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

The Books I Picked & Why

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

By Premchand

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.


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Everybody Loves a Good Drought

By P. Sainath

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.


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The White Tiger

By Aravind Adiga

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.


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Coolie

By Mulk Raj Anand

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.


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Walking with the Comrades

By Arundhati Roy

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.


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