books: More Cola than Karma

Sunil Khilnani takes a literary tour of India, where English writing blossoms as the Raj roses fade; India! The Golden Jubilee: Granta 57 edited by Ian Jack, Granta/Penguin, pounds 7.99 Snakes and Ladders: a view of modern India by Gita Mehta, Secker, pounds 14.99
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The Independent Culture
Always beguiling, exotic, fragrant, contradictory, and now in "the middle of tumultuous change": welcome to India!, Granta's latest release. Wrapped in the amiable kitsch of Hindi cinema, bursting with stars, this special edition - together with Gita Mehta's assembled musings - signal open season on India. Just in case you haven't worked out why, Mehta's book includes a political chronology whose entry for 1997 reads: "India celebrates 50 years as a sovereign democracy".

Irresistible opportunities for publishers apart, India's fiftieth year is in fact a good moment to reflect on the modern country's history, what it means and why it matters. The reason lies in India's politics, which are the explicit or implicit background to almost all the writing here. After 50 years of steadfast democracy, the deeply transforming effects of the democratic idea have begun to create a world that is rapidly escaping both the imprint of the Raj and the expectations of the nationalist generation that brought India to freedom.

At Independence, Nehru and his fellow nationalists set India the improbable task of trying to achieve simultaneously goals which elsewhere had followed in sequence. They were the development of a self-sufficient industrial economy, the creation of a just social order, and the operation of a stable constitutional democracy, all within a society committed to tolerating its unparalleled differences. As Ian Jack notes in his Granta introduction, whether or not India will succeed in this project "remains the greatest conundrum of its future and ours", not least because of the sheer numbers whose lives depend on the outcome.

These two collections aim to register - and even make sense of - the invigorating and bewildering commotion that democratic politics have made of modern India. "Here at last is a key to modern India," the blurb to Gita Mehta's book invites us to believe. Granta makes no such rash promise nor, wisely, does it claim a representative brief. It sets out simply to celebrate the huge variety of interests and styles of English writing that Indians have produced or that India has stimulated in others, and takes in writers who range in age from thirtysomethings to nonagenarians.

Yet, although both books implicitly claim access to India through the English language, the position of English in India is itself changing. It continues as the language of industry and administration, but has a much more uneasy political and cultural life. English has burst into flower as an Indian literary language at the very moment when it is arguably ceasing to be a language of power or of feeling.

There is a great deal to enjoy - and be provoked by - in this Granta issue, even if it does round up many of the usual suspects. The grand old men are here: Nirad Chaudhuri (a stiff party piece on how he perfected his own English, the closest that either book comes to worrying over the matter of language), R K Narayan, V S Naipaul (pages from the diary out of which emerged A Wounded Civilization), Ved Mehta. So too are the old India hands - Ian Jack himself, Trevor Fishlock, Philip Knightley, Mark Tully, James Buchan, Jan Morris. And there is a sprinkling of Indian writers in English. Vikram Seth's contribution, a model of self-restraint, is a three-line poem: did Jack exercise an editorial whip?

But there are also some striking and less familiar women's voices. Urvashi Butalia tackles the most difficult subject for any Indian writer, the experience of Partition - an event without an archive that lives only in family memories. Suketu Mehta has a chilling and humane piece on Bombay in the heyday of the Hindu nationalist Shiv Sena, with some typically gritty photographs of the city's toilers by Sebastiao Salgado. There is also an excerpt from the life story of Viramma, an untouchable woman, and the (gloriously overwritten) opening of Arundhati Roy's forthcoming novel.

The India hands sent to scout the changes file some substantial reports, as interesting for what they say about how Britain views its former imperial jewel as about contemporary India. The most ruffled of these is William Dalrymple's piece on Bihar, which excitably sees the disintegration of the state there as a premonition of India's future. What is no doubt intended as a sardonic portrait of Bihar's Chief Minister - in Dalrymple's picture, a groin-scratching, lolling parvenu, desecrating the once-neat rose garden of the British governor's residence into a crude farm - veers into outraged caricature. James Buchan has an excellently observed piece on the ruined valley of Kashmir, but he lets himself down at the end, when his judgement goes slightly AWOL. By contrast, Trevor Fishlock, who travels in Gujarat on the trail of Mahatma Gandhi's elusive spirit, manages a finer poise.

All the pieces resonate with a sense of shock at the speed and scale of the changes that are working through India. There is a wistful twinge, not for the Raj (the sensibilities are too sophisticated for that), but for how India was on these writers' first assignments, two decades or less ago. That now appears as "an unreachable era", as Ian Jack notes, of anglophilia, austerity, and of Congress Party rule .

Several pieces convey the sense of a culture beleaguered by rising and uncivil forces. On one hand the dark and unpredictable rhythms of ancient passion - caste, religion and community; on the other, an avidity for the gaudy tinsel of modern commercial life. It would have been nice to dwell also on some of the other passions millions of Indians delight in: an on-drive by Sachin Tendulkar, say, or Madhuri Dixit's physique.

If there is something doughty about the Granta collection, Gita Mehta's contribution to the jubilee festivities is doughy. This potluck of journalistic clippings fails to rise into a book. It stereotypes her as a purveyor of stereotypes, always a saleable genre when it comes to India. When, almost two decades ago, Mehta turned this method to a portrayal of foreigners, the result was Karma Cola, a series of hilariously acid portraits of Westerners stumbling over their backpacks in search of mystic India. Now she turns to her fellow Indians, updates the old stereotypes, and intersperses them with fillers on Indian quirks and political episodes. (She reserves much of her venom for Indira Gandhi, who axed the political career of her father, once among Nehru's blue-eyed boys.)

Mehta has in the past shown herself to be a seductive storyteller. In this book, by her own confession, she is unable to find any story to tell. The effect is a series of false starts, thoughts which neither lead anywhere nor crystallise into apercus. Her nervy impatience disables reflection or argument; her method relies on allusion and evocation, but here this accentuates her own indecision over what she really thinks about India.

There is also a deeper problem of tone. She doesn't want to be flip and she's too cool to gush. She ends up by jettisoning the acid of Karma Cola in favour of her own mystical reconciliation with India - a watery nationalist chic. She would have been better advised to use her talents as a waspish satirist by making America her subject. This book was not a good idea.