A conversation with Indian-American writer and thinker Anand Giridharadas about rising India, old and new.
President Hu Jintao had everyone focused on China last week. And ranks of Americans these days are studying Mandarin and flying off for college years, or business, in Beijing.
But there’s another Asian giant. India is still on its own boom trajectory, with its own story. It’s a more complicated story than many Americans know.
Behind that call center in Bangalore, or the PhD candidate down the hall, is an ancient, demanding culture that is anything but history.
We have a conversation with Indian-American Anand Giridharadas about rising India, old and new.
Anand Giridharadas, columnist for the International Herald Tribune and the New York Times online and author of “India Calling: An Intimate Portrait of a Nation’s Remaking.”
Here’s an excerpt from “India Calling”:
…I grew up with only a faint idea that another country was also somehow mine. My notion of it was never based on India’s history or traditions, its long civilizational parade; it was a first-generation idea of a place in our shared past, nostalgically shared but blessedly past. It came not through anthems and ritual feasts and the taut emotions of an Independence Day, but through the stories we were told at meals and on holidays and the characters within our extended clan. As I conjured up the country, I squeezed these things for all the juice that they possessed, searched for meaning where it may not have been, deduced from personal history the history of a people. I forged a memory of events I didn’t witness, from times and places I didn’t know.
Reflected from afar, India was late-night phone calls that sparked the fear of a far-off death. It was calling back relatives who could not afford to call us. It was Hindu ceremonies with rice, saffron, and Kit Kat bars arrayed on a silver platter. It was the particular strain of British-public-school-meets-Bombay-boulevard English that my parents spoke, prim and propah. It was the sensible frugality of getting books from the library rather than the bookstore and of cautious restaurant ordering—always one main course less than the number of diners, with the dishes shared communally. It was observing that none of the Indian-Americans around us were professors or poets or lawyers, but rather engineers or doctors or, if particularly rambunctious, economists.
Once every two or three years, we would fly east to India. The country offered a foretaste of itself in New York, in the survivalist pushing and pulling to board an airplane with assigned seats. On the other end of the voyage, coming out of the plane door, the machine-cooled air vanished at our backs, and the hot, dank, subtropical atmosphere drank us in. The lighting went from soft yellow to cheap fluorescent white. I remember the workers waiting in the aerobridge, smaller, meeker, scrawnier than the workers on the other end, laborers with the bodies of ballerinas.
Consumed on these visits east, India was being picked up from the airport by my grandparents in the middle of the night. It was cramming more people into their little Maruti than that car could safely hold. It was cousins who knew how to slide their posteriors forward or backward in the car to make such cramming possible. It was the piping-hot aloo parathas that my grandmother unfailingly cooked for us upon arrival. It was sideways hugs with my female relatives that strove to avoid breast contact. It was the chauvinism of retired uncles who probed my aspirations and asked nothing of my sister’s. It was the ceaseless chatter among the women of making jewelry, making clothes, making dinner. It was the acceptability of reporting toilet success and toilet failure at the breakfast table.
I had the feeling in those days that we, the departed, were doing India a favor by returning. We used to pack our suitcases with gifts of what could not easily be obtained in India, from Johnnie Walker Black Label whiskey to Stilton cheese to Gap khakis. In a young child, this ferrying of goods fed a notion of scarcity in the motherland, casting us as benefactors from a land of abundance. My cousins used to ask me on these December visits if I felt Indian or American, and I remember sensing how much their self-esteem was riding on my answer. With a proudly defiant tone, I always replied “American,” an answer that I knew would hurt them; this was because I felt so, and because I felt that to answer otherwise would be somehow to debase myself, to accept a lower berth in the world.
India felt frozen. It was frozen in poverty, and I sensed, even as a child, that everything was shaped by scarcity: the pushing to get on the airplane, the reluctance of the wealthy to spend the most trivial sums of money, the obsession with lucrative careers and snobbery toward other pursuits. India was frozen in socialist bureaucracy, so that it was advisable to have an uncle working in the ministry if you wanted a phone connection before next year. It was frozen in beliefs: I quickly tired of going to yet another dinner party where yet another retiree would drink one whiskey too many and take me aside to condemn an imperialistic and materialistic America whose foreign policy choices, he seemed to imply, were basically my fault—even though I was ten years old, yawning, and up way past my bedtime. To this day, I cringe every time I hear the words, “Why is your America supporting Pakistan?”
“Yes, uncle,” I feel like saying, “the State Department got the idea from me.”
India was not supposed to feel foreign to me. I looked Indian, was raised by Indian parents, mingled in America with their Indian friends, and grew up devouring Indian food, having rakhi tied on my wrist by my sister, and wearing fresh clothes and lighting candles every Diwali. But in India all this dissipated, as if these ways of being Indian brought me no closer to India itself.
Inevitably, time soothed some of these surface irritations and culture shocks. What endured was a wordless revulsion, deep and inarticulable, at what seemed to be the wastage of human possibility in India. Here was a great civilization of the world, once among the wealthiest and most powerful of nations, and yet, in ways that I was only beginning to grasp, so many were trapped in their boxes: the schoolchildren with brains crammed full of notes, fearful of voicing an opinion in front of their parents; the elders whose doctrines about marriage and childbearing seldom budged, no matter how the world changed; the women to whom few listened, no matter the wisdom of their words. India, in my limited and impressionistic view, seemed a land of replicated lives, where most people grew up to be exactly like their parents—cracking the same jokes, bearing the same prejudices, pursuing vocations not too far afield.
The place seemed to function on low expectations and almost otherworldly powers of acceptance. The dinner party conversations were dull and repetitive and sprinkled with awkward silences; but people accepted. There was only one television channel, beaming tinny and overacted shows that no one with broader choices would ever watch; but people accepted. The poverty—those children with puffed-out bellies and matted hair on the streets, and whose skin color and facial features were jarringly similar to my own—was bloodcurdling; but people, the poor themselves and my well-off relatives, accepted. Women seemed to accept the normalcy of being told that their skin was too dark, that their weight should be increased or decreased, that they should marry this man or that one. People with vegetarian parents seemed to accept that they, too, must be vegetarian. The children of Hindu refugees from what became Pakistan accepted that it was their duty to carry forward their parents’ hatred of Muslims. History was heavy. The old went unquestioned. Resignation choked dreams.
The country that gathered in my mind over the years was contradictory and complex and yet also oversimple: it seemed to be a place kind and decent, generous and sacrificial, repressed and narrow, wretched and hopeless; a land short on dynamism and initiative, long on caution, niggling judgment, subservience, and fear; a land where people didn’t come into their own as they did in America; a land that had ultimately failed to persuade my father, who loved it dearly, to stay.
A wall of wet, smoky night air hit me as I came out of the terminal in Bombay. The orange of the streetlamps’ glow, ripened by smog, told me at once how far I had come. A quarter century had passed since my parents left India, and now I was reentering it to fulfill promptings of my own.
From the Book INDIA CALLING: An Intimate Portrait of a Nation’s Remaking by Anand Giridharadas. Copyright © 2011 by Anand Giridharadas. Reprinted by arrangement with Times Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company LLC.