This summer I had the incredible opportunity to intern at Shahi Exports in the city of Bangalore, the bustling South Indian metropolis also known as the Garden City, Pub City, and IT City. It has witnessed unprecedented growth in the past twenty or thirty years and shows no sign of stopping — and its identity keeps being redefined by citizens, visitors, and global onlookers alike up to the current day. Though CASI student program participants begin their internships with varying levels of exposure to the languages, history, politics, and culture of India, I highly recommend the following books to anyone interested in learning more about this fascinating slice of South Asia.
India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy
HarperCollins paperback, 2008
So the first book on my list is not actually about Bangalore, but is a must-read for anyone looking to build (or reinforce) a solid contextual foundation for understanding modern India. As the title suggests, the text guides the reader through major developments in Indian history from the day of the Mahatma’s assassination in January of 1948, a mere five months after India officially won its independence from Britain, up until the date of publishing… which makes for an intimidating read at nearly 800 pages. However, don’t let that discourage you! There is a lot of material to go through, but Guha utilizes a simple and engaging writing style that really pulls you into the various narratives unraveling throughout the text. Besides, at less than $4 for a used copy on Amazon, there’s no excuse to ignore this work! If there’s one book to read before arriving in India, this is it.
Note: I’m vaguely aware of newer editions, and though I haven’t read them, I’m sure that they’ll be at least as interesting and definitely even more comprehensive than this one!
Multiple City: Writings on Bangalore
Edited by Aditi De
Penguin India paperback, 2008
Although the writings in this anthology will all be over a decade old at this point, and the titular city has swelled from seven to eleven million inhabitants in that time, each piece selected by Bengali-Indian columnist Aditi De still poignantly touches on many different parts of Bangalore’s history and contemporary identity. The collection features stalwarts South Indian literature such as P. Lankesh and U.R. Ananthamurthy, names that will be familiar to many Westerners such as Winston Churchill, and a delightful mix of businessmen, engineers, historians, poets, politicians, critics, cartoonists, and even a current Penn faculty member! This book will provide the reader with a very basic grasp of Bangalore’s history, but provides way more than a Wikipedia article ever could in the form of ancient folk songs, contemporary blog posts, letters from colonial times, and scholarly articles that map out the city of Bengaluru in both space and time. It can be read any time before, during, or (regrettably, in my case) after one’s stay in Bangalore — or any mix of the above three, as each piece is very short and makes for an all-around delightful read. Make sure you visit some of the places listed in the book!
Translated from Kannada by Srinath Perur
Harper Perennial paperback, 2016
I got this novel at the much-beloved Blossoms Book House on Church Street in the old British Cantonment part of Bangalore (today the area is known primarily for its shopping and nightlife). In fact, an “old-world” cafe somewhere nearby is the setting for the protagonist’s recollection of his family’s rags-to-riches story, their troubled relationships, and the complex power of language. Shanbhag’s work has already been hailed as the next “Great Indian Novel” by both Kannada- and English-language critics around the country and around the world, which is significant because most works recognized as such are typically written in English (think God of Small Things or Midnight’s Children, also books that you should read). As with most foreign-language works, a whole lot of work went into translating Ghachar Ghochar (whose title is a made-up phrase anyway), especially because of the fascinating differences between Kannada and English. I’d leave this book for when you arrive in Bangalore, as you can get a new copy at Blossoms for Rs.200 versus $10 on Amazon.
Rule by Aesthetics: World-Class City Making in Delhi
D. Asher Ghertner
Oxford University Press, 2015
What is a book about Delhi doing in a Bangalore-themed reading list? Though many of Ghertner’s observations are site-specific, the key points of this extended academic work can be applied to any place on Earth. Just like Delhi (and countless other cities), many forces in Bangalore are working to frame the metropolis as a “world-class city,” and this book does a wonderful job examining this idea while connecting the lives of the urban poor to a broader postcolonial economic system. In particular, I was struck by Ghertner’s descriptions of informal housing and the processes through which they are abjected and “othered” in order to delegitimize their existence and justify the control of the state over the lives of slum dwellers. I began reading this book as part of a seminar on urbanization in the Global South (led by Nikhil Anand) and am still in the process of finishing it, but it has definitely changed my perspective on the functioning of cities in the developing world.
Note: If this seems too much for you, but you’d still like to learn more about this topic, Dipesh Chakrabarty’s “Of Garbage, Modernity and the Citizen’s Gaze” (1992) is a great introduction.
God of Small Feasts
GOURMET: The Magazine of Good Living, January 2000
Okay, so this isn’t a book at all, but a short essay written for a culinary magazine, though I just HAD to include this one in my list! In just a few minutes, you’ll be taken on a spectacular tour of mouth-watering South Indian dishes by Bangalore-based author Shoba Narayan, who describes her journey to be able to attend college in the United States when she was a girl. It’s incredible to see the role of food in the culture of Karnataka, especially when one of the most common greetings seems to be “oota aita? — have you eaten?” Really, just read the essay!
BONUS: Check out Bengaluru Oota Company for one of the most intimate South Indian dining experiences you could ask for 🙂
Neti, Neti (Not This, Not This)
India Ink, 2009
Why didn’t this book make the cut? I haven’t read it myself! However, this Bangalorean coming-of-age “instant classic” is definitely on my list. Read an excerpt of the text here, published on occasion of the novel’s recent re-release.
I hope you enjoyed this list of my top 5 books to read if you’re interning in Bengaluru. India (and especially the southern part) has an incredible literary history in both English and local languages that American institutions like Penn tend to glaze over. I encourage everyone to take a class on South Asian literature, history, or culture, because there’s just so much to learn!
Do you have any favorite books about Bangalore? Let me know in the comments!
None of the images in this post are mine. They have all been sourced from Google Images and are labeled for noncommercial reuse.