Book Reviews

Brand India’s Ambassador Shashi Tharoor’s Ganesh Cellphones & Tigers

Shashi Tharoor is a very interesting and hyper-achieving fellow. He was a United Nations Deputy Secretary General and was India's nominee to the post of United Nations Secretary General and apparently came in a close second to Ban Ki Moon. For what it's worth, I think he would have been better than the current one, but that's water under the bridge. He is also considered to be one of the movers and shakers of India and Indian opinion. As a matter of fact, he is also a columnist, writing for two of the most important Indian broadsheets and is very well connected in the Indian and International political, diplomatic, business and NGO circles. Given that India is a nuclear power, a member of the BRIC community, a potential claimant to a permanent United Nations Security Council seat, an important member of the global economic system, Mr. Tharoor occupies a rather important position in the 'To be kept track of' firmament.

He has recently come out with a book on India (The Elephant, the Tiger, and the Cell Phone: The Emerging 21st- Century Power ISBN: 978-1-55970-861-6). As it so happens, the book tells us more about Mr. Tharoor rather than about India.

The book seems to be a collection of previously written essays interspersed with new essays on some topics, plus some recently added topping and tailing. Given the structure, you would find that the book moves along a bit jerkily, but is great for a commuter or as a 'loo book'. In other words, do not expect a grand narrative, but on average bite sized chunks of text over 2-4 pages. I got the impression that he sort of got bored in the middle and the essays got shorter before he had another burst of enthusiasm towards the very end.

He studied at the same Campion School where I did (page 123). Anybody who has had the pleasure of being taught by Jesuit brothers (and feel the corporal punishment from their canes and large horny hands) form a bond which cannot be eradicated by distance or death. Besides that common factor, I could also see some other similarities between us, such as thinking that being Indian was more important than other identity factors (such as being Hindu, from Kerala, speaking English, attending a particular school or college, etc.). That said, there are several aspects which jump out of the pages of the book. He has a great turn of phrase (page 370: Our country's poor live below a poverty line that seems to be drawn just this side of the funeral pyre), a great vocabulary (philippic!!!) and has a breadth of interests which are quite impressive.

But the over-whelming impression that you get after you have finished the book is that this is more a description of an idealized India neatly packaged and divided into bite sized pieces for public consumption. With that in mind, many of the comments have resonance. For example, on page 10, he talks about the fact that India has been created, now for Indians to be created. It does make sense, many Indians are still conscious of their sub-identities (based upon state, religion, language, caste, tribe,.. etc.) more than the overarching Indian identity. But his point is that these sub-identities do not matter. I beg to differ; these sub-identities have been pandered to far too much. If that was not the case, then you would not have the rise of sub-nationalist leaders such as Mayawati and Bal Thakarey, all pandering to groupism. None of these leaders or very few of them actually talk about India, but they all talk about their own groups. So while I agree with him that India is a land of belonging rather than of blood, religion, language or creed, his prescription of letting things be has lead to riots, insurrection, and terrorist campaigns.

I do take his point about the fanatics in India, which leads from the previous point, because the fanatics in India were given space as the secular fabric was unfairly stretched over the majority religion. When temples are state run, but mosques/churches are minority run and when there is differing treatment of minorities in states such as Gujarat, Kashmir, Assam, Nagaland, etc. etc. this will all give rise to a persecution complex. He is seeing Hinduism being converted into an Abrahamic faith but he should not be surprised with this. The discrimination that Hindu's see (whether real or imagined) will inevitably push them into changing a religion like Hinduism into a rule driven, theocratic, scriptural based Abrahamic like religion which is easier to control.

Some snippets he talks about are very poignant as well as interesting. He mentions that the temple raised to NTR, a film star converted into a politician converted into a God, is now in ruins and nobody worships him any more (page 82). The way the Indian tax code recognizes the concept of family income and the definition of family is very broad incorporating several generations and several branches, all living together under one tax umbrella (page 90). Or how the Indian wades through dirt, filth, open sewers and waste to an immaculate home where he bathes twice a day (page 91). I learnt about the fact that Switzerland has a flourishing cricket culture in page 98 (Switzerland???? Where did Switzerland come from in the world of cricket???!!!!!!!, can you see Heidi or the gnomes of Zurich in cricket whites???). Or when castigated for going to meet the King Emperor in just his loincloth, Gandhi said, 'His Majesty had on enough clothes for both of us' (page 127).

Some points I vehemently agree with. Such as his point about the crooks in parliament in chapter 9. They are mostly a bunch of murderers, corrupt gangsters or beholden to mafia dons. Or his point about educating girls in Chapter 19. And these two are brought together wonderfully in his point about Bihar, one of the sewers of India. This state hovers around the bottom of almost every human development ranking scales in India. It was ruled by a corrupt man. When he was turned out because of a corruption scandal around animal feed procurement, he put in his uneducated illiterate wife as Chief Minister. But the positive side is, he and his wife have seven daughters and they are all educated.

Tharoor also spends quite a lot of time talking about why India has become what it is based upon its founding fathers. I am surprised he did not draw parallels to the American state. Both states, in my opinion, were extremely lucky to have very strong, very imaginative, idealistic and at the same time pragmatic leaders at the time of formation. They created, designed, implemented, fed and watered a framework in the form of a constitution, parliament, judiciary, secularism, and state structure, which has allowed both states to grow very strongly. Looking around the world, this is the rarity rather then the norm. He talks about Gandhi and Nehru (Chapter 24), Maulana Azad (Chapter 26), Ambedkar (Chapter 27), Patel (Chapter 25), K. R. Narayanan (Chapter 28), Krishna Menon (Chapter 29), Indira Gandhi (Chapter 30) etc. in various chapters and after reading, you realise the luck that India had. Now we have corrupt pygmies at best and corrupt stinking goons at worst.

He writes about Maulana Azad in Chapter 26 and it was a real eye opener for me. This man was a true Indian, an erudite man, a very well versed man, a man who knew his religion and theology inside out. He is considered to be one of the foremost Muslim scholars of India. He had dignity and ideals and was intellectually coherent. A humane and reflective thinker. A teacher who founded a university (Jamia Millia Islamia University in Delhi) and became a politician, and leader of the Indian National Congress at the tender age of thirty five. He was furiously and steadfast against the partition of India. I quote from page 189, 'He was a far more authentic representative of Indian Islam than Jinnah, and it is part of the great tragedy of 1947 that it was Jinnah who triumphed and not Azad'. I agree. He was thought to be a loser and forgotten. But in 2007, sixty years after Independence, when you look at India and look at Pakistan, you know who is right.

He also talks about other Indians such as R. N. Kao, the head of the Indian Intelligence Agency and the mathematician Ramanujan who died tragically young (one of my personal hero's!). Another interesting point he mentions is the shame that the handful of Indian born Nobel prize winning scientists all triumphed abroad rather than in India. He talks about Saint Mariam Thresia, Economist Amartya Sen, Painter M. F. Hussein, Cricketer Sunil Gavaskar, his own father, President Abdul Kalam, etc. Then he delves into the places which resonate with him or where he has travelled to, his own state of Kerela, West Bengal and Calcutta where he grew up, Bombay, New Delhi, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Ajanta / Ellora, but on a very high level. This Part 4 is very confusing and does not fit together at all. He diverges into international relations, his college, St. Stephen's College in Delhi, Ayurveda, diaspora Indians (NRI's).

His concluding part 5 clearly shows that he had lost interest in the book by now and yet he still talks about some very complex matters ranging from economics, cell phones, consumption, etc. For example, he says that 'no one speaks seriously any more of the dangers of disintegration that, for years, India was said to be facing'. He does not mention Naxalites, the Maoist group who have supplanted the Indian administration in more than a hundred districts and have a presence in two hundred more. The Indian state does NOT exist in vast swathes of the country. He does not talk about Sadwa Judum, the vigilante group armed and abetted by the Indian government creating mayhem and unlawful activities in these lands.

He does, however, talk about call centres and knowledge based industries and deals with the extremely complex issue of WTO and farming in India in a dangerously facile manner. He ends with talking about dangers to India's future. No questions on that, but these points are what I would call as middle class drawing room bullet points. Very disappointing to read such a light weight treatment of such important factors and especially towards the end of a book. Given his background, experience and knowledge, I would have much preferred him to go deeper.

So the overwhelming impression I get is of a book written by a man who has skimmed India, has created a brand, subsumed most of the negatives in a burst of very light commentary and leaves one with an impression that he has been talking about his ideas about a brand of soap and how a soap user feels rather than a country the size of India with a billion people, thousands of years of history and a rich culture. It is a good book for people who want to know about India but it is not a book for Indians. Not impressed I am afraid.


More by :  Dr. Bhaskar Dasgupta

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