Book Review: India Calling
On the cover of journalist Anand Giridharadas’s first book, India Calling: An Intimate Portrait of a Nation’s Remaking, is a picture of an Indian man leaping across from one boat to another. It’s not difficult to latch on to the reference to someone being “fresh off the boat”, a term used to describe immigrants derisively. Giridharadas’s father, who moved to America in the 1970s, probably heard it. However, here’s where you’re supposed to marvel at the clever poignancy of the image: Giridharadas was fresh off the boat in 2002, but in India. As he grapples with the country in India Calling, he becomes like the man in the cover photograph: one foot in the American and the other in the Indian boat, forever between two but moving forward sure-footedly.
Look closely at that photo again. The two boats are tethered together. They aren’t taking anyone anywhere, and the man is using them as mere stepping stones to reach somewhere that has nothing to do with the boats at all. This is indeed a clever image. India has been Giridharadas’s stepping stone. He came just before India became en vogue and now, it’s made him cool. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. All of us in India, expats and locals, are making the most of the shift in world opinion. If we aren’t, then we’d like to. The problem with Giridharadas is that his method of becoming cool rests upon him presenting himself as an expert of the new India. As an expert, one expects from Giridharadas insights, experience and in-depth research. He gives us condescension and observations such as this: rich school kids buy more expensive snacks than their less well-off classmates. He’d have us believe that India is different from his native America for having a privileged sector and poor people. Read India Calling and America emerges as generic viagra a place where people aren’t judged by what they wear or where they’re from or what they do, where liberal arts flourish and there are no prejudices.
Never mind that. Let’s stick to the country being called out to in the title of this book. India Calling teeters between being enamoured of liberalised India, which is supposedly made up of confident entrepreneurs, and being dismissive of an old Hindu India that was restrictive and followed age-old traditions. Giridharadas’s thesis is that Hindu notions of karma combined with the Socialist economic model made India stagnate. Traditions were followed blindly because there was no other way to live. People dared not reinvent themselves because they were shackled by notions of caste. Those who had ambition left the country because they could be themselves in, say, America. Then liberalisation came to India and people saw the light. They started up little firms that taught spoken English, roller skating, grooming and a bouquet of skills that had never been valued in the old India. A new India was rising out of the ashes of the old and it was, to quote Dude Where’s My Car? “sweet”.
If there is one thing that anyone with even an unfocussed, wide-angle vision of India can say with some authority, it is that this is the land of jugaad, where people have lived by their wits and reinvented themselves for centuries. Giridharadas, however, insists it’s the opposite. Giridharadas weeps for the old India that didn’t let his father be his real self or his mother eat what she wanted to, and in the process disregards drastic reinventions, like that of classical singers like M. S. Subbalakshmi or Kesarbai Kerkar who soldiered their professions out of disrepute and into respectability, or the Parsi community that came to India as refugees and became synonymous with wealth and sophistication. As Giridharadas’s heart breaks at the thought of how caste has strangled the lives of many, he ignores people like B.R. Ambedkar and Namdeo Dhasal who didn’t suffer injustice stoically or meekly. And when he celebrates his parents “refreshing” themselves (in the sense of refreshing a web page) in America and says it would be impossible for them to do so in India, he ignores the large percentage of the immigrant community that lives in a conservative time warp that has inspired films like Bend it Like Beckham.
In his attempt to account for India’s multiplicity, Giridharadas presents us with a selection of people who seem like caricatures. The Punjabi family stuffs the visiting Giridharadas with food, and an uncle forces him to partake of “whiskeychickenmutton”. The struggler who came up in life and teaches young people in a small town about grooming and appearance doesn’t know how to talk to a girl. Of the two Maoists he includes in the book, one is disconnected with the present-day reality of the Naxalite struggle and the other is a hypocrite because he writes pro-privatisation pieces in The Economic Times for a living. Giridharadas’s McKinsey colleagues in India are different, he observes, because they can’t speak as confidently as he can to senior partners and can’t weave world events into a conversation. Most of Giridharadas’s Indians are freakish, some gently so and some less gently. (Incidentally, one of the people who does inspire wide-eyed admiration is Mukesh Ambani, even though Dhirubhai Ambani’s success completely undercuts Giridharadas’s argument.) As if all this wasn’t bad enough, there are sections where Giridharadas’s language turns a florid shade of purple, like when he describes romantic, modern love as “love that shrinks the world to the vital truth staring at you from across the valley of your pillows”.
India Calling is Giridharadas’s “thank you” gift to the country that made him cool after he had spent his life being a nerd in America. While we’re glad that he has made peace with being Indian and he’s realised there’s more to India than his relatives, India Calling has little insight and lots of clichés. Then again, the title did say it was “intimate”, not enlightening.
India Calling: An Intimate Portrait of a Nation’s Remaking by Anand Giridharadas, Harper Collins, Rs499.
January O’ Really studied postcolonialism in England and decided to put her university education to good use by moving to India. She is a writer and photographer currently based in Mumbai.Tags: Anand Giridharadas, Book Review, book reviews, Books, India Calling, Special Top Story