While embarking on a number of reading challenges as a result of my “Year of Reading Deliberately” pledge, I refuse to give up my devotion to what I call, “area studies”. No matter how many books on medieval history, Liberation Theology or comparative religion I might read this year, I still plan on reading as much material as possible related to such regions as the Middle East, sub-Saharan African as well as South and East Asia. Since the majority of Americans are completely ignorant of any world outside of the United States, (and the few Americans who are not are mostly familiar with just western Europe and/or the resort areas of Mexico), I feel it’s my civic duty to learn more about these strategically important and economically vibrant areas. So, when I spied Edward Luce’s 2007 book In Spite of the Gods: The Rise of Modern India at my local public library of course I grabbed it.
Luce, an Oxford educated, former Financial Times South Asia bureau chief and one time Clinton administration speech writer, paints a detailed and comprehensive picture of an India that survives and perhaps even thrives all in spite of itself. Consistent with Amartya Sen’s advice “the frustrating thing about India, is that whatever you can rightly say about India, the opposite is always true“, it is truly a nation of contradictions. While technically, the world’s largest democracy, its lower parliament has the unenviable distinction of having close to 100 legislators with criminal charges pending against them. Both the ruling Congress Party and its rival BJP have been plagued by cronyism, corruption and sectarianism. Unlike its neighbor China, India can boast of having an independent judiciary, but cases are hopelessly backlogged for years. And while many of us when he think of India think of its up and coming computer software industry, truth be told only one million of India’s 1.1 billion people work in the IT field. Many Indians are unemployed or underemployed, with countless millions working for companies in the bloated and incredibly inefficient state sector.
But, India struggles forward. Poverty is, albeit quite slowly, being eradicated from the nation. While illiteracy, homelessness and disease abound, famine is a thing of the past. International trade is growing, and the nation is starting to be seen by the US as a potential counterweight to China, as well as a lucrative market for goods and services.
Luce’s book is not short on detail and as a result, his book felt tedious at times. He easily could have cut a third of his material
with his book not suffering. However, Luce does a fine job showing painting a picture both deep and wide of this contradictory nation. It also serves as a worthy companion to Suketa Mehta’s 2005 Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found.