Like Shashi Tharoor’s Times of India columns, his latest book is “encyclopedic.” Its topics range from ambassadors (the kind that comfortably sit in foreign consulates and the kind that less comfortably seat an extended family taking an extended road-trip across India’s Golden Quadrilateral Highway) to zero (the mathematical number and the philosophy which informs Hindu and Buddhist ways of understanding the world). Indeed, Tharoor has titled his final chapter, “An A to Z of Being Indian.”
This collection of essays can be leisurely read one piece at a time or in big batches as categorized by the author. Since I read an electronic advance copy while vacationing in India, both the form of the book and the availability time encouraged a big-batch approach. This review reflects six separate, though linked, readings associated with the six chapters of The Elephant, the Tiger, and the Cell Phone (heretofore ETC—less cumbersome than the kitschy title splashed across the book’s jacket cover art of the elephant-headed Ganesha holding a tiger in one hand and a cell phone in the other).
The book’s essays refresh earlier versions of Tharoor’s columns from various Indian and non-Indian publications; but first ETC opens with a charming allegory of India—a tired, old elephant—confronted by Southeast Asia’s rising tigers. Veterinarians tell the ill, lumbering tusker, “You must change. You must become more like the tigers.” The question at the heart of this big-hearted, elephantine tome is whether India will transform in ways that build on its tolerant and pluralistic civilization or become, in Amartya Sen’s memorable phrasing, “miniaturized” by the “narrow and bellicose.”
Chapter 1 addresses this question with some heavy-lifting prose that seems destined for a political speech (“Indian nationalism is the nationalism of an idea, the idea of an ever-ever-land emerging from an ancient civilization, united by a shared history, sustained by pluralist democracy.”) But quickly the argument picks up, using a marvelous combination of literate readings (from Swami Vivekananda to Salman Rushdie), popular culture (from cricket metaphors to Bollywood’s metaphoric brothers: Amar, Akbar, and Anthony), and, most delightfully, dialogue with readers of Tharoor’s columns.
As suggested by its title (“India at Work and Play”), the next part of ETC is a bit lighter. The alliterative and pun-filled subchapter titles tend to evoke a desi smile of recognition and occasional home-grown groan: “Hooray for Bollywood,” “Democracy and Demockery,” “Salad Daze,” “Cops and Jobbers,” “Becoming Bengaloorued,” and “Sari Saga.” This last essay is my favorite because it simultaneously praises the sari (“masterpiece of feminine attire”), bemoans the loss of tradition (“Very few of today’s under-thirty women seem to have the patience for draping a sari … I think this is actually a great pity.”), and accepts the right of others to disagree (“Try rushing to catch a bus in a sari,” one young lady pointedly remarked, “and you’ll switch to jeans the next day.”). In this one essay, Tharoor offers an important sociological perspective for Indians in India and of the diaspora: “One of the remarkable aspects of Indian modernity has always been its unwillingness to disown the past.” Perhaps I enjoyed the piece because my mother has worn a sari every day of her four decades in America, including one especially memorable day when she walked away from a dream job at Nordstrom because her “sari didn’t conform to company dress regulations.”
Despite its impassioned writing and thematic clustering of Indians whom the author deems notable, Chapter 3 seems incongruous with the lively, forward-looking tone of the rest of the book. These vignettes of historical figures read like mini-biographies abridged to fit the criteria of a textbook publisher seeking to sell a curriculum to teachers on a fixed, pedantic school-year schedule. Although there is a place for this kind of writing, this reader of Tharoor’s previous comprehensive work on Nehru would welcome a more fully developed book dedicated to the heroes of 20th-century India.
Tharoor returns to fine form in the next two chapters, with an enticing mix of the personal and the political. In Chapters 4 and 5, the reader is invited to partake in the author’s nostalgia for the Indian cities of his youth as well as to share in the author’s enthusiasm for India’s future. While Bombay, Calcutta, and Delhi are fondly recalled, Tharoor’s ardor is reserved for his ancestral Kerala. Although (or perhaps because) he is an expatriated Keralite who has primarily visited his homeland on holidays, Tharoor waxes poetic about “God’s Own Country.” At times the prose borders on regional advertisement that seems better suited for a business process outsourcing pitch: “the future of India lies in the South.” But this Rajasthani reader is quick to forgive the writer and embrace the championing of Kerala’s near 100% literacy, especially the literacy of her women. One is moved to celebrate Tharoor’s description of an M. F. Husain Keralite landscape: “And everywhere there are the women: striding confidently through the green, holding aloft their elephants, steering their little boats through a storm, holding their own at the marketplace, and simply—how simply!—reading.”
Before the final chapter, Tharoor lists ten areas of vulnerability that are “dangers to India’s future.” While I was dismayed that energy crisis and environmental degradation were omitted, it is difficult to argue with Tharoor’s Top Ten, ranging from “The Threat to Pluralism” to “Neglecting the ‘Software’ of Human Development.” However, there is a missed opportunity for this section to have closed with the powerful sentence Tharoor invoked in an earlier essay on the challenges of literacy: “If I had to pick the one thing we must do above all else, I now offer a two-word mantra: “Educate girls.” Or perhaps ETC could have concluded its playful final chapter on “An A to Z of Being Indian” with a serious play on the Indian concept of shunyata, or nothingness. Zero—the number of illiterate Indian children in the year 2020.
Objective Portrayal, a review of Shashi Tharoor’s Nehru: The Invention of India
Shoebox Shuffle, a review of Shashi Tharoor’s Bookless in Baghdad
Love in the Time of Riots, a review of Shashi Tharoor’s Riot
|After a long run in the corporate world, Rajesh C. Oza now balances his life between family and friends, organizational alignment and consulting, reading and writing, India and America. He has published fiction and nonfiction and is presently writing a memoir about his childhood in India, Canada, and the United States. Raj can be reached at email@example.com|