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The best books on India

recommended by Pankaj Mishra

The world’s largest democracy isn’t something that has just materialised in the past 60 years, says the Indian essayist and novelist. He chooses books that illustrate India’s complex history and diverse society.

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Is there a guidebook about India that you favour when travelling there?

I haven’t looked at a guidebook for years and years because now, even if I’m travelling within India, I just go to the Internet for basic information about places. Guidebooks look pretty superfluous at this point. None of them is particularly distinguished in terms of writing or perception.

And if you’ve never been to India before, would you get a good understanding of the country by reading these books you’ve picked?

Yes, I think so. To take an interest in India is really to take an interest in a vast and very complex country – more continent than country, in fact. Not only guidebooks but also books of the kind that are increasingly written about India these days are of very little help in understanding it. There’s nowhere else like it. Indonesia comes close, in certain ways, in terms of its internal diversity. China, of course, has a bigger population, but ethnically and linguistically it’s pretty homogenous, with a 90 per cent Han majority and a very small number of minorities.

India is just bafflingly, bafflingly varied. Almost everyone there can legitimately claim to belong to a minority. You’re setting yourself a major intellectual challenge when you start reading about a place like that. There are no short cuts. These five books will require a lot from the reader: they really demand a serious commitment of intelligence and curiosity.

There’s no easy-to-read novel that springs to mind?

No. The book that comes closest to having the narrative energy of a work of fiction on my list is India: A Million Mutinies Now by V S Naipaul, which is why I chose it, in part. There’s this idea of the ‘Great American Novel’, which is deeply flawed because we know there isn’t one America. There are many, many Americas and no novel can hope to capture them all. This difficulty is even more pronounced in India. No novel can really capture the different textures of life there. But A Million Mutinies Now does an excellent job of describing the lives, the hopes and aspirations and frustrations of a diverse cast of Indians who have lived through the last 60 years. Some of them are even older figures, who can recall a pre-1947 India.

Naipaul himself is very much a figure in the background in this particular book; he just lets people speak. And what you get through the stories that these people tell to Naipaul is a nuanced picture of the many different personal and political journeys since 1947. It’s probably the closest thing you can get to a good book of fiction about India.

It’s structured as a series of first person stories?

Yes, and Naipaul is primarily a novelist so he brings a novelist’s gift for narrative and for organisation to the stories. I’m sure the interviews themselves took a long time and were full of all kinds of detail. He’s edited those stories down and carefully sifted through the details to create some really compelling narratives. They actually read like well-constructed fiction narratives.

Is there one that particularly stuck with you?

There is an account of a Dalit poet early in the book (Dalits are untouchable Hindus). Naipaul goes to his house in Mumbai and talks to him and his wife. He talks to him about his radical politics, about his poetry. And there is something incredibly moving about this whole little chapter about this man who comes out of nowhere, who is an untouchable Hindu and comes from the most despised and, for a very long time, the most trampled upon people in this country. And although Indian society has been liberalised a great deal since 1947 and some formerly untouchable Hindus have become politically very assertive, still it’s been a really terrible, very difficult journey for many of them. And in just a few pages – with this very keen eye that he has for the telling details, his instinct for memorable scenes  – Naipaul really creates an extremely vivid picture of this man, his life, his aspirations, his frustrations, his dreams. It’s really beautifully done.

Is the Naipaul book the best one to start with then?

If one were to put these books into an order in which they should be ideally read, I would actually put the Octavio Paz book In Light of India as number one. That is easily the most accessible and stimulating book or introduction to India that you can read. It is very briskly done, with a kind of poet’s brevity, and covers astonishingly wide regions of politics, art, literature and the economy.

Paz was not only a Nobel Laureate but also Mexico’s ambassador to India, I believe.

Yes, and he visited India previously, in the 1950s. He was also a regular visitor to India after he retired from his ambassadorship. So he kept up this connection and I think he wrote this book quite late in his life, just before or after he was awarded the Nobel Prize. The book is also important because it offers a perspective that is very rarely found in books about India, which are mostly written by Europeans and Americans.

Paz comes from a society which has had a somewhat similar experience to India – in terms of dealing with an extremely conservative-minded colonialism, and coming out of that and trying to construct a modern nation state. His is also a deeply traditional society and if you read his The Labyrinth of Solitude you’ll find some really interesting similarities between the experience of Mexico and that of India. For someone like Paz, from that kind of background and culture, to be looking at India, not surprisingly he comes up with some interesting and stimulating ideas and insights that would not be possible for someone from an American or European background.

For example?

Speaking very generally, the kind of sympathy he brings in describing the imperative of modernisation that a young country like India has been faced with. I think most people in the West think of modernisation as something quite natural, and because it happened quite a long time ago in America or in Europe nobody alive now has much memory of premodern Europe or America. They’ve forgotten what a traumatic thing it was, how many people were forced to move from villages to the big cities, to work in extremely degrading circumstances and what a struggle it was for everyone, for the working classes, for women in particular. Not to mention the great World Wars that modern European countries fought among themselves over access to land and resources. I think countries like India, Mexico and Indonesia are still going through that very painful, very difficult process, with no end in sight.

Paz is alert to that pain, in a way that some of the very celebratory accounts written about India today are not: they actually tend to cheerlead this process and assume that Western consumer society in general is the height of human achievement. What these Western accounts do is annex the past, present and future of India to the grand and triumphalist narrative of Western modernity. And even the more sympathetic accounts of India written by Western writers just don’t see how really arduous, how difficult it is for people in a tradition-minded, largely agrarian society to step into the modern world: to try to become this individual without any consolations of community, of family, or caste groups or regional groups.

“What these Western accounts do is annex the past, present and future of India to the grand and triumphalist narrative of Western modernity.”

And, as we know from the experience of the West itself, all this immense effort is often made without any guarantee of success, of happiness or fulfilment – indeed with a high likelihood of distress, confusion, anomie. Both Paz and, in his own way, Naipaul, because they come from – to use a phrase no longer used much – a Third World background, are very sensitive, very alert to this aspect of India.

Next we have Modern South Asia, written by one Indian and one Pakistani historian. With any country you can say you have to understand the history in order to understand it, but in the case of India, that’s particularly pronounced.

Yes, I think if you read the Paz first, this history book should be number two on the list. You’ll notice there isn’t any mention of India in the title – the book takes India, Pakistan and also Bangladesh and deals with all those experiences together. Yes, you could study the history of India in isolation but intellectually it’s not a very interesting or rewarding thing to do, because India really referred, before 1947, to that entire region. There was a geographical idea of India before it became a name for a nation state, and that area included even parts of Afghanistan. And there is no way you can even consider the history of India, the nation state, in isolation from the history of Pakistan.

“There was a geographical idea of India before it became a name for a nation state.”

The countries have fought three wars and India’s entire post-1947 evolution has been marked by the relationship it has with Pakistan – not to mention what’s been happening in Afghanistan and, for instance, the connections a place like Kashmir has with Afghanistan. So you have to look at the region as a whole and this book does it brilliantly.

There is an entertaining history of post-1947 India, Ramachandra Guha’s India After Gandhi. That’s a big book, a sort of newspaper history in that it describes what the most prominent people did from 1947 onwards. It’s also a very personalised and detailed history, and the Western reader coming to India for the first time may get lost a bit, whereas Modern South Asia doesn’t presume too much knowledge, only an intelligent and curious reader. And as a thematic history, a reflective account, it provides a really interesting frame for a reader to understand how India, as it presently exists, came into being. It goes back to the 18th century and covers the entire period from the beginning of the British conquest to the present era.

You really get a very widescreen, panoramic view of what has happened, and what the different currents shaping events are – whether it’s regionalism, or religion, or politics or the fact that India became part of a globalised economy in the 19th century. It also covers, impartially and clear-sightedly, how India and Pakistan, the nation states, came into being, which is the big, important question if one wants to understand anything about politics in India today, or in Pakistan or indeed what is happening in Afghanistan. And I think the fact that Ayesha Jalal is a Pakistani historian of South Asian Islam means she is able to bring her own valuable insights to this.

Is that quite unusual, for an Indian and a Pakistani historian to be working together?

On a book, yes. It is unusual and wonderful, because having those different perspectives makes for a really rich book. It’s not just a nationalist history, showing only the development and construction of a modern nation state and the great figures who made it possible. It gives you a sense of how India looks from a neighbour’s perspective and how Pakistan appears from India’s. Both perspectives are mutually enriching. For instance, if you read the history of Pakistan, you’ll find that Gandhi and Nehru were power-hungry Hindus and Jinnah was a great Muslim leader. The nationalist history of India will tell you that Gandhi and Nehru were great secularists and that Jinnah was a Muslim communalist. The truth is, of course, a lot more complex – and unflattering to all great heroes.

“It gives you a sense of how India looks from a neighbour’s perspective and how Pakistan appears from India’s.”

This book shows the messiness of the transition from colonial rule to sovereign nationhood, how political identities emerged under British rule, how elites from both Hindu and Muslim communities used the rhetoric of nationalism and secularism.

Which book should one read next?

I think Amartya Sen’s The Argumentative Indian. What it does – especially if you read it after reading the previous three books – is supplement all the knowledge you have gained; it deepens and enriches it. And complicates it, of course. The book is actually a collection of essays, which sounds very dull. But if you read these books in this particular order, you’ll find that suddenly new avenues of thinking and experience open up to you. It helps you to understand a lot of things that may surprise you in India when you go there for the first time – or even after you’ve been many, many times. I’ve spent most of my life there and am still surprised and bemused by the place.

The book does a tremendous job of giving you a sense of the many, many layers of history, of identities, that constitute this society. It goes back way into the past: it talks about medieval India, it talks about Islam in India, it talks about Buddhism, it talks about the Indian calendar. There’s an article on how India has many different calendars. Different people, different communities have had a very different sense of time. It really attests to the particular character of Indian society that it can accommodate within itself people living at very many different levels time-wise.

Why does he choose the title The Argumentative Indian – is that Amartya Sen himself?

It is very much him. The broad thesis that he offers is that there is a particular philosophical tradition – in fact not just one tradition but many traditions – in India that really stress the idea of discussion, of consensus-building through argumentation. He goes back to various philosophical discourses, various conversations that are part of Indian philosophy and part of Indian history, to stress this notion that the whole construction of what we now know as India, the modern nation state, the world’s largest democracy, isn’t something that’s just happened in the last 50 to 60 years.

There are traditions going back hundreds and hundreds of years, sometimes all the way back to the Buddha who was alive in the 5th-6th century BC. That this notion of different communities living and working together, of soliciting advice from other people, of thrashing ideas out in public, of pluralism, all this was very much part of the Indian tradition. Democracy is not just something India borrowed from the British. Or that rational and scientific thought is not a preserve of the West.

There is a lot of defective and persisting Western knowledge about pre-colonial India, which makes it seem like a setting for Oriental despots and superstitious and irrational people. Sen wants to overturn these clichés. He resurrects people from ancient and medieval India, such as Emperor Ashoka and Akbar, and shows how liberal and pluralist in temperament and practice they were. So it’s an attempt to define Indian ways of looking at political and ethical questions – the kind of work that was done in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries when historians systematised Western lineages of political and philosophical thought going back to ancient Greece and Rome.

Finally, you’ve chosen the Arundhati Roy book, Field Notes on Democracy. I think most people know her as the author of the Booker Prize-winning novel The God of Small Things, but as this book demonstrates, she is also a social activist…

I had four or five different books in front of me that talk about contemporary India. I chose this one because it’s extremely critical of many developments in India today. The idea of India that has gone around recently, particularly in Europe and America, has been of this great, vibrant democracy with a booming economy, full of English speakers like us, with the same kind of aspirations to a consumer lifestyle. Broadly speaking, there is a lot of truth to this picture. India’s democracy is indeed very vibrant in certain areas. In other areas, it’s not so vibrant. Just in terms of numbers, there is a very large part of the population that aspires to a certain kind of European and American middle-class lifestyle and the same kind of consumption patterns. That fact makes businessmen in the West very excited, because these are potentially big markets. If, out of 1.2 billion people, 200 million were to start living at the same level as the American and European middle classes, that opens up a huge new market.

But this focus leaves out the fate of the other India, so to speak – although it’s not really ‘other’ because it is in fact the majority of India. It’s the 800 million people living in villages who are close to destitution, and even those living in urban areas. Most people living in Indian cities are still living in what, by any definition of the term, would be called a slum.

What Arundhati Roy’s book does is act as an antidote to all the current fashionable prejudices and notions about India. The book will certainly be shocking and disconcerting and depressing to a lot of people who look at India from the great heights of Davos and Aspen, or know it from the pages of The Economist and The Wall Street Journal. But it’s very salutary in the end. As a visitor, one is immediately struck by these aspects of India – the extreme poverty, and the fear and hate the rich feel toward the poor. These are not immediately apparent in a place like China, where poverty and inequality are not so visible. In India, they are part of the disquieting experience of a foreign visitor. Roy’s book actually helps you understand that experience, it explains why these grotesque inequalities exist, and why India today, in addition to being a vibrant democracy and booming economy, is also an extremely violent place.

There are all kinds of conflicts going on in India today: conflicts over resources, conflicts over identity, all kinds of battles. This book covers everything from Kashmir to the Maoist insurgency in central India. It talks about the crackdown on civil liberties in the wake of 9/11 in India. It also brings India into the larger history, this larger moment of a violence-infected globalisation we’ve been living since 9/11. India also has been affected in significant ways by the war on terror and the culture of brutality that you now see manifested all across the world, even as economic globalisation accelerates. Roy’s book shows that India is not at all immune to that whole set of problems shared by countries around the world: rising inequality, crony capitalism, compromised media, the unresponsiveness or dysfunction of democratic institutions, and the recourse to violence by both the state and ordinary individuals.

March 10, 2011

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Pankaj Mishra

Pankaj Mishra

Pankaj Mishra is an Indian essayist and novelist, whose books include Butter Chicken in Ludhiana and The Romantics. He has written for The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, The Guardian, and the New Statesman, among other American, British and Indian publications. He is a fellow of the UK’s Royal Society of Literature, and divides his time between the UK and India.

Pankaj Mishra

Pankaj Mishra

Pankaj Mishra is an Indian essayist and novelist, whose books include Butter Chicken in Ludhiana and The Romantics. He has written for The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, The Guardian, and the New Statesman, among other American, British and Indian publications. He is a fellow of the UK’s Royal Society of Literature, and divides his time between the UK and India.