India comes to the fore
M. Rajivlochan

OF all the books released in 2008, the singular best-seller in 2009 would be Nandan Nilekani’s Imagining India: Ideas for a New Century (Allen Lane) on what India should do in order to move forward in the present century. Now, that he has made Infosys so dramatically successful, everyone would like to know his recipe for making India great. There are no surprises here. Any good-hearted liberal would give you the same list — create a more inclusive society, allow greater encouragement to the young and the entrepreneurial, increase grass-roots democracy, have stronger state institutions, ensure better health services, provide superior educational facilities, etc. Given Nilekani’s current iconic stature, it is possible that our society and government take these oft-repeated ideas seriously and actually begin to implement them. I am not too sanguine, though.

However, one of the most insightful books of the year is Spirals of Contention: Why India was Partitioned in 1947 (Routledge, Delhi) by Satish Saberwal on what ails India as a nation and a state. His sociological investigations into the history of the Hindu-Muslim interface in India come with an understated but nevertheless dire warning: there are many similar interfaces waiting to implode unless we make serious effort as a society and a nation to strengthen our institutional systems and ensure that we become a caring people not just in name but also in reality. Tracing the roots of Partition deep into the past millennia of Indian history, he takes us beyond the usual causes of Partition that confidently blame the colonial government and the miscalculations of political leaders. Sectarian ideologies have embedded themselves in complex ways in the secular stresses of our society, he warns. Mere exhortations for peaceful co-existence and mutual respect or better education and health may not be enough to separate the two.

Unlike Saberwal, Arvind Panagariya has little patience with the problems of the past. Taking a naively liberal view of India’s economic policies during the past 50 years in India The Emerging Giant (Oxford University Press), Panagariya relates the economic growth of India to the changes in the economic policies of the government. People’s own efforts at enrichment, their problems caused by poverty and exploitation and the abysmal condition of our government institutions have little value for Panagariya.

If India will not grow faster than China in the future, he predicts, it is because the government does not force the people to be competitive enough through its economic policies. Panagariya, of course, ignores the fact that much of the current growth, either in China or in India, is because the farmers and the poor subsidised the growth of the rich in unimagined ways and the principal role of the state was to control the upsurge of any discontent and siphon away the wealth of the poor in order to hand it over to the rich. As a historian, I find it interesting that with all the data dredging that the current computer-assisted economic research allows, Panagariya had no inkling of the economic crash that hit India in late 2008.

Filling up an important gap in the insights offered by Panagariya is Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China by Leslie T. Chang (Random House). This is an interesting book by a journalist on the girls who have made factories profitable in China. The over 130-million-strong migrant worker population in China is mostly made up of women. So why do they leave their homes? Chang follows the life of two young women — one that is still stuck to the factory floor and the other who has risen to join the management ranks. Both are clear that even the humiliating and back-breaking life in the town is preferable to the misery of living in villages and following outdated customs. The government currently is totally in the hands of factory owners. The local newspapers practise what Chang calls ‘journalism as extortion’. The workers are left to fend for themselves. But each of them nurtures a gleam of hope — that in the dog-eat-dog world of modern China, there is a possibility for everyone to make it big while the previous system set strong limits on who could rise above their station in life. It is this hope that drives the world today.

Sudhir Venkatesh, a sociologist by profession, tells us the inside story of the American poor in Gang Leader for a Day (Penguin). This book is the outcome of his sociological research into the underground culture and economy of a gangster-ridden urban residential complex. It is a violent world, ridden with disease and tensions. Bartering favours — sexual or otherwise — is a normal way of life and not always for illegal deeds. While documenting all this, Venkatesh has come up with a perfectly voyeuristic book that shows us the working of the drug lords and their minions. Their personal foibles, friendships and enmities, their private tensions, family structure and much more are described here. Most of the gangsters don’t even make enough money to live independent of their mothers.

Ather Farouqui continues with his self-chosen task of documenting the complex position of Muslims in the 21st century. In Muslims and Media Images: News versus Views (Oxford University Press), he brings together 18 papers written by scholars, activists, media personalities on how Muslims are portrayed in the media. The papers deal with diverse issues such as "what is a Muslim", "how do Indian Muslims deal with their image in the popular media". The conflicts within the Muslim community over their portrayal in the media too come in for comment.

Alice Albinia’s historical research weaves through literature, travelogue and sociology to bring before us five millennia of history and politics that happened around the Indus in Empires of the Indus: The Story of a River (John Murray, London). She travels back in time to the earliest civilised humans who gathered around the banks of the river and went on to trade with Mesopotamia. She moves along the entire length of the river to document the changes that happen across its geographical spread. The reader would find here the biography of a river after which Hindustan was named but which is not in India any more — other than in name — thanks to a twist in our recent history.

The final book that we have shows us how our country and its various parts look from space. Images India by Ranganath R. Navalgund (National Remote Sensing Agency) has beautiful A-3 size photographs reproduced to show diverse aspects of India. The coastal region, swamps, mountains, smog-filled winter atmosphere, drought-stricken portions of the Deccan plateau and the flooded plains of Bihar and Utter Pradesh can be seen here. The accompanying text explains how remote sensing helps understand the land better and helps in policy making. For anyone with a budding interest in the space sciences in India, this book is a godsend.