Books about India

I drafted this post about 6 months ago, a month after I went to India. Then, for some reason it got deleted and I couldn’t bring myself to rewrite it immediately. So, I never did. It is now a LOT later but I still thought it worth publishing… just excuse any glaring time frame issues.

This post is another reading challenge update but couched in the title of ‘books about India’ to try and differentiate it from the last entry. The subject of this post is down to the fact that I started researching books set in India or by Indian authors for my trip there last month, in order to hit #2 on my reading challenge (a book set in whichever countries I visit this year) and I got overenthusiastic and ended up reading 4 instead of the one stipulated. Obviously, this means I didn’t progress much with other numbers on the list, so thought a bumper post about them all would work just as well.

1) A Passage to India – E. M. Forster

Since I was travelling to India, I thought I had better take this opportunity to tick off A Passage to India from my original List. It was a toss up between that and A Suitable Boy, with Passage only winning out due to its shorter length. I wasn’t especially excited about this novel – my previous interactions with E.M. Forster hadn’t been memorably captivating (Where Angels Fear To Tread for English GCSE) and the blurb of Passage seemed to suggest I might have a similar experience here.

I was both right and wrong. A Passage to India does explore the same theme of cultural prejudice that Angels deals with, but it is wrapped within a story that is, I would argue, more intriguing and better developed. Passage was published nearly 15 years after Angels and the maturity of Forster as an author is evident. Despite the fact that this novel was stronger and more enjoyable than I thought, I did still feel, however, that I was reading a book that was sending me a clear moral message, demanding me to analyse and critique it, which prohibited me from losing myself completely in the story. Throughout my reading, I would be interrupted by thoughts like ‘this would be a passage used for evidence about prejudices against the Indian people’, or ‘a comparison between these characters would make a good essay question’. This didn’t make for an especially immersive reading experience. 

Whilst I recognise that this was probably in large part a product of my history with Forster rather than his writing, it still strikes me that the power of this book lies greatly within the message that the author is trying to give, rather than in the excitement of the story itself. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this per se – a great proportion of books labelled as classics are often done so for the ideas they present or the lessons they give rather than on how engaging they are, and vice versa. The caution around the importance of tolerance in Passage is both necessary and timeless. It is this lesson that is the most powerful aspect of the novel – more and more we find ourselves in need of heeding it in today’s day and age. 2.5/5 stars.

2) City of Djinns – William Dalrymple

As my trip started in Delhi and my knowledge of the city, let alone India, is scanty at best, I wanted a book that was going to enrich my understanding of where I was. This book did exactly that. Delhi is overwhelming – amazing, but overwhelming – and the story of this city is no different. The noteworthy sites telling the chequered history of Delhi are scattered around this huge metropolis; some are hidden away in side streets or within parks, some tower over crowded markets, others are plopped beside major highways, peeking out at you as you struggle to navigate the frenetic traffic. From Lutyens’ British reconstruction of Delhi to the remains of the Old City and the upmarket Southern districts, it’s a tapestry of different influences that can be quite hard to piece together if you know very little about what you’re looking at. Enter, William Dalrymple, a travel writer, whose observations of Delhi, written over a year spent living there in 1989, do this piecing together for you, with great story telling and a classic British humour. He tells his own story of Delhi in the late 1980s and explores each seminal moment in the city’s history from Indira Gandhi, Partition, the British, the Mughals, right back to the first signs of the city. Whilst some may find the fact that the story is not linear and jumps around a bit frustrating, I enjoyed it. It gave it the sense that you were accompanying Dalrymple on his voyage of discovery around Delhi. To read about a person discovering a place at the very time you are in that place (this happened to me as I was sitting in the ruins of Haus Khaz, reading this book) adds a certain magic to it. 4/5 stars

2) Shantaram – Gregory David Roberts

Shantaram is somewhat of an iconic traveller’s novel. It has been read and raved about by a slew of voyagers to India, and many other countries besides. It would be hard to accurately recall the number of times I’ve heard it recommended, or listed amongst all time favourite books so with my upcoming trip to India, I decided this had to be one of the pieces of literature associated with the country that I absorbed. 

I decided to listen to Shantaram via Audible because its sheer size means it gives great value for money on that one credit a month. This baby kept me well occupied for a long time. In all honesty, I don’t know how good the decision to read this via audiobook was. After a while, the accents employed bored a hole through my skull and the narrator, although he did his best, seemed to struggle with the myriad nationalities he had to cover in a limited dialectal repertoire. It wasn’t long before Swedish was sounding like American which was also suspiciously similar to Israeli. The other thing about the audiobook also meant that a lot of the dialogue and the language that my eyes probably would have danced over in reading, employing an automatic ‘don’t bother with that’ filter, were brought more to the forefront so I found myself instead rolling my eyes and thinking ‘really?!’. It seems to be a common trope of reading via audiobook for me: it is much harder for authors to get away with unnatural flowery language or artificial literary techniques in their writing.

So, to the story itself. It started off fairly well, but soon there were issues arising which turned out to be pervading rather than one offs and thus poisoned my enjoyment of the book. Perhaps if it had been a shorter piece of work then I’d have been more forgiving, but these insidious weaknesses in both the story and the writing were unabating for close to 1000 pages meaning they were impossible to ignore. 

Firstly, the character of Lin. I have no problem with a bit of creative and optimistic license to create heroes in novels but I had to suspend a LOT of disbelief to find this character credible. The defects just escalated until I couldn’t stand the guy. From memory, these include his innumerable talents, the origin of which was never explained, including a prodigy for fluency in Indian languages after only a few months, a mysterious acting prowess and an impressive breadth of medical knowledge. Forgive me for being churlish, but I can’t recall the last time that a basic first aid course covered how to treat cholera epidemics and mortar wounds. Equally infuriating to me about this man was how, when he left the slums, he seemed to forget all his friends there. Prabaker virtually evaporates from the narrative – Lin doesn’t even visit him when his baby is born. It undermined their entire friendship, the essence of which was one of the true pinnacles in this story. However, I’d probably assign this fault to the author’s poor grip on his own story rather than an intentional character trait. 

The narrative was full of unwarranted filler and I can’t understand why an editor didn’t slim this down to half the size. There are episodes that serve no purpose to advancing the story but only to frustrate a reader. One that springs to mind is the scene of Lin travelling to Mauritius on a covert and illegal passport deal only to be paid in local currency. I can only imagine that this was included to demonstrate Lin’s impressive international mafioso credentials but if so it didn’t achieve its aim. There was nothing we needed to know here. 

However, at the same time, Roberts periodically forgets to tie up or expand upon aspects of the story that he introduces. The moral dilemma of Lin over adopting Khader’s nephew is given substantial word count, with the impression that a significant sub-plot is being set up, only for time to suddenly skip forward 3 months and thus render the attention given to it completely pointless. This was only one of a series of frustrating, and, I would even say, lazy pieces of story-telling. Now, when I think about it there are so many of these that I can’t even count them, but probably the worst of these was Khader’s war – the ending to this coming suddenly and without real understanding or exploration, despite the pages and pages of words dedicated to it. 

Add to the above, the excessive passages that we had to endure on half-baked philosophy, whether on life, the universe, love or war, this book really tested my patience. I think it was meant to be profound, and there are some passages that are well suited to the characters but overall it only engorged the narrative with self-importance and pontification on ideas that are far from groundbreaking.

Now, after that rant, you’d probably expect that I rate this book very low. However, there were some aspects of it that I enjoyed and obviously something that kept me listening for the whole 36 hours of audio. I found the period of time Lin spent in the slum to be engaging, descriptive and enjoyable. The mood and scenes captured by the writing were vivid and the characters were fun. It seemed to portray a genuine appreciation of India with all its foibles, which was charming yet authentic. I also thought the episode in the prison was gripping. Roberts painted a compelling picture of the brutality and depravity (but, once again, superhuman Lin prevented it from being truly believable). The other thing to say is that, despite some of the deviations and inconsistencies listed above, the story is relatively pacey and brimming with action. I think it might be this that has made it appealing to so many people – there is so much going on that it can be easy to ignore the flaws in the writing. If action is your thing, on the whole, you are kept entertained.

Lastly, and probably most irritatingly, was that I felt tricked by this book because it gave the impression of being autobiographical. On this basis, I forgave many of the gaping holes and inexplicable events, only to discover that the elements of the story based on fact are so limited that they pale into insignificance next to the erupting volcano of fantasy Roberts has created in the guise of reality. I give the author credit for penning this megalith not once, but twice whilst in prison. I just wish that an editor hadn’t been blinded by that feat and failed to do a proper job on reviewing it to make it a stronger piece of work. Alas. 3/5 stars.

3) The God of Small Things – Arundhati Roy

This book is a stalwart of the UK English exam syllabuses, which made me instantly mistrustful of it, given the apathy with which I regard most of the novels I studied in school. It is also a Man Booker prize winning novel, which added another level of cynicism, as I typically find myself underwhelmed by the winners of that particular prize. Nevertheless, I was recommended it more than once, and was delightedly surprised with the result. The writing does have that inimitable oddity about it that many Man Bookers possess, but it didn’t overwhelm me because the story itself was strong enough to carry it. I was worried that its lyricism would be too contrived but it struck the balance well enough, although I will concede that it takes a bit of getting used to.

The novel has a slow start, exploring the relationship between a set of twins who are reunited in their childhood home after years spent apart. Throughout the opening chapters hints are dropped about a seminal disaster in their adolescence, and before long you are hooked, turning pages furiously in order to find out exactly what happened. However, this book is dedicated as much to finding out about this family and the world they live in, as it is to discovering what took place in the past. It culminates in some of the most heartbreaking scenes that bring these colourful characters to life, yet seem to add even more mystery to them at the same time.

I thought I really wouldn’t like it when I started it, but it just grows and grows as a story so by the end you can’t put it down. Thoroughly recommend. 4/5 stars.

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