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Sunday, November 4, 2007

THE ELEPHANT, THE TIGER,

AND THE CELL PHONE

Reflections on India, the Emerging 21st-Century Power

By Shashi Tharoor

Arcade. 498 pp. $27.50

Novelist and former United Nations official Shashi Tharoor's compilation of journalistic tidbits about India is distinguished by his impressive learning, witty erudition and irrepressible passion for his subject. It is, he freely admits, not a primer on modern India. Instead, it is a total immersion course. The unwary Western reader is flung headlong into a parallel universe, much bigger, more elaborate and more colorful than he or she could have imagined, in which a dizzying array of unfamiliar politics, rituals, tensions, tolerances, words and, most of all, acronyms flies past. In fact, the experience of reading this book is notably similar to stepping off the plane in India for the first time.

Tharoor switches at breathtaking speed from fretting about the decline of sari-wearing to analyzing literacy statistics, and from extolling the legacy of Vedic mathematics to investigating the sociocultural causes of Hindu-Muslim violence. Inevitably, in such a diverse anthology, the quality and usefulness of the essays vary. Only once does the book veer completely offtrack, in the ill-advised introduction, which takes the form of a rather tortuous fable about the Indian elephant turning into a tiger.

Tharoor is at his best with biographical sketches of great Indian figures. Characters are outlined efficiently and elegantly, with generosity but without mincing words. Tharoor's eye for revealing detail and ear for a good joke rarely fail. Mercifully, he refrains from recounting even a single sentence of waspish diplomat Krishna Menon's record-setting eight-hour speech on Kashmir to the U.N. Security Council. Instead, he reveals that during it Menon "fainted, had to be revived, and carried on." The thought of Menon staggering theatrically around the U.N. stage like James Brown leaves a more lasting impression than any quote could. And each page of Tharoor's rich prose conjures similarly satisfying images.

The reader would do well to start at the end, which is where the extremely funny introductory "A to Z of Being Indian" has inexplicably been placed, then dip through the beguiling biographies in Part Three, before going on to the reflective cultural essays in Parts Two and Four, and ending up with the political and economic material in Parts One and Five. Anyone familiar with the house numbering system in Delhi will find this system not only logical but apt.

This is far from the most coherent book about modern India, nor is it the most comprehensive. Instead, it is a chaotic, joyous, occasionally exhausting and often uplifting collage. As such, it could hardly be a more fitting reflection of its subject. If Tharoor's India really is the future, the rest of us had better hold on tight.

-- By Alex von Tunzelmann, author of "Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire"


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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