Are you looking for some of the best books set in India to read before you go? Don’t miss these fantastic books about India to inspire your travels and teach you more.
In undergrad at Smith College, as an English and history double major, I studied South Asian history as my concentration. In fact, I even took courses at neighboring Mount Holyoke College to fill in the gaps, studying epics like the Rāmāyana and Mahābhārata.
I’ve probably read over 100 books about India, including topics and areas such as Partition, colonialism, post-colonialism, diaspora, religion, identity, and the Kashmir conflict.
Of course, Goodreads wasn’t really a thing back then, and I’m pretty bummed that I didn’t save all of my India books reading lists. Some of the Indian novels are a little fuzzier in my mind.
Below, find some of the best books set in India as well as books about Indian culture, history, and politics. We are including Indian novels that we and our community love and also a few that may need to be read with a more critical eye.
Find new Indian and Indian-American authors as well as ex-pat tales and translated literature. We’ve got classics, contemporaries, and even nonfiction books set in India. Let’s get started.
You can find all of our Books Set Across Asia Here.
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Must-Read Books Set In India
For political fiction set in India, don’t miss Majumdar’s A Burning. TUL also named A Burning as one of the Best Books Released in 2020.
Jivan writes a social media message against the government, causing leaders to scapegoat her as a terrorist for a crime she is clearly innocent of. Being a Muslim living in the slums of India, Jivan never stood a chance in the corrupt political system.
Watch as three people in similar situations — all of whom were once united — fall apart to save themselves. Meet a transgender outcast dreaming of becoming a star. Growl at a physical education teacher easily persuaded to do the unthinkable with the dangling carrot of power and money.
The ambiance of India seeps off of the pages in this heartbreaking and frustrating but poignant read. Read more.
This book list is also perfect for our 2021 Uncorked Reading Challenge theme: Books Set In India. Join here today:
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One of my best friends introduced me to Thrity Umrigar, and I fell in love with her books. It’s been a while since I’ve read The World We Found, but the novel is one of my 4 to 5-star books set in India.
In the late 1970s, as college students, four women and best friends challenge the world with their youthful political idealism.
As they grew older, like many friendships, the women grow apart, raising their families and leading vastly different lives. When terminal illness strikes one of the friends living in America, she wants to see the group reunited to say goodbye.
Somber and thought-provoking, find a deeply descriptive and emotion-filled novel about life, love, class, and religion.
One of the most powerful books about India and nonviolence that I read in college, Gandhi’s autobiography is a must.
A powerful leader during Indian independence, Gandhi practiced and taught nonviolent revolution besides peaceful resistance and protest.
Gandhi’s story is both spiritual and one about seeking truth and morality. I’m pretty sure this one will also make your life a little better.
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and from one of my all-time favorite authors, I only have my first love (and ex-boyfriend) to thank for introducing me to Jhumpa Lahiri. While I was studying South Asian history in college, he gifted me Interpreter Of Maladies.
Told in short stories that travel across India and America, meet different characters as they navigate family, life, identity, miscarriage, infidelity, and immigration. If you haven’t read a collection of short stories in a while or they usually aren’t your jam, I recommend starting here.
P.S. With some scenes set in India, but most of the novel taking place in Cambridge, MA, it’s no secret that Lahiri’s The Namesake is one of my top favorite novels, ever. Follow along with the Calcutta-born Ganguli family.
Save These Books Based In India For Later:
Winner of the Booker Prize and set mostly in Kerala, India, The God Of Small Things is an epic tale about family, politics, and forbidden love.
Follow the story of a multigenerational Indian family, including two young twins, in 1969. With the visit of their affluent cousin, their lives will forever change during a time of great political unrest.
Discover India caught in the traditions of the past versus a glimpse into the future and told across varying timelines and character snapshots. I read this one long ago, but for the life of me, I cannot remember it leaving a top-rating impression. Time for a re-read?
One of the most talked-about historical fiction books set in India and released in 2020, I actually didn’t buy into the hype for The Henna Artist. As always, TUL will let readers decide for themselves.
Enter the 1950s in Jaipur, India, right after Partition. Lakshmi leaves her abusive husband to start a life of her own as a henna artist. She works below her caste for rather spoiled ladies with promiscuous husbands.
When Radha — Lakshmi’s sister — comes looking for her, they tumble into a game of self-preservation, surviving, lies, and love.
The Henna Artist is well-written and captivating. Although the author is from India, I personally felt the plot dived into generalized stereotypes about henna, the caste system, arranged marriages, abortion, medicinal herbs, and abusive and unfaithful husbands. Many reviewers also criticized this.
I craved deeper reflections and analyses of women, Partition, and colonialism. Joshi seems to merely touch the surface in an exoticized way.
What I do appreciate about The Henna Artist is the historical relevance and feminist themes of women trying to survive and come into their own. I’d still suggest The Henna Artist as a vibrant book set in India, but I also recommend reading it with caution.
I enjoyed The Death Of Vishnu much more than the average Goodreads reviewer. This India-based novel is also a Booker Prize Longlist Nominee (2001).
Set in former Bombay (now Mumbai), the story begins with alcoholic Vishnu dying on the stairs. His apartment neighbors bicker over who will cover the cost of his ambulance.
As news spreads across the complex, encounter a comical group of Indian characters all with their own personal dramas and dilemmas. As Vishnu lies dying, he starts to wonder if he’s not actually Vishnu the God.
A blend of Hindu mythology, movies, and social commentary, this is a more linear narrative and slow burn that might not be for everyone.
A Man Booker Prize Winner (2016), don’t skip Desai’s The Inheritance Of Loss. A solid 4-star India-based novel, head to Mount Kanchenjunga in the Himalayas around the mid-1980s.
An Indian judge peacefully lives out his retirement when Sai, his granddaughter, arrives at his door. Orphaned, the judge’s cook mostly cares for 16-year-old Sai. The judge is preoccupied with his son Biju, who lives undocumented in the NYC restaurant scene.
Nepalese insurgents disrupt and threaten their lives, and the story offers commentary on post-colonialist identity and immigration.
One of those books that people love to hate, Eat, Pray, Love is set in India, Italy, and Indonesia. If you are looking for more of an ex-pat-like view into India, Gilbert’s book might be for you.
Recently divorced, Gilbert decides to take time for herself to literally eat in Italy, pray and meditate in India, and find love again in Indonesia.
A bit clichéd with many reviewers condemning the privileged and whiny tone of the novel, I actually enjoyed Eat, Pray, Love. Yea; yea; come at me. Readers follow along with Gilbert’s journey of healing and self-reflection.
As a U.S. Fulbrighter living in Indonesia, a few of us followed in Gilbert’s footsteps with a visit to Bali to meet (her) Wayan. I also believe Gilbert’s experience abroad helped her craft Big Magic, which I loved. Read more.
Looking for more books across Asia? Head over to this Fantastic Books Set In Indonesia reading list.
One of the shortest books set in India on this list, Siddhartha is one of those titles you can read multiple times throughout your life. I’m pretty sure I’ve read it at least 2-3 times now.
A religious and spiritual novel published in 1922, Siddhartha is the son of a Brahmin living in ancient India. Although Siddhartha does everything religiously that should make him content, he desires more and questions knowing more about his existence.
Siddhartha leaves behind his community to follow a traveling band of ascetics. Along the way, Siddhartha makes a few worldly mistakes, eventually learning that true enlightenment comes from struggle and experience.
Although I enjoyed Umrigar’s The World We Found much more, The Space Between Us transports readers to Bombay. Find a novel about class and the Indian caste system.
Bhima is a household servant for Sera, an upper-middle-class and widowed Parsi housewife. Bhima has worked for Sera for over 20 years. Readers see their differences in their homes and societal rules, but in small ways, the women are also the same.
Sera pays for Bhima’s granddaughter, Maya’s, education, but this all begins to fall apart when Maya learns that she is pregnant.
An intense story where both women endure abuse and heartbreak, find a novel about racism, class, and identity.
Recommended by multiple Uncorked Readers, Shantaram is one of the longest books set in India on this list at 950 pages. On my TBR for when I’m no longer a book blogger pounding down a gazillion books a week, Shantaram is set in Bombay’s underworld.
Lin is an escaped Australian convict. Meeting up with his friend and guide, Prabaker, they head into Bombay’s underbelly of gangsters, exiles, prostitutes, and beggars.
Lin becomes an apprentice for the Bombay Mafia, and through the Mafia’s leader and beautiful Karla, he hopes to find love, family, meaning, and his identity.
You cannot have a books set in India reading list without including Salman Rushdie. I read Midnight’s Children for an independent study on Partition in literature back in college. This title is also a Booker Prize Winner (1980).
One of 1,001 babies born at midnight during Indian Independence, Saleem Sinai finds himself tied to the heart of India. His well-being mirrors the history of his country, and each child, including him, has special powers. Saleem is telepathic.
One of the Indian sagas on this book list, I always find Rushdie brilliantly and magically obscure and dense. On the brink of a new dawn, what is India’s identity? When you are born into two worlds, who will you become?
One of my 3-star reads and less enthusiast picks for books set in India, I’d read Gilbert over Macdonald. Like many, Holy Cow seems like a slightly privileged and uninspiring tale of an Australian woman giving India — which she despised the first time — a second chance.
Moving to New Delhi and falling seriously ill, Macdonald questions her mortality. She starts a journey of self-discovery.
The appeal, for me, was the similarities to my experience living in Indonesia in a “land of chaos and contradiction.” You can fall in love with a culture, values, and lifestyle that are different than what you grew up with. There is so much more to the world and our human connection when you travel.
A National Book Award Finalist and shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize (2013), The Lowland isn’t my top Lahiri novel but merits a 4-star review.
Set in Calcutta, Subhash and Udayan are two inseparable brothers. The brothers couldn’t be more different, though, and one takes up a life of academia and research in America while the other joins a political rebellion in India.
Set amidst tragedy, Subhash returns home to pick up the pieces with his family and Udayan’s pregnant wife. The story spans a lifetime covering additional storylines. The Lowland is a slow burn with an overabundance of characters.
Another Indian classic from college, Untouchable is a fast and short but strong novel about India’s caste system. Bakha is an Untouchable, the lowest tier in India’s discriminatory and unyielding caste system.
As a sweeper and toilet-cleaner, readers watch as Bakha is treated as less than human, deprived of an education as well as participation in society. Bakha dares to dream, even inspired by Gandhi, but his life continues on the same.
A National Book Award winner, Behind The Beautiful Forevers is one of the most heartbreaking nonfiction books set in India.
I highly recommend reading Boo’s note in the back of the book before picking up this title. Boo shares her limitations, research, goals, and purpose — she is a white American journalist, MacArthur Fellow, and Pulitzer Prize for Public Service winner.
A true account about the Annawadi settlement in Mumbai, Boo employs narrative-style writing to share her research over the course of several years. You’ll meet vibrant community members and witness tragic deaths.
Boo captures the community’s struggles in modern-day India, especially as they fight corruption, inequality, poverty, politics, and betrayal amongst each other.
When you are just trying to survive and achieve upward mobility, at what cost are you willing to pay, especially at the expense of others?
Three British-born Punjabi sisters make a pilgrimage to the Golden Temple in Amritsar and travel across India to lay their mother to rest.
They are following an itinerary that she set on her death bed hoping they will seek spirituality, tour more of her homeland, and reconnect.
The Unlikely Adventures… is a deep, sobering, and slow-burn India-based novel that made me pretty nostalgic for living abroad in Southeast Asia. The story is both humorous and poignant.
Rajni, Jezmeen, and Shirina are all three extremely different women with strong personalities, and their stories will stay with you long after closing the novel. For books set in India, The Unlikely Adventures… is the best selection to take you around India via your armchair.
More Great Books Set In India
Books Set In India That Our Community Is Reading
For one of our Uncorked Reading Challenge themes, these are some of the books set in India that our Uncorked Readers are reading and enjoyed. To see more book suggestions, join the TUL Facebook Group.
Books About India, Families, Racism, Caste, and Immigration
Well-Behaved Indian Women by Saumya Dave – Although mostly set in NYC, find a multigenerational story about three Indian women and life’s imposed expectations on them. A small part of the novel is also set in India. Read more.
A Bollywood Affair by Sonali Dev – Mili Rathod has been pretty much abandoned by her husband, having been paired with him since she was four. Her husband’s brother travels to Michigan to serve her divorce papers but realizes that Mili is quite the catch.
Save This India-Based Reading List For Later
What are your favorite books set in India?
Have you read any of these India-based books? Which ones do you love or not love? Let us know in the comments.