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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.