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The Idea of India: A Fictional Reading List

Looking at Fiction to build a better Idea of India

From Rudyard Kipling to Vikram Chandra- its worth looking at the books that best describe India in this Election Year.

Earlier in this issue, we wondered whether it was at all possible to present a unified ‘idea of India. As it often does at MBRB, the discussion turned over to books, and we were left pondering- should we have to describe India to an absolute stranger,what are the books we’d recommend to them?

This is NOT about our favourite Indian books, or even our most loved Indian writers (In my case that list would comprise of all the beautiful books published by Tara, A Suitable Boy and The Moor’s Last Sigh), but about stories that explain a facet of this country with an empathy and a unique insight.

These are the narratives we ended up choosing:

India as a Bollywood Playground

So much about modern-day India is pure unadulterated melodrama- from the political speeches, to a nationwide love of terrible puns,  to our festivals and weddings which have been converted into Bollywoodized facsimiles of their original selves. And no book captures that as perfectly as Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games. It is a story as much about world domination and international espionage as it is about small stakes and personal moments and two men with diametrically opposite views. In a different time those men would have been played by Amitabh Bachchan and Pran in a Prakash Mehra film, today they could be played by actorly actors in a quiet indie film. But what doesn’t change is the five-senses-exploding intensity of the story, and for that, it makes it to this list.

The India of the Economic Miracles and Crises

For the last twenty years, India has been struggling to re-invent itself as an economic superpower. The results have been decidedly mixed- while life has never been better for a kind of young urban upwardly mobile professional, the widening income gap remains as ugly and indisputable as the sight of the Antila. Aravind Adiga‘s background as a journalist helps him craft The White Tiger- the story of a driver standing silent witness to the excesses of his “masters”. That he himself has ambitions, or even some kind of an inner life is of no interest to those in the back seat. Symbolic perhaps of a country that refuses to recognize the people who are keeping its engines running?

The India at the stroke of the midnight hour 

In all our cynicism and despair, it is easy to forget that not too long ago we were a nation standing on the cusp of history, young and coltish, with an inspirational if slightly-over-his-head leader, boundless optimism and self belief. We were also – at the same moment- a nation mourning its breaking into two fractured halves.  In his bombastic prose, written with a desire to dazzle, Salman Rushdie captures both the aspects of that momentous occasion in Midnight’s ChildrenThen with a magic realists’ pen, he narrates the history of the first twenty five odd years after Independence in the deeply personally ‘felt’ way only he can. We may disagree with a lot of late-Rusdhie, where the skill has been replaced by a kind of hubris and self-obsession, but this book remains a perfect encapsulation of the first few decades after Independence.

The India of the politically disenfranchised

This year will mark 30 years of the Bhopal Gas Disaster. There will likely be a candlelight vigil, a few sensitive pieces on the survivors, and perhaps even a congratulatory piece on how Bhopal has recovered from what is widely regarded as the world’s greatest industrial disaster. But the activists who continue to work to seek justice for the victims will remain unnamed and largely forgotten. Indra Sinha changed all of that for a moment in 2007, when his viciously funny and ugly Animal’s People was nominated for the Man Booker prize. The book puts a name and a face and an unforgettable voice to those left behind by unmindful industrialisation, and is a cautionary environmental fable that everyone in support of unmitigated growth must read.

The India of the Small Towns

So many of India’s finest writers write from their tenured positions in American Universities about the large urban centres of their childhood, that it is easy to forget how much of India’s population still lives in small towns. RK Narayan’s Malgudi Days  remains a much loved relic of a kind of life that the rest of pop culture no longer chronicles. The near-fable like stories may celebrate the simple joys of living, but it is the undercurrent of sadness in them that makes them special. Like everything else in India, darkness always lurks right by the side of light and fluffy

The India that Refuses to Learn from History

Rohinton Mistry’s books-and their unflinching depiction of Mumbai-can be a bit of an acquired taste. He doesn’t peddle in exoticism, or take detours to make things easier for his Western readers. You are expected to keep up with the history that provides a subtext to the quietly desperate lives in the foreground. In A Fine Balance, he shines a light on the different ways humans persecute humans based on caste, religion, gender or social class. In the stunning second half of the book, the loss of civil liberties due to the Emergency supersedes all human interactions, and magnifies these differences tenfold. This one’s not a pretty read, but a necessary read, especially for those who believe that this can’t happen to them again.

The India of Gungadin

A huge part of our collective national psyche has been formed over 150 years of British rule- not least of which is a feeling of inadequacy in our ‘brownness’ and a strong desire to both emulate and compete with the Colonial West. A lot of Rudyard Kipling reads racist in today’s day and time. But Kim and his love for The Great Game remains one of our favourite books. It is a book worth reading (and re-reading) as a description of the British ambivalence about colonialism and the pull of the ‘mystical’ East which continues to foster twenty more inferior books each year. It is also, quite simply, a very entertaining story.

The India of Mythology

As a rip-roaring epic tale with adventure, intrigue and juicy denouements , even the Game of Thrones has nothing on the Mahabharata. But it is Ramayana that one must read for the important role it has played in shaping India’s morality and social structures for thousands of years (for better or for worse). While Ashok Banker’s version converts the story into a dramatic manga-inspired narrative, it is too long for our taste, and for a nice modern re-telling of the myth we recommend Sita’s Ramayana by Samhita Arni. A short graphic novel targeted towards young adults, the book details Ramayana from the point of view of Sita- who feels enormously empathetic to the many women who are left picking up the pieces of the war between Rama and Ravana. And with its cosmic irreverence and bright animations, Sanjay Patel’s Ramayana:Divine Loophole makes a good companion piece to this book.

Also read in Non Fiction: William Dalrymple’s City of Djinns, P Sainath’s Everyone Loves a Good Drought, Ramachandra Guha’s The India After Gandhi, Mukul Kesavan’s Men in White, VS Naipaul’s India- A Million Mutinies Now, Gurcharan Das’ The Difficulty of Being Good.

My Big Red Bag brings original content inspired by life’s joys and passions. Check out other articles from our Women & Politics issue, and stay tuned to our latest content by following us on Twitter and FB. See you on the other side!

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