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Nine Indian Books to Transport You Somewhere Else and Back in Time

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Traveling is a passion of mine, but I can’t often abandon work and pick up and jet off somewhere awesome. That’s why reading is such a treat — as corny as it sounds, books really do have the power to transport us to entirely new places and teach us about different cultures (or in my case, and the case of this list, more about my own culture).

Books can do more than that, though: They can do something we can’t actually do physically, which is transport us in time. Each of these books will take you to a period in the complex and rich history of India, from the fabled Mughal Empire to the turbulent days before Indian independence from the British. Check out these nine books and let them take you entirely somewhere else.


Faint Promise of Rain

Adhira is a young woman who knows what is expected of her. The year is 1554, and her father is the temple’s dance master. Adhira will become a devadasi, a temple dancer who will “marry” the gods and help the temple by giving herself to a patron. But Adhira dares to dream of something different, even as it becomes clear she has an incredible gift as a dancer. But there’s even more turmoil on the horizon: The political winds are changing, and the Mughal emperor of India, Akbar, has turned his eyes to Rajasthan, where Adhira and her family live. Will Adhira be brave enough to seek out her own destiny, amid political turmoil, or will she do what is expected of her and agree to a life of submission?

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Twentieth Wife, the

When Mehrunnisa was just eight years old, she witnessed the marriage of Prince Salim to a woman and decided that she, too, would marry the prince. After all, the Mughal royal family were allowed to have multiple wives. Not many children have such resolve, but her promise comes to pass almost 30 years later: She marries Salim, now Jahangir, and she exercises a surprising amount of power. But will Mehrunnisa survive the plotting of the women in the zenana and the politics of court intrigue in this fascinating book that gives readers a peek into India’s Mughal Empire?

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The Palace of Illusions

Part historical fiction and part fantasy, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni takes the Indian epic The Mahabharata and spins it around, telling the story from the point of view of the women of the tale, Draupadi. Draupadi (or Panchali, as she was called because she’s from the kingdom of Panchal) was prophesized to change history, she is not a meek woman who is content to let others decide her fate. She makes the unconventional decision to marry all five Pandava brothers — rather than just one — and decides to put her energy towards helping these men reclaim their lost kingdom. But Draupadi’s arrogance, and that of her husbands’, soon catches up with the group, and it has devastating consequences. 

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The Sleeping Dictionary

India in the 1930s and 40s was experiencing a great deal of political turmoil. After all, independence from British colonial rule came in 1947. It’s against this backdrop that The Sleeping Dictionary takes place. When a tsunami destroys a small Bengali village, Pom is the only survivor. She becomes a maidservant at a British boarding school, where her identity is erased and she’s referred to as Sarah. There, Pom discovers she has a gift for speaking languages. As Pom’s life progresses and she becomes involved in intrigue and espionage, she becomes embroiled in India’s fight for independence. 

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Climbing the Stairs

In the environment of World War II Bombay, not many young women can dream of college. But fifteen-year-old Vidya is lucky to live in a progressive family that values education and thinks women should be given more opportunities than is traditional. But everything Vidya has dreamed of disappears in a flash when her father is badly injured. Her family leaves their home to live with her grandfather, who is very traditional and doesn’t agree with the freedom Vidya has been given thus far. Vidya must find her place in a world that is changing drastically around her, on the eve of Indian independence, balancing the needs of her family while also staying true to herself and her dreams.

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A Very Pukka Murder

When the English Resident of the small Indian state of Rajpore is found dead in his locked bedroom, those around him don’t know what to do. It’s the Maharaja Sinkander Singh, leader of Rajpore, who takes charge and leads the investigation into the Resident’s death. He’s a self-indulgent man, to be sure, but he prides himself on his intelligence and quick wit. As he tackles this mystery, trying to figure out who might have wanted to kill Major William Russell and why, he’s inspired by Sherlock Holmes to use logic to solve it. What Singh uncovers surprises him, as he has to work with an increasingly hostile English establishment to solve this tricky murder case.

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The Grammarian

The year is 1911 and Alexandre Lautens has arrived in India to study Telugu, a regional language of South India. He’s a philologist and wants to understand the grammar and structure of this beautiful language. He stays in the home of a wealthy landowner, Shiva Adivis, and meets his two daughters, Anjali and Mohini, the younger Adivis daughter who is about to be married. Anjali is considered an outcast because she is crippled from a childhood bout with polio and she has found her refuge in books. Lautens strikes up a friendship with Anjali, a tough situation, given Anjali’s status as an unmarried young woman, and it could have devastating consequences for the entire Adivis family.

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The World We Found

In 1970s Bombay, things are going to change for the better. At least, that’s what university students Armaiti, Laleh, Kavita, and Nishta wholeheartedly believe. After all, they’re young and idealistic; of course they can make the world a better place. As this book showcases these young women’s stories against the socialist movements in India during this time period, it tells each of their personal individual stories. How can you balance a revolutionary and politically idealistic spirit with the demands of day to day life? As each of these women is tempered by the realities of adulthood, they must decide what they want for themselves and the lives they lead.

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Teatime for the Firefly

Layla Roy might have a bad horoscope — enough to doom a young woman in India to a lifetime of unhappiness — but she has defied the odds. Not only is she educated, but she finds true love. Newly married, her husband whisks her away to Assam, which in the 1940s was filled with Indians laboring in tea plantations overseen by the British. She struggles to find a place in this society that makes assumptions based on her skin color, even as she’s expected to socialize with the British wives. But change is on the horizon, as World War II approaches, and Layla watches as all the machines of colonialism begin to crumble before her eyes.

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Swapna Krishna writes for Engadget, Syfy Wire, and the LA Times. Her work has been published at Paste Magazine, Bustle, Newsweek, and many other outlets.

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