Tuesday, January 11, 2011

An intimate portrait of India's people and their relationships

"India Calling: An Intimate Portrait of a Nation's Remaking", Anand Giridharadas takes a different tack from Thomas Friedman and others who have described the now familiar call centers and globalization that have turned India into an economic powerhouse. Instead Giridharadas decides to focus on the country's most important assets- its people and their changing attitudes towards the world, their families and themselves. Giridharadas has an unusual vantage point as an Indian who grew up in the US and who returned back to his country for a fresh look (although one wonders why he now lives in Cambridge, MA). The book is primarily about how India's new economic, political and social roles have changed Indians' relationships with themselves and their families. The most important consequence of the "New Order" is that Indians whose role in life was traditionally defined for centuries by their birth and their caste, class and gender are now seeking to make their own place in society rather than to "know" it. This is a great thing for a country where identity was defined for hundreds of years by where you came from rather than where you wished to go. As Giridharadas describes, in the new India someone from the lower caste can finally dare to dream beyond what was regarded as his indelible destiny.

To showcase these changing Indian identities, Giridharadas presents us with several "case studies" and describes the life stories of people drawn from a wide slice of Indian society. There's the poor boy in a small village who was born into a lower caste and decides to remake his identity by pioneering English language and "personality development" classes in his village and organizing a personality pageant. There'
s the "rat-catcher" whose job is to kill dozens of rats everyday in the slums of Mumbai. Then there's the Maoist, a member of the divisive Communist insurgency in India, who resents India's rise to wealth and fame but who has a complex relationship with the country he criticizes. The Maoist interestingly sees parallels between the old caste system and the new globalized order, with labor specialization replacing the role of labor-based caste. And in stark contrast, there's the Ambani family, India's richest business family whose clout extends over the entire Indian economic and political landscape. Giridharadas especially has an insightful portrait of Mukesh Ambani, one of the two Ambani brothers and one of the world's richest men whose empire stretches from petrochemicals to biotechnology. Giridharadas stresses how the Ambanis rose to prominence by cultivating relationships, a strategy that has helped them bribe slothful bureaucrats and journalists in creative ways that include paying for their children's education in Ivy League universities in the US. In an India where bribery is hardly an exception to the rule, the Ambanis' behavior is nothing novel. But one of the signs of a changing India is that while old-timers look with disgust upon the culture of bribery and corruption that the Ambanis have perpetuated, many young people see them as heroes who are cutting India's Gordian knot to an entrenched bureaucracy and socialist ethic and who are inspiring young Indians to dream big.

Further on, it is in describing the changing nature of the Indian family and relationships within it that Giridharadas really excels. Perhaps the two biggest changes in the Indian family during the last few decades have been the declining influence of parents on their children's lives and the empowerment of Indian women in middle-class families. This has led to new challenges and opportunities in the traditional Indian conception of marriage. Women are now regarded as men's equals in marriages and men are no longer supposed to be the sole bread-winners on whom their spouses precariously depend. Changing social mores have also awarded women an independence that was inconceivable for the older generation. Young men and women are now much more comfortable with casual sex and relationships. Indian women are now free to choose who they may or may not marry, or so it may seem. Yet as Giridharadas adeptly demonstrates, reality is more complex. Indian women and even men are still grappling with reconciling the modern with the orthodox. This has led to many of them living strange double lives where they have a wild time outside their homes but can instantly transform themselves into meek and dutiful sons and daughters in the presence of their parents. Ties to parents and family traditions are still too strong for many of India's young people to assert total independence. Thus an Indian woman who otherwise has a boyfriend and dictates the terms of her own life may still end up marrying a boy picked by her parents and sacrificing her freedom. The line between old and new is still not blurry enough for the young to casually transgress it, and it would be interesting to see how the changing dynamic between young people and traditions is played out in 21st century India.

Along with newfound independence come newfound problems. As young people are increasingly defying their parents and marrying for love, they are also increasingly become more intolerant of compromises and sacrifices. This has led to a spiraling divorce rate among young Indian families even as the taboos surrounding the word divorce have been as hard to abolish as that surrounding premarital sex. Giridharadas has a perceptive account of sitting in in an Indian court and watching divorce proceedings. Interestingly, contrary to popular belief, Indian divorces are no longer limited to the wealthy class and Giridharadas watches as a wide economic cross section of husbands and wives airs its woes in court. The reasons why these people are seeking divorce are varied and range from the unsurprising (marital infidelity, plain boredom) to the revealing (the husband becomes jealous when his wife starts making more money and living a more affluent lifestyle). Divorce in India promises to challenge traditional male-female hierarchies in marriage and social customs as acutely as any other modern liberating tendency.

As insightful as Giridharadas's book is, I have some minor complaints. Firstly, he says nothing about the negative repercussions of lowering standards in the educational system to accommodate the previously underprivileged. Liberation from the shackles of caste has been a wonderful thing for India, but on the flip side it has led politicians with vested interests to lower the standards of public education rather than to raise the standards of the lower castes through improvements in primary education. This is engendering divisive sentiments which the author does not discuss. Secondly, while Giridharadas eloquently describes changing perceptions of caste and class, he says almost nothing about how the changing dynamic has impacted religion and religious relationships which have always been a key part of the Indian identity. Thirdly, while he makes sincere attempts to be objective, Giridharadas cannot completely escape the biases of an Indian who did not grow up in India and who is coming back after a long time to inspect his former country much as an anthropologist would inspect a tribe. On one hand this has led him to offer us some fresh, out of the box perspectives, but on the other hand it has led him to quickly generalize from his own limited experiences. Indian is a complex and vast country, and even an observation that might apply to seventy percent of its citizens would still exclude a very significant portion of the population. Thus Giridharadas's observations should always be accepted as containing a significant element of truth but not the whole truth. Lastly, I found Giridharadas to be slightly verbose and rambling. Sometimes he seems to be too much in love with his words and phrases and belabors a point in too many different ways. This would have been fine for a work of fiction but it can tend to bore the reader and obscure clarity in a work of non-fiction.

Notwithstanding these minor gripes, I would strongly recommend the book. In a stream of books that have told us about India's economic and political rise, Giridharadas makes a valuable and rare contribution by focusing on the most important aspect of any country- its people and their changing relationships with themselves, their nation and the world.



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