Book Review: Inspite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India

Title: Inspite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India
Author: Edward Luce

This is a well researched book that addresses the various changes happening in contemporary India on the social, economic and political fronts. The author has met with people from so many different walks of life in India ranging from politicians, god-men, bureaucrats, businessmen and women, IT employees, etc., and put together a very interesting book. He nicely combines these meetings he has had with historical aspects like India’s politics over the last 60 years to come up with observations and interpretations.

A very insightful book and highly recommended for anyone who has an interest in India. The author displays an excellent sense of humor throughout the book. So even though the book is 400+ pages there is never a dull moment.

Here are a few interesting parts of the book (there are too many to capture, but here are a handful):

  • Sri Sri Ravishankar: “It was like Jesus was shooting a shampoo advertisement” referring to Sri Sri Ravishankar at his ashram; “His answers were more like that of an agony aunt than a prophet” referring to his responses to audience questions. Those who follow Sri Sri Ravishankar and his Art of Living philosophy are bound to be pretty upset with the author. He makes a “somewhat hasty” connection between the Guruji and the BJP, the RSS and the VHP. The book characterizes Sri Sri Ravishankar’s movement as “evangelical Hinduism” much like the Pat Robinsons and Bill Grahams of the West, though the Art of Living prides itself in being religion agnostic and supposedly does little to promote Hinduism. Surprisingly, Matha Amrithanandamayi does not feature in the book.
  • Sonia Gandhi: When Mrs. Gandhi offered to pour him some tea -“It felt like Queen Elizabeth was offering to massage my feet”; The author seems to have been in awe of Mrs. Gandhi. “Its hard to believe that Mrs. Gandhi would approve of such sycophancy”, the author writes following which he refers to the exaggeration of her oratorical skills by her biographer. It begs the question as to whether Mrs. Gandhi could not have influenced her biographer not to indulge in such sycophancy herself. In another discussion, the author characterizes the Cong-DMK alliance (despite the DMK’s soft corner for the LTTE — which was behind her husband’s murder) as “political pragmatism” rather than opportunism. The author portrays her entry into politics as one driven by deep dissatisfaction with the state of the country while its widely believed in India that she was just paving the way for the Rahul Gandhi (and/or Priyanka’s) entry into politics. He does however write later in the book that she “hopes for their success yet fears for their safety”.
  • Inter-caste Marriages: The author makes an interesting observation about inter-caste marriages. He writes that inter-caste marriages are very common in the IT sector in India while they are less common among the India software professionals in the US. “Long distant nationalism is often much more conservative than its parent”. In the same chapter titled “New India, Old India” he rightly points out that, “Many Indians take as part of their conventional wisdom the view that India’s traditional moral values are better than those of the west”.
  • Amar Singh’s Residence in Delhi: The description of Samajwadi Party MP Amar Singh’s residence was mind boggling to say the least. “In each of the main rooms Singh had given pride of place to one of the most expensive items of home entertainment in the world: the 60-inch plasma screen Bang & Olufsen TV. Each retails for $60,000 in India”; “We seemed like characters in a Bond film, with Singh about to feed us birds of prey” referring to the tour the author received of Mr. Singh’s residence.
  • Terrorists: The author’s theory that India’s Muslim community has not produced terrorists was an interesting observation though unfortunately this theory has become questionable in light of the recent findings after the Glasgow attack.
  • Tamil Nadu: The author provides a balanced and insightful view of the state of Tamil Nadu. “…it possesses something very valuable that is not evident in most of the north: a civic society. It is much more difficult to hijack public space in Tamil Nadu because there is a large urbanized middle class which accepts the need for rules that everyone should follow, even if they are not followed all of the time…” As someone who grew up in the state I could clearly understand and appreciate his analysis and admire his insights.
The book has no shortage of such interesting insights and its impossible to capture all of them in this review. The author is the Washington Bureau Chief of the Financial Times and is married to an Indian. He has lived in India for an extended period of time and this has helped him do extensive research and write the book. It is always very difficult to write about another country merely by living there for a few years in a manner that is whole-heartedly acceptable to everyone who has grown up in that country. Those who have deep prejudices one way or the other and hence dislike the book, should treat this as an outsiders view and give the author the benefit of doubt instead of accusing him of any bias. If you view this book from that perspective, its hard to deny that this book is a very interesting read and the author deserves all the kudos for his excellent research, analysis and insights.

Author: Pran Kurup

Pran Kurup is founder and CEO of Vitalect, Inc.

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