Tue January 4, 2011
Author Interviews

'India Calling': The New 'Land Of Opportunity'?

Writer Anand Giridharadas grew up in America, but it was in India -- the country that his parents left -- where he went to look for hope. "India has become -- in a way that it has not been -- a land of opportunity for millions and millions and millions of people," he says.

In his book, India Calling, Giridharadas describes how India's growing economy is creating growing opportunity -- what many might recognize as American-style chances to get ahead. But Giridharadas also explains how he encountered a society riddled with ancient divisions of class and caste.

"In India, you're eternally a master and eternally a servant," Giridharadas tells NPR's Steve Inskeep. "Servants in many ways have been seen -- and [have] been taught to see themselves -- as being not someone who is situationally inferior, but someone who is eternally, intrinsically inferior."

Giridharadas experienced first-hand the different treatment of the servant and the served one morning when he visited friends for breakfast. A "typical elite Indian breakfast with all of the fussiness and all of the servitude" was presented by the family's obsequious and much-loved servant.  Later that day, Giridharadas returned to the friend's house -- this time in shorts and a T-shirt -- to bring over a mattress. The same man who had served breakfast mistook Giridharadas for a delivery man and began gruffly barking orders at him.

When Giridharadas reminded the servant who he was, he says the man underwent a "total human metamorphosis ... he shrunk right in front of me from a master to a servant," Giridharadas says. "And you realize that almost every Indian is engaged in both of these transactions at different moments of their days: superior to some, inferior to others. As an Indian poet once said, 'never thinking to resist the one kick from above, nor to refrain from giving the kick below.'"

Though Giridharadas says the experience helped him understand the "truth about India," he also cites examples of a new generation of Indians who are transcending boundaries of caste and class. He describes the story of an ambitious young man named Ravindra, who Giridharadas says was "born close to the lowest of the Indian low" -- yet managed to get ahead.

"Something happened to him that has happened simultaneously to millions -- maybe even tens of millions -- of Indians who were also born as 'servants,'" Giridharadas says. Armed with the idea -- from school and TV -- that he didn't have to be a servant, Ravindra educated himself through the many courses and classes that are cropping up in small Indian towns. After completing dozens of courses, Ravindra became a computer teacher, and then secured a job at a travel agency.

"At the travel agency," Giridharadas says, "the real advantage of it was not the money, but the fact that he got to sit with middle class people many rungs above him in the hierarchy ... He watched how they dressed, how they gestured, how they talked, what kind of cars they drive. He memorized everything about them, and mimicked it, and slowly set out to become them."

Through self-directed education, careful observation and sheer tenacity, Ravindra slowly pulled himself to a higher place society. He now runs an English language academy and a roller skating academy (roller skating is all the rage in India's small towns, Giridharadas explains.) He's a lecturer at seven colleges teaching English and, as Giridharadas says, "he's made himself the guy who you need to go see in that town if you want to get out of that town."

Giridharadas grew up in suburban Cleveland, Ohio, the son of Indian emigres, so he's well acquainted with the myths and the realities of both India and America.

"The defining narrative that Americans have told themselves about themselves for a long time is: anything can happen here, anything is possible," Giridharadas says. "That narrative in America today is in decline. I think it'll come back, but we're not in a good moment for that narrative."

Meanwhile, in India, the idea that you shape your own destiny is gaining traction. "Walking around India, watching TV in India, you feel that India is possessed by a narrative of hope right now and America is not," Giridharadas says.

The question is: when does reality catch up to the illusion?  "I think in both countries we tend to underplay the extent to which it's the fundamentals, not the narratives that matter," says Giridharadas. With so much optimism and foreign investment flowing into India, he explains, it's easy for people to think the country will change overnight. "India still has a lot to work out, and one of the risks of a boom is that it becomes easy to forget that." Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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