Literature is no stranger to India’s tradition and perhaps one of the oldest ancient texts of human history comes from India – something that extends back over 3,000 years. Though the Indian English literature has a relatively shorter history, it is nonetheless rich and plush in poignant literature. 

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6 must read books

There are indeed a handful of masterpieces and classics that one shouldn’t miss out on. Here we list some of the best works in Indian English literature that would project your blissful journey into the world of wonderful and fantastical stories. 

Even though these aren’t books you should limit to reading a single time, for the real essence oozes out on a second or third time read:

1. The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

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The White Tiger

This Man-Booker-Prize-winning debut novel by Arvind Adiga maybe one contemporary masterpiece that could rightly capture the literary angle of what happened with the Indian society, economy, and villages in the past 30 years – pre and post globalization.

The book is a thrilling first-person narrative told from the perspective of Balram Halwai. Balram is a representative from the “Dark hole” of this great nation – the villages of North India. It is the story of his journey from flea-infested rural village to the sparkling Urban city looking for a life, a future, and a job. He finally ends up as the most trusted chauffer of a Delhi elite and finally finally ends up killing his master for a fortune.

Balram is a white tiger – something that happens only once in ten or twenty years, who has the power to change his fate of birth. He identifies himself with everyone who has made it big in the world, including the corporates and politicians.

After the murder of his beloved master, Balram takes solace in a quote he sees in front of a huge IT office in Bangalore: HOW BIG CAN YOU THINK?

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2. Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh

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Sea of Poppies

The first from Ibis trilogy, Amitav Ghosh’s Man Booker Prize-shortlisted novel is a fictional historical saga that starts motion from Calcutta a little before the First Opium War that took place in 1839–42.

Through the story of the ship named Ibis, which is on its sail to Mauritius on the Indian Ocean, the book follows an assortment of characters on board - a raja who is bankrupt, a widowed tribeswoman, an American freedman, and an independent French orphan. 

The ship gets caught in a storm and a mutiny and after much conundrum, some passengers manage to reach Mauritius and others find themselves in Hong Kong and Canton and get involved in events that finally lead to the First Opium War.

Satirical, gritty and rich in prose, the Sea of Poppies is a riveting read that will not let you rest until you have finished reading the last page.

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3. The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Divakaruni Banerjee

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The Palace of illusions

Mahabharatha is often dubbed as “the story of all stories” and of all its numerous enigmatic characters, Draupadi stands at the top of them. Having married all five of the Pandava brothers, this book is the retelling of Mahabharatha through the eyes of Draupadi aka Panchali. And what does it mean? Mahabharatha told through the feminine eyes. Here Chitra Banarjee Divakaruni has done an excellent attempt at the feminine retelling, capturing all the nuances of a lady who had to go through all the ordeal including being the reason for the 18-day war.

Read this beautiful retelling of the original epic to get more familiar with Mahabharatha, the original version of which may not be that easily readable; and also to touch the subtleties of being in an ever-bounding Palace of Illusions. 

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4. Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra

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Sacred Games

This critically acclaimed novel by Vikram Chandra is a gripping read which is un-put-down-able and is easily one of the best pieces of literature that look into Mumbai’s criminal underworld.

The book traces links between organized crime rackets, local politicians, the show-biz, and the other rich and influential residents of Mumbai.

The story runs two lines in parallel – one in the Mumbai crime streets in the 80s and 90s and the other is a modern-day investigation around the last words of a notorious gangster by a Sikh police officer. The investigation leads the officer to unravel the life story of one of the most celebrated crime lord of Bombay – Ganesh Gaitonde.

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5. The God of Small Things

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The God of Small Things

Again a Man-Booker prize winner. But this is the first ever Indian book to do so and maybe the best of Indian Booker-winners – because more than an Indian novel, it is easily an international piece of literature. 

The debut novel by Arundhathi Roy tells the story of how two infant kids with their mother, after their father abandons them, return to their maternal ancestral home in a Christian village by the banks of Meenachil river in Kerala. 

From there starts a story that delves deep into a range of issues from the caste system to the state’s encounters with communism. But above all that, the story is an enchanting statement put forward in the earnest effort to redefine what is called in the book as “Love laws”. Laws that fix who should love whom and who shouldn’t be loved by whom. And those laws have nothing to do with Communism, or even the western invasion of India, or anything with the societal norms. But Arundhati Roy notes that these “Love laws” were made from time immemorial.

A scorching account into not just an era or geography, but to the innate pallets of the entire human race.

As the novel ends, the two kids who have now grown up to be maimed individuals have a string of hope between them – Naaley? Naaley. Tomorrow? Tomorrow.

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 6. Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil

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Narcopolis

Drawing on his own experiences as a young drug addict in late 20th-century Mumbai, Jeet Thayil himself tells that Narcopolis is a retelling of “the lost twenty years of his life”.

This Booker Prize-nominated debut novel follows the story of a young migrant to 1970s Bombay and his downward spiral into opium addiction and subsequent consequences and crafts an immersive account of Mumbai’s narcotic and criminal underworld. 

Thayil himself says that he decided to call it Narcopolis because to him Bombay seemed to be a city of intoxication - not just the intoxication from drugs or alcohol, but also from God, glamour, power, money, and sex.

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