Who says one man can’t make a difference? It took only one man to turn me from a faithful reader of the New York Times to someone who looks at all their articles with the kind of suspicion generally reserved for … I dunno, pap smear tests. This one man has had his articles on the front page of the International Herald Tribune and the New York Times more than twice. Among the 200-odd articles he has written since joining the International Herald Tribune in 2004, I’ve read only those which he wrote while being the Tribune’s India correspondent. His observations included how mobile phones were “paving a secret passageway for the young around deep-rooted barriers to premarital mingling” and that feminists in India actually want the life of arranged marriages and being barefoot and pregnant. Reported pieces insisted that riots were replacing hunger strikes as forms of protest, that India saw Mukesh Ambani as the new Mahatma Gandhi. The writer’s name is Anand Giridharadas and thanks to him, all I read of the New York Times is the Arts section. But, unfortunately, in the world of e-mail, you can run but you cannot hide. As a friend wrote while forwarding the latest Anand G forward, “I am now going to be forwarded this article 20 times by Indians living in the US thinking there is something groundbreakingly new in it.” As a service to my friend (and because I just cannot take Anand G’s moronic and frequently inaccurate writing any more), here’s why the Letter from India deserves to be thrown in the trash along with the letter from Citibank offering you a super platinum credit card.
First, Exhibit A: the picture accompanying the piece. Not only do we get a picture of underprivileged kids, possibly from some event where they were lined up to give the roses in hand to the Chief Minister or Sonia Gandhi, the photographer even managed to get a stray dog in the frame thus harking back to the country’s colonial history which includes signage like “Dogs and Indians not allowed.” Atta boy, Punit Paranjpe of Reuters (Anand G informs me “atta boy” is how the elite in India speak so I’m just trying to conform). Now if only the caption didn’t read, “In cities, middle-aged graduates of leading colleges struggle to get their children into the same schools.” Because these are not children of graduates from leading colleges. However, they do fit the description that Anand G gives us of top scorers of exams whose pictures are printed in newspapers: “routinely scrawny and dark-skinned, drawn from the distant suburbs and villages”. It’s just disgusting that copy like this gets past any editor.
443 words and I haven’t even got to the first word of the article.
*deep breathes into brown paper bag* Alright, here we go.
“In India, a shift to meritocracy uproots old elites.” As opposed to the rest of the world, where a shift to meritocracy actually ossifies the elites into place? This is perhaps the most annoying thing about Anand G’s writing when it isn’t shallow and inaccurate. He tells you things that are applicable to almost any time and place but he pronounces them as though they are searing insights into India. This headline could work for an article on India at any point in time – when instead of the minor royalties, the leadership of the Independence movement was taken up by the upper middle class; when the convent and foreign-educated upper middle class were given a run for their money and status by those who studied in “vernacular”-medium schools – particularly in the past 20 years. The rise of that ever-shifting thing called the middle class meant that people from my father’s generation were breaking the ceiling and going to posh colleges. Not just that, reverse snobbery kicked in. Being anglicized earned you mockery from an intelligentsia that was fiercely proud of being “vernie”. Quietly and often not so quietly, this country – like many others – has changed hands many times.
But looking back at history and doing some research would possibly cut into the time spent nursing a bloody mary at Indigo. Plus, it wouldn’t let you write this paragraph describing what was apparently the life of India’s elite until globalisation struck.
Old-guard elites asked traffic cops, “Do you know who I am?” before speeding away. They filled their homes with servants and used them almost as performance art, their servility part of the status-boosting décor.
There are a lot of people who speed away from traffic cops with that line – the Chief Minister’s son, the actor’s brother, the actor himself, the Police Commissioner’s wife’s driver – and most of them are “sons of the soil”, as one used to call them. I haven’t the faintest whose house Anand G has been to but using “servants” as “performance art” is a gorgeous turn of phrase so full marks for that. The fact that he’s calling domestic help “servants” is as much an indicator of how he sees them as how they are supposedly treated.
When they gave directions, they relied less on landmarks than on others in their small world: “You know Anju’s house? Take a left after that. Rohan’s place is on the right. Cross it and take a left at Bunty’s sister-in-law’s.”
Well, that’s what people tend to do when they have shared landmarks. Unless you’re Anand G who looks for the place he’s going to on GPRS.
Aside from bursting a few hundred blood vessels while reading the article, the other reaction that I have is of sadness. Considering how wide the gaps are between the different economic strata, the leftist in me would love it if Anand G’s proclamation were true, that elite Indians were sending their kids abroad to escape India because “their children are unable or unwilling to compete in an increasingly fair society”. Sadly, that’s bollocks. Studying abroad is hugely aspirational. For most of us, it’s an unrealisable dream because we can’t afford it and we don’t think we can qualify for scholarships – because we’re not smart enough, because we don’t seem smart enough, because we or our fathers don’t know anyone in the interviewing board. The ones who study abroad are still considered the lucky ones. Here’s the change that has happened in the 15-odd years: it’s not only the elite who get lucky. Some put in their savings, others go with educational loans (I finally paid mine off last week, woohoo!). As my friend pointed out, “If the elite is trying to escape us, the last place to go is to the US. Statistically, most of the elite come back to India because they miss their servants, whereas people like me fill up Jersey/Freemont.”
It’s only near the end of the article that I finally realised why Anand G is so pssed off at the elite. He didn’t get membership into the clubs that are the last strongholds of the Anglicized. Because they might be the “noveau pauvre” (another fantastic turn of phrase), but they’re still the coolest cats in the south Mumbai circles that Anang G frequents but he wants to be able to say “chap” and “atta boy”, not to mention drink the inexpensive G&T of the Willingdon and Bombay Gym. Then again, he may not need the membership because he can watch servile performance art in Verla (it would be so middle class to say Goa, wouldn’t it?).