Rating: 3 out of 5
Reviewed by Anita Isalska
An American-born Indian, Giridharadas rediscovers the country through its people, interviewing modern Indians about their lives. As well as exploring the uneasy blend of India’s cultural past and modern aspirations, the reader is also dazzled by an array of personal stories from all echelons of Indian life.
Giridharadas’ academic approach to exploring India works well: he retains an objective eye while mingling with the locals, whether he’s ruminating on the politics of social mobility or on someone’s ‘improbably tight vest’. The most colourful moments lie in his personal insights, particularly his distinct unease that admiration for western-educated Indians has evaporated, only to be replaced with suspicion.
Where circumstances spiral beyond his control, the book is a delight: when two branches of a family vie to offer him hospitality, comedy abounds with drunken excess, manic handshaking and lavish portions of ‘whiskychickenmutton’ (the only feast that would befit an honoured guest). The struggle between these two family groups, one ambitious and the other rooted in tradition, comes to represent the cultural collision within modern India.
The book’s achievement is impressive, particularly where Giridharadas gains access to the intimate tussles of family life. The interviews with divorcing couples are no less affecting for being simply told:
‘I said, if you want to go, go. But don’t come back,’ Chitra recalled. ‘And I regret my words, because he never did. He hugged and kissed me, he kissed my daughter, and he never came back. […] In our parents’ era, I couldn’t imagine something like this, because they were more family-oriented, and women were more docile. To some extent, women have shown men that we don’t need protection.’
There are no easy answers in a book where traditional sentiments are given equal airtime with liberalism, and the loss of old-fashioned gender roles is bemoaned even as women embrace their greater freedoms. Impossible though it may be to bottle the essence of so diverse and contradictory a country as India, Giridharadas’ account has much to enrich visitors and armchair travellers alike.
Anita Isalska is part of Lonely Planet’s online editorial team in London. Reading this book has given her the final push she needs to book a trip to India.
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