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Passage to India: Monsoon Wedding Meets Slumdog Professor

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A few weeks ago in New Delhi it felt like I had walked on to the set of A Great Big Indian Wedding, become a cast member, and had the film become reality.

My wife Sue and I were members of an Indian wedding -- dancing, singing, eating, and laughing to celebrate the marriage of the youngest son of one of our oldest Indian friends. I had carried the groom on my shoulders around Disneyland when he was seven, and now Sue had henna tattoos on her arms, and I wore a colorful Sikh turban, and danced in the street in front of his horse as Ateesh was led to the wedding tent and the Sikh altar.

Our presence was a testament to the value of study abroad programs and to the upside of globalization. In 1967, my sister Brooke (sadly deceased last year) went on the Experiment in International Living and was placed with the Singh family at 179 Golf Links Road, New Delhi. The Singh family had established itself through the efforts of the family patriarch Sir Sobha Singh, who helped construct New Delhi as the capital of British India.

In 1911, the British moved the capital of their Indian empire to Delhi, a city with a thousand year old history and once capital of the Mughal empire, which had fallen on hard times, and been almost completely razed by the British after the Mutiny of 1857. A British architect Sir Edwin Lutyens was given the task of laying out New Delhi as an Imperial capital -- a grandiose city not unlike Washington, DC, and he proceeded to design broad avenues, huge traffic circles and monumental buildings. He needed local help, of course, to construct the new city and his right hand man was Sobha Singh, great grandfather of the groom.

Later knighted for his efforts, Sir Sobha Singh has a major street named after him. His daughter-in-law Amarjit (grandmother of the groom) married and settled at 179 Golf Links in a house built by her husband Bhagwant Singh, in a pleasant housing estate built around small parks, and this is where my sister lived as a member of the Singh family, and where we celebrated with wedding lunches and dinners. In 1971, I visited India and stayed at the Singh home, and I brought a strobe light for the Singh's son, Pami, who had just opened The Cellar, the first discotheque in New Delhi. At the time, the Indian economy was a closed, state administered system which Nehru modeled after Soviet Five Year plans, and it was difficult to obtain foreign currency to import products, especially to open a dance club.

A year later, another Singh family member, younger son Tejbir came to the US to study for his MA at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, and we lived near one another while I taught at Tufts and worked at the Boston Phoenix, one of the first alternative weeklies. We shared meals and talked the student talk of global social change. After his studies, Tejbir returned to India to become a film maker and married his sweetheart Mala who came from a prominent left wing journalist family. Later, Tejbir and Mala took over editing and publishing the monthly magazine Seminar, founded by Mala's parents, and today it is the leading public policy journal in India.

Tejbir's sister Geeta -- my sister's "Indian sister" -- also studied abroad. She went to Paris to study literature and met a young Indian man from Calcutta named Nayan Chanda, who chose Paris for his studies because of an interest in SE Asia and above all, to escape all things British which had seemed culturally stifling to him in India. Geeta and Nayan made a marriage of love not an arranged marriage (still relatively uncommon today among Indian families), and followed careers outside the country.

Nayan became a reporter for the Far Eastern Economic Review, covering the wars in Indo-China, and made Hong Kong his home base where I visited them on my working trips to China. Geeta became a professor of Indian literature. Nayan moved on to the Wall Street Journal in New York, and a few years later settled in New Haven where he founded and edits Yale's Global Online journal, and directs publications at Yale's Center for the Study of Globalization. Geeta teaches womens literature and Indian literature. Along the way, they sent their boys Amit and Ateesh to Princeton and Brown. Nayan has written one of the best books on globalization, Bound Together, and I have hosted him at Occidental where I teach. His slide show presentation on the history of the human journey out of Africa to today's global civilization is so compelling and well told that the Indian Defense college asks him to lecture at their annual security seminar. I have also heard him deliver it to meetings of defense chiefs in Asia and the Middle East where he holds military men's attention while he explains how we are all "bound together" as human beings.

Globalization has greatly affected India, especially in recent decades. New Delhi has changed greatly since my first visit in 1971. Today it is a mega city of over fifteen million with middle class suburbs, shopping malls, traffic jams, and pollution. Like its rival China, India has opened its economy to the world, embraced private enterprise, and its growth rate and place on the world stage have increased tremendously. It is also a country of extreme wealth and poverty, religious tensions, and still keeps many women in second class citizenship. During the visit, my wife read the book, May You Be the Mother of a Hundred Sons: A Journey Among the Women of India, written by our friend Elizabeth Bumiller, who served as the Washington Post correspondent in the country in the 1980s. Sadly, it is not much out of date. Most Indian women move into their husband's households and are subject to the will and whims of his family and their mother-in-laws. Every year hundreds of deaths of young brides by "accidental kitchen fires" are reported, after the young women have disappointed the husband's family.

Like his parents, Ateesh Chanda made a marriage of love, meeting his partner Shideh Shafie, an Iranian-American doctor in residence in New York City where he had taken a job as a lawyer. The bride's specialty is emergency medicine, and it proved useful on the first night of the wedding festivities when an unexpected torrential rain brought down the wedding tent on the head of her mother-in-law Geeta who had to be taken to the ER for stitches.Happily, Geeta returned to the party in time for dancing and singing when the two families make jokes to one another and "compete" on the dance floor. Although her parents live in the States, the bride had a large contingent of Iranian relatives fly in for the wedding, and we learned that Iranians certainly know how to party. Iranian women of all ages took to the dance floor with enthusiasm and style, and put on moves that we were certain would get them arrested back home. (Apparently, a lot of hearty partying goes on behind closed doors back in Iran.) The Iranian connection made the weekend even more globalized.

On an evening after the wedding had concluded, Tejbir and Mala Singh hosted a dinner party for us to meet some leading Delhi authors, including two British ex-pats, William Dalrymple and Sam Miller. The best way to understand and to experience Delhi from a far is to read their books -- City of Djinns by Will Dalrymple which explores the Mughal history still evident in today's Delhi, and Miller's Delhi-Adventures in a Megacity, a wonderful walking tour of Delhi's neighborhoods -- not an easy undertaking in the clogged, noisy, traffic-ridden city. (Our attempts at walking around town almost got us run over crossing a traffic circle and followed by poorer residents trying to sell us their wares.) Our hostess Mala is the author of the new book, New Delhi: Making of a Capital (by Malvika Singh), which includes pictures and descriptions of the role that Sobha Singh played in the building of the city.

We also heard about the Jaipur Literary Festival, an invention of Will Dalrymple with support from Mala and other leading Delhi authors, which is fast becoming a must attend global venue not unlike Davos or Sundance in its early days. An Indian journalist at dinner recounted his skepticism about President Obama and US foreign policy in the region. While the Bush administration had excellent official relations with India and bent over backward to support India's nuclear posture, many in the Indian elite feel that Obama doesn't understand India nor care about it (although his first official state dinner was for the Indian prime minister). I found no Obama "collectibles" in the Indian street markets, and it is true that there is no person of stature in the Obama administration comparable to Strobe Talbott who handled US-India relations in Clinton or to Nick Burns who had the India portfolio at State in Bush. The Indian government objected successfully to having Obama give special envoy Richard Holbrooke that role, fearing, no doubt correctly, that Holbrooke would involve himself in India's struggle with Pakistan over the disputed area of Kashmir. (Indian and Pakistani diplomats are meeting this weekend to discuss the matter and other issues of dispute between the two countries.)

India's relationship with Pakistan continues to be fraught with tension. While we were there, the local newspapers were filled with reports of right wing Hindu nationalist attacks on Bollywood's most famous actor, Shahrukh Khan, who had spoken out in favor of allowing Pakistani cricket players to be drafted in to the Indian cricket league. The extremist group (not dissimilar to right wing religious groups in the US who agitate against evolution or other issues) threatened to block the opening of the actor's new film, "My Name Is Khan", but he stood up to them and the film opened without serious incident. There was also a bombing of a German bakery catering to foreigners in Mombai, blamed on Muslim terrorists trained in Pakistan.

I did my duty as a dinner guest and answered questions about President Obama's policies in Afghanistan and Pakistan (I tried to explain them, not defend them), but my heart wasn't in it. I wanted to keep on celebrating the upside of globalization--the myriad tastes of Indian cuisine, the rich tradition of dance and song, the world class lattes at Barrista (the local equivalent of Starbucks -- did you know that barrista is an Indian word), the clothes that I had purchased at Fabindia, a successful chain of clothing stores founded by an Indian-American family, the crafts we found at The Shop, the latest business venture of Pami Singh and his sons--not the downside of religious strife, war and terrorism.

Foreign policy must wait when weddings call. Next month, Sue and I are off to Santiago where our goddaughter Emily is marrying Rudolfo, her sweetheart whom she met while studying abroad on a University of California program (another example of the returns on foreign study). I plan to eat, dance and party and not worry about Obama's Latin American foreign policy.

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Postscript: A Primer on India

If you want to read more on India, here is a list of my favorite books:

  • In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India, by Edward Luce, former Financial Times correspondent in New Delhi, is the best single introduction to the country. A model of foreign reporting, clear writing and thoughtful analysis.
  • Nine Lives--In Search of the Sacred in Modern India, by William Dalrymple, is an exploration of how traditional religious beliefs are transformed by today's globalized society. Dalrymple is an exceptional writer and reporter, and his history books like The Last Mughal, and his travel books on India and the region are all worth purchasing.
  • India After Gandhi: The History of the World's Largest Democracy by Ramchandra Guha, is the single best history of modern India.
  • Vishnu's Crowded Temple: India Since the Great Rebellion by Maria Misra, tells the story of late British India and brings it forward to the present. A good companion to Guha's work.
  • Making India Work by William Bissell, is a policy book by the current director of Fabindia, the company founded by his father who went to India on a Ford Foudation grant, met an Indian woman (Bim Bissell, a noted figure in Delhi society whom we met at the wedding), and stayed to start a textile company. Will Bissell took over the company at 31 after his father's death and wove over 40,000 artisans into a reliable supply chain focusing on the domestic market. Today, Fabindia has 110 stores and has become one of India's leading national brands. In the book, Bissell gives his prescriptions for downsizing India's inefficient bureaucracy, improving its struggling educational system, and revitalizing neighborhood democracy.
Three of my other best reads on India include, Freedom At Midnight by Larry Collins and Dominque LaPierre, a cinematic like recounting of the moment when British India was partitioned into India and Pakistan; Ambassador's Journal by John Kenneth Galbraith, who served as JFK's diplomat to India in the 1960s; and The Life of Mahatma Gandhi by Louis Fischer, one of the great journalists of the 20th century. In the fiction category (not the serious novels you will find in a proper course on modern Indian literature), I recommend The Case of the Missing Servant by Tarquin Hall, the first in a new detective series set in New Delhi introducing Vash Puri, self-proclaimed "India's Greatest Detective", Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra, a Dickensian detective novel set in today's Mombai, and Delhi Noir, a collection of short detective fiction edited by Hirsh Sawhey which explores the darker side of Indian life. There are too many Bollywood and Merchant/Ivory films to recommend any particular ones. Instead, you can start your Indian odyssey at home with the BBC documentary, The Story of India, narrated by historian Michael Wood. Of course, if you have not seen Monsoon Wedding or Slumdog Millionaire, you are missing out on great treats.