Books and travel – two of my favourite things. For me, they go hand-in-hand. Like gin and tonic.
When I first visited India back in 1993, I was a fresh faced blonde and blue-eyed 21-year-old with, as it turned out, not a clue about what I was getting into. In the days before every corner of the world was photographed and plastered all over Instagram, I’d walked blindly into the biggest culture shock of my life.
Delhi stank. Children ran around in rags, barefoot and tugged on my arm begging for a few rupees. The poverty made my heart ache and it wasn’t something I was remotely prepared for. To pass the time (and overcome my anxiety) I started reading Lonely Planet India, an 1100-page tome with a beautiful photograph of the Pink Palace, Jaipur’s Palace of the Winds, on the cover. And, quietly, India started to work her magic on me, as I planned my escape from dirty Delhi to the desert world of Rajasthan, and to the beautiful Taj Mahal and the romantic stories of Shah Jahan and his beloved wife, Mumtaz.
Back in those heady pre-internet times, Lonely Planet was known as ‘The Bible’ of travel guides. It was your most precious travel possession, your most useful gadget! No-one booked ahead. You just turned up, told the hotel owner your budget and just took what was available. In fact once, in Hampi, the accommodation on offer turned out to be a cow shed!
Of course, we still use Lonely Planet’s guides, albeit as Kindle downloads. I won’t lie, I still prefer a proper book with pages and everything! But, simple access to electronic books has made travelling and reading so much easier.
Which made me think – from the dozens of books on India I’ve read over the years, which of those would I recommend to anybody who’s thinking of travelling there? And so here – in no particular order – is my Top 10 books about this amazing country, along with my reasons for why I think they’re so special.
DISCLAIMER: The following recommendations also include links to Amazon just in case you wish to purchase. If you do decide to buy this way we’ll receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. Just think of it as a way to help this blog continue to thrive! Most of the links are for Kindle versions of the books. But, of course, if you’d prefer the paper version you’ll find the appropriate link on the same page.
Lonely Planet India (Travel Guide) is still the starting point for most travellers and remains a valuable and trusted resource. This, despite the dreaded Lonely Planet curse that says that any recommended hotels or guest houses invariably apply an immediate price increase in anticipation of the sudden increase in demand.
I’ve still got my 1993 copy, too!
The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga, is a Booker Prize winner and a real page turner. It follows the story of Balram Halwai, whose impoverished family remove him from school to work in a mundane, thankless job. Balram’s star seems to be on the ascent however when a rich man employs him to chauffeur his family. It’s a commentary on the poverty and class system that exists in India today, and which you will witness and no doubt question countless times on your journey.
I really struggled with the attention I received from men of all ages on that first trip. They openly stared, whispered lewd comments, and on far too many occasions copped a quick feel. In hindsight, I could have done with a copy of Wanderlust and Lipstick: For Women Traveling to India. But unfortunately, it hadn’t been published then!
It’s a great guide, full of practical advice on how to approach the madness, and avoid turning into a blubbering, frightened mess – like I was on my first visit.
Back in 1993, I knew I wanted to take a year out after I’d graduated. And, as a “gap year” student, I desperately need to raise some funds to satisfy my wanderlust. The best-paid job happened to be twelve-hour shifts, working in a Christmas Cracker factory. For those of you that are neither British, Irish or from a Commonwealth country, they’re a festive tradition consisting of a cardboard tube wrapped in gaudy paper, with a gift, a paper hat and a written joke stuffed inside. I made those. For five months. The only saving grace was sharing my work station with a lovely Indian Grandma, who shared her stories of back home, filling my head with the pictures she painted of the sights, smells and foodie delights of her beloved India.
She knew I was working to save enough to go travelling. And so the culinary bombardment began. Almost daily a Tupperware container was presented to me. A quick peek under the lid filled my nose with the aroma of perfectly triangular samosas. Highly spiced pakoras made with vegetables I’d never heard of. Sweets bejewelled with gold and silver leaf. And curries that have left an imprint on my foodie memory to this day.
She had of course been cooking for me many of the street foods that you’ll find all over India. Freshly prepared in front of you, they’re some of the tastiest and cheapest meals on the planet. And if you want to recreate them I can highly recommend the beautifully presented Chai, Chaat & Chutney: a street food journey through India by Chetna Mayan. I’ll happily be a taste tester for you, too!
Before I went, I needed to do my research. I’d read Kipling, of course, and The Jungle Book was one of my childhood favourites. Its collection of stories using animals as characters to teach lessons in morality appealed to my ‘by the book’ personality. It’s still one of the classics, and if you’re planning on visiting any of the National Parks whilst you’re in India, this will definitely fire your imagination!
I wanted to learn something about Indian history, too. My History & Politics degree had given me a decent grasp of it, but the magical Booker Prize winning Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie took my education to another level. It is a beautifully written piece of fiction, exploring the transition of India from British colonialism to Independence, through the country’s partition. It took me on a tour, offering an insight into Indian cultural history and the struggles that partition brought, as I followed its characters to Kashmir, Lahore, Agra and Mumbai.
Don’t miss it if you’re planning on going to India. It’ll give you a great feel for the country and its history.
If you’re looking for a non-fiction book that details British withdrawal and the subsequent horrors of Partition, look no further than Stanley Wolpert’s Shameful Flight: The Last Years of the British Empire in India. It’s unapologetic in its criticism of the arrogance and ignorance of the major political players, including Mountbatten and Gandhi. For me, it’s a must read for anyone heading to India.
After those first few days in India, I gave myself a stern talking to and ventured out into the streets of Delhi’s Main Bazaar, soaking up the smells, sights and sounds. I bought chaat masala from street vendors and drank iced mango juice from little terracotta cups before smashing them on the floor – like everyone else did. And yes, I quickly grew to love the place.
William Dalrymple’s City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi is a part-historical account, part-contemporary experience, and it’s a fascinating portrait of a vibrant, addictive city. I read it some years after I’d returned from Delhi and it has inspired me to return there ever since. And it will give you a great insight into the layers of chaos and characters you’re bound to meet, should you visit!
In the end, I spent almost five months on that first trip to India. And I was to hold it in my heart for many years. During that time, one book I read really stood out for me – Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts. It’s a book about a convicted Australian bank robber who escaped jail and fled to India. Based in Bombay (now Mumbai), Roberts tells the true story of the eight years he spent in the Bombay underworld. I couldn’t put this one down, and Roberts’ descriptions and experiences of the country left me yearning to go back!
If you’d rather just gaze at beautiful pictures, there’s one book you’ll definitely want on your coffee table – the epic India by Steve McCurry. As one of the most eminent travel photographers in the world, he shares with us his iconic photography from thirty years of travelling around this amazing country. Truly stunning.
I eventually went back to India nearly a quarter of a century later as one-half of the Above Us Only Skies team. Again our journey began in Delhi, and we were pretty much scammed within seconds! But true to form, we were to discover true kindness and hospitality for the rest of our stay there. The beauty of India is that it’s just so diverse. Each region is like an individually wrapped present full of unique customs, religions, food and landscape. It’s addictive and keeps enticing you to go back for more!
For those of you who are yet to plunge into this wonderful and vast subcontinent, you might like to pick a few of these books to give you a taste of what’s to come. They’ll even stir up memories for those of you that have already visited. Or just give you that nudge to start planning your next adventure there very soon!
What did you think? Have you been to India? Or perhaps you have some suggested books on India you’d like to share? Either way, we’d love to hear from you so please add your comments below.
Hi, we’re Ian and Nicky, an English couple on a voyage of discovery around the world, and this blog is designed to reflect what we see, think and do. Actually, we’d like to think it also provides information, entertainment and inspiration for other “mature” travellers, too. So please feel free to pour yourself a glass of something suitably chilled and take a look around.