Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Book Review: India - From Midnight to Millenium

Want to read some non-fiction about Indian politics and culture, read "India: From Midnight to Millenium", by Shashi Tharoor.

Much like other non-fiction by Shashi Tharoor, this book talks about India in some depth. It is a collection of essays about Indian political and cultural life. There were many interesting facts here. I loved his chapter on the Indian diaspora, including the hilarious tidbit that there was indeed an Indian merchant who maintained a supplies shop near the North Pole. Sounds like the setting for a perfect joke, doesn't it? The book talks about Shashi's experience as a Keralite who grew up in Bombay and then the US. I can feel his sense of detachment from his home-state as a youth, having grown up away from it. He also talks about how he defended the Emergency as an Indian abroad. At the time, American press was critical of Indira Gandhi. The book has some valuable points, about how India has developed politically in the presence of divisive elements like religion, language and ethnic affiliation.

The chapter on Indian economic liberalization was beautiful. It talked of how the Indian economy was forced to open due to a balance of payments crisis. Shashi talks of how politically sensitive liberalization was in the past. After the liberalization has improved the lives of middle-class Indians, it is unstoppable. No politician from either side wishes to turn back the clock and bring India back to the socialist license regime. Another chapter on the Indian political class was insightful. Shashi mentioned how Indira Gandhi had risen to the post of Indian Prime Minister, and how her son was hurriedly drafted for the job after she was assassinated. Other observations were equally fascinating: how Rajiv Gandhi's assassination helped the Congress by rallying the nation behind them for the sympathy vote.

Unfortunately, my book was hard to read. Physically hard to read. I have a paperback, and the binding of the book was uncomfortably rigid. For much of the book, I had to hold the stiff binding apart with both hands. I am too careful with books to crack the spine, something I should have done early with this book. Penguin publishers should look into better binding, one that doesn't cause aching hands after reading a book.

One shortcoming of the book is that it often diverges from the main point. For example, while talking about India, Shashi diverges to talk about Kerala, beginning the diversion with something along the lines of, "I hail from Kerala, a southern state in India, whose language Malayalam is the only language whose name is a palindrome in English." This fact of Malayalam being a palindrome is neither central to the discussion, nor a very interesting one. In addition to frequent diversions, the book labors some points repeatedly, like Kerala's high literacy rate. However, this is to be expected from any collection of essays by a single author.

The only strange chapter was the one discussing the incident of the elephant god Ganesh drinking milk in 1995 where Shashi claims that he was witness to this miracle. It is sad to see an educated person admit to such mumbo-jumbo. At the end of the chapter, there was mention of capillary action, even though capillary action cannot explain how metallic statues were reported to drink vast quantities of milk. Either Shashi is indeed religious or has acknowledged defeat in face of strong Indian sentiment.

So read this book as a collection of observations about Indian culture and political development. This book isn't as insightful as V.S. Naipaul's observations on India, but it does show how India changed after independence.