India Calling by Anand Giridharadas

This appeared in The Kathmandu Post:
By Deepak Adhikari

The economic growth of a country, it seems, will inevitably be followed by a plethora of books trying to explain the trajectory. That’s the reason several non-fiction books on India and China have lately hit the bookstores, some of them triggering a debate as to who has the authority to write about a country: the native son or a foreigner?

In this backdrop, I started to read Anand Giridharadas‘s India Calling: An Intimate Portrait of a Nation’s Remaking. Giridharadas, an American-Indian journalist who grew up in the US but maintained his ties with India through summer visits, chronicles the changing face of the country. He arrived in India as a consultant for McKinsey and Company in 2003. But he was soon bored by the monotony of management work. He found his true calling in journalism, becoming the first Mumbai correspondent for New York Times. So, for the regular readers of The Times, the pieces in the book might come as a patchwork, even a bit stale. Nevertheless, through the lens of his immigrant family history and his childhood reminiscences, he paints India with a broad brush.

“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…”, he writes. The book traces two parallel narratives: that of Giridharadas and his family and the resurgent India, a phenomenon that has the Western media transfixed, calling it a success story, even an emerging superpower.

On board the Pushpak Express that ferries migrants from Uttar Pradesh to Bombay, the dream city, he meets Deepak Kumar. Through Deepak Kumar’s story, he tries to track the migrants’ trajectory in Bombay. He quotes another migrant travelling on the same train: “Dreams don’t go away in Mumbai. They just get smaller.” In Umred, one of India’s thousands of small towns, he comes across Ravindra, a reluctant lover, who epitomises big aspirations flowering in small towns. Ravindra is restless to make it big.

In Hyderabad, the gleaming Westernised city, he meets a Maoist insurgent Varavara Rao. But this awkward meeting doesn’t illuminate much. In short, India Calling is a blend of memoir and travelogue. It has an air of reportage but doesn’t quite come close to the great narrative non-fiction books of yesteryear. Giridharadas sketches portraits through the characters that, in his view, are shaping contemporary India. He juxtaposes his ‘Englishman grandfather’ with late Dhirubhai Ambani, the patriarch of Ambani family. But this attempt turns out to be utterly unconvincing.

It’s apparent from the titles of the chapters such as Dream, Ambition, Pride, Anger, Love, Freedom that the author has set out to tackle these emotional yet abstract notions, which have been written about since eons. It is, however, doubtful that he has done justice to these lofty ideas. The book began to lose its appeal as I flipped through the last chapter titled Freedom. He immerses himself in the family of two Punjabi brothers in Ludhiana: Upstairs Chacha and Downstairs Chacha, monikers not only for their dwellings but also for their way of life. Through these two families living in the same house, occupying two floors, he attempts to sketch a family saga but fails miserably. It ends up something like a day in a life of a Punjabi family. Nothing more.

This past spring, I happened to be in Jogbani, a Bihari border town, when I had a brief stay in Biratnagar. Now, Jogbani’s entire trade and commerce is dependent on the Nepali shoppers who throng this small town to buy everything from cooking oil and soaps to saris and kurta salwars. As I negotiated the evening bustle of honking rickshaws and motorbikes, a shiny, yellow-coloured Nano lumbered on, drawing the rapt attention of Nepali shoppers. (This dream car is soon making its way to Nepal).

In an upstairs sari shop, the Indian salesman, in his impeccable Nepali acquired from the years of conversation with his clients, acknowledged that the town thrived solely on the shoppers from across the border. While my relatives haggled for some discount on a sari, a gift on Mother’s Day, the salesman remarked: “India is a big country, so is our heart. We will make sure our Nepali brothers are happy (with the bargain).”

Indeed, India looms large in Nepali psyche. And the growth achieved by our southern neighbor is impressive. But in India Calling, while superbly (and unduly positively) portraying the Shining India (we all know there are two Indias), the author grossly ignores the vast underbelly of the South Asian behemoth that we Nepalis are so familiar with. The book is so selective in its approach that one is tempted to believe that Giridharadas’ neon cities with malls, multiplexes and multi-storied edifices and the lower middle-class Indians armed with mobile phones (as if these alone will bring the revolution) will usher India into the world stage. The huge swathe of India that is often eschewed by New Delhi’s mandarins, doesn’t find space in India Calling.

The authorial claim over a territory is an old debate. So, I wouldn’t delve into it. A foreigner can sometimes write better than the native (Declan Walsh, The Guardian‘s veteran reporter in Pakistan comes to mind). In a nutshell, Giridharadas seems satisfied with the glitz and glamour of urban India. He has not scratched beneath the surface. He is yet to probe the other India, the India of poverty, insurgency, malnutrition, corruption. I wonder if he is saving these grim realities for his second book.