A Growing Nation: Best Books to Understand India

Children in New Delhi, India/Photo © Shutterstock

India is a country in the midst of an extraordinary transition. India’s population – already the second largest in the world at 1.3 billion and making up the largest democracy in the world – is expected to overtake China in next decade. Combine that, the fact that it is a nuclear-armed state, and its quickly expanding economy and it is clear why the country is poised to become the world’s next great superpower. Still, the nation of India remains a study in economic contrasts. The city of Mumbai, one of the most densely populated cities in the world, is home to both the world’s most expensive homes – a twenty-seven-story single-family residence, for instance – and Dharavi, one of the world’s largest and most infamous slums.

India is also home to vibrant cultural diversity and a rich history stretching into antiquity, and as a result features some of the world’s most arresting landmarks, from the Taj Mahal to the Amer Fort and a number of renowned national parks. With its varied geography, India contains lush jungles, gorgeous beaches, and some of the tallest mountains on the planet. It is the birthplace of four major world religions – Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism. In short, India is a deeply complex country with a tumultuous history and diverse society. As the country moves to increasing prominence on the world stage, an understanding of India, its history, and its people becomes all the more important. The books, listed below – many by Indian authors – will hopefully begin to shed some light on the rapidly growing nation.

  • The cover of the book The Windfall

    The Windfall

    A Novel

    Mr. and Mrs. Jha’s lives have been far from luxurious. For the past thirty years, they’ve lived in cramped spaces with nosy neighbors, making the most of their less-than-substantial financial situation. But when Mr. Jha runs into an unexpected and enormous sum of money, his life and his family’s lives change forever, in ways unforeseen. As the Jha family achieves high status in The Windfall, readers discover what it means to “make it” in modern India, and recognize that money truly does not equate to happiness.

  • The cover of the book India


    A Portrait

    This examination of India and its rise as an economic power is an important one for those seeking to understand the country’s position in the current geopolitical landscape. Author Patrick French chronicles the changes sweeping through India via a series of interviews and human portraits that ultimately feed a larger, panoramic narrative of a quickly shifting position in world affairs.

  • The cover of the book The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

    The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

    The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Indian-born author Arundhati Roy follows a disparate group of Indians through their daily lives and toward their inevitably intertwined fates. Ranging across the Indian subcontinent and carrying readers from the cityscapes of New Delhi to the mountains and valleys of Kashmir, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is a sprawling, sometimes-brutal and oft-beautiful read.

  • The cover of the book Think India

    Think India

    The Rise of the World's Next Great Power and What It Means for Every American

    India is home to both a booming population and a quickly rising economy, and as a result this vast nation is on track to become one of the world’s preeminent superpowers. In this book, Indian philanthropist and entrepreneur Vinay Rai examines the country’s growth in areas like pharmaceuticals, research and development, and manufacturing and provides context for this growth and what it means for the rest of the world, particularly the United States.

  • The cover of the book Q&A


    Equal parts comedy, drama, romance, and adventure, Q & A is page-turning cross-section of life in India. Beginning in a Mumbai jail cell, the novel recounts the remarkable story of Ram, a young man being held for potentially cheating to win India’s biggest quiz show. Through a series of stories, Ram recounts the extraordinary events of his life from orphanhood on and presents an over-the-top but nonetheless poignant view of Indian life. Q & A was adapted into the Oscar-winning film “Slumdog Millionaire.”

  • The cover of the book Behind the Beautiful Forevers

    Behind the Beautiful Forevers

    Life, death, and hope in a Mumbai undercity

    No discussion of India would be complete without examination of the sprawling slums that have become a nearly indelible part of Indian culture. With Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Pulitzer Prize winner Katherine Boo chronicles the lives of the people who make their lives in Annawadi, a Mumbai slum in the shadow of some of the city’s most luxurious hotels. The book is a powerful and uncompromising view into that near-unbelievable world.

  • The cover of the book Vibrant India

    Vibrant India

    Fresh Vegetarian Recipes from Bangalore to Brooklyn

    Food and its preparation are touchstones for virtually any culture and India is no different. Much like the country itself, Indian cuisine is diverse and rich, a complex combination of flavors that relies on fresh ingredients and aromatic spices. Food is also an essential part of the hospitality that is a central tenet of the Hindu faith. With Vibrant India, Chitra Agrawal traveled to her mother’s hometown of Bangalore and returned to Brooklyn with a host of traditional South Indian recipes as well as the intriguing history and traditions that shaped the region’s cuisine.

  • The cover of the book Shantaram


    Gregory David Roberts’s 2003 novel is a larger-than-life adventure through the streets of Bombay. Based in part on the real-life experiences of Roberts, the novel centers on Lin, an escaped Australian convict who flees to India with a false passport in the hopes of disappearing in the bustling and chaotic city. The story that unfolds – an expert blurring of fact and fiction – is a thrilling and mesmerizing tour of Bombay’s criminal underworld, and perhaps more importantly the city itself.

  • The cover of the book An Autobiography

    An Autobiography

    The Story of My Experiments with Truth

    Mohandas K. Gandhi, better known by the honorific “Mahatma” Gandhi, is one of the most iconic figures of the twentieth century, and his decades-long nonviolent struggle for Indian independence is a cornerstone of the country’s history. Covering his life from childhood through 1921, the book offers remarkable insight into what shaped Gandhi’s life and views and what led him from British loyalty to becoming the leading voice for India’s independence.

  • The cover of the book A Long Way Home

    A Long Way Home

    A Memoir

    In this powerful memoir, Saroo Brierley recounts his miraculous journey to discover his long-lost family and the home he barely knew. At five years old, Saroo was separated from his family and lost on a train in India. Unable to read, write, or even recall his own last name, Saroo managed to survive on the streets of Calcutta before being adopted by an Australian family and moving to Australia. After years of wondering about a life he could barely remember, an adult Saroo set out to track down his roots. A Long Way Home was adapted into the Oscar-nominated film “Lion.”

  • The cover of the book India Becoming

    India Becoming

    A Portrait of Life in Modern India

    As noted, India is undergoing incredible transformation, a transformation that is filtering its way through all facets of Indian life. After returning to his native country in 2003 following years living in the U.S., Akash Kapur was shocked at the sweep of the country’s transition. With India Becoming, Kapur sketches a portrait of India’s transformation through the lives of a handful of Indian citizens. It is a fascinating read for anyone seeking to understand the tumult and hope of life in a changing India.