August 02, 2020
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In Naipaul's Wake

A preview of The Genius of India: much to anticipate, and excoriate

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In Naipaul's Wake
The Genius Of India
By Guy Sorman
Fayard, Paris Fr 120, Pages: 308
Guy Sorman is a writer in a hurry. He lands at Meenambakam airport and is soon sitting in a taxi bound for Pondicherry. He takes out his notebook. "We enter Madras," he writes, "and we look for Madras. Has this city ever had the form of a city?" But a taxi from the airport to Pondicherry doesn't get within 15 km of Madras: he's basing his appraisal of the city on a glance at its southern suburbs.

Does this invalidate his opinion? Perhaps not. Even Mount Road lacks urban distinction. But should we worry about a writer who doesn't check his facts? Perhaps, but let us read on.

In Pondicherry, Sorman decides to study the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. He speaks to a few people and writes what he's learned, making three major and five minor errors in four pages. In other chapters I find so many blunders that I am forced to conclude that it is my own ignorance that prevents me from finding more. Le Monde's reviewer, commenting on Sorman's howlers in the original French, wrote that whatever the experts might think of the book, it contains more of the "real India" than most scholarly studies. Indian readers will not be as indulgent; but they will still find the book worth reading.

Guy Sorman is a widely published, widely travelled economist. In places as far-flung as Cordoba and Delhi, he presents the Libertarian ideas for which he is well-known in France. As a voyager in India he sees himself as following in the footsteps of Alexis de Tocqueville and Romain Rolland, making the journey those savants never made. Though his trips are closer to those whirlwind tours made by British journalists and mps during the days of the Raj, he manages in the end to paint an absorbing if impressionistic picture. What more can we expect from a man who has published 19 books in 17 years?

Like his predecessors, Sorman makes a fool of himself when he tries to explain India and its institutions in an attempt at a Naipaulesque journey through India. His views on caste are nonsense: he seems to include just two, Brahmins and Dalits, no other backward castes, no other elite castes. He flounders around trying to understand what he sees, invoking the ghosts of Louis Dumont and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Only when he stops theorising and speaks from the gut does he illuminate. His central question: how is it possible for humans to treat other humans this reprehensibly? If tourists learn from being exposed to foreign cultures, the people of those cultures might also learn from exposure to an observer who doesn't take their failings for granted.

Sorman is better when he describes meetings with people: the sociology student turned Sufi in Delhi, the Kabir Panth guru in Benares, the industrialist Xerxes Desai in his factory, the economist Amiya Bagchi at home. His model is V.S. Naipaul, but it must be said that he lacks the novelist's touch. He makes up with a patented French blend of irony and seriousness.

Sorman is at his best when he sticks to his own profession. A country in the throes of economic liberalisation can learn from this Libertarian. He has useful things to say about corruption and computerisation, but focuses on something less tangible. What makes India different from other countries is its celebration of difference, he feels, the real "genius of India". Eighteenth-century Frenchmen called the ability of Indians to live with cultural difference tolerantisme ('tolerationism'). Sorman finds this trait in Kabir, in Gandhi, and (despite the odd church-bombing) in the culture as a whole. He concludes that India's most valuable assets are ideas like non-violence, ecology and feminism, and above all respect for difference.

A better understanding of these ideas might change the way people look at development. The Western approach of a nation-state using reason (and violence) to bring about pre-planned change might not be the only way. But it remains unclear what Sorman thinks the alternative might be. Gandhian economics without Gandhian religion? Despite his efforts to distance himself from Indophiles like Rolland, who found the genius of India in its Ramakrishnas and Kabirs, Sorman sometimes appears to come close to admitting that lasting social change can only come about through the inner change of many individuals.

An English translation of The Genius of India is promised for later this year. It is worth looking forward to, especially if the Indian publisher employs a better fact-checker than the French one.

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