Because of the length of this episode, the essay and transcript are in separate posts. There is no charge for the transcript posts, please don't worry about the numerous notificatons. DRIP has a limit to how many characters can appear in each post, and the length of this podcast meant we needed to break it up into three parts! I hope you enjoy this episode. Without a doubt, it is one of my favorites.
Debbie Millman: About 13 years ago, Anand Giridharadas was working for McKinsey & Company in Mumbai, India. He moved out of business consulting into writing and journalism and hasn't looked back since. He started writing for "The International Herald Tribune" and "The New York Times" and became columnist for both. He's also written two books, including "The True American: Murder and Mercy in Texas," about a Muslim immigrant's efforts to keep the state from executing the white supremacist who tried to kill him. His latest book "Winners Take All ‑‑ The Elite Charade of Changing the World" is coming out later this year. Anand Giridharadas, welcome to "Design Matters."
Anand Giridharadas: Thank you for having me.
Debbie: My pleasure. Given all of your major accomplishments, how do you feel about "New York Magazine" recently including you in an article titled, "The Golden Era of Male Hair"?
Anand: Obviously as a writer, you're hoping for that Pulitzer or that National Book Award or that Nobel, but in the absence of such honors, it was one of the greatest honors of my life. I'd be lying if I said otherwise.
Debbie: In a Reddit, Ask Me Anything that you did, one commenter said, "I don't have any questions, but your hair looks amazing." What is it about your hair that seems to warrant so much attention?
Anand: You have to ask bald people that. I think one of the things that happens is, my hair is very polarizing like everything in America today. When I go on television there are people who say nice things about it and then there's a lot of people who I suspect are follically challenged men in their basements somewhere who voted for Donald Trump and don't want me in America anyway and for who my hair is like the ultimate offense and they just kind of want to deport it. I get a lot of hate mail also, probably way more than the love mail. Specifically, like your hair needs to go back to its country, that kind of thing. The trolls are getting more creative like, "Go back to your country," is so unimaginative. I think telling someone's hair to go back to its country, it's interesting hate.
Debbie: Does it hurt your feelings?
Anand: No. I've learnt things from my trolls. I'm not going to repeat them here, but I would say 1 out of every 10 things trolls tell you is actually useful information.
Debbie: Can you give us one example?
Anand: Yes. I go on MSNBC a lot where I'm a political analyst. Often after an appearance people will give you these horrible, horrible comments on your appearance, and it's just terrible. Who are these people who actually...
Debbie: Why do they bother to watch?
Anand: Like right before going to work, they're like, "Let me just make a couple mean Tweets about someone's appearance." but 1 out of every 10 of those is kind of like a useful sartorial tip in there. One guy was like, "You know, with that shirt and that suit, this guy has no neck." I was like, "That's pretty mean." Then I started looking at the pictures, I was like, "You know, I have a shorter than average neck." I'm not ashamed to say.
Debbie: I have to look at your neck.
Anand: It's a little...it's probably 40th percent. I asked a friend of mine. They were like, "It's simple. Just wear t‑shirts with your suit jackets." I tried that, looked a little better. I do that sometimes. I was like, "Thank you, troll." My wife is never going to tell me the truth about my neck length.
Debbie: Your father traveled to the United States from India with seven dollars in his pocket, and you've written about how the first thing you ever learned about India was that your parents had chosen to leave it. You go on to state that the country was lost to you in America and you had to reassemble it in your mind from fragments of anecdotes. What did you think of India before you visited it?
Anand: I visited it from a pretty young age before I could really think. Those two processes were kind of in parallel. The reality that I think a lot of immigrant families ‑‑ second generation people like me ‑‑ don't talk about so openly is you have this relationship to the old country, the homeland, back home, whatever people call it. The founding story of that other place is that the people you love the most, the people to whom you're most attached in childhood, voted to get out of that place with their feet. I think the honest account of the kind of my founding story with India is it's a story of exit. An exit for some reason because these are people you respect who obviously made a wise decision. And then when I would visit as a child, there were a lot of things that confirmed ‑‑ I mean, I had a good time ‑‑ but there were a lot of things that confirmed and built on this storyline of this is a place worth leaving. I had never seen a beggar in Shaker Heights, Ohio. As a four‑year‑old, five‑year‑old, six‑year‑old in a car in Delhi or Mumbai, it was pretty jarring to see a four, five, six‑year‑old on the other side of the glass, banging and it never gets easier but it's really jarring at that age. Then the fact that this was a place where my parents left because they felt that ‑‑ particularly, my father ‑‑that his potential couldn't be developed there.
I had a very estranged relationship to it, but I think one of the funny things about wanting to be a writer is ‑‑ and I got some very good advice along the way from a mentor of mine, Jill Abrahamsen ‑‑ that you kind of run towards things that make you uncomfortable and that makes more interesting writing than staying close to home. Eventually, that kind of relationship that began with that negative storyline was the reason for going there, and then going there transformed the story.
Debbie: Your father would eventually graduate from Harvard, and you've written that "It was not long before my mother was backing a red Oldsmobile larger than many Indian dwellings down an icy driveway in suburban Shaker Heights, Ohio. Not long before my father with his Indian accent was counseling the executives of America's leading companies. "They discovered new music that was not their own music, new food not their own food. They took up new styles of dressing. They soaked in the world." How did they describe their adaptation to this wildly different culture to you or did they at all?
Anand: It was all stories. We're a family that, blissfully in the age before texting and Instagraming, we just talked a lot. We talked with love, we talked in conflict. There's a lot of invariably conflict when frankly parents are from one place and the kids are from another place and you literally have two countries in a house.
Debbie: You wrote about how you would sometimes have more authentic Indian food for dinner, and sometimes you'd have spaghetti.
Anand: The India that I, in a way, carried in my mind when I actually ended up moving there at 21, the India in my mind was not a monolith. It was just this kind of collage of all these little stories and the little meanings that either I attributed to them or that my parents had kind of squeezed from them, stories of all kinds.
Stories about the superiority in some ways of Indian culture, the sense of family, the sense that over there before respect their elders, over there people are close. My mom used to always say this thing, still says it. In America, no one will ever pop over unannounced for tea at 5:00 PM. She says it with this like real sense of mourning.
The reality is my mom is quite busy at 5:00 PM on most days. Not necessarily available to be popped in on for tea which is also what America does to you. Then there were the stories about all the things my mom was not that allowed to do because she was a woman.
The fact that she couldn't go to a movie theater with this person or that person, because people might see and think that she was a fast girl or a loose girl, so stories of things, of repressions and of stagnation that justified our life where it was now and that's very important. It was in going back to India later on my own that I got a chance to kind of test these stories against the reality of my own perception of this place that I had made from the collage.
Debbie: Despite the idyllic setting that you've written about and you describe the town you grew up in as "a sprawling neighborhood of brick and Tudor houses set on vast yards with a duck strewn ponds, meandering lanes, and ample sidewalks that had lured millions of Americans into suburbia." But you said this on "The Daily Show" in 2011: "As a child, the only thing you don't want to be is different from people," and you felt different. How did that shape you?
Anand: I think profoundly, probably. So many people do it that it becomes normal, but it's a wild thing to be from one place and make it in another.
It's a wilder thing still to be from one place and raise children who are citizens of some other place who need to, on one level honor you and your values as parents, at another level need to be authentic and able to play in the place you've brought them. You know you've brought them here so it's kind of your job to allow them to be who they need to be to be here.
They're also your kids and you want to raise them in a particular way. There's a lot of inherent tension there that could take the form of religious tension. For things in my family, it was do you get to drive with other kids to the school dance? Or do you have to get your parents to drop you off?
Debbie: Were you made fun of?
Anand: Yeah. I had a particularly bad couple of years in a school in Cleveland, in middle school. What was funny there is it was a double whammy, because I was Indian American in a school without too much diversity. We lived in Cleveland for seven years, my first seven years.
We moved to Paris, France for three years where my parents decided they wanted to become immigrants again and try it out. Then we moved back from Paris once they realized it's actually not easy to become French, but it is pretty easy to become American. There's a difference.
When we got back and I went to this new school, not only was I an Indian American kid in this mostly white world but I was also just returned from France, speaking French. My mother once heard herself I think in that school when she came in for a meeting referred to as the French lady.
It was just a reminder of how mind‑blowing it was for a lot of people in that very placid, relatively monocultural world of Shaker Heights, Ohio to process people who are not only brown but had just come back from France. All of us would yawn at that today in the world that we're now in. I was very badly bullied in that particular school for a year and a half. It's really interesting. I look back. I haven't thought about it in a while. The way we thought about that problem at the time I remember was interpersonal. Maybe there was something I was doing. Maybe there was something this person was doing or that person was doing.
I think we didn't have the language for understanding it as a systematic thing, one a lot of people have studied and talked about this issue of bullying, but to the cultural element of it not being easy to be different.
Debbie: Was it really more difficult to acclimate in France than it was in the United States?
Anand: There was an opportunity that came up for my dad in France within his company, a transfer. He took it. We had this amazing adventure. We had so much fun as a family. My dad and I every Saturday morning would go on a little walk to the boulangerie and get bread and pastries for the family. I would walk all around the city. It was an amazing life we had there. Having had a pretty easy run at immigration and assimilation into Cleveland, Ohio, they realized very quickly that France was not America. They realized that they were welcome guests, but they would never become French.
Anand: This gets to the question of in a moment when it's easy to be down in America, and I think many things to be down about. America has a lot of things that it needs to look itself in the mirror and see and fix.
There's something extraordinarily special in the DNA of this country that does at its best, in theory, say that anybody can become American. There are actually not that many countries that genuinely believe that.
Does America leave people out of that? Yes. Does it fail to live up to that? Yes. Is there an entire black exception to that story that's a 400‑year story? Yes. I think to only talk of those things and not talk about the remarkable way in which...
I've traveled around the world to know that when I go to Europe and people ask me where I'm from and I say the United States, people don't believe me. Here the people that don't believe me are racist, fringy people. It does not blow anybody's mind that I'm American in America. In India, it blows people's mind.
It's easy to be down on this country, but at its best, this country actually believes in a post‑identity concept of an American, in theory, believes anybody can be this thing. Again, a lot of work to do to actually [laughs] live up to that, but I've been to a lot of places in the world that don't even have that as an ideal. It's an extraordinary ideal.
Debbie: As you were growing up, you would ritualistically watch the Sunday morning political talk shows with your family. You described it as such, "We parsed and argued and jeered at the screen as national figures delivered careful poll‑tested talking points." What drew you to these shows when most kids at that age were playing video games or playing ball in the street?
Anand: Maybe I should have been doing those things, could have helped with the bullying. What's funny is I now working for MSNBC. We used to always watch NBC "Meet the Press." I'm now on air with people who I don't really want to tell that I used to watch you when I was 14 and 15, and used to be a celebrity to me.
Debbie: So cool.
Anand: Yeah. We were living in Washington at the time. It was Cleveland, Paris, back to Cleveland for a little bit, and then Washington where I spent most of middle school and high school.The sport of Washington is politics. It's in the air. You go to certain restaurants. You'll see political figures. There are a lot of politician's children in my school.
Debbie: You went to Sidwell, right?
Anand: I went to Sidwell. Chelsea Clinton was there. The Obama girls were there. It was an unavoidable part of the atmosphere in my childhood there.
Those shows, I just loved them. it's funny. Some of those shows that I'm now on, I understand how much of a game it is now for a lot of people who go on, these politicians who go on and say nothing at great length. It was just fascinating to me.
I think, for me, it had something to do also my own journey of thinking about what it means to be an American. I think for my parents, that was one set of things around hard work and making it work as an immigrant. That had to do with a lot of practical things because that was their burden. That was not my burden because they took care of it. I think my burden had a lot more to do with trying to understand this system and understand the society. It's probably what led me to be a journalist in the sense that I never wanted to work on the sidelines of the society. I wanted whatever I did to have something to do with the enterprise of the society with government politics or public life, common life.
Debbie: Even back then?
Anand: I think so. I had different things I wanted to do. I wanted to be a lawyer. I always joke when other Indian Americans of my generation meet my parents, they're often like, "Oh my god, you got it really easy. You have the very relaxed, cool, do‑whatever‑you‑want Indian immigrant parents." It's true. My parents are really remarkable.
They had a hybrid thing of the Indian part and the immigrant part of them was like you have to really work your butt off and be the best at whatever you do, but the part where they became American and relax is the whatever you do can really be whatever you do. That was their compromise. Do whatever but just be really good at it. I remember literally once said to me, "Do whatever you want. You want to do law, for example. You should try to be on the Supreme Court." It was like, "Oh, OK, good. I'll just do that."
Debbie: He was very proud of you.
Anand: Exactly. That's the Indian American equivalent of, "Yeah, go live a little. Go be wild. Just be on the Supreme Court."
Debbie: At 17 years old, you landed an internship at The New York Times.
Anand: You really do your research on this show. I'm afraid where this is going.
Debbie: How on earth does one get an internship at The New York Times at 17?
Anand: I was very lucky. Someone in my school a couple years younger than me worked on the school newspaper with me. I was the editor of the paper.
Debbie: Of course you were.
Anand: Her mom was an editor at the Times. I have this school directory, which gave people's home phone numbers. This was an editor in Washington named Jill Abrahamsen who would, of course, go on to edit The New York Times many years later. I called the home number. This is 19 years ago, but the way I remember it is I called her. I asked for an internship at the end of my senior year. She said, "You know, I'm in charge of our impeachment coverage on the President of the United States in the middle of an impeachment trial. It's a little overwhelming here."
I called again. She was like, "Thanks for the persistence, but it's really..." That was why I didn't call. Then as I remember it, shortly after Clinton was acquitted in the Senate, I get this call a few months later.
It was like, "Sorry if I didn't have time before. I brushed you off. Are you still interested in that internship?" which is like the Pope calling you, asking if you want to be the Pope or the closest I will get to something like that. I went in for my internship. I thought I'm going to make some amazing coffee for Maureen Dowd and Tom Friedman or whatever. The first day, Jill says to me, she's like, "What do you want to write about?" I'm 17. I'm thinking, "I don't think that's a very good idea, you know, in The New York Times."
Debbie: You didn't say that, did you?
Anand: I did not. I was like, "Oh, yeah." I think I probably just was thinking inside it's not a good idea and outside said like every male [inaudible 19:48] in the world like, "Yeah, I can totally do that." Her specialty at that time was money, and politics, and lobbying, and campaign contributions. She gave me a couple ideas of directions of things she maybe had gathered some string on or thought were interesting. I wrote two stories. There was a scandal that ended this practice. Back then, if you were not a staffer, the byline would just say, "By The New York Times." I wrote two by‑the‑new‑york‑times articles. It all sounds so quaint given what's happened to America. One was about these early campaign donors to Bush and Gore in '99 who had given maxed out, which meant giving $1,000 to both Bush and Gore. Obviously, they're just trying to secure themselves or whatever the administration comes. $1,000 sounds so quaint right now, but this was before Citizens United.
Debbie: That was the max, right?
Anand: It was the max.
Debbie: Now, did you discover this or were you assigned this?
Anand: There's an amazing organization in Washington still called the Center for Responsive Politics. I think it's opensecrets.org. You have to file all campaign contributions. All the campaigns do it, but it's a mess. This organization organizes it all. It puts it in a database. It's like the greatest database that no one ever messes around in. You should just go mess around it right now. You can find out who do the tobacco industry give the most money to this year. It's amazing, so I just played around with that. They help. If you work for a place like the Times, which I very flimsily did, they will help you. You tell them you want to do something like this. They'll actually custom do some research for you. Their whole goal is to expose this game. I did another story, which also sounds quaint. It was about how the FEC, the Federal Election Commission, had responded to a request from Bill Bradley's campaign to allow credit cards to be used in making campaign contributions. It sounds insane to us, but it's 1999. The Bill Bradley campaign made this argument that in the future, the Internet is going to be the locus of politics. It's going to be the Internet where people are organizing, raising money. That his kind of campaign was an insurgency against Gore. It would require this more Internet‑driven grassrootsy approach. Therefore, he petitioned. Lauren and Bob Bauer was his lawyer.
He pushed for Obama's lawyer. It was this story about this little historic moment when the FEC decided to allow people to make credit card political contributions. That was my beginning in journalism.
Debbie: You went on to the University of Michigan and majored in history. Why not a major in journalism or writing?
Anand: I don't know who gave me the advice. By that point, I had received the advice from many quarters ‑‑ perhaps Jill, perhaps others ‑‑ that it was better to study the world.
Journalism is a craft, but it's a craft that needs to be applied to something. It requires a medium. The medium is the world. It's just a craft you learn by doing. Frankly, a lot of journalists study things like history. That's important.
There's probably no better way to figure out the back story of how we got right here by definition, but it's really important to have journalists who understand economics. It's really important to have journalists who know how to read a balance sheet and income statement, which I don't.
It's really important to have journalists who understand the world of art and design and then not just showing up and saying what they think. It fell to me, and I had absorbed this idea that it was important to really ground yourself in some deeper discipline and then learn the craft on the side through work.
Debbie: You went on to also study at Oxford University and Harvard University. What did you study there?
Anand: I did a junior year abroad in Oxford, which is truly one of the greatest educational experiences of my life, in part, because it's a totally different system. You have one or two tutorials per week.
My week would consist of the following, a one‑hour meeting with a professor in which I would defend a 10, 15, 20‑page paper that I had written for that week. They would ask a question.
I remember this great teacher, David Priestland, who's still there. One of his questions was like, "OK. Next week, what was Marxist theory of what would happen after the revolution, and how plausible is it?" That's it. That's the question. Now, you go.
I got a week. There's so many libraries at Oxford. I'd go on my bicycle to this library, that library, take home 10 or 12 or 15 books, write a 15 to 20‑page paper, slip it under the door of the professor the night before, and then go in and talk about it for an hour. Repeat and rinse.
Debbie: You had to defend your ideas.
Anand: Defend your ideas. I don't think, for me, it would have been a great way to start my college education. Having done a couple years of the lectures and grounding in basics, it's such an extraordinary way to get to that next level.
I think it's one of the things that that year I was very clear that I wanted to be a writer. It just, what a thing to read books and then write something and then...
Debbie: Then get to talk about them. What did you do at Harvard?
Anand: I went to India before that. I moved to India right after college. I had a brief misbegotten year trying to work in business.
Debbie: I want to talk about that misbegotten year.
Anand: Let's do it.
Debbie: Then you're going to tell us why you went to Harvard. What do you want to tell us first?
Anand: Why don't we do that in order?
Debbie: OK, good. You got a job at McKinsey. Before you got the job at McKinsey, you had a hard time finding a job as a writer. Now, given your experience as an intern at The New York Times at 17, why was it so hard for you to find a job as a writer?
Anand: I always joke with my sister, I applied for some other internship with The New York Times. I think while I was on that internship, then I got rejected. I said, "I must be the only person who gets rejected for an internship while they're in an internship at that same place."
This is a very interesting thing particularly as we talk about diversity in journalism and new voices. Journalism historically has not been a profession that recruits. There's very little thinking about drawing people in and developing them.
Who are our people? What's the 20‑year view on this person's career? Maybe that was different 20 years ago, but I also came of age and was entering this profession in this moment of disaggregation and Internet and the advertising business dying in this depressive era in media.
What was just fascinating to me is I managed to have this career that was reasonably good without having ever really anybody have a bigger conversation about like, "What do you wanna do next? What's...What are your goals?"
Just things that are normal in any other business. It all just feels often very happenstancy. There's just not an easy...All of which is to say when you're 21 years old.
Compared most people, a leg up in that I had interned with the Times at 17. The following year, I'd done an internship that had a connection to the Times. It wasn't for the Times but I ended up writing for a lot of New‑York‑Times‑owned newspapers in the American South.
It's hard to think of some at 21 who had a better leg up. Jill Abrahamsen was a champion of mine. It was just really hard to get in there. You have to find this. There was no place that you could go to apply for jobs straight...
Anand: I tried this knot. I also wanted to go to another country and eventually decided that country was India. I just said I'm going to find some way to go India but actually make a priority of going to another country. I thought that would help me as a writer.
Frankly, although it didn't end up being a phenomenal fit, the only enterprise in the world that doesn't care what you studied or who you are that's willing to take you and put you anywhere is consulting.
I became...I followed my father's footsteps, although his were illustrious. I need a great career. I followed them in and besmirched my own name but made an attempt at it for a year.
Debbie: You went to McKinsey. Which for those that might not know, it's sort of the Harvard of business consulting firms. It's the best or one of the best. I can imagine that it would be easy to get a job there either.
I have a whole crew of graduate students listening to this interview that are probably starting to think, "Wow, maybe I should just apply to McKinsey." It doesn't really work that way. [laughs]
Anand: I don't know. I think I also presented a weird case, which I was sitting there in Michigan. I applied for a job in the India office. I don't think anybody had ever done that before.
I went on an Indian salary where I could barely afford a spare room in someone's house. I just wanted to get out there. I think when I did get out there, I was the first entry‑level person not raised and educated in India.
I wanted to get out there and I wanted to see the world. What was really fascinating about McKinsey is I got there. I had no idea what was going. I get this apartment. Some guy, a contact of a family friend, arrives in my apartment with a briefcase of tax‑free cellphones. I get my cellphone.
I'm a few weeks later advising some pharmaceutical company on their leadership development pipeline. I can assure you I know nothing then or now about leadership, development, pipelines, pharmaceuticals. What else do I not know about? Anything involved in that situation, I knew nothing about. There are definitely people in that business who know a lot, but I was not one of them.
What's amazing is people still listen to you. It was actually this terrifying thing to me. Maybe this is just my own self‑justification, but I really think the writing world is different. I really think there's no tolerance for people who don't know what they're talking about. It's just harder to hide in writing. What is easy to conceal with a PowerPoint is hard to conceal with a written paragraph.
Debbie: You described moving to India as the ultimate rebellion against your parents, moving to the country they had worked so damn hard to get out of. Not only did you move to the country they had worked so damn hard to get out of, you went to work for the firm that your father was working at. What did your father think about all of this?
Anand: A lot of my Indian American friends who I ended up making in India because there were a bunch of us who did what I did. Almost all of their parents hated the fact that they moved to India.
Almost all of their parents did feel like they had annulled 30 years of hard work. My parents did not feel like that. That's part of that progressive spirit that they have that's different, frankly, from a lot of people.
As I say in my book, they understood my story as a continuation of their story, which is they were chasing the frontier of their future. I was chasing the frontier of my future, and that happened to be their past. They were very supportive. I thought I was leaving for six months or a year. I ended up staying six years. I wrote them a letter about a month or two after arriving, an impassioned 3,000 word letter or something like that, explaining why I had made a horrible mistake. This was not a country I could live in, it was insupportable. I just had to get home. I wanted them to think I wasn't flighty. I laid out my case. It was this funny thing. I remember their reaction on the phone. It was a little bit like, "You don't have to explain this to us. [laughs] We left India, too."
Debbie: Why did you want to leave?
Anand: It was just hard. India is a hard place. To be honest though, the work angle matters a lot. India's a hard place. If you're doing work, as my mine was, had nothing to do with the place, it's this abstract spreadsheets about things that you don't know about. Then you're just living in a hard place for no reason. As soon as I became a journalist, then suddenly all the complexity and difficulty of India became my subject. Then I loved it. It's hard to live in a hard place where you're trying to do some job and go to sleep. When understanding that place becomes your job, that opens a whole different thing.
Debbie: You did get a job. The New York Times took over the International Herald Tribune. You got a job as an international correspondent. I say that very haphazardly. You got a job, given how difficult it was for you back before you moved to India. What made it possible for you to get the job at that time?
Anand: In India, these things are all happenstance and not replicable. I was very, very lucky to, one, I did have the fact that I had done these internships, the fact that I had a champion in Jill, who was such an amazing champion of my work. Then this big thing happened where The New York Times acquired full ownership of the International Herald Tribune, which they used to share with the "Washington Post." The reason they acquired it was this idea that New York Times journalism no longer needed to be confined to the United States. People were going to want to read it in Asia, in South America. They bought the IHT. It ended up becoming "The International New York Times." The idea was if we're going to write about the world for Asians, for South Americans, and for Europeans, we need new correspondents. We're not just writing for America. We're covering India for the Chinese now. We're covering China for Brazilians now which is so great. The acquisition of that paper was a very rare chance where they actually hired a bunch of people, 15 people or something like that, across Asia.
Once I was in‑country, you can understand from an editor's point of view, a newspaper's point of view, sending someone somewhere feels like a big decision. I was in‑country at this point. It was just a matter of having me start writing. I told a little white lie to make it happen. I just didn't...
Debbie: White lies are all the rage these days.
Anand: White lies are huge. By the way, White Lies would be a great title for the movie about the Trump era, White Lies.
I applied for jobs at the International Herald Tribune office in Paris. My idea was to move there, maybe, and be a copyeditor, whatever you do to start up there. I was emailing with these people. They were like, "Well, we'll do a phone interview, whatever."
I had no plan to be in Paris. I just felt like I've got to face‑to‑face this situation. My white lie was I actually happened to be in Paris. Given the squalor I lived in...
Debbie: That's a Glengarry Glen Ross kind of way. [laughs]
Anand: Totally. I told a little white lie, bought the ticket, went to Paris, and went to see them. Of course, that makes all the difference.
Anand: It's all about IRL. I got the job. They asked me to do a trial article. I wrote this trial article, and I started.
Debbie: You wrote this in the Times. I don't know if it was exactly at that time, but it was around that time. "My parents watch me from their perch outside Washington DC and marvel at history's sense of irony.
"A son who ended up inventing himself in the country they left who has written of the self‑inventing swagger of a rising generation of Indians in a country where self was once a vulgar word." Do you think that self is still a vulgar word in India?
Anand: India is so big and in such transition. There is a vast, largely unchanged territory of Indian society where it's still very much a vulgar word. If you are a woman in India, frankly, self continues to be a vulgar word.
My mother‑in‑law has a book coming out called "Chup" which means shut up. It's about the seven habits that Indian women learn to repress themselves and not exist. Self is still very much perceived as a very hostile thing because self is the enemy of community. It's the enemy of caring for others. It's the enemy of putting your children ahead of you, or your elders ahead of you. In a system where, frankly, social security is non‑existent, where health insurance is not a thing, where you can't get a mortgage to buy a house, you need an uncle to buy a house.
Self threatens the entire social infrastructure. The people need to make a life. That said, what I described in "India Calling" was a profound revolution in India in which that idea of self was breaking in. At the heart of that idea, there were many things in India conspiring to restrain the self, an ancient culture, yes, but also more modern things. In some ways, the socialism with which the Indian independent began is anti‑self in a different way. They were religious tendencies and ideas that were repressive of the self. Part of the idea that is creeping into India now that I was able to tell in this book is the notion that people can decide who they want to become in whatever modest way. That doesn't mean necessarily what it means here. I wrote about people for whom that meant being willing to make those enemies of your parents to marry someone you love over someone who makes sense to the family. It might mean, in the case of someone else I wrote about, working your butt off to get a job one town over from the village you live in which, to us, may seem like a trivial geographic fact. In that social world is a total balzacian revolution.
It may mean people being willing to get angry about injustices that have long been stoically endured in India. Now you're seeing the anger of women. You're seeing the anger of people in villages that have never had regular electricity. It's suddenly becoming indefensible to them.
What was OK for them before is no longer OK. That causes problems. That causes riots. It causes protests. It causes rage. I celebrate that because it seemed to me that what was being born was this idea that you can make your life.
Debbie: You included your own story in the book alongside detailing how India has changed and stated that doing this was a way of making a big story smaller. In what way?
Anand: It's interesting, just as a publishing backstory. I first wrote the early chapters of India Calling, and the idea of the book, in a way that did not have the word "I" in it. It was a book about five areas of change in Indian life, the changing ideas, family changing ideas of love, changing ideas of work, changing ideas of ambition.
One of the editors who we submitted a proposal to, a guy named Jonathan Segal at Alfred Knopf, read the proposal and said, "This isn't a good direction. I want to work with you on it to make it better in the hope that we'll be able to work on it together, but you've got to do two things."
He saw a piece I'd written in the Times that was a personal piece. He said, "That piece, that has to be the voice of the book. Don't tell us how India's changing, in general. Tell us how it's your India that is changing for you and how the country's changing, number one. Number two,"
He said, "Take these five areas of Indian life that are changing, how family's changing, work, etc. and pick one family for each of those changes." That ended up being the book.
In the end, it didn't work out with Knopf and Jon Segal for that book. In my third book, we found each other again, and he's my editor. It was an amazing thing. Even though he didn't publish that book, it was his concept to make it personal, like look how you are connected to this.
END OF PART I, PART II TO FOLLOW