Snakes and Ladders by Gita Mehta (thoughts)
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!