Book review-In Spite of the Gods by Edward Luce

In Spite of the Gods. The Strange Rise of Modern India. By Edward Luce. 

I picked up this book from Saurabh, my workplace colleague who believes that reading is the only way to maintain sanity from the work place rat race ( one of the most gratifying scenes is to see Saurabh carefully wrap each book in cellophane like we did to our school books. With his eyes shining like a self absorbed, happy kid, his mouth half open, he carefully cuts and folds the cellophane to cover each book in a smug, white cellophane and looks at his creation with the same amusement and achievement of a true artist). 

Don’t get intimidated by the title of the book. It is not a drab, technical documentary on Modern India. It’s almost like a travelogue, absorbing every feeling as you stick your head out of the train window on a tour de India.

Warning – This book is not for the faint hearted Indian who wants to deny the gripping poverty and corruption in India or wants to blame the western media for projecting only India’s wrong side of things. Its not for those who wrote innumerable articles about the ‘ The White tiger ‘ or ‘Slumdog Millionaire’, about how the book and the movie have been meant to titillate the western audience and show India in bad light. There is one diversion thought. Edward Luce, the British journalist, who headed the Financial Times bureau in New Delhi, knows what he is writing. The language is lucid; the facts come out through the numerous interviews he had carried out for the book and the tone extremely insightful, thought irreverent at parts.

What I like best about the book is that the author does not have an agenda. He is not writing the book to win any award, or to score any brownie point with any particular person. The only entity he wants to impress is India, and the many manifestations of this great nation, the cultural diversity, the religious fundamentalism, the tolerance, the yin and the yang (the book also contains a chapter on Indo – China relationship), the bureaucracy, the Nehru – Gandhi legacy, the minorities and the majorities, the modern and ancient, AIDS, the spiritual and the mundane, the slums and the economic liberalization, the bureaucracy and also people like Anura Roy who gave up the esteemed Indian Administrative Services to serve the poor and fight for the right to Information, the US reckless amoralism and the Indian foreign policy, caste system, dalits, the software industry, Bollywood and every thing else that crossed your mind about what makes India tick irrespective of everything that prima facie would signal her downfall.

The book is not just a documentation of facts but is interspersed with keen observations and wise comments. While commenting on the perpetuating saga of corruption and illiteracy and politicians who want to get in religion into the day to day parlance to connect with the emotional electorate, he comments that in India “Things are never as good or as bad as they seem”. I think nothing can be further from the truth. Edward Luce ensures that at no point of time, he is too judgmental and he does not look/ analyze events with a myopic point of view because he believes there must be some thing which has worked. And that is the agenda of the book. To give the pros and cons of an emerging economy like India where he correctly points out that a software boom cannot see India out of poverty because it employees 1 million people in a county whole population is 1.1 billion.

The book is full of insightful observations. Here are some of my favorites.

While commenting on Government jobs (and believe me it’s a big thing in India because of the job security), Edward Luce says that the state is both the despair and the hope of the people. From my previous experience in a Non Banking Financial Corporation (NBFC), where I was disbursing small ticket size personal loan (STPL) to low income individuals, I can tell how important the Indian public sector is. The railway in India is the largest employer with 1 million employees. Then there are municipal corporations which employ people who maintain the cleanliness in the cities, the blue collared workers in the state owned companies or the multiple clerks who work in the government offices. Government jobs account for 60 % of the total organized sector jobs and thought they do not pay too high, the sheer number of those employed makes a significant to the economy.

In the penultimate chapter the author compares the different growths trajectories of India and China. India he says has given greater focus to stability (given the huge diversity) than it has to efficiency. ‘India is like a lorry with 12 wheels. If one or two puncture, it doesn’t go into the ditch. To extend the analogy, China has fewer wheels, hence it is faster”, Luce observes.

In the last two chapters, the author kind of summarizes the mixed emotions which got evoked in the earlier ones. He mentions the changing order in the society as more and more women are getting job opportunities in BPOs, call centers and are getting financially independent, about new age entrepreneurs creating jobs in complex fields like medical transcription and editing of scientific journals, the loosening of the caste system amongst those who are educated and yet the skewed sex ration in the most prosperous of Indian states.

The book is an excellent read if you want understand the forces which move India. It is meant both for those seeking to understand India for the first time as well as those who are researching on India. Such is the reach and the scope of the book. 

Prithwish

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