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Reading through India: Books that help put world's second most populous nation into context

India can be overwhelming for travellers, but some advance reading can help make sense of the nuances of life in this country of more than one billion people, writes Vawn Himmelsbach
The streets of Old Delhi. ((Vawn Himmelsbach))
Much of what most people outside India know about the world's second-most populous nation is information of the Slumdog Millionaire variety — we've heard of slum dwellers, of poverty, of the lack of sanitation. Or it's the Eat, Pray, Love portrayal, which is all about sadhus and gurus and the hope of enlightenment. Or it's Bollywood and bombings. Or call centres and outsourcing. Or cricket players and beggars.

India is all of these things — and a lot more.

Travel here can be overwhelming; it's often said you'll love it or hate it. More likely, you'll oscillate between the two every few minutes.

India is unapologetically in your face. When you find yourself haggling with a rickshaw driver in the crowded streets of Delhi in 45-degree heat, you may wonder why you didn't hit a beach in Thailand instead. But travellers are drawn here for any number of reasons.

Maybe it's the crumbling fortresses or fairytale palaces or lost cities, or perhaps it's to trek the Himalayas, ride a camel in the Rajasthani desert or chill on a Goan beach. Or perhaps it's for those unexpected moments, when you end up meeting a group of Mumbai-bound musicians on a night bus who spend hours teaching you Hindi.

On my second trip to India, I took a rather "novel" approach to trip planning — I joined a travelling book club through Nicholas Hoare Books in Toronto, organized by Going Places Together, and read my way through India. This gave me a completely different perspective and appreciation for a country I had known little about the first time I travelled there a few years ago, when I was hit with sensory overload.

If you're considering a trip to India, or even if you're an armchair traveller, here's a partial reading list that may help make sense of the nuances of life in this country of more than one billion people.

Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found

The ghats of Varanasi. ((Vawn Himmelsbach))
"India is not a tourist-friendly country," writes Suketa Mehta in Maximum City. "It will reveal itself to you only if you stay on, against all odds."

To truly understand India, you've got to understand Bombay (now called Mumbai). This book brings the city to life in all its glory: slum dwellers, bar girls and hitmen. Each day, about 200 families move to Mumbai from other parts of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh in search of a better life. Of the city's 20 million residents, however, about 30 per cent live in the slums.

The slums are, in their own way, communities. And slum dwellers aren't starving — in fact, they likely own a TV — but you'd be hard-pressed to find a clean toilet. Water and sanitation is a much bigger problem than food, but finding a solution isn't straightforward. This once-grand city is now overrun with corruption and gangs; racial tension (largely the result of joblessness) between rival Hindu and Muslim gangs led to the Mumbai bombings of 2008.

It's the kind of city where, if someone owes you money, you hire a gang to kidnap his kid. Or where plumbers bribe officials to turn off the water to public taps so people have to pay for private pipes. Extortion payments are so commonplace they're actually a tax writeoff.

But the future of this city is not without hope. The book, like Mumbai itself, is sprinkled with touches of beauty and the humanity that exists, and persists, despite external conditions.

The God of Small Things

The backwaters of Kerala. ((Vawn Himmelsbach))
Kerala is, perhaps, one of the few places in India where the pace of life slows to a crawl.

Located in the far south, it's sandwiched between the Arabian Sea and Western Ghats, with the beaches of Kovalam and Varkala to the west and tea and spice plantations to the east.

The region is unique due to 3,000 years of colonial influences, from the Romans, Arabs and Chinese, to the Portuguese, Dutch and English, who were drawn here for the spice trade. As a result, you'll find Syrian Christians and Jews living alongside Hindus and Muslims. It's one of the most progressive states in India, with a high value placed on education, literacy and the arts, and in 1957 it brought to power the first freely elected communist government in the world.

The God of Small Things, a novel by Arundhati Roy, is set in the town of Ayemenen in 1969. While it's a story of love and loss, how the small things build up and affect our lives, it also captures the Syrian Christian and Communist way of life unique to this region.

Roy weaves history and politics throughout the novel, and takes a strong stance against India's caste system — explaining how desire and desperation have emerged from this system, where Untouchables are not allowed to touch or enter the home of someone in a higher caste, let alone have a relationship with them. This caste system is still in place today throughout India.

City of Djinns

The ghats of Varanasi. ((Vawn Himmelsbach))
"Just as Hindus believe that a body will be reincarnated over and over again until it becomes perfect, so it seemed Delhi was destined to appear in a new incarnation century after century," writes William Dalrymple in his account of a year in Delhi, India's noisy, crowded capital.

Delhi has been reshaped — and almost destroyed — a number of times over the years, from the Mughal Empire, to the rise of the East India Company, to Partition, to the Sikh massacres after Indira Gandhi's assassination. Legend has it the city is watched over by mischievous djinns — spirits that occupy a parallel world to mankind, who can be helpful or harmful — who have saved the city from destruction over the centuries.

Among the Medieval alleyways of Old Delhi and the swanky shops of Connaught Place, Delhi is layered with history and vestiges of lost empires. Dalrymple seeks to unearth this history from the people he meets, from pigeon fanciers to Sufi mystics to a guild of eunuchs. In Old Delhi, he finds the last direct descendants of the Mughals, who now live in dire conditions. And he talks to Anglo-Indians who still struggle to fit into Indian society since the fall of the British Raj.

So how do these stories help the would-be traveller to the region?

The Taj Mahal on its own is an impressive sight, but it's these stories that make India come alive, that help make some sense of the chaos.

You may love this country or you may hate it, but either way, you'll have a better understanding — and perhaps appreciation — for one of the world's emerging powerhouses if you read up on it before visiting.

The author is a Toronto-based writer and world traveler, often journeying alone to destinations far off the beaten path.