For a lot of people, reading provides a great escape into a world different from ours. But, it can also have the opposite effect of allowing us to explore our hometowns in a completely different light. Words have the unique ability to create a world that is unfamiliar and familiar at the same time; almost like the city is a character of its own. When we live day-to-day with real-life consequences to our actions, voyeuristically watching someone else navigate our cities with their own decisions and mistakes is a breath of fresh air.
Each Indian city has its own unique identity that authors are able to portray in completely contrasting lights. From the glittering high-rises of Bombay to the backwaters of Kerala, everything is not as it seems. Have a look at these books set in Indian cities, that may change your perception of the city you live in, and may make you want to visit another.
I. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie, Mumbai
The first book that comes to mind when thinking of Mumbai, is Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. He has managed to recreate, in astonishingly vivid detail, the 50s and 60s childhood that he spent in Mumbai. Rushdie permeates Saleem, our protagonist born at the exact moment that India gained independence, with magical realism unto the city of Mumbai. A place where India meets itself, Rushdie’s Mumbai is a microcosm of post-colonial politics, culture, and society. Sprinkled with insider jokes that only an Indian would get, Midnight’s Children has captured the attention of the world, even 41 years after its publication.
Rushdie, who grew up in the now affluent Malabar Hill area in Bombay, reminds the readers that ‘the fishermen were here first’, and have continued to be here –– as the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.
II. City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi by William Dalrymple, Delhi
A travelogue by Scottish historian William Dalrymple retelling his time in Delhi over six years of carefully constructed observations that peel back the layers of the historic capital city. Destroyed over and over by invaders, the city is a veritable treasure chest of stories, from the Mughals to the colonial era, to the hotbed of political activism that it is today. William Dalrymple explores seven ‘dead’ cities that Delhi has been, as well as the eighth city — today’s Delhi. Meeting an array of extraordinary characters, all interspersed with Dalrymple’s signature wit and resonance, we can see how Delhi has been protected by its legendary djinns –– the fire-formed spirits that assure the city’s Phoenix-like regeneration no matter how many times it is destroyed.
III. Girl in White Cotton by Avni Doshi, Pune
The book with two titles, Girl in White Cotton or Burnt Sugar, was published in 2019 and is an extremely polarising book, to say the least. Set in Pune, it explores the relationship between Antara and her mother Tara. It oscillates between times, exploring Tara’s wild youth as she breaks away from her loveless marriage to join an ashram, daughter Antara in tow. In the present day, we find Antara bearing the burden of having to take care of her mother who is slowly descending into dementia, along with taking care of her own crumbling marriage and her stiff relationship with her father. Shortlisted for the Booker Prize, we follow two thoroughly unlikable female protagonists through their journeys in Pune city, across ashrams, doctors’ clinics, and prestigious members-only clubs. The book is alive, intense, and biting, beginning with one of the best first lines in recent memory — “I would be lying if I said my mother’s misery has never given me pleasure.”
Following the Ganguli family’s life from their close-knit community in Kolkata, to immigrating to bustling America, Jhumpa Lahiri’s 2004 novel is one that will go down in history as a nuanced and sensitive portrayal of the immigrant experience, as well as the tangled ties between generations of one family. Less about the city and more filled with small, intimate moments where the characters of the Ganguli family embody their Bengali identity with aplomb, the book slowly draws lines between our names, the burden of heritage that we carry, and finally the way we truly understand how to define ourselves.
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