India Calling is written in the voice of the prodigal son returning home. It serves as a bookend to An Area of Darkness, V. S. Naipaul’s extended, homecoming screed from 1964. Though the two books share a common thematic structure, their Indias are different, as are their authors’ responses to these Indias. Indeed, if Naipaul’s India was a dark, exhausting, and chaotic world in a feudal state of postcolonial decay, Anand Giridharadas’ India is a modern, hopeful world with a transformational light at the end of the tunnel.While on tour to promote India Calling, Giridharadas spoke at Stanford University to discuss topics ranging from the book, the writer’s life, life in India, and lives of Indian-Americans. Prior to his work as a columnist for the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune, Giridharadas began his career at McKinsey & Company. Although he is presently a doctoral candidate at Harvard University, there is little academic jargon in his highly accessible book.
The power of Giridharadas’ writing stems from his peeling back layers of assumptions— assumptions about India and about his own familial relationship with the subcontinent. Using what anthropologists call “emic” or “local” knowledge available only to cultural insiders, Giridharadas jumps into Indian life and allows Indians to enter into his life. While acknowledging the work of scholars such as Sudhir Kakar and A. K. Ramanujan, he challenges himself beyond received knowledge by meeting Indians ranging from Mukesh Ambani, one of the wealthiest men on earth, to Ravindra Misal, an entrepreneur who has transcended his low-caste origins. What results is a profoundly moving narrative of an oft-wounded civilization that is now alive with possibility.
Because of the importance of India’s arrival on the modern stage and because of how magnificently Giridharadas conveys the dilemmas of this arrival, this reviewer reached out to the author for an interview in January 2011. The good news is that India Calling, which merits a wide reading, is doing well, and thus its author has been much in demand. Unfortunately, this also means that Giridharadas was unavailable for a meaningful dialogue. He suggested he would be available for a brief phone conversation to clarify things, if needed, and asked if it would be possible for me to get as much as possible from the book itself.
Of course it would. In the days before writers were celebrities guffawing with Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show” or playing literary tennis with Charlie Rose on PBS, the books spoke for themselves. What follows is a subset of questions sent to Giridharadas via email.
Congratulations on India Calling. In listening to you speak about the book with the Stanford students, I sensed a self-awareness that perhaps came out of what you called your “encounter with India.” How has living these past several years in India changed you?
To return to India in this way, as the son of those who had left, was to know dizzying change—and change as much in the seer as in the seen. My vocation was to witness, with supposed detachment, the spectacle of an old country turning new. But I could not pretend to be so detached. India’s new realities were undoing not only India’s old realities, but also the old facsimiles of reality in my mind and in the minds of many others in the world.
And how about the experience of writing the book? Has that had a palpable impact on you?
To see India clearly would require an excavation of my own buried imaginings, and a sifting of what had endured from what had withered and pivoted in new ways.
Tom Friedman, your colleague at the New York Times, explained that Nandan Nilekani had given him the idea for the theme and title of The World is Flat. What or who informed the title of India Calling? It can be read in a layered way, with many meanings. What does the title mean to you?
It was strange that now I had come to reinvent myself in, of all places, India [to find my calling]…
At first, India had felt alien to me: alien in its crowds and strange phraseology, alien in its probing of my native place, alien in its lack of enthusiasm for my arrival. My old lenses were still in place—India the exhausting, difficult country—and so I saw only what I had always seen. In fact, working at McKinsey shielded me from India’s hardships, and I sensed after a time that this was part of the problem. Working in business, I was prancing on the surface of things, not going below and confronting what had fascinated, angered, and humiliated me about India all these years.
Writing would turn out to be a worthier mode of confrontation … I was not sorry to say good-bye to consulting.
Your mother’s family came from Punjab. Your father is from Tamil Nadu. You grew up in Shaker Heights, Ohio. After these many years in India, where is home now? What does “desh” mean to you?
Like so many Indians today, this book is bound to no one place. It was written in Bombay, Goa, Maryland, Massachusetts, and Colombia. In this new world, it is people, not places, that anchor you.
In India Calling you blend a personal voice with that of so-called objective reportage, giving the book the feeling of a memoir. There are many moments where you conflate the personal and the objective. One extended section has you comparing and contrasting your maternal grandfather (Nanu) and Dhirubhai Ambani.[The Ambani family approach to business] was not business as my grandfather thought of business. It was a no-holds-barred, bottom-up approach that refused to accept “no,” that defied the stuffy Anglicized stickler for rules, that put human relationships above everything: commerce as it was played on the streets, not as a parlor game.
Congratulations on your recent engagement. You wrote a sweet piece about evolving traditions that range from the old-world Hindu family blessing the engagement to the new-world lovebirds’ engagement ring marking commitment. The punch line involved the online community in the emerging world requiring a change in your Facebook status to make the engagement official. What’s lost and what’s gained in this blended world?
A certain subversive idea is flowering in India: the idea of romantic love, love without context and without the considerations of family and tribe. The parent-child relationship had traditionally overwhelmed the husband-wife bond. … Love would creep into marriage late in the game, a love built on habit and need and the accumulation of a shared past. But it was not romantic love, love that arrests the heart, love that makes life’s burdens dissipate away, love that shrinks the world down to the vital truth staring at you from across the valley of your pillows.
A longing for twoness is now asserting itself in India.
Back in 2007 Ed Luce wrote a wonderful book called In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India. I assume you’ve read it. The title of my review of that book was “Wondering About India: Palimpsest or Pentimento?” So, do you believe that India is a palimpsest, a layering of old, religious ways onto the new? Do tradition and modernity coexist like a grandparent and grandchild in an extended family?
But this is India, and there was always a layer below the layer below the layer. If a seeming prudery masked a new promiscuity, that promiscuity in turn masked something else: an enduring devotion by the young and modern to filial piety, an enduring belief that the future, however drug- and drink-laced, must be woven into the tapestry of the past… And so the young Indians I know manifest the Indian tendency to face change and its choices with a philosophy of “both-and,” not ‘either-or.’
(From Luce, whose praise is on the book’s dust jacket: “India Calling is for those who prefer the view from the ground than from thirty thousand feet.”)
While you certainly have your own distinctive voice, there are echoes of V. S. Naipaul. Indeed, you extend Naipaul’s “million mutinies now” theme. What debt does your writing owe to this Nobel Laureate?
For many Indians, it was not the village betters who had reined them in, who had deprived them and the world of the fullness of themselves. It was, rather, the colonial stain, that residual longing to be someone apart from yourself [a theme that has informed Naipaul’s books and his life] … Millions of Indians strove to learn English, but fewer and fewer strove to be English …
At first, I had seen India … through other lenses. I had seen a country frozen in my youth, and then returned to see it bursting with energy. I had seen the new cult of the self and new faith in self-making. I had seen, alongside this flowering of self-confidence, a new cultural confidence in the ascent of the uncolonized Indian. And all of this, in different ways, suggested an Indian awakening, after the darkness in which India had lurked in my imagination.
For RCO’s daughter, Anupama, who has responded to India’s calling with her own calling by teaching at Shanti Bhavan: Ek din (one day) there will be educational equity in this world.