How India Became America

Week in Review, The New York Times

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.

More →

India, Miracle Interrupted

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.

More →

India is Burning

Another excerpt from my book, in The Atlantic online
Read the earlier excerpt, in The New Yorker

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.

More →

Jaipur’s Silver Lining

The Daily Beast

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).

More →

Wing It With The Butterflies

Lead Essay, from Outlook magazine’s 16th anniversary issue

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.

More →

Chiang Mai State of Mind

Conde Nast Traveller

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.

More →

Rural India Disappears

Blog Post, The New Yorker Online

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.

More →

Podcast

The New Yorker Out Loud

Podcast
NY Online
I talk to Blake Eskin, Online Editor at The New Yorker, about changes in the cow market, the rural economy, and growing up in a world that’s gradually slipping away.

I talk to Blake Eskin,  Online Editor at The New Yorker, about changes in the cow market, the rural economy–and growing up in a world that’s gradually slipping away.

More →

The Shandy

This is an excerpt from my upcoming book, India Becoming, published this week in The New Yorker. Check back here to learn more about the book, or pre-order now at Amazon or Flipkart.

The India to which I had recently returned, after more than a decade in America, was a markedly new one: a country where rice fields were giving way to highways, farmland to software complexes, and saris to pants. I’d followed the country’s economic resurgence during my time abroad and was eager to see the changes for myself. In America, my friends were worried about losing their jobs; they held on to what they had. But in India people I knew were quitting their jobs, casting aside the safety of well-established careers for the excitement—and potential riches—of starting their own business. Every other person I met dreamed of being an entrepreneur.

Indian cities felt simple; they embraced modernity unhesitatingly, even exuberantly. But in rural India, where I had grown up, and to which I had now returned, the nation’s transformation felt more complex. The sense of progress was often accompanied by a sense of loss; the celebration of the new was tinged with a longing for the old. The Indian countryside felt layered, nuanced—and sometimes a little bewildering. I often had a hard time knowing what to make of the new world emerging around me.

“If you really want to see how the villages are changing, you should visit a shandy,” I was told by a friend. It was he who introduced me to Ramadas that morning at the cow market. “He’s famous here,” my friend said. “Everybody knows Ramadas.”

More →

A Parable of the New India

Review of Miss New India, by Bharati Mukherjee, The New York Times Book Review

Nations are narratives. Every country is shaped by its particular set of ideas and myths. Inevitably these are simplifications, often clichés, but they hold a country together, imposing a certain coherence on diverse populations.

The narrative of modern India has changed over the last few decades. For much of its post-independence history, India epitomized the concept of the Third World. It was a land of desolate poverty and immutable hierarchy — “an area of darkness,” in the memorable title of V. S. Naipaul’s first book about the country; a place of “heat and dust,” in the only slightly less dismal title of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s 1975 novel. But now India is moving on, and so is the Indian narrative. The country has grown rapidly since the early 1990s, when its stultified socialist economy began to be reformed. Today, as India has become an increasingly confident world power, the old stories are being replaced by new ones — many equally clichéd — about boundless opportunity, tremendous wealth, social mobility and technological prowess.

More →