12 Must-Read Indian Novels

India has had many great writers who have written some path-breaking works. Looking back on our history, we have a long and distinguished literary record. The country’s first written work dates back to 1500 BC, and centuries later, India’s literary culture is flourishing. This fact is amply illustrated by the number of Indian novelists who have won the Booker Prize over the past fifty years.

If you are a reader and an Indian, there is no way that you can miss reading these books.

We at AboutHer have compiled a list of the best Indian novels, a mix of classics and contemporary that you must read. These books are original, compelling, and superbly written and above all, they portray the country’s distinctive culture. 

1. A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth

This one of the longest novels published in a single volume in the English language was published in 1993 and is a much-loved classic. It is set in the newly independent, post-partition India and follows the stories of four families while focusing on Rupa Mehra’s efforts to arrange the marriage of her daughter Lata to a Suitable Boy. The book has also been adapted into a Netflix show.

2. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

This debut novel by Arundhati Roy took the literary world by storm when it was published in 1997. Set in Kerala, the book recounts the childhood experiences of twins Estha and Rahel, who see their world going to pieces due to their visiting English cousin’s accidental death by drowning. Beautifully written, the book is a compelling story of the intertwining family lives, birth and death, and love and loss. Within months of publication, the book sold worldwide and won the Booker prize.

3. The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai

This book by Kiran Desai was her second novel, and it won the Booker in 2006. Set in 1986, the book is the story of a bitter old judge who lives in a dilapidated mansion in the Himalayas, his orphaned granddaughter who has fallen in love with her tutor and his cook whose son is working in New York and trying to stay one step ahead of the US immigration services. The book was described as ‘A magnificent novel of humane breadth and wisdom, comic tenderness and powerful political acuteness’ by Hermione Lee, the head judge of the Booker prize in 2006.

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4. The White Tiger by Arvind Adiga

This book tells Balram Halwai’s journey from a ‘sweet, innocent village fool’ to a ruthless entrepreneur. The book got Adiga the Booker Prize in 2008. This brilliant debut novel tells the searing tale of two Indias – one being Balram’s home village where sewage seeps down the road and the other being the city of Delhi with its malls, traffic jams and slums. The book has been adapted into a film with Rajkummar Rao and Priyanka Chopra in the lead roles.

5. The Great Indian Novel by Shashi Tharoor

According to Shashi Tharoor, the book is inspired by the Mahabharata, one of ancient India’s two major Sanskrit epics. The book is a satire on the major Indian political events of the 20th century, from British colonial rule to the struggle for freedom and the triumphs and disappointments of Independence. The book’s title has been derived from the Mahabharata- in Sanskrit, Maha means great, and Bharata means India.

6. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

This classic by Salman Rushdie has been the apple of the Booker judges. It won the Booker in 1981, was judged to be the Booker of Bookers for the award’s 25th anniversary in 1993 and in 2008, was voted the greatest Booker Prize winner of all time.

Saleem Sinai, the novel’s protagonist, is one of 1001 midnight’s children – all of whom have unique gifts and are telepathically linked. According to Rushdie, people in the West consider the novel a fantasy, while in India, readers consider it pretty realistic, almost a history book.

7. Shantaram by Gregory Roberts

This book is about the life of an ex-armed robber and reformed heroin addict who escaped from an Australian prison and came to India. In India, he lived in a Mumbai slum, launched a free health clinic, joined the mafia, and worked in Bollywood. The book is all about his experiences and makes for a great read.

8. The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee

Neel Mukherjee’s book is set in 1960s Kolkata and opens with the shocking account of a desperate man who cannot feed his starving wife and children and murders them before killing himself. This appalling scene is juxtaposed with the story of the wealthy Ghosh family, one of whom has become involved in extremist political activism. It is a generational story of the chasm between the haves and the have-nots. The book was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and the Costa Novel Award in 2014.

9. A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

This is a beautifully written novel set in 1975 when the country’s Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, declared a state of emergency. The book is a story of four strangers – a widow, a young student and two tailors who have fled the caste violence of their native village. The four are thrust together and share a cramped apartment while facing an uncertain future amid India’s political turmoil. The book was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1996.

10. Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh

Among the best Indian novels, This historical novel by Khushwant Singh is a must-read. The book narrates the events that marked the Partition of India in 1947. The book revolves around the people of a village on the border of India and Pakistan. It is a haunting narrative about conflict, war and violence. It seeks to formulate a social understanding of such communal situations without taking sides or making sensational political commentary. Instead, the author implores the readers to adopt a more humanitarian worldview.

11. The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

The Palace of Illusions, the award-winning novel by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, retells the epic Mahabharata from the perspective of Draupadi, the lead female character. Draupadi, who is married to the five Pandava brothers- the protagonists of the epic is the central character through their journey into exile and war. The book is a must-read because it narrates a woman’s perspective; it talks about her thoughts and motives, largely ignored in the original epic.

12. The Shadow Lines by Amitav Ghosh

The Shadow Lines is an Invigorating story about the borders that mark and limit our imaginations and memories. The story revolves around the narrator, who is trying to constantly juggle memories and events from the past and the present in the hope of finding closure and answers to his life. The book has been written in a non-linear manner and constantly refers to significant historical events like the Swadeshi movement and the Second World War, the Partition of the country and the communal riots of the 60s in Dhaka and Kolkata. The book won the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1989.

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These Indian novels should definitely be a part of your library!

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  • Turiya
    March 6, 2023

    LOVED this ! Especially since I have read almost all. Time to pick them to again. Thanks for this lovely post

    • Sangeeta Relan
      March 6, 2023

      I am glad you liked the post!