The Private Life of an Indian Prince (1953)
Mulk Raj Anand
Anand’s 1935 novel Untouchable established him as a pioneer of the Indian English novel alongside R.K. Narayan and Raja Rao. He set most of his novels among the poor but The Private Life, counted among his best, changed tack with a flawed prince as protagonist.
The Room on the Roof (1956)
The journey of one of India’s favourite storytellers started with Rusty, the orphaned Anglo-Indian boy, Bond’s alter-ego. Rusty, his home in the Himalayas, Raj nostalgia, and love for animals would recur in Bond’s books.
The Guide (1958)
The creator of the fictional town of Malgudi set the early parameters of the Indian English novel—unhurried pace, lucid prose, sense of community, and the quotidian celebrated. The Guide, also set in Malgudi, follows tour guide turned “holy man” Raju, who both hates and loves his “saint” status. Written 10 years after Gandhi’s assassination, the novel’s philosophical charge remains undiminished.
The Cat and Shakespeare (1965)
With his first novel, Kanthapura (1938), Rao started the project of “convey[ing] in a language that is not one’s own the spirit that is one’s own”. The effort continued in The Cat and Shakespeare, whose language is as Indian as it gets, with its English “Sanskritised” by being mixed with chants.
The Dark Holds No Terrors (1980)
One of the early novels to be written from the female point of view, The Dark Holds No Terrors’ indictment of patriarchy is brutal. The quest for a feminine identity continued to animate Shashi Deshpande’s powerful fiction in the years to come.
Midnight’s Children (1981)
This was the novel that gave Indian English literature a much-needed shot in the arm and created the post-Rushdie Indian novel with its post-colonial confidence. Midnight’s Children traces a set of characters, and thus a nation, all born on the midnight of August 15, 1947, imbuing their histories with the magic-realism and lyricism that set Rushdie apart.
English, August (1988)
Written in an India taking its first tentative steps towards liberalisation, English, August captured the corruption of the system and the effete bureaucrat as no other novel had done before.
Folktales from India (1991)
A gem of a collection where Ramanujan weaves together oral tales from 22 Indian languages, stories centred on ordinary people, which celebrated their courage, wit and tenacity.
The Thousand Faces of Night (1992)
Winning the 1993 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for best first book, this novel presaged Githa Hariharan’s lifelong commitment to feminism and literature. In 1999, she won a landmark case that agreed that women can be sole guardians of minor children.
A Suitable Boy (1993)
Seth’s first novel, The Golden Gate (1986), made ripples as a story told entirely in verse. A Suitable Boy is as famous for its lyrical prose as for its setting among the conflicted upper middle class of post-Partition India.
River of Stories (1994)
Widely regarded as India’s first graphic novel, River of Stories was based on the Narmada Dam controversy. Its success left a rich shoal in its wake, from Sarnath Banerjee’s Corridor in 2004 to Amruta Patil’s Kari, Appupen’s Legends of Halahala and many more.
A Fine Balance (1995)
One of the most important books to be fictionalised around the Emergency, A Fine Balance is a moving and evocative account of those dark days. The story of a state oppressively bearing down on its citizens has a timeless feel.
Nagarkar is one of those Indian authors who has written critically-acclaimed novels in both English and his mother tongue, Marathi. His blunt, forthright style lends authenticity to his voice. Cuckold is a historical novel that reads like a contemporary tale and upends conventional notions of love, family and war.
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The God of Small Things (1997)
In its 25th year, The God of Small Things remains as fresh, its finesse never to be replicated, not even by Arundhati Roy. Her subsequent writing has been criticised for making protest too poetic, but in this novel, anger—at patriarchy, class and caste barbarisms, intellectual pretensions—burns incandescent. The Booker winner’s brilliant prose would go on to service Roy’s later political writings.
The Interpreter of Maladies (1999)
This Pulitzer-winning collection made the neglected genre of short stories fashionable again. More important, it marked the beginning of Indian diaspora fiction.
Fasting, Feasting (1999)
Anita Desai’s novels are like Jane Austen’s—their calm surface concealing a volcano of emotions. The sharp reserve of her style stands out in Indian writing in English, and in this Booker-shortlisted novel, she slowly builds up a contrast between two Indian and American middle-class families only to suggest that they are more similar than imagined.
The Hungry Tide (2004)
This almost poetic book was an early harbinger of Ghosh’s later eco-fiction. Set in the mangroves of the Sunderbans, ecological concerns are married here to the finest prose and storytelling.
The Simoqin Prophecies (2005)
The Simoqin Prophecies marked the arrival of speculative fiction in India. There are allusions galore, creating echoes within echoes in a dizzying ride through time and space.
Five Point Someone (2004)
With a million copies sold worldwide, this IIT caper marked not just the arrival of Chetan Bhagat in the Indian-English literary scene, but also spawned a whole new generation of readers of English fiction who found his language easy and plots relatable. As he said in an interview: “I am plugged into India more than other writers.”
Sacred Games (2006)
Indian thrillers have never been this literary. A world-weary cop and a larger-than-life criminal play cat-and-mouse in a Mumbai rife with corruption. Its Godfather vibes led to many copy-cat thrillers while its reasonably well-made Netflix adaptation started the ball rolling for many more text-to-screen projects.
Legends of Pensam (2006)
This collection of tales combining history with orally transmitted folklore brought Arunachali literature to the mainstream.
The Zoya Factor (2008)
Among the earliest writers who got the tone and language of “chick lit” just right, Anuja Chauhan started a trend that others soon made very mediocre. Like The Zoya Factor, her novels are Hinglish, fun and self-aware.
The Collaborator (2011)
In this masterly first novel, the London-based Kashmiri novelist produced what Kamila Shamsie called “a portrait of Kashmir itself”. Written with trademark sensitivity and restraint, it examines what it is like to live in a place where the citizen is always considered the enemy.
The Adivasi will not Dance (2015)
Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar
One of the first books of Indian writing in English where tribal people and their lives take centre stage, the book’s Santhal protagonists live, love and celebrate in the face of dispossession, exploitation, and oppression.
Sky is My Father: A Naga Village Remembered (2018)
In this first Naga novel in English, Easterine Kire captures a Nagaland on the cusp of change, as spirits, shamans and mythical serpents give way to modernity.