You’ve chosen books about contemporary India. Before we get to those, for people who don’t follow the country closely, can you give us an idea of what’s going on in India?
India is undergoing the most total social, economic, cultural, political transformation since 1991, when Prime Minister Rao was at the head of affairs. India has elected a Hindu nationalist to lead the country. This is the first time in 30 years that we have a government that has an absolute majority in parliament. And Prime Minister Modi is remaking India in ways that were inconceivable just 10 to 15 years ago. Hindu nationalism was a marginal idea for many decades in India, and it has now deluged the mainstream. It is now the establishment, and minorities in India have, for the first time, found themselves being treated as second-tier citizens, as if they live on the sufferance of this government and of the Hindu majority.
That is something many Indians would have thought impossible. One of the earliest conversations I remember in my own family home was one of my father’s guests saying, ‘the BJP is never going to form a government, ever.’ And within ten years of that, the BJP had formed a government. So, it seems as though India has raced to a point of no-return. It has detached itself from the foundational principles upon which the state was premised: secularism, socialism, democracy, non-alignment—they’ve all gone. What we now have in its place is a kind of rage against history, the desire to vanquish history. There’s a lot of cultural resentment, the belief that Indians have been betrayed by history, that there’s a cosmic conspiracy against India, and that the Prime Minister is trying to combat forces which, without him, would devour India. This thinking has become so pervasive.
And the genius of India, the ability to assimilate difference, the ability to live with difference, has steadily disappeared. For the very first time, friends, Muslim friends, talk about leaving the country. We’ve had challenging times before in India, but they never saw themselves as threatened by India, and for the first time, they do feel that way.
And the importance of India being a secular state since it became independent is because it is so multilinguistic and multicultural. If it’s now a majoritarian-ruled state, how big is that majority: what percentage of Indians are actually Hindu?
It’s over 80%. It’s ironic that this majority feels threatened by a tiny minority. India has become home to something Yugoslavia once had: a ‘self-pitying majority’, as Christopher Hitchens put it.
Hinduism is a very stratified society. Hinduism devised the most sophisticated form of segregating people, which is caste. And so long as Hindus were segregated, there was no unity among Hindus. According to Hindu nationalists, who became politically conscious only in the 1920s, that was the fatal flaw in Hinduism. So they set about trying to dismantle those differences and create a politically conscious and politically-united Hindu majority, while also subscribing to the orthodox notion of caste, of the importance of caste. They tried to reinterpret caste rather than eradicate it.
Today, minorities are depicted as an existential threat to India, even though they’re scattered and they’re not a threat internally. Nonetheless, the project of transforming India really depends upon exaggerating the ability of minorities to destroy India.
Is sounds a bit like the scapegoating that we’ve seen in other countries—like Trump with immigrants—but based on religion.
Secularism is the condition of India’s unity. A lot of people think that secularism is a Western idea imported by deracinated, Anglophone Indian elites, but that’s not true. You think of places like Nagaland, which is Christian; Sikkim, which is Buddhist; Kashmir, which is Muslim-majority. India was able to persuade majorities in all these places to embrace the Indian state, to join the Indian union, because religion was incidental to being India. You could belong to any faith, speak any language, dress any which way you liked, and you could still call yourself ‘Indian’ because religion didn’t matter. And once you remove that, once you make India into a de facto Hindu majoritarian state, Muslim Kashmiris, Buddhists and Sikhs and Christians will start wondering what makes them Indian. They will start questioning their Indian-ness, and India could fall apart just the way Yugoslavia fell apart.
“The Indian state is the creation of centuries of work”
Indira Gandhi often used to compare India to Yugoslavia. She said Yugoslavia is the one country that is most like India in the world. There, once Marshall Tito goes, Milosevic comes in. Milosevic is so strikingly similar to Prime Minister Modi, and the grievances of the Serb majority are so strikingly similar to the grievances of the Hindu majority. In Yugoslavia, the Serbs couldn’t get over their defeat at the hands of Sultan Murad I in 1389 on the fields of Kosovo. Similarly, the Hindus represented by the BJP have never really overcome the wound left by the Islamic invaders of India. They seek revenge, vengeance against the minorities who identify themselves as Yugoslavs, identify themselves as Indians. And, in the process of seeking a closure for their wounds, they devour and destroy their countries.
In your book, Malevolent Republic, you present contemporary India as a Hindu supremacist state, run by bigots. It’s very unattractive. But Prime Minister Modi is incredibly popular, isn’t he? If he’s so ghastly, why do people support him?
That’s a question my wife always asks me. She says I never explain why he’s so popular. The primary reason, I think, is that he has succeeded in consolidating a Hindu voting bloc. Moments ago, we talked about Hinduism being stratified by caste. Previously, Muslims and Christians used to vote for the secular parties. And a great many Hindus, who didn’t consciously see themselves, politically speaking, as Hindus—their religion didn’t segue into their voting preferences—also voted for secular parties. There were parties devoted to social justice and caste justice and linguistic pride. All these factors, combined, ensured the BJP never got the majority of the vote.
In 2014, Prime Minister Modi came to power because the administration before him was mired in a series of scandals. If you were in India in 2013, 2014, you felt suffocated, there was such stasis. India didn’t seem to be going anywhere. There was corruption scandal after corruption scandal, and there were protests everywhere. Governance had effectively juddered to a halt. Modi came on the scene as an effective administrator, promising to create millions of jobs, clean up the Ganges, create facsimiles of Singapore on the Deccan Plateau. He called them ‘smart cities’. He promised to repatriate illicit cash stashed in foreign banks and put $15,000 in the bank account of every Indian. And Indians fell for that because they had reached that point of desperation after 10 years of rule by the Congress Party.
Five years later, in 2019, the Prime Minister won re-election on the back of Hindu nationalism. He campaigned as a Hindu nationalist, having consolidated a Hindu voting bloc. A series of things happened in his first term which I allude to in the book: the lynching of Muslims, the mainstreaming of Hindu bigotry. Hindu bigotry became almost therapeutic for people who had been failed by the Prime Minister. If you didn’t have a job, you could find some comfort in humiliating Muslims. And there were no consequences for that. The Prime Minister is popular today because he has succeeded in painting everybody else as ‘anti-national’. The media is in his pockets. There is no room for opposition voices. And, also, because the opposition, what remains of the Congress Party, is so completely devoted to the upkeep of one family: the Nehru-Gandhi family.
That is the primary reason Modi remains the most popular leader, although we speak in a week when India has become the epicenter of the COVID pandemic. The images, the stories coming out of India, are horrifying. I hate to be optimistic because we’ve been here before, but this could be the beginning of the end of this Prime Minister if an opposition is able to unite the eruption of rage against this administration’s appalling handling of this pandemic.
It’s ironic that in a democracy of more than a billion people you should rely on one family to provide so many of its leaders. There must be so many talented people out there.
That family, we need to talk about them. Half of my book is devoted to a detailed account of how they presided over the corruption of Indian democracy and its institutions.
I think there’s a tendency, if you don’t follow India closely, to think of Modi as a run-of-the-mill populist. But what your book really brings home is the violence of it. It’s true that your book doesn’t seek to be evenhanded. From the title, Malevolent Republic, it’s clear it’s going to be a biting criticism of India and its recent history. But Modi was even banned from travelling to the US, which is not an action taken lightly.
This is a man who called the refugee camps filled with Muslims—who had been driven there by the actions of his supporters, who participated in one of the worst communal riots in India’s history—’baby-producing factories’. In 2001, he became Chief Minister of Gujarat, which was a bastion of middle-class Hindu nationalism, a very prosperous state. Months later, a train carrying Hindu pilgrims was torched and 58 charred bodies were recovered. Before the causes of the arson could be established, Modi called it the work of Islamic extremists. And he cited Newton’s third law: that every action must have an equal and opposite reaction.
Within days, Gujarat was devoured by communal furies. Sword-wielding Hindus went on a rampage and slaughtered Muslims. There are stories of pregnant women’s wombs being cut open and the fetuses being pulled out. It’s horrifying even to contemplate. And, for days, Modi was nowhere to be seen. If he was not complicit—he says he wasn’t—he was certainly incompetent. He was incompetent in stopping this violence and the total and complete and utter breakdown of law and order. In one area, a mob of 5,000 Hindus spent hours working its way through a slum, slaughtering dozens of Muslims. There was a reserve police quarters just across the road. And yet nobody came to help them. A former member of parliament made desperate phone calls to the Deputy Prime Minister’s office. He was gashed to death. Modi was nowhere to be seen. He said nothing. He’s never apologized for his failure.
He became a pariah in much of India. Liberals called him India’s Hitler and he was banned from traveling to the United States. And the prime minister of the time—who was a moderate Hindu nationalist at the head of a coalition government—tried to sack Modi but the RSS, which is the mothership of Hindu nationalism, objected. And he was spared.
“Minorities are depicted as an existential threat to India”
What he then did, cleverly, is he subordinated his Hindu nationalism to a mythic personality of a competent manager of the economy. He hired an American public relations firm called APCO. He invited industrialists to Gujarat. You’ve covered India as a business journalist. You know what it’s like. When you apply to do something—say, to start a car factory—you make the application and your grandchild, if he or she is lucky, produces the first car. That’s how red tape-ist India is.
What Modi did is he expedited things. He centralized power. He concentrated administration in his own office. If you made an application, he would process it within days. Tata, which had wanted to start a car manufacturing plant in West Bengal, didn’t get a clearance there. They moved to Gujarat and got a clearance within days. And Ratan Tata, the head of Tata Sons, appeared in Gujarat and lavished praise on Modi. Industrialist after industrialist materialized in Gujarat and paid obsequious tribute to Modi as the man India needed.
The irony, of course, is that these were plutocrats created by the reforms spearheaded by Manmohan Singh, who was then the Prime Minister. But the energies released by Dr. Singh’s reforms created these impatient billionaires who saw Modi as the man they needed to push ahead. They were so impatient with regulations and roadblocks that they came to regard Modi as the man they needed. And so they deodorized his reputation. They sanitized him and presented him to India as the savior the country needed. He came with references and certificates from India’s most respected industrialists and businesspeople. And, with the backing of these people, he pushed himself to the fore as a candidate for the highest political office in India.
You’re really scared about the future of India now, is that right?
I’m terrified about the future of India because the Indian state is the creation of centuries of work. The Congress Party inherited a state willed into existence by Indo-British collaboration. India’s territorial unity was conferred upon it by the British administration. Pakistan left at independence, along with what was then East Pakistan and is now Bangladesh. And the Congress Party inherited a formidable state. And then it imbued that state with very original and audacious democratic values, and the idea that you can be Indian regardless of your origins. For the first time, someone in Kashmir and someone in Tamil Nadu was an equal citizen of one state. People who had known only subjection throughout history were now citizens with rights. These values were enshrined in the Indian constitution, a liberal charter ratified in a free election—India’s first free election—in which every adult citizen of India, no matter his or her origins, was allowed to vote.
That state has been disfigured by generations of politicians. But Modi is threatening to pulverize it. And I fear that recovering the Indian state and its institutions will be the work of generations—if India survives at all. Because already there are alarming stirrings in southern India. For the first time I’ve heard people say things like, ‘Why on earth are we subsidizing these religious fanatics in the north?’ Southern India is more prosperous. Some wonder, ‘Why are we paying our taxes so that the BJP can send them to tonsured monks enrobed in saffron?’ They feel as though they’re being held back.
When you talk about the south, what does that include? Mumbai isn’t part of it—or is it?
By southern India, we are talking about the Dravidian states of Karnataka, Andhra, Telangana, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu. A large slice of India’s IT industry is there. Some of India’s most progressive thinkers come from there and some of India’s best-known industrialists (who haven’t applauded Modi as mellifluously as some of the other industrialists have). They are appalled by what is happening, but their outrage is accompanied by a selfishness that is expressed not in terms of cultural separateness, but in terms of economic self-interest. That ought to worry everyone. When people see themselves as culturally apart and say, ‘Why are we part of this, this whole unit?’, you can call them chauvinists and bigots for asserting their separateness. But when people talk in terms of economic self-interest, when they say, ‘Our money, which we produce through hard work, is being squandered by a state that is primarily devoted to the interests of an ideology rooted in northern India’, it becomes a different kind of challenge. And for the first time in my lifetime, this is happening in India. India is unlikely to break apart, but we mustn’t be complacent about its unity.
There’s also the question of personal safety. If you oppose the government, you could come under attack. I’d be like, ‘I’m not up for that. I’m just going to keep quiet.’
A lot of people have done that. A lot of people have kept quiet. Some months ago Rihanna, the popstar, tweeted about farm protests in India. Greta Thunberg tweeted about it too. And there was a backlash against them in India. Indian celebrities were mobilized to put out a tweet saying interference in India’s sovereignty will not be tolerated. India’s foreign ministry put out a statement that India is a sovereign country and will not tolerate foreign intervention.
Right now, India’s healthcare system has effectively collapsed. People are gasping for breath and dying because they cannot access oxygen. Not a single celebrity outraged by Rihanna has put out a tweet about this. I met the wife of one of Bollywood’s biggest film stars, who had once made some noises about what was happening. And I was told that the taxman was set upon him. He had to produce receipts going back 20 years. All of these people are terrified of this administration and not a single person has said a word, not one major Indian film star, cricketer, or filmmaker has said one word about the governmental neglect that led to the worst emergency in India’s post-Partition history. More people have died in the past week than perished in all the wars India has fought, and nobody has raised a voice against that, because the Prime Minister has created this reign of terror. Nobody, understandably, wishes to be hounded, harassed, and harried by this administration.
Let’s turn to the books you’ve recommended—you’ve chosen them because they give insight into contemporary India, is that right?
These books, I hope, will help clarify to readers how India arrived at this point, demonstrate the depths of Indian learning and Indian culture and also that there is an India beyond its politics. I’ve tried to make a selection of books that will present a comprehensive picture of India. I’ve had to omit many books. There’s been a remarkable efflorescence of Indian writing in English. There’s a novel by Aatish Taseer, called The Way Things Were, which I think is one of the most luminous novels to come out this century. It really deepens our understanding how we have ended up here. There are writers such as Annie Zaidi and Aanchal Malhotra, who are authors of outstanding and important books. I’ve had to omit those because I had to select five books.
Let’s go through the ones you’ve picked. First on the list is An Area of Darkness by the Nobel laureate VS Naipaul. It’s a semi-autobiographical account of his first visit to India, when he was 31 or so, because he’d grown up in the Caribbean. I’ve seen it described as both painful and funny. Tell me why you’ve chosen it and what light it sheds on contemporary India.
I chose this book because of my own experience of reading it. It upended the way I looked at things. It challenged so many things I took for granted about India. I read it relatively late in life. No book had challenged me the way this book did. Literature was a sort of parlor game, ‘What have you read? What have I read?’ I compared notes with friends. This is the first book I ever read that really crawled under my skin, it disturbed me in a way I never thought it possible. I would go to sleep and be thinking about this book. And it was so forceful that I would have to put the book down. It’s a very short book, it’s just over 280 pages in paperback.
And I realized that the power to disturb me came from the book’s honesty. It just didn’t sugarcoat anything. I don’t think anybody had written about India with such honesty as VS Naipaul did. And everything he wrote, almost every observation of his, was freighted with truth. There were moments when I felt angry with him, there were moments when I thought, ‘You can’t talk about India this way!’ And, yet, I had to submit to the force, the power of his observation. All our fortifications against scrutiny, all the fortifications Indians have built up against foreign scrutiny, his vision could penetrate them. He was just so honest—about caste, about the comforting lies Indians tell themselves about poverty, about lies Indians tell themselves about India’s own history. They don’t discuss the medieval history in which Islamic invaders arrive. This is an argument Naipaul develops in a second book, India: A Wounded Civilization. But you see the beginnings of it in this book. It’s also the single best examination of the British in India. There have been volumes written about it, but it takes ten pages for VS Naipaul to detail the futility, the wastefulness of the British in India. He describes them as poseurs, people at play in India.
“I don’t think anybody had written about India with such honesty as VS Naipaul did”
Of course a lot of people see Naipaul as a reactionary. He said many provocative things in his interviews, and so many people say that he hates India, even that he’s a racist. But this book struck me as the work of a man who sympathized with ordinary Indians. He was the spokesman of the underdog. There’s a passage in which he’s traveling from southern India to Bengal, accompanied by Indian Army officers. India is then at war with China. He writes, “I did not want India to sink; the mere thought was painful.” That, I think, is the only time in the book where he becomes lyrical in his description of India and you can feel his affection for India leaping off the page in that passage.
There’s also one passage that has always stayed with me. After leaving India and landing in Europe, he says, “How could I explain, how could I admit as reasonable, even to myself, my distaste, my sense of the insubstantiality and wrongness of the new world to which I had been so swiftly transported? This life confirmed that other death; yet that death rendered this fraudulent.” He looks at Europe and its fashions and its sophistication and its progress and he just cannot comprehend that all this can exist in a world that contains the distress he has experienced in India. He feels the mere existence of this is wrong after everything he’s seen.
He is the spokesman, he is the champion of the Indian underdog, he has this fellow-feeling throughout for India’s poor. He is appalled and disgusted by the caste system. Most of all, he’s appalled by India’s Anglophone ruling elites, and thinks they are perpetuating a fraud against Indians. And there’s a warning for them. He says that if they do not openly deal with India’s wounded past, they will be overthrown. And he also warns Indians that the past must be seen to be dead, otherwise the past will kill. He wants them to deal sincerely and honestly with India’s experience of Islamic invasions. India’s Anglophile elites obviously hated Naipaul and, in the beginning at least, dismissed him. The secular state they boasted about has now gone, overthrown by the very furies Naipaul warned them against.
And I don’t think there’s ever been a writer, since Gandhi, who looked at India with such sharpness and such clarity. And I’ve never read another that has moved me so viscerally. I think anyone who wants to understand India today should read this book.
Let’s go on to the next book on your list, Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India, which is a memoir by Sujatha Gidla. Tell me about it, and how it fits in.
It’s an extraordinarily powerful memoir, again, with a force to disturb, describing a world I thought I knew, but from the perspective of somebody who felt degraded, who was exposed to the roughest edges of the progressive Indian state and the upper castes. There’s one instance where she talks about her family just automatically bending whenever an upper caste person passed them. It’s almost as if this deference was embedded in their genetic makeup. Generations of servitude had made them just kowtow reflexively whenever an upper caste person appeared before them.
Gidla is from Andhra. Her uncle was a revolutionary leader who joined the Naxalites, the Maoist guerrillas who have been waging an armed campaign to overthrow the Indian state. She herself attended some of India’s finest institutes of higher learning and moved to America. Her brother, her sister and herself now live in North America. She worked for a bank there, and now works in public transport as a conductor on the New York City Subway.
She considers Indian history from a very Marxist perspective. Nehru is, to her, an agent of caste oppression. I couldn’t agree with that. I don’t believe Nehru was motivated or animated by any prejudice for the lower castes. I don’t think he quite appreciated the intensity of it. Reading Sujatha Gidla’s book can really make you appreciate the power, the viciousness of the Hindu caste system, and how absolutely degrading it is.
It also takes the blush off what many Hindus will say about Hinduism, that it’s the most beautiful, peace-loving religion. The most beautiful, peace-loving religion does not devise the most sophisticated system of degrading human beings on the basis of their birth. Gidla is a hugely gifted writer. It is difficult to read her writing in this book and claim sincerely that India is a progressive, sophisticated country, the light of the world. Anyone who wants to understand the horror show that is the Hindu caste system ought to read it.
I just want to add that Gidla’s uncle, the great Maoist revolutionary, quit the Naxalites because he found that, even within the Maoist guerrilla groups, there was caste prejudice against him. At the same time, what goes unacknowledged and yet is visible in the book is the contrast between the uncle and Gidla’s mother. Gidla’s uncle picked up arms and went into the forests of India to wage a violent campaign. He believed in violent revolution, but in the large scheme of things was a failed man. His entire struggle was a failure.
Gidla’s mother, who endured brutality on account of being a woman as well as being an untouchable, made different choices. I thought her mother really came across as a hero of the story.
And her children were able to go to good schools?
Gidla was tortured by authorities in southern India. Despite that background, she went to some of the best institutes of higher learning in India and moved to America. Her mother is the unsung hero who found opportunities for her children in this morass of hopelessness. She saw to it that her children were not lost to the causes that had taken away other members of her family.
Let’s move on to the next book you’ve chosen, English, August: An Indian Story by Upamanyu Chatterjee. I’ve seen it described as a comic masterpiece, so maybe it provides light relief from some of your other choices. What’s it about?
There have been so many Indian novels in English. This, I think, is perhaps the best.
This is the story of a man called Agastya Sen, who is a civil servant. He’s a member of the elite Indian Administrative Service. When you become an IAS officer, you’re basically the king of a district in India, you have all the accoutrements of power that the British created and enjoyed. There are retinues of staff at your disposal.
Upamanyu Chatterjee finds the comedy in this. He doesn’t spare anyone. He considers the English-speaking Indians who turn up in villages to perform experiments with the ideas they have absorbed from other places. He considers the inequalities of India, the cruelties of rural India and the pettiness of the officials sent to govern rural India. All these high officials are obsessed with protocols. There are hilarious descriptions of government guest houses, with all the horrors of post-colonial India’s socialist aesthetics, hideous bungalows and even more hideous wallpapers, and a frog in Agastya’s bathroom. Chatterjee describes this world so vividly.
“Nobody, understandably, wishes to be hounded, harassed, and harried by this administration”
Agastya Sen’s friends call him August. His father is the governor of West Bengal. There’s no real plot. It’s just August waking up every day. He smokes pot. He listens to Chopin on his stereo. He’s a mythomaniac, he just lies all the time. One of his officers asks him, ‘Where did you go to university?’ He says, ‘I was at Cambridge.’ And the officer says, ‘Oh, I was at Cambridge, when were you there?’ And Agastya says, ‘Oh, I meant Cambridge, Massachusetts. I was at Harvard.’
Then he meets people in rural India who’ve been brutalized by the state. He has a real social conscience, but he’s also lost. Nehru once said, “I have become a queer mixture of the East and the West, out of place everywhere, at home nowhere.” Agastya is a figure like that. He’s thrown into this village life where nothing’s happening, and he tries to retain his sanity. I’d say it’s the most comically brilliant English novel to come out of India in the past 70 years.
In terms of being one of your books to understand contemporary India, how does English, August fit in?
The bureaucratic maze Chatterjee describes is very much intact. Those obsessions with protocols are very much alive. I was in small town India just a year-and-a-half ago and those guest houses are still there, the aesthetic is still there. The pettiness of the officials is still there. The deference of the villagers is still there. What has changed is that there are fewer people like Agastya now. There’s greater diversity among the IAS officers, and so many of them are doing work that deserves applause, but there are still others who have imbibed and inherited the pettiness of their predecessors. The bureaucratic maze remains just as maddening. If you read this novel, you will appreciate why the government machinery of India is so dysfunctional and why it moves so slowly.
Okay, let’s go on to Countdown by Amitav Ghosh. This is a travelogue rather than a novel, is that right?
It began as a long piece Amitav Ghosh, one of India’s greatest novelists, wrote in The New Yorker in 1998, after India exploded its first nuclear bomb and announced itself as a nuclear power. Amitav Ghosh set about traveling in India. He went to the site of the nuclear blast, he went to Pakistan, which also exploded a nuclear device after India did. He went to the highest battle zone in the world. He met Indian soldiers there. He trailed the Indian defence minister, George Fernandes, who began his career as a socialist firebrand against Mrs. Indira Gandhi’s government and ended his career as India’s defence minister in a government led by Hindu nationalists. Quite a fascinating career, a trade unionist becoming an apologist for the most jingoistic policies.
Part of the reason I picked this book is because the delusions that led India to pursue a nuclear policy have not vanished. If anything, they’ve been reinforced by the events of the past seven years. Modi said, not long ago, that we haven’t got nuclear weapons just for show. He was effectively saying that, if pushed, we will use them. And Amitav Ghosh gives the most vivid description of what will happen if nuclear weapons are exploded in India:
“On detonation a nuclear weapon releases a burst of high-energy x-rays. These cause the temperature in the immediate vicinity to rise very suddenly to tens of millions of degrees. The rise in temperature causes a fireball to form which shoots outward in every direction, cooling as it expands. By the time it reaches the facades of North Block and South Block,” which are two government buildings in Delhi, “it will probably have cooled to about 300,000 degrees—enough to kill every living thing within several 100 feet of the point of explosion. Those caught on open ground will evaporate; those shielded by the buildings’ thick walls will be incinerated.” This is what will happen if a nuclear device were to explode in Delhi.
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I’ve often thought that this book should be part of the Indian syllabus. Every school goer should read it because we tend, in India, to take pride in being a nuclear power. There’s another book by Amitav Ghosh called In an Antique Land. As a DPhil student at Oxford, he goes to Egypt to do his field research and Egyptians think he comes from a very underdeveloped, poor country where they worship cows. And Amitav Ghosh says, ‘No, I come from a very powerful country, we have one of the most sophisticated armies in the world.’ That stayed with me because people can end up taking pride in these things. But the cost of that, as Amitav Ghosh goes on to explain in this book, can be the eradication of organised human life.
This book really deserves a very wide audience. People outside of India should read it to understand the vanities that have led India to pursue a nuclear policy. Some of the arguments Indian thinkers have made over the years are valid. They said that the nuclear regime that the United States insists upon is quite discriminatory, because the US gets to keep its bombs, France gets to keep bombs, Britain gets to keep bombs, but India and other countries shouldn’t have them. The answer to that, I suppose, is to campaign for the elimination of those weapons—rather than multiplying nuclear states around the world. That’s the point. Anyone who reads Countdown will come away wondering, ‘What is the point of these weapons?’ I’m not a peacenik. I believe that India is surrounded by genuine adversaries. But every time I read something that makes an argument for an expanded armed force I think about this book. It’s really sobering.
OK we’re at the last of the books you’ve chosen about contemporary India. This is Spring, Heat, Rains: A South Indian Diary by David Shulman.
David Shulman is an Israeli academic, perhaps one of the most interesting human beings alive. He teaches at Hebrew University. He read Tamil at SOAS and then went to Wisconsin and studied Telugu, the two classical languages in southern India. Linguists say that speakers of these two languages emit more syllables per minute than any other language, and Shulman mastered both languages.
This is his diary of living in a place called Rajahmundry, which is on the banks of the Godavari River. He reminisces about poets who flourished in this part of the world 500-600 years ago. The reason I picked this book is because it demonstrates the depths of India’s learning, its cultural sophistication at that time. According to Hindu nationalists, this was a period when India was being enslaved by Muslims. This place had suffered a lot of the ravages of armies coming from the north and devastating the settled kingdoms there. And yet, this kind of poetry flourished. In the worst of times, the most benighted of times, and the darkest of periods, there were Indians who produced some of the most sublime and beautiful writing.
And nobody, I think, does greater justice to them in the English language than David Shulman. The beauty of his writing is hypnotic. Anyone who wants to give up on India should read this book. They’ll realize that India survives because of the genius of its people. VS Naipaul wrote about how India, “producing too much life, denied the value of life” and yet, he acknowledged, India also “produced so many people of grace and beauty, ruled by elaborate courtesy”. This is a book full of such people. They have always existed, and they are a reason for hope in this dark period.
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