REVIEW: Defragmenting India
Reviewed by Qasim A. Moini
FOR many Pakistanis, India is a strange, unknown place, if one discounts the plastic image created by the Bollywood hype machine. And one assumes that for many Indians, Pakistan is the same, setting aside the terrorist-haven image of the country manufactured by a hyperactive Indian news media. The principal reason for this situation, of course, is the iron curtain that separates the two nations.
No doubt the internet and through it access to varied sources of information from the ‘other side’ has helped reduce this lack of understanding. Yet, whenever well-written non-fiction — which peels the complex layers off our eastern neighbour — emerges, one is drawn to it. It is with this hope that I picked up Defragmenting India, a collection of senior Indian journalist Harish Nambiar’s motorcycle diaries from a three-week trek with a buddy across India around the time of the 2002 Gujarat riots.
Nambiar tries to deconstruct India, especially keeping in mind the heightened communal tensions following the mostly anti-Muslim Gujarat pogrom. This is naturally a tall order, considering the vast geographic, ethnic and religious diversity found in India. It is called a subcontinent for good reason, as it is a vast amalgam of cultures. However, Nambiar gets mixed results as he combines a travelogue with running social commentary.
The problem with the book is that there is so sense of consistency. At some points the narrative can be gripping, at others it is confused and one has to try to figure out just what the author is trying to get at. The main issue is perhaps the style of writing, alternating between intellectual pretence and freewheeling prose, with Nambiar often sharing seemingly unnecessary details. As a matter of fact, it reads like an extended blog, perhaps because the first draft of the book was serialised on a popular website. Call me old-fashioned, but there should be a difference between the more relaxed environment of the blogosphere and the requirements of a serious literary endeavour.
That said, there are some good character sketches of Nambiar’s friends, acquaintances and strangers met on the road, which open a window into the lives of ordinary Indians living in the hinterland. Yet these can be a tad dramatic at times. The major pull of the book is in the few chapters where Nambiar is more descriptive about the places he is in and focuses less on his own philosophical musings. For example, there is an interesting peek into Orissa and its artisans, while the contrast between a “vibrant” Gujarat (the writer’s home state) and the “backward” Orissa is very well done. The chapters on the Navayath Muslim community of Bhatkal, Karnataka, as well as on the nature of Hinduism in the modern Indian context are also informative.
However, among the book’s major drawbacks are the strange turns of phrase. For example, I wasn’t too sure what to make of phrases such as “Soon, Naidu was the favourite of … the thalidomide offspring of the Washington consensus.”
When reading a travelogue, one wants to feel the sights, sounds and sensations the traveller has experienced. This can perhaps best be achieved by keeping the language elegant yet simple.
I wasn’t expecting a Lonely Planet guide to touring India on a motorcycle but I was expecting was a portrait of the divergent strands of modern India as seen through the eyes of a modern Indian. Sadly, that does not come through. More description and less philosophy may have done the trick.
The reviewer is a Dawn staffer
Defragmenting India: Riding Bullet Through the Gathering Storm
By Harish Nambiar
Sage Publication, India
240pp. Indian Rs350