“What are Papa and I doing here?”
Anand Giridharadas got that text message from his mother when his sister was considering moving to India from California. Giridharadas was already working in India. His parents were at their home outside Washington D.C.
Giridharadas’ parents emigrated to the US in the 1970s, part of the great Indian brain drain. Giridharadas says he never thought he’d follow the reverse route back to India. “My childhood behavior was wanting to keep India at bay,” he says. “The first thing I learned about India was that my parents had chosen to leave it.” India, for him, meant family trips with suitcases stuffed with gifts – Gap khakis and Johnnie Walker Black Label whisky. India was defined by what you could not get.
“But over the course of my lifetime something had been changing in India to turn it into the kind of place where reinventions became possible,” says Giridharadas. His book India Calling is about that transformation. “It was not just me as a young man going East and reinventing myself. The more important part of the story is that a lot of other people, including Indians themselves, were finding in their country opportunities to reinvent themselves.”
Giridharadas came to India to work for McKinsey and Co. He stayed on to write for the International Herald Tribune and the New York Times. That allowed him to have a ringside view of this changing India.
He sees many reasons for this transformation. “A lot of people overplay the singular role that capitalism has played,” he says. He sees a subtler but more profound cultural shift. “A lot of Indians are acquiring an idea of self and selfhood, that they matter against the claims of the family, against the claims of their caste, against the claims of the state.”
Some of that has happened through an unlikely medium – television. Giridharadas says in small town India, television “arrives actually as a force of uplift.” It does not just advertise cars and fairness creams. A young man named Ravindra told him if you saw a man catching an anaconda on the Discovery Channel, you knew that he was probably the best person in the world at catching an anaconda. “In a very small town, the idea of seeing the best person in the world at doing anything is such a revelation,” marvels Giridharadas.
Ravindra, son of farm hands, raised in a small town in the middle of nowhere, came from a world that accepted things as they were. But he pulled himself up by enrolling in a slew of coaching academies – conversational English, computer classes. Now he owned his own English language academy and a roller skating rink. When Giridharadas met him he was conducting Mr. and Miss Umred Personality Contest for his town of Umred, population 50,000. “He has become the ambassador of escape for a young generation craving it,” says Giridharadas.
In that process the Ravindras of India are becoming more comfortable in their own skin. They don’t need the approval of their American cousins any more. They eat out at fancy restaurants but are unabashed about preferring “ghar ka khana” or home-cooked food. The patron saint of this transformation is perhaps industrial tycoon Mukesh Ambani. Ambani doesn’t wear Hermés ties, takes business colleagues to the temple, and hankers for real food after a designer meal at Nobu, the exclusive Japanese restaurant in New York. He tells Giridharadas blind emulation compounded an inferiority complex in India. “My view was what the hell, ya, We can do what we feel like,” he says. Ravindra wants Giridharadas to show him every photograph he has of Ambani on his laptop.
But it doesn’t mean ambition and a can-do spirit alone can propel millions up the economic ladder. “You have an abundance of workers who cannot find jobs and an abundance of jobs who cannot find workers,” says Giridharadas. “What needs to happen is to develop an educational system to align the two.”
Giridharadas will be watching to see if that happens. He’s back in the US now, finishing his Ph.D. He says America gave him self-confidence but India gave him “a sense of community.” He hopes to write more books, not just about India. “But I know that India will be a permanent part of my life,” he says. “I will live there again.”