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(Published in on 13 August, 2011, retrieved from

As India completes 64 years as an independent country, we’ve compiled a list of ten must-reads that offer various perspectives on India – the good, the bad, the ugly, and the incomprehensible.
So here’s a list of 5 fiction and 5 non-fiction works, and why you should read them.
Midnight’s Children
Author: Salman Rushdie
Published: 1981

You know a book is out of the ordinary when the protagonist is a deformed creature who goes on to lose a little more of his limited appeal – and limbs – as the novel moves forward, and eventually acquires an equally unattractive fiancée
Midnight’s Children is a work of magic realism that traces the stories of Saleem and Shiva, the ‘Nose’ and the ‘Knees’, two children born at the same time, and switched by a nurse.
Divided into three books, this masterpiece of Rushdie’s introduces a host of bawdy, larger-than-life, and smaller-than-fate characters – some historical, some imagined and some seemingly representative.
The Indian patois and the hilarious interplay of names make the novel even more burlesque. From the Maharaja of Cooch Naheen, to the repeated phrase “sab kuch tick-tock hai”, elements of the story will stay with the reader years after s/he has first read it.
The book, which traces the transition of India from a country ruled by the British to one ruled by Mrs. Indira Gandhi, is based on actual events, affecting the lives of its exaggerated characters. Its historical cast includes Sam Maneckshaw and Tiger Niazi. There are references to the Emergency measures executed by Sanjay Gandhi, including the controversial slum clearance projects. In fact, one particular line had to be edited out of the book, to settle a case Indira Gandhi filed against Rushdie.
The concept underlying the book is that the children born at the hour between 12 midnight and 1 AM on 15 August 1947 have special powers. The closer the child is born to the stroke of midnight, the more pervasive the powers.
The grotesque narrator, Saleem Sinai, who was born at the exact moment independence was declared, has telepathic powers and an extraordinary sense of smell, both of which will get him into trouble at various points in the story. He gets in touch with his fellow-midnight’s-children, and forms a group that seems to represent the teething problems of the nation.
As the novel progresses, the gaps in political, religious, linguistic and cultural backgrounds of the members of the group become chasms, setting off a series of repercussions that find a parallel in what is happening to the country, and whom it impacts.
Having won the Booker Prize for the year in which it was published, the novel was also awarded the Booker of Bookers, and the Best of the Bookers titles in 1993 and 2008.


Author: Bhisham Sahni

Published: 1974 (English edition: 2001)

Originally written in Hindi, this work was translated by the author in 2001. Writing decades after he witnessed the events in Rawalpindi that he based the book on, Sahni uses the riots in a little town as a microcosm of the horror that Partition caused.

Though the book is set in 1947-48, it deals with seminal emotions that may well have governed the troubled relations between people of various regions and religions in India, as well as the hunger for power that has urged politicians to incite followers, often to violence, for various causes over the years.

The story begins with the slaughter of a pig by a sweeper, Nathu – a killing ordered by a Muslim politician, who pays Nathu more than his asking price, saying the carcass is for a veterinarian’s research, and the deed must be done discreetly, to avoid tensions in the Muslim-dominated area where they live. Nathu later discovers that the body of the pig was planted at a mosque, as if it had been carried out to humiliate Muslims.

As Congressmen get into the fray, mob is pitted against mob. A sense of fright and terror pervades the town, and neighbour turns upon neighbour, as suspicions result in murder and manslaughter.

The book recounts forced conversions, the manner in which political leaders manipulate the populace, the exodus of minorities, and the attitude of the British – largely through conversations between a Deputy Commissioner and his bored wife – that exacerbated the carnage of the time.

But the story differs from most of the literature of the independence era – notably of Saadat Hassan Manto’s and Khushwant Singh’s – in that the violence is implied, rather than described. The sudden change in the mind-set of people comes through subtly, through wistful recollections of happier times, when your name and faith didn't affect your relations with people, and wouldn't get you killed by a mob.

Throughout the book, the reader has a sense of foreboding, and it is often realised in the psyche of the protagonists, who react by instinct when they’re one with the rabble, completely out of character with their behaviour in their daily lives. As the government staunchly refuses to interfere in the ‘religious matters’ of the people, and watches on as India burns, the individual stories of a sweeper, an aging Sikh couple, their missing son, the head of a gurudwara and a family forced to choose between shame and death become illustrative of the socio-psychological factors that continue to influence India today.

The Short Stories of Saadat Hassan Manto

Manto, who is considered the most prolific chronicler of the Partition, is almost a direct contrast to Sahni. The man who was tried several times for his controversial writing, particularly what was perceived as obscenity, would not strike one as an understated writer. The liberal swearing and graphic sexual imagery in his stories shock the reader even today.

But in his portrayal of the emotions that the events following independence provoked, and what they did to the minds and lives of the people they affected, Manto is beautifully subtle. His stories deal with the darkest instincts, and the most honourable, among human beings, and most interestingly, of moments when the two clash.

His descriptions of violence may be gruesome, but it is the words that stay with the reader longer. Among his most grisly stories isThanda Gosht (‘Cold Meat’), which is a conversation between a husband and wife, after a Sikh-Muslim clash. Even in a story as gory as this one, it is not so much the actions of the characters as their extreme emotions, that keep the reader hooked.

And there’s his arguably best known story, Khol Do, where a single action in response to a command, freezes the reader’s blood – not just because this happened then, but because it could be, and is, happening in parts of India, even today.

The Great Indian Novel

Author: Shashi Tharoor
Published: 1989

This satirical work by Tharoor, whose title and story draws from The Mahabharata, recasts the storyline of the epic in the context of the Independence Movement, and the story of India up to the Emergency.
Written mostly in prose, with poetic interludes to describe some of the most ridiculous events in the story, the book is hilarious. But the reader's amusement is tinged with bitterness, at the thought that something that was won so dearly has been squandered away by vested interests.
Divided into 18 books, like the epic it allegorises, The Great Indian Novel puts mythological characters in modern India, and makes them deal with the events that mirror the significant ones in The Mahabharata.  

The cast of characters includes personalities who seem to resemble Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, C Rajagopalachari, Jawaharlal Nehru, Raja Hari Singh, V V Giri, Subhas Chandra Bose, the Mountbattens, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Nathuram Godse, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Maulana Azad, Yahya Khan,  Indira Gandhi, Jayprakash Narayan, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, and Jagjivan Ram.

The story is chronicled by a grumpy old man, who has less regard for his fellow-patriarchs than most of his countrymen do, and who has lived long enough to tell the story of India’s struggle to establish a democracy.

With an irreverent tone, and a bucketful of sour grapes, Ved Vyas, or V.V. as he calls himself, dissects the pettiness, the sloth, the haste, the overconfidence, the weaknesses and the foolish gambles that led to the disrobing of Draupadi – to the unravelling of democracy.

One of the most interesting aspects of the novel is that it does not lay blame only on the generation that inherited Independent India, but also the attitude of the leaders who first mounted the throne. While the autocratic Priya Duryodhani, the daughter of Gandhari and the blind, idealistic Dhritarashtra, the iron woman who is predicted to be the equal of a thousand men, is shown to be a cruel dictator, her hauteur is portrayed as the result of the obsequiousness accorded her by both her predecessors and her contemporaries.

The Hungry Tide

Author: Amitav Ghosh

Published: 2005

This book seems to be a very contemporary story – an American marine biologist of Indian origin comes to the land of her ancestors for the first time, and heads straight for one of its most untamed haunts – the Sundarbans – in search of river dolphins. In a tale of unlikely bonds formed in an archipelago where tiger attacks and merciless tides have made life uncertain, one particular event stands out – the Morichjhanpi massacre.

This book is perhaps the first in English literature to recount it in such detail, and the incident comes across as a precursor of what is happening to groups of tribals that have turned into bands of Maoists today.

The story ties in with the actual incident, which, at the time, was largely hushed up by the newly elected CPI(M) in West Bengal. According to the book, thousands of impoverished Bangladeshi refugees, who were hastily accommodated in ‘Permanent Liability Camps’ in Orissa and Chhattisgarh, were promised a home in Bengal during political campaigns. Taking the now-elected leaders at their word, these groups began to migrate to the Sundarbans, to set up homes for themselves. Warned that the government would not help them, and often detained at railway stations, some refugees dropped out along the way, or were sent back to their camps, but most marched on.

The book evocatively describes how they conquered nature to carve a dwelling out of wild terrain, but the reader is always aware that the land does not belong to the people who have inhabited it. The refugees, deprived, illiterate, and hapless as they may seem, are street-smart enough to garner the support of intellectuals, before the government begins its crackdown.

However, they were to be forcibly evicted by police forces, and the reader is left wondering whether the issue of whom forestland belongs to can ever be black-and-white, in such a context.

India: A Portrait
Author: Patrick French
Published: 2011

Can a Westerner write about India, without dwelling on sadhus and suffering, on slums and swanky hotels facing each other, and shedding tears with the Naxals on how the government has abandoned them? Well, Patrick French can.
His second non-fiction book on this country, India: A Portrait, taglined “an intimate biography of 1.2 billion people”, is free from exotification. In its view of India, the book is somewhat similar to Edward Luce’s In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India. But while Luce deals largely with politics and the state of the economy, French’s book has a very ambitious scope.
In a book that’s divided into three sections – Rashtra, Lakshmi and Samaj – the author traces the growth – and retardation – of the country’s politics, economy and society. And far from being heavy reading, the book is sprinkled with wry observations, moving encounters, and candid opinion.
With its accounts of the lives of the Congress’ two Mrs. Gandhis, the last days of Srinivasa Ramanujan, the origins of entrepreneurial ventures that have turned into business empires, the story of a labourer’s son who became a professor of law, of a man held captive in chains, of a politician’s son who is a pimp, of the unfolding of the Aarushi Talwar murder case, and seemingly everything in between, the book may sound overwhelming. But in a journey that spans the territory between Ladakh and Kanyakumari, Patrick French meets people – and deities – whom you wouldn’t have thought could exist. Try a Vietnam veteran of Indian origin. If that’s not good enough, try the goddess Angrezi Devi Maiyya, who is propitiated with the prayer ‘A-B-C-D’.
But the biggest revelation in this book is the number of MPs who have practically inherited their posts. (Details are available, run by French and his wife Meru Gokhale.)
And what stands out about the book is that it is not an aid for Westerners to understand India better – it’s one that actually brings India, with all its complexities and anomalies, to Indians.
V S Naipaul’s India Trilogy

An Area of Darkness (1964)
India: A Wounded Civilization (1976)
India: A Million Mutinies Now (1990)

When Naipaul wrote his first travelogue on India, he ended up putting a lot of backs up. His disdain for the filth lining India’s streets, for the coarseness of the people, for the realities of the land he had been brought up on the legends of, made the book starkly pessimistic. Criticism ranged from accusations that he was pandering to the West, to raised eyebrows at the opinions he expressed on Islam, to kudos that the truth had finally been told. But Naipaul saw what he did, and if the book is read with an open mind, the reader just may find himself or herself agreeing with a lot of the author’s views.
An Area of Darkness, however, does not have the literary maturity of his later works on India. The second in the series, India: A Wounded Civilization was written at a time that was even more disastrous for the country – the Emergency period. Several reviewers termed this book a ‘journalistic masterpiece’. In this book, Naipaul looks as much within as without, and gets the reader thinking about how much the country has been ravaged by its colonial past. As the first few generations of independent India, are we in a place where we can live in the present, free of the racial and cultural prejudices of our ancestors? Can we rule and not serve? Are we ready to make peace with the past and look to the future?
Perhaps to find out, Naipaul made yet another journey to India, which resulted in India: A Million Mutinies Now, in 1990. In the book, Naipaul still finds himself dissatisfied with Indian attitudes, despite the progress the country has made economically and socially. But overall, the book has a far more positive outlook than the previous two, which going by what was to happen in the next 20 years, may seem rather ironic today.
Reading Naipaul’s trilogy helps understand how India appears to the people who have seen both worlds – the developed and the developing. And this number is ever increasing, with Indians studying and working abroad, and many returning to the country of their birth.
Open Secrets: India’s Intelligence Unveiled

Author: Maloy Dhar

Published: 2005

Former Joint Director of the Indian Intelligence Bureau and strategy analyst, Maloy Krishna Dhar had a career spanning more than three decades in the Central Intelligence Bureau. Having handled political, counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations in some of the most troubled areas of the nation – Kashmir, Punjab and the Northeast – he took to writing after retirement.

And one of his bestsellers, which has seen more than five reprints so far, is Open Secrets: India’s Intelligence Unveiled.

This book, which recounts some of the most gruelling and fascinating assignments of his long career, brings out how successive ruling governments treated the country’s investigative agencies like a personal security force, and manipulated tensions among the populace, resulting in some of the country’s worst fiascos.

In the first part of the book, as he speaks of his years with the Indian Police Service, Dhar focuses on how mistakes made in handling uprisings in the Northeast, and among tribals, have led to the birth of most of the guerrilla movements the nation is struggling to quell today, including the ‘Maoist menace’.

He then moves on to the action he witnessed in the intelligence bureau, and makes chilling revelations about how bureaucratic procedures prevented crucial intelligence from turning into preventive measures to fight terror, and how the government was often aware of plans to stage some of the horrors that have caused communal clashes for decades – such as the demolition of Babri Masjid.

It’s a book that will leave you disillusioned, but a book that must be read, especially when there is a call across the nation to investigate corruption in the government, and when a bunch of former ministers are cooling their heels in Tihar.

India in Slow Motion

Authors: Mark Tully, Gillian Wright

Published: 2002

Mark Tully has lived in India for a lot longer than a generation of Indians. The author of several books, articles and news reports on India, Tully in this book looks at the system of governance, and how it has put the entire country on the back foot, by aping the British colonial administration, where ‘civil servants’ governed rather than served citizens.

India In Slow Motion, written in collaboration with Gillian Wright, who has been in India since 1977, explores such diverse aspects of India as political corruption, religious extremism, Hindutva, child labour, farmers’ struggles, the Kashmir issue, medical facilities, school infrastructure, and sycophancy in the administrative system, both at the states and centre. Tully does not refrain from chiding his adopted country; neither does he hold back credit where it is due, and points out that IT has had an impact on governance in several states.
The book explores the frustration of the common man in a country where the government looks on, unfazed. The title of the book refers to the agonising pace at which everything in the country, from the transport to paperwork, seems to move. But far from being a long indictment of the country and its bureaucracy, the narrative is peppered with anecdotes that demonstrate, rather than discuss, what ails India.
From sacred pilgrim centres to Sufi exponents, village women to the high offices, a lot of India finds its place in this book. At times, one may wonder whether this is targeted at Western audiences that see India as a mystical land. But, to the Indian reader, it seems to educate as well as empathise.
The Cartoons of R K Laxman

So, we kept the best for the last! He may not have put his thoughts on politics into books, but each of the cartoons he shot off to TheTimes of India office, before 4 pm every day, for more than five decades, draws a chuckle, a nod, and a sigh from the viewer even today.
His ‘You Said It’ and pocket cartoons chronicle everything from Nehru’s ideals gone wrong, to the havoc wreaked by terror. His themes include still-colonised areas such as Goa fighting for freedom, the rise of the Dravida movement and Karunanidhi, the abolition of privy purses, Congress factionalism, the near-dictatorial regime headed by Indira Gandhi, censorship, hereditary politics, government apathy, extremism and the rise of Hindutva, Western manipulation of India’s relations with its neighbours, vote bank politics, participants of beauty pageants, and corruption and crime in the corridors of power as well as regular life.
The bewildered Common Man – along with his all-knowing wife – has become an institution in this country, and the things he has seen over the decades he has lived in independent India tell the story of this nation better than any book could.
Collections of Laxman’s cartoons, including those which were banned from publication during the Emergency, have been brought out as books – The Best of Laxman series, Laxman Rekhas and 50 Years of Independence through the eyes of R K Laxman are great buys. To truly understand his cartoons, one does need a grasp of the Indian political scenario, but the books do come with annotations and explanatory notes for the young and ignorant!


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