Sunday, May 13, 2007

Ed Luce: In Spite of the Gods, The Strange Rise of Modern India

March 2, 2007

Ed Luce has lived in many interesting places, in truly interesting times. He is currently the Washington Bureau Chief for the Financial Times of London. He was formerly the FT’s South Asia Bureau Chief based in Delhi. Ed earned a degree in politics, philosophy and economics at the University of Oxford; he earned a postgraduate degree in newspaper journalism at City University in London.

Along the way in his career, Ed had been a speechwriter to Larry Summers, Treasury Secretary in the Clinton Administration. On the subject of speech-writing, I heard the economist Mike Spence, the Stanford Nobel laureate, say that this profession is at risk in the US. He noted that political speechwriting is one of many activities being outsourced to India. Coming back to Larry Summers, one would think he would have been well served to have Ed help him when he moved on to Harvard.

For you will find extraordinary sensitivity in Ed’s book, In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India. He is compassionate and non-judgmental. He is never derisive or superior. Most of all I enjoyed his gentle humor which was reminiscent of RK Narayan. In Spite of the Gods is a best-seller in India. Just recently released in the US, it is already on the New York Times Non-Fiction Bestseller list, on the top ten of the Washington Post and on the recommended list of the Financial Times.

I have often wondered how one goes about writing a book on a subject like India. I heard a writer say that to ponder a vast and juicy subject is to be in the quandary of a mosquito in a nudist colony: where does one begin?

You will find that Ed has chosen his subjects judiciously and we are enriched with incisive insights and the tangible feel of a real India. Not many works can claim this accomplishment.
Many of the better works on India have been written by Indians who left India, literally or metaphorically. India seems to demand the perspective of distance and a certain intimacy of encounter. Nehru’s Discovery of India is the product of an individual who, as the title suggests, was “discovering” the country, indeed inventing a nation as he wrote from the isolation of a prison cell. Nirad Chaudhuri, who wrote The Continent of Circe, had distanced himself from the India immediately around him well before he physically exiled himself to Oxford. Shashi Tharoor’s Midnight to the Millennium, Amartya Sen’s The Argumentative Indian, Sunil Khilnani’s The Idea of India and in earlier times Ved Mehta’s many books were written from afar.

Foreigners writing about India have had a mixed record. There was Katherine Mayo, in the 1920s, who wrote Mother India. Gandhi described that book as a drainage inspector’s report -- which may have been a little unfair. She attributed many of India’s ills to the people’s attitude to cows. Ed deals with the very same subject but with humor and insight. You should read about his visit to the Cow Research Institute! V S Naipaul’s reactions have ranged from an immature revulsion in his Area of Darkness to growing empathy as he got to his third India book, A Million Mutinies Now.

In contrast, in his sweep, understanding, empathy and critical objectivity, Ed brings us a book that complements the great AL Basham. Where Basham’s The Wonder That Was India dwelt on history and culture, Ed focuses on the here and now and the immediate future, on political, economic and societal challenges.

As you will discover in the early pages of his book, Ed would not neatly fit into the category of an Indian writing about India or a foreigner writing about India. For his wife Priya is Indian, and that makes him an Indian son-in-law. Sons in law have an honored place in India, at least everywhere in India except, trust my luck, Kerala…