Exchanging One Cliché for Another

Letter from India, The International Herald Tribune

When I moved to America in the early 1990s, India was little more than a cipher in the American imagination. Many of my new friends were uninterested in and uninformed about the country that I desperately missed. India was defined by the broadest, and usually most unflattering, of brush strokes — stereotypes about poverty and corruption, images of crowds, maybe a vague sense of what Indians in America used to call the “three C’s”: caste, cows and curry.

I’ve been thinking about those early years in America, because I just spent a few weeks back in the country, in New York. Every time I return these days, I’m struck by the extent to which the gulf of incomprehension has narrowed. Most of all, I’m struck by the new optimism and enthusiasm that seem to have attached themselves to India, and especially to its economic prospects.

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A Roadway From Hope to Sorrow

Letter from India, The International Herald Tribune

Not too long ago, when development was a colder, more technocratic enterprise, the types of harm caused by the ECR would have been dismissed as necessary collateral damage. Imbued with a missionary zeal, the development establishment threw around phrases like: “You have to break some eggs to make an omelet.”

Development is a more sensitive field these days. Most infrastructure projects are preceded by environmental impact assessment reports intended to help minimize collateral damage. But whenever I drive along the coast, I can’t help feeling that the omelet analogy is alive and well — that ecologies and livelihoods are still being broken, and that the price of progress is often paid in human lives.

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Pollution as Another Form of Poverty

Letter from India, The International Herald Tribune

This is how it is all around here now days: the rural economy is booming, development is sweeping over the South Indian countryside like a wave, and villagers are being forced into choices they would rather not have to make. Too often, it’s the environment — the trees and the water and the air — that suffers.

Down by the beach, unauthorized construction and a government-built port are eroding the coastline, changing the contours of the Bay of Bengal and disrupting fishermen’s livelihoods.

In the farms and fields that surround my home, farmers struggle with declining yields and land that is turning barren. Decades of chemical pesticides have reduced the fertility of the soil. A new generation of electric pumps has overexploited the water table.

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State Health Care? Choice Is Healthy Too

Letter from India, The International Herald Tribune

Most of my friends came of age in the United States in the 1970s and ’80s, a time of market ascendance, during which the role of the state was steadily being rolled back. I grew up during the same period in India — a period marked by government control, when every aspect of the economy and, indeed, of everyday life was subject to bureaucratic whims and political interference.

In ways both big and small, I remain scarred by this period. For me, as for many of my generation in India, government is and always will be, to paraphrase Ronald Reagan, the problem, not the solution.

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Birth Pangs of a Brash New Country

Letter from India, The International Herald Tribune
Indian cities are complicated places. While they contain all the nation’s possibility, the exuberance and sheen of a people emerging from decades of underdevelopment, they embody, too, the seamier side of rapid development.

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Smart Step to Help India’s Rural Poor

Letter from India, The International Herald Tribune

A slew of government initiatives have added up to a real — if still incipient — sense of possibility, especially in the countryside. Over the past few months, as I’ve traveled around the villages and farms in South India, I’ve spoken to farmer after farmer, housewife after housewife, whose life has been touched by one of the government’s programs.

In Kakuppam, the improvement is evident — not dramatic, certainly not revolutionary, but nonetheless palpable.

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In the New India, Everyone Is Free to Flourish or Fail

Letter from India, The International Herald Tribune

It’s true that a meritocratic India is a more hopeful India. It’s certainly a vast improvement over a country in which millions were oppressed for being born into the wrong caste or gender or family. But it’s good to remember that meritocracy inflicts its own harms. It replaces old forms of subjugation with new ones — the tyranny of competition, of competence, of drive and ambition, of education.

Perhaps the best that can be said about meritocracy is that it offers the most egalitarian path to inequality: it gives everyone a chance to lose.

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An Indian Says Farewell to Poverty, With Jitters

A version of my first column from the International Herald Tribune was reprinted in this week’s New York Times.

People sometimes ask me how I feel about India’s economic development. I tell them the truth. I say I don’t know. I say I feel ambivalent about the passing of a world I knew as a child, a transition that I know is inevitable and probably even desirable. But I haven’t reconciled myself to it yet.

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What’s Lost When Some Become Rich

Letter from India, The International Herald Tribune

KUILAPALAYAM, INDIA — The other day I went for a drive on my motorcycle and realized that my world had changed completely.

I drove along a cement road that was once a dirt path. The road leads to the ocean. I used to be able to see the ocean from the top of the road. Now the view has been usurped by new apartment buildings and guesthouses and shops.

When I was a boy, the road was bordered by emerald-green rice fields. There’s not a rice field in sight anymore, only the neon greens — and pinks and purples and oranges — of the concrete blocks that have taken their place.

The area around where I live was once an isolated rural hamlet. It was a hundred miles, along a potholed road, from the nearest big city, Chennai, or Madras, as it was called at the time. I grew up here, in the country, surrounded by five villages. I had an idyllic childhood. My life ran to the rhythms of an agrarian world: bullock carts and hand plows, bicycles, windmills. MORE–>

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The Secret of His Success

Review of White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga, The New York Times Book Review

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