Thursday, September 29, 2011

Anand Giridharadas' Upbeat Take on Modern India

In the 1970s, the journalist Anand Giridharadas’ parents moved from India to America for better professional opportunities, leaving behind India’s stagnant economy and rigid caste system. Three decades later, their America-born son moved back to an India with a free market going full tilt and intense social mobility changing the face of the nation.

In his debut nonfiction book “India Calling: An Intimate Portrait of a Nation’s Remaking”(Times Books, 274 pp., $25), Giridharadas weaves his family history in with the stories of contemporary Indian strivers like Ravindra, an entrepreneur who pulled himself out of grinding poverty through the can-do maxims of Dale Carnagie, and Mukesh Ambani, a billionaire whose aggressive economic dealings are reshaping the country and the Indian identity at the same time. Readers will meet Indian women who reject arranged marriages and a Maoist rebel still fighting after five decades. Giridharadas’ portrait of a modern India is vivd and optimistic, cataloging the the country’s growing economic power and turbulent changes.

Giridharadas, 29, was raised in Ohio and Maryland. He is a columnist for the International Herald Tribune and spoke with freelance writer Dylan Foley by telephone from his home in Cambridge, Mass.

Q. Why did you incorporate much of your family history of emigrating from India to America in this book?

A. It was something that emerged quite late in the process. The big story I am telling was what India was to itself and the world, and what India is now. In the larger story of change, I thought it would be interesting to tell my family’s story of change. It was a way of making a big story smaller.

Q. In one of your essays, you write about Ravindra, a man from an oppressed Indian social class in a small town in the center of India who started several businesses. How did he reinvent himself?

A. The essence of what Ravindra did was from a series of revelations. Revelation number one was waking up in his serf-like childhood and realizing he did not have to be a serf. Nobody in his family had ever had that insight. Number two was deciding to self-educate rather than depend on the system. Don’t trust that anyone will help you. The third revelation was that he was not alone, that there were millions like him who wanted to change their lives. Ravindra offered others the services of self-invention., like running his skating school, and profited from them. He understood how profoundly ordinary his own dream were.

Q. Americans living in India often find themselves uncomfortable with the Indian upper-classes’ treatment of their servants. What was your experience?

A. When you first arrive in India, you think, “God, these Indians treat their servants so badly! How awful!” It’s something in the air and something about the way people are, that very few people hold out. I wasn’t able to. Everybody goes local. You stop saying “thank you” and things like that. I was disappointed with myself that I crossed the line where you accept the concept that employers and servants come from different worlds.

Q. In one story you tell, two brothers split the family home, becoming Upstairs Uncle and Downstairs Uncle to their niece, showing the rifts in modern India in one building. What did you learn?

A. The Upstairs Uncle broke away from his brother and family because he was more ambitious. He literally built another home on top of the family house. What happened across the Upstairs/Downstairs gradient was that the fault lines of modern India were bared. There were different conceptions of family love and romantic love, as well as a different understanding of self, money and ambition between the two families. About all, there was a different understanding of family obligation. You got to see this in one house how all these things manifested themselves.

(This interview ran in the Newark Star-Ledger in March 2011)

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