Saturday, September 09, 2006

In Spite of the Gods: Edward Luce on India

When a foreign correspondent spends five years living and working in a country and then writes a book about it, there's bound to be a measure of scepticism – murmurs, perhaps, about why an outsider with little emotional stake in the place should hold forth on its problems and the possible remedies. But Edward Luce's In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India isn't that sort of book. It doesn't make overreaching judgements; it prefers to chronicle and to drop the sharp observation or two, which is often the best anyone can do with a country this vast and complex. Luce is respectful of the complexities, and of Amartya Sen's observation that "anything one might say about India, the opposite can also be shown to be true".

He’s also quick to stress that India isn't just another pitstop in his itinerant career. He considers it a second home, and after all he's related to it by marriage; his wife Priya, a development economist, is half Bengali and half Gujarati. They first met as students in Oxford and were married in Delhi in 1994 – years before he came here in a professional capacity, as the South Asia bureau chief of the Financial Times.

The stated aim of In Spite of the Gods is to "provide an unsentimental evaluation of contemporary India against the backdrop of its widely expected ascent to great-power status in the 21st century". Without coming across as patronising, Luce discusses the many contradictions in India's society; the lopsided growth of the economy; the enduring legacies of leaders like Gandhi, Nehru and Ambedkar; the repercussions of the caste conflicts; the often-peculiar nature of Indian modernity in the new century; and the country's relations with China and the US, which he describes as a triangular dance that will be crucial to the world's future.

All this adds up to a welcome perspective by someone who cares about the country but can also look at it from a standpoint denied to those of us who have been on the inside for years, each with our own sets of prejudices and crosses – many of which are unconscious, some that have been handed down over generations. Luce’s writing here is understandably more friendly and personal than the many features he has written about India for the FT. There are amusing anecdotes, including one about Amar Singh’s Lodhi Estate bungalow, with a heavy stone ceiling that divides (“as in a Bond film”) to present a dazzling view of the terrace beyond. “There might be a little corruption here and there,” a beaming Singh tells the author later. “You cannot check everything.” Luce meets activists who have been battling corruption for years, records their near-surreal stories – being taken to the same dam by many different routes, for instance (because the authorities have built one and tucked away money for four).

Notably, however, the chapter on the nature of corruption in India’s government offices and courtrooms begins with an encounter with a man who has succeeded in getting work done in the face of the system’s flaws: V J Kurian, a senior IAS officer who heads the highways department in Kerala and who was briefly transferred to an isolated district as punishment for not accepting a bribe. Kurian’s integrity was largely responsible for the success of the new international airport at Cochin, but even he admits that there are little compromises that one has to make in this job: securing a business-class upgrade for another official, for instance. One of the book’s most telling passages has Luce taking his leave of Kurian and then very briefly wondering if he might ask him to arrange an upgrade for his flight back to Delhi. “But the moment passed.”

The book's title (perhaps partly directed at those who continue to think of India in principally spiritual – and exotic – terms) is inspired by Jawaharlal Nehru's thesis that the country's greatest strengths are not exclusively located in its religious traditions. Luce believes India's heterogeneity is central to its success as a democracy: "The long tradition of pluralism has given the country hundreds of years of practice at managing social conflicts without automatic resort to violence." This, he feels, is also one of the reasons why an increase in India's power in the coming decades would be in the world's larger interests. "Having dealt with diversity for centuries, India has a lot of experience in managing a multi-ethnic society," he says. "One of its great strengths is that – unlike China, say – it has never been an absolutist country. It has a lot to teach the world."

Among the things that worry him are the callousness of the metropolitan elite towards less privileged Indians, and the strange need for affirmation from other countries – all mixed up, of course, with proclamations of India's moral superiority to the rest of the world. "This simultaneous existence of superiority and inferiority complexes isn't peculiar to India, of course," he says, citing the British ambivalence towards the French; the surface condescension that conceals a layer of envy for their sophistication. "But it often acquires worrying proportions here."

None of this is unusual. Though it sounds contradictory, economic globalisation is usually accompanied by increasing ethnic nationalism. "As the world opens up and one feels familiar things slipping away, the need to cling to one's identity becomes even more imperative,” says Luce. “Often people overcompensate for this by becoming more partisan, even jingoistic about their own culture and values."

"India isn't on an autopilot to greatness," Luce writes at one point, "but it would take an incompetent pilot to crash the plane." I ask him what his worst-case scenario is for the country, say 30 years from now, and not counting something as disastrous as a nuclear conflict. "The further widening of inequality," he replies, "as the result of the government's inability to get infrastructure programmes going and to plug rural India into the economy. That would lead to greater migration to the cities, the alienation of the more efficient states from the Centre and – eventually – genuine political tensions about the nature of Indian federalism."

This is what he describes as “a reasonably plausible bad-case scenario”, though naturally he hopes none of it will come to pass. Luce is working now for the FT in Washington, DC, but he expects to live in India again sometime in the future; the country has clearly got under his skin. At his book launch he told of his first few weeks staying alone in a hotel in Delhi and how, when his wife joined him and the hotel staff realised he was married to an Indian, they began addressing him as "Mr Basu". "India takes hold of you very quickly," he laughs, and it's obvious that he doesn't mind being appropriated.

(Photo: Priyanka Parashar)


  1. i think i must read it..seems to be a good book

  2. Mrs Basu-Luce did the best single sentence review I ever heard of The Sexual Life of Catherine M - to wit: "She slept with so many people and there was no guilt, no remorse!"

  3. Thanks for the review. I looked the book up on Amazon, they are removing the "strange" from the title in the American version (date of release Jan 2007) :-)

    I must pick up this book.

  4. Thanks for posting the review Jai. It is an intersting write up, one that mixes review and interview so skillfully.

  5. It is "because of gods" by then and in future india would lead the Human race.

    I object to the title inspite og Gods !!!

    She has a age-old tradition,culture & sprituality which graces the whole human race.

    I disagree with most of the contents but agree few of them.

    The Autor has comfortably hidden many facts, he is trying to protray india bad to her sons & to the whole world, we cannot tolerate such ridiculous writing in the name of "Journalism" .

    Even the very title is hurting the
    feelings of we indians.

    I would post a long list of objections against this book some time later(may be couple of days).

  6. why "inspite of the gods"? what is his he trying to say that the gods(which is clearly a reference to hindusim) held back India for so many years?and india has risen inspite of the gods

    or is it supposed to mean that despite religion, the journey/rise hasn't been exactly if to say "hey, lots of prayer to lots of gods..isn't helping all that much"

    is it a reference to the phrase "the hindu rate of growth"?

    it is atleast partly, a title designed to catch the eye of the westerner who doesn't know a lot about India(the vast majority)...whose only association with the word India would be curry,bollywood,gods and possibly cricket

    well, i guess even the "development economists" of the world have to do their marketing right and think of their retirement funds....but it really annoys me to have my religion reduced to "a bunch of gods"

    him feeding of the stereotype is a slight in matter what meaning he was trying to convey with the title.and i just can't think of any way the title is complimentary of hinduism

    irreverence to religion from development economist types is quite common-its seen as "backward".however, everyone knows that religion is a touchy issue...jokes don't really go down that well here-luce shd have known better

    i'm really annoyed. if Mr Edward Luce was in front of me right now,he'd get a sock in the face from a "strange indian"

  7. very catchinh title.A must read.

  8. Religion blocks progress ! No exceptions !

  9. Interesting book, with scores of interviews to reveal behind the scenes activities in political, administrative fields, and problems faced by an average Indian in his daily life, An excellent mirror showing us the warts and all.

    However of late it has been fashionable for the neo-economists to decry the Nehruvian era, be it the stress on industrialization, building steel plants, irrigation projects, thermal plants, huge multipurpose dams etc. And of course the Nehruvian brand of socialism with license raj has been termed as the root cause of all our economic evils including the slow rate of growth.

    Unfortunately very few stop and think as to what would have been India’s fate without these infrastructural inputs Undoubtedly we would have been a basket case as Pakistan is, looking for hand outs by the US for toeing their line.

    Luce has brushed away the major irrigation projects as a few crumbling dams. May be he visited Tajewala barrage built in 1873 on Yamuna river in Gangetic basin. or did not visit any. and went by hearsay. While only 4 major projects were built during pre-independence era viz. Grand Anicut near Chennai in 1889, Bhandardara in 1924 and Mettur in 1934, post-independence saw 4291 major, medium and small dams which generated not only power but also provided valuable water for irrigation , ushering in the green revolution and made India self sufficient in food resources

    Former Member,
    Railway Board
    New Delhi
    Email :

  10. i hope the Sri Lankan's arent too upset about their island being left off the map

  11. i find it amusing to say the VERY least that some of the reply posts in here are very racist and bordering offensive. asians/indians would not be able to rule the world as one domanant race if they knew what contraception was and used it! it makes me sick to see all this WE WILL RULE hitler type gibberish. this world has a voice and if i may be that voice then so be it.

    also the gods you speak of quite honestly do not exsist nor do any gods for that matter nor do devils or satan. demons however do and vanity is one of those demons you must combat to reach enlightenment.

    oh and the book well what can i say totaly overdramatised sorry!

  12. This is June 2007. I bought the book from Amazon and read it. As an Indian I really enjoyed reading the book.

    Luce did his homework. His knowledge of many matters, not the least of which is History, is amazing. I found his analysis of the past, the present, and the assessment of the future convincing; I don't have enough knowledge myself to judge them accurate.

    I believe that religion is a big stumbling block for India, probably more so for India than any other country, past or present. Although Luce implied it, he didn't explore that aspect (Probably a wise choice. I am sure he doesn't mind his book burnt as long as it is bought.) Since he compared India's progress with the Chinese a lot, he could have compared the reason why China doesn't have as big a handicap as India when it comes to religion.

    Since I don't read ahead when I am trudging through a book, I was hoping that there would be a chapter, at least, that justifies the title. Alas, there never was.


  13. I am still enjoying this book.It brings in so much to ponder about.Two things which i would like to point out.Mayawati has been mentioned as the first woman chief minister of U.P.actually Mrs Sucheta Kriplani is the first Woman chief minister of U.P.The other is Durga,to my mind is not wife of Shiva.Parwati is.But iam not very thorough on hindu mythology so i am not sure.Thanks this book is an absolute delight.


  15. Edward Luce has done a very commendable job. His appraisal of modern India is excellent. No Indian could have done it so beautifully. I congratulate him for understanding India so well.
    However, he omitted the fact that the rise of Hindu fundamentalism owes its origin to the unnecessary support to the obsolete and out of tune Khilafat movement.

  16. All the people arguing that the article is misleading or what not! know who you guys are, you are the same ppl that the author in the book talks about "hypocrists". SO just shut up and enjoy the book...oh and btw he is not considered a "journalist" to whoever that said that this shouldn't be allowed in the name of journalism...
    Grow up and just read the book for what it's worth.