Decades ago A.L. Basham wrote an academic tome titled The Wonder That Was India. I happened across a pristine copy in a second-hand bookshop near the University of Chicago, where Indologists were doing first-class scholarship about the Indian subcontinent. My way of belonging to that community was to acquire the books that those scholars wrote and read. While I have read most of the books that I’ve purchased, Basham’s book has remained pristinely unread on my bookshelf. In part, I was intimidated by its size (568 pages). And then there was the weighty title written in the past tense. Every time that I have lifted the book off of its shelf, I’ve groaned at its heft and silently complained, “But my India is a wonder.”
Edward Luce’s In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India is an antidote to books that suggest that the vitality of Indian civilization expired sometime between the Mughal Period and British Imperialism. Luce shares the following anecdotal gem to support his case that Indian culture has an unparalleled thread of continuity: “When A.L. Basham, the British classical historian, wrote his still widely admired book The Wonder That Was India in 1954, he tried to persuade his American publishers to make a minor alteration in the title …. Professor Basham said that in India’s case the ‘was’ should be changed to ‘is,’ since the country’s civilizational story was unbroken.” The publishers were unmoved by the professor’s argument.
Happily, Luce’s readers will be moved by the lively writing and provocative arguments in In Spite of the Gods . Page after page is filled with quote-worthy insight. The careful reader is rewarded by questions that these insights raise. For example, Luce notes that “in India the modern lifestyle is just another layer on the country’s ancient palimpsest … Most Europeans tend to think of modernity as the triumph of a secular way of life: church attendance gradually dwindles and religion becomes a minority pastime confined to worshipers’ private lives … In Europe the past is the past. But in India, the past is in many ways also the future.”
But is India a palimpsest, a layering of old, religious ways onto the new? Do tradition and modernity coexist like a grandparent and grandchild in an extended family? How far below the hip-hop-happening surface of agnostic call centers does one need to scratch to discover Aryans galloping on horseback to their Hindu homeland? Or witness Ashoka’s conversion to Buddhism? Or experience Akbar’s ecumenical Islam?
If the metaphor of palimpsest hides more than it illuminates, is India instead a pentimento? Is it like those layered canvases where earlier images show through as the top layer of the painting becomes transparent with age? Simply put, is India’s post-Independence democracy vanishing into some imagined Hindutva past? Isn’t this what the Hindu fundamentalists rally around when they wave their saffron flags and their Shiva-inspired tridents? India as pentimento has Bal Thackeray, the Shiv Sena supremo, menacing minorities with dreams of a “Hindustan of Hindus” that would bring “Islam in this country down to its knees.”
Luce rejects Thackeray’s sectarian vision. A scan of his chapter titles suggests that modern India is an aggregation of its diverse, multi-layered past: “Global and Medieval,” “The Burra Sahibs,” “Battles of the Righteous,” “Long Live the Sycophants,” “Many Crescents,” and “A Triangular Dance.” The most forceful argument for the past living in the present is made in the penultimate chapter—”New India, Old India: The Many-Layered Character of Indian Modernity.” This is the only chapter where the now commonplace observations of call centers and software sectors are discussed. However, they are presented in the context of the book’s overall premise that India is a wonder because of her many religions, her dozen-plus languages, her thousands of dialects which merge as a kind of dialectic within and between cities and villages. Echoing V.S. Naipaul’s prescient observation that India has a “million mutinies now,” Luce forcefully raises the palimpsest argument for pluralism.
But as hinted at in the book’s title and discussed in detail in a chapter titled “The Imaginary Horse: The Continuing Threat of Hindu Nationalism,” Luce is anxious that the pentimento theory is gaining currency. He takes issue with powerful Hindu politicians who seek to maintain the centuries-old status quo and remain in control by manipulating the illiterate masses (quite often low-caste Hindus or Muslims). Luce supports his arguments with a mix of meticulous journalistic reporting, personal anecdote, and reference to well-accepted (at least in the West) scholarship.
The closing chapter illustrates how this book of advocacy journalism works. Luce, who is a reporter for the Financial Times, is unabashedly a future-oriented Indophile; he makes clear that he would like to see India’s trajectory toward superpower status continue. He asserts that if India is to achieve this desired state, the following four constraints must be overcome: (1) 300 million impoverished citizens, (2) environmental degradation, (3) HIV-AIDS epidemic, and (4) challenges to liberal democracy.
Luce’s recommendations to overcome these problems are specific and helpful, if at times a bit overbearing. He does not mince words. At first the prescriptive approach is refreshingly candid and concrete. But page after page of statistically supported prescription begins to take on the feel of a hectoring doctor who doesn’t appreciate that the patient is in control of her own destiny. Those in the Indian government (and especially those members of the BJP party out of government) might consider In Spite of the Gods a harangue. Indeed, Luce repeatedly compares India unfavorably to China, repeating the following mantra: “The problem is neither money nor technology. It is about the inefficiency of government …. Corruption is the only possible explanation …”
The harangue is spiced with pithy quotes: “In Africa poverty is a tragedy, in India it is a scandal;” “It is time for India’s VIPs to follow the people who get no pay for no work;” “India never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity;” “The 21st century is India’s to lose.”
But just as the reader tires of the smart statistics and the smart-aleck quotes, Luce delivers a brilliantly personal closing story. He relates a night journey in the first-class cabin of an Indian train. One of his fellow passengers is a 10-year-old Sikh boy who cheerfully and sleeplessly implores Luce, “Tell me some interesting things.” This is a good frame of mind for all of Luce’s readers-cum-companions on his journey through modern India. He does tell us some interesting things. In Spite of the Gods stirs the reader out of sleepy indifference about the dreams and nightmares of the palimpsest that is India—living at once in the past, present, and future.
—Rajesh C. Oza