The most recommended books about colonial India

Who picked these books? Meet our 16 experts.

16 authors created a book list connected to colonial India, and here are their favorite colonial India books.
Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

What type of colonial India book?

Loading...

Book cover of The Satapur Moonstone

Melissa Yi Author Of Code Blues

From my list on smart women who kick ass.

Why am I passionate about this?

I love to read and write about strong women. I don't necessarily mean gunning down aliens while wearing tight pants. Those books can be good too, but let's be honest, tight pants encourage yeast infections. I prefer books where women handle anything from murder to wayward cats with intelligence and compassion, while wearing whatever they want. The women, I mean. Cats already figured out to skip the pants.

Melissa's book list on smart women who kick ass

Melissa Yi Why did Melissa love this book?

What if you wanted to practice law in India in 1922?

Women weren't allowed in court, but Perveen Mistry becomes a solicitor instead, working behind the scenes on wills and estate files. Perveen's gender becomes an asset when she can speak to women in purdah, a practice where women seclude themselves from men in some Muslim or Hindu communities.

I liked the first book, The Widows of Malabar Hill, but truly enjoyed The Satapur Moonstone, where Perveen heads out to the Sahyadri mountains to help a royal family after the maharaja has died and the crown prince is too young to rule.

In addition to the mystery, and learning about the history of India, I could hear the buzz of mosquitoes, the tree frogs peeping, and the hooting of owls, as well as imagine the tigers and leopards in the jungle.

By Sujata Massey,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

'Vivid and clever...love her to bits.' Kerry Greenwood, bestselling author of the Miss Phryne Fisher series

The delightfully clever Perveen Mistry, Bombay's first female lawyer, returns in an adventure of treacherous intrigues and suspicious deaths.

India, 1922: It is rainy season in the lush, remote Sahyadri Mountains southeast of Bombay, where the kingdom of Satapur is tucked away. A curse has fallen upon Satapur's royal family, whose maharaja and his teenage son are both dead. The kingdom is now ruled by an agent of the British Raj on behalf of Satapur's two maharanis, the dowager queen and the maharaja's widow.…


Book cover of The Raj at War: A People's History of India's Second World War

Lucy Noakes Author Of Dying for the Nation: Death, Grief and Bereavement in Second World War Britain

From my list on civilians in war.

Why am I passionate about this?

I have been fascinated by the Second World War since I was a child. I grew up with tales of London and Coventry in wartime, stories of family separation, rationing, and air raids. The stories that really gripped me included the streams of refugees passing my grandmother’s house in the suburbs of Coventry after that city was bombed, and the night my aunts and (infant) father spent waiting to be rescued from a bombed house in south London. As a historian I wanted to know more about stories like this, and about the ways that wars shape lives, and my books have returned again and again to the civilian experience of war.

Lucy's book list on civilians in war

Lucy Noakes Why did Lucy love this book?

It is all too easy to forget that when Britain went to war in 1939, it did so as the world’s largest imperial power. Khan’s book is a rich social history of India at war, telling us the stories of not only the soldiers, but the business owners, the peasants, the refugees, and the political activists whose lives were shaped by war in the Indian subcontinent. The flawed political settlement that brought independence and partition to India and Pakistan was born out of the Raj’s experience of war, and this book gives voice to those who experienced this most turbulent time in the region’s recent history.

By Yasmin Khan,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The Second World War was not fought by Britain alone. India produced the largest volunteer army in world history: over 2 million men. But, until now, there has never been a comprehensive account of India's turbulent home front and the nexus between warfare and India's society.

At the heart of The Raj at War are the many lives and voices of ordinary Indian people. From the first Indian to win the Victoria Cross in the war to the three soldiers imprisoned as 'traitors to the Raj' who returned to a hero's welcome, from the nurses in Indian General Hospitals to…


Book cover of Teatime for the Firefly

Janet MacLeod Trotter Author Of The Emerald Affair

From my list on the British in India.

Why am I passionate about this?

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.

Janet's book list on the British in India

Janet MacLeod Trotter Why did Janet love this book?

Set in 1940s India in the lead up to Independence, the backdrop is the rarely written about North-East India. The protagonists; Layla, (well-educated and independently-minded) and Manik (a free-thinker with a sense of adventure) are an unusual couple for the core romance but his work takes them to the remote tea plantations of Assam. I have written about the tea gardens in my India Tea Series, but largely from a British and Anglo-Indian point of view. Patel’s vivid depiction of this way of life is informed by her own upbringing, as the daughter of tea planters. It’s rich in detail with wonderful descriptions of Assam and keen observations of the British managers and Indian workers. As it builds towards Partition, the drama and tension are brilliantly evoked through Layla’s eyes.

By Shona Patel,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Teatime for the Firefly as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

For fans of Alka Joshi’s The Henna Artist, comes a compelling love story set against a culture grounded in tradition, about to be changed forever in the onslaught of WWII.

My name is Layla and I was born under an unlucky star. For a young girl growing up in India, this is bad news. But everything began to change for me one spring day in 1943, when three unconnected incidents, like tiny droplets on a lily leaf, tipped and rolled into one. It was that tiny shift in the cosmos, I believe, that tipped us together—me and Manik Deb.

Layla…


Book cover of Empress: Queen Victoria and India

Susie Steinbach Author Of Understanding the Victorians: Politics, Culture and Society in Nineteenth-Century Britain

From my list on will make you love Victorian Britain.

Why am I passionate about this?

I'm a historian. But I’ve never been interested in Parliamentary debates, or important politicians. I’m much more interested in things like gender and entertainment. I always say that a lot more people have sex than become prime minister, so it makes more sense to study marriage than high politics! I like to learn about ordinary people, living their lives and loving their families, working and surviving, and trying to have a little fun along the way. I also love history of more fun and glamorous things—celebrities and scandals and spectacles and causes célèbres, hit plays, and best-selling novels. I have history degrees from Harvard and Yale and I’ve been publishing on nineteenth-century British history since 2000.

Susie's book list on will make you love Victorian Britain

Susie Steinbach Why did Susie love this book?

I thought I had read enough about Queen Victoria to last a lifetime, but I was wrong! This amazing book offers a new perspective on Queen Victoria as “an Indian Maharani” as well as  “British monarch,”  and explores not just what India meant to the queen, but what the queen meant to Indians.

By Miles Taylor,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

An entirely original account of Victoria's relationship with the Raj, which shows how India was central to the Victorian monarchy from as early as 1837

"A widely and deeply researched, elegantly written, and vital portrayal of [Queen Victoria's] place in colonial Indian affairs."-Journal of Modern History

In this engaging and controversial book, Miles Taylor shows how both Victoria and Albert were spellbound by India, and argues that the Queen was humanely, intelligently, and passionately involved with the country throughout her reign and not just in the last decades. Taylor also reveals the way in which Victoria's influence as empress contributed…


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

Murray Pittock Author Of Scotland: The Global History: 1603 to the Present

From Murray's 3 favorite reads in 2023.

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Professor Historian Strategic leader Policy adviser

Murray's 3 favorite reads in 2023

Murray Pittock Why did Murray love this book?

William Dalrymple and Anita Anand’s Empire podcast series has been transformative in the understanding it has generated and the audiences it has reached in the last year (1 million plus in January 2023 alone).

The Anarchy is one of the core books of Dalrymple’s extraordinary research and scholarship which has changed our understanding of the generation and development of the British Raj in India and which brings into view more clearly and accurately than ever before, the toxic legacy of the East India Company and its company state apparatus.

Yet unlike some other authors, Dalrymple is content to let the facts speak for themselves and does not idealise the world of the Mughals and native princes. In an era of propaganda and revisionism, The Anarchy utilises the empirical data of the Enlightenment at magnificent scale to expose some of the savagery—on all sides—of the Enlightenment era. 

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…


Book cover of Smoke and Ashes

Nev March Author Of The Spanish Diplomat's Secret

From Nev's 3 favorite reads in 2023.

Why am I passionate about this?

Author History lover Scriptwriter Reader Nature lover

Nev's 3 favorite reads in 2023

Nev March Why did Nev love this book?

This book made me laugh so many times. Hilarious!

The duo comprises a war-weary Englishman, Sam Wyndham, and Surendranath “Surrender-not” Bannerji, a small, brilliant Indian lawyer turned policeman from a very well-placed family.

Each mystery details events from the times, cryptic clues, and a wily foe. I enjoy the banter between the two, an Indian who sees the best in the Raj, and an Englishman who unflinchingly acknowledges the truth of colonialism, while fighting his own addiction.

By Abir Mukherjee,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Smoke and Ashes as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

** A THE SUNDAY TIMES BEST 100 BEST CRIME NOVELS SINCE 1945**

'Smoke and Ashes is Abir Mukherjee's best book yet; a brilliantly conceived murder mystery set amidst political and social turmoil - beautifully crafted' C.J. Sansom

India, 1921. Captain Sam Wyndham is battling a serious addiction to opium that he must keep secret from his superiors in the Calcutta police force.

But Wyndham finds himself in a tight spot when he stumbles across a corpse in an opium den. When he then comes across a second body bearing the same injuries, Wyndham is convinced that there's a deranged killer…


Book cover of A Rising Man

Paul Meachair Author Of Belleau Wood - A Marines Story

From my list on serious works of historical fiction.

Why am I passionate about this?

Now retired after a full life, I grew up with a passion for history and the people who made it, being very fortunate during over thirty years at sea to visit many locations around the world where the characters I read about lived. I am also fortunate now to write the history novels I like to read.

Paul's book list on serious works of historical fiction

Paul Meachair Why did Paul love this book?

This is a crime novel set in 1919 Calcutta. We follow Captain Sam Wyndham, who is a former Scotland Yard detective seeking a fresh start after the emotional wounds following WWI and the death of his wife.

When a senior official is murdered, he doesn't hold back during his search from British mansions to seedy opium dens with his new sidekick, Sergeant Banerjee. Rising tensions, the clash of societies, the heat, dirt, and crowding all contribute to bringing this colorful period to life.

This is the debut novel and the first in a remarkably well-told series so interesting I found it impossible to put down. 

By Abir Mukherjee,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked A Rising Man as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Calcutta, 1919. Captain Sam Wyndham, former Scotland Yard detective, is a new arrival to Calcutta. Desperately seeking a fresh start after his experiences during the Great War, Wyndham has been recruited to head up a new post in the police force. He is immediately overwhelmed by the heady vibrancy of the tropical city, but with barely a moment to acclimatize or to deal with the ghosts that still haunt him, Wyndham is caught up in a murder investigation that threatens to destabilize a city already teetering on the brink of political insurgency.

The body of a senior official has been…


Book cover of Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India

Sylvia Vetta Author Of Sculpting the Elephant

From my list on India recovering its past.

Why am I passionate about this?

Thanks to access to a good community library, I developed an interest in history from the age of seven. My interest in India grew when I married Indian-born Atam Vetta. After teaching, I set up a business and was director of Oxford Antiques Centre. In 1998, while chair of the Thames Valley Art and Antique Dealers Association, I was invited to become the art and antiques writer for The Oxford Times. That was how my freelance writing career began but since 2016 I have concentrated on writing fiction and poetry but make occasional contributions to The Madras Courier.

Sylvia's book list on India recovering its past

Sylvia Vetta Why did Sylvia love this book?

This is a polemic and pretends to be none other but it serves as an antidote to the apologists of Empire. Why is it needed? You can’t read the Ibis trilogy and not understand the exploitation of the East India Company. The first war of independence (1857) failed and was brutally put down. There were attempts at reform and not all legacies of the Raj are regrettable, my Victorian maverick works on the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India. But the tendency in the UK is to highlight the positives and ignore the racism, the famines, the massacres, and the horrors of the manner in which we left India. Once readers know the consequences of the Raj, they will understand the origins of South Asian immigration to the UK and will get a glimpse of how others see us, warts and all. 

By Shashi Tharoor,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The Sunday Times Top 10 bestseller on India's experience of British colonialism, by the internationally-acclaimed author and diplomat Shashi Tharoor

'Tharoor's impassioned polemic slices straight to the heart of the darkness that drives all empires ... laying bare the grim, and high, cost of the British Empire for its former subjects. An essential read' Financial Times

In the eighteenth century, India's share of the world economy was as large as Europe's. By 1947, after two centuries of British rule, it had decreased six-fold. The Empire blew rebels from cannon, massacred unarmed protesters, entrenched institutionalised racism, and caused millions to die…


Book cover of Heat and Dust

Peggy Payne Author Of Sister India

From my list on sensuous literature of India.

Why am I passionate about this?

About thirty years ago, I spent three months on an Indo-American Fellowship in Varanasi taking notes on daily life in this holy city where my novel Sister India is set. That winter felt like a separate life within my life, a bonus. Because all there was so new to me, and it was unmediated by cars, television, or computers, I felt while I was there so much more in touch with the physical world, what in any given moment I could see, hear, smell…. It was the way I had felt as a child, knowing close-up particular trees and shrubs, the pattern of cracks in a sidewalk.

Peggy's book list on sensuous literature of India

Peggy Payne Why did Peggy love this book?

Another dual view of India, but this one is fiction and written by one author, novelist Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. It’s the story of two women at widely different times: Olivia of the British colonial period in the 1920s who, feeling suppressed by conventions of the time, becomes involved with an Indian prince, causing a great scandal, and her step-granddaughter who fifty years later tries to dig up Olivia’s story. Keyline in the novel; “India always changes people and I have been no exception.”

By Ruth Prawer Jhabvala,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The beautiful, spoiled and bored Olivia, married to a civil servant, outrages society in the tiny, suffocating town of Satipur by eloping with an Indian prince. Fifty years later, her step-granddaughter goes back to the heat, the dust and the squalor of the bazaars to solve the enigma of Olivia's scandal. 'A superb book. A complex story line, handled with dazzling assurance ...moving and profound. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala has not only written a love story, she has also exposed the soul and nerve ends of a fascinating and compelling country. This is a book of cool, controlled brilliance. It is…


Book cover of Crooked Stalks: Cultivating Virtue in South India

Tanya Jakimow Author Of Susceptibility in Development: Micropolitics of Local Development in India and Indonesia

From my list on anthropology of development.

Why am I passionate about this?

I am an anthropologist of development who has conducted ethnographic research in India, Indonesia, and more recently, Australia. Throughout my career I have grappled with questions of how power works in development, particularly in and through processes of self-making. I seek new theoretical tools to examine these questions, but always grounded in the realities of the everyday. I came of age when post-development critiques were dominant, but both my idealism and cynicism have been tempered by working alongside local development actors. In my work I try to give readers a sympathetic portrait of their lives, beliefs, and hopes, and how these shape practices, relationships, and consequences of ‘development’. 

Tanya's book list on anthropology of development

Tanya Jakimow Why did Tanya love this book?

I have been fascinated with selfhood, the cultivation of ‘subjects of development’ as either targets, or ‘trustees’ of aid, since my PhD.

Anand Pandian’s Crooked Stalks offers a nuanced, careful, and ultimately beautiful account of how moral selves are cultivated among the Kallar caste near Madurai in Tamil Nadu, India.

Development looms large among the Kallar, what Pandian describes as a ‘moral horizon’ that is an impetus to transform people’s lives and the material environment.

In presenting an impressive breadth of historical material alongside ethnographic description he shows the remnants of colonial rule in contemporary virtues, contributing to understanding the ‘postcolonial self’. 

By Anand Pandian,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

How do people come to live as they ought to live? Crooked Stalks seeks an answer to this enduring question in diverse practices of cultivation: in the moral horizons of development intervention, in the forms of virtue through which people may work upon their own desires, deeds, and habits, and in the material labors that turn inhabited worlds into environments for both moral and natural growth. Focusing on the colonial subjection and contemporary condition of the Piramalai Kallar caste-classified, condemned, and policed for decades as a "criminal tribe"-Anand Pandian argues that the work of cultivation in all of these senses…