This is a list of the greatest Indian novels ever written. It might feel incomplete (only books written in English or translations of works in Hindi and other regional languages figure here). It might seem biased (they're personal picks from the best literary minds of our time). It might even appear as though we've missed your personal favourite (lists tend to do that). But for anyone looking to jump into the rich world of Indian writing, it's a beautiful and imperative start.
Our jury of eight - writers, publishers, academics and book critics - nominated 10 books each. Not surprisingly, there were overlaps, surprises and works we knew would never be ignored. In our masterlist of 54 books, you'll know nearly everything there is to know about this great land of ours through the decades. And by the end, you'll know more than what you've read.
THE JURY:Amitava Kumar, Chiki Sarkar, David Davidar, Harish Trivedi, Jeet Thayil, Jerry Pinto, Ravi Singh and Sunil Sethi.
The books are listed alphabetically by author's name.
1. Cutting For Stone (2009) by Abraham Verghese
This bestselling novel (with more than one million copies sold) is written by an author who is also a physician and a professor. It is about twins, Marion and Shiva, born to an Indian nun and British surgeon, who are orphaned with their mom's death and dad's disappearance in Addis Ababa. Set in Ethiopia and New York, it is about family, betrayal and medicine.
2. Twilight In Delhi (1940) by Ahmed Ali
Ali's most important book was published when EM Forster convinced the publishers that it was not seditious. It is the story of an upper-class Muslim family in Delhi. Mir Nahal, a nationalist, vividly remembers the British cruelty during the Revolt of 1857. But now, in 1911, "firangi" elements have begun to appear: his sons' government jobs, English boots... Old Delhi making way for the new.
People all around were talking:
'Is that the King on the horse?' said one.
'Don't be mad,' another ridiculed him. 'he is a mere soldier or officer. Kings wear fine and flowering robes.'
'That's all you know,' a third butted in. 'The English wear only those uniforms. Understand?'
Many passed caustic and humorous remarks on the dress and faces of the native chiefs, laughing at their retinues, calling them tin soldiers or made of straw. The children were excited by the sight, and gloated over liveries and uniforms and so many white faces as they had never seen before. They shouted and asked questions from people who either did not know the right answers or were too busy themselves watching the fun…
3. An Obedient Father (2000) by Akhil Sharma
US-based writer Akhil Sharma's book is about Ram Karan, a corrupt official, who sexually abused his daughter when she was younger. Now, his recently widowed daughter and eight-year-old granddaughter are forced to move in with him. This is a book about the consequences.
4. The Immortals (2009) by Amit Chaudhuri
Set in the Bombay of the 1970s and '80s, Amit Chaudhuri's book looks at two families whose fortunes are connected by music (he himself is a talented musician). Shyam Lal, the son of a singer, teaches
music to support his family. His student Mallika Sengupta's musical ambitions are dulled by luxury. Her son, Nirmalya, is captivated by philosophy and incredulous of Shyamji's material pursuits. This is about music in a modern world, a debate on Shyam's comment that "you cannot practice art on an empty stomach."
5. The Hungry Tide (2005) by Amitav Ghosh
Piyali Roy is a young marine biologist from Seattle in search of an endangered river dolphin. She is aided by Kanai Dutt, a businessman and translator from Delhi, and Fokir, a young fisherman. This is their journey through the Sunderbans.
6. The Shadow Lines (1988) by Amitav Ghosh
Two families - one English and one Bengali - and their lives through three generations. Set in Calcutta, London and Dhaka, this book is shadowed by the freedom movement, the Second World War and the Calcutta riots of 1964.
7. Fire On The Mountain (1977) by Anita Desai
Desai is one of only two authors to appear three times on this list (the other is RK Narayan). The part-German writer has written 16 novels, been shortlisted for the Booker Prize three times and has changed 23 addresses in 75 years. This Sahitya Akademi Award-winning novel is about Nanda Kaul, who renounces city life and leaves her family behind, to live in the hills. Until one day, her great-granddaughter comes to live with her.
8. In Custody (1984) by Anita Desai
Deven is a small-town Hindi lecturer with a broken dream of becoming a poet. He lives an insignificant, unhappy life. But then, he is asked to interview one of the country's greatest Urdu poets. Deven takes great pains to put together the logistics. Yet, this project ends in misery.
9. Baumgartner's Bombay (1988) by Anita Desai
Hugo Baumgartner, a German Jew, flees the Holocaust by coming to India. This is the story of the wandering Jew in Bombay after World War II.
10. The White Tiger (2008) by Aravind Adiga
Adiga's debut novel won the Man Booker Prize for fiction. In the book, the protagonist, Balram Halwai, narrates his life to the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao: how the son of a rickshaw puller works as a chauffeur in Delhi and then flees to Bangalore after killing his employer, stealing his money and becoming a successful businessman.
11. The God Of Small Things (1997) by Arundhati Roy
The first Indian novel to win the Booker Prize, Roy's only novel so far has sold more than six million copies. Set in Kerala, it is about family and social injustices, about relationships that cross lines and how things fall apart in the bargain.
"But what was there to say?
Only that there were tears. Only that Quietness and Emptiness fitted together like stacked spoons. Only that there was a snuffling in the hollows at the base of a lovely throat. Only that a hard honey-colored shoulder had a semicircle of teethmarks on it. Only that they held each other close, long after it was over. Only that what they shared that night was not happiness, but hideous grief.
Only that once again they broke the Love Laws. That lay down who should be loved. And how. And how much."
12. The Fig Tree (1959) by Aubrey Menen
This book by an Indian-Irish writer with an English upbringing is about a British scientist, who accidentally invents aphrodisiac figs.
13. Kadambari (in Sanskrit, 7th century CE) by Banabhatta, translated by Padmini Rajappa (2010)
Written in the 7th century, this is one of the oldest novels in the world (although it is not a novel in the strictest sense). Narrated by a parrot, it has stories within stories within stories. At its heart, it is the love story of the beautiful Gandharva princess, Kadambari, and the moon god, Chandrapida. After Bana's death, his son Bhushanabhatta completed the tale.
14. Anandamath (in Bengali, 1882) by Bankim Chandra Chatterji, translated by Basanta Kumar Roy (1992)
Roughly based on the Sannyasi Rebellion of 1771, this was banned by the British. Vande Mataram was originally written as part of the book. The story is about a couple who meet a group of sanyasis, revolting against the British, and join them. Incidentally, Chatterji's Rajmohan's Wife (1864) is considered the first Indian novel in English.
15. Trying To Grow (1991) by Firdaus Kanga
A semi-autobiographical work about Daryus Kotwal, a Parsi boy in Bombay suffering from osteogenesis imperfecta (or brittle bones, a condition Kanga himself was born with) who doesn't let that come in the way of his life and sex.
16. All About H. Hatterr (1948) by GV Desani
Desani's only novel. Anthony Burgess, introducing the novel in 1969, wrote, "It is not pure English; it is like Shakespeare, Joyce, and Kipling, gloriously impure". Salman Rushdie called it "the first great stroke of the decolonising pen". It is about H Hatterr, who grew up in Calcutta, and is looking for enlightenment - and so he visits seven Oriental cities and consults seven sages.
17. The Trotter-Nama: A Chronicle (1988) by Irwin Allan Sealy
This is a mock epic, an account spanning the lives of seven generations of The Trotters, an ever-expanding Anglo-Indian family, starting with Justin Trottoire, the Great Trotter, a French mercenary who came to India in the 1750s and worked with the British East India Company, and ending with Eugene, the Seventh Trotter, in the late 20th century.
18. Em And The Big Hoom (2012) by Jerry Pinto
This is the story of the protagonist's parents: Em, the bipolar mother and Big Hoom, the father, their 12-year-long courtship, marriage and her "descent into madness" and the family coping with her illness. It is part beautiful, part hilarious and part very, very sad.
19. Nectar In A Sieve (1954) by Kamala Markandaya
Born in Mysore in 1924, this is the pioneering woman writer's best-known novel. It's the story of Rukmani, daughter of a village headman, married to a landless tenant. Though Markandaya moved to England in 1948 and married an Englishman, she remained connected to her home country.
20. Train To Pakistan (1956) by Khushwant Singh
This is the Partition novel, written by one of India's most colourful and most-loved writers. The narrative is set in Mano Majra, a Muslim-Sikh village at the Indo-Pak border unaffected by the Partition. But then, a money lender, the only Hindu in the village, is murdered. As events unfold, ordinary individuals get engulfed in the violence and tragedy of Partition.
21. Delhi (1990) by Khushwant Singh
This book traces the history of Delhi, from Nadir Shah to the rise of the British Delhi, ending with the assassination of Indira Gandhi. The backdrop is story of a journalist fallen on bad times and his relationship with Bhagmati, a hijra. Delhi reveals to us the underbelly of the chequered history of this old and grand city. The book, chosen by publisher Ravi Singh in his list of ten, calls it "a monumental Rabelaisian tribute to the capital city spanning over 1000 years. Only a writer with Khushwant Singh's daring, scholarship and genius for entertainment could have written a novel as rich and uninhibited as this one. "
22. The Inheritance Of Loss (2006) by Kiran Desai
Daughter of author Anita Desai, Kiran is an accomplished writer herself. This is her second book and won several literary prizes. It features a retired judge in Kalimpong who looks back at a lifetime of arrogance. The story is also about his orphaned granddaughter and his cook's son, an illegal immigrant in the US.
23. Cuckold (1997) by Kiran Nagarkar
A fictional retelling of the life of Mira Bai (the princess who believed she was married to Krishna) and her mortal husband, the heir apparent of Mewar. It unfolds as Babur sweeps in and invades India.
24. Ravan & Eddie (1994) by Kiran Nagarkar
The Guardian named it one of the 10 best books about Mumbai, it is the story of two boys, Ravan and Eddie, growing up in a Bombay chawl in the '50s.
25. The Death Of Vishnu (2001) by Manil Suri
This debut novel by a mathematician was longlisted for the Booker and is about the spiritual journey of a dying man named Vishnu, working on a Bombay building.
For books 26-54, click here.
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From HT Brunch, June 22
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