The vast South Asian country has a history stretching back 5 millennia, the second-highest population, and the seventh-largest area in the world. These 5 books will allow you to learn about the ancient, sacred, and complex caste system in India.
1. Untouchable by Mulk Raj Anand
“With precision, vitality, and a fury that earned him praise as India’s Charles Dickens, Mulk Raj Anand recreates in Untouchable what it was like to live on the fringes of society in pre-independence India. Bakha, an attractive, proud, and strong young man, is also an Untouchable, the lowest of the low in India’s caste system. A sweeper and a toilet-cleaner, he must warn others on the street of his status so that he will not pollute them with his presence. In this urgent 1935 re-creation of one day in the life of an outcast, a violent encounter leads Bakha to question his fate—and to find an answer in the unlikeliest of places.”
2. Nine Lives in Search of Modern India by William Dalrymple
“From the author of The Last Mughal … an exquisite, mesmerizing book that illuminates the remarkable ways in which traditional forms of religious life in India have been transformed in the vortex of the region’s rapid change—a book that distills the author’s twenty-five years of travel in India, taking us deep into ways of life that we might otherwise never have known exist.”
3. The Last Devadasi: A Novel by Barbara L. Baer
“Kamala Kumari is more than a Gemini Studio starlet: she’s a classical dancer trained in the age-old line of Devadasis, a caste set in place a thousand years ago when girls were first dedicated in south Indian temples to serve the gods and men. From the promise of art and devotion, the sacred dancers fell into the hands of priests who both exalted and betrayed them. Beautiful, brilliant and proud, Kamala struggles to escape the old ways, entangling her Indian assistant, Dutch lover, and his young American wife. With its turbulent passions amid social upheavals, The Last Devadasi takes readers on a sensual feast in the 1970s palm-shaded trading city of Madras.”
4. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy
“‘At magic hour; when the sun has gone but the light has not, armies of flying foxes unhinge themselves from the Banyan trees in the old graveyard and drift across the city like smoke . . .’ So begins The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Arundhati Roy’s incredible follow-up to The God of Small Things. We meet Anjum, who used to be Aftab, who runs a guesthouse in an Old Delhi graveyard and gathers around her the lost, the broken and the cast out. We meet Tilo, an architect, who, although she is loved by three men, lives in a ‘country of her own skin’. When Tilo claims an abandoned baby as her own, her destiny and that of Anjum become entangled as a tale that sweeps across the years and a teeming continent takes flight . . .”
5. Servants of the Goddess: The Modern Day Devadasis by Catherine Rubin Kermorgant
“Servants of the Goddess weaves together the heartbreaking, yet paradoxically life-affirming stories of five devadasis–women, in the clutches of an ancient fertility cult, forced to serve the gods. Catherine Rubin Kermorgant sets out attempting to make a documentary film about the lives of present-day devadasis. Through her, we meet and get to know the devadasi women of Kalyana, a remote village in Karnataka. As they grow to trust Kermorgant and welcome her as an honorary sister, we hear their stories in their own words: stories of oppression and violence, but more importantly, of resistance and resilience. Kermorgant becomes a part of these stories and finds herself unwittingly enmeshed in a world of gender and caste bias which extends far beyond Kalyana — all the way to Paris, where the documentary is to be edited and produced. Servants of the Goddess is a testament to women’s strength and spirit, and a remarkably astute analysis of gender and caste relations in today’s rural India.”
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