IT’S NOT IMMEDIATELY clear who this book’s intended readership is. If it’s meant to be an introduction to India for people who don’t know it, then why an Indian edition? Why must we, who live here, be subjected to another India travelogue by yet another outsider? It’s not that the outsider’s perspective has no value — it has long been given a preeminent position in cultural anthropology. The outsider is one who makes the familiar strange and open for analysis. But anthropologists make up for their newness to the terrain by intensive fieldwork in a particular area; they do not (at least not these days) assume a command over all aspects of a large, extremely complex society.
Which is what this book ends up doing the author travels to places as different as Kerala, Delhi and Gujarat, meets hundreds of people, and feels obliged to touch on every ‘burning issue’. Sometimes a topic is addressed, through potted histories and experiential accounts (such as Hindu-Muslim violence, which Vassanji is clearly deeply affected by), but often only tangentially (such as caste-based reservation, which gets a cursory airing via a disagreement between Bhishm Sahni and his wife). So the book skims the surface — the United Coffee House in Delhi’s Connaught Place is dismissed as ‘a den of the affluent’, but with no sense of why and when it became one; there are references to Gandhi’s irrelevance in contemporary India, but none that go beyond the trite; there are misnomers like ‘Chitli Qabar Marg’ and odd theories stated as fact, such as the idea that pre-liberalisation Delhi (barring Shahjahanbad) was somehow vegetarian.
And yet the book has its charms. The often overwhelmed puzzlement gives way in places to a quiet understanding. Also, Vassanji’s unusual heritage — a Canada-based Khoja Muslim whose ancestors left Gujarat for East Africa — means that his juxtapositions are both uncommon and revealing, even when the connections appear slim. But his rarest trait is his ability to give everyone he meets a patient hearing: unlike so many travel writers, he seems to place thoughtful engagement above clever repartee, and actually listen — whether to an aged, tone-deaf Mulk Raj Anand, a Hindu fundamentalist in Gujarat, or a hesitant Malayali academic in Varkala. This is a sometimes predictable, often plodding elephant of a book, but it has a quiet sincerity that makes it impossible to dismiss.