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Quick Fix to ‘Explaining India’

Superfast Primetime Ultimate Nation: The Relentless Invention of Modern India by Adam Roberts, Gurgaon: Hachette India, 2017; pp xxi + 313, ₹ 599.

There are probably few countries that evoke stronger opinions than India. Especially among foreigners, this can sometimes result in an almost competitive atmosphere of who understands the country better and who has learned its lessons the hardest way. India means “maximum experience points.” If India were a computer game, levelling up could not be more of a challenge. There always seems to be one more quest to embark on, one more bastion to conquer, and one more beast to slay. It is perhaps no surprise that in recent years, there has been a burgeoning of literature focusing on “explaining” India. A frequent starting point here is the economic liberalisation of 1991, which not only ushered in a new economic era but also saw a speeding up of all sort of related developments of a political, social and cultural nature. Change is clearly of the essence in such studies. India is assumed to be changing and not just that, this change itself seems to be a deviation from what India was held to be in the past: unchanging, at a standstill, and worse, locked up in its own past and history, with the keys seemingly having been tossed into the Ganga. Authors even propose to see this as having resulted in anew India, one that neatly juxtaposes with anold India and one that heralds a departure of sorts.

Explaining India

Gurcharan Das (2000) and Pavan K Varma (2004) were among the first to engage with this idea of a new India. Others were quick to follow suit, often with well-crafted and detailed studies of India and its rapidly changing socio-economic landscape. Writer and politician Shashi Tharoor searched for answers in his illuminating The Elephant, the Tiger, and the Cell Phone: Reflections on India, the Emerging 21st-century Power(2007).Two years later there was entrepreneur, bureaucrat and politician Nandan Nilekani’sImagining India:The Idea of a Renewed Nation(2009). Sudhir Kakar and Katharina Kakar’sThe Indians: Portrait of a People (2011) should not be omitted in this list as well, nor Patrick French’s insightful account of the country inIndia: A Portrait (2011). Akash Kapur’s ethnographically rich studyIndia Becoming: A Portrait of Life in Modern India (2012) was written after a prolonged absence from the country and as a way of coming to terms with how much it had changed. Like Siddhartha Deb’sThe Beautiful and the Damned: A Portrait of the New India (2011), Palash Krishna Mehrotra’sThe Butterfly Generation: A Personal Journey into the Passions and Follies of India’s Technicolour Youth (2011), or Somini Sengupta’sThe End of Karma: Hope and Fury among India’s Young (2016), these books often specifically focus on India’s youth.

The question at the heart of such studies is usually how “change” is truly experienced, if people are profiting from economic growth, and how this can be linked to social and cultural transformation underway. What stands out also is that such explorations not only deserve, but decidedly also, require time. Kapur, for instance, spent considerable time with his informants to better understand the way they live their lives amidst change. Reconnecting with them over time also provided him with a detailed picture of how lives change, how perspectives shift and ambitions change course and direction. As also becomes clear from Sengupta’s book, a more recent publication, the quest to “understand India” is something that should not be hurried, perhaps in contrast to the speed of developments observed itself. As fast as India might seem to be developing, the lesson we learn from the burgeoning literature on this topic is that change is often also slow and sometimes, paper-thin.

Adam Roberts’Superfast Primetime Ultimate Nation: The Relentless Invention of Modern India (2017) fits in well with this rapidly expanding collection of books on changing India and of which, I have only mentioned a select few that have come out in recent years. For Roberts, a former South Asia correspondent for the Economist who resided in India for a few years, the main question seems to be about India’s future: where is it going, where does it seem to be heading, and what should be done to change course? He seeks to answer these questions by engaging with India’s economy, politics, foreign affairs, and the political reality at home in the four sections that make up this book. While this promises a thorough analysis, what the reader is offered, however, is often a rather shallow and most of all “quick” assessment that lacks the necessary depth and sensitivity to make for a convincing argument in the way that related studies have.

Perhaps the title of the book itself should already have been an indication of this. Intended as a somewhat frivolous take on India’s alleged addiction to exaggeration, it serves as little more than a “fun” description of a country which apparently cannot be described without hyperbole and a sense of grandiosity. Roberts himself notes at the very beginning of his book that: “Understatement gets you nowhere in crowded, noisy, easily distracted India” (p xiii). Yet if we examine some of the other studies that have attempted to make sense of what Roberts grapples with in this book (for instance, Deb, Kapur, or Sengupta’s), we see that “nuance” is often the answer to the predicament of understanding change in India.

In his “Introduction,” Roberts goes on to sketch the over the top way advertisements and billboards make use of overstatements to describe their size, might, and capabilities. Hospitals are “max clinics,” a new power plant is an “ultra mega power project,” and even its tourist slogan embraces the “incredible.” Here he is certainly not wrong to note how India’s urban space seems to have an ostensive love affair with overstatements and superfluities. To the author these claims are best taken with a pinch of salt (p xv), but what does not occur to him is that they might also be rooted in India’s long and complex history with the English language. In fact, throughout his analysis of India’s many socio-economic ailments, he seems to have little interest in how they are connected to and influenced by socio–historical developments. As such, it often comes across as if the notion of a “new India” is contrasted with an older one, which merely exists as stage and props in a Bollywood production.

India’s Future and Cherry-picking

Roberts’ book is ultimately set up to engage with the idea of India’s future. In the “Preface,” the author meets a fortune teller who uses parrots to predict the future. Roberts asks the man about the future and receives the chipper answer that India’s place in the world will be number one. He even says that “the stars ordain that India will become the greatest power on earth” (p x). Although it makes for a colourful and anecdotal introduction, half a page later Roberts points out that this fortune teller is a “benign con-artist and charlatan.” He is, therefore, “as likely to be right as anyone else, or as the flip of a coin” (p x). Reflecting on some of the predictions made by the fortune teller, he finds most of them to have proven “comically wrong” (p xi). Yet, Roberts wonders, what would it take for the fortune teller to be right? “What is keeping his prophecy from coming true?” (p xi).

Roberts is keen to stress that he wants India to succeed, “not least because of the fun I have had and the genuine welcome from Indians, during my several years as the Economist’s bureau chief in the country” (p xi). While this may be interpreted as a “thank you” for the pleasant time he has had in India, it did leave me wondering if Roberts sees the irony of this statement considering the enormity of issues India is still faced with, ranging from environmental degradation to immense poverty. Should not the main reason for wanting India to succeed be that it could potentially improve the lives of millions? Furthermore, should its success not be well-deserved and justified considering the way it was exploited during colonial days, something it is still paying a price for?

Roberts’ claims and suggestions are often bold and striking, even if he offers almost no insight into his actual analysis or research. “Much of my grasp of India … comes from reading and reviewing others’ books, research reports, and articles.” His shelves are, therefore, “stuffed with thoughtful assessments of India.” However, he adds, “I have not included a bibliography, nor—to avoid too many tedious footnotes—have referenced all the books.” He wants it to be clear though that he has read quite a few of those and that “[o]ne of the great pleasures of reporting from South Asia is the chance to learn from others’ work” (p 292). That some of these works must have been by authors who are far more informed about India’s various issues, and the result of long-term extensive research, apparently did not necessitate it for the author to acknowledge this. Although, he does occasionally mention (Indian) authors, businessmen and politicians whom he met and/or interviewed over time, his arguments build almost entirely on so-called “big names,” ordinary Indians (for lack of a better term) are almost entirely absent from the account (unless they are “fun” characters such as the above-mentioned fortune teller).

From the start, the book reads like a Wikipedia summary of India’s most “notorious” developments. The first chapter kicks off in Cherrapunji, allegedly the world’s wettest place (though without a footnote to explain that this has not been the case in a while), only to use the North East to make a case about how the region often gets left out of reflections on “mainland” India; only to then (literally) embark on the Vivek Express1 that allows the author to connect his place of departure with various historical developments. Vivekananda’s biography itself here gets reduced to that of a “Bengali aristocrat revered by Hindu nationalists” and one who “did more than anyone to promote Hinduism globally in the nineteenth century” (p 5). Indeed, there is not possibly more to be said about the topic of Vivekananda’s impact on Hinduism and various related reform movements. Much faster than the actual Vivek Express, however, the reader is catapulted into the very history of India’s railways and the way “[r]ail is a symbol of wider problems” (p 6). The chapter then goes on to combine a perspective on the North East with the importance of the spread of cell phones in India, the average quantity of calories consumed, and the “heavy burden” of colonial rule (p 13). Reflecting on the book’s title, the author finishes the first chapter with:

The journey was not Superfast [referring to the Vivek Express], but it revealed some significant changes unfolding across the length of India. (p 19)

The Truth and Its Opposite Also

Roberts starts his third chapter with the observation that “[a]lmost anything you say about India could be true—and the opposite, too” (p 38). While this reduces India to slippery untrustworthiness, something colonial officers were all too keen to emphasise, there is perhaps a point to be made about the complex nature of its politics. Although occasionally witty, Roberts seems to be unaware of how insensitive some of his descriptions are, especially considering that they are made by a white man who hails from India’s former coloniser. For instance, what is one to make of the following description of the country’s Prime Minister and one of the architects of its economic revival:

… [Manmohan] Singh, who reliably wore a pale blue turban and a pleasant but somewhat docile expression, would serve for a decade as her [Sonia Gandhi’s] front man. He was bright, kind and timid, more functionary than politician, often mute in public. (p 40)

Roberts concludes that: “The ten years under Singh up to 2014 were mixed, but they undoubtedly gave rise to real improvements for many” (p 41). From Singh’s troublesome relationship with Sonia Gandhi, we are quickly ushered on towards the dramatic outcome of the 2014 elections, a detour into the disastrously run Coal India, and finally end up with Narendra Modi’s demonetisation efforts.

Throughout, the book is clearly in a hurry to cover the whole gamut of “maddening” India with its deeply corrupt politicians, friendly but slightly mental local population, and of course, the influence of Bollywood (as per usual any other regional movie industry remains unmentioned). India is all masala,holi colour, and traffic that never stops honking. How can any of this not be “superfast,” how can it not be a “primetime” feature, and how can this “nation” not be typified as anything but maddening? Roberts has an endless amount of advice to give while casually coasting through a variety of topics that touch upon India’s economic, cultural and social ailments. India’s democracy, for one,
“is potentially a huge advantage, rather than a curse or a tax.” Elections in India are so entertaining that allegedly “tour companies started bringing foreign visitors to watch them” (p 92). But reflecting on environmental ruin—reducing Dalits to human waste clearers (p 161)—he summarises that: “there is more that India can do to improve its environment” (p 162). Only a few pages later, we are informed that “partition was horrific” (p 171) or that “[w]armer relations with Pakistan would bring India other benefits” (p 173). Leaving aside what those might be, at no point does the book offer a deeper analysis of the various circumstances that have culminated into where India finds itself at present.

Superfast Primetime Ultimate Nation caters to an international audience that wants a quick fix; how to understand the exasperating reality of India? Well, this ishow. It makes no efforts substantiating its many claims with footnotes or references nor does it seem keen to actually critically engage with the many discussions that previous publications build on. This would have definitely helped to provide the much necessary nuance to the many painfully stereotypical descriptions that the author employs throughout the text. But perhaps, more importantly, it would have layered the book with the kind of depth that it sorely lacks. While Roberts is certainly not wrong about India’s many ailments, there are many books that have offered a much sharper and at the same time, nuanced analysis of these. One wishes that Roberts had occasionally taken a slower train to appreciate the complexity as well as richness of India.

 

Michiel Baas (arimba@nus.edu.sg) is with the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore.

Note

1 Vivek Express refers to a chain of express trains on the Indian Rail network to commemorate the 150th birth anniversary of Swami Vivekananda.

References

Das, Gurcharan (2000): India Unbound: From Independence to the Global Information Age, New Delhi: Penguin.

Deb, Siddhartha (2011):The Beautiful and the Damned: A Portrait of the New India, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

French, Patrick (2011):India: A Portrait, New Delhi: Penguin.

Kakar, Sudhir and Katharina Kakar (2011):The Indians: Portrait of a People, New Delhi: Penguin.

Kapur, Akash (2012):India Becoming: A Portrait of Life in Modern India, New York: Riverhead Book.

Mehrotra, Palash Krishna (2011):The Butterfly Generation: A Personal Journey into the Passions and Follies of India’s Technicolour Youth, New Delhi: Rupa.

Nilekani, Nandan (2009):Imagining India:The Idea of a Renewed Nation,New Delhi: Penguin.

Sengupta, Somini (2016):The End of Karma: Hope and Fury among India’s Young, Noida: Harper Collins.

Tharoor, Shashi (2007): The Elephant, the Tiger, and the Cell Phone: Reflections on India, the Emerging 21st-Century Power,New Delhi: Penguin.

Varma, Pavan K (2004): Being Indian: Inside the Real India, New Delhi: Viking.

Updated On : 5th Feb, 2018

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