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Why India is in the details

Why India is in the details
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First Published: Fri, Mar 04 2011. 07 17 PM IST

Postcard: (Right) A tourist in New Delhi.Photo Arijit Sen/Hindustan Times; (Left) author Patrick French, Photo Priyanka Parashar/Mint
Postcard: (Right) A tourist in New Delhi.Photo Arijit Sen/Hindustan Times; (Left) author Patrick French, Photo Priyanka Parashar/Mint
Updated: Fri, Mar 04 2011. 07 17 PM IST
Acharacter in a Jhumpa Lahiri story remembers India as the place where the relatives warm the milk before serving it to their American nephews and nieces. As observations go, it seems banal, an unlikely moment to make a profound observation about a continent-size country. Lahiri is writing fiction, and she lets her readers interpret the cultural comedy of errors: the Indian aunt concerned enough about the delicate tummy of her American niece to offer her boiled milk; the child missing the refreshing taste of cold milk drunk straight from the carton in the fridge on a hot summer day; the child now resenting that her aunt didn’t even ask if the milk should be served hot (or whether she wanted it at all).
Her nostalgia is for cold milk.
Postcard: (Right) A tourist in New Delhi.Photo Arijit Sen/Hindustan Times; (Left) author Patrick French, Photo Priyanka Parashar/Mint
To the Western reader, or the Indian who has lived abroad, the understated drama is obvious. The West makes you conscious of your space; the East elbows in effusively. As Pico Iyer noted in Video Nights in Kathmandu, India talks in absolutes and abounds with relatives. The pun is deliberate; and foreigners trying to figure out India get fascinated and exasperated by the coexistence of contrasts.
Any foreigner who has spent some time in India can catalogue such anecdotes. Assemble some, and it becomes a feature article; add more, and it can become a book. To the Indian reader, though, the observations appear commonplace, if not obvious. In some instances, they don’t even ring true—contrary examples abound. How is one to make sense of the country?
Anand Giridharadas is an American writer whose parents had moved to the US, driven away by the lack of opportunities in Nehruvian India. He came to India as a child on family visits, and then as a young consultant with McKinsey and Co., advising large Indian companies how to become globally competitive. But once in India, and finding the outwardly charming life of a young consultant dull, Giridharadas followed his calling: writing, and India was to be his muse. He became a reporter for The New York Times.
In his “Intimate Portrait of a Nation’s Remaking”, as the subtitle of his memoir India Calling (Fourth Estate, Rs499) is described, Giridharadas leaves no stone unturned nor any experience untouched to figure out himself or the nation whose story he wants to chronicle. He combines childhood memories with adult scrutiny of the contemporary, and draws conclusions that can be startling or sweeping, sometimes dull, but written in vivid prose.
There is a personal element to Giridharadas’ quest: He wanted the country to help him understand himself better.
Now he is upset that Indians don’t understand him better.
India Calling has spawned interesting reactions. A review in The New York Times praised it for the sound reason that Giridharadas’s prose is lucid, the imagery vivid, and the tone seductive (Disclosure: the reviewer, Gaiutra Bahadur, is my friend). Several Indian reviews have been brutal: Mihir Sharma has been merciless in The Indian Express, and two shorter pieces on the website Mumbai Boss (www.mumbaiboss.com)find it superficial and facile. Astonishingly, Giridharadas used the pulpit of his column in The International Herald Tribune (and it also appears on the website of The New York Times) to complain about the reviews, without naming the critics or the publications.
Coming as it does on top of two other literary spats—Pankaj Mishra and Patrick French, and Hartosh Singh Bal and William Dalrymple—it might seem that Indians resent foreigners writing about India, and foreigners seem to think Indians protest too much. The truth is more complicated. Indians do resent foreigners writing about India in a way that makes their lives unrecognizable, or for stating the obvious (but that is not the foreigners’ fault, since what’s obvious to Indians may not be obvious to a foreign readership, and Indians are often not objective when they look at themselves in the mirror). And foreigners do think that their distance lends them objectivity (yes, and many foreign writers have shown India’s warts— because the warts exist).
The challenge lies in judging the extent to which you can generalize from the particular. Consider this: Giridharadas recalls relatives asking him when he was a young boy, what he’d like to be when he grows up. He astutely notes they don’t ask his sister the same question. The point about gender-sensitivity is valid; he notices the unfairness, and rightly finds fault.
And yet, the danger lies in making an assertion from such individual experiences. Yes, Giridharadas’ middle-class relatives weren’t interested in his sister’s future plans. But other middle-class parents nurtured daughters like Naina Lal Kidwai, Chanda Kochhar, Shikha Sharma, Kalpana Morparia, Manisha Girotra and Meera Sanyal, who have headed various foreign and Indian banks in India entirely on merit, to cite a random example. This is a story foreign correspondents have found as remarkable as dowry deaths. Giridharadas’ colleague Heather Timmons has covered it in The New York Times. In contrast, in the feminist paradise of Norway, the state has to legislate so that companies will appoint women to boards.
The Indian truth, if it is fathomable in one lifetime, is usually in between such contrasts. Thesis, anti-thesis, and synthesis. Not only do exceptions challenge a rule; as the late Nirad Chaudhuri noted another time, exceptions run into millions. Even a million little mutinies may not make a revolution; they only show that functioning anarchy. Which slices do we put together to create a grand theory explaining everything, and what do we toss aside?
The writer can describe the complexities vividly, letting the reader decide. Or he can build an argument by connecting the dots—which also makes it vulnerable to those who see a different image, because they connect the same dots differently. The dots are real; the art lies in joining those dots.
Like the dots, the book is the same: The different responses show the different experiences readers bring to the book. When Giridharadas observes “the lowly police constable directing traffic, his waist the circumference of a rich man’s thigh, a man of the law projecting no authority and inspiring no fear”, there is a lot in that image, much of it plausible. But it is equally plausible to think of the same constable turning into a sadist extracting a confession from the same rich man in custody. Hierarchies blur in India—Giridharadas celebrates fluidity when he writes about the mass churning, as poor Indians dream of being wealthy. But haven’t they always?
In contrast, when Giridharadas focuses on himself—what made him an American, and what makes him an Indian—his account is often moving, his observations honest and acute. The dots are real. Disagreements begin when he enlarges them, or connects them in a way that another observer might find convoluted. For the reader new to India, the patterns are fascinating: Even if they reinforce some old views, they also challenge some. But the gaze is of the outsider looking in. For the one being observed, the pattern may seem random, and sometimes not terribly profound.
Giridharadas’ pique is unnecessary, when seen alongside the other recent controversies which have dealt with bigger themes. Mishra wrote about French’s new book, India: A Portrait (which I reviewed and liked in The Independent) twice. In The Financial Times, he was polite but mildly positive; in Outlook, he turned scathing, some of his criticism appearing personal. French replied in kind in Outlook, making the dispute juicy and entertaining. At heart, their dispute is about the glass of water: French sees it as half-full, Mishra, as half-empty. Earlier, in Open magazine, Bal questioned the role of the Jaipur Literature Festival in India’s literary life, and Dalrymple’s pre-eminent role within the Indian literary pantheon. Dalrymple too reacted sharply. There too the dispute touches on a deep question: Who is an Indian, and what constitutes Indian literature?
That said, it is true that foreign correspondents find it relatively easy to get publishing contracts from leading Western imprints to craft a narrative about India. Many in India cheer them, and so many want to be liked by most Indians they meet. Indian writers keen to do something similar find it harder, but that’s not the foreign correspondents’ fault.
But it explains some of the reaction: The foreign correspondent effortlessly squeezes the universe into a ball, and rolls it forward like an overwhelming response to India. And many in India turn around and say: That is not what is meant at all, not at all.
The Indian reader, finding her lived reality made to appear exotic, resents being made the Other. She doesn’t like the authoritative tone, the confident certainty, of such books. India is unique, she says.
But not more so than China or the US. Foreign correspondents often get it right: Think of David Shipler’s Broken Idols, Solemn Dreams or David Remnick’s Lenin’s Tomb about the Soviet Union, Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s China Wakes, Joseph Lelyveld’s Move your Shadow about apartheid-era South Africa, and the works of my former colleagues Michael Vatikiotis, Adam Schwarz and Sadanand Dhume about Indonesia. India has become marketable since 1991, when economic reforms made engagement with India lucrative. With In Spite of the Gods, Edward Luce showed how you can pack the outwardly chaotic politics with the uncontrollable upsurge of its economy, and reflected on what it did to the society. Luce’s conclusions never veered too far from his evidence.
How can a writer do justice to so many competing narratives? Perhaps there’s another way: To survey the amorphous mass, bring out a sharp knife, and slice that experience, examining it minutely. And then offer a picture from which the reader can draw her conclusions. Think of Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, and more recently, Basharat Peer’s Curfewed Night and Sonia Faleiro’s Beautiful Thing.
That may be the way: not the big book that explains everything, but to see the world in a grain of sand.
Salil Tripathi writes the fortnightly column Here, There, Everywhere for Mint
Write to lounge@livemint.com
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First Published: Fri, Mar 04 2011. 07 17 PM IST
More Topics: Books | Jhumpa Lahiri | Fiction | Cold milk | Kathmandu |