READING INDIA

Posted October 26th, 2009 by Deepa and filed in Books, Reviews
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IMG_7149I completed my self-assigned mini reading project last week. I had decided to read 4 books that describe India in a particular order one after the other.  Now that I have a proper commute to work, I have re-discovered the joy of reading while travelling. On a rare day with no traffic, my commute to work is about 50 minutes each way, of which 30 minutes is by  public  transport (bus or train or a combination of both).  On most days, I spend about an hour and a half on the bus and/or train.  And I spend that time catching up on all the books that I have wanted to read. I generally tend to read non-fiction books while travelling because of three reasons:

  1. It looks  far more impressive than reading the latest Harlequin romance.
  2. Given my need to read something I become a captive audience if I am caught in a bus or train with nothing else to read than the book I have in hand.  So when I have starting trouble with a particular book ( and they are mostly the non-fiction books), it is good idea to have them with me during my commute. Once I have started the book,  I mostly tend to finish the book.
  3. I have time to think through & examine my reactions if I read something particularly thought provoking.

My reading project consisted of the following 4 books:

The  Discovery of India, where Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru traces the history of India from the ancient Indus Valley civilizations to 1942 – the peak of the Civil Disobedience Movement in India. Written during the freedom struggle years when Nehru was jailed, the book displays his immense love for India and the journey of India & Indians from being an ancient civilization to being a colony of the British and its struggle to regain its independent identity. The remaining three books acknowledge Nehru’s legacy in setting up most of the policies (some good, some not so good) that governed India and in many cases use it as a baseline reference as they compare to the existing scenarios within the country.

India From Midnight to Millenium and Beyond: This was a great book to follow Discovery of India because Shashi Tharoor picks up where Nehru had stopped. The book starts from midnight when India gains her independence and describes the political situation from then on to the year 2000. Through the book Tharoor  tries to illustrate how the old cliché of unity in diversity is still true and thriving in India. His description of India as a thali (as opposed to the American melting pot)  especially struck a chord with me— it is indeed a perfect description of how people who are so different complement each other and still identify with something innately Indian. Despite his compelling political commentary,  I confess what I enjoyed most about the book was when he digressed into some of his Kerala memoirs— it was those parts that was refreshingly well described and most enjoyable.

The Argumentative Indian by Amartya Sen. This is a collection of essays written at different times that have been put together in the form of a book to try and make a case for the existence of the argumentative tradition in India. One of the interesting essays is “Tagore & His India”  where Sen contrasts the viewpoint Mahatma Gandhi to that of Rabindranath Tagore in several areas including nationalism, principle of self reliance, celibacy, international concerns etc and points out Tagore’s propensity towards reasoning & rational debates.   Sen’s essays on existence of class & gender differences in India was noteworthy , although like the some on Indian Calendars through the ages seem out of place for this book.

The final book in my reading quartet was Imagining India by Infosys co-founder Nandan Nilekani. Nilekani tackles a lot of issues that are recognized as problems in contemporary India including education, healthcare, energy, IT revolution, infrastructure, entrepreneurship, economic liberalization and several other topics that India needs to address right now while it is poised to be the next biggest economic superpower.  And what I liked was other than stating the problems and its probable causes, Nilekani also tells us some of the solutions that are being implemented in each area. Clearly, Nilekani has done his homework  He has obviously interviewed a lot of people to get his facts in all these different areas. He prefaces his encounters with these subject matter experts with a line describing what they ate or wore or looked like. I can almost imagine the editor saying “Describe the person, humanize them” and Nilekani belabouring to find a personal note such that X ate sweets, Y wore a colorful t-shirt etc . But minor quibbles apart, the book is well worth a read—and there is a lot of it to read too  and some strong opinions as well.

Overall it was a very educational exercise to trace the journey of India from the days of Harappa & Mohenjo Daro to the present days where we are touted to be on the verge of becoming the next super-power.  It was interesting to see how aspects of long ago civilization are still of concern in present day india and the struggle to balance the old India with that of new India continues as it did  50 years ago when Nehru wrote Discovery of India and now when Nilekani writes Imaging India.   I have always thought ( and Nehru echoes this in his book) that we carry with us the burden of years of history—some of them which have become epics & legends and affect our every thought and deed. But then again— we are what we are because of this tradition. There are a lot of outward changes, definite progress in many spheres but at every step of the way we battle our own history, sometimes unwillingly, sometimes to our detriment and sometimes towards positive progress but in all cases it has been  balancing act of the traditional India and modern India . All the authors  illustrate how British Rule was a factor in that transformation as they ruled as and how that was invariably become part of our history.I also found it interesting that Nehru wrote about the effects of British rule as he experienced them and the all the others write about the effects of the British rule in hindsight as they debate the effect of Nehruvian socialism to the present day economic liberalization— the difference in perspective is remarkable.  All in all an interesting and successful experiment!

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