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Selling 'Brand India'

The Elephant, the Tiger, and the Cell Phone Reflections on India: The Emerging 21st-Century Power; Shashi Tharoor; Arcade: 498 pp., $27.50

September 30, 2007|Swati Pandey | Swati Pandey is a researcher for The Times' editorial pages.

SHASHI THAROOR is a reliable ad man for what's starting to be called "Brand India." Even as an undersecretary general of the United Nations, he made no secret of being a booster for his country. Now, freed from the strictures of a diplomatic post, Tharoor has put together the positive and even playful "The Elephant, the Tiger, and the Cell Phone," taking evident pleasure in a time when India's future seems convincingly bright.

Only 10 years ago, on the eve of India's 50th anniversary of independence, Tharoor and many of his countrymen were wondering whether the nation's democracy would collapse. Yet in his introduction to "The Elephant, the Tiger, and the Cell Phone," he evokes the country's changing mood with an allegory that imagines India as an elephant that turns itself into a tiger, drawing on a metaphor created to represent the ferocious economies to India's east, like South Korea and Hong Kong.

Although the tale is somewhat cloying -- concluding with a cute stay-tuned message -- it does establish that Tharoor's goal is to trade in symbols, as any good ad man would. Starting with the title, he demonstrates his ability to explain big ideas in shorthand. And India is the biggest idea of all, as everyone from Winston Churchill to Tharoor himself has expressed.

"The Elephant, the Tiger, and the Cell Phone" is a collection of essays, culled from Tharoor's previous writings, that creates an impression of India, rather than a detailed portrait. Each chapter can be read in isolation; for the reader who wants an even quicker glimpse, Tharoor includes a glossary that neatly addresses many of his book's salient points.

The game of cricket has its own long entry in that glossary, but Tharoor's several chapters on the sport's symbolic import are worth relishing as well. He exuberantly explains why understanding cricket is so key to understanding India: "A country where a majority of the population still consults astrologers and believes in the capricious influence of the planets can well appreciate a sport in which an ill-timed cloudburst, a badly prepared pitch, a lost toss, or the sun in the eyes of a fielder can transform the outcome of a game." Tharoor's prose crackles as he uses the sport to explain globalization, the Indian diaspora, racism and even religious pluralism, embodied by India's easy embrace of its Muslim players.

Tharoor obligingly includes other, more familiar (at least to Americans) symbols of India, such as Bollywood and brain gain. In brief, selective biographies, he highlights the people he believes have helped build his India, including unexpected and personal choices -- his father and his uncle, for example -- along with the usual suspects, including Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister, and his daughter, Indira Gandhi. Tharoor does make some snide and funny remarks about Bollywood stars-turned-politicians and the lifestyles of call-center whiz kids ("a cocktail of premature affluence and Westernization"). But ultimately, he sees solutions to what he defines as India's "central challenge": "accommodating the aspirations of different groups in the national dream."

Although India's version of pluralism is clearly something Tharoor wants to sell, he's keen to explore Hinduism, the country's majority religion, as well. At times, he sounds like an aged uncle, listing all the things India did first or better than the West (explain gravitation, invent the number zero). Yet when he discusses the country's highly profitable marketing of its ancient wisdom, or its repackaging of Hindu epics (a process he attempted in "The Great Indian Novel"), he links the old image of India as exotic if impoverished to its new image as a burgeoning superpower. Here, Tharoor captures India's ability to exist in several centuries; as he puts it, "We wear the dust of history on our foreheads and the mud of the future on our feet."

Tharoor's view of Hinduism -- as a civilization in which other religions can flourish -- is far more benevolent than that of the Hindu fundamentalists he unsparingly criticizes and more of a viable framework for imagining a strong Indian future. Nonetheless, critics of his position have a point, and he knows it. In one essay, he includes correspondence from a woman who takes offense at the suggestion that the Muslim minority should adopt Hindu culture. Tharoor's response to her is too facile: "[W]ho in India is not a minority?" he asks, arguing that even Hindus are divided by caste, language and region. The exchange exposes a subtle chauvinism that pops up throughout the essays, most clearly in Tharoor's belief that Indian women should continue to wear saris. This is more sensualism than sexism, but it grants too much power to a single symbol (and one that, as has been noted, has the very tangible effect of making it impossible to run for a bus).

This discussion of the sari -- a subject about which he's written before, to much criticism -- marks one of the few instances where "The Elephant, the Tiger, and the Cell Phone" veers into selling Brand Tharoor instead of Brand India. The author waxes on about his alma mater, a long-dead magazine for which he wrote and friends in high and low places, all the while liberally quoting himself. Such self-referential writing seems unnecessary for a thinker as well-established as Tharoor. But maybe that's his best trick, to position himself among the symbols of modern India: a highly educated, accomplished, English-speaking global citizen who wears history on his sleeve.

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swati.pandey@latimes.com

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