If you are looking to dip into a book on various aspects of Indian life—the amusing and the depressing—this one is for you. There is Geeta Doctor on the Indian family, Namita Gokhale on marriage, desi style, Seema Goswami on the sari (which Sasthi Brata once described rather uncharitably as the winding sheet of sex), Srividya Natarajan on our obsession with gold (in 2005, an estimated 700 tonnes of the yellow metal was in Indian safes, he reveals, though we produce hardly any of the stuff), Renuka Narayan on “godmen”, Vikram Doctor on food, Punita Singh on Indian English, Indrajit Hazra on our fondness for defecating, peeing and spitting in public (the only really hilarious piece), Bachi Karkaria on our infuriating chalta hai attitude, Vidya Subramaniam on politics, Samrat on sex, Anand Sahay on dynasties (political, bureaucratic and filmy), Jerry Pinto on Bollywood, Ira Pande on babus, Soumya Bhattacharya on cricket and Arvind Krishna Mehrotra on his ramblings in Allahabad and an encounter with Mulk Raj Anand.
Much of this is familiar ground and most of the writing is pedestrian, though there are flashes of brilliance. Devdutt Patnaik’s piece on pilgrimages and religious yatras, in particular, was engrossing and illuminating. He explains how some temples and pilgrim towns became not just dumping grounds for the socially rejected, such as widows, orphans and illegitimate children (Varanasi and Mathura), but places which also attracted courtesans (Goa’s Mangeshi temple) and, needless to say, rapacious priests. A useful book to gift to a visitor wanting to know something about us.