The best books on South Asia and East Africa that will keep you awake at night because you can't put them down

Stephen E. Eisenbraun Author Of Danger and Romance in Foreign Lands
By Stephen E. Eisenbraun

Who am I?

From my days as a student in India in the early 1970s through my years in the U.S. Foreign Service with postings in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Kenya, as well as assignments to the India, Kenya, and Uganda desks at the Department of State, I learned something of the cultures of South Asia and East Africa and gained an appreciation for the peoples of those countries. During the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic, I had the time to write. I developed a novel that was part autobiography and part fiction, and most of which was set in South Asia and East Africa. The result is Danger and Romance in Foreign Lands.

I wrote...

Danger and Romance in Foreign Lands

By Stephen E. Eisenbraun,

Book cover of Danger and Romance in Foreign Lands

What is my book about?

To see the world, to report political intrigue abroad—these are the ambitions of Scott Higgins, a young American foreign correspondent in South Asia who encounters dramatic and dangerous events there in the 1970s. It is in India that he also makes an unexpected romantic connection with Rakhi, a smart, savvy, and sultry woman employed by a British multinational bank. Scott and Rakhi elope to Nairobi, where Scott takes up his second reporting assignment, and Rakhi continues with her bank in its Kenyan branch. Even as newlyweds, however, their lives are threatened by unseen but dangerous political actors who resent their presence in the country. They flee Nairobi to London, where trouble of a more personal kind still awaits them.

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The books I picked & why

The Siege of Krishnapur

By J. G. Farrell,

Book cover of The Siege of Krishnapur

Why did I love this book?

During my student days in the early 1970s, I travelled throughout North India by train and country bus, often staying in the countryside in former colonial rest houses from days of British rule in India. I tried to imagine what it was like for the British East India Company officials before 1857, and then for the British colonial officials who replaced the company officers after the Indian Sepoy Mutiny. The Siege of Krishnapur vividly recreates the 1857 mutiny from the perspective of British company officials and their families trapped by the local soldiers they had employed. 

Farrell used a diary and letters from those besieged in the real city of Lucknow to illustrate the horrors of hunger, impending rape, torture, and eventual death that many of the British faced. The scenes are graphic, and the portrayals of the relationships among those trapped have stayed with me for years. The novel received the Booker Prize in the U.K. and is considered one of the finest British novels of the twentieth century. To me, the novel helps me appreciate the drama of India, from its colonial days to the present.  

By J. G. Farrell,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In the Spring of 1857, with India on the brink of a violent and bloody mutiny, Krishnapur is a remote town on the vast North Indian plain. For the British there, life is orderly and genteel. Then the sepoys at the nearest military cantonment rise in revolt and the British community retreats with shock into the Residency. They prepare to fight for their lives with what weapons they can muster. As food and ammunition grow short, the Residency, its defences battered by shot and shell and eroded by the rains, becomes ever more vulnerable.

The Siege of Krishnapur is a…

Book cover of The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire

Why did I love this book?

A close friend in Karachi, Pakistan, called to tell me a few years ago that she had attended a fascinating talk at the Sindh Club by William Dalrymple, a Scottish historian who had just published a definitive history of the East India Company from its founding in 1600 through its conquering of almost all of India as the Mogul Dynasty collapsed in the next two centuries. The history reads more like a novel, with graphic details of Indian and British personalities and the battles they fought for control of the subcontinent with its untold riches at stake. One will never think about the British Empire, or India, in the same light after reading this acclaimed history. The battlefields, the Indian forts, and the Mogul palaces scattered throughout North India are places I have visited, and because Dalrymple is such a skilled raconteur, I feel I have been with him in the battles he described in that exotic and blood-soaked country.

By William Dalrymple,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

THE TOP 5 SUNDAY TIMES BESTSELLER ONE OF BARACK OBAMA'S BEST BOOKS OF 2019 THE TIMES HISTORY BOOK OF THE YEAR FINALIST FOR THE CUNDILL HISTORY PRIZE 2020 LONGLISTED FOR THE BAILLIE GIFFORD PRIZE FOR NON-FICTION 2019 A FINANCIAL TIMES, OBSERVER, DAILY TELEGRAPH, WALL STREET JOURNAL AND TIMES BOOK OF THE YEAR 'Dalrymple is a superb historian with a visceral understanding of India ... A book of beauty' - Gerard DeGroot, The Times In August 1765 the East India Company defeated the young Mughal emperor and forced him to establish a new administration in his richest provinces. Run by English…

Moth Smoke

By Mohsin Hamid,

Book cover of Moth Smoke

Why did I love this book?

In the early 1980s, when I lived in Lahore, Pakistan, and served on the board of the Lahore American School—an institution that catered to rich Pakistanis and expats whose commercial companies paid the high tuition—I talked to a fourth-grade class whose Pakistani teacher was a close friend. She alerted me twenty years later that one of those students had just published his first novel, describing the fast life of the affluent and often decadent Pakistanis who lived in mansions, partied till dawn, drank heavily, and engaged, it was rumored, in romantic liaisons with each other’s spouses.

Moth Smoke describes this life, with a main character who falls in love with a friend’s wife while losing his job and turning to the sale of heroin and hashish to survive.  Mohsin takes the reader through a bittersweet recounting of life in the fast lane in modern Pakistan, a life I observed for three years while living in Lahore. The New York Times selected Moshin’s debut novel as a Notable Book of the Year in 2000; it is a good read and valuable as a window into one facet of modern, upper-class Pakistani life.

By Mohsin Hamid,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The debut novel from the internationally bestselling author of Exit West and The Reluctant Fundamentalist, both shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize

Moth Smoke, Mohsin Hamid’s deftly conceived first novel, immediately marked him as an uncommonly gifted and ambitious young literary talent to watch when it was published in 2000. It tells the story of Daru Shezad, who, fired from his banking job in Lahore, begins a decline that plummets the length of Hamid’s sharply drawn, subversive tale.

Fast-paced and unexpected, Moth Smoke was ahead of its time in portraying a contemporary Pakistan far more vivid and complex than the…

Book cover of The Lunatic Express: The Magnificent Saga of the Railway's Journey Into Africa

Why did I love this book?

Kenya was an exotic territory for British colonial interests in the late 19th century. For reasons almost impossible to understand today, the British decided to build a railroad from Mombasa, the seaport on the Indian Ocean, through the Kenyan savannah, to Kampala, a city of some riches in the far interior of what is now Uganda. The story of the building of the railroad at the end of the 19th century is hair-raising, thanks to Miller’s classic history, as imported Indian workers had to endure predatory lions, harsh climates, and raging rivers to forge across the frontier. That the railroad to nowhere was completed is a tribute to those Indian workers and their intrepid British overseers.

Today, one can take the train from Mombasa to Nairobi, some three hundred miles distant, either in the daylight, hoping to spy some wildlife, or in a sleeping berth at night. I have taken that train many times between the two cities in the years I lived in Mombasa. Modern-day Kenya is a beautiful country but a dangerous one also, not from lions but from its citizens who are not always kind to outsiders who try to understand the country.

By Charles Miller,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In 1895, George Whitehouse arrived at the east African post of Mombasa to perform an engineering miracle: the building of the Mombasa-Nairobi-Lake Victoria Railway - a 600-mile route that was largely unmapped and barely explored. Behind Mombasa lay a scorched, waterless desert. Beyond, a horizonless scrub country climbed toward a jagged volcanic region bisected by the Great Rift Valley. A hundred miles of sponge-like quagmire marked the railway's last lap. The entire right of way bristled with hostile tribes, teemed with lions and breathed malaria.

What was the purpose of this 'giant folly' and whom would it benefit? Was it…

Book cover of West with the Night: A Memoir

Why did I love this book?

In the 1920s and 30s, there were a few adventurous colonials who catered to wealthy tourists who wanted to go on safaris to shoot big game. Among them were Theodore Roosevelt and Ernest Hemingway. The guides they used were white Kenyans, British mostly, who knew the country; one of those was also a glamorous young female aviator, Beryl Markham, who scouted by flying her plane ahead of those on safari, and who delivered mail around the Kenyan colony.  She was fearless, loved by many men, but known well by only a few. Beryl once flew across Africa to Britain, and then on a dare, flew alone across the Atlantic, becoming the first person to make the crossing east to west. Beryl continued to California, lived among celebrities in Hollywood, and eventually wrote a haunting novel of her life in East Africa. Earnest Hemingway praised that novel, West with the Night, as more a poem than a narrative book.

While I lived in Mombasa, I befriended a British resident who was completing a biography of Beryl Markham. My friend uncovered evidence that a Hollywood writer with whom Beryl lived in Hollywood wrote the book from the stories Beryl told him. It doesn’t matter who penned it; the book is guaranteed to awaken the romantic impulse many have to explore Kenya and learn about its colorful colonial history.

By Beryl Markham,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked West with the Night as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

WEST WITH THE NIGHT appeared on 13 bestseller lists on first publication in 1942. It tells the spellbinding story of Beryl Markham -- aviator, racehorse trainer, fascinating beauty -and her life in the Kenya of the 1920s and 30s.

Markham was taken to Kenya at the age of four. As an adult she was befriended by Denys Finch-Hatton, the big-game hunter of OUT OF AFRICA fame, who took her flying in his airplane. Thrilled by the experience, Markham went on to become the first woman in Kenya to receive a commercial pilot's license.

In 1936 she determined to fly solo…

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