Saturday 27 August 2016
facebook.com/Outlookindia twitter.com/outlookindia digimag.outlookindia.com instagram.com/outlookindia youtube.com/user/OutlookMagazine

Know India: Learn The Alphabet By Heart

The raised-as-American Giridharadas has a steady eye, but his set-pieces are a patchwork in a big book
Getty Images (From Outlook, March 14, 2011)
India Calling: An Intimate Portrait Of A Nation’s Remaking
By Anand Giridharadas
Fourth Estate/HarperCollins | Pages: 307 | Rs. 499

Barely have we strapped ourselves in to read Anand Giridharadas’s rollercoaster ride of thoughts, experiences and interviews about being an Indo-American who returns to India, when whoosh! It’s over.

But in its brisk way, the book covers a broad area while sparing us the mandatory visits to slums, brothels and palaces. It should appeal to the thousands of so-called ABCDs—American Born Confused Desis—who struggle with feelings shading from guilt and confusion to joyous surrender to their ethnic homeland. Amongst the most corrosive results of emigration is the loss of a past without the benefit of gaining a present. For the Indian diaspora, the typical cultural dislocation of all immigrants is multiplied many times over by the fact that, as a culture, we’re not homogeneous and the shared citizenship is an illusion. We might find ourselves being thrown together with others of our nationality only to realise that we have neither food, language, religion nor social experience in common. We would be better off with complete aliens, who would at least have no expectations, than with one of our “own”, who might be inclined to penalise us for being non-standard.

Advertisement

Giridharadas’s story is just one amongst the countless multi-dimensional histories that this diaspora has begun to write. His parents left during the peak “brain-drain” years. They fell in love in India and married across the Punjab-Tamil Nadu cultural divide. Once in the US, they assimilated quickly, raising their two children as Americans, rather than as Indians-in-Exile. In this way, Giridharadas had less confusion to contend with than many others. His face and genes are Indian, but the organisation of his thoughts is American. When he talks to Ravindra the Roller Skating King or the hapless divorcing couples at the Bandra Family Court or the god-emperor-industrialist Mukesh Ambani, it is as an outsider looking in, but with the advantage of looking like an insider.

When Giridharadas talks to divorcing couples, or Mukesh Ambani, it’s as an outsider looking in, but who looks like an insider.

The thing that wasn’t clear to me by book’s end was whether the author set out to tell us more, then decided to hold back. He weaves the personal narrative of his parents’ departure from India, his own upbringing and the stages by which he revisits India as an adult in between the stories he gathers from a handful of others. The result is patchy, as if he has selected from a rather slender stock of options. Of his own story, the most intimate glimpse he offers is of the account left by his paternal grandmother, a 32-page document entitled ‘Our Marriage’. Though the author tells us that “it conjured a world that was unrecognisable in twenty-first-century India,” I would say the exact opposite. Not only has very little changed in the way marriages are arranged but in his descriptions of personal life, Giridharadas is just as reserved a writer as his grandmother was. He refers to his parents’ love-match and to his own shadowy girlfriends in the manner of a chef who mentions chillies but doesn’t use them.

Advertisement

Trained as a management consultant, the author moved to Bombay in 2003, working for McKinsey & Company for two years. Having previously interned with the New York Times at the age of 17, he returned to journalism in 2005, reporting from Bombay for the NYT and Herald Tribune for four years. The stories he tells best are those which work as set pieces in a column, such as the scenes at the Family Court and the tragicomic account of his stay in a Ludhiana home belonging to two brothers, where climbing the stairs from the ground to the first floor is like time-travel from the fly-blown hospitality of the past to the cell-phone-enabled future. I wondered how his subjects would respond to their depiction in this book, whether they felt violated rather than showcased. But perhaps that’s always the case with documentary footage?

I also found myself being reminded, oddly enough, of both Geeta Mehta’s  Karma Cola (1979) and Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City (2004). Both were huge best-sellers, but one was written as infotainment and the other as dispatches from an urban war-zone. Giridharadas is cooler, younger and more detached than either of these writers. He writes with the confidence of the marathon runner, who knows he has many miles to cover before he truly finds his way home.

READ MORE IN:
PLACES: India
SECTION: Books
SUBSECTION: Reviews
OUTLOOK: 14 March, 2011
Download the Outlook ​Magazines App. Six magazines, wherever you go! Play Store and App Store

Post a Comment

You are not logged in, please Log in or Register
  • Daily Mail
THE LATEST ISSUE
CLICK IMAGE FOR CONTENTS
REVIEW
Review
These pacy thrillers put two southern cities on the crime map
MAGAZINE August 24, 2016
Review
The dark world Harry & Co inhabit changes little after 22 years
MAGAZINE August 24, 2016
Extract
How a brutal LTTE directive was lost in the static of intelligence
MAGAZINE August 18, 2016
Review
A RBI governor remembers his doughty fights, but cuts down on the math
MAGAZINE August 11, 2016
Book Extract
Abused by a relative at six, Laxmi saw how patriarchy tried to crush her femininity. And she made it come back to crush them, ‘those straight men with wives and kids’.
MAGAZINE August 10, 2016
read more>>>
OUTLOOK ON TWITTER
POLLS

In 1999, India and France entered into a $3.5 billion deal for the supply of these submarines. The first of the 6 subs is out on sea trials for the last three months and is to be commissioned later this year. At this stage, a newspaper in Australia has revealed secret data on the submarines, plausibly stolen from India. Indian Defence authorities have ruled out any pilferage of data from India.

POLL STARTED ON: Aug 26, 2016
Quiz
Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro is hosting the 31st Olympic Games from August 5 to 21. This is the first Olympics being held in South America and is going on even as a majority Brazilians are unhappy with their rulers. Here’s a quiz on some random Olympic facts and related trivia.
QUIZ STARTED ON: Aug 11, 2016
Advertisement