India is changing more rapidly now than at any point in its history. Change brings uncertainty. Even if you are doing well—better than your parents could ever have hoped for—many of the old certainties have disappeared. Jobs are less secure, even if better paid. School places are more difficult to obtain. Prices are unstable.
When I wrote India: A Portrait, I wanted to catch some of this uncertainty—the sense that the world was fluctuating. The voices of the very rich, the voices of the very poor and the voices of the many in between are part of a symbiotic story that extends from Ladakh to Kanyakumari. Because writing on India is so often riven by ideology, it was hard to do this in one book. For devotees of the India Shining story, at home and abroad, the rise of a new consumer market is in itself the story. For followers of the political left, prosperity must be discounted since it has increased inequality: why be happy for many millions of people who have been lifted out of poverty following the economic reforms of the early 1990s, if so many others have been left behind?
It should, in theory at least, be possible to write about contemporary India in a way that is neither triumphalist nor apocalyptic. By including a range of contradictory characters, I hoped to draw people out of their ideological comfort zones and look at aspects of the present and recent past directly, without preconceptions. In most cases, this has worked, and readers and reviewers have been generous in their reaction. A particularly tired message came from Pankaj Mishra in Outlook. As most readers will have realised, it was less a review than an ideological cry of pain. So I was depicted as a Bob Christo character, playing several villainous, alien roles: I was the viceroy Lord Curzon, a shocked “foreign visitor”, a writer influenced by “right-wing Friedmans”, whose book was aimed at “western businessmen”—and not just any western businessmen, but the sort who “remain indifferent to the benighted 800 million in rural areas”. Pankaj had, in fact, already written a review of the book in London’s blue-chip Financial Times which contained compliments like “eloquent” and “acclaimed”, but in the Outlook version, such words disappeared.
The technique he used was one of calculated distortion and misquotation, claiming, for instance, that my research into the family background of Lok Sabha MPs revealed what was already “blindingly plain...to any sentient Indian” (though presumably not plain to the Editor of Outlook, who put the story on the cover). Bizarrely, he misquoted me as saying, “Hindus have no concept of compassion.” But I never wrote this sentence, and nor do I believe it. For a reviewer, it is the cheapest shot in the locker to compare any foreigner you disagree with to a British imperialist. For the record, I am the first member of my family to go to the subcontinent. My grandparents came from Ireland—and the Irish did not rule India. Perhaps it is Pankaj, with his high, sanctimonious tone and his migratory bio (he apparently divides his time between Delhi, Shimla and London) who sounds more like the viceroy Lord Curzon.
I write as someone who has long admired Pankaj Mishra’s literary aspirations. I first met him in 1996, when he asked me to lunch at the Gaylord restaurant in Connaught Place so as to give me a copy of his Bill Bryson-style travel book Butter Chicken in Ludhiana. It was funny and entertaining, and remains his best book. His journalism has been interesting: no fellow writer could fail to be impressed by his rendition of the story of Ngodup, a Tibetan man who died in a protest in Delhi. It is a pity Pankaj did not pursue his burgeoning career as a novelist, or produce the promised short history of modern India. Instead, he has ranged widely, sitting on eminent literary prize committees, popping up as a visiting fellow at assorted foreign universities and jetting about denouncing “business-class lounges” and their elite inhabitants. It is not clear whether Pankaj—travelling the globe for high-paying western publications, while busily condemning “late capitalist society”—ever uses these lounges himself, or whether he prefers to take a downgrade to cattle class. For a long time I have appreciated his chutzpah most of all, though he remains a writer of promise. He has been successful in imparting his “authentic” take on India to the West, and one American intellectual even adjudged our reviewer to be “the young Siddhartha Gautama himself: a scholar-sophisticate” after meeting him at “the lower Manhattan holiday party of a stylish magazine”.
Pankaj has obviously been on a long journey from his self-described origins—in what he calls a “new, very poor and relatively inchoate Asian society”—to his present position at the heart of the British establishment, married to a cousin of the prime minister David Cameron. But he seems oddly resentful of the idea of social mobility for other Indians. One of the most unexpected aspects of my research for India: A Portrait was the sheer extent of aspiration and achievement across the country, ranging from a girl from a poor background who secured a place at an IIT, to a man who has devoted his life to inventing and manufacturing a low-cost sanitary towel, to Dattu, a landless and illiterate adivasi, who today has a good job in a Maharashtra winery, to C.K. Ranganathan, who trudged the streets of Cuddalore in the 1980s selling sachets of shampoo and now employs more than 1,000 people. Pankaj looks down haughtily on the Re 1 sachet revolution, saying “cheap beauty aids are unlikely to compensate the poor for a cruelly inegalitarian healthcare system”. But whoever suggested they would? It is a fatuous conjunction of two unrelated points.
Having read his review, it is still not clear to me what he wants for India. He mentions what is wrong: poverty, corruption, debt, resource shortages, poor primary education and healthcare. But everyone knows this. Much of my book is devoted to analysing the ways in which progress is—and is not—being made. And the question remains—how to proceed from here? I do not buy the romantic view that an end to poverty is possible without the creation of wealth, or that the era of the permit raj was somehow an easier time. “India registered its most impressive gains from 1951 to 1980,” Pankaj wrote in one of his blogs on the Guardian website. “Until 1980, India achieved an average annual economic growth of 3.5 per cent”. This is a ludicrous statistic to quote, since it makes no mention that the population grew rapidly during the same period: by the 1970s, per capita GDP in India was rising more slowly than at any point in the preceding century. In another exhausting blog post, he makes a paternalistic plea to the British government not to cut its foreign aid, so as to avoid “the severing of Britain’s old links with India’s great mass of ordinary people”. But with the British economy contracting and cousin Cameron having to borrow money to fulfil that particular obligation, it hardly looks like a long-term solution.
It goes without saying that I do not believe—as alleged—that “consumer capitalism is the summit of human civilisation”, but I also have grave doubts whether Marxism, Maoism or Mishraism offer a solution. Can India’s chronic rural poverty really be alleviated only by the state? If so, how will the state get the money to do this, except by further economic growth? It is no use chanting “garibi hatao” and patting yourself on the back if you have no coherent suggestions of how to abolish poverty. You do not choose your history or your geography, and India is situated in a dangerous and difficult neighbourhood. It may be a long way from Utopia, but India has an entrenched and developed democratic system, a long tradition of fervent debate, a vibrant economy and a largely tolerant relationship between different communities.
I have some questions for the vendors of the apocalypse, who make a living abroad selling a constrained, outdated and implacably narrow vision of what India is and could be. Where do they currently see their own political and economic ideas being put into effect in a useful, humane way? Is it in West Bengal, or Dantewada? Or perhaps abroad, in foreign countries? How does poverty stand a chance of being alleviated unless someone does the work of creating wealth? How is the state to pay for social welfare schemes and come up with money if not through taxing the wealth that is generated by individuals and by industry?
I ask this in a spirit of genuine inquiry, because it seems that the Indian Left has failed utterly to come up with a coherent narrative with which to oppose economic liberalisation. It is easy enough to identify problems (which invariably predate the reforms of the early 1990s) but what are missing are active, detailed, constructive, alternative proposals. It is simple to recite the problems, and nobody disputes their depth or seriousness. If Pankaj or his admirers e-mail me with their ideas (firstname.lastname@example.org), the most interesting responses will be put up on www.theindiasite.com. Rough, raw, real life does not fit in with any ideology, leftist or rightist—that is the message of my book.
A note to readers: Do share your ideas not only with Mr French but also in your letters to the editor on this website -- Web Ed.