India is a country I go back and forth on wanting to visit (seeing the Taj Mahal is one of those travel experiences I hope to have before I die). But that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy eating its food or learning about its incredible and fascinating culture. Indian-American author Jhumpa Lahiri is also one of my favorite writers and as India features prominently in many of her works, I’ve gotten to learn more about the country.
Esplanade Mansion (formerly Watson’s Hotel)-Mumbai
This is India’s oldest surviving cast iron building, even though if you gaze at it today, you might be startled by what you see. The former hotel had an illustrious history, starting with its famous designer, Rowland Mason Ordish, a civil engineer who was associated with the design of St. Pancreas Station in London. It playing host to countless notable guests including Mark Twain, who wrote about the crows he saw from his balcony at the hotel in his work Following the Equator. The hotel operated for nearly a century until it lost out in popularity to the Taj Hotel. Eventually it was subdivided and partitioned into small cubicles with independent access and let out to rent. Over the years, apathy toward the building by the residents has resulted in further decay, and sadly it is now dilapidated and an eyesore.
The Taj Mahal (Agra)
I don’t think I could mention five literary sites to visit in India without naming its most famous landmark ever. The story behind the creation of this structure has a fairytale feel to it (Emperor Shah Jehan built the Taj Mahal in memory of his adored wife Mumtaz Muhal, who died in childbirth), but countless books have also featured it as a setting-Beneath a Marble Sky: a love story by John Shors and The Twentieth Wife by Indu Sundaresan.
I knew nothing about this prior to reading Kiran Desai’s novel The Inheritance of Loss, one of the best works of fiction I have ever read. Kangchenjunga is the highest mountain in India and it is the setting for Desai’s work. I’ve read enough about the remnants of the British Raj in India’s larger cities but it was interesting to learn about the Indian culture in this part of the country, especially since it’s always been so interwoven with the Nepalese culture as well. Although I don’t see myself ever climbing the highest mountain in India, I would love to visit the Darjeeling region there, as I am immensely fascinated by tea plantations.
While both The Jungle Book and The Secret Garden are works of fiction with neither having a specific setting named other than India, Kerala is the type of place I could see one or both being set. Located on India’s tropical Malabar Coast, it features nearly 600 kilometers of Arabian Sea shoreline and is famous for its palm-lined beaches and its series of canals. If you venture inland, you can discover the Western Ghats, a mountain range where tea, coffee, and spice plantations along with native wildlife can be found on its slopes. As both of these famous children’s works were written well over a century ago, I can just imagine Kerala as being the type of place where the characters of Mowgli and Mary Lennox might once have explored, long before mass development and the backpacker route found its way there.
While it’s pretty well-known that the Portuguese once had a settlement in India, less is known about the French colonial settlement which was there until 1954. By 1850, the British had basically “established” themselves in India and they allowed the retreating French to remain in four small pockets of South Indian territory with Pondicherry being the central point. It also served as the early setting of the Patel family in the novel Life of Pi. The French Quarter in Pondicherry was the backdrop to many of the sequences in the film version. Although today it is known as Puducherry (its pre-colonial Tamil name), one can still find traces of its French colonial legacy. Everything from tree-lined streets to mustard-colored colonial villas to even chic boutiques you would expect to find in La France. exist in this Indian boom town. Visitors can check out the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, which is referenced in the novel as a place where Mamaji, Pi’s uncle, swam 30 lengths every morning.