Is India Really Calling?

I recently finished reading Anand GiridharadasINDIA CALLING, an intimate portrait of a nation’s remaking. I’d watched Jon Stewart interview Anand on The Daily Show and decided to read the book. Any book on and about India fascinates me. The idea of India as perceived and expressed by the writers more often than not reiterates that India means a billion things to a billion people. Some emotions and concepts overlap and some don’t. Depends on where you come from and where you want to go. So of course I picked up the book from my local library. It is less than 300 pages and should have been an easy read but a lot of the time I would slam it shut in mild irritation. Mild irritation because (a) the descriptions just went on and on as if trying to capture, project and exoticise an imagery for a Western audience already unable to fathom the effects of globalisation on a third world country (b) this was an upper-middle class, slightly condescending, slightly enamoured, male point-of-view.

It does not bother me that Anand is a second generation Indian-American. That was one of the reasons I wanted to read the book. The search for identity and roots is an universal desire amongst migrants and so Anand’s idea to go back to India and rediscover his roots is absolutely valid. Neither is he a bad writer but to condense a complex country and current social churning into India101 is problematic. Especially when there is no critique, only fascination.

I will only bullet-point the following and not necessarily in order.

  • Before anything else, the chapter on Mukesh Ambani is utterly sychophantic. Of course being the richest man in India means people either like you or hate you (and I’m not a fan) but perhaps like in a biopic there might have been some endearing qualities to this man, maybe. Anand has not been able to tell the reader so. Instead he pushes the idea that Mukesh Ambani represents the new India where anyone can become rich. The ‘villager-made-good’ image of Mr Ambani is repeatedly portrayed as if he does not care two hoots about being seen in chappals and pants that begin at his chest. How do you know it is not a deliberate image created to appeal to the common-man Reliance shareholder? And then build an ostentatious tower on allegedly dubiously obtained prime real estate.
  • Then there is Ravindra from Umred. Great story of a lower caste boy who made it big and even went to Hong Kong as team manager for the Indian roller skating team (although I cannot find any reference online). What percentage of the lower castes does he represent? Barely none. Just one ‘success story’ is not a sign of changing India. Is Ravindra now with a political party where he is the token Dalit leader? I am curious. Has he been able to transform his community by empowering them or just made money for his family? While rest of the lower castes continue to be where they are because the new middle class, made of poor people from the upper caste, assert themselves within the schema.
  • The Upstairs and Downstairs chachas from Ludhiana, one who exists in the past and another who looks towards the future are such caricatures. We know, we’ve always known. Such families existed before economic liberalisation and always will. They will be in television serials and in Indian films; they will be in your building in urban Bombay and they will be in some remote small town in the middle of India. My family has specimens like this. It is not a new conflict created in modern India unless it is to sell to Western readers.
  •  Obeisance to neoliberalism comes through in the chapter on the Maoists in Hyderabad. Anand tries hard not be be contemptuous of a ‘part-time’ revolutionary who also writes for The Economic Times but ultimately accuses him of being another Brahmin who will treat the workers/comrades as if from the lower castes. On one hand the book eulogises the contradictions that is India and then goes on to point fingers at a living example of the same. Because a businessman activist who runs an NGO aimed at social justice is more kosher than a middle class man who is trying to pay the bills and create awareness of a different kind? Thomas Friedman v/s Karl Marx scenario. Depends on who makes the inference. In this case it is Anand Giridharadas.

The book pretty much retells bits and pieces of Indian history for a Western reader but stays clear of the uncomfortable. Where is the Hindu-Muslim conflict? Why not a single Muslim minority person who might have possibly gained from economic liberalisation? What about the Hindu fundamentalists? Farmers who own and till their own land, frustrated at global cotton prices and helpless because of the free-market policies in India?

Anand tells his grandfather’s story, of marrying a young girl and working for Hindustan Lever, of old school cultural values. Very touching and beautiful. My grandfather grew up in poverty and was the first from his family to have higher education-to become a doctor. He too had very old school cultural values. Honesty, modesty, frugality, hardwork, social responsibility and all that. In his book Anand somehow interprets these as British values that do no fit Indian culture anymore because as India has become richer Indians have gone back to their ‘real’ culture. Manu’s culture; that ‘we-are-like-this-only’ and so everything is relative and subjective. A low caste man commiting a crime deserves to be punished whereas a Brahmin not so. (I have over simplified it here rather than get into a deeper discussion.) So all the above values as subscribed to by our grandparents are alien. That means, as I interpret it, Indians can get away with a lot of bad behaviour and continued lack of repsonsibility towards the world because of some ancient patriarch whose words suit our existence. Or is it that while money is great and greed too, there is no need to apologise about it because the scriptures say so? How convenient. That leaves no space for public discourse at all. Except to blame the government and politicians for every bad thing.

The only three things Anand has observed perfectly are the (a) attitude of the upper middle class South Bombay types who live in posh localities and frequent the posher clubs (or gymkhanas), (b) the modern Indian woman. My dear sisters from back home. Nothing changes there and (c) the lack of a liberal arts education that allows one to think tangentially.

I know this blog is already too long but I do want to use two films as examples of pinpointing the changes in India; to see how Indians negotiate modernity and tradition.

Karan Johar’s 1998 film Kuch Kuch Hota Hai showed us young Indians who lived in their designer gear, played basketball, called each other dude, travelled the world (in the space of the songs) and were at ease with themselves. They had no desire to question tradition and culture, in fact that is where they anchored themselves. Elders were not challenged, there was no sign of defiance, resistance or protest. It was all about the family, love and maintaining status quo. More than ten years later, Imtiaz Ali‘s film Rockstar has an angry, defiant young man as the protagonist. He is unable to express himself, does not know how to do it. His girlfriend gets married without understanding the meaning of it (as do many young Indians) and then the real love story begins. An extra-marital relationship that is fraught with guilt and the inability to escape from what is. There are questions galore, directed to family, to society, to tradition but no words to articulate. (Except through the song Sadda Haq.)  In the end both die. That is the impact of globalisation without social discourse. It has speeded up the way Youngistan is discarding ‘old ways’ but without any bulwark of references (should I say foundation). This is unprecedented. The older generation, even those in their forties, who grew up in a socialist India that then transformed into a free market India in the early nineties, what I call the ‘lost generation’, is still to comprehend the changes. So where is that leading to? Backwards. Because when we cannot make sense of what is going on we look to the ‘golden’ past, to religion and the scriptures, imagining and hoping to find safety there.

At best Anand’s book is a collection of his personal expriences and observations as he tries to figure out his ‘Indian identity’ and at worst it is a form of Orientalism I have not yet been able to name. It would be problematic if the book became the definitive text about social and cultural life in free market India.

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