The best books about South Asia

Many authors have picked their favorite books about South Asia and why they recommend each book.

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South Southeast

By Steve McCurry,

Book cover of South Southeast

Legendary travel photog Steve McCurry has developed a bad reputation over the decades for reportedly mistreating his subjects (notably “Afghan Girl” Sharbat Gula), for allegedly staging and digitally manipulating images (as opposed to the candid shots he claims they are), and for profiting handsomely from it all. But gosh dang if his photographs aren’t gorgeous! In light of his purported misdeeds, I do not intend on dropping any more money on his newest retrospective books, but 2000’s South Southeast – based on his early work in Asia – will always remain on my bookshelf.


Who am I?

Peeking over the American fence, I found myself in China in 2004 as the nation was transitioning from its quaint 1980s/90s self into the futuristic “China 2.0” we know it today. My occupation, like many expats, was small-town English teacher. I later departed for a two-year backpacking sojourn across the country. I took a bunch of snapshots along the way with a little point-and-shoot camera. 800 of those images became my first book. Photography – be it travel, documentary, street or reportage – is my passion. The following are but five of five hundred books I’d love to recommend.


I wrote...

China: Portrait of a People

By Tom Carter,

Book cover of China: Portrait of a People

What is my book about?

From the jungles of Yunnan to the frozen wastes of Heilongjiang; across the deserts of Xinjiang and beneath Hong Kong's neon blur. Tramping through China by train, bus, boat, motorcycle, or hitching on the back of anything that moved. On a budget so scant that he drew sympathetic stares from peasants. Backpacker Tom Carter somehow succeeded in circumnavigating 35,000 miles (56,000 kilometers) across all 33 Chinese provinces during a 2-year period, the first foreigner on record ever to do so. What Carter’s photographs reveal is that China is not just one place one people, but 33 distinct geographical regions populated by 56 different ethnicities, each with their own languages, customs, and lifestyles. 

Good Talk

By Mira Jacob,

Book cover of Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations

This graphic memoir is one of most brilliant books I’ve had the pleasure to read. In some ways, it’s a modern version of my own parents’ story. To be very clear, it isn’t actually a children’s book, but I see it as both a YA and an adult book (probably from age twelve on up because of some mature content) that could open up important “good talks” between parents and kids. It tells the real story of author Mira Jacob as she navigates her Indian American identity, her marriage to a Jewish man, her difficult in-laws, and how she tries to communicate all this to her young biracial son who’s figuring out his own identity. The edgy illustrations make it all the more compelling. There are honest, unflinching, and even hilarious discussions about racism, colorism, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism and much of it takes place during the heightened setting of the…


Who am I?

In 1968, my white Jewish American mother married my Indian American Hindu father. I grew up in Connecticut and often felt othered in my mostly white Christian community. I also felt different than many of my extended family members, feeling not quite Jewish or Indian “enough.” These issues and questions I had and still have about my identity have fueled my writing ever since. I write about characters navigating multiple identities asking questions about racism, prejudice, and xenophobia often for the first time. The books on this list are books I wished I could have had around to keep me company during my youth. 


I wrote...

How to Find What You're Not Looking for

By Veera Hiranandani,

Book cover of How to Find What You're Not Looking for

What is my book about?

New historical fiction from a Newbery Honor-winning author about how middle schooler Ariel Goldberg's life changes when her big sister elopes following the 1967 Loving v. Virginia decision, and she's forced to grapple with both her family's prejudice and the antisemitism she experiences, as she defines her own beliefs.

Twelve-year-old Ariel Goldberg's life feels like the moment after the final guest leaves the party. Her family's Jewish bakery runs into financial trouble, and her older sister has eloped with a young man from India following the Supreme Court decision that strikes down laws banning interracial marriage. As change becomes Ariel's only constant, she's left to hone something that will be with her always–her own voice.

Ash Mistry and the Savage Fortress

By Sarwat Chadda,

Book cover of Ash Mistry and the Savage Fortress

I absolutely adore stories where a seemingly innocuous vacation turns on its heels into a gripping, out-of-this-world adventure. And this book is exactly that! When Ash (Ashoka) Mistry, an Indian mythology geek who lives in England, visits his aunt and uncle in Varanasi, the holy city of the Ganges in India, strange occurrences begin to happen, and Ash discovers that heroes and monsters of Indian myths have come back to life. Top that up with one character wanting to bring back Ravana, the demon king with ten heads and the ultimate essence of evil, and you have an adventure that’s got you at the edge of your seat!


Who am I?

I was born and raised in Mumbai, India, and as a kid I loved to read. But I never saw myself—an Indian girl like me—represented in children’s books before. I didn’t realize how much it affected me until I began writing my first novel at age 23. When I did, I wrote the entire first draft with white characters and set it in a western country. I believed my Indian culture and my experience as an Indian kid was not worth writing about. I was so wrong! Now, with the novels I write, I’m passionate about representation, especially South Asian representation because all kids deserve to see themselves and their cultures in the books they read.


I wrote...

Rea and the Blood of the Nectar (The Chronicles of Astranthia, Book 1)

By Payal Doshi,

Book cover of Rea and the Blood of the Nectar (The Chronicles of Astranthia, Book 1)

What is my book about?

Rea Chettri is a 12-year-old girl living a simple, if boring, life on the tea plantations of Darjeeling, India. Rea's life gets turned on its head when her twin brother, Rohan, goes missing. Determined to save him, Rea embarks on a secret adventure into the enchanted world of Astranthia. Rea must grapple with dark truths of her past, discover her true self, learn what has happened to her brother, and save Astranthia from a potentially deadly fate. But the clock is ticking. Can Rea rescue Rohan, save Astranthia, and live to see it all?

“A gateway into pure imagination, with a fast-paced plot that will hook you and characters that will endear you. A wonderful debut.” - Kacen Callender, National Book Award winner for King and the Dragonflies.

Moth Smoke

By Mohsin Hamid,

Book cover of Moth Smoke

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…


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.

The Siege of Krishnapur

By J.G. Farrell,

Book cover of The Siege of Krishnapur

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…


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.

The Lunatic Express

By Charles Miller,

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

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…


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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