Book Review: India Calling: An Intimate Portrait of a Nation’s Remaking by Anand Giridharadas

There are several points I want to make about this book. Let’s start by saying that I probably know India more intimately than most western readers. I spent ten years living on the Indian Subcontinent. As I read this book, I would often reminisce about certain instances that I haven’t thought about in years. I found myself attempting to recall the places I had been: six years in Bangladesh, mostly in Dhaka but also in Chittagong; six months in Bombay, now known as Mumbai; six months in Madras; six months in Kodaikanal, a lovely lakeside town in the mountains of southwestern India; six months in Goa, a former Portuguese Catholic enclave on India’s western coast; six months in Katmandu, Nepal, in the midst of a bitterly cold winter; and other long stays in Calcutta, Shantiniketan, Sri Lanka, and other places. I hitchhiked the Indian highways; sometimes my only friends or acquaintances were Indian and I would go days without speaking with another foreigner.

Recently I read a dynamic book called Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World by Giridharadas, and when I realized that he had also written a book on the new India, I was eager to read it. This book was not what I expected. I supposed that it would be more comprehensive and objective, a thorough look at the political and social evolution of the entire country, but it’s a memoir about the author’s impressions of India when he came to work there as a correspondent. He had been raised in the United States and was a U.S. citizen, and until he moved there for work, his only exposure to the culture consisted of weeks-long forays with his parents and sister to visit relatives. The book is part memoir, as I said, but it’s also in the form of a sort of extended magazine article. Giridharadas draws his picture of the country through comprehensive portraits of about half a dozen people he encountered mainly in western and northwestern India. Interesting, yes, but it doesn’t really give a well-rounded picture of the overall country.

Giridharadas constantly contrasts India as it was and India as it is now, but honestly, his descriptions of present-day India seem little different from the way that I remember it from my travels. True, now the country allows Coca Cola, MacDonald’s, and other foreign companies to set up shop, whereas when I traveled in India only local brands were allowed. Campa Cola – “the great Indian taste” – was all you could find to slake your thirst. But the society was restrictive then as it is now, and families were tight as they are now. I’m sure that Giridharadas is right in all the subtle and not so subtle changes that he delineates – after all, I haven’t visited India since the eighties. But a lot of what I read brought back memory after memory.

Another thought that occurred to me as I read about Indian family life – the big interfering families and so on – was its similarity to rural Greek life. Many Greeks outside of the big cities live in multigenerational units with the grandparents, the parents, and the children all together under one raucous roof. I remember visiting my Greek wife’s uncle’s home in the mountains southwest of Thessaloniki, where the grandparents lived on the original ground floor of the house, the parents lived in the newly-constructed upstairs, and another floor was being built above that for the eldest daughter and her husband when she got married. If I recall correctly, she wasn’t even engaged yet.

Anyway, this book is interesting in its depiction of a fascinating culture that is very different and at the same time very relatable. Drawbacks of the culture include a lack of personal freedoms and privacy, although Giridharadas assures the reader that the situation is rapidly evolving. Advantages include a wealth of loving support. All in all, India Calling is well worth reading for its depiction of one of the world’s oldest cultures in a state of flux and growth.

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