Inside India

Edward Luce’s In Spite of the Gods: The Rise of Modern India

The cover features a crinkly-skinned man in a saffron turban, a slim cell phone clasped to his ear: the perfect image of the two Indias, ancient and modern, colliding. Right, I thought when I saw it, another one of those books. One of those “Isn’t India a crazy land of contradictions?” books. One of those half-fearful, mostly bewildered examinations of the subcontinent—inevitably written by an outsider—that attempts to “make sense” of the “rising power” that is India.

But Edward Luce’s In Spite of the Gods: The Rise of Modern India, is actually not one of those works. Luce lived in the country for five years, worked as the South Asia bureau chief for the Financial Times, and has an Indian wife (and in-laws). In 2006, he set out to write “an unsentimental evaluation of contemporary India against the backdrop of its widely expected ascent to great power status in the twenty-first century.” In Spite of the Gods is obsessive in its scholarship, powerful in its appreciation of nuance, but lacking in the color and passion that makes its subject so captivating. (I spent five months in this glorious, impossible place in 2007.)

Luce’s greatest strength is his experience. The journalist has interviewed everyone from Pakistan’s leader, Pervez Musharraf, to Bollywood’s reigning star, Amitabh Bachchan. In 2003, he and his family were delayed at the Jaipur train station: “It soon became apparent why our train to Ranthambore had been delayed,” he writes. “For two hours we sat on the platform watching train after train pass northward through the station [to Kashmir] carrying tanks, heavy artillery, armored personnel carriers, and thousands of soldiers.” Although he passes a pleasant holiday at Ranthambore, Luce bemoans his “journalist’s guilt” at being so far from the scene of the story (in this case, the almost-war between India and Pakistan).

With an expert hand, Luce digs into the Kashmir conflict, the success of the Congress Party, India’s renowned corruption, and the poverty of the country’s Muslim population. His explanation of the causes for each is enlightening.

So too is his exploration of India’s struggles with malnutrition, which continue despite a fourfold increase in grain production since Independence from the British in 1947. (The population has only tripled.) Yet in the pages that follow, Luce recounts the experiences of a handful of slum-dwelling women—what he describes as “unimaginable horrors”—and his writing is as dry as a list of food production statistics. He spent years traveling to villages and urban slums, interviewing their residents and imbibing the “sense of community, color, and laughter” he found there. And yet he can’t evoke these scenes for the reader.

I find myself straining to remember the names of people he interviewed: the young Christian employee of Infosys, one of India’s booming software companies, who married an upper caste Hindu woman, the policeman who “wanted to talk” about his role in an “encounter” killing of a suspected terrorist, or the poverty activist from a desert village in Rajasthan. Unfortunately, they remain sources—not characters.

Luce describes “the nondescript sprawl that characterizes so much of contemporary India. Its narrow waterways are choked with rubbish. Flies proliferate in the searing dry heat of summer. A puff of wind can scald your skin. Traffic, mostly scooters and motorbikes, collects lazily at railway crossings and, now and then, is halted altogether by a noisy wedding procession.” He doesn’t describe what this procession no doubt looked like: the groom riding to his bride’s house on the back of a white horse, the coterie of clapping, dancing friends, the drummers banging away at their steel pans, the bright lights (a sign of wealth) that often accompany the group; the belching generator that powers the bright lights, and the heaving, skinny men who push the generator. Why not? Isn’t this as much a part of “the rise of modern India” as the statistics and expert interviews?

Luce does a fine job of explaining the why of India, but not the what. As such, In Spite of the Gods is academic and a useful read for anyone hoping to understand India’s past and possible future. But as for seeing the country, the book leaves me with only one stock image: that turbaned man and his cell phone. Yet another cliché.

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