‘ Th e C o l l a t e r a l Damage o f P r o g r e s s ’ MAKERS OF MODERN INDIA
Edited by Ramachandra Guha (Harvard University Press 500pp £25.95)
THE BEAUTIFUL AND THE DAMNED:
LIFE IN THE NEW INDIA
By Siddhartha Deb (Viking 253pp £14.99)
DESPITE THE RECEIVED wisdom that almost any observation about India is as true as it is false, the pile of books attempting to ‘explain’ the country grows ever higher. But i f generalisations about India are too big and specifics too small, what is left for a writer to write?
In Makers of Modern India, histor ian Ramachandra Guha has chosen to represent the country through a composite thought-map, taking quotations from eminent Indians on a variety of key issues, such as language, economics, gender relations, religious tolerance and civil governance. This does not tell us what India is currently like, but it does make clear what her finest minds wanted her to be. Guha maintains that g reat political thoughts appear at the birth of nations, at times of national crisis, and when political systems change. India has experienced all three of these epochal moments relatively recently, and the book records the effects they have had on nineteen writers, mostly politicians, who lived through them.
Guha has only supplied about a fifth of the text himself, much of it in the form of biographical notes, and he makes little attempt to analyse, criticise or expand the selected passages. His chosen authors are left to explain themselves, while he maintains a neutral stance as editor. Thus he presents both sides of the religious argument, with M K Gandhi and the little-known Hamid Dalwai on the side of tolerance, and the Hindu nationalist M S Golwalkar on the other. Golwalkar is the sole representative of Indian right-wing traditionalism, so, apart from religion, the book has a distinct left-progressive bias, and for the most part covers nuanced shades of egalitarian and socialistic thinking. All the expected big names are here, with Gandhi, Nehru and Ambedkar the stars. Guha defends the omission of Subhas Chandra Bose and Vallabhbhai Patel by explaining that they were ‘doers’ rather than thinkers.
The avowed purpose of the collection is to show what India’s political experience – her ‘national trajectory’ – has to offer the modern world. This is a generous notion, but problematic, because the book is much longer on intractable difficulties than snappy solutions. However, Guha believes that there is wisdom yet to be found in the words of Indian politicians who forged a national identity in the face of enormous ethnic and linguistic diversity, and created a functioning democracy despite daunting problems of scale, illiteracy and poverty. Maybe so, but the idea that the canon of writing collected here somehow forms a coherent Indian approach is harder to swallow; the influence of the West is discernible throughout, and it is only Gandhi who can claim to think consistently outside the occidental box. Moreover, the extended nature of the quotations, though very fair to the writers, makes it unlikely that many will want to read this book from cover to cover. But as a convenient quarry for well-chosen words, we will in the end be grateful for it.
Siddhartha Deb has assembled a different kind of mosaic to represent modern India. The product of five years of travel and research, The Beautiful and the Damned uses five personal narratives to explore India beneath her new wealthy gloss. It is a compelling read. The author’s experience as a journalist ensures that he hardly wastes a word, his local knowledge gives him depth and empathy,
LITERARY REVIEW June 2011