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Buster Keaton in Sherlock Jr., 1924

November 30, 2012

BOOK REVIEW

Essential reading on India

How much do you know about my country? Find out by reading these books on India offered as part of Friday’s Forgotten Books at Patti Abbott’s blog Pattinase.

If I were asked which books on India I’d recommend the most to someone unfamiliar with the country, I’d have no hesitation in mentioning five books which, in my opinion, represent the voice of India in terms of its social, cultural and political ethos.

These books, which comprise two fictional and three non-fictional works, collectively, are: The Discovery of India by Jawaharlal Nehru (1946); Gandhi: An Autobiography or The Story of My Experiments with Truth by Mohandas K. Gandhi (translated from Gujarati to English in 1940); the great epics Ramayana (1957) and Mahabharata (1958) by Chakravarti Rajagopalachari, statesman and last Governor-General of India; the Malgudi trilogy by renowned author R.K. Narayan (1935, 1937 & 1945), and Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie (1980) which earned India’s greatest fiction writer (in my opinion) the Booker of Bookers.

The list is subjective and, as with all lists, is open to debate. While I had several titles in mind, I narrowed it down to these five books because they give you a comprehensive picture of India and its colourful people and their way of life and because they are some of my favourite books by Indian writers. A lot of my knowledge of my own country has come from reading and rereading these literary works.

For now, I will stick to Nehru’s brilliant and original work.

The Discovery of India by Jawaharlal Nehru (1946), the charismatic first Prime Minister of independent India, will take your breath away, no exaggeration. For three reasons: Nehru’s command over the language, his engrossing writing style, and substance that will enrich you like few books on India will.

Writing from his imprisonment in Ahmadnagar Fort, Maharashtra, Nehru begins his discovery thus:

“It is more than twenty months since we were brought here, more than twenty months of my
ninth term of imprisonment. The new moon, a shimmering crescent in the darkening sky, greeted us on our arrival here. The bright fortnight of the waxing moon had begun. Ever since then each coming of the new moon has been a reminder to me that another month of my imprisonment is over. So it was with my last term of imprisonment which began with the new moon, just after the Deepavali, the festival of light. The moon, ever a companion to me in prison, has grown more friendly with closer acquaintance, a reminder of the loveliness of this world, of the waxing and waning of life, of light following darkness, of death and resurrection following each other in interminable succession.” 

Nehru, who dedicated the book to his colleagues and co-prisoners in the Ahmadnagar Fort Prison Camp, where he was imprisoned from August 9, 1942, to March 28, 1945, takes the reader through centuries of India’s rich cultural and religious diversity and heritage beginning with the Indus Valley Civilisation and descending all the way down to the British rule in India. 

The Discovery of India must be read along with Nehru’s other two major works Glimpses of World History and Toward Freedom: The Autobiography of Jawaharlal Nehru.

As his daughter and former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi observes in her foreword, “The Discovery delves deep into the sources of India's national personality. Together, these books have moulded a whole generation of Indians and inspired persons from many other countries.”

The Discovery of India should be a necessary companion for all Indians and Indophiles who would like to delve more into the country’s glorious civilisation and history. For others interested in world history, this book will be nothing short of a treasure.

You can download Nehru’s three books here:

The Discovery of India

Glimpses of World History

Toward Freedom: The Autobiography of Jawaharlal Nehru

8 comments:

  1. Thanks for that Prashant. I've only read the Rushdie (still one of my favourite books some 25 years after I first read it) but I would have no idea which books to suggest to people who wanted to learn about Italy (for instance) so I envy you here.

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    1. You're welcome, Sergio. I'm glad you enjoyed the post. I fell in love with Nehru's writing the minute I started reading THE DISCOVERY OF INDIA some two decades ago. Since then I have been reading chapters in the book at random. Each tells its own story. I was mesmerised by Rushie's prose in MIDNIGHT'S CHILDREN which remains one of my favourite novels. I know a fair bit of Italy's history though much of my knowledge has come from reading newspaper articles and the internet.

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  2. to my discredit, I've not read any of these. I will endevour to correct that in the new year.

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    1. Charles, these are books one can read at any point of time, like autobiographies and encyclopaedias, and I hope you get a chance to read Nehru's work in the new year.

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  3. I get most of my sense of Indian history and culture from movies. Satyajit Ray, Deepa Mehta, Merchant-Ivory, Monsoon Wedding, The Namesake. Nehru himself I remember from my boyhood. I don't know him as a writer, but the excerpt about the moon shows a depth of sensibility I would enjoy reading more of. Living now in the desert, I have a heightened awareness of the night sky and the moon as it passes through its phases. Thanks for the recommendations.

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    1. You're welcome, Ron. The people you mentioned were and are responsible for taking Indian history and culture abroad including MOONSOON WEDDING and THE NAMESAKE directed by Mira Nair. THE NAMESAKE is based on the book by the award-winning Indian American author, Jhumpa Lahiri. Deepa Mehta has directed MIDNIGHT'S CHILDREN based on Rushdie's novel and I'm looking forward to its release in India this month. Long imprisonment, I suppose, allows one to sit and reflect for long periods of time, inspiring people like Nehru, Gandhi, Anne Frank and scores of others to write during their forced confinement. Nehru is almost poetic in his prose.

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  4. Thanks for this post, Prashant. THE DISCOVERY OF INDIA by Nehru sounds fascinating - a book I'd like to know more about. I'm adding it to my list for the new year. I don't know much about India except what I've seen in the movies, so this will be my first serious introduction. I do remember Nehru from my youth, as well. I've not read any of Rushdie's work yet, but that may change in the new year since I feel it's about time.

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    1. Yvette, I'm glad you enjoyed it. THE DISCOVERY is, indeed, a fascinating book and it will give you a comprehensive picture of India from its birth, so to say. Nehru was one of the most charismatic leaders of India and he fired the people's imagination in much the same way JFK did. Movies about India have their limitations and are instructive only up to a point. I need to read some of Rushdie's last few novels and I'll probably get round to them next year.

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