Design Matters with ANAND GIRIDHARADAS

Published on 2018-04-28

In streaks of silver, it ventures to the sky. At times tamed, at times robust, from a stage or TV show it commands the room regardless. 

Anand Giridharadas’ hair is many things to many people. To some, including the editors of The Cut, who featured it on their “Golden Era of Male Hair” list, it’s a work of art. To others, it’s a curiosity, a delightful and disarming detail. And to those opposed to his views, it’s something simple to latch onto and decry (unlike Giridharadas’ nuanced political arguments) on social media and oft-bigoted blogs. Why? Because it’s different.

Being different. It goes back to the beginning for Giridharadas. He grew up in idyllic suburban Cleveland, and had a classically American childhood, replete with snowmen and neighborhood block parties. But inside his home was what he has described as a “hidden world of mysteries,” thanks to his immigrant Indian parents—eclectic food, Saris, cultural traditions. And as he said on “The Daily Show” in 2011, “As a child, the only thing you don’t want is to be different from people.”

He did not know it then, but this different world of mysteries would launch a career of brilliant perspective and output. 

But first he had to understand it. Growing up, his family would visit India every few years, and Giridharadas wasn’t fond of what he found there—poverty, scarcity, the realization that his parents had left for a better life in the United States. Being Indian was what defined him as different as a kid—but it also felt foreign to him, something at arm’s-length, something part of his being, yet not.

Though Giridharadas showed early inclinations toward journalism—even completing an internship at The New York Times when he was 17, nabbing a couple bylines in the process—at the University of Michigan he studied history and politics. After graduating, he struggled to find writing gigs, so applied for a consulting job … in Bombay, India, the country his parents had tried so hard to leave.   

He got the job—with the same firm that his father had worked for when he came to the United States, and thus began to not exactly follow in his his dad’s footsteps, but perhaps retrace them. Giridharadas was on a mission to discover his roots, and in India he encountered a transformed nation—one that he subsequently documented as a correspondent for the International Herald Tribune and The New York Times, before taking a more in-depth look at how the country (and he) had evolved in his first book, India Calling: An Intimate Portrait of a Nation’s Remaking.

Returning stateside with his own identity more firmly established within him, he looked up and outward, and set his focus on two men in Texas. The resulting book, The True American, tells the story of Dallas resident Mark Stroman, who, seeking personal retribution for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, shot three people, including Bangladeshi immigrant Rais Bhuiyan—the only to survive, who subsequently fought to save Stroman from the death penalty. Both went through an incredible transformation, and in the process of meticulously documenting it, Giridharadas took a deep look at one’s sense of place and discovered two Americas—a prescient insight, given what would follow as the country tore itself in two politically during the 2016 presidential election. He has since aptly described the American Dream as being simultaneously alive and dead; it just depends who you are.

The True American offers a deep look at how Giridharadas views the world: Rather than painting his subjects in broad, all-encompassing strokes, he regards them in granular detail, and we emerge with a portrait—all the good, all the bad, neither villain nor hero, but rather human. 

Beyond his books, he wrote the “Currents” column for The New York Times, and his bylines have appeared in a medley of media, from The Atlantic to The New Yorker. And then there’s his political commentary and analysis on the major cable news channels (one wonders if he was predestined for them, given that, growing up, he and his family would revel in the Sunday morning political talk shows). Some journalists believe work like this to be self-serving; that providing opinion and perspective belies the objectivity that is a hallmark of the profession. In many cases, they may be right. 

But Giridharadas is different. 

By exploring his identity, understanding and embracing it, and passionately delving into so many of the topics that ravage and define the world today, his wisdom, fresh and refreshing, emerges as direly needed.

Finally, it’s worth pointing out that though Giridharadas focuses on the serious and at times somber, he tends to be anything but, and his sense of humor shines in his pursuits. 

Consider a talk show appearance. After criticizing Donald Trump on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” a bitter band of Trumpian trolls took to the web to attack Giridharadas—or more specifically, if ironically, his trademark coiffure. 

He took it in stride.

“I don’t know if they wanted to deport me,” he said, “but they seemed very ready to deport my hair.”

—Zachary Petit, Design Matters Media Editor-in-Chief

Because of the length of this podcast, the transcript will be in a separate (no charge) post.