Monday, February 26, 2007

Review: In spite of the Gods

A country racing to meld modernism

On the cover of this book is the picture of a turbaned Rajasthani villager, his camel seated behind him, the vast expanse of the Thar desert filling the backdrop. What is fascinating in this otherwise ordinary image is the cell phone that the villager is merrily speaking into. In India today, this anomaly is a common sight: rickshaw pullers, vegetable vendors, mechanics, electricians, hawkers all sporting the latest mobile gadgetry. This was made possible due to a sharp fall in telecom rates, an event that has heralded the ongoing communication revolution in India. The desert villager is your first impression of a book that seeks to capture the many such contradictions besetting India. In any other country, such contradictions may be irreconcilable, but in India, they blend together, existing cheek-by-jowl, and it takes a photomontage such as the one in this book to make them "visible".

Edward Luce worked as the Financial Times' bureau chief in India for five years, and his book, for most parts, reads like a collection of his musings during that stay. The first chapter, "Global and Medieval", starts unremarkably, which given Luce's long stint as a scribe, is not expected. Thankfully, the tide is turned in "The Burra Sahibs" with an account of the Indian Administrative Services. Luce narrates, with evident zeal, the experiences of honest bureaucrats – an oxymoron in India today. V J Kurian and Sanjoy Dasgupta ought to be feted with the Bharat Ratna (India's highest civilian honor, bestowed by the Union government) for displaying the guts to stand up to endemic bureaucratic corruption.

Luce is at his weakest in criticising the Hindu nationalist movement that has swept this county over the past two decades. His bias presents itself vividly in his description of the Godhra incident of 2002, in which a train compartment packed to the brim with Hindus returning from Ayodhya was set afire by an unruly mob (comprising mainly Muslims) at the Godhra railway station in Gujarat. The incident occurred on February 27, 2002 and was the precursor to widespread rioting in Gujarat in which nearly a thousand died, a third of them innocent Muslims. Feb 27, Luce informs us via a footnote, is also the date of the Reichstag fire circa 1933, which sowed the seeds of Hitler's ascendancy. "History has a way of producing strange coincidences," he says. The comparison is facile, if not misleading, and one cannot help feel that Luce is fishing for material to arrive at a pre-meditated opinion. Such a clear stance of his leanings is apparent in other places too.

It is well known that Jawaharlal Nehru adopted the Westminster model of democracy for India, and Luce breaks no new ground in revisiting it. Nehru is portrayed as a saint, not as a man whose privileged background colored his perception and came in the way of devising practical strategies to tackle the impoverished reality of post-Independence India. I find untenable Luce's contention that despite rampant poverty and illiteracy, democracy survives in India because of pluralism. In my view, Indian democracy sustains itself on the Hindu's deep-rooted fatalism, which translates into a certain indifference towards life and one's surroundings, in general. This may arguably have to do with the Bhagwad Gita's central message: One shall not anticipate the fruits of one's actions.

Where Luce's book picks up is in regaling readers with interesting and often dumbfounding Chinese whispers. Can it really be that some Congress party members called their leader Sonia Gandhi "an uneducated Italian housewife" in Luce's presence? Luce adds that these two went on to become Cabinet ministers in the government that was instituted in 2004. It's too delicious a piece of gossip to not know.

The writing on certain states' skewed gender ratio is engaging. So is the impassioned cry against child labor. And Luce tickles the humor bone ever so often. Taking a dig at Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan's omnipresence in television commercials, he remarks, "Wherever you are in India, the chances are that if you close your eyes and throw a dart it will land on a billboard or bus siding bearing Bachchan's distinguished grey-bearded visage." Also look out for a well-articulated caricature of Samajwadi Party leader Amar Singh, who comes across as a character straight out of a Dickens novel – megalomaniac messiah of impoverished lower castes.

The problem with the book is that it tries to compress lofty issues into 40 odd pages each. It's not that Luce hasn't done his homework, but he's done only that. Even as the reader waits for him to move from narration to analysis, the book wraps up as little more than the diary entries of an inquisitive reporter.

And yes, dear Andre, if you are reading this, your observation that in India, one need not go looking for a house, a job and a 'life' is wholly unfounded. India, I am happy to inform you, is hardly the spiritual centre of the world, as you claim it is, nor does it possess the moral compass to guide the human race. India is a mish-mash of diverse communities, which are racing against time to claim their place in the sun amidst all the bustle. What this country can offer you is a model in "functional anarchy", not spiritual enlightenment.

Luce just might agree.

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