Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Elephant, The Tiger And The Cell Phone

Shashi Tharoor's The Elephant, The Tiger And The Cell Phone is a great read just on the strength of the book's last and final part - An A to Z of Being Indian. It is a pithy summary of things that define a desi and the idea of desiness. I would love to read a longer version of this glossary.

In this list, he notes the huge untapped export potential of the bidi and the cell phone as the unlikely agent of socialism. Elections and election symbols are fully explained and demystified along with our crazy traffic and larger than life weddings - "The classic Indian social event, glittering occasions for conspicuous consumption, outrageous overdressing and free food"

Part One talks about the importance of India being and remaining a pluralistic society and how Hinduism is the perfect vehicle for this, the difference between Hinduism and Hindutva. He concludes chapter two thusly:

"In building an Indian nation that takes account of the country's true Hindu heritage, we have to return to the pluralism of the national movement. This must involve turning away from the strident calls for Hindutva that would privilege a doctrinaire view of Hinduism at the expense of the minorities, because such calls are a denial of the essence of the Hinduism of Vivekananda. I say this not a godless secularist, but as a proud Hindu who is mortified at what his own faith is being reduced to in the hands of bigots - petty men who know little about the tradition in whose defense they claim to act"

It would be hard to find fault with such a well reasoned case for secularism. Coming from a country where I was a part of the religious majority to live in one where I am the nearly invisible minority, I have a much greater appreciation for Tharoor's point of view now than I did before gaing my minority perspective.

If my own example is any indication, getting this message across to those who have never had the experience of being a religious (and cultural) minority would be much harder. Sad but true, the "doctrinaire view" seems appealing even to those who display all the outward signs of progressiveness. It is possible for impassioned rhetoric to drown the voice of reason.

In talking of the "Ideas of Indianness" he rightly says "... an India that denies itself to some of us could end up being denied to all of us". I could not agree more - the full potential of India is indeed being denied to all of us.

The scope of his book is vast and Tharoor covers this considerable ground with facility. His lament for the demise of the sari which he calls the "masterpiece of feminine attire" as the most common dress for Indian women is just as poignant as his appeal for taking the Kerala’s many successes (including making a tourism industry out of "Ayurveda Lite" ) to the rest of the country.

He ends his book on a cautionary note - The Dangers to India's Future. He lists the top (and possibly the most important) ten - things that the India Shining people would forget or ignore only to their own peril.
Overall, an insightful and enjoyable book about India then and now.

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