The best books on poor people in India that engages with their daily life

Jeremy Seabrook Author Of People Without History: India's Muslim Ghettos
By Jeremy Seabrook

Who am I?

As a child of a worker in the boot and shoe industry of the English Midlands, I have written for more than half a century about poverty in its many guises – from the want and misery of early industrialism in Britain to the modernised poverty of a form of affluence which mimics prosperity without providing either satisfaction or sufficiency. Writing about the landscapes of poverty in the 1980s, I went to India and Bangladesh, and saw there in patterns of urbanization familiar echoes of what we in Britain had experienced. It seems to me that poor people are always poor in the same way, although this may be hidden behind differences in culture, tradition, ethnicity, and faith.


I wrote...

People Without History: India's Muslim Ghettos

By Jeremy Seabrook, Imran Ahmed Siddiqui,

Book cover of People Without History: India's Muslim Ghettos

What is my book about?

People Without History is the story of people who live in the poorest suburbs of Kolkata and who are further disadvantaged by being overwhelmingly Muslim. The ingenuity and intelligence they display in making a livelihood for themselves and those they love have to be balanced against the damaging and dangerous circumstances to which their (mainly) self-employed labour exposes them.

Uncelebrated triumph and unacknowledged tragedy exist side by side in these districts which, until recently, appeared on maps of the city as unoccupied areas ‘liable to inundation’, but where the people have created lives of precarious dignity and fragile security; in West Bengal they also have the modest advantage that the state is run not by the communal BJP, but by Mamata Banerjee's secular Trinamool Congress party.

The books I picked & why

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The Gift of a Cow: A Translation of the Classic Hindi Novel Godaan

By Premchand,

Book cover of The Gift of a Cow: A Translation of the Classic Hindi Novel Godaan

Why this book?

This great Hindi novel evokes the vast placid plains of North India, and the social and psychological violence that lies so close to the surface in the lives of the poor. It is the story of Hori Ram, to whom a neighbour gifts a cow, which his estranged brother poisons, thereby deepening the already impoverished family’s misery beneath the humiliations of caste and poverty, and it provided me with insights into the lives of poor people in India which volumes of academic work on poverty failed to do.

The Gift of a Cow: A Translation of the Classic Hindi Novel Godaan

By Premchand,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Premchand is the most famous Hindi novelist, and Godaan is Premchand's most celebrated novel. Economic and social conflict in a north Indian village are brilliantly captured in the story of Hori, a poor farmer, and his family's struggle for survival and self-respect. Hori does everything he can to fulfill his life's desire: to own a cow, the peasant's measure of wealth and well-being. An engaging introduction to India before Independence, Godaan is at once village ethnography, moving human document, and insightful colonial history. Out of print for many years, this translation is regarded as a classic in itself.


Everybody Loves a Good Drought

By P. Sainath,

Book cover of Everybody Loves a Good Drought

Why this book?

The bitter irony of this title reflects the writer’s passionate anger at the conditions he found in his reports for the Times of India between 1993 and 1995, during visits to some of India’s poorest villages. The power of the reportage is breathtaking, portraits of a division of labour most people even in India scarcely know exists - like the palm-tree climbers of Ramnad in Tamil Nadu, who extract juice from 40 trees a day in a 15-hour shift; and the village in Odisha whose people have been evicted three times for ‘development’ projects; but also of the women who destroyed the shops that sold liquor to quarry workers. This was the time of ‘Shining India’, a stage in the mutation of poverty in India, which directly paved the way for the present communalist BJP.

Everybody Loves a Good Drought

By P. Sainath,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Everybody Loves a Good Drought as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Acclaimed across the world, prescribed in over 100 universities and colleges, and included in part in The Century's Greatest Reportage (Ordfront, 2000), alongside the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Studs Terkel and John Reed, Everybody Loves a Good Drought is the established classic on rural poverty in India. Twenty years after publication, it remains unsurpassed in the scope and depth of reportage, providing an intimate view of the daily struggles of the poor and the efforts, often ludicrous, made to uplift them.

An illuminating introduction accompanying this twentieth-anniversary edition reveals, alarmingly, how a large section of India continues to suffer…


The White Tiger

By Aravind Adiga,

Book cover of The White Tiger

Why this book?

This cynical and often brutal novel about Balram, a poor boy from a remote village who manages to rise from working in a teashop to become a driver for a landlord. He later kills his employer and takes the money with which the police were to have been bribed for a car accident for which he had been expected to take the blame. He goes to Bangalore and starts his own taxi business. The novel takes us through the labyrinth of a globalizing India, with its corruption, amoralism, fast wealth and the opportunity for the ruthless to escape their impoverished past is richly instructive about the mutations of poverty in India and the pathologies required to escape it.

The White Tiger

By Aravind Adiga,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The White Tiger as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

WINNER OF THE MAN BOOKER PRIZE 2008

Balram Halwai is the White Tiger - the smartest boy in his village. His family is too poor for him to afford for him to finish school and he has to work in a teashop, breaking coals and wiping tables. But Balram gets his break when a rich man hires him as a chauffeur, and takes him to live in Delhi. The city is a revelation. As he drives his master to shopping malls and call centres, Balram becomes increasingly aware of immense wealth and opportunity all around him, while knowing that he…


Coolie

By Mulk Raj Anand,

Book cover of Coolie

Why this book?

This story of an orphan, brought up by an uncle and aunt and sent out to work as a house servant, moved me so much because, although written in the early years of the Independence struggle, nevertheless prefigures the fate of countless young Indians, little more than children who, beaten and mistreated, run away to the closest city and later, to the unforgiving metropolis of Mumbai or Delhi. His life of innocence destroyed and youth blighted, ends at the age of sixteen when he dies of TB. It is harrowing but uplifting.

Coolie

By Mulk Raj Anand,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Coolie portrays the picaresque adventures of Munoo, a young boy forced to leave his hill village to fend for himself and discover the world. His journey takes him far from home to towns and cities, to Bomboy and Simla, sweating as servant, factory-worker and rickshaw driver. It is a fight for survival that illuminates, with raw immediacy, the grim fate of the masses in pre-Partition India. Together with Untouchable, Coolie places Mulk Raj Anand among the twentieth century's finest Indian novelists writing in English.


Walking with the Comrades

By Arundhati Roy,

Book cover of Walking with the Comrades

Why this book?

This book, part polemic, part reportage, is an account of Arundhati Roy’s journey into the forests of Chattisgarh, where groups of ‘Naxalites’ or Maoists have taken up arms against the Indian state, in defence of Adivasis, the indigenous inhabitants of India, for whom the forests, rivers, and hills are sacred. Unhappily these are cover vast deposits of minerals and precious resources required as ‘raw materials’ by a rapidly industrializing India. As a result, the State, which throughout the colonial period and in the early years of Independence, had, in turn, neglected and cheated the forest-dwellers, has now turned upon them with militaristic intensity to wrest resources from them. I found this narrative so powerful because Arundhati Roy makes us understand the violence of the despairing, without overtly supporting it.

Walking with the Comrades

By Arundhati Roy,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Walking with the Comrades as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From the award-winning author of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness and The God of Small Things comes a searing frontline exposé of brutal repression in India

In this fiercely reported work of nonfiction, internationally renowned author Arundhati Roy draws on her unprecedented access to a little-known rebel movement in India to pen a work full of earth-shattering revelations. Deep in the forests, under the pretense of battling Maoist guerillas, the Indian government is waging a vicious total war against its own citizens-a war undocumented by a weak domestic press and fostered by corporations eager to exploit the rare minerals buried…


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