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home  > books & movies > non-fiction book reviews

Indian books : non-fiction

Quick reviews of some of the factual books about India we've come across, be it a collection of essays, travel accounts or books dealing with social, cultural or religious issues. We have read the books listed; therefore these reviews are purely personal opinions and not sourced from elsewhere.
We also have reviews of books (fiction).
Recently added entries will be marked with [NEW] for about a month.

 

Being Indian - The truth about why the 21st century will be India's
by Pavan K. Varma
full review...

  Karma Cola

by Gita Mehta
full review...

Snakes and ladders
by Gita Mehta
full review...

  No Full Stops in India
by Mark Tully
full review...

The heart of India

by Mark Tully
full review...

  Kullu: Himalayan Abode of the Divine
by Dilaram Shabab
full review...

Kulu, The end of the habitable world
by Penelope Chetwode
full review...

  Unveiling India
by Anees Jung
full review...

Seven Sisters - Among the women of South Asia
by Anees Jung
full review...

  May you be the mother of a hundred sons
by Elisabeth Bumiller
full review...

City of Djinns, a year in Delhi
by William Dalrymple
full review...

  Travels on my elephant
by Mark Shand
full review...

Devi-Devatas - The gods and goddesses of India
by Subhadra Sen Gupta
full review...

  Hindu Mythology

by W.J. Wilkins
full review...

Caste, its twentieth century avatar
by various writers / essayists
full review...

  Teach yourself Hindi
by Rupert Snell & S. Weightmann
full review...

 

Being Indian - The truth about why the 21st century will be India's

Author: Pavan K. Varma (2004)
ISBN: 0-67-005780-0

A highly instructive and enjoyable book, exploring the endless contradictions of India's stereotypical spiritualism and flagrant materialism. The author takes modern day India apart, offering fairly objective explanations as to why and how Indian democracy survives in its modified corruption-ridden form, clarifying in this context the Indian concepts of power, hierarchy and status. The economy and India's economic potential are examined, as well as the Indian attitude to life, morals, wealth and politics. The book is spiked with current and interesting facts and figures, citing numerous news stories and anecdotes which illustrate the weird concoction of the modern and the traditional in India. An excellent read, highly recommended.

Kirsten, September 2005

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Karma Cola

Author: Gita Mehta (1979)
ISBN: 0006360920

Gita Mehta’s fabulous book is simultaneously funny and shocking in turns. A series of anecdotal stories look from a unique perspective at the Westerners who seek spirituality in India, contrasting the idealised Western image of India with the Indian yearning for naked consumerism.

Woody, May 2004

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Snakes and ladders

Author: Gita Mehta (1997)
ISBN: 0099268221

Another sideways look at India by Gita Mehta, exploring the myriad contradictions that give India its unique character, from the misery of bonded labour to the indifferent, cynical and often venal world of Indian politics. This book explains some of the 'why' of India from an Indian viewpoint.

Woody, May 2004

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No Full Stops in India

Author: Mark Tully (1991)
ISBN: 0-14-010480-1

While lacking some of the cutting wit of Gita Mehta, Mark Tully's book of essays offers insightful stories that define modern India, from the tale of a village marriage, to the military assault on the Sikhs holiest shrine that led to Indira Gandhi’s assassination.

Woody, May 2004

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The heart of India

Author: Mark Tully (1995)
ISBN: 014-01-7965-8

Tully's latest offering is a collection of ten fictional stories that depict life for members of different faiths and castes in India, highlighting the problems they face. From the changing role of women in the society, to the death of a traditional means of transport; the ikkah.

Woody, May 2004

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Kullu: Himalayan Abode of the Divine

Author: Dilaram Shabab (1996)
ISBN: 81-7387-048-9

For an area with such a rich and colourful heritage, there are few books that offer any cultural insight or historical background on the Kulu Valley, and those that do exist were written long ago or with something of a Raj mindset.

This slim volume by Dilaram Shabab, formerly an MLA in the Himachal Pradesh state parliament, goes some way to addressing that from an Indian perspective, although the brief style and often patchy historical explanations are a little and difficult to follow for the reader without some prior knowledge of the area and its customs.

The book begins with a brief account of the history of the Kullu Valley and neighbouring areas from the time the valley was first settled until the 20th century. The book offers a brief summary of the settlement and rule of the valley in the first millennium, becoming more detailed with the foundation of the Kingdom of Kullu after the Goddess Hadimba appeared to the future Raja, Behangmani Pal of Haridwar, as an old woman struggling to carry firewood. She promised him and his successors the rule of the land "as far as you can see", and he established the first capital at Jagat Sukh. The history explains some of the many myths and legends of the valley, including the origins of Kullu's famous Dussehra festival, in which the roles of the village Gods and the Raja (currently Maheshwar Singh, descendant of the first Raja) are intertwined.

Later sections of the book cover a variety of subjects; the agriculture of HP and the introduction of fruit growing, Colonial rule, village and cultural life, economic development, an account of the Independence period, and the political moves that led to the birth of Himachal Pradesh as a state, carved out of the vast British-era state of Punjab. The writer's long involvement with politics spanned many important events, and his personal knowledge of the players involved offers an intimate view into the idealistic but often murky world of state level Indian politics, and the personality of Himachal Pradesh's founding father, Dr Y.S. Parmar.

In a region renowned for its Deodar forest, perhaps one of the most rewarding chapters is that on Forestry in the state, and in particular the role of Duff Dunbar, a forester in the Raj era whose traditionally built house still stands in the upper part of Dhungri village. Retaining the state's forest cover has always been a classic tale of greed versus a fragile environment, pitting the Government against the vested interests that covet the valley's valuable timber resources, and is full of tales of idealism, massive corruption and frequent incompetence. For anyone who has travelled the road to Rohtang Pass and seen the denuded, stump covered hillsides around Marhi, the story of the "foresters folly" will have a particular resonance.

The centre of the book contains a number of colour and monochrome plates offering views of the valley, its people and festivals in times past.

If the book has a major flaw it is probably that it feels a little rushed in covering the subject matter, and the writing style is rather sparse. More flesh and colour on the stories would have gone a long way to making the events related fit together more coherently. But there is plenty of information on offer on the past and present culture of the Valley, and at a mere 131 pages it's an easy and rewarding read for any visitor bitten by curiosity about one of the true jewels in India's crown.

Woody, November 2005

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Kulu, The end of the habitable world

Author: Penelope Chetwode (1972)
ISBN: 81-85113-20-3

As the daughter of the 1930s British Commander-in-Chief in India, Penelope Chetwode spent part of her childhood in Shimla, the summer capital of the Raj. Thirty years later, 1963, she returns to the Indian Himalayas to organise her own mule trek. Some of the areas visited include the Ani, Tirthan, Parvati and in particular the Kulu Valley. As part of her travel accounts she offers some historical and architectural information on the area, as for example her description and background info on the Kullu Dussehra festival or some tales about British settlers in the Kulu Valley. She gives some interesting and knowledgeable details on Himalayan temple structures as well as recounting some of the local myths and legends. Although written in a somewhat old-fashioned (and sometimes boring) style, with an occasionally off-putting British-Raj attitude shining through, the book is still worth reading, in particular as there is a depressing dearth of material available concerning this neck of the woods. It is also interesting in terms of the obvious changes which have taken place in the 40 years since she rode through the area. Overall, it is definitely worth a look if you are interested in the area. As pure entertainment I would leave it well alone.

Kirsten, November 2005

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Unveiling India

Author: Anees Jung (1987)
ISBN: 0140103449

Anees Jung is one of India's best known women journalists. She herself was brought up in purdah, but after studying abroad she returned to India in an attempt to unveil some of the attitudes and motivations of Indian women, who often live in seclusion or at least lead very separate lives from their male contemporaries. Through her interviews and story telling she gives very ordinary women a voice; an opportunity to give their own opinions and outlook on life. In an almost poetic style she writes of hardships, unfair work practices and discrimination, but also of possibilities for fulfilled lives and joys for Indian women. Definitely worth reading, and I am looking forward to read her sequel to this book, "Beyond the courtyard", sometime.

Kirsten, November 2005

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Seven Sisters - Among the women of South Asia

Author: Anees Jung (1994)
ISBN: 0140245790

This book came about partly through the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA). Anees Jung offers an insight into the predicament of women in the different countries of South Asia. As part of an examination of the question on "where does one half of the world's population who perform two-thirds of its work, stand?" this collection of essays describes women's restricted life under traditional male supremacy, but also their attempts to bring about a positive change in their situation through self-help women's associations and organisations. An informative and very good read.

Kirsten, November 2005

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May you be the mother of a hundred sons

Author: Elisabeth Bumiller (1990)
ISBN: 0140156712

Written by Elisabeth Bumiller, this is a collection of stories and essays, examining the position of women within India's social structure as seen through the eyes of a Westerner. The author takes interviews, press releases and talks with friends as basis for her observations. Different sections of India's society (different castes and backgrounds) are portrayed. Topics include female infanticide, arranged marriage, life for rural women and the dowry system and the effects these have on quality of life and freedom of choice for women is examined. Although published in 1990, most of the information was gathered in the 1980s and therefore, some of the portrayals of women’s circumstances are not quite as applicable as they were 20 odd years ago. Obviously, the chosen essays don't give an all-encompassing picture of an Indian woman's life, but they are interesting, informative and very readable. Overall a recommended read.

Kirsten, November 2005

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City of Djinns, a year in Delhi

Author: William Dalrymple (1993)
ISBN: 0006375952

As complex as is India's capital Delhi, as multi-faceted is its history. William Dalrymple succeeds in painting a colourful picture of contemporary Delhi and its historical background, bringing to life its alleyways, monuments and people. The author gives a non-linear account of the different cities, with the beginning in ancient times as Indraprashta, which through the centuries became today's Delhi. "City of Djinns" is written in a fluid style and keeps up the interest by darting back and forth from past to present. Neither a history book nor a travel guide, this is an excellent introduction to Delhi. Good and easy reading.

Kirsten, November 2005

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Travels on my elephant

Author: Mark Shand (1992)
ISBN: 0140166807

Not everybody would be able to afford this unusual mode of transport, but if you can, what a unique way to travel; on the top (or walking by the side) of an elephant - just in case the train gets too boring. As the title indicates, this book is a travel account of the author, his elephant Tara and a mahout through 1000 km of India to the final destination at the Sonepur Mela, the world's oldest elephant market in Bihar. The going motto seems to be: find an outrageous way to travel and make some money by publishing a book or a TV travel programme. In spite of this (suspected) ulterior motive, the book makes for entertaining reading, partly through humorous and empathic descriptions of the personality and character of Tara, the elephant. Needless to say that it includes lots of useful and useless information about elephants.

Kirsten, November 2005

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Devi-Devatas - The gods and goddesses of India

Author: Subhadra Sen Gupta (2001)
ISBN: 8-7167-530-1

200 pages of Hindu gods and goddesses; their evolution, their myths and legends and a brief history of the development of Hinduism from the Vedic deities of Indra, Surya and Agni to the Puranic gods of Vishnu, Shiva, Brahma and Durga. A readable, comprehensible and enjoyable introduction to Hindu mythology without high-brow philosophy.

Kirsten, September 2005

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Hindu Mythology

Author: W.J. Wilkins (1882)
ISBN: n/a
Publisher: Rupa.Co

First published in 1882, this tome is an authoritative and exhaustive account of the Hindu gods and goddesses commonly worshipped in India. It covers the breadth of the Hindu pantheon, including demons and sacred animals. Given the age of the book, it's scarcely surprising the writing style is old-fashioned. Hard going; not a book you would want to read cover to cover.

Kirsten, September 2005

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Caste, its twentieth century avatar

Author: various, edited by M.N.Srinivas (1996)
ISBN: 0-14-025760-8

edited and introduced by M.N.Srinivas, is a collection of essays by different experts on the subject trying to analyse the caste system and its relevance in modern day India. It is not an introduction but rather deals with specific intricacies of caste, other backward classes and related problems. Not an easy read.

Kirsten, September 2004

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Teach yourself Hindi

Author: Rupert Snell & Simon Weightmann (2000)
ISBN: 034086687X

A course in understanding, speaking and writing Hindi (tapes available). Learning the script is a lot easier than it first appears and very gratifying once you have mastered the basics. Think of all the road signs, bus destinations and menus in cheap dhabas you will be able to decipher. Even if you can't be bothered to learn the script, the first few chapters of this book are good for learning the basis of grammar and vocabulary. Not brilliant, but the best I've come across, definitely a lot better than lots of other Indian "Learn Hindi" books, which are mostly utterly useless.

Kirsten, September 2004

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