How the Commonwealth Games pushed me to learn about India

The dust raised by the Commonwealth Games drove this child of Indian immigrants to begin reading about the land of her ancestors.

Lee Jin-Man/AP
"All of Delhi, it seemed, was under construction, thanks in no small part to the upcoming Commonwealth Games."


That’s what I remember most about New Delhi. It permeated everything. It slicked the cars like spring pollen each morning; it trickled into homes and under rugs, making the undersides of your feet black; and if you spent more than an hour outdoors, it infused your nose and throat with a dry, sandy mist.

Even Delhiites said there was more dust than before, but like most Indians, they complained little and adapted well. My brother-in-law took to keeping an undershirt in his trunk and wiped down his silver Maruti Swift each morning before work. My husband’s family covered their rugs with sheets, which they changed and washed each Friday. And daily or twice-daily showers were the norm.

Dust, I learned, was a side effect of India’s success. All of Delhi, it seemed, was under construction, thanks in no small part to the upcoming Commonwealth Games, and the dust was its irritating byproduct. In fact, the only time my relatives spoke of the Commonwealth Games, about which most Indians were utterly uninterested, was when the dust reminded them of it.

To me, the dust was as palpable a sign as any that India was booming. New homes were going up in Delhi’s sprawling suburbs, the subway was adding new lines, highways grew extensions and overpasses at every juncture, and stadium shells sprouted overnight like mushrooms, for India’s Commonwealth Games.

As a first-generation American whose parents had immigrated to the US decades ago, I had never paid much attention to India. My Urdu was atrocious, Bollywood was alien to me, and apart from Manmohan Singh, I couldn’t name a single Indian politician.

But the dust started to change that. It wafted into my suitcase and followed me home to the States, reminding me that I couldn’t ignore India anymore. So I dove into books, trying to understand the country I had disregarded my entire life, the land from which my father had come 43 years ago, which has so transformed that my parents no longer recognize it.

Some books were recommended; some were time-honored classics, some I simply stumbled across in the library, and many, many are missing, yet to be discovered and read. All helped me understand a little slice of this booming nation.

Here are a few of them:

"A Suitable Boy," by Vikram Seth. A brick of a book, weighing in at 1,474 pages, this novel reads like one long, sweet lyrical love note to India. It is, at its core, a love story, the tale of a young girl’s attempts to find love – and her mother’s attempts to secure a "suitable boy." It unfolds against the backdrop of a newly independent India preparing for General Elections, struggling to establish itself in the world, and eager to chart its own future. (A sweet surprise – the table of contents is written as a poem.)

"In Spite of the Gods: The Rise of Modern India," by Edward Luce. One of the best introductions to modern India, “In Spite of the Gods” paints a wonderfully dynamic picture of India’s rise to global power. Luce, the Financial Times’s South Asia bureau chief in New Delhi from 2001 to 2006, writes with scholarship and insight, detachment and intimacy.

"A Fine Balance," by Rohinton Mistry. Recommended to me by everyone I know who read it, this book took my breath away. Set in 1975 in an unnamed city by the sea, this sweeping narrative tells the story of four strangers whose lives are thrust together when the government declares a state of emergency. It shows India in all its ugliness and beauty, its cruelty and sweetness. It’s a raw, stunning, magnificent story of the contradictions of a country and its people.

"The Elephant, the Tiger, and the Cell Phone: Reflections on India, the Emerging 21st- Century Power," by Shashi Tharoor. As any well-read Indian will tell you, if you want to learn about India, read Tharoor. The youngest undersecretary-general of the UN in that organization’s history, Tharoor is also a member of India’s parliament, as well as a prolific author, journalist, and columnist in The Hindu and The Times of India. He brings that experience to this book, in which he explains the how and why of India’s rapid rise from poverty and underdevelopment to economic and technological prowess. With lucid prose, fascinating opinions, and solid research, it’s an opportunity to see India from the perspective of an insightful Indian writer.

"Marrying Anita: A Quest for Love in the New India," by Anita Jain. In this approachable, fun memoir, author Anita Jain tells her own romantic – and hilarious – story about finding a husband. After years of unsuccessful dates as a modern, globe-trotting journalist, Jain decides to move back to India – the “backward” land her own parents left – to find a husband. With honesty and wit, Jain recounts her experiences meeting eligible young Indians, finding an apartment, and considering the traditional life her parents fled. It’s one of the most accessible entrees into an urbanizing India at once modern and old-fashioned.

Readers, I’d love to know which books opened India to you. Join the discussion on Facebook and Twitter and let us know what else belongs on this list.

Husna Haq is a frequent Monitor contributor.

Join the Monitor's book discussion on Facebook and Twitter.

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