The best books about India recovering its past

Why am I passionate about this?

Thanks to access to a good community library, I developed an interest in history from the age of seven. My interest in India grew when I married Indian-born Atam Vetta. After teaching, I set up a business and was director of Oxford Antiques Centre. In 1998, while chair of the Thames Valley Art and Antique Dealers Association, I was invited to become the art and antiques writer for The Oxford Times. That was how my freelance writing career began but since 2016 I have concentrated on writing fiction and poetry but make occasional contributions to The Madras Courier.


I wrote...

Sculpting the Elephant

By Sylvia Vetta,

Book cover of Sculpting the Elephant

What is my book about?

The fast-moving contemporary story is half set in Oxford and half in India (mostly on the Buddhist trail) and is embroiled in the lives and ambitions of impoverished Oxford artist Harry King and Indian historian Ramma Gupta. But there is a historical subplot. It grew out of a question I asked myself. How was it possible for Ashoka, who is responsible for the world’s third-largest religion to have been forgotten for over a thousand years? His inspirational story demonstrates that it is possible for a person to change. His transformation from a brutal warlord to a pacifist is an example that the world needs to embrace if human life is to survive. Inspired by the Dalai Lama, I hope that, despite some of the serious subjects addressed in Sculpting the Elephant, it is imbued with humour.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Ashoka, The Visionary

Sylvia Vetta Why did I love 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.  

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

Sylvia Vetta Why did I love 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.

By Manu S. Pillai,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Where the Gods Dwell as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The great temples of the Indian subcontinent are uniquely fascinating spaces. Steeped in mythology and history, they are windows into a complex, often contrary culture. Where the Gods Dwell delves into the ‘(hi)stories’—history and mythology—of thirteen architectural marvels that have inspired awe, and not only in the hearts of the faithful.

Every essay in this book is an intriguing mix of historical detail, mythological narrative and architectural commentary, supplementing and complementing each other to tell a story that is more than the sum of its parts. From Pashupatinath in Nepal to the Nallur Kandaswamy in Sri Lanka, the Kamakhya in…


Book cover of Sea of Poppies

Sylvia Vetta Why did I love 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.

By Amitav Ghosh,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked Sea of Poppies as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

At the heart of this epic saga, set just before the Opium Wars, is an old slaving-ship, The Ibis. Its destiny is a tumultuous voyage across the Indian Ocean, its crew a motley array of sailors and stowaways, coolies and convicts. In a time of colonial upheaval, fate has thrown together a truly diverse cast of Indians and Westerners, from a bankrupt Raja to a widowed villager, from an evangelical English opium trader to a mulatto American freedman. As their old family ties are washed away they, like their historical counterparts, come to view themselves as jahaj-bhais or ship-brothers. An…


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

Sylvia Vetta Why did I love 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. 

By Shashi Tharoor,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Inglorious Empire as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Sunday Times Top 10 bestseller on India's experience of British colonialism, by the internationally-acclaimed author and diplomat Shashi Tharoor

'Tharoor's impassioned polemic slices straight to the heart of the darkness that drives all empires ... laying bare the grim, and high, cost of the British Empire for its former subjects. An essential read' Financial Times

In the eighteenth century, India's share of the world economy was as large as Europe's. By 1947, after two centuries of British rule, it had decreased six-fold. The Empire blew rebels from cannon, massacred unarmed protesters, entrenched institutionalised racism, and caused millions to die…


Book cover of The Panchatantra

Sylvia Vetta Why did I love 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.

By Pandit Vishnu Sharma, G.L. Chandiramani (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Panchatantra as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Panchatantra is a collection of folktales and fables that were believed to have been originally written in Sanskrit by Vishnu Sharma more than 2500 years ago. This collection of stories features animal characters which are stereotyped to associate certain qualities with them. The origins of the Panchatantra lie in a tale of its own, when a King approached a learned pandit to ask him to teach the important lessons of life to his ignorant and unwise sons. This learned scholar knew that the royal princes could not understand complex principles in an ordinary way. So, he devised a method…


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Snow on Magnolias

By Betty Bolte,

Book cover of Snow on Magnolias

Betty Bolte Author Of Notes of Love and War

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Author Editor Traveler Crocheter Reader

Betty's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

Magnolia Merryweather, a horse breeder, is eager to celebrate Christmas for the first time after the Civil War ended even as she grows her business. She envisions a calm, prosperous life ahead after the terror of the past four years. Only, all of her plans are thrown into disarray when her secret lover returns and starts asking questions she can’t answer without disaster following.

Bryce Day comes home to Alabama after he’s discharged from the First Alabama Cavalry USA with guilt weighing on his heart. His neighbors won’t cotton to his Unionist bent, and the woman of his heart likely won’t give him a second chance after his silence during the war. Only, she’s hiding something from him.

How can they have any hope of a loving life together with lies and secrets between them?

Snow on Magnolias

By Betty Bolte,

What is this book about?

One terrible lie, a desperate measure to save her past, just might destroy her future…

Award-winning author of historical fiction presents a new novel of love and lies, secrets and sensuality, and the hands of fate weaving it all together.

The American Civil War is finally over and Christmas beckons. Magnolia Merryweather, backyard horse breeder, is eager to celebrate for the first time since the war began even as she continues to grow her business. She envisions a calm, prosperous life ahead after all the terror of the past four years. She’s preparing to follow in her mother’s matriarchal footsteps,…


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