August 15 is Independence Day, a national holiday in India. It celebrates the day in 1947 when India gained its independence from British rule. (Pakistan was partitioned on that same day.) India is an enormous country, second only to China in population, and its culture is more than four thousand years old. It has inspired artists throughout history. It is no wonder that fiction set in India or with Indian protagonists is popular and plentiful.
While pulling together this list, I was surprised by how many titles immediately came to mind. The slightest amount of research provided a dozen more. If you are curious about India, and would like to explore it through fiction, there are plenty of options for you.
A Beautiful Lie by Irfan Master is an appropriate title to begin with since it focuses on August 15, 1947. Bilal’s father is dying, and Bilal is determined not to let him know about the upcoming partition, feeling that it will break his heart and hasten his death. Bilal enlists the aid of his closest friends and they devise elaborate schemes to keep people from his father’s bedside. Of course this backfires as the lie grows. Seeing these events through the eyes of a young teen help readers who do not know about this part of history. We learn alongside the main character.
Anila’s Journey by Mary Finn
Many of the British and Irish men who found themselves in Colonial India either brought their families with them, or started families while there. Of course some men started families … inadvertently. Half-Irish, half-Indian Anila is on her own after her father disappeared and her mother died. Anila is a talented artist and, against the odds, secures a job as an illustrator for a gentleman scientist traveling up the Ganges River. Women were not allowed much freedom in Colonial India, so Anila’s job was unusual, to say the least. She travels with the naturalist, drawing the flora and fauna he discovers and seeking out her missing father. Readers not only get a glimpse of what life was like for a woman in late 18th century India, but also of the beauty of the landscape.
Secret Keeper by Mitali Perkins
Another look at girls’ lives in India, this time from the 1970s. Tomboy Asha, her beautiful sister Reet, and their mother must live with Asha’s uncle when their father travels to America looking for work. Asha loves to play sports, read books, and be free. But when she turns 16, her freedom is curtailed as she is expected by her uncle to become more ladylike. And when it appears her family will remain in their uncle’s home, she must abide by his strict rules. Asha is a feminist, even if she doesn’t call herself that, and Perkins beautifully captures the struggles of a young woman searching for her own center.
Climbing the Stairs by Padma Venkatraman (2009 Best Books for Young Adults)
Almost a companion piece to The Secret Keeper, this first novel also looks at an unconventional girl whose father allows her freedoms her fellow young women do not enjoy. When Vidya’s father is injured and can no longer care for their family, they move in with her traditional, conservative grandfather. Vidya fights against the constraints placed on her by society and by her family, all while World War II rages around them. Her father is a follower of Gandhi and his non-violent teachings seem to clash with everyday life in 1941 Bombay.
These titles are just a tiny sample of what is out there. I didn’t even get to mention Life of Pi, The God of Small Things, The Jungle Book, Interpreter of Maladies, Midnight’s Children, A Suitable Boy, Koyal Dark, Mango Sweet, Brick Lane…
— Geri Diorio, currently reading The Mauritius Command by Patrick O’Brian
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