Greatest Indian Novels ever: part II

Updated on Jun 21, 2014 10:04 PM IST

The 54 finest Indian novels in English (including translations in regional languages). You can't afford to not read them!

Hindustan Times | BySaudamini Jain

The 54 finest Indian novels in English (including translations in regional languages) continued. You can't afford to not read them!

26. Difficult Daughters (1998) by

Manju Kapur, who taught English at Delhi University, found success with her very first book. Set in the Partition years, it's about a young woman in Punjab in love with a married man. Umrao Jan Ada (in Urdu, 1893) by Mirza Hadi 'Ruswa', translated by Khushwant Singh and MA Husaini (1970)

Some critics consider this as the first Urdu novel (novel, in the strict sense of the term novel). The memories of a girl kidnapped and sold to a kotha, and her life as a courtesan in 19th century Lucknow. Coolie (1936) by Mulk Raj Anand

A founding member of Progressive Writers Association, Anand's work often looked at the layers of colonialism within India. Coolie is about the adventures of Munoo, a boy forced to leave his village in the hills and move to towns and cities, from Bombay to Simla, working as servant, factory worker and rickshaw driver.


"...He [Mulk Raj Anand] has other fads. He eats half boiled eggs for breakfast. He keeps a bottle of brandy handy to have a swig whenever he is in the mood.
CN: What's your credo?
MRA: To speak up for the down and out. To work for their uplift, and present them with dignity in my fiction. Even an untouchable has his dignity, or a coolie. The same dignity as a king - perhaps greater."
Source: Speak Up For The Down And Out, Chaman Nahal meets Mulk Raj Anand after Anand's 90th birthday, Hindustan Times,
24 December 1995. Godan (in Hindi, 1936) by Munshi Premchand, translated by Gordon C Roadarmel (1968)

Premchand is one of the most outstanding and celebrated writers in the subcontinent, a pioneer of Hindi and Urdu literature - and the first to introduce realism in his writing. Godan, his last novel is also considered his finest. Godan is about Hori Mahato who desires to own a cow so that he can gift it to a priest on his deathbed as godan and find himself a place in heaven. He uses treachery and debt to buy the cow. But the cow is poisoned. This translation is considered a classic in itself. Playground (Rangbhoomi in Hindi, 1924) by Munshi Premchand, translated by Manju Jain (2011)

A blind beggar's struggle against the acquisition of his ancestral land. As with most works of Premchand, it is set in the rural backdrop of colonial India with its many hardships. Paro: Dreams Of Passion (1984) by Namita Gokhale

When it was released, the novel created a sensation. Set in Bombay, it's about parties and the lives and times of two women Paro and Priya. Socialites had never appeared sexier!

32. Indulekha (in Malayalam, 1889) by O Chandu Menon, translated by Anitha Devasia (2005)

O Chandu Menon, a voracious reader of English novels, would often tell these stories to his friends in Malayalam. It was while attempting to translate Benjamin Disraeli's Henrietta Temple (1837), that he decided to write a novel. Indulekha is considered the first classic novel in Malayalam. It is the love story of a beautiful, English-educated, aristocratic young Nair woman, Indulekha, who falls in love with Madhavan, her cousin and an eligible bachelor - except her grandfather forbids the match.

Review from the archives

: "The novel is a blend of West and East in that it copies the English romantic plot, and relates it through the Indic mode of oral narration. The heroine is reminiscent of Austen's heroines. However, it is not that it was a direct borrowing from the West. For the social context of 19th century India has amazing parallels with that of the 17th and 18th century England."

Between East and West by

Jhelum Biswas


The Telegraph, February 18, 2005 The Legends Of Khasak, (Khasakkinte Itihasam in Malayalam, 1969) by OV Vijayan, translated by the author in 1994

This book by cartoonist, novelist and satirist Vijayan is the stuff of legend. Thasrak, the village Kerala he based the fictional village of Khasak on, has become a centre of literary pilgrimage. This novel is about a boy called Ravi who renounces an academic career and love for an ascetic life. Guilty of committing incest with his stepmother, he decides to live in Khasak as atonement for his sin. He starts a new life setting up a single teacher school and lives with the village folk. Despite the new life, the dichotomies still drive his life. River Of Fire (Aag ka Darya in Udru, 1959) by Qurratulain Hyder, translated by the author (1999)

A magnum opus by the "Grande Dame" of Urdu literature, this books spans a period of 2000 years - from the fourth century BCE to post-Independence India and Pakistan. It is divided into four sections, and four interlinked characters - Gautam, Champa, Kamal, and Cyril - reappear in every section. The Feuding Families Of Village Gangauli, (Aadha Gaon in Urdu, 1966) by Rahi Masoom Raza, translated by Gillian Wright (1994)

Raza, an Urdu poet, was also a Bollywood lyricist and wrote the screenplay for BR Chopra's Mahabharat. This book, set in the decade before Independence and during the Partition, it is about the Saiyid zamindars in Gangauli, a village in Uttar Pradesh. It sketches out rural life in transition. Kanthapura (1938) by Raja Rao

When Rao wrote this novel, very little was known about Indian writing abroad. EM Forster called it "perhaps the best novel to come out of India". It's about how Gandhism made its way into Kanthapura, a small casteist village in southern India. The Serpent And The Rope (1960) by Raja Rao

Considered a masterpiece, it is a philosophical and somewhat esoteric account of a young Brahmin boy and his French wife seeking spiritual truth. Set in India, France and England, the dialogue between Orient and Occident, a clash between Indian and Western cultures.



"If Marx dominated the last hundred years, Gandhi is going to dominate the next hundred years in Human history. This is the firm belief of Raja Rao, novelist and mystic... He has lived in France and the United States practically for three-fourths of his 65 and odd years, because "it is simpler to love there, though more beautiful to live in India" - simpler from the practical standpoint because books and other facilities a writer needs are easier to come by.

Source: A Writer's Wandering Pilgrimage by Promilla Kalhan, Hindustan Times, February 12, 1977 The English Teacher (1945) by RK Narayan

The only other author (apart from Anita Desai) to feature thrice in this list is one of the forerunners of Indian literature in English (along with Raja Rao, Mulk Raj Anand and Ahmed Ali). Graham Greene greatly admired Narayan and was instrumental in getting him published. The English Teacher, the sequel to Swami and Friends (1935) and The Bachelor of Arts (1937), is semi-autobiographical. It is about how Krishna, an English teacher, deals with life when his wife dies of typhoid. The Financial Expert (1952) by RK Narayan

The story of Margayya, who sits under a banyan tree and offers financial advice to the people of Malgudi. The Guide (1958) by RK Narayan

Narayan's best known novel, is about Raju, the tour guide/con man and Rosie, the neglected housewife. And Raju's spiritual journey - how he becomes a holy man.



"I've always written without any deliberate effort. But to get a thing printed or published was difficult. The difficulty was that the type of stories I was writing made no sense to my readers. But I persisted because I couldn't write any other way. They were used to things like romance and plot - and everything was abolished in my style of work. But now critics and readers are able to see my point of view. Because a piece of writing is not a thing a writer can judge fully himself. It's for others - the impact, what it stirs up in your mind. It's all very different.

Source: Susan Ram and N RAM's interviews and conversations with RK Narayan, Hindu Frontline, October 18, 1996 (when the writer turned 90) A Fine Balance (1995) by Rohinton Mistry

Shortlisted for the Booker Prize, this novel set in Bombay during the Emergency is about Dina Dalal, a widow, who takes in a boarder in her flat in Bombay: Maneck, the young son of a friend. She also hires two tailors, Ishvar and his nephew Omprakash, for piecework. This is about how the four come together and form a sort of accidental family.



Dina Dalal seldom indulged in looking back at her life with regret or bitterness, or questioning why things had turned out the way they had, cheating her of the bright future everyone had predicted for her when she was in school, when her name was still Dina Shroff. And if she did sink into one of these rare moods, she quickly swam out of it. What was the point of repeating the story over and over and over, she asked herself-it always ended the same way; whichever corridor she took, she wound up in the same room. The Room On The Roof (1956) by

Ruskin Bond's first novel - he wrote it when he was 17 is about 16-year-old Rusty, the orphaned Anglo-Indian boy who lives in Dehradun with his strict English guardian. Midnight's Children (1980) by Salman Rushdie

It won The Best of the Booker, a celebratory Booker award in 2008. Part magic-realism, part historical fiction, this is the story of Saleem Sinai, one of the 1,001 children born at the exact moment of India's independence. Sinai has extraordinary powers, like the rest of the other 'children'. His life is a reflection of the course the Indian nation eventually takes. The Great Indian Novel (1989) by

This is satire at its best. Take the Mahabharat, insert the Indian freedom movement and all that followed over the next few decades. Add some puns. The result is a great Indian novel: The Great Indian Novel.

45. Raag Darbari (in Hindi, 1968) by Shrilal Shukla, translated by Gillian Wright (1991)

This Sahitya Akademi Award winning novel by a master satirist examines the idea of power. It's about a Brahmin ayurvedic doctor, the political mastermind of a village in Uttar Pradesh in the 1950s, who struggles to control the village. English, August (1988) by Upamanyu Chatterjee

Babu by day, writer by night, author-bureaucrat Upamanyu Chatterjee has said he's quite comfortable with this odd 'schizophrenic life'. This novel is a little like the Indian Catcher in the Rye. Agastya Sen finds himself a government job. While his friends go to top Ivy League colleges in the States, he moves to Madna, the hottest town in India. Overwhelmed by the bureaucracy, he takes solace in marijuana and masturbation. Weight Loss (2006) by Upamanyu Chatterjee

This is the story of Bhola, a highly sexed boy from the age of 11 to 38. This book is about a lifetime of fetishes. Samskara (in Kannada, 1965) by UR Ananthamurthy, translated by AK Ramanujan (1976)

Ananthamurthy is one of the most important voices in the Navya (new) movement in Kannada. Last year, the writer was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize for overall contribution to fiction. Samskara is the story of Naranappa, who lives in a community of Brahmins but rejects their way of life: he eats meat, lives with a prostitute. At his death, when the novel begins, the community is confused - they don't want to perform his last rites but then, the community itself gets 'polluted' as his corpse rots. Sacred Games (2006) by

The criss-crossing paths of a cop, Inspector Sartaj Singh, and the country's most-wanted gangster, Ganesh Gaitonde. This is a book about the Mumbai underworld and about the city itself. The Golden Gate (1988) by

The novel in verse is about the lives of yuppies in San Francisco in the 1980s. A Suitable Boy (1995) by

This tome is several things at once. It is a love story, a family drama, an introduction to Indian politics and all things desi. Set in a newly Independent India, it is Mrs Rupa Mehra's quest to find a suitable boy for her daughter Lata. There are three young men: Kabir Durrani, Lata's highly unsuitable boyfriend - good-looking, charming and Muslim; Amit Chatterji, the internationally-acclaimed poet, but his sister is married to Lata's mother (which according to Mrs Mehra, a very unsuitable match) and there is Haresh Khanna, a foreign-educated shoe-maker. The Enigma Of Arrival (1987) by VS Naipaul

Mostly an autobiography, the book is composed of four sections which reflect the growing familiarity and changing perceptions of Naipaul upon his arrival in various countries after leaving his native Trinidad and Tobago. He writes about his experiences of cities in England, America and contrasts it with Trinidad. The Mahabharata (in Sanskrit, between 8th-4th century BCE) by Vyasa, retold by C Rajagopalachari (1958)

Any Bucket book list is incomplete without the Mahabharat. The epic, originally an oral tradition in Sanskrit was first narrated by Ved Vyas more than 2000 years ago. It is the longest poem in the world - originally, it had 8,800 verses and with generations and centuries of retelling and recreating, it grew to more than 1,00,000.

Rajagopalachari's version is perhaps one of the simplest translation - the best introduction to the greatest story ever retold. This Is Not That Dawn (Jhootha Sach by Yashpal in Hindi, 1958-60 translated by Anand (2010)

Considered the most towering writer since Premchand, Yashpal's novel published in two volumes, is set in pre-Partition Lahore. Life is normal in the Bhola Pande galli until prejudiced leaders stoke communal fires. This starts a chain of barbaric events. People flee their homes, millions die and women are the worst hit. Not only does the demographic change, life changes for the people forever.

Have you read all these books?

From HT Brunch, June 22

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