Saturday, December 22, 2007

Home Truths

Book Review
The Elephant, The Tiger and The Cell Phone by Shashi Tharoor
Arcade Publishing (New York); $29.96

In the wake of the recent Tehelka expose of the perpetrators of the 2002 Gujarat carnage, very few Indian writers braved the danger of inviting ridicule (from the hardline Hindus) by penning commentaries or speaking out on this issue. Shashi Tharoor was one of them (He spoke on the issue through an interview; novelist Kunal Basu wrote a powerful piece), who is the author of the book under review. The Elephant, The Tiger and The Cell Phone is a collection of Tharoor's recent columns.

Columnist Tharoor, who until recently was associated with the United Nations for a long time, is also a novelist. Though widely read throughout India and in many parts of the world, some don't see Tharoor as an exciting colmunist, whose writings are full of "ancient platitudes, second-hand insights, and tacky witticisms."

Whatever one might think of Tharoor's writings, one thing cannot be dismissed about him: His love for India (that too, a secular, pluralist India) and Indians.

"My views have, over the years, earned me more than my fair share of belligerant emails and assorted Internet fulminations from the less reflective of the Hinduvta brigade," writes Tharoor. But he has learnt to take this criticism in his stride. "For Hindus like myself, the only possible idea of India is that of a nation greater than the sum of its parts," he says.

In this book, Tharoor cautions that though the Indian elephant is turning into a leaping tiger (the cellphone is the symbol of progress here), he hopes for an inclusive growth, where the rural and underprivileged Indians (of all faiths and regions) have a share in the building of a new 'superpower' India. Otherwise, the tiger's stripes will vanish again, and it will turn back into its pachiderm form.

The first part of the book, its kernel, if you will, deals with the ideas of Indianness. It is the richest part of the book where Tharoor looks deeper into India's past, its Hindu ethos of inclusiveness, and the current threats to those ethos by a politically inspired Hindu extremism movement.

Tharoor takes interest in defining what it means to be an Indian Hindu--and how the "Hinduvta" brand of Hinduism does not go well with the idea of India. He writes about the universally serene and accommodative nature of Hinduism (as a civilization, not a dogma), quoting Nobel laureate Amartya Sen: "Sen is right to stress that Hinduism is not simply the Hinduvta of Ayodhya and Gujarat; it has left all Indians a religious, philosophical, spiritual and historical legacy that gives meaning to the civilizational content of secular Indian nationalism."

In the essay, The Politics of Indentity, Tharoor underlines the difference between himself and the hardliners: "There are some like me, who are proud of Hinduism; there are others including much of the VHP (Vinshwa Hindu Parishad), who are proud of being Hindu. There is a world of difference between the two; the first base their pride on principle and belief; the second on identity and chauvinism.My Hindu pride does not depend on putting others down. Theirs, sadly, does."

The part five of the book deals with the transformations that have underpinned India's globalisation and its rise as an economic power. In this part, his essays explore the rise of the Indian middle class and urban developments (call centres, IITs, IT companies, etc) that are shaping a new India.

Between these two parts of the book, there are four other parts that comprise essays on variegated themes: Indians that have done the nation proud, Bollywood, NRIs and even cricket. The well-read might find some of these essays tedious, but over all, the book is an enjoyable read, in parts intellectually stimulating and witty (at least to me). The last part provides a compendium of Indianess, an A to Z of being Indian. More than Indians, foreigners will find this part interesting which throws light on topics ranging from bidis and cows to dacoits.

But the book is not all about serious punditism. There are some essays that are quite entertaining. If you are looking for something illuminating yet light (on the mind), I will leave you with one nugget to let you decide if you want to read this book. In an essay, "India, Jones and The Temple of Dhoom," Tharoor talks about Hollywood filmmaker Steven Spielberg's cinematic sucsess: "It has been just over two decades since that blockbuster (Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom) swept the world's movie screens, taking boy-wonder Spielberg (who'd already gone from the dental--Jaws--to the transcendental--Close Encounters of the Third Kind) into the cinematic stratosphere."


Suzan Abrams said...

Zaf, you have penned a splendid essay even as much as it may double up as a review.
Although my reads have been eclectic, I am not as familiar with Tharoor's writings as I should so I liked this liner which says, "whose writings are full of "ancient platitudes, second-hand insights, and tacky witticisms."
However no matter the point made, I fear the cover design is dicey and will not work in Europe or the part of UK where I am. It is too obvious and may not have the strength to beckon universally. By the way, a happy new year, Zaf. :-)

Zafar Anjum said...

Thanks Suzan. I think people interested in India might like the book and Tharoor is anyway a big name. Happy new year to you as well.

Suzan Abrams said...

Zaf, I agree but the cover doesn't say, "international interest", you know...just "national interest". The likes of Rushdie, Roy, Narayanan, Vikram Seth, VS Naipaul & especially Hanif Kureishi are big names here in the UK...their books are everywhere but no so, Tharoor. He's bigger in Asia and New York, I think.

lin said...