India is a land of contradictions. It is an attack on the senses with the colorful bazaars and ornate houses of worship, but under the surface you’ll find an ancient culture that is contending with a violent history.
I’ve found that people who visit India either hate it or love it—there’s no in between.
I’m ashamed to say that as an Indian American, I didn’t appreciate the land of my ancestors when I visited once in the 3rd grade and a second time in the 5th grade. Honestly, I was just a snot-nosed kid who was craving corn flakes the entire time (it’s true).
Looking back though, I’m grateful for the experience and am excited for my next adventure there.
Traveling to India
Even though I found India to be confusing, I knew I belonged. Growing up in the American South, I was always an outsider—I could see the question in everyone’s eyes, “where are you from?”
In India, no one looked at my skin in confusion or wrinkled their brows when confronted with my “ethnic” name. I wasn’t an Indian girl—I was just a girl. My name was just a name, a revelation for someone who was constantly explaining her existence.
Being Indian wasn’t cool when I was in high school. Nobody wanted to try the food (you should if you haven’t) or even thought about visiting (perhaps after the pandemic). However, there’s been a change these last few years, and India has become a bucket list destination for everyone and their yoga teacher, which both amuses and heartens me.
Of course, it’s impossible to travel during the pandemic, so I’ve compiled a list of books set in India that I hope will satiate your wanderlust until it’s safe to travel again.
The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters by Balli Kaur Jaswal
Location: Delhi and Amritsar
I think this is a perfect book for Westerners curious about traveling to India. I say this because the three protagonists are British Indian. The Shergill sisters, Rajni, Jezmeen, and Shirina, have to visit India in order to fulfill their mother’s last wishes. They are tasked with a list of things to do, including making a pilgrimage to the Golden Temple in Amritsar. The trip is supposed to bring them together; however, all three sisters harbor secrets. But amidst the chaos and enlightenment that comes with any trip to India, they learn to turn to each other for support.
The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi
The Henna Artist is a historical fiction novel with an absolutely captivating backdrop of post-independence Jaipur. The city itself is steeped in history, and Lakshmi, our determined protagonist, makes an excellent tour guide. Lakshmi is an accomplished henna artist and has just fulfilled her dream of home ownership after escaping an abusive marriage years before. However, her plans are derailed when her ex tracks her down with her young sister in tow.
The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay
Location: Bangalore and Kashmir
The Far Field hits on a contentious topic in India: Kashmir, a nuclear flashpoint. Vijay takes readers to Kashmir, which we see through the eyes of Shalini, a privileged young woman from Bangalore. Shalini is contending with the death of her mercurial mother and decides to venture to a remote Himalayan village in order to find Bashir Ahmed, an old friend of her mother’s. However, Shalini’s plans of a happy reunion are quickly upended when she is faced with the volatility of Kashmiri politics and daily life.
A Burning by Megha Majumdar
Majumdar’s A Burning reckons with religious tensions within India. Jivan is Muslim girl surviving in the slums who is accused of terrorism. At the same time, her gym teacher plots to use her downfall for his rise in a right-wing political party. It’s impossible to talk about India without considering the religious tensions boiling below the surface, and Majumdar’s book shows how it all starts from one small act being interpreted and misinterpreted on a national stage, where everybody has an agenda.
Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag
Shanbhag explores capitalism in Ghachar Ghochar by telling the story of a destitute but close-knit family that finds wealth and financial success after a one family member starts a successful spice company. However, rising fortunes shift the family dynamics, resulting in everything becoming “ghachar ghochar,” or tangled beyond repair.
Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer by Cyrus Mistry
In the deep corners of Mumbai is a forgotten community of Parsi corpse bearers who carry the bodies of the dead to the Towers of Silence. Despite their important work, the community is segregated from the larger public and lives in poverty. But Phiroze Elchidana, a revered Parsi priest, upends social norms when he falls in love with Sepideh, the daughter of a corpse bearer. Inspired by true events, Mistry’s story explores how love can ignite even in the most unforgiving of places.
The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee
This is a family saga of the Ghosh family, which is led by its aging patriarch and matriarch who govern a large household of their five grown children and their families. The hierarchy of the house is rigid, with family members occupying certain floors based on their favor with the patriarch and matriarch. Outside, the household seems ordered but inside, rivalries and tensions are slowly boiling to the surface. The insidious turbulence of the Ghosh family is directly reflected in the social turbulence in India, which all comes to a head when Supratik, the eldest grandchild, veers toward political extremism.
Babyji by Abha Dawesar
I thought a sexy but philosophical book would be in order. Babyji tells the tale of Anamika Sharma, a brilliant quantum physics student living in Delhi. Reading the Kamasutra in her spare time, she deftly seduces everyone from an older divorcée to a classmate admired by every boy. Right on the brink of adulthood, Anamika must confront her future and answer questions people twice her age don’t have to contend with.