With winter come the usual entreaties from western friends heading for India for the first time. Old India Hand that I am (old Indian everything but let’s not go there), I am deluged with requests for lists of what to do and not to do when in India. I warn them of the direst danger of all ‒ books about India.

“Never, never”, I say to the India-bound, “read about it before you venture there. If you decide to go at all after you’ve read all the rubbish out there, then you go with such massive misconceptions about the country, you would have blighted the trip before it’s started. And maybe even your whole life!”

Henceforth all I shall offer is this. The definitive, exhaustive, totally unimpeachable “what not to read about India before sailing forth” list. Mind you, these travellers to India can be resourceful. They are not top of the economic heap for nothing. They may eventually procure an India book or two despite my valiant steering.

Whatever happens, I have made it mission to make sure they never ever get their hands on the following, the blackest of books on my blacklist.

Midnight’s Children
Who hasn’t heard of Salmon Rush-dye, “the geezer who got done by the fat-war” – the one they spent silly amounts on to keep safe? In bookish circles, they’d even know of his Booker of Bookers win for Midnight’s Children. Yet, the last thing you want to do is recommend it to your India-bound friends.

Winter in India, when the smog lies low and drives everyone to bronchitis, is not the right time to read about a boy with snot-management issues. It would, I feel, dwell too much on the disadvantages of life in India. If they do turn up at all after reading it, they’ll come armed with face masks, antiseptic spray, and cans of beans. And all the lovely meals you had planned for them will go down the fun, along with half the fun of their India jaunt. No, whatever you do, don’t you let them read Midnight’s Children.

The Calcutta Chromosome
Amitav Ghosh, you say, is safe surely? I have three words in response. The. Calcutta. Chromosome. Freaked out enough about Malaria, the last thing they want to hear are conspiracy theories about the dreaded disease. Proguanil and Chloroquine may help keep Malaria at bay, but who will save them from the anxieties inevitably engendered by this ticking time bomb of a book? You simply can’t. So best not let them read it at all.

I know, you see. I lost one husband to the effects of this book (nothing at all to do with me). An Englishman with deep-rooted concerns about the East, he never recovered from the unease it instilled in him about Indians. I’m looking at you Amitav Ghosh. And holding you responsible.

Ice Candy Man
You so do not want them to read Bapsi Sidhwa’s Ice Candy Man either. The horrors of Partition are brought alive in this book, not just the bloodshed but the betrayals and heartbreak as well. It would be safe to say we didn’t cover ourselves in glory and MsSidhwa does an excellent job of capturing that.

To read this would be to know us, warts and all, and we don’t know if our western friends are ready for that yet, not before they actually get here, at any rate. Let them come, spend their money (the nation will thank us for it) and make up their own minds. If they don’t like us, gift them a copy to take home with them.

The Lowland
On to Jumper Lahiri, reigning queen of Indo-Anglican literature. Sharing Sitcom Mindy’s surname doesn’t do her recall factor any harm either. So, chances are, our friends would be keen to read her stuff.

Stop them. The fate of their trip is at stake. Not only has she written about upheavals and insurgency in her latest book, she’s done another unforgiveable thing. She’s created confusion. After reading The Lowland recently, I misguidedly recommended it to a couple of western friends. They took it upon themselves to read Neel Mukherjee’s The Lives of Others as well.

I should have stopped the rot right there but I could not have anticipated what happened next. Both, alarmingly, and independently, pronounced these two books that we Indians had been so inordinately proud of in the last two years, “interchangeable”. That word exactly. Like me, you might struggle to understand where the confusion lies.

But pause a minute to remember poor Aparna Sen being mobbed at Moscow Airport by screaming Russian girls who had mistaken the anything-but-masculine actress for their beloved, bequiffed Disco Dancer from Bollywood, Mithun Chakraborty. The muddle over the two recent novels about the Naxalite Movement in Bengal doesn’t seem quite so preposterous now, does it? You don’t want them to visit the Taj and think it’s India Gate, do you? Then there’s only one thing for it. Hide the books.

The God of Small Things
Next up is Arundhati Roy’s overhyped The God of Small Things.  A book so beautifully written, and yet so full of stereotypical characters and scenarios that I would actually not recommend this one. Seriously. Tongue-loosened-from-cheek-ly.

There’s a heavy-handedness with the exotica that makes me wonder if Roy had a particular readership in mind when she wrote it. I fancy she was playing to the very galleries I would withhold it from. It panders to preconceptions and tells her target audience nothing new.

There is also the small problem of lust. Yes, lust. Many a western man travelling to India dreams of a Roy lookalike for himself. There aren’t that many to go round. Most everyone else has slapped on gallons of Fair and Lovely in the meantime and turned pasty. Spare him the disappointment, don’t let him set eyes on this book.

Another actual no-no is Vikas Swarup’s Q&A. Clunky, contrived and shallow, it cannot do anyone any good whether they are travelling to India or not. They’ve all seen Slumdog Millionaire anyway, why add to the pain?

All those set-in-India novels

Finally, we should do absolutely everything we can to conceal the existence of the many hundreds of books written about India in which a western do-gooder saves the day. A tough ask I know. There are just too many of them. All with the same plot. A Samaritan from distant shores saves our souls, rescues runaway children, cures the entire nation of Leprosy and teaches us the civilised way of doing things. Like using scratchy things for our bottoms.

Whether it’s Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat, Pray, Love,  who gives our girls the strength to stand up for themselves while learning all there is to learn about India without ever stepping out of her turgid ashram, or the old biddies in Deborah Moggach’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, or Lapierre’s Christ-like central character in the City of Joy, aka the poverty-pedlars’ bible, they all singlehandedly do for us what millions of us have never been able to do for ourselves.

Go figure. It must be true. But best not put such ideas into the average western tripper’s head. If they don’t get into trouble attempting some derring-do, they may go home completely crestfallen that nobody seemed to want to be saved. Leading to serious self-esteem issues that could sour their relations with India forever.

So, help your new-in-India friends. Save yourself a lot of trouble too. Doing your bit for the Motherland all the while. You can do it all in one fell swoop. Burn those books.

Shreya Sen-Handley is a former television producer and journalist, who now writes and illustrates for the British and Indian media, and has a memoir in the offing.