First a confession. Earlier this year, the author whose work I am about to review savaged my book Mantras of Change—Reporting India in Times of Flux. He put it in the pillory and threw stones at it, more or less telling me to leave writing books to the professionals. I should stick to broadcasting. Not only that, when he appeared with me on a television show to discuss my work, he didn’t mention that he had just vivisected and ridiculed me in the pages of a Sunday newspaper. To be fair, Ed Luce did call me later in the week to say that his review of my book was appearing that Sunday "and I’ve been somewhat critical, but not entirely so.... I think I was quite fair".
"Don’t worry," I told him, "I’ll get my revenge when your book appears." A nervous laugh just before he hung up and then—presumably—he went back to writing In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India. Mea culpa up front, this is my revenge.
The first thing to say is that this is a big book. A very big book. Drawing on four years of covering South Asia for the Financial Times, Luce has left very little out. I remember him talking about how he had begun his research on this project with a few weeks spent leafing through all his notebooks from trips round India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal. The FT, as it’s known, is a wonderful and somewhat old-fashioned newspaper. Its editors insist on the perspective from the coal face, the corporate board room and the people most affected by a development. No sitting around the Foreign Correspondents’ Club for any of these chaps, and Luce was among the most energetic of FT bureau chiefs in New Delhi.
He brings to bear a huge and impressive array of other qualifications. Oxford, a postgraduate degree in journalism, a year spent writing speeches for a member of the US cabinet and that rarest of things, family connections to India. Luce is truly blessed when it comes to covering this vast land. He is also a serious and confident reporter. Those notebooks that inform the writing in this book show how vast have been his travels and experience in India. Britain’s premier financial newspaper expects no less of its men and women in the field. In this second decade of post-reform economics in India, the FT imprimatur opens doors around the country and Luce has strode through them, pen in hand, ready to enlighten us.
Even irrepressible Laloo Yadav is given a moment’s pause when he tells Luce with disdain how an FT reporter once wrote that marijuana was smoked at a campaign gathering on the chief minister’s porch in Patna. "That was me," our correspondent says, and Laloo, for perhaps the first time in his life, seems embarrassed or at a loss for words. "Er, um, well...," more or less sums up his reply. Now there’s an FT exclusive.
Slipping between the broad sweep of history and current events into personal anecdote, the author traipses through India’s past and its present. The future, he tells us, is best left to soothsayers. As a journalist, he is hardwired against prediction and speculation. This of course is slightly disingenuous. What’s the point of a book like this if it’s not to be bought by those who wonder where India is going, where the pitfalls and opportunities lie. The last chapter, ‘Hers to Lose’, is entirely about the future. But rather than telling us where India is going, Luce administers a prescription to get "her" there. In British English, countries for some strange reason are always female.
That chapter is the least interesting in the book. It reads more like a report from the World Bank or the US treasury department, where Luce used to work, than a piece of journalism by an objective observer. Not that anyone could disagree with the overall thrust of the chapter—India needs to strengthen its institutions, tackle environmental degradation, be aware of HIV/AIDS and other public health challenges and continue to reform and change its economy while minimising corruption and entrenching accountability. These are laudable goals, shared by all save the recalcitrant right and the Maoist left. But Luce seems to assume that we grant him the authority to tell the world’s largest democracy how to behave, just because he has written many newspaper stories and a book.
This assumption can also be read into the title. "In spite of the Gods, the strange rise of modern India." The italics are mine and those two words leapt out at me when I read about this book in pre-release publicity material. What is successful and positive about India, that title is telling us, happens despite the fact that religious faith looms large in Indian life. What about America, I wonder, founded by Puritans and still among the most Christian of nations? What about Ireland, Europe’s most Catholic country and its fastest-growing economy? Muslims in Malaysia, it seems to me, are pretty devout folk and their country does rather well for itself economically and otherwise.
The author tells us, in his choice of subtitle, that these successes are unexpected, strange even. To which I immediately wonder, strange to whom? Luce never really convinces us that it is somehow logical or rational that India should not prosper or succeed. Yes, there’s poverty, disease, caste, corruption, a venal, largely mediocre cadre of politicians and so on. But it has been ever thus and surely there is a new way of looking at what has gone well for India beyond one man’s incredulity. Perhaps, and Luce even suggests this, India’s strengths come from its wildness, weirdness, heterogeneousness, resilience and grace under pressure. One is forced to conclude that he, or perhaps his publishers, were looking for a provocative title, and damn logic, reason and the torpedoes.
There are a few other drawbacks too. A few howlers of fact have crept through. Jharkhand state does not, in fact, border Nepal. There were six Indian nuclear tests at Pokhran in May 1998, not three. This happens in publishing but it shouldn’t. At times, I found myself wading through too much detail about an issue or a road trip that Luce had taken. This occasionally reached the point of digression. A book should not be the occasion for the newspaper journalist to abandon standards of brevity and concise editing that have earned him his job in the first place. Those notebooks have a few things to answer for.
There is, however, much that’s fascinating and worth reading here, once we slip past the title, and before the unfortunate final chapter. Luce is withering in his inquiries into Hindu nationalism in all its avatars, BJP, Bajrang Dal, RSS. Like Pankaj Mishra before him, Luce visits the cow urine research institute run by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad in Nagpur. He hears the old refrains about how Hindus invented everything aeons ago and the rest of the world is just catching up. He takes on the odious Narendra Modi and is not afraid to tell his readers that Hindu revivalism really is a plague on modern India. The Congress party comes in for scrutiny no less fierce, particularly its dynasty-induced culture of sycophancy. A business journalist’s take on Bangalore and the IT revolution is welcome and refreshing and leavened with the author’s well-aimed caveats that success in services is not the key to the future of India—manufacturing is. The sheer malignance of the Indian government in a myriad corruptions and caprices does not escape Luce’s gimlet eye either.
In the end, we have here a major work by a commentator to be watched and heeded in his new avatar in the FT’s Washington bureau. Moving from India to the United States isn’t as big a leap as it sounds. American politics is also weird, wacky and often surprisingly successful in outcome. The Bush administration is a journalist’s dream, poised and ready to deploy ill-will and make bungling mistakes at home or abroad.
As for me, I am hard at work on another book about India, modernity, and yes, religion, caste, corruption, computers and all the rest. It’s as ambitious as this book and if it emerges anywhere as provocative and intriguing, I shall be pleased. As for Ed Luce, if he chooses, he will have his opportunity—yet again—to review my writing and I dare say, revenge will be sweet.