If you’ve never been to India, you’ll find it hard to imagine what it’s like. For starters, the country’s 1.3 billion people are crowded into an area approximately one-third the size of the United States (which is home to one-third the number of people). Walk the streets in any one of India’s five megacities (Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Bengaluru, and Chennai), and you’ll understand just how crowded a country can become. Each of them has a population of more than ten million, and two have nearly twice that many.
Then hire a Hindi-speaking guide and try to communicate with anyone outside the north, and you’ll see what it’s like for people to speak 780 different languages in a single country. (In fairness, only 22 of those languages are acknowledged in the Indian Constitution, and only 30 were spoken by more than a million people each, according to the 2001 census.)
Finally, try the food in the country’s south after a visit to Delhi or Agra. When your mouth recovers from the spicy heat, you’ll realize that culinary and other cultural differences vary just as widely as the linguistic ones. India is, in a word, the most diverse place on Earth.
The most diverse country on Earth—and one of the poorest
Currently, India is also one of the poorest nations on the planet. But that wasn’t always the case. Until about 200 years ago, India was (along with China) the most prosperous country on Earth. At its current rate of economic growth, it’s not out of the question that the country will eventually become one of the wealthiest nations on the planet once again. And soon it is projected to pass China and become the most populous as well.
The 25 books listed below can hardly do justice to such a massive subject as the history and culture of India. But they’re full of insight. You can’t go wrong starting with these books as an introduction to what I regard as the most fascinating country on Earth.
Good books about India: nonfiction
The Patient Assassin by Anita Anand—The story of the Amritsar Massacre that sped up the Indian independence movement
Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo—A searing look at poverty in India that reads like a novel
A History of Future Cities by Daniel Brook—Urbanization, globalization and the future of humanity
The Billionaire Raj: A Journey Through India’s New Gilded Age by James Crabtree—A vivid portrait of India’s new Gilded Age and the billionaires at its center
India After Gandhi by Ramachandra Guha—A look back at India’s history after independence by one of the country’s leading historians
Serious Men by Manu Joseph—A comic novel about India today, and Big Science, too
Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power by Robert D. Kaplan—The geopolitical reality behind the “pivot to Asia”
Incarnations: A History of India in Fifty Lives by Sunil Khilnani—Indian history portrayed through biography
Good books about India: fiction
Between the Assassinations by Aravind Adiga—India’s diversity under a microscope
Last Man in Tower by Aravind Adiga—A compelling portrait of Indian society today
Sea of Poppies (Ibis Trilogy #1) by Amitav Ghosh—A superb historical novel about the opium trade by Amitav Ghosh
River of Smoke (Ibis Trilogy #2) by Amitav Ghosh—A brilliant Indian novel about the First Opium War
Flood of Fire (Ibis Trilogy #3) by Amitav Ghosh—An outstanding Indian novelist looks at the Opium War
The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh—River dolphins, man-eating tigers, and a massive cyclone on the Bay of Bengal
The Case of the Missing Servant (Vish Puri #1) by Tarquin Hall—Vish Puri is either India’s #1 private investigator or #2
The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing (Vish Puri #2) by Tarquin Hall—Vish Puri and the case of the man who died laughing
The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken (Vish Puri #3) by Tarquin Hall—India’s #1 private detective is an unforgettable character
The Case of the Love Commandos (Vish Puri #4) by Tarquin Hall—India’s #1 private detective and the Love Commandos
The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri—A haunting tale of love and loss spanning India and America
A Burning by Megha Majumdar—Terrorism, corruption, and Hindu nationalism in India today
The Widows of Malabar Hill (Perveen Mistry #1) by Sujata Massey—The first woman lawyer in Bombay solves a baffling mystery
The Satapur Moonstone (Perveen Mistry #2) by Sujata Massey—A murder mystery set in colonial India highlights the princely states
A Rising Man (Wyndham and Banerjee #1) by Abir Mukherjee—A brilliant historical detective novel set in India following World War I
A Necessary Evil (Wyndham and Banerjee #2) by Abir Mukherjee—A royal murder in colonial India with hundreds of suspects
Smoke and Ashes (Wyndham and Banerjee #3) by Abir Mukherjee—A brilliantly constructed murder mystery set in colonial Calcutta
The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee—The human toll of social change
I’ve rated all 20 books listed above as either @@@@ or @@@@@ (4 or 5 out of 5). The exception is the history by Ramachandra Guha, which I read before launching this blog and thus haven’t reviewed. But it would surely deserve the highest rating. However, I’ve read and reviewed two additional books about India. Neither one of them warranted such a high rating. But both, in their own ways, offer perspective on India today. They’re worth reading if you’re intent on understanding the country in the early 21st century.
The Windfall by Diksha Basu—Sudden wealth, arranged marriages, and class envy in India today
Selection Day by Aravind Adiga—An Indian novelist celebrates cricket
There is one additional book worthy of mention. The Emperor of Maladies is only incidentally about India. The author is the son of Indian physicians, and they play a significant role in his account about the history and treatment of cancer. So does Indian culture.
The Emperor of All Maladies: A History of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee—A cancer researcher looks at the disease most of us fear above all
For further reading
You might also be interested in:
- 20 top nonfiction books about history plus 80 other good books;
- Science explained in 10 excellent popular books (plus dozens of others); and
- 20 most enlightening historical novels (plus dozens of runners-up).
And you can always find my most popular reviews, and the most recent ones, plus a guide to this whole site, on the Home Page.