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Sympatico. The Italian word meaning 'sympathetic' perfectly captures the spirit of India Calling, Anand Giridharadas' book on how a civilisation riddled with ancient faults is transforming itself into a modern, market-based economy. The tone pervades the book;gone is the enigma of VS Naipaul's arrival into 'an area of darkness'. Absent is the sarcasm of Pankaj Mishra traveling through liberalising India, finding 'butter chicken in Ludhiana' an apt allegory for the greed encountered. By contrast, Giridharadas is expansive in his acceptance, linked directly with the changes he picks up on and where he himself is coming from.
The author grew up in America where his parents discovered 'the community as family', not the other way around. He writes of a life of liberty, meals eaten over jazz, his father, unthinkable for an Indian man, helping with the washing-up, relatives enjoying individual space. He lets slip anomalies (his mother insisting he make his own Halloween costume marking 'Indian thrift' ) and never mentions race. He enjoyed a sense of superiority over his Indian relations, visiting a country that seemed 'frozen in poverty' and hollow tradition. He then describes his shock when, moving to India in 2003, he finds the country hurtling through time, space and emotion towards a new avatar. It is this sense of change, liberating, exciting and unknown, that he tries to capture.
And does so commendably, particularly in a section that focuses on caste but calls itself, in Giridharadas' polite manner, 'Ambition' instead. Analysing how a mêlange of markets, commodities and reality TV favourably impacted the life of Ravindra, Giridharadas feelingly outlines the discriminations a poor, lower-caste Indian faces - not having sandals to wear or a bicycle to ride, eating the last at weddings. After that, the freedom of becoming a commercial speaker is heady and Giridharadas can hardly blame Ravindra for ignoring his love-life to build a pukka house and an even more pukka reputation. Through personalised anecdotes, Giridharadas delineates continuities, mentioning the treatment of servants with particular sensitivity. He discusses shifts in Indian understandings of time (previously to be endured, now conquered), money and space. There is sketchiness too, such as when he vividly recounts meetings with Mukesh Ambani but skims over issues of corporate corruption lightly, dwelling instead on the Ambani charisma, mentioning how the group's success reflects new middle class morality, 'family values' getting around an 'inflexible' state.
Despite overlooking what liberalisation means to those whose lands are snatched or environments destroyed, Giridharadas offers interesting analyses. He discusses how India's 'revolution' has been one of refusing to know one's 'place', in caste, spatial or economic terms. This is a revolution of movement, breaking with an unmoving past, forging towards a new future. This makes it similar to his family's story of migration. Perhaps that makes his tone sympathetic.
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