Historical novel set mainly in Asia, London and USA
Ten Great Books set in VARANASI
16th October 2021
Varanasi is the latest location for our ‘Ten Great Books Set In…’ series. Ten great books set in Varanasi. Varanasi (Benaras) is a city in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh dating to the 11th century B.C. Regarded as the spiritual capital of India, the city draws Hindu pilgrims who bathe in the Ganges River’s sacred waters and perform funeral rites. Along the city’s winding streets are some 2,000 temples, including Kashi Vishwanath, the “Golden Temple,” dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva.
‘Benaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together’ – Mark Twain
The Romantics by Pankaj Mishra
The young Brahman Samar has come to the holy city of Benaras to complete his education and take the civil service exam that will determine his future. But in this city redolent of timeworn customs, where pilgrims bathe in the sacred Ganges and breathe in smoke from burning ghats along the shore, Samar is offered entirely different perspectives on his country. Miss West and her circle, indifferent to the reality around them, represent those drawn to India as a respite from the material world. And Rajesh, a sometimes violent, sometimes mystical leader of student malcontents, presents a more jaundiced view. More than merely illustrating the clash of cultures, Mishra presents the universal truth that our desire for the other is our most painful joy.
Kaleidoscope City: A Year in Varanasi by Piers Moore Ede
Piers Moore Ede first fell in love with Varanasi when he passed through it on his way to Nepal. In the decade that followed, it continued to exert its pull on him and so he returned there to live – to discover
what it is that makes the spiritual capital of India so unique.
In this intoxicating city, where funeral pyres smoulder beside the river in which thousands of pilgrims bathe, and holiness and corruption walk side by side, Piers discovers a remarkable interplay between death and life, light and dark.
Living Banaras: Hindu Religion in Cultural Context by Bradley R Hertel & Cynthia Ann Humes
By focusing on contemporary popular religious traditions, the book represents a substantial contribution to the study of modern religious practices in Banaras, holy city of India. This book offers in-depth, ethnographic views of many contemporary popular religious practices that have, for the most part, received little attention by scholars. Topics covered include the Ramlila celebrations, devotion to Hanuman, and goddess worship, and the way that Banarsi Boli, the local dialect of Banaras, supports its users in their identification with the sacred city.
Revolution 2020: Love, Corruption, Ambition by Chetan Bhagat
Once upon a time, in small-town India, there lived two intelligent boys. One wanted to use his intelligence to make money. One wanted to use his intelligence to create a revolution. The problem was, they both loved the same girl. Welcome to Revolution 2020. A story about childhood friends Gopal, Raghav and Aarti who struggle to find success and love in Varanasi. However, it isn t easy to achieve this in an unfair society that rewards the corrupt. As Gopal gives in to the system, and Raghav fights it, who will win? From the bestselling author of Five Point Someone, one night @ the call center, The Three Mistakes of My Life and 2 States, comes another gripping tale from the heartland of India. Are you ready for the revolution?
River of Gods by Ian McDonald
As Mother India approaches her centenary, nine people are going about their business a gangster, a cop, his wife, a politician, a stand-up comic, a set designer, a journalist, a scientist, and a dropout. And so is Aj the waif, the mind-reader, the prophet when she one day finds a man who wants to stay hidden. In the next few weeks, they will all be swept together to decide the fate of the nation. River of Gods teems with the life of a country choked with peoples and cultures one and a half billion people, twelve semi-independent nations, nine million gods. Ian McDonald has written the great Indian novel of the new millennium, in which a war is fought, a love betrayed, a message from a different world decoded, as the great river Ganges flows on.
Sister India by Peggy Payne
The exotic and suspenseful New York Times Notable Book that tells the story of an eccentric guest-house keeper in Varanasi, India, and the passions evoked by her sacred city along the Ganges
The Lonely Planet recommends the Saraswati Guest House, and meeting Madame Natraja, “a one-woman blend of East and West,” as well worth a side trip. Over the course of a weekend, several guests turn up, shocked to encounter a three-hundred-some-pound, surly white woman in a sari. Then a series of Hindu-Muslim murders leads to a citywide curfew, and they unwittingly become her captives. So begins a period of days blending into nights as Natraja and her Indian cook become entangled in a web of religious violence, and their guests fall under the spell of this ancient kingdom–at once enthralled and repelled by the begging children, the public funeral pyres, the holy men bathing in the Ganges at dawn.
This is a traveler’s tale, a story about the strange chemistry that develops from unexpected intimacies on foreign ground. And Peggy Payne‘s extraordinary talent vividly conjures up the smells of the perfume market, the rhythms of holy men chanting at dawn, the claustrophobic feel of this ancient city’s tiny lanes, and the magic of the setting sun over the holy Ganges. For anyone who has harbored a secret desire to go to India and be transformed, Sister India, called “mesmerizing” by Gail Harris and “a modern version of E. M. Forster’s classic A Passage to India” by Dan Wakefield, takes you on this journey without ever leaving home.
Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi by Geoff Dyer
Jeff Atman, a journalist, is in Venice to cover the opening of the Biennale. He’s expecting to see a load of art, go to a lot of parties and drink too many bellinis. He’s not expecting to meet the spellbinding Laura, who will completely transform his few days in the city. So begins a story of erotic love and spiritual learning that will reach its conclusion amidst the ghats of Varanasi.
The Ascetic of Desire by Sudhir Kakar
The Kama Sutra is the most widely read treatise on sex ever written, though the man who chronicled all there was to experience between men and women remains, for the most part, a mystery. In The Ascetic of Desire, called a literary achievement of the highest order, by The Times (India), acclaimed author Sudhir Kakar tells the story of the man who is believed to be the author of the Kama Sutra, Vatsyayana, and the time in which he lived-the fourth century A.D., considered the golden age of Indian history.
In The Ascetic of Desire, the elusive sage Vatsyayana recounts his youth to a young pupil. The young man, planning to write Vatsyayana’s biography, listens dutifully as Vatsyayana shares stories of a childhood spent largely in the brothel where his favorite aunt worked. As Vatsyayana’s story unfolds, the pupil finds, to his consternation, that his own life has begun to reflect and parallel the ascetic’s narrative. At the point where their stories intersect, the unexpected happens.
Like Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha, Sudhir Kakar’s novel is a startling combination of psychological insight and historical detail. With rights sold in eleven countries, this is a story of universal appeal imbued with a distant world’s charm and exotic allure.
The best novel on sex and sensuality I have ever read. (Khushwant Singh, author of Train to Pakistan)
The Butcher of Benares by Jakhar Mahendra
The shocking and brutal murder of a young American woman rips apart the peace of the ancient city of Benares. She is found to be a research scientist working with the Vatican Observatory, one of the oldest astronomical research institutions in the world. Hawa Singh, a senior inspector from Delhi crime branch on a visit to Benares, gets embroiled in the case. He finds that the murdered woman had been researching the Bhrigu-Samhita, an astrological classic dating back to pre-Vedic times, believed to be lost. The FBI sends in Ruby Malik, a Pakistani-American to investigate the murder. Soon, more bodies are found with bizarre connections to both the Bhrigu-Samhita and Christian orthodoxy. The Vatican seems to be carrying out a clandestine operation, seeking the secrets of Hindu astrology in the city most sacred to it. Secrets that the Vatican would kill to know. Hawa Singh, hardened by many gunfights and with a bullet already lodged near his brain in a previous encounter, teams up with Ruby Malik to unravel the mystery. Nothing is the same any more. The temple bells fade in the perpetual winter fog. There is blood on the streets of Benares, which becomes a battleground where faith and science collide. The worlds of astronomy and astrology come. Hawa Singh and Ruby search the opium dens and the domains of Naga sadhus, Aghoris and Doms in the cremation grounds, hunt a cannibal lurking in the maze that is Benares and clash with the figurehead king of the city, Kashi Naresh Maharaj Abhay Narayan Singh. The killer could be anyone. Only Hawa Singh and his beautiful co-runner on the chase, Ruby Malik, possess the mindset and the indomitable courage, to find the murderer at the heart of this mystery and in the process, find themselves
The Monkey Bridge by Fahimeh Amiri & Rafe Martin
In the heart of Benares, on the banks of the river Ganges, stands a tree with fruit so perfect it can only be called treasure. How the tree got there is a tale of two rulers—one selfish and proud, one generous and brave—one a man and one a monkey.
Having studied the Buddhist tradition for decades, Martin is at his lyrical best in this fable of how a human king’s greed puts a tribe of monkeys in mortal danger, while a monkey king’s sacrifice restores peace to his kingdom. Exquisitely illustrated with watercolor and gouache paintings in the authentic style of Indian and Persian miniatures, “The Monkey Bridge” has something important to say about the nature of true nobility and leadership.
What amazing and varied books there are set in Varanasil! If you have any to add to the list, please do so in the Comments below…
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