a century beginning with the British invasion in Burma in 1885 through the Second World War to the 1980’s. Primarily set in Burma and India it describes the evolving history before and during the years of the Second World War and India's independence struggle.

The story is about Rajkumar, an Indian street orphan who falls in love with Dolly, a young woman in the court of the Burmese Queen. After the British soldiers force the Royal Family out of their residence (the Glass Palace) in Mandalay they are forced to go into exile in a small town in India. 

With the help of a Chinese merchant Rajkumar builds up a logging business in upper Burma and becomes a rich man. But he can not forget Dolly and he goes in search for her… 

Sea of Poppies, River of Smoke, and Flood of Fire - Amitav Ghosh

Genre: historical fiction

Amitav Ghosh's Ibis trilogy consists of three books Sea of Poppies (2008), River of Smoke (2011), and Flood of Fire (2015). The story is set in the first half of the 19th century and tells us about the shipping of people from India to work on the sugar plantations of Mauritius, and about the trade of opium between India and China. The Ibis is a ship that sails from Calcutta to Canton and Mauritius carrying different character including slaves, British officials, peasants and Cantonese boat people.

​You can read the books in any order, but to get a good feel for the characters it is better to start with the first book 'Sea of Poppies'.

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Amitav Ghosh - The Best Indian Literature and Historical Fiction Books

Amitav Ghosh

"Ghosh has established himself as one of the finest prose writers of his generation of Indian writing in English" - Financial Times.

 

Ghosh (amitavghosh.com), writer and anthropologist, was born in Calcutta in 1956. Because his father was a diplomat Ghosh lived among many cultures in different countries during his childhood. Besides India he lived in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Iran.

Other works include: The Circle of Reason (1986), The Shadow Lines (1988), In An Antique Land (1993, about Egypt), The Calcutta Chromosome (1995). Amitav Ghosh also wrote non fiction books, in 2016 his book about climate change 'The Great Derangement' was published.

 
 
 

The White Tiger - Aravind Adiga, 2008

The Indian Balram Halwai tells the story of his life in a letter addressed to the Chinese Premier, who will soon be visiting India.

Balram was born in the rural village of Laxmangarh, as the son of a rickshaw puller. He is a smart child but is forced to leave school in order to support for his family and begins to work in a teashop with his brother in Dhanbad. While working there and talking with customers Balram learns about India's government and it's economy. Eventually Balram decides to become a driver and travels to Delhi, where he works as a chauffeur to a rich landlord. But then, he kills his boss, steals his money and flees to Bangalore. 

Ultimately, Balram transcends his low caste and becomes a successful entrepreneur, establishing his own taxi service.

Read an interview with Aravind Adiga here

A Dead Hand - A Crime in Calcutta - Paul Theroux, 2010

Genre: literature, mystery novel

Jerry Delfont is a travel writer with a writers block. Staying in Calcutta, he receives a mysterious letter. It comes from an American philanthropist, Mrs Merilll Unger, who is living in Calcutta. An Indian friend of Mrs. Unger’s son is in trouble. He woke up in a hotel room with a dead body next to him, he panicked and fled. Mrs. Unger would like Jerry to discreetly look into this matter to find out the truth. But Jerry is more intrigued by the beautifull and beguiling Mrs. Unger and her tantric massages. Yet as he begins investigating the circumstances surrounding the dead body, he wonders what exactly is the nature of her philanthropy.

Fire on the Mountain - Anita Desai, 1977

Anita Desai is a highly acclaimed Indian writer, she was shortlisted for the Boor Prize for a number of books.

Nanda Kaul has chosen to spend her last years alone and secluded in a desolated mansion in the mountain village of Carignano in Kausali. She spent all her life taking care of others, her three daughters and her husband. And now she feels it is time to take care of herself. But one day she receives a letter from her daughter Asha asking her to take care of her great granddaughter Raka. Although she is not willing to let someone else into her secluded life Nanda doesn’t dare to refuse and when Raka, a child with whom Nanda has a lot in common, arrives the world of tranquility around her changes. 

Set against the beautiful drawn backdrop of India at the turn of the twentieth century, ‘The Alchemy of Desire’ tells the story of a young couple and without any possessions but gloriously in love. With a small inheritance they buy an old mansion in a small village close to Ranikhet and they move from the big city Delhi to the quiet mountain life. 

When they are renovating the house they find the diaries of an American woman. Slowly the narrator becomes so fascinated by the stories written in the diaries that he doesn’t see that his obsession deteriorates his relationship with Fizz.

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The Lowland - Jhumpa Lahiri, 2013

Subhash and Udayan Mitra are inseparable brothers who grow up in Calcutta. But their characters are also opposites, Subash, the dutiful son and Udayan, rebellious and impulsive.

In the 1960’s Udayan is swept up in India’s Naxalite rebellion. Fighting against poverty and inequality Udayan will risk all for what he believes in. But Subhash, does not share his brother’s political passion, he leaves home to pursue a life of scientific research in a quiet, coastal corner of America.

But when Subhash learns what happened to his brother in the lowland outside their family’s home in India, he goes back to is homeland, hoping to pick up the pieces of a shattered family, and to heal the wounds Udayan left behind.

The Namesake - Jhumpa Lahiri, 2003

Shortly after their arranged marriage in Calcutta at the end of the 1960s, the newly weds Ashima and Ashoke Ganguli arrive in America. After they arrive in Cambridge, their first child is born, a boy. According to Indian custom, the child will be given two names: an official name, to be given by the great grandmother, and a pet name to be used only by family. But the letter from India with the child's official name never arrives, and so the parents decide on a pet name to use for the time being: Gogol.

But growing up in an Indian family in suburban America, Gogol starts to hate the awkward name and the inherited values it represents. Determined to live a life far removed from that of his parents, Gogol sets off on his own path to India to discover that the search of identity depends on more than a name.

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Jhumpa Lahiri

Born in 1967 in London, Jhumpa Lahiri (Facebook) moved with her parents to the US when she was a child. Right from a young age Jhumpa Lahiri felt strong ties to her parents’ homeland India, as well as the United States and England. A sense of homelessness and an inability to feel accepted took hold of her as she grew up with ties to all three countries.

The meaning of being an immigrant or the child of immigrants are strong themes (‘immigrant fiction’) in her works. In an interview with the New York Times she states: “ Writers have always tended to write about the worlds they come from. And it just so happens that many writers originate from different parts of the world than the ones they end up living in, either by choice or by necessity or by circumstance, and therefore, write about those experiences”.

 

With the short story collection, 'Interpreter of Maladies' (1999) Lahiri won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. This book is about the first and second generation Indian immigrants and the idea of otherness in the country they live in. 

Unaccustomed Earth is her second book with short stories and follows the lives of Indian American people and how they deal with their mixed cultural environment. 

From the beginnings of literature, poets and writers have based their narratives on crossing borders, on wandering, on exile, on encounters beyond the familiar. The stranger is an archetype in epic poetry, in novels. The tension between alienation and assimilation has always been a basic theme. Jhumpa Lahiri

 
 

India - Pakistan

Partitions: A Novel 

When, in 1947 Pakistan was created, fights broke out on the Indian and Pakistani side of the new border and refugees flee from one side to the other. Partitions is the story of four people with different religions who flee the chaos and terror of the sectarian violence to their new countries.

At a Delhi train station, the six years old Hindu twin brothers Shankar and Kenshav together with their mother try to get on the last train bound for what is now Pakistan. But they lose sight of their mother and go in search for her. A young Sikh girl, Simran Kaur, has run away from her father and Ibrahim Masud, a handicapped Muslim doctor, limps toward the new Muslim state of Pakistan.

Historical Fiction

The Collaborator

Mirza Waheed 2012

 

Historical Fiction

The novel is set on the Indian side of of the border that separates Indian Kashmir from Pakistani Kashmir. Three teenage boys friends have crossed the border into Pakistan to join the movement against the Indian military. The fourth friend however is left behind and he is put in an impossible position by the Indian army: he is sent into the valley to count the corpses. Will his fear that he will discover one of his friends lying amongst the dead come true?

The Best Indian Literature Books Waheed The Collaborator

Between Clay and Dust

Ustad Ramzi was once the greatest wrestler of India and Gohar Jan, a courtesan, was celebrated throughout the country for her beauty and the seductive power of her singing. But with the partition of India and the creation of Pakistan in 1947 their talents and popularity are not obvious anymore and they have to adapt to the new political and social situation.

Shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize 2012

Other Recommended and Bestselling Books India

A Suitable Boy

This family saga is set in a town on the Ganges and follows the lives of four families during one and a half year. Mrs. Rupa Mehra's tries to find a ‘suitable boy’ to marry her daughter, Lata. But Lata is an university student and does not want her mother to arrange her marriage. Instead she wants to make her own choice. But is she willing and capable to fight against the family traditions and choose for love and independence?

The sequel ‘A Suitable Girl’ is expected to be published in 2017

The Best Indian Literature Books Vikram Seth

The Golden Son

Anil Patel, ‘the golden son’, is the first of his family to go to college and he starts a medical residency in Dallas. But when his father dies, Anil becomes the head of the household and the successor of his fathers role as an arbiter for the village’s disputes. But Anil doubts if he can set forth this family tradition. And Leena, Anil’s childhood friend, tries to adapt into her new role as a wife. But her arranged marriage doesn’t make her happy and she makes a choice that will have drastic consequences for herself and her family.

The Association of Small Bombs: A Novel

The brothers Tushar and Nakul Khurana both die when a bomb explodes in a Delhi marketplace. Their friend Mansoor survives and although traumatized by the events, leaves for the United States to study. But when Mansoor returns to India, he meets Ayub, a young activist and Shockie, a Kashmiri bomb maker.

The Best Indian Literature Books Mahaja

Bhutan

The best asian literature Beyond the Sky and Earth Bhutan Jamie Zeppa

This is a memoir of the author’s experience working as an English lecturer in Bhutan.

At the age of 22 Jamie Zeppa leaves Canada for a volunteers program in Bhutan. She starts working at the Sherubtse College in remote eastern Bhutan. She has to adjust to the isolation and rudimentary life. Jamie narrates about the scenic isolated valleys, the customs and character of the Bhutanese people, the food, religions, but also political tensions. 

Initially she has strong doubts whether she is capable of surviving this completely different way of life, missing western delicacies, luxuries and modern medicines. But the more she learns about the traditions of this country she becomes to love the country and its people and she stays for almost 10 years before returning to Canada. 

…that there a still a few places left in the world so strange and wondrous that a journey there has the power to transform the traveller, even against her will”- The New york Times

Beyond the Sky and the Earth

A similar book is Married to Bhutan from Linda Learning about the 10 years she lived in Bhutan (beautiful photo's of Bhutan on her site).

'Two Roads East' by Philip Montgomery, 2012

Set in contemporary Bhutan this book is about the adventures of an American woman Sophie, a tourist, and Steve, an aid worker who is accused of Fraud. Can Sophie help Steve to discover the true story behind the missing dollars?

© 2016 Asia Books by J.Kruithof
Amitav Ghosh -  The Best Indian Literature and Historical Fiction Books