The 20 Essential Indian Novels

India’s ancient, volatile history, multicultural and multiethnic heritage, and varied geography make it a hotbed for amazing literature. Unfortunately, so few of its vast offerings garner much recognition or renown in the United States. Bibliophiles and students hoping to delve into the dazzling array of Indian literature available might want to consider this list a great, diverse start; however, by no means does this downplay the importance or value of other writers and works.

  1. Untouchable (1935) by Mulk Raj Anand: Untouchable bluntly dives into the plight of the Dalit caste, situated at the desperately poor, sick bottom of the then-rigid social hierarchy. Author Mulk Raj Anand found inspiration in his aunt’s experience dining with a Muslim family and subsequent shunning. From there, he crafted an eloquent, exceptionally compelling case against dissolving the caste system and creating more opportunities for the marginalized and invisible.
  2. Nectar in a Sieve (1954) by Kamala Markandaya: This highly acclaimed bildungsroman pulled directly from author Kamala Markandaya’s life experiences. As India segues into a more urban, industrialized nation, 12-year-old protagonist Rukmani finds herself in an arranged marriage with Nathan. Both of them struggle to raise children and meet their needs as neighborhood dynamics shift in the wake of a tannery’s opening.
  3. The Ramayana, as Told by Aubrey Menen (1954) by Aubrey Menen: Anyone easily offended by religious satires may want to stay away from this novel, but those open enough to give it a chance will find it a nifty little gem. Here, beloved Hindu epic The Ramayana forms the basis of a comedic tale that whipped up controversy and resulted in a temporary banning. Despite all this fervor, author Aubrey Menen clearly respected his source material and merely meant to make light of it from a then-contemporary perspective.
  4. Train to Pakistan (1956) by Khushwant Singh: So much post-partition Indian literature emphasizes the political ramifications, the ways it impacted the populace on a more personal, intimate level receives little acknowledgment. Khushwant Singh hoped to derail this mindset by weaving an evocative tale of Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs waging battle over a murder. It remains a highly effective glimpse into one of India’s most volatile periods — which currently continues to influence the region’s overall geopolitical climate.
  5. Clear Light of Day (1980) by Anita Desai: Anita Desai’s semi-autobiographical novel watches family dynamics shift alongside India’s partitioning by British colonials. Many of the internal fractures deftly parallel those found externally, and the narrative speaks about broad and intimate themes and situations simultaneously. Ultimately, though, forgiveness begins to seep into everyone’s various wounds.
  6. Midnight’s Children (1981) by Salman Rushdie: Postcolonial tropes and magic realism collide into one oft-lauded, Booker-winning read. Internationally controversial author Salman Rushdie lays down some loose allegories regarding the British occupation of India, analyzing how the nation changed entirely because of the cultural, political and economic invasion. All if it unfolds through the eyes of the Sinai family; one member discovers that children born the hour after India’s independence come packaged with some startling supernatural talents.
  7. A Tiger for Malgudi (1983) by R.K. Narayan: In blessed solitude, a tiger and a monk eke away the rest of their lives. But the eponymous former, who also serves as the novel’s narrator, once experienced horrific abuse at the hands of humans – brutality which ended up causing him to lash out, kill and terrorize a small Indian village. Despite the feline protagonist, A Tiger for Malgudi sports a wholly human core.
  8. The Great Indian Novel (1989) by Shashi Tharoor: One of the greatest Indian satires of all time, this novel pokes considerable fun at everything from history to religion to literary traditions and pretty much everything else it can stuff. Here, The Mahabharata receives a thoroughly modern makeover, transplanted into an India after finally gaining independence. Nobody, not even beloved national icons such as Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohandas Ghandi, are spared Shashi Tharoor’s provocative, humorous pen.
  9. That Long Silence (1989) by Shashi Deshpande: Feminist journalist Shashi Deshpande used That Long Silence to reveal the social plight of Indian women. Even well-educated, progressive females still felt (and, to this day, feel) the intense tugs of tradition and family expectations. Deshpande dissects how some might end up if they go against their own desires and allow marriage, children and a homebound lifestyle to encroach.
  10. The Thousand Faces of Night (1992) by Githa Hariharan: Female roles in Indian culture comprise one of the many foundations of its literary scene, especially as they pertain to increased modernization. Githa Hariharan’s Commonwealth Prize winner pits tradition against progress and infuses her tense narrative with elements of her country’s rich religious and storytelling heritage. Even those unable to relate to some of the social specifics can still identify with the overarching desire for freedom and individuality.
  11. A Suitable Boy (1993) by Vikram Seth: Following the partitioning, central character Rupa Mehra spends 18 months finding “a suitable boy” for her daughter Lata to wed. Vikram Seth’s veritable brick of a novel simultaneously satirizes and plays straight the traditional matchmaking process, apparent especially in Lata’s reluctance to go along with her family’s nuptial wishes. From a broader perspective, the book also dissects how the suitors themselves — as well as their parents — and the whole of India feel and shift as a result of Britain’s meddling.
  12. Red Earth and Pouring Rain (1995) by Vikram Chandra: Loosely based on the life of James Skinner, the deeply philosophical Red Earth and Pouring Rain blends history, religion and culture into a thoroughly provocative, intelligent read. After sustaining injury at the hands of a hunting college student, a wee monkey reveals its status as the reincarnation of 19th Century poet and activist Sanjay Parasher. In a wonderful nod to A Thousand and One Nights, the simian must tell stories about his past life every day if he hopes to stay alive.
  13. The God of Small Things (1997) by Arundhati Roy: Arundhati Roy’s debut — and, so far, only — novel earned her a Booker Prize in 2007. As reflected in the title, she painstakingly explores how even the tiniest of actions might very well reverberate into something earth-shattering. Settings and time periods shift to show the history of one Kerala family, peeling back the tragedies and triumphs as it grew and moved.
  14. Cuckold (1997) by Kiran Nagarkar: The life of Bhoj Raj, husband of Vaishnava bhakti saint, singer, poet and mystic Meerabai, greatly inspired Kiran Nagarkar’s Sahitya Akademi Award-winning novel. Like many biographies, this one does take liberties with reality, so try not to turn towards the book as a definitive resource. Cuckold features the titular action in a metaphorical sense rather than a literal one, focusing on how the central character may have felt with deity Krishna earning so much of his wife’s devotion.
  15. The Everest Hotel: A Calendar (1998) by Allan Sealy: This Booker finalist drags its readers into a world of emptiness and decay. Within the walls of the eponymous structure — and its accompanying graveyard — sit a flurry of bitter memories and spotty histories. And at the center of it all is its proprietor, whose dementia and loneliness slowly overtake him.
  16. The Death of Vishnu (2001) by Manil Suri: Step inside a Bombay apartment complex, seen through the eyes of its alcoholic caretaker as he dies on its steps. Surrounding him are his neighbors — an argumentative lot more concerned about one another’s affairs than the mortal scene before them. Meanwhile, the titular figure phases through his memories of the place in a manner at once hilarious, tragic and provocatively philosophical.
  17. The House of Blue Mangoes (2002) by David Davidar: Former Penguin International CEO David Davidar transitioned from publishing to authoring with 2002’s The House of Blue Mangoes. Over three generations, a family contends with social and political upheaval, both of which involve India’s struggle for independence and the dissolution of the caste hierarchy. And the last remaining hope for the name’s survival possesses a few ideas of his own…
  18. The Namesake (2003) by Jhumpa Lahiri: Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, despite its deserved and perpetual renown, did not qualify for this list because it is a short story collection. The Namesake, however, continues with the Pulitzer-winning book’s central theme of dual cultural identity. A Bengali couple grapples with an entirely unfamiliar life in Massachusetts, unable to fully integrate themselves into the brand new surroundings. Their son, embittered over his mistaken name, envelopes himself in defensiveness, partying and women, hoping something will someday start making sense.
  19. The Inheritance of Loss (2006) by Kiran Desai: This heavily decorated read juxtaposes the very different lives of Biju and Sai, dissecting the various cultural experiences of Indians abroad and domestic alike. Biju ekes out a miserable existence as an illegal immigrant in the United States, while Sai’s Anglo sensibilities and mannerisms clash with her family’s traditions. Beyond the postcolonial themes, Kiran Desai also explores the volatile relationships between India’s vast Muslim and Buddhist populations.
  20. The White Tiger (2008) by Aravind Adiga: Sociopolitical issues of modern-day India receive an expert dissection at the hand of this decorated author, who earned the Man Booker Prize for his efforts. The nation continues to swell into an economic superpower, but continues to harbor a massive underclass forced into a life of poverty, squalor and few opportunities. Alongside the crushing binary of rich and poor, Aravind Adiga also reflects ideas of family and independence, Hinduism and Islam, society and politics, multiculturalism and plenty more hallmarks of a contemporary postcolonial nation.

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