The Mountain Shadow

My review, from The New York Times Book Review, of Gregory David Roberts’ The Mountain Shadow

Gregory David Roberts’s “Shantaram” was an unlikely publishing sensation. Literary purists scoffed at its purple prose; Indian (and many other) readers bristled at its stereotypes and cultural simplifications. The book nonetheless possessed a grittiness and vividness that helped Roberts sell four million copies around the world. Hollywood rights were scooped up (though a film has yet to be made). The book has gone on to occupy a distinctive — and deserving — place in an emerging genre of Bombay noir.

“The Mountain Shadow,” Roberts’s second novel, appears more than a decade later. A sequel in a planned tetralogy of novels, it is likely to please many “Shantaram” fans. The book is populated by several of the same characters (notably Lin, also known as Shantaram), and it unfolds on much the same urban landscape of drug lords, corrupt police and washed-out expatriates. The story begins with Lin’s return to Mumbai from a smuggling trip; we follow him through a thinly plotted litany of killings and violent encounters as he seeks to reunite with his love, Karla (also a repeat visitor from the earlier book).

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Why Roger Federer Hasn’t Broken Down

Another piece on tennis for The New Yorker (online)–this one on Federer’s remarkable longevity

There are many reasons for Federer’s longevity. Talent, hard work, good timing, and a little luck have all contributed to his remarkable staying power.

The talent—that outrageous grace and fluidity that David Foster Wallace famously compared to a religious experience—comes first. Federer’s smooth, effortless style, his near-perfect balance and poise, are throwbacks to an earlier era in men’s tennis, before all the grunting and power shots, when men like Ken Rosewall and Rod Laver played into (or almost into) their forties. That classic kind of game isn’t just beautiful to watch; it’s also far easier on the body, reducing the wear and tear that have plagued practitioners of a more modern, physical game.

Nadal, for instance, plays a brash brand of tennis that has often overwhelmed Federer. He is the boxer to Federer’s ballerina, and, faced with Nadal’s power and sheer physicality, Federer has often seemed fragile, a little anachronistic. But now, in this late stage of their respective careers, Nadal is plagued by injury and loses in the early rounds, and Federer glides his way to titles.

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The new tennis league is crazy but good fun, says Federer

My piece for The New Yorker online on the International Premier Tennis League and what it means for the future of the sport.

I can’t deny that the league possesses a certain easy charm that, gradually if not entirely, grew on me over the weekend. There was, for one thing, the sheer novelty of watching all those stars assembled in the same place. I couldn’t take my eyes off Federer and Sampras, who were huddled together on a bench—what were they talking about?—and my eyes kept following Sampras as he sauntered over to Boris Becker, who stood a few metres in front of Goran Ivanisevic (Becker wasn’t playing; he was part of the audience). Gaël Monfils danced with the Indian star Sania Mirza. Ivanovic laughed a lot, wrapped her arms around the French player Fabrice Santoro, and at one point broke into a fake bow to mark her awe at a particularly impressive Federer overhead.

This was sheer entertainment, of course, just cheap celebrity watching. It certainly lacked the intensity of a Wimbledon final (or even, truth be told, of the club matches I play a couple of times a week). But I think that’s part of the point. Tennis is an amazing sport, but even its biggest fans would be hard-pressed to say that it is a fun sport. Agassi called tennis “the loneliest sport” in his autobiography; he compared it to “solitary confinement.” Few things in life are as nerve-wracking as going for a second serve at, say, 30-40, 4-5. There’s nothing quite as miserable as netting an easy volley on match point, or as watching yourself—helplessly, as if from the outside—fritter away a lead.

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More on the Bay of Bengal…

Last year I had the pleasure of reviewing Sunil Amrith’s fascinating book on the Bay of Bengal for The New York Times Book Review. I recently met Amrith in Pondicherry. We drove up the coast and talked about his research and the fascinating–if often overlooked–history of this part of the world. I wrote about our afternoon together for The Hindu.

I’m standing in the fishing village of Arikamedu, outside Pondicherry. I’m visiting with Sunil Amrith, a professor of History at the University of London. Amrith is the author of a recent book titled Crossing the Bay of Bengal: The Furies of Nature and the Fortunes of Migrants.

I first came across the book about a year ago, when I was asked to review it. It piqued my curiosity. I have grown up along the Bay, in Pondicherry and Auroville. Very little writing and research exists about this area. I feel as though I have grown up lacking a conceptual vocabulary to understand my world. Amrith’s work has given me a new frame of reference. It has led me to revisit, and re-imagine, the landscape of my youth.

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Turning Litter Into Roads

My article from Bloomberg Businessweek on a new technology that has the potential to solve (or at least alleviate) two of India’s biggest problems: garbage and infrastructure.

It is difficult to exaggerate India’s garbage problem. Jairam Ramesh, the nation’s former environment minister, has said that if there were a “Nobel prize for dirt and filth,” India would win it. As much as 40 percent of the country’s municipal waste remains uncollected, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Of the waste that is collected, almost none is recycled.

Much of India’s garbage is made up of plastic—a scourge of the nation’s new consumer economy. The country’s Central Pollution Control Board says more than 15,000 tons of plastic waste are generated daily. The Supreme Court of India recently observed: “We are sitting on a plastic time bomb.”

Vasudevan sees an opportunity. A professor of chemistry at Thiagarajar College of Engineering, near Madurai, he insists that plastic gets a bad rap. Rather than an incipient environmental calamity, plastic, in Vasudevan’s opinion, is a “gift from the gods”; it’s up to humans to use it wisely. And he’s devised a way to transform common plastic litter—not only thicker acrylics and bottles but also grocery bags and wrappers—into a partial substitute for bitumen in asphalt.

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NPR All Things Considered

A short written and recorded segment from National Public Radio, All Things Considered: India’s election through the prism of literature. I chose V S Naipaul’s India: A Million Mutinies Now to talk about the significance of Modi’s election.

Audio clip here 

When I think of what just happened in Indian politics, I think about a book I first read some 24 years ago. That book was India: A Million Mutinies Now, by the Nobel Prize-winning author V.S. Naipaul. Naipaul traveled through India in the late ’80s; he wrote before the economic reforms of the ’90s, before the social transformations of the new millennium.

But Naipaul was prescient. In a series of incisive portraits, he captured the incipient hopes and ambitions of the Indian people. He wrote detailed character sketches of businessmen, stockbrokers, politicians, women breaking free from oppressive traditions. Naipaul described these people — ordinary people — finding a new voice and identity. He wrote that they were discovering “the idea of freedom.”

In many ways, that idea — a sense of self-confidence, of individual self-expression — has found shape in Modi’s election.

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India’s Election Choice: Growth Economy or Welfare State

An article from Bloomberg Businessweek, on the upcoming elections in India.

Indian elections aren’t known for their clarity. Messy, cacophonous affairs, they stretch across months and almost invariably result in fragmented verdicts. Political groupings are opportunistic, driven by personality rather than issues; competing party platforms are often indistinguishable.

This year’s parliamentary elections—the nation’s 16th since independence, running from April 7 to May 12—are proving an exception. The distinctions between India’s leading parties are unusually sharp; the race is shaping up as a genuine battle of ideas, a real debate over the direction of the nation.

Youth vs. experience, communal vs. secular: These are the lines along which the elections are generally being interpreted. But there is, also, a third distinction between the parties, one that’s less remarked upon but arguably more important. The elections are in many ways a contest over economic ideas, over the model of development best suited to India. This contest significantly raises the stakes for Indian voters; the outcome of these elections could very well determine the fortunes of an economy that has recently fallen into stagnation.

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What Philippines Can Learn From 2004 Tsunami

A belated post of my article on Typhoon Haiyan, and possible lessons from the Asian Tsunami. Published in Bloomberg View.

Every disaster is particular. Different regions and nations face different challenges (and opportunities) in confronting nature’s fury. Still, there are enough broad similarities to make it worth asking: What lessons does the Asian tsunami have to offer those responding to Haiyan?

In the weeks and months after the tsunami, the area where I live (like affected regions across the Indian Ocean) witnessed something of a second wave: a veritable tide of air-conditioned cars and vans, of relief workers from around the world. These men and women (pink-faced and sweaty under the South Indian sun, dressed in clean, ironed clothes that contrasted poignantly with the rags worn by survivors) poured into the villages around here, promising succor.

In many ways, their concern was heartening. But one of the central lessons of that disaster is that international aid, while absolutely essential, can also be too much of a good thing. It’s not just quantity that counts; the quality is essential, too.

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The Cost of Growth in India

Article from The New Yorker online about coastal erosion in South India. An accompaniment to the print article from the previous week. Be sure to also check out the accompanying slide show.

I was in Kadapakkam because I was interested in understanding the impact of large infrastructure projects on people’s lives. The conventional wisdom among policymakers and development experts is that poor infrastructure is holding back India’s growth. K.P.M.G., the consulting and accounting company, calculates that the nation’s transportation and logistics bottlenecks reduce its growth rate by up to two per cent a year. A government report that came out last week estimates that infrastructure projects worth some two hundred and fifty billion dollars are stalled, mired in red tape. Last year, the Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, said that India must meet its infrastructure-spending targets over the next five years “at any cost.”

But what, really, are the costs of large infrastructure projects?

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Letter from Tamil Nadu: Rush

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.

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