Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Elephant, the Tiger, and the Cell Phone by Shashi Tharoor

Shashi Tharoor's The Elephant, the Tiger, and the Cell Phone is not a coherent single work; it's a collection of short articles and newspaper columns from the last decade (the book was published in 2007). The unifying theme running through the book is the development of India in recent years, as well as the development of the West's perceptions of India.

Tharoor's a writer with a couple of novels under his belt, but I think of him as a politician first and foremost. He retired from a successful career at the U.N. a few years ago, and started a career in Indian politics as an MP. Judging from his Wikipedia bio, he's been enmeshed in a variety of controversies and scandal since. (Probably impossible for a high-profile MP to do otherwise.)

I'd already read his previous nonfiction book, India: From Midnight to the Millennium, which laid out his vision of a liberalized, multicultural, cosmopolitan future India (in which his own Congress Party is the least bad political option). The theme is continued in his more recent book.

A believing Hindu himself, Tharoor strongly rejects the notion that India, 83% Hindu by population, ought to be a "Hindu country" (for pretty much the same reasons why the USA is not and should not be a "Christian country"). He makes his outrage at the fundamentalist Hindus who occupy positions of great influence in Indian society very clear.

For Tharoor, Hinduism is an innately tolerant and pluralistic religion: a religion that has no central dogma and does not claim to be the universe's only route to salvation.

If the future of his country is determined by fundamentalists, who elevate Hinduism above all other religions, Tharoor says, the Indian society that he loves will be in great danger.

Many of the chapters read like they started out as the text of speeches. Tharoor's got a love of the anecdote, the hook, the fascinating statistic. He spoke at TED about India's international influence through soft power, a theme he often touches on in his writing. I'll admit that reading Tharoor's books and articles, he sometimes strikes me as the smiling, liberal, optimistic, pro-globalization, pro-free market, pro-inclusiveness figure that every Western investor wishes to believe is the face of India.

I hope his vision of India percolates throughout his country. What very little I saw during the short time I was in India made me hopeful. While we were in Karnataka, a scandal erupted in the city of Mangalore: a gang of Hindu fundamentalist thugs commandeered a pub one night and roughed up the patrons because they'd heard women were drinking and acting shamelessly inside. Afterwards, outrage erupted on English-language TV and in newspapers that such a thing could happen in urban Karnataka. An English-language TV news station shared messages that locals had texted in with their cell phones, every one expressing shock at the thugs' actions.

I admit it's possible my impression is being skewed by my inability to understand any Indian language apart from English. The English-language media might cater to a more broad-minded segment of the population. But still, I was heartened by what I heard and read.

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