A country is known by its books. Here is a list of India’s 60 best since Independence. Read on...
Gitanjali: Rabindranath Tagore won the elusive Nobel with this volume and many a school assembly still recites the lines: “where the mind is without fear and the head is held high; where knowledge is free… into that heaven, my Father, let my country awake.”
All About H Hatterr: GV Desani’s classic, rip-roaring 1948 novel that set the tone for the clanging concoction of the East and the West that would become the signature of writers like Rushdie.
Midnight’s Children: Saleem Sinai, born at the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947, is Salman Rushdie’s magically real means of putting India’s political history (warts and all) on the global literary map.
The Flight of Pigeons: Ruskin Bond’s A Flight of Pigeons, set in pre-Independence India, was also made into a movie Junoon (1978) by director Shyam Benegal.
Aag Ka Dariya: Qurratulain Hyder’s generation was divided by Partition. But she refused to make an irrevocable choice and instead found home in both India and Pakistan. In this magnum opus spanning centuries, she narrates the tragedy of being forced into such a choice.
Train to Pakistan: in a far cry from his usual lighthearted and witty style, Khushwant Singh somberly etches out the agony of a village brutally torn apart at independence.
Adha Gaon: long before he became famous for scripting the Mahabharata serial, Rahi Masoom Reza set this novel in his native Avadh village, offering a vibrant Indian blend of Muslim and Hindu cultures.
Adhe Adhure: Mohan Rakesh, in a play going strong on the stage for nearly three decades now, traces the efforts of an alienated urban being to find meaning in her middle-class milieu.
Anandamath: this Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay novel can still make secularists flinch with its picture of an India tyrannised by Muslims and liberated by the British. A powerful story centred around the birth of the cult of the nation as Mother Goddess.
this autobiography of the popular Punjabi poetess Amrita Pritam created controversy when it came out,
which was predictable given her unconventional life lived very much in the public eye.
Aranyer Din Ratri: Sunil Gangopadhyay’s novel revolves around four young men whose worldview is challenged by the tribals among whom they are holidaying.
Awara Sijde: better known for penning unforgettable film lyrics like Kar chale hum fida jaano-tan saathiyon; Ab tumhaare hawaale watan saathiyo, Kaifi Azmi’s poetry collection tackles politics from Moscow to Telengana.
Kitni Navon men Kitni Bar:
Ajneya won the Jnanpith Award in 1978 for the book representative of the prayogvaadi Hindi poetry promoted by the Tar Saptak series that Ajneya edited.
Family Matters: Family Matters is a colourful account of three generations of a Parsi family, with Rohinton Mistry’s central protagonist being a cantankerous old professor refusing to let age stand in the way of life’s little last pleasures.
Chidamabara: Sumitranandan Pant spearheaded Chhayavaadi poetry in Hindi and this poetry collection won him the Jnanpith Award.
Dast-e-Saba: Faiz Ahmad Faiz produced this volume of poems in a Pakistani jail, where he developed a covert imagery for compositions that he would later put to paper from memory.
Deivathinte Vikrithikal: set in Mahe, M. Mukundun’s saga traces the adventures of a Franco-Indian Alphonse endowed with the gift of magic.
Devdas: Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay introduced a certain “self-destructive syndrome” into our psycho-pop vocabulary that has survived three generations, with Saigal, Dilip Kumar and Shahrukh all doing their parts to keep it going strong.
Dipshikha: a freedom fighter, a Chayavaadi pioneer and the first female Fellow of the Sahitya Akademi, Mahadevi Verma also incorporated a distinctive mysticism in her poetry.
English August: Upamanyu Chatterjee’s fresh and quirky take on the dilemmas of a young civil servant who finds himself ill at ease in small town India.
Ghasiram Kotwal: a Marathi play by Vijay Tendulkar racily follows the life of someone who seeks power and privilege at the cost of everything else.
God of Small Things: mix a fractured family from southern India and a gifted author. Result: a Booker-winning gem from Arundhati Roy.
Godaan: perhaps the most popular of Hindi novelists, Munshi Premchand wrote about India’s semi-starved peasants with compassion abundant enough to bring tears to the eyes.
Golapitha: Dalit Panther Namdev Laxman Dhasal’s mother was a sex worker and his father a butcher’s assistant in Kamathipura, which helps explains his realistic rendition of the titular red light district.
Golden Gate: 690 wonderful sonnets describing the life, love and times of San Francisco’s young professionals by Vikram Seth.
Gul-e-Naghma: Firaq Gorakhpuri’s ghazals were enriched with Hindu mythology and his wit refined by years of teaching English at Allahabad University.
Hajar Churashir Ma: Mahasweta Devi tells the story of an upper middle-class woman whose world is transformed by the killing of her Naxalite son.
Indulekha: O Chandu Menon is credited with the breakthrough of the novel in Malayalam literature with this narrative of a modern rebellion against the degraded feudal system.
Interpreter of Maladies: her collection of short stories about the Bengali diaspora made Jhumpa Lahiri one of the youngest recipients of the Pulitzer at 32.
JJ: Some Jottings:
A cheeky Sundara Ramaswamy novel purporting to be the posthumous biography of a Malayalam writer by a Tamil one ingeniously confuses fiction with fact.
Jokumaraswamy: Chandrasekhar Kambar’s Kannada play revolves around the phallic deity Jokumar, who is worshipped in the form of a snake gourd and ritually devoured by those who want to bear children.
Kanthapura: Raja Rao's sensitive portrayal of a south Indian village during the independence struggle was actually written in a 13th-century castle in the heart of the Alps.
Kayar: admirers have said this Thakazhi Sivasankara novel summarises the social history of Kerala, from the coir factories to communism.
Khasakinte Ithihaasam: this book made a legend out of OV Vijayan and put the interior village in which it plays out on the map of literary tourists.
Kitne Pakistan: to put the historical document itself on trial, Kamleshwar uses a nameless narrator who summons the help of ‘Time’ to sift through records ranging from Kurukshetra to Hiroshima.
Krishnakali: her life’s journey, with pensive pauses at Shantiniketan and Kumaon, brought Shivani a living legend status.
Kurukku: as a Tamil nun whose grandfather sought to escape the stigma of being a Dalit by converting to Christianity, Faustina Bama’s message in this book: “You are a Dalit; lift your head and stand tall.”
Kutiyozhikkal: Vailoppilli Sreedhara Menon’s long Malayalam poem dramatises the ambivalent relationship between the poet and the world.
Love and Longing in Bombay: from the Maruti-1000 kind of stockbrokers to Rajesh bhaiyya’s akhara, Vikram Chandra successfully captures both the ageless and the ever-changing qualities of the metropolis.
Madhushala: better known as the Big B’s father, Harivansh Rai Bachchan was the first Indian to get a PhD in English at Cambridge. The gentle cadences of this early lyric, written in the mystic tradition of Omar Khayyam, have actually made him an enduring star in his own right.
Marali Mannige: using a chaste Dakshina Kannada dialect, Kota Shivaram Karanth’s saga of three generations traces how a poor Brahmin family copes with the winds of change.
Nilkanthi Broja: Assamese writer Indira Goswami has built upon her own experience as a young widow in Vrindavan into a heartrending sketch of hapless women abandoned in this Radheshyami town.
Paraja: Oriya novelist Gopinath Mohanty sketches the harrowing aftermath of wrenching a tribal away from his historical home in the forest.
Parimal: experimenting with ideas, harking back to Shivaji’s militarism, writing in khari boli when this amounted to a statement of dissent, Nirala was a man much ahead his time.
Pather Panchali: Satyajit Ray adapted Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay’s debut novel for his first film, and the rest as they say is history. Apu, Durga and Indir Thakrun now have a worldwide fan club.
like Antonin Artaud, some of the most exciting of Vaikom Mohammed Basheer’s works were produced while undergoing mental treatment.
Coolie: describes the tragedy of a 15-year-old child labourer who dies of TB, and Mulk Raj Anand uses it to powerfully critique the caste system.
Raag Darbari: Shrilal Shukla’s wonderfully satirical account of petty village politics is credited with taking wit and humour in Hindi novels to a new height. Gillian Wright’s excellent translation makes the drollness available to English readers as well.
Randamuzham: MT Vasudevan, who also scripts and directs Malayalam mainstream cinema, wrote this novel after Bhima captured his imagination.
Sabdar Akash: Sitakant Mohapatra, the most translated of the Oriya poets, insists on composing poetry only in his mother tongue, saying: “Poetry is something so intense and emotive that the magical experience can be felt and expressed only in a language that is most intimate to you.”
A House for Mr Biswas: With this Indo-Trinidadian domestic tale, VS Naipaul etches out a fledgling postcoloniality.
Samskara: among those fortunate few whose literary credentials are established by their very first works is the Kannada author U.R. Ananthamurthy. This debut novel is about a Brahmin priest forced to adjudicate the case of a dead, defiant colleague.
Shadow Lines: Amitav Ghosh shows that secrets do not just evaporate when they are exposed. That they were hidden in the first place continues to cast shadows of doubt on the people and events surrounding them.
Subhuk Soda: Rahman Rahi, the first Kashmiri writer to receive the Jnanpith Award, is influenced both by the “leftism” of Iqbal and the romance of Ghalib.
Swami and Friends: set in the fictional town of Malgudi in pre-Independence days, spinning around with the adventures a 10-year-old boy from Albert Mission School, RK Narayan’s novel continues to bring a smile to the face of repeat readers.
Tamas: this powerful Bhisham Sahni novel captured the country’s imagination when Govind Nihalini turned it into an equally forceful telefilm. Sahni drew upon his experiences as a relief worker during Partition to write this anti-communalist saga.
Charandas Chor: credited with an innovative dramaturgy equally impelled by Brecht and folk idioms, Habib Tanvir seduces across language barriers in this all-time hit about a Robin Hood-style thief.
Terhi Lakeer: Ismat Chugtai’s magnum opus centres on the rebellious affirmation of female desire: “A woman’s heart has so many chambers, a mother’s love residing in one, love for her husband in another, for her beloved in a third. Then Shaman tried to peep into her own heart.”
Tughlaq: in this Girish Karnad play, the medieval despot at the heart of a Nehruvian allegory is a troubled figure, crying: “Tell me, Barani, will my reign be nothing more than a tortured scream which will stab the night and melt away in the silence?”
Zindaginama: it is somehow fitting that the last entry in this list is another Partition novel. Krishna Sobti’s rendition relies on her vivid memories of how I-Day impacted a Punjabi village on the banks of the Chenab.