Mother Pious Lady - Book Review

12:33 PM Shanky 2 Comments

There are big books of small things, small books of big things and big book of big things and small books of small things. If I were to classify this book into one of these four then I would probably say it is a big book of small things. But these small things are those that make up the social fabric of India and in turn what India is all about. As I had earlier indicated in my review of A Rainbow in the Night, I like authors who drive their point by first showing out the entire landscape and then focusing on their object/element of choice. Mr. Desai also uses such a technique when he goes back to the dark old days to the good old days and then explains how our current thinking is either markedly different from or heavily influenzed by those days. However, because it is a big book of small things, the focus is kind of blurred and the sharpness is quite not what you get out of a research paper. This is good as well as bad depending on what you expected out of the book. For me, it was good as I got a wholesome picture and I could mould each chapter or experience to the management scenarios I encounter, to explain why customers/co-workers behave/work in a certain way.

The book follows a time-linear path as it starts from past, then moves on to the present and finishes off with future. The good thing is that the author has provided majority of pages for the past, then to present and a few pages for the future. This shows the sound research and subject knowledge of the author. He analyzes how the past experiences have affected the present. He also had the maturity to not to blabber some nonsensical prediction for our future. Rather he explains how we can shape our future and urges us to use the right lens so that we are not misled by all the brouhaha around brand India. Another good news is that the book is divided into very small chapters, each is (kind of) an experience that an average Indian citizen would have undergone. So these chapters can be read in any order or some of them can even be skipped if you are not interested. The effect it has on the overall reading experience depends on how many chapters you skipped rather than which chapters you skipped as these are experiences which tie to each other anyway. But I would recommend not to skip the initial chapters as this evoked strong sense of nostalgia in me. It made me grin from ear to ear and sometimes even crack up laughing thinking about what I had done in my childhood. Any guy/gal born in 1980s should try not to skip the early chapters.

The chapters about the Bajaj scooters and stainless steel utensils made me grin from ear to ear. While the chapters about the hill stations and vacations made me frown up on him for trivializing such an important experience in my life. But then again he shifted gears and had me in splits and nodding in smug appreciation when he trashes the concept of ‘arranged marriages’. I shall give you just one experience which he had explained with which I quite couldn’t agree. In one of the chapters he explained the emergence of small town girls and he argues that the mask or whatever it is that they make out of their duppattas as a sign of progress or sign of increasing self confidence. This explanation looked contrived in my opinion. The book in essence took me on a roller coaster in terms of my reactions to the chapters.

An interesting observation I made while reading this book is that how close is our thinking to China's when it comes to patriotism and portraying our country to outside (read: Western) world. In smoke and mirrors, Pallavi Iyer mentions that Chinese citizens hated bad news and avoided it at all cost. In fact, they had built a false Utopia around them and chose to ignore some of the pressing problems they have in their country. The media regulation is only part of that plan as media houses play an important role in upkeeping the utopian image. It is strikingly similar to our behavior wherein we ignore the presence of slums and feel indignant when a westerner points it out! Two things emerge -
  1. The author further strengthens my belief in Ubuntu, philosophy that All Towns are one. We, like the Chinese, want only the good India and good part to be known to us and the world.
  2. More importantly, he opens our eyes and hence urges us to shut up, accept it, acknowledge it and change it. Rather than ignoring it or whining about it and searching for the emergent India at the top while the emerging India is at the middle
Tackling a big problem, on which everyone has an opinion about and most have an emotional attachment to, even in a big book is tricky. There will be chapters which you have exactly the opposite view than the one that the author has taken. You might opine that the author has made a mountain out of a mole hill in certain other chapters. But the author has presented his view and smartly put into a form where you have the choice to skip the chapter if you want. So I don't really see this as a disadvantage but only a minor hiccup. From my personal experience, I found the boring chapters were in the middle and I could not help but yawn and switch off my reading lights. This was one of the most time consuming books for me. It took me almost three months to finish this book. Mumbai's traffic and commute did not help much either. Another important factor is that you run out of nostalgic moments somewhere in the middle of the book and the boring present starts to take over. These were the pages I found the most difficult to coast through because I am confused where this country is presently headed to while the author definitively tries to pave a path. At least he is clear about what he is talking.

All in all, it’s a great book especially if you are a sociology student or if you are a traveler in India who wants to understand why we are like this only or even if you are a resident Indian who cannot understand your neighbor who is a filter coffee sipping, Hindu newspaper reading, cricket fanatic who can argue about any topic under the sun. It’s a great read, go get it!

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