[Book Review] Shashi Tharoor, India: From Midnight to the Millennium and Beyond (2007).

New Delhi: Penguin Books.

India: From Midnight to the Millennium and Beyond is like a thali, a South Indian cuisine that consists of a selection of various dishes with different tastes in small bowls. It is not necessary to mix the diverse dishes together, but they are served on the same plate and complement each other in making a satisfying meal. Similarly, the book discusses a wide range of topics such as history, caste, diaspora, religion, democracy, economy, and society in India. Each aspect reflects distinctive cultures of India but they belong together to provide a grand narrative of the political and socio-economic scenes on independent India from midnight of 15 August 1947 to the present (millennium). However, this book is of limited academic value since it only provides a glimpse rather than an in-depth analysis into the issues on contemporary India. Thus, it is not a book for those who are interested in the depth of political affairs in India. Rather, it is a fascinating introductory guide, just like a thali, for those who want to have a try to know more about Indian culture.

 

Tharoor begins by claiming that his idea of India is that of a united country rather than “the sum of its parts” (P.79). Obviously, he is against the partition of India, and he attempts to consider India as one state and Indians of different religions and ethnics as one nationality. He argues persuasively that India is a conglomeration of religious and ethnic diversity using democratic means to achieve national interests. In doing so he demonstrates that Kerala is a “microcosm” that has exercised openness and tolerance to its diverse populations (Malayali, Christians, Muslims, caste Hindu, Scheduled Castes) in overcoming caste prejudice and class exploitation through political democracy. Tharoor then proceeds to make a significant argument that India is the most important country in the world because of its large population and rapid economic development. He has led the readers to the set of questions that confront India today. Can democracy help alleviate poverty in India? Do Indians need a strong centralized government to achieve unity? Is there any contradiction between pluralism and religious fundamentalism in India? Does globalization influence India’s self-reliant economy? The outcome of these debates is essential as it will determine the position of India on the world’s stage in the next century. Among these topics, I find the “bread-versus-freedom debate” noteworthy as Tharoor argues convincingly that the process of democratic bargaining and consensus-building together with corrupted bureaucracy have slowed down the economic growth of India. On the other hand, he addresses the troubled legacy of the suspension of democracy during the Emergency period (1975-1977). Such a well-considered argument is remarkable in his book. The above-mentioned thought- provoking discussions cover almost every aspect of the country and make this book a comprehensive one for those who want to have a glance on modern India.

 

The writing techniques of Tharoor employed in this book are also worth praising. The sixty-year development of India since the Independence is a broad and complex issue. However, Tharoor deals with such a vast topic with the elements of fiction, memoir, personal anecdotes, and reflections on scholarly work, which provides a vivid and fascinating illumination for the book. The autobiographical elements of this book are compelling. The most interesting section is Tharoor's personal recollection of his childhood. For instance, he illustrates the collapse of the caste system through a story of a little boy, Charlis, who is from the lower caste. Tharoor noticed that there was a change of attitude of his family in treating Charlis with each visit after the introduction of the reform movement in caste system of the government. This is an effective and well-employed technique in his book, using amusing personal anecdotes in an attempt to convey the changing customs and traditions in Indian society.

Tharoor's unique background of being educated in both India and the United States gives this book a unique flavour. Having resided in the United States and worked at the United Nations for almost thirty years, he is supposed to be an observer in writing this book objectively. However, Tharoor's patriotism to India becomes a bias in his book. Tharoor only reflects the perspectives of the educated liberal middle-class in India. In his book Tharoor emphasizes that pluralism and democracy are the strengths of India despite the religious and ethnic conflicts in the country. In trying to do this he also ignores the realities of India today. In the chapter of “Scheduled Caste, Unscheduled Change”, for instance, he argues that the government’s affirmative- action program has largely improved the well-being of the lower caste. However, he turns a blind eye to the still lingering caste discrimination. In today’s India, there are many young couples still suffering from arranged marriages and “honour” murders. The so-called “honour” murders – the killings of a family member who is considered as a shame to a family, usually by refusing a forced marriage, or persisting in choosing their own spouse from a different caste or religion – have become an ugly truth of life in India, where over 1,000 “honour” murders are linked to caste prejudice every year[1]. Apart from this, the problems such as poverty, gender inequality, and environmental degradation are the major obstacles for India to be “the most important country for the future of the world” (P.3). Nevertheless,  Tharoor mentioned but put no emphasis on these challenges because he is confident that Indians are capable of finding solutions to these problems. In my view, however, the continuous wars and conflicts between India and Pakistan as well as  Kashmir are indisputable facts showing that Indians lack a sense of unity and collective responsibility to solve these problems and safeguard its national interests. It seems that his over-optimism to his mother country becomes a deep flaw in this very well- written book.

 

In India the tastes of two dishes with the same name are different because the ingredients and cooking methods of each dish vary. Tharoor made his own Thali —— a highly personalised examination of India in his own way. Not everyone, from specialists to the general public, agree with his vision of India as his book is a subjective account of modern Indian history. Despite the element of subjectivity in India: From Midnight to the Millennium and Beyond, it is a sumptuous repast that will provide its diner with a starting point for knowing more about Indian culture.

[1] Mulkerrins J (2013) Secret refuge of the Love Commandos: Inside the safe house of Delhi group striving to save young couples from forced marriages and 'honour' killings. MailOnline. 3 February. Available at: http://bit.ly/WKFiC4