Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Asian spotlight: India, part I

Part I: Books

Currently, we are in the third phase of the Western fascination with India over the course of the last century. The first phase took place during the British occupation and its "Raj" rule over India. The second phase started sometime in the 1960's when India's spirituality was deemed the cool thing in the West. Also, the Indian beaches of Goa, Madras and Kerala formed a trilogy of hot spots in South Asian adventure travels through the late 60's and early 70's. But then the changing political situation with the emergency rule and India's increasingly closed economy put it off the international map from the mid 70's through the 1980's. In the early 1990's when the Indian economy first opened to let Western corporations in, the Americanization of India started. However, it wasn't until the year 2000 did things really kick in gear. The outsourcing of computer jobs to solve the Y2K computer bug meant that India was able to provide a valuable service to the West. The third phase started around this time. After the Y2K work was over, India's contribution did not go unnoticed. Ofcourse, in a capitalist economy profit is king. So the cheap Indian labour certainly made Western eyes gleam and the outsourcing of jobs began in earnest. Along with jobs came foreign investment and investors seeking to maximize their profits by tapping into a new eager consumer market.

Nowadays, not a single day goes by when India is not in the headlines. The business sections of newspapers often talk about India and the emerging Asian sector and what it means to the West. Even today, The Globe and Mail has started a new series called "Made in India" to look at some of India's biggest companies. And bookstores have plenty of books about India, looking to provide the inside story about the "World's largest democracy".

Here's a look at three recent books:

  • In Spite of the Gods by Edward Luce

  • Luce is well aware of the number of books that get written about India. So he begins with these words: This book is not about a love affair with the culture and antiquities of India.‭ ‬I have read too many paeans to India by foreigners to have any thoughts of adding to that extensive list.‭ ‬It is about the changing political economy and society of a country whose future will increasingly affect the rest of the world.

    Indeed, his book is a good look at the Indian economy & society and covers aspects such as corruption, law & order, religious conflicts, nuclear power, political parties, class hierarchies, etc. What impressed me the most was Luce's covering of two topics that I have not seen in print but only seen covered by a few Bollywood films:

    1) Kidnapings in Bihar: Bihar is considered a hot-bed of politics, a state where the political mind is fired up in college itself. There are plenty of politicians in Bihar who may not know how to read or write but understand the limitations of law so much so that they can bend it. Ofcourse, I learned all this first from watching Indian movies. When it comes to Bihar, Prakash Jha completely understands the state. His well made films go beyond the news headlines and show the reality of Bihar's criminal and political life. For example, Gangaajal shows how corruption in Bihar can reduce law officers to take matters into their own hands; his 2005 film Apaharan introduced me to the topic of kidnapings in Bihar. The movie shows the political game behind the kidnapings and how a cop tries to get to its root. Edward Luce dives into the social conditions of Bihar and examines this topic in good detail.

    2) Encounter killings: Once again, I first heard of this through Bollywood films. The law system in India is flawed and slow. So criminals caught by the police often find themselves freed quickly and back on the street to commit more crimes. This frustration led (leads?) a few rogue police officers to execute the criminals by making the killing look like an "encounter" or a confrontation. Often the bullets are found in the back of the criminals bodies as they were running away from the police officers. After they are killed, a gun is slipped into the criminals hands. The brilliant film Ab Tak Chhappan covers this topic of encounters perfectly. The title translates to "so far 56" indicating the number of criminals killed by the lead inspector in such a manner. Edward Luce meets a Bombay police cop with more than 50 encounter killings to his name and covers a lot of similar ground to that shown in the movie. Considering that Ab Tak Chhappan is produced by Ram Gopal Varma, it is not surprizing to learn that a real cop would have been used an inspiration for his movie. Varma has based his crime movies (both directed and produced ventures) Company, D, Sarkar around real life characters but he will not openly admit it as that could lead to potential law suits, yet everyone knows who his characters are based on.

    Edward Luce has spent time doing his research and each chapter is properly dedicated to a specific topic.

  • Planet India by Mira Kamdar

  • On the other hand, Mira Kamdar's book covers a vast amount of topics, often giving them just a page or two. Her book makes for a quick reading and can allow someone to believe they are an expert on modern India after a mere 2 hour read. She covers the entertainment industry (films, animation, etc), clothing sector (FabIndia gets the credit it deserves) and Technological side (Infosys, covered in great depth in Thomas Friedman's The World is Flat, makes an appearance) along with nods towards the rural and agricultural life in India. One topic that Mira Kamdar covers that Luce did not is regarding the influence of genetically modified crops on the Indian agricultural industry and how poor yields has led to suicides among farmers.

    Both Kamdar and Luce also talk about the damage to the environment from India's rapid growth, as that is indeed a pressing issue. However, one disappointment I have of both books is that they disregard the topics regarding how Western companies are attempting to steal & patent Indian crops and farming techniques. Vandana Shiva has been a voice in this fight for almost a decade now. Even tough Mira Kamdar heads into the direction of such a topic, she steers clear of any controversy. Edward Luce does not even talk about this. Why is this topic important? One of the problems facing India as it grows at a fast pace is how to sustain its population and food supply is an important piece of the puzzle. If there are influences that can limit the Indian food supply and even hamper the export of such crops outside the nation, then that would lead to food shortages in the country and dent the income received via exports.

  • The elephant, the tiger, and the cell phone by Shashi Tharoor

  • Shashi Tharoor is a well known writer whose older book India: From Midnight to the Millennium and Beyond gives an excellent insight into the complex Indian landscape and its turbulent history. In The elephant, the tiger, and the cell phone, a collection of essays, he looks at the current growing Indian economy while revisiting some of the topics he touched upon in his earlier book India: From Midnight to the Millennium and Beyond. Most of the essays are only 2 pages in length and make for a quick read. Interestingly, Tharoor also talks about the Edward Luce and Mira Kamdar book and includes his praise and shortcomings about both efforts.


    Pacze Moj said...

    And bookstores have plenty of books about India, looking to provide the inside story about the "World's largest democracy".

    That's the "catch phrase" I always associate with India. I must have read and heard it hundreds of times.

    Fun fact: Indian film companies are now coming to Poland to make movies (parts of Fanaa were filmed in Poland, for example) because the landscape is so different -- especially in the winter. And Indian films play in Polish theatres sometimes.


    Another great post. I'd never thought of the three phases of Western fascination before.

    I need to learn more about India, though. Last year, I made an effort to learn some Iranian history. This year, perhaps it should be another "I" country.

    Sachin G. said...
    This comment has been removed by the author.
    Sachin G. said...

    :) Thanks.

    I know that catch phrase drives me crazy as I can't help think of all the corruption and how the democracy is held by band-aid :)