India, with its many languages, religions, and ethnic communities, is more diverse than even Europe. It defies easy generalization: Whatever you say about India is probably true, but so is its opposite. No nonfiction account can hope to do more than capture a slice of its life. Roving across imagined landscapes, fiction has more scope. But the novelistic imagination still has to compete with the overwhelming reality of India. Not surprisingly, the country has not only attracted some of the world’s finest artists and intellectuals but has also produced many of them. The following recommendations are a necessarily arbitrary selection—no Salman Rushdie, no Rohinton Mistry, no Kiran Desai—from a wide and deep reservoir of literature on India over the last century.
An Area of Darkness | By V. S. Naipaul (1964)
In 1962 the Trinidadian-born writer Naipaul first traveled to the land of his ancestors, and this account of poverty-stricken India is fierce, unsparingly blaming the caste system and preoccupation with religion for the country’s backwardness. Naipaul’s mood has since softened (see his 1990 India: A Million Mutinies Now), and his rage seems a bit extreme today. Despite—or perhaps because of—its overt neurosis, the book immediately strikes one as a masterpiece, illuminated by the intensity and beauty of Naipaul’s perceptions.
Swami and Friends | By R. K. Narayan (1935)
This novel by one of the country’s greatest writers in English first described a small town in south India—Malgudi—which for generations of Indian readers became as recognizable a terrain of human striving as Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County was to Americans. Narayan steadily populated Malgudi in novels over the next four decades. The schoolboy Swami and his friends were easily the happiest of his characters, and the novel reads today as nostalgic testament to a more leisurely time, the small-town innocence and idealism of India in the thirties.
Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found | By Suketu Mehta (2005)
With nearly 18 million people (almost the entire population of Australia) crowded into bustling Mumbai, India’s first modern metropolis mocks all human notions of a civilized urban existence. Hanging out with criminals, politicians, Bollywood stars, and businessmen over a couple of years, Mehta produced an epic of observation and detail. No book matches its meticulous account of the vulgar vitality as well as the costs—social and environmental—of “rising” India.
A Passage to India | By E. M. Forster (1924)
The British legacy in India—the English language, cricket, the cities of Calcutta, Bombay, and Bangalore—is inescapable even today. But few enduring human relationships between the rulers and the ruled were formed. This emotional deficiency is the famous theme of Forster’s novel, which also expressed a longstanding Western interest in Indian spirituality. Exploring the attractions of Hinduism and Islam, Forster became one of the first countercultural figures of the modern era—presaging Allen Ginsberg and the Beatles—who sought in India escape from the pressures of the modern world.
The Discovery of India | By Jawaharlal Nehru (1946)
Possessed of a resonant prose style, independent India’s first prime minister was also a writer of stirring history. In this book he outlined, with an elegant brevity comparable to H. G. Wells’s in A Short History of the World, the history of India over several millennia: from the first-known classical civilizations of the Indus Valley through the emergence of Hindu religions and Buddhism, the arrival of Islam and the British, and up to the modern era.
The Vintage Book of Modern Indian Literature | Edited by Amit Chaudhuri (2004)
This anthology attests to the extraordinary richness of Indian literature in languages other than English. Many of the writers are barely known in the West, thanks to inadequate translation. All forms—the poem, novel, short story, and essay—are represented from nearly every region of India, introduced by one of the country’s finest critical minds today.
The God of Small Things | By Arundhati Roy (1997)
The author of this beautiful, Booker Prize–winning novel set in the South Indian state of Kerala has become well known for her fiercely held opinions on globalization. But there is no polemic in this story, which evokes, with its quicksilver imagery, a world of pure emotion: the frail hopes of childhood, the brutality of power, the glory of love, and the tragic inevitability of heartbreak.
Pankaj Mishra is the author of four books, including The Romantics: A Novel.
*Characters are fictional composites of real people.