India books, REVIEWS, Travel books

Beyond the call centre

Anand Giridharadas, India Calling

What does it feel like to be both inside and outside a culture? When Anand Giridharadas moved to Bombay after being raised in the US, he found that he had to reassess his understanding of a country he had always viewed from afar and through the eyes of an Indian American. More to the point, India was changing fast, and so was the way its people saw themselves.

The India he experienced during childhood visits was, he writes, “kind and decent, generous and sacrificial, repressed and narrow, wretched and hopeless; a land short on dynamism and initiative, long on caution, niggling judgment, subservience, and fear; a land where people didn’t come into their own as they did in America; a land that had ultimately failed to persuade my father, who loved it dearly, to stay”. But when Giridharadas takes a job as a management consultant in Bombay soon after graduation, he finds that things have changed. Rather than welcoming him with open arms, his colleagues resent the easy ride he’s had through college while they faced off fierce compeition to get into India’s prestige institutes. And they’re proud of their roots. Unlike the exclusive, overindulged, traditional élite of South Bombay, the new professional class speaks English with an accent, prefers its ghar ka khana, and is getting the best jobs in the go-ahead economy. As India modernises, it seems to become less, rather than more, westernised.

Switching jobs to be the city’s New York Times correspondent gives Giridharadas the perfect platform to go out and explore this new nation. The author meets small-town entrepreneurs in central India, schizophrenic Maoists in Hyderabad and a joint family in Patiala that, although still living in the same house, has cleaved into an ‘upstairs’ and a ‘downstairs’ faction, the one aggressively embracing modernity and materialism, the other retreating drunkenly into traditional notions of honour and caste. Giridharadas has grown up conscious of his Indian heritage, where family are more important than friends and respect for elders is a given. It allows him the perfect vantage point to tease out the ecstasies and the contradictions of India’s remarkable growth.

The book is divided into six sections, titled ‘Dreams’, ‘Ambition’, ‘Pride’, ‘Anger’, ‘Love’ and ‘Freedom’. Each theme asserts itself clearly around the stories that the author recounts from the cities and towns. The mix of material helps maintain the pace of the narrative: there are brief vignettes, long interviews, and extended stories from friends and family. In the chapter titled ‘Ambition’, the author makes a number of visits to the small town of Umred, where a young man called Ravindra has become the leading entrepreneur, presiding over personality contests and roller-skating classes, having propelled himself out of low-caste poverty with self-help books and finishing schools. In ‘Pride’, Giridharadas recounts the story of the Ambani family as a parable of the new India. He interviews Mukesh Ambani, and observes him as he maintains the circles of patronage that have pushed the company to the forefront of Indian capitalism.

The Ambanis’ style of doing business, argues Giridharadas, signals a reversion to indigenous ethics where acts are judged on the way they affect one’s family and business and associates, rather than in more universalist terms. No wonder the westernised classes disdain the Ambanis while self-made men like Ravindra revere them. But paradoxically, Ravindra’s rise through the ranks has come about only because he has loosened himself from the traditional strictures. While society traditionally defined the scope of ambition by defining what job a person should do, where they should live and whom they should marry, men such as Ravindra have freed themselves but at the cost of an identity, leaving only the aphorisms of Dale Carnegie to work with. At the end of the chapter Ravindra has been rejected by his girlfriend, who hankers for more traditional connections, and we wonder what will become of him.

When the author asks a Maoist activist in Hyderabad about his vision for the revolution, the answer seems completely divorced from reality. ‘..relationships should not be on the basis of inequality of power or property. It should be on the basis of their human worth.’ ”At bottom,” writes Giridharadas, “he sought to turn Indians into a people other than themselves.” The author himself is prey to no such illusion, as his words unfurl to reveal the Indian at the heart of the American. His sense of identity flows from his parents and grandparents, and it flows proudly. At only one point does the writing become slightly stilted, and that is in the chapter titled ‘Love’, in which Giridharadas talks about his own lovers before moving on to, among other things, the fascinating business of India’s increasing divorce rate. Is this modesty, or a desire to spare his parents the embarrassment of reading all about it? As he points out, in America he was a nerd, while in India he is seen as a fount of wisdom on such matters. Like anyone in this situation, he makes it up as he goes along. An entire country is doing the same, and it’s just getting more interesting.

Angus McDonald

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About moonpeak

Moonpeak is an online and print magazine published in McLeodganj, Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh, India. It features articles and interviews about travel, photography and books, with a focus on South Asia and Tibet. The magazine is based at Moonpeak cafe, restaurant and gallery on Temple Road, McLeodganj.

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