An Indian American journalist moves to India with her husband and daughter from the US to help launch a newspaper in Delhi. S. Mitra Kalita is looking to explore subjects consuming her new home—“greed, celebrity, education, aspiration, vocation, security and the place of India and Indians in a globalised world”. Part of her move is also propelled by a desire to reconnect with her larger family in Assam. What emerges at the end of her two-year stay is part memoir, part travelogue, part impressions of a city—and a country—in the throes of change. The problem is it fails to be either.
Life in Delhi is an unremarkable expatriate story of house hunting, interviews with nosy landlords, $1,250- (around Rs56,625) a-month apartments with empty faucets, black market gas cylinders and booster pumps to tap water. There is partying at farmhouses and dancing at nightclubs. In Assam, there are meetings with relatives and a moving account of the death of a family elder.
My Two Indias: HarperCollins Business, 209 pages, Rs399
At work, Kalita discovers that Indians revere hierarchy (what do you expect in a country which remains feudal at its heart?) and the difficulties of being boss and friend. She gives journalism lessons to her reporters telling them to approach “every story as a blank slate”.
Kalita’s two Indias are mostly Delhi—and bits of Assam. Their exploration also takes a familiar route through English-speaking call centre workers, and Indians making clothes for the West in Gurgaon. Kalita worries about steep school dropout rates, unemployable college graduates, phony management institutes and lack of informed debate on higher education. All are valid concerns, but there is no deeper exploration of the challenges and how they are being fought with mixed results.
There are bits about how big and messy government strangles business and encourages corruption with naïve presumptions. One time Kalita talks about how one of India’s leading builders is trying to sell more apartments in Gurgaon but “without government protection, it seemed the lights could be turned off any time”. It is a curious concern in a climate where governments and builders mostly work hand-in-glove, and Gurgaon, many believe, is an excellent example of how the two have joined hands to bring about civic ruin. So the “lights” will never go out for the builders in India; it can only go out for the consumers, given the lack of any regulation in real estate.
Kalita also falls into the journalistic trap of exaggeration or glib conclusion. She begins to explore what could have been an arresting theme by itself—the reverse migration of Indians from the US—but falls into the trap quickly. Bangalore alone, she writes, could see about 30,000 Indian Americans and their ilk return by 2030. “Their boomerang migration,” she writes, “exists alongside two seemingly opposite trends: a rapidly westernising India and an ethnically diversifying US..” Which India is “Westernizing”, barring enclaves in south Delhi and Mumbai? And what does Westernization precisely mean in a country where the majority of the young and well-to-do are devoutly religious and intensely traditional?
The book also needed a fact-checker. Kalita talks about the proposed special economic zone (SEZ) in Singur, home to the aborted Nano car factory in West Bengal. Singur was never planned as a SEZ. She mentions Gurgaon as a municipality in the 1990s; it became a municipality only in 2008.
Kalita writes with reasonable verve and displays flashes of wry humour—a bouquet of roses welcoming her at work is addressed to “Mr Kalita”, Delhi’s “obsession with pure-bred dogs” amuses her and she is gently admonished by her office peon for using her boss’ mug. But in the end, this is a dishevelled and frail offering which takes on too much than it can handle.
Soutik Biswas is the India editor of BBC online.
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