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Lopsided India

Raghu Rai/Magnum Photos
Tourists in Mahabalipuram, Tamil Nadu

In his much-admired biography of V.S. Naipaul, Patrick French has an excellent half-dozen pages describing the disciplined, relentless way his subject set about gathering material for his last full-length examination of India, then widely seen to be incapable of reforming its roughhouse communal politics or quickening its development. When, twenty years ago, India: A Million Mutinies Now finally appeared, it was judged to be surprisingly sympathetic and hopeful, considering India’s actual circumstances and the tone of high dudgeon, sometimes mockery, that many Indians had found in Naipaul’s prior treatments of their land.

At the time it wasn’t clear what or who had changed more, India or the ex-Trinidadian sojourner. Now it can be said that Naipaul was prescient. Traveling and writing several years before economic reforms upended a planning bureaucracy that had smothered India’s entrepreneurial zeal and aptitude, which have since flourished, he sensed an irrepressible cultural change. The “mutinies” he celebrated as a burst of “self-awareness” were, he concluded, “part of the beginning of a new way for many millions.”

It’s tempting to approach Patrick French’s survey of today’s energetic, surprising, still lopsided India as an implicit sequel to Naipaul’s last venture along those lines. He opens with a brief account of a visit to remote Ladakh, a high-altitude outpost of Tibetan culture in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, just up the road from the point at which Naipaul ended his travels a generation ago. But there’s no hint of an homage here; in fact, the name of his last subject never appears in these pages (only a coy reference to “a biography,” subject anonymous, that delayed the writing of this book). He’s in Ladakh, about as far north as he can get in India, merely to make the inarguable point that it’s very different from Tamil Nadu far to the south; and thus to make vivid the oldest idea in the long literature of Indian travelogues: that the country’s cultural tapestry is about as variegated as it can conceivably be. And so we are transported in reverse gear into another discussion of the nation-building challenges that faced India’s leaders after the Raj shut down in 1947.

Missing here is the rapacious curiosity with which Naipaul drilled down through the testimonies he assembled in search of the theme he would extract from such scattered findings, his conclusion about tectonic shifts in the Indian situation, that “new way for many millions.” French starts off in a similar vein, saying that there has been “some sort of unleashing.” Later he speaks of “a transformative revolution,” adding incontrovertibly that “it is not always a pretty sight.” What Naipaul claimed to have discovered, he takes as a given. Less an explorer than a tour guide, this Englishman has a collection of notebooks, anecdotes, insights, and clippings that he has gathered in the twenty-five years he has been visiting India and out of them he stitches together his patchwork, filling in blanks with new forays here and there. He meanders but his wit and eye for detail are sharp enough to reward a patient reading.

Cameo appearances by familiar figures on the Indian stage, past and present, are typically arresting, even where French is depending on secondary sources rather than direct encounters. We learn that Gandhi advised the young love-struck Indira Nehru to avoid “sex-pleasure” if she insisted on going ahead with marriage to “busy, fleshy, outgoing, and sensual” Feroze Gandhi (who shared only the Mahatma’s surname); that her father, the future prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, then in the throes of an affair with a “buxom Congress politician” following the death of his wife, gave his “pained, partial consent.”

In a foreshadowing of a seemingly impossible convergence, we’re told that on “the very day” in 1946 that India’s Constituent Assembly convened, an infant named Sonia Maino was born in a bleak industrial suburb of Turin to a Roman Catholic family that kept a leather-bound set of Mussolini’s speeches in its front room. “Handcuffed to history,” she would become the queen regent of the Nehru-Gandhi family dynasty following the murder of her husband Rajiv, son of Indira, governing the party that’s now the leader of the ruling coalition until her own son Rahul is deemed ready to succeed to the prime ministership she astutely declined, in what will then be the fourth generation of the family’s rule. “The Congress Party is a Mughal court,” French writes of what remains of the national movement the original Gandhi once led, “and no one can do anything unless the Gandhis say so.”

Our author’s fascination with the “triumph of nepotism” in India’s democracy is by no means limited to the unofficial first family. Delving into the results of the 2009 national election, he finds that 37.5 percent of the Congress members of the Parliament’s lower house had a “hereditary” connection to current or previous Congress office-holders. He does not give the statistics on “sheeters”—elected officials with criminal records—but these can also be mind-boggling. Considering that two of our last four presidents have been named Bush, or that the present governor of New York bears the same surname as the last Democrat to serve a full term in the office, or that even with the departure of his brother from the family storefront in Chicago, the present White House chief of staff is named Daley, we should perhaps refrain from clucking over such findings.

French titillates too with references to swamis who played Rasputin to at least two Indian prime ministers (and on the place of gurus and astrology in the lives of many ostensibly secular Indians). Presenting the new India that is said to have emerged in the last fifteen or so years, he wheels in outsized examples of social and economic assertion. Inevitably, one is Mayawati, the woman who is the Dalit chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state (Dalit being the preferred designation for the people once called untouchables); her “pharaonic” building of monuments to herself and older Dalit leaders who inspired her has consumed tens, maybe hundreds, of millions of dollars of public funds. If a cross-cultural reference can be interjected, Mayawati might be described as a Huey Long populist. “I’m a Chamar [a leather worker, traditionally deemed untouchable], I’m not married, I’m yours!” she tells her adherents in the Hindi of the streets. It goes down well, even with opportunistic Brahmins and Muslims ready to stand as candidates on her ticket. No one seems to mind that she has also, in the course of her political career, become very rich.

Mayawati’s excess can seem proportionate, even justifiable, when compared to the brazen displays of India’s new billionaires. The Indian steelmaker Lakshmi Mittal, we’re told, managed to hire the palace at Versailles for his daughter’s wedding. Not satisfied with local camels, another magnate imported giraffes from South Africa to a north Indian industrial town for his own daughter’s nuptials. And then there’s the much-remarked-upon twenty-seven-story residence, with three helipads and nine elevators, erected in Mumbai by Mukesh Ambani, who, according to Forbes, has a fortune of $27 billion. French interviews a telecom billionaire named Sunil Bharti Mittal, in whom he finds a philanthropic ambition and potential worthy of a latter-day Andrew Carnegie, but he never really gets close to the new rich or a convincing analysis of their impact on Indian life and society.

Much the same can be said of his presentation of India’s frightening lower depths. It’s not hard to find outcastes or lower-caste Indians living at bare subsistence, far below anyone’s idea of a poverty line. There are estimated to be some 300 million of them, roughly a quarter of the population. But French finds only one, following up on a lurid newspaper article about an indebted quarry worker who was put in chains by his employer (an example of the “horror stories” to which he says foreign correspondents are addicted).

Two other lower-caste figures he introduces turn out to be a law professor, who started off in life as son of a landless laborer, and the professor’s nephew, now living in Silicon Valley as a software engineer. These, it need hardly be explained, are stupendously atypical examples of the new social mobility that has suddenly been loosed on the land. The nephew thinks of returning to India. “In some ways we would lead a more sophisticated life in Bangalore,” he explains. He instantly defines what he means by sophistication, this offshoot of a landless laborer: “You can have a driver and a nanny there, which is hard to afford in the US.”

This English writer’s inclination is to see the early years of Indian independence as an era of misguided idealism, during which an artificial austerity was imposed on the land, foreign luxuries were banned, and all key economic decisions had to be signed and countersigned by bureaucrats. Paraphrasing Clauswitz, he calls that era, now deemed to have ended, a continuation of colonialism by other means. In search of what went wrong in the period, he travels into some obscure byways, considering an early treatise by John Maynard Keynes called Indian Currency and Finance, published on the eve of World War I, which may or may not have influenced economic thinking in India after World War II; he dwells on the failure of the enormous, state-owned Heavy Engineering Corporation to run at capacity or a profit over several decades. It’s a chapter most readers will want to skip, once they’ve grasped the argument that India didn’t really start to come into its own until the 1990s.

Of course, the servants were always there, even when Indian elites imagined themselves to be pursuing lives of idealistic self-abnegation because their government wouldn’t allow them to import foreign cars or other luxuries. “The omnipresence of dispensable servants…makes a certain kind of existence possible. Servants fetch, carry, polish, iron, sweep, wash, shop, fix,” French writes evocatively.

They are slimmer and darker than their employers; they look childlike but profoundly adult, as if they have had to work like adults since they were children. They move without assurance, and the expectation is that they will always be there, to facilitate a certain way of life.

It’s a telling passage, one that suggests that examples of social mobility in accounts of India still exist at the level of anecdote, that the churning they reflect may be less transformative than advertised. Patrick French leans one way, then another. Neither a booster nor a naysayer, he lopes along, keeping the open mind of an affectionate bystander whether he’s presenting gated communities for the affluent, advertised as “lifestyle enclaves”; a gay pimp providing male strippers to Bangalore “hen nights” attended largely by so-called NRIs (nonresident Indians) on home leave; or the tangled story of an ostensibly orthodox Hindu politician slain in a lurid fratricide whose son then survives a drug overdose in a jacuzzi to go on to become star of a reality TV show. Such images flash by kaleidoscopically. Since it’s India we’re talking about, they proliferate, leading to their own kind of overdose.

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