How Do you Write When You Write About India?

The impossibility of explaining gargantuan nations to a popular readership

India: A Portrait – An Intimate Biography of 1.2 Billion People Patrick French Penguin Books India, 488 pages, R699 {{name}}
01 February, 2011

FEW PLACES MAKE ME HAPPIER than a bookshop. I could spend hours each week—and I often have—lingering in the aisles, looking for new writers or thumbing through old favourites. I tend to hover near the shelves devoted to non-fiction, where I am often struck by the growing number of “country books”—those titles, often written by journalists or novelists, that aim to describe and explain an entire nation to a popular audience.

If you’re standing in a bookstore in New York or London, most of these books will be about foreign countries. (In a bookshop here, most are about India, but we’ll come to that in a moment.) Zones of conflict are always big business, especially if the country in question is home to contingents of American and British soldiers, so one finds innumerable books about the countries of the Middle East, alongside a growing tally of reports from the world’s rising economies, like India, Russia and China.

In American bookshops, the so-called ‘China book’ is in a category all its own—thanks, perhaps, to the size and complexity of the subject and the growing sense that Beijing presents the only remaining rival to Washington. But the challenge facing a non-fiction writer whose subject is “China”—or “India,” for that matter—is a tall one. How do you capture the reality of such enormous countries? How do you write about politics, society, economics, ambition, justice and all the other major questions that any writer wants to tackle, without leaving anything out? And how do you fit the results in a single book?

The first wave of China books tried to tackle the rise of China; they were broad in scale, often making major pronouncements on the future success or failure of the country and its political system. Two prominent examples of this sort of ‘Big China Book’ were the neoconservative writer Gordon G Chang’s The Coming Collapse of China, which predicted in 2001 that the Communist Party would soon fall from power; and the British former editor-in-chief of The Observer Will Hutton’s The Writing on the Wall: China and the West in the 21st Century (2007), which argued that China’s ascendance would be rudely interrupted unless it embraced “the economic and political pluralism of the West.” China, of course, strode merrily along, proving wrong tome after tome by academics, journalists and analysts.

The Big China Book hasn’t gone away, but it has been joined by a new wave of titles that eschew sweeping vistas and bold pronouncements in favour of a more granular view; works of intellectual journalism that employ a more diverse range of tools, whether intensive interviews, ethnography and oral history, or archival research, to provide richer and more detailed accounts of smaller slices of Chinese life. These have included Washington Post reporter Philip Pan’s extraordinary investigation of how power works in China, Out of Mao’s Shadow: The Struggle for the Soul of a New China (2008); Wall Street Journal correspondent Leslie Chang’s Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China (2008), an intimate account of rural-to-urban migration that follows two young women working in factory after factory in search of a better life; Liao Yiwu’s brave and brilliant oral history of the underprivileged, The Corpse Walker (2008); and Will the Boat Sink the Water?: The Life of China’s Peasants (2006), by Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao.

India, less mysterious and less threatening to the West, has largely been spared the plague of books making definitive pronouncements on its future. Although interested readers can find hundreds of academic titles about any aspect of India’s present or past, the number of authors writing general interest non-fiction about contemporary India is still relatively small, given the size and significance of the subject, though their tribe is rapidly expanding. The big books that have attempted to capture the whole of India in a single volume in recent years could, if crudely, be divided into three or four categories. We have scholars and thinkers like Sunil Khilnani (The Idea of India), Pratap Bhanu Mehta (The Burden of Democracy) and Ramachandra Guha (India After Gandhi); reporters and analysts like the Financial Times correspondent Edward Luce (In Spite of the Gods) and Mira Kamdar (Planet India); and famous politicians or corporate moguls turned philosopher-kings, including Shashi Tharoor (The Elephant, the Tiger and the Cell Phone), Gurcharan Das (India Unbound) and Nandan Nilekani (Imagining India).

Most of these books have been broad in scope, but as with the second wave of China books described above, there seems to be a new tranche of India titles on the way, shifting the focus from the general to the particular and yet still aiming at a general audience. To name just a few: William Dalrymple’s Nine Lives, published last year, investigated religious experience; Siddhartha Deb’s forthcoming The Beautiful and the Damned will explore wealth and poverty in the new India; Palash Krishna Mehrotra’s upcoming The Butterfly Generation will focus on young urban Indians.

As its title might suggest, Patrick French’s India: A Portrait—An Intimate Biography of 1.2 Billion People takes the form of a broad survey, but its most powerful sections come when it shifts from a wide canvas to the detailed stories of individual Indians. The heart of French’s book is the tangled story of India’s contemporary politics and the country’s rapid economic transformation in the past two decades.

One of the main critiques of economic liberalisation in India has been that although the reforms provided economic opportunities to millions and created a new middle class and a new elite, hundreds of millions remained left behind. The most visible sign of this incomplete economic miracle has been the crisis in the agricultural sector, painfully visible in the shocking epidemic of farmer suicides (now immortalised in the figure of Natha, the protagonist in Anusha Rizvi’s Peepli Live). The indisputable scale of the crisis led the government to introduce the landmark National Rural Employment Guarantee Act—one of the most laudable applications of John Maynard Keynes’ idea of government spending as a force for economic stimulus.

Patrick French: Writing the tangled story of contemporary India. JUSTINE STODDART

French uses Keynes’ personal engagement with India—including his stint at the India Office in London, his early writings on India and the effects of his ideas on India’s first generation of policymakers—to tell the backstory of the nation’s economy. Jawaharlal Nehru and other leaders of independent India believed, with good reason, that the draining of India’s resources by the colonial administration had impoverished India. “They disliked the way that for nearly a century India had been importing large quantities of foreign manufactured goods rather than making them indigenously,” French writes, “and Nehru himself thought that international trade was a ‘whirlpool of economic imperialism’.” But after two decades of independence, India’s economic problems were not going away: the new order evolved into a labyrinthine and corrupt bureaucracy, and even the most ambitious state-run enterprises were making colossal losses.

French brings alive C Rajagopalachari’s infamous phrase, ‘licence- and permit-raj’, as he tells the story of the Madras-based scooter manufacturer, TV Sundram Iyengar. The industrialist’s grandson regales French with tales of frustration from the company’s dealings with the Indian bureaucracy prior to liberalisation. “For foreign collaboration,” he says, “we had to prove it was justified: how much it would cost, how long it would last, whether expatriates were needed, then how much they would be paid. Each stage—each permission—took us from six months to a year. We had to set up an office in Delhi to apply to the ministries and my father would visit Delhi from Madras twice every month.”

The beginnings of the country’s economic transformation came at a tumultuous moment for India: Rajiv Gandhi had been assassinated; the first Gulf War had displaced thousands of Indians working in Kuwait and interrupted their remittances home; oil prices had risen; India’s foreign exchange reserves had plummeted, and the country was close to bankruptcy. French quotes Manmohan Singh, whose chance appointment as finance minister was key to the passage of the reforms, looking back on the accomplishment: “We got the government off the backs of the people of India, particularly off the backs of India’s entrepreneurs.”

Though the economic boom has filled the pages of daily newspapers with cheerleading coverage of the captains of Indian industry, there are surprisingly few detailed accounts of Indian business. The most-read book on big business in India—unavailable here until recently, thanks to legal threats from its subject—was Hamish McDonald’s volume on the rise of Dhirubhai Ambani, The Polyester Prince. (It has now been updated, very badly re-titled—as Ambani & Sons—and finally published by Roli Books.) But the Ambanis and the Tatas represent the old elite. They have grown immeasurably wealthier in the past two decades, to be sure, but the tales of the country’s latter-day Carnegies and Rockefellers—its younger robber barons—are yet to be properly told. Everyone cites figures from Forbes that describe our bumper crop of billionaires, but how much do we really know about these new oligarchs?

French deploys his prodigious skills as a biographer to tell the story of new money in India, particularly in his excellent portrait of Sunil Bharti Mittal, the owner of Airtel and one of India’s 69 billionaires. French shows us a man from a small town in Punjab with a small-town college degree who began his career making bicycle parts in the 1970s with an initial investment of 70,000 rupees. Mittal began importing portable generators from Japan in the early 1980s, and then chanced on an early model of a push-button phone at a Taipei business exhibition and began importing them to India as well; in 1995, he launched Bharti Airtel, now worth some 8 billion dollars. To be sure, Mittal’s father was a member of Parliament, and that would certainly have helped obtain those generator licences. But the scale of his enterprise and success could only have been possible after 1991.

Yet, despite the opening up of new worlds, old barriers and injustices remain throughout India. Although a person like Manmohan Singh, who arrived in India as a Partition refugee, lived in poverty for much of his early life and found himself in Cambridge only with the help of a scholarship, could eventually rise to be the prime minister of the country, the most visible and the youngest faces in the Indian Parliament are still men and women whose parents, in-laws or other family members were, or are, politicians. French’s detailed statistical survey of Parliament finds that 37.5 percent of Congress MPs have a family connection; the figure for the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party is 11.2 percent, despite the party’s shorter history. “India’s next general election was likely to return not a Lok Sabha, a house of [the] people, but a Vansh Sabha, a house of dynasty,” French laments.

Then there are the troubles of the people whom these electoral princes represent. For every success story like Mittal’s, there many, many more tales of despair. The crushing inequalities among the rich and the poor remain. According to a group of researchers at Oxford University who prepared a new measurement of global poverty for the United Nations Development Programme, eight north Indian states—including Bihar, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal—are home to 420 million people living in “acute poverty,” more than in the 26 poorest African nations combined. To this less-than-encouraging picture could be added the conflicts that have cost thousands of lives and still refuse to go away: the Maoist rebellion, the struggle in Kashmir, the insurgency in the Northeast, and a number of less explosive but equally serious social and political problems ranging from overpopulated cities to the poor state of education and healthcare—and scores of little-known but important movements of citizens seeking justice and equal citizenship.

Sociologists, economists, historians and anthropologists have been telling these stories, but this scholarly literature doesn’t exactly reach a wide readership. The rise of a new and more immersive journalism, which concentrates its attention on these “smaller” slices of the pie—the issues and conflicts that affect millions of people but are consigned to the margins in the big-picture accounts—holds out the potential to provide a richer and sharper picture of the country. May a hundred new books bloom.