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Flights of fancy

In the final analysis, India Calling is not a gripping 306-page book - that is merely the jacket, the surface. What held me spellbound was the mirror that Anand Giridharadas cleaned. Gautam Chikermane writes.

books Updated: Mar 24, 2011 14:58 IST
Gautam Chikermane

In the final analysis, India Calling is not a gripping 306-page book - that is merely the jacket, the surface. What held me spellbound was the mirror that Anand Giridharadas cleaned, removing a cobweb of economic growth here, cleaning the dust of consumption there. From smothered folklores of the recent past that we are happy to forget to the realities of present day that we are reluctant to admit, this mirror is insightful and deadly, revealing as much about my country to me as about me to my countrymen and the world.

In seven crisp chapters, management consultant-turned journalist Giridharadas takes us into the innards of our country, to what Jaswant Singh, as finance minister, called the "armpits of India". We read stories of aspiration, love, marriage; of anger, pride, freedom. He writes as a sharp and intelligent observer, with sensitivity and attitude, about himself, his family and those of his characters with an equal gaze.

From the mirror he puts before us, we see traces of ourselves in the lives of his characters - small-town Ravindra's single-minded pursuit of prosperity; urban, liberated and successful Mallika's flitting relationships; revolutionary Venugopal's fascinating analysis of caste; lessons on the value of information from Mukesh Ambani. But he is not a passive reporter, in no way a bystander. His engagement with the lives of people and the ideas they throw up is highly layered.

"What made Venugopal's vision most improbable to me was not the daunting territorial task or the differing scale of the insurgent and official armies," he writes. "It was, rather, this idea of the human essence that he proposed. At bottom, he sought to turn Indians into a people other than themselves. He sought to make them egalitarian in spirit, sought to make them forget who was a master and who was a servant, sought to beat back the karmic, pain-absorbing mentality that had carried the many quiet millions through the night. Capitalism of the kind venerated by Ravindra and Mukesh Ambani seemed in some ways to be agitating against these old traits, and it seemed equally to be reinforcing the vision of a society of compartments."

Or when he compares the two moralities that coexist in India. One is the western Judeo-Christian tradition of "universal fairness, no matter who the person, no matter what the context" that Giridharadas's grandfather espoused. And the Indian model, where "moral reasoning has traditionally been one's caste or class or family circle, not the society at large, not the civic commons", a model that he, in a well-reasoned, on-the-edge chapter, ascribes to Mukesh Ambani.

If India is a haze of grey, Giridharadas brings out its infinite shades. He travels across the country, from metropolitan Mumbai to up-and-coming Ludhiana (in a hilarious chapter on freedom) to Umred, "a speck in the dead centre of India, a small town of fifty thousand", telling us intimate stories that are so close to us that they blur. He explores the great transformation and its complexity that's defining India today - the contradictions and coexistence of poverty and prosperity, wealth and love, changing aspirations and morphing attitudes - and how 1.1 billion people are dealing with it everyday.

To the increasing tribe of foreign business leaders, policymakers, bankers and journalists who seek my recommendation on "one book that defines what's going on in India", this is it. For fellow citizens engaging with the changing India story, the participants in its economic and social transformation, the leaders trying hard to keep up with the realities of demographic and cultural change, I would put it as compulsory reading with one caveat: this mirror will expose you - to yourself.