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The Story of India


Literature and Poetry  |  History and Culture  |  Guidebooks and Travellers' Tales  |  Other Essays

There's a last ritual at the end of a long filming project—emptying the rucksack for that very last time when you get back home. Spread over the floor is all the traveller's clutter: the mosquito net, the old copies of India Today, pilgrim guidebooks, framed pictures and postcards of Hindu gods, chewed-up maps, and cheap dhotis. But with me the biggest pile is always books: all those irresistible purchases from Wheelers of Allahabad, Motilal Banarsidas in the Chowk in Varanasi, or the unmissable bookshops in Delhi's Khan Market.

These books (for research but most of all for pleasure), lying on the floor amid the train tickets and cheap posters, and the brown paper packet of cloth from the Madurai tailors' bazaar, draw the eye like familiar friends and recall the delight with which one turned to them on distant shores or mountain tops, in crowded pilgrims lodges, or on late night station platforms. Reflecting on that, it seems to me that not only is there no need to provide an academic bibliography, it is even undesirable. It is perhaps more helpful to list some books that gave me pleasure and insight, books that I carried with me in my rucksack, and which the reader might wish to carry in his or her own.

Michael Wood

Literature and Poetry

  • The Picador Book of Modern Indian literature (ed. Amit Chaudhuri, 2002)
    This is a brilliant idea—brilliantly executed, an indispensable introduction to modern Indian literature—and more. It includes a selection of translations from modern vernacular Indian literature
  • The Interior Landscape (A.K. Ramanujan, 1967) and Poems of Love and War (A.K. Ramanujan, 1985)
    Early Tamil poetry
  • The Purananuru (ed. G. Hart and H. Heifetz, 2002)
    A wonderful collection of ancient Tamil poems
  • Manimekhalai (tr. Alain Danielous, 1996) and The Cilappatikaram the Tale of an Anklet (tr. R. Parthasarathy 1993)
    Famous ancient Tamil epics
  • Hymns of the Tamil Saivite Saints (F. Kingsbury and G. Phillips, 1921), Poems to Shiva (Indira Peterson, 1991), and Songs of the Harsh Devotee (David Shulman, 1990)
    Later Tamil devotional poetry
  • For the Lord of Animals (ed. H. Heifetz and V. Rao, 1987)
    Great Telugu collection of the 16th-century poet Dhurjati
  • When God is a Custom (tr. A.K. Ramanujan, V. Rao and D. Shulman, 1994)
    Wonderful Telugu courtesan songs
  • Speaking of Siva (A.K. Ramanujan, 1973)
    A Kannada anthology
  • Songs for the Drowning (A.K. Ramanujan, 1993)
    Great selection of the ninth-century hymns to Vishnu by Nammalvar
  • Love Song of the Dark Lord (B. Miller, 1977)
    Memorable translation of Jayadeva's Gitagovinda
  • A Poem at the Right Moment (V. Rao and D. Shulman, 1997)
    Southern oral tradition
  • Folktales of India (A.K. Ramanujan, Penguin, 1994)
  • Rig Veda (tr. Wendy Doniger, Penguin, 1981)
  • Rama the Steadfast (J. and M. Brockington, Penguin, 2006)
  • Gods Demons and Others (R.K. Narayan, 1965 and later editions)
    Modern retellings of the old stories
  • The Kamasutra (tr. Wendy Doniger and Sudhir Kakar, 2002)
  • Babur's Autobiography (ed. Dilip Hero, 2007)

History and Culture

  • An End to Suffering (Pankaj Mishra, 2004) and The Buddha and the Sahibs (Charles Allen, 2002)
    Engaging books about the Buddha
  • The Indians (S. Kakar, 2006)
  • The Rise and Fall of the British Empire (Lawrence James, 1997)
  • A History of India (John Keay, 2000)
  • Jinnah (Stanley Wolpert, 1984)
  • Nehru (Stanley Wolpert, 1996)
  • Gandhi (Stanley Wolpert, 2001)
  • Shameful Flight (Stanley Wolpert, 2006)
    On the Partition
  • Partition of India (H. Seervai, 1994)
  • Nehru (Shashi Tharoor, 2003)
  • India After Gandhi (R. Guha, 2007)
  • The Idea of India (Sunil Khilnani, 2003)
  • India – Studies in the History of an Idea (Irfan Habib, 2004)

Guidebooks and Travellers' Tales

  • Benaras: City of Light (Diana Eck, 1983)
    My old copy of this book is falling apart after a dozen visits to that great city and still its pleasures are nowhere near exhausted
  • The Last Bungalow (A.K. Mehrotra, Penguin 2007)
    A new anthology on Allahabad's rich modern and mythic history
  • City of Djinns (William Dalrymple)
    On Dehli
  • The Complete Taj Mahal (Ebba Koch, 2006)
  • Mughal Architecture (Ebba Koch, 2002)
  • Maximum City (Suketu Mehta, 2004)
  • Lucknow Then and Now (Rosie Llewellyn-Jones, 2003)
  • A Fatal Friendship: The Nawabs, The British, and the City of Lucknow (Rosie Llewellyn-Jones, 1985)
  • Lucknow Omnibus (Rosie Llewellyn-Jones, 2001)
  • Temple Towns of Tamil Nadu (ed. George Michell, Marg, 1993)
  • Chidambaram (ed. V. Nanda, Marg, 2004)
    A recent study of one of the great southern religious centers
  • South Indian Journey (Penguin, 2007)
  • No Full Stops in India (Mark Tully, 1994)
    Written from the viewpoint of a supremely knowledgeable outsider
  • Age of Kali (William Dalrymple)
    An engaging read by the doyen of modern British writers on India

Other Essays

  • The Vintage Book of Indian Writing 1947–1997 (Salman Rushdie and Elizabeth West, 1997)
  • India in Mind (ed. Pankaj Mishra, 2005)
  • Temptations of the West (Pankaj Mishra, 2006)
  • The Argumentative Indian (Amartya Sen, 2005) and Identity and Violence (Amartya Sen, 2006)
    Challenging and humane overviews of India's Great Tradition and its modern dilemmas
  • Many Ramayanas (P. Richmann, 1991)
    A fascinating series of essays on the diversity of the tradition