India at 75 - Non-fiction

Pivotal books that shaped the course of India’s cultural and intellectual life. 

Published : Aug 14, 2022 06:00 IST

The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian (1951)

Nirad C. Chaudhuri

Hailed as “the one great book to have come out of the Indo-British encounter” and remembered both for its blatant Anglophilism and its scathing attack on the moral hypocrisy of the Bengali middle class.

Asoka and the Decline of the Mauryas (1961)

Romila Thapar

Also the subject of Romila Thapar’s doctorate under A.L. Basham, this reassessment of Asoka as a statesman and as a change maker challenged the existing scholarship of the 1950s and set the benchmark for future historical research.

The Tribal World of Verrier Elwin: An Autobiography (1964)

This posthumously published memoir of a Christian missionary-turned-anthropologist and tribal activist won the Sahitya Akademi award for “revealing a mind in which Western and Indian idealism were uniquely blended with sincerity, courage and charm”.

The Culture and Civilisation of Ancient India in Historical Outline (1965)

D.D. Kosambi

Widely acknowledged as the first real cultural history of India and written by a polymath who developed a modern approach by using mathematics in historical research.

Yuganta: The End of an Epoch (1967)

Irawati Karve

A collection of essays that approaches the Mahabharata as history rather than mythology and with a spirit of scientific inquiry while being deeply appreciative of its literary tradition.

The Remembered Village (1976)

M.N. Srinivas

A sociological portrait of life in a village in Karnataka in 1948, written from memory after Srinivas’ fieldwork notes and data were destroyed in a fire, this text is required reading for any student of the history of anthropology in India.

My Story (1976)

Kamala Das

The English translation of Ente Katha, Kamala Das’s 1973 “fictional autobiography” which created a huge sensation when first published in Malayalam, made her an icon of sexual liberation for women in India and elsewhere.

Traditions of Indian Folk Dance (1977)

Kapila Vatsyayan

Part of a trilogy of texts [the other two being Classical Indian Dance in Literature and the Arts (1968) and Indian Classical Dance (1974)] that blazed the trail for an un-Oriental, interdisciplinary approach to Indian performing arts.

The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self Under Colonialism (1983)

Ashis Nandy

An original inquiry into how colonialism damages colonised societies by creating permanent scars in their psyche and culture.

Communalism in Modern India (1984)

Bipan Chandra

Bipan Chandra famously called communalism a form of “false consciousness” in this deep-dive into its origins which explored how a frustrated middle class becomes a tinderbox ready to ignite in the absence of development, the shrinking of governmental expenditure and a worsening economic situation.

Staying Alive: Women, Ecology and Development (1988)

Vandana Shiva

A radical ecofeminist text that mapped the enormous ecological challenges faced by rural Indian women and also spoke about how they could help create a paradigm shift to undo the destruction.

Shamans, Mystics and Doctors (1991)

Sudhir Kakar

As a psychologist of culture and religion, Sudhir Kakar made an enormous impact. This book examines India’s ancient healing traditions and their potential as alternatives to mainstream psychotherapy.

Women Writing in India (2 volumes), 1993

Edited by Susie Tharu and K. Lalita

A ground-breaking collection of 200 texts from 11 languages that foregrounded the importance of gender in the study of Indian cultural history and changed the way literature written by women was read and understood.

Indian food: A Historical Companion (1994)

K.T. Acharya

An encyclopaedic and accessible work of Indian culinary history that chronicled almost every ingredient commonly used in Indian kitchens and inaugurated a new phase in food writing in English in India.

Also read: India at 75 - Fiction

Everybody Loves a Good Drought: Stories from India’s Poorest Districts (1996)

P. Sainath

More than a quarter century after publication, this classic on rural poverty in India remains relevant for its depth of reportage, its scathing expose of the chimera of development, the price of misgovernance and the failings of mainstream media.

Why I Am Not a Hindu: A Sudra Critique of Hindutva Philosophy, Culture & Political Economy (1996)

Kancha Ilaiah

This Dalitbahujan manifesto maps out the crucial socio-economic and cultural differences between the so-called low castes and other Hindus in the context of social life, power relations, gods and not least, Hindutva.

The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India (2000)

Urvashi Butalia

A remarkable book of oral histories that ironically emerged in the wake of the 1984 Sikh riots, in which both perpetrators and victims of violence during India’s partition reveal amazing stories of complicity and action.

The Idea of India (1999)

Sunil Khilnani

A reconstruction of the foundations of modern India to show how it was built on a political idea and not a narrow definition of culture and religion, and how India’s success as a nation state depended on its capacity to recognise and sustain different types of diversity—religious, linguistic, ethnic—rather than impose a homogenous idea of nationalism, religious belief or cultural practice.

History of Doing: An Illustrated Account of Movements for Women’s Rights and Feminism in India, 1800-1990 (2002)

Radha Kumar

A thematic history of the women’s movement in India both before and after independence which looks at how women’s issues were raised, initially by men and as part of the movements for social reform, and then, with the involvement of women in the nationalist movement, by women themselves.

Collected Essays of A.K. Ramanujan (2004)

Edited By Vinay Dharwadker

Part Indology, part treatise on folklore, and part theory on translation, A.K. Ramanujan’s extraordinary range of essays (including the classic “Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation”), which span four decades, enrich and deepen our understanding of Indian culture.

The Muslims of India: A Documentary Record (2004)

Edited by A.G. Noorani

A documentary history of Muslim participation in Indian politics from pre-independence era to the present.

Understanding Caste: From Buddha To Ambedkar and Beyond (2012)

Gail Omvedt

A book that approaches caste and anti-caste movements from a position of insightful inquiry and rigorous scholarship, critiquing the sensibility which equates Indian tradition with Hinduism, and Hinduism with Brahminism.

Is Indian civilization a myth? Fictions and Histories (2013)

Sanjay Subrahmanyam

A book which demolished some of the myths which sustain the notion of “the wonder that was India” and shows instead an India that was always more a crossroads for concepts, cultures, and worldviews.

The Spirit of Indian Painting: Close Encounters with 101 Great Works, 1100-1900 (2014)

B.N. Goswamy

A careful study of art from Jain manuscripts and Pahari and Mughal miniatures to Company School paintings which deciphers the visual vocabulary and language of the painters, and brings to life the cultural, social, and political milieu in which they were created.

Republic of Caste: Thinking Equality in the Time of Neoliberal Hindutva (2018)

Anand Teltumbde

A new map of post-Independence India which records the watershed moments of its journey from the adoption of the Constitution to the Green revolution, the OBC upsurge and rise of regional parties, down to the nexus of neoliberalism and Hindutva in the present day.

Early Indians: The Story of Our Ancestors and Where We Came From (2018)

Tony Joseph

Anchored in genetics along with archaeology, history and linguistics, this book is an exhilarating testimony to “unity in diversity”. It makes clear that we are all migrants and that we are all mixed—the result of four large migrations that happened in prehistory.

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