14 books to read before you go to India

At Ampersand we feel that to really make the most of your holiday it pays off to swot up and do a bit of homework before you fly. Indians are avid readers and throughout the country, as well as at airports and hotels, you will find excellent bookshops, stocking titles on everything from art and religion to food and natural history – and, of course, novels. We have compiled our top list of guides and books, all of which are personal recommendations, but it is by no means definitive!

Guides

A Traveller’s History of India by Sinharaja Tammita-Delgoda

This pocket-sized book covers India’s history from 1500BC to the present day with short, manageable chapters on, amongst other things, the Aryan and Mughal dynasties and the Raj period, accompanied by maps and sketches. It can be difficult to obtain so is worth ordering as early as possible.

A Concise History of Modern India by Barbara and Thomas Metcalf

Reprinted in 2006, the Metcalfs’ popular work manages to encompass the sprawl of India’s history, culture and religions in a single, relatively slender volume. The updated version includes the Hindu Nationalist Party’s loss of control of Congress and the extraordinary impact of modern technology.

Biographies

A Princess Remembers: The Memoirs of the Maharani of Jaipur by Devi Gayatri

A highly personal and detailed memoir by one of India’s most famous Maharanis, with descriptions of parties, hunting and everyday life prior to Independence, as well as the changes that came afterwards. The book is illustrated throughout with photographs from her childhood in the 1920s up until the 1990s.

City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi by William Dalrymple

Dalrymple lived in Delhi in the 1990s while working as a journalist, and this book describes his encounters, with its residents as well as his exploration of the city, from its earliest origins to its modern incarnation. Dalrymple’s other books on India include The Age of Kali, The White Mughals and The Last Mughal.

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Art and architecture

The Royal palace of India by George Michell and Antonio Martinelli

This sumptuous coffee table book not only has gorgeous photographs of India’s numerous palaces – including many far lesser known examples, as well as the greats such as the Umaid Bhawan and Jaipur’s Pink Palace – but architectural diagrams, floor plans and erudite, well-researched text by Michell.

Made for Maharajas: A Design Diary of Princely India by Amin Jaffer

Former curator of the V&A’s Asian Art department, now International Director of Asian Art at Christie’s, Jaffer has an eye for detail and social history. The sheer opulence of the jewellery – stones and settings – is breathtaking, but the book also encompasses ornaments, costume, cars, furniture and tableware.

History and travel

The Indian Mutiny by Julian Spilsbury

An examination of the bloody events of 1857, when the Indian sepoys rose against the East India Company, culminating in May attacks on several settlements, most notoriously Cawnpore. Also known as the ‘First War of Indian Independence’, the Mutiny resulted in 90 years of direct rule from Britain.

Around India in 80 Trains by Monisha Rajesh

Rajesh returns to India as an English native, keen to explore her Indian roots. A charming, funny and compassionate story unfolds as she learns what it feels like to be a foreigner in her mother country. The book celebrates the great aspects of India; its people and its railways and is an excellent account of the ever-changing, mad and modern country.

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Novels

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

The best-selling story of two children and their divorced mother in Kerala during the 1960s. With compelling characters and fine insight into the Syrian Christians of the region, it is an ideal holiday read especially for those travelling to South India.

A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth

Already a modern classic, Seth’s Indian epic saga charts the lives of four families in post-independent India. At the centre of the story lies Lata, with her mother’s strong desire to find her a husband, or a ‘suitable boy’.

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

Set in the 1970s when India was governed by Indira Gandhi and locked in the Emergency, the story follows four characters whose lives become interwoven as they try to survive the dramatic changes, both personally and socially. It is warm and deeply moving and will stay with you long afterwards.

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

Winner of the 2008 Booker Prize, ‘The White Tiger’ is a dark tale of class divide in modern India. Balram Halwai, the novel’s protagonist and son of a poor rickshaw-puller, stumbles across an opportunity and becomes the chauffeur of a rich businessman. However, he soon discovers that climbing the social ladder comes at a steep price.

Classics

Kim by Rudyard Kipling

This coming-of-age story follows Kim, a quicksilver-bright Irish orphan born in Lahore, who joins an elderly Lama making a pilgrimage across India. In doing so, he encounters the whole colourful gamut of Indian life, becomes involved in the ‘Great Game’ and reaches manhood.

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Passage to India by E M Forster

A novel reflecting the uneasy relationship between India and its colonisers, and the resistance of the latter to the perceived sensuality of the East. Adela Quested comes out to India to join her fiancé and is shown around by the eager local doctor, Aziz. Their interracial friendship results in accusations of rape.

James Jayasundera is Founder and Managing Director of Ampersand Travel.

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