The best books on the British Raj

3 authors have picked their favorite books about the British Raj and why they recommend each book.

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Into The Hidden Valley

By Stuart Blackburn,

Book cover of Into The Hidden Valley: A Novel

A most affecting historical novel set in 19th century Assam as the British colonialists sought to push deeper into the country. I’ve read so many accounts of the early encounters between native and foreigner but what makes this one rare is Blackburn’s careful and tender individualising of his characters so that they can both be ranged against each other and yet in some human and mysterious and ultimately tragic way also be friends. 

Into The Hidden Valley

By Stuart Blackburn,

Why should I read it?

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


Who am I?

I started writing fiction and writing about fiction at about the same time. My novels and stories tend to be about solitary characters pulled into the maelstrom that is contemporary Indian urban life and trying to make sense of it. I’ve always believed that to be an effective observer of your society you need to stay in tune with what your peers are doing and the last two decades in which I’ve been writing and publishing have been some of the most exciting for Indian fiction in general.  


I wrote...

The Cosmopolitans

By Anjum Hasan,

Book cover of The Cosmopolitans

What is my book about?

Qayenaat is a drifting, sensitive figure at the edge of the Bangalore art scene. When world-famous artist Baban Reddy, once a young man who hung on her every word, returns to the city to exhibit his latest artwork, all her old longings rise to the surface. Baban’s arrival accompanies other seemingly momentous events and sets Qayenaat off on the most unexpected journey of her life – to the heart of rural, war-torn India. The Cosmopolitans is a novel of ideas and emotions – one that questions the place of art in modern life, and draws a vivid portrait of a woman at odds with the world. 

Book cover of The Sun in the Morning

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. 

The Sun in the Morning

By M.M. Kaye,

Why should I read it?

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


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.

Calcutta

By Krishna Dutta,

Book cover of Calcutta: A Cultural and Literary History

Another nonfiction similar in scope and outlook to Kushanava Choudhury’s The Epic City, this title dispenses with the personal narrative and offers a highly structured rundown of the main attractions/points of history/social and cultural issues, etc of the Bengali capital. Not quite a guidebook, Calcutta offers short texts on particular aspects of life in the city, then and now. Well written, the book suffers from the same issue as all other recent books on Kolkata – the British get away with way too much and the post-independence period is seen through the eyes of Calcutta’s privileged elite. That said, this title does well at dissecting cultural currents, and the section on artistic Kolkata is especially rewarding. A great, practical introduction for the first-time visitor.

Calcutta

By Krishna Dutta,

Why should I read it?

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


Who am I?

I'm a writer and journalist with an eye on South and Southeast Asia. I first visited Kolkata, or Calcutta as the city was known back then, in 1995 and fell in love with its spirit, culture, architecture, politics, and decrepitude. I have been back regularly reporting on the city’s cultural life for media like CNN and Nikkei Asia. In 2019, I was selected as artist-in-residence for the Indo-European Art Residency by the Goethe Institute and spent 10 weeks writing a crime fiction set in the Bengali capital. Kolkata is, hands down, my favorite city in the world – despite its poverty, systemic injustice, and political cruelty, there is an energy in the place that is hard to beat.


I wrote...

Kolkata Noir

By Tom Vater,

Book cover of Kolkata Noir

What is my book about?

Becker is a British traveler in trouble. Madhurima is a rising star police officer. In three explosive tales, set over a period of forty years, Becker and Madhu join forces to investigate the Kolkata’s crooked high society, take on deluded would-be messiahs in search of Mother Teresa’s stolen millions, encounter Hindu fanatics, circus freaks, and cannibals, fall in and out of love and pay homage to one of the world’s most beautiful and toughest cities.

Amidst passion, murder, and mayhem in India’s most beautiful and fascinating metropolis, is there room for two lovers driven by justice and compassion?

Bhowani Junction

By John Masters,

Book cover of Bhowani Junction

"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.

Bhowani Junction

By John Masters,

Why should I read it?

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


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.

Boats on Land

By Janice Pariat,

Book cover of Boats on Land: A Collection of Short Stories

I love how this short story collection traverses time but not locationthe setting is the northeastern state of Meghalaya while the stories span 150 years. In these fifteen tales, folklore mixes with modern life and myth is steeped in the mundane. The result? The reader journeys through a rich smorgasbord of a multi-faceted Meghalaya and its people. Given the tendency to clump the seven northeastern states together, this book helps us view one of those states distinctively.

Boats on Land

By Janice Pariat,

Why should I read it?

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


Who am I?

I’ve been fascinated by maps all my life. The map of India has always held special interest. As I’ve lived in different parts of India, I’ve seen firsthand how India is one country, but its stories are multiple. I chronicled India’s varied stories through the origins of each of its states. Similarly, I’ve curated a diverse and inclusive reading list. It covers different parts of the country and contains different types of books—graphic novel, travelog, memoir, and short story collections. The authors also cut across religion, gender, and social strata. I hope you discover a whole new India!


I wrote...

The Origin Story of India's States

By Venkataraghavan Subha Srinivasan,

Book cover of The Origin Story of India's States

What is my book about?

India is a federal union with 28 states and 8 union territories. The states of India are all-encompassing—they cover every inch of land and hold every single person that makes up India. States give every Indian a home and an identity. Every time a new state is created or an old one altered, India and Indians are remade, recreated, reborn. When India completed its journey of independence on 15 August 1947, its states began their individual processes of formation. And while India’s modern history of independence and partition is much recounted, the history of its constituent partsits statesis hardly known, even to its residents. This book tells the stories of the states of India, which are also the story of India.

Panchali's Pledge

By Subramania Bharati, Usha Rajagopalan (translator),

Book cover of Panchali's Pledge

As you may have been able to tell from this list, I have a special fondness for Mahabharatas that revolve around women, especially Draupadi. One of these Mahabharatas is Subramania Bharati’s magnificent Tamil poem, Pancali Sapatam or Panchali's Pledge. Subramania Bharati was a poet and Indian independence activist and he began to write Panchali's Pledge in 1912 while he was living in hiding from the British. Thus, it is unsurprising that Panchali's Pledge is a powerful allegory for the anti-colonial struggle against the British Raj in twentieth-century South Asia with Draupadi being depicted as the personification of the Indian nation. Like Andrew Skilton’s translation of the Shattered Thighs, Usha Rajagopalan’s translation of Panchali's Pledge contains a number of useful endnotes for readers who may be unfamiliar with the Mahabharata tradition. 

Panchali's Pledge

By Subramania Bharati, Usha Rajagopalan (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Panchali's Pledge as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.


Who am I?

I’m Assistant Professor of Religion at Kalamazoo College and my research focuses on the Mahabharata, an epic narrative tradition from South Asia. As an Indian-American kid growing up in suburban Boston, my first introduction to the Mahabharata tradition was from the stories my grandmother told me when she would visit from Chennai and from the Mahabharata comics that she would bring me. Many years later, my friend and colleague Nell Shapiro Hawley (Preceptor of Sanskrit at Harvard University) and I began to work on a project that would eventually become our edited volume, Many Mahābhāratas. I’m excited to share some of my own personal favorite Mahabharatas with you here.


I co-edited...

Many Mahābhāratas

By Nell Shapiro Hawley (editor), Sohini Sarah Pillai (editor),

Book cover of Many Mahābhāratas

What is my book about?

Many Mahābhāratas is an introduction to the spectacular and long-lived diversity of Mahabharata literature in South Asia. This diversity begins with the Sanskrit Mahabharata, an ancient and massive epic that tells the story of the five Pandava princes and the devastating battle they wage with their one hundred paternal cousins, the Kauravas. The Sanskrit Mahabharata, however, is just one of countless Mahabharatas that have been produced in South Asia during the past two thousand years.

The many Mahabharatas of this edited volume come from the first century to the twenty-first and are composed in ten different languages. Readers dive into classical dramas, premodern vernacular poems, regional performance traditions, commentaries, graphic novels, political essays, short stories, and contemporary theater productions—all of them Mahabharatas.

A Passage to India

By E.M. Forster,

Book cover of A Passage to India

This novel, quite simply, sent me to India! Written in the 1920s when my grandparents were starting married life there, it is a beautifully written but unsettling depiction of British colonial rule. The plot is deceptively simple: was Adela (a naive young woman newly arrived from England) molested in the Marabar Caves by Dr. Aziz (a cultured young Indian acting as her guide)? But the characters are complex and the novel brilliantly illustrates the tensions between the racist rulers and the ruled. I read it as a teenager, and its portrayal of the vividness of the Indian landscape and the vibrancy of its multi-layered culture gripped my imagination. This book is what made me – aged 18 – climb on a bus to India!

A Passage to India

By E.M. Forster,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Passage to India as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Set in British India in the 1920s, this book looks at racial conflict. The characters struggle to overcome their own differences and prejudices, but when the Indian Dr Aziz is tried for the alleged assault of Adela Quested even the strongest inter-racial friendships come under pressure.

Who am I?

As a historical novelist, my passion is world history and the story of my own family. Having survived the First World War, my Scottish grandfather went to India as a forester and my granny followed him out there; they married in Lahore. I was fascinated by their stories of trekking and camping in the remote Himalayas. They lived through momentous times: world war, Indian Independence and Partition. Grandfather Bob stayed on to work for the new country of Pakistan. Long after they’d died, I discovered their letters, diaries, and cine films from that era – a treasure-trove for a novelist! – which have helped enrich my novels set during the British Raj.


I wrote...

The Emerald Affair

By Janet MacLeod Trotter,

Book cover of The Emerald Affair

What is my book about?

After the heartbreak of the First World War, two friends leave Scotland for a new life in India. While Esmie endures hardship and danger nursing in the wilds of the Northwest Frontier, hedonistic Lydia dreams of a glamorous life at The Raj Hotel in Rawalpindi. But the simmering tensions at the hotel are mirrored in the unrest on the frontier and when crisis strikes, Esmie faces a shattering choice: should she stay the constant friend she’s always been, or risk everything and follow her heart? Love, loyalty, and friendship will be tested to their utmost in the heat and turbulence of colonial India. The Emerald Affair is the first in the Raj Hotel Series.

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

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. 

The Jewel in the Crown

By Paul Scott,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Jewel in the Crown as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This first volume opens in 1942 as the British fear both Japanese invasion and Indian demands for self-rule. Daphne Manners, daughter of the province governor, is running at night through the Mayapore gardens, away from her Indian lover, who will soon be arrested for her alleged rape.

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.

Amphigorey Too

By Edward Gorey,

Book cover of Amphigorey Too

It would be impossible to create a list of morbidly whimsical books without including Edward Gorey, the uncontested master in this realm. While virtually any of Gorey’s books could be added to this list, his Amphigorey treasuries are the most efficient way for new readers to browse through his books. Since I must make a choice, however, I am selecting Amphigorey Too since this was the volume that introduced me to Gorey’s work when I was seventeen. Furthermore, it also contains a couple of my favourite Gorey tales: The Beastly Baby and The Inanimate Tragedy.

Amphigorey Too

By Edward Gorey,

Why should I read it?

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


Who am I?

I am an illustrator of books, comics, and various other things, but no matter what I illustrate I can’t seem to keep a certain darkness out of my drawings. For most of my life I have been attracted to the macabre. This attraction first emerged out of fear but later out of amusement. It is rather comical to see the amount of effort people are willing to expend in order to avoid thinking and talking about death. I find it far more healthy to acknowledge it everywhere while simultaneously having a good chuckle.  


I wrote...

The Envious Siblings: and Other Morbid Nursery Rhymes

By Landis Blair,

Book cover of The Envious Siblings: and Other Morbid Nursery Rhymes

What is my book about?

Inspired by the dark imagination of Edward Gorey, Envious Siblings is a twisted and hauntingly funny debut. Comics artist Landis Blair interweaves absurdist horror and humor into brief, rhyming vignettes at once transgressive and hilarious. In Blair’s surreal universe, a lost child watches as bewhiskered monsters gobble up her fellow train passengers; a band of kids merrily plays a gut-churning game with playground toys; and two sisters, grinning madly, tear each  other apart. These charmingly perverse creations take ordinary settings―a living room, a subway car, a playground―and spin them in a nightmarish direction. 

The Epic City

By Kushanava Choudhury,

Book cover of The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta

A cracking, thorough portrait of contemporary Kolkata as the Bengali capital is now known, by an Indian author who grew up in New Jersey (very much the flipside to Calcutta) and who returns to the city of his ancestors to work for a newspaper. The book is well-written, crammed with interesting anecdotes and historic trivia. Past and present are held against the light and the results are often funny. It’s as good as a book by a privileged outsider who speaks the language is likely to be. Perhaps in another decade, a non-fiction chronicle will be written by a resident non-Brahmin writer. I have a feeling the city is waiting for it. In the meantime, Choudhury’s book serves as an excellent introduction to first-time visitors.

The Epic City

By Kushanava Choudhury,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

'Witty, polished, honest and insightful, The Epic City is likely to become for Calcutta what Suketu Mehta's classic Maximum City is for Mumbai' William Dalrymple, Observer When Kushanava Choudhury arrived in New Jersey at the age of twelve, he had already migrated halfway around the world four times. After graduating from Princeton, he moved back to Calcutta, the city which his immigrant parents had abandoned. Taking a job at a newspaper, he found the streets of his childhood unchanged. Shouting hawkers still overran the footpaths, fish sellers squatted on bazaar floors; and politics still meant barricades and bus burnings. The…

Who am I?

I'm a writer and journalist with an eye on South and Southeast Asia. I first visited Kolkata, or Calcutta as the city was known back then, in 1995 and fell in love with its spirit, culture, architecture, politics, and decrepitude. I have been back regularly reporting on the city’s cultural life for media like CNN and Nikkei Asia. In 2019, I was selected as artist-in-residence for the Indo-European Art Residency by the Goethe Institute and spent 10 weeks writing a crime fiction set in the Bengali capital. Kolkata is, hands down, my favorite city in the world – despite its poverty, systemic injustice, and political cruelty, there is an energy in the place that is hard to beat.


I wrote...

Kolkata Noir

By Tom Vater,

Book cover of Kolkata Noir

What is my book about?

Becker is a British traveler in trouble. Madhurima is a rising star police officer. In three explosive tales, set over a period of forty years, Becker and Madhu join forces to investigate the Kolkata’s crooked high society, take on deluded would-be messiahs in search of Mother Teresa’s stolen millions, encounter Hindu fanatics, circus freaks, and cannibals, fall in and out of love and pay homage to one of the world’s most beautiful and toughest cities.

Amidst passion, murder, and mayhem in India’s most beautiful and fascinating metropolis, is there room for two lovers driven by justice and compassion?

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