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The Best Indian Novels

recommended by Radhika Jha

Lanterns on Their Horns by Radhika Jha

Lanterns on Their Horns
by Radhika Jha


Like all great books, India's best novels are worth reading not just because of what they show about India, but what they reveal about the human condition. Here Radhika Jha, author of four critically acclaimed books, talks us through five important Indian novels and novelists and explains why it's so important that fiction isn't just about personal experience.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

Lanterns on Their Horns by Radhika Jha

Lanterns on Their Horns
by Radhika Jha

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We’re talking about your choice of the best Indian novels. In a country with so many different languages and cultures it may be hard to generalize, but do you think there is anything that stands out about Indian literature and makes it distinctive?

That is a tough question, but I would say there’s a love of storytelling, of narrative, and a very particular use of narrative – as a way of discussing complex philosophical ideas.

I would also say Indian novelists use language very sensually. Every country has its own way of using language which comes out of the land they live in I think, and the climate. The fruits, the vegetables, the colors—their particularities will creep into the language. The green, if you’re talking about England, is going to be described differently from the way green is described in India or in Colombia, because they are different. If you’re describing a colorful people, then your language becomes colorful. In India, everything assaults the senses, and it’s kind of over the top — the smells, the colors that people wear, the colors of nature.

Finally, even when I am reading something very contemporary, I always feel the shadow of the epics. They creep into stories because they’re a part of people’s lives, often referred to quite casually in conversation, or not referred to but somehow implied just in the adjectives one may use to describe a character – using the words ‘a good wife’, for example, will instantly evoke images of Sita (from the Ramayana).

Yes, and you’ve chosen an epic as one of the books for this list, which seems like a good place to start. Let’s turn to the Mahabharata. Is it the key epic for India?

Everyone has a different idea of what the key epic of a place is, but I would say yes. For me, it is more important than the Ramayana because the philosophical questions it asks are more complex and because in spite of its complexity and the sheer number of Gods and humans involved, everybody in India knows the story, or parts of it, usually, because they’ve heard them being told by an aunt or grandmother.

The Mahabharat is interesting for me because cause and consequence is very, very clearly established in the many intertwining stories of the different characters. I think that’s something you find in a novel too. One of the reasons why we enjoy reading novels is because you want to be able to follow that thread of how one event leads to another — how a chance encounter or a missed opportunity can lead to a war. The Mahabharata is not about gods and heroes. In the end, it is about this. For example, the story of the hero Karna. Kunti, his mother, falls in love with Surya, the sun god, has his child out of wedlock, and then puts the child into a little rush basket. Karna then ends up fighting his own half-brothers and when he finds out who he is, he orchestrates his own death at the hands of his brothers. What can be more heart-rending and relatable than this?

Then there are the backstories and the backstories of backstories. The Mahabharata becomes this fantastic forest of stories that you can dip in and out of forever, each time coming up with a new philosophical problem to ponder.

For those of us who haven’t read it, could you maybe take a step back and explain what The Mahabharata is about and what happens in it?

It’s a story about a war. In that sense, it is like the Iliad. It’s a story about a very, very long war that’s fought between the Kauravas and the Pandavas, cousins all, over a kingdom that was divided into two equal parts and given to the two groups. The Kauravas invite the Pandavas over for a game of dice and in that game, the Pandavas lose their kingdom and everything they own, including Draupadi, their wife. What the Pandavas don’t know is that the dice were magic, made from the bones of Shakuni’s father, the great dice player from the Kaurav side, who had been wronged by the Pandavas.

Again, there’s this fantastic chain of causality. It’s always very interesting and complicated and goes through generations and comes into the present. The past is very much there in the present, in the form of the magic dice made from the father’s bones. I love all these details and there is so much to think about in these stories.

The Mahabharata can also be seen as a war which starts off as a war about justice because the Pandavs are trying to get their kingdom, which was wrongfully taken from them in this game of dice, back. Then, as things go on, there is no good side and no bad side, because to win this very long and sad war, everybody compromises their morals, their humanity – everybody cheats. As the number of the dead mount, the pain and the anger, and then the thirst for revenge, grow. You start the story and then, as you go on and on through it, you see how all the elements of what we think of as a civilized life, of family, of mercy, of protection, start falling away. In the end, there is just one thing, and that is the need to win — which destroys pretty much everything. I find it eternally relevant, this idea of the fragility of morality.

The Mahabharat was written more than 2,000 years ago in Sanskrit. What’s the best way to approach it? Is there a translation that you think is good or a particular edition?

There are many ways to approach it. There are the literal translations of the Sanskrit text. The one that I have and always use is the J.A.B. van Buitenen. It’s a three-volume translation of the Mahabharat and it’s wonderful. I studied it in college, in a class by Wendy Doniger. But that isn’t the only way to approach the text. You can approach it through film, (there was a great serial made by Doordarshan about 25 years ago) through theatre (Peter Brook’s adaptation of it), through dance, through contemporary novelists’ retellings, or just ask some Indian to tell you the story.

Why the Mahabharata is important to the art of storytelling as it developed in India and why mythology is so important to us is explained in the Upanishads which say that complex philosophical ideas are best explained to laymen through a story. This can clearly be seen in the many stories in the Mahabharata. There is always a philosophical idea and the story is built around it to give it flesh.

Do you have a favorite among them?

I use the van Buitenen version when I am choreographing a dance for example, when I want to know the exact word used in the Sanskrit text. It’s a great translation because it captures the rhythm of the text rather well or something about it, I am not quite sure what exactly, but it feels right. I also love the Peter Brook version of the Mahabharata. I think he really brings out the universality of the Mahabharata. The text, which was done by Jean-Claude Carriere, is brilliant and a good place to start. I know, both are written by non-Indians. But that just shows how universal the Mahabharata is.

Let’s move on to the next book you’re recommending, which was published a couple of millennia later in Hindi. This is Godaan by Munshi Premchand. Tell me about it and why you think this is such a good Indian novel.

Godaan was first published in 1936, before India’s independence. It was a time of a lot of rethinking, of political and cultural turmoil – but it was also a relatively prosperous time. Munshi Premchand was a schoolteacher most of his life and he was extremely poor. But he had the heart of a revolutionary. He married a widow after his first marriage failed. He gave up his government job in the Quit India Movement.

I like Godaan mainly because it was my grandfather’s favorite book. Like Premchand, my grandfather grew up in a poor village in Bihar. When he first went to town, he went to Patna to study for college and he slept in a little room behind a temple. He would study on the street, under the streetlights, because that was the only lighting that there was. So, for him, Premchand’s India was the India he carried around in his bones even after he became an ambassador and was posted to New York and Paris. I adored my grandfather but for me, growing up in Bombay and Delhi, I had no connection with Premchand’s world.

But I loved the stories that my grandfather told me of his childhood in the village, about stealing mangoes from other people’s orchards, wrestling and of course he loved telling ghost stories. I ended up reading Godaan because he said, ‘Read Premchand if you want to improve your Hindi. He is the greatest storyteller in India.’ I was struggling with my Hindi because I came out of Bombay and in Delhi the Hindi level was much higher. My grandfather said, ‘Your Hindi is hilarious, it’s Bombay Hindi. You really need to get to know real Hindi because this is our language. Language is one of the roots of our culture.’ At first, I complained, and then finally I started to read it. It was tough going to begin with, but he used to read to me as well. That was the other beautiful thing: he would read to me and edit it a little bit as he read. Through Godaan, the Indian village really came alive for me. I felt I was there.

I was rereading Godaan again yesterday and thinking how it reminded me of Flaubert. It’s the descriptions and this very leisurely pace, the slow unfolding of time. Not that much happens, but things happen at a very deep level. One gets drawn inside the characters; one understands them. And one understands what poverty really feels like.

It’s a very simple story about a very poor farmer, who is in a fairly good position in terms of caste. The village in India is not really one village where everybody lives together, it’s more like little hamlets which have relationships with each other. Each hamlet is fairly independent and most of the people in the hamlet are from the same caste and are interconnected through family or other relationships—but not through marriage. You always get married to somebody from a village away just to avoid the consanguinity problem.

“For me, a story, a novel, is the ultimate way of passing on knowledge and memory”

This farmer has worked really, really hard to get his brothers started in life because his parents died young. He got them maybe not much education—a little bit of primary school, that’s what everyone did in those days—but he looked after them and brought them up. Then he gets them married, which is expensive, and he has to take on debt.

It’s a novel about the life of the Indian farmer, and how they live with these crippling amounts of debt, which always happen either because of sickness, or because someone has to get married. It’s the kind of debt that they are then never able to pay off. If they’re lucky, they can keep their land for more than a couple of generations. If you’re a poor, marginal farmer, if you can keep it for even a lifetime, or for two generations, you’re already doing fantastically. It really describes the precarity of that life and that world.

Because of that underlying tension and the lack of money and just the sheer hard work of survival, the wife and husband end up in fights. This farmer, after bringing up his brothers, finds they’re really quite useless and rather spoiled and their wives are just as bad. Two of the brothers don’t want to live under the same roof so they move away and live separately. So this man goes from being semi-marginal to being totally marginal because he only has a tiny piece of land and three kids and a wife to look after. They survive but the book starts off with a fight between the husband and wife which is fantastic. It’s also an amazing book because you see a relationship between a husband and a wife who adore each other and yet they fight all the time. She is not at all a submissive wife but cares deeply about her husband.

The man desperately wants to have a cow because it’s one step away from total precarity, from not knowing whether tomorrow you’re going to be left with no house or no food, to being able to hold your head up in society. That is what a cow means. It means that if your child is sick, you have that little bit of milk to give them a little bit of energy when they need it. If you have a little bit of extra milk, you can sell it to a neighbor for one or two rupees.

The book really shows you what poverty is. It shows you not just what life in India was and what poverty was, but what poverty still is in the village, and the curse that is rural indebtedness. And you learn it in a beautiful way. I studied anthropology and politics and I had to read all these heavy tomes on the same subject. There was The Indian Village by M.N. Srinivas, and umpteen books about the caste system. They were great books, but they’re a lot of effort. Not everybody can make it. You can bypass all that and just read this novel and you will understand — because you are there. You are living it. That’s the thing. For me, a story, a novel, is the ultimate way of passing on knowledge, and memory. That’s the way it’s always been. That’s why we always end up reading novels. I don’t think novels can die because this is a way of passing on deep knowledge in a totally painless way.

Godaan has a beautiful, beautiful ending. If you don’t cry in it, then you’re a tough person. But what truly distinguishes Munshi Premchand’s work is his understanding of India — about the relationships that bind people in the village, in marriage, in the family. His description of the village, how everyone’s always listening to each other, how rumors circulate, and how people living beside each other in conditions of utter precarity can be at one moment incredibly cruel and at others very kind to each other. Premchand also shows the nature of the caste, how it really works.

You put cows at the heart of your second novel, Lanterns on Their Horns, which is also set in an Indian village. Can you tell me a bit about how that came about?

Lanterns on Their Horns started off in a very odd way. I was at a cousin’s wedding, feeling very awkward as the oldest unmarried woman there. So I tried to hide in a dark corner but found it occupied by a Brahmin priest in a white dhoti. We nodded to each other and began to talk and after a moment I realized I was talking to the father of the bride, a part-time priest and full-time professor of Sanskrit at the Sanskrit university. Rather awed and feeling very inadequate and ignorant, I asked him a question which had always intrigued me, which is ‘Why is the cow sacred?’ He gave me a fascinating and totally different explanation from the one that you usually get, that the cow is sacred because it gives milk etc. He gave me a Sanskrit scholar’s explanation, deeply philosophical.

He told me that gau, the word for cow, has the same root in Sanskrit as the very first ray of light that touches the Earth in the morning. That’s an invisible light but it is the most energizing and nourishing thing in the universe, it is life itself. That’s why yoga and all these things in India are supposed to be done very early. This light is like Prasad, the food that you give to the gods in the temple, divine food. This light is gau. It is what starts the circle of life, because that light is absorbed by all living things and goes into the Earth. Then living things die, and their bodies, their remains, go into the Earth, and then back up into the ether, however you want to see it. I thought that was a fascinating idea. It’s beautiful, poetic and it rang true somehow.

I thought to myself, ‘I’d like to write about gau’ and about a cow like the cow in Godaan. I want to write about village India.’ We all carry a village inside us. But at that time, the early 2000s, India was just taking off economically. There was double-digit growth and all that, and the newspapers were full of how India was going to be the next Asian tiger. The newspapers had forgotten the villages. No one was writing about rural indebtedness and farmers’ suicides except for one lone journalist called P. Sainath. He was a total outlier.

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Godaan was in the 1930s and my novel starts in 1969, which was the year I was born. It’s also the year a man walked on the moon. That’s why I set it in that year. You have people going to the moon and then, in this village, you had the first roads arriving. My grandfather told me how he remembered when in the villages they had radios for the first time. They would sit around the radio and say, ‘What?!? Someone’s gone to the moon?!? Is that even possible?’ I tried to imagine what it must have been like to sit on a charpoy in a village drinking tea and listening to the radio, hearing that a man had made it to the moon. It was fun.

It’s always fascinating how in modernity, you have tradition and in so-called traditional settings, you have extremely modern people. I think of my own family. There were people who lived traditional lives but whose minds were so modern in their way of looking at the world, they didn’t judge those who were different from them. That’s also something which is very typically Indian, not seeing contradiction, because in the Hindu way of viewing the world, things don’t exist only in opposition to each other, there is a level of reality where opposites unite. Thus you can be a nuclear scientist, but you can still be reading the Mahabharat every morning and doing your puja.

Let’s go on to the third novel you’ve chosen, which is The Golden Gate by Vikram Seth. I actually haven’t read this one, though I’ve read two of his other novels. I like long novels and I read A Suitable Boy when it first came out. I loved it, though I remember a couple of Indian friends were a bit sniffy about it, saying talented poets shouldn’t be wasting their time on this kind of novel.

Yes, I read it at that time and I was a bit sniffy too because I felt it had a very middle-class view of India. Then I reread it during the Pandemic, and I realized that I had misunderstood it and that it was totally making fun of the Indian middle class, and I found it hysterically funny. But it didn’t surprise me as The Golden Gate did and it didn’t touch me as much.

The Golden Gate is written in verse and it’s beautiful verse but that’s not why I chose it. I chose it for two important reasons. First, it was the first book that I read, written by an Indian, that wasn’t about India or Indian people. It’s about San Francisco and Americans. Secondly, it was a deeply empathetic book and for me personally, I love writers who show empathy for their characters and don’t make fun of them but give them dignity. I think it is human nature when confronted by something very different — and America must have been very different for Vikram Seth when he got to Stanford after England and India — to want to ridicule it so that what is alien and different becomes less threatening. But Vikram Seth didn’t do that. He wrote about the loneliness of Americans and the fragility of relationships in a city like San Fransisco with great sympathy and understanding.

Too many non-Western writers get stuck in an ‘ethnic’ trap. Look at Vikram Seth. He wrote The Golden Gate. What does he do next? He writes a novel about India, A Suitable Boy, which makes him famous. Whereas for me, I thought his really great achievement is the way that he writes about the world. Writers and books are universal, they belong to everyone. I love to read not to learn about other cultures, but to feel what it means to be human. When I read Vikram Seth I feel very human, not Indian. For me, I read Vikram Seth the way I read Marquez or anyone else. Because he speaks about the truths of the human heart.

What happens in the book?

It’s about a group of young people post-college, dealing with loneliness, living, and finding love. John and Phil are college friends. Phil and Ed are lovers but not openly. Jan, the artist, is a free spirit. She is both friend and sometime lover of John who still needs life to fall into categories. While he is attracted to her, he also finds her too much to handle. It’s a book about friendship and love, and how these two are so complicated and difficult to untangle. It’s not a remarkable story, but it’s a universal story of people in their twenties and early thirties. It captures that period of life when you are free and adult but freedom can feel very heavy and frightening, that moment when you are still innocent and vulnerable, open to the world and quite alone as well. You’re also trying to discover yourself and who you are. It’s a kind of fuzzy moment, when you’re anything and everything and nothing at the same time. It’s a very confusing moment. Seth captures that confusion and a certain loneliness of the soul which is why we search for love, beautifully. That is the genius of the book – its universality.

When I read it I was 15 and in a little boarding school in the Himalayas. My father gave me the book and told me I should read it. I had no idea that men could love men. And here was this Indian writing about San Francisco and complicated things like sexuality in a totally familiar way. He made me empathize with Phil and John and Jan, I felt like I knew them.

You also like writing novels that are not about India, including one set in Japan. Where else have your novels been set?

My first novel Smell was set in Nairobi, Kenya, and in France. In my collection of novellas, though most of the stories are about India, I have one story, “The Cook,” which is about a Swiss cook set around Lake Annecy. I have set two books in Tokyo, Japan — My Beautiful Shadow, about a married woman who is a shopping addict among other things, and The Hidden Forest, which has yet to come out. At present, I am working on something that takes place in Beijing. These are all places I have lived in and where I speak the language (rather badly but enough to be able to understand other people’s conversations). When I married my diplomat husband and we moved to Tokyo I asked myself  – could I still be a writer? And if so, what kind of a writer? It is very difficult to write about a culture that is not your own, even if you have been living there for some years. But it’s important to make that attempt because the whole point is that reading novels creates empathy with people who are very different from you. Judge a book and an author on how well or badly the book creates this empathy in you, but don’t condemn it for trying.

While it may be a challenge to be empathetic towards someone who is very different from you, I think it’s one of the most important things in life, and the more we try for empathy with those who are different, the more we suspend judgement, the more we learn what it is to be truly human.

Maybe you have more perspective if you’re not from the place you’re writing about?

Or you have a different perspective, let’s put it that way. The point is that, in the end, you’re not going to just read Vikram Seth, you’re probably going to read lots of other books about San Francisco. Then you have this way of being able to compare. You learn one thing from one book and another thing from another book, and that’s great. In the end, these are stories about people and it’s lovely to be able to get to know the people who live in far-off places, though what’s far now? Google has us all mapped and under surveillance.

I used to see a bit of Vikram Seth in the 1990s in London. He speaks excellent Chinese.

He is clearly brilliant. I believe he is also a calligrapher. He wrote From Heaven Lake which is a gorgeous book. It’s a travelogue about Xinjiang and Tibet.

Next up of the Indian novels you’re recommending is The Opium Trilogy by Amitav Ghosh, which is a set of historical novels. Tell me more.

This book tells a story that we don’t often hear, which is about the opium trade and what it did to India, notably to the part of India I come from, Bihar. Why was India even important to the British or the East India Company? It was because of the opium more than anything else. It profoundly changed India, reaching deep into the economy of rural India. Till opium became their biggest trading item, the British didn’t really touch rural India. I learnt this thanks to Amitav Ghosh.

The trilogy is about a group of people who have become indentured laborers on an opium ship. The three books follow loosely the lives of about five or six of the characters on that ship. Again, I go back to the Mahabharat, because you have this wonderful thing of the backstory, and the consequences, and how things develop. The trilogy has that same kind of epic sweep.

It’s difficult to say what is the best thing about these three books. First, it’s the attention to historic detail. Second, the characters, and third, the attention to language and how it has morphed and died through time – Chinese-English, Laskari, colonial English.

“I love to read not to learn about other cultures, but to feel what it means to be human”

There are times in the book when your blood boils at the horrors of colonialism. And there are other times when you just think, ‘The human spirit is unbelievable, that people could survive such cruelty and exploitation and still come out on top with their humanity intact.’

It’s also a very exciting read. Again, I love it because it shows you the world, the interconnections between cultures and peoples. You realize that colonialism was an encounter between not just two cultures but several. Which is something we often forget. The trilogy made me understand and feel very sympathetic to China, it made me feel shame too for the part we played in its subjugation at the time. Reading a book is a journey. When I think of reading I always think of the word gam, which in Sanskrit means to go. Part of being human is to move, I think. Humans have always moved around, we don’t like to stay in one place too long. In the trilogy, Amitav Ghosh really brings that theme alive as well — how people move and adapt and accept very difficult circumstances and remake their lives. It’s also wonderful how Amitav Ghosh weaves history into the novel without overwhelming the characters and turning them into cardboard figures.

There are terrible injustices, but he maintains his sense of humour: it is quite funny at times.

Yes, absolutely, he has a sense of perspective. There are moments which are really quite terrible, but there’s every emotion under the sun in those books. I love it because you don’t just see India. That’s also something which is very special. You see it through an Indian lens, but you see the world. My favorite in the whole collection was River of Smoke, the second one, which is based mainly in China.

I found the language in the book incredible. What are they speaking?

Apparently, that was a language that was created on those boats and in Shanghai and Hongkong. Because of the incredible mix of people from different places: Malays, Indians, etc. they created this language. Amitav Ghosh found a dictionary of this language — I believe in the New York Public Library. He spends a lot of time doing his research and it’s worth looking at the bibliography at the back of each book.

You don’t see the immense research that must have gone into it. You were talking earlier about transmitting knowledge painlessly — this is another good example. It’s a very engaging and entertaining read.

That’s the other thing that’s amazing about Amitav Ghosh’s books, they’re very readable. At the same time, you’ve learned a whole lot of things by the end. These books spark your curiosity, and then you can go and look things up using his wonderful bibliography, if you want. It’s really enjoyable. It’s an amazing work of the imagination to have been able to do that, to put it all together, because it’s hard to research something and then write about it. There’s a lot that you have to throw out when you want to write it as a novel. There is a lot of information that you cannot use and a lot of information you need which isn’t there, you have to imagine it.

Let’s look at the final Indian novel you’ve recommended, which is The Sari Shop. This was published in 2004.

The Sari Shop is written by Rupa Bajwa and is nowhere near as well known as the other books I have chosen. Most people in India haven’t even heard of it. But it is a great book and puts you in touch with something that’s very Indian and very universal at the same time. This is the story of a poor young man, a sari shop assistant in a big Indian city, who spends his days unfolding and folding saris for his boss. He has his hopes and dreams and longings and these give color to his life. They are not realized and yet he survives the destruction of his dreams.

The Sari Shop follows in the footsteps of Godaan in the way that it reveals certain truths about India. It makes you understand what it means to be poor and without prospects in a city. It’s about not having a future, and the desires and the longings of being without a future. And yet it is a profoundly hopeful book even though there are some moments where it’s very cruel.

But unlike Godaan, it is written in English. It is about urban India but not about middle-class English-speaking or bilingual India — and that is very difficult to do in English. I tried it in a story called “Hope” which is based on the true stories of five people that I met on the streets of Delhi. I know just how difficult it is to find the right words in English for something that happens or is told to you in Hindi. But Rupa Bajwa pulls it off brilliantly and you forget that you are reading something that is not happening in English. She goes beyond translation and that’s a real achievement.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

April 26, 2023

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Radhika Jha

Radhika Jha

Radhika Jha was born in Delhi, got her BA in Anthropology at Amherst College, and her Master's in Political Science at the University of Chicago. She is the author of four critically acclaimed books – Lanterns on their Horns (2009), Smell (2001, winner of the Prix Guerlain), The Elephant & The Maruti (2004), and My Beautiful Shadow (2014). Her books have been translated into 24 languages. As a journalist, she worked for The Hindustan Times and Business World magazine. As a social worker, she has worked for the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation, where she started “Project Interact” – a project for the education of the children of victims of terrorism in India. She has lived in Tokyo, Beijing, Athens and New York. She speaks Chinese, Japanese, French and some Italian and Greek. Her mother tongues are Hindi and English. She is also an acclaimed Indian classical dancer.

Radhika Jha

Radhika Jha

Radhika Jha was born in Delhi, got her BA in Anthropology at Amherst College, and her Master's in Political Science at the University of Chicago. She is the author of four critically acclaimed books – Lanterns on their Horns (2009), Smell (2001, winner of the Prix Guerlain), The Elephant & The Maruti (2004), and My Beautiful Shadow (2014). Her books have been translated into 24 languages. As a journalist, she worked for The Hindustan Times and Business World magazine. As a social worker, she has worked for the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation, where she started “Project Interact” – a project for the education of the children of victims of terrorism in India. She has lived in Tokyo, Beijing, Athens and New York. She speaks Chinese, Japanese, French and some Italian and Greek. Her mother tongues are Hindi and English. She is also an acclaimed Indian classical dancer.