India Calling: An Intimate Portrait of a Nation's Remaking
By Anand Giridharadas
Hardcover, 288 pages
List Price: $25
One of my clearest impressions about India as a child was that my parents' stories would have been impossible had they stayed. Of course, such a vision was self-serving, for it made a virtue of our displacement. But I looked at my father, a management consultant whose talents would later reveal him to be a masterful writer and wonderfully empathetic teacher, and I knew that in India he could never have dreamed of a career in such things. His father was an engineer whose sons became engineers. They did not question. Likewise, my mother found in America a new liberty to fashion a life undefined by others. She had known little freedom in India to live and spend her time as she pleased. Older relatives would comment on the complexion of her skin. She was scolded about what she ate and what conditions were folklorically believed to flow from her eating habits. In America, where no one judged or supervised her, where my father was too busy eating her cooking to notice whether she was eating it, too, my mother found herself newly enchanted by the taste of food.
They had met in French class, the two of them. My father had never studied the language but needed some bon mots for his job selling Indian trucks and buses in Francophone Africa; my mother, studying French in college, was burnishing her spoken skills. It was he, knowing nothing, who raised his hand constantly, becoming the teacher's pet, and she, knowing it all, who sat in silence, taking note of an eager engineer. The most she allowed herself was to stop her parents' chauffeur-driven car every day at the bus stop where he was waiting and offer him a ride. My father showed none of her restraint. He asked her out again and again, accepting rejection each time. He brought his gold medal from business school to class one day and pulled it slyly out of his pocket to show her. She beamed with admiration, but that was all.
My mother had good reason for her coyness. She was Punjabi, from the very north; he was Tamil, from the very south. She told herself from the beginning that it could never work between them. even if she let her mind go there, she knew it wouldn't happen in the end. They came from different universes, and she didn't want to lead a good man on.
Her parents were refugees of partition, the traumatic moment in 1947 when the subcontinent was cut in two by the departing British and a chunk of northwestern India became, overnight, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Her parents, my Nanu and Nani, grew up in Lahore, in comfortable and educated families that suddenly lost their possessions and their bearings in the world. In a newly independent India, their families, like so many Punjabi families, began anew, educated themselves, slogged their way back into the affluence and respectability that their families had known on the far side of a freshly drawn frontier. Partition's wound had become all but invisible for them by the time my mother was born, in 1955.
My mother's family lived in southern Bombay, the rarefied tip of a rarefied island city, where Nanu worked for Hindustan Lever, the Indian arm of the global Unilever enterprise. They did not feel wealthy, for few did in that age: at times, my grandmother's budgeted grocery money would dry up early, and she had to borrow from the allowance money she had earlier given her daughter. But their world was cosmopolitan and open. Nanu and Nani traveled the world on company-paid business trips, dining in Trafalgar Square in London, seeing the Lido in Paris, even attending a strip show in Amsterdam. Sitting on white cane chairs on his veranda, Nanu would leaf through one newspaper after another and by noon could dissect the politics of any country with more sophistication than many of its own citizens. He wore impeccably cut blazers, and his talk was peppered with "Well, you know, when I was in London in '57 . . ." My grandparents lived in some of Bombay's finest buildings, including a famous seaside property called Bakhtavar. There they entertained my grandfather's equally worldly colleagues with tumblers of whiskey as the velvet whine of Miles Davis's trumpet slid along the walls.
My mother grew up strong. She was a charismatic leader among her peers, staging plays, organizing projects, raising money for charity; she was fiercely protective of her younger brother, with whom she shared a passion for jazz and rock and roll. She read books by enid Blyton and Jane Austen and W. Somerset Maugham, and listened to the regular Western music hour on All India Radio as well as to Hindi film songs.
But the Westernization and modernity of their setting could be something of an illusion. Miles Davis notwithstanding, my mother was subject to the same culture of izzat — honor — that her mother had grown up with in Lahore, eased but never lifted with each successive generation of women. Running through the stories my mother would later tell of India was a theme of stifling, needless repression. As a teenager and even into her twenties, she was seldom allowed to go to parties. On one occasion, the adults let her and her cousins go to a discotheque, but on one condition: they had to take their towering, white-sari-clad, widowed grandmother along. (So deprived were they of entertainment that they accepted this deal.) As my mother got older, she was forbidden to go out to meals with male friends. Her mother feared that "society" would talk.
In her twenties, working as a French translator, my mother was the only woman in her office who was not a secretary. Starved gazes would follow her short hair and almond eyes as she navigated the desks. Some men showed interest in her at work, but she gave them no thought, for she quietly assumed that her parents would arrange her marriage and, with it, the rest of her life: in all likelihood to some nice Punjabi boy who would also live in Bombay, whose parents would distantly know her parents, who wouldn't upset the mango cart. The notion of marrying otherwise or, stranger still, migrating to America would have seemed far-fetched to her at the time. It would take a man no less persuasive than my father to bend her mind.
He lived close by and a world apart. He came from a family of Tamil Brahmins, a caste that deserved its reputation for piety verging on sanctimony and purity verging on the total absence of fun. There was little whiskey and even less Miles Davis in their home. His father was a stern, brilliant engineer in the Central Indian Railways who would rise to become one of its highest officials. Thatha was the archetype of the Indian paterfamilias: staunchly protective of his family, emotionally remote, verbally economical, above the fray of daily life, functioning like a chief justice who framed his family's values and monitored their compliance. He married a cheerful wife, tender and docile and eternally absorptive of his temper, who raised their four sons and one daughter with a gentleness and permissiveness that were rare in India.
My father, the middle child, spent much of his childhood in boarding schools, with his parents moving constantly for railway projects, and in those schools he forged a steely self-reliance that was also improbably un-Indian. When at home, he entered and left the apartment as he pleased. He played Ping-Pong and badminton and, in later years, bridge with friends whom his parents did not vet. He was trusted to fend for himself or lean on his siblings for help with homework or getting to after-school activities. I knew, from my mother's stories and those of others, that this style of childhood was not typical, that the norm was guilt-tripping micromanagement. When he would return to India later in life, the deep patience he showed in America would crack when faced with the endless interference in other people's affairs that was so endemically Indian but so foreign to him.
The story of his childhood shaped my earliest narratives about America, where he would one day choose to make his life. He had fallen for America and thrived there, I believed, because he had known freedom and self-determination as a child. I began to see those traits as peculiarly American, and I began to see my father as an American separated at birth from, and later reunited with, a land to which he naturally, psychologically belonged.
His path to America was through education. education was every generation's duty to its progeny, in the Indian way; the rest was in the progeny's hands. This idea was passed on to my sister and me in America. Sports, television, talking on the phone after school — these were the indulgences of Americans, of a land of plenty. For our family, learning was everything; homework came first; books, being sacred, were never to be left on the floor. But it was a lesson that my father had learned the hard way. In an early grade, he fared poorly in virtually every class. He brought home his report card, which had to be signed. His father flew into a rage, tearing the paper to shreds and spewing words that have remained with my father to this day: "I have no money to leave you. All I can give you is an education." In an instant, my father learned the concept of accountability: no one would tell him how to organize his Thursdays, but if he messed up at year's end, he would suffer for it.
That incident became a point of no return. My father studied like a monk from that day forward, threading the successive needles of India's higher-education system. He trained for a year to get into the Indian Institutes of Technology, the country's ultra-selective engineering school, and he did. He attended a leading business school and topped the class. He struggled, fought, succeeded. But then as he entered his middle twenties, all that drive and energy, the fruits of a bitterly learned lesson, collided with the stagnancy of a country that was not making the fullest use of its people.
It was the 1970s, and he worked in the export division of the Tata conglomerate, based in Bombay. It was a period of social and political turmoil known as the emergency, in which massive civic unrest had prompted Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to suspend the constitution and take matters into her own hands. The society was tense; mass sterilizations were in progress, opposition leaders languished in jail, and protest was being squelched. But it was not politics that drove my father away. It was that he saw no future in a company where, as in most Indian companies of the era, success favored the tenured. Longevity, not talent, ruled. He saw his superiors, twenty years ahead of him in line, and concluded that he didn't want to spend his life becoming them. The thought was reinforced on those mornings when he trudged through the monsoon to work, as those executives, encased in their company cars, streaked through the water past their drenched trainees.
And yet he began to think about America almost casually, for he was not raised to ponder introspectively. He had heard of people crossing that ocean; some friends were applying to study at Harvard Business School. Why not? A photograph from his farewell party at Tata shows a young man, almost unrecognizable from the seasoned, worldly man who would become my father — beaming, skinny, fresh-faced, innocent, with curly black hair. He is receiving a leather jacket as a parting gift, about to embark on what my young mind would come to see as his actual life: a new beginning in a continent of new beginnings.
My mother had given him no reason to stay. Now he was gone. He wrote her regularly from Boston, and she wrote back. Their friendship deepened. He found a job in Cleveland as graduation approached and returned to India for a summer break before starting his new job in America. Two years had passed, and my parents' correspondence had worked its effects. When at last he asked my mother to marry him on that trip, in the dark of a cinema, it took days of stunned silence before she found her voice, but in the end that voice said "Yes." Her parents, who she feared would oppose her marrying outside the tribe, were broader minded than she realized, and they were impressed by my father's education and temperament. The world was changing, and Harvard graduates, whatever their family histories, were now a marriageable clan of their own. They were wedded ten days later, in my grandparents' home in Bakhtavar, because it was impossible to rent a venue so hurriedly. My father left immediately thereafter for America, alone, while my mother waited months for a visa. Her first steps outside India would come in leaving it for good.
So started their lonely, thrilling adventure. It was not long before my mother was backing a red Oldsmobile, larger than many Indian dwellings, down an icy driveway in Shaker Heights, not long before my father, with his Indian accent, was counseling the executives of America's leading companies. They learned together to drive, to shop in malls, to paint a house. The women in the neighborhood would stop to ask my mother the meaning of the red dot on her forehead; one preempted her by suggesting that it was blood from a hole in her head. She learned from an elderly Jewish neighbor the recipe for cheesecake. They found a regular restaurant they favored, Pearl of the Orient. They shoveled snow for the first time in their lives. They began a family.
What distinguished them in my eyes from the Indians in the Old Country was their perpetual growth and self-renewal. They discovered new music that was not their own music, new food not their own food. They took up new styles of dressing. They soaked in the world. They allowed their ideas to be upset by better ideas. They clung to pieties that made sense and jettisoned those that didn't. They kept reinventing themselves, discarding the invention, starting anew. My father would become an entrepreneur, then a human-resources executive, then a PhD candidate in his fifties, then a professor. My mother, who began as a homemaker, would learn ceramics, become a ceramics teacher, and then a school administrator. They moved us from Ohio to Paris, then back to Ohio, then to the suburbs of Washington, D.C. They refreshed themselves constantly and, what's more, came to see such refreshment as life's very goal.
It was extraordinary, and ordinary: this is what America did to people, what it always has done. They raised us with this borrowed heritage of self-invention. It was not our Indian heritage, a heritage they sought by and large to preserve. But this was one sphere of American life where the Old Country's values were not permitted to intrude. We were taught to respect our elders as Indians did, to sacrifice for family in the Indian way, to abstain from America's addictive consumption. But we were taught time and again to invent ourselves, to write our own stories. They never pushed us, as other Indian parents did, to become engineers or doctors: to do so would have stripped us of the liberties that they had come to savor for themselves. They selected for us not the math-and-science magnet schools that emigres adored, but liberally minded private schools that taught painting and history and literature, instilling in us the sense of open-road possibility, of the worthiness of multiple alternative existences, that their own childhoods had lacked. In high school, when I was reading The Great Gatsby and becoming enthralled by the novel's seductive, ominous vision of self-invention, my parents were paying steeply for me to become everything India taught the young not to be.
And so it was strange that now I had come to reinvent myself in, of all places, India. It was not a fate that they or I could have imagined. I wondered at times if they felt abandoned, not just by me but also by the invisible forces of history that make countries rise and fall. And I thought to myself: if they left that frozen land for us, if they built from scratch a new life in the West for us, if they slogged, saved, sacrificed to make our lives lighter than theirs, what did it mean when we returned to the place they left?
excerpted from India Calling: An Intimate Portrait of a Nation's Remaking by Anand Giridharadas. Copyright 2011 by Anand Giridharadas. Reprinted by arrangement with Times Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company LLC.