Thursday, March 20, 2008

India for Dummies

I have always been fascinated by India and that fascination refuses to subside. Rather, it is increasing. Some systems of thought within Judaism believe in reincarnation and given my comfort with all things India and Indian food it does make me wonder.

Do you want to learn about India? If so, I want to share three books with you that I highly recommend. The two things all these books have in common is that they are about some facet of India and they are big books with many pages. Not quick reads. Also, I suppose I should mention one other item. All three authors are excellent epic writers. I rather prefer long books and I absolutely love each one of these works. I was disappointed and a little sad when I finished each and every one of them. I suggest reading them in the order I have listed here:

Start your reading with a sumptuous four course banquet courtesy of Paul Scott who wrote a set of four novels collectively titled the Raj Quartet. This is the only item on my reading list which is not written by somebody from India but rather from an Englishman who ended up serving the Crown in India during World War II. Scott ended his military service as a captain in the Indian Army Service Corps and writes knowledgeable about British Imperialism and India as it breaks free from that grip. Scott does a remarkable job of creating some of the most memorable characters and then weaving them together. None of the characters seem to be thrown away as they come back and interact with other characters in different ways and from different directions. For instance, somebody may be introduced in one book and then disappear only to reappear again two or even three books latter. The characters are also multifacated and you have the opportunity to examine them from many critical perspectives. I have never read anything like it. The Raj Quartet chronicles the transistion of Colonial India into a democracy and the main character is Daphne Manners, her Indian lover, and their nemesis in the form of Ronald Merrick a British police officer serving with the Indian Police Services. Although this is a work of fiction it provides a good historical introduction to modern Indian before the British left and sets up the other two books nicely.

A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth is a work of art and I think that Vikram Seth is a genius. This is a novel that opens the door to India for you to walk in and explore. This book artfully compares and contrasts different pairs of seemingly opposed but yet connected ideas or entities such as Hinduism and Islam, India and Pakistan, religious and profane, rural and urban, man and woman, duty and love. This is a book that helps you to at least begin exploring the complexities of India. The main topic of the book, everything else sort of revolves around it, is the search for a suitable boy for young Lata to marry. However, as Lata and her family search for that suitable boy you learn a lot about India in the process. You will learn that these marriages are not arranged but rather negotiated as events which the whole family has an interest in. Frankly, I kind of like the way it works out since it views marriage on a much larger and important scale than just some romantic tryst.

Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found by Suketu Mehta. By far this is the least romantic book on the list and the only nonfiction one as well. In this book the author's experience as a journalist is put to good use and as far as I can see he holds nothing back - neither the good nor the bad. Explore Bombay, now named Mumbai, with the author who returns to his original homeland with his family from the United States for an extended stay. Read about police methods (rather heavy handed), the slums, Bollywood, organized crime, and how they are all linked together. Along the way you will meet killers both Muslim and Hindu, poets, rogue police officers, everyday people, and even a family of wealthy Jains who renounce everything to find salvation.

If you like to read these three books will provide you with an outstanding introduction to all facets of Indian culture and society which is exceedingly complex. Systems theory holds that as systems age they become more complex and that is surely the reason for India's complexity. India is a mixture of very old cultures and civilizations where the very modern and the very ancient influence life on the same level at any given moment. This happens elsewhere but not with the magnitude that you will find in India. And, somehow it seems to work.
I suppose I need to offer a fourth book to complete your journey. This is not a book about India but a book that does help you place India within its context of the modern world. It is also considerably shorter than the other three works I have recommended to you. The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century by Thomas Friedman explains the modern and emerging India. Friedman focuses not on the slums and the poverty but the rise of technology and a nation emerging as an economic and scientific power. You will understand why India has so many call centers and the importance that those centers have as a source of prestigious employment with excellent benefits. It places India in perspective on a world wide basis. As China and India become more and more influential and powerful, and make no mistake that is inevitable, those of us from America and the Western world need to learn more about our neighbors.

Here are two movies for your enjoyment:

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