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Snakes and Ladders by Gita Mehta (thoughts)

May 21, 2013

Snakes and Ladders
If I didn’t consciously work at diversifying my reading, I might never have discovered Snakes and Ladders by Gita Mehta. You see, last month I was browsing my library’s nonfiction section with an eye for POC and international authors, so when I found this essay collection by an Indian, and an Indian woman at that, I knew I had to take it home and give it a try. And I’m so glad I did! Snakes and Ladders, named after the ancient Indian board game, is excellent.

Mehta is a wonderful essayist, able to weave specific stories with general philosophies, bringing history to life and showing the effect of national policies on individual Indian people in a seemingly effortless way. Her voice is wonderful: intelligent and informed, willing to face her country’s problems but with a deep affection for its culture and potential, and full of a wry sense of humour that makes the collection sing. I adored every page and only wish it was longer or that she had more essay collections available! The essays focus on India’s modern history, from the independence movement through to the mid 90s (the book was published in 1997) and are divided into four parts: the first includes more personal history, the middle two are primarily focused on political and economic history, and the final part looks at India’s culture (including a wonderful essay appropriately entitled “On Reading”). So there’s a little something for everyone, but the bookish international relations/culture fans such as myself will be especially thrilled. Here is Mehta’s own description of the collection, from the foreword:

Perhaps historians will make sense of India’s early years of freedom. I find myself able to see only fragments of a country in which worlds and times are colliding with a velocity that defies comprehension. These essays are an attempt to explain something of modern India to myself. I hope others may also see in them facets of an extraordinary world spinning through an extraordinary time.

While I had a vague sense of modern Indian domestic history and a firmer grasp on its international policies since 1950, I learned quite a bit from Snakes and Ladders. It is anything from dry and academic, though; I often found myself deeply moved while reading it and was always engaged. Somehow, although she writes of ‘heavy’ topics in a powerful way, the essays have a lightness to them that is all too often missing from social science books. This is essay writing at its best, and I highly recommend it to anyone who’s at all intrigued by my post!

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14 Comments leave one →
  1. May 21, 2013 5:24 pm

    This sounds wonderful, Eva. It is such a gift to find a good modern essayist able to both educate and entertain, but it sounds like Mehta is just that!

  2. May 21, 2013 10:18 pm

    Oh, that sounds like my kind of book…thanks!

  3. Ash permalink
    May 22, 2013 1:48 pm

    Eva – I looked up this book on goodreads to add to my TBR and was surprised to see a lot of negative rather not-so-great reviews from Indians who happened to have read this book. So I’m guessing this one has a mixed reaction?

    • May 22, 2013 2:37 pm

      Hmmm: that does surprise me! Perhaps Mehta’s willingness to talk about the bad side of India as well as the good side alienated some readers? I looked at the first page on Goodreads & it seems like most of the lukewarm reviews complained of it’s being dated, which seems a bit silly to me since it was published in the late 90s! I don’t know, I’m not on Goodreads, but I’m not sure why it garnered mixed reviews.

  4. May 22, 2013 7:02 pm

    Oo! Sounds good. I shall investigate further. I love a gifted essayist. I wish I could be in charge of picking out essays for BEST OF essay collections.

  5. May 23, 2013 6:12 am

    I’m intrigued. I saw an old version of hte game itself at an antique store the other day so it’s like it’s following me around a little, LOL. :-)

  6. May 24, 2013 5:06 pm

    Thanks for adding another books to my search list.

  7. dastevensish permalink
    May 27, 2013 1:47 pm

    Yay! So happy our library system has this one…it sounds awesome! :)

  8. aartichapati permalink
    May 27, 2013 5:17 pm

    Gita Mehta wrote a novel called Raj, too, which is set in during the British raj and told from the POV of a woman – if you’ve not read it, you may want to look into that one, too :-)

  9. June 15, 2013 3:21 pm

    I am not terribly familiar with India’s history and culture – I just have what I’ve picked up from smatterings of movies and novels. I would like to read more about it though, and I like what you say about the book’s tone.

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