The best books about India recovering its past

The Books I Picked & Why

Ashoka, The Visionary

By Ashok Khanna

Book cover of Ashoka, The Visionary

Why this book?

To understand India it is important to know that it was the birthplace of four great religions, Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, and Sikhism. The Buddha was a Vedic teacher with a following in North East India. The emperor Ashoka was responsible for spreading the religion we know as Buddhism. Ashok Khanna’s account of Ashoka, the ruler of the Indian subcontinent for 37 years from 269 BCE traces the important influences Greek and Persian philosophy had on Indian society and the origins of Buddhism. Khanna describes Ashoka’s carved edicts on pillars and rocks extolling justice based on equal treatment for all. Ashoka is a much-needed example of good governance and Khanna’s account is assessable. You don’t need to know anything about Ashoka to read this book.  

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Where the Gods Dwell: Thirteen Temples and Their (Hi)stories

By Manu S. Pillai

Book cover of Where the Gods Dwell: Thirteen Temples and Their (Hi)stories

Why this book?

If you already know a lot about India and are interested in an unusual insight into the role of temples in the history, culture, architecture, and myths of the subcontinent, then this is for you. It will also introduce you to thirteen writers who include journalists, academics, and authors. Each one was asked to write about one temple, recounting its origins and the mythology and history surrounding it. It’s beautifully illustrated by Mistunee Choudhury. You can enhance the experience by googling the locations. It has introduced me to some must-see places to go on my want to visit list. I visited the unforgettable temples of Khajuraho and they appear in my own book.

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Sea of Poppies

By Amitav Ghosh

Book cover of Sea of Poppies

Why this book?

This well-researched vividly written trilogy was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. What many of my countrymen absorbed growing up was the myth of the British Empire as civilising project. Most are unaware that when the vicious and absurdly profitable triangle of trade involving slaves from Africa transported to the Americas and the products of their labour sold in the UK ended, it was replicated in Asia. In the first half of the 19th century, the East India Company embarked on the biggest drug dealing operation the world had ever seen. The new triangle was the UK, (manufactured cotton goods) India where the opium was grown and China where it was sold and paid for much desired Chinese tea, spices and silk etc to take to the UK. It led to the Opium Wars 1839-42 when the Chinese Emperor tried to close down the trade. These novels take you there and then.

The trilogy gets its names from the ship Ibis, sailing from Calcutta on board of which most of the main characters meet for the first time. We are introduced to, Bihari peasants, Bengali Zamidars, Parsi businessmen, Cantonese boat people, British traders and officials, a Cornish botanist, and a mulatto sailor. Page turners.

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Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India

By Shashi Tharoor

Book cover of Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India

Why this book?

This is a polemic and pretends to be none other but it serves as an antidote to the apologists of Empire. Why is it needed? You can’t read the Ibis trilogy and not understand the exploitation of the East India Company. The first war of independence (1857) failed and was brutally put down. There were attempts at reform and not all legacies of the Raj are regrettable, my Victorian maverick works on the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India. But the tendency in the UK is to highlight the positives and ignore the racism, the famines, the massacres, and the horrors of the manner in which we left India. Once readers know the consequences of the Raj, they will understand the origins of South Asian immigration to the UK and will get a glimpse of how others see us, warts and all. 

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The Panchatantra

By Pandit Vishnu Sharma, G.L. Chandiramani

Book cover of The Panchatantra

Why this book?

It is possibly the oldest surviving collection of 84 Indian fables, written around 200BC by Vishnu Sharma. He became a tutor to a king’s children. He engaged their interest by telling stories of animals with a moral message at end of each story rather like Aesop’s Fables. The animals are somewhat different. e.g The Monkey and the Crocodile, the Hare and Lion. Many elements of Rudyard Kipling’s children’s books such as the Just So Stories were inspired by The Panchatantra. There are of course Hindi editions available too.

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