A Book of Unexplained Contradictions
August 28, 2011 § 1 Comment
In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India (Luce, Edward)
I’ll be honest – I was prepared to dislike this book intensely before I started reading it. I had bought it a few years ago, on the recommendation of a colleague who was with me at the time, but only out of politeness – this wasn’t someone I frequently saw eye to eye with on socio-political matters, and it follows that we tend to disagree on books. In addition, I haven’t recovered from New York Times’ Thomas Friedman being insufferably pompous and naive in turn in his unreasonably exuberant ‘World Is Flat‘, where he breezily air-painted out all of India’s challenges and complexities and presented us to the world as one gigantic successful software services industry. I just wasn’t too sure I was ready for my country to be interpreted for the world in simplistic terms by another western journalist (Luce was the Financial Times‘ Delhi-based South Asia Bureau Chief from 2001 to 2005).
Mind you, it isn’t criticism from a foreigner that I find hard to stomach (I found Friedman’s fawning fatuous, but while I disagreed with Octavio Paz on a few points, I loved his book); it is simplism that gets my goat, and when it comes from a foreigner, it really has me fuming because it reeks of colonial condescension.
Edward Said was right to place some Western accounts of the Orient as integral elements of colonial hegemony. In these accounts, Said points out, we ‘Orientals’ are the subject of scrutiny, we form a kind of culture that needs to be studied under a microscope, categorized carefully, and interpreted – from above – for the benefit of the ‘real’ people of the world. The observers and the observed seldom occupy the same level in the pecking order of nations, especially so when the observers don’t really feel the need to immerse themselves in the culture of the observed in order to pronounce judgment – when they don’t learn the languages, eat the food, live the life, get into the skin and walk about in it. Jetting into the country a few times, picking up the tab for a couple of boozy lunches with the political and business elite, and leaving the rest to internet-based research, does not constitute real knowledge, even if it can pass off for the genuine article back home in the West. And of course, the real triumph of colonialism was in convincing us, the observed, to see ourselves exactly as interpreted superficially by our colonial observers.
It is no accident, therefore, that far fewer books analyzing the whims and vagaries of Western civilization are written by Asian or African visitors to the west, than the other way around. It is even less accidental that insofar as any such books are written, they don’t end up shaping the self-image of the western man, who will always see the opinions expressed in them as reflecting the prejudices and background of the writer of the book, rather than some objective reality. In stark contrast, when the Western writer finds practices in the Third World that he is not accustomed to in his own society, his readers in both the East and the West tend to agree that the practices are peculiar and unnatural.
Notwithstanding everything I’ve said above, I ended up with a lot of respect for In Spite of the Gods – and that says quite a bit about how well-researched the book is.
It wasn’t that Luce had any brilliant insights on offer into the unique character of India that hasn’t been said before. Rather, it was that he had managed to grasp far more of what was going on than I expected of him, despite having stayed there for only four years. There was hardly a single argument in the book that I could complain about, disagree with or hold up in triumph as evidence of how presumptuous it is to reduce India into a few hundred pages, based on a mere four years of residency. It turns out Mr. Luce has been a very busy man during those years. He has wrestled manfully to grasp the pulse of India – by interrogating the likes of the Bollywood actor Amitabh Bacchan, the separatist Syed Geelani, the Deobandi mullah Maulana Abdul Khalik Madrasi, the social worker Aruna Rao, politicians Arun Shourie, Sonia Gandhi, Laloo Yadav, and Amar Singh, businessmen like Nandan Nilekeni and Alok Kejriwal, bureaucrats like VJ Kurien, leaders like Manmohan Singh, Abdul Kalam and Pervez Musharraf, and common folks – chauffeurs, policemen, housewives, astrologers and journalists. He has crisscrossed the nation from Kashmir to Kerala, observing, asking questions, listening, and learning about the disproportionately growing economy, the corruption of the bureaucracy, the three unsatisfactory political alternatives, the treatment of minorities and the so-called “backward classes”, the upcoming energy crisis, the gradual shift in urban social attitudes and India’s obsession with super-power status in the world. His grasp of post-independence Indian political history is nuanced and intimate. This is no simplistic caricature but a serious portrait, unsentimental but not inaccurate, critical but not disagreeably so. If the picture that emerges isn’t pretty and perfect, or if it is rather fuzzy and occasionally self-contradictory, that is because that is what a democracy of a billion people is like, and Luce needs to be complimented for representing what he found rather than trying to squeeze parts of it to fit some elegant conclusions.
Above all, this is a product of observation and thoughtfulness, not a cobbling together of lazy pre-conceptions. Like citizens of any other nation on earth, we do not all agree on what is best for our nation or how to go about achieving it. And that is fair, even desirable. That’s what democracy is all about. But what we do need more of, as Luce sort of points out partially in his final chapter, is to get our educated middle-class engaged in our political process, demanding better governance from our rulers, more transparency from our businesses, more unbiased analysis from our media, and more civic sense from each other. What we need less of from our middle-class is intellectual laziness, complacent escapism and moral corruption. If more of us would take half the pain that Mr. Luce took to understand our own nation, we’d be just fine.
Unfortunately, we won’t – it takes less effort to ‘Like’ the “I Luv India” and “I Support Anna Hazare” pages in Facebook and walk around with the saintly glow of a patriot who has done his bit, than to invest time, money and effort in understanding the messy, thorny, non-trivial issues facing the nation and helping do something about them.