India


Tigernest (Taktsang)-Kloster in Bhutan
Photo by thomaswanhoff used under a Creative Commons license.

Barbara Crossette, So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas (Vintage, 1996).
Crossette, formerly a reporter for The New York Times, visits Bhutan, the last independent Buddhist kingdom of the Himalayas. She also writes short chapters about the others — Ladakh, Sikkim and Nepal — but her focus is Bhutan. Crossette uses her travels to explore these kingdoms’ struggles to confront modern pressures without abandoning its culture and traditions. She is a fan of Bhutan’s monarchy and its efforts to control the country’s opening to the outside, though one wonders whether the access she was given by the government colored her views.

Here is a bio of Crossette. Pico Iyer reviewed it for The New York Times.  John Perry reviewed it as well (scroll down), as did John Q. McDonald. Lonely Planet’s Bhutan guide recommends it. You can watch this extended conversation between Harold Hudson Channer and Crossette. And then-NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue took it to the beach a few summers ago. Mark Jenkins wrote about Bhutan in The Atlantic last year. Brad Scriber wrote about the country in National Geographic last month. Robert Dompnier has some terrific photos; Crossette’s book is on his bibliography. For more on Crossette’s book, The Great Hill Stations of Asia, see here.

Buy it at Amazon.com.

Viceregal Lodge in Simla
Photo of the Viceregal Lodge in Simla by Mat Booth used under a Creative Commons license.

Barbara Crossette, The Great Hill Stations of Asia (Basic Books, 1999).
Across Asia, European colonialists built “hill stations,” refuges from the heat and disease of the lowlands. Usually at altitudes between 5,000 and 8,000 feet, the hill stations were built at elevations too high for disease-carrying mosquitoes, even before the link between the two was known. As Crossette writes, “[c]olonialism came and went, but the hill stations are still there, from Pakistan on the old Northwest Frontier of imperial Asia, across India, Sri Lanka, Burma, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Vietnam to the mountains of Luzon in the Philippines, where Americans built one too. The hill stations are overgrown, often overpopulated, and no longer European now, but most have not lost their unique appeal.” In 1997, Crossette traveled across the region to visit the hill stations. This book combines her research and an account of what she found.

Here is Google Book Search. Here is the first chapter of the book. Here is a bio of Crossette. Alexander Frater reviewed the book in The New York Times. Kenneth Champeon reviewed it for ThingsAsian. Daniel Costello wrote about it on his blog. Crossette describes the book as “a labor of love” in this interview with Harold Channer.

Buy this book at Amazon.com.


Photo by willem velthoven used under a Creative Commons license.

Suketu Mehta, Maximum City (Vintage, 2005).
Impressive reportage from Bombay (which, as Mehta explains, he does not call “Mumbai”). Maximum City was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and won a variety of other honors. Mehta has a talent for insinuating himself into a variety of milieus and getting people from all walks of life to talk to him. Among the subjects getting sustained treatment are Bombay’s politics, crime, slums, show business, and bombings.

Mehta’s web page links to a wealth of reviews and other materials. Metacritic.com aggregates reviews and links to some of them. C.W. Thompson reviews the book at PopMatters. Uday Benegal reviews it for The Village Voice. Listen to this review on NPR’s Fresh Air. Akash Kapur reviews it for The New York Times. Karan Mahajan interviewed Mehta for The Believer. Steve Portigal, Shiva and Santosh like it. Sunshine is not a fan, nor is Jaya Jha.

Buy this book at Amazon.com.

Photo of Mumbai by willem velthoven used under a Creative Commons license.

Vikram Chandra, Sacred Games (Viking, 2007).
An massive, sprawling novel set in Bombay. The narrative alternates between the competing perspectives and intertwined stories of a gangster kingpin, Ganesh Gaitonde, and a police detective, Sartaj Singh. Like the city, the book bursts at the seams with food, crime, smells, buildings, traffic, show business, cramped circumstances, grand designs. I have read that Chandra does not consider this a Bombay novel, but I certainly would read it before visiting the city.

Here is the book’s site. Garth Risk Hallberg reviews Sacred Games at The Millions. Adams Mars-Jones reviews it for the Guardian (UK). Jonathan Yardley didn’t care for it. Ahmad Saidullah reviews it in The Quarterly Conversation. Edward Nawotka interviews Chandra, as does Tony Dushane, and Sonia Faleiro, and some sort of UC Berkeley PR program. Patricia Leigh Brown profiles him for the New York Times. Listen to NPR’s piece here. Or if you have an hour, you can watch Chandra on Story Hour at UC Berkeley with Chandra.

Buy this book at Amazon.com.


Photo of Lucknow by Saad.Akhtar used under a Creative Commons license.

Vikram Chandra, Red Earth & Pouring Rain (Faber and Faber, 2000).
Chandra’s first novel is told, mostly, by a nineteenth-century poet, Sanjay Parasher, reincarnated as a monkey, sitting at a typewriter, spinning a tale read by young girl to a gathering crowd. Oh, and a a few Gods are in attendance. There are other stories, and stories within stories, and possibly stories within those, but the central narrative is Sanjay’s, an epic of colonialism and India’s response. The action skips around from Calcutta to Lucknow (and Los Angeles to Houston), among other locales, but does not rest in any one of them long enough for me to recommend it specifically to that end.

Here is a short excerpt. The South Asian Journalists Association’s profile of Chandra is here. Shobha Hiatt reviewed the book for INDOlink, Christopher Rollason wrote about it in India Star, and BJ Sadtler reviewed it for YogaChicago. Clinton Bennett gives a religious studies perspective. Nyassaneala blogged about it. Sharanya Manivannan blogged about the poem from which Chandra took the title.

Buy this book at Amazon.com.