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Lopsided India

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Raghu Rai/Magnum Photos
Tourists in Mahabalipuram, Tamil Nadu

In his much-admired biography of V.S. Naipaul, Patrick French has an excellent half-dozen pages describing the disciplined, relentless way his subject set about gathering material for his last full-length examination of India, then widely seen to be incapable of reforming its roughhouse communal politics or quickening its development. When, twenty years ago, India: A Million Mutinies Now finally appeared, it was judged to be surprisingly sympathetic and hopeful, considering India’s actual circumstances and the tone of high dudgeon, sometimes mockery, that many Indians had found in Naipaul’s prior treatments of their land.

At the time it wasn’t clear what or who had changed more, India or the ex-Trinidadian sojourner. Now it can be said that Naipaul was prescient. Traveling and writing several years before economic reforms upended a planning bureaucracy that had smothered India’s entrepreneurial zeal and aptitude, which have since flourished, he sensed an irrepressible cultural change. The “mutinies” he celebrated as a burst of “self-awareness” were, he concluded, “part of the beginning of a new way for many millions.”

It’s tempting to approach Patrick French’s survey of today’s energetic, surprising, still lopsided India as an implicit sequel to Naipaul’s last venture along those lines. He opens with a brief account of a visit to remote Ladakh, a high-altitude outpost of Tibetan culture in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, just up the road from the point at which Naipaul ended his travels a generation ago. But there’s no hint of an homage here; in fact, the name of his last subject never appears in these pages (only a coy reference to “a biography,” subject anonymous, that delayed the writing of this book). He’s in Ladakh, about as far north as he can get in India, merely to make the inarguable point that it’s very different from Tamil Nadu far to the south; and thus to make vivid the oldest idea in the long literature of Indian travelogues: that the country’s cultural tapestry is about as variegated as it can conceivably be. And so we are transported in reverse gear into another discussion of the nation-building challenges that faced India’s leaders after the Raj shut down in 1947.

Missing here is the rapacious curiosity with which Naipaul drilled down through the testimonies he assembled in search of the theme he would extract from such scattered findings, his conclusion about tectonic shifts in the Indian situation, that “new way for many millions.” French starts off in a similar vein, saying that there has been “some sort of unleashing.” Later he speaks of “a transformative revolution,” adding incontrovertibly that “it is not always a pretty sight.” What Naipaul claimed to have discovered, he takes as a given. Less an explorer than a tour guide, this Englishman has a collection of notebooks, anecdotes, insights, and clippings that he has gathered in the twenty-five years he has been visiting India and out of them he stitches together his patchwork, filling in blanks with new forays here and there. He meanders but his wit and eye for detail are sharp enough to reward a patient reading.

Cameo appearances by familiar figures on the Indian stage, past and present, are typically arresting, even where French is depending on secondary sources rather than direct encounters. We learn that Gandhi advised the young love-struck Indira Nehru to avoid “sex-pleasure” if she insisted on going ahead with marriage to “busy, fleshy, outgoing, and sensual” Feroze Gandhi (who shared only the Mahatma’s surname); that her father, the future prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, then in the throes of an affair with a “buxom Congress politician” following the death of his wife, gave his “pained, partial consent.”

In a foreshadowing of a seemingly impossible convergence, we’re told that on “the very day” in 1946 that India’s Constituent Assembly convened, an infant named Sonia Maino was born in a bleak industrial suburb of Turin to a Roman Catholic family that kept a leather-bound set of Mussolini’s speeches in its front room. “Handcuffed to history,” she would become the queen regent of the Nehru-Gandhi family dynasty following the murder of her husband Rajiv, son of Indira, governing the party that’s now the leader of the ruling coalition until her own son Rahul is deemed ready to succeed to the prime ministership she astutely declined, in what will then be the fourth generation of the family’s rule. “The Congress Party is a Mughal court,” French writes of what remains of the national movement the original Gandhi once led, “and no one can do anything unless the Gandhis say so.”

Our author’s fascination with the “triumph of nepotism” in India’s democracy is by no means limited to the unofficial first family. Delving into the results of the 2009 national election, he finds that 37.5 percent of the Congress members of the Parliament’s lower house had a “hereditary” connection to current or previous Congress office-holders. He does not give the statistics on “sheeters”—elected officials with criminal records—but these can also be mind-boggling. Considering that two of our last four presidents have been named Bush, or that the present governor of New York bears the same surname as the last Democrat to serve a full term in the office, or that even with the departure of his brother from the family storefront in Chicago, the present White House chief of staff is named Daley, we should perhaps refrain from clucking over such findings.

French titillates too with references to swamis who played Rasputin to at least two Indian prime ministers (and on the place of gurus and astrology in the lives of many ostensibly secular Indians). Presenting the new India that is said to have emerged in the last fifteen or so years, he wheels in outsized examples of social and economic assertion. Inevitably, one is Mayawati, the woman who is the Dalit chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state (Dalit being the preferred designation for the people once called untouchables); her “pharaonic” building of monuments to herself and older Dalit leaders who inspired her has consumed tens, maybe hundreds, of millions of dollars of public funds. If a cross-cultural reference can be interjected, Mayawati might be described as a Huey Long populist. “I’m a Chamar [a leather worker, traditionally deemed untouchable], I’m not married, I’m yours!” she tells her adherents in the Hindi of the streets. It goes down well, even with opportunistic Brahmins and Muslims ready to stand as candidates on her ticket. No one seems to mind that she has also, in the course of her political career, become very rich.

Mayawati’s excess can seem proportionate, even justifiable, when compared to the brazen displays of India’s new billionaires. The Indian steelmaker Lakshmi Mittal, we’re told, managed to hire the palace at Versailles for his daughter’s wedding. Not satisfied with local camels, another magnate imported giraffes from South Africa to a north Indian industrial town for his own daughter’s nuptials. And then there’s the much-remarked-upon twenty-seven-story residence, with three helipads and nine elevators, erected in Mumbai by Mukesh Ambani, who, according to Forbes, has a fortune of $27 billion. French interviews a telecom billionaire named Sunil Bharti Mittal, in whom he finds a philanthropic ambition and potential worthy of a latter-day Andrew Carnegie, but he never really gets close to the new rich or a convincing analysis of their impact on Indian life and society.

Much the same can be said of his presentation of India’s frightening lower depths. It’s not hard to find outcastes or lower-caste Indians living at bare subsistence, far below anyone’s idea of a poverty line. There are estimated to be some 300 million of them, roughly a quarter of the population. But French finds only one, following up on a lurid newspaper article about an indebted quarry worker who was put in chains by his employer (an example of the “horror stories” to which he says foreign correspondents are addicted).

Two other lower-caste figures he introduces turn out to be a law professor, who started off in life as son of a landless laborer, and the professor’s nephew, now living in Silicon Valley as a software engineer. These, it need hardly be explained, are stupendously atypical examples of the new social mobility that has suddenly been loosed on the land. The nephew thinks of returning to India. “In some ways we would lead a more sophisticated life in Bangalore,” he explains. He instantly defines what he means by sophistication, this offshoot of a landless laborer: “You can have a driver and a nanny there, which is hard to afford in the US.”

This English writer’s inclination is to see the early years of Indian independence as an era of misguided idealism, during which an artificial austerity was imposed on the land, foreign luxuries were banned, and all key economic decisions had to be signed and countersigned by bureaucrats. Paraphrasing Clauswitz, he calls that era, now deemed to have ended, a continuation of colonialism by other means. In search of what went wrong in the period, he travels into some obscure byways, considering an early treatise by John Maynard Keynes called Indian Currency and Finance, published on the eve of World War I, which may or may not have influenced economic thinking in India after World War II; he dwells on the failure of the enormous, state-owned Heavy Engineering Corporation to run at capacity or a profit over several decades. It’s a chapter most readers will want to skip, once they’ve grasped the argument that India didn’t really start to come into its own until the 1990s.

Of course, the servants were always there, even when Indian elites imagined themselves to be pursuing lives of idealistic self-abnegation because their government wouldn’t allow them to import foreign cars or other luxuries. “The omnipresence of dispensable servants…makes a certain kind of existence possible. Servants fetch, carry, polish, iron, sweep, wash, shop, fix,” French writes evocatively.

They are slimmer and darker than their employers; they look childlike but profoundly adult, as if they have had to work like adults since they were children. They move without assurance, and the expectation is that they will always be there, to facilitate a certain way of life.

It’s a telling passage, one that suggests that examples of social mobility in accounts of India still exist at the level of anecdote, that the churning they reflect may be less transformative than advertised. Patrick French leans one way, then another. Neither a booster nor a naysayer, he lopes along, keeping the open mind of an affectionate bystander whether he’s presenting gated communities for the affluent, advertised as “lifestyle enclaves”; a gay pimp providing male strippers to Bangalore “hen nights” attended largely by so-called NRIs (nonresident Indians) on home leave; or the tangled story of an ostensibly orthodox Hindu politician slain in a lurid fratricide whose son then survives a drug overdose in a jacuzzi to go on to become star of a reality TV show. Such images flash by kaleidoscopically. Since it’s India we’re talking about, they proliferate, leading to their own kind of overdose.

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Bruno Barbey/Magnum Photos
Plaster casts of Gandhi and other Indian dignitaries for sale in Mumbai

Anand Giridharadas, a second-generation Indian-American journalist born in Shaker Heights, Ohio, doesn’t travel nearly as far as French into the subcontinent’s past or present but, in a book that’s a hundred pages shorter (and could easily have been briefer), he manages to dig considerably deeper into the psychology and circumstances of the “new kind of Indian” we’ve been hearing about since Naipaul. In this younger writer’s account—drawn from family visits in his childhood, followed by a prolonged residence in Mumbai as first a corporate consultant, then a journalist—this new Indian is at once more self-confident and less Westernized in the sense of being freer from hand-me-down colonial models. Viewing the changes through the prism of the families his parents left behind in India, Giridharadas sketches pictures of cultural reinvention and loss that will be more or less familiar to anyone who has read a few Jhumpa Lahiri stories. The personal narrative provides a useful point of entry but becomes repetitious; his forays into the actual India are more likely to be remembered.

Giridharadas finds in the new India “quiet refusals to know one’s place,” to be pinned down by the old signifiers of caste and status, the old Indian “boundedness,” by even geography. He’s not merely finding new words for the “mutinies” Naipaul described a generation ago. He succeeds in evoking these new Indians, most strikingly in the case of Ravindra, a self-created motivational speaker who overcomes humble village origins through close study of Dale Carnegie. He never wore footwear till the ninth grade but he has now read How to Win Friends and Influence People twenty-eight times, he says. “I will change my destiny,” vows Ravindra, who gets his start staging “personality contests” in a small nondescript town called Umred near his village in the center of India, a town too small to have a train station but big enough to have had its conventions shaken, if not exploded, by television and the Internet. One of the contestants for the plastic tiara that comes with the title of Miss Umred is asked what she hopes to become. “My aim in life is to become a newsreader,” she replies in English, which Giridharadas calls “the language of success in the India that was beginning to flourish in the 1990s.” She probably picked it up at what he calls “middle-class finishing schools,” describing a sort of low-rent Berlitz for the slightly dislodged, aspiring masses.

The pleasure of Giridharadas’s portrait of this striver is that he doesn’t just descend on his subject for a single opportunistic interview but returns again and again over a period that seems to cover a few years. Soon Ravindra has started one of those makeshift academies on his own, offering Umred’s awakened youth not only English but courses in “personality development”—what’s now sometimes called “personal branding” in listings of American extension courses—so they can learn how to present themselves at a job interview, perhaps at a call center where successful candidates go on to field orders and complaints from American villages, towns, and cities.

Roller-skating is also part of the curriculum. In the period when Giridharadas follows him, this former villager buys himself a motorcycle, builds a house, becomes manager of an Indian skating team that travels to Hong Kong, and nearly pulls off a “love match” instead of falling into the standard arranged marriage. His journalist friend engages him in quasi-metaphysical discussions of concepts like karma and destiny. “I believe that life is only a one-time chance,” Ravindra says, writing off, it seems, millennia of Indian spiritualism.

From Umred and Ravindra, India Calling swings back to Mumbai and the billionaire Mukesh Ambani—the conceiver and lord of the twenty-seven-story mansion with hanging gardens—whom Giridharadas pursues with the same admirable persistence and curiosity with which he went after Ravindra. The young provincial becomes in this telling an Ambani acolyte and wannabe. Reliance Industries, the empire over which the tycoon presides, is portrayed as a state within a state, with its own intelligence service, fixers, and emissaries, all rooted in the sort of personal give-and-take relationships and obligations that drive trading in an Indian marketplace where insider trading is the name of the game. These are values not taught in any business school. Ambani, sent to Stanford by his father, a trader who became an empire builder, left without completing his MBA. He didn’t feel he needed it to run an expanding business in India.

In the portrait Giridharadas assembles almost obsessively through interviews and close observation in the owner’s box at a cricket match, Mukesh Ambani becomes “more than a man, more than a businessman, more than the billionaire.” The author skates along the edge of hyperbole but by the time he describes Ambani as “the most powerful private citizen of India since Gandhi,” it seems he has made his case. Here he stands, “a new kind of Indian…mentally uncolonized, fanatical about his own country, unconstrained by an abstract British-taught morality.” Of course, as we’ve repeatedly been reminded these last few years, it’s not necessary to be reared in the customary ways of Indian trading to be unconstrained by an abstract morality, or to lobby politicians long entangled in a web of favors and obligations to which cash values may be imputed. MBAs do it too.

The nonresident Indian from Ohio is fascinated by the way these various moralities bleed into each other. At the fancy airport in Hyderabad, sometimes called “Cyberabad” because of its success in attracting foreign software companies, he finds sixty-three kinds of whisky on sale in a shop where sumptuary laws once banned the sale of liquor to Indians. He introduces a Maoist who wrote for a business newspaper where he accepted gifts from companies like Reliance Industries, and a self-propelled divorcee from the Punjab who, speaking no English, had gone to England to become a beauty therapist. He shows how the Internet is used in India to arrange marriages rather than dates, and remarriages when the new kind of self-seeking Indian flouts tradition by bailing out of a failed union. The single career women he gets to know in Mumbai believe, he says, “with equal fervor in filial piety and in promiscuity, rejecting as false the dichotomy the Western mind would see.” Ultimately most of them will make a match acceptable to their parents.

Giridharadas sees his own story as part of a pattern, finding a symmetry between his journey and that of his parents, who left India to reinvent themselves. The chief executive officers of Citibank and PepsiCo are also offshoots of that migration as are the governors of Louisiana and South Carolina. One of “India’s stepchildren,” he is doing the same thing “in reverse” as, he tells us, thousands have. “We forged dual-use accents,” he writes, becoming part of “a new worldwide fusion class: people positioned to mediate among the multiple societies that claim them.” Lapsing into self- absorption, he plays a series of variations on that theme.

I was reminded of an evening a couple of years ago on the rooftop terrace of Mumbai’s Intercontinental Hotel where I found myself seated near a large group of spirited and stylish young Indians with American accents, gossiping and drinking Cosmopolitans. I couldn’t tell whether they were visitors in transit or expatriates in the land of their parents. The terrace we inhabited seemed as the sun sank into the Arabian Sea to be afloat somewhere between Mumbai’s Marine Drive and Tribeca. India, meanwhile, was down below, just an elevator ride away.

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