Sunday, 22 June 2008

Shiny, Shiny India

I absolutely hated this book. The polemics. The dogma. The ivory-tower arrogance. The author tries to be balanced, but I can't help feeling that the overall argument was, well, one-sided. I suppose I should offer thanks that the original copy is lost. The paper kindly provided the heading.



The next super power of the world
first published in The Star, 22 June 2008

A big budget production boasting seven- or eight-digit figures. A star-studded cast supported by legions of extras. Theme-park-sized sets and stunning panoramic backdrops. An epic-length script with the promise of a fairy-tale ending.

Planet India
The Turbulent Rise of The World’s Largest Democracy

Mira Kamdar
Simon & Schuster UK, Ltd
320 pages
Non-Fiction
ISBN: 978-1-84737-068-6
The latest Yash Chopra blockbuster? Hardly. It's Mira Kamdar's Planet India. A quick peek at the Web (Mira who?) made me realise that Planet India is the well-researched, painstakingly documented work of a renowned, well-published Indian-American intellectual who's affiliated with a couple of think-tanks and regularly speaks at high-powered gatherings on world affairs.

Some books inform, others entertain. Planet India is mostly information. India's successes on the international stage are well-catalogued in this volume; even the list of notes and indices are long enough to warrant their own chapters. Kamdar portrays India as an awakening juggernaut in language that calls to mind the phrase, "shock and awe". 1.2 billion Indians at home; 20 million overseas. Eight-figure investments by software giants. Growth by percentages by so-and-so year.

She enthusiastically throws facts, numbers and platitudes about her beloved India with heavy-handed determination of, say, presidential candidates from the US.

"...as goes India, so goes the world."

"No other country matters more to the future of our planet than India."

"...actually, we are already living on Planet India."

Thankfully the author stops short of saying "the rupee will replace the dollar as the international currency".

However, Kamdar doesn't simply wax lyrical over India's enormous potential to rock the world. About halfway through, India the gold and silicon-chip-paved utopia gave way to India of 600,000 villages, home to the detritus left behind by the leaders of the pack in the race towards wealth, progress and knowledge: the hard-core poor, the dispossessed, uneducated who are left to fend for themselves in backwaters and slums ruled by criminals, corrupt officials and tyrannical landlords. There's also a glimpse into its volatile political scene, deep religious divides and long-running feud with Pakistan. The India of Kamdar's fevered imagination seems so far away - but still within reach, she says. Apparently, they even have their own Vision 2020 (so it's a race, then? May the best country win).

Of course, this is a sales pitch for India the world power and center of enlightenment, not India the land of superstition, outdated customs and temperamental nationalism. I suppose I can't fault the author for her optimism, not when so many others feel the same way. For instance, the slogan of a budget airline reflects the light on the horizon: "Every time we take off, the whole economy looks up." It's so bright, it blinds.

Buried somewhere underneath the pile of numbers thrown so liberally into the manuscript, are morals, lessons and interesting anecdotes that help salvage the book from becoming a mere paperweight. There are wise words by Deepak Chopra, as well as uplifting ones by the students for whom things can only get better. I wouldn't have felt so annoyed had she given more prominence to the ordinary people of India, instead of blinged-up executives, socialites and crorepatis (millionaires).

Reading Planet India is like panning for gold in the Ganges. It's hard work, going through the facts, numbers, and feel-good slogans to find the little nuggets that enlighten, enrich and inspire.

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