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India Calling by Anand Giridharadas, the unknown at the heart of what you thought you knew

February 8th, 2011 · 3 Comments · Book Review

By Marylene Delbourg-Delphis @mddelphis

India CallingSay you’ve worked and socialized with Indians for the last ten or fifteen years in America – does it help you to understand what India is about when you travel over there for a business trip? Maybe a little, but no more than that. India is a complex, multi-dimensional country with an intricately layered culture, where ancestral thinking models may seep into the most seemingly standard ways of doing business, often unbeknownst to the newcomer and even to his/her Indian host. That is, in a nutshell, what Anand Giridharadas’s India Calling is about.

Anand‘s book is a deep foray into the human, social, and business fabrics of modern India. Born in Cleveland, Ohio from Indian parents who came to the US in the 1970’s, and a graduate from the University of Michigan, he felt like a stranger when he came back to work in his parents’ homeland in the early 2000’s, reversing his parents’ path. His autobiographical story is the analysis of his disorientation, the dismemberment of what he thought he knew through his parents’ stories and visits to relatives as a child, as well as the anatomy of the image he had subconsciously formed about this quickly changing country from an American standpoint.

As you move through the six simple words that title each chapter of this book (Dreams, Ambition, Pride, Anger, Love and Freedom), you find out that these words do not depict a simple reality, but are instead huge baskets of interwoven cultural threads. Having become a journalist, Anand landed himself into an unexpected challenge: “it was terrific to have gotten the job, but how was I supposed to explain to others a country that I had to explain to myself.”

Within each chapter, the multiple protagonists that Anand meets either purposedly or haphazardly embody India’s self-invention, the stepping-in of people onto the fast-moving train of progress that distances them from the past. Yet, you see the uncanny capability of that past to come back like an agile animal. Methodically and incrementally, for instance, Ravindra moves away from his initial fate on an entrepreneurial track, as he goes through each of the stations toward the project of his life, the “project of himself” that he has so thoroughly planned. But can you plan everything? No: “It had not occurred to him that a woman, unlike an exam is not conquered simply by willling that you get her,” Anand notes. Ravindra leaves a telling message to the author: “Life sometimes becomes so selfish that it wants everything. And while trying 4 everything we miss something that is worth everything.” His “dream home” stands in front of the Hindu temple, a sobering reminder that not everything is about growth and success, that human beings do not make their way through one single time-dimension, but live on an unsteady vista point at the intersection of multiple fault lines.

Regardless of who they are and what they do, Anand’s encounters embody complexity. So hold off on any judgment. Depending on how you look at it, Mukesh Ambani and many others are moral, amoral, or even immoral. It’s not simply because the context-based ethics of dharma continues to compete with the occidental view of fairness, it’s also because the traditional caste system simultaneously morphs into new tribal values (where village-based allegiance may come across as influence peddling, for example). As dreams turn into ambition and ambition into pride, as “capitalism has transfixed the Indian imagination,” and as Hyderabad and its forrest of billboards herald a promised land, anger is also looming. Anand meets with the Maoist insurgent Varavara Rao and, then, his nephew Venugopal: he too has a dream – the dream of purging Indians from their “bad elements,” both the old and the new ones, yet,  “his own story was one of the oldest patterns of all: the Brahmin sitting high on his perch, imagining how the peasants down below should live.” History looks like a continuous cycle of reincarnations moving away from a past that is defined by either what you want to forget, as is Ravindra’s case, or what you want to resurrect, as is Anand’s quest.

In short, here is why you should read this book:

  • If you are doing business with India. It will help you to scope out the realm of what you don’t know, and make you start to listen to others in order to build meaningful relationships within a complex culture.
  • Or, if you like literature, read this book as a collection of intertwined short stories!

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