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Ten great books set in Raj era India

25th May 2018

Ten great books set in Raj era India.

One of the big TV dramas – many years ago now – was Jewel in the Crown, based on The Raj Quartet by Paul Scott. Watching this at an impressionable age, it spawned a real interest in India, for all kinds of reasons. There was intrigue, mystery, a culture that seemed so very alien, and of course the setting, all at a time when Britain was the colonial power. A romanticised yet often gritty look at Anglo-Indian relationships.

Ten Great Books set in Raj era India

As I got older, read more, delved a little deeper into the period, it became apparent that this is a period much glossed over, the British in India behaved appallingly at times and the more books I read, the more underlined just what a complex period of history British rule was.

I recently saw a thread in a book group expressing interest for novels set in the era, so I thought I would share some of the top reads that first evoked my interest in the country and then spurred me into reading more factual accounts, gaining more understanding of this colourful but incredibly difficult period in India’s history. Here are just a few books that will bring the period and place to life for you!

1. The Far Pavilions by M M Kaye

The Far Pavilions is a real tome of story of an English man – Ashton Pelham-Martyn – brought up as a Hindu. It is the story of his passionate, but dangerous love for Juli, an Indian princess. It is the story of divided loyalties, of friendship that endures till death, of high adventure and of the clash between East and West.

To the burning plains and snow-capped mountains of this great, humming continent, M M Kaye brings her exceptional gifts of storytelling and meticulous historical accuracy, plus her insight into the human heart.

This book is one of the early books that successful author L J Ross read and was instrumental in setting the seeds for her writing career (more than a million copies of DCI Ryan series have been sold!) 

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2. A Passage to India by E M Forster

Said to be based on Bankipur, a suburb of Patna. When Adela Quested and her elderly companion Mrs Moore arrive in the Indian town of Chandrapore, they quickly feel trapped by its insular and prejudiced ‘Anglo-Indian’ community. Determined to escape the parochial English enclave and explore the ‘real India’, they seek the guidance of the charming and mercurial Dr Aziz, a cultivated Indian Muslim. But a mysterious incident occurs while they are exploring the Marabar caves with Aziz, and the well-respected doctor soon finds himself at the centre of a scandal that rouses violent passions among both the British and their Indian subjects. A masterly portrait of a society in the grip of imperialism, A Passage to India compellingly depicts the fate of individuals caught between the great political and cultural conflicts of the modern world).

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3. Belonging by Umi Sinha

Lila Langdon is twelve years old when she witnesses a family tragedy after her mother unveils her father’s surprise birthday present – a tragedy that ends her childhood in India and precipitates a new life in Sussex with her Great-aunt Wilhelmina.

From the darkest days of the British Raj through to the aftermath of the First World War, Belonging tells the interwoven story of three generations and their struggles to understand and free themselves from a troubled history steeped in colonial violence. It is a novel of secrets that unwind through Lila’s story, through her grandmother’s letters home from India and the diaries kept by her father, Henry, as he puzzles over the enigma of his birth and his stormy marriage to the mysterious Rebecca.

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4. Eden Gardens by Louise Brown

Eden Gardens, Calcutta, the 1940s. In a ramshackle house, streets away from the grand colonial mansions of the British, live Maisy, her Mam and their ayah, Pushpa.

Whiskey-fuelled and poverty-stricken, Mam entertains officers in the night – a disgrace to British India. All hopes are on beautiful Maisy to restore their good fortune.

But Maisy’s more at home in the city’s forbidden alleyways, eating bazaar food and speaking Bengali with Pushpa, than dancing in glittering ballrooms with potential husbands.

Then one day Maisy’s tutor falls ill. His son stands in. Poetic, handsome and ambitious for an independent India, Sunil Banerjee promises Maisy the world.

So begins a love affair that will cast her future, for better and for worse. Just as the Second World War strikes and the empire begins to crumble.

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5. The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey

Bombay, 1921: Perveen Mistry, the daughter of a respected Zoroastrian family, has just joined her father’s law firm, becoming one of the first female lawyers in India. Armed with a law degree from Oxford, Perveen also has a tragic personal history that makes her especially devoted to championing and protecting women’s legal rights. Inspired in part by a real woman who made history by becoming India’s first female lawyer, The Widows of Malabar Hill is a richly wrought story of multicultural 1920s Bombay as well as the debut of a sharp and promising new sleuth, Perveen Mistry.

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6. East of the Sun by Julia Gregson

Autumn 1928. Three young women are on their way to India, each with a new life in mind. Rose, a beautiful but naive bride-to-be, is anxious about leaving her family and marrying a man she hardly knows. Victoria, her bridesmaid couldn t be happier to get away from her overbearing mother, and is determined to find herself a husband. And Viva, their inexperienced chaperone, is in search of the India of her childhood, ghosts from the past and freedom. Each of them has their own reason for leaving their homeland but the hopes and secrets they carry can do little to prepare them for what lies ahead in India. From the parties of the wealthy Bombay socialites, to the ragged orphans on Tamarind Street, East of the Sun is an utterly engaging novel that will captivate readers everywhere.

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7. Teatime for the Firefly by Shona Patel

Assam comes to life through Layla’s eyes and when she moves to Aynakhal, and excellently brings to life the colonial society of the tea plantations. Atmospheric and a beautiful portrayal of what love means. By cleverly manipulating the hand fortune has dealt her, she has even found love with Manik Deb–a man betrothed to another. All were minor miracles in India that spring of 1943, when young women’s lives were predetermined–if not by the stars, then by centuries of family tradition and social order. Layla’s life as a newly married woman takes her away from home and into the jungles of Assam, where the world’s finest tea thrives on plantations run by native labor and British efficiency. Fascinated by this culture of whiskey-soaked expats who seem fazed by neither earthquakes nor man-eating leopards, she struggles to find her place among the prickly English wives with whom she is expected to socialize, and the peculiar servants she now finds under her charge.

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8. Before the Rains by Dinah Jefferies

1930, Rajputana, India. Since her husband’s death, 28-year-old photojournalist Eliza’s only companion has been her camera. When the British Government send her to an Indian princely state to photograph the royal family, she’s determined to make a name for herself.

But when Eliza arrives at the palace she meets Jay, the Prince’s handsome, brooding brother. While Eliza awakens Jay to the poverty of his people, he awakens her to the injustices of British rule. Soon Jay and Eliza find they have more in common than they think. But their families – and society – think otherwise. Eventually they will have to make a choice between doing what’s expected, or following their hearts.

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9. The Last Queen of India by Michelle Moran

At nineteen years old, Sita is the shining star of Queen Lakshmi of India’s imperial guard, having pledged herself to a life of celibacy in the name of protecting the young ruler

When Sita agrees to train Lakshmi in the art of military combat, a close friendship develops between the two women. But trouble soon threatens – Lakshmi’s court is dangerously divided and rumours are rife that the country is at risk. Meanwhile, in London, advisors to Queen Victoria are looking to extend the power of the Commonwealth, and India is coveted as the next jewel in the imperial crown. In the ensuing battle, will the bond between Lakshmi and Sita be broken for ever?

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10. The Midnight Palace by Carlos Ruis Zafón

1916, Calcutta. A man pauses for breath outside the ruins of Jheeter’s Gate station knowing he has only hours to live. Pursued by assassins, he must ensure the safety of two newborn twins, before disappearing into the night to meet his fate.

1932. Ben and his friends are due to leave the orphanage which has been their home for sixteen years. Tonight will be the final meeting of their secret club, in the old ruin they christened The Midnight Palace. Then Ben discovers he has a sister – and together they learn the tragic story of their past, as a shadowy figures lures them to a terrifying showdown in the ruins of Jheeter’s Gate station.

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Plenty of great reading here – and do you know any more you’d like to add to the list? Add them in Comments below…

Tina for the TripFiction Team

For many more books set in India across the centuries right up to modern day and across genres, do access the TripFiction website.

Other posts in our ‘Ten great books set in…’ series include:

Ten great books set in Paris

Ten great books set in New York

Ten great books set in London

Ten great book set in Rome

Ten great book set in Berlin

Ten great books set in Russia

Ten great books set in Spain

Ten great books set in Amsterdam

Ten great books set in Thailand

Other posts in our ‘Five great books set in…’ series include:

Five great books set in Naples

Five great books set in Dublin

Five great books set in Dubai

Five great books set in Portugal

Five great books set in San Francisco

Five great books set in Edinburgh

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  1. User: maitreyee

    Posted on: 21/05/2022 at 3:09 pm

    search about Shansur Rahman Farooqi’s novel The Mirror Of Beauty….that’s also a good exmaple of a tale of the Raj.


    1 Comment

    • User: Hotel AK Continental Mcleodganj

      Posted on: 28/04/2023 at 5:55 am

      Amazing post with best information.


  2. User: Diane

    Posted on: 06/02/2019 at 3:47 am

    Im looking for a book I read in 2010, which I had to leave behind when I moved from Alaska to Hawaii.
    A coming of age of a teen girl from england, who was sent to live with her aging, ailing grandmother in India.
    The story changes back and forth between the lives of the two. Grandmother remembering her first love, whom she never married, while her granddaughter seeks adventure in the city in india that her grandmother lives in.


  3. User: Umi Sinha

    Posted on: 03/06/2018 at 11:39 am

    “The Siege of Krishnapur” by JG Farrell, which won the Booker Prize in 1973 and was shortlisted for the Booker of Bookers in 2008, narrowly losing out to “Midnight’s Children.” A funny and tragic satire set in a thinly fictionalised Lucknow in the five month siege at the British Residence during the “Indian Mutiny”, as it’s known in Britain, or the “War of Independence”, as it’s known in India.

    “The Alien Sky” and “Staying on”, also by Paul Scott.

    “The Mulberry Empire” by Philip Hensher, also satirical, is a heavily fictionalised version of the disastrous Afghan campaign, which resulted in the massacre of about 4,500 troops and 12,000 British civilians who formed the British garrison in Kabul, while on a forced retreat in 1842. Only one person survived to tell the tale.

    “The Ravi Lancers” by John Masters, which covers the experience of a sepoy regiment raised by an Indian prince on the Western Front in the First World War. It’s the story of two men – the British commanding officer and his Indian officer, who like and respect each other but become alienated when the rigid military attitude and patriotism of the British commanding officer comes into conflict with the traditions and customs of the men.

    One of my favourites is “The Far Cry” by Emma Smith. Amazon synopsis: This ‘savage comedy with a vicious streak’ (Elizabeth Bowen in “The Tatler” in 1949) describes the ‘second passage to India’ of ‘Teresa, whose elderly, willful father drags her off to spare her from the clutches of her mother…I can think of no writer, British or Indian, who has captured so vividly, with such intensity, the many intangibles of the Indian kaleidoscope; Emma Smith harnessed those intense impressions of her youth to give her story a quite extraordinary driving force’ wrote Charles Allen in the “Spectator”, going on to agree with Susan Hill in her Persephone Afterword that the book is ‘a small masterpiece…beautifully shaped, evocative, moving and mature.’ “The Far Cry” was Book at Bedtime on BBC Radio 4.


    1 Comment

    • User: tripfiction

      Posted on: 03/06/2018 at 12:53 pm

      Great titles to add, we also have a couple from this list to add to our database. I read The Singapore Grip when I was in Singapore (well before we set up TripFiction) and I was just so amazed about the detail and that the Japanese came down the Malay peninsula on the bicycles! Thank you for taking the time to suggest further titles, Umi.