In the 1970s, Anand Giridharadas’s parents emigrated to the United States in search of economic opportunities that were limited in an India wedded to a Soviet Union-leaning socialist mode of governance. Circa 2003, the American-born Giridharadas - ostensibly buoyed by the economic resurgence in India following a near-precipitous foreign exchange shortfall in 1991 - reversed his parent’s trip by seeking a job in Mumbai, that teeming metropolis that captures both the heady ambitions of a remade country and the near dystopian misery of those economically less fortunate. Using the lens of his parents’ life in India prior to the relocation and his own impressions of India during his many visits as a child, Giridharadas offers a fine-grained portrait of what seismic changes means at the ground level.
A recurring theme in the book is the notion of “self-invention.” The eddies of the economic upheaval bring both opportunities as well as threats to a long-ingrained way of life. Ravindra, a young man born to an indigent daily laborer in a small village in central India, seizes the moment by remaking himself as a modern-day Dale Carnegie in the nearby town of Umred. He establishes a mini-empire in Umred centered on improving the lives of young people via speech classes and personality contests. Still, Ravindra cannot bring himself to convey his love to a woman he is enamored with and eventually loses her to another man. This incident tellingly points out the emotional tugs that still constrain Indians, even as they seemingly free themselves of the bonds of yesteryear. Mallika, an affluent young woman who is a banker, shares a similar fate as she wrestles with the contradictions of having multiple romantic affairs, while at the same time unable to summon up the courage to discourage her parents from finding an arranged match for her.
Contradictions so characterize Giridharadas’s narrative of a changing India that they add a significant level of verisimilitude to a story of a modern revolution. Whether it is a Maoist rebel who sees no irony in having a day job reporting on the economic advances brought about by globalization, or Mukesh Ambani, one of the wealthiest men in the world comfortable in a way of business that combines Western-style growth ambitions and an Indian-style influence peddling, Giridharadas captures in sharply observed portraits how people react to the gale force of a major change.
Perhaps the most penetrating insight that Giridharadas offers is his notion of a nation’s populace who grow up in a joint family system and its concomitant “ambient love.” A child in India grows up surrounded by and cared for by a multitude of people living under the same roof – a result of the joint family mode of life. This “ambient love” both buoys the child and also suffocates him as a youth, as the expectations of him held by family members constrain and often shape his career and life choices.
Giridharadas’s espalier – contrasting his parents’ and grandparents’ experiences in the “old” India with that of current India – is very effective in highlighting the changes that globalization and economic resurgence have wrought on the country. In his nuanced portraits of the many who people his narrative, we are offered a ground-zero perspective of what it means when a long cherished (but constraining) way of life gives way to a new one.