I just got back from a long trip to India, which included stints in Benares/Varanasi/Kashi and Bombay/Mumbai and Bangalore/Bengaluru. I have not really read enough to compile this list, but I am flush with enthusiasm for what is at least sort of my country. So here we go, in no particular order, some random highlights:
Swami & Friends, by R.K. Narayan
The pride of South India! I have read many of his novels, but this is the only one that I really love. A great book, and I think the best novel about childhood I've ever read.
The Tribal World of Verrier Elwin, by Verrier Elwin
Pretty much forgotten outside of India, Elwin was part of the independence struggle with Gandhi and Nehru, and then spent the rest of life living with the Gonds, the largest of India's remaining tribal peoples. His autobiography is beautifully written and surprisingly funny.
Our Films, Their Films, by Satyajit Ray
The most multifaceted genius that India has produced in the modern era. In addition to making his films, he composed music, drew, and wrote some extremely good short stories, along with this collection of short essays written for newspapers. I was pretty amazed at how perceptive they are, and not just about the movies.
The Story of My Experiments With Truth, by M. K. Gandhi
Gandhi's autobiography, and much to my discredit the only modern book on this list not originally written in English. (It was written in Gujarati and translated by Gandhi's secretary.) Until the end, when it gets bogged down in the dated exhortations of the Independence movement, the book is pretty great. And surprisingly it's a real literary success as well - Gandhi has a talent for pacing and description and even comedy, and there are indelible passages throughout.
India: A Wounded Civilization, by V.S. Naipaul
The best book in his trilogy on India. It's pretty much a big "fuck you" to the country, but it's too formidable and perceptive an attack to be dismissed. It also contains some of the best criticism ever written about Narayan and a surprisingly appreciative essay on Gandhi.
The Mahabharata, by Vyasa
Most people prefer The Odyssey to The Iliad, but among the two great Indian epics (the other is the Ramayana) the battle story is by far the more interesting. I learned these stories from comic books, a TV serial, and from the Rajagopalachari translation, which is pretty solid. "One cannot understand India's way of life," Rajagopalachari says in the introduction, "unless one has read the Ramayana and the Mahabharata." Well, I have read both and I still don't really understand, so clearly it takes a little more...
Midnight's Children, by Salman Rushdie
I'm not sure it deserves to make this list, because I'm not particularly interested in re-reading it. But it was compulsive reading for me when I first picked it up. An incredibly compelling and inventive plot - a triumph of imagination and technical wizardly, although not really of any deeper human understanding, I don't think.
The Wonder That Was India, by A. L. Basham
Um, full disclosure, I have not actually read this book. But my Dad says it's very good, and so does John Keay, whose general history of India I am currently reading. For homegrown Indian historians - who for some reason all seem to be Marxist - I have heard good things about Romila Thapar and D.D. Kosambi. I will head to the library shortly and attempt to justify these totally unsupported recommendations.
Apologies for the complete lack of women on this list; I clearly just haven't read enough. Also, half-points go to J. G. Farrell's The Siege of Krishnapur, which is a brilliant novel but is really much more about the British than it is about India. Also, I like Edwin Arnold's poem The Light of Asia, about the life of the Buddha, as well as his translation of the Gita. Finally, G.V. Desani's "All About H. Hatterr" is very funny and now back in print. Keep 'em coming, Injuns and Injunphiles!