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Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Phoren Hand

I came across an article by one Derek Shearer yesterday which actually prompted me to write my first real post on this blog. In the midst of one ramble about attending a wedding in India -- the high point of most westerners these days as their minds boggle and eyes goggle at our extravaganzas -- he put in list of books on India that visitors should read.

It's all very well that he happens to be a "Chevalier Professor of Diplomacy and World Affairs at Occidental College in Los Angeles" and a Clinton acolyte rewarded with an ambassadorship to Finland, but why should his recommended reading list name only foreigners or non-residents, writing on India-- barring Ramchandra Guha and William Bissell, of course? I quote his list:

  • In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India, by Edward Luce, former Financial Times correspondent in New Delhi, is the best single introduction to the country. A model of foreign reporting, clear writing and thoughtful analysis.
  • Nine Lives--In Search of the Sacred in Modern India, by William Dalrymple, is an exploration of how traditional religious beliefs are transformed by today's globalized society. Dalrymple is an exceptional writer and reporter, and his history books like The Last Mughal, and his travel books on India and the region are all worth purchasing.
  • India After Gandhi: The History of the World's Largest Democracy by Ramchandra Guha, is the single best history of modern India.
  • Vishnu's Crowded Temple: India Since the Great Rebellion by Maria Misra, tells the story of late British India and brings it forward to the present. A good companion to Guha's work.
  • Making India Work by William Bissell, is a policy book by the current director of Fabindia, the company founded by his American father who went to India on a Ford Foundation grant, met an Indian woman (Bim Bissell, a noted figure in Delhi society whom we met at the wedding), and stayed to start a textile company. In the book, Bissell gives his prescriptions for downsizing India's inefficient bureaucracy, improving its struggling educational system, and revitalizing neighborhood democracy.
  • Three of my other best reads on India include, Freedom At Midnight by Larry Collins & Dominque LaPierre, a cinematic like recounting of the moment when British India was partitioned into India and Pakistan; Ambassador's Journal by John Kenneth Galbraith, who served as JFK's diplomat to India in the 1960s; and The Life of Mahatma Gandhi by Louis Fischer, one of the great journalists of the 20th century.
  • In the fiction category (not the serious novels you will find in a proper course on modern Indian literature), I recommend The Case of the Missing Servant by Tarquin Hall, the first in a new detective series set in New Delhi introducing Vash Puri, self-proclaimed "India's Greatest Detective", Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra, a Dickensian detective novel set in today's Mumbai, and Delhi Noir, a collection of short detective fiction edited by Hirsh Sawhney which explores the darker side of Indian life.
  • There are too many Bollywood and Merchant/Ivory films to recommend any particular ones. Instead, you can start your Indian odyssey at home with the BBC documentary, The Story of India, narrated by historian Michael Wood. Of course, if you have not seen Monsoon Wedding or Slumdog Millionaire, you are missing out on great treats.

Get the general idea? Don't get me wrong, all these may be great books, and many of these writers are friends of mine -- upright and quite in love with India -- but surely the net must be cast wider? Shearer has hit all the old buttons: Gandhi, saffron clad sadhus and bell-clanging temples, sleazy and communal politics, corruption, red tape and overweaning poverty.... Things he perhaps comfortingly remembers from his first visit to India in the 1970s. But the fact is, not only has India moved on a lot since then in very fundamental ways, she has many more facets that should captivate visitors, firang and NRI.

Unfortunately, Indian writers do not seem to capture that well enough or perhaps, often enough. History has become the battleground of ideologies and in the din the rollicking historical novels of ancient and Mughal India by the Chennai-based Abraham Eraly have been muscled out of the limelight, for instance. Much as I deplore the pedestrian prose of Chetan Bhagat, his 95-rupee books do indeed capture a zeitgeist but he is hardly recommended reading for everyone. The lyrical movies of Farhan Akhtar are a window to a different India yet we persist with tomtomming Meera Nair and Deepa Mehta...

On the topic of homegrown staples, Amar Chitra Katha's timeless telling of India's lore is an incomparable introduction to the Indian mindset. Can you think of a better way for a newcomer (foreign or NRI) to understand why the Delhi High Court cites the divine romance of a celestial couple -- Radha and Krishna -- when giving a verdict on live-in relationships? RK Narayan's evocation of south Indian culture, Tagore and Sarat Chandra's prescient observations of the fissures and foibles of Bengali family structure still ring true today...

This country that straddles the past and present without a wobble is the India that the world will soon have to contend more and more. This is also the India that wants to take on the world. The India of Infosys and IPL, of women minting money making papad and honey, of boys with as much RAM in their craniums as Big Blue swotting for their engineering exams. But it is as much the India where millions head for an absolving dip in the Ganga as their forebears have done for millennia, where a watch displaying 'rahu kaal' is snapped up by businessmen so that they don't sign deals at inauspicious moments, where the great holy centres dish out free meals for thousands of poor people every day even as the rich shower the gods with billion-rupee coronets.

Sadly, very few Indians have obliged us with more relevant readings on this India. So Mr Shearer has a ready excuse for his skewed list.


  1. Iam sure Indians would start writing more on India soon...I mean who else than us can know our country better..and soon we shall be on many such lists!
    But I guess just as the phirangs are attracted towards our country...Indians tend to get attracted to writing about phoren lands....

  2. Which novels by Eraly do you recommend? I've only seen his series on Indian history, and his translations of Malayalam folk tales.