Karma chameleon

SNAKES AND LADDERS: A View of Modern India by Gita Mehta, Secker pounds 14.99
It Isn't Easy to describe modern India to meet a deadline, in this case, the 50th anniversary of Indian independence. Mehta explains in her foreword that these essays are essentially her attempt to try and "explain something of modern India" to herself and her readers as well.

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