My article on the East Coast Road and the changes it has brought, published in The New Yorker
What happens when a big road meets a small village?
It was early on a summer day, the sun was still soft, and traffic was thick on the East Coast Road, in the South Indian village of Kadapakkam. In the center of the village, trucks and auto-rickshaws and taxis coalesced into a mess of diesel fumes and honking horns. Two buses met at a right angle at an intersection; each refused to yield, vehicles piled up, and for a moment this agricultural and fishing hamlet of some three thousand people was witness to the unlikely spectacle of a traffic jam.
K. Ganesh, a twenty-seven-year-old photographer from the village, stood outside his studio and grimaced. Ganesh was born and reared in Kadapakkam. He could remember when a motor vehicle was a rare sight in these parts. It wasn’t so long ago that he got around on a bicycle; now he owned a motorcycle.
“When the East Coast Road was first built, people didn’t know what to make of all the traffic,” Ganesh told me. They were annoyed by the pollution, kept awake by the noise, and terrified of the accidents. Ganesh recalled at least a hundred deaths in the area during the past decade or so, since the building of the road, a seven-hundred-kilometre-long highway that runs through the state of Tamil Nadu. Sometimes he was called by the police to take pictures of the mutilated bodies.
My review, in The New York Times Book Review, of Crossing the Bay of Bengal, Sunil Amrith’s excellent new book. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in migration, environmental history, the Tamil diaspora, or the multicultural worlds that border the Bay.
A few miles up the road from my home, on a sandy beach in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, there is a crumbling fort that extends into the Bay of Bengal. The fort was built in the 17th century; over the years, it has been controlled by Mughal rulers from the north, by the French and by the British. Farther down the coast, past a string of fishing villages, sits the former French colony of Pondicherry, its wide boulevards and elegant villas overlooking the shimmering waters of the bay. A few miles away is an ancient Roman trading outpost. And two and a half hours beyond sits the former Danish port town of Tranquebar, its yellow fort blending into the sand, its rusty cannons pointing at the ocean.
The diversity of this region — a triangle of flat land that extends along the southeastern coast of India — is testament to an ancient history of migration, imperial conquest and seaborne commerce. As Sunil S. Amrith writes in his fascinating new book, “Crossing the Bay of Bengal,” the countries bordering the bay have for centuries been home to a cosmopolitan world that “is strangely familiar from the vantage point of the early 21st century — a world of polyglot traders and cross-cultural marriages, a world in which long-distance travel is a common experience.”
Lacking a political union to give it coherence, this world has often been overlooked. Although several books have been written about the strategic and geopolitical significance of the Indian Ocean — Robert D. Kaplan’s “Monsoon,” for instance — there is little awareness of the cultural and historical ties that bind diverse nations bordering the bay. Amrith’s signal achievement is to bring these ties to light. In doing so, he gives voice — and an identity — to one of the most complex and culturally interesting regions of the world.
India Becoming has been named to the shortlist for the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize. There are some excellent books on this list, and I’m honored to be on it.
My article in Bloomberg Businessweek, on India’s economic crisis–its worst in over two decades.
India finds itself in a particularly tight situation for at least two reasons. First, the nation’s current-account deficit, at 4.8 percent, is one of the largest among major emerging markets. With growth down, and exports subdued because of lower demand in China and Europe, that deficit is becoming harder to service. Second, any attempt to raise interest rates to tame inflation could further stifle investment and growth.
A dangerous—and dangerously self-reinforcing—narrative is taking hold. While policymakers tout the nation’s solid fundamentals, there’s a growing sense that they’re essentially helpless. There is talk of a possible credit downgrade; rumors abound (vigorously denied by the government) that India might eventually need an IMF loan. “Signs of panic,” editorialized theFinancial Express, one of India’s leading dailies.
India’s problems are certainly real. The country’s facing what is widely acknowledged to be its most severe crisis since 1991. But as dismal as the situation appears, India could yet emerge stronger, if not quite unscathed, from its troubles. In fact, a case could be made that India’s struggles are just the medicine its economy requires.
My article in the Wall Street Journal on the feud between Amartya Sen and Jagdish Bhagwati–and what it signifies for India’s economic development.
Indian politics isn’t generally known for its intellectual bent, so it was a curious sight last week when two Ivy League professors were thrust into the political limelight here. Harvard’s Amartya Sen and Columbia’s Jagdish Bhagwati are two of India’s most eminent economists. Mr. Sen is a Nobel laureate and former master of Trinity College, Cambridge; Mr. Bhagwati is a much-decorated scholar of international trade. Both are highly respected, both have recently published books on Indian development—and both have been engaged in a long-simmering feud.
Recently, their intellectual differences were recast in the mold of political combat. Mr. Bhagwati, thrust into the role of a right-wing BJP supporter, was grilled on TV and in newspaper interviews about his voting intentions. Mr. Sen found himself in the part of a cheerleader for the ruling Congress party and its welfarist policies
The equation is simplistic. Neither Mr. Sen nor Mr. Bhagwati is so easily pinned down; nor, for that matter, have India’s top political parties been ideologically consistent on economic policy. Much of the noise is simply an indication of rising political temperatures: Elections are due in early 2014, and the battle lines are already being drawn. But the controversy and accompanying media circus are an indication, too, of something more serious. They point to a growing debate within India about the state of its economy and the direction the nation should be taking.
India Becoming received a nice review in The Pioneer newspaper, and I enjoyed this conversation with Sebastien Cortes in The Oberoi Group Magazine. The Times of India also ran this conversation with Dr. Srijana Mitra Das. Also, a couple pieces on India Becoming in the Kochi editions of The Hindu and The Indian Express.
India Becoming features on two more “Best of 2012″ books. Isaac Chotiner includes it in his list for The New Republic, and Sudeep Sen in his list for The Indian Express. Meanwhile, here is my own Best of 2012 selection that ran in The Hindustan Times.
Some more media coverage of India Becoming. Tishani Doshi writes a very nice piece in The Indian Express, Businessworld runs a generous review, and The Hindu runs this interview. Also, Conde Nast Traveller (the UK edition) has this piece on Pondicherry that mentions the book.
I recently had the privilege of a conversation with Sunil Sethi on Just Books, his long-running program on NDTV. The segment on India Becoming starts at about the 12th minute.