When you click through from our site to a retailer and buy a product, we may earn affiliate commissions. This helps support our work, but does not affect what we cover or how, and it does not affect the price you pay.
No, India isn’t all about arranged marriages, poverty, and the atrocities inflicted upon the marginalized due to the practice of the caste system. Though surely, these are very reasonable and well-grounded topics in contemporary India.
The multicultural nation has a kaleidoscope of other aspects to it- from the street food at Chowpatty or newbie fashion bloggers shopping in Sarojini to the nation’s lifeline- public transportation. So, here are some gorgeously articulated 25 books to read before going to India that will help you get a glimpse of India in all its glory.
If you’re planning a trip to India and wish to equip yourself with the knowledge of its rich history or maybe gain an insight on how life has been/is in India, then here’s a list of amazing books to read!
1. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
Please excuse me, while I sit in a corner feeling extremely overwhelmed, every time I read and reread ‘The God of Small Things’. There are endless reasons as to why this book cuts our list of books to read before going to India.
Set in Kerala, during the late 1960s, The God Of Small Things is the debut novel of Indian Author Arundhati Roy, that takes upon multiple themes like innocence, family, different versions of reality, guilt, love, fear, society & class. It explores class politics, specifically those based on Communism. The story revolves around the childhood experiences of fraternal twins whose lives are shattered by laws of love in conservative India.
2. Nine Lives by William Dalrymple
Dalrymple is probably one of my favourite authors. In this brilliant Book, Dalrymple interviews nine extremely contrasting individuals, four of them women, and demonstrates their life stories in historical & social context.
The nine lives Dalrymple presents are widely dissimilar. Still, his lead-in draws an analogy among them – a Buddhist monk, a Jain nun, a prison warden from Kerala, and six others, who have found refuge in mystical extremes. This book very gorgeously examines India’s rich multicultural history.
3. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
Amongst all the books to read before going to India, ‘Midnight’s Children’ is my absolute favourite. It is a novel by author Salman Rushdie. It explores India’s progression from British Raj to Independence following India’s Partition. It is regarded as one of the best literary pieces on postcolonialism and magic realism.
If you’re a sucker for magical realism, then this book is a must.
4. Maximum City by Suketu Mehta
From the world of crime to the Hindu-Muslim rivalry or to the folks who come to Mumbai from rural hinterlands in search of better lives, ‘Maximum City’ by Suketu Mehta is travel literature, creative non-fiction work. It explores what life is like in India’s financial centre and the heart of the Indian film industry- Mumbai.
The book was nominated for the esteemed Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction.
5. Karma Cola by Gita Mehta
‘Karma Cola’ is a non-fiction book by Indian Author Gita Mehta. It was initially published in 1979, and the most recent edition was published in 2010.
- Set in the ’60s, when scores of westerners descended upon India, the book gives a detailed account of the traditions of an ancient, long-lived, multicultural and prehistoric society being turned into commodities and sold to those who fail to understand it’s rich cultural diversity. This is definitely one of the best books to read before going to India.
6. Love & Longing in Bombay by Vikram Chandra
Vikram Chandra skillfully crafts a collection of five carefully interdependent long stories. The most beautiful aspect of this book is the way these individual stories that would have otherwise fallen into distinct genres have been portrayed to be undeniably linked and connected to each other.
The book gorgeously explores the dark areas of the heart.
7. A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
Are you looking for one of the most compelling books to read before going to India? Set in an anonymous city, in the mid-1970s, ‘A Fine Balance’ is that book for you. It is a novel concerning four individuals from exceptionally varying backgrounds whose paths link up in the year 1975.
This magnificent novel encapsulates all that India was back in 1975. As the four individuals make headway from wariness to friendship and from companionship to love, A Fine Balance designs an enduring panorama of the human spirit in a cruel and barbaric state.
8. City of Djinns by William Dalrymple
It isn’t possible to look for books to read before going to India and not come across William Dalrymple’s ‘City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi’ (1993) is a travel piece by William Dalrymple about Delhi. It is his second book, and it accounts for a year spent in Delhi, the Indian capital city.
Studded with impressive wit, City of Djinns peels back the layers of Delhi’s primitive history, divulging an exceptional array of characters from the eunuchs to descendants of great Moguls. It’s intriguing, compelling, and informative- all in one. City of Djinns is a brilliant blend of research and adventure, humour, and genius.
9. The Alchemy of Desire by Tarun J. Tejpal
‘The Alchemy of Desire’ is an assertive and purposeful novel. It not only strives to traverse much of contemporary India, but it also exhibits the colonial territory (Jim Corbett, hill stations, white goddesses, brown lovers). Furthermore, it is a narrative about desire and writing.
Not spelt out, it is also a restricted investigation into the snags of digging up the past, where the narrator’s encounter is posed against the general public “digging up” of the past by pious, God-fearing fundamentalists. Given such extent, the novel occasionally loses momentum under the heaviness of its own intent. While it has much that is praiseworthy, it also contains much that seems to be monotonous and expendable.
But in my opinion, it’s still a book good enough to make the cut to the books to read before going to India.
10. A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth
The novel traces the narrative of four families over 18 months, with particular concentration on Mrs Rupa Mehra’s consistent attempts to find a “suitable boy” who would give her younger daughter, Lata, a fine wedding procession. Lata is a 19-year-old student studying in an “unidentified” university who refuses to be controlled or dominated by her intimidating mother and dogmatic, uncompromising brother, Arun.
You simply cannot discount this book from the books to read before going to India because it boldly speaks of a culture where her marital status defines a woman’s worth.
11. The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
‘The White Tiger’ is the debut novel by author Aravind Adiga. It was originally published in 2008 and won the esteemed 40th Man Booker Prize in the year 2008. The novel offers a darkly hilarious perspective of India’s constant class struggle in a globalized world as narrated through a retrospective manner from Balram Halwai, a boy from a small hinterland in India.
The detailed account of Balram’s journey from Delhi, where he works as a chauffeur to an affluent landlord, and to Bangalore, the place to which he flees after taking his master’s life and stealing all the money, the novel inspects themes of religion, caste, loyalty, corruption, and poverty in contemporary India. In the fullness of time, Balram surpasses his sweet-maker caste and becomes victorious, well to do entrepreneur, setting up his own taxi service.
12. Holy Cow by Sarah MacDonald
‘Holy Cow’ is one of the most gorgeously written books to read before going to India. It’s Macdonald’s humorous written account of her adventures in a land of confusion and paradox, of experiences with Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhs, Parsis and Islam, and a large number of yogis, pandits and Bollywood celebrities.
From mystical retreats and Delhi nightclubs, it is a compelling but arduous journey that only a woman on a determined expedition to rescue her soul, her sanity, and her love life—can live through.
13. What the Body Remembers by Shauna Singh Baldwin
The consequence of a lavish and plentiful culture of India and the savage, vicious drama of the 1947 Partition is this persuasive and articulate debut novel about two women married to a similar man, and it is for sure one of the books to read before going to India.
As India lurches toward independence, the characters struggle to find their place amidst the drastically changing Indian society. Diligently researched and heavenly written, this novel is all at once – lyrical, feminist, carnal, and very political.
14. India: A Million Mutinies Now India by V. S. Naipaul
‘A Million Mutinies Now’ is a non-fiction work by the Indian author, V. S. Naipaul. It was originally published in the year 1990. Naipaul communicates consequential and significant misgivings about the Indian frame of mind and way of life. On the contrary, Naipaul also records the rapid economic growth, and it’s associated liberation of the various folks of India.
The title makes an analogous comparison between the liberation of millions of people and the Mutiny of 1857. The book is hopeful about the country and its citizens, which is primarily why it’s one of the books to read before going to India.
15. Calcutta by Geoffrey Moorhouse
Exceptionally, it is the first full-length study of ‘Calcutta’, a city in West Bengal and the seat of the British Raj, since the year 1918. The book is written out of profound comprehension of the accurate and verifiable matters with the most genius execution that there could have been.
16. An Indian Summer by James Cameron
The specifically bewitching thing about ‘An Indian Summer’ is the queries that it comes up with, about the essence of imperialism. Colonialism, as we all know, was not a “good thing” and all the western powers mercilessly cashed in on their colonies.
An Indian Summer manifests that James Cameron is one of those out of the ordinary journalists whose writing overshadows and goes beyond regular journalism. He has covered some of the most epoch-making affairs of the current century and dissected them thoroughly in order to understand them.
17. Kim by Rudyard Kipling
This novel follows ‘Kim’ and focuses on the growth of the protagonist from youth to adulthood, a quicksilver-bright Irish orphan born in Lahore. Kim meets an elderly Lama and joins him for a holy expedition across India.
During this journey, Kim experiences the whole colourful gamut of Indian life becomes a part of the ‘Great Game’ and reaches adulthood.
18. Passage to India by E M Forster
This is a novel reviewing the disturbed and troubled relationship between India and the westerners who colonized it, and the resistance of the colonizers to the understood sensuality of the East. Adela Quested travels to India to be with her fiancé and is shown around by the enthusiastic local doctor named Aziz. Their interracial friendship aftermath is accusations of rape.
19. Around India in 80 Trains by Monisha Rajesh
Are you making a list of books to read before going to India? This book should be there on your list!
This novel is about unforgettable waiters, narrations of police raids, and unremembered luggage. And the inquisitiveness of fellow passengers who believe that sharing the same compartment means they can share the most personal, confidential and embarrassing specifics of each other’s lives. Along the journey, the narrator, Rajesh, learns to appreciate the Indian Author, Chetan Bhagat.
Monisha Rajesh’s ‘Around India In 80 Trains’, is a fascinating and absorbing account of a figurative journey of exploring India, through its enormous railway network.
20. A Princess Remembers: The Memoirs of the Maharani of Jaipur by Devi Gayatri
This is an innermost and personal look at the astonishing yet phenomenal life of one of the world’s most captivating women and a not-so-formal account of the history of the princely states of India, from the mighty princess’ to their current state of de-certification.
21. Great Indian Novel by Shashi Tharoor
This is a narrative analogous to the infamous Hindu mythology ‘Mahabharatha,’ only re-casted with the most eminent political figures from the country’s post-partition struggle.
22. The City of Joy By Dominique Lapierre
This has a detailed insight into the courageous underbelly of Kolkata and the swamis that call its downsized hospitals home. Amongst all the books to read before going to India, ‘The City of Joy’ makes for a great factoid when travelling to India! The book puts jubilant leper weddings, kite flying competitions on the festival of Sankranti and pure, unfiltered nobleness in the limelight, without hesitating to discuss the old and broken surroundings in which these delights are borne.
23. Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts
Books to read before going to India also include this masterpiece- ‘Shantaram’ by Gregory Roberts. The narrative of an Australian fugitive who runs off to India and his experiences in the nation from the Mumbai slums, to small rural towns & Arthur Road Prison are all there in this book.’
Pretty much as thick as the Lonely Planet Guidebook, this novel is definitely a must-read if you are planning a trip to India.
24. 2 States- Chetan Bhagat
So, what happens when a girl and a boy from two completely different backgrounds, different states, and different religions fall in love and have a desire to marry? Obviously, their parents fail to agree. To alter their love story into a love marriage, the couple will have a tiring and challenging battle to fight, for it is easier to fight and rebel, instead of persuading.
Will their love story make it?
To know all of it, read this amazing book ‘2 States‘.
25. Freedom at Midnight by Larry Collins, Dominique Lapierre
This is an extremely chronicled description of the development post partition of India in 1947 and 1948. It begins with the selection of Lord Mountbatten of Burma as the last Viceroy and ends with the passing away of Mahatma Gandhi.
Here’s a bonus suggestion for you!
India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy by Ramchandra Guha
A piece demonstrating the structure and story of the prehistoric Indian nation after it received independence from its colonizers on 15 August of the year 1947, ‘India after Gandhi’ was selected Book of the Year by esteemed newspapers, such as – The Economist, The Wall Street Journal and Outlook. The book also won the Sahitya Akademi Award for English in the year 2011.
The book was declared one of the best non-fiction books of the decade. Gandhi has been pivotal in how contemporary India turned out to be, and that is why this is one of the books to read before going to India.
Here’s something you might be interested in reading, click here.
India is such a country that here, every turning of the road has a story to tell. Many additions could be made to the list of books to read before going to India. But I hope this list was sufficient to help you!