Books You Should Read Before Visiting These Asian Countries
Reading a book about the country/destination before I travel is one of my favorite pre-travel activities. Sometimes, I read while traveling. Other times, it’s after my trip so I can explore more about the destination I just visited through a book. Travel writing is insanely Caucasian. While I loved reading certain books authored by White travelers (Shantaram comes to my mind), they come from a place of privilege. There’s a sense of superiority in their writing, ignorance about the Global South and they often end up glamorizing and exoticizing the places some of us call home. So in this blog post, I asked some of my Asian traveler friends to share their book recommendations about their countries. This post contains books you should read before you visit these Asian countries.
I love Brit-Indian Monisha Rajesh’s Around India In 80 Trains. However, as someone who grew up in the UK, at some parts, Rajesh’s book too tends to overlook the mundane life of every day India. It’s a beautiful read, nonetheless, and it revolves around my favorite mode of transport: trains.
I’m a huge fan of Suketu Mehta’s Maximum Citty. This nonfiction text taught me so much about everything that makes Bombay Bombay. From Bollywood to terrorist attacks, underworld, pay bhaji and brothels, Mehta’s book explores the modern Bombay as it is.
To this day, my favorite book is The God of Small Things authored by Arundhati Roy. Roy’s satirical text is in a non-chronological order. It’s fascinating and explores the institutionalized society in the South Indian state of Kerala. Warning: It’s quite an emotional read.
When I was traveling in Sikkim, I picked up The King’s Harvest written by Sikkimese Chetan Raj Shresta. It brings you vivid details from the small town life, the simple lives of the complex, rugged beautiful terrain of the ex Himalayan Kingdom, Sikkim. I’m not a big fan of his writing, but Shresta will make you daydream about beautiful Sikkim.
I’m currently reading The House With A Thousand Stories written by Assamese author Aruni Kashyap. I love it, and it transfers me to my second home Guwahati every time I switch on my Kindle. Kashyap’s book is set in Assam, and its capital Guwahati. The Northeast Indian state is a melting pot of culture, but also comes with a troubled past/present.
So who’s better than me to suggest a book about India? An Indian. And that is why I asked my travel blogger friend Mohana to share her recommendations.
Mohana recommends: Following Fish: Travels Around The Indian Coast by Samantha Subramanian
According to Mohana: Subramanian’s Following Fish takes you on a ride around India’s coast in search of the country’s finest fish and folklore. He goes in search of Bengal’s prized hilsa, shares fish podi with Tamil fishermen, digs into Malvani and Koli delicacies in the fishing villages around Mumbai, shares toddy and seafood with locals in Kerala, and travels inland to Hyderabad to participate in a little known tradition involving raw fish, among other adventures.
The essays in this book are a hearty collection of anecdotes, recipes, and commentary on India’s coastal communities and their culture, commerce, and relationship with fish. Subramaniam’s narrative journalism and astute witty observations take this book beyond being just a travelogue: Following Fish offers critique and commentary on tourism and urbanization and how the resulting environmental and socio-ecological changes are forcing coastal communities to renegotiate their culinary habits, livelihoods, and their relationship with their land.
Adding to Mohana’s pick, travel blogger Athul Menon shares why you should still dig deep into India’s rural history (if you already haven’t).
Athul recommends: Malgudi Days by R. K. Narayan
According to Athul: Malgudi Days, written by R. K. Narayan, is one of the most popular books written by an Indian author. It was published in the year 1943 and later published outside India by Penguin Classics. It portrays the life of people of a fictional village called Malgudi in India. A TV series was then made based on the book by Shankar Nag and was shot in Agumbe in Karnataka, which is one of the most popular places to visit near Bangalore. The house where the series was shot, ‘Dodda Mane,’ is now a home-stay for tourists visiting Agumbe. The book consists of 32 short stories, and it shows the life in India in the early 1940s. India has developed a lot since the book was written, but many parts of rural India still follow a similar lifestyle. The Astrologer’s Day, The Blind Dog, Iswaran, and The Axe are some of the famous chapters in the book.
Moving across the border to the subcontinent’s newest booming travel destination, Pakistan. This country was always on my my bucket list even before travel boomed in Pakistan, thanks to my childhood obsession with their cricket team. When I was in grade 10, I read Khushwant Singh’s Train To Pakistan, which brings you the trauma, violence and heartbreak of the Indian partition. I had finally planned my trip to Pakistan and then came the COVID-19. Now I have an expired, never-used Pakistani e-visa and more dreams to explore a country full of scenic vistas and vibrant cultures.
So I asked Pakistani traveler and writer Bilal Hassan to share his book recommendations about Pakistan.
Bilal recommends: Kartography by Kamila Shamsie and Songs of Blood and Sword by Fatima Bhutto
According to Bilal: Kartography is a love letter to Karachi. It’s the largest and most cosmopolitan city in all of Pakistan, hence because of that there’s a certain level of vibrancy in the city. The story is pretty cliche girl meets boy falls in love and then the book falls them through the years, but all of this under the backdrop of Karachi’s many unique nuances adds another layer of texture to the story.
Us Pakistanis seldom get to read or watch ourselves in the media as regular humans, let alone as people that fall in and out of love. To most foreigners that seems like an alien concept, but that does happen, quite often, hence because of that I’d highly recommend everyone to read this book to see that Pakistanis too do live, love, laugh and cry.
Songs of Blood and Sword on the other hand is a political thriller based on true events told through the eyes of an insider. Fatima Bhutto is an incredibly gifted writer and this is her personal story as a member of the Bhutto political dynasty. Most folks tend to read about Pakistani politics and internal affairs through books or articles written mostly by western journalists, many of whom don’t even have a basic understanding let alone knowledge of how Pakistani society functions.
Some never even step foot in the country yet claim to be experts on it. I highly recommend this book because it’s told through the eyes of a local, so that way you get to see all facets of the story. The good, the bad and the ugly hence at the end you can form your own global opinion.
Travel is big in Nepal, thanks to Everest and the quaint Himalayas. But what’s beyond the mountains? My extremely talented Nepali friend and bibliophile Priyanka Shresta gave me some suggestions. According to her, here’s what you need to read before you visit Nepal.
Priyanka recommends: From Goddess to Mortal by Rashmila Shakya and Scott Berry
According to Priyanka: One of my favorite non-fiction books by a Nepalese writer is, “From Goddess to Mortal” by Rashmila Shakya and Scott Berry. It’s not a travel book per se, but the memoir does offer an understanding of the Newar culture dominant in every nook and corner of Kathmandu, aka the City of Temples.
Former Kumari (the Living Goddess) Rashmila Shakya’s recounts of her days of living in the Kumari Chhen (house of the Living Goddess) situated in the heart of Kathmandu Durbar Square tells stories of the jatras and festivals that are celebrated in the valley throughout the year, whilst debunking the many myths surrounding the Kumari culture. It’s an interesting read for culture enthusiasts who may want to visit Nepal during the festival time and may be catch a glimpse of the sacred Kumari in her chariot.
Indonesia’s beaches appear countless times on our Instagram feeds. But what should you read about the world’s largest archipelago before you travel there? Javanese travel blogger Marya Sutimi from The BeauTraveler has a book recommendation for you!
Marya recommends: Laskar Pelangi by Andrea Hirata
According to Marya: Laskar Pelangi, or Rainbow Troops in English, is Andrea Hirata’s childhood memoir that has been sold for over 5 million copies in Indonesia. The novel has been adapted to the movies and hit the box office, which boosts up the tourism in Belitung Island up to 2000% ever since.
The novel tells an inspiring journey of 10 students living on Belitung Island who called themselves Raibow Troops. They studied at the poorest school on the island, and the school itself was under the constant threat of closure by the government due to their inability to fulfill their annual student quota.
The main character Ikal was Andrea’s character in his memoir, in which he shares the story of his humble beginning through the irony of living in one of the world’s wealthiest island with lack of access to education.
Apart from the beautiful white sand beaches throughout the island, Belitung is also known as the one of the hot spots for mining products like tine, clay and silica sands in Indonesia. The novel also mentioned some parts about the labors’ protest when it comes to the exploitation of the island and its natural resources.
I haven’t red much work about my own country authored by local writers. What I’ve read as a child seems to only appear in Sinhala, and there aren’t English translations available. But I absolutely loved Sri Lankan-Canadian author Michael Ondaatje’s travel memoir, Running In The Family. I’m especially charmed by the non-glamorized pictures of the hot tropical afternoons in Sri Lanka, and the life spent in those afternoons. I asked my Sri Lankan friend and photojournalist Amalini De Sayrah to share her book recommendations.
Amalini recommends: When Memory Dies by A. Sivanandan
Song of the Sun God by Shankari Chandran
Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje
According to Amalini: So an absolute favourite is A. Sivanandan’s ‘When Memory Dies’ – it’s fiction or semi fiction, in that it’s very much rooted in our history and society. It tracks Sri Lankan history, from a Tamil character’s eyes, pre-Independence to the start of the conflict and rebel movement.
Another is Shankari Chandran’s Song of the Sun God. They both explore the same field, looking at Sri Lanka’s recent history and violence through one family. Shankari’s book just extends further in the timeline, to end of the war as well.
I think the other authors such as Ondaatje, Shyam, Shehan K, Nihal de Silva will be more popular. I also recommend Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost. It’s set during and just after the JVP insurrection and how memory and grief are so important and intertwined.
A few years ago, I had to study Taslima Nasreen’s Lajja for my literature class. Nasreen’s text explores the violence, horror, discrimination and trauma faced by the Hindus in ’90s Bangladesh. Today, Bangladesh promises to be an entirely different nation.
A friend on Twitter suggests Humayun Ahmed’s work, who perfectly understood the simplicity of Bengali genome and mastered his work based on it. Samin Kashmy, another Bangladeshi friend wrote to me on Facebook with a book recommendation.
Banker To The Poor by Dr Muhammad Yunus
According to Kashmy: This non-fiction text narrates the journey of Dr Yunus who popularized micro credit as an instrument to lift impoverished groups out of poverty. I found his point of view on poverty and capabilities of the less fortunate interesting and inspiring throughout the book.
Ai-Suan Lee is a Malaysian Psychology lecturer. She wrote to me on Instagram about her book recommendations.
Ai-Suan recommends: The Rice Mother by Rani Manicka
Evening Is The Whole Day by Preeta Samarasan
She says, “The Rice Mother spans three generations from pre-WWII to the present era, which reminded me of my late grandparents’ struggles during their early days in Malaya.” This novel is centered around 14-year-old Lakshmi who leaves Ceylon (Sri Lanka) to Malaya (Malaysia), to get married to an older man.
She also says: “In Evening Is The Whole Day, the prose complex characters left a mark on my imagination. A seemingly well-off family has cracks beneath its surface. The novel isn’t told in chronological order, so it leaves the reader making educated guesses in between, until it all comes into place.”
This is an open list. If you are Asian and has book suggestions, feel free to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’d love to add them here. Thank you!
Written by Zinara xx
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