Published In: 2008 (April)
India wears Prada
One of the early lessons one learns in one's career as a feature writer is that no amount of style can compensate for substance. Clearly, there's no rule there, as De proves week after week in her saucy Sunday column for a leading newspaper. That she's a frisky personality, with a penchant for fame-throwing and interesting phrase-making ('careeristic bitch' -that's what she said in reference to Preity Zinta's role in KANK) --- not to forget an incorrigible contrarian streak -- make her a quick-fix masala writer.
Now, that's perfectly fine when she restricts herself to themes about backbiting friends in a kitty club (Starry Nights) or catty advice on how men should be 'handled' (Surviving Men) but writing a book on any aspect of India needs to be done with more understanding and insight.
De's new book draws a co-relation between the author and the country's age (60) and how India is evolving into a superpower. The book's title is ominously similar to BJP's 2004 election campaign, Shining India and we know how misplaced that idea turned out to be. Similarly Shobhaa De's notion of linking the country's prosperity with the spending patters of a miniscule population (Bentley cars, Fendi bags) is equally that of naive exuberance. De takes a view on everything from the prism of her own affluent lifestyle and that of her inner circle of friends and acquaintances ---- trips abroad, living in posh star hotels, visiting spas, shopping in Milan and Paris.
Now what I found funny was that De takes great pains to emphasize her own credentials as one from the upper crust -- 'The Ambanis live in their palatial residence--not far from where I stay' or talking about her globe-trotting with specific attention on the place of stay (either a five star or expensive clubs). There's also an awful lot of reference to various high-end brands ---everything from Cartier watches to Fendi bags to Gucci ---- stuff that is clearly out of reach for 99 per cent of India's population. To use this as a barometer for any kind of progress is in itself very skewed.
In slightly broader terms, De's view can be held in perspective. As she says, more Indians are traveling abroad; people are willing to spend for luxury items, the younger generation is financially better off. Most of it is a result of India's growing clout in the IT, BPO and entertainment industries. She also maybe right when she says that India once viewed as a third world country is today an attractive proposition for not just foreigners to invest, travel etc but also to NRIs --- who feel their own motherland has a lot to offer now. That India is evolving and growing is a sure sign, but the reason why not many are breaking into any kind of jubilation (De wonders why Indians are apologetic about their success...and feels we badly need our cheerleaders) is because there are several aspects that are still screaming for attention.
De keeps mentioning how this phenomenon in not just a Delhi-Mumbai niche. I would be prompted to think that it is and real progress entails development and prosperity for the country as a whole. The country is still reeling under concerns like traffic, poor infrastructure, inflation, corruption, hygiene. (Not that De completely turns a blind eye to the startling poverty and squalor...in the middle of her hi-tea with a certain country's ambassador or the other, she suddenly seems to feel that she isn't taking enough about the less privileged.)
With its limitations, the author makes a few valid points about urban lifestyle - about how junk food is eating into the health of urban kids, on how children in India are a spoilt lot - with parents taking most of the burden on themselves.
That apart, one very serious problem with this book is that it just keeps flitting from one topic to the other without making a point. Like she talks about our apathy towards the State and how our leaders are taking advantage of this attitude and then without any cue, talks about a conversation she had with her chauffeur in Singapore and how he extolled Mahatma Gandhi and pointed towards the hardships in his own country. There are innumerable instances of this kind and as a reader it's frustrating when you see topic after topic thrown up without any point being made. Like she says about Mayawati, 'She is the future of India, it isn't an attractive face, but it's an unforgettable one?' and leaves you to guess what she meant.
More annoyingly, the fact that the book is so low on any kind of research makes it difficult to attach any credibility to many of De's off-hand statements. Like she talks about America losing ground, "For America to regain its lost glory much more will have to be done than pulling out of Iraq with its tail between its legs. The world has no forgotten the mess in Vietnam. Well, that has got salvaged over a period of thirty years. But to most America-watchers, the current imbroglio is not going to be that easy to resolve. The slide has begun"
It takes some courage to call what happened in Vietnam just a 'mess'
Like all other De writings, it's an easy read, though it's a bit of an irritant to see her pepper her sentences with Hindi words like, 'Goli Maro to the skeptics' or 'Our attitude to sex is very ajeeb' If this is the turn Indian English is taking, it’s distressing.
In the end, it's a book that doesn't add up to much at all. The tone is too elitist and and too narrow in its assumptions. It's very much like a drawing room discussion where nothing's verifyable and anything goes.