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DISCOVER INDIA

A guide by Shashank Tripathi (Gadabout)
(REAL NAME)   

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Of all nations that hang their laurels on a long checkered history (e.g., Italy, China, Greece) India is perhaps the most kaleidoscopic in terms of the sheer smorgasbord of cultures, languages, cuisine (which extends far beyond your average "curry" and "tandoori chicken" bromides), religious moorings, even climates and lifestyles.

Envisage a country with a blazing desert, cool rift valleys, snow-capped Himalayas, Goan beaches, bustling holy rivers, three oceans, mountains wrapped in tea shrubs, boathouses flanked by coconut trees... India is not merely a fascinating must-visit coign of Asian culture but a nation that is overwhelming if not impossible to really study and describe. I wonder if a vast majority of Indians know their own country well enough (as I realize from time to time.)

In this little compilation I'll try and share some of the most interesting, thought-provoking, and illuminating books I have read about the protean anomaly that is India.


HISTORY

To start at the beginning, a title like India: A History conjures up a daunting task of mythic proportions -- boiling over 5000 years of Indian history into a single volume. Well, it has been done and quite wittily too although it focuses only on pre-colonial times (until circa 1600). For a very abridged introduction you may also want to look at Wolpert's A New History of India. A historically ambivalent but literarily exquisite travelogue/anthology by Octavio Paz, In Light of India, would a breezy read as well.

[PS: I've come across several good history books that are recommended study guides for Indian Administrative Services (IAS) exams -- entrance exams for civil services in India -- but none of them is available on Amazon.]


TRAVELOGUES (Insightful, entertaining vignettes)

Naipaul is probably the best-known raconteur on India, sometimes running into flak due to his scathing depictions of the realities of our society, but his observations are among the most accurate, poignant and identifiable, notably in India: A Million Mutinies Now. Equally informative, twice as sympathetic, and a magnitude of times as amusing is the William Dalrymple chronicle The Age of Kali: Indian Travels and Encounters which covers a ground as wide as Tamil Tiger's lairs, Bombay's high-society jamborees, and murderous Bihari feuds!


BUSINESS/POLITICS

Gurucharan Das (ex-Vicks, ex-Procter & Gamble CEO) puts forth a thoughtful, factful chronicle of India's march from independence in 1947 to a technology behemoth in his India Unbound: The Social and Economic Revolution from Independence to the Global Information Age covering everything from politics to business practices to our nuclear peccadilloes. A very clever, important book for anyone involved in Indian business or politics. Gita Mehta's Karma Cola: Marketing the Mystic East is another pithy and satirical look at the "Indian values" that are exploited by media. I'll intentionally skip a clutch of other titles that deal with the Hindu/Muslim divide or the social cudgels of Arundhati Roy (e.g., War Talk or Power Politics (Second Edition)) but if you are interested in India's nuclear stance, Perkovich provides a very thorough discussion in India's Nuclear Bomb: The Impact on Global Proliferation.


RELIGION/SPIRITUALITY

India is notorious as a mysterious land of the spiritual, housing atavistic faiths, yoga, ancient medicine, astrology etc. I am no authority on these subjects (at least not by public admission) but am a strong believer in the simplicity of things. For a down-to-earth introduction, I'd highly recommend Nisargadatta's I Am That: Talks with Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj or Tagore's translations of an ancient vagabond poet Kabir (Songs of Kabir) instead. For a controlled,erudite introduction to Hinduism (and its offshoots Buddhism, Jainism etc) Vishwanathan's Am I A Hindu? The Hinduism Primer is an excellentprimer. The Royal Palaces of India offers a beautifully visual essay of how various religions have touched Indian architecture. If you like pop spiritualism, you are familiar with Deepak Chopra, who has drugged the "west" with a lot of crapola, but I recommend The Soul of Healing Meditations as a gentle introduction.


PHILOSOPHY

As imagined, this is a huge huge subject and apart froma plethora of books about the four "Vedas", or The Upanishads or the countless "Puranas", that may only be available in India, Zimmer's Philosophies of India or Chinmoy's Commentaries on the Vedas, the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita: The Three Branches of India's Life-Tree should provide a useful starting point.


CUISINE

Start with Classic Indian Cooking or Samayal - The Pleasures of South Indian Vegetarian Cooking.


ARCHITECTURE / INTERIORS: THE INDIAN LOOK

There's plenty to talk in this area, but start from the visual splendour of regal locations in Indian Interiors (Interiors (Taschen)), or the somewhat more practical but pretty India Style.


BIRDS AND BEES

Unfortunately, sexuality and India are two words that do not enjoy a great relationship in these times, at least not beyond the gyrating figures of Bollywood's (Indian Popular Cinema) actresses, but any observer of India would know without ambiguity that the present hypocrisy in our society is actually an artifact of Mughal rule over India for a long time and that Indian civilization otherwise was since its very advent wholly open to the expression of the erotic. Apart from the Hindu India (Taschen's World Architecture) or the Ajanta and Ellora: Cave Temples of Ancient India the word "Kamasutra" may be familiar to a lot of people, and typically connotes imaginative tantric positions for maverick sex. Well, all this is true but the art of love-making is considered a lot more sophisticated than that in India, and this faithfully translated version of the ancient Hindu text, The Complete Kama Sutra: The First Unabridged Modern Translation of the Classic Indian Text, provides an honest unequivocal introduction, including two essential commentaries: one by Yashodhara from the Middle Ages and a modern commentary by Devadatta Shastri. No graphic visuals here though if that is what you are after.


BOLLYWOOD, AND FILMS SHOWCASING INDIA

First, check out Heat and Dust / Autobiography of a Princess - The Merchant Ivory Collection. As for Bollywood 'items', Amazon isn't exactly brimming with them. DVDs are hard to come by, and when they do, they're gleefully oblivious of digital transfer. Here's a half-hearted sampling of what's available -- start with Deepa Mehta's rendition of Indo-pak partition Earth, Mira Nair's vision of Bombay's forgotten bylanes that exist in abject penury Salaam Bombay (Widescreen Special Edition), Aamir Khan in the indefatigable movie about the sport that unites entire India (cricket) Lagaan - Once Upon a Time in India, Mani Ratnam's gem Bombay, or the whacky The Guru (farcical) or Bend It Like Beckham (Widescreen Edition). If you are looking for a quick refresher course in the song and dance, The Best of Bollywood should do the job just fine. Oh, and don't miss the The Rough Guide to Bollywood, which has some fabulous original (sans the pale remixes) music from top Indian movies of yore.


Finally, NOVELLAS about the Indian diaspora..

What better way to get to know a society than to read stories grounded in its world? Some of my favorites are the epic The Great Indian Novel, the hilariously accurate English August: An Indian Story, Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things based in idyllic Kerala, Amitav Ghosh's multi-layered The Calcutta Chromosome: A Novel of Fevers, Delirium & Discovery about life in Bengal, Dalrymple's superbly researched City of Djinns about Delhi, the touchingly comic The Death of Vishnu: A Novel about Bombay, Vickram Seth's prize-winning marathon A Suitable Boy, Rohinton's Mistry very, very insightful Swimming Lessons: and Other Stories from Firozsha Baag or A Fine Balance, or Salman Rushdie's evergreen saga Midnight's Children.

Products mentioned include:
HISTORY
1.  India: A History  by John Keay
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2.  A New History of India  by Stanley A. Wolpert
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3.7 out of 5 stars   (24) | 1 customer discussion
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3.  In Light of India  by Octavio Paz
$15.21 Used & New from: $0.01
4.5 out of 5 stars   (26)
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TRAVELOGUES (Insightful, entertaining vignettes)
4.  India: A Million Mutinies Now  by V. S. Naipaul
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4.3 out of 5 stars   (26)
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5.  The Age of Kali: Indian Travels and Encounters  by William Dalrymple
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4.4 out of 5 stars   (38)
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BUSINESS/POLITICS
6.  India Unbound: The Social and Economic Revolution from Independence to the Global Information Age  by Gurcharan Das
$13.90 Used & New from: $0.01
4.5 out of 5 stars   (55)
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7.  Karma Cola: Marketing the Mystic East  by Gita Mehta
$10.57 Used & New from: $0.01
3.8 out of 5 stars   (34)
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8.  War Talk  by Arundhati Roy
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9.  Power Politics (Second Edition)  by Arundhati Roy
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10.  India's Nuclear Bomb: The Impact on Global Proliferation  by George Perkovich
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4.8 out of 5 stars   (12)
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RELIGION/SPIRITUALITY
11.  I Am That: Talks with Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj  by Maharaj Nisargadatta
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4.8 out of 5 stars   (321) | 2 customer discussions
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12.  Songs of Kabir  by Kabir
$13.52 Used & New from: $1.27
4.3 out of 5 stars   (23) | 1 customer discussion
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13.  Am I A Hindu? The Hinduism Primer  by Ed Viswanathan
Used & New from: $0.25
4.3 out of 5 stars   (65)
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14.  The Royal Palaces of India  by George Michell
Used & New from: $15.67
4.4 out of 5 stars   (5)
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15.  The Soul of Healing Meditations  by Deepak Chopra
$16.16 Used & New from: $8.05
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PHILOSOPHY
16.  The Upanishads  by Eknath Easwaran
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17.  Philosophies of India  by Heinrich Robert Zimmer
$38.88 Used & New from: $3.28
4.6 out of 5 stars   (19)
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18.  Commentaries on the Vedas, the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita: The Three Branches of India's Life-Tree  by Sri Chinmoy
$13.95 Used & New from: $3.67
4.7 out of 5 stars   (6)
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CUISINE
19.  Classic Indian Cooking  by Julie Sahni
$22.36 Used & New from: $1.97
4.6 out of 5 stars   (113)
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20.  Samayal - The Pleasures of South Indian Vegetarian Cooking.  by Viji Varadarajan
Used & New from: $12.51
4.6 out of 5 stars   (44)
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ARCHITECTURE / INTERIORS: THE INDIAN LOOK
21.  Indian Interiors (Interiors (Taschen))  by Angelika Taschen
Used & New from: $7.99
4.4 out of 5 stars   (7)
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22.  India Style  by Monisha Bharadwaj
Used & New from: $0.76
4.5 out of 5 stars   (6)
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BIRDS AND BEES
23.  Indian Popular Cinema  by K. Moti Gokulsing
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4.2 out of 5 stars   (4)
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24.  Hindu India (Taschen's World Architecture)  by Henri Stierlin
Used & New from: $35.42
4.7 out of 5 stars   (6)
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25.  Ajanta and Ellora: Cave Temples of Ancient India  by Pushpesh Pant
Used & New from: $45.00
5.0 out of 5 stars   (1)
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26.  The Complete Kama Sutra: The First Unabridged Modern Translation of the Classic Indian Text [Unabridged]  by Alain Danielou
$16.95 Used & New from: $0.01
3.9 out of 5 stars   (86)
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BOLLYWOOD, AND FILMS SHOWCASING INDIA
27.  Heat and Dust / Autobiography of a Princess - The Merchant Ivory Collection [Anamorphic] [Color] [Widescreen] [NTSC]  DVD ~ Julie Christie
$79.88 Used & New from: $20.98
3.9 out of 5 stars   (10)
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28.  Earth [Color] [Widescreen] [NTSC]  DVD ~ Aamir Khan
Used & New from: $12.30
4.6 out of 5 stars   (41)
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29.  Salaam Bombay (Widescreen Special Edition) [Anamorphic] [Color] [Special Edition] [Subtitled] [Widescreen] [NTSC]  DVD ~ Shafiq Syed
$20.57 Used & New from: $2.74
4.7 out of 5 stars   (44) | 1 customer discussion
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30.  Lagaan - Once Upon a Time in India [Anamorphic] [Closed-captioned] [Color] [Dolby] [Subtitled] [Widescreen] [NTSC]  DVD ~ Aamir Khan
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31.  Bombay [Color] [Dubbed] [Subtitled] [NTSC]  DVD ~ Arvind Swamy
Used & New from: $74.90
4.7 out of 5 stars   (10)
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32.  The Guru [Multiple Formats] [Anamorphic] [Closed-captioned] [Color] [Dolby] [DTS Surround Sound] [Dubbed] [NTSC] [Subtitled] [Widescreen]  DVD ~ Heather Graham
$9.98 Used & New from: $0.01
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33.  Bend It Like Beckham (Widescreen Edition) [Widescreen] [Closed-captioned] [Dubbed] [NTSC] [Subtitled]  DVD ~ Parminder Nagra
$19.99 Used & New from: $0.01
4.5 out of 5 stars   (486) | 1 customer discussion
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34.  The Best of Bollywood [Soundtrack]  by Kishore Kumar
$7.39 Used & New from: $1.50
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35.  The Rough Guide to Bollywood  by Kishore Kumar
$11.99 Used & New from: $0.01
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Finally, NOVELLAS about the Indian diaspora..
36.  The Great Indian Novel  by Shashi Tharoor
$21.95 Used & New from: $0.01
4.5 out of 5 stars   (28)
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37.  English August: An Indian Story  by Upamanyu Chatterjee
Used & New from: $101.47
4.5 out of 5 stars   (29) | 2 customer discussions
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38.  The God of Small Things  by Arundhati Roy
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3.9 out of 5 stars   (1,138) | 2 customer discussions
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39.  The Calcutta Chromosome: A Novel of Fevers, Delirium & Discovery  by Amitav Ghosh
$12.30 Used & New from: $0.09
3.4 out of 5 stars   (65)
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40.  City of Djinns  by William Dalrymple
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4.6 out of 5 stars   (100) | 1 customer discussion
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41.  The Death of Vishnu: A Novel  by Manil Suri
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4.1 out of 5 stars   (134)
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42.  A Suitable Boy  by Vikram Seth
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4.4 out of 5 stars   (287) | 3 customer discussions
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43.  Swimming Lessons: and Other Stories from Firozsha Baag  by Rohinton Mistry
$13.59 Used & New from: $0.01
4.8 out of 5 stars   (22)
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44.  A Fine Balance  by Rohinton Mistry
$9.12 Used & New from: $0.01
4.4 out of 5 stars   (990)
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45.  Midnight's Children  by Salman Rushdie
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4.0 out of 5 stars   (367) | 1 customer discussion
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