29 December 2002

Book Review: Snakes and Ladders - Glimpses of Modeern India, by Gita Mehta, ****

This fascinating blend of personal memoir, historical anecdote and wry observation offers the indispensable guide and key to contemporary India in the fiftieth year of its independence. Entertaining, informative and passionate. With a novelist's eye for detail and colour, Gita Mehta writes of the continent of contradictions that is host to one-sixth of the world's population. The world's largest democracy, it still practices the caste system. It's a burgeoning economic superpower, and one of the poorest nations on earth. It has the world's largest film industry, and the world's oldest religions. It is an ancient civilisation celebrating fifty years as a modern nation, entering a new civilisation many believe will belong to China and India. Now, as never before, the world wants to know what contemporary India is all about.

This book awes and shocks at the same time, which is perhaps the best way to summarize India today. Assuming there is such a thing as "India" beyond the state on the map. Mehta points out that most Indians are foreigners to other Indians (p.20)!

Here we get a panoramic introduction to the essence of this incredible assembly of over one billion people. Mehta jumps easily from history to politics, from religion to economics, from social life to art. This is where the majority is Hindu but Buddhism was born, as can be seen at such wonders as Sanchi, Ajanta and Ellora, but where some of the best known national symbols are the Taj Mahal (Muslim mausoleum), the Golden Temple of Amritsar (Sikh), the Jain temples of Rajasthan and Gujarat.

This is the country where the foremost independence leader, Mahatma Gandhi, invited the last colonail ruler, Lord Mountbatten, to become the first head of state of independent India, so as to show reconciliation with all! A country where women still suffer heavily from discrimination but where a woman (Indira) was the most powerful politician ever elected and another (Sonia, a foreigner and a Catholic) followed in her footsteps.

A wonderful introduction the the Indian conundrum!

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