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Books I read in and about India

Started: 2012-07-14 16:33:03

Submitted: 2012-07-14 23:02:08

Visibility: World-readable

In which the intrepid narrator provides a literature review of his recent readings about India

When the opportunity arose this spring to visit India for a second time, I turned my literary focus (which had been inching toward China in preparation for a planned trip to Hong Kong around Christmas, and a possible expatriation in several years) back to India.

The first book I read was Chasing the Monsoon by Alexander Frater, which caught my interest because I would be visiting India in June, roughly the time the monsoon began spreading across the subcontinent, turning the scorching hot summer into a merely-hot-and-muggy rainy season. (Giving the timing of my visit, my host suggested waiting until mid-June, when the monsoon would likely arrive in Hyderabad. This did not quite work as planned -- the monsoon was late, and didn't arrive until the day I left -- but pre-monsoon rains and clouds kept the temperature more moderate.) This was an amusing piece of travel writing, in which the author traveled from the southern tip of India north, following the progress of the monsoon, ending in the wettest place on earth -- Cherrapunji, Meghalaya -- in the midst of the insurgency that nearly thwarted the author's attempt to get a permit to visit.

Since my trip would be taking me to Hyderabad, I took advantage of Boulder Public Library's connection to the Prospector meta-catalog to request Hyderabad: a biography by Narendra Luther. This book traced the history of Hyderabad from the foundation of the city (as an expansion from the fort of Golconda), and gave me a basic foundation on which to peg my understanding of the history of this part of India. I knew enough about the Mughals in northern Indian to be dangerous, but until reading this book I didn't know when their rule waxed and waned this far south. I skimmed past some of the late-Mughal-era court intrigues and almost missed the declaration of independence by the first Nizzam of Hyderabad and his subsequent partial absorption into British India. I didn't pay rigorous attention to the dates and names but let the story wash past me, with the hope that I'd catch enough to be useful.

I read India: A Portrait by Patrick French early enough that I confess I don't remember it all that well. Written by a westerner who has traveled extensively in India (and elsewhere in Asia), the author clearly understands India and is able to give a detailed look at India -- and the problems it faces -- in the opening decade of the twenty-first century.

While shopping for guidebooks at the Boulder Bookstore, I stumbled across India: A Traveler's Literary Companion edited by Chandrahas Choudhury, which seemed to be just the thing to gain an appreciation for the modern short-story literature of India, including places I'd never visit. I've read plenty of non-fiction about India, but fiction gives me the chance to see India in a way that is not literally true but may provide deeper insights than any literally true story could be. I read it on the plane flying home from San Jose in May, where my seat-mate saw the book and identified himself as a second-generation Indian-American, but didn't finish it before leaving for India, so I brought it with me and read it and on the plane from Hyderabad to Mumbai.

The second book I took with me to India was Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity by Sam Miller. While living in Delhi, the author decided to walk around the city, in an ever-expanding spiral, visiting important tourist sites (some of which I saw while visiting Delhi) and back alleys in the capitol, dodging touts and rickshaw-wallas. He comes to appreciate Delhi in a new way, and comments on its future, and I enjoyed reading his adventures and insights.

I also carried in my suitcase Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India by William Dalrymple. It took me a while to get into this book but once I had exhausted my other reading material, on the last leg of my journey from Newark to Denver, I turned back to this book. The author profiles nine people from various faiths in India, each of whom has a different relationship with their faith and their community.

On my first day back home, I visited my local public library to return some books and fight off jet-lag (and begin my pivot back to China) but found the classic travel-writing book Video Night in Kathmandu by Pico Iyer. Boulder Public Library had a well-worn first edition hardcover on the shelf with due dates stamped inside the cover from before I moved to Boulder in 1991. Many of the cultural references were badly dated, but I enjoyed the book for what it was: the author's impressions while traveling all over Asia, observing how American cultural imperialism (and tourism) affected the local cultures and economies, to varying degrees in each country.

I read two other books about India recently, albeit before my most recent focus shift, starting with Delirious Delhi: Inside India's Incredible Capital by Dave Prager, an American expat who lived and worked in Delhi and recounts his experiences in the city. I enjoyed the zeitgeist snapshot of expat life in his book, but came away wanting more. I found his blog, the unfortunately-named Our Delhi Struggle, while preparing to visit India the first time, and if you read nothing else, you ought to check out the Bollywood-style poster he commissioned.

The other book I read earlier was Cyberabad Days by Ian McDonald, a collection of short fiction in the same science-fiction-future universe as his earlier book River of Gods. We'd ostensibly read the book for our science fiction book club, back while it was still a going concern, but I was the only one who actually made it through the book, having an appreciation for and understanding of India. I enjoyed this book as well, as a speculative look into how India's future might unfold.