There are two types of people in the world: those who think Shantaram is a great book; and those who think it is a spew of virulent air, driven by the criminal mind and maniacal ego of its Australian pseudo-writer. I guess you can tell which type of person I am. This post is 10 suggestions for books about India that are better than Shantaram.
I tried to read Shantaram when I was living in Delhi, but ended up literally throwing it across the room. I thought it was poorly written and more about the fevered imagination of its writer than about India. In fact, it offers very little insight into India, if you ask me; and the longer I spend in India getting to know it, the more true this statement becomes.
Since that time, however, I’ve read lots and lots of book about India, by Indians and foreigners, and almost all of them are much, much better. Except Eat, Pray, Love. If you actually want to know something about India — rather than about an ego-driven writer — I suggest the following 10 books, in no particular order.
(If you want to learn more about a book, below, hover your cursor over the image; and to buy it, simply click on the image and you will be whisked to the U.S. Amazon site.)
1. A Search in Secret India by Paul Brunton. A cult classic, this book was published in 1934 and it’s about the author’s sincere, strange and ultimately inspiring search for spiritual truth in India. After many false starts, dead-ends and kooky run-ins, he lands at the feet of Sri Ramana Maharishi. Which in itself a metaphor for the spiritual journey. This is the book that introduced Sri Ramana Maharishi to the west (and he still remains one of the greatest Indian saints of the 20th century).
2. Empire of the Soul by Paul William Roberts. This is the book I hope Shantaram readers graduate to read. It is about two lengthy trips journalist Roberts took to India, separated by many years; and about how he reconciles some of the extraordinary experiences he had there. Roberts is known for hard-boiled books about war-torn countries like Iraq, so when he writes about his spiritual awakening, it rings true.
3. Out of India by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. The introduction to this book of short stories is alone worth the price of the book. It’s hands-down the best piece of writing I have ever read about what it is like to be a foreigner in India. Absolutely priceless. If you recognize her name, it’s because she was the screen-writer for the Merchant-Ivory film productions (including A Passage to India, see #6.)
4. India’s Unending Journey by Mark Tully. Mark Tully was the BBC’s chief correspondent in India for many years. He has the character to overcome his profession’s limitations and admit that the chief thing he learned in India was to be certain only about uncertainty. And he says it’s the most valuable thing he has ever learned.
5. India: A Million Mutinies Now by V.S. Naipul. What can I say? It’s the classic. Personally, I admire this book more than I like it.
6. Passage to India by E.M. Forster. Very recently, the Consul General of India in Toronto — a remarkably cultured woman — told me she thought Forster really captured India in this book. I told her I feel like Fielding. Mutual understanding was firmly established. It was the best book I studied at university, I still remember the discussion about the meaning of the Marabar Caves. The film is good too!
7. Maximum City by Suketu Mehta. This is one of the best books I have read recently. It has an ambitious scope and many small wonderful moments, and seemed Dickensian to me in its attempt to capture the spirit of the times in a big, broiling, magnificent city. This is Bombay (Mumbai): gangsters and hero cops, foot-path poets and down-to-earth movie stars. You will learn a lot more about what Bombay is really about in this book than in Shantaram.
8. Kim by Rudyard Kipling. This is my favourite book of all time. If you’ve never read it, throw out everything you think you know about Kipling, who was the most famous writer of his time. The book follows the story of teenage Kim, son of an Irish immigrant and ‘friend of all the world’, who travels the roads of India with his guru, an elderly Tibetan lama on a spiritual quest for a river of enlightenment. It is unique and uncanny in its ability to absolutely immerse you into the scene and the story. You can feel the oppressive heat of the plains and the crisp air of the mountains. You can imagine Kim’s excitement about rejoining his friend on the road after a stint locked-up at school. You can feel the old man’s pain as his quest seems to elude him, and the love he engenders in Kim, his disciple. And you will be carried away by the transcendent ending.
9. City of Djinns by William Dalrymple. I was torn, not sure which Dalrymple book to put on this list. They are all good, especially Nine Lives. He is a solid as a rock in terms of research, reporting and writing. But this is his first book about India and it’s about Delhi (Dilli), my home-away-from home in India — and in fact, his real home. He lives there now. He has an Indian soul. The book is both a personal narrative about living in India for a year and about the history of Delhi. (And if there’s one thing Delhi has, aside from crowds of people and traffic, it’s history.) It’s by turns informative and funny. I keep intending to find out if International Backside taxi stand really exists. P.S. Dalrymple is the found of the Jaipur Literature Festival.
10. Freedom at Midnight by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre. On the stroke of midnight, August 15, 1947, India became free. This is the classic book about the biggest event in modern Indian history: the freedom struggle, partition and birth of a nation. You cannot begin to know or understand modern India if you don’t have a grip on its struggle for independence and the larger-than-life players who made it happen, especially Gandhi, Nehru, Mountbatten and Jinnah. The film Gandhi, directed by Richard Attenborough, gives you a lot of the same information, but this book fills in all the holes.
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