Anything to Declare at Immigration?


The man, blissfully unaware of the burden of representation he is about to be asked to carry, will share his story. Giridharadas listens, his formidable New York Times- and McKinsey-trained interpretive skills clicking into high gear. The man will explain to Giridharadas why he turned to Maoism, or why he is divorcing his wife. Giridharadas reports the man's words, and then explains to us why he is turning to Maoism (because Nehruvianism failed an idealistic generation) or why he is divorcing his wife (because Indians are ill-prepared for the work that comes with freedom). The Example Indian is finally summarised ("India's complicated relationship with modernity and money cut through his own soul") and I am serious about this next bit frequently compared, disparagingly, with a suitably upright or inspiring member of Giridharadas' own family.

This ubiquitous and puerile tendency to compare people he meets with various Giridharadases spoils, for instance, what could have been an otherwise fascinating section, about an encounter with Mukesh Ambani at a Mumbai Indians game. (Giridharadas, whose truly exceptional tin ear for India deadens much of this book, doesn't bother to explain the IPL, but does describe Ambani's dress style as "villager-made-good". Ambani is wearing a Hugo Boss windcheater.) His description of Reliance's might turns Dhirubhai, Mukesh and Anil into a social parable, as many have done before him; but here we are encouraged to compare Dhirubhai with Anand's grandfather, who had worked for Hindustan Lever and lived on the South Bombay seafront, and whom Giridharadas approvingly reports would not have understood Dhirubhai's corner-cutting striving. No doubt.

Giridharadas sees the obvious things, sure: that his small-town contacts are fascinated to discover that he has met Mukesh, that enough of the Anglicised old guard looks down on the Ambanis; he even catches Arun Shourie's 180-degree turn on Dhirubhai. Even given that, and with access to Mukesh Ambani that few would get, he fails to get his punches in, meandering on about "abstract British-taught morality" and how using plastic mugs in a Stanford toilet was a sign of Mukesh's "working-class roots".

... contd.

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