Books often unravel stories against the backdrop of difficult times, and sometimes the pain truly spills across the pages for the past it’s influenced by. The period of British colonisation was undoubtedly traumatic, leaving the subcontinent bloodied, divided and looted. So while fiction books can never compare to reading and remembering real accounts, they can surely capture the essence of such history —whether told through an accurately dark tone or narrated with a sense of hope. Read on to find some books set against the backdrop of British Colonisation: from novels that recount the painful Partition to those that honour the spirit and action of the freedom struggle, all of these deserve to go on your shelves.

The Parted Earth by Anjali Enjeti

Spanning over seventy years, from 1947 to 2017, this novel shows Partition as not just an event in the past but as one that continues to influence the present. Deepa is a sixteen-year-old Hindu girl and pregnant with the child of her Muslim boyfriend—who has to now flee with his family to Pakistan. Deepa loses her parents to the violence and is taken by her god-parents to London. In present-day Atlanta, Shanthi is grieving a miscarriage and the loss of her marriage. The forty-year-old woman decides to find her grandfather —the man her father went to search for in Delhi years ago, leaving Shanthi and her mother alone— but she must first find her estranged grandmother Deepa. Buy now!

Tamas by Bhisham Sahni

Penned in 1974, this novel is set during the time of Partition in the land of a newly forming nation, Pakistan. When a Hindu sweeper is deceived by a Muslim politician into cutting a pig —the carcass of which is later found outside the local mosque— religious riots erupt. Soon a cow is slaughtered and the riots are fuelled further. An old Sikh couple’s shop is looted by Muslims and their son forcefully converted to Islam, and circumcised. Violence continues to flare up as women are molested or committing suicide. Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs find themselves in a world that’s tearing apart while a British official plays a role in the violence too. Buy now!

Regret by Ikramullah

A volume of two novellas translated (by Muhammad Umar Memon & Faruq Hassan) from Urdu, this fiction is driven by Partition and not simply about it, as the tale of a boyhood friendship is shown. Two lifelong friends, Ehsaan and Saeed, have an ordinary summer bring happiness with the soon-to-be-celebrated freedom from British Raj and the excitement of first love. But when bloodthirst and violence shatter their dreams of seeing a united nation, both are forced to flee to Pakistan. The narration also unravels class inequality between the two friends, and casteism of the society through two girls, and even shows Ehsaan and Saeed reminiscing their days in India, forty years later. Buy now!

Looking Through Glass by Mukul Kesavan

Set amid the turbulence of Indian independence, this tale of a young photographer shows the chaos of a crumbling British Raj and his own cosmic odyssey. A nameless narrator on his way to Benaras to perform the last rite of his deceased grandmother’s ashes is mysteriously transported back to the year 1942 Delhi while testing out his new telescopic lens. In this time, his grandmother is a social worker in Delhi and the Hindu photographer-narrator stays with a Muslim family —all the while an anti-British rebellion is unravelling. He also witnesses the Hindu-Muslim riots as the subcontinent is split, and even rescues an unwed pregnant actress who later pursues a lesbian crush on a politician’s daughter. Buy now!

Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh

One of the most acclaimed works written in 1956, this novel recounts the terror of Partition in a fictional village located on the border of India and Pakistan. This northwestern village has seen Muslim and Sikh communities living peacefully for generations but when socio-political violence is thrust upon them, horrors and bloodshed commence. On the onset of monsoon, when one day the “ghost train” —loaded with bodies of thousands of refugees— arrived, the isolated village is plunged into the abyss of religious hate. Amidst all of this, a love story of a Sikh boy and a Muslim girl and how it survives communal hatred also unravels. Buy now!

Kingdom’s End by Saadat Hasan Manto

Published more than half a century ago, this collection of stories translated by Khalid Hasan from Urdu is one of the most controversial, for which Manto was tried for obscenity too —both by British in India and by Pakistan post-independence. In one story, brutal ethnic cleansing takes place; in another, guards along the India and Pakistan border try to decide which side a dog belongs to. Somewhere young love falls victim to sectarian divide too and somewhere else mentally ill (and understandably confused) patients are exchanged across borders. Most of the stories are centred around prostitutes and many focus on communal violence, sexuality, socio-economic realities, religion, freedom struggle, and the Partition. Buy now!

The Shadow Lines by Amitav Ghosh

Opening in 1960s Calcutta, this classic in terms of Partition Literature follows two families —one English, one Bengali— as their lives intertwine in tragic and comic ways. The narrator, Indian born and English educates, traces events back and forth in time: from the outbreak of World War II to the Bengali partition and violence. Time and space collapses for a young boy who dreams and lives in memories to experience the past events and emerge with a powerful message—one that is strong political, cultural, and innocent. From the Indian Calcutta to the Bangladeshi Dhaka, this novel is built upon crossing lines as history and geography are tested. Buy now!

Ice-Candy Man by Bapsi Sidhwa

First published in 1988, this novel shows the horror of Parition through a Parsi child. Eight-year-old Leny from an affluent Parsi family has polio so she spends most of her time with a nursemaid —her ‘ayah’ who she loves. Living in Lahore, she is also close to the Sikh zookeeper, the strong Pathan, and the Ice-Candy Man. When the chaos of the subcontinent’s split ends up in the abduction of Leny’s nursemaid, the little girl makes a sentimental account of the religious tensions, communal riots, massacres, child molestation, and women being subjected to both communal and gender violence. Buy now!

The Great Indian Novel by Shashi Tharoor

A satirical novel published in 1989 by an author-politician, this is a retelling of the Indian epic, Mahabharata, inspired by the Indian history of independence and the foundational years of post-independence. Recognisable events and characters from twentieth-century Indian politics are recast in this hilarious satire: Gandhi as the righteous Bhishma, Nehru as Dhrithrasthra, Indira as his daughter Priya Duryodhani, Jinnah as Karna, Dharma as Pandu, Democracy as Draupadi, and Pillars of Democracy as Pandavs. It’s definitely easier to read for the Indian readers as it projects the history of Partition as a feud between brothers —like the battle in the epic poem that literally translates to ‘Great India’. Buy now!

The House of Blue Mangoes by David Davidar

One of the few books that unravel the effect of partition in South India as a man anticipates the destruction happening in a changing society. In 1889, in the southernmost village Chevathar, Solomon Dorai—as the thalaivar, the headman—makes decisions to preserve the village from change. Solomon’s sons, Daniel and Aaron take different routes: the former being a misfit who appreciates the comfort and order provided by the British Raj, and the latter giving himself to the romance of revolution as an assassin. Spanning three generations of the Dorais, a non-Brahmin Christian family, this story traces the caste system, World War II, Indian independence, and a rare tree that bears blue mangoes. Buy now!

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

Published thirty years ago, this interplay of reality and magical realism correlates with India and its history as a nation. This post-colonial and postmodern literature is about a group of children born on the midnight of 15 August 1947, the hour at which India gained her independence. All of them are shown to have special telepathic and magical powers. Salim, the protagonist, narrates the story as a 32-year-old who was one of these midnight children. Because of the Parition, Salim suffers an identity crisis as the novel also explores the tension within independent India’s society as it’s torn between the rational worldview and a traditional one. Buy now!

Sunlight on a Broken Column by Attia Hosain

Set in Lucknow against the backdrop of India’s independence struggle, this novel is semi-autobiographical that draws on the author’s experiences of growing up in 1930s India, during the final years of British Raj. Belonging to an elite Sunni Muslim community and a distinguished family; being an orphan brought up by her orthodox aunts and moving to the home of a “liberal” uncle as a teenager, Laila’s life is caught between traditional and western customs. The turbulent time of Parition in India’s history is projected through a moving portrait of a family in conflict. While everyone around her are caught up in politics, Laila is unable to commit herself to any cause, especially as a women who has fallen in love with a man not chosen by her family. Buy now!

Pinjar by Amrita Pritam

Written in 1950, Pinjar is the story of a Hindu girl abducted by a Muslim man who forcefully marries her, and her parents’ refusal to accept her when she does manage to escape from him. Against the backdrop of India’s partition, her changed life is unravelled as she tries to make peace with her soul, giving birth to her son, and painstakingly growing to love her husband—while the man is torn between his love and guilt. Another story is about a man born under strange circumstances and abandoned at the altar of God by his mother who had taken a vow. Both stories are translated from Punjabi by Khushwant Singh. Buy now!

Partitions by Amit Majmudar

A poet’s debut novel that conveys the urgency of journeys during the turbulent Parition. Four characters are followed as their lives are uprooted with a single line dividing the land, them chasing to cross the new border. Keshav and Shankar are six-year-old twins separated from their mother when boarding a train to Delhi; Simran is a young Sikh girl who has run away from her father so he doesn’t poison her for being defiled; Ibrahim is an elderly Muslim doctor driven from the town of his birth to the new state of Pakistan. The quartet comes together to forge a future of hope while two nations are facing communal violence, and bloodied and traumatised refugees. Buy now!

Victory Colony 1950 by Bhaswati Ghosh

A story of the resilience of refugees from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) who found themselves largely unwanted on either side of the border following the 1947 Partition. Beginning in 1950, Amala and her younger brother, Karthik, owe their lives to a local Muslim family who hid them when rioters were roaming their village. They escape and land in Calcutta but are separated. Finding her way to a refugee camp, Amala continues her quest to find Karthik while the situation of the camp deteriorated. When no official support, government apathy, and public disdain is seen, the refugees establish a Victory Colony by occupying a zamindar’s vacant plot of pland. Buy now!

Anandmath by Bankim Chandra Chatterji

Originally written in 1882, this revolutionary literature from the man who gave India its National Song: Vande Mataram, takes readers back to Bengal in the clutches of famine. In 1770, a married couple, Mahendra & Kalyani, get separated after leaving their famine-affected village. When found by sannyasis —a rebel group of monks whose members are willing to sacrifice their lives in the fight against injustice— Mahendra must give up his wife and child to dedicate himself completely to ‘Mother India’. Arms were taken up in response to a hunger that turns humans into cannibals, against unjust tax policies, alongside women.

Kanthapura by Raja Rao

First published in 1938, this tale narrated like a sthalapurana —as dominated by the ‘sthala’ or place and not by the people— is about Mahatma Gandhi’s struggle for independence emerging from a South Indian village, Kanthapura. From a caste-ridden village, Moorthy, a young Brahmin leaves for the city to study and is influenced by Gandhian philosophy of non-violence and pacifism. When he returns to the village and speaks against the caste system, he is expelled by the village priest. His mother dies heartbroken and he begins living with an educated widow who is active in the Indian freedom struggle. The story unfolds the creation of a uniting national identity in a remote village. Buy now!

Gora by Rabindranath Tagore

Published in 1909, Tagore’s longest novel explains the importance of a national identity beyond any personal markers like caste, creed, or religion. A fair-skinned man, ‘Gora’ is an orthodox Hindu who dreams about his ideal Bharatvarsha —a perfect and properoud India. According to him, this can be achieved only by uniting everyone under the mantle of Hinduism, and continues to heed caste rules. But everything changes when he comes in contact with the ‘Brahmo Samaj’ (a reformist sect that contradicts traditions and orthodox Hinduism) and finds himself questioning his own religious identity. Buy now!

Independence by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Set during the Partition of British India in 1947, a time when neighbour was pitted against neighbour and families were torn apart, this novel tells the story of three sisters caught up in events beyond their control and their incredible struggle against powerful odds. In a rural village of Bengal, three daughters of a well-respected doctor break away from their home of love and safety when their father is killed in a riot. One of them falls in love with a Muslim and breaks away from the family, while another pursues her career and the third attempts to hold the family together. When dangerous change is in the air with India now for Hindus and Pakistan for Muslims, the sisters are separated. What unravels is a moving story of sisterhood and friendship. Preorder now!

Ahimsa by Supriya Kelkar

Inspired by her great-grandmother’s experience working with Gandhi, the author shines a light on the non-violent resistance advocated and led by the great leader. In 1942, when Mahatma Gandhi asks Indians to give one family member for the freedom movement, ten-year-old Anjali is devastated to think her father will be taking the risk. But when her mother instead joins the movement against the British government, various changes come to her family and life: whether it’s giving up the fine foreign-made clothes and wearing only homespun cotton or getting over past prejudices when her mother reaches out to the Dalit community, Anjali must ensure her little part in the independence movement is completed. Buy now!

The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani

Told through a daughter’s letter to her deceased mother, this poignant story It’s 1947 and the newly independent India has been separated into two. Half-Muslim, half-Hindu twelve-year-old Nisha and her family becomes a refugee and embark first by train but later on foot through a difficult and dangerous journey —because she doesn’t know where she belongs or what her country is anymore. After losing her mother as a baby, Nisha can’t imagine losing her homeland too. And through all of this, while her country is being ripped apart, she must believe in a hopeful future. Buy now!


5 replies on “21 Books Set Against The Backdrop of British Colonisation of India, The Subcontinent’s Independence & The Partition

  1. Fanna, this is such a fantastic list! I know very little about India’s history and the Partition, embarrassingly I learned more about it from Ms. Marvel than I ever did in school. As someone who loves nonfiction but is also consistently intimidated by it, all of these books feel both accessible and impactful to me! I’m particularly interested in Kingdom’s End and Midnight’s Children, they seem so different from one another but feel like a good entry point for me into reading about this part of history.

    (shhh, nobody tell my tbr or book buying ban about this lol)

    Like

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