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How the Elephant Bcame a Tiger

November 2007
How the Elephant Bcame a Tiger

What do the words Ambassador, Amitabh, Ashoka and Astrology have in common? They all start with ‘A' and can be traced to India, but apart from that tenuous link, the words seem like a random collection. Yet what they also have in common is that Shashi Tharoor, in his new book titled The elephant, the tiger, and the cell phone, has included them under ‘A' in an intriguing and entertaining glossary ("An A to Z of Being Indian"). While agreeing that such attempts to sum up the complexity of India would be contentious, Tharoor points out that "this glossary must be treated as being as singular and idiosyncratic, as wide-ranging and maddeningly provocative as India itself."

The book, which includes many previously published articles, explores how India, long seen as a lumbering elephant, is acquiring characteristics associated with an agile tiger. Though India's dramatic progress has been well covered, Tharoor often manages to bring a fresh perspective in a style that is seldom less than engaging. But Tharoor goes beyond merely looking at how India has become more tiger-like, to use that well-worn metaphor; he also focuses on the country's shortcomings and the challenges it faces. Sixty, it's been said, is a lot of years in an individual's life but just a few short ones in a nation's existence. And India, it should be remembered, is also young in demographic terms. At the same time, as one of the world's oldest living civilizations, India is ancient.

"This is a book oriented toward the future, but one in which issues of history and identity make more than an occasional appearance," Tharoor writes. "Whether through elections or quotas, political mobilization in contemporary India has asserted the power of old identities, habits, faiths, and prejudices. Transcending them will be the major challenge for the Indian polity in the twenty-first century. India must rise above the past if we are to conquer the future."

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