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Anand’s Journey

By Murali Kamma Email By Murali Kamma
April 2011
Anand’s Journey

At the heart of Anand Giridharadas’s perceptive India Calling (Times Books) is this second-generation Indian American’s complicated—but never less than compelling—personal relationship with a country that his parents left many years ago as young adventurers. Giridharadas’s reverse journey was also a grand adventure. It enabled him, over a six-year period, to rediscover an India that’s caught up in the throes of momentous change, both economic and social. Initially a consultant in India for McKinsey and Co., Giridharadas soon found his métier as a reporter for the International Herald Tribune and The New York Times, where he had interned as a high school senior.

While the book has drawn favorable reviews in the States, its reception was decidedly mixed in India, where any praise has been tempered by prickliness. A few critics have been harsh. Why was he writing about India? After all, they seemed to be saying, his knowledge of India during his formative years came from short family visits. Such comments, however, are revealing about the commentators, not the author or his book. On the other hand, Indian reviewers who took issue with some of the “sweeping” generalizations Giridharadas makes from particular experiences may have a point. An insider will be wary of the outsider’s gaze, just as an outsider is bound to question the insider’s ways. Recently, two ‘Who gets to write about India?’ feuds (Pankaj Mishra vs. Patrick French, Hartosh Singh Bal vs. William Dalrymple) broke out in the print media, with barbs flying in both directions—although it’s notable that they all belong to the same elite, jet-setting, English-speaking global literary club. Which raises the question: Do these authors have more in common than they may be willing to admit?

Whatever the answer, ultimately, Giridharadas is neither an outsider nor an insider.

He’s an outsider-insider. And that’s the true strength of the book for Indian Americans, especially when the writing turns autobiographical, because we catch glimpses of India and Indianness from a different—though easily identifiable—vantage point. “I came of age in the interstices of two civilizations, with the inevitable confusions of identity,” he writes. Furthermore, as an outsider-insider, he explores not just the outer revolution in India; he examines the inner revolution unleashed by the same forces of globalization, modernization and liberalization. “And so India’s revolutions were not merely about success and growth,” he notes in his book. “They were also about a new self-confidence and new liberty to be Indian without apology.”

Giridharadas discusses ‘Citibankification’ and ‘Coca-colaization’—but he talks as well about personal ‘upgradation’ and ‘semi-joint’ families. He goes from the upscale parts of Mumbai, where there is a delicious encounter with Mukesh Ambani, to the dusty plains of central India, where Ravindra emerges as an archetype of the country’s rising, striving generation. He shows how, sometimes, capitalists and communists are interchangeable. He mentions how the sexual revolution is more of a textual revolution among the young hoi polloi, given the ubiquity of mobile devices. He dwells on how couples can uncouple more easily in the new India. And most interestingly, he interlaces his own family’s story in the larger tale to give us, as the book’s sub-title puts it, ‘an intimate portrait of a nation’s remaking.’ Giridharadas elaborates in the phone conversation that follows.

“The young people today are the new India.”

In earlier decades, Indians like your parents left India to realize their full potential. It was more of a necessity than choice for them, as you noted. So it’s interesting that you chose to move to India from the U.S. What compelled you?

I was always drawn to India, but I only fully understood that with time. I was a senior in college and was thinking about what to do with my life, as seniors in college do. And the idea came to me that I’d be able to become a writer if I went some place that forced a kind of interesting collision. And once I thought that way, India seemed a logical place because I had a good relationship—and yet, it was a strange relationship. It was a place that I had preferred as a child and [then] pushed away. I thought I’d go deal with that relationship. But I couldn’t have known the depth of what I’d find when I arrived—which was a country in the middle of this great awakening, when so many people were fulfilling their potential, as you put it, without having to leave the country.

So I guess there is less compulsion for people to leave India these days.

I think there is certainly plenty of emigration that continues, but what has changed is how in places like the IITs—where entire classes kind of deserted India as soon as they graduated—today, a significant percentage of those people stay because they have much better opportunities in India.

You associated with a lot of young Indians, and you dated Indian women. You observed a tug of war between modernity and tradition, between freedom and family. Is this leading to more tension in Indian society? And does it mirror what happens among Indian Americans here?

It’s a bit different. What happens here [in the U.S.] is that immigrants are often in this time capsule, a time capsule of their tradition and understanding of what Indianness required at the moment they left [India]. And so that remains frozen, and they remain frozen within it. And the alien society around them is kind of seen as a constant threat to the integrity of the frozen time capsule. What’s happening in India is a more live and dynamic situation, where you have young people—and others not so young—who in a way have all the new offerings of globalization and modernity and Westernization at their fingertips, along with their Indianness. So it’s not frozen. And what you see in India today is a series of negotiations: one Indian at a time trying to figure out where they draw the line individually. A lot of people [in India] are much less defensive and nostalgic than immigrants often are…they’re much clearer on the limits of Indian culture.

What happens when I travel in America and talk to Indian immigrants is that there’s this almost saccharine fidelity to anything Indian and the feeling that Indian tradition is inherently superior to anything else. Indians in India understand that family is a beautiful thing, but they also understand that it stifled them. They understand that a lot of their traditions have some beauty in them, but they’ve also restrained a lot of Indians from getting anywhere. So I tend to find a lot more subtlety and nuance among Indians [in India] in thinking about what from the past needs to go and what needs to be preserved.

As somebody who grew up in this country, did you face a lot of challenges in India? What did you miss most about America?

What I missed most was probably the feeling that you have as a young person in America that you can do anything.

You talk about how your dad preferred the azadi (freedom) of America, whereas your mom missed the pyar (love) of India. So, in India, did you feel like your dad?

I began my time in India more jealous of my freedom than of anything else, and wondered—whenever I spent time with relatives or was in an Indian community setting—why I felt that freedom bleeding away. But over the course of six years of living in India, I think I tilted from the azadi side a little towards the pyar side, where I realized there is this beautiful feeling of being in a houseful of Indian relatives. Nobody is dwelling on you individually, but there is this kind of ambient love that is very soothing and calming and it takes a lot of stress away. So I think I learned to see both sides of it.

What advice would you give to young Indian Americans who may wish to live and work in India? What sort of skills should they acquire? Should they be learning Hindi, for instance?

Well, the first thing is to realize that India now is probably very different than the India that exists in their mind. We as immigrants are sitting around in America, saying: “They do it like this, they do it like that.” But we have no idea actually how they do it in India anymore. So go to the source rather than dwell on this kind of mythological place that doesn’t exist anymore. Number two, India is well equipped with all kinds of indigenous skills. So young Indian Americans should ask what unique skills they can bring to India. Think tanks, academia, journalism—these are areas where in India, still, the most talented and educated people tend to stay away from. That’s not the case in America. Go set up a think tank or work for an Indian newspaper and help them pull up the standards.

So when you were growing up in the U.S., I take it that you felt no pressure to become a doctor or an engineer, unlike a lot of Indian kids growing up here.

I think my parents interpreted their own stories being about finding freedom and a voice for themselves in another continent. And I think they realized at a certain point that it would have been quite hypocritical for them to make this great leap in adventure and then arrive in this country and tell me I could only be an engineer. Their whole life was about freedom, and they realized I was entitled to the same freedom they were—as long as I wasn’t stupid about it and ended up starving. They always made it clear that it was up to me.

You interviewed V.S. Naipaul not long ago. How did you get interested in writing and journalism? Can you talk about the Indian writers you’ve been drawn to?

I’ve gone through a lot of different writers, not just Indian ones. But I think Naipaul has been a great influence in terms of really writing about places and figuring out, particularly in travel writing, just how to kind of land in places—where you may not begin as an expert—and really work on getting into people’s stories and getting the big through the small. He’s been a very important teacher. I’ve learned a lot from the African-American tradition, which emphasizes more than a lot of other traditions how the words on the printed page should be good to read out loud. On the Indian side, everyone from Salman Rushdie to Jhumpa Lahiri [made an impression].

You focus a lot on young people. Given the youth boom, are they making a big difference in how India is progressing? And do you think young people today have greater expectations and the confidence to match them?

The phenomenon of the new India is less about the division between rich and poor. It’s more about the division between young and old. I find more in common between young poor people and young rich people than I do between the people of the same class of different ages. The young people today are the new India, [where] the change has been tumultuous—economically, politically. It would be quite hard to be 45 years old in the new India and remember the scarcity and remember the limits of the old system.

Speaking of divisions, there’s a belief that the economic and social progress sweeping India is largely confined to the large urban centers. But as your stories about Ravindra and others suggest, much is happening in smaller places too. Could you comment on that?

There’s a line in the book that captures that. As I say, to buy a washing machine costs money but to desire one is free. So, there is an actual material constraint to who can buy a washing machine in the new India. But trust me, there is absolutely no constraint to who can desire one. That may sound very trivial, but actually, to desire something like a washing machine or a motorcycle or any kind of incremental improvement, particularly as you go further into rural India, is a quite revolutionary way of thinking about yourself. It is thinking about yourself as someone entitled to a better life and as someone who should hope and strive for more. And that’s a shift away from a mode of living—common in those parts—that was all about acceptance and endurance. The old India is giving way even in those isolated areas to a conception of life that is about fulfillment and forward movement. That doesn’t mean people have prospered already, but that idea has spread much more democratically.

Now going back to young India, you touch on your dating experiences. Do you think that young women have a harder time dealing with their families than young men, who typically have more freedom?

Well, to the extent that they’re inventing themselves—as a lot of young people are—women have a much heavier burden. But I’d also say that they are doing that in a way that’s very interesting and different from the Western model. The Western model tends to emphasize a kind of patriarchal model, until patriarchy is totally thrown off. And you have a feminist model and a post-feminist model. In India, all of these things run together. So women are rejecting large parts of the past and patriarchy, but are also tolerant of it in its lingering form. And they tend to find space for themselves and be new women—and yet feel comfortable, in the same day, in some of the old spaces. They could be living with their parents, perhaps being pressured to marry, and also be drinking and smoking and hooking up in their private time…living all those contradictions at the same time.

You have a lot of praise for the free market system, but there are skeptics who say that the benefits only go to a segment of the population. So, although liberalization, privatization and globalization are narrowing old divisions, they are also creating new divisions and vast disparities of wealth that didn’t exist in a more socialist system. How would you respond to those critics? 

I actually don’t contradict that in the book, and I don’t think you could point to any place where I say that capitalism and markets will solve India’s problems. I think the bigger thing that markets have done is create a sense in people that rewards will accrue to those who put in the effort. That’s an idea, but it doesn’t mean that markets have solved a lot of problems. What they’ve done is to take a society—with multiple centers of meaning and people who valued different principles of what life was about—and kind of weave them together to become, more and more, a society where they all chase one goal. And that’s very dangerous. A lot of people, as you say, are excluded from the lucre of these markets. In some cases, people are actively displaced by the changes. And in some cases, people are nearly left behind. In other cases, people are actually moving ahead, but they feel themselves falling behind because others are changing so much more quickly. All of those people have resentments and anger that the new India needs to figure out how to deal with.

You talk about two kinds of liberation. The first was the collective liberation in 1947 when India won independence. Do you think Gandhi and others of that era would have expected or approved this second independence, which is the liberation of the self that we now see in India?

Well, I think that’s a complicated issue. What I tried to show in the epilogue is that there were a lot of Indian thinkers, such as Tagore and Swami Vivekananda, who did make a link between these two things. It was not enough to simply declare independence. A vast majority of Indians had been so cruelly treated by their own Indian betters [that] you couldn’t meaningfully create a strong country until you did something about it. That’s why I call this a second independence—because an independence of a billion Indians, many of whom are still injured internally and scarred and not entirely sure they are fully human, is not a robust independence. And the independence that’s coming now, the second independence, in a way rounds everything out and combines the collective liberation with the liberation of individuals.

Coming to my last question, can you see yourself living in India for longer stretches of time—and perhaps even raising a family there?

Actually, yeah. My fiancée and I are both very committed to India, interested in India. And I’m sure we’ll live there again. For me, part of every year will be spent there. It’s a constant part of my life now.

The Dilemma of Being Anand Giridharadas

“Where are you from?” is a question that Indian Americans are used to in this country, perhaps even in India. That was certainly the case with Anand Giridharadas. Saying that he was from Cleveland, Ohio, his birthplace, or from Washington, D.C., where he had mostly grown up in the suburbs, was unsatisfactory. There was often a need in India, he realized, to explain his origins, to establish who exactly he is. He would explain that his parents grew up in Bombay. However, the name Giridharadas didn’t sound, well, Maharashtrian. That’s because he is half-Tamil and half-Punjabi. What! There was even greater puzzlement. How could that be?

“They met in Bombay,” he would explain.

“So basically—basically, you are a Punjabi, correct?”

“Well…”

“Basically, your father is a Punjabi.”

“No, my mother is Punjabi.”

“OK, I see, I see. So your father is a south Indian?”

“Exactly.”

“OK, OK, OK.” Pause. Relief. The pigeon has been pigeonholed. “So, basically speaking, you are a south Indian.”

“Sure. Whatever you want.”

But deeper into the book, Giridharadas points out how India is changing and how, particularly among the young, identities are becoming more fluid. “The meanings of destiny, family, love, class—of what it means to be Indian—were being defined anew by millions of people, all at once,” he states.

Giridharadas’s columns for the International Herald Tribune also appear in the online edition of The New York Times. “Identities you never chose—caste, gender, birth order—are becoming less important determinants of fate,” he recently wrote, following a book tour in India. “Your deeds—how hard you work, what risks you take—are becoming more important.”

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