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Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Anything to Declare at Immigration?

One: Grand generalisations. Two: Eager extrapolations. Anand Giridharadas demonstrates how the last refuge of full-throated Orientalism is an Indian-American’s big India book.

Written by Mihir S. Sharma |
February 19, 2011 12:23:35 am

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a young Indian-American in possession of some years’ experience of India must be in want of a book contract.

This book will not be easy to write. It will require living in some insalubrious part of the world — Anand Giridharadas,the author of India Calling,was slumming in Goa — while you put the finishing touches to your extensive research. That extensive research,of course,requires a gruelling sort-through your sent-mail folder for the articles that you have written over the past few years,each of which can be turned into a heart-warmingly gloomy chapter. This means you can be paid twice for the same four-year-old interview,an aspect of authors’ life that can only gladden the frugal heart that beats in every Indian chest.

And every author of this ilk knows that “Indians” are frugal. Also,definitely,ambitious. And stoic. They honour their parents. They take kickbacks to finance their daughter’s wedding. They have no conception of “keeping their word”,or of empathy. India Calling,thankfully for ignorant old us,makes all these startlingly innovative claims — and in an understanding tone,only occasionally allowing in a trace of wondering superiority. The last refuge of full-throated Orientalism is an Indian-American’s big India book.

I had hoped,while reviewing India Calling,to not make large and expansive statements about “such books”. But it seems I will fail. Partly because essentialising is a very contagious disease,and every page of India Calling is crawling with its icky germs,as also with those other brain-eating bacilli,Generalisation and Extrapolation. Partly because little in this particular book sets it apart from anything else in the genre,other than its quite unashamedly effusive blurbs. And partly because it is so extremely irritating a book that actually focusing on just it for very long hurts my head.

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In tribute to Giridharadas’ inspiring method of thought,therefore,let me essentialise the way such authors,India’s irreplaceable interpreters to the world,go about things. First,there will be Grand Narratives and Startling Ideas. The young interpreter,especially if Indian-American,has known what they are since his cradle. He will empathise with the problems of these unfortunate left-behinds,but empathy does not breed the sort of humility that allows him to break new ground. Hence,the narratives will be of this type: poor Indians are now,for the first time,being allowed to dream. Or: young urban Indians are sleeping around,but they’re conflicted about it. Or: there’s a lot of new money sloshing around,but many people see none of it. There are precisely twelve such ideas — I shall not enumerate them,for fear of putting half of India’s publishers out of business — and all such books operate on some subset of them.

Once you,like a medieval monk deciding what Gospel to copy,pick the idea you want to embellish,then,just as the monk could decorate the margins with grotesques,you have the right to come up with a multitude of examples. Or,in Giridharadas’ case,one or two English-speaking examples per narrative.

The encounter with the Example Indian then plays out with all the predictability of an episode of a bad TV serial. The thoughtful young reporter considers a problem. He hears of a man that exemplifies that problem. He asks someone at a party how to meet that man. The route to his rendezvous with the man,nowhere very inconvenient,will be strewn with edifying examples of New India,such as hoardings in English selling things they buy in the West,and a taxi driver who asks whether the airport is world-class.

The man,blissfully unaware of the burden of representation he is about to be asked to carry,will share his story. Giridharadas listens,his formidable New York Times- and McKinsey-trained interpretive skills clicking into high gear. The man will explain to Giridharadas why he turned to Maoism,or why he is divorcing his wife. Giridharadas reports the man’s words,and then explains to us why he is turning to Maoism (because Nehruvianism failed an idealistic generation) or why he is divorcing his wife (because Indians are ill-prepared for the work that comes with freedom). The Example Indian is finally summarised (“India’s complicated relationship with modernity and money cut through his own soul”) and — I am serious about this next bit — frequently compared,disparagingly,with a suitably upright or inspiring member of Giridharadas’ own family.

This ubiquitous and puerile tendency to compare people he meets with various Giridharadases spoils,for instance,what could have been an otherwise fascinating section,about an encounter with Mukesh Ambani at a Mumbai Indians game. (Giridharadas,whose truly exceptional tin ear for India deadens much of this book,doesn’t bother to explain the IPL,but does describe Ambani’s dress style as “villager-made-good”. Ambani is wearing a Hugo Boss windcheater.) His description of Reliance’s might turns Dhirubhai,Mukesh and Anil into a social parable,as many have done before him; but here we are encouraged to compare Dhirubhai with Anand’s grandfather,who had worked for Hindustan Lever and lived on the South Bombay seafront,and whom Giridharadas approvingly reports would not have understood Dhirubhai’s corner-cutting striving. No doubt.

Giridharadas sees the obvious things,sure: that his small-town contacts are fascinated to discover that he has met Mukesh,that enough of the Anglicised old guard looks down on the Ambanis; he even catches Arun Shourie’s 180-degree turn on Dhirubhai. Even given that,and with access to Mukesh Ambani that few would get,he fails to get his punches in,meandering on about “abstract British-taught morality” and how using plastic mugs in a Stanford toilet was a sign of Mukesh’s “working-class roots”.

This is,as you can imagine,tiresome stuff. Giridharadas is usually as right about the points he wants to make as conventional wisdom allows,which is what one can hope for from the average consultant-turned-foreign correspondent. But neither that nor his undeniable talent as a writer — which lends to his descriptions of crowds and cluttered middle-class interiors an immediacy that takes them beyond the banality of the subject matter — cannot completely rescue this book.

I blame Naipaul,of course,for making it OK to think that a continent-sized country can be cut into bite-sized pieces,half-digested with your own acidic identity crisis and then regurgitated. Though at least that man’s identity-crisis-as-social-commentary could provoke you into some sort of a response. Anand Giridharadas seems too nice a chap,altogether too vanilla,to cut anywhere as deep. Reading this book is like drowning in very,very shallow water.

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