An intriguing look at India, past and present |

An intriguing look at India, past and present

John ColsonAspen Times Weekly
Title: The Elephant, The elephant, the tiger and the cell phone: Reflections on India, the Emerging 21st-Century PowerAuthor: Shashi TharoorPublisher: ArcadePrice: $27.50

India, a nation of 1.2 billion people that some say will soon overtake China in population, is one of those countries that Americans should know more about but dont and, in too many cases, wont.That is partly because of our unfortunate tendency to lump the world into a general them versus us construct. This insularism most likely took root as soon as our European forebears crossed the Atlantic and concluded that, by virtue of our geographic isolation, we were not only safe from quick invasions, we could ignore the world with little consequence.The world, of course, has changed a lot since we first set foot on this continent, and India is a big part of those changes.So it is perhaps lucky that celebrated Indian author and statesman Shashi Tharoor has cranked out a number of volumes dedicated to explaining Indias history, culture and people.And while it is true that his books are largely aimed at helping Indians to better understand themselves and their place in the world, the rest of us can benefit from his insights as well. Tharoor will be on hand for the June 22-27 Aspen Summer Words festival staged by the Aspen Writers Foundation.The Elephant, the tiger and the cell phone chronicles the sub-continents recent history, since its 1947 declaration of independence from Britain to the present. Tharoors examination of Indias history, politics, culture, education and international relations, to name but a few of the topics, that is both invaluable and informative.It is a little daunting at first, at least to an agnostic like me, because the author spends nearly 75 pages exploring interrelationships among the plethora of religions practiced by the Indian population. I suppose this is to be expected, given the authors up-front admission that his own religion, Hinduism, is central to his identity, and his apparent belief that the rest of his countrymen and women feel similarly.There are several polemical chapters on Indias historic traditions of religious tolerance, and on religious chauvinism and what it means to the nations future (its bad, in Tharoors view). The chapters clearly outline Tharoors belief that his country must cleave to its traditions of religious tolerance and inclusionary national policies, rather than succumb to efforts by religious extremists and chauvinists who would recreate India as a one-faith state.Once all that is out of the way, the book goes on a well-written romp through the ups and downs, ins and outs experienced by the worlds largest democracy.Tharoor touches on a veritable blizzard of subjects, from politics to the national obsession with the game of cricket, from literacy to fashion, from Bollywood (the burgeoning native film industry) to the problem of non-resident Indians, some 25 million Indians who now live abroad and whom Tharoor believes are a critical resource in the forging of the countrys future. Hence his new appellation for this group, Now-Required Indians.At one point, Tharoor takes off on a humorous rant against the Steven Spielberg film, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which he criticizes as a libelous slur that mischaracterizes an Indian religious sect (the Kali cult) and, by extension, India and Indians in general.Tharoor is an erudite and entertaining writer, an insightful observer of Indian national politics and events as well as of the broader world, and his book offers a clear-eyed and intriguing glimpse into a place that, for most of us in the U.S., remains at the least mysterious and, at the most, a complete