Q&A With Anand Giridharadas on India Calling
Your book focuses not only on Indian-Americans like yourself returning to India, but also on Indians born and raised in India who are choosing to stay in India rather than emigrate. What do you think is the new draw to stay in India?
I think there is an invisible line that a country like India crosses, beyond which people have the feeling that they can fulfill their dreams and control their fate and become the fullest possible expressions of themselves right there on their own soil. When you cross that line, emigration begins to seem to many people like a choice, not a necessity, as it was for my father. The reality is that India, in its fundamentals, is still not an easy place to start a business, to deal with the bureaucracy, to drive a car, to buy a home. It's not that all the old constraints have vanished, though they have loosened considerably. The change, I think, is attitudinal above all. Millions of Indians swagger now with the conviction that destiny is theirs for the making and that there is no more blessed fortune than to be Indian; and once people begin to believe that, you have combustion.
India is obviously a frequent news headline these days. How is India's growth portrayed differently in the Indian and the American media? What role is technology playing in this "revival"?
There are substantial differences. In the American news coverage of India, two somewhat extreme and opposite tendencies seem to be at work. There are lots of intensely New India stories, with the "new" italicized and bolded and underlined. And then there are lots of intensely Old India stories, of malnutrition and puffed-out bellies, of Kashmiri violence, of unwieldy coalition politics, of the degradations of caste. There is a great deal of truth in both of these storylines; but to me what is most engaging in India today is neither the Old India narratives in isolation nor the New India ones. It is where the two meet and clash and dance and melt into each other that the excitement lies. Caste endures, yes, but how is it being unraveled — and perhaps confirmed — by the software industry? Democracy continues to fail many Indians, yes, but what happens when entrepreneurs give voters a way to find out candidates' criminal backgrounds via simple text messaging? The drama is between the extremes.
The Indian media is diverse and contains every perspective within it. But, broadly speaking, there has been, in my view, a tendency to overhype the stories about all the cool new things that India can do, and meanwhile to underplay the harder stories and the difficult choices that the country faces. There is a lot of reactive news and press-release journalism announcing the latest evidence of India's superpower status. There is much less interrogation of what India has become and is becoming still — much less reflective work on how love is changing in India, how family dynamics are bending, how India's relations with the world are being rethought. A country going through such precipitous change needs the media to hold up a sparklingly clear mirror.
What do you think are the biggest challenges facing India?
The single biggest challenge, in my estimation, is to reconcile the surging private ambitions and private dynamism of India with the stagnancy and dysfunction of its public and collective systems. The things that work in India today involve private individuals building things, selling things, inventing things, designing things, writing things, and they do it brilliantly in so many cases, and they do it despite, not because of, the state. Where India begins to break down is in the spaces where private verve and brilliance aren't enough. It doesn't matter how efficient your trucking company is if the roads evoke a war zone. It doesn't matter if you can create the world's cheapest car if the state cannot figure out a sensible way to move and rehabilitate villagers to create grounds for your factory. There was a sense in these last many years in India that private enterprise and drive could solve everything. Today I see a growing recognition that systems matter, that a great nation is more than the sum of its private dreams.
Among the other challenges: India has been remarkably successful as a democracy without having truly implanted the idea of universal human dignity. I wonder how long a culture of servitude and a deepening democratic culture can coexist. Then there is the perennial question of inequality, and the way in which it can get worse even as incomes rise — because people want and expect and feel entitled to the lucre they see all around them.
You met many people of all ages and classes writing this book. Who surprised you the most?
Perhaps Ravindra. He is the star of Chapter Two, and then returns again to the narrative in the epilogue. I met him before I had met many of the other characters I ended up writing about. And when I got to know him, I had this feeling that he encapsulated everything worth saying about the new IndiI found many people who illustrated this or that facet of India's changes. But Ravindra in many ways had it all — the surging ambitions, the sense of frenetic motion without a guiding purpose, the daring, the resolve, the escape from old degradations, the boldness in matters of success and status coupled with the conservatism on questions of love and marriage and family. Ravindra is a complicated character: he fills you with hope, with his story of rising from near the bottom of the Indian hierarchy, but he also, I think, leaves you alarmed. He wants to rise more than anything, but he is not yet sure what he's rising for and what he wants of the world he has entered. And in that regard Ravindra's challenge is also India's.