SNAKES AND LADDERS: A View of Modern India by Gita Mehta, Secker pounds 14.99
Sunday 01 June 1997
Explaining India is notoriously difficult. Poetic idealism contrasts with gross reality. Flights of ambition are often grounded by lack of support structures. One of the world's expert pools for computer software, India came in for much appreciation from Bill Gates, who found south Indians in particular extremely good at producing world-class software. Yet India still battles with illiteracy, with over half her population unlettered and unread.
Alternating between humour and despair, Gita Mehta sets about encapsulating India's last 50 years of history. She runs through pre-independent sentiments to the pains of the Partition, and on to modern India's aggressive, get-ahead attitude. Mehta knows the art of telling a story well, and she colours her experiences with anecdotes, personal comments, wit and candour.
She sparkles especially when describing the society soirees and high- profile gatherings she regularly attends. Here, presidents might confide in her that they would rather clean the latrine of Indira Gandhi than enjoy the highest office in India. Sturdy social workers sink their teeth into chicken legs, promising the empowerment of socially disadvantaged women. Mehta describes how, on the night India turned independent, her mother, the unborn Gita inside her, was busy "dancing that dawn" at a Delhi club, perfecting fox-trots and tangos. Communism gets short shrift as Mehta sips tea in the shack of a brooding Marxist, and the caste system gets a shake-up with a walk through a rubbish heap in Delhi.
Politics and modern India are inextricable. The Nehru-Gandhi family come for much criticism and blame: Indira Gandhi for her nepotism and corruption, Rajiv Gandhi for his flippancy and "disco democracy". Mehta should know about India's politicians. Her father, Biju Patnaik, a nationalist who became the aggressive chief minister of Orissa, was notorious for spending as much as pounds 360,000 on his 78th birthday bash, as his state rotted under drought and starvation. While it is true that the Gandhi family is often thought of abroad as representing Indian political leadership, Mehta is less clear about other not-so-heroic political leaders.
In the better parts of this book, Mehta explores Indian attitudes on diverse subjects: environmental consciousness, interior decor, voter apathy, sexuality and changing attitudes towards marriage. Myths, folklore and stories from everywhere and yet nowhere make these vivid pieces of writing. She exhibits an intuitive understanding of Indian behaviour without sinking into sentimentality.
When Mehta's Karma Cola was first published 17 years ago , it blew the whistle on the marketing of India's spirituality and mysticism. She was uproariously funny and ballsy in debunking many of the modern Indian gurus. With her next work, A River Sutra, she again showed that she knew how to meld myth with modern attitudes, wittily pointing up the disparities between folklore and modernity.
In Snakes and Ladders , the ancient game is used as a metaphor for the rise and fall of India's progress. India changes according to the moods of the author. During periods of frustration she calls it her "damned soil". In a reflective mood, Mehta says "God made India at his leisure". It's not surprising that, written out of such mixed emotions, Snakes and Ladders can itself seem disagreeable or well-meaning, depending on the mood of the reader.
Sudha G Tilak is Madras special correspondent on the Calcutta Telegraph
There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turningTV
Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'music
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Rihanna 'nude photos' claims emerge on 4Chan as hacking scandal continues
- 2 Frank Lampard equalises for Manchester City against Chelsea: how Twitter reacted
- 3 Stamford Hill council removes 'unacceptable' posters telling women which side of the road to walk down
- 4 Kim Kardashian 'nude photos' leaked on 4chan weeks after Jennifer Lawrence scandal
- 5 Hitler’s former food taster reveals the horrors of the Wolf’s Lair
Downton Abbey series 5, episode 1, review: Revolution still seems far off
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written
Friends 20th anniversary: The highs and lows of the cast's careers since TV series ended in 2004
Downton Abbey series 5, episode 1, ITV, review: There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turning
Friends 20th anniversary: Six things we wouldn't have without influential comedy series
Scottish independence referendum: A nation divided against itself
Scottish referendum results: Cross-party consensus collapses amid Tory-Labour spat on the 'English question'
Scotland could still declare independence – even without referendum, says Alex Salmond
Scottish independence: David Cameron is becoming the 'George Bush of Britain'
Hilary Mantel 'should be investigated by police' over Margaret Thatcher assassination story, says Lord Bell
Plebgate MP Andrew Mitchell called officer a 'little s**t', claim court documents 'exposing ex-Chief Whip's 'record of abusing police'