The best books about India under the Raj that are not about princesses, palaces and people floating about in silk dresses

Who am I?

Abi Oliver is a pen name as my real name is Annie Murray—I write under both names. My first book, A New Map of Love, set in the 1960s, featured an older woman who had been born in India. She developed into such a character—a bit of an old trout to be truthful—that I wanted to tell her story. It also tapped into my family’s many connections with India and the fact that I have travelled a lot there. I finally got to travel, with my oldest daughter, and stay in one of the tea gardens in Assam—a wonderful experience.

I wrote...

Letter from a Tea Garden

By Abi Oliver,

Book cover of Letter from a Tea Garden

What is my book about?

1965 – in an English country mansion. Eleanora Byngh is not in a good state. Wedded to the whisky bottle and with her house crumbling round her ears, her days seem destined to follow a lonely (and grumpy) downhill path. When the post brings an unexpected invitation to return to the Indian tea gardens of her early childhood, Eleanora risks breaking open memories of the loves and tragic losses of her younger years, lived across a tumultuous century.

As relationships with her newly found family face their own challenges, she is offered chances of new truths, of love and unexpected new life—if she is prepared to take them.

The books I picked & why

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Two Under the Indian Sun

By Jon Godden, Rumer Godden,

Book cover of Two Under the Indian Sun

Why this book?

Jon and Rumer Godden, sisters, were seven and six when World War One broke out. They escaped life with their austere maiden aunts in England when they were sent to join their parents in a river town, Narayangunj—now in Bangladesh. I just love this vivid little book, full of bright light and characters. The sisters, who wrote all through their childhood, detail daily life in India from a child’s point of view: the rooms, meals, and servants of their house as well as the jute boats, river steamers, pets, dangers, and cyclones of the country. Being a parent of European children at that time must have been a worrying business, but I do slightly envy them their childhood amid all that beautiful scenery and human interest. 

Bhowani Junction

By John Masters,

Book cover of Bhowani Junction

Why this book?

"India will sing like a bird out of its cage when she is free," says one of the characters in this wonderfully engaging book. Times of transition interest me and this book is set during the early part of Indian Independence, when everyone was trying to find a new identity and way of living, especially Victoria, one of the three main characters who is Eurasian, or as we would now say, mixed race. She is torn between the two sides of her heritage. Some of the language is shocking in our times but it is a fascinating story of people caught up in a country’s re-birth. It is also a tender love story. It’s a great way to get a feel of that period of upheaval.

The Jewel in the Crown: The Raj Quartet, Volume 1

By Paul Scott,

Book cover of The Jewel in the Crown: The Raj Quartet, Volume 1

Why this book?

This first volume—with the other threeis, I think, the best book ever written about the British in India and their leaving of it. The whole story is rooted in a rape that happens to a young Englishwoman, whose lover is accused of the crime. I first read this when it came out in 1980, before the amazingly good TV series. There are so many unforgettable characters in itthe women, trying to survive with husbands and fathers away in the army, the missionaries and nuns, as well as the men. Scott does not in any way idealize the Britishrather the oppositeand it is a feast of detail of the time and moving human stories. I have re-read it and will no doubt do so again. 

For All the Tea in China: Espionage, Empire, and the Secret Formula for the World's Favourite Drink

By Sarah Rose,

Book cover of For All the Tea in China: Espionage, Empire, and the Secret Formula for the World's Favourite Drink

Why this book?

I am a total tea-head, so any book about the history of how we all came to be addicts is a good start. This one is particularly gripping and reads like an adventure novel. Robert Fortune, a Scottish botanist, and industrial spy, was employed by the East India Company in 1848 to be smuggled into China and steal their tea-growing secrets. The book never flags, full of information about the opium wars, the Chelsea Physic garden and how the tea, later found to grow naturally in India, was made into a consumer product garnering enormous profits. As I grew up with a family member who disappeared to work in Assam tea gardens just before I was born, I have always been fascinated by this way of life.

The Sun in the Morning

By M.M. Kaye,

Book cover of The Sun in the Morning

Why this book?

M.M Kaye was best known for her blockbuster The Far Pavilions. This beautifully written book, however, is a first volume of memoir—another record of a European child in India. Having travelled there a lot myself and had a family relative close to me in age grew up in the tea gardens there, I have long wondered what that experience was like, quite apart from the politics of whether we should have been there or not. Kaye’s childhood eye describes her upbringing in Shimla in the Himalayan foothills as well as Delhi, before her inevitable banishment to cold England. The book has a sunlit feel to it and it full of vivid detail and fond memories of this childhood caught between two worlds. 

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in India, the British Raj, and China?

5,809 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about India, the British Raj, and China.

India Explore 273 books about India
The British Raj Explore 14 books about the British Raj
China Explore 399 books about China

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

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