Rushdie makes no pretense at objective analysis, but in the shade and texture he offers, in his portrayal of a man caught between the jaws of civilizational conflict, he does something far more valuable. He insists on complexity and nuance where polemic and cliché so often reign. This is what writers do. And this, ultimately, is Rushdie’s triumph. In an age of rising intolerance and diminished literary confidence, Joseph Anton—like Rushdie’s own life—strikes a blow for the continued relevance of literature.
Time magazine’s special issue on “Reinventing India” hits the newsstands today, and my opening essay, “In Search of a New India,” is in it. I argue that India is at an “inflection point—increasingly disenchanted with its current trajectory, aware of the limitations in its current model of development, yet still grasping for a new model.”
The article is unfortunately only available online to subscribers, so you might have to pick up a copy at the newsstand.
This reconciliation — this Americanization of India — had both tangible and intangible manifestations. The tangible signs included an increase in the availability of American brands; a noticeable surge in the population of American businessmen (and their booming voices) in the corridors of five-star hotels; and, also, a striking use of American idiom and American accents. In outsourcing companies across the country, Indians were being taught to speak more slowly and stretch their O’s. I found myself turning my head (and wincing a little) when I heard young Indians call their colleagues “dude.”
But the intangible evidence of Americanization was even more remarkable. Something had changed in the very spirit of the country. India is infused with an energy, a can-do ambition and an entrepreneurial spirit that I can only describe as distinctly American. In surveys of global opinion, Indians consistently rank as among the most optimistic people in the world. Bookstores are stacked with titles like “India Arriving,” “India Booms” and “The Indian Renaissance.”
I have learned, though, that the nation’s new American-style prosperity is a more complex, and certainly more ambivalent, phenomenon than it first appears. The villages around my home have undeniably grown more prosperous, but they are also more troubled. Abandoned fields and fallow plantations are indications of a looming agricultural and environmental crisis. Ancient social structures are collapsing under the weight of new money. Bonds of caste and religion and family have frayed; the panchayats, village assemblies made up of elders, have lost their traditional authority. Often, lawlessness and violence step into the vacuum left behind.
Opening Remarks, Bloomberg Businessweek
Observers of the subcontinent (both domestic and foreign) tend to retreat to easy generalizations and simplistic narratives. For much of India’s post-independence history, the country was an economic basket case—a textbook example of financial mismanagement, wasted potential, and stunted growth. Then, in the 1990s, after India embarked on market reforms and began opening its closed, semi-socialist economy, the narrative changed. As native companies aggressively acquired international brands, and as growth rates approached double digits, the media was full of triumphalist rhetoric about impending “economic superpowerhood.”
Over the last few months the narrative appears to have shifted again. Growth has slowed from more than 10 percent in 2010 to around 7 percent today. Inflation is persistently high, agricultural productivity has declined, and foreign investment and the stock market are down. Social unrest and deteriorating law and order in many parts of the country have potential investors spooked. Corruption is estimated to cost India at least $18.4 billion a year.
The truth is that India’s prospects were never quite as bright as they were made out to be—nor are they quite as dire as they are held to be today. Instead, the recent swings in the Indian narrative are another reminder of the role of sentiment in investors’ perceptions and decisions. Nations, like markets, are subject to often irrational (and certainly ill-informed) cycles of boom and bust.
India was burning–and, in a similar way, it was eroding, melting, drying, silting up, suffocating. Across the country, rivers and lakes and glaciers were disappearing, underground aquifers being depleted, air quality declining, beaches being swept away.
The numbers were astounding. According to a government report I read, almost half of India’s land suffered from some kind of erosion. Seventy percent of its surface water was polluted. Earlier this year, a study conducted by Yale and Columbia universities concluded that India had the worst air quality in the world.
In the weeks and months after the garbage first started blowing into my living room, I came to see this terrible environmental toll as a form of collateral damage: it was the price the country was paying for its rapid growth, for a model of development that elevated prosperity above all else.
But then, walking the grounds, resolutely avoiding the chaotic Oprah show, I started thinking: Wouldn’t it actually be amazing, wouldn’t it in a bizarre way say something magnificent about this country, if there were a stampede at a literary festival? For that, at its core, despite the hordes, despite the socialites and their Prada bags and gold jewelry, is what Jaipur remains: a festival about books and literature, a destination for people who resolutely–and miraculously–still care about ideas.
There was a wonderful serendipity to the place, a quality of intellectual discovery and chance encounters with interesting people that reminded me of my student days. Diggi Palace felt like a college campus–full of newness and potential (and, yes, the possibility of an invitation to late-night, boozy parties).
It is good to remember, on this two-decade anniversary of the nation’s reforms, that a generation is generally said to last about 20 years. In this hyper-sped-up world that we inhabit, it is probably fair to assume that that cycle has been compressed; and, by that standard, many of today’s youth can be said to inhabit a second post-liberalisation generation.
For this generation—“liberalisation’s grandchildren”, as they should perhaps be called—the encounter with modernity and capitalism is a lot more nuanced than it seemed in the years immediately following the advent of reforms. Those years were marked by a certain euphoria, a sense of exultation and release from the drabness of post-independence socialism. But now some of that euphoria has worn out; it has become clear that India’s rapid growth and development, while wonderful, are also a little more ambivalent than anticipated.
Today’s generation knows that wealth and success can take many forms: it is the entrepreneurial prowess and innovation of India’s world-class businesses, but it is also the corruption of an oligarchic political and business class that has bent reforms to its own interests. Rapid growth, too, has many faces. It is the story of immeasurably widened horizons, of self-made young men and women who have risen further than their fathers could have ever dreamed; but economic growth is also spawning new forms of inequality and social exclusion, and terrible environmental depredation.
My mind was still in overdrive when we landed in Chiang Mai on that early morning. As we came down over the flat land–the low-slung concrete houses, the rice fields that extended towards distant, misty hills–I found myself meticulously, and a little obsessively, building a taxonomy of holidays. I thought of all the reasons there are for taking a vacation. A man (or a woman) can take a sightseeing holiday. There are, too, cultural holidays, religious holidays, historical holidays, wellness holidays, and culinary holidays. Then there are retail holidays and wildlife holidays, and, though I aver I have never taken one, there are carnal holidays.
I was in Chiang Mai for yet another kind of holiday. I had come to this ancient city of wats and orange clad monks, this centre of culture and learning, in search of what, that morning on the plane, I had decided to label a real holiday, a holiday holiday. I had spent the previous months (or was it years?) holed up in a cottage in my backyard, desperately trying to finish a book against a final, non-negotiable deadline. Like some kind of hibernating beast–or like a prisoner–I had lost contact with the world. I saw few people; I rarely left my neighbourhood.
By the time my family and I arrived in Chiang Mai, I was in a state of nervous exhaustion. Writing a book is like making sausage. The author is meat, thrown into a machine, ground down and spat out in a horribly attenuated, unrecognisable form. My wife and two boys, who had suffered every minute of the sausage factory with me, were similarly worn out. We all felt we’d earned a respite. In Chiang Mai, I resolved, I would slow my mind, regain a semblance of balance, centre myself—-and take the only kind of holiday really worth having.
Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, famously described the country as an “ancient palimpsest on which layer upon layer” of history had been inscribed, without ever fully effacing the previous ones. Sometimes, though, I can’t help feeling that this place is less a palimpsest than a brutal, erasable slate: layer upon layer of newness, the past a commodity, disposable and easily forgotten.