Homeland revisited

LEAD REVIEW

Homeland revisited

RUSTIC TINGE Rural India is imbibing change gradually. In the middle of his accomplished book, India Calling, Anand Giridharadas tells of meeting a Maoist revolutionary in Hyderabad. The city, nicknamed Cyberabad, serves as a base for both the globalised Indian economy and an armed insurgency at war against the country’s inequalities, rooted and new. India’s Maoist — or Naxalite — movement began as a rural struggle against exploitative landlords in a caste-conscious, socialist nation but has now arrayed itself against the forces of global capitalism reshaping India. When Giridharadas pushes the Naxalite — What does one fight have to do with the other? — the man answers with a striking notion: globalisation is reducing people to their specific economic task, stripping them of their humanity, just as caste had done. And software engineers in gated communities have become the new Brahmins. Giridharadas follows the curve of this argument, allowing it to seduce us. Then, he reveals that this rebel, although waging revolution by night, reports by day for a newspaper he himself describes as a shill for the multinational transformation of India. “I have to earn my lunch,” the man explains. “I’m not a whole-timer for revolution.”

The scene accentuates Giridharadas’s appeal as a writer. India Calling has what Hanif Kureishi once described as “the sex of a syllogism.” Full-figured ideas animate every turn. So, simultaneously, does Giridharadas’s eye for contradiction. The combination both pleases us and makes us wary — distrustful of shapely ideas, including the author’s own. His main thrust will be familiar to readers of his Letter From India series in The International Herald Tribune (for which he now writes the ‘Currents’ column): Western-style malls and skyscrapers have proliferated since his parents emigrated in the 1970s. But the landscape most transformed is the one within. The change, Giridharadas writes, is “in the mind, in how people conceived of their possibilities: Indians now seemed to know that they didn’t have to leave, as my father had, to have their personal revolutions.”

Consider electricity, he says. Yes, power cuts once levelled class differences, democratically dooming everyone to the same arbitrary darkness. And true, gated communities now have private power plants that provide a way “to depart India without leaving.” But to Giridharadas, this does not prove the existence of an emerging ‘iCaste.’ He cites the example of the village of Umred, whose residents rioted to protest blackouts once stoically endured. “It was a small town in the middle of nowhere, dusty and underwhelming and dead,” he writes. “But it had begun to dream.”

For centuries, he argues, Indians had been born understanding their precise place. They knew who was master and who was servant, fixedly. Giridharadas describes hierarchy’s hold on his homeland with eloquence: “It was the calculus that governed life: Am I his sahib, or is he mine? Who should shout at whom? Whose body must apologise for its presence, and whose must swagger?” In his view, society — and the state-regulated economy set up by the nation’s founders — prevented the emergence of self-made men and (even more so) self-made women. But globalisation has led towns like Umred to demand electricity — necessary for the Internet and satellite television, and “essential,” as one resident tells Giridharadas, “to ambition.” Capitalism allows Indians to imagine and even realise lives outside their fates (kismet) and prescribed roles (karma). Servants might become masters. In other words, it accomplishes what the Naxalites and Nehru failed to achieve.

That is Giridharadas’s seductive theory. And it inspires wariness, just as the Naxalites’ does — yet not because of any dishonesty. In fact, Giridharadas is disarmingly honest. Raised in the United States, he acknowledges upfront his quintessentially American lens: “I had begun to see self-invention as a theme of India’s unfolding drama. It was an idea that resonated with me, naturally, because of my own family’s story.” In 2003, after graduating from college, Giridharadas retraced his parents’ steps and went back to India. He took a consulting job and, a year later, a reporting position in Mumbai. His was an unexpected circle travelled by other Indian-Americans, a cohort he calls “India’s stepchildren.” These bankers, artists and techies were not simply looking for themselves. They were pursuing futures in the country their parents had left behind, but one that was now achieving growth rates surpassed only by China.

The book’s subtitle promises “an intimate portrait of a nation’s remaking.” Giridharadas, however, casts himself as narrator rather than subject. There is no identity crisis here. He doesn’t present a personal love story either, although the acknowledgements suggest there is one. Giridharadas provides just enough family history — movingly, for instance, snippets from his grandmother’s diary about her arranged marriage — to illuminate the India that once was.  But he recognises that as the new India called to him, it also called to its very own. This memoir is about them. Giridharadas introduces us to fascinating characters: The shoeless son of a coolie who transforms himself into a local Dale Carnegie, teaching others how to reinvent themselves. The billionaire Mukesh Ambani — ‘a non-violent Don Corleone’ — whose brash embrace of Bollywood and a peculiarly subcontinental style of bribery forces Giridharadas to ask: “So, was India becoming more Westernised or less?” And a high-powered banker who lives with her parents, lingering “in the badlands” between “liberated and anxious,” her confused love life a testament to how wrenching the freedom to shape one’s future can be.

India Calling is a fine book, elegant, self-aware and unafraid of contradictions and complexity. Giridharadas captures fundamental changes in the nature of family and class relationships and the very idea of what it means to be an Indian. Still, his filter — India seen through the eyes of one of its stepchildren — makes me skeptical about his thesis, however alluring. Giridharadas wonders if the Naxalite was projecting the emotions of the old feudal fight into his critique of Google and Microsoft. In the same vein, I wonder if Giridharadas is projecting his own experience — brought up in America’s free market culture, a child of immigrants raised on reinvention — into his argument that capitalism is teaching Indians how to become men of their own making.

India calling
Anand Giridharadas
Harper Collins
2011, pp 312
Rs 499
 

 

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