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

Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne, seated next to a picture of his missing wife Amy, played by Rosamund Pike

film
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey

There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turning

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel, Chandler and Ross try to get Ross's sofa up the stairs in the famous 'Pivot!' scene

Friends 20th anniversary
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham

booksReview: Lena Dunham, Not That Kind of Girl
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments