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Reading India

More than almost any other destination, India demands that you immerse yourself in the local culture to make sense of all you see and experience. And wherever you're headed in India, there's probably a novel you can read to explore the ways people are shaped by the landscape and history around them.

Literature -- The late R. K. Narayan, one of the grand old men of Indian letters, offers a panoramic view of village life in India. He focuses on a gentle prelapsarian village in Malgudi Days (Penguin), a good introduction to his work. For a more politicized investigation of the caste system, you might want to read U. R. Ananthamurthy's Samskara (Oxford University Press, translated from Kannada), which deals with a dilemma that convulses a village after the death of an unclean Brahmin; or Raja Rao's Kanthapura (New Directions), set in a village in South India that has to face the storms of Mahatma Gandhi's civil disobedience movement.

Small-town India is well represented in Arundhati Roy's Booker Prize-winning novel, The God of Small Things (HarperCollins), which will make you want to travel the waterways of Kerala to see the village life she describes so vividly. And then there's Bhalchandra Nemade's Cocoon (National Book Trust), often referred to as India's Catcher in the Rye.

Each of the big cities has at least one big novel. Mumbai's industrial past is presented in a charming story of two boys who grow up in a tenement in Kiran Nagarkar's Raavan and Eddie (Penguin India), but if you're looking for a page-turner, one of the most compelling books you're likely to read this year is the thrilling and enlightening Shantaram (Abacus; St. Martin's Griffin), written by Australian Gregory David Roberts and set in a Mumbai that really comes alive. Roberts potently describes the pulsating rhythm of one of the world's headiest cities, penetrating its nefarious underground crime syndicates and getting deep inside the soul of the city's shantytowns. The book has not only taken the world by storm, but is phenomenally popular in Mumbai itself, particularly as the city anxiously awaits its turn as the central location for a big-budget movie based on the book with Johnny Depp in the titular role. Equally captivating, and also an international bestseller, is Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games (HarperCollins), a beautifully narrated and utterly gripping account of Mumbai's criminal underworld, seen through the eyes of its most wanted gangster and down-to-earth detective. You might also want to whip through Q&A (Simon & Schuster), the totally absorbing novel by Vikas Swarup; the book, incidentally, presents some controversial details of the hero's life that are omitted from Slumdog Millionaire, the Oscar-winning film based on the book.

Mumbai is also where Salman Rushdie grew up, and the city is one of the backdrops of his Booker prize-winning (and Booker of Bookers-winning), Midnight's Children (Vintage), which tells of two babies swapped at birth, one Hindu and one Muslim, one rich and one poor, both born on the stroke of midnight at India's independence. Mumbai is also the backdrop for his more notorious The Satanic Verses (Viking). Rushdie's style of magic realism laced with Mumbai's street lingo was anticipated in G. V. Dessani's single brilliant novel, All About H Hatterr (Penguin India).

Kolkata has inspired a plethora of books, including Amit Chaudhuri's plangent tale of growing up in A Strange and Sublime Address (Vintage) and Amitav Ghosh's The Hungry Tide (Houghton Mifflin), which takes off from the 300-year-old city and stirs up sediment of language and memory in the distributaries of the Ganga, in the Sundarbans. Delhi has an eponymous novel, Delhi (Viking India), by one of India's most widely read writers, Khushwant Singh; the book deftly mixes history with contemporary life. (Singh's Train to Pakistan [Penguin India] should be read alongside Bhisham Sahni's Tamas [Penguin India] to understand the complicated ambivalence of India's relationship with its Islamic neighbor, Pakistan.) But if you're looking for a light, highly readable introduction to India's myriad religious and spiritual paths, pick up a copy of the wholly delightful Holy Cow (Bantam Books), written by another Australian, Sarah Macdonald. It's a witty autobiographical account of the author's life as an expat living in Delhi and traveling around the subcontinent in various hysterical attempts to get to grips with a very different culture. Chennai has been well-captured in C. S. Lakshmi's collection of short stories, A Purple Sea (University of Nebraska Press).

Another novel to sample is Vikram Seth's compendious look at arranged marriage, A Suitable Boy (HarperCollins). This enjoyable novel is set in several cities. If you drive from Varanasi to Agra, you will pass by the scene, described by Seth, of a disaster that befell pilgrims there in the 1980s. (You may also find yourself incorporating the phrase "a tight slap" into your speech; don't ask -- just read.) Other novels of repute include Rohinton Mistry's charming stories of the minuscule Parsi community in Such a Long Journey (Random House) and A Fine Balance (Faber & Faber), with its unforgettable characters, set during 1975's State of Emergency; I. Allan Sealey's fictionalization of the life of the adventurer Claude Martin in The Trotternama; and Anita Desai's Baumgartner's Bombay, which takes a compassionate but clear-eyed look at German Jews, refugees from the Holocaust, who stayed on after the British left.

Nonfiction -- A good way to start a hot debate (as if an excuse were needed) is to be seen reading V. S. Naipaul's India: A Million Mutinies Now (Vintage). Many Western readers respond to the mixture of fear and fascination with which Naipaul considers the subcontinent. A far more contemporary and intriguing account of the nation-state that has remained a democracy for most of its 50-year history is offered by Sunil Khilnani's The Idea of India (Farrar, Straus & Giroux).

Don't pass up William Dalrymple's wonderful journalistic prose in either The Age of Kali or City of Djinns. The former looks at some of the pressingly negative issues that affect the people of India. The latter gives a refreshing account of life in modern Delhi while touching on poignant moments in the city's fascinating history.

Journalist P. Sainath's Everybody Loves a Good Drought (Penguin India) has won 13 international awards at last count for his account of the country's poorest districts and the ways in which development schemes almost never help the ostensible beneficiaries. Suketu Mehta's Maximum City (Viking) captures the frenetic mood of living in Mumbai when the author moves back here, and offers a fascinating scrutiny of the city's underbelly. Read it in association with Bombay, Meri Jaan (Penguin India; edited by Jerry Pinto and Naresh Fernandes), an anthology of writings about the city that includes names as varied as Andre Gidé and Duke Ellington. Gita Mehta's Karma Cola (Vintage) is an acerbic and witty investigation into the way in which unscrupulous gurus marketed Indian spirituality to credulous Westerners in search of "enlightenment."

Those interested in Indian spirituality will uncover a wealth of material. Besides picking up the lighthearted Holy Cow, you should find a copy of Kamala Subramaniam's The Mahabharata (Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan), the great epic tale of the war between two clans related by the ties of kinship. The Mahabharata also contains the Bhagavad Gita or "The Celestial Song," which is often seen as the core of Hindu beliefs. The Ramayana (Penguin) by R. K. Narayan offers a good introduction to the epic of Rama, who is exiled and whose wife, Sita, is abducted by the demon king Ravana. Penguin India also does a compact series that includes The Book of Krishna by Pavan K. Varma, The Book of the Buddha by Arundhathi Subramaniam, and The Book of the Devi by Bulbul Sharma.

For a more academic approach to Indian history, try the somewhat pedantic Modern South Asia: History, Culture, Political Economy, by Sugata Bose and Ayesha Jalal (Routledge); A History of India, by Peter Robb (Palgrave); or A Concise History of India by Barbara Metcalf and Thomas Metcalf (Cambridge University Press). And to learn more about the man at the heart of 20th-century India, take a look at The Life of Mahatma Gandhi by Louis Fischer (Easton Press).

Finally, if you're looking for a light read that gives some insight into India today, pick up a copy of Shobhaa Dé's Superstar India -- From Incredible to Unstoppable (Penguin) in which the author discusses her very personal views on the highs and lows of her country's social, economic, and cultural values.

This is just a start. But be warned -- the writing on India is as seductive as the place it describes. Once hooked, you'll want more.

Bollywood & Beyond: India on the Big Screen

Mumbai's Hindi film industry, popularly known as Bollywood, is the biggest producer of films in the world, churning out hundreds of movies annually, all of which feature superkitschy images of buxom, bee-stung-lipped heroines gyrating to high-pitched melodies while strapping studs thrust their groins in time to lip-synched banal-and-breezy lyrics. These are wonderful, predictable melodramas in which the hero is always valiant and virile, the woman always voluptuous and virtuous. The battle between good and evil (a bankable hero and a recognizably nasty villain) must be intense, long-winded, and ultimately unsurprising -- audiences do not pay good money to be challenged, but to be entertained.

Before you choose to spend a hot subtropical afternoon watching a Hindi film, know that these films are long, averaging about 3 hours. This is because they are constructed more like Elizabethan plays or old operas. Their audiences do not come for tragedies or for comedies but for full-scale performances that give them everything: the chance to laugh and cry, to bemoan the violence done unto the hero, and the opportunity to cheer as justice is done. These films are also made in defiance of the Aristotelian requirements of unity in time and space, and require from you a willing suspension of disbelief. And though the genre film has just begun -- a few historicals such as Devdas (nine different versions) and Parineeta (The Espoused; 2005); some horror films like Kaal (Time; 2005) and Darna Mana Hai (Fear is Forbidden; 2003); some war films, including Lakshya (Goal; 2004) and Mission Kashmir (2000); thrillers, such as Jism (Body; 2003); and even political dramas like the post-9/11 New York (2009) -- most Hindi films still work on this principle.

The top-bracket Bollywood stars, including Amitabh Bachchan (who is nearing 70), the 40-something Shah Rukh Khan (aka SRK, "King of Bollywood," and "King Khan"), heartthrob Aamir Khan, Salman Khan, and relative newcomer, former model John Abraham, are paid incredible sums by Indian standards, earning close to $1 million for a film simply because they are the names that will bring in the audiences. As it is all over the world, women get paid much less, often half of what the male stars are paid, but stars like Rani Mukherjee, Preity Zinta, and former Miss World Aishwarya Rai have their devoted followings.

Increasingly, the influence of Hollywood production values and obsession with consumer culture is becoming evident in major Bollywood releases; to keep the MTV generation (and yes, India has its very own MTV) interested, you can expect to see younger stars with an ever more visible sex appeal engaged in plots that echo some of the preoccupations of the Western silver screen. Bigger bangs, more powerful explosions, and longer chase scenes combine with racier moments, tighter outfits, and about enough attitude to put even the most self-indulgent posers to shame. But it's not all bad. In fact, some wonderful experiments in storytelling have produced screenplays that pack a punch and wow with the twists and turns invented to keep more world-wise audiences on their toes. Also, collaborative efforts between Bollywood studios and the West are making for enterprising transnational story lines; perhaps the most interesting of these is the intricately crafted Salaam-E-Ishq: A Tribute to Love (2007), which travels between continents and across genres and generations to provide a fantasy romance that innovatively blends narrative techniques borrowed from a broad pedigree. It's the type of cinema that cannot fail to steal your heart. Another development is the appearance of films that attempt to somehow deconstruct the Bollywood formula while still playing to the masses. Dev.D (2009), for example, is a contemporary, youth-culture oriented reworking of Devdas, the classic novel by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, which had already spawned nine film versions. The film is a good chance to get some insight into a very modern understanding of India.

In fact, to view Bollywood movies as the be-all and end-all of India's film industry would be akin to thinking that big-budget blockbusters are the only movies made by the U.S. film industry; Bollywood is only responsible for a small part of the huge number of films produced by India in several languages. The first Indian director to make international art audiences sit up and take notice was Kolkata-based Satyajit Ray. Although he made his films in the 1950s, he received a Lifetime Achievement Oscar for his prolific body of work in 1992. Operating out of West Bengal's "Tollywood," Ray made movies that were the antithesis of Bollywood's; he was the director who stated that "the man in the street is a more challenging subject for exploration than people in the heroic mold" and that he found "muted emotions more interesting and challenging." Ray directed some 40 feature films, documentaries, and short subjects, of which Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road) in 1955, Aparajito (The Unvanquished) in 1956, Apur Sansar (The World of Apu) in 1959, and Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (The Adventures of Goopy and Bagha) in 1968 were the most internationally acclaimed. There are, of course, other exceptions, like Guru Dutt, one of Bollywood's most successful directors of the 1950s, whose film Pyaasa (1957) has been nominated one of the world's 100 best films by Time magazine.

Because India produces more than 700 films a year, it is in fact impossible to be monolithic about all products and speak of only a certain kind of film. Until recently, the government financed art-house cinema, and there are signs of a growing "indie" movement in which young directors scrape together the finances and make the kind of films they want as opposed to the formulaic catch-all colorful song-and-dance extravaganzas that financiers are comfortable backing. There are also some very serious and hard-hitting dramas, and one worth seeing -- particularly if you're visiting Mumbai -- is Mumbai Meri Jaan (2008), which takes a poignant look at the impact of the 2006 train bombings that took 209 lives and left over 700 more injured.

These are probably more likely to be the types of films that provide insight into what India looks and feels like -- as does, paradoxically, the British film Slumdog Millionaire (2008), directed by Danny Boyle and codirected in India by Loveleen Tandan. If you want a deep, hard look at the social consciousness of the country, look to the wonderful works of Mira Nair, who has crafted fantastic entertainments that tug at the heartstrings and probe many issues without stooping to cheap preachy politicking (the notable exception being her recent work, The Namesake, 2007). You would be amiss not to see her Salaam Bombay! (1988), about the life of a group of Mumbai street urchins, and Monsoon Wedding (2001), a beautiful and poignant romantic comedy about a well-to-do Delhiite family dealing with generational conflicts that complicate traditional marriage arrangements. Work on the much-vaunted film version of Shantaram, which Nair is directing, came to a grinding halt in 2007 due to a Writer's Guild strike, but there is talk of production commencing in 2010; based on the riveting best-selling novel, the Johnny Depp-headliner is destined to take the world by storm -- if it ever gets made.

Another top-rated woman director to look for is Deepa Mehta, whose trilogy Fire (1996), Earth (1998), and Water (2005) are superbly moving works of high-grade cinema -- and certainly preferable to her slightly irritating and kitschy Bollywood/Hollywood (2002), set in Canada.

Art listings aside, playing in a theater near you in any city in India will be a film in which the rich hero meets the poor heroine and falls almost instantly in love. He will declare this in song, and the scene will change to New Zealand, Switzerland, or Southeast Asia, depending on which country is most eager to attract the new beneficiaries of India's globalization. The couple will find obstacles put in their path, some by their parents and others by the villain, who will at some point have cast his lecherous eyes on the heroine. Fairly standardized violence will follow -- after this comes a misunderstanding that paves the way for another song expressing the grief of betrayal or the pain of parting or that sets up what the industry calls an "item number" (which may have derived from Mumbai slang for a pretty young thing, or an "item") in which a young dancer performs the equivalent of a pole dance for the audience. When the air is cleared, justice and peace have returned to the world, the good have been rewarded, and the villains are dead or rounded up. At the film's end, you will either be floored by the extravagant color, ravished by floods of emotion, and converted to another way of telling stories; or you will be repulsed by excess and sickened by melodrama and the way in which Caucasian extras are used to represent the decadent sexualized Other. But you will not be unmoved.

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