India is a vast and varied country, no doubt home to a billion stories, so it’s almost impossible to pick just one great novel set in a place like this. These five novels are some of my favourite books ever - books I read before visiting India and since, to ‘take me back’. What they all do so well is encapsulate the country far beyond just visual descriptions; India is in the characters, the language and the philosophies, and I've never found it easier to travel to any country through simple words on a page.
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
The God of Small Things is a truly magical novel which captures the essence of India so acutely, you’ll think you’re already there. It’s heavily descriptive in the most unique and ‘Indian’ of ways; all at once chaotic, spiritual and so thick with beauty it resonates with you long after you turn the pages. Roy seduces you with luscious visual descriptions so intricate that you can almost smell the idlis and taste the sickly sweetness of the ‘Orangedrink, Lemondrink,’ gulped down in fear. And it's in these playful colloquialisms and Roy's stylised use of language and grammar that help the reader to really immerse themselves in the characters.
Her exploration of the cacophony that is the human condition and its complexities - familial and societal tensions, culture, politics and caste relations - is both heart breaking and enthralling. It is all these ‘big things that lurk unsaid inside’ from which the novel unravels, where innocence is lost and lives change forever.
Set in Kerala in the late 1960’s, the story is told from the perspective of dizygotic twins Rahel and Esthappen and centres on the tragic event that befalls their family from which, ‘they all tampered with the laws that lay down who should be loved, and how. And how much,’ that strips back wider themes of class, religion and colonialism throughout the novel and exposes, at the root of it all, raw and tragic humanness that they forever struggle to shake.
Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts
Shantaram is an epic adventure of a novel that spans from the slums of Bombay to the desolate mountains of Afghanistan. The real draw of this story is its characters and seeing the relationships form, fall apart and endure hardships of every sort. Main character Lin has escaped prison in Australia and on the run from the law ends up settling in Bombay.
With nothing but a new friend, Lin settles into a slum, contributing to the communities that so lovingly welcome him in and guide him through the societal nuances of a different culture. But it's not without its struggles and eventually, in order to survive, Lin slips into old ways. Becoming enveloped in Bombay’s criminal underworld, as a man with not much to lose but his freedom, Lin's world expands and the loyalty he has to his friends often overrides living a life of value, which he is soon faced with deciding between.
The majority of the characters in this book are impossible to dislike and despite the troubles Lin faces, you can’t help but feel like his is a life worth living. Though not always glamorous, it’s Lin’s view on the world, the variety of people he meets - the good amongst the bad and the good within the bad - and his appreciation of India with all its contradicting nuances, that transcends that less glamorous side of the city, where the true magic hides.
Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
If you can get through Midnight’s Children feeling utterly tantalised, you’re ready for India. This book defies every literary rule; sentences run on, almost every single one heavily descriptive and exclamation marks abound. Rushdie literally bends language to become a hybrid of English/Indian prose, the story digresses and jumps around all of India and across time, almost as if the intention is to beguile and frustrate its readers. But the richly allegorical journey is what it's all about and when you enjoy the ride rather than seek answers or tied ends, you’ll be rewarded. This novel isn’t a linear journey from A to Z. It’s about everything in between.
Midnight’s Children is the story of Saleem Sinai and all the children across the Indian Subcontinent born at the stroke of midnight, at the very birth of a newly independent India, and thus, country and character are intrinsically linked. These Midnight’s children are born with special powers which allows Rushdie to explore all the disjointedness, duality, history and hope across an entire continent in a way which is both overwhelming and deeply entertaining. After all, personifying a whole country is no easy feat. On one hand this is a fascinating insight into the history of post-partition India, the end of British colonial rule and a country trying to establish its own identity. On the other, it’s a family-saga with a series of miniature stories thrown in for free.
A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
Set in India in the mid-1970s, the lives of four central characters of different castes and backgrounds, brought together by displacement, poverty, violence and politics, develop an unlikely bond while living in the same house during a time of political upheaval and the government declaration of Emergency. Dickens-esque in his narrative style, Mistry's writing pulls you into this world with gorgeously detailed prose, capturing India so naturally through every seemingly insignificant moment to its rich and textured characters.
And those characters are so likeable, you really root for them and relish in any hope that surfaces, and it does; moments of love and connection keep the cycle going, despite anticipating the inevitable fall you know is right around the corner. But it's their ability to endure, that human trait to carry on and strive for betterment or to just simply survive no matter how terrible things get, that is at once desperately sad and wildly hopeful, inspirational and beautiful. And that is how those who survive do so, by maintaining 'a fine balance between hope and despair' highlighting the variety and the endurance of humanness in the face of inhumanity.
Siddhartha by Herman Hesse
This simple story may be so effective because it appeals to something that everybody has felt themselves at some point: the desire to seek answers about one's own purpose in life and to seize control of the right to seek out that path. Siddhartha, which in Sanskrit means 'He who has attained his goals', clearly has a lot to live up to, not least because he is the son of a Brahmin: handsome, thirsty for knowledge, well liked and set to follow in his father's footsteps as a devoted priest.
With the world at his feet, Siddhartha feels the seeds of discontent within him and decides to renounce everything to become a Samana in order to learn and devote himself to a life of asceticism. But his spiritual journey perseveres and the world soon catches up with him: he learns of the temptations of wealth, luxury, idleness and sensual love. And on his path of self-discovery he continues, utterly changed, to find his meaning, and that of existence itself.
What is beautiful about this book is the realisation that rich or poor, we are all the same; we all suffer, we all strive for happiness and peace, no matter what that means to each of us. No one is above stumbling or losing their way to get there. Borrowing from Buddhist principles and encapsulating Indian transcendental philosophy, this book is spiritually enriching and somehow gets more so with every read, especially if you let some time pass. When new understandings within you are unlocked, Siddhartha speaks to you differently almost every time.