As we celebrate 75 years of India’s Independence from British Colonialism, there’s one question we need to ask ourselves:
How much do we know about our country?
Much like paper fading its print over time, past starts to fade if not acquainted with periodically. Time erases everything gradually and it is rather unfortunate if we forget what our country is, its history, culture, heritage, to not cherish the efforts and sacrifices of the many valiant patriots who fought for the freedom we enjoy today. As an Indian, there is nothing more I’d love than to have more and more Indians learn and know about our nation, who we were, who we are, and how bygone centuries have transformed our heartland.
On Independence Day, the greatest gift you can give your country is reading about it, refreshing your knowledge on its past, reliving those who shaped it. And which is why, from my vast repertoire of books on Indian history and heritage, I bring you the choicest few. These are a mix of both fiction and non-fiction and ones that will give you a generous glance into events spanning across centuries. Let’s travel back in time, reopen doors to a historic past, that has defined and redefined India, time and again.
“All is quiet in camp, and the mutineers must, I should hope— as we all believe—be quarrelling amongst themselves, and unable to agree to come out and attack us again. The Eed, we trust, will bring matters to a crisis with them, and be the day for a grand row between the Hindoos and Mahomedans.”Colonel Keith Young
Zahir Dehlvi, an accomplished poet and young official in the court of Bahadur Shah Zafar, lived through the cataclysmic 1857 Revolt that changed the course of history, markingthe end of Mughal dominion and the instatement of the British Raj.
Dehlvi’s memoir, written on his deathbed, not only chronicles the fading glory of the Mughal court and his entry into a vanishing way of life, but also, most importantly, pivots on the horrifying spectacle of the Revolt and its aftermath-from the violent siege of Shahjahanabad to the bloody reprisals that followed. We learn about the brutal murder of the British Resident and the ensuing deaths of the European men, women and children who were sheltering inside the Qila. We also glimpse the emperor’s pleas to the rebels and his helplessness as they took over the Qila. Moreover, Dehlvi crucially elaborates on the plight of those who managed to escape the slaughter and carnage.
Translated into English for the first time, Dehlvi’s memoir is intensely vivid and moving, filled with incident and rich in insight. An immensely significant historical record of the Revolt as it unfolded, Dastan-e-Ghadar is also a compelling personal account that conjures the dramatically changing world Dehlvi lived in.
“History will keep on marching like this. The names of a few people will stick to her fabric. She will register those. there was Hitler, there was Mussolini, Churchill and Joseph Stalin, among others. this time the names maybe Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Jinnah, Subhash Bose! But the names of the lakhs and crores who have lost their lives will be nowhere. They will be mere numbers in which all of us will be included!”
It’s the winter of 1946. A truck leaves the village of Campbellpur after news of the impending Partition pours in. It is carrying people who don’t know where they will go. They have just heard words like ‘border’ and ‘refugee’, and are struggling to understand how drawing a line might carve out Pakistan from Hindustan. As they reach the border, the caravan disperses and people go their own ways. Gulzar’s first novel tracks the lives of the people in that truck right from 1946 up to the Kargil war. A novel on what the Partition entailed for ordinary people, Two is also a meditation on the fact that the division of India and the carnage that followed, once set into motion, kept happening inexorably and ceaselessly, and people like those who left their homes on that truck never found another home; they kept looking for a place called home, a place to belong to.
“Look this is hardly fair. You sold me impure petrol at black-market price and not even one shop could be put to the torch.”
Mottled Dawn is a collection of Manto’s finest and most powerful writings on the tragic Partition of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan in 1947. It includes ironic stories like “Toba Tea Singh,” “Colder than Ice” and “The Dog of Titwal.” Also to be found are his complex and engaging portrait “Jinnah Sahib” and his short and startling reflections on violence. Together the fifty sketches and stories in this collection bring to life the most traumatic episode in the history of South Asia.
“We all know how unreliable memory can be, how transient reminiscences are, and how inaccessible the past will always remain. Experiences can never be duplicated or revived…by those who took no part in the struggle. Herein lies the beauty and power of conflict-related objects, some of which withstand the ravages of time in a way that memories do not.”
Remnants of a Separation is a unique attempt to revisit the Partition through objects that refugees carried with them across the border. These belongings absorbed the memory of a time and place, remaining latent and undisturbed for generations. They now speak of their owner’s pasts as they emerge as testaments to the struggle, sacrifice, pain and belonging at an unparalleled moment in history. A string of pearls gifted by a maharaja, carried from Dalhousie to Lahore, reveals the grandeur of a life that once was. A notebook of poems, brought from Lahore to Kalyan, shows one woman’s determination to pursue the written word despite the turmoil around her. A refugee certificate created in Calcutta evokes in a daughter the feelings of displacement her father had experienced upon leaving Mymensingh zila, now in Bangladesh.
Written as a crossover between history and anthropology, Remnants of a Separation is the product of years of passionate research. It is an alternative history of the Partition – the first and only one told through material memory that makes the event tangible even seven decades later.
When freedom came to India, so did violence. Three hundred thousand were slaughtered. A hundred thousand women were raped, abducted, mutilated, twelve million people were rendered homeless. The theme of this powerful novel is how that violence erupted in the lives of ordinary men and women and in the lives of three brilliantly depicted central characters – Gian, a follower of Gandhi, Debi-dayal, an ardent terrorist, and Debi-dayal’s sister Sundari, a ruthless woman who holds nothing sacred and is half in love with her own brother.
“I fell victim to the temptation of every autobiographer, to the illusion that since the past exists only in one’s memories and the words which strive vainly to encapsulate them, it is possible to create past events simply by saying they occurred.”
Saleem Sinai is born at the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947, the very moment of India’s independence. Greeted by fireworks displays, cheering crowds, and Prime Minister Nehru himself, Saleem grows up to learn the ominous consequences of this coincidence. His every act is mirrored and magnified in events that sway the course of national affairs; his health and well-being are inextricably bound to those of his nation; his life is inseparable, at times indistinguishable, from the history of his country. Perhaps most remarkable are the telepathic powers linking him with India’s 1,000 other “midnight’s children,” all born in that initial hour and endowed with magical gifts.
This novel is at once a fascinating family saga and an astonishing evocation of a vast land and its people–a brilliant incarnation of the universal human comedy. Twenty-five years after its publication, Midnight’ s Children stands apart as both an epochal work of fiction and a brilliant performance by one of the great literary voices of our time.
“India has known the innocence and insouciance of childhood, the passion and abandon of youth, and the ripe wisdom of maturity that comes from long experience of pain and pleasure; and over and over a gain she has renewed her childhood and youth and age”
Written over five months when Jawaharlal Nehru was imprisoned in the Ahmadnagar Fort, The Discovery of India has acquired the status of a classic since it was first published in 1946. In this work of prodigious scope and scholarship, one of the greatest figures of Indian history unfolds the panorama of the country’s rich and complex past, from prehistory to the last years of British colonial rule. Analysing texts like the Vedas and the Arthashastra, and personalities like the Buddha and Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru brings alive an ancient culture that has seen the flowering of the world’s great traditions of philosophy, science and art, and almost all its major religions. Nehru’s brilliant intellect, deep humanity and lucid style make The Discovery of India essential reading for anyone interested in India, both its past and its present.
“We celebrate our freedom in different ways,
I celebrate it with the written word.”
As India completes 75 years of independence, we bring to you a slice of our beloved country in the words of our favourite author, Ruskin Bond. Drawing on his own memories and impressions of this unique land, he pays homage to the country that has been his home for 84 years. Bond talks fondly about the diverse elements that make up this beautiful land-its rivers and forests, literature and culture, sights, sounds and colours. A Little Book of India is an amalgamation of the physical and spiritual attributes of our homeland, and takes you on a journey filled with nostalgia and devotion.
“Freedom is for the educated people who fought for it. We were slaves of the English, now we will be slaves of the educated Indians—or the Pakistanis.”
“In the summer of 1947, when the creation of the state of Pakistan was formally announced, ten million people—Muslims and Hindus and Sikhs—were in flight. By the time the monsoon broke, almost a million of them were dead, and all of northern India was in arms, in terror, or in hiding. The only remaining oases of peace were a scatter of little villages lost in the remote reaches of the frontier. One of these villages was Mano Majra.”
It is a place, Khushwant Singh goes on to tell us at the beginning of this classic novel, where Sikhs and Muslims have lived together in peace for hundreds of years. Then one day, at the end of the summer, the “ghost train” arrives, a silent, incredible funeral train loaded with the bodies of thousands of refugees, bringing the village its first taste of the horrors of the civil war. Train to Pakistan is the story of this isolated village that is plunged into the abyss of religious hate. It is also the story of a Sikh boy and a Muslim girl whose love endured and transcends the ravages of war.
“The master of Delhi, they knew, was always the master of Hindustan.”
The story of how the East India Company took over large swaths of Asia, and the devastating results of the corporation running a country.
In August 1765, the East India Company defeated the young Mughal emperor and set up, in his place, a government run by English traders who collected taxes through means of a private army.
The creation of this new government marked the moment that the East India Company ceased to be a conventional company and became something much more unusual: an international corporation transformed into an aggressive colonial power. Over the course of the next 47 years, the company’s reach grew until almost all of India south of Delhi was effectively ruled from a boardroom in the city of London.
“The story of my life has become intertwined with the story of this country.”
A.P.J. Abdul Kalam has been one of the most iconic figures of Independent India. A scientist, leader, thinker, teacher and writer, he achieved remarkable success in various fields. Yet, what endeared him to so many was his dedication to the idea of a developed India, his simple and direct way of interacting with people and his deep love for his fellowmen.
In My Life Dr Kalam writes his life story starting from his days growing up at Rameswaram; about working on India’s space and missile programmes; his years as the eleventh President of India; and about his life thereafter. Full of anecdotes that demonstrate the importance of hard work, commitment,courage and innovative thinking, this autobiography is a wonderful introduction to a remarkable life. Beautifully illustrated and simply written, My Life will inspire readers of all ages.
In Rebel Sultans, Manu S. Pillai narrates the story of the Deccan from the close of the thirteenth century to the dawn of the eighteenth. Packed with riveting tales and compelling characters, this book takes us from the age of Alauddin Khilji to the ascent of Shivaji. We witness the dramatic rise and fall of the Vijayanagar empire, even as we negotiate intrigues at the courts of the Bahmani kings and the Rebel Sultans who overthrew them. From Chand Bibi, a valorous queen stabbed to death, and Ibrahim II of Bijapur, a Muslim prince who venerated Hindu gods, to Malik Ambar, the Ethiopian warlord, and Krishnadeva Raya on Vijayanagar’s Diamond Throne – they all appear in these pages as we journey through one of the most arresting sweeps of Indian history.
From the days of Chhatrapati Shivaji, to the fall of the Maratha Empire nearly two centuries later, the Marathas fought many important and pivotal battles. These battles and campaigns heralded important and game changing political and social change. This book attempts to throw a light on some of these significant military encounters, which greatly affected Indian history.
“People say that I am a quarrelsome woman”Tarabai, Maratha Queen
The history of India, more often than not, is a history of the men who were in charge. Largely forgotten are the women who, even centuries earlier, shaped the fates of entire kingdoms.
In The Women Who Ruled India, writer and researcher Archana Garodia Gupta revives 20 such powerful figures from the archives, offering us a glimpse of their fascinating lives. Among them are Begum Samru, a courtesan who went on to become the head of a mercenary army and the ruler of Sardhana; Didda of Kashmir, known for her keen political instinct and a ruthlessness that spared no one; Rani Abbakka of Ullal, the fearless queen who took on Portuguese colonizers in their heyday; and Rani Mangammal of Madurai, the famed administrator who built alliances at a time when going to war was the order of the day.
These women and others like them built roads, instituted laws and were generous patrons of the arts and sciences. Their stories of valour and diplomacy, leadership and wit continue to inspire today. Peppered with anecdotes that showcase little-known facets of their personalities, the accounts in this book celebrate heroic rulers who – ‘quarrelsome’ though they might have been – were iconoclasts: unafraid to forge new paths.
A magisterial account of the pains, the struggles, the humiliations, and the glories of the world’s largest and least likely democracy, Ramachandra Guha’s India After Gandhi is a breathtaking chronicle of the brutal conflicts that have rocked a giant nation and the extraordinary factors that have held it together. An intricately researched and elegantly written epic history peopled with larger-than-life characters, it is the work of a major scholar at the peak of his abilities.
Hoping my list brings you closer to knowing and connecting with our motherland, even better.
What are some of your favorite books on Indian history?
Do share them in comments.
Happy reading till we meet next. Until then, carpe diem!
Wishing you a lovely independence day!!!
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